Attraction

Lesley Winters said she’d meet me at the fair, over by the Scrambler. An hour before, my mother drops me off by the main gate.

“Do you have your money?” she asks again.

I say I do.

“And you’re sure your friends are going to meet you? You want me to wait?

I can tell that she doesn’t feel like going home—our empty home—and if I said, “You know what? Those guys are jerks. Let’s just you and I go,” she would wheel the station wagon into the first spot in the muddy field she could find. Instead, I tell her I’ll meet her here at 11:00.

At 8:15 Lesley shows up at the Scrambler, but I am crushed to see that she is with her usual gang of friends—Tina, the two Stephanies, Amanda, Melanie, and Joan. Lesley has bought a necklace that glows a plutonian green and has it around her slender neck, and in the light I can see that she has sprinkled some glitter into her makeup. Her hair is perfectly feathered back. But when I speak to her she barely breaks her stride, and I am quickly left to tag along in the back.

“What’s up, Peppers?” Joan Hiddle says. “Peppercorn. Be a Pepper.” Joan is taller than all of us by a foot. She is just 14, but already she slouches.

For an hour we walk around, with the main intent, it seems, to sneer at everyone. Apparently all the guys here who are not “fine” are losers, and all the girls that don’t go to our school are “hagithas.”

When we stop to throw little rings around glass bottle necks, I spend $10 trying to win Lesley a giant Sylvester the Cat, but all I can manage is a troll-doll key chain, which I quickly slip into my pocket.

“You suck, Peppers,” Joan tells me. “No big stuffed animal for you.”

“I guess,” I say.

“You guess wrong,” she says.

Eventually we circle around to a line of flags promoting the sideshow attractions. There is a two-headed cow, a turtle with a chicken’s head, a “blockhead” man—a guy whose head must be shaped like a brick—some other malformed animals—and Ju Ji, the Dragon Lady, whose head is reptilian.

“Ooooh, let’s go in here,” I hear Lesley say from the front, and all the girls instantly reach inside their purses and retrieve a dollar bill. The whole sideshow business leaves me queasy, and I say I’ll just wait out front. But as it has been all night, only Joan hears me.

“Wimp,” she says and for once pushes her way through.

For five minutes I watch a kid in a varsity letterman’s jacket throw up behind a ride called the Drop Zone and two guys with KISS t-shirts telling the guy operating the darts and balloons that they’re going to kick his ass because he won’t give them the big KISS mirror. “I wouldn’t give it to Gene Simmons if he couldn’t hit the balloons, you dipshits,” he tells them.

“Oh my God, that was so gross,” Lesley says into the night air when she leads them out of the tent. They are all laughing and holding their tiny stomachs to show how hard. “The Dragon Lady! I thought I was going to upchuck,” she says.” Her friends let her know this is exactly what they were thinking, too. As she laughs the colored lights of the Midway bounce off her immaculate teeth.

“You have to go in,” she tells me, and it’s the first time she’s spoken to me directly all night. Though I don’t want to see any of the attractions, I readily agree.

“Yeah, definitely,” I say. “I just didn’t have exact change earlier. That’s what I was doing when you went in—getting a dollar. “

Joan is just now coming out. “That blockhead guy was hitting on me,” she announces. “He called me a stone fox. Disgusting.”

The rest of the girls aren’t sure if they believe this, and so Joan adds quietly, “That was so creepy.”

For the first time, I feel a little badly for Joan. I can see, then, that Joan’s place in the group is tentative. She has the body of a varsity basketball player, and her head is as big as a birdcage. All the other girls are cheerleaders or twirl batons during halftime at the football games. Joan has cast herself as the one who says the most outrageous things, the mouthy entertainer. That is her lot now, to keep firing away.

“I’ll be right back,” I say and slip into the tent. Only after I give the grizzled man with an eye patch my dollar do I realize that I could have paid Lesley’s way for a return visit. I’ve blown it. I want to get out quickly and move eagerly past the fenced-in animals without peering in. The blockhead’s head is indeed rectangular; he is debating with a guy covered in smeary tattoos over what would hurt more—a sledgehammer to the head or a boulder falling on you. I know when I come out I should have something witty to say, and I stop for a moment toward the end.

“Good evening, young man,” a woman’s voice calls. I turn to look inside a small room, in which Ju Ji the Dragon Lady sits in a wooden rocking chair. Behind her is a chest of drawers, on which sits a large vanity mirror and a lamp. There is a throw rug at her feet. Her face is a dark shade of green, and her long black hair has been tied neatly behind her. She wears the kind of dress that you see in pictures of the early settlers.

“Hello,” I say.

“I am Ju Ji,” she says in a formal voice, “and I was born on a Seminole reservation to my parents with a rare disorder called reptilious sari syndrome.” She is staring at some point in the corner, and her voice sounds like a recording. I fix my eyes on the straw at my feet. “I do not breathe fire and I have never sought treatment for my condition. I was once married to a man and had a beautiful daughter, but she died of complications related to pneumonia.”

“I’m sorry,” I whisper.

She nods. “Thank you,” she says.

I wait for more, but this seems to be the end of her talk. I look up again, and she is still staring into the same corner.  The tent is warm and suddenly quiet. I think to offer her a half wave, but I don’t think she sees it. Then I walk out into the lights again.

Out front I see that Lesley and her friends are gone. There is a slight breeze, and the flags of the cow and the turtle and the blockhead ripple above. My mother won’t be out front for another hour. Before going to the main gate to wait, I decide to spend my last tickets on the giant Ferris Wheel. In line are families with small children and couples who have their hands wedged into each other’s back pockets. The line moves slowly, but eventually I get on and gradually make my way up toward the top. It stops a couple of times during its climb, and I bob gently in my little red bucket. I can see all of the fairground from here—the children who have finally collapsed over their parents’ shoulders; the guys with plastic combs in their back pockets who leer at every girl with blond hair and a jean jacket; and the men and women throwing darts and beanbags and rings and softballs in the hopes that they might walk through the main gate with something big and soft hoisted onto their shoulders. So that everyone will think, Wow, they’re lucky.

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 The New Soldiers

In the second before there was a voice on the other end of the line, I could hear in the background the squawk of someone being paged and the bell of a nearby elevator. I knew it was my mother calling, and why.

Some eight hours later, I was sitting on the edge of my father’s hospital bed. He was swollen, his features blurry from a day’s worth of fluids. He had a blood infection, and the doctors had spoken mostly in ominous tones. My mother filled me in as he lay between us, his eyes cast down like a child who had been caught.

I had pulled in after midnight, but my mother had been up for twenty-four hours straight. I thought she would resist when I told her to go home and sleep, and was pleased when she didn’t. She kissed his forehead and told him she would be here in the morning to see the doctor, and then I walked her down to the parking lot.

By the front entrance, a woman was sitting on a bench, weeping into her small hands. A minister was sitting next to her. “Well, we can’t really understand it all,” he was saying, his eyes fixed on some distant point.

Back in the room, I could see my father was bored with sleep. He was weak, but he wanted to talk. He had worked up some jokes about how the nurses were treating him—a few which I remembered from previous stays. We talked about my drive down, the weather, and soon a kind of low-hum silence settled over us. I was tired and struggling to keep up my end of the deal, but when the murky green tattoo—an eagle and flag—on his forearm flashed across the sheets, I thought of Korea. He served in the Korean War, and he liked to tell stories about his time there.

“Hey, tell me that story again about that chaplain on the train to Korea,” I said. “Tell me that story.”

His eyes went wide. “Help me sit up,” he said. We fiddled with his bed control, sending him frontward and back, and then he cleared his throat:

“Well, those days after basic training were all travel. Training was tough—I mean, it was brutal. They tried to tell us what war was like, to prepare us, you know, but it hadn’t fully sunk in. We thought nothing could be worse than training.”

He coughed into his fist.

“First, we were on a troop ship to Japan. There was nothing to do for sixteen days—and to us, that was living. When we got to Japan, they put us on a transport headed to Korea. And from there, some trucks carried us to a rail yard. Everybody was pretty loose; fellows were joking around. We were green, as they would say. We’d heard the horror stories, you know, but they were just stories. We couldn’t really grasp it. We were just a bunch of new soldiers.

“Eventually, a train pulled in for us. It had these wooden seats with backs that were about eighteen inches high. We’d been on a similar train, and when the train jerked, buddy, you almost broke your back. It was too much for me, so I got up and climbed up on some duffel bags stacked in the corner. I figured someone would tell me to get down, but I was going to sit there until they did.

“So we were waiting to push off, and this army chaplain—a priest—came walking down the aisle. Older fellow—gray hair, ruddy face. He had a chalice and wafers, and he was giving communion to everyone—anyone who’d take it. He’d dip the wafer in the wine and give it to each soldier, then offer a blessing. He really pleaded with every one of us to receive it, and I don’t think anyone refused him. By now, you see, a stark realization was setting in. I mean, you couldn’t hear anything but the sound of his boots squeaking and the offerings he was whispering. But then you could start to hear, these men—these tough men—who just couldn’t compose themselves any longer. Couldn’t hold it in. Bawling. Because for all of us, I think, there was this feeling that maybe we were being given our last rites. After all this time, it was just now hitting us what we might be in for.”

He was sinking down into his bed and tried to push himself up again. I offered him some water, but he shook his head.

“Well, he eventually made his way out, and the train started to take off. But out the window, I could see this chaplain running alongside the car behind us, trying to hand wafers to the soldiers leaning out the windows. I mean, we were picking up steam, and he was keeping up. I could see his mouth moving. He ran and ran, and finally he just gave out. I watched him disappear. But we understood, finally. We understood what this was about. And all we could do was wait.”

My father shook his head, then tried to smile. He closed his eyes, but I understood that he was not asleep.

After helping him to the bathroom, I suggested we get some sleep before the nurses came in to draw more blood. I turned out the light, and then his ragged breathing filled the room. There was a thin blanket on a rickety reclining chair, and I tried to find some pocket of comfort, but it was like trying to sleep on a bicycle. For a while I studied the thin ray of light spilling in from the hallway, and my eyes adjusted to the semi-darkness. Over the sounds of his fragile slumber, the chirps and mechanical exhale of the monitors filled the room. I understood what this was about. And all I could do was wait.

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Submarine

At the Gaylord’s Department Store, they had a video game called Submarine Commander. It was in the corner, over by the snack bar and made sonar noises as you shot torpedoes at passing battleships. You looked through the lens of a metal periscope, gripping it by two handlebars on the side. This was in the early ‘70s, so the passing battleships were made of cardboard or aluminum, and the missle was a red light that moved across the painted ocean. You had maybe two minutes before the game went dark again, no matter how well you did.

Once a week or so my mother and I went over there—for paper towels, fish food, a crock pot, a garden hose, Halloween candy, or athletic socks. The store smelled of stale popcorn and hamster shavings, both of which Gaylord’s had in great abundance. And throughout the days in between, I could hear the eerie pong of the submarine in my head. I imagined myself the ship’s commander and pretended to receive briefings on the enemy ships seen in the area.

In the parking lot my mother would hold out a quarter for me and say, “This will have to hold you.” She said that because she couldn’t spare another. My mother would wear her pale yellow raincoat because it had deep pockets, and that let her carry her Texas Instruments calculator so that she could total up her items before she got to the register. A few times she had found out too late that she didn’t have enough money and had suffered the humiliation of having to figure out what she would have to put back as impatient customers peered over her shoulder and exhaled loudly. My father had just added a third job to his schedule, and my mother worked to stretch everything as far as it could go.

You probably think this is about the time when my mother realized at the register that she was 17 or 21 cents short, and so I eagerly surrendered my quarter. And how outside she rubbed my hair and told me what a good kid I was. But that never happened. My mother also wore her yellow coat because she could slip in a lipstick or candy bars or Tang packets or a scarf or razors. Sometimes I’d see her empty her pockets with her bedroom door partially cracked.

When we were in Gaylord’s she encouraged me to wander around as she shopped, and I’d meet her in the front of the store, after I played my game. But one Friday afternoon, 15, then 20 minutes went by, and she didn’t show up at the register. I noticed an older kid come into the store and walk over to the game, his skateboard tucked under his arms, and I went over to watch.

His problem was that he fired too early, and seeing the red torpedo land constantly in front of the battleships was excruciating. When he was done he fished out another quarter, which I studied with envy.

“Give me some space,” he said. I stepped back a little, but he did no better the second game. He hit three ships, then walked outside and dropped his skateboard on the sidewalk. I stepped onto the little platform that helped you see through the periscope and stared into the blackness.

“There he is,” I heard from behind. It was the store manager, a guy who looked like he was still in high school and had a chin colored by acne. I had seen him around the store plenty, and he was always smiling, fixing his lips as if he were about to whistle, but he never did.

The woman from the jewelry counter was standing behind him.

“Hey guy,” the manager said.

“Hey,” I said, finally.

“Look, your mother asked me to find you. She’s talking to some folks in the back of the store.” Just then I noticed a police car parked out front, and a police officer with a stomach like a helmet strolled past, his walkie-talkie squawking loudly.

“And she might be a little while,” the manager said, “so how about you and I hang out here for a little while.”

I looked at the woman, whose black hair hovered over her head like a storm cloud, and she offered me her version of a smile before saying to the  manager, “OK, I’m going to get back, then.”

The manager nodded. “Thanks, Myra,” he said.

“Yeah, I’ve seen you around before,” he told me, and fiddled with his red vest. All the employees at Gaylord’s wore red vests.

I nodded.

“You play that game a lot, don’t you?” he said.

I nodded again. I imagined my mother in some little cinder-block room talking to the fat police officer, with Myra slipping back in. I knew she wouldn’t have the same smile for my mother.

“Why don’t you and I play?” the manager said. “I’m a seasoned pro at that game myself,” he said.

“I don’t have any money,” I said and looked down at the dirty floor.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a roll of quarters sheathed in clear plastic. “Guy, I have money,” he said. “No problem.”

He opened up the top and plunked a quarter in, then put the roll over the console. I guessed we might be here a while.

“OK, so show me what you’ve got.” He spoke to me as if I was a neighbor, as if we’d been hanging out for years, as if he didn’t have some hand in keeping my mother in a back room until the police showed up.

The first ship emerged form the right, and before it was even fully visible I fired off my torpedo. The red light made its slow journey across, but I didn’t need to watch it to know it was a direct hit. I kept my eyes trained on the edge, waiting for another ship. The deep pong blurted out of the tinny speaker, and I pressed my face hard against the periscope so that there was no light at all in my vision. I pushed the fire button again, then again and again, and the sound of little explosions filled the corner of the store. The enemy ships were slow and predictable, but they were also relentless.

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Microphone

 

In high school our senior year, Nate, Dan, Barton and I decided we would play in the talent show. I played drums, Barton played guitar. Nate didn’t own a bass, but Barton figured he could teach him how to get through a simple bass line on a pretty simple song, if we could get hold of a bass for a few days. And Dan couldn’t really sing, but somehow that didn’t matter much. He wanted to do it. We thought we could probably get through a version of “Louie Louie,” though none of us could figure out the words.

Over the next couple of weeks we made it work, more or less. But Barton wasn’t good enough to handle a solo, and we needed a solo in there somewhere. There was a kid down the street who was always carrying his sax case with him—he played in the marching band. His name was Randy Barrasani. He looked like he was eight years old, only he had this moustache.

We’d never talked to him before, and one day I walked up to him when he was at his locker and asked him if he wanted to join our band, which we were calling Back Alley. He jumped when I started speaking, and he kept his eyes down, which let me study that moustache up close.

“Yeah, OK,” he said.

Two nights before the talent show, he came over to Barton’s garage, where I had set up my drums. Nate had gotten a bass through his older brother and was working on the two notes he was supposed to play. We’d gotten Randy a tape of the song, which he hadn’t heard before, but he came in and was able to nail a solo in no time. He was a like little professional sideman. We high-fived him, and Dan called him Randy the Man. Randy looked, at that moment, like a kid who had just come downstairs to a room full of Christmas presents.

For the show we agreed we’d dress in some outrageous way. Dan wore painter pants and a vest with no shirt underneath. Nate draped a chain over his shoulders, and Barton wore a referee shirt over black pants that he had splattered with white paint. I wore a tuxedo jacket and ripped jeans. Randy showed up in his PE uniform, with a cape tucked down the back of his shirt.

“He looks like a superhero who lives in an orphanage,” Barton said. But we also didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so when we gathered around him we just called out, “Randy the Man.”

We were the fourth act to go on, and when Mrs. Phillips announced us to the crowed, she said, “Next up is Back Alley playing ‘Lovie Lovie.’”

That was the first thing that went wrong.

We walked out, our arms raised already in triumph—except for Randy, who kept his eyes trained on the stage. We were popular—I’m not bragging, I’m just saying what’s true—and the crowd wanted us to win.

I counted off, and we jumped in.

Barton’s guitar was loud—you could barely hear the rest of us, but that was OK. I was keeping us in time, and then it was time for Randy’s solo. We kept playing, and we looked at each other—Nate, Dan, Barton, and I—and it took us a minute to understand what was happening. Randy had forgotten to turn his microphone on, and no one could hear him.

Tara Niles won first place with her solo piano performance of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”—instrumental. In second place was Craig Humphreys, who played the banjo. Third place went to five kids from Huntley Park calling themselves Breakin’ It; they danced on some mats.

Nate is apparently a lawyer in Chicago now. Dan fought in the Gulf War, and he came through fine. He’s in real estate a few counties over, and we exchange Christmas cards. I moved with my wife and daughters back to town about nine years ago; and that’s been good for us. It’s the town that we know best. And I run into Barton from time to time, since he never left. It’s not always easy, though. Barton’s been through a couple of marriages. I think he’s seeing a waitress from Bennigan’s, but it’s not clear. And Barton is a hard drinker, so there’s that.

When we do see each other, the conversation always turns back to high school pretty quickly—football games, girls, the teachers. And just as often, the talent show.

“Didn’t even turn on the microphone,” Barton’ll say, in equal parts bewilderment and disgust.

“I mean, what did we get him for, to come out on stage with us in his PE uniform with a cape? With that moustache. Like some Goddamned Burt Reynolds. Oh, man.”

We laugh, and then I try to get us to move on to something else.

One night, Barton calls me—I didn’t even know he had my number. The girls are asleep.

“Dude, you’re never going to believe what I found out.” It takes me a minute to recognize his voice.

“What?”

“I can’t believe this,” Barton says. “I was screwing around on the computer, and it occurred to me to look up Randy Barassani, see whatever happened to that guy. And dude, he’s like a gazillionaire. He’s some kind of computer CEO or something. He invented some kind of popular computer. You’d know the name. I’m not in front of the screen right now.”

“Huh,” I say.

“Yeah, do you believe it?”

“Wow,” I say.

“But listen to this. Right on their website it says you can e-mail him directly. You know, like that kind of company president that wants people to know that he’ll listen to the Average Joe Schmoe, or some crap. Anyway, I was going to e-mail him and say, ‘Turn on the mic, dumbass.’ Or maybe, ‘You can turn the mic on now.’ Or something, I don’t know. But something about the microphone. Just a single sentence. Anyway, what do you think? That’d be awesome, right?”

In the background I hear a siren pass. I am thinking about my wife, who is at a convention for the week, and I am wishing I hadn’t picked up the phone.

“It was so long ago, is all,” I finally say.

I can hear Barton breathing. “Yeah,” he says. He doesn’t like my response. “But it’s just an e-mail. I’m not trying to blow up his building or anything. Just something like, ‘They can’t hear you—turn on the freaking mic, dork.’”

“Huh,” I say. He is waiting for me to say more. There is a crackling sound on the line, like paper being balled up, like sticks burning. I hear the siren again somewhere around Barton’s house. It is getting closer.

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The Offering

There wasn’t a lot left of my grandmother’s mind by that summer, but my grandfather still felt strongly about taking her to church. On that first Sunday in August, when the collection plate came down our row, my grandmother dropped a balled up tissue in as it went past, then smiled in pride from the act of doing something good—the giving. We were so caught off guard by it that we didn’t act fast enough, and the plate was handed to Ray Price, who stood in the aisle waiting for it. Ray’s belly sat like a pumpkin and pushed against his blue short-sleeve shirt; his gray hair was swept up into an s-pattern with some thick cream. We looked to him for understanding, but he leaned in and said in a whisper, “Thank you, Miss Lally.” And for the rest of the service we just sat there and considered such grace.

By dinnertime we had heard the news: Ray had fallen off his tractor that afternoon and gotten pinned underneath, somehow. It was his wife who went out and found him like that. We all shook our heads, not comprehending such a tragedy. My mother, who had been thinking about Ray’s kindness all day, pulled her chair directly in front of her mother and said, “Mama, Ray Price died today. Ray Price. You know him from church.”

My grandmother just smiled and hummed a little phrase over and over, her lips pushing in and out.

“Ray Price died today after church, Mama,” my mother said again, the tears welling up.

My grandmother kept up her little tune as the evening breeze pushed through the screen window, and my grandfather’s dog, Jack, barked at whatever he thought he saw.

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Motors

Skeet’s the one that stole the equipment. At least, that’s what Dad thinks, and I guess it make sense. Skeet hasn’t shown up for work all week, and he hasn’t called in. Plus, Skeet’s been complaining a lot lately, even around me. “What you going do, boss man’s son, fire me?” he said just last week, then laughed. “Hell, I wish you would. Then I’d be done with this shit for real.”

My dad figures Skeet’s going to try and sell it all quick—the push mowers, the blowers, the chainsaws, the riding mower, the rest. So after work, Dad says we should drive around Skeet’s neighborhood and see what we can see: Skeet’s old truck, maybe, or a sign taped to a telephone poll that says, “Landscape equipment, best price offered.” We know the neighborhood where Skeet lives, but we don’t know the street. The guys at work get paid in cash every Friday, and Dad says he doesn’t want to know the rest of it.

After we close up, I get into the passenger’s seat of the truck, and Dad reaches into the glove compartment and retrieves his pistol, puts it under his seat. That’s the first time I’ve ever even seen it, though I’ve always known it was right there. I’m 15, but I don’t care if I ever hold a gun.

In Skeet’s neighborhood cars are missing tires, or a door; the broken windshields look like spider webs. Toddlers run around in the front yard in diapers with no adults in sight.

“This is something else,” my dad says in a low voice. He reaches across me and locks my door.

After a while I say, “It’s too bad because I like Skeet.”

My father nods.

“And the customers like him,” I say. “He’s very friendly.” Part of me thinks that maybe we’re wrong about Skeet. Lots of people could have broken into the storage house. Lots of people have trucks.

“Oh, Skeet loves to talk,” my Dad says, not unkindly. “He’d talk all day if you let him. And that’s the problem.”

We keep driving up and down these streets, and the people who are sitting on the front porch and swatting at the heat glare harder every time we pass.

Nearly an hour goes by, and when we drive by the same rusty fan without its cover at the edge of a driveway, Dad says we should get on over to the hospital to see my mother. She’s been there two months now. When we step into her room Dad pulls up his chair next to her bed and holds her hand, and I do the same with the other hand. The machines she’s hooked up to fill the silence with their beeps. In those first few weeks, Dad liked to tell her about our day—the jobs we were on, the people we saw—but he doesn’t do that much anymore. In fact, mostly he keeps his head down as he sits there. And now I’m the one that kisses her on the forehead when we leave.

After we cruise another few blocks, Dad lets out a sigh that sounds like a valve’s been released, then says, “Well, I guess we should go on home and get cleaned up first.”

As we turn down the street with all the holes, I look out the passenger window, and that’s when I see, three houses down, Skeet’s white truck. He is standing in the cab amid all the mowers, and his arms are gesturing above his head. There’s a guy standing on the curb, and maybe he is wondering if anything Skeet is telling him is true. But my Dad is looking straight ahead and hits the accelerator. And so that I don’t do anything to draw his attention, I look straight, too.

The engine churns louder and fills my ears. All day long my ears burn from the crude roar of gasoline motors, but at night, the soft chirps of my mother’s monitors are almost soothing. It’s like being in a room of hungry baby birds, crying out to be fed.

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Daredevil

When I was in fifth grade, I dressed up like Evil Knievil for Halloween. That is, I bought the Evil Knievil costume at Woolco—a pale, nondescript face under  a partial helmet and staring through the clear box cover. With the white coveralls folded underneath, and the white helmet with a blue banner of stars, at quick glance it looked like I had picked up a birthday cake.

At home I stood in front of the mirror, the long, striped pants pooling over my feet. What was clear was that just walking around as Evil Knievel wouldn’t work. I’d have to be on my bicycle—Evil’s motorcycle. I had a red Schwinn Stingray with a banana seat, with handlebars that jutted out like a Harley’s. On my bike, everyone would know who I was.

The school’s Halloween carnival was that Saturday night, two days before Halloween. That evening I rode my bicycle over; it was a little hard to see out of the mask’s eye holes, but after a few blocks I got used to it. The parking lot was filled with parents dropping off their kids—Popeyes, pirates, witches, fairies, a Fred Flintsone. A Holly Hobbie. And Eric Spencer, who with a long black wig, fake mustache, and silky pants was supposed to be Doug Henning.

I pedaled my bike to the gym’s main entrance, where Mr. Howie was taking tickets.

“No bikes,” he said.

“But it’s part of my costume,” I said at last.

“Sorry. Someone could get hurt.”

Behind him I could see they had a cake walk going, and there was a rigged up jail, where for fifty cents you’d hire the “jailers”—eighth graders—to go and put someone in the jail for ten minutes. All week I had looked forwarding to having eighth graders chasing me around the gym as I stood up on my pedals and tried to pop a wheelie. Only I wasn’t very good at wheelies.

I didn’t have a lock, and I didn’t want to go inside without my bike and just be Evil Knievil standing around. People might have thought I was just an astronaut. And I didn’t want to go home, since it was still so early. So instead I decided I’d ride around the gym, just do laps all night. People would maybe see me from the windows. They’d say, “There goes Davis. He’s Evil Knievil.”

For forty-five minutes I rode my laps. It was clear everyone was having a good time inside, and sometimes I’d slow down and steal a glimpse. I saw they had Chuck Moon in jail; he was dressed like Paul Bunyon, and I could see under his arms he had one of his sister’s blue stuffed animals. Babe the blue ox. I saw the gym teacher, Ms. Pruitt, step out the rear exit for a cigarette. “Let’s keep it off the sidewalk,” she said in her hoarse voice as I rode past. Everyone called her Hoarsie because she had been yelling for so many years.

Is that the hardest you can run?!

            Quit standing around!

            That’s not hustling!

After a while I got tired. I put the kickstand up and leaned to the right, trying to balance. I pushed the mask to the top of face. That’s when I saw Meredith Landers.

Before she came into the light streaming from the gym, I couldn’t figure out what she was dressed as. And then when I could see her more clearly I still couldn’t tell. She was wearing what look liked a beige body stocking. She was carrying a long stick with a stuffed horse’s head on the end.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey,” I said.

We listened to some kids screaming because they didn’t want to be put in jail, then she said. “So what are you supposed to be?”

“Evil Knievil,” I said.

“So why are you out here?”

“They won’t let me take my bike in,” I said.

She nodded. “They wouldn’t let you take your horse in?” I said.

“What?”

“Your horse,” I said. I saw that on her chest she had two colored red spots.

“No,” she said with some irritation. “It’s because I’m supposed to be nude. I’m Lady Godiva riding on my horse, but they said I couldn’t come in like that.”

That was when I noticed the black triangle of fabric below her waist.

“Do you even know who that is?” she said.

“Yes,” I said.

“Yeah, right,” she said. “Lady Godiva rode naked through the streets of Conventry so that her husband would stop taxing people so much.”

All I knew about Miriam was that her father had long hair and wore it in a braid—I had seen him drop her off in front of the school in his van a few times. She was supposed to be smart, and she was always eating in the cafeteria by herself, holding a book in front of her face. I remembered she still used a lunch box–“Little House on the Prairie.”

My eyes were still on the triangle, and after she said something about protesting this ridiculous school, she said, “You can stop staring now.”

I looked up with a start. “Anyway,” she said, “my mother is going to pick me up in thirty minutes. I didn’t really want to come anyway, but she said she didn’t want me staying home reading every Saturday night. So I put on this.”

We stayed there for a time. I could hear some announcements being made over the intercom, and down the way I could see that Ms. Pruitt had stepped out for another cigarette break.

“Well, I guess I should get going,” I said.

“All right,” she said, and as I pulled my mask down again, turned my bike around and pedaled way, I turned back to see if she was still watching. She was. I pulled as hard as I could on the front wheel, but I couldn’t get it off the ground.

It had turned cold, and as I rode faster, the sharp air pressed against my chest. I was imagining riding right past Mr. Howie at the door, with Miriam holding on tightly, and Mr. Howie signaling to those eighth grade jailers to chase us down, with Miriam cheering our defiance. “Faster, faster!” And I was thinking about every stupid stunt Evil Knievil had ever attempted.

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