Summer had been here for weeks already. I'd made it through another long school year and hadn't failed; that was good. But all of the excitement in waiting for the end of my sentence in Mrs. Seifert's 6th grade had been spent, and all I was left with was a long stretch of dull days dedicated to nothing. I'd wake up every morning thinking maybe today will be different, some warm breeze will blow in and erase the place where I live. But as soon as the thought passed I'd hear the squall of the phone, the scream of some kid that didn't even belong to us but somehow managed to move in, the slam of doors, the curses of my mom and the fights of my brother and sisters and I knew things would never change here. So I dragged myself out of bed, got dressed and hit the wheels...of my bike, that is. Sometimes I'd ride around the neighborhoods on the south side. The other side of the tracks, my mother called it. I liked it there 'cause nobody knew who I was. (It was that period of grace before the hard knocks of middle school where there was nowhere to hide and every move you'd make, every mistake you made was witnessed, judged and broadcast to the entire rest of the world before the day was out.) Other times I'd spend hours walking my wheels through the cemeteries, reading the stones. I loved that, doing the math, trying to figure out what would've put a twelve year old in her grave back in 1932 or how a whole family got wiped off of the earth in one sweep back in '54. I'd kick around for a couple of hours then stop home, grab a couple of carrots or an apple, yell to my mom that I'd be back in a little while and head for the barn.
The barn was a place on one of the main roads out of town that belonged to no one I knew. But I did know that it had horses in it. I could see them just inside the double doors that were always open. I'm not sure how I ever took it into my head to just walk right in there, but I did. And it became one of my favorite places to be that summer. I'd just hang out there for an entire afternoon sometimes, feeding the horses whatever I could manage to bring, climb up into the loft, lay in the hay and dream. And what I dreamed about most was the fair. The Genesee County Fair. It was Friday night & I had to figure out a way to get there. Couldn't ask my mother, she didn't drive and besides, she never had any money to spare. Couldn't ask the old man...this was the day after payday and even if he wasn't in jail for beltin' my mom again, he was bound to be miserable and would never spare a nickel for one of the step-kids anyway. Couldn't bike it, it'd be too dark. Maybe my friend Gayla could talk her mom's boyfriend into takin' us. Maybe not. He always wanted a little reward for any favor she asked, and I didn't even want to think about that. Don't know how she could stand to be cornered by that sweaty pig with that laugh coming from the back of his throat while he "tickled" her 'til she cried. If it was me, I knew just where to kick him to make him stop. And you can believe I'd do it. But her mom never seemed to see him give a grab or two. She just sat there watching the TV. So how could I get to the fair? I'd have to figure it out at home. It was time to be gone 'cause if I didn't show up for supper my mom would have one more thing to worry about, and I needed her to be in a good mood. Otherwise I could just kiss the fair goodbye.
We were having spaghetti & meatballs and I knew now that this was going to be tougher than I had imagined. Spaghetti & meatballs was my absolute favorite thing to eat in this world and my mother knew it. If I picked at it and pretended I wasn't hungry, she'd think I was sick. And sick meant NO FAIR. On the other hand, if I stuffed myself to the limit with that delicious meal, there'd be no room for the candy apples. No room for the curly fries dripping grease from the paper boats that held 'em. No room for the gallons of pop to wash them all down with. But most of all, no room for that rainbow of spun sugar...the cotton candy. Eating cotton candy is kind of like taking communion. You have to do it with a sort of reverence. You can't just stuff it into your gob by the fistful, you take just enough to make you want more...just a pinch between the finger & the thumb. You have to let it sit on your tongue and dissolve into the tastebuds. Close your eyes and it's like a taste of heaven itself right here on earth...angel clouds right there on your own tongue. Fortunately, I had a solution to this dinner dilemma because we always have too many people in our house and not enough space at the table. So I graciously offered to take my sup up to my room. And I am very thankful that we have a dog, 'cause I know it would be a mortal sin to have to flush those beautiful meatballs. But even though I was prepared now for the taste of the carnival I still needed a way there. That's when I heard my brother Rick's big mouth downstairs. He was standing in the livingroom, admiring himself in the mirror, singing some worn-out Elvis tune to his girlfriend who was also admiring him in the mirror, primping himself for a night at the fair. BINGO! He was a sucker for the rigged games and I knew he'd let me ride along with him 'cause playing the big brother would win points with mom, who'd probably pay his way and give him a pack of smokes for his trouble. I also knew that I'd have free run as soon as we got through the gate. He was more interested in struttin' with his girl and winning her some stupid stuffed animal than babysitting. Which meant, of course, that he'd bribe me with a couple o' bucks and maybe even one of his Marlboroughs to say I kept close by all night. Now there was a win-win situation!
Now, I suppose that the draw of the scents and sounds and tastes of the fair could capture anybody's fancy. And all of those things certainly held mine. But they weren't the real reason I wanted, no....needed to be there. It could all be summed up in one word. Freakshow. I lived for the freakshow. There was nothing more terrifying or exhilarating than filing one by one past the monkey lady, the Alligator man or Jojo; the dog-faced boy. There was nobody who could compare with the man who pounded tenpenny nails up his nose or stuck knitting needles through his neck. Why even the cow in the freakshow was spectacular.....1000 hamburgers on the hoof was written in blazing letters over her stall! And all for a quarter a pop. I filed through those shady tents all evening before catchin' up with my brother for the ride back home. And I laid in my bed that night with an aching belly and a happy heart. 'Cause I knew that somewhere in this world there would always be a place for me and it would come back and find me... each and every summer.