County Fair

by Jim Farrar (1985)

So here I am doing it again, time traveling, living in the past, a distant world of vapors and smoke, of cotton candy and cheap beer and adolescent love.

As I drive into town, I feel like a stranger. New buildings and faces I don't recognize tell me I'm out of place. I’m homesick, though it's not the town I miss as much as the pin-prick in time which includes me and the faces of friends long since gone, the laughter and the music we listened to, and everything Plain City had to offer as I grew up.

Not a good sign, this muddling around in the past. Everybody's gone and, as I drive through these quiet streets at midnight, enjoying the silence that's possible only in small towns, I realize for the first time that Plain City is a ghost town, and that I am a restless specter.

She doesn't recognize my voice when I call the next morning. She's embarrassed and apologizes.

"What would you like to do?" she says.

"Whatever. I'm easy."

"Want to go to the fair? How long's it been?"

Not long enough. It ended at the fair, when we were seniors in high school.

Now that's one memory that’s not faded.

Her brother and I were best friends. We'd gone to the fair to raise hell. I'd bought a half gallon of vodka and we were both drunk. It was one of those beautiful rural evenings, warm and fragrant with the faint odor of fresh cut hay, and with just enough dust in the air to turn the setting sun a fiery reddish orange. The smells of the surrounding farmland mingled with those of the fair, with the food cooking at the booths, and the animals, and with the sweat and cologne and the hair spray of the men and women of the crowd.

Yes, we did raise hell that night, riding the rides and eating hamburgers and fries, losing money to the carnies in the game booths and laughing at all the strange people.

The thing is, it happened so quickly. I was only gone a couple of minutes. I went to the bathroom and when I came out he was gone. I looked up and down the midway and through all the exhibitor's buildings but couldn't find him.
At first I was angry. At first I thought he was playing a joke on me.

It's still a mystery. The only certain thing is that he hasn’t been seen since that night.

And so passed our senior year, her brother missing, and me feeling guilty about it. I've told myself over and over that there was nothing I could've done.

And, if he really wanted to run away, as most people believe, then it would've happened sooner or later. Still, I wonder. Is he dead or alive?

Twelve years later, I'm back at the fairgrounds. As Rita and I walk up the midway, through the bright lights, as we soak up the sounds and the smells that haven't changed since I was a little kid, I realize that it's me who has the problem, that Rita has exorcised her demons and is perfectly happy with her life. I’m the one who’s is all twisted up inside, who’s obsessed with ghosts.

Twelve years of silence has done nothing to bring us closer together. There remains a bond of sorts between us, I can feel it even now, though I can't tell what level it's working on or how it's holding us together. We've been together all afternoon and so far the conversation has been all small talk. I can feel something pushing against the seams, but I don't know what to say, or what it is I even want to talk about. Rita realizes this.

It's not as though we need to catch up on one another's lives. Both her parents and my parents are friends, and, though Mom and Dad moved to Arizona several years ago, they've kept in touch with one another, so I've been pretty well informed as to the happenings in Rita's life, and vice versa, I'm sure. My mother always ends our conversations with the same line. "Rita's such a nice girl. It's too bad you kids couldn't have worked things out." After which, she adds, "she's still not married, you know."

We leave the fair and I take her home. She invites me into her apartment for a beer, an invitation which makes me nervous.

"We need to talk, John," she says, as she hands me a beer.

"We do?" I ask, knowing full well what's on her mind.

"I know you and Roger were best friends.”

This is it, I can feel it. She's been waiting all day for this, to tell me off, to vent twelve years of anger.

"Listen," she says simply, "I'm sorry you felt you had to run off. But you've been acting uncomfortable all day, and I'm not sure I understand why anymore. I'm not sure why you called in the first place."

"I wanted to see you again," I reply weakly.

"You could've fooled me. Stop grieving, damnit. I know in some twisted way you still blame yourself, and that's stupid.

I feel my blood start to rise. "I was in love with you."

"I was in love with you, too. What's that got to do with it?"

"What's wrong," I say, trembling, "is that we're having this conversation twelve years too late."

"Twelve years is a long time, John."

The silence is oppressive as I try to think of an answer.

"Well," I say flatly, trying to regain my distance, "I just think something more could've been done."

"Like what? Tell the police? We did that. Go talk to one of the counselors at school? We did that too. So bury it."

I get up and head towards the door. She comes up to me and puts her arms around my shoulders. "You're living with an image of something just doesn't exist anymore."

I have this dream every so often, about the fair. I see Roger walking off with a group of carnies and then, right before I wake up, I see an expansive lawn, lush and well tended, and a white headstone with Roger's name on it in one of the corners of the field. And, as I lie there dreaming, it's always so quiet in the graveyard.

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