October always brought on the beginnings of fall. The air turned cooler. The trees grew barer. The grass began to tan over the green. The birds’ voices grew more infrequent as the chill of the air touched off migrations further south. The neighborhoods grew smoky with burning leaves. Men in sweaters raked the brown leaves into piles as they decided to bag or burn. Caressing breezes lifted leaves and smoke indiscriminately. Walking the trail home I was lifted inwardly like the smoke in front of me. It was a glorious afternoon.
The screen door slammed behind me. I dropped my coat on the chair in the corner.
“Don’t slam that door!” said my dad who was reading the newspaper under the lamplight. The interior of the house was a little on the dark side. The walls were covered in wallpaper that was tan with a paisley print in a darker brown. It sucked the light out of the air.
“Yes sir,” I answered. That demand had followed me all my life with no change in my behavior. A slamming screen door was the epitome of the South to me. Long hot summer days were never the same without the echo of a screen door slamming shut by children running out into the heat and wonder of play. That door slam was more than disobedience it was a rite of childhood even though my childhood was coming to a close.
“Rickey, would you help me in the kitchen for a moment, please?”
My mother was asking my help to draw me away from the front room. Dad was reading the paper and hated being disturbed.
“Yes’m.” I walked over to the stove where she was stirring stew in a pot. It was a couple of cans of Armour Star beef stew. Dad had worked at the Armour’s plant down town for years and we had gotten into the habit of eating their canned stew on Wednesdays.
“You know you shouldn’t slam that door like that.” She said it quietly. At the same time she handed me the potato masher. “Can you mash those up for us?”
“I think I can handle that.” Holding the top askew on the pot I drained the water into the sink. When only potatoes remained I added butter along with some Carnation milk. The masher mushed the softened potatoes and blended the milk and butter into a hot pile of creamed potatoes. I dished up three portions. Peas were in a second pot which I slipped over to the sink and drained the water. The three dishes were almost complete after I dropped peas onto them. Mom ladled the stew in the empty space I had left on each plate.
“OK. Dinner is ready. Table or TV?” My mother had begun to ask this question but the answer had become more of the same.
After the local and the national news mom gave me the sign. I collected the plates which I piled into the sink.
“Wait! Scrape those into the garbage. Don’t want your dad to take the trap apart to unclog the pipes again.”
I’d been guilty of that a few times.
“Oh yeah, sorry.” The remains scraped off the plates easily landing with a plop in the trashcan. The clatter of scraped dishes rang out as I turned the tap. A steady stream flowed for rinsing the soapy dishes.
“You’re going to clean the dishes?” asked my mother in surprise.
“Yes ma’am. I thought I’d help out.”
When I finished I hung up the dish towel.
“I finished,” I said. “I didn’t break one.”
“I know. I never heard one hit the floor. I want you to know I appreciate your helping,” said my mother as I walked into the living room.
“Are we still going to the fair this weekend?” I asked. I thought I’d sneak this in casually and then spring my big question.
Dad looked up and answered me, “Yes. We’ll register for the car give away just like we did last year.” That was his big reason for going.
“Don’t you want to go?” My mother was looking at me with a touch of a frown on her face.
“Yes ma’am. I sure do. I always enjoy the fair.” I stood looking at them both. Dad looked at me. I could see he had a question for me.
“I was wondering…”
“Yes?” dad murmured.
“Go ahead and ask,” said dad. His face began to sport the glimmer of a smile.
“OK. I was wondering, uh, well, um, could I…”
Mom smiled saying, “Just say it, Rickey.”
“Could I ask someone to go with me?”
“RB? Sure. He’s always over. It’s OK with me if his parents don’t mind.”
“Uh, no not RB. Um…uh…”
Now dad looked at me. The smile slowly grew. He knew. How did he know?
“It’s OK, son. We’ve kind of known for a while you’ve wanted to ask a girl out. What’s her name?”
I looked at him, then my mother. They both had grins on their faces.
“Linda.” It came out almost as a whisper.
“A pretty name,” said dad. “Have you asked her?”
“I didn’t want to until I knew it would be alright with you since she would be coming with us.”
“Yes, of course you can. Why don’t you go ahead and call her to see if she wants to go.” Dad’s smile was probably bigger than I had ever seen, but mine was bigger.
Now all I had to do was build up the courage to call her, a mountain of a problem for a shy guy.
She was in the same class with me and I had been talking to her any chance I could without my buddies around. I would never hear the end of it if they caught me talking to a girl. Even so, I was ready for the full-fledged teasing I would undergo because she was a dream that made my heart flutter when she came into view. Her brunette hair encircled a face of such fair beauty that I tripped every time I saw her. My mouth went dry and I couldn’t speak, much less think, when she was near so gathering all my courage to call her was the greatest effort I had ever undertaken to this point in my life.
I picked up the phone and stuck my finger in the dial. I couldn’t breathe. I leaned over my knees so the blood would rush back to my brain since it had dropped to my feet. I sat in that position for over five minutes then straightened up to look at the phone again. I pressed the button to regain the dial tone and my insides turned to water. I slowly put the phone back into its cradle.
When my brain regained its normal blood flow I picked up the phone with determination. Her number was written on the piece of paper I flattened out in front of me. I took two deep breaths, made up my mind and dialed.
It rang. I slammed the phone down. My breathing came in short bursts.
“Is something wrong?” my mother asked standing in the door frame.
“It’s, uh, harder than I thought to, uh, call a girl,” I stammered out.
“Just take your time. She won’t bite you. Don’t you remember what I told you about my first meeting with your dad?” She smiled at me, the memory coming to her.
Dad was a sailor with free time to explore the town. He stepped onto the bus holding the coins out for the driver to choose.
“I’m not used to your money,” he said his accent and Royal Navy uniform cluing the driver that he would be helping this British sailor. He picked out the coins needed to carry dad to Riverland Terrace.
“This and this,” he said picking two dimes from dad’s hand. “Have a seat anywhere in the front of the bus.” He jerked his thumb to the rear while saying this. As dad grabbed the pole and started back the driver closed the folding door and jammed the gearshift into first.
His eyes immediately fell upon a brunette sitting by the window. The seat beside her was unoccupied. He noticed but made no move to sit there. It was the only open seat available but he simply decided to stand, holding on to the pole. My mother had been eyeing him since he stepped aboard. Her smile was meant to invite him to sit. It wasn’t working. She saw him looking at her from the corner of his eye with a faint smile. She knew he was taken with her looks but he was making no move to talk with her.
“Hey sailor,” she said.
He ignored her.
“Hey sailor,” she said again. He turned.
“Yes, you. There’s a seat here.”
“Thank you but I’m fine here,” he said smiling at her.
My mother became a bit frustrated and blurted out, “I’m not going to bite you!”
“Alright, miss. I’ll sit.” He let go the pole and stepped over to the open seat. He sat beside her silently.
My mother was beside herself. This guy wouldn’t even talk to her when clearly he had been taken by her from the moment he stepped onto the bus.
“It’s alright to talk to me. As I said, I won’t bite you.”
And with that they began to get to know one another.
“Yes, I know the story,” I said to her.
“Well then you should be able to talk to your girlfriend without fear of being bitten.”
“Oh, mom, she’s not my girlfriend.”
“Well, whatever she is, I’m sure she will be happy to go to the fair with you.”
“Do you really think so?” She smiled, nodded, then left the room.
Encouraged, I picked up the phone. I dialed the number. The phone rang on her end. I was almost ready to hang up after the third ring but a voice floated across the line.
I had to catch my breath. By the time she said the third hello I had caught my breath and blurted out, “Would you like to go to the fair with me this weekend?”
There was a pause as static crinkled into my ear.
“Is this Rickey?”
“Uh, yes. Do you think you’d like to go?”
“Hang on a minute. I have to ask my parents.”
My heart nearly burst from my chest. The most gorgeous girl I know wants to go to the fair with me. My mind flew in all directions. We were walking hand in hand along the booths. There was a hill with daisies and sunflowers welcoming us as we ran together hand in hand beneath the deep blue sky. A small cottage behind a barricade of wild flowers encased in a white picket fence beckoned us into a future of bliss and…
Her voice brought me back to the present with my inability to breathe or speak.
“Rickey? Hello? Hello?”
I tried to speak.
“Rickey? Are you there?”
“Uh…yes,” I said in a hoarse whisper.
“My daddy wants to know how we will be getting there.”
“Oh, uh, my folks will be taking us.”
“Oh. OK. Hang on again.”
Once again my thoughts took flight with us hand in hand…
I snapped back immediately.
“Yes, I’m here.”
“Daddy said that will be OK then.”
We talked for a bit as I told her what day and time this “date” would be. We wound up our conversation with a smiling goodbye on each end. I slammed the phone into its cradle and jumped for joy.
“I take it she said yes?” asked my dad.
“She sure did!”
“I’m happy for you, son. Now what are you going to use for money?”
“Yes. Usually the boy pays for everything. How are you going to manage that?” Dad asked grinning at me.
“Gosh, I don’t know. I think I still have a dollar left over from my allowance. How much do I need?”
“That depends. What all do you plan to do on this date? Rides? Cotton candy? Games?”
“Yes.” The utterance came slowly from my lips.
“That’s going to cost quite a bit for two people.”
Money. I hadn’t given it a thought. Good grief! Where would I get money for this date?
“Would you give me the money?”
“Give?” said dad. “I might be able to provide it for some chores being done.”
“Your helping your mother with the dishes was a nice gesture. I’m sure there are a lot of things we could think of to earn a little so you can impress your date.”
Chores? The thought conjured up chopping wood, cutting grass, trimming hedges, raking leaves, all manner of WORK! It was something I was not too familiar with since I was always studying or watching TV. Now came the time to step up and do my duty for my woman. Yeah, my woman. And with that thought came the open sky settling over the cottage lined with wild flowers and the white picket fence beside a gurgling…
“Rickey!” my dad’s voice cracked through the fantasy my mind was lost in. “Where did you go, son?”
“Oh, I was trying to think of chores to earn money,” I lied.
“You let me decide on those chores.”
The rest of the week was a busy time for me. My dad handed me a piece of paper with a list of things to be done and each day after school I took it out to begin some new torture he had devised. I should have known the smile that he gave me along with the list was going to be challenging.
Each day at school I’d sneak a few minutes with my woman beyond the eyes of my buddies. It was challenge, too, but a much more rewarding one. To collect her smiles was the true fortune I garnered.
And then it was the weekend and time for the fair. Though I had seen her that day I was weak in the knees as our car approached her place.
“That’s it!” I yelled out as dad was slipping past it.
When he stopped I froze. I couldn’t lift my arm to the door handle. I couldn’t breathe.
“Rickey? What is it son?” My mother leaned over the front seat and shook me.
“Uh…” was all I could stammer.
“Come on, boy. We’re here. It’s your job to go to the front door to fetch her.” My dad’s voice came through with instructions yet my arms and legs remained frozen.
“You aren’t going to make me go for you, are you? That would not make a good impression, so get hold of yourself and get moving.” He reached over the seat and opened my door. “Go on then.”
I leaned out the door trying to get my legs to follow. Holding on to the door I finally was able to toss my legs out of the car and onto the ground. Slowly I stood up straight. A couple of slow deep breaths gave me some strength and I leaned toward the sidewalk my legs finally moving to keep me from toppling over. In a haze of fright I slowly ambled to the door.
There’s the door, I thought. It was in front of me lit up by the yellow bulb shining beside it. I reached for the bell when the door opened.
“I was wondering if you would ever make it,” she said as my hand hit the bell. Behind her it rang blocking her voice along with the blood pounding in my ears.
“Uh, hi. I, uh, um, I’m here to pick you up.”
“That’s good. Won’t you come in to meet my parents?”
“Uh, do I, uh, have to?” I mumbled.
“They really want to meet you.”
I walked zombie-like past the door frame into the front room lit up like an interrogation room. All the lights seemed to be blearing there sun bright light straight into my eyes. Two shadows behind those lights stepped forward. I held my hand in front of my eyes to ward off the blinding sear of white light. My hand was grabbed and shaken rippling up through my entire body. The hand pumps hid the shaking of my knees and frame.
“How do you do, son. Rickey isn’t it?” said her father behind the lights.
What’s with the third degree? My mind screamed.
“Uh, yes sir, Rickey.”
“I take it you are going to make sure my daughter enjoys herself?”
Once again my mind began screaming, how can I ensure that? When do the rubber hoses come out?
“Uh, I’ll do my best, sir” I offered.
“OK, then, you two get a move on and enjoy your evening. Honey, be home early.”
“My dad wants to wait for the car raffle drawing. Um, I’m not sure what time that will be.”
“I’ll go out and introduce myself and find out,” said her dad heading for the door.
I helped Linda with her coat and we followed along behind. Our dads spoke while we climbed into the backseat. I shut the door. My dad shook hands with her dad who then said goodbye to his daughter and turned to the house. My dad pulled off into the street. I looked at my date. She seemed a bit embarrassed. I smiled. She smiled back. My mother turned toward the backseat.
“Hi, Linda. Since our son isn’t going to introduce us I will. I’m Rickey’s mother and this is his dad. We’ve heard so much about you that we feel like we know you.”
Linda looked at me, then back at my mom.
“I had no idea. I’m glad to meet you both. It’s awfully nice of you to let me go with you.”
The small talk continued as we drove to the county fairgrounds.
I’m on a date! I screamed in my head. This is going to be the best night ever. I watched Linda as she and my mother continued to talk. She is so wonderful, I thought drifting off into my fantasy world.
I was trimming the grass around the cottage as my dad stopped the car jolting me back to reality.
I jumped out and held my hand for hers as I had seen my heroes in the movies do for their fair maidens, she being my Fair Maiden…hahaha, uh, sorry.
“I’ll pay for everything,” said my dad.
I looked at him.
“You did a fair job for a fair wage which I haven’t given you so I’ll pay your Fair expenses.” And I used to wonder where my sense of humour came from.
The chill in the air made us glad we had worn our coats. My only thought was how do I take her hand while we walk around deciding what to do first.
There were barkers calling out for us to try our hand at their games of skill and chance. One of them had a wall of balloons to be burst by a set of darts for a buck.
“Ooh, can I try my hand?” I yelled at dad who was looking for the car raffle booth.
“Yes, go right on,” he said.
He handed the man a dollar and I picked up my darts. The first one flew right toward the pink balloon in the corner only to knock it to the side embedding itself in the cork. No hit there. Number two sailed into the cork board without bumping any one of them. And number three took flight heading straight for a bright blue one but a gust of air pushed it out of the point’s path.
“Try your hand again, boy. You almost had that last one. Win a teddy bear for your pretty young girl friend.”
I looked at dad. He handed the guy a dollar. Those darts I knew were destined to pop three in a row and, yet, not one fell victim to my deadly aim.
“Ah, too bad, young man, but there’s plenty more darts and balloons for another dollar. This time luck’s sure to be on your shoulder.” He looked at me then at a teddy bear on the wall. Then he winked and moved his head in Linda’s direction. He was right. I knew I could win one with this next try. I looked at dad who was still trying to find the car raffle booth.
“Come on, son. You don’t want to waste all your time and money at the first booth. There’s plenty to do here.”
“You’re right,” I said. “Let’s look around some more. “
I looked at my date, I was proud of that word and this chance to be with my woman, and asked, “What would you like to do?”
“The Ferris Wheel!”
I froze. My face must have turned the shade of a hen’s egg as the blood left it to drop to my toes. The Ferris wheel? How could I get her to change her mind. Didn’t she know that thing went up high over the ground? Yeah, obviously she did but it made no difference to her. The Ferris wheel? I never even thought about that being something she would want to do. I couldn’t move.
“Rickey, come on. Your dad sees the booth to buy tickets for the car.” She took off after my folks. I finally pulled my legs up by the roots and ran after her.
“Here it is!” said my dad. “This is the winning ticket this year!”
He always said that. We were still driving the Ford he bought from Paul Motor Company two years ago.
“I’m good now. What’s next?” he asked.
“The Ferris Wheel.” It was Linda’s voice cutting through the chill of the night air.
“The Ferris Wheel it is,” said my dad watching me. Concern began to show in his face.
Now I had never ridden the Ferris Wheel. I had never had any desire to ride the Ferris Wheel. It was one thing that simply did not exist in my world. I had passed it each year while at the Fair without acknowledging its existence. And now all of a sudden we were walking toward it.
There was a line. We stood at the back of the line. I looked up at the top of the round wheel reaching high into the cold black sky. My breath came out in heavy clouds of condensation. Sweat began to form on my brow in the cold air surrounding me. The top of that wheel kept getting higher as I stared at it. Linda tugged on my sleeve to get me to keep up with the shortening line. Maybe it would be filled and there would be no room for us, I hoped. The closer we got the higher it grew. I watched the seats swing back and forth as the wheel stopped to load passengers. The chair held up to three as three in front of us climbed in and latched the bar in front of them. The wheel moved. My dad paid for four tickets. Slowly I moved toward the seat dragging my feet. Sweat began to sting my eyes.
My dad and my mother climbed into their seat all smiles. Dad settled back pulling the arm shut before them.
“OK, son,” said the ticket salesman. “Your girlfriend is already in your seat. Don’t you think it’s time you climbed in beside her?” He winked at me.
I walked over with all the strength I could muster. I grabbed the side and pulled myself up into the seat. The first thing I noticed, besides the pendulum swinging movement, was the seat as I sat thinking I would sink into it. Nope. That seat was hard and sat me high without that sense of security I would have felt if it had settle down with my bum so that I felt a part of it. As it was I felt as if that seat wanted me off because there was no give. It was slippery as well. My center of gravity was well over the side rails and I felt the chair’s intent was to tip forward and slide me right out at the top. Before I could latch the bar in front of us the wheel lurched backwards causing the chair to rock more. I braced my feet against the metal and white knuckled the bar in front of me. As this was going on and I was bracing myself from being tossed out of my seat with the next abrupt backward movement I could hear my name.
“Rickey! Rickey! Are you alright!”
What had been a faint sound began to be a frantic shout along with being shaken. Linda was shouting into my ear. Her face had a worried look. My face must have been a white mask of sheer fright.
The wheel began to move steadily backward and then up. I looked out and the sky seemed to drop down on me. The lights of town appeared to fall backward beyond the Fairgrounds. My stomach left my body in its fervent desire to remain at ground level. All my blood seemed to pool in the center of my being. As the wheel picked up speed and began dropping I heard someone screaming. The man at the controls must have heard someone screaming, too, as our bobbing chair passed him. He was staring straight at me with a puzzled look on his face. How could he not hear those screams? I heard them. They were getting louder all the time. The sky rushed at me as we came to the pinnacle and rushed down again.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the man at the controls looking at me again. Shouldn’t he be looking at whoever was screaming? But there was no time to think about that as the wheel kept spinning. The chair kept rocking. My butt kept sliding forward to be jettisoned at the chair’s convenience. Once again we were on the descent and the screams were at fever pitch. I could hear the words now.
“STOP THIS THING! LET ME OFF! STOP IT! CAN’T YOU HEAR ME! STOP THIS THING! LET ME OFF! PLEASE! LET ME OFF!”
When the wheel stopped so that our chair was bobbing at ground level I realized it was me. I was the one screaming at the top of my lungs. And the blood rushed to my face as the embarrassment caught up with my realization.
The man running the machine was saying something as he unlatched the bar. I shot out of the seat and raced into the crowd putting as much space between me and that infernal contraption as I could find. I never looked back. I just ran becoming lost in the sea of people all around walking the flat surface of the earth as God meant for us.
I found a post on the other side of the fairgrounds to lean on. My stomach lurched like the wheel had done but nothing happened. I stayed leaning for a long time attempting to regain my composure. Once I did I knew humiliation through and through. I had screamed like a girl, no, worse than a girl to get off one of the tamest rides at the fairgrounds. If I had been alone it would have been one thing but I hadn’t been alone. I had been with the girl of my dreams. I had shown utter fear right in front of the most wonderful girl in the world. I wanted to cry but refused to add that to my shame.
It was then I realized I had to go back and face this person through this sense of worthlessness. I simply could not do it. There had to be some place for failures such as I. But where? And how would I manage? I wasn’t even in high school proper yet. And how could I face all my friends when word of this got out? My life was over. I knew it. What to do?
I began my slow trudge back to that horrid ride. Maybe if I won a teddy bear for her she would have pity on me. I stopped at a couple of booths trying desperately to win some stuffed animal or a bronze statue of a horse. I knew she liked horses. It wasn’t to be. I spent the few dollars I had to exhibit absolutely no skill in any of the games. My pockets empty, my dreams gone, my pride stripped from me, I continued my somber walk back to the wheel.
There it was, stopped. All the chairs were swinging on their pivots. A new batch of pleasure seekers climbing into those overstuffed chairs. While I was looking up at it I heard a voice calling out my name.
I looked around. It was Linda running over to me.
“Rickey, are you alright?” she asked with real concern in her voice.
“I’m, uh, OK. I had to… I… I’m so sorry. I must have embarrassed you to no end.”
“It’s OK,” she said. “We were just worried about you. I had no idea you were afraid of heights.’
“Uh huh. They scare me.”
“I’m so sorry you were scared. Let’s forget about it.”
My folks came up behind me. Dad’s hand rested on my shoulder. He put some pressure into it, then, patted it.
“Are you OK, son?” he asked.
“I think so.”
“Can we get some cotton candy?” asked Linda.
“Sure,” I said, “if dad still has the money.”
“I think we can manage that,” was his answer. We marched off in the direction of the confectioner’s booth and into the land of memory.