A HEART OF GOLD          By Gary O. Walker

Chapter 1    The Pike

The scorching sand dared him to walk with bare feet, but Wes declined the challenge and raced down the beach to the water. He splashed through the receding waves and dove like a missile into the newly arriving breaker. What a great feeling. For a minute or two he alternated between swimming and floating, let the currents and waves swirl him around; enjoying weightlessness and the whims of the Pacific Ocean. Home! Wes was finally home, and even better, he was free. He was free of cold weather, somber people, and the childhood prison called school.

He strolled out of the ocean rubbed the stinging water from his eyes and then swept both hands back through his unruly wavy hair. Wes opened his eyes. Oh, lucky day! Right in front of him four pretty girls perched on a vivid yellow blanket. He instinctively puffed out his chest and flashed them his best smile. A couple of them smiled back and one even raised her hand and wiggled her fingers in a little wave. They sure looked swell in their swimsuits. They had to be really old, maybe eighteen or twenty. Girls his age didn’t fill out their bathing suits like this.

Wes didn’t let that stop him. He strutted his fifteen year old frame, all five foot eight and ninety-six pounds of it, to the edge of that sweet yellow blanket. The sand held a blowtorch to his feet, but this was worth the blisters. Boy, he was glad to be back in good old Long Beach, Cal-i-forn-I-A.  He wanted the cold grey memory of New Hampshire in the winter of his tenth grade to quickly fade. Life was sweet again; even the girls were like honey.

“Any of you dolls coming over to the Pike later?” Wes twitched his head toward the Cyclone Racer, the giant roller-coaster that dominated the far end of the beach, extending out over the water. The Pike itself stretched along the beach for another mile beyond the Cyclone.

Two of the girls made faces at each other and giggled. The blonde who had waved finally answered. “So what if we do?” Then she joined in laughing with the other two. The fourth girl lay on her stomach mostly hidden under a broad brimmed hat. Her chin rested on her folded hands, her nose in a book, ignoring the antics of her friends.

“Well…” Wes threw his arm toward the Pike in a grandiose gesture. “I work over in the arcade. Come over and visit me later and I’ll see what I can do to get you on the Cyclone for free. I mean it. I’ll take good care of you ladies.” None of them responded right away so Wes continued, “So tell me, what’re your names?”

“Boy, you sure work fast!” The blonde could barely get the words out before one of the others elbowed her and the three collapsed in a silly laughing heap on top of the bookworm. Wes wondered if they had been drinking. Then he wondered if they might share some with him without asking his age.

“My name’s Wes, Wes Walker. I’ll be in the arcade just under the sign that says, “Looff’s Amusements. I hope you’ll come by, I’ll even give you some free tosses to knock down the milk bottles.”

“Sure, hot stuff.  Maybe we will come by later. Then we’ll tell you our names. But it might be after your bedtime.” The blonde shrugged and gave a practiced nonchalant look. That set the gigglers off again.

Wes ignored the sarcasm. “Naw, I’m working till closing time. I’ll keep an eye out for you. It would really be aces if you showed up.” Wes’s feet were really starting to burn so he strolled away, but he couldn’t resist turning for one more look.  The quiet girl sat up and removed her hat. Oh my, she was the cutest one of the bunch. A fragile string of freckles trickled off her nose along high cheekbones. Her curly auburn hair glowed copper in the sun. And then it happened. She smiled right at him and winked. Wes sprinted off to cooler ground, but it wasn’t just the running that made his heart pound.

Wes found his clothes and shoes in a pile where he had left them at the edge of the sand. He’d better hurry or he would be late for work. This was only his second day on the job. The Great Depression instilled a powerful work ethic in its children. Jobs could evaporate in the blink of an eye. He’d watched his parents struggle since his earliest memories. It made no sense to give the boss a reason to fire you. Besides, Wes just hated being late. He always had and he always would.

Wes didn’t really expect the girls to show up. But no harm in trying. Practice makes perfect. Besides, they had all been lookers, especially that sweet patootie who’d winked. They just didn’t make girls like that in New Hampshire. It was a good thing the sun hardly ever shone there or all the girls would’ve sunburned their nostrils, what with their noses in the air all the time. Yes, sir, it was good to be home.

His parents were back together, he had a job and he was surrounded by beautiful women and warm sunshine. His father had told him that he needn’t go back to school if he held down this job. How much better could things get?

He arrived at the Pike, the ‘Walk of a Thousand Lights,’ and even in the daytime it seemed more alive, more real than anywhere else he had ever seen. Noise burst from every side, the barkers with their megaphones ingeniously attracting the crowds; the deep rumble of the Cyclone Racer, kids screaming. The Laughing Lady cackling from her rooftop perch. Music surged from the grand carousel, Looff’s fabulous Hippodrome. The smells permeated everything the noise couldn’t reach; the smoky smell of burgers and hot dogs grilling, potatoes and fish and shrimp frying in deep vats of oil, the sweet perfume of cotton candy spinning, cigars and cigarettes, the smell of diesel and hot canvas. It was 1940, a brand new decade; America was getting back on her feet again, the sun was shining. Life should be a great big party and it was starting right here. Wes breathed in all of it.

Wes’s boss went by the name of Mike Malone. Some of his other employees had whispered that it was a fake name he used to hide from the law. Wes believed them because every hour when the policemen walked their beat down the line, Mike managed to disappear for a few minutes. Mike was a huge guy, well over six feet and probably three hundred pounds. He always wore the same clothes, baggy khaki slacks and a sleeveless undershirt that might have once been white. Wes could tell that it was the same shirt. Mike’s body odor reigned as legendary. Also the stains never fluctuated. Some of the stains had their own stains. On his first night, Wes started a game naming some of the stains for their resemblance to people he knew. Pete, Irene and Goose were his favorites.

“Hey pally, you’re early for work!” Wes braced himself for the slap on the back. Mike always found a way to sneak up behind you, which was unnerving for someone that big, and he always greeted people with a jolting smack between the shoulder blades. Mike called all males pally and all females dolly.

“Hi there Big Mike. I don’t mind starting early. I still got a lot to learn. Whatcha want me to do today?”

Mike frowned down on Wes. Mike always had the butt of a hand rolled cigarette stuck to his bottom lip.  Wes had never seen him roll, light or smoke one of the things. It was just always there, glued to his lower lip, black and crumbly on the extinguished outer end and brown and juicy on the other where it siphoned saliva out of Mike’s mouth. Mike’s frown deepened so that his hairline accordioned down to join his considerable eyebrows. “You ain’t expectin any extra pay for working an extra twenty minutes are ya, pally?”

“No, sir. Any extra work you get out of me before starting time is all on the house.”

Mike flashed a wide grin. In spite of his poor personal hygiene, his teeth were white and straight. “You got a lot to learn, pally. Around here nothing is ever on the house.”

“Yes sir. I remember that. Rule number one: no freebies for my friends.”

“That’s my boy.” Mike unleashed another friendly blow between Wes’s shoulders. It felt like a bowling ball bouncing off his back. He would have to remember to stand out of reach when he said things that pleased his boss.

“I like you, pally. Ya did pretty good yesterday; you’re quick. Tell you what, tonight I let you run the bottle game by yourself.”

Wes’s heart began racing, only his second day on the job and already a promotion. He hadn’t expected that. All he did yesterday was straighten up, clean and mop. “Thanks Mike, I won’t let you down.”

“Slow down pally, I’ve still got a few things to teach ya.” Mike clamped a hand as big and tough as a catcher’s mitt on Wes’s shoulder and guided him toward the back room. There they sat down on a couple of old stools. The legs on Mike’s stool creaked and bowed out. Wes cringed, but the tough old wood held together out of sheer stubbornness. The room smelled of popcorn, beer, and cigarettes, with a twinge of something else a lot less wholesome.

Mike had his share of rough spots, in fact, he consisted mostly of rough spots, but he was a pretty good judge of talent. Maybe not good enough to survive as a grifter, but more than adequate for a career carny.

“Pally, there’s an old yarn that tells about the time a tornado tore through a carnival. After it had blown through, the Ferris wheel lay twisted into scrap, the tents and booths had been ripped apart and blasted into the next county, it was utterly demolished. When they came to clean up the mess what do you think was the only thing left standing? Three small milk bottles. Two on the bottom and one stacked on top. That tornado hadn’t budged them.”

Mike threw his head back and hooted, then he wound up his arm for another chummy backslap, but this time Wes saw it coming and scooted his stool out of range. “Well, it just can’t be true, pally. You’d get the kibosh if you weighted all three bottles. Besides, it only takes one to do the job.” Mike let loose with another rollicking laugh.

“Even if Bob Feller himself came to play, we’d beat him nine times out of ten with a heavy bottle on the bottom.” He chuckled again. “Hey, if ‘Rapid Robert’ does show up, you come get me right away. I’d like to shake that man’s hand.” Big Mike hailed from northern Ohio and almost all the decorations in his little kingdom consisted of Cleveland Indians memorabilia. The centerpiece, mounted in glass case on his desk, was a baseball autographed by none other than Cy Young himself.

Wes lost himself in thoughts of Bob Feller appearing at his booth. He could probably charge double for a chance to play with balls touched by the great man.  It had only been a couple of months since Feller had pitched that unprecedented opening day no-hitter. Man, he could probably charge triple. Wes snapped back to reality at the sound of Big Mike’s voice. It suddenly dropped to a low menacing tone.

“You understand that nothing you hear from me today ever leaves this room, don’tcha, pally?” Mike looked hard at Wes, the cigarette on his lip bobbing up and down.

“Yes, sir.” An uneasy feeling came over Wes.

“Here’s the deal. When you first get a crowd, you put the heavy bottle on the top. That way they all fly off the shelf with just a little bump. After you give out a few slum prizes, it looks easy and the suckers line up with their money in their hands. That’s when you put the heavy on the bottom and rake the moolah in.”

“I don’t want sound like a wheat, Mike, but isn’t that a little like… cheating?” Wes regretted the question before the words finished leaving his mouth. Mike jolted to his feet and clamped his huge mitts on Wes’s shoulders.

His voice a snarl, Mike leaned in so their noses almost touched. “We don’t cheat nobody. It would only be cheating if we told ‘em the game was straight. People play to get something for nothing, and we have a right to earn a living. That’s why they say you can’t cheat an honest man.” Mike slumped back onto his stool and offered a weak smile.

“However, my young friend, oh pally o’ mine, here’s the low down. Sometimes the Pike suits are watching, or someone complains to the beat cops that they’re bein’ cheated and wants to examine the setup. If that happens, there’s a fourth bottle, a light, in the drop bin. And if you lift up the pad in there, there’s a hole that goes right down through the floor. That hole is just a hair wider than a milk bottle. Can you figure out what to do with that information? Cause I’m not going to say the words.”

“Yes sir, I think I know what to do.”

“You get caught, you take the fall. I don’t know nothing.”

“Yes, sir. I get the picture.”

Mike suddenly turned jovial again. “You get through one week without gumming up the works, and your pay goes up two bits a day. How’s that sound, pally?”

Wes tried to inject some enthusiasm into his voice. “Sounds great, Mike.”

“That’s my boy.” Thwack! This time the well intended blow hit right on target and Wes flew off the stool and found himself on all fours, nose to the grimy floor. Mike Malone roared with laughter as he left the room. Wes tried to shrug off the feeling of apprehension. This was his job, no, more than that, this was his new life. So much better than the alternative. How could he stand going back to school? They had nothing left to teach him. There was so much more that he could learn here. This was the real world. Better not to think too much about things that make you worry. Just get into the spirit of things, have some fun, do your job.

He set up the bottles, turned toward the crowd, took a deep breath and started his new life. “Step right up folks, win an adorable, furry bunny for your honey. After she squeezes it for a bit she’ll be squeezing you. Only a nickel for three tries. Knock ‘em all down on your first throw and you walk away with the grand prize. Only a nickel. Won’t even buy you a decent loaf of bread.” The crowd swirled around. But only one face came into focus. Wes swallowed hard. All he could see was a pair of mischievous hazel green eyes above that little spray of freckles surrounded by a halo of copper curls. It was her, the girl from the beach.

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