Monthly Archives: March 2012

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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