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[Essay] Carnie Abe

by Perrin Pring



I’ll call him Abe. Carnie Abe.


Let me back up. 


In college, during the summers, I worked for a company as a river rafting guide in Grand Teton National Park. In the June of my sophomore year, I was a seasoned, returning guide. I had one season under my belt, and therefore I had earned the swagger in my step. I was the one woman on the crew, and I knew things. Or at least I thought I did.


Our company operated on two ten-mile sections of the Snake River, eloquently named by previous guides as the Upper and Lower Halves. Between these two halves, right below the Ansel Adams Overlook, was a section of beach that contained the company’s meal site. The company offered both standard and meal floats down the Snake, and if you signed up for a meal float, you would either begin or end your trip at this meal site. Depending on the time of day, you’d be served a lunch of hamburgers or hot dogs, or a dinner of steak or trout. 


To make such a Wyoming memory happen, the company had to employ more than just raft guides. They needed a cook. In the early season of that summer, the other guides and I were sitting outside our dorms, commandeering the building’s picnic tables, as was our right, when a guy none of us had seen before walked up.


Our boat crew was not the most welcoming group. We wore Carhartts and work boots, drank PBR before it was trendy, and smoked Backwoods with a dedication that should have resulted in sponsorship, though none of us would have been willing to do the paperwork. People, particularly men, didn’t often start conversations with us.


But this guy introduced himself as Abe, our new cook. Abe was five foot eleven, one hundred and thirty-five pounds, reflectively white—except for his somewhat legible tattoos—and the proud owner of an entirely new set of teeth.


“How you like my teeth?” Abe grinned. His bright horse smile shone in the twilight. “I just got ’em. Cost me six grand. Nice, huh?”


One of us mumbled that, yes, they were nice.


“So, I’m your new cook”—Abe spread his sinewy arms wide—“but my passion, besides cookin’, obviously, is magic.”


This, to me, was even more interesting than the fact the company had hired a meth head to cook food for their paying customers.


“Yeah,” Abe continued, “my dream is to cook the food, then do a magic show for the kids. Maybe drum up some extra tips that way? Whadda you guys think?”


We grumbled. We doubted the company would sanction Abe performing for minors—it never sanctioned much—but we didn’t often do what we were told, so we thought, obviously, we’d find out exactly how good a magician he was.


We asked to see a trick.


“Ahh!” he said with a flourish. “I’ve got some great ones. I don’t have my bag on me, but I can do this one with the aid of the audience. Does anyone have a Tic Tac? Preferably three?”


Hands went into coat pockets, people patted their pants, and amazingly, one of us produced a box of orange Tic Tacs.


“Orange.” Abe shook his head. “Not the best. They burn when they go in, but I can do it ’cause I’m good.”


Go in? Every new sentence this guy uttered was more interesting than the last.

“Okay.” Abe took the box. “So, as you guys know, the tear ducts, the nose tubes, and the mouth are all connected. It’s a biology thing. It helps us see and hear things in different ways. Everything in the body’s connected. That’s science.”


I thought about objecting but didn’t.


“So”—Abe tapped several Tic Tacs out of the box—“I’m going to put a Tic Tac in my eye, snort one up my nose, put one in my mouth, and all three of ’em are going to end up on my tongue!”


He smiled, and those bright, bright teeth glowed.


I admit, I was transfixed.


Abe took a Tic Tac, twisted his head to the side, pried up an eyelid, and appeared to screw the tiny orange candy into the corner of his eye. He made a show of blinking a lot, then opened his mouth and did a “Now that’s a shot of whiskey!” face.


“Okay,” he said. “We have to give that one time to work its way onto the tongue. As you guys know, the eyes are furthest from the mouth, so that’s why I do that one first. It takes a second.” He paused, his eyes seeming to drift apart, then said, “Now for the nose!”


He shook out another orange bit and put it on the skin between his thumb and index finger. He gave us another manic smile and then dove in. His head went down, his hand went up, and he began a convincing snort. It seemed to go on forever—a series of long and staccato inhalations, punctuated by jarring hand tremors and head twitches. 


Finally, Abe was done. He looked at us and knew he had our complete attention.


“And now, I’ll put in the final Tic Tac.”


He opened his mouth and plopped the last one on his tongue.


“Now we just gotta wait a second for ’em to complete their journey.” His face twitched in multiple directions, his eyes wide. 


A few more seconds passed, and then he opened his mouth. On his tongue lay three Tic Tacs, all various shades of orange and white. 


The group clapped. It wasn’t a resounding “Bravo!” but a confused attempt at propriety. 


“So, what do you guys think? Perfect for an after-dinner kiddie magic show, huh?”


#


After the debut of “The Tic Tac Trick,” as it became known, Abe was dubbed Carnie Abe. Management never sanctioned magic tricks at the meal site, but that didn’t stop Carnie Abe from bringing his magic bag, just in case he came across a “special kid.” 


Carnie Abe’s magic bag was an old-timey-looking portmanteau made of tired leather. When it was open, you could see, if you looked into its murky depths, a jumble of mysterious objects. What you’d most likely see first though, before the heaps of magic tricks, was a bumper sticker that Carnie Abe had stuck to the uppermost inside of the bag. The bright white of the rectangle monopolized the view.


“It’s the best liquor store in Beaver Creek,” Carnie Abe, doing his best to ignore my presence, said to one of my male co-workers. “I’m proud to support them.”


The words BEAVER LIQUORS filled most of the sticker.


“You probably shouldn’t show that to any kids,” my co-worker said. 


“Aww, they’ll just see the picture of the cute beaver and think nothing of it.” Carnie Abe pointed to the drawing of a drunk-looking rodent.


“Still,” my co-worker said.


#


The summer, as college summers do, went quickly. One day in July, I found myself going to the meal site with Carnie Abe to help him get ready for an incoming lunch float. The day was what summer memories were made of. The sun shone, the sky was blue, and perfectly formed clouds, puffy on top, flat on the bottom, floated near the top of the Tetons. The forest smelled of Witch’s Broom and dry dirt. The truck windows were down, and I stuck my head outside, soaking in the brief winter respite. 


We parked, and I began pulling supplies out of the back of the truck. Carnie Abe went to get the wheelbarrow so we could use it to haul the heavier things to the grill. He’d already taken his shirt off, not because it was that hot, but because there was no one here to tell him he couldn’t. He’d slung it over his shoulder like a towel. His frame was so gaunt, his cook’s pajama pants trended toward his ankles, like always. When he reached the wheelbarrow, which was leaned against a tree, wheels out, he planted himself directly before the wheels, hitched up his pants, and grabbed the wheelbarrow’s handles. 


I wasn’t paying much attention to him, but when I heard his heavy breathing, I looked up. His ghostly skin, minus the runny tattoos, was incandescent in the late morning light, and his emaciated shoulders heaved with effort. Instead of moving to the side so that he had leverage over the wheelbarrow, he stood where he had no physical way to tip the wheelbarrow from the tree, and it remained solidly in place.


Carnie Abe re-threw the shirt over his shoulder, hiked his pants up again, and planted his feet more firmly behind the wheelbarrow. The battle lasted a long time, and finally, after a lot of cursing and some eventual lateral sidestepping, the wheelbarrow was oriented tires down. Instead of pushing it to me though, he leaned against a tree and lit a cigarette. 


I walked over and grabbed the wheelbarrow. 


He took a long drag, then came over and helped me load it.


Carnie Abe wasn’t the kind of person to let a few vices or hurdles like drug addiction or an obstinate piece of garden equipment slow him down. He smoked and chewed while at work—although only when no one important was watching—and freely admitted that he used to be a doorman for a crack dealer.


“I used to answer the door with one hand and a gun in the other,” he’d told us.


That statement, while confusing from a grammatical standpoint, painted a clear enough picture.


After we’d gotten the supplies to the grill and things were mostly set up for the guests, there was a lull in activity. Carnie Abe worked on a second cigarette while we waited for the boats to arrive.


“I need four days off,” he told me.


“I don’t think you’ll even get three days off,” I said, rearranging the basket of salad dressing.


“But I need them.”


Carnie Abe now had on his cook’s coat, the top buttons undone. The cigarette hung from his lower lip, and he tossed a spatula in the air, spinning it and catching it by the handle. His head was cocked back so his Adam’s apple stood out, and judging by the grime on his skin, he hadn’t showered recently. 


“The Boss doesn’t give people four-day weekends.”


“Yeah, but I need to go to Vegas.” He adjusted his backwards cook’s cap.


“Why?”


He paused, clearly considering if he wanted to tell me the truth. Instead of immediately answering, he turned on the burner below the enamel kettle, the pot in which we’d make the famous “cowboy coffee.” Inevitably some puffy, middle-aged man would drink several cups of the stuff and then wander over to the guides. He’d fast-talk from the caffeine, rambling about how he wished he could have done what we were doing. Live a life of adventure. Get in touch with the land. Such guests were always politely tolerated but not usually respected. We knew these people chose to get a nine-to-five, a mortgage, and a passel of kids. No one made him do that. And, did he think we had it easy? Carnie Abe didn’t want to be a cook; he wanted to be a magician, but he would have jumped at the chance for disposable income and time to go on a Western-themed family vacation. And, in reality, the cowboy coffee that guy found just delicious was simply Folgers grounds dumped into boiling water. If the guy was lucky, Carnie Abe remembered to dump some cold water on the grounds to sink them before he served the slop.


“Two reasons,” Carnie Abe finally said.


I waited.


“First, I was in the Cowboy Bar in Jackson a couple a nights ago.” His face soured. “I was showing some people, a woman mostly, some tricks. I had this special coin I was usin’.” He glanced at his magic bag. “And this big fucker gets in my face. He pushes me, and I drop the coin.”


“Okay.” I was back to rearranging the salad dressing packets. 


“Well, the stupid floor in that place is wood planks, but they aren’t flush. The coin went between two of the planks!” 


“And you couldn’t get it out?”


“No! And I can only get that kind of coin from a shop in Vegas. So, I need to go there and get another one.”


“How far is Vegas?” 


“It’s like twelve hours, at least, one way, if I take my truck. The gas mileage is better if I go slower.”


“That’s two full days of driving, if you don’t stop.”


“I know! That’s why I need four.” Carnie Abe’s voice was forceful, but not forceful enough to convince me of his point.


“What’s the other reason?” I had moved on to straightening the drink cups.


“The other?” 


“Yeah. You said you had two reasons to go to Vegas. I doubt the Boss lets you have four days off just to get a magic coin. Maybe the other reason is better.”


His silence caused me to look up from my mindless straightening. He was staring at me, his gaze flat and weathered. His face shifted, and he said, “There’s a whorehouse down there that I like. I haven’t been for a while, and if I’m gonna get the coin, I have to stop there.”


I went back to the salad dressing.

“You’re not getting four days off.”


#


Carnie Abe didn’t get four days off, but he did get three. He drove his Ford Ranger all the way to Vegas and back in those seventy-two hours, managing to both stop at the whorehouse and get his coin. He told us that the timing had been tight—there had been a lot of driving, whoring, more driving, and no doubt drugs, but he didn’t specifically mention those—so his visit to his favorite magic shop had been short. Still, he was pleased with the trip, even though it meant that he wouldn’t be getting any more extra time off that summer. 


I asked if his truck had held up all right throughout the trip, and he said it had.


Carnie Abe’s truck was an eye-catching Teletubby purple and showed off his passion for skulls. There was a skull on the gearshift knob, and skulls, both plastic and paper, hung from the rearview mirror. He had a skull-patterned seat cover and skulls that decorated the dashboard. Then there were the speakers. 


Apparently, early-nineties models of Ford Rangers don’t have great stock speakers, at least not according to Carnie Abe. He’d fixed the problem, though, by wiring a set of house speakers into the radio. The speakers sat on the top of the bench seat, filling the rear windshield and nearly touching the truck’s roof. Carnie Abe would drive into the dorm parking lot, blasting AC/DC with the windows down and the skulls bouncing, and smile that bright, bright smile.


#


Suddenly it was August, and I was nearing my return to college. The summers were when I felt most alive, most like myself, even if three-quarters of the year I successfully lived in a city and went to class. In the summer I was tired, in amazing shape, up early, awake late, and indoors only to sleep. The summers were magical. It felt like they would last forever, but they were also liminal. I knew, somewhere deep inside of me, they couldn’t last. But I didn’t dwell at those depths. Instead, I lived an entirely present life where every day was a new adventure, and every day was the same. Though, one day that summer did set itself apart. 


It was the day of the biggest rafting trip of the summer. We had one hundred people signed up for a dinner float. It was a wedding party, and all the guides were excited because a group that big meant one thing, tips.


Around midday, while we sat on the tops of picnic tables outside the dorm wasting time until the big evening, the Boss arrived. He was a big man in his sixties, his hands larger than my face, and he had a mustache that actually bristled when he got angry, which wasn’t infrequently. He stomped over to us and ordered the eldest of our group, an ancient twenty-seven-year-old who I’ll call Bens, to come with him. Bens didn’t look pleased, but he knew better than to argue with the Boss, and the request piqued his interest. We were all intrigued and followed the pair with our eyes until they disappeared in the trees that led to the parking lot.


An hour later, Bens was back. 


“What happened?” we asked.


Bens spoke with a disgusted but clearly excited expression. “Carnie Abe,” he said.


Carnie Abe liked to go four wheeling in his Ranger. He’d drive up Dump Road, a road that, if you followed it long enough, would deposit you onto Forest Service land at the site of an old dump. He’d tear ass through the trees, blaring hair metal from the house speakers and drinking tall boys of PBR. And on this day, on the day of the biggest float trip of the summer, Carnie Abe had gotten caught. Park rangers had picked him up on DUI as he reentered Grand Teton, and arrested him. 


Carnie Abe was alone, and the rangers were going to tow his car unless he could get someone to come pick up his truck from where he’d been arrested. That’s when he’d called the Boss. Carnie Abe asked him to collect his truck and told him, “Oh, by the way, I’m going to jail, but hopefully I’ll be out in time for dinner.”


The Boss, while not inclined to help Carnie Abe out of the goodness of his heart, knew how to clean up messes, and this was just another mess in a long line of messes he dealt with summer after summer. His employees had been arrested before, and they would be again. In the grand scheme of things, this was a minor kerfuffle, but that didn’t mean the Boss was consoled, particularly because this was the one night he really needed the cook to not be in jail.


“Me and the Boss get there,” Bens told us, “and there he is, surrounded by rangers, looking like a coyote caught in a henhouse. He sees us and tries to wave me over, but his hands are cuffed, so he almost falls on his face. ‘Hey,’ Carnie Abe said, ‘thanks for coming. If you wouldn’t mind driving my truck back, that’d be great. Here, reach into my pocket.’ I wasn’t too keen on that. But he says, ‘I’ve got ten dollars in there. You might need it to get gas on the way back.’”


Bens saw the look on my face and knew what I was thinking. Our dorms weren’t ten minutes from Dump Road. Considering Carnie Abe’s current situation, it shouldn’t have surprised me his truck was low on gas, but it did. 


“Did it run out of gas?” I asked.


“Did you know…” Bens paused for dramatic effect. “That there’s a little hill just before the gas station?”


Between Dump Road and the dorms, there was a gas station, and discovered by Bens, leading to that gas station was a slight upward incline. Apparently, the truck had run out of gas and died at the bottom of the hill.


“I was so close to the gas station, I could smell the damn gas,” Bens said.


He’d gotten out of the truck and pushed it uphill, steering it as he went. Carnie Abe had been right; his ten dollars were important.


Amazingly, Carnie Abe did make it back in time to cook dinner, though I would make a distinction that there is a difference between “in time” and “on time.” He was jazzed when I saw him, flipping steaks and smiling at everyone. Even through the grill’s smoke, I could see his bright, bright teeth flashing white in the dying afternoon. Maybe Carnie Abe’s best magic trick that summer was his ability to land, mostly, on his feet.


What I didn’t learn until I was long gone from summers as a river guide was that the magic of youth is just that. Back then, we thought aging was a choice. We thought having a mortgage was a ball and chain. We thought living out of our cars, no thought beyond the end of our day, was the ticket to true freedom and lasting happiness. 


But then you get older, and without realizing it, you start to have compassion and then empathy for the puffy guy guzzling hot coffee grounds on a perfect summer’s evening, and you realize the true magic of Carnie Abe wasn’t his ability to land, mostly, on his feet. It was that he never conformed. And you did. 




Perrin Pring grew up in Colorado and worked as a river guide in college. She has published pieces spanning genres from non-fiction to sci-fi . Perrin is represented by Jud Laghi and has a script in development with Anne-Marie Mackay. She holds an MFA from University California Riverside Palm Desert. When not writing she works as a park ranger. When not writing or working, she tries to find the humor in everyday life, which she chronicles at www.psquaredbooks.com




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