A carnival, as you probably know, is not an appropriate venue for a wake. Or maybe you don’t know this. Maybe you think a carnival is the perfect way to kick off a funeral because you think the children need something to get their minds off poor Uncle Byron, and there’s the relative who came all the way from Texas so they might as well see the town while they’re here, and of course there’s Aunt Melinda with her award-winning pies. In Jamaica, they have a tradition called “Nine Days” in which the Jamaicans sing Jamaican songs and dance Jamaican dances and carry on and create a ruckus in honor of whoever kicked the bucket. This revelrous ceremony carries on for, unsurprisingly, nine days in which much Jamaican rum is consumed and then everyone goes home happy. Except for whoever kicked the bucket. But this is not Jamaica, this is the Land of Everyone Dresses in Black and is Appropriately Dismayed because someone died. But someone forgot to tell tell Aunt Melinda this. Maybe she had a streak of Jamaican in her. Maybe she just liked to carry on. But that night, for whatever the reason, quite a ruckus was created for Uncle Byron, rest his soul, at the Fayette County Summer Carnival.
Fayette County, Ohio is one of those places that you describe as being “somewhere between Columbus and Cincinnati,” but no one really knows quite where it is. Just keep driving. Watch for signs. You’ll see it. Once you’re there, however, the fairgrounds are reasonably easy to locate. You say “carnival” in Fayette County, and everyone knows where you mean. In fact, Ed even commented to no one in particular, that he didn’t realize that they ever took it all down; it seemed to him that the carnival was always there.
“Fair,” said Aunt Melinda crossly, adjusting her enormous bosom with one hand while balancing a drooling apple pie with the other. “It’s a fair. I wouldn’t have my pies compete in any old gaudy carnival.”
“But it is a carnival,” insisted Ed with a pointed look at the orange and liver-failure-yellow sign which read, Fayette County Summer Carnival: Come one, come all!
“Anyway, I guess it’s just one of those things. You get used to it and assume it’s always going to be there. One of those flummoxing things about life, I suppose.”
Ed, a much younger cousin of Byron’s, had been an English major in college and liked to use words like flummoxing. His explanation of what he was doing with his life was always rather long-winded.
“Fair, carnival, what’s the difference?” shrugged Uncle Chester. He snorted and spat a wet glob onto the ground. No one knew exactly how long it had been since he’d seen his older brother. “Both have popcorn.”
A string of lights roped around the carnival blinked like a cheap Christmas tree someone set up in September, just to prove that they can set up their Christmas tree whenever they damn well please. Chester dug in his pocket for a cigarette.
“Carnivals are tacky and full of clowns, Chester,” said Aunt Melinda. Melinda had always felt like Chester’s older sister, not younger. Always patiently explaining things to him. Byron was never like Chester, but she had felt like his big sister too. “Help me carry these pies.” A clown galloped across their path, closely followed by an older woman, marching like the nosy neighbor who caught you in the act of watering your lawn during a drought.
“Melinda,” she said.
A crumpled up burger wrapper blew between them like sagebrush. Up close, Aunt Melinda could see every papery blue vein snaking out of her starched collar, every fleck of her generously-applied spray tan glinting. Swarovski star earrings jiggled on her earlobes.
“A carnival, as you probably know, Melinda, is not an appropriate venue for a wake.” You have probably had experience with a school teacher who is perpetually frowning, as though you are always answering a question incorrectly. However, you probably have not had experience with a school teacher who is perpetually frowning, sixty-two years old, puffed full of botox and trying to make your life miserable by cutting funding to your Ladies Night Wine and Jesus Bible Study and trying to strip you of your hard-earned title of Church Social Director, just to spite you. Mother Kim called to mind such a figure. Except Mother Kim was not a school teacher, she was the priest.
“Do you think this carnival honors your brother, Melinda? Do you think people here are grieving?” Mother Kim’s forehead was stretched too tightly to frown properly, but her eyes were narrowed enough to get the point across. The seersucker blue sky over the carnival faded into a washed-out tan on the horizon, like a celestial warning about bleached jeans. The air was hot and full of static; it was an unusually dry summer.
Chester gave a short burst of laughter. “Did you ever even meet Byron? He would’a loved this.” Melinda’s face twitched.
“Oh, I don’t think any of us were... I mean, it’s not really a wake.”
“Nonetheless, the funeral is tomorrow.”
“Right. I think we just thought it might to nice to... get out for a bit.”
Mother Kim sniffed disapprovingly. “I’ll see you both at the funeral tomorrow.” And with a flick of her head, she marched off in the direction of the Tilt-o-Whirl.
“That bitch.” Aunt Melinda barely moved her lips so the words came out like the hiss of a leaky tire. Some relative-twice-removed said hello to Aunt Melinda with a mouth full of cotton candy.
“You allowed to call a woman of God that, Mel?”
“Yes, Chester. I can reverently call her a bitch whenever the hell I want.” Aunt Melinda deposited the pie on the judging table and wiped her hands of pie innards. “It’s just, that woman has been so set on ruining my life. And to act like I don’t care, like I haven’t been crying every thirty minutes, like I don’t miss him. I do. I miss him more than anything.”
Uncle Chester grunted.
You might be wondering at this point why Chester seemed so disinterested in his brother’s death, why it had been so long since he had seen him. You might be thinking Uncle Chester really didn’t care at all, being the wet-glob-spitting, cigarette smoking kind of person that he was. There’s a chance you’re right.
Aunt Melinda started to bustle off, intent on cleaning something, or planning something, or helping someone, anyone, do something.
“She’s a right pain in the tookus, that’s all. Remember what Byron used to call her?”
“A bug-eyed bag of horse dung. Yep.”
Tabitha gnawed a fried protrusion off her funnel cake with a glazed expression suggesting that she didn’t realize this was her third funnel cake of the night. She was watching a particular horse on the merry-go-round who seemed to be leering. Or maybe grimacing. Yes, grimacing. In fact, he looked remarkably nauseous for an animal made out of cheap plaster. Aunt Something-Or-Other was still monologuing into her ear.
“And your father was such a wonderful man, Tabitha. I know you know that. He’s in such a better place, you know. Of course you know that too. How have you been holding up?”
“Six pounds. (Another bite of funnel cake.) “That’s how much I gained this week. Great, huh?”
That vile horse kept spinning, looking like he was about to hurl carnival-colored vomit everywhere.
There are many things you can throw to the wind. Kites, for instance. Or dandelion fluff, if you wish to have a yard full of pesky yellow flowers. Or the ripped up remnants of love letter that you never got the chance to send. You could throw caution to the wind, although it is not advisable. The pimply-faced youth in the Snack Hut of the Fayette County Summer Carnival gave the accidentally-blackened popcorn a sniff and then promptly chucked it out the back door, throwing the scent of charred kernels to the wind.
There was no way the Ferris Wheel - or “Wheel of Thrills,” as they were unabashedly calling it - had passed a safety inspection in the last ten years. That was Cousin Ed’s opinion. Those cage-like seats creaking around their orbit seemed like some kind of bad omen, but Ed was in line for it anyway. The flickering light bulbs in the center were like the antique brooch on the sagging breast of an elderly woman who either didn’t know or didn’t care that all the gems were falling out. Mother Kim was a few people in front of Ed in line. She was bending down to talk to Melinda’s kid, Maddie, with a would-be kindly expression on her plastic features.
“Do you understand where your Uncle Byron has gone, dear?”
“Yes, Mother Kim.” Maddie pursed her lips in a commendable impression of eight-year-old restraint.
“He has gone to be with our Lord and Father Most High in Heaven.”
“Heaven is a place way up in the sky where we will all go one day, just like your Uncle Byron.”
“I know.” Maddie rolled not just her eyes, but her entire head.
Ed watched across the field of carnival-goers as an employee told off Uncle Chester for lighting up a cigarette and then as Uncle Chester shouted something about a free country and lumbered off. It was, as you might remember, an exceptionally dry summer.
“Hey, you’re Byron’s cousin, right?” A lanky man in line behind Ed held out a hand to shake.
“Mmhm. I’m Ed.”
“Nice to meet you Ed, I’m Wendell, knew Byron from church.”
“Nice to meet you too.”
“So what do you do, Ed?’
“Oh, well I’ve got a couple things going on right now. You know, here and there. I’m actually writing this fantasy trilogy right now, but that’s kind of while I’m waiting for my application for Harper Collins to go through. And there’s somebody in Portland who’s been asking for my helping with editing his newspaper column so...yeah.”
Wendell from church blinked at him.
“My niece majored in English. She’s been volunteering at the animal shelter, but I know she’ll find a job soon.”
“Oh.” A nerve twitched over Ed’s eye. He stepped up to the Wheel of Thrills.
“What was it Byron did again? Oh right, he was a teller. Banking never goes out of style, am I right?” Ed briefly considered something he could say that would wipe that hearty smirk right off of Wendell from church’s face.
“Right,” said Ed. “Well I’m just going to ride this now.” But Ed was abruptly not sure he wanted to ride this spinning contraption with its probable lack of safety approval. He climbed in, noticing that the seat reeked of urine.
“Did you know that more astronauts came from Ohio than any other state?” he asked the attendant. “What is it about this state that makes people want to leave the earth?”
The attendant was not a high school drop out. He wasn’t a Rhodes scholar, but he wasn’t stupid either. He wasn’t a druggie, did not have a single tattoo, and was not convicted of any felonies. But most of all, the attendant was not interested in astronauts. Ed climbed inside the cage. The attendant who was not a loser yawned and thought about the kung pao chicken he was going to have for dinner.
Aunt Melinda was bustling. She bustled from buying Maddie a purple grape slurpee to wiping up little second-cousin Freddie’s skinned knee and then she bustled over to the pie judging table to keep an eye on things.
“Well if candy bar pie isn’t the tackiest thing I’ve ever heard of, I don’t know what is.” Aunt Melinda patted her round, shining face with a napkin. “Tabitha, love, you save room for my pie now, ok?”
Tabitha shrugged through a mouthful of churro.
“You doing alright, hun?”
“A week and a half... Oh sorry, I thought you asked how long I’ve been off my diet. I’m fine.”
“Good, good. And oh look, there goes the Wicked Witch.” Aunt Melinda glared as Mother Kim exited the Wheel of Thrills. At some point in your life, you have probably been in a position to realize that when someone irritates you enough, everything they do can make you despise them a little bit more, such as eating crackers, breathing, or exiting ferris wheels.
“I don’t think she’s that bad, Aunt Mel.”
“What? Of course she is. She spread a rumor around the congregation that I’ve been pinching change from the collection plate so that I won’t get elected treasurer of the Vestry. Heartless woman. Have you heard what your father used to call her?”
Tabitha nodded. She wished her dad was there to make a joke about tattooed carnies or puke bags on the Tilt-o-Whirl or something. But that was the point of this whole evening: Byron was not there. She chewed her churro moodily like a dog with a soft, sugary bone.
Aunt Melinda said something about needing to help Grandma Lou find a taxi home. Maddie sidled by, looking serious.
“Hi Maddie May.” Maddie had always been Tabby’s favorite cousin. “How’re things going?”
“Hi Tabby, good, thank you, how are you?”
“Six pounds. Hey, how are you feeling about Uncle Byron? I don’t know if you really understand...”
Maddie stomped her foot in the dust.
“I KNOW what dead is! I had a goldfish once.”
And she huffed off, wondering what on earth would make all these grown-ups understand.
Ed, trapped in the confines of the Wheel of Thrills, watched the carnival whiz around his face in a sick blur of colors. And Uncle Chester, hiding behind the Super Slide so as to avoid nagging carnival employees, finished his clandestine cigarette and threw the still-glowing butt to the wind.
It was time, as Aunt Melinda reminded them all repeatedly, for the Pie Contest Winners to be announced. Tabitha and her soft pretzel came over, as well as Mother Kim, a few aunts and uncles and cousins who you were not introduced to because they were not important, and Uncle Chester walking with Ed. Little vitamin-colored pennants hanging off the pie tent flapped like laundry someone hung up on the line and forgot to take down before the storm hit.
“Some show, this,” said Uncle Chester, gesturing vaguely to the gesticulating merry-go-round. He said this as if the evening had been a performance put on for his entertainment. Everyone was listening as a portly man in a striped carnival shirt announced something about a “plethora of pies.”
“Mm,” agreed Ed. He was still nauseous and more than a little edgy.
“You know, “ said Chester, chuckling now. “You know? I think Byron really would have loved this. He would have gotten a real kick out of it.”
“What he would have loved,” grouched Ed, either throwing caution to the wind or not really thinking, “is that botoxed priest being here, considering their secret romance.”
Uncle Chester said a word that would have gotten him kicked out of church.
If you had been peering in through the windows of Mother Kim’s modest country home just a week prior to this night, you would have seen that Cousin Ed, who had come unannounced to Mother Kim’s house for confession, had let himself in. And if you had a decent vantage point of the sitting room, you would have seen Ed’s comically agape face as he spotted his cousin Byron entwined on the couch with Mother Kim, attached very firmly at the lips. And as he quickly ran right back out. Although you probably did not.
For just a moment, vindictive pleasure became like an uninvited stranger at the carnival who walked up and put his arm around Ed.
“Yeah,” said Ed. “Yeah. What would everyone think of dear old Byron then?”
Uncle Chester swore again. This was either because he was still in shock that his older brother had been secretly dating the woman he had labeled a bug-eyed bag of horse dung, or because of the word that was shouted from the Super Slide, heard all the way at the pie judging table: “FIRE!”
You might remember that it was an extraordinarily dry summer in Fayette County, Ohio.
“Shouting fire in a crowded theater” is a phrase that originated with a man named Oliver Holmes in 1919 who was, at the time, talking about the freedom and speech and how anti-war flyers aren’t exactly covered by the first amendment. What the phrase has come to mean is that if you tell people there’s a fire in a theater or some crowded place, everyone will panic. You can say “carnival” instead of “theater” and it will be equally true. Shouting fire in a crowded carnival will cause a panic. Especially if there really is a fire.
Panic ensued. People ran. The fire jumped around the dry grass like a hyper puppy. The Super Slide attendant dumped a bottle of gatorade onto the flames. Uncles and cousins ran to find water. Chester and Ed tried to help. People yelled. The balloon man accidentally let go of all of his balloons which floated away like rainbow guppies. Someone screamed. Someone pulled the emergency stop lever on the Wheel of Thrills which ground to a halt (although that may have been because the attendant was late getting off his shift and wanted to hurry to the break room.) The clown used his enormous shoe to beat at the flames.
Next Christmas, the whole family would laugh and remember the fire as having been a lot bigger and having lasted a lot longer. Really, it was over in five minutes. Someone found a hose and just like that, the fire was out. But in the silence that followed, it felt as though a catastrophe had taken place.
“Is everyone alright?”
The clown’s shoe was charred and black, but nothing else seemed damaged. The whole family looked around each other across the scorched grass, sweaty-faced. Mother Kim looked out of place. Uncle Chester could not have looked more guilty if he had tried. Aunt Melinda looked close to tears. And vindictive pleasure, it seemed, had left the carnival entirely.
Maddie May, however, was scrambling toward the sooty crowd at the Super Slide. She threw caution to the wind.
“I saw Uncle Byron!”
Every head pivoted toward the sound of the eight-year old voice.
“Maddie May,” hissed Aunt Melinda, regaining the power of speech. “Uncle Byron is...”
“I know he’s dead!” said Maddie indignantly with just the smallest trace of triumph. “I saw his ghost! In the funhouse!”
If the fire was the catastrophe, this was the aftershock. The family didn’t know what to say. It had been, after all, an extremely long day. How best do you address an eight-year old with a declaration like that? And just when Aunt Melinda looked ready to say something else, Tabitha spoke up.
“What did he say? Did Uncle Byron say anything to you?”
Maddie shrugged, the corners of her mouth twitching.
“He said to have a good time tonight.”
Making arrangements for the funeral earlier that day had not been fun. Tabitha was crying. People halted around the room like they were actors in a play for which they’d never seen the script. Isn’t it strange how similar the word funeral is to funnel, which is a kind of cake that doesn’t belong in the somber realm of funeral at all.
Mother Kim was jotting notes onto a pad for the funeral, her face stony. How long had she been fighting the battle to not grow older?
“What can I get for you? Do you need anything?” asked Aunt Melinda, bustling. Maddie May was at her side, trying to squeeze out a tear so she could match everyone else. They were gathered in a cold, silent room buried somewhere in the church.
Mother Kim was asking questions: what bible verse would you like here? What time would you like this? How many psalms here? But all she wanted was for Byron to come through that door, grinning like always, and kiss her like there was no tomorrow and make a joke about the nickname he’d given her a long, long time ago.
Uncle Chester withdrew his cell phone from his pocket. On it was an unanswered text message he had been checking every hour since his brother’s death. “Let’s catch up soon. I miss you.”
There is a bible verse, perhaps you have heard of it, somewhere in the book of Jeremiah, about turning sorrow into joy and swapping mourning for rejoicing.
Aunt Melinda laid down her pencil.
“You know what? Let’s go to the fair.”
You might know how the story ends, or you might think you do. You probably do, because this story has happened before, but with different people in a different place with a different situation. The Wheel of Thrills attendant got off work and microwaved his kung pao chicken. Aunt Melinda politely handed a piece of her first-place-winning pie to Mother Kim who said politely, “thank you.” Maddie chatted to Tabitha, who swore he diet was starting back tomorrow, about her spelling test that week. Cousin Ed reminisced fondly about Uncle Byron and told everyone about a Jamaican tradition he had heard of. Uncle Chester put his cell phone away and looked at the sky and no one heard him say, “I miss you too.” And whether the ghost in the funhouse was a ghost or an eight-year old’s imagination or a carnival employee taking a shortcut to the break room didn’t really matter. And everyone ate pie.