There Is Nowhere Else

On what at first seems to be an aimless drive through their small town, two lovers happen upon a carnival.

A carnival

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We drive because there is nothing else left to do, because it beats the alternative: going home. We drive under the viaduct, past its chipped concrete supports, then cloverleaf our way up top to retrace our path, westbound this time. We drive the riverfront, down by the baseball stadium where orange-shirted workers clear trash from the outfield bleachers and the massive scoreboard tells a succinct story — another loss, another tiny crowd, a team of no-names and has-beens pissing away the waning games of another lost season. We drive out into the suburbs, admire and then grow bored with the unending squared-off symmetry, the color-coordinated mailboxes, the unused backboard and rusted rim that pair up to stand sentry over each driveway.

The road that leads to her house is lined with political signs. An elderly township worker hobbles down one slope of the ditch and up the other, tape-measuring each sign’s distance from the road. He confiscates those resting too close. A substantial pile of deviant signs rests near his truck, and I can’t help but think he’s maybe the last nonpartisan human. He stops to wave, and I nod because I can’t bring myself to let loose the steering wheel.

We pass her house and keep going. She doesn’t even reach for her purse, for her keys — she knows we won’t stop yet. I look straight through the windshield, refusing to check the dashboard clock or my wristwatch or the display on my pocketed cell phone.

She messes with the CD player — normally my biggest pet peeve. She’s decided she can get away with it today, and she’s right. It’s a nice distraction, listening to the soundtrack she designs, Sufjan Stevens, Brooke Waggoner, and then the Walkmen. All slow, all sad. When it gets to the verge of being too much, she picks up an unlabeled disc but she recognizes the tune instantly and smacks the eject button right away, before note number three of “Jeannie, if you’re ever in Portland.” This one strikes a nerve. She jerks it from the slot, hides it under the seat so it won’t be chosen again by accident. It will stay there, I know, for a year. I wait for a comment about my annoying habit of not labeling burned discs, but this time the response is a hollow nothing as she quietly inserts a collection of live bootlegs, finds Ben Gibbard covering “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” which is ridiculous on nine levels, but it’s not about motion and so she sings along, and then I sing along — we sing, and then the song ends, the recorded crowd cheers, and we stare at the road, our attention shoved back to the separate forevers from which we’re driving so hard away.

 

Cars line Sullivan Lane, packed inexplicably tight. It’s a week or two early for high school football. Not a holiday that I can think of; Norah’s quizzical expression tells me she’s clueless, too. We scan the sleepy village of Madeira for the source of so much on-street parking. As usual, she figures it out first and blurts: “Festival!

Off to our left a portable Ferris wheel rises above the tree line and flashing lights peek through the lower foliage. I turn toward her and she’s wide-eyed, smiling.

“This is perfect,” Norah says, flipping down the vanity mirror to check her hair. “You knew this was here, didn’t you?”

She nudges my elbow, smiles brightly. She smiles with her whole face. Her cheeks, her eyes, her forehead. Even her nose seems to tilt upward, to brighten. I etch this instant into my mind.

“Honestly, I didn’t. I didn’t know about it at all.”

We roll past a string of yard signs that read “lot full” or “parking $15.” On our budget, those signs mean the same thing. We pass by the festival grounds where hordes of unsupervised kids fill the midway while their parents keep the church solvent in the bingo and beer tents. I’m mildly terrified. But I look at Norah, and there’s no way I can say word one against the venture.

I turn down Grant Avenue and find a space just large enough — maybe.

Norah graciously waits until my third pass at it before she comments.

“You’re going to have to work on this parallel parking stuff before —”

She can’t say what should follow, not even as a joke, and so it becomes silent and motionless at once. I don’t know which I hate more.

Once the car is safely wedged in place, I shut off the engine, jump out, check for traffic, and open her door. She gives her customary thanks: that smile, those dimples. She clutches my hand and we walk down the middle of the road under a canopy of beech and dogwood, the leaves taking their first hints of color. I try to push out of my mind the likelihood that this is the last time we’ll leave the car together, the last time we’ll both walk away.

We salmon our way through a dense mob of teens — little boys smoking cigarettes to impress little girls whose tube tops and skirts fail to hide an array of angular tan lines.

“This is what they wear to the church festival?” Norah says.

“You should see how they dress for mass.” I intend for this to be a joke, but there’s really nowhere to take it.

“Probably like that,” she says, pointing to a middle-aged, man with crumbs on his mustache. His stonewashed cut-offs end at pale mid-thigh and his tank top doesn’t quite meet the midline of his sloping gut.

It’s not so much a laugh we share, but the kind of relieved chuckle that marks the termination of a bad joke — I’ve given her lots of practice in that field. Quiet now, we survey the field and its activity, our hands still connected, palm-against-palm, fingers together as if we are wearing mittens.

In this moment I love the horrid outfits, the kids with their nicotine, the sour smells wafting from the beer tent and adjoining rent-a-toilets. I love this ugliness, these loud distractions from the fact that I’m about to leave her behind. That, in the morning, I’ll turn left — west — pilot the loaded U-Haul across the continent to the desk that waits with a nameplate that’s already been engraved, the office building in the office park in the middle of a city where there are jobs to be had, where not so many storefronts rest vacant, where not so many brown factories crumble under the weight of rust. But I can’t stay, and she can’t follow — we’re stuck. We’ve promised each other there will be no movie scene wave-off, which means tonight — and then distance.

I breathe in the heavy Ohio air, feel the humidity closing in on my arms, as if it’s trapping me, and I wish it would.

My phone buzzes in my pocket.

“Wonder who that is,” I say, more a statement than a question.

“It’s your mother,” Norah says. “Who else would it be?”

She’s got a point. My phone’s never been the same since one of the ladies at Elm Street Baptist taught Mom how send text messages.

How R U? it says. My mother, the retired schoolteacher, has just texted, “How R U?”

“What is it?” Norah asks. I’m not sure if I’ve gone gaunt or beet, but she notices, either way. I show her the phone.

“Oh, goodness,” she says. Oh, goodness, and I find myself wishing that just once, she’d say damn or hell no, even Chrissake — anything to make her seem human, to make her seem fragile, messed up. Like someone who can be left.

“Goodness, indeed,” I reply.

“You’ve got to save that one,” she says. I do.

 

We walk through the silent auction tent and laugh at the stupid pairings of prizes — season tickets for the Bengals paired with ballet passes; yoga classes with a gift certificate to Lone Star Steakhouse. But the longer we linger, the worse of an idea this place seems — the baskets are full of pairs, full of times and dates far too distant to be of any use.

“Food?” I nod and follow her out of that tent.

She waits for a tenderloin and then I wait for an Italian sausage. We wait at a dented trailer for sodas, and a plywood stand for funnel cakes. Each time, the line is longer, the wait is quieter, the shadows of more severe. The handful of picnic tables are swarmed, so we eat on the move, trading plates and bottles back and forth, an intricate juggle as we approach the flashing lights of the midway.

 

Norah knocks down two of the three milk bottles with a softball, and then manages just one on the second try. A finely manufactured tremble of her lower lip prompts the carnie to chuck a purple frog in her direction. She jukes left and catches it before it hits the dewy evening grass.

“He taught me to do that,” she says, pointing at me.

“With a football,” I add, just in case anyone might assume I’m into playing catch with plush frogs. Then, I realize she was talking about the pouting lip, and I roll my eyes. She smiles. Always a smile.

“You should play the mallet thingie,” she says as we walk the midway. Her loose T-shirt, her white cardigan, sleeves pulled up to the elbows, her gleaming red hair collect a thousand tones of light, blinking and bursting from every direction. The eyes of unshaven carnival workers and young boys with stained shirts follow Norah, vulture-like, as if they can sense my time is short, as if they sense it always has been, and that she’s been benevolent to walk so many steps beside me.

“The mallet thingie?”

“Where you make the bell ding.”

Her pleading eyes snap me like a twig, and she loosely suppresses giggles while I stand in line, and she lets out a preemptive woo! when the man in a Megadeth shirt with the sleeves scissored off hands me the mallet. She cheers again when the bell dings, and she laughs when the man points at the adult version of the game, a step to my left.

“How ’bout trying the big kids’ one?” he says, everyone in line laughing, and Norah laughing and me laughing because of course I saw the adult one, and so I pound the mallet against that machine’s rubber pad and it dings, too, which is not completely unexpected because, lanky as I am, I’ve got some leverage on my side and a handle on physics so I windmilled that sucker way up over my head, and now she’s got an orange porpoise tucked next to her frog and I ask, “Wait, didn’t I win twice?” and he’s not amused and neither is Norah, particularly, and so we move on.

 

The sun fades fast now. Lamps and flashing carnival lights fight hard to keep the dark at bay, but they’re losing. Her face seems pale and stark in the blend of fluorescent and neon. Lightning bugs flash their haphazard intervals and mosquitoes quench their thirst, prompting humans to smack at their own summer-baked skin. A band covers upbeat country and western songs, but it’s clear they’ve spent too much time exploring the beer tent and not enough time practicing.

There’s nothing left for us here except the Ferris wheel. She looks at me: Can we please? I look at her: I’m terrified of heights and yet I know I will not win. I will blink first. She grabs my hand. I think: I’m leaving this woman, disappearing, and, no — I can’t pull back, can’t lean away, can’t say no, and so I stand in line, buy the tickets and help her into the red steel cab. Norah knows I can’t stand to have my feet off solid ground. She holds my hand tight, ignores the nervous tick of my right foot tapping lightly on the floor. The wheel doesn’t spin us that high, and there’s no movie-scene kiss at the apex or even a grade school peck. We sit side by side, enclosed, captured, forced together, and I stare ahead determined not to cry and without looking. I know she’s doing precisely the same thing: thinking about anything but what comes next, trying to smile once more but failing.

As we rise, hover, dip, the sun slips fully away behind our backs. A gruff, gray-haired man with sniffles opens up the left door — Norah’s door — and pulls up the lap lever, freeing us.

“Thanks, folks,” he says in a surprisingly kind voice as Norah gets out. For an instant, I linger, trying to simulate how it will feel to be —

“Thanks, folks,” he says again, slowly and not quite so kindly. I unfold my legs and rise, stand at Norah’s side. She takes my hand, and together we walk away.

In the car, she does not flip on the stereo. I maneuver out of the parking space seamlessly for once and all it means is that I’ve lost some seconds with Norah. We turn around at the cul de sac, and we drive again, the silence heavier than the dense air outside. We drive past the dwindling festival. The amoeba-clusters of teens have moved to the sidewalks, where they alternate between Marlboro lights and chocolate swirl cones, posturing cool as one can while awaiting the arrival of a mother’s minivan. As we pass the town limit sign and its boasts of the 1968 state runner-up football team, there is a blast behind us and I look in the rearview. Norah turns in her seat.

“Fireworks!” she shouts. She rolls down the window and sticks out her head to watch. I pull off the road, narrowly missing a political sign that made the township inspector’s cut and resting two tires on the edge of a sidewalk. We get out, lean on the back fender, and watch the sky light up. Under those brash explosions there are so many things I want to say, explanations and reasons and excuses, blanks to fill in, promises to make. But for once in my life I hold my tongue. I shut my mouth and give the fleeting us this last gift of quiet, of stillness punctuated by the spark, the brilliance, the fade — we stand together and watch ourselves in the night sky. Darkness returns and still we stare, watching until even the smoke has drifted off and the flickering stars return to view — so gentle, so quiet. I open Norah’s door and help her into her seat. I pause at my own door, fingers clutching the handle, and look once more at the empty sky waiting perhaps for one more flash of red or green that won’t come. The door moves in my hand: she has opened it from the inside. I exhale and get in. I turn the key, tap the brake, put the car in gear, and ease onto the road, point the car toward her waiting house. The sequence feels like slow motion and I pay notice to things I’ve done a million times with no thought: I breathe the faint floral scent of her hand lotion, I watch the frayed outline of her shadow on the dash, hear the revolutions of the engine and the fan belt and bugs popping against the car windows. I hoard these images for retrieval in coming days and weeks and years, knowing I’ll want to carry these memories across all that distance. A red light holds us up and she takes my right hand in her left, holds tight as if she’s using up all her strength now so it will be easier in a few moments to let go. I turn to her and wait for the smile, the dimples, the upturned nose, but there’s just her stoic profile, her gaze directed now toward a future that is hers alone. She clenches even tighter, for an instant, as the light turns green and I force my foot to release the brake. We ease forward, because there is nowhere else for us to go.

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