“I’m sorry again.” Pen moans, wiping the sweat from her flushed forehead. “But you have to admit they weren’t that bad, just a little rough.”
“Rough?” Grace looks at her, “They were jerks!”
June rolls her eyes. This has been going on since we arrived at the County Fairground’s massive parking lot and Grace asked Pen to help her pull the lawn chairs out of the van. It was the first they’ve spoken in a week and Pen has embraced the chance to make amends. I guess they were both tired of the silent treatment.
“They weren’t that bad.” Pen says, following close behind Grace, “They’re like us in a hairier, smellier sort of way.” She wipes more sweat away, “And you were kind of an a**.”
“Kind of an butt?” Grace sneers. Pen’s method of apology could use some work.
The conversation hangs in the air as we press between an old pickup truck and a ragged two door sedan crammed with about eight black kids. One little girl stares up at me as I try to squeeze past her door without breaking off an already Duck taped side view mirror.
“They are my friend’s you know?” Pen pauses behind a jeep and shifts her lawn chair from one shoulder to the other, her tiny frame having trouble with what looks like two pounds of aluminum and vinyl.
“How was I suppose to act thrown into a situation like that?” Grace asks. She carefully navigates past an old couple, a grandfather pushing a grandmother in a rickety wheel chair. A green oxygen bottle hangs from the chair’s side with it’s clear plastic lines running directly to the woman’s nose. The man hums the theme from Bonanza. “They sure as heck didn’t seem to care how they acted towards us.”
“You’re a nice person and I expected you to act that way.” Pen says, “And you have to admit, Chad has problems.” The clever girl is playing at Grace’s better nature, kudos for that.
“Yeah, he has problems. Weird problems.” Grace’s nauseated tone speaks volumes. Maxwell told us to keep Chad’s mommy issus between ourselves and not tell Little Miss. Priss. We agreed, only to let the mangy, mutant cat out of the bag as soon as we were heading home. Somethings you can’t keep secret. But it was for the best. Grace’s anger has dwindled to something more like pity.
We leave the overflow parking lot (now a colorful sea of every make and model automobile imaginable) and hike along a crowded gravel road leading to the main field where the city’s set up the carnival and designated an official fireworks viewing area. Several volunteers wave us pass a row of orange traffic cones and a hand painted sign reading, “‘No Vehicles Permitted.'” One hands Pen a flyer and says something about Mayor McDaniel’s reelection bid. We, and just about everyone else, ignore her.
June taps me on the shoulder. She’s looking over the cheaply printed black and white flyer, dollar signs stamped all over it. “Can I get a turkey leg. They’re just three dollars.” Grace and Pen walk a head of us, discussing something Freudian, probably the Oedipus Complex.
“We agreed to eat after.” I say, struggling to keep my balance on the gravel. My arms are wrapped around a few beach towels June and I have choose to take instead of lawn chairs and the bag of snacks Grace snatched from her pantry. “Everything at the venders will be overpriced anyways.”
“Just one?” Her pleading tone belongs more to a preschooler than a seventeen year old teenager.
She grumbles something about us poor white whores but knows it won’t do any good. Money has gotten low for everyone and there has been talk of trying a summer job. With our collective work experience totaling three weeks of babysitting and some light yard work, the only option available to us is cashiering at one of the dozens of fast food joints dotting Greenville’s cityscape. Dread has bloomed in us like an ugly flower.
As we reach the top of the path, June’s eyes grow wide as Oreos. The County Fairgrounds is bustling, and raising above the herds of people and straddled by multicolored lights and brightly painted signs are dozens of carnival rides and concession stands. Everything is topped with red, white and blue streamers and over a loud speaker someone is playing Stars and Strips Forever. God I’m so proud to be an American! Suck it Canada!
June, on the other hand, is immune to any patriotic bug and has gone zombie. “Turkey leggg…” She stumbles towards the nearest stand.
“Sin dinero, sin pierna de pavo!” I pulling her back. She struggles for a moment then whimpers, like a balloon deflating, and falls in line behind me. Grace and Pen are already halfway down the fairway. They look back but I wave them on, wanting to ensure they we get good spots at the viewing field. The whole city and half the county will be here tonight.
“So what did you think of Chad?” I ask, hoping to get June’s mind off food, but knowing it’s a long shot. She’s primal about sustenance.
“Loser.” June says. She studies every booth we pass. With everything priced at a premium her hopes for an early dinner sink like a stone, and I think I can hear her heart breaking. It sounds like someone stepping on tortilla chips.
“What about Brian and Maxwell?” I looked them up on Facebook and they seemed no different than what we saw at Burger King. Brian has few friends, his account belonging more to an elderly aunt (his legal guardian or something) than himself. Most of his post are of pumpkin spice cake recipes and the proper way to preserve strawberries. Maxwell, on the other hand, was a non-presents altogether with his last post, a blurb about Minecraft, being over two years old.
“Same.” June says, “They’re all losers.” She’s moved from admiring the corndogs and nachos to studying the carnies hashing them out. Most are either middle aged and overweight or teenagers with pimples and thin, underdeveloped mustaches. Bad teeth seems to be a universal prerequisite for life on the road. “About as big a losers as these guys.”
I nod, allowing for the ambiguity. To June the entire world consist of two groups of people: us and the losers. You can be the coolest, nicest overachiever on the planet (the type who get the gold medals in snowboarding and then the Mr. or Miss Congeniality award too boot) but if you haven’t spent a Tuesday night helping Grace alphabetize her sci-fi paperbacks or a Friday afternoon cursing about Greenville in my unconditioned Grand Caravan praying to God everyone’s deodorant holds out, then you are a muy grande perdedor, a very big loser.
We move on. Above us the blue afternoon sky gives way to a warm sunset. Several large thunderclaps, ones Channel 5 warned might nix the fireworks show, rise above us like enormous pink pillars. Grace, already at the end of the fairway, has her camera out and is kneeling in the dirt, snapping away. Pen is hovering over her. She’s learned to be patient while the artist is at work. It’s something of a professional courtesy, the Canon Digital Rebel being to Grace what a fine point Sharpie is to Pen. Mutual respect has developed.
“I looked Chad up on Facebook.” I say, “He seems to like wrestling a lot.”
June grunts as she sidesteps a dirt covered funnel cake.
“His wallpaper is a picture of him shaking hands with John Cena. He’s a wrestler he saw him in Little Rock a few years ago.” I don’t mention his mother, a middle aged women with a tan darker than any Caucasian woman should have. Her profile says she’s a dental hygienist but bartender seems more appropriate. There isn’t one photo of her without a bottle of something in hand (or hands): a fifth of Jack, a pint of Grey Goose, two PBR’s, etc.
“Sounds like a f**.” June says absently. Her eyes have moved from the carnies and bright lights to the teenagers crowding an outcropping of picnic tables. Most are black kids from Carver High School, some are whites I recognize from West Greenville. Martina Amos, a party girl blonde with a round face and emerald green eyes, known mostly for dropping her pants and peeing in front of crowd of boys to win a bet, waves.
Despite a sinking heart (God there are some people that just make you lose your faith in humanity!) I wave back, mostly out of reflex, partially out of politeness. It’s hard to believe we were once friends, that at one time we braded each other’s hair and were on the same t-ball team.
We find Grace and Pen near the back of the viewing field. With their chairs set in the reclining position, they stare up at the hot pink clouds gliding across the sky like loose feathers. They take turns spotting elephants, rabbits and Elvis Presley. I guess this means they made up.
“You two couldn’t get any closer?” June kicks Grace’s chair and motions across the field were thousands of human heads bob like tulips in a Dutch farmer’s field.
“We were late.” Grace says, “And the fireworks will be above us anyways.” She points up at a vast thunderclap. It glows a divine pink and you’d think God were trying to lead us to the shores of the Red Sea. “We have a great view.”
June grunts and begins laying out her Despicable Me beach towel. I follow, laying mine beside Pen’s chair.
Beyond the thousands of heads is a small wooden stage where Mayor McDaniel will be sure to give a rambling speech. Further on, working in a small clearing, is the Great Southern Fire and Wonder Company LLC., ready to fulfill their contractual obligations to thrill and awe.
“I hope this s**** good.” Pen says, doubt in her voice, “They do the Fourth over the water in Jacksonville, it’s like the World’s on fire.”
“This’ll be better.” I reassure her, knowing full well that it won’t. Jacksonville probably spends more on it’s Forth of July fireworks, a one night affair, than Greenville dishes out annually for it’s children’s educations. Funny how fixing the broken tampon dispensers in the girl’s restrooms or having Windows 7 capable computers never seems to be on any candidate’s campaign agenda, while a big Fourth of July is promised by every hopeful, even Democrats.
After a few minutes Mayor McDaniel, wearing a black suit and sporting a short power hair cut, hops on stage with a young Republican’s enthusiastic flare. He is followed by the towns oldest living veterans, two men in wheelchairs and one hobbling slowly on a sliver cane. Through black speakers propped on poles around the field, he begins a gory summary of Greenville’s contributions to our nation’s history, usually in the form of young men blown to bits and buried thousands of miles from home. We listen, or at least pretend too, as the sun sets and the improvised stadium lights, shop lamps placed a few feet above stage, flicker on.
“This guy needs to shut up.” Pen swats a mosquito on her elbow, leaving a red blot on her pale skin, “Those old guys are about to fall asleep.”
She’s right. One of the wheelchair vet’s is already slumped over snoozing while the other two struggle. Maybe Oliver and Sunny had the right idea to stay home and watch the fireworks from through the attic window.
After another ten minutes the Mayor moves off the stage and Stars and Strips Forever begins pumping through the makeshift surround sound system. My heart begins to race. After a few moments three mortars fly up, shining like shooting stars before bursting into a million bits of red, white, and blue. More follow in a well timed eruption of light and beauty. I look and see Grace beaming, her face glowing with patriotic colors, while June snores, a thin stream of drool wetting her cheek.
Pen, unimpressed, turns to me. “Is this it?”
I only smile and look up, allowing myself to be carried away by the music and the steady thump, thump, thump of the mortars. “Who would need anything else?”