A short, muscly man with black, greasy fingertips takes our tickets. Laura jumps into the middle of one of the red saucers, so Linda and I have to sit on either side of her. When all the seats are taken, Mr. Muscles, chains the entrance shut, and pulls a lever. We start to spin, round and round, up and down, faster and faster until our heads are plastered against the high back upholstered in blue vinyl. Linda and I squeal as the man takes his hand off the lever and lights a cigarette. Stale smoke, mingles with the sticky, sweet aroma of candy apples, cotton candy, and fried dough. Revolution after revolution we twirl until I am eager for the man to finish his cigarette before I upchuck. When the saucer swavels to a stop, we rush down the rickety steps to our next ride.
We hurry through a crowd of pokey parents holding hands with little girls in sun suits and little boys in cowboy shirts to get to the Scrambler before all the cars are loaded. We hand a skinny guy with a muddy forearm tattoo another ticket. This time Linda beats Laura to the middle seat. Linda and I smile at our operator as the car spins and jerks, hoping he’ll lengthen our ride. But he stares into space as if he’s bored. Who could ever be bored running a carnival ride?
We zoom, dip, swing, swirl, loopdee-loop, tip and twirl until we’re ready for the game tents on the outside of the midway.
A man in rainbow striped pants and a yellow T-shirt tosses a ring over one of the million milk bottles filling his tent floor. “Look how easy that was. Step right up and win one of these fabulous prizes.”
Giant rabbits, oversized dolls, and huge bears hang from the ceiling of his stall, but stuffed toys are for babies. My eye spots a blue spangled jackknife dangling among the trinkets hung from the edge of the tent. I pull Linda’s sleeve to stop. All I have to do is get one ring over one bottle, and the knife is mine. I hand the man a ticket, and he hands me five plastic rings. First, second, third, fourth, fifth—all bounce off.
“Here, let me help you.” The man in the yellow shirt strides over. “Watch how it’s done.” He slowly tosses a ring, and it clinks squarely on the bottle’s neck. “Want to try again?”
I focus on my target and hand him another ticket. How hard can this be? I was in the Olympic Club all five years at Rosendale Elementary. My fifth throw I get a leaner.
The man removes my ring. “Oh, so close. You got talent kid.” He hands me five more rings. I hand him another ticket. Still no knife.
We move towards the sound of the shooting gallery. A woman dressed like Annie Oakley hands Linda, Laura, and I air rifles. We line up in a crush of junior marksmen. A row of yellow ducks travels along the track at the back of the tent. Puff, pop, ping—one duckie down. Annie Oakley hands the boy next to me an orange balloon. Before my rifle is out of breath, I hit a duckie, and Annie hands me a blue balloon. Wow! But then Laura hits a duckie too, and so does almost everybody else on our hunt.
A man in a red tuxedo with tails and a top hat stands in front of a small opening in the next tent. He twists his black moustache as I ponder the listings on the canvas: a fat lady, a midget man, a two headed cow, Siamese twins. It sounds creepy, but Linda, Laura, and I hand the man our tickets. He lifts the flap revealing a wooden walkway next to a long table covered with one large jar and several pictures placed on elaborate easels. I stoop to look inside the jar, labeled Two Headed Cow, Elmira, NY. It contains a lump of pickled, gray, flesh shaped like two art gum erasers sticking out of the top of a shrimp. The adjacent easel displays a photo of two oriental men wearing a suit joined at the chest. Their label reads, Chang and Eng Bunker born 1811 Meklong, Siam. The next easel shows a teeny tiny man in a military uniform standing on a table next to a regular size guy. The label tells me General Tom Thumb is only three foot four inches tall. The man beside him is P.T. Barnum. At the end of the table an arrow points around the corner. Laura leads us into a back section where a fat lady in red bloomers, a sleeveless shirt, and a bonnet takes up a whole red, Victorian sofa. Really, she’s no fatter than Mrs. Snell, Peter’s mom, who never comes out of her house at the end of our street. I try not to stare at the fat lady’s doughy arms, or her elephant legs blumping out of tiny ballet slippers. She fans herself as we exit the stifling tent and waves good-bye. I wave back, not sure what else to do.
“Stadium lights click on overhead. I nudge Linda, “Hey, it’s getting dark. We’ve got to meet my mom at the gate.” On our way back, Laura leads us through 4H sheds of blue-ribbon lambs, piglets, goats, ornamental chickens, calves, huge pumpkins, and prize-winning pickles. We dart through the Quonset hut of tomorrow featuring a radar range that can cook a hot dog in seconds.
We pass the Ferris wheel and Linda points, “One last ride?”
We all pile into a car and sway as the cars behind us load. Up we go to the tippity top above the twinkling lights, the din of carnival tunes, the smell of fried sausage and peppers. From on high, I spy my mom corralling Bruce and Peter at the gate. She appears no bigger than the dolls hanging above the ring toss. Back to back I’m already taller than she is. The giant wheel turns, taking me down to the level of excited children. In three days I will officially cross the border from elementary school to Van Antwerp Junior High. I guess a fair is about pushing boundaries, flying higher, zooming faster, the biggest hog, the smallest dog. But cows are meant to have one head, people one body of certain size and proportion. Beyond the limits—dazzling and awful all at once.
We rise above the Quonset hut of tomorrow. If I could really see into the future, I would know no one will ever call the contraption that cooks a hotdog in seconds a radar range. The miraculous microwave will mainly nuke leftovers. I would know that within the year, Mrs. Snell, will get skinny enough to finally get off her couch and exit her suburban tent to die of cancer.
But at that moment, on the cusp of adolescence, I can’t explain it, but all I want to do is leave the freaky fair and go home to my own cinnamon bear, Fritz, and my ordinary, green, Girl Scout knife.