Katie was a cotton dress angel, a blooming sunflower print goddess. She sat between me and Skinny Pete in the backseat of Mrs. Boyer’s Buick, and I pressed my shoulder into her body on all the right turns, Pete doing the same on all the lefts so that we swayed like a bobsled team. James Boyer was up front with his mom and he kept sneaking jealous looks over his seatbelt the whole way to the Dogwood Fair. Katie was Pete’s girl since last Tuesday, but everyone knows it’s reckless to think you could keep a gem like that locked up. You shouldn’t feel sorry for a fool.
Katie’s face was sunlight with blonde curls, and her quick smile was like the glimpse of a prize, something precious waiting at the bottom of a claw game. You had to work at it, say all the right things. Pete must have thought he had that code cracked, but I had a pocket full of quarters and time on my hands.
James was just along for the ride. I don’t think Katie ever gave him a second look, and I don’t blame her. He wasn’t the sort of face that would ever stand out in a crowd. He lacked any of the tact that’s necessary for girls like Katie. He couldn’t play the game, and his only chance was a girl who would go out of her way to get him. And even then, she’d have to be clear as crystal, so blatant that a toad would catch her drift. Anyway, he had glasses for as long as anyone knew him, huge circular rims that took up half his face and magnified his eye balls. This might have been all right if he had baby blues, but he only had dull brown eyes to work with, sort of dirt-colored if I had to choose, like a wet paper lunch bag.
And then there’s Pete. He had a bit of mystery surrounding him, a kind of bad-boy aura that turned some girls’ heads. But the truth is there was nothing mysterious or rebellious about him. He was just quiet. I had known him since the fourth grade, so I could say these things with confidence. Pete was timid as a mouse, more scared of you than you were of him. He wore band shirts too large and walked with his hands in his pockets and a big slouch like a rough dude, but all it did was take three or four inches off his height so that he looked like a used popsicle stick drowning in the wrapper. I thought it was only a matter of time before Katie realized what she had with him. The idea of Skinny Pete and the reality of Skinny Pete were not the same thing.
“What kind of stuffed animal do you want, Katie? You name it and I’ll win it,” I said.
“Can it, Joey.” Pete was leaning across Katie for a good look at me.
“Anything your heart desires. Are you more of a goldfish girl? I’ll win the whole lot. An entire school of em.”
James twisted his neck around like an owl with his big, stupid glasses. “You couldn’t land a Ping-Pong ball in a swimming pool.”
“I can win a goldfish with my eyes closed.” James said.
“You might be better off that way.”
Mrs. Boyer ticked. “Boys…”
“The both of you aren’t winning anything.” Pete said.
Katie cleared her throat. “I don’t like how they keep them all locked tight. Don’t give them any money for it. It’s like a goldfish prison camp.”
The car was silent for a moment. I said, “Me neither. I’m all for the goldfish rights. I was gonna set them free in the reservoir. Money well spent.”
Katie rolled her eyes. “How thoughtful.”
I could see Pete’s big grin reflected in the window. I leaned in to Katie on the straightaway to the park grounds, lined in white flowering dogwoods and the very top car of the Ferris wheel visible in the distance. Her bare skin on my arm made my head spin.
“Could you move over?” She pushed me away with a shrug.
I shrank up into a ball to exaggerate the little room I had.
Her hair smelled better than hair really ought to, like a flowering orchard in early summer. I made a note to tell her, just like that, though the delivery would need some thought. You can say anything in the world to a girl like Katie, but none of it would matter if you say it wrong.
Mrs. Boyer dropped us off near the entrance in a long line of cars. “Have fun, you guys. I’ll pick you up at nine thirty,” and specifically directed at James, “Make good decisions, honey,” and pulled away from the curb.
“All right, Mom.” He flashed a look at Katie, hoping she hadn’t heard, but we all did.
I fell in line next to him on the sidewalk, with Katie and Pete up ahead. “Do you need me to hold your hand, honey? Did you put your sunscreen on today?” I made sure to say it loud enough for Katie, but she didn’t give me any signs that she heard. Pete laughed at least.
“Shut it, Joey.” James kept his head down like he was worried about stepping on the cracks.
Skinny Pete held Katie’s hand and she whispered something that caused him to nod. What did she tell him? Why keep it a secret? I ran it through my head over and over, all the possibilities, the not-knowing. I stared at the two of them together, the light shining on the back of Katie’s knees, the shift of fabric over her hips. Everything was Pete’s, and it made my skin burn.
It’s hard to keep track of yourself sometimes. The whole business of cataloguing your feelings, categorizing what type of person they might make you. It’s a very slippery thing. It’s important to be able to pin yourself down and think, yep that’s the kind of boy I am. Otherwise, there’s no telling who you are and what you might do. Maybe there is no one type, and it’s just moods passing by like there can be a sunny day that turns to rain in the evening and that doesn’t make it one or the other. People tend to remember the rain, though.
Dogwoods have big symmetrical flowers that girls absolutely love because they look just like you drew them on a piece of colored construction paper and cut them out. Fairy-tale flowers without any spots or misshaped surprises, and at that time in May they were everywhere, littered on the sidewalks so that it felt slightly soft and squishy with each step like hundreds of banana peels. Everything smelled sweet but slightly rotten like apple slices left out on the counter too long. I ripped a fresh flower off a tree and handed it to Katie.
She twirled the stem in her fingers and tucked it behind her ear. She showed Pete with a little turn and a sideways glance, like a model, and he smiled and said, “Well, look at that.” I think he was jealous that he didn’t beat me to it. They stopped holding hands for a little while and that made me happier to walk behind them, though I didn’t want to feel like James’ date any longer than I had to.
We passed by the fairground entrance with a banner waving “Dogwood Fair 1998” above us. The screams of little twerps and the high drones of portable generators running greased gears rushed up all at once. There was a ringing bell from the starting gate of the pig races, an old-timey announcer’s voice pumping through the speakers, “And they’re off.” The air was sweet with funnel cake, cotton candy, monstrous Neapolitan ice cream scoops in waffle cones, fries bubbling up in blistering oil, and always the manure washing in waves from the fields and into my nostrils like a periodic palate cleanser. You could practically get a zit on your forehead just from standing still too long. One of those sneaky, silent rising pimples that reaches a shiny and obvious white head that you don’t even notice until brushing your teeth in front of the bathroom mirror when the night is over. How long has it been there? How many people have noticed? And you run through the motions of trying to remember the looks you got, or if anyone seemed to avoid your face altogether. You can’t really ask anybody, so the only thing to do is assume the worst. And in a strange way, you are now left out of the loop. The next day or as long as it takes to forget, everyone’s face reads like a punch-line you’ve walked in on late, or worse yet, like a joke that has always secretly been about you. It is a special and terrible kind of torture.
Katie made a bee-line to the funnel cake. Pete got his own, while the rest of us shared a large plate on a picnic table, burning our fingers and tongues and other unfortunate unreachable places in our mouths. Katie worked her tongue around the inside of her cheeks in an absent-minded way, and it gave me a silent pulse-quickening thrill. I stole glances any moment I could get until the funnel cake was gone and ripped to shreds and I’d missed most of it.
I watched an inchworm making its way across the wood top, lifting its upper half and flailing in a breeze like one of those blow-up men in used-car lots. It wasn’t an easy thing to watch. It bothered me in some way that I couldn’t exactly put a finger on, like the crippled boy struggling with his walker in the hallways at school. I never could look him in the eyes, and he moved alone through the rush like a branch fighting the current.
James was scratching at a blue-green fungus with his thumbnail, and I flicked the worm off the table and right onto James’ sleeve. There was much better traction for the worm, and James didn’t know about it. I immediately felt better.
Katie clucked her tongue on the roof of her mouth. “We should have waited for it to cool off.”
“I’ll go get you some ice cream. What do you want? Chocolate? I bet you like chocolate,” I said.
She gave me a disinterested glance. “I like vanilla, and no thank you.”
Over at the Pig Race, a big, beer-gutted man stood up on the bleachers and shouted, “That’s it, blue. Take the inside. Aw hell, what are you doing? What are you doing?” He had his fingers laced over the top of his head and his belly popped out and shook like it was Jell-O trying to escape from the bowl.
Mothers earmuffed their children.
We watched with fascination. Pig races have a tendency to bring out the worst in some people. Money spent on animals that care little about what place they finish. There is plenty of food for all of them. There’s no rush to go anywhere.
The fat man sunk back down in his seat, as the announcer continued to twang over the loud speaker with a furious auctioneer speed. The pig wearing a green pinnie pulled up and stopped in a clump of hay for a piss.
I stood up with my hands flat on the table. “Well James, are you ready to put your money where your mouth is?”
“Just don’t tell ‘em you’re blind. It could be a liability or something,” I said.
A three-piece folk band was starting to tune up in the pavilion, an old dusty stage where, I had heard, some high schoolers would go to smoke and drink and fight in the evenings. It’s a place I was always told to stay away from, but with the fair going on, and the last daylight shining a deep orange through the trees, it didn’t look all that bad. Three or four times on summer nights, they even played movies there on a projector screen. I went once with my parents. The sound system wasn’t working that night and the scatter of families and make-out couples half-watched a silent rendition of Grease, with my mother humming along to the parts she knew. I laid flat on the blanket and could think of a million other places I would rather be.
A tiny woman wearing a print dress that could have been ripped from the curtains in my living room was plucking a fiddle, while two blue-jeaned men leaned their ears close to their guitars and tinkered with the strings like they were trying to jimmy open a padlock. A crowd was gathering and laying out flimsy lawn chairs and quilts. We pushed away from the flow of people and toward the game stands.
“Hey there, boys. Win the lady a prize. Step on up and try yer luck. I’ll stack ‘em and all you have to do is knock 'em back down.”
The trouble with carnival games is that your manhood always seems to be in jeopardy. That’s what they dangle out there for you, it really doesn’t matter what’s strung up to win, because it only really matters whether you have what it takes to get it. Beating a carnival game says that you have determination, confidence, hand-eye coordination, and a little bit of luck. All girls want a guy like that, and they’d be lying to say anything otherwise. It also doesn’t matter that they’re all rigged. The fact is that some kid, many kids, have already walked away winners. So what does that say about me if I’m unable to take home the stuffed koala or the Led Zeppelin poster?
The carny was slick and greased with sweat. The muscles in his forearms shined like a fish at the supermarket, and he bobbed around on his toes like he was always ready to evade a punch or an anonymous snow cone hurled from the crowd. He croaked when he spoke and the skin on his throat was loose while everything else about him seemed pulled too tight. I thought you could give his hair a tug and smooth it all out.
“I don’t have all day, boys. Are you gonna watch or play?”
“How much?” I said.
“A dollar a try.”
Pete gave Katie a questioning look.
“I don’t care,” she said. “I’ll take the polar bear if any of you win anything.”
“Well boys, you heard her. She’ll take the Coca-Cola bear.” He unhooked it from the wall and set it down on the counter. “For this, you’ll need to pay at least three.”
“Shit. What’s that about?” James said.
“Rules are rules. This ain’t a charity. I gotta turn a profit here.” He stared past us like he was bored.
“All right. Three tries.” I pried out the bills from my sock and handed them over in a sweaty, wrinkled ball, and he dropped it in a cardboard box without counting.
We took turns hurling the baseballs at the dented metal stack of cups. It seemed any time you could get a good shot on a few of them, they found a way to tip and land right back where they were. I could pick the top cup clean off but the bottom row held steady.
Katie milled about behind us.
“Are you supergluing these cups or something?” James threw his last ball and missed. We all were out of chances.
“Boy, I don’t appreciate the accusation.” The carny grabbed a ball from the bucket and flicked it underhand, quick like a dagger-flash from his pocket. The cups toppled over. “You just gotta know your spot.”
“Well, goddamn,” I said. We stood and watched like the cups might arrange themselves back in place.
“Are you some kind of wizard?” James said.
“Nah, he’s cheating us somehow,” I said.
“Suit yourselves. You can pay up again to prove me wrong.”
“You’ll take all the bills we have,” Pete said.
“Well, I wouldn’t stop you.”
We dragged our feet away from the booth in defeat. The light was leaving fast and faster still like the creep of a minute hand on a classroom clock. The trick is to never watch it directly, but sort of slantwise. Forget about it for a moment and it takes off. The last bit of sun sent beams through the lower branches and burning flakes of pollen fell from the tree tops. You could swab your finger on car hoods and leave streaks behind.
Up the slight hill of the fairgrounds, past the Tilt-a-Whirl and the little kiddie dragon roller coaster and the Salt and Pepper Shaker, at the very end of the gravel path were the bright spinning lights of the Starship 3000. It stood at the top of the hill like a great neon kaleidoscope alter. It made a light show on the leaves and branches all around, and the pop music pumping through the speakers was all bass, and you could feel it through the dirt and up the balls of your feet.
I fell behind Pete and James to walk with Katie, and I told her how badly I wanted to win her that bear.
She looked at me dead on and held her eyes on mine like she was looking for something and she nodded slow and said, “I know.”
We stood in line with the working motors pushing hot air onto our ankles. Down the other side of the hill was a dried creek bed and the high schoolers stood in loose circles with their faces lit up by their lighters, the tight glowing trails of the cigarettes waving in the dark like dying sparklers. The music rattled my lungs and we all waited silently.
Katie stood with Pete and I watched him pull two bills out of his pocket and hold them tight in his fist. He glanced at Katie, the side of her cheek turned from him, and he looked away.
Inside the Starship, I slipped past James to make sure I got my spot next to Katie, Pete on the other side of her. We leaned back against the padded walls and strapped the seat belts as soon as a carny walked past to check. He had ear buds in and bobbed his head in rhythm with each step. When his back was turned, everyone unbuckled in a wave that followed him around the circle.
He stepped into his center booth and we started spinning slowly, just as a new song piped through the speakers above my head. I peeked over Katie and Pete stood with his back tight and flat against the pads, his eyes closed.
Strobe lights flashed above and the ship picked up speed, faster and faster, so that I was pushed back and pinned against the pads. There was a strange feeling like when I lie on the living room carpet and focus on a single fan blade as it spins and everything seems to slow down. I know I’m lying still but it feels like everything else might be spinning around the fan blade and not the other way around.
I watched James trying to twist upside down but only made it slightly sideways and nearly kicked the man beside him.
Katie was laughing and her hair was splattered out on the pads. I reached and took her hand. She squeezed mine tighter without turning to look at me. I relaxed flat on my back and watched the carney, still bobbing his head, in the center booth as the lights spun all around him, and then I let my eyes close and there was nothing but Katie’s hand on mine.
She let go when the spinning started to slow down and everyone pinned and hanging slid back down to normal gravity. James was sprawled out on the floor and Pete’s face was drained white. I knew he was planning the fastest exit with his eyes before we stopped moving.
Katie shouted into his ear, “Are you all right?”
He shook his head and took in a big gulp of air. As soon as the ride stopped, Pete wove towards the exit, with a hand to steady himself on the railing, pushing right through a group of girls standing with their shoulders tight.
Stepping outside was like a head rush when you swing out of bed too quickly and everything tilts one way or the other. The sun had set and the floodlights were glaring full blast with the steel carnival structures throwing long, strange shadows.
Pete zig-zagged to the trees like an escaped prisoner with hounds after him.
I told James he should run over and make sure he’s ok.
“I better not miss the fireworks,” he said, and trotted off to find Pete.
Katie and I walked side by side past the game booths and onto the pavilion grass where the band was taking a break for the fireworks and everyone sat scattered in the grass with their eyes to the sky.
She tugged at the bottom of her dress, twisting the fabric in her fingers.
“Well, Pete will be fine. He probably ate too much funnel cake,” I said.
Katie looked up at the clear sky with one single light shining low and just over top of the trees. “Why did you do that?”
She took a sudden deep breath. “You know what.”
I said, “It just sort of happened. I mean I wanted to. You know I like you. Your hair smells like flowers.”
She finally looked at me and she said, “You’re strange.”
“Yeah?” I didn’t know else what to say.
“Pete is a good guy. He really is,” she said.
“I’m a good guy, too.”
“No. I don’t think so. But that’s ok. Neither of us are.” She peeked back over her shoulder. “I think he’s afraid of me. I can see it whenever we’re together. He just doesn’t want to screw it up. He touches me with his fingertips like I’m made of glass. His palms are always sweaty.”
We stood in silence for a moment and the crowd was growing around us. My mind was racing for something to say. “He’s trying his best. You’re very pretty.”
“How did you think this was going to work?” She asked. “He’s sick somewhere out in the woods. He doesn’t deserve any of this. You only want me because I’m not yours.”
“Hey guys. Did we miss anything?” James was stepping around blankets with Pete trailing behind him.
“Nothing,” I said. “You all right, Pete?”
He was still a little pale, and drops of sweat rolled down his forehead. “I’ll be fine.”
There was the muffled phunk of a shell launching high into the air. In the bright green flare, I watched Katie’s hand rubbing the small of Pete’s back, and the sound of the burst punched through my lungs as the crowd began to whistle and cheer.
Jeff Bonar is earning an MFA in fiction from Florida International University. He was born and raised in Gilbertsville, Pennsylvania.