by Laura Schroeder
art by Emma Eisler
One second, you’re a tried and true staple of American food service innovation: A little, laminated paper box full of french fries. The first cousin of the more flashy Dixie cup, you’re reliable, approachable, and fun. Undeniably a pillar of the elementary school carnival food service system.
The next, however, you’ve been set down on a table next to the dunk tank. With nothing more than the last mushy fry or two to keep you grounded, a draft carries you into the middle of the busy walkway.
Kids run all over you with muddy sneakers. Instead of being toted dutifully along with them, supplying snacks and making greasy little fingers, you’ve been exiled to the swamp-like walkway—in the middle of foot traffic, but now seemingly invisible. If you’re lucky, your loneliness will be memorialized in the grainy background of a photo on someone’s iPhone 5. Your lamination begins to disintegrate, and the last couple of fries have now transformed into a mouse-sized serving of Mashed Potatoes with Other Natural Flavorings. Long since forgotten, you lie crushed as carnival-goers go about their business. Some sit and people-watch, and others cause merciless chaos with inflatable baseball bats. Early teens relish in the activities while also pretending to be too cool for them. Parents gossip. Kids experience firsts under the bleachers, away from prying eyes. But you’re just a lump of cardboard. You can watch as people carry out their agenda of carnival activities. But you’re still stuck in the mud, alone.
And you know what, kiddo? At times, you really take on the role of that smushed little box. Less glamorous than Katy Perry’s vision of a plastic bag, and less of a melancholically poetic wallflower than Charlie in Patrick’s eyes. Sometimes you’re just a lump of cardboard in some patchy corner of suburbia. And when you’re sitting in the mud, and you can’t seem to move, and all you do is watch everyone running around you on their own adventures, you start to see how cyclical it is. The waiting to finally be the big kids. Then being the big kids and reveling in it. Then wondering where the old big kids are now. Do they miss it? Do they laugh at how silly they were for thinking it mattered? Am I supposed to do that now? Why did nobody wait for me?
…Why did nobody wait for me?
It’s 10:08 PM – the carnival’s over. The tables are empty. The stench of frying oil hangs in the air. A light drizzle descended in the last 20 minutes, as if on cue, which got you even more crumpled. Throughout the night, you acquired some lovely muddy shoe prints on your underbelly. You knew this town had an insidious past, but you never felt so personally left behind—
—A few feet to the left—an old cotton candy stick. Stained a faint blue from the fluff that once adorned her.