Read an Excerpt
OneThe county fair was Rachel's idea. She had a passion for the theater, James Joyce, and county fairs, and she could be quite persuasive when it came to those three passions. We would go on the Sunday in the third week of August, the closing night of the fair, when there would be a fireworks display. We would have a splendid time, she said. It was also her idea that we take her cousin Michael.It was warm that Sunday night and the sky was clear and filled with stars. We sat in the front seat of the DeSoto and Rachel drove carefully along the dark asphalt country roads. Michael sat quietly between us, staring out of the windshield. A moment after we reached the highway he suddenly became quite talkative. He chatted about his frogs and salamanders. He talked about Andromeda, white dwarfs, and red giants. He seemed to know a great deal about astronomy. He had a high, thin voice and he spoke animatedly and in a rushing flow of technical words. I saw Rachel smiling. She wore a yellow sleeveless summer dress and her short auburn hair blew in the warm wind that came through the open windows of the car.We came to a crossroads, bright with the neon life of a night highway, then went around a sharp curve. Set into the darkness about an eighth of a mile away, and looking as though it had carved itself into the night, was the county fair. Michael abruptly ceased talking and leaned forward in the seat.The fair lay stretched out upon a huge field alongside the highway, bathed in a blaze of electric lights and neon signs, with strings of bulbs across an entrance arch spelling out the word PARKING, and floodlights poking bright fingers into the black sky, and blurred gashes of colored lights from a moving Ferris wheel and parachute jump. The brightness formed a pale, smoky, faintly pink arc-shaped cloud over the entire area, sealing it off from the darkness beyond. In the center of the field was a roller coaster with strings of lighted bulbs following its tortuous contour.Rachel parked the car and we came out onto the graveled surface of the parking lot and to a chain-link fence with a gate. We went through the gate and into the county fair.The three of us were standing on an asphalt road that was jammed with people. Teen-agers jostled roughly through the crowd, children ran about wildly, young and old couples moved along or stood near booths playing carnival games. A thick din choked the air. I heard gongs, bells, rifle shots from a nearby shooting gallery, the music of a calliope, the whooshing roar of the roller coaster, and a steady waterfall of human noise. It seemed as if all the noise of the world's wide night had descended upon this one stretch of lighted earth."We're in the wrong place," I said to Rachel.She stood alongside me on the asphalt road, her face pale in the garish lights. Michael was staring around wide-eyed at the booths."What did you do, take a wrong turn somewhere?" I was annoyed and I let my voice show it."No, I did not take a wrong turn somewhere.""'What happened to your county fair?""It was advertised as a fair. You saw the poster. Annual county fair. In big red letters. You saw it too.""I don't like carnivals," I said."Neither do I.""What do you want to do?"She looked around indecisively, chewing her lip. I saw her glance at Michael, who stood nearby staring at the roller coaster."Why don't we call up James Joyce and find out what he would do?" I said, feeling irritated and annoyed and wanting to get away from the noise and the wildness.She gave me an angry look. "Don't be nasty," she said. "It isn't my fault.""What do you want to do?""We'll see the exhibits and go right home.""They've probably got three cows and two horses in a tent somewhere.""We'll look and go right home. So it won't be a total waste. What gall to advertise this as a fair."We found the tent. There were cows, horses, calves, pigs, roosters, hens, awkward paintings by local artists, and some prize-winning home-baked pies. The wooden floor of the tent was covered with sawdust, and the smell of animal droppings was very strong."I'm thrilled," I said. "You have no idea how thrilled I am to see rural America at its creative best.""Don't be mean," Rachel said. But she was as angry as I was."I'm not mean. I'm thrilled.""I've seen beautiful fairs.""Let's go home," I said.Michael stood a few feet away from us, looking curiously at a prize calf. He wore a rumpled white sport shirt, tan shorts, and an old pair of tennis sneakers with the laces untied. He had wild dark-brown hair that badly needed trimming and dreamy blue eyes behind shell-rimmed glasses that were too large for his narrow face.We came out of the tent onto the black asphalt road of the carnival. Michael wanted to know where the other exhibits were."That's all there is," I told him. "We just saw the whole fair. It's a carnival. They stuck some animals in and called it a fair. But it's a carnival.""We're going home now," Rachel said.Michael stared at her, his mouth dropping open."Reuven and I don't like carnivals," Rachel said.But Michael did not want to go home. Why should we go home just because it was a carnival? he wanted to know. What was wrong with carnivals? He and Rachel stood on the road, arguing. It seemed to me they argued a long time. Michael had a strong, stubborn, aggressive streak. In the end, Rachel yielded.We walked along the crowded asphalt road through the litter of pop bottles, ice-cream wrappers, soiled paper bags, popsicle sticks, beer cans, discarded newspapers. The carnival booths lined both sides of the road, and from inside the booths pitchmen shouted their games to the crowd. Some booths were large, with expensive-looking prizes on their shelves; most were small shanty-like affairs, with gambling games or tossing games operated by hard-voiced carnival people some of whom wore derbies or straw hats. The booths were on wheels and were scarred and blotched from travel. The carnival had been set up in the form of a circle, with the booths lining both sides of the curving asphalt road, and the Ferris wheel, parachute jump, and roller coaster in the center.We approached a ring-toss game operated by a short, double-chinned pitchman in a straw hat. He was chewing on a dead cigar and shouting automatically at the crowd. He took off the straw hat and wiped his bald head with a red handkerchief. There was no one at his booth. He put the handkerchief away and saw me looking at him. His voice focused itself directly upon us, and we were drawn reluctantly to the booth.We played the ring-toss game twice. Then we went to another booth and played a pitching game. Michael played awkwardly. His glasses kept slipping down the bridge of his nose and he kept pushing them back up with abrupt motions of his hand. After the pitching game Rachel told him again that she wanted to go home but he ignored her and went on ahead, moving restlessly along the asphalt road. He was a thin, narrow-shouldered, gawky boy, about five inches shorter than my own five feet ten inches, and he seemed all caught up in the tumult around us.So we continued along the asphalt road, playing the games and ignoring the freak shows. Even Michael did not want to see the freak shows. We fired rifles at wooden ducks, threw pennies into flat plates, tossed baseballs at fat-nosed clowns. Rachel won a charm bracelet from the penny-tossing game, and Michael came away from the fat nose of a clown with a pen and pencil set which he stuck away in his shirt pocket with a triumphant grin. Now he wanted to go on the roller coaster, he said.Rachel told him she did not like roller coasters."Then I'll go with Reuven," he said.I told him I did not like roller coasters either."Then I'll go alone," he said, and started by himself toward the ticket booth.Rachel looked at me helplessly."Your cousin is a first-class brat," I said. "Come on. We can't let him go up there by himself."Michael grinned delightedly as he watched us purchase our tickets. We came through the turnstile and climbed into the front seat of a car. The remaining seats filled rapidly. The teen-age boy who had taken our tickets shouted something to the man behind the ticket counter and pushed down a long lever set near the tracks. There was a faint hum of machinery. The car moved forward. Michael sat to my left, talking excitedly about the last time he had been on a roller coaster years ago in Coney Island. He had been scared half to death, he said, grinning at me and pushing the glasses back up on the bridge of his nose. Rachel sat to my right, looking a little frightened. The car climbed slowly up a steep incline. Then we were at the crest and with a suddenness that pushed me back against the seat and took the air from my lungs we dropped wildly into the night.The car hurtled downward on roaring wheels between lights that blurred into quivering lines. Michael held on tightly to the support rod, his body rigid, his teeth clenched. Rachel gave me a resigned look. We rose and fell and rose again and fell again. On the ground below, the carnival heaved and undulated like a garish blanket in a windstorm. There were screams and shouts from the other passengers and the fierce crescendo of racing steel wheels. Michael sat with his eyes narrow against the whipping of the wind and his mouth open as though gulping the air that beat against him. Then, with an abrupt motion, he stood up in the car.Immediately Rachel shouted at him to sit down.He stood there, holding tightly to the rod, his body swaying with the wild motions of the car, and ignored her."Sit down!" Rachel screamed.He turned his head and looked at her and laughed.Rachel gave me a frightened, pleading look. I struggled to my feet and stood next to him, holding on to the rod and feeling my arms strain and pull against the sudden force of a drop that almost lifted me from the floor of the car. Then we were out of it and the tracks leveled and slanted off to the right and we seemed to be on our sides as we hurtled along the rim of the coaster over the booths and the lights and the asphalt road below. I heard Rachel shout at Michael again to sit down. He ignored her. We were climbing again. I turned my head to glance at Rachel. She was white-faced. I started to reach for Michael's shoulder to pull him into the seat, but we had climbed to another crest and were falling again and I needed both hands on the rod. We fell a long time and I saw Michael release one hand from the rod and brush at his nose, then clutch quickly at the rod as the drop curved into a wildly slanting turn. I looked at his face. There was a faint dark smear on his upper lip. I saw him brush again at his nose, and now the smear was darker, moving liquidly across his face, and the wind lifted it and blew it against his cheeks and onto his shirt and out behind him into the night. We came out of the turn and straightened and dropped again down a long straight slope that looked like a ski jump, then looped upward into another climb. Michael stared at his hand. It had come away from his nose stained with blood. He sat down quickly."He's got a nosebleed," I shouted to Rachel above the noise of the wheels. I turned to Michael. "Lean back. Put your head back." I took out my handkerchief and wiped away some of the blood. It trickled strongly from his left nostril, a dark stream against the whiteness of his narrow face."Press down on his upper lip," Rachel said, shouting into the wind.I put my forefinger across his upper lip and pressed down hard. Michael stared up at me. The next drop lifted my finger from his face and threw me against him, and I felt him squirming beneath my weight. Then I was sitting next to him, holding him and pushing down hard on his upper lip. He reached up and put both his hands on my arm and I thought he was using my arm to support himself in the seat, but he was pushing against me instead, pushing my finger away from his face. He took out his own handkerchief and held it to his nose, looking at me intently, a strange calm in his eyes. The car slowed, ran level for a moment, then came to a stop.We climbed out. Michael held the handkerchief to his nose. Some of the passengers looked at him as they passed by. We moved away from the car and stood on the asphalt road near the roller coaster ticket booth."Are you all right?" Rachel asked him. Her voice was faint and she looked very frightened.He took the handkerchief away from his nose. The bleeding had stopped. The handkerchief hung limply from his hand, stained with blood. He stuffed it into a pocket."What was that all about?" I said.He grinned at me. There was a strange sly look on his narrow face."That was a stupid thing to do. What were you trying to prove?""I wasn't scared," he said, grinning. "I enjoyed it.""You scared hell out of me and Rachel.""Let's play some more of the games," he said.Rachel said she wanted to go home."In a little while," Michael said.Rachel said she wanted to go home right now.Michael ignored her. He was looking at the booths alongside the road beyond the roller coaster. Then he started on up the road, walking quickly, as if he were by himself now."He's turning into a royal pain in the neck," I said.Rachel stood there, looking a little dazed and watching Michael go up the road."We should have gone home right away," she said."Come on," I said. "We'll lose him in a minute.""We should have gone home right away," she said again. Then she started quickly along the road. I walked beside her.