Authors: Ethan Hauser
Forty miles away the lights of the fair stained the sky an ungodly red. A roller coaster carved pearlescent figure eights in the air. Little boys piloted a submarine to Atlantis, schools of plastic fish swimming by in the portholes. There was a haunted house, a palm reader, a man in a sequined hat wobbling on stilts.
They were supposed to go earlier in the week, but the rain had come, two nights of downpours that grounded the rides and kept people away. When the weather cleared, Jack picked Cynthia up after he had raced through dinner, his utensils never still, his parents reminiscing. “So much neon,” his father said while they ate. “When you got up close, you could hear it humming.”
“I remember all the animals,” Jack's mother said. “All those 4-H girls so proud.”
Jack and Cynthia could see the rides long before they arrived. The Ferris wheel lit up the air, and as the car inched closer, behind an endless crawl of vehicles, screams drifted over from the midway. Twenty minutes later they were in a dirt parking lot, directed into a space by a man with a semaphore stick and a cigarette stuck in his mouth.
Families tumbled out from minivans and trucks, boys eager to shoot air rifles, daughters already naming the huge stuffed bears their fathers would win them. Teenagers knotted glowing bracelets around their wrists and ankles, even stuck them in their mouths, turning their tongues and cheeks fluorescent green. There were pig scrambles too, and something called Dr. Magic's Traveling Flea Circus and the biggest snake in the world and cardboard cutouts of the president and first lady to stand next to and have a photo taken. There were Vikings, astronauts, movie stars.
In the cavernous expo halls, farmers showed their prizewinning squash and cucumbers and competed for biggest tomato and heaviest watermelon and tastiest corn. Girls with bows in their hair stood behind tables lined with baked goods and collages of their civic projects. Hand-bound church cookbooks with recipes for plum relish and cheese biscuits and your-husband-will-never-leave-you-when-he-tastes-these ginger snaps. In the livestock barn, young boys brushed and rebrushed the backs of cattle and chased away flies until their animals' coats gleamed like sheets of black water.
Jack and Cynthia cruised the midway, staring at everything and everyone. Couples moved into and out of their vision, girls with sparkly eye shadow and teased-up hair, their boyfriends' hands snug in their back pockets. They ate funnel cakes and hot dogs and sucked on sno-cones until their lips turned blue and the roofs of their mouths were thick with sugar.
Long lines snaked out from the rides. The Gravity Defier spun round and round, pasting its occupants to the sides of a giant cylinder while the floor dropped out. Pirate's Way was a huge boat, swinging back and forth like a scythe. The most frightening ride of all was the Widowmaker, a roller coaster, not because
of its velocity or height but because the supports shook and rattled as the cars rushed overhead.
Cynthia wanted to go to the sideshows, where they watched a man swallow three swords. To demonstrate how sharp they were, he sliced through an apple. Withdrawing the final sword, he speared an entire Twinkie from his stomach. “There's a new way to diet,” someone cracked. On another stage, a woman had a tongue made of rubber she could stretch up to her forehead. She was followed by a man tattooed head to toe. Dragons spit fire from his kneecaps. A World War II fighter dropped a bomb from his chest toward his belly, and his back was a giant portrait of Mao. The emcee offered fifty dollars to anyone who could find a patch of original skinâ“the God-given flesh he was given on his day of Creation, amen”âand one woman eagerly crouched at his feet, inspecting the spaces between his toes. She looked up at him and said, “Marry me,” and it was hard to know whether she was joking. “Yes,” the man said, “but I don't have anywhere to ink your name.” The finale was the fire eater, who had charcoal-colored eyes and scared the crowd by blowing flames inches from their faces. Careful of eyebrows, the emcee warned, and those with facial hair might want to step backâunless it's time for a trim. Our bearded lady, he added, doesn't get along too well with this gentleman.
The PA system announced that the ox pull would begin in five minutes, and Jack and Cynthia headed to the bleachers overlooking the quarter-mile track. A forklift stacked gray cinder blocks stamped with black stencils onto a metal sled that was then harnessed to the livestock. The farmers in their overalls and faded caps ran up and down the sides of their animals, snapping a switch against their hides, shouting pleas and threats: “One more
yard, Lily, then we're golden.” Or: “Don't quit on me. I'm the only one who gets to quit.”
As everyone funneled out, Jack took Cynthia's elbow and steered her into a fiddlers' concert underway in a dance hall. The musicians moved their bows so fast that their hands became a blur. Their foreheads glistened, and the backs of their light-blue shirts turned navy with sweat. Some of the ox-pull men were there, their thick hands wrapped around cans of Bud and Miller Lite. The songs were about bad brothers and worse fathers. Women drunk on pink wine pulled their reluctant husbands onto the dance floor. Cynthia wanted to join them, and after Jack resisted for a moment, they did. The air was cloudy with cigarette smoke, and when the music slowed, she rested her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes and it seemed like she wanted to stay there long after the songs stopped and the lights went down and everyone else had left.
Close to midnight, security guards in red windbreakers fanned out and shouted that it was closing time. Everyone wanted one last ride, one last basketball toss, but the guards stoically shook their heads. Gradually the vendors packed up their games and food stands, and the ride operators stretched nylon rope and flimsy CLOSED signs across the entrances to their roller coasters and haunted houses and Tilt-A-Whirls. The neon that turned the sky phosphorescent flickered off, and the horizon went dark.
Once the guards were out of earshot, Cynthia stared at the idle Ferris wheel and said, “I don't want to go home yet.”
The voice came from behind them, and it belonged to a man shutting down the bumper cars. He was small and wiry, with
long brown hair rubber-banded into a ponytail. Several days' worth of stubble made his cheeks gray. His jeans were worn nearly to white in some spots, and the right knee was patched with a swatch of red bandanna. A cigarette dangled from his mouth as he sorted the tickets he had collected throughout the day, separating them by color. “You two like to party?” he said.
Cynthia nodded tentatively. Jack was staring at the small silver chain that attached the man's wallet to his belt.
His name was Lucas, and he invited them back to his trailer, on the outskirts of the state fairgrounds in a minivillage of concessionaires, maintenance men, and ride operators. They waited while he rolled down a metal grate over the entrance to his ride and padlocked the fuse box. “I go through seven of these a year,” he said, pointing to the fat chrome Master lock. “Some fucking dipshit always wants to bump cars in the middle of the night, like it's more fun when the lights are out and no one's around and you have to break in to do it.”
The trailer was a short walk away through the rapidly emptying parking lot, over ground that had turned muddy from all the traffic and all the recent rain, so much that there was talk of another flood. It would be the fourth one in six years. Inside was another man, wearing a Sox cap and a neatly waxed handlebar mustache. “Name's Mouse,” he said when Jack and Cynthia and Lucas entered. He smiled and extended a hand but didn't get up from the couch where he was sitting. He was rolling a joint that kept disappearing behind his fingers. The air in the trailer was close, heavy with the stench of stale smoke.
“Why do they call you Mouse?” Cynthia asked, taking a stool at the small kitchen table.
“Well, it's not meant in a sarcastic or ironic sense, if that's
what you're sniffing for,” he said. Mouse easily weighed 250 pounds, each of his limbs double the size of a normal person's. He looked like a football player who hadn't played in many years. “Nope,” he said, “the name's more a testament to the stellar educational system in Tucson, Arizona, staffed, undoubtedly, with many of your finer teachers in the land. Don't be surprisedâteachers who have as their priority living where the sun don't like not to shine, so they can turn themselves copper and useless as a penny, well, those are the wrong priorities, at least where the young people of this nation and their hungry brains are concerned. Those children need you to be thinking of something other than your suntan.” Lucas was chuckling, like he had heard this story before. He was rooting around the refrigerator, fishing out cans of Bud for everyone.
“See, some halfwit back in Tucson, back where I'm from, thought
. This gentleman in question liked to nickname everyone, which I've always found very annoying, and he added an unnecessary
and an additional
He thought the name of the rodent was the same as the beginning of the name of facial hairâthough I understand that in some of the more modern dictionaries,
inserted but still no additional
is acceptable.” Mouse paused a moment to lick the rolling paper and seal it shut. “I never corrected him because, inaccurate as it is, it's actually better than âMust,' which is really what the foreshortened version of the name should be, if it's going to be foreshortened in the first place and if it's going to conform to the dictionary. And âMust' makes no sense. And the girls”âhere he grinned at Cynthiaâ“seem to think it's cute, partially, I'd surmise, based on the relationship between it and my physical size. The inverse relationship, that is.
They give me toy mice, treats probably meant more for a pet cat, and I act like no one's ever done that before. I pet them, I squeeze their little stomachs if there's a squeaking mechanism involvedâboth on the girls and the mice.
Aww, thank you, you're so sweet
. They got that twinkle that always kills me. Everyone just wants to feel special, you know? That's what it comes down to, no matter who you are.”
The fake-wood-paneled walls in the trailer were bare except for a picture of the Parthenon. Lucas noticed Jack staring at it and said, “Don't ask me why I put that up, there's no good reason.” Then he turned to Mouse and said, “Any flooders?”
“Shit, Lucas, we're in the presence of civiliansâcivilians who are here at your behest, I might add,” Mouse said. “Show some courtesy and translate. Else you'll scare 'em away, right after they just got comfortable.”