The Enchantment of Fairs

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If closing day of the fair had been the day before, Marisa would’ve been on the divan sleeping off the hang-over left her from their monthly card party. It would have passed her by. Today her energy returned and a better viewpoint with it. She made Toby what he wanted for breakfast (two eggs over easy, two pieces of bacon and a bran muffin with blackberry jam), waited around to see what he was up to, then waved good-bye from the side door.  He had promised to work on his best friend’s car and seemed to have forgotten the fair altogether.

That was the first surprise of the day. He always remembered it. He hated it, said his mother had vanished when he was eight because of the damned fair. It came into town; she left with it. Marisa didn’t understand his reasoning; the woman was obviously unhappy or she would have stayed. No adult used a fair as a reason for running away, not since the turn of the century. But to abandon her child was brutal. It was something that had drawn her to him, a well-hidden brokenness. Her parents didn’t understand it; she was level-headed. He had a need far greater than hers. Studying nursing was just no match for mending hearts, so that was that. It had worked out. When she felt restless, his love was a magnet.

But she might check out the fair even though it was not an event Marisa particularly enjoyed. She had memories of the cows as encountered as a child, their dirty, dusty smell, their breath on her legs. The horses were excellent though they had a terrible ability to stare her down, their gaze fierce then disinterested. She imagined them jumping the gates, then taking her along with them and this idea thrilled her more than their beauty. The worst of it was the pigs and the Ferris wheel. They both promptly made her gag even though her father had encouraged her. The crowds were unruly, the food inedible her father agreed. They liked the quilts, science experiments and horse show. Her mother, of course, never went. She couldn’t handle the odors and cacophony, both triggers for mean if infrequent migraines.

Maddy sat on the stoop, chin in hands. She found herself wondering lately if her mother could have finally accepted that she married Toby. If she would berate her for not having children or not being in school.

Her family was one of a handful that lived in the hills, in fact, one from which you could glimpse the fair. It had been a large house by any standards, cool inside with pale leather furniture filling the cavernous living room. Lilies everywhere leaned their heads over the rims of glass vases. Meryl McCann had been one of those women every one wanted to know. Marisa, an only child, had trailed after her from room to room until it was unseemly to adore your mother. Then she spied on her, memorized her ways, caught fragments of conversations. She organized, made things happen. Meryl knew how to laugh even when you weren’t funny and smile even when she was in pain. Maddy was sixteen when her mother died of an aneurysm. It was a summer day but stormy and before she had gone up to her room, she had reminded Maddy to not be afraid.

“The wind always rattles the house, you know that. It’s just nature at work, God ruminating. I am going to rest a bit.”

She had placed her hand on Marisa’s face, then alongside her own temple as the storm wailed. For months afterwards Maddy felt her fingers on her right cheekbone, a caress interrupted by thunder.

Toby had always been good to her. He was a great mechanic and machinist, but his skills did not recommend him to her father. What it took was her begging to marry him and thus remain in town rather than attend college. They would be there for him always, bring grandchildren around. It was barely enough; Brett McCann wanted more for her. She was nineteen.

Here it was three years later, no babies, no changes in her father’s lack of warmth toward her husband. The three of them shared a drink now and then. Unbeknownst to her father, Marissa drank alone at times; she felt her mother scold her. It was summer’s malaise, she thought, the way the heat siphoned off her energy and good intentions. It was even more likely being twenty-two without accomplishments to feel proud about.

She shook off the thought as she stood, hand shading the sun from her eyes. The transparent blue sky blinded. She felt less like staying home than going to the fair so she got her purse and put on her sandals.

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The first tent held the usual array of creatures, sheep, goats and somnolent cows and steers. She glanced left and right, thinking they deserved a better fate. They no longer bothered her as much as tugged at her pity. The horses seemed less fearsome and more beautiful but she  didn’t understand them. Marissa suspected they knew it; they nodded perfunctorily.

She admired the handiwork of quilters when she spotted her father’s balding head bobbing above the crowd. He carried a beer in one hand and bent down a little, talking to someone. Why hadn’t she thought to ask him to come along? She hurried through the throng until she recognized Esther Thorne’s auburn hair shaking free of a barrette. She laughed and lifted a paper cone of blue cotton candy to coral lips. Marissa’s father pulled her aside and his lips grazed hers. When he looked up he saw his daughter there, mouth wide open,  hands up in the air and eyes big with astonishment.

“Marissa!” He and Esther strode forward as she stepped back.

“Dad, what are you doing here?”

“Marissa, dear!” Esther held out her hand as though they were next door neighbors. No more, not for a long time.

They exchanged meaningless words and Marissa excused herself, running past the vendors and rides and tents, up the hill. She ran until something pricked her heel and she had to stop. It was sweat or tears that wet her face but she ignored both as she surveyed the fairgrounds, then trudged home.

Toby was washing grease off his hands in the bathroom. Marissa wiped her face before sitting on the toilet seat.

“What’s up, gorgeous?” he asked.

Marissa touched his arm. “I want to have a child but I want to go to college first.”

He dried his hands, leaned against the wall. “What happened?”

“The fair. You’re right. They have unreasonable powers. But I came back and always will. I’m just ready for more.”

When he touched her she knew what he felt; she felt it, too.

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