The Conquest of Kong is short story from Rebel in the Back Seat, my new collection of short stories.
The Conquest of Kong
By Paul Lima
It was on the congested fair grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition that Father conquered the world-famous ape. The huge, stuffed, glassy-eyed creature, wearing a New York Yankee baseball cap, glared down at the midway masses from his perch in the Strike Out tent. I sometimes wonder how we must have appeared from King Kong’s vantage point—my brawny father with premature flecks of grey dotting slicked-back waves and his scrawny kid with the bristled brush cut. Above the crowd the titanic brute, the most coveted prize at the CNE, seemed unconquerable.
* * *
I had never been to the Ex with my father. Although stuffed snakes, poodles, giraffes and bears populated our cramped flat, I had only heard about his midway triumphs from Ted McMaster, who owns the auto repair garage where Father works. Ted told me that my father had once been addicted to midway games.
“You should’ve seen him, Joshua. Your pa would hear the carny’s pitch and, next thing you know, he’d be firing balls an’ winning stuffed junk for your ma,” Ted said. “The winning wouldn’t stop ’til the carny flashed the sign what reads, ‘We reserve the right to limit players.’”
Ted described Father’s famous midway pitches. The lethargic knuckleball that sank into the bushel basket with barely a bounce. The three-fingered lob that delicately threaded the narrow milk can mouth. The overpowering fast ball that knocked the stuffed Krazy Kat clean off its shelf.
“And he was a magician on the mound at Christie Pits, too,” Ted added.
Besides winning carnival games, my father had pitched hardball for a semi-pro baseball team sponsored by Ted’s Texaco. Ted claimed the New York Yankees scouted Father in ’56 and offered him a contract.
But Father never signed the Yankee contract.
“Instead of pumping gas for me, your father should’ve been pitching for the Yankees,” Ted told me. “He was scheduled to pitch at Christie Pits the day the contract was offered. I was kinda acting like his agent and I suggested he save his John Hancock ’til after the game. ‘Show ’em your best stuff, then hit ’em up for a few more bucks,’ I told him.”
Besides the Yankee scouts and a boisterous crowd, my mother, eight months pregnant, was also at the game.
“Your folks was real excited, dreaming big league dreams,” Ted continued. “Top of the seventh, your pa working a no-hitter, the lead-off batter smashes a foul ball into the bleachers. It comes straight at your ma. She doesn’t duck in time and gets hit in the side of the head. I don’t know if it was the hit or fall that caused her to go into labour, but you was born in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. Your ma, bless her soul, didn’t make it.”
And Father hadn’t thrown a pitch since.
To an impressionable child with few friends, Ted’s mythological tales seemed so real. But the hero he described remained a stranger to me—until the day he came out of his self-imposed exile and tossed three strikes to conquer Kong.
I figured Ted had something to do with the fact that my father was taking me to the Exhibition by the way he walked us to the TTC stop, ushered us aboard the Bathurst streetcar and then stood there winking and waving as we headed south. As the packed trolley jerked forward, some loose change Ted had given me jingled in the plastic coin holder I squeezed in my pocket.
Father and I spent most of our day at the Ex on the midway—twisting our spines, rattling our brains and flipping our stomachs on daredevil rides. Father even helped me climb the moving steps into the Magic Carpet Ride and he gave me an illicit boost above the red “you-must-be-this-tall-to-ride-the-Flyer” line so I could ride the famous wooden roller coaster with him.
Between rides, we dodged cow-pies and horse-flies in the Coliseum, lived better electrically in the Better Living Building, clambered up and down the winding Shell Tower stairway and watched films of the Leafs capturing their third straight Stanley Cup in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Down to loose change for the streetcar ride home, we topped off our day with a free-sample feast of pizza and Coke in the Food Building.
“Did you have fun today, Joshua?” Father asked as I devoured the last of my handouts. I nodded and wiped sauce off my face with the back of my hand. “Then let’s get you cleaned up and head for home.”
“But we haven’t played any games yet,” I protested. “I promised Ted I’d win him something.”
“If you do everything today, there’ll be nothing left for next year,” Father said as he reached out and softly knuckled my brush cut.
Hand-in-hand, we wove our way through the rancid mist of concession-stand sizzle that hung over the fair grounds. The early-evening midway was illuminated by sunset hues and neon lights, and rocked by unruly rhythms pouring through scratchy speakers. Streams of midway carnies bellowed well-rehearsed come-ons at us.
“Step right up. Step right up!”
“One toss is all it takes.”
“Knock ’em over. You’re a winner.”
Father barely glanced at the men who beckoned us with their siren songs—until we rounded the curve in the long sweep of games that brought us face-to-face with King Kong. Father halted so abruptly that I stumbled forward several strides before his arm jerked me back.
“Pa!” I complained.
The mighty ape, his Yankee cap slung sideways, swayed in a light breeze. My father’s grip went slack. He gestured upwards. “Lookit, Josh. Gotta have him.”
King Kong swung from his perch above a splintered plywood cut-out of Yogi Berra, the all-star Yankee catcher. Below the ape stood a pudgy, cigar-smoking carny watching Father watching Kong.
“Twenty-five cents a toss,” the carny barked. “Twenty-five cents a toss. Be a hero. Be a champ. Wins a monster for your lady. Wins a monster for your love. One ball is all it takes. Twenty-five cents a toss.”
The object of the game—Strike Out it was called—was to pitch a baseball through the hole in Yogi’s leather trapper. A scruffy teenager, egged on by laughing cohorts, laid several quarters on the counter. His first pitch missed the catcher completely. The next knocked Yogi’s hinged head back. A third bounced off the leather mitt and the hapless adolescent sulked away.
“Who’s next now? Who’s next?” the carny squawked. The impatient barker yammered at a passing couple. “Are you up to it, sonny? Wins a monster for your lady.” When the man refused to nibble, the barker sang, “Is he up to it, ma’am? Is yer man up to it at all?” The girl blushed and looked away.
The beefy barker called out to Father. “Life ain’t no spectator sport, mister. Twenty-five cents buys you a toss.”
I tugged my father’s hand. “Are you gonna pitch, Pa?”
My father took a sharp breath. “One toss, Joshua,” he agreed as he placed a quarter on the counter.
The carny snapped up the two bits and bared several yellowing teeth. “Has we gots ourselves a winner, Josh’a? Has the mighty Kong met his match?” His bellows drew more spectators towards the tent. The carny inhaled on his cigar and tossed Father a ball. “Throws one strike,” he mumbled, “an’ ya wins yerself a small prize.”
“You said I win Kong.”
“I says ya wins a monster.” From under the counter he pulled a small, stuffed monkey. “An’ this is a monster. Throws another strike, an’ ya can trades up to a bigger prize. Does it a third time in a row an’ Kong’s yers.”
Father massaged the stitches on the baseball, then nodded his assent. The carny flashed his yellow grin. “It’s man against beast. We’re tossing for keeps.”
I looked up at the monstrous Kong and shivered.
Father hunched his shoulders several times and flexed his left arm. He hitched his jeans, kicked a small stone out from under his foot, then went into his wind-up.
The baseball squeezed through the hole in Yogi’s glove and struck the back of the tent. A buzz surged through the crowd.
It’s true, I thought. You are a magician on the mound.
“Well-a-well-a-well,” sang the surprised barker. “We gots a one-toss winner. Does the man plays on an’ risk this beautiful creature?” He handed me a musty-smelling monkey. Father looked at him quizzically. “Didn’t I tells ya? If ya misses I gets my monster back.”
Father shrugged his shoulders and exchanged a quarter for a new ball. As he stared at Yogi’s glove, I imagined him on the mound at Yankee Stadium—shaking off signals and scowling at batters. He went into his wind-up.
A clean strike. People whistled, hooted and applauded. The carny shoved another monkey at me. Stuffing spilled from a hole in its neck. Father fished for a third quarter.
“Tells ya what,” the carny muttered. “Takes yer prizes and disappears. Comes back later an’ I’ll gives ya a fiver.”
“I’ll take my last ball.” Father flipped the quarter in the air.
“Well-a-well-a-well,” sang the carny as he snared the coin. “We’re going all the way today.” He rolled a baseball in his hands. “You’re pa’s good,” he said to me. “Best I seen in thirty years.”
“He coulda pitched for the Yankees.”
The carny gummed his cigar. “But he’s not a Yankee, is he Josh’a?”
With a flick of his wrist, Father snatched the ball from his pug-faced antagonist. The carny’s smirk vanished in a cloud of grey smoke. “Well-a-well-a-well. It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
My father heaved the baseball at the plywood Yankee. The wild pitch snapped Yogi’s hinged head back. The crowd groaned. “Bean ball. You lose.” The carny whisked the stuffed animals from my arms. “Tough break, kid.” He cleared his throat. “Who’s next now? Who’s next? Twenty-five cents.”
My father slapped a quarter on the counter. “Ball,” he demanded.
“Saves yer two bits, mister,” the carny said.
“Let’s go, Pa.”
“Listens to yer kid.”
“My money no good?” Father asked, ignoring me as I tugged on his arm.
The carny surveyed the grumbling crowd. “Whadja say, folks? Whadja say? Anyone else keen to play?” Nobody moved. He waved his cigar in Father’s face. “Well-a-well-a-well. Yer back in the game.”
Father cracked his knuckles. Wind-up. Pitch. Thwump.
“Keep your monkey,” he said as he shoved another quarter across the counter.
“Needs three in a row,” the carny mumbled.
Concentrating on the target, Father went into his wind-up.
Pitch. Thwump. Yogi’s glove barely quivered. Father scrounged his pockets for another quarter. They were empty.
“Hey-hey-hey. Gots to has money to play. Takes another little monster, mister,” the carny offered. “You earned it.”
My father spun away from the Strike Out counter.
“Wait, Pa.” With sweaty palms, I squeezed open my change-holder and emptied the money Ted had given me—a dime, two nickels and five pennies—into Father’s left hand. “Just one toss, Pa.”
Rattling the coins as if they were dice, Father faced the carny again. “Ball,” he whispered and slapped the change on the counter.
“Gonna lets yer kid bails ya out?” Kong’s keeper asked as he crossed his arms.
“Damn right. The family’s winning this one together.”
“Play ball,” a voice in the crowd shouted.
The carny fumbled under the counter for a ball. He handed it to Father, who pressed dents into the scuffed leather. “Kind of soft, isn’t it?”
“Complaints goes to the gener’l man’ger.” A fresh puff of smoke drifted towards Father’s face.
“I got no complaints, mister.”
The carny bowed aside. My father held both hands over his heart, the starting position of his wind-up. He inhaled through flared nostrils, brought his arms over his head and unleashed a perfect pitch. Smack. The soft rawhide globe struck the glove like an angry fist. And there it sat, tantalizingly stuck in the deep pocket of Yogi’s trapper.
“No strike,” called the carny as he reached to rescue the ball.
“Don’t touch it!” My voice exploded and froze the pudgy man mid-step.
“In! In! In!” chanted the crowd. And through the hole the ball dropped.
A tumultuous cheer greeted the victory. People slapped Father on the back and raised his arms. Somebody lifted me on to the Strike Out counter as the teen who had lost earlier cut Kong free from his perch. The fallen beast was laid at my feet. His lifeless sockets gazed up at me. A hand liberated the Yankee cap and plunked it on my head. It fell low over my eyes.
Doffing the cap, I took a generous bow. In the centre of acclaim, alone and silent, stood my father. I reached out as he stepped forward and swept me off the counter without glancing down at his conquest.
“Hey,” voices shouted. “What about Kong?”
Father tightened his hold on me. Against my chest, I could feel his heart pound. “Don’t need no stuffed ape. Don’t need him at all.”
Together, we escaped through the crowd.
“Well-a-well-a-well.” The carny revived his song. “Who’s next now? Who’s next? Be a hero. Be a champ …”
As we fled across the fairgrounds, the buzz of midway chaos buried the carny’s chant. I tugged the Yankee cap back down over my eyes, drowning sight, and let Father carry me home through the night.
- END –
The Conquest of Kong is short story from Rebel in the Back Seat, my new collection of short stories.