The Carnival Painting

My dad went missing about a week ago.

He usually calls me Friday nights before he starts drinking, but he doesn’t always remember. When he didn’t call last Friday, I hardly thought anything of it beyond an assumption that he’d probably started tipping the bottle early and was glued to the TV screen.

I know how it sounds, but especially when I was little he was an excellent father. He only started drinking when my mom got sick, and it only became a problem a few years later after she lost her battle with breast cancer. I was about 16 then, and we both dealt with the grief in our own way - I turned to thrill seeking and found myself in the back of a cop car a few times, and he turned to the bottle.

Eventually, he got his vice under control, as did I, and only ever drank on the weekends - that was his solution. He could drink himself sick if he wanted to, but only on Friday night and Saturday night. Sunday was his day to sober up and sleep it off, and on Monday he would be back at work.

Almost every weekend for the past 10 years, he was in his apartment drinking alone and watching movies back-to-back from dawn till dusk. He generally calls me Friday night, just before his first sip, to make sure everything is alright and that he doesn’t need to go anywhere for the next couple days. The conversations are usually fast - five or maybe ten minutes long if we have something to talk about, then he hangs up and I don’t hear from him until the following Friday.

When he didn’t call me last week, I thought it was odd, but nothing beyond that. He’d miss a phone call a few times a year, then later explain he’d gone out to drink with a few of his work buddies, or maybe got home from work early after a hard day and didn’t want to bother me at work. I feel terrible now thinking about it - had I thought to call him, I wouldn’t be writing this right now, and instead would be expecting a call from him tonight.

I got a call from his boss on Tuesday morning. Randall owns the lumber yard my dad’s worked at for almost two decades. He’s one of my dad’s closest friends, which isn’t saying much since my father’s not exactly the friend-having type, but he at least knows my dad well enough to know his routine, his history, and even go out to the bar with him once a month or so.

I never get calls from Randall - the only reason for him to have my number in the first place was because I’m his emergency contact. So when I heard his voice on the other end of the phone, I knew something was wrong.

“You heard from your dad lately?” he asked in his low, eastcoast voice that was equally friendly and truculent, depending on how you decided to take it. “He hasn’t shown up to work this week.”

“No,” I’d told him. “Not since the Friday before last.”

“Well he hasn’t been to work all week, and last week we noticed he’d been acting a bit odd. Preoccupied-like, and he’d been getting thinner too,” Randall told me. “None of us thought anything of it at the time, but now that he’s not shown up to work, we’re thinking something’s going on with him he ain’t told us.”

I frowned. “Nothing he’s told me. Have you sent anyone over to his place?”

“Not yet, but we’ve got a big order to fill today and I can’t spare anyone, especially with Paul out sick or playing hookey or whatever the Christ he’s doing. That’s why I thought to call you. I know it’s a bit out of the way, but even with the drive you’ll get there quicker than any of us will.”

I pursed my lips. The drive to my father’s apartment was just under two hours each way - I’d have to carve four hours out of my day just to find out he’d broken his rule and kept his bender going. But if he really was still drinking, that would be a problem in and of itself because he hadn’t fallen out of that routine in years. “Alright,” I conceded. “Let me finish a few things up here and I’ll leave in about an hour.”

“Thank you, kid. If I hear back from him or if I get a guy free to run down there I’ll give you a buzz.”

He hung up without saying goodbye, unsurprising for Randall but still a bit jarring anyway.

I made the necessary arrangements at work, then made the two-hour drive to my dad’s house, hoping to get a phone call before I made it past the halfway point. No such call came, and I eventually found myself parked in the guest parking lot of the small apartment complex.

I made one last futile attempt to call his cell phone as I marched up the steps to his apartment, but no answer. I pounded on the door and called his name, then listened for signs of movement on the other side of the door.

I reached into my pocket and procured the key he’d given me five years ago when he first moved in. I told him it made more sense to give it to Randall or someone at the lumber yard, but he insisted I have it.

I turned the key and opened the door, not sure what to expect to find.

There was a smell of spoiled food that hit me first. The kitchen, which was stationed right near the door, was in need of a good cleaning. It didn’t look as bad as you see on the hoarders shows, but more like it hadn’t been touched in a few weeks. Dishes filled the sink, caked with old, molded food. Discarded takeout containers were piled next to the overfilled garbage can.

“Dad?” I called. “Are you home?”

I hadn’t thought to check to see if his car was parked in the lot, and I was just about to peek through the window to do so, when I saw a small sliver of light peeking through the crack of the door at the end of the hall.

I quickly crossed the room, knowing well that my dad wasn’t the type to accidentally leave a light on - I’d been on the receiving end of the “Electricity costs money” speech more than I cared to admit when I was a kid.

I called him again, but didn’t pause to listen. My heart was pounding in my chest. I knew that what I’d find when I opened the door would be his lifeless corpse, laying in bed, covered in his own sick.

I threw open the door, not pausing to even brace myself for the inevitable, but what I found was absolutely nothing. His room, unlike the rest of the house, was spotless. His bed was made, his shoes were placed in a neat row along the wall, his dresser was clear of dust. The only odd thing about the room at all, was a large painting of a carnival that was hung on the wall just opposite the bed where most people would have hung a television. My dad hadn’t ever been the type to care much about art, let alone own a piece of his own, but I would concede that if that had changed, I likely wouldn’t know about it.

I stood there stupidly, blinking for a few moments as my brain tried to change gears.

“Dad?” I called again, although I knew it was pointless. He wasn’t there.

I turned to leave, when something caught my eye. A book bound in leather, clearly a journal, sat open on his nightstand. In his spidery handwriting, I saw the date of his last entry - Friday, May 21st, 2021 - the day he’d missed his phone call. He’d kept a journal off and on over the years, something a therapist told him and my mom to do right after her diagnosis, but over the years the frequency of his journaling had dissipated. I sat down on the foot of his bed, across from the painting, and flipped around the book, looking to see when he’d started writing again.

The first day listed this year was in the beginning of May - just a couple weeks ago. Before that the last entry was from December of 2019. I took a deep breath, and began to read.

May 3, 2021

God I haven’t written in this thing in a while. Had no reason to. I doubt I’d have a reason to any time soon if it weren’t for that carnival painting I have on my wall. I never cared much for art, see, but my parents did. They had paintings all over the walls when I was a boy, some worth tens of thousands of dollars according to my mother, but to me they weren’t worth a piss in a rainstorm.

That is, except for one.

It’s this painting of a carnival, the old classic Barnum and Bailey type, with so many people and so much detail that pulled you in the more you looked at it. It was like one of those “Where's Waldo” puzzles, except there was no Waldo to find. Instead, you could find just about anything you wanted if you looked hard enough.

I remember now spending quite a bit of time staring at that painting, looking for the hidden treasures I hadn’t seen before - it was almost a sort of game for me when I was eight or so. There were people all over, mostly children though, with wide, joyful grins on their faces. They held balloons and popcorn and pretzels and all sorts of other carnival goodies that looked so good and so real you could almost smell the butter and the fat.

There were rides too, of course - the egg scrambler, the twirl-a-whirl - but my favorite was the Ferris wheel. Towering over the crowd, taking up almost a third of the painting, were the massive white spokes of the Ferris wheel. There were children in every cart, but the cart at the very top is what made the Ferris wheel my favorite.

Dressed in baby blue pajamas, there’s this little boy sitting alone in the cart at the top of the Ferris wheel. He looked so happy to be there, even though his cart was the only one with a single passenger. He had brown eyes and sandy hair, and the expression on his face - complete joy and peace and wonder - is a large part of why I think I liked him so much. I wanted him to be happy, and the look on his face made me happy, although I never really understood why.

I remember pretending that little boy was my friend, and we would go on adventures together in my backyard, acting like we were pirates, astronauts, or whatever else we liked. I imagined he had a laugh that bubbled from his stomach and burst from his throat in a bubbly choke that sounded so funny that I couldn’t help but laugh. I imagined we had sleepovers together, got grounded together, and were the best of friends.

I don’t remember exactly when I stopped playing with him - does anyone remember outgrowing their own imaginary friends? I do remember being sad after I imagined him away, but not for long because he was still there in the painting, happy as ever.

I don’t remember what happened to that painting exactly. It was there for a long time, and I think I just stopped noticing it as I grew up because it was just always there - like how you can’t notice a smell after it’s been there for a while. Or maybe someone took it down or replaced it with another painting but by then I’d grown up and stopped caring about it.

If I’m being honest, I wouldn’t have remembered the painting at all, even if someone asked me about it. It was so far back in my mind that it may not have existed at all, like a dream that falls apart like sand in your head after you wake up, but it DID exist. I know that, and I remember it so vividly now, because I’m sitting here in my bed, looking up at it.

I woke up this morning, and it was just… there. As if someone snuck into my room last night and hung it up there while I was asleep. Except I’m sure nobody did because I checked the doors and windows and they were all locked, and I would have woken up anyway.

I went to take it down, but as I got closer and put my hands on it, my eye caught the look of that little boy in his baby blue pajamas sitting at the top of the Ferris wheel. It felt so good to see him again - like running into an old friend at an unexpected place - so I decided to leave it up.

It is strange though.

***

I can’t begin to describe my concern after reading that first entry. He seemed sober, his handwriting was neat and straight, but his words felt like those of a man beginning to lose his grip on reality. I feel bad for letting him live alone for so long - not even pushing that hard for him to get a dog or a cat or even a goldfish, although I did float the idea a few times over the years during our Friday night phone calls.

The painting itself does have a sort of charm to it, although as I said before I’ve never been particularly interested in artwork so I can’t presume to be a good judge of whether or not it’s actually “good.” I’ve been to my fair share of fairs and carnivals over the years, and I have to agree that it does seem to capture that childlike wonder one feels when staring up at a Ferris wheel with a carton of popcorn in one hand and a soda in the other.

How depressed must he have been though, to feel such joy over a change as simple as a painting in his room without even questioning how it got there? The pit in my stomach knew the answer to the question, even though my mind resisted to put it into words.

The next few entries were shorter than this first, and as they went on, his writing became messier - more like he was in a hurry to put the words down on paper than alcohol-induced illegibility.

May 6, 2021

I haven’t felt like this since I got an Atari for my birthday when I was a kid. As soon as I leave work, I find myself counting the hours until I can be back home again.

It’s hard to explain, but the whole apartment feels different now. There’s a new, ethereal joy hanging in the air the moment you walk in the door, and I can’t help but feel that it all comes from that painting, like it’s radiating off of it somehow. I just want to be near it, ya know?

I used to fall asleep to the television most nights in my recliner in the front room, but since this painting re-entered my life I’ve found that I can fall asleep with ease in my bed after spending a little time looking for hidden treasures in the painting.

Last night I found a little girl I don’t think I’d noticed before. She’s wearing a yellow dress and she’s walking with a puppy on a leash beside her. Looking at her little face on the canvas made me so happy I could just melt.

I fell right to sleep.

May 10, 2021

Instead of watching movies this weekend, I watched the painting. I was so captivated I found myself sobering up Saturday night. The peace and quiet it brings into the room is better than the peace and quiet I’ve found at the bottom of a bottle, and if I’m just quiet enough, I can almost hear the carnival music playing.

May 13, 2021

Instead of eating in front of the television, I’ve started taking my dinner to my bedroom, and it’s SO much better! I can sit at the foot of my bed, eating my dinner, with the carnival right in front of me. And if I close my eyes, I can imagine the chicken and broccoli is actually peanuts and pretzels. If I focus on it hard enough, I can almost TASTE them too!

May 16, 2021

Now I know this is silly, but this painting has made me feel like such a kid again that I started to imagine Bobby again, and boy do we have fun! He’s easy to imagine because he’s right there at the top of the Ferris wheel, sitting there in his blue pajamas smiling up at me. All I have to do is close my eyes, and think of the peanuts and pretzels and music and then it’s almost like he climbs down from the Ferris wheel and right out of the painting to sit next to me.

It’s so good to see Bobby again!

May 17, 2021

Bobby taught me how to best imagine the cotton candy and popcorn and everything else good to eat at the carnival. He taught me so well that I can taste it perfectly without even having to close my eyes! It tastes so good I don’t want to eat anything else now!

May 19, 2021

I asked Bobby if he could start coming to work with me, because I missed him and his carnival when I was at work. He doesn’t really understand why I have to leave so much, he’s just a kid after all, but he said he’d come with me. He said I had to imagine him the whole time though, he couldn’t just pop in when I wanted him because he had to come out of the painting and he didn’t know the way to the lumber yard.

He’s never been in a car before and he had so much fun seeing all the trees and houses whip by as we passed. I told him I was happy to bring him along whenever he likes, and he told me he wanted to come with me every day if he could. I told him that was just fine.

May 21, 2021

Something happened today while I was driving home from work.

I was listening to the radio and a song came on that Bobby didn’t like, so he changed the station (he can do that sometimes). I changed it back because I like the song and he didn’t even ask to change it. We got into a fight and I wasn’t paying attention to the road.

Oh god.

I didn’t even see her crossing the street. She wasn’t at a crosswalk or anything. She was just not there one moment and there the next. She must have seen that I wasn’t stopping because I think she tripped while trying to get away and instead of rolling up the hood and onto the windshield, the car went right over her.

Nobody else was there, and I didn’t know what to do, but Bobby did. He told me to look away because he didn’t want to scare me, so I did.

The sound I heard after that. God I can’t describe it. It was wet and slapping, like meat being dropped on a counter, but also a crunching and a smacking, but not quite that either.

It was only a few minutes, but when Bobby climbed back into the passenger seat, it was like nothing had happened. No blood on the road, no hair in the tire tread, nothing. It was like I’d imagined it all, just like I’d been imagining the popcorn and candy and even Bobby.

But the fear was real. Still is. I can’t keep myself from seeing her face whenever I close my eyes, her mouth gaping in a scream that was smashed down between rubber and asphalt.

May 22, 2021

I saw her on the news! Bobby was so close to convincing me I’d imagined it all up, but I saw her! Her name was Samantha DeHerrera, and her family said she went jogging yesterday and hadn’t seen her and were looking for any information about what happened to her. I picked up the phone to call her, but Bobby stopped me. He told me I’d go to jail, and I told him that maybe that’s exactly what I deserved.

Then he told me he couldn’t come with me. He said I couldn’t take the painting with me in jail, not even a picture of it, and when I got out, if I got out, he and the painting would be long gone and I’d never see them again.

I put the phone down. I’m not proud of it, but I did it. I don’t want a life without that painting or Bobby.

May 23, 2021

I can’t taste the carnival food anymore. I don’t know why, but every time I try it just tastes rancid and sour on my tongue.

Bobby’s starting to change too. He isn’t there as much as he was yesterday, and I can’t hear him as well when he talks - like someone’s turned the volume down but just for him.

I told him I was scared, and he told me he couldn’t stay anymore. He said he wasn’t supposed to anyway, but he liked me and so he did. But he said he had to go back, just like before, but this time, if I wanted, I could go too.

I didn’t even have to think about it. I told him yes, and he told me how to do it.

If you’re reading this, know that I’m happy now.

My mouth was dry when I finally put the journal down, and I found myself a bit nervous to look at the painting after having read everything my father had written.

I called the police and filed a missing person’s report. They said they would send someone down shortly and asked if I could go with the officer afterwards to the station to make an official statement. I told them I would.

Next, I pulled up the local news and found that my father’s journal had been right about at least one thing - Samantha DeHerrera had gone missing on May 21st and her family was offering a reward for anyone with information leading to the discovery of her whereabouts. I’ll give the cop my father’s journal and tell him about the entry on the 21st, although I’m not sure how seriously that would be taken as a confession, considering that there is no damage to his Subaru parked in the lot - I peeked out the window and looked.

The last thing I did, before I could muster up the courage to examine the painting in the bedroom, was make a phone call to Sunnyside Retirement Community, where my grandmother lived. She’s almost 90 now, but still sharp for her age.

I didn’t tell her about my father - not yet. I needed to be there in person for that, but I did ask about the carnival painting.

“We never had a painting of a carnival,” she said in a dusty, palsied voice. “Not that I remember at least. But I do remember Paul and his brother staring at the wall in the basement like it was a TV set. Strangest game I’d ever seen them play, but dammit if they didn’t spend hours playin’ it. Damned kids don’t make a lick of sense sometimes.”

I knit my brow. “His brother? I thought he was an only child.”

“Oh yes, he was for most of his life,” my grandmother said. “His little brother Robert went missing when he was 7. Never found the body or nothing. Officers said he probably drowned in the river the kids played by, but that never quite sat right with me or his father. If you talk to Paul though, don’t bring it up - he would go into fits when he was a boy any time his brother was brought up, and eventually convinced himself he didn’t have a brother. The grief went away from him, so we never bothered to fix him so long as he stayed in the real world with everything else.”

“Thanks grandma,” I told her, my mind spinning. “I love you. I’ll come visit soon.”

After we said our goodbyes, I stood in the dark for a while, afraid to go back into the bedroom even though I knew I needed to.

With shaking hands and a racing heart, I made my way one more time down the hall and into the bedroom.

I didn’t feel the joy my father said he felt near the painting - instead I felt overwhelming dread.

I swallowed hard and stepped forward to look at the painting.

It was a carnival, but not the one my dad had described. The children didn’t wear smiles, but masks of pain and horror. There weren’t tigers and elephants, but nameless creatures with large maws filled with huge teeth. There wasn’t popcorn and pretzels and cotton candy, but rotten vegetables and putrid cuts of meat in the hands of the carnival-goers.

There was a Ferris wheel though, and at the top, just as my father had said, sat a boy with a big, Cheshire grin and baby blue pajamas. He wasn’t alone though.

Sitting next to him, smiling just a broadly, was my father, and beside them, hanging of the side of the Ferris wheel bucket as if trying to make a futile escape attempts, was a brown woman with her hair tied back in a pony tale who looked exactly like the picture I’d seen on the news article about the missing woman, Samantha DeHerrera.

For a moment I thought I might throw up. I hurried down the hall to the closet and pulled out the step stool. I positioned the stool in front of the painting and climbed up, needing to remove it from where it hung and turn its face to the wall so I didn’t have to see it anymore.

As I climbed up though, I thought I could smell, faintly at first, the scent of buttery popcorn. I positioned both hands on either side and leaned forward to lift it off of the hook, but in doing so I came face to face with the little boy on the Ferris wheel. His grin, so wonderfully innocent and joyful, made me happy, and I wanted him to be happy.

I climbed back down and gave the painting another look.

Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought - everyone seemed so happy, and there are so many little hidden treasures to find.

 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Open the Airlock

Manchester

My Daughter Who Went Missing Just Showed Up On My Doorstep (Sarah)