The Fair

People swamped the corridors as a mother tried to convey her brood from one end of the fair to the other where the Ferris wheel promised a good view and easy ride. Groups three and four wide would stall in the middle of the path, ogling the scene, hungry for anything that would capture enough attention to engage it. The best the mother could do to navigate the clumps of aimless amusement-seekers was bump from one to another in spurts. She corralled her children around her and tried to weave between the sputtering movements of the crowd, the three-year-old’s hand in her left and five-year-old’s in her right. The older children walked behind in the wake the three made, their mother determined and game faced at the helm. Beats of pop music overwhelmed the air so that she could hear nothing else nor talk over the squealing electrics of synthesized sounds wrenched into space through tinny, under-capacity speakers. Men yelled from behind counters, “Only two dollars to play. Don’t you want to win that little girl a teddy bear?” “Come on, Sweetie. You can win big today.” She imagined them with long, elastic arms grabbing at her children, pulling them into an arcade lair. She imagined the roller coasters of screaming people disengaging their tracks and scooping the five of them into their insane frenzy.

They’d navigated the farm animal pavilion, feeding carrots to a llama and some assertive goats. A stodgy grey goat had tipped its head, maneuvering its horns through the metal caging. It chewed on the blonde-haired child’s sweater. She clawed at her mother, reaching up to be held, but the mother couldn’t hold her. She had the three others to manage, and her back would complain at hoisting too much weight. The mother cajoled her toddler in a private pep rally, “You’re okay. Mommy will hold your hand.” The girl swallowed a few tears and accepted the hand.

The odors of the pavilion grew faint as the gaggle made their way past concessions to the carousel, the mother holding tight to the youngest two children’s hands, glancing over her shoulder to keep track of the older girls. She managed the boarding of the carousel. The smallest child climbed the steps slowly. The mother grabbed the rail when a wiry school aged boy pushed past them to snatch a spot for himself. Her son had found his horse but needed help to mount it. “I’m coming. Wait just a minute,” she spoke quickly, hoping to mitigate the boy’s impatience. He put his foot in the stirrup as she pushed him up by the haunches. The carousel made a start, and the mother grabbed the toddler’s hand. There were no horses left to ride. She made a quick plea for the bench, and the two sat down with a bump. The mother surveyed the riders until she spied the older girls. She closed her eyes to avoid getting dizzy.

From the carousel they made their way to other attractions. The smell of perfume, sweat and cooking grease mixed together in a strange carnival mélange. A man in dreadlocks yelled at them, but it wasn’t them after all; he was yelling to his companion across the way. A round woman smelling of coconut oil collided roughly with the mother’s shoulder, making a path in spite of the mother and her children who must have seemed invisible, like shadowy whisps of air. The distracted faces of the mob continued past. They looked through her as if possessed by something, shadows of bodies walking aimlessly through one another like sleep walkers. They yelled over her into air. They squeezed through gaps. They plowed paths with their strollers. They were absent, rapt in a secret obsession. They pushed their children into lines, wrangled them up to measuring sticks to see if they were ride height. They talked on cell phones to other unseen and absent people. She could have reached out and woken them with an unpredicted touch, but she stepped aside leaving them in their spell.

Rounding another corner, the mother and her children passed by another loud speaker belting out a clamor of unintelligible lyrics. Her oldest daughter was trying to ask her something, poking at her shoulder, but all the mother could hear was the pitch of her voice. The boy was trying to pull her in another direction. A man begin to beckon them to “step right up and get—,” the sounds melting to a jumbled warble. The mother panicked. Fissures in her resolve began to form, and she commanded her children to listen. “Mommy is out of patience. It’s time to go. Let’s go, let’s go,” she clucked, growing increasingly anxious and nosed her brood to the exit. She pulled her children behind her, chastening them to walk faster. They didn’t seem to understand her hurry and talked at her of the things they saw. She goaded them forward. She hurried them into their seats in the car, sliding shut the doors.

In the closed up car, the sounds of the fair were muted. The mother sat behind the wheel and leaned her head on the headrest. She hadn’t put the key in the ignition. She was silent. Taking a deep breath, she turned to look on the faces of her children. The children talked animatedly to one another about the rides, the goats and the rabbits with the blue ribbons. In their enthusiasm, they concentrated on one another’s stories, asking each other about favorite rides. They praised the fair haired toddler for being brave on the airplane ride. The five-year-old enthralled his sisters with a harrowing tale of near death, breathlessly explaining how dangerous his ride had been, how his seatbelt had fallen off just as his car had climbed as high into the air as it could; he hadn’t been able to reattach the rope. The others listened attentively. The children all agreed that the fair needed to make its rides safer.

The mother let out a slow, extended exhale and let her shoulders relax. The vacant, distracted faces of the fair began to fade. The mother started the car’s engine and drove slowly to the exit. She could see a family making its way to the ticket booth. The children were pulling at their father’s jacket, whispering something in his ear. He was laughing. Through the rear view mirror she watched the small family. The daylight was turning pink and orange as the sun sank. It cast an amber glow on the family and illuminated their hair from behind. They walked under an entrance sign as her car passed the exit and turned onto the street.