The fair always captures my imagination. I could sit for hours watching, making up stories for every person: gap-toothed, lonesome, tattooed, bulging, burly, burlesque, vapid, vagrant, lustful, lascivious, wholesome, homely, heartfelt, heartbroken, dejected, addicted, desperate, depressed, wondering, giggly, giddy, grave, ghostly, strung out, sunken in, over zealous, sensuous, sexy, confident, criminal, carefree, innocent. All kinds show up to the fair. Everyone hungry for something. Welcome to Dreamland.
There are so many girls with incredibly short shorts, pockets sticking out the bottom, wearing cowboy boots and too much eye shadow, following after boys still pimply and lanky armed. The boys have nothing to offer. But you know how it goes. Small town. Bright lights. Everyone wants to be seen. Everyone arrives, hopeful for something that will elude most of them. To be whirled off their feet. To be wonder-filled. To gorge on funnel cake and corn dogs. To win a blue ribbons for milker cows and tractor pulls. To fall in love. To make out. To make a buck. To get a quick fix. To get a rush. To free fall. To fight. To escape the every day.
The carny at the Landslide dances to the pulsing beat of the ride across the midway. He’s got some not-so-terrible freestyle moves, his arms jerking about in synchronized symmetry, his eyes closed, his head his own world for now. The kids swoop down the slide towards him on their magic carpet squares screaming. One small girl slips at the bottom as she tries to stand. Hits her butt hard. Bursts into tears.
At another ride, two carnies wrangle over cigarettes, one not more than twenty, the other old enough to be my dad. So many of them are smoking, pack after pack, the only escape during the forever long days before they can turn to whisky or meth or whatever other vice it is that claims them with the night. So many of them have blackened patches on their hands and faces, cheekbones gaunt, missing teeth. Some smile and get into the whole thing, hi-fiving the kids, make a ruckus over their sound systems, “throw your hands in the air!” “Step right up, step right up, I can guarantee you a bouncy ball!” Others move like sleep walkers, numb to the repetition, to the pulsing sound, screaming kids, cotton candy, mud, lights, gluttony. One man at at the swaying entrance to the fun house stands unmoving as kids run past him. He wears shades, stares straight ahead. We circle past three times, he hasn’t moved a muscle.
For the boys, it is pure delight. They’re at just the right age for all of us to walk about unencumbered, grinning, our fingers sticky with maple syrup cotton candy and ribs. Sprout was just past the 42″ mark and Bean, long-legged and tousle-headed well past the 48″ mark. They wanted to ride everything, and Bean would have if he could. For him, no amount of spinning or speed put him off. But the sheer volume of music on some rides utterly overwhelmed him. For Sprout, who is all volume all the time, noise wasn’t the issue, or speed, but heights.
On the dragon roller coaster, they rode together. Bean was all grins, and Sprout too, until it made it’s first rushing descent. Then his face crumbled. We thought he would cry, but Bean put his arm around his brother. “It’s okay buddy” we watched him say. My heart felt like it’d just been inflated with helium. (How I love these kids of mine–and how happy I am they have each other.)The entire time they were at each other’s sides, running ahead and stand in line, pushing each other, then holding hands, sharing an ice cream cone, chasing each other through the maze of mirrors in the fun house, or standing side by side to watch the tractor pull.
We do the rides, and then we do this: walk about, looking at all the things that make county fairs great. Kids on stilts and arm wrestling contests; a barn with home made quilts and jams; roosters with fancy combs, rabbits with floppy ears, new calves, a mama pig and her piglets, horses with long eyelashes and silky manes. The ponies nuzzle our palms. Sprout watches cows get milked with a commercial milk machine for the first time. Both boys stand forever in front of the incubator, watching eggs about to hatch, asking a million questions. Sprout almost cries when the white tractor he loves doesn’t win the tractor pull. Bean drives bumper cars until his hair stands up with static.
And when leave late, two hour past their bedtime, the moon is a sickle in the inky sky, and the Ferris wheel is whirling, it’s lights bright. Bright enough to blur the edges. To leave marks on closed lids. To make the whole thing seem real enough to be a dream.