The summer I turned nine was the year my mother decided that I could be trusted to handle myself in public. In truth, she had let me run the empty streets of our neighborhood since I’d started school, but in public she always made a show of keeping her hands on my narrow shoulders, steering me like a buggy through the grocery store. I had already explored the swampy frog pond that separated our part of town from the country, the abandoned mill with its rusty, hollow silos, and the old chicken hut across the railroad tracks. If she knew where I’d been, she didn’t ask, though she asked me a few times to try and keep my knees clean.
When the Free Fair & Carnival came around in early August, I was anxious to try out my new freedom. The fair wasn’t free like its name suggested and it was no powwow, but the lights and the rides and games would run all weekend long. Every year my mother would herd me from kiddie ride to kiddie ride while she gossiped with one of her friends, whistling through her teeth if she thought I’d wandered too far off. The kiddie rides were always a disappointment: a half-painted spinning bear whose red and white suspenders were pink and cream from the sun, a clacking train ride that boasted a five-foot peak and had a penchant for getting stuck at the top, and a swing ride, which I never rode after that time in first grade when Violet Shangreaux forgot to latch the crotch buckle and slid right out of the swing just as the machine hit full velocity. She only broke an ankle and her left wrist, but that was enough to scare me off the swing ride for good.
That year, I’d had a growth spurt and was finally tall enough to ride the Green Machine, the only ride that wasn’t torn down and stored away over the winter. It ran on a converted John Deere tractor engine, and it had two egg-shaped capsules at the ends of welded steel arms that swung up and around like I’d imagined David’s slingshot from the Bible story. It was exhilarating to watch: some pimple-faced farm boy would kick the motor on and the dusty black belts would rumble and begin to whir so fast as to appear still before the arms began to swing. Shaniece, my best friend when she happened to be staying with her grandmother (which was often), had already made me pinky-promise that we would ride the Machine together.
We went to the fair on the second night, a Saturday. I asked my mother’s boyfriend, who I called Uncle Pablo, to tie my hair up in a tight bun on the top of my head and he used one of his red bandanas to hold my hair back from my forehead. In school we’d learned about the textile factories in far away New York and Boston and how the people who worked there would get their hair sucked into their machines’ gears and pulled out from the root. I imagined the whirring, swinging parts of the Green Machine catching my waist-length hair and taking my scalp with it or worse, more. Uncle Pablo laughed at me when I told him that, but he tied his bandana around my head just the same.
As we walked the quarter-mile from our little A-frame in the old part of town, my mother and Uncle Pablo leaning on one another as they went, I ran a few steps ahead. Once we hit those fairgrounds, I’d be home-free. I planned how to spend my $5-worth of tickets: the tilt-a-whirl first, I thought, then the spider ride with its middle painted like a Black Widow’s belly, and then for three tickets, the Green Machine. Or maybe the Ferris wheel instead of the tilt-a-whirl, but I knew Shaniece would say that the Ferris wheel was for babies.
My mother whistled for me to slow up as a line of white vans drove past. I stopped and watched, taking a step back into the grassy ditch. There were five of them, mostly identical but for a few differences in year or wear-and-tear: tall white vans like you see at churches. The orange streetlamp shone dimly through the dark windows, revealing silhouettes of broad-brimmed hats in one van and square bonnets in the next. I was used to seeing the Mennonites around the fair every year, but their presence, all of them dressed so alike, always startled me at first. They weren’t like the other white people in Caddo County; they didn’t just ignore the rest of us, it was more like they pretended we didn’t exist. They kept to themselves on their dairy farms, owned their cows and the land outright, drove their own milk tankers and seemed to prefer to have as little to do with the rest of us as possible. My mother said that was because of their religion, but Uncle Pablo said it was because they didn’t like Indians. Thinking of the girls’ milk-white hair caps, how the caps came just over their ears, I touched my own ears sticking out from beneath Uncle Pablo’s bandana. My ears felt hot.
As we came up on the fairgrounds lined with Christmas lights—tackiest thing in town, my mother said—I spotted Shaniece sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck. Even though she was older by ten months (something she liked to remind me of), she was smaller and shorter than I was and her skin was darker than even Uncle Pablo’s. She always wore her thick hair in pigtail-puffs tied with brightly colored hairbands that sometimes had plastic marbles on the ends. We’d known each other since kindergarten, when Shaniece’s mother started hustling her down from Oklahoma City whenever school let out so Shaniece could stay with her grandma. Her grandma lived in the senior housing in the middle of town and it was never any fun over there. At her mother’s house, Shaniece told me, she had cable television and a membership at the science museum. Shaniece was the most sophisticated person I knew. The Free Fair was usually the last big thing we did together every summer because then it was just a week or so until Shaniece’s mother would take her home. We’d prepared for this night by collecting cans from the recycling bin in the Dollar Store parking lot and, when that wasn’t enough, we picked up cigarette butts outside the VFW for ten cents a piece.
When Shaniece saw me walking through the dusty lot, she grinned and waved. I got the nod of approval from my mother and jogged to meet her. We slapped palms and stuck our tongues out, a secret handshake we’d already told everyone about. We wasted no time in bee-lining for the ticket booth. The line was long but moved steadily, and the air was thick with smells; at the far end of the fairgrounds, men stood smoking around the chili and frybread stands, while others milled around two huge meat smokers that turned out heaping piles of pulled pork. The scent of meat mingled with the smog of cigarettes, sweet cigarillos, and the diesel exhaust that pumped out of more than a few rides. The smell blanketed the grounds, and we would smell it in our clothes for days afterward.
At the ticket counter, the teenage girl behind the register scowled and clicked her tongue as I put down two-dollar bills and a small Ziploc of dimes, quarters, and nickels. Shaniece laid down five-dollar bills. With a heavy sigh, the girl counted the bills and slid them into her drawer and then counted my coins by scratching them across the counter into small piles. As if it pained her, she ripped ten tickets off the roll and handed them over. “Thank you,” Shaniece said. The girl rolled her eyes in a way that made me feel guilty. Shaniece shrugged, so I shrugged, and we joined hands and walked toward the midway where we could cut through the gaming booths to the big rides on the other side. All kinds of people were lined up to play the familiar carnival games: rubber duck race, darts, one of those pop-gun games, and in a double booth, stacked high with round goldfish bowls, the ring toss, where you could win a sad, three-cent goldfish that would probably die on the way home (Shaniece had won four of them one year, and every single one was belly-up by the end of the night). At the end of the midway, fifty-or-so grannies and grandpas listened with rapt attention to the Bingo caller’s voice, blue rubber stamps at the ready. Among them I saw Shaniece’s grandmother, her silver hair smoothed back in the front and then teased into a white spray.
“Think she’ll win anything?” I said, shaking Shaniece’s hand in her grandma’s direction.
She snorted. “No,” she said. “She plays them scratcher cards every day. You wanna do the spider ride first?” She pulled me away from the Bingo tent and toward the center of the field.
“Uncle Pablo plays the scratchers sometimes. Once he won twenty dollars,” I said.
Shaniece’s left eyebrow shot up. “Why do you call him Uncle? He’s lived in your house forever. Girl, he’s your new daddy, you like it or not.”
I sort of nodded and shook my head at once, a mediocre gesture I’d perfected when I was done talking and didn’t want to start anything else. But I knew even then that Shaniece was at least half-right: Uncle Pablo had been around forever, he was kind, and I liked the way he wore his hair, long and shiny like my grandpa’s in all those yellowed pictures we had on our fridge. He was Cheyenne, not Choctaw like us, but not white like my real father. I probably liked that best about him.
To our left, the carousel’s generators hummed, nearly drowning out the Classic Country station blaring through the carousel’s speakers. The carousel’s roof was lined with mirrors cut into puzzle shapes, and the mirrors reflected the flashing lights from the Ferris wheel and the other rides. It was disorienting, like falling into the center of a kaleidoscope, but this only made me giddy. We settled at the end of the line for the spider ride, a half-dozen or so Mennonite boys ahead of us. They looked like slightly imperfect copies of one another, all tall and wide-shouldered, with dusty blonde hair sneaking from beneath their straw hats. They were most likely brothers, or maybe first cousins. They had the clearest blue eyes I’d ever seen, like the bottom of the public swimming pool. One of the younger ones caught me staring and winked, and a full blush creeped over my chest and face. He smirked and turned back to the other boys as the line moved up. The boys were the last to get on the ride, and they took the steps in near-identical pairs, two by two.
“My grandma says don’t talk to the Mennonites,” Shaniece said in a whisper.
“I like their eyes,” I said. “I don’t know nobody with eyes like that.” My eyes were dark brown, though not so dark as Shaniece’s.
“My grandma says it’s because they don’t go mixing with us and we should do them the same,” she said, “Like they can come out here and play nice and all, but they’re not having babies with us.” I made a face. Sex was still a repulsive but fascinating thing to me; while I understood what it was, the physical act was practically unimaginable. I blew a raspberry and Shaniece rolled her eyes. “I’m tired of talking about this,” she said. “I want to go on the ride already. Damn.”
Cussing still held its glamor that year, and we’d been practicing using certain expletives when we were alone. Shit and damn were our favorites, the hard clip of the former and the sigh of the latter. We had tried the word fuck, but it always seemed to come out wrong, not at all like how the teenagers in the park say it. This word, we concluded, would come to us later, and then we would understand. For now, though, we contented ourselves with brief brushes with maturity by cussing under our breath.
The spider ride started up, its massive axis grinding to life, lifting its eight legs up above the crowd. The little carriages on each leg began to spin independently. The gears groaned in waves, just as the passengers’ screams rose and fell. In three of the carriages, the Mennonite boys threw their weight from one side of the car to the other to maximize their spin. The boy who winked at me was smiling, yelling, and holding tight to his hat. The blue of his cotton shirt matched his eyes. I wondered what it would be like to grow up in a world filled with slight versions of yourself; I thought about how my mother’s skin was darker than mine, Uncle Pablo’s darker than hers, and Shaniece’s darker still.
“You’re staring,” Shaniece said.
I looked at the ground, at the little rips and tears in the grass from the metal barricade around the spider ride.
“Keep dreaming,” Shaniece said. “A Mennonite boy’s gonna marry a Mennonite girl and they’re gonna have Mennonite babies. That’s how it goes. You ever see a Mennonite boy with an Indian or a black girl? They stick to their own.”
“I know,” I said. I wondered what my real father had looked like. Had he had blue eyes and blonde hair? My mother said she met him in college, her second year, and that he had been studying to go to vet school. He was very tall, which said something since she wasn’t a little thing herself. I wondered if he knew about me. That was something my mother wouldn’t tell me. “Do you think they sleep in those hats?”
Shaniece laughed. “Probably.”
After we rode the spider ride, we walked on uneasy legs over to the tilt-a-whirl. My hip ached from where it had been crushed up against the plastic carriage on every downswing, but I was still high on the feeling of spinning over the lit-up fair, the people and lights below melting into a flurry of color and noise.
“That was so fun,” I said. “I wish we had enough tickets to ride it again later.” I stepped around a puddle of melted ice cream.
“Nah, if we had more tickets, we should ride the gravity spinner. That’s the one where it sucks you back to the wall,” she said.
“It’s called center-pedal force, what sucks you to the wall,” I said.
“I knew that. They got a little one at the science museum and I’ve been on it tons.”
The line to the tilt-a-whirl was short, to our surprise, but it soon became apparent why. From the inside of one of the oversized teacups, a rancid odor of whiskey wafted from the plastic seats. Someone had vomited, presumably the teenager curled into a ball on the ride’s walkway. The attendant and a few other men were trying to clean the seat and carry him off the plank. They grabbed his shoulders and began to drag him toward the ramp, and he lifted his face and moaned before dry-heaving on the grass. I recognized him as one of the Shangreaux boys. The Shangreauxs had the worst luck. I tugged on Shaniece’s hand.
“Shit,” I said, “I don’t wanna ride nobody’s puke.”
“Me neither,” she said. She pointed toward the gravity spinner. “C’mon, then.”
We cut across the midway hand in hand, running. There was no urgency, no hurry, but we ran anyway until we were breathless, skidding to a stop in the soft grass. Our shoes left little ruts in the dirt. I felt a line of sweat drip down my cheek. I always felt like I was running with Shaniece, running after her, even when I knew she was feeding me a line or disagreed with her. Across the fairgrounds, the carousel spun slowly, blasting its warbling music, the slow pump of its horses creeping at a snail’s pace.
Shaniece stopped running in front of the gravity spinner ride. It was one of the bigger rides, and we were quickly at the head of the line. We watched the people in front of us strap themselves into the individual slots before the attendant came by and jerked their belts to check them. They spun for a while, and when the spinner tilted sideways, I saw the floors had been painted to look like a roulette wheel. I imagined it spinning off its base like a stripped lugnut, careening out of the fairgrounds and into the town. When the ride was over, the passengers’ faces were flushed bright red, all of them, and they seemed happy to have their feet on solid ground once more.
We handed our tickets to the attendant and picked two slots, hurrying to strap in. I squared my feet against the back of the wall, trying in some way to dig my heels into the steel floor. Other riders filled in, picking slots here and there. Last to step onto the floor were the Mennonite boys. They were laughing and jostling one another as they took up the last remaining spaces. The attendant made his round, checking our belts, and returned to his control box to flick the switches. I squeezed my eyes tight, prepared for the slow whir that would begin the ride. I peeked out of one eye and saw the boy, his hat held with both hands across his chest, his short hair crimped from the crease of his hatband. He looked ready to be buried. I felt a rising in my stomach that before that moment I had thought was shame, and it was then, too, but not entirely. I closed my eyes again.
The ride jerked and began to spin clockwise. I groped for Shaniece’s hand and squeezed until she squeaked, her fingers twisting between mine. We spun, faster and faster, and I felt my body lose its weight into the wall behind me, a feeling of both weightlessness and absorption. Shaniece screamed a high, happy scream, and I joined in, whooping. When the spinner tilted sideways, we both laughed hysterically, the pressure of the air sucking the breath from our lungs. The other passengers were a blur, my eyes unable to focus on anything but Shaniece’s hand in mine and the pinwheeling sky overhead.
As the gravity spinner slowed to a stop, I felt myself sink back to the steel floor. I felt heavier than before, more tethered to the ground. My skin tingled. Shaniece was still giggling, her palm wet and cold in my own. “That,” she said, gulping for air, “was awesome.” She unsnapped her belt. “That was so much better than the tilt-a-whirl.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe.” I unbuckled the canvas straps and followed her to the gate.
“Green Machine,” she said.
I nodded. Between the spider ride and the gravity spinner, a line of twenty or so people coiled around the Green Machine. We found a spot in line and watched the people on the Green Machine do loop-de-loops in their cars, screaming in waves. The arms were at their zenith, and a few coins fell loudly to the ground; the crowd laughed. The attendant did it every year. Riders were supposed to empty their pockets before they got on, and inevitably someone wouldn’t. “Send down your wallet,” someone in line said. I’d read once that if you dropped a penny from a great enough height, you could kill someone, and I didn’t want that on my conscience.
“No pockets,” Shaniece said, pointing to her shorts. She tapped the side of her head. “Smart, right?”
“Yeah,” I said.
We waited like that through two turns, and with each step closer to the head of the line, I felt a new wash of cold sweat at the base of my neck. The gravity spinner had loosened my bun, and damp strands were stuck to my neck and shoulders. With every revolution of the Green Machine’s arms, a gust of air burst out at us, thick with the smell of diesel and dirt. The smell caught in my throat. I jerked on Shaniece’s elbow. “I don’t think I can.”
“What do you mean you can’t? We’ve been waiting forever. We got three tickets left,” she said. “You can’t chicken out.”
“I’m not a chicken,” I said. My knees felt like they were filled with helium, ready to lift me off the ground.
The line moved forward and us with it. Her eyebrows were knit together like they were when she was angry. “You are so a chicken. Why did you even come here if you weren’t gonna play with me?”
“I don’t want to ride this ride,” I said. The cars were unloading, and I knew we would be included in the next group. The thought made my heart beat too fast. “I’ll share my tickets with you.”
Shaniece looked at the Green Machine, with its wheezing belts and pimple-faced attendant, and then looked back at me. “I won’t be your friend anymore if you don’t do this with me.”
“That’s not fair,” I said.
“Say you’re a chicken,” she said, “Say it and I’ll still be your friend.”
“You have to.” She wrinkled her nose and stomped her foot.
Behind us, the Mennonite boy came off of the Green Machine. As he passed, his hat still in his hands, Shaniece tugged at his shirt sleeves. “Hey,” she said. “You know she likes you. She wants to have sex with you.”
A look of confusion crossed the Mennonite boy’s face as he glanced from Shaniece to me and then to his friends. They burst out laughing. All of them. My eyes were hot and I knew that tears were coming. Shaniece, satisfied, skipped around them to the front of the line. I covered my face with my hands, but through my fingers I saw her hand her tickets over and hop into the capsule. The boys were saying things in German, already drifting away from me, slapping each other on the shoulder as they laughed. The Mennonite boy smiled at me as he followed them, which only made me feel worse.
I didn’t move as the line snaked around me like water over rocks. I watched as the attendant started flicking switches on the panel. My palms were slick with my tears and bit of snot that had founds its way down my face. I recognized Shaniece’s laugh, shrill like a bird’s, drifting out of the ride as its arms began to swing. When the arms hit the first peak, a split second before swinging back faster, that laugh became a high whine. Another turn and she was wailing. I looked at the people around me, children and adults, Mennonites and Indians, but no one seemed to hear it. The attendant flipped a different switch, locking the Green Machines arms high overhead. The wailing stopped. A coin clanged down out of the cage. A Mennonite girl’s haircap fell softly in the grass. A cigarette. A few people in line patted their hands, looking at the sky. Rain, I heard one say, but the sky was clear, pocked with stars.
When the Green Machine had run its course, I waited for Shaniece outside the exit gate. She had hurt my feelings, but I had no one else and it hadn’t sounded like she’d had much fun anyhow. I thought surely she would forgive me and we could split my last tickets for a game or a ride on the Ferris wheel. One by one, everyone else slipped through the gate, but Shaniece did not. I walked around the fence, searching for her. I saw her first, climbing awkwardly over the little metal fence before crouching between two small bushes, her arms straight as planks over the rest of her. The seat of her shorts was shades darker than the rest, a wide wet spot. She turned and opened her mouth, her eyes angry, but instead of saying anything, her eyebrows wrinkled together.
“Don’t tell,” she said.
“I won’t,” I said. “Want I should tell your grandma we’re going home?”
“Yes,” she said. She stared at the ground. “Did anyone see?”
I shrugged, “Thought it was raining.”
“Really?” She smiled at that.
Shaniece stopped coming to Caddo County after that. Her mother married a businessman and he was moving them both to California, or that’s what Shaniece said. We wrote letters for a while; hers were all postmarked Toledo, Ohio. Her grandmother moved along with them. A white family moved into her yellow house and painted it white even though Uncle Pablo warned them it would be gray in a season.
One of the Mennonite boys died that spring. He fell into a grain silo and suffocated, or drowned. I didn’t know if it was the same Mennonite boy from the fair, but it could have been. I was in a high school German class when I finally understood what those boys had said. Nein danke.
I hadn’t known it then, but that was my last Free Fair, too. I never got to ride the Green Machine. A recession was setting in and everyone was scrambling for work. Uncle Pablo got hired at a spring factory in Tulsa, so we packed up and moved along with everyone else. Our new house was a duplex in a block of newer developments. From the roof you could see the lights of downtown, glittering in hot whites, pale yellows, and golds. As the nights went on, the skyscrapers’ windows would flicker out, one by one, until only a few remained, floating, unmoored against the night sky.