Stromboli’s Nights of Wonder

Herbie had paid my mother twenty-five dollars cash up front and promised room and board for my services for the summer. Dad died two years before and his barbershop closed. I missed tinkering with gadgets and searching for valuable coins with him. We were broke. With three younger kids at home, it was time I helped though I would’ve chosen to do just about anything else. 

Herbie rested his hands on his stomach as he’d assured my mother, I was perfect for the job, wiry, smart, mechanical. He’d keep a fatherly eye on me as his carnival toured the Midwest. Safe as rain, he said. It was the chance of a lifetime for me to see the world, though I soon discovered the world I saw was the narrow interior of his contraptions designed to take a rube’s money and return as little as possible. The attractions broke down often and I’d be inside greasing gears, twisting wire, and taping parts together to keep everything running. It was better than mucking out the animal barns. Herbie was particularly proud of his Fairy Wishing Well, an almost exact facsimile, he swore of a thousand-year-old one in Dublin. From a distance, it was impressive ­– as wide as a Model T and twice as high.

The wishers walked up a ramp that looked like a stone path to a circular rustic well, constructed from two oil drums welded together. Above was a fake grotto with flowered vines pierced by dozens of lights with romantic music warbling. 

The well was six feet deep and drained only when we broke down the carnival to move to the next town. After closing each night my job was to hold my breath, sink down, and scoop up the money. The wishing well was Herbie’s most popular attraction and pure profit, he cooed.

“You steal from me, you get left behind,” he said often.

In addition to resetting the headstones in the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s Beanbag Toss, refilling the fortunes in the Madame Zelda booths, and replenishing stuffed toys in the Easy-Peasy crane claw machines, my job was to clear out the apple cores and dead rodents people tossed into the well. After a month of this daily chore, I’d learned to hold my breath for two minutes having overcome both claustrophobia and my fear of rats. 

“Ready for your nightly plunge?” asked Herbie who kept a close eye on everything.

“Best part of my day,” I said. “It beats a spit bath behind the latrines.” 

“Maybe I’ll try it one of these days,” he said. 

I would’ve paid money to see if Herbie fit inside the wishing well and even better, watch him bend down to gather the daily haul. 

At 2:00am, the gates were closed and the lights extinguished. 

“I’m turning in.” Herbie hissed. “Sleep on the take and give it to me in the morning.”

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