Jason Reinhardt (2nd place. Fiction. Fall 2010 Writing Contest)
“Now remember, James, don’t you let them say you can’t go to the fair.”
“Who’s them, Mama?”
“Well, the ticket taker is the only one who’ll say you can’t go, but even when you do get inside—and you will get inside—a lot of people will still tell you to leave and you just ought to ignore them.”
“But what if they won’t let me come back?”
“That will not happen.”
“Jackie, that is not going to happen.”
“But what i…”
“If they prohibit you from returning, which they will not, your father will take you to the carnival in Douglasville one time.”
“If you’re good and do all your chores maybe you can convince him to take you twice.”
I was incredulous.
“When you’ve bought your new bike you can ride to Douglasville and go just about every day. You almost have enough money, and Mrs. Murphy still needs you to paint her fence.”
I reached for the mason jar I kept all my money in.
“That won’t be necessary, James, I have a little money for you.” She forced it in my hand and hurried me out the door.
“Thank you, Mama.”
“You’re welcome, sweetie. Now get going, Calvin’s probably out waiting all by himself.”
I realized how important this must have been for Mama as I put the two dollars in my pocket. She’d never given to me, or anyone, so freely before or since. But I still had no idea why.
* * *
I figured it was a protest, a protest Mama couldn’t make, a complaint she couldn’t voice, a belief she didn’t want to answer for, so she put me into service. I was her silent cry to all who witnessed and whispered about that day. But it was a long time after it was over that I figured that out. Little silver threads in my mind pulled together that day and all the sit-ins and marches everybody was jawing about later that summer. They came closer until that connection was made. But I was older then, older even than I was as I went home that June day. But going down that hill, it was hard for me to think about anything besides survival and dignity riding my rattling bike; and that was before the pavement faded and I was on packed dirt, strewn with little sharp stones.
The carnival was the sole thing that made me risk being rattled and maimed. Those strange people invested with our summer amusement came and set up in some field just out of town and took our fence painting money faster and better than Fagin ever could. The rides, games, and food you never even gave a thought to anywhere else weren’t even the best part. That was bragging on how much you won and how much greasy crap you ate. And as soon as they could cool their lard and put the freaks and animals back in their cages, another crew of tattooed gypsies came and took their place. Even our little flyspeck town was that important. This went on all summer and until it was too cold to stay out at night or all our mothers decided to close their pocket books out of genuine concern.
“Cal! I’m here!”
“Don’t ya’ll eat none of them fried up cow pats they got over there, I’ve got something cookin’ that ya’ll gon’ like much more.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Jones.”
“You’re so welcome, mister Jack. Ya’ll hurry back now.”
“Jack, Dickie told me thy got a roller coaster higher than any of those buildings downtown!”
“That’s probably a huge load.”
“Yeah, but it’s still gotta be pretty damn big.”
“I heard Thelma went into the mirror maze and never came out.”
“Don’ know why it didn’ happen before. She’s dumb as a catfish after it’s been fried.”
“I don’ know why she didn’ run out the first time she saw her face cuz she looks like one too!”
Despite how short and rough the ride, and how torrid the day, we had all the time we needed for such enlightened conversation.
* * *
It’s funny how apprehensive I was at home that morning. Mama knew all she had to do was sweet talk me out of the house and I would be the contentious little kid I was with everyone who kept me from what I want.
“You know you can’t come in today, boy.”
“Why, I got my money, same as everyone.”
The unwashed carnie gave me the same look a preacher’s wife gave to those women apostates who came to church on Sunday with nothing on their heads but hair.
“You know full well why! You can come in tomorrow and stay as long as you want, how’s that?”
“Fine, I’ll just stand right here and wait.”
“You let him in now, mister, or I’ll be havin’ a baby in this here line!”
I never got to thank that lady for saving all of us from heatstroke, but I sure hope she was pregnant.
“Got yer fifty cents kid? The ticket taker said, defeated.
I laid down a dollar.
“Gonna pay for your friend too, ya nig…”
“I got my money!” Cal yelled, in triumph.
* * *
I would never know the horrible feeling I felt that day. When I went to Bangladesh with the Peace Corps so many years later it was only a facsimile.
This huge uniform crowd of strange looking people was not separated by a different language and an impossible distance, these were my friends and people I saw around town, but they were so alien; they didn’t know why I was even there. At least the Bengalis had been forewarned. These people didn’t know whether they should welcome or scorn me. They may have been skilled in not crossing the lines, but this time it had meandered right up to them.
Needless to say I was not reveling in the bacchanal delights of the fair. I would have had more fun were I literally stripped naked, at least then I would not have been wearing that leaden cloak.
That isn’t to say I had no fun. Despite the weight of the stares and length of the shadows, this fair was like all the others. I was with my friend, we played, ate, did everything we expected to do while shaking and joking on that stony path until we tried to get on an aforementioned roller coaster. We were at the head of the line but I was pulled aside and before Cal could interject he was strapped into that bench by some other carnie and forced to have fun.
A gypsy yelled at me for what seemed like an eternity.
“Dammit kid! You coulda come yesterday or tomorrow, but ya chose today! Why can’t you be happy with the way things are? There are people like you stirring the pot all around! Don’t you know what happens to them?”
I was forcibly removed from that establishment; it would not be the last time.
* * *
By the time Calvin got back in the sweltering heat of dusk it seemed like tomorrow had come and faded to nothing. I wanted to ask him, whether he had looked for me when he saw I was gone.
It was one of many questions I didn’t ask.
I had stopped shaking by the time we arrived at his house. He broke the silence but it was just a chip off of a great granite block.
“I just am.”
“I’m sorry too.”
With that I rode away.
“Don’t Jack want some pie—”
* * *
As I was going home, I hit the sudden rise of the pavement where the dirt road ended. I landed hard on my arm and the skin peeled right off. It was like no pain I had ever known before. I staggered to my feet, picked up my bike and pedaled up the hill as I held back the tide of sound. The blood had smeared all over my clothes. Mama had to put almost a whole bottle of Mercurochrome to it. I still held my tongue. The red ointment blended right in with my blood, but when my clothes came out of the laundry, its faded silhouette was still there.
“Aren’t you hungry, son?”
I was telling the truth, but I just stared at my plate still trying to hold it back.
“Did you go to the carnival with Calvin today, James?”
Mama’s expression mirrored mine for a fleeting instant.
“Ya’ll should have just gone swimming. You both know they only let Negroes in on the nineteenth.”
“It’s just the way things are, you’ve got to learn. Now, if you’re not going to eat just go to bed, you’ve got a long day tomorrow. Every minute Mrs. Murphy’s fence isn’t painted over those cracks just grow longer and deeper.”
As soon as I would have been asleep, I heard this. Every detail of those words floated in the night and they are still with me today.
“You knew this would happen, Emily.”
“I hoped with all my heart it wouldn’t.”
“Weren’t you being a bit unrealistic?”
“He’s got to learn.”