Tubs of Fun
Fiction contest winner, selected by Mat Johnson
The guy did it because of the kid.
It wasn’t his kid—the guy didn’t have one—but he could imagine himself having one. He could imagine himself having one like this kid.
This kid stood knock-kneed, his eyes wide and his chin and T-shirt streaked purple from the Popsicle he clenched in his fist, while the carny chewed a toothpick, cracked his dirty knuckles, and lobbed the first ball into the tub with a soft thud.
“Here, friend, now you try.” The guy tossed his ball; it also landed in the tub. He heard a small gasp behind him.
The kid busted the Popsicle clapping his hands.
The guy felt like a hero.
“That’s how you do it, friend,” said the carny, “nice and easy.” He handed the guy both balls, and the guy looked them over. They seemed okay. The carny winked at a few bystanders. “Think we got a winner here, folks.”
Now, of course, the guy knows about the weight trick.
But at the time all he knew was that this kid believed in him.
The guy repositioned his feet for balance. He spit on his palms. He lined up the shot. And the first time he missed, he knew he’d thrown the ball too hard. The next time, an unintentional spin prevented its landing. The third time, a sneeze was coming on. Over and over, the guy tried to replicate the carny’s first toss, feeling it couldn’t be impossible. After all, he’d seen it done.
The carny glanced at the crowd. “Try again?” Middle-aged men with farmer tans crossed their arms and smirked. Women in cutoffs held their beer breath and their children’s hands, sticky with melted candy. The kid picked out a wedgy and squirmed, sucked his Popsicle stick.
“Yes, sir”—and this time the guy would concentrate. Pro athletes always say they imagine their success: I go out there thinking I’m going to win. He pictured the ball cutting a perfect arc through the air and landing in the tub. He pictured the carny slapping him on the back, “Good going, friend,” and the crowd whooping, hollering. He’d high-five the kid, hoist him onto his shoulders, and let him pick out the prize. He’d slip the carny a twenty for a second prize. He’d buy the kid another Popsicle, maybe a baseball glove.
The guy motioned to throw, noting which of his muscles tensed and when, and the slight rocking on his heels. Each attempt was closer, ever closer, he felt, until he ran out of cash and realized the kid had gone.
The carny gestured and shouted, “Who else? Win an Xbox? Easy-peasy.”
The guy nudged the kid’s Popsicle stick with his shoe. A win could bring back the crowd—bring back the kid. “Where’s the ATM?” he asked the carny.
It wouldn’t cost much. He only had to win once.
Katherine Ann Davis is a PhD candidate at the University of Tennessee, where she is serving as editor-in-chief of Grist: The Journal for Writers and is completing a novel. Her most recent work appears in Broad River Review and in Ice Cube Press’s Prairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland.