Schools were dismissed at noon today, due to an excessive heat warning. At the corner, the bus discharges a group of sweaty students, too hot to celebrate their unexpected good fortune. They trudge down the sidewalk, beat-up backpacks dangling from listless shoulders, and head home to the shade.
The dogs lie on their sides, panting. The cat sprawls on the cool wooden floor beneath the ceiling fan and refuses to budge. The curtains at the front of the house are pulled closed to keep out the sun’s warmth; a warmth only three months ago we so desperately wished for. My glass of ice water weeps condensation. The couch is too hot to sit on, so we gather at the kitchen table and start a card game. I toss the dog an ice cube and promise the kids that I’ll flip on the AC if it reaches 100 degrees.
Finally, finally, the sun sets. Front doors open. Parents emerge from houses, turning on sprinklers and taking dogs for walks long overdue. Bats swoop, silently gathering dinner. The stars glisten and a crescent moon hangs in the sky and a plane passes overhead destined for some place unknown to me. Two nights ago, the lightning bugs began to arrive, winking on and off, here and there in brittle grass. The crickets have been here for two weeks. But the sound of crickets is a fall sound; a cool sound. It’s too early for excessive heat warnings and lightning bugs. It’s too early for crickets.
It’s also too early to be sending my eldest off by herself on a plane headed for another continent. It’s too early for my middle one to be getting a driver’s permit.
Where did the time go?
During their early teens, I told my girls time and again to act their age; to grow up. And the little buggers did. They went and grew up on me and now I realize that I really don’t want them to grow up and leave me after all. Since my eldest left, I find myself going into her bedroom and looking around as if I’ve merely misplaced her and that I’ll find her sitting at her desk reading. I consider taking the fan from her room, to let my son borrow it until her return, but then I reject the idea.
In the cool stillness of the night, I walk around the house mourning the loss of my daughters’ childhoods.
* * *
Every July, right around both my father’s and sister’s birthdays, my town celebrated the Ox Roast Fair. This was big doings in our community: For weeks before the fair, an immense sign would point the way down the narrow road leading to the Catholic Church. For days, my sisters and I would deliberate about which rides to go on, what to wear, and what to eat.
The fair represented happy times: Freed from the burden of school and armed with a long strip of red tickets good for the rides, life was full of promise; of cotton candy whirled onto a paper stick and candied apples and boys and gossip and friends we hadn’t seen since school let out a lifetime ago.
We ran to the funhouse. We watched pretty girls in bikinis perch on the narrow seat in the dunking booth, wincing each time a boy fast-armed a baseball at the red target; we watched them fall into the tank of water, a little “O” of surprise blooming across their faces every time the seat latch released.
There were funnel cakes dusted in powdered sugar and hand-squeezed lemonade. There was a music tent and the forbidden beer tent, and another tent, also off limits, unless a kid was with a parent: This tent—the quarter tent—held banks of the adult equivalent of the bubble gum machine. About three feet wide and four feet tall, each machine capitalized on the hope of a soft summer’s night. Bright lights beckoned like Sirens, directing attention down into the belly of the machine where a shelf about the size of a cookie sheet was loaded with prizes: quarters and tokens for big money and silver cigarette lighters with Mustang logos. An arm swept behind the prizes, pushing them closer…closer…closer…And all it would take was one quarter—one quarter!—aimed just right to send a fistful of quarters and maybe a token for fifty bucks, too, off the shelf, down the chute, and into an awaiting hand.
The Roundup pressed marks into the backs of our legs and arms. The Swinging Ship left us breathless. We rode in Spinning Apples and got cornered by Bumper Cars. The Matterhorn whisked us in and out around snow-capped metal mountains while bored carnies smoked and stared out into the crowed, seeing none of us, unfazed by the screams and the food and the excitement.
One year, my mother, sisters, and I were lassoed into volunteering at the dinner held in the school lunchroom. For two hours, Mom oversaw waitresses while my sisters and I dealt out plates of roast beef and mashed potatoes, salads smothered in dressing, desserts baked by members of the church. We bussed trays, poured coffee, and set down little packets of butter, melted in the heat of the cafeteria. We emptied tiny tin ashtrays, red and gold. We dispensed Sprite and Pepsi. When things slowed, we stood in front of the huge fans pumping in air from outside. We hustled for a few dollars in tips to spend on the rides.
After a family would leave, I’d check for a tip, slipped neatly between the salt and pepper shakers.
“Anything?” Mom would say.
And again, after I’d cleared a stack of trays. “Now?”
And then, suddenly, there it was: A five dollar bill neatly quartered, a corner of it peeking out from beneath a water glass. Good for ten rides, at least.
I returned it to my mother. “I have to do this myself.”
Eventually, our shift ended and we returned to the joy of the fair. There were kiddie rides and snow cones and tractor pulls and dozens of carnie trailers packed on the soccer fields.
One year, I saw a girl with no arms walking with her parents. Her hands emerged from her shoulders, and she flapped them, smiling, as she watched people at the games: shooting games and goldfish games and games with balloons and darts. The prizes—the stretched 7-Up bottle filled with water; the blow-up guitar, the crappy plush animals and the rock band tee shirts—lost their sheen that day. I stared at this girl and wondered how she fed herself and bathed and went to the toilet on her own and my heart ached because I already knew the answer in the same way I knew my mother had left that five dollar bill on the cafeteria table. And I wondered then if she would ever be fitted with prosthetic arms. And I wonder today whether her parents ever uttered the words with all their implications, “Would you please just grow up?”
After three days, the carnies would pull down the rides and pack away their prizes. They would unplug the quarter machines, still full of cash and tokens and cigarette lighters. Efficient as an army of ants, the carnies would return to their trailers and head on to the next town.
The next day, the grounds would be littered with French fries and ticket stubs and cigarette butts, and I would be saddened to see the ending of the fair because it meant that the end of summer—the end of the magic—was near.
* * *
The sound of the crickets is also a good luck sound. The telephone rings at a quarter of five and I grab it because I haven’t slept all night: My daughter’s plane has landed. Outside, the birds sing and a breeze blows through open windows and I realize that summer’s only half-over in July and that my daughters and I still have an entire lifetime to share.
Labels: Community, Country life, Daughters, Girls, Growing up, Ohio, Raising Children, Sons