My dad marks the year in a distinct way than most. The time leading up to fair and then the rest of the year after. Last year, my blog earmarked lament. This year I highlight an excerpt from a recently written novel that I lean towards entitling with lyrics from one of my dad's original songs. This year I am grateful to say that the characters in the scene are discussing topics I am no fortunate to be invested in at a full time job. What we (both real and fictional) will talking about next fair, only time will tell.
“Not a great fair night, but she’ll do,” Dad wiped his forehead with a piece of paper towel and then folded it back into his pocket. “Hard on the animals. I’m sorry I never got to see you take one. This was the best week of my whole year.”
“Why?” Etta pushed her sunglasses up onto her head, holding her fair pass out to the ticket punchers.
“Freedom. We never had freedom like we did here. You could meet people from other towns. Get a girlfriend. Hamburger for ten cents. I never felt so big as when I walked around holding a girl’s hand. At noon, I’d show up at Grange tent to eat. Hamburger. Sun drop. Remember eating here?
“I remember the malts.”
“Yeah. I didn’t stop taking you even though your mom said we couldn’t spend the money. She meant we couldn’t spend her money. I still remember the day I brought you home with ketchup on your face. She asked where we’d been and you just smiled. ‘Are you teaching her to lie to me?’ she asked. I felt upset about that. I didn’t take you out for burgers anymore.”
“I know, I’m an atrocious liar. Always smile sheepishly, no matter what.” So Etta hadn’t been imagining the loyalty to which parent issue. Although, Etta continued to wonder what had been Mom’s issue. Was it the money? They hadn’t been able to make a go of it financially because the farm, and her restaurant from the looks of the notes she found, had always struggled? Etta didn’t think it was not keeping Kosher. Maybe the environmental issues associated with beef production, although that sounded like Jeni. Had the people just not been her mother’s crowd? Her mind flashed to the Tai Chi in the yard derision again. The answer, like her own, was probably somewhere between status and intentions.
“Where should we go first? How about a lap?” Dad offered.
Etta nodded. They turned down the road dividing the chain link fence from the barns. Light bulbs in all the colors that didn’t match blinked on either side of her as she dodged the crowd lingering between impossible to win ring tosses, the Ferris wheel and fun houses. Slipping past the afterthought ATM island, she followed Dad’s shoulders into pole buildings showcasing photography, gardening and woodworking. The smell in the air shifted from char to cheese curds to bleach wafting from the bathrooms nearby. Etta made a note to avoid them. In the silent circle, Etta discerned the crunch of footsteps over cracks broken into the cement and the whip, snap, flap of flags.
“I love these.”
Etta stopped just short of Dad’s voice.
“The farm sets. Look at that. They made the dried cornstalks. And look at that combine. I’d love to play with these.”
“So, why don’t you?”
“A lot of cost. Expensive. Look at that train.”
“Why don’t you play?”
“I just told you.”
“No. I mean your guitar.”
“I was born after rock concluded its serious business.”
“The farm then. Why don’t you play for real? Don’t sell the machinery. Do something different to sustain the farm. Jeni’s parents volunteer on this incubator farm. Provides start up. Or, like farm to table restaurants. Like Mo-” Etta didn’t finish the reference. “Don’t you think there’s a community around?” Etta startled herself at her words. Somehow the research bubbled and spilled out all at once. She hadn’t realized she had paid such close attention.
“Sounds like other people were talking and now you’re talking, Etta. Like my grandma used to say.”
“Don’t we know people?”
“Are you done with the outburst? Come on. Breathe in some hay.” At the edge of the barn was the field harvest exhibit.
Etta leaned into the square bale tied with twine. She sniffed at the spot Dad split open. She sensed sweet, thick warmth, a crinkly, prickly but comforting blanket. “It’s nice, actually.”
“You loved riding on my lap when I cut alfalfa. I miss that field, the pasture field. That was a real rotation. Ground got a chance to rest. And the mist in the morning, beautiful. You’d go out in the dark, and all of a sudden see the flash of the cows’ eyes.”
.“Does painting make you happy?”
Dad clenched his eyebrows as if he did not understand the word. “This is not the time.” He lifted the brim of his hat and readjusted the band.
Etta blinked. Dad didn’t. She picked a bit of stem from her eye and stared for a moment at the tobacco leaves hanging across the aisle. It was all hard work. Maybe he didn’t miss it. Maybe the glass between him and the past as he peaked in the barn windows was more important than she realized. Easy, and hard, to believe.
Taking a few steps behind him, he pointed. “You want to get something to eat?”
Etta heard her dad’s question as instructions. They walked across blacktop she had been focusing on to dodge errant clumps of sawdust and slick manure spots.
“I’m buying. I’ve got the fair fund.” Dad patted his back pocket.
“Well, so do I. You gave me half.”
“You don’t need to spend your money on that. You’re a struggling college student. You’ll graduate and then you’ll have the big bucks.” He clapped his hand on his back pocket again and pulled out his billfold to count dollar bills.
Watching her feet, mostly, and second guessing her choice to wear flip flops despite Dad’s warnings, Etta followed him past the old stone Stock Pavilion and a series of benches under shade trees. Long, not so high metal roof buildings lined the paved walkway, and animal pens and stalls lined the insides of them.
“Look at that stool. That’s old timey.” Dad pointed.
“You want to milk a goat?” she laughed. “Maybe you could milk goats.”
“Goats are trouble. Used to always eat a hamburger there. A malt over there, but now they’ve moved everything. Something about a health code. Urbanites,” Dad mumbled.
“They’re not cleaning much.” Etta breathed deep and caught straw laced with urine in her nostrils.
“Reminds me of my brother and I racing down the middle aisle of the cow barn sweeping as fast as we could to whip up dust and lime. We’d stop just short of Uncle Huey sitting on his milk stool taking a crap. He’d tell us to cut it out and we’d try to be smart saying something like our dad wanted the barn cleaned real fast. Bunch of bullshit. Juan just stood at the end of the barn. He looked up from whatever dime Western he was reading, took off his too round glasses. When we reached him, Juan smacked lime from his pants and laughed. When he moved I could hear the nuts, screws and scraps he was always collecting so that we could sort of gamble later. He had a game kind of like Bingo. If Huey lit another cigarette, Juan would tell us stories about honor, respeto and ver garsi.”
“You know shame.”
“Yeah, that’s what I said. I remember a lot of my high school Spanish.”
Fluttering through dust, Etta caught a glimpse of vibrating feet racing down the aisle sweeping. She flipped her first hypothesis. It wasn’t farming he missed. It was the past when it had mattered. Etta looked up for a moment at his shuffling heavy, steel toed boots in front of her. Boots in the summer. No wonder he complained about his feet burning, but steel used in work boots was also better than bullets even if it wasn’t guitar strings.
“Anyway, he had a quote, “They are born naked which they can’t help; and they die without verguenza, which they can.”
Etta turned her head, she would have to look again, but that sounded like what she had read in Ernesto Galarza’s book that Augustin carried with him. Dad pointed to the side of a barn, shaking his head at the hand sanitizer dispenser that had been attached. Etta stopped paying attention to his grumbles that turned into nodding and waving at people they passed by. “Food row” as Dad called it was about fifty feet of trailers and food trucks split between serving greasy meat sandwiches and ice cream, but she knew from the entrance they had used that this was better than the carts on the midway that had a sugar coated menu of caramel apples, cotton candy and snow cones.
“I think I’m going to get a pork sandwich and a malt. You might like the baked potato?”
Etta squinted her eyes forward. “You think?”
“Well, you’re like your mother. Mostly vegetables. They’re pretty good.”
Etta reminded herself that he was making an effort and appreciatively followed him towards something that he had remembered she liked. With the potato almost burning her palm, Etta scurried to a picnic table under the yellow and white strip pavilion tent to wait for Dad to join her. She sunk her fork into a, once nutritious before solidly boiled, vegetable medley buried in a sour cream and cheese pile. No bacon bits. Etta raised her head to the Ferris Wheel on the far horizon. The sun was hovering halfway down casting colors that matched the barely visible lights on each passenger car, but without the glitter.
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