Averyell A. Kessler
I was six when I walked through the gates of the Mississippi State Fair for the first time. It was late afternoon, close to sunset, and the October air was still warm enough raise a sweat. Mama held my hand in a death grip as we entered a sawdust covered, make-believe world of whirling colors and startling sounds. Delectable aromas filled the air, hamburgers sizzling on the Moose Lodge’s massive grills, roasting peanuts, candied apples, and the sugar sweet smell of spinning cotton candy. Pink, for me. My first pick was Taffy. Mama and I tried making taffy at home and produced a slimy, tasteless mess. But here it was, the real thing, fluffy and shiny white being stretched and pulled on revolving mechanical arms. I had a loose tooth, maybe two, but I’d mastered the art of chewing selectively. We bought a bagful from a man behind the counter who promised “Can’t get it anywhere else!”
I didn’t notice that the carnival tents were worn and faded, or that everything was covered with leftover summer dust. Yes, the man running the “pick up ducks” booth was missing a few teeth, and the woman beckoning me to toss rings over a flock of coke bottles looked like the Wicked Witch of the West, but I didn’t care. This was wonderland, and I was dancing in the middle of it. Mama and I walked the length of the fairgrounds, listening to people scream as the tilt-a-whirl spun them into stomach churning dizziness. We watched an enormous Ferris wheel turn loop after loop, saw a throng of bumper cars honk and spin, and led each other through a glasshouse maze. We bought pronto pups, slathered them with mustard and nibbled away as we wandered through the canning exhibit, inspected a display of homemade quilts, and looked at baby lambs nuzzling their mothers. The motorcycle racetrack was a frightening tower of howling engines, strangling smoke and a screaming announcer. Mama squeezed my fingers as we stepped around it.
After spending too much money on miniature firetrucks and a jaw rattling children’s roller coaster, Mama made a command decision.
“We’ve been here for hours and it’s starting to get dark,” she said. “Time to go home.”
“Noooo,” I whined. “I don’t want to go home yet.” I was bone tired. Pronto Pup nausea bubbled in my stomach, but I didn’t tell. “You said I could ride the merry go round.”
“Ok,” she said, But it’s last thing. We’ll go home after the merry go round. Agreed?” She was an expert in art of little kid diplomacy.
“Yes.” It was an easy promise. “Grown-ups can ride too.” I said.
“Sometimes,” she answered.
As the sun slipped below the horizon, we abandoned the kiddie rides and took another stroll deep into the middle of the fairgrounds. Long shadows inched over the walkways as the sky darkened and day became night. In an instant, hundreds of colored lights blinked on, banishing the tattered canvas tents, tawdry game booths, and chasing the dust away. I felt as if I was standing inside a Christmas tree, and King Carousel was just ahead. We kept walking.
I heard the merry go round before I saw it. I felt it too. A raucous melody blasted from a steam powered calliope, along with the rhythmic crash of cymbals and the brrrrrrrrr of snare drums. There it was, right in front of me, a bejeweled carousel crowned with a blaze of lights and carrying herd of painted horses. Mama stepped up to the ticket booth and opened her purse. When she turned, I saw that she had a ticket for each of us.
“You’re going too!” I said. I was breathless.
“Yes,” she replied. “Why not.”
We selected two magnificent white horses and climbed on. Each had a flowing mane, brightly painted saddle, and a feathery plume mounted on its bridle. Golden tassels dangled from the reins. I could almost hear them nicker, as if they were just waiting for me. When the music started, we began to move, slowly at first, then faster as my horse galloped up and down on a shiny brass pole. Soon, I was flying, soaring in mid-air, climbing to the sky. Mama waved and I waved back. Somehow our horses were able to lift all four hooves off the ground at the same time, as we raced to Egypt, China, and Neverland. I was riding the wind, going nowhere and everywhere, crossing the Mississippi, then passing the big rock candy mountain and turning north to Santa’s domain. Faster, faster. Snare drums buzzed and the bass drum boomed. Faces in the crowd were a blur, the shining lights melted into streaks of color. I held on tight, hoping the ride would last forever. But it did not.
In a flash, my splendid carousel ground to a halt, the drums slowed, and the calliope wheezed into silence. My wooden Pegasus folded his wings, and the magic brass pole stopped the rhythm of its rise and fall. Watchful carneys swarmed on board like a colony of busy ants and shooed us back into the crowd. My balloon popped; the sky fell. It was over.
The night was seriously dark now. When Mama looked at her watch, I knew my days were numbered. Nothing to look forward to but a foaming bathtub, clean pajamas and a fateful meeting with a hair dryer.
“Did you enjoy it?” she asked, as we walked away.
“Yes,” I answered. “It was fun.”
“I haven’t ridden a merry go round since I was your age,” Mama said. Suddenly she stopped and looked at her watch again.
“Let’s do it again,” she said turning around. “I forgot how wonderful it was.”