By Jack Zeidman
The item sat on the coffee table, innocent and nondescript. Packaged in plain brown paper, it wasn’t particularly pleasing to the eye. About half the size of a shoebox, it had been the uppermost parcel in the grab bag, and had virtually jumped into my hand.
I had enjoyed a wonderful, sunny Saturday at the carnival, which had been visiting our humble suburb for the Fourth of July weekend. The games, rides, cotton candy and popcorn, the garish colors – blended comfortably to produce a pleasant, exciting day. The surrealistic mixture of sights, sounds, and sensations was topped off by the presence of the clowns who stood at each exit, selling parcels from multi-colored grab bags. The clown who sold me the package (it cost me ten dollars), acted more like a tall, garrulous pixie, what with his pointed hat, mischievous smile, and sparkling blue eyes. He was Mr. Personality, and told me the articles in his grab bag were “memorable and magical”, and that if I didn’t open the package on the thirteenth day – not before, nor after that day – the magic would disappear.
The perfect ending to a thoroughly enjoyable day came when, as I left the carnival, the clown cried, “What you hold in your hand will always remind you of X. Travis Ganza, the greatest carnival in the world!”
A week passed. I was getting antsy; I wanted to open the package. Fortunately, as a manager at Best Buy, I didn’t have a lot of time – at least while at work – to ponder the parcel; my everyday duties were time consuming, and required that I address numerous issues at the same time. In my spare moments, however, I was preoccupied with thoughts about what might be inside the package. In fact, I was driven to distraction wondering about it.
There were only six more days to wait. They couldn’t pass soon enough.
“I’m another day closer to opening it,” I muttered to myself, gazing at the mystery parcel. I had moved it to my bedside table, and, with the moonlight shining on it, the package seemed to glow; of course, I knew that was not the case, but my mind had a field day fabricating wacky scenarios as to why it was glowing.
That night, a series of shortened dreams speculated on the contents of the package, and ran the gamut from some living thing, to a blob of useless coal, to a giant, shimmering diamond.
Before I went to work the next day, I took photos of the package with my cell phone. During my lunch break, and the odd minute or two when I wasn’t busy, I glanced at them.
I was growing more anxious to see what the clown had meant by the cryptic phrase memorable and magical.
I arrived home later than usual, as I had to deal with a disgruntled customer whose warranty didn’t cover the problems pertaining to his personal computer. He actually kept me nearly an hour after our official closing time, following me into my office, harping about unfair agreements and professional integrity (mine, of course). To appease him, I told him I’d talk to corporate headquarters, to see if there was any way his warranty could be adjusted to cover the extensive work that was needed. He finally relented and left, at least partially satisfied. We are told in management training seminars, that customer satisfaction should be our primary goal; their attitude is irrelevant to our treatment of them. We must aim to please. Sometimes, I find it hard to abide by that credo.
Now, safely ensconced in my humble abode, my focus was on the package, which I had brought into the kitchen, where the illumination was brightest. I held it up to the light, hoping to see something – anything – that might hint at what was beneath the dull, tan wrapping; my effort proved fruitless. I shook it (gingerly, so as not to damage what might be inside); nothing moved. I pressed lightly on random parts of the package; there were no revealing protuberances.
Impatient and frustrated, I put the package on the kitchen table. “What is in there?” I muttered to myself. “And why do I have to wait for the thirteenth day to open it?”
Ah, but what should I expect when a clown is involved, especially when he is as personable as the one I encountered at X. Travis Ganza’s Carnival? Clowns aren’t merely jesters, face-painted jokers whose single purpose is amuse; to me, at least, they have an air of enigmatic inscrutability and, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, they often have an aura of otherworldliness. Yes, indeed, words like magical, and numbers like thirteen, fit easily into my image of a clown.
Unfortunately, this brief rumination only served to increase my desire to tear the wrapping off the package. I resisted this temptation by putting the parcel on the hutch in the parlor, and immersing myself in a paperback novel I had recently purchased. The genre? You guessed it: a mystery.
The fog of sleep began to clear from my consciousness. With a measure of effort, I opened my eyes. The clock read half-past midnight, and it was dark and cloudy outside my bedroom window. Then I heard the sound that had likely awakened me: a series of whistling, trilling musical notes, happy and festive; it was the sound of a calliope – and it seemed to be coming from my living room!
I stumbled out of bed, put on my bathrobe, and made my way into the parlor. Surprisingly, the music was coming from the package! As soon as I picked it up, the calliope grew silent.
I stayed up for a short time afterwards, holding the parcel, but the music never resumed. I set the parcel on the hutch, and went back to bed, thinking the mystery of the package had probably been solved: it was some type of music box, a melodious reminder of X. Travis Ganza, the greatest carnival in the world!
The next day, after work, I almost succumbed to the urge to open the package. The notion that the mystery had likely been exposed did not lessen my desire to peel away the paper and look inside. I was comforted by the fact that, after today, there were only two days left before the magic number thirteen would be reached. No big deal. I could tough it out.
That’s what I thought until, before leaving for work the following morning, I found, behind the package, what looked and smelled like popcorn. It was in a tiny, striped bag – like the bag I had bought at the carnival! I left it there, and blundered out the door.
Dozens of explanations crossed my mind, but none of them sufficiently assuaged my discomfort. What in the world was going on?
That night I went to a movie, hoping to gain perspective on the situation by stepping outside of it for a time. The film was a new release about an alien who escapes from an Earthly prison. Much to my chagrin, his first hiding place was a traveling circus – replete with clowns, popcorn, and a calliope! For me, at least, it was art imitating real life.
I left early, with no regrets at not having seen the ending.
Straightaway upon arriving home, my attention turned to the package. To my utter astonishment, resting atop it was a diminutive copy of my New York Yankees baseball cap – similar to the one I had worn to X. Travis Ganza’s Carnival! I examined it, and placed it next to the bag of popcorn.
I had a pizza delivered. “Life imitating art,” I mumbled between pizza slices, and spent the rest of the evening reading my novel, my gaze averted from the package.
Tomorrow would be the thirteenth day. I would open the package after work, so that my time would be unencumbered following the Great Unveiling, in the event that some prodigious, unforeseen circumstance should arise.
I slept incredibly well. When I arose the next day, I felt a powerful rush of adrenalin as I readied myself for work. I was a live wire; this was The Day!
I tried to control my excitement by concentrating on the job-related responsibilities that lay ahead.
I pulled into the parking lot of Best Buy, and realized it was Friday the Thirteenth! How deliciously appropriate!
I stopped at Beep’s for a hamburger and fries. Wanting to prolong the drama, I took my time driving home. It was nearly nine o’clock when I pulled into the driveway.
“It’s time for the Great Reveal!” I announced in the direction of the package, and closed the door behind me. “Let’s see what the clown has conferred upon Burton Hilby!”
When I removed the parcel from the hutch, I was stunned: the bag of popcorn and the baseball cap were nowhere to be seen! I deposited the package on the kitchen table.
I turned on the overhead light, and took a deep breath. “Let’s get to the bottom of this mystery,” I said, and pulled the package closer to me. “Here goes!”
I ripped off the paper. To say that I was taken aback by what I saw would be an understatement: a compact diorama – colorful and finely constructed – sat before me on the table. The rides, game-booths, vendors, and patrons made it instantly evident that it was a carnival. What wasn’t immediately conspicuous became so when I held it up to the light.
The cardboard and plastic figures and shapes that comprised the diorama were strikingly similar to what I had encountered at X. Travis Ganza’s Carnival – right down to the clothing the people had worn! The husband and wife (both wearing shorts) I had conversed with at one of the booths were there, as were a group of children from a nearby school – fronted by their male teacher, who was dressed in a suit. All of this and more was represented by cardboard and plastic figurines!
A rational explanation occurred to me. Maybe the clown made this diorama while watching the crowd mill about, then put it in his grab bag. This seemed an unlikely possibility, but a possibility, nevertheless.
Suddenly, I saw something else: the clown – my clown – stood at the exit from which I had departed, hands cupped, calling after a virtually perfect representation of me (right down to my tennis shoes, tank-top shirt, and jeans) as I left the grounds of the carnival! A coincidence? Perhaps.
What, to this day, defies explanation, and I can’t get out of my mind, was a most disconcerting detail: the plastic figure of me that had left the carnival was waving his New York Yankees cap in a gesture of goodbye to the clown, just as I had done on that beautiful Saturday afternoon. If the clown had created that diorama before I had chosen it from the grab bag, how did he know I was going to wave my baseball cap that way? And, since the bill of the cap was in the back pocket of my jeans until I was on my way out of the carnival, and the NY logo was not visible, how did the clown know it was a New York Yankees baseball cap?
Such was, and is, the mystery of the grab bag. In a sense, it remains unsolved.
I often look at the diorama – which sits on the nightstand next to my bed – half-expecting to see something move within its cardboard walls. Sometimes, I listen for the sound of a calliope.
If the X. Travis Ganza Carnival ever comes to town again, maybe that clown will be able to answer my questions regarding the incredible events surrounding his last visit to my city. Perhaps he can tell me if the tiny bag of popcorn and the miniature baseball cap in the diorama are the same items I found on the hutch next to the unopened package, and that later disappeared.
I suspect I know the answers to those inquiries. Therein lies the mystery of the grab bag!
Jack Zeidman is a teacher/published writer who lives with the love of his life, his beautiful wife, Gladys, in Los Angeles, California. He has composed numerous short stories and poems, written and produced a variety of school holiday programs, and is currently working on a screenplay. He and his soulmate love animals, old movies, music, the beach, baseball, and, most important of all, studying the Bible. As they journey through life together, their faith provides Jack and Gladys with the deep, abiding support needed to weather the storms of this life. Both of them believe, however, that after every storm there may be a wondrous rainbow, and at the end of that rainbow is peace and happiness.