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.