Henry looked for a parking spot outside the fairgrounds, without any luck, and complained about the traffic to his wife Clarissa. She sat in the passenger seat of their teal Subaru with her eyes closed and feet flat on the floor. A white earbud glistened from her ear as she breathed steadily. In slowly. Out slowly. She didn’t acknowledge his grumbling, and her peaceful demeanor made him feel petty even though he knew he had every right to feel whatever he wanted. At least today. His mother had just died.
As he drove, Henry noticed the serpentine spine of a red and white roller coaster in the distance. Dread crawled up his back and over the crown of his head. Pushing against all those sticky bodies at an outdoor fair, the relentless sun turning his skin crab pink, catching whiffs of a smell that fluctuated between ground beef and excrement would be bad enough. But now the thought of getting wheeled about by several rides, a mashed turkey leg sloshing around in his gut, made the day seem an impossibility. Besides that, it was barely 10 a.m. and already in the low 90s. The sun was one of the many reasons he hated California. That unblinking eye stamped in the sky like a fiery god. He had left the state for college on the East Coast years ago, swapping the dry heat and sand-burnt hills for cotton skies and green foliage. His mother had remained his only thread to the Golden State once his father retreated to the Phoenix suburbs eight years ago with his fourth wife, Roselle. And now, with his mother dead, this last thread had been severed.
“What a circus,” Henry said, shaking his head.
“But isn’t that the point?” Clarissa turned to the backseat, her neon green visor casting a shadow over her face. “You two ready to have some fun?”
“I have to pee!” Danny screamed. His little sister Audrie followed up with a squeaky me too!
A Camry in front of them was attempting a three-point turn in the middle of the congested lane. Henry flared his hands from the wheel.
“Hun, calm down,” Clarissa said.
He sped around the car before it could box him out, jerking his family’s heads abruptly forward, and hoping the engine’s roar would fill the inconsiderate driver with shame.
“Henry!” Clarrisa’s composed afterglow was waning, which he took as a small victory.
Having recently gotten into a mindfulness kick, his wife had encouraged him to take it up since it might help him recognize and respond to his own emotions, especially when it came to his parents. But that only made it certain he would never try it. If it kept her busy, fine, but all that self-help junk certainly wasn’t worth his time and effort. Clarissa’s latest personal goal had been to view everything as a problem to be rephrased, reconsidered, and, ultimately, accepted. Nothing was apparently a problem because it was a damn problem. But this awful parking situation was, in his opinion, a problem. In fact, his agreeing to come here in the first place was too, even if it was his fault.
Since they had made the long flight to California for the funeral, Henry’s aunt Daria insisted they take the kids to the annual Balloon and Wine Fair. It was the same one Henry used to visit with his mother and aunt as a boy. Only if you’re up for it, Clarissa had told him. Henry, unwilling to fall under his wife’s pitying gaze, felt he had no choice but to agree to take his family to a pop-up fair in the middle of the desert to show how absolutely fine he was. But when he woke up this morning with a dim throb at his temples, a diffuse restlessness, he realized he had made a mistake. What he had wanted to do was take the next flight home and get on with life, let the drudgery of his morning commute and those static-laced radio voices accompanying it ease him back into his reliable day-to-day that turned this California town into a desert mirage, something more akin to dream than memory. What he wanted was permission to not feel broken up about his mother’s death, and to not feel bad about it, either. Besides, he thought, none of them had suffered. Sure, Audrie cried and tucked her face into Clarissa’s black dress before the open casket. Clarissa’s eyes reddened and blurred. Danny, for once in his life, stood frozen and mute. But Henry’s wife and kids had only seen his mother a handful of times over the years, and he believed it was the scene at the wake — his weeping aunt at the refreshments table, the sentimental music drifting from two small speakers, the coffin’s grave sheen — rather than the dead that drew their gloom.
As for Henry, he had respectfully eyed his mother in the pillowed interior of the casket, her overcast curls resting on her shoulders like petals. Her still knuckles, bulging from the fold of her hands, reminded him of small white stones. If he hadn’t already mourned her years ago, he thought, maybe he would have felt something.
Finally, Henry found a clear splotch of browning grass. He turned off the engine and sighed. Danny and Audrie sprang from the minivan and began wheeling between parked cars, jumping and pointing with excitement toward the fair’s smattering of bright tents. He accompanied the children to a portable restroom that was, thankfully, nearby, and then returned them to the car where Clarissa was still in the passenger’s seat applying sunscreen to her calves.
“Guys, stay close to the car, you hear?” Henry said to Danny and Audrie. Taking in the scene, Henry prepared himself for the day’s vigilance. For scouting all possible dangers to the children. He didn’t trust Clarissa’s capacity for sustained attention when it came to the kids. He believed she didn’t know, not really, how cruel and unforgiving the world could be, even to children. And so he had always been the one to keep them from careening into sharp coffee table corners, toppling down precariously steep steps, or wading too close to strangers in public.
Danny made whooshing sounds to mimic a roller coaster, spinning his arm and edging closer to his sister.
“Stop it!” Audrie yelled, darting from her brother and colliding into a strolling family of seven, their faces beaming like sunned vanilla.
“Audrie,” Henry said, jogging over to collect his daughter. “I’m sorry about that,” he said to the family. It had only been five minutes and he had already failed to keep watch.
Inside the fairgrounds, they passed a sea of booths selling fried desserts, glazed meats, craft beers, and bright yellow popcorn. Rainbow-colored candies burned wonderfully in the morning sun. For a moment, delighted by the smells and cheerful sights, Henry thought the day might not be so bad after all. But the thought dissipated when he noticed the soaked armpits of a towering man in a black shirt, the sun beating against a neck so red it nauseated Henry. Then, a rogue whiff of frying oil made things worse, and he nearly gagged.
“How does seeing animals at the petting zoo sound, sweetie?” Henry said to Audrie once they had made it through the gauntlet of fried fare. She was distracted by a grinning boy carrying a torch of pink cotton and pointed to it.
“Can I have — ”
“Maybe after lunch,” Henry interrupted, and then pulled her in the direction of the large, cream-colored barn.
Henry watched the kids, closely, run from one sad-eyed beast of burden to another inside the barn littered with straw. He was relieved to be out of the sun.
“You all right?” Clarissa asked.
Henry nodded without looking at her. Clarissa placed a palm on his forearm.
“I’m fine,” Henry said, shaking his arm to shoo her hand away. He hated when she spoke to him in the low tones she used with the kids to show them how much more reasonable she was than them.
“She was your mother.” Clarissa began rapidly fanning herself with a ratty brochure. “Allow yourself to feel sad. I know it wasn’t great, but if it were me I would still — ”
“You can’t possibly know how you’d feel in my situation,” Henry said, cutting her off.
When Henry first met Clarissa’s family at her parents’ house for Thanksgiving years ago, he couldn’t believe families like hers existed. They actually went around the table sharing one thing they were grateful for. And there were so many of them: her six younger brothers, both sets of grandparents, various cousins and aunts, even a couple of neighbors. It was a far cry from the Thanksgivings Henry had spent with his father and father’s latest girlfriend, where they ordered lukewarm turkey and mushy sides from Boston Market and watched football until his father and girlfriend left for the bar. Henry liked to tease Clarissa about her cheesy Hallmark family, as he called them, even though he was jealous. How could someone receive so much, a surplus of family love and normalcy, and another so little? His wife had grown up with everything. Henry? He had a mother who couldn’t take care of herself — let alone him — and an alcoholic father who regarded him with apathy.
“I’m not saying I know what you should feel. I just want you to feel safe to grieve with us, your family.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Henry said and moved away, leaving her next to a pen of staggering goats. He approached Audrie, who was standing on her tiptoes in front of a rabbit cage.
“Don’t stick your fingers inside, honey,” Henry said, pulling his daughter’s hand away from the cage. He lifted her up so she could get a better look at them.
A large white rabbit sat in the corner of the cage like a pudding, nibbling on a soggy piece of lettuce. Its nose twitched in a frenzy. Audrie began mimicking the rabbit, wrinkling and unwrinkling her face. She squealed and tried to squirm out of Henry’s hands as he tickled her, gliding his nose up the back of her neck and alongside her ear.
Henry remembered the harsh blue and red lights whirling inside his bedroom from outside the window when he was a little older than Audrie. On Easter morning, the sun still beneath the earth, his father cracked open Henry’s bedroom door to tell him his mother wasn’t feeling well and that people were coming to help her. Henry was disappointed not to find a basket with hollow chocolate rabbits at the corner of his bed. A month later, while driving with his father in the car, his father told him his mother would be living with her sister Daria from now on. Henry kept his eyes on the road, refusing to show his father any emotion. He scratched an itchy knee through grass-stained baseball pants and thought of when he found his friend Mitchell sobbing in the school bathroom stall after his parents got divorced, and how he would never let anyone catch him doing that.
His aunt’s house was in the Central Valley desert six hours from Henry’s home. Henry noticed that his mother slept a lot and that she didn’t speak much in the morning when he visited twice a year. When he was a teenager, his aunt told him about the medicine, and about how his father had stopped her from cutting her own wrists. After that, Henry began lying to people at school that his mother was dead, making up explanations. A horrible car crash. A fall during a hike. Whatever. She was a ghost to him, he thought, so what did it matter?
They left the barn when Clarissa could no longer handle the sulfuric smell. They watched a live-action Western show where a mustachioed cowboy shot and killed a handful of bandits, each of them falling with slapstick acrobatics, to rescue a smart-aleck damsel wearing boots and too much makeup. They looked for a table in the shade to eat lunch, but all of them were taken. In the sun, Henry squinted, wiped his kids’ hands with sanitizing wipes, and then watched Danny and Audrie smear their noses and cheeks with barbeque sauce from a small rack of ribs. Danny reached over to grab a napkin and bumped Henry’s arm, and a heavily glazed rib slipped out of Henry’s hand, coating his watch with barbecue sauce before landing squarely in his lap.
“Dammit, Danny!” Henry yelled.
Danny froze and stared at his father with his large brown eyes.
“It’s only a little sauce,” Clarissa said and began rubbing Danny’s arm in reassurance. “It’s okay. It was an accident.”
“It’s all over my watch and pants,” Henry barked, and then fashioned his index finger and thumb into tweezers to lift the rib from his lap. He stood up to reveal a dark smear across his crotch. Clarissa tried to suppress a smile.
“You can have my watch, Dad. Grandma sent it, remember?” Danny said in a sheepish voice, extending his arm to expose a light blue plastic watch.
It had been one of the many things Henry’s mother had mailed them over the years. Whenever Henry spoke to his mother on the phone, he always told her to stop sending them things: prayer cards of sullen-faced saints, stuffed animals of koalas and kangaroos, pancaked coins with Latinate inscriptions, crystal figurines delicately wrapped in construction paper. Some of the stuff he gave to the kids, like Danny’s plastic watch, and some of it he buried in desk drawers and dining room cabinets. Most of it he threw away.
After Henry had given up on trying to remove the faded, oily smear on his pants with water and a paper towel, they made their way to a face-painting booth. Henry and Clarissa watched as their children sat on two wooden stools to have their cheeks tickled by paintbrushes. Clarissa pulled out a bottle of sunscreen and presented it to Henry like a small gift. “You want some?”
Henry shook his head.
“Don’t complain when you can’t fall asleep tonight because you’re burned.” She squeezed the bottle and a milky worm began coiling on her palm. “You went off on Danny back there.”
“Look at this,” Henry said, gesturing toward his groin.
Clarissa smiled. She stuffed the bottle back into her purse and let her shoulders fall into a smooth slump. “Just don’t take it out on the kids as you’re processing saying goodbye.”
“Processing? Please, Clarissa, spare me,” Henry said, shaking his head with a smirk.
Two weeks ago Henry had flown out to say goodbye to his mother. He thought it would be easier if the kids didn’t miss school and so he came alone. His mother had been moved to hospice. She had a brain tumor that she refused to treat because, as she joked with Henry over the phone, she loved her curls too much. His last visit was much like their infrequent phone calls, the ones where he had to tell her they would come out to see her — soon, Mom, we’ll come out soon — just to placate her. She asked about the kids, which he preferred since it was easier to go on about Audrie’s ballet lessons, Danny’s merit badge projects, their family vacations and road trips, than it was to talk about himself. He sat next to her bed in a clean room smelling vaguely of detergent and oatmeal. They look so healthy, Henry, his mother told him as she looked at pictures of his children and she squeezed his hand, a blue rosary wrapped between her fingers. He sat quietly as his aunt Daria broke into tears and his mother assured her everything was all right. The three of them watched I Love Lucy with the volume set low, listening to the soft snoring of an elderly woman sharing the room behind a flimsy green curtain. When it was time to leave, Henry hugged her and told her he loved her in a steady voice. She felt so frail in his arms, all hardness and bone, like one of his own children when sick. Her hot tears ran down his neck as she whispered Henry, Henry, Henry, and he waited a long time for her to let go.
The sun bore down on Henry as he watched his kids sit uncharacteristically still for the face painters. The dry heat was unbearable, even in the shade. He noticed a bright and large cardboard cut-out of a lemon a few booths away and he told Clarissa he would be right back. The cold, lemon-flavored ice felt wonderful as it pooled into his parched mouth. He returned to find Clarissa eyeing Audrie and Danny as they stood in line for a ride. He traced the line with his eyes to a large, swinging hammer. He looked back at Clarissa and shook his head.
“They’re old enough,” Clarissa said.
“Maybe Danny. Definitely not Audrie. Remember last time?”
Audrie had gone on a similar ride last fall at an amusement park in Pennsylvania, thrown up, and been in tears the rest of the day. Henry had to drive on the highway with the window cracked, the air whipping violently inside the car, to fight off the sour smell of vomit.
“She’s older,” Clarissa said.
Henry shook his head. “Audrie, come here please.”
His daughter made an ugly face and shook her head before turning from him in defiance.
“Danny, please get your sister,” Henry said, hoping to recruit help from his son.
Danny shrugged and didn’t say anything to his sister.
“Let them be,” Clarissa said and leaned toward Henry. “Stop being so uptight and just relax, will you?”
He refused to let his wife bully him today, of all days. He quickly walked toward the line, ignoring Clarissa’s command, and pulled Audrie from it. He then grabbed Danny for not cooperating. No, neither of them would ride it. Audrie began to whine, saying she wanted to go on the ride and ordering her father to let her go. Clarissa only stared at Henry and crossed her arms.
“Tell Dad to let us go!” Danny yelled when they reached Clarissa.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” Clarissa said, shaking her head in disbelief. She stepped into the train of sunbaked pedestrians without waiting for Henry to respond.
How dare she make him seem like the bad guy. Did she not remember how miserable Audrie had been, her face swollen and red, pale yellow vomit all over her neck and shirt? Of course, he thought, it was always his job to be the parent. A teenager pointed at Henry’s crotch and smiled, turning to one of his friends and gesturing for them to look. Henry turned away from the teenager, angry, and considered telling Clarissa they should leave when she returned. That he wasn’t up for this Mickey Mouse shit. He wasn’t above using his mother’s death to gain the upper hand if there was any pushback from her, either.
Danny yanked on Henry’s arm.
“Can we do that one instead?” Danny said, pointing to a black-and-yellow ride making a loud buzzing sound. A giant, rattling pillar painted to look like a honeycomb rose from the ground and mushroomed into a large dome. Several chairs, each attached to a long cord, swung from the dome in a circular motion high above the ground.
“Wait for your mother,” Henry said.
Henry had gone on the ride many times as a boy, and he was surprised to see it still here. Most of the other rides were much newer, featuring gaudy bright designs and blasting awful techno music. Henry stared at the monstrous swing set, suddenly wanting to jump on it by himself and leave Clarissa, the kids, and everyone else crawling around this suffocating fairground behind. When he used to come here, as a child, he would spend every moment he could on the rides since it was the only way to escape his hovering mother. He hated how she always touched him when he visited, rubbing his shoulders in the checkout line at department stores or tracing spirals on his back in the pews at Mass. After he descended from a rickety roller coaster or some other dangerous contraption, his mother always rushed to greet him at the exit, as if his life had been in peril and she had been uncertain of his return, wrapping her arms tightly around him. He would have to unhook her hands and set them firmly back at her sides, pulling himself from her perpetual clutching.
“Where’s Audrie?” Clarissa’s voice startled Henry, drawing him back to the chaos that was the fairground.
“She’s here.” Henry looked behind him only to see an olive-skinned boy with a bowl cut holding a glistening turkey leg.
“Where?” Clarissa said, crumpling a paper towel into a tight ball in her hand.
“Danny, where is she?” Henry said.
Danny shrugged and lifted his hand over his eyes to block the sun’s glare.
“You weren’t watching her?” Clarissa snapped. She charged past Henry in the direction of the nearby face-painting booth, bumping his shoulder with hers on the way. “Audrie! Audrie, where are you?”
Henry was taken aback by the intensity of her voice, the fear in it, suddenly realizing what was happening. How had he lost track of her? He felt a flutter of panic inside his ribcage. He grabbed Danny by the arm and crouched so that he was at eye level with him.
“Where did you last see your sister?”
“Ow, I don’t know! You’re hurting my wrist.”
Henry looked over at Clarissa, who was speaking with one of the face painters. Clarissa walked away from the artist’s shaking head and approached Henry with terror in her eyes.
“If you hadn’t yanked them out of line, God dammit.” Clarissa’s voice swelled with rage. “I’m finding someone who works here.”
Clarissa stormed back into the crowd before Henry could say anything. Danny looked up at his father with a frown. Feeling that he needed to do something, Henry tossed the frozen lemonade into a trash bin, grabbed Danny’s hand and started in the opposite direction.
“It hurts!” Danny whelped, doing his best to keep up with his father’s rapid pace.
“Excuse me,” Henry said to a teenage girl working at an ice cream stand.
“Yes?” the girl said, chewing a wad of gum with spectacular arrogance.
“Have you seen this little girl?” He pulled out his phone to show her a picture of his daughter.
The girl looked at it closely without saying anything, giving Henry hope, before shaking her head. He tried two other employees but had no luck.
Why the hell would Audrie wander away? She wouldn’t do that, he thought, ignoring his son’s whimpering at his side. He had to go back to where he had last seen her. She couldn’t have gone far from there. A cool, quick-moving panic slid up along his back as he turned around and headed back to the face-painting booth. He then imagined a dark figure yanking his daughter’s hand, and he felt his insides collapse at such a terrible thought. But this was a public fair with God knows how many people. Could someone kidnap a child here? No, he reassured himself. Audrie would scream, she would get someone’s attention. They would — someone would — step in and stop it, he thought, though he didn’t really believe it. He couldn’t expect anyone to care that much. He started moving faster, dragging Danny behind him like a lapdog sputtering at the end of a leash. He bumped into a bearded man, and dark beer spilled over the man’s arm.
“Watch it!” The man yelled.
Henry mumbled an apology without slowing.
This was not like him. This was not like him at all. He was a careful parent. A good and loving parent. He wouldn’t let his kids spend the night at their friends’ houses. Wouldn’t let them play in the driveway beyond the orbit of his attention for even five minutes. It had been the damn heat, the cruel and lingering sun, he thought. He had always hated this place. Hated being dragged here by his aunt and lunatic mother. Hated that he had to fly out here for her funeral and pretend to mourn, to look at his mother, a woman who, just like his father, had given him only pain and loneliness as a child. Who cared if it was her fault or not? What his wife couldn’t possibly understand, he now thought in a frenzy, was that it wasn’t sadness he was avoiding. It was anger. Anger that his mother had been so incurably ill. That she wouldn’t let him forget her when he became an adult and parent of his own. That she wouldn’t stop reaching out so he could convince himself she was no better than dead.
Henry’s fear and anger overpowered him, and he was unsure how he had ended up in the midst of a miserable search for his own child. He was only now certain of how much he desperately wanted to draw his little girl into his empty arms. He slipped around a little boy mourning a fallen ice cream cone, drawing closer to where they had last seen Audrie. Boomeranging screams from a giant mechanical scythe cutting through the sky startled him. He began screaming his daughter’s name like some mad and desperate parent. Audrie! Audrie! Audrie! Tears filled his eyes, making his vision blurry, as a swath of teenagers and an elderly couple, parents who had their children tucked under their responsible wings, stared at him. He cried her name over and over again.
“Mom!” Danny shouted to interrupt his father. “It’s Mom!”
“Where?” Henry said. He stopped and leaned over to catch his breath, his face full of blood and fire.
He strained his eyes but couldn’t see anything through all the oblivious fairgoers standing and walking everywhere. Suddenly he caught a glimpse of her neon green visor. He moved toward it, around another clump of strangers, and finally spotted his wife. She was running in the direction of a flimsy booth with a plume of pink rising from it.
“Clarissa!” Henry yelled.
Clarissa lifted Audrie into her arms and against her heaving chest, apparently not hearing him or anything else. Henry stopped and let go of his son, allowing Henry’s own hand to fall limp at his side. Henry watched his wife and daughter, as if latched by some invisible and unbreakable cord, swaying in the eye of the rolling crowd. Audrie raised a balled fist to her wet face, smearing the tethered balloons painted on her cheek into a single blur of color. Clarissa eventually found Henry with her dark brown eyes, their daughter safely nestled against his wife’s breasts. Henry’s relief suddenly gave way to sadness, and a terrible shame, as he stood alone and thought of all his years of running from a mother’s arms that would now forever be still.
Later that afternoon, they waited in line and watched a fleet of dangling legs whirl above them. Clarissa clutched Audrie’s hand and Danny leaned over the line’s dividing ropes, gently bouncing his body against them. Henry placed his forehead against the back of his wife’s head and threaded his arms around her waist from behind. She eventually placed her palm on top of his knotted hands wrapped around her belly. The line attendant gestured for them to come forward through the opened gate, and Henry watched as Audrie and Danny ran happily toward two empty chairs. They plopped themselves into their seats and fiddled with the safety belts. Clarissa took a chair next to them. After securing his children’s seat belts, Henry took a lone chair dangling behind the three of them and waited for the ride to begin.
Soon there was a loud blast of compressed air, like the exaltation of some great winged beast. Henry felt his legs lift from the ground, his body turn light, as the giant honeycomb pillar started buzzing. He rose with the warm sun and afternoon breeze against his face. He watched as his children kicked their small legs over the swirl of colorful tents, the grass stretching out all around them like a calm and shallow sea. He watched his family glide through the air, unhindered and free, as he tightened his grip on his chair, on the only thing keeping him from flying off into the empty blue sky.
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