by joe baumann
As they’d expected, the line for the funhouse was longer than anything else at the carnival. Matthew and Evan waited for at least twenty minutes, watching as people exited the funhouse in all sorts of absurd shapes, the evening air tinged with the spun sugar of cotton candy and the blitzed fat of overcooked hotdogs. They wondered aloud who would want to turn themselves into a squat, pumpkin-shaped thing for a few hours when there were so many other possibilities, like being a giant or, as was the most popular choice, super-muscular like someone from Baywatch. A few people went with the Picasso approach, mishmashing their features. One woman, in a tight red dress and wearing matching lipstick, turned herself into something of a sidewinder, her body like an S.
“She belongs in Sesame Street,” Matthew said.
“The freaky, nightmare edition,” Evan said.
These words, the freaky, nightmare edition, would echo with Matthew, because they were the last thing Evan said before he turned to his father and blinked at him. There were only two people in line in front of them, a pair of college kids, holding hands. They wore matching jeans and plain black t-shirts. Matthew wondered what they would choose to look like for a few hours.
“Dad,” Evan said, leaning in close. “Can I ask you something?”
“I was wondering.” He chewed on his lip. The ticket taker pulled back the curtain over the entryway and gestured for the college kids to go inside. Neither Evan nor Matthew moved forward.
“I was wondering,” Evan repeated, “if you could start calling me Evie.”
Matthew tried to rattle the words the freaky, nightmare edition out of his head like they were water trapped in his ear after a swim. Before he could say anything to Evan—Evie—the attendant gesticulated for them to enter the funhouse, so Evan—Evie—spun and held out their tickets and ducked inside. Matthew followed.
He wished Eddie, who was probably just deplaning in Iowa for the big linguistics conference he attended every year, was with them. Eddie would know what to say. Matthew did know a part of what to say: “Yes. Of course. We’ll call you whatever you want.” But he hadn’t said it yet. He knew there needed to be more, and he knew that there was a particular way he was supposed to say the words, but he wasn’t sure about the proper inflection. That inflection, he thought, was important, because it could, maybe, mean life or death. Not for him or for Eddie, but for their child, this gentle fifteen-year-old who played soccer and—Matthew knew—drank one beer at parties and on some Friday nights still went with his father to a carnival.
The funhouse was dark, the walls draped in blood red paint. Maybe they were curtains, heavy and thick. Matthew couldn’t tell. The pathway was narrow, the only light coming from pinhead-sized fairy lights affixed above each of the mirrors. Matthew watched as Evan—Evie, call him (her?) Evie—stopped in front of each one, looking at the twisty reflection with a cocked head, then moved along. Matthew didn’t bother. He didn’t want to change, even temporarily.
He watched his child and felt something blooming inside him, like a tree was pitted in his stomach and its roots were extending into his bowels, the branches shooting up through his esophagus and tickling his lungs. This wasn’t excitement—or maybe it was. He watched Evie—yes, he’d call his kiddo Evie, if that’s what his kiddo wanted—twist and turn and glance in one of the mirrors that gave the body rippling effects, like it was cut into five stacked blocks that teetered on one another, the second and fourth jutting out like buckteeth.
“I’m not sure what I should go with here, and we’re moving through this place fast,” Evie said.
“We can slow down.”
“I don’t want to hold up the line.”
“We waited patiently. The people behind us will, too.”
“I still think I want to use boy pronouns,” he said. “If you think that’s okay.”
“Of course I do.”
Evie moved on to the next mirror, which made his head bulge. “And I don’t want to cut my hair or have boobs or anything.”
“You’re probably wondering why the name change then.”
“I’m just wondering if you really think magnifying your head for a few hours feels like the right choice.”
“Of course it doesn’t.” Evie blinked, his eyelids the size of Post-It notes. “My pores. Yikes.”
“There’s a reason we encourage face washing in our house.”
Evie ticked a fingernail against his nose. “Understood.” He stood up straight, head shrinking just-so in the mirror. He took off for the next mirror.
His son had not had this kind of bounce in his step for a while. Matthew pictured Evie, then still Evan, slinking up to the dining room table for breakfast and dinner, plopping down like a bag of concrete dropped to a curb. Eddie would give Evan a sidelong glance as he ate his green beans, watching him pick at a mountain of mashed potatoes—once his favorite; now, he had no favorites, it seemed—and sighing when asked what was wrong. A flutter of a hand, fingers wavering like hummingbird wings, and then nothing. Off to soccer practice, or to study for a geometry test, or to write an English paper, which both Eddie and Matthew, in sync, offered to help with, dismissed by the absence of any response but their son’s tramping feet as he shuffled down the hallway.
When Evie paused before another mirror, one that bulked up his neck and narrowed his waist, he turned to Matthew and said, “I can see the appeal.”
“The proportions are all off, though.”
“Yeah, but there’s movement toward the ideal here.”
“Movement toward the ideal?”
Evie turned to his father, the glimmer from the tiny lights above the mirror catching in his eyes. Or, Matthew thought, maybe it was something else: a release, a shift, something let go or added on.
“Everyone has a body fantasy. This is all about finding ours.”
“Finding yours. I’ve already got mine.”
Evie frowned and turned to Matthew. “Really?”
“I’m in pretty good shape for a forty-something, thank you very much.” He tapped his stomach. “No beer gut.”
“You’ve got pretty spindly thighs.”
“Ouch.” Matthew did an air squat.
Evie smiled. “I’m just kidding.” He turned away from the mirror. “Thanks, Dad.”
“For just saying, ‘Of course.’”
“Should I have said something else?”
Evie sauntered to the next mirror, where his hips widened out like he was a kite. “Not that I can think of. But there were lots of things I was glad you didn’t say.”
Evie did a pirouette. “I kind of like the movement of this one.”
“You look like a piece of origami.”
“One of those paper fortune tellers? Or one of those hopping frogs?”
“Something in between, I guess. I couldn’t think of anything else to say.”
“You said plenty.” He frowned. “Getting back into the car would be tricky with this one, wouldn’t it?”
“We could toss you in the back.”
Evie rolled his eyes. “I’m your kid, not the groceries.”
“Just trying to offer practical solutions.”
They followed the funhouse hallway’s sharp turn. Far away, Matthew could see the exit. Evie chewed his lip and stared into another mirror. This one made his feet gigantic and his head the size of a softball. His eyes were dark marbles.
“I don’t like that at all,” Matthew said. “It does no justice to your bone structure.”
“I think that’s the gayest thing you’ve ever said, Dad.”
“Well, every now and then a blind pig finds an acorn.”
Evie laughed. “Does that saying even apply?” He turned toward the exit. “Getting desperate here. Not many options left. I’m not sure I like that we can’t go back without upsetting the flow of the place.”
“You don’t have to pick one if you don’t want to.”
“Then what was the point of coming?” Evie turned around in slow motion. In the mirror, his tiny head craned over his huge shoulders to look at his back side in the mirror. “My calves look weird.”
“Couldn’t the point of coming be to see that you don’t want to be different?”
Evie stared at him. The words—freak, nightmare edition—came back to Matthew, crawling along his skull like a tarantula in tap shoes.
“It’s only for a few hours, anyway,” Matthew said. Evie nodded.
They kept at it for the last half-dozen mirrors, Matthew not bothering to look at how his own body buoyed and shifted and stretched and squished. He kept his focus on Evie’s movements, the way he frowned at himself, trying to find the perfect something frowning back in the sharp, reflective surface of the mirrors. Nothing seemed satisfying.
They arrived at the famous, most popular mirror. Evie’s shoulders were suddenly juiced, his chest giant, quads the size of redwood trees. He looked boxy, in Matthew’s estimation. Like one of those turn-of-the-century musclemen in singlets, handlebar mustaches sprouting from their upper lips. Except this was worse, like Evie had been inflated with a bicycle pump and would pop at any moment.
Evie sighed. “This doesn’t look right. None of them do.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“I’m not worried. I just—I don’t know. I’d be disappointed. To have come here and just, you know, leave.”
Matthew couldn’t help himself. He reached out and grabbed Evie’s hand. “Never be that, kiddo. There’s nothing to be disappointed by.”
That’s when Evie started to cry. It began as a low hiccup, so that Matthew thought he might just be coughing, but then Evie’s shoulders stuttered and a quiet whine of noise escaped, something he clearly wanted to hold in, trap in his chest beneath his ribs. His entire body shook and he snorted out a sob and Matthew gathered him up, holding him tighter than he had in years, brushing off the quick shock of how strong and thick his son was, with shoulders Matthew barely recognized, a tight back, the press of muscle in his chest apparent through his t-shirt.
“You’ve been working out,” Matthew said. Stupid.
“Coach,” Evie said through tears. “Coach has us on a training plan.”
“That’s good. That’s good stuff, kid.”
“Do I stay on the team? Can I?”
“Oh. That. Well, if you want to.”
Evie nodded into Matthew’s chest. Matthew was suddenly aware of other carnival-goers; he felt their eyes on him and Evie like they were under a hot spotlight, two actors trapped on stage in a play where both has lost their lines.
“I thought this would help,” Evie said. “I’m so dumb.”
Matthew pried Evie away and held him at arm’s length. “You’re lots of things, but dumb isn’t one of them. Don’t say that, either.” He hugged Evie again. “Never ever, okay? Or I’ll tell your father.”
Evie let out a laugh. “Anything but that.”
The sobbing subsided. Matthew gave Evie a pat on the back and steered him to the next mirror.
“How do you know I didn’t want to look like that, all muscular and stuff?”
“Because I think you don’t actually want to change what you look like at all. Not for just a short while, at least.”
“How do you know?”
“Just a hunch.”
“But even I don’t know, still.”
“That’s okay. There’s so little that anyone actually knows.” He squeezed Evie’s shoulders, still a bit bewildered by how taut they were. When did they grow like this? How had Evie expanded in this way without Matthew’s notice? What else, he wondered, has he missed? When Eddie returned, he’d have to give Evie a thorough examination.
“I just feel like I’m wasting time,” Evie said, looking into the next mirror, the second-to-last. Evening sodium light peered in here, so close to the exit. The college kids ahead of them were giggling and they let in more night noise and smell as they threw aside the tent flap leading back out to the carnival midway, their temporary transformations set.
“Of course you’re not wasting time. Has your dad ever told you about morphology?”
“It’s one of his linguistics terms.”
“Oh. No, not really.”
“Well, basically, all words are made up of smaller parts. With most words, the way you change their meaning requires just a change of a small part.”
“Yeah?” Neither of them looked closely in the mirror, so they shuffled to the last one. A bored-looking carny waited for them to announce their intent to exit. He sat on a stool, back bent and craven.
“Yep. For example, to turn a verb into a noun, all you do, in English at least, is add -er or -or to the end.”
“Doesn’t sound like a whole lot.”
Evie frowned into the final mirror. “I just look like me in this one.”
The carny let out a low, manufactured cough. Both Matthew and Evie turned to look at him.
“It’s for people who change their minds. Doesn’t happen much, though,” the carny said in a growly smoker’s voice. His fingers were tinged with oil stains, and his bright yellow shirt pulsed in the near-dark. He gave Evie and Matthew the once-over. “You know you don’t get no refunds if you haven’t made a choice, right?”
“That’s fine,” Matthew said.
“You’ll have to get back in line if you want to try again.”
Matthew said nothing. Evie was staring at himself in the mirror, scanning with more intensity than he had at any of the other mirrors. Matthew watched his eyes lower at incremental ticks. He tried to imagine what his child was seeing as his eyes passed over the reflection of his shoulders, his chest, his slim hips, the little flare of his soccer player legs, his strong ankles and calves. Matthew knew, again, that he should say something, banish any thoughts of freaky, of nightmare, of, even, edition. Because he saw something keen and smart and powerful, full of a beauty and a sorrow that were precious and delicate. He saw something confused but capable.
“That won’t be necessary,” he said to the carny. “I don’t think we’ll need to get back in line.”
The carny shrugged. Evie, finally, turned to Matthew and gave a small nod, his eyes catching the fairy light. Leaning forward, the carny pulled open the curtain, letting the flashing glitz of the carnival, its sounds of screaming joy and its smells of fried dough and exhaust fumes, all come crashing into the funhouse. Evie paused, framed against the outward din. With a squeeze along the shoulder Matthew pushed him forward, keeping his hand on Evie so that he could, if nothing else, at least steer him this one time, through the crowd and homeward.
About the Author
Joe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Electric Literature, Electric Spec, On Spec, Barrelhouse, Zone 3, Hawai’i Review, Eleven Eleven, and many others. He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird Chapbooks. He possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and teaches composition, creative writing, and literature at St. Charles Community College in Cottleville, Missouri. He he has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes and was nominated for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2016.