I liked county fairs, especially in the evening when the air smelled of dust, beer, barbecue, people, and with the lights flashing all over and the music screaming.
There were men in their big white hats and boots, women wearing jeans with flannel shirts, and kids with fanny patches roaming around.
Summer was usually over by the time the fair came, but its final lingering breath haunted me with the touch of fall and coolness in the air.
The lighted trees looked divine, and the booths and tents were filled with dirt and noise under the big branches.
I sat on the grass in front of the merry-go-round for hours. I would also walk around the roller coasters, bumper cars, and super slides, trying to share the joy and exuberance I saw on the faces of the children. Teenage boys and girls walked hand in hand, stopping occasionally to throw darts at balloons. When they hit the target, I felt I had won all those blue and pink stuffed animals.
At the very edge of the fair there was always a big tent, open all around. Inside there were bleachers set in a half-moon.
When I was tired, I would sit there and wait for the next show.
One night I got there quite late. The last show had been over for almost an hour. There was no one at the circus. All the lights were off except for the one on the stage. I sat in the middle of a front bench drinking a cup of coffee. The fair was still going on in the background. Suddenly, a little boy, maybe eight, walked to the center of the stage. He had no shirt, no shoes. His hair was long, his face was dirty, but he had a distinct smile that deepened a small dimple on his left cheek.
First, he bowed to a nonexistent audience. I knew he couldn’t see me. Then he raised his hand and ordered an unseen musician to start. A cheerful carnival music filled the air. Then he started to dance with a frantic rhythm, whirling, kneeling, jumping. His feet were bare. He went on and on with great joy, yelling and screaming. Then he stopped, bowed again, and ran off the stage.
I applauded, then ran after him. There were mobile homes and campers behind the circus tent. He disappeared among them.
I thought he must be the son of one of the performers. I very much wanted to talk to him, but I was tired and knew how hard it would be to find him.
I slowly returned to the fair and noticed the crowd had thinned. There were still a few lines of children waiting to get in the magic house, and some people were still eating and drinking at the food stands.
I was slowly walking toward the exit door when I saw the boy again. He was walking ten yards ahead of me. He was alone, and there were people between us. I quickened my pace to get closer to him. He also started walking faster, and then started running. I ran after him, but lost him in the crowd. I got to the gate and waited to see him. I even asked the officer if they had seen a young boy with bare feet. Nobody knew anything about him.
I knew the night was not over for me. I couldn’t leave the carnival. I turned back and walked toward the midway. I was the only one going in that direction. I passed the rides, the magic houses, and the booths until I once again reached the empty circus tent.
My coffee cup was still on the bleachers where I had left it.
The stage light was on, and absolutely nobody was in the tent.
I sat in my old place. The coffee was cold and tasted bitter. I had a funny feeling. I knew he was around and following me.
I was right. He came running to the stage again, without shirt or shoes. He had a dirty face and a sweet smile. I stoop up and applauded.
He bowed to me, then to the audience. He turned to the musicians, raised his hand, and started the music. He danced, whirling, clapping his hands, and tapping his feet.
“Bravo,” I yelled. “Bravo!”
He raised his hand to thank me. He stopped and stood on the stage. I walked toward him.
“You are the best dancer I have ever seen.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I dance differently every night,” he said.
“What’s your name? Where are your parents?”
He smiled. “Now it’s time for me to go down the super slide once more.”
I realized he lived in a different world and was not about to get involved in mine. I tried very hard to have a conversation with him, but he did not bother to answer me.
We had a two-track conversation. He kept telling me all about the rides and games at the fair. I kept asking all the wrong questions about his life: who he was, where he came from, and who he belonged to. In the end I was tired and frustrated. I asked him if he wanted a drink, and he said he did. I went to the closest food stand to get him one.
When I came back he was gone. I very well knew the futility of running around looking for him. I sat on the bleachers helplessly.
I saw a small wallet next to me, then immediately recognized that it was my first wallet, given to me on my eighth birthday. My picture was inside. I saw a small, eight-year-old boy with long hair, a sweet smile, and a dimple on the left cheek.
I remembered this boy. I knew I had lost him forever at the county fair.