I swung my leg out the car door and onto the ground below and immediately regretted my choice of shoes. My flip-flop tan had just started to form, and even though the sun set two hours ago, I wasn’t going to risk it fading. The brambles and weeds cut at my toes as I balanced on the hill and waited for Liz.
“Hey Liz! Lock Ellie, would you?”
“Sure,” she said. I’d named my car Ellie a few years ago when I first got her. She used to be a shiny silver Pontiac, but after a few years of wear and tear, Ellie required more TLC than usual. I watched as Liz slowly bent over and manually locked the passenger door. I noticed her shove her bright orange purse under the seat before joining me. I didn’t blame her. If I used a purse, I’d have done it too.
We walked past the array of beat up Oldsmobiles and F150s, and I saw Liz’s eyes narrow at some drunks in a pick-up. I just smiled and silently laughed.
“When’s the last time you were here, Liz?”
“I don’t know.” Her words slurred together in a mumbled way. I figured she hadn’t been since before high school, but I said nothing.
“Think it’ll be the same?”
I knew the answer before I asked it. The county fair never changed, ever. Even as we trudged up the hill in sweaty flip-flops, we both knew that the sight of the blinding lights would hit us in the same pattern they always did and the stench of manure mixed with funnel cakes would temporarily shock us.
Then there it was. I looked at Liz. She took a deep breath and then looked at me.
“After you,” I said. She put her shoulders back and stood for a moment before carving a path through the field.
Once I took my first step into the area, the smell stalled me. It reminded me of trips to Dodge City with my dad. We’d come within a few miles of the town and the smell penetrated the car and engulfed our nostrils.
“Smells like money,” he’d always say. And of course, that’s just what it was: money. But I always told my dad that even I didn’t love money enough to endure that smell for a lifetime. He’d make a face and talk about how he worked on a hog farm for a year in high school, which was his roundabout way of saying he agreed.
Liz veered towards the back end of the fairgrounds, away from the lights and rides. She found a dark bench to sit, no doubt to increase visibility on her iPod. I followed her and tried to coax her away, but she ignored me as the glare of the minute screen cast a ghostly sheen upon her face.
Actually, I should’ve been glad to get her this far. It took a 30 minute phone call and free tickets just to get her out of the house. She obviously didn’t want to go farther in, and I couldn’t figure out why. So I sat down with her.
A few feet away stood a sizable woman in Daisy Dukes and a tank top. She ordered a funnel cake as her short hair clung to her head, dripping under the yellow light. Behind her stood a short guy in cowboy boots, a ten-gallon hat and a belt buckle the size of Texas. Liz silently chuckled then said guys wore those belt buckles because they were compensating for something.
“Why do the little boys wear them then?” I said.
“Because their fathers are compensating for something.” One side of her mouth turned up, but it only lasted a second, then she looked back at her music. “Come on, Liz. Let’s go.”
I looked down at Liz. Her auburn locks curled in such a way that if they weren’t held to her head, they’d bounce right off. I surveyed the crowd before I stepped away from the table. Liz clung to the edge of the shadow for a moment before following.
As we stepped onto the gravel path, I felt the dust settle between my toes. I knew that by the end of the night, a pale film would encase my feet, making my tan almost useless. Liz stood beside me gazing at her feet too, sighing at every opportunity.
We stood at one end of the large oval loop the path through the fair made. To our right, a long line of children stood to make their way through the House of Mirrors. I remembered going through the maze with Liz back in elementary school. That seemed like ages ago. Liz saw me staring at it. She crossed her arms and looked like a frightened rabbit ready to jump.
I knew what was coming. She’d say it was a waste of my money, spending twenty-five bucks on a neon pink bracelet for the rides. In fact, she probably wanted to go over to that line of kids and tell them to stare at the floorboards. That was the only way to get through the mirrored maze without making a fool of yourself. She probably imagined stacks of bills flowing out of kids’ college funds and into the cashier’s hands. Rigged games, useless junk, and bacteria-infested rides—that’s what she’d call them.
I didn’t want to hear it so I moved forward toward the food stands. Sometimes Liz couldn’t see the magic and innocence of things. It might’ve been because the kids treated her weird at school. Perhaps it was how the school administrators screwed her mom over to hire a cheaper replacement.
Maybe it was her father getting laid off. Whatever it was, the fair wasn’t putting her in a better mood.
I stopped in front of one of the food stands. I could smell the greasy pizza and sticky cotton candy as it wafted through the air. Funnel cakes, lemonade, popcorn, and barbeque masked the terrible nacho cheese scent, and for that, I was glad.
“Want anything, Liz?”
She walked over and surveyed the area. The menus, sticky from candy-covered fingers, lined the sides of the booths. Her nose scrunched slightly. Then I followed her gaze to the prices. Sure, two dollars for a can of soda was pretty steep, but it was the fair and I decided to splurge. So while Liz looked on, I spent eight dollars on a Sierra Mist, a slice of pizza, and a bag of pink cotton candy.
I handed the cotton candy to Liz, and she hesitated before grabbing it, putting it behind her back, and walking away. We walked over to an empty bench and sat down. Liz had her headphones back on, and now I was forced to listen to some sort of instrumental music as it blared out her ears. It didn’t sound like Bach, but it was something melancholy. If only Liz invested in some Ben Folds. Heck, George Strait would be better than this, but not by much.
She pitched the cotton candy next to me as I ate. We sat right in front of a small children’s roller coaster shaped like a dragon. It was a cool ride, in fact, if I hadn’t been two feet taller than the requirement, I’d have ridden it, with or without Liz.
I slurped the soda and nibbled the pizza slice, focusing on not dripping the grease down my white tank top. However, I failed miserably, and now a bright orange drip stain defaced the purity of my chest. I cursed loudly, and turned to see if Liz heard, but she wasn’t paying attention. She stared at something else, and I followed her gaze.
A cute couple stood about twenty feet from us, chatting coyly. He wore a green and white letter jacket with multiple pins on the front, and ovular patches on the arms. Her hair, brown with blonde streaks, was pulled into a ponytail. Her jean shorts and tank top left nothing to the imagination, but most of the girls at the fair dressed this way. Besides, by the way he looked at her, he didn’t have to imagine much, if anything.
I ate as they stood and talked, wearing bright pink bracelets for the rides. He grabbed her arm and pointed towards the Zipper, then, after I had a few more bites, they left. I looked over at Liz, but she didn’t move. Her face fell as they left and for the briefest moment, a single tear formed in the corner of her right eye.
Liz bowed her head and stood up. She walked over to where the couple stood only moments before. She stood there while I crushed my pop can and tossed the grease-soaked plate. She walked back over to me and removed one earphone.
“Come on. Let’s get this over with.” She put the earphone back in, and marched forward towards the far end of the path. I grabbed the cotton candy and raced after her.
We passed over-enthused employees, trying desperately to coax people to play their games. Some involved shooting ducks, throwing basketballs, catching soda bottles with rings, while others involved mechanical horse races and electronic poker games. Each booth glittered with racing lights and fanciful clowns. Others were lined with stuffed animals of all shapes and sizes. Life-size purple bears, miniature Tweety birds, Hannah Montana pillows, and Elvis mugs. I marveled at the variety and vastness of the collection, but I had my heart set on one of the pillows shaped like a black Fender guitar.
I poked Liz and asked if she wanted to throw the rings with me, but she shook her head. She started to say something, but I turned around before she could. I marched over to a thin boy in a uniform and handed him five dollars. He exchanged it for three wooden rings, and while I threw them out into the ocean of pop bottles, I could hear an announcer exclaim loudly, narrating my attempts to acquire the guitar pillow. It hung just out of reach, taunting me. I tossed the rings but only the second one found its way to the pop bottle.
I could hear Liz now. I would walk over to her with my bottle of Shasta grape soda that I just won and cotton candy and I knew what she would say. She’d say I just spent five dollars on a fifty-cent bottle of soda. She’d say I spent eight dollars for a meal when she probably ate at home for free. I would hear about all her negative convoluted ideas about wasteful spending. But I didn’t want to; this trip to the fair was supposed to cheer her up.
I walked over to her with my head held high, soda and cotton candy in hand. She stared at me, then kept going. I had to commend her, though. This was probably the first time in years she’d said so little. For once, perhaps, she would see the forgotten magic and thrill that the fair brought to this pitiful county every year.
We passed rides, the Zipper, the Ferris wheel, and a merry-go-round. There were rides that spun so fast, kids stumbling out of them with sunburned-pink cheeks. Others swung you upside down and at impossible angles, leaving passengers wobbly and disoriented.
Large strawberry-shaped rides, miniature trains, slides, and bumper cars enticed everyone. Small boys tried to bump each other repeatedly, despite the warnings of the fair employees. A couple walked out from the Spinning Strawberries, probably hiding in the strawberry rides to catch a quick cuddle and kiss. As I passed, the hopeless romantic in me smiled. It was the same couple I saw a little while ago. The blushing girl kept her chin down as she walked next to her boyfriend, who still clasped her arm.
As they walked away, I noticed a bag of pink cotton candy bouncing down the path in front of me. That was when I remembered Liz. I looked around. She wasn’t there. I ran forward to see if the arm attached to the bouncing bag belonged to her. As I approached, I discovered a blond ponytail swinging above the rose-colored plastic. I looked down; an identical bag of sugary heart disease swung from my own hand. Groaning, I retraced my steps, passing kiddy rides, stuffed animals, and the food booths. Then I saw her.
He held her arm in his hand, and I could see the white of his knuckles from here. Liz kept turning her head away, curls dancing. He would say something inaudible, then she’d shake her head and he’d shake her. He stood a foot above her, watching her curls dance. The silent dialogue seemed more powerful than the audible. Liz finally mouthed a few words.
“Greg, let go.” The echo of fist against face sounded throughout the park, but it paled in comparison to Liz’s whimpering shriek.
“Let go of her!” I dropped the bottle of soda, making it burst and fizz onto the gravel below. It smashed into the airy cotton candy, popping the bag, and rolling it into a crusted loaf. I marched over to Liz, and his hand shot off her arm like a young boy touching a red-hot stove. He folded his arms as I stood in front of Liz, shaking with false confidence.
“Hey, we’re doin’ fine. So just go mind your own business, okay?”
I turned around. A dark red shape remained where his hand was, and it would be a purple bruise by morning. Her left cheek bore a bright red mark and her eyes were puffed up from crying. Dark red drops fell from her mouth, and brightened in color as oxygen hit them. I put my arm around her shoulder.
“Hey, didn’t you hear me? We’re fine.”
I shot a glare at him before I said, “She is not fine. Stay away from her. You hear me? Stay away.”
He sneered as he raised his fist above my head. Images of softball sized bruises and Liz in a battered women’s shelter skewed my vision; I closed my eyes and prepared for what came next.
“Is there a problem here?” The voice, accompanied by the crunch of gravel, stopped the fist, still high in the air. I opened my eyes just in time to see the monster lower it slightly, but it still pulsed with rage. A man with the golden badge and a utility belt stood calmly by my side and evaluated Liz.
“Is he bothering you?” I wanted to scream, “Yes!” as loud as I could. I wanted to tell this man, who could easily send this freak away in handcuffs, that he hurt Liz. I wanted to tell him that he’d hit her. I wanted to tell him everything, but I couldn’t.
“Restraining order.” These two words, this fragmented sentence, this phrase came out of a bloody mouth and bruised jaw, and I had never been so relieved. He slapped handcuffs on the bastard and walked him away. Another officer sat us down and as we gave a full report.
She sat on the bench in front of the dragon coaster. Her auburn ringlets drooped and swayed in the wind. I walked up behind her and sat. She didn’t look at me, but now unmistakable wet streaks trailed down her dimpled cheeks. She stared straight out to the spot where the couple once stood. I set the clump of pink sugar next to her, looking from the spun sugar to her swollen face. I didn’t know what to make of it.
I put my hand on her shoulder, just like they do in the movies. She turned and looked at me. No more tears fell, but the streaks still remained. She took a deep breath. She looked away from me again.
“Did you see that couple over there? You probably noticed her cute little outfit and his letter jacket and greasy hair. I saw the bruises on her arms and bite marks on her legs; reapplied mascara and puffy eye, his hand like a vise on her arm. I saw myself in her, and Greg in the boy.”
Liz looked down at the cotton candy bag. “I bought this same cotton candy, and he ate it. I bought us tickets to ride the rides. He beat me in the shadows behind the tents for wasting all his money. I got a restraining order a week later.” Liz looked at her lap and fell silent. Her words hit me like icicles in my chest, and suddenly the fair mocked me.
The tasteless food, the boring rides, and the manipulating employees with their rigged games played with my emotions. They tried to reel me in with multi-colored lights that ran around their booths. Booming voices from microphones attempted to guilt trip me into shooting the cardboard duck and throw basketballs. And amidst children’s false screams on the Ferris wheel and the creepy clown music used in tacky horror films, was me.
We got up to leave and walked past the laughing children, the stressed out 4-H moms, and the preoccupied dads. They all smiled. These people lingered in their happiness as we passed by with blank stares. Kids waited all year to go see the rides and eat cotton candy. Parents laughed as children’s college funds raced into the grimy hands of some fat manager smoking a cheap cigar. They escaped to a world where nothing rang true and the only genuine reminder of their reality was future credit card bills and a hangover. In some cases, even lung disease and purple bruises.
We walked past them to the eerie entrance. Liz trudged through the gate, and when her head was turned, I pitched the cotton candy lump, bag and all, in the dumpster. As we lugged ourselves up the hill, the pickup full of drunkards hollered. Ellie sat in her parking space as I manually unlocked the doors. The second Liz got in and checked for her purse, I put Ellie in gear and drove. The dust and carnival lights mixed to give my rearview mirror a rosy glow. I grimaced and floored the gas pedal, flying into the purple night.