“The Golden Daffodils”
by James Van Pelt
No one should get drunk at carnivals. They are drunk already with rippling tents, cotton candy, rollercoaster, and always, always screaming children. Carnivals reel on their own. To be there is to wallow in revelry, to be sucked in, to surrender.
Ruth, drunk, weaved with dignity, a rum and coke thermos in one hand and a white teddy bear clutching a heart that read “I Love You” in the other. She couldn’t get the lights to settle into one place, and a calliope belched a harsh, flinch-inducing song.
Bitter thoughts about happiness filled her head. The Friday morning meeting had been about happiness in the work place. The company brought in a speaker who gave them “resilience drills,” and they did an exercise to practice “letting go.” The expert handed out index cards. Ruth’s cards said “grudges,” and “jealousy.” The group stood on their chairs to drop their “baggage.” For a second, the meeting room looked like an index card snowstorm. “Find happiness in the process, not the product,” the expert said. Ruth wasn’t sure what that meant, but she was pretty sure that the process of the meeting pissed her off.
She shaded her eyes, huddled against the carnival’s sound, then pushed into the fortuneteller’s booth where the noise dropped by half and was blessedly dark. The fortuneteller sat behind a sable-covered table, cards waiting, an old man wearing mirrored sunglasses. Later, Ruth tried to remember the conversation, what the soothsayer said. Most was too foggy. She remembered they talked about happiness. He put his hands on hers, shocked her. “Tag, you’re it.” Then, a taxi driver woke her in front of her apartment. “You’re here, lady.” Had the fortuneteller called the cab? She couldn’t recall. When she fell into bed, the room rose and fell and swirled, like brightly painted horses going round and round.
The next morning, Ruth put her briefcase beneath her desk. The breakfast eggs sat better than she thought they might, and out of habit she opened the filing cabinet for the aspirin bottle, but her head didn’t hurt. She closed it.
At work, a chubby, balding, middle-aged loan closer named Art took his desk in the cubicle across from hers. “Mondays make me twitch,” he said without irony.
“How’d your bowling tournament go?” Ruth smiled, which she hadn’t done for a while, but she felt good, like a benign cloud surrounded her.
He looked at her suspiciously. “You’ve never been interested in my weekends before.”
“It’s an innocent question. I have a life. You have a life. We work together. Nothing odd about idle chitchat between coworkers. Did you win?”
“Tenth frame with the game on the line, I left a Greek Church. Nobody gets those, and I didn’t either.”
“Two on the left, three on the right. Worst split you can get. Bad first ball. Impossible second.”
“You’ll beat them next week,” Ruth said, and she meant it.
Ruth shrugged her shoulders. Paperwork filled her inbox. Four complete mortgages to assemble, a closing to schedule, and two reminders for a morning meeting over changes in Federal loan filing procedures, which she normally loathed with a black dread, but she found herself humming.
Art glanced at her; Ruth didn’t care. Before the meeting, she’d cleared over half the day’s work. The doughnuts tasted delightful, and the slideshow, normally a complete bore-fest, contained helpful tips that would make the afternoon tasks easier. At lunch, Ruth opened her “to do” file, which she’d been avoiding for weeks, inventoried what could be finished by the weekend, and then in the time she had left, followed links to an Ireland travel package she’d been interested in a year ago but hadn’t had the spirit to care about since. Castles, cliffs; rolling, green hills.
At 2:00, as she answered e-mails and finished off a particularly tricky deal that involved transferring ownership on two properties for one, she stopped to look at the lower right drawer in her desk. She hadn’t opened it at lunch—she hadn’t really considered it until now—and that made her thoughtful. Behind the vertical files was a three-quarter full vodka bottle. Over the course of the last few months, she’d been hitting it more often during the day, but a drink didn’t sound appealing now.
Maybe tonight would be good for redecorating her bedroom. She picked up color swatches at the paint store, compared them to her drapes for ten minutes before deciding the drapes would have to go. At 9:00, the announcement that the fabric store was closing surprised her. She took her purchases to the counter, and by midnight, she’d cut the fabric the way she wanted. Tomorrow after work she would sew.
A glass of warm milk sounded better than wine to top off the evening. Ruth stood at her stove in her bathrobe, stirring slowly. When she was six, her grandmother used to warm her milk for bed. Ruth remembered grandma’s arthritic hands holding the spoon, how the moths beat against the backdoor screen. She remembered a summer night, standing on the porch with grandma. In the field across the road from the farmhouse, a carnival set up. Burly men working by lantern light hammered in thick tent stakes. A lion in a cage roared. Just as she had then, Ruth shivered, then a hand caressed her own. The sensation was so vivid that she stepped back from the stove. It felt like the fortuneteller’s touch from the night before.
Ruth fell asleep easily, dreamed pleasant dreams and woke up before her alarm, feeling better than she had for months. It was if the night had peeled years from her. The reflection in the mirror didn’t look different, though. Belly a little poochy. Flabby arms. She added renewing the gym membership to her to-do list.
Ruth knew exactly when she lost her happiness. It wasn’t during breakfast, when the sun fell through her kitchen window like honey butter, or when she stopped by the tee-shirt shop on the corner, and it wasn’t on the downtown bus when she scooted over so a ragged street person had room for his cat in a cage. No, it happened in the office. She went to the break room and found a roll of gift wrapping paper in a cabinet above where everyone hung their coffee mugs. Wrapping a tee-shirt without a box always produced a lumpy, wrinkly package, but she smiled at the result anyway when she put it on Art’s desk.
Art arrived five minutes late as always, and looked at the package for a moment before checking the office. Ruth glanced away and pretended to be busy at her computer. Finally, he opened it, took out the shirt, a bright purple cotton short-sleeve with a picture of two bowling pins standing on the left and right, and a bowling ball in the middle beside a couple pins that were down. The text on top said, “Smile!” and underneath, “Splits happen.”
Ruth walked behind him and put her hand on his shoulder. “I guessed at the size. I hope that’s okay.”
“You didn’t have to do this. I’ve never gotten you anything.”
She shrugged. “I was in a mood.”
“It is pretty funny,” he said and put the shirt in a drawer.
When she touched his hand, they sparked, like static electricity, but stronger and more liquidy. Ruth drew back with a laugh. As she walked to her desk, though, she fought the pull from the floor as if gravity had turned up a notch. Her unanswered e-mails suddenly intimidated her. She sighed and opened the first one.
By the afternoon, Art whistled while he typed. He’d put the tee shirt on under his jacket during lunch. Ruth hunched over her keyboard. Spam infected her mail, but company policy was to open every message, as if a “dear sir or madam” message from Nigeria might be a legitimate customer. Art’s good humor grated on. She wondered what could possibly be happening with him. It’s Tuesday. No one whistles on Tuesday!
Before he left for the day, he dropped an envelope on her desk. She almost snapped and snarled, “It’s not a game of tag,” but managed to extract the venom from the comment before the words came out.
Art said, “One good deed deserves another. It’s just a poem I like. Thanks for the shirt.”
For a moment, Ruth recaptured the morning cheer. The envelope had gold filigree on the edges. Inside the card pictured a field of glowing, yellow flowers. The poem sounded vaguely familiar. It might have been one she’d read in college. The poet said he’d been wandering one day and came upon “A host, of golden daffodils; beside the lake, beneath the trees, fluttering and dancing in the breeze.” He said that afterwards, whenever he was “in a vacant or pensive mood,” he would think of the moment, and his “heart with pleasure fills and dances with the daffodils.”
She thought about the poem on the bus going home, but her mind kept returning to “It’s not a game of tag.” It nagged at her while the car started and stopped along the route. People climbed on. Others left. She wondered if they were happy. Most carried nothing in their faces, but occasionally, one laughed or smiled. A young woman sat in the bench across from her, rapt and joyful, looking out the window as if she’d never seen a city before. Ruth wondered if she touched the woman that a little of her delight would rub off, then she remembered the fortuneteller’s hand. “Tag,” he’d said, “you’re it,” and she knew when she’d touched Art, he’d taken her happiness.
Ruth found his address in the employee directory, an apartment on the other side of town. Two bus transfers later, she stood on the street looking up at his building. He didn’t answer the buzzer until she’d pressed a third time.
“Do you have it?” she asked at his door.
She could see in his face that he knew what she meant. Art crossed his arms across his chest, clearly struggling with what to do. He moved aside to let her in.
Surprisingly, Art’s apartment was sparse and neat. Ruth had imagined he would be sloppy. Photographs hung from his walls. No portraits, only landscapes. The one bookcase contained poetry in thin volumes. She didn’t recognize the authors. He liked incense.
“It’s gone,” he said. “What did you do to me?”
“Somebody did it to me first.” She sat on the couch. “Who did you touch?”
Art’s expression changed to hope. “That’s how? I thought I felt it in the office.” He leaned toward her, desperate. “Touch me again. Give it back. For the first time in years, I had hours and hours without darkness. I thought the coffee was drugged, or I was having a weird anti-stroke that starved the part of my brain that processes the world. I was scared—really I was—I was losing my mind.”
She recognized the symptoms. “I went to a carnival Sunday. A fortuneteller passed it to me. He knew. He told me about it, I think. Who did you touch?”
Art hung his head. “Standup room only on the bus. Someone bumped me on a stop. A jolt, like static electricity. I didn’t realize what it meant. It could have been anybody.”
Ruth fell back against the couch and closed her eyes. Maybe it would have been better to have never gone to the carnival. Her life didn’t seem that bad before she woke up on Monday. She had a job that paid well. She lived in a nice apartment. What was there to be bleak about? But she remembered night after night, not even turning on the television because nothing sounded good. Not calling her family because she had nothing to say, and she didn’t care about their lives. She held the bottle, poured one glass after another until she fell asleep, her chin on her chest.
“We have to go to the carnival.” Art opened a closet and grabbed a coat.
On the bus, Ruth studied him as he looked out the window. Streetlights played across his face. Why wasn’t he happy? In the years at the mortgage company, he’d seemed self-contained. Sometimes she saw him staring into the distance. He was grumpy occasionally at worst. Maybe whatever the fortuneteller gave them transcended happiness. Perhaps no one had experienced the world the way they had.
The bus dropped them two blocks from the fairgrounds. The Ferris wheel spun gaily against the cloudy sky, lights blinking. Kids yelled. The calliope moaned. A popcorn wind stirred papers that skittered past them on the sidewalk. Ruth clutched her coat tight against her neck.
She lead them past the ring toss booths and the octopus ride, past the funnel cake stand and the house of horrors. A line of couples holding hands stood outside the tunnel of love. Ruth’s chest tightened. What had the fortuneteller said to her on Sunday? She’d tried recreating the encounter over the last two days, but her memories were fuzzy, and even sober, the carnival had a surreal, otherworldly vibe that set her on edge.
A padlock held the heavy canvas closed at the fortuneteller’s tent. Ruth pulled at it in frustration.
“Are you sure this is the place?” Art pushed his hands deep into his pockets. A string of lights swayed in the wind above them.
“I’ll find out where he is.”
The target booth facing them had a single patron, shooting down metal rabbits one after another. A lanky blonde wearing a baseball cap and holding a roll of tickets said, “We haven’t had a fortuneteller for two weeks. Saddest character I ever knew. Wife died. Kids died. His dog ran away in the spring. Wouldn’t surprise me if he offed himself.”
“But I saw him Sunday. I was in that tent Sunday. Is there another fortuneteller?”
“I didn’t work that night. Maybe he popped in for old times sake.” The woman shook her head. “We’re looking for a replacement. Not much of a carnival without a card reader.”
Art’s voice rose. “Ruth talked to the fortuneteller here, Sunday night.”
Ruth thought he looked a little crazed. She followed him as he stalked the fairground, looking down every row of booths. “Where’s the card reader?” he asked at every stop. No one knew.
Later, Ruth took him to a coffee shop a block from the carnival. They sat in a back booth.
Art gripped his coffee cup. “He’s out there somewhere.”
“Maybe, but what does it matter? The happiness is only good until you touch someone. Then they have it. Whoever you bumped on the bus might have been happy for just a second before they bumped someone else. Last one on the bus to get it took it. Say it was a man coming home from work. He’s joyous as he walks from the bus stop to his house. He can’t wait to see his wife. He hugs her. She laughs because there’s a shock. For a minute, the world feels better to her, but she touches her daughter who is eight. She takes it to school the next day. Person after person, skipping along, the happiness is transient.”
Art took a bill from his wallet and put it on the table. “I don’t believe it. If he gave it to you with a touch, there must be a way to give it to you permanently. I’ll find him. He’s a carny. They don’t know any other life than the road. I’ll bet he left because other people at the carnival suspected him. Their lives are empty, living like gypsies. Hoping the next town brings enough customers, but when someone touched the fortuneteller, they saw it differently. You know what it feels like. Have you ever been better in your life, even once?”
Ruth shook her head.
“They drove him away. Imagine the carny folk slipping into his tent at night. ‘Touch me,’ they’d say. He’d have to leave. But I’ll find him. He’ll go from carnival to carnival because that’s all he knows how to do. I’ll find him and make him tell me the secret.”
The middle-aged man pushed himself from the table, a haunting in his eyes. “He can’t have gone far.”
Ruth stayed after Art left. He could be right about the fortuneteller, but she didn’t believe he’d ever be found, not by someone like Art. That’s not how you get it, happiness, that is. You can’t hunt it down.
No, Ruth found her moment when she wasn’t looking for it. Happiness came to her unexpected. Thinking about her one day made her pensive. She remembered standing in her bedroom on Monday, the new cloth for the drapes in hand. The wall would be the fresh color. The drapes would filter sunlight just so. Ruth recalled the pleasure the project gave her.
The poem Art gave her had been right. The memory alone lifted her spirit. It was like the flowers pictured in the field. Her mind filled and danced with the daffodils.
James Van Pelt has been a finalist for a Nebula, a John W. Campbell Award for best new writer, and a Theodore Sturgeon Award. His first short story collection was named a Best Book for Young adults by the American Library Association. His fiction has been reprinted in several Year’s Best anthologies. When he’s not writing, he teaches high school English in western Colorado.