Rip Van Winkle slept for 20 years in the Catskill Mountains. As a longtime resident of the same area, I can believe it. Life in Walton, New York, is pretty peaceful—except for one week every summer when the Delaware County Fair rolls into town.
For a hundred years Walton has looked forward to those magical six days when the scent of sawdust, animals and candy apples fills the air and calliope music blows in on the warm breeze.
My two kids and I had never missed a single year. Until now. “I’m sorry,” I told them the day the caravans arrived. “We just can’t afford it.”
Five-year-old River couldn’t believe it. Willow was 10. Old enough to understand. “Maybe we’ll find a way to go just for one day,” she said.
“I don’t think so, sweetie.”
My husband and I had recently separated. Our new living arrangement meant a lot of changes at home. The kids and I had money for basic necessities but not much else—no extra money to spend on fun.
I seemed to always be sorry lately. Sorry for disrupting your lives, I thought as Willow and River left the room. Sorry for making you deal with things that aren’t your fault. Sorry for taking away things you’d come to depend on.
That night I went over our finances again, trying to see some way we could afford to compromise. The midway ride bracelets were a good bargain—you could ride all day with one. But for us they were still just out of reach.
The fair came to town as usual. We were drawn to it by the colorful flags and giant Ferris wheel, visible from blocks away. From outside the fence we admired the striped tents, watched longingly as other people rode rides, petted animals, played games. Is this making it worse? I thought. Am I just reminding the kids of what they’re missing?
Both had been going to the fair since they were in baby carriages. Animals they’d petted back then had grown up almost before their eyes. Even the crew were like old friends at this point, since they were nearly always the same. Same friendly faces, same distinctive uniforms, every day for six days, year after year. But we watched from afar.
By the morning of the sixth day, I awoke ready for the fair to be gone. Glancing out the window I saw the sky was overcast. Maybe it will rain, I thought hopefully. Nobody wants to be at a fair in the rain. Not even us.
There was a knock at my door. Willow entered carrying a tray with (burnt) buttered toast, orange juice and the weekly newspaper circular. River followed close behind. “What’s this?” I said.
Willow set the tray down and nervously met my eyes. “Today’s the last day,” she said. “If we go, we don’t have to spend money there. We could just pay to get in and…look.” I could barely swallow the bite of blackened toast over the lump in my throat. I couldn’t blame the kids hoping that by some miracle they could continue the family’s great fair tradition.
I looked down at the circular Willow had thoughtfully placed on the tray and unfolded it. A bold coupon leaped off the page: Three Dollars Off A Midway Ride Bracelet!
The kids’ mouths dropped open. “Let’s do this!” I said.
We spent all morning searching under and behind couch pillows, checking junk drawers and every pocket of every piece of clothing. We collected all the redeemable bottles and cans in the house.
It wasn’t enough to get bracelets for all of us, but the kids wore theirs proudly. While they raced around the midway pointing out familiar faces among the carnies, I mentally calculated my budget for the rest of the month after this little splurge.
For their first ride, Willow and River chose the Scrambler—one of my favorites. I didn’t recognize the tall, African-American carny who was running it. He got the kids settled, then turned to me. “You coming?” he called.
I held up my empty wrist. “I don’t have a bracelet.”
“Come on,” he said, and waved me over. He settled me in a car all by myself. As he leaned over to lock me in, he said, “Miss, you look like you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders, and I’m not going to stop this ride until you’ve given your problems to God.”
I stared in shock as he went back to the controls. Did he really just say that? He flipped the switch and the ride roared to life, building up speed. Every few seconds my kids zoomed past me in their car, laughing and shouting. The carny gave the kids a thumbs-up when they zoomed his way, but when my own car brought me face to face with him he just turned his head!
Is he honestly trying to force me to talk to God? I thought. Well, he couldn’t do that. I had so many troubles I didn’t know how to begin. Sooner or later he was going to have to stop the ride. But the ride went on and on. Surely we should have stopped by now? I tried to catch his eye the next time I went past. No luck. The bright colors and lights started to blur. I was getting dizzy.
“Please stop now!” I yelled when I came face to face with him again, but he didn’t pay any attention. So I tried sign language. I pointed to myself, then up to the sky, then gave a thumbs-up and nodded, the universal signal for “I’m okay with God!”
The carny gave me back his own signal: a raised palm and a head shake, not buying it. I’d met my match. I raised my eyes. Suddenly I knew exactly what to say. God, I’m scared and lonely. I don’t know what the future holds. Please help.
Just as I finished, I felt a change in the ride. It felt the way a car feels when you take your foot off the gas. He couldn’t have known I was praying, could he?
The carny didn’t say anything as he helped me out. He just squeezed my hand gently to keep me from stumbling. He pressed something into my palm too: a little gold pin in the shape of a dove.
Things got better after that day at the fair. Slowly we adjusted to our new life. My ex-husband and I became good friends, my children grew up—Willow started college and River is now in high school.
All these years later, I still have that dove pin. It’s the only evidence I have that the carny existed. I still return to the fair every year. But I’ve never seen him again.
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