Some of my favorite memories when I was small involved the traveling carnivals and circuses that would set up in my small town. The rides seemed incredibly large, thrilling and exotic to me. I loved being turned upside down and jerked this way and that and spun around in circles on merry-go-rounds and more adventurous rides by the name of “Tilt-a-Whirl” and “The Bullet.”
There were strange sights sealed up in tents that my mother never let me go into, but I overheard her discussions with her friends of just what shocking sight they had seen. It wasn’t until I read Truman Capote and other southern authors that I first heard the term “geek show,” but coming from a northern state, I never would have heard these shows referred to by this pejorative term.
There was cotton candy and candied apples, be-feathered kewpie dolls made of plastic so thin that you could dent them if you squeezed them too hard during the thrills of the ferris wheel. There were nickels skimmed across carnival glass plates with carnival glass bowls and cups as prizes for getting one to stay on a plate.
There were cheap toys, cheap thrills and, as we grew into our preteen and teen years, exotic carnies from out of town. We looked beyond their grubby clothes, grease-encrusted fingernails, ruffled too-long hair and too-wise leers to imagine them as romantic gypsies or James Dean come to discover us in our small prairie town. Nothing ever came of these dreams, for we ran at the first suggestion of anything remotely sexual, but they fueled our dreams as surely as the Saturday night show and Emily Loring romances.
These memories are fueled by a festival of a different sort, and these pictures were in fact taken last night when my friend and I strolled through the streets of San Juan Cosala during their 11-day yearly religious fiesta in honor of Saint John the Baptist, the patron saint of the pueblo. We ate pizza cooked in gas ovens on the spot, waffle cones filled with galleta ice cream and strawberry ices and churros–the Mexican extruded donuts–dipped delicious from their vat of hot oil and rolled in sugar. We passed over the micheladas, tacos, tamales, the thick hot pancakes and the egg bread that was as much of an art form as a comestible.
We did not throw darts at balloons or ride toy cars or swirl through the night on Dumbo or plastic giraffes. We were tempted by the bumper cars, but could not bring ourselves to bump the small children who were their only other occupants.
Instead, we strolled by the Hospitalito–the remains of one of the oldest churches in Jalisco, whose ruins now consist of merely this dome with cacti growing out of it and the one remaining broad wall that supports it.
One sinister detail of the otherwise image-filled night was the small girl–perhaps 10 or 11 years old, who peered over my shoulder, coming very close as I photographed the cotton-candy spinner. “She must be interested in photography,” my friend told me, “because she was looking so closely at your camera.” As we walked away, she followed us, and asked a question of me that neither of us could understand. She was not asking for money. We asked again what she wanted, but again could not understand what she said. As we walked away she followed–down row after row of booths offering toys, cookware, cosmetics, religious statues and games and eatables of many varieties. Finally, it grew sinister. We would spin and face her and walk in the opposite direction and she would spin and walk after us. I finally refused to walk to the end of any rows, preferring to stay in more frequented areas. I kept hands in pockets over my money and camera.
My friend, too, felt strangely threatened. She revealed that while at the cosmetics booth, the girl had crowded her close on one side while a seedy-looking man had come up close on her other side. When she looked at him, he feigned an interest in the lipsticks in front of him, picking one up and examining it closely. Not very convincing, this interest in women’s cosmetics. My friend said she backed up quickly and walked away. The girl continued to follow her. The man didn’t.
The calm demeanor of this girl came to feel specter-like. She was a ghost child following us through cobblestone streets, never speaking, never varying her distance. We started to devise excuses to look behind us, but we needn’t have bothered. She was always there. After 45 minutes of being followed, we devised a plan to spin around and face her and walk in the opposite direction. We did this four times in rapid succession, but she just calmly turned around and followed us each time. When I paid for a purchase, she looked closely at how much money I took out of my pocket. I was very aware of her interest, as she followed closely with no obvious attempt to talk to us and making no effort to escape our notice.
Finally, my friend said, “Why don’t you ask her why she is following us?” Instead, I had another idea. Turning around so quickly that she almost ran into us, I said in Spanish, “Do you know where the police are? I need the police!” My friend said she saw a brief emotion flick over the girl’s face before she looked to the right and looked to the left, as though she really was looking for the police. Then I looked at the vendors in the booths near by and asked the same question–very loudly. One woman said they would be there later that night.
Both my friend and I did not see the girl leave. It was as though she’d been conjured and simply disappeared. We did not see her again that night, but we continued to scan the crowd for her as we sat on the steps of the plaza surveying the crowd and eating our guilty pleasures. At one point, another small girl and her smaller brother approached me and asked a question. Again, she used a term I’d never heard before, and my friend did not understand either.
“She is asking you for the time, said the woman frying churros.” “Ten after nine,” I told the small girl, in Spanish, and she walked away. “I think that’s what the other girl was asking us,” I said, and eyed my watch, glad to still be wearing it. I squeezed my pocket as well. I was still in possession of my camera. We took the best-lit route back to my car and went home perhaps an hour before we would have chosen to, but suddenly the night had turned just the slightest bit sinister again. We sought the comfort of locked doors and the short drive home.
(Disclaimer: I need to add here that this is the first time in 14 years that I’ve ever felt targeted in my pueblo or perhaps anywhere in Mexico. It was complicated by the fact that this child looked like a well-mannered little girl who would be a teacher’s pet–the smartest girl in the class–one you’d choose to babysit your kids. That she was the accomplice in some little robbery scheme was rather heartbreaking.)