Oh, it all starts out innocently enough. A dollar to knock down three bottles. If you do, you win a stuffed bear. A cute toy to give to your girlfriend.
They let you win, once. That’s part of the plan.
Then, the real bargaining starts.
“Tell you what,” the vendors says, with his slow, Southern drawl. He slides a toothpick from one corner of his mouth to the other. “You might have hit three, but I’ll bet you fifty bucks you couldn’t knock down five of them bottles.”
“Fifty bucks?” I say. “That’s not even a contest. You’re on.”
“Well, not so fast there,” the vendor says. “If you’re interested in that, then supposen we raise the stakes a little?”
“You hit them five bottles there, and I won’t just give you fifty dollars — I’ll give you a hundred.”
I nod. “I’m liking this so far.”
He raises a finger. “But … miss one, and I take your firstborn.”
I have to mull this over. A hundred dollars is a lot of money. I try to think of all the things I can buy with a hundred dollars. The sheer number of possibilities makes my head spin.
“Daddy,” my daughter says tugging at my sleeve. “I want to go on the horsy ride.”
“Not now, sweetheart,” I say. “Daddy’s making important decisions about your future.”
“The bearded lady wants a child, see,” the vendor says. “One to raise on her own. She’s too ugly, is the thing; no man’ll marry her. Oh, she’s tried the clean-shaven look, but to no avail. She’s got a five o’clock shadow at noon. Fellas don’t like to kiss her none because of the stubble. And, of course, they worry about what the other guys will think. Even the dudes who are into French women with the hairy armpits won’t take to her. You’d think she’d be able to find a guy who likes hair on a woman, especially considering all of the freaks out there on that Internet-thing. But nope: she lives alone. Keeps to herself, mostly. Reckon her heart’s too broken to forge friendships. We even put her on that Craigslist site, to find her a date. She hooked up with a couple of guys. One of them had a foot fetish, and the other liked dressing in a bear suit and licking honey from her hand. Nice enough guys, both of them, but they weren’t husband material, you see. She didn’t want no husband sniffing at her feet or hogging up the washing machine with his bear suit.”
The vendor goes on: “She lives alone, no husband, no child, traveling the countryside with all of us lonely carnival folk. Hell, I’d take a liking to her myself, if I could. But I’m not too much fond of the werewolf look. It just don’t fit my notion of femininity. Plus, you can’t cuddle much with her, because she’ll prick you like a porcupine.”
“This is all very fascinating,” I say, “but how about standing up those bottles? I want to make myself a hundred bucks.”
“Are you sure you’re willing to sacrifice your firstborn?” the vendor asks. “Because a deal’s a deal. No take-backs. You miss a single bottle, and your daughter’s ours.”
“And I wouldn’t get the hundred dollars?” I ask.
The man shakes his head gravely.
I sigh. “Well, the thing is, I’m not much of a gambling man.”
“I understand, sir.”
“I tend to lose, you see.”
“And I’m not one to take unnecessary risks.”
“Quite right, sir.”
I sigh again. “And the idea of missing out on a hundred bucks — that’s just too big of a risk.”
“You can forget I mentioned it,” the vendor says, waving me away. “Please enjoy the rest of your afternoon.”
“See, I like a sure thing,” I say. “And the way I see it, I want a hundred dollars, and you want my child. So I propose we leave out the whole element of chance and make ourselves a deal.”
The vendor raises an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
“Just what I said. Why don’t I simply sell you my firstborn for a hundred dollars? Seems a fair price, and both of us can walk away happy.”
The vendor frowns. “What about the child?”
“She can earn her own money.”
“No, what I mean is, are you going to miss her?”
I shake my head. “Not really, no. She’s too much like her mother — my ex-wife. Talks too much, babbles, whines, whatever. I’m over it. Besides, I’d much prefer a son to carry on the family name.”
“Daddy,” my daughter says, hey eyes wide. She squeezes my hand.
“See what I mean?” I ask. “This whining bullshit gets on my nerves. I’ve about had it.”
I hunker down to her level. “Not now, sweetheart. Daddy’s talking to the nice man.”
“But I want to go on the horsy ride.”
“You can go on the horsy ride later. Daddy’s negotiating a business deal.”
I run my fingers across my lips. “Zip it. Zip.”
Her lips tremble. “But–”
“Zip it! Zip!”
My daughter stares at the ground, eyes welling with tears.
I stand up and face the vendor, shrugging. “See what I mean?”
“You’ll be making the bearded woman very happy, sir,” the vendor says.
“Now, no take-backs, right?” I ask. “Because you said so yourself: a deal’s a deal. I don’t want the bearded lady to return her someday and ask for the hundred dollars back. And I don’t need my daughter reappearing on my doorstep in twenty years toting a bunch of bratty grandchildren I didn’t ask for. If you take her, you take her for keeps. None of that reuniting-on-Oprah crap.”
“A deal’s a deal,” the vendor says. “No take-backs.”
So that’s my story about how I make a hundred bucks at the county fair. A hundred bucks to spend any way I wanted. A single, crisp, hundred-dollar bill.
You have to be careful at the county fair. The vendors are trained to spot a sucker, and if you don’t watch out, they’ll screw you royally.
The thing is, though, I’m not a sucker. And I’ve got a hundred bucks in my pocket to prove it.
Imagine the number of the bottles I’ll be able to knock down with that kind of money.