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Realms of Fantasy

This story appears in my short story collection A Place So Foreign and Eight More and is licensed for downloading under a Creative Commons license. Download it here

Podcast: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

This is the story of the ogres who run the concession stands on Pleasure Island, where Pinnocchio’s friend Lampwick turned into a donkey. Like much of my stuff, this has a tie-in with Walt Disney World; the idea came to me on the Pinnocchio ride in the Magic Kingdom, in 1993.

I went back and reviewed the original novel, in two translations, and found that Pleasure Island was a scary, scary place. During this time, I spent a lot of time listening to the creepy voiceover on “High-Diddle Dee-Dee” on Stay Awake, a wonderful Disney tribute album. The result is what you see below.

Like many of my recent stories, “Return” deals with self-indulgence, discipline, and attenuated attention-spans.

George twiddled his thumbs in his booth and watched how the brown, clayey knuckles danced overtop of one another. Not as supple as they had once been, his thumbs — no longer the texture of wet clay on a potter’s wheel; more like clay after it had been worked to exhausted crackling and brittleness. He reached into the swirling vortex of the cotton-candy machine with his strong right hand and caught the stainless-steel sweep-arm. The engines whined and he felt them strain against his strong right arm, like a live thing struggling to escape a trap. Still strong, he thought, still strong, and he released the sweep-arm to go back to spinning sugar into floss.

A pack of boys sauntered down the midway, laughing and calling, bouncing high on sugar and g-stresses. One of them peeled off from the group and ran to his booth, still laughing at some cruelty. He put his palms on George’s counter and pushed against it, using them to lever his little body in a high-speed pogo. “Hey, mister,” he said, “how about some three-color swirl, with sprinkles?”

George smiled and knocked the rack of paper cones with his strong right elbow, jostled it so one cone spun high in the air, and he caught it in his quick left hand. “Coming riiiiiight up,” he sang, and flipped the cone into the floss-machine. He spun a beehive of pink, then layered it with stripes of blue and green. He reached for the nipple that dispensed the sprinkles, but before he turned its spigot, he said, “Are you sure you don’t want a dip, too? Fudge? Butterscotch? Strawberry?”

The boy bounced even higher, so that he was nearly vaulting the counter. “All three! All three!” he said.

George expertly spiraled the floss through the dips, then applied a thick crust of sprinkles. “Open your mouth, kid!” he shouted, with realistic glee.

The boy opened his mouth wide, so that the twinkling lights of the midway reflected off his back molars and the pool of saliva on his tongue. George’s quick, clever left hand dipped a long-handled spoon into the hot fudge, then flipped the sticky gob on a high arc that terminated perfectly in the boy’s open mouth. The boy swallowed and laughed gooely. George handed over the dripping confection in his strong right hand, and the boy plunged his face into it. When he whirled and ran to rejoin his friends, George saw that his ears were already getting longer, and his delighted laugh had sounded a little like a bray. A job well done, he thought, and watched the rain spatter the spongy rubber cobbles of the midway.