The boys knocked along in the back of the pickup. Bryan held the side, close to puking again. Gregg poked his head through the back of the cab so he could look through the windshield. He could hear it before he could see it—a mash of vendors, bells, and pipe organs. He’d been to the fair plenty of times, but never at night. They rounded the bend and the horizon was laid out like a pinball machine, a runway of whistles and flashes, a steady thump of vehicle over road pressing against the inside of his wrists. Derek pulled a stolen wheel of tickets from his duffle bag, rolling off lengths for everyone. He leaned into the cab and handed the driver a week’s worth of carnival rides. Ronnie stuffed a string of tickets into Gregg’s pocket. “Those’ll last you the night.” They hopped out of the truck and cut through a ditch behind the Ferris wheel, onto the fair grounds, past the long lineup to get in. Ronnie took off his jean jacket, a satin vest underneath, his white sleeves rolled up to reveal toned triceps and a fresh burn. They went straight to the snack shack and ordered Cokes and pretzels. Gregg sucked the salt from his pretzel, reminding himself to go slow, it gave him the hiccups. He took in the flurry of activity. At night, everything felt bigger, heightened—hyper. A man with tattoo sleeves pounded the holes of the groundhog game with an unreasonable amount of aggression. A young woman, his girlfriend or daughter, Gregg wasn’t sure, stood to the side and smiled weakly. “Best to just let him work it out,” she shrugged. Gregg wiggled his camera out of his pocket and held it waist-high. After he’d taken the shot he apologized, like it had been a mistake, and jogged ahead to catch up with the guys. He stopped briefly to watch a small boy with a floppy red Afro struggle upside down on the Spaceball, a new addition to the fair, a human gyroscope. The ride attendant was growing impatient with the redhead. “If I spin you any longer you’ll hemorrhage.” “Go again!” the boy screamed. Gregg’s flash filled the foreground, the latent rage of an aging carny developing in Kodachrome. A large group assembled in front of the Spider Jump. The Spider Jump consisted of two elastic cables attached to a diaper harness. The sign claimed to launch fairgoers twenty-five feet in the air with safety. A petite girl with strawberry-blond hair had just been released from its grip, breathless and laughing. The crowd clapped. Gregg watched as Ronnie made his way to the guardrail where the girl met him, lurching into his arms and kissing him flat on the mouth. Gregg took a half step back, then two forward. An arm reached out to grab his. “Ronnie says you have extra tickets.” The redheaded boy from the Spaceball was standing beside Gregg. Gregg nodded toward the Spider Jump, and the girl all over his brother. “Is she your sister?” “Trish? D’ya think?” the boy replied, pointing to his flaming hair. He ran to the guardrail. “Trish, me and Gregg are going on the Six Spin!” The strawberry-blond grabbed the redhead’s collar, pulling him close. “Tyler, have you eaten anything except junk?” Gregg sauntered up the rear, in no great hurry. Ronnie reached out and ruffled his hair. “Look at you, making friends,” he chuckled. Tyler grabbed Gregg’s forearm, dragging him toward the Six Spin. Gregg plunged like an owner led by his dog, calling back over his shoulder, Ronnie already turned to face this girl. “Yep. I’m a regular Mr. Popular.” Tyler ran up the ropes to the Six Spin. When Gregg got to the gate he froze at the sight of the high school girl taking tickets. Brigitte was in the same grade at Ronnie. Gregg had seen her at football games, reading in the last row of the bleachers. Brigitte was tall for a girl, at least six feet. She wore the requisite carnival uniform—blue polo shirt and cream-coloured shorts. But, while the other ride attendants wore white sneakers and tennis socks, Brigitte sported black, high laced, steel-toed boots, the commitment to her blue baseball cap half-assed, the hat sitting limply atop her black bob. Gregg hiked his cut-offs and started up the aisle. The Six Spin was a people-powered ride in which six passengers sat in a tight circle, knee-to-knee, turning the handles in front of them in an attempt to gain speed at which time an operator would turn the ride on a thirty degree angle. Gregg handed Brigitte his tickets, enthralled by the thick eyeliner curling up to her temples. In place of hoop earrings, she wore safety pins, one pierced through a ragged and infected hole. Gregg struggled up into the ride. Tyler pulled Gregg over the lap of a woman and her hulking husband, both far too large for the bucket seats. Brigitte cracked her gum in rat-a-tat succession and hoisted two young children into the remaining seats. The husband adjusted his weight. Brigitte clamped Gregg’s hands on the handle in front of him, sighing, “Do you know what you’re doing?” Why, Brigitte, Gregg thought, I plan to sit here and let this beast of a man take care of everything while I pray that my new buddy Tyler has lined his stomach with something other than cotton candy. Brigitte continued to hold him in place. He softened his grip, his hands slipping against the handle with nervous perspiration. He peered into Brigitte’s face, following the arch of her perfect eyebrows, down the bridge of her nose, dusted with fading freckles, and out to the edge of her hairline, smudged like moistened ash. Gregg squirmed in his seat, the camera poking at his groin. The impulse to capture this moment was as irksome as an out of reach itch. More than before, he wished for a keepsake, the first time a girl would touch him, not like a mother, but with purpose. Brigitte giggled, and released his hands. Tyler jerked around in his seat. “Miss! Miss! Tip us as soon as you can. Okay?” Brigitte closed the gate and pulled out her gum, her speech delivered the thirty-sixth time that day. “Keep your hands inside the ride at all times. If I see your hands outside the ride, the ride will be stopped and you will be escorted off the premises. You will not get tipped until you get your speed up. If I tip you before you get your speed up, someone falls out, and I get fired.” Then Brigitte looked at the woman to one side of Gregg and the woman’s husband on the other, and put her gum back in her mouth. As the woman’s husband worked his handle, winding it as if churning the world’s largest vat of butter, the woman leaned into Gregg, voice barely above a whisper. “Dear, what does she mean by ‘tipped?’”
At the first aid station, a nurse applied a butterfly bandage to Gregg’s brow while the husband and wife bargained with the fair’s manager over suitable compensation. While the words “kiddie ride” hadn’t appeared anywhere, the manager agreed, it was surely implied by looking at the ride that a man of the gentleman’s size would put the ride under undue stress creating, for lack of a better word, an imbalance resulting in a mishap such as this evening’s. The husband replied, with all due respect, that if the manager was calling him, “for lack of a better word, fat,” that they could fucking take this somewhere else, away from the minors. Brigitte tossed her baseball cap in the garbage and turned up her collar. “Cool, a scar,” she said, bending over to brush Gregg’s hair away from the bandage. Just then, a tanned boy spun Brigitte around and pulled her to his chest. Gregg recognized him from the football team, a boy with perpetually wet hair, as if he was always coming from the swimming pool or a shower. He wore a pink polo shirt tucked into white pleated shorts and penny loafers without socks. “I guess this means you get to go home early.” His hands slid down Brigitte’s butt, pulling the shorts low to reveal a thick black script: Make my back burn. Gregg watched the boy guide Brigitte out of the crowd, beyond the lights and into the darkness toward the grass parking lot. He dropped her hand to pick something up, and, fighting to keep his grip, held a toad to Brigitte’s face. She didn’t scream. She merely stepped back to adjust her hair, then broke into a slow laugh that found its way back onto the fairground and behind Gregg’s ear like a curling undertow. Gregg winced as he touched his bandage, and started to picture a succession of frames before she was completely out of view. Even she seemed surprised when the boy punted the toad clear into the field.