Tom, not Trent, or Trevor, or God forbid Trey, but good old plain American Tom, stood on the overpass and looked down at the cars below. “What I can’t get over is how they change,” he said.
Billy, not Chauncey, Brice, Preston, or River, had his feet on the lower rail, leaning farther over the highway below than physics would deem prudent, had just discovered that Orange Crush and Hershey’s chocolate made tremendous, stringy saliva that he could drool out over two feet and suck back in, unbroken. He was committing what promised to be a prolonged experiment in the tensile strength of this wonderful new elixir.
“I mean, they’re always so new, every time I look at them it’s like I’ve never seen them before. Where do you ‘spose all the old cars go?”
At this, the loogey reached its critical length, an epic length, and detached from Billy’s lips to land on a passing semi.
“There’s probably a big pile of them right over there,” Billy pointed at the horizon before lying back on the cracked and grass-sutured concrete to reload.
“Doncha ever wanta go down there, get on the highway and see where it goes?”
Billy looked up at him, blue eyes and a buzz of strawberry hair visible from under the shade of his ball cap. “I know where it goes. My dad calls it ‘The Other America.’ Says you can leave, but it’s like an infection in the blood. Can’t never come back or you’ll infect the whole town.”
Tom kicked a rock and started walking back to town. Billy watched him take a few steps, grabbed his bottle of Crush, and jumped up to follow.
“I’ve heard stories; before the freeway, the whole world was like this.”
Off the bridge, the two boys walked into a cool green esophagus of trees, swallowing them whole and moving them along without volition. “My dad says we don’t need it much, neither.” Tom was concentrating on kicking his rock. He’d never kicked one so far without it leaving the road.
“Yeah, last summer, we drove clear to Maine without ever leaving the old country.” Billy said. “You can still do that, you know,” he added with an air of authority, as if Tom might not believe him.
They were at Tom’s house, white picket fence, gloss white oil paint, it sat as new and crisp as a dollhouse. “I gotta mow, catch ya later for the fair?”
“The fair!” Billy was gone almost before Tom heard the words. .
Tom got out the reel mower that his dad sharpened sharp as new every spring. It whirred and clicked and cut perfect as some maniac clock: “Whrrrr. Clack. Clack. Clack. Whrrrrrrrrr.” Like Tom’s thoughts going around without stop.
His grandmother came out on the porch with fresh lemonade in a sweating glass. He waved up at her, distracted. “Thanks, ‘ma, I’ll get it when I finish.”
“The ice will be all melted then, Tom!” But he was gone. “Whrrrrrr.” She went back into the kitchen.
“I swear, that boy thinks too much. His forehead is creased up like a new-plowed field.”
Tom’s father peered over his bifocals. With his paper poised between his hands, he looked like Kilroy. “He’s a boy, ma, he’s just trying to figure the world out now.”
“What a danged fool thing. He could think forever and not get it done. You mark him, Henry. He’s spending a lot of time on the overpass, too.”
Henry’s father smiled and ran his hand through his salt-and-pepper crew cut. It looked as if he might speak, but Tom came in.
“Lawn’s done, can I go to the fair now?”
Henry winked at his mother. “Well, I suppose, but first…” he teased Tom, who was halfway out the door, turning back to protest some forgotten task. “Don’t you need some money?” He smiled and handed his son a five, and Tom was on the lawn before the spring banged the door home. His lemonade sat warm on the porch railing.
Tom loved the fair. It was the one time of year when the town got a whole flux of strangers, instead of just the occasional relative. He ran by Billy’s house without even stopping. “Billy!” He heard another screen door slam and Billy vaulted over the hedge to his side.
The boys smelled the fair first. Fried dough, onion rings, hot dogs, diesel, and sugar. Then they heard it: the calliope, the screams, the bell on the sledgehammer strength tester.
Tom’s mind whirled like the old-fashioned carousel he was too old for now, but he liked to go by it so the music could rev up warm tinkling feelings deep in his tummy. Calliope-music-cotton candy-strongman dreams; ball-throwing–jug-knocking–ring-tossing–shaved-ice fantasies.
The fair set up every year at the town square seemingly since time immemorial. Breathless, the boys bought tickets from a woman whose calves stuck out below her faded calico dress, fat and pink as babies. Billy was almost gone through the turnstile when Tom looked down at an especially shiny coin in his hand. “What’s this?” He turned it over, not recognizing one of the new quarters. The ticket lady snatched it from him quick as a conjurer, replacing it with a familiar coin.
“That coin was from outside!” Tom looked straight at her. She bent down and spoke low and close so only he could here it: “We ain’t been out there, but you gotta know that sometimes there’s a little bleed through, sometimes one of them stumbles in, ‘sall. Everybody loves a fair. Now get you along and have fun.” She stood abruptly, dismissing him.
Billy missed the interchange and danced with impatience. He grabbed Tom and ran to the Ferris wheel, which magically had no line. Tom felt something different. Always before, the fair seemed to expand the square, filling it with an infinite, inexhaustible world. Now Tom realized he could see almost the whole fair from where he was, instead of just from the top of the wheel. Instead of being magical and new, it was cacophonous, tawdry, and old. It was the same, had always been the same. The paint was chipped and peeling, as old and worn as the carnies in the booths. Once on the ride he wondered if all of the new cars went to new places that had new fairs every year.
He imagined green houses (green!) cool and crisp as the inside of a melon. Cars as round and smooth as bars of soap. Whole histories written in shiny new coins. The ideas and images flashing through his mind were a mad Ferris wheel that showed him glimpses over the horizon, and again and again whirring like the lawnmower reels, faster and faster, at first making him afraid he would fly off, but then waiting, hoping, praying it would launch him in a clear pure mathematical trajectory over the town, over the trees, straight as the freeway into the maddening half-heard half-thought, seen, and smelled future. No one or no thing strong enough to stop the trebuchet swing: grandma, dad, Billy reaching for him as he arced away.
The ride was over and he stood there reeling, turning in a circle. The cliched old overlaid with modern promises. He saw his mom and dad strolling hand-in-hand, now bowing heads to share a thought. Smiling, laughing in a love so pure and sweet and gentle as their first after-school kiss. Their grasp told of hours spent in porch swings, summer picnics, curled under blankets on sleigh rides; rocking, swimming, sliding, skating, sledding through the past and the future with gravy smiles and peach cobbler affection.
His dad saw him, smiled, winked, laughed. His mom looked over and waved. Billy was tugging on him to move on. All he needed was a pink tongue, Tom thought, and he would be any golden puppy.
“I don’t feel so good. Probably the ride.” He lied. “Why don’t you hit some more rides and I’ll catch up?”
Billy’s disappointment was obvious. What fun a lonely whirling dervish ride? “Aw, I’ll stay with you.”
“No really, you go.” Tom was almost angry. Billy looked hurt, but he shrugged it off and shouted over his shoulder. “At the arcade, ten o’clock.”
Once alone Tom stalked; he hunted; he sulked. He went up and down the aisles looking, looking everywhere, at every tent, at every face. He ended up behind the tents, noticing for the first time the mundane details of rope and canvas, diesel and electrical cords. Somewhere, everywhere, nowhere the magic was. The crowds thinned, the shrieks and laughter went home to be brought back tomorrow. Lights were going out, and still he hadn’t found it. Still couldn’t figure out where they stored the magic.
He stood there suddenly exhausted, slumped by himself on an exposed corner of grass, not quite swallowed by the fair.
“Maybe it’s not here, Tom.” Tom looked up and saw his father leaning against an old-fashioned street lamp, a solo artist in its mercury glow. “But it’s not out there, either.”
The night seemed suddenly cold and alien: foreign stars raced across the sky.
“Billy couldn’t find you. Thought you might be here. Or there.” Tom’s father cocked his head generally towards the shadows.
“What, dad? What am I looking for?” Tom asked.
“You’re looking for you, son. For what makes you happy. The thing is you can’t find it outside of you. You have to make it inside.” He uncrossed his arms and took a step closer.
“Maybe you have to go places to find it. Maybe things have to be new to recognize the difference.” Tom was defiant.
“All of a sudden what you have out there isn’t good enough. You thought that back here you’d find the answers–backstage answers from outside. All those people spending all of those hours in their cars, never time to think about the here, always about the over there, keep going and going. The answer is never where they are but only where they are going, so they are never anywhere. Those people don’t fish, or fly kites, or sit so quiet so long in the woods the squirrels nibble on their lunch. When they’re with their families, they think of everything else. Then they do everything else to be with their families. They don’t live. If you leave here and get on that road, you’ll never be able to find this place again, and if you do, you won’t be able to stay. That’s what ‘here’ is, Tom. It’s people who decided to stay put, and find happiness inside. People who decided that what they have is better than chasing and chasing and chasing. In fifty years, not one person has ever pulled over, parked his car, walked up that bank and taken the road into town. Not one ever wondered what was right beside them, instead of in front or behind.”
“Maybe I’m not like you and Billy and ‘ma, dad. Maybe I gotta go.”
“Maybe you do son, but not tonight. Tonight is late. There will be two dozen and one thousand other nights, but not tonight.”
They looked at each other for a moment, and then his dad looked away, into the night sky. “Do you know what tonight is, though?” He reached over and held Tom by the shoulder, turning him so they both looked the same way. “Tonight is the anniversary of the first time your mother and I laid in the meadow on top of the hill out past town and stared at the sky so long we finally realized the stars had colors.” He looked down at Tom. “Oh, not the actual day maybe, but the first day when you know it’s summer, when the world is full of lilac smells, and breeze waves the trees like brushes painting the sky. It’s not quite hot and not quite cool, but spring has bloomed into summer. Every year there is exactly one night, just like that, and that is the night I remember. Do you feel it, Tom?”
Tom looked at his dad, and then closed his eyes. He could feel the breeze blowing over him, and the smells of the town laying down over the smells of the fair, like a blanket put over a dream. He looked up at the sky, and the stars sparkled like tiny jewels cast about by some being too rich to care. This one was red, and that one was blue, and how had he never noticed before? “I feel it, Dad.”
“Now you know. You’ll feel it every year, and you’ll remember this moment. And that will happen no matter where you go; but that one night, you will always be here.”
Tom lay awake in his bed that night, long after the fair was shut, long after everybody had been tucked in and kissed to sleep, long after even the frogs had gone to sleep and taken the fireflies with them. If he listened very hard he was quite sure he could here the susurrations of the highway in the distance.
The next morning, there was a tapping at the window. Even if you stayed up all night, you couldn’t get up earlier than Billy. Tom poked his head out the window.
“Hey, sleepyhead, want to go to the overpass?”
“Nah,” Tom said, “let’s go fishing.” He could already feel the light-dappled stream, like dancing dandelions, icing his toes.