You always know when it arrives. First, the night before is full of the sound of the diesel engines powering up and back down, as the engineer backs the train onto the siding. Then you hear what sounds like a series of car wrecks, as the railcar couplings jam together, followed by a final jerk to release them. There’ll be five, maybe six cars at the siding by the old school, tomorrow morning.
I know they’re coming, of course. This year like every year since I started reading, The Allison Journal devotes half the front page to the arrival of the Mystic Road Show. Starved for news, they recap the itinerant carnival’s greatest features from the year before. The eight-first annual appearance, the Journal announced this year, coinciding, as always, with the Allison County Fair.
“Just as well,” Gramps used to say, when he was still alive. “County Fair ‘n no Road Show ain’t much of a to-do.” He’d know.
I did the math this year. This being 1966, the Mystic Road Show first came to Allison back in 1885 about thirty-two years before gramps came back from the Great War with one and a half legs. There’d been no Road Show all the years after Pearl Harbor until the year after the war ended.
I glance out the window by my bed. The sky’s still dark, but it’s just about time, anyway. My feet hit the floor hard enough so Mom knows I’m up. Jeans, socks, boots and a frayed chambray work shirt, a touch too small in the shoulders, now. I tuck the shirt tail in, sort of. On my way down the hall, I bang on Tommy’s door.
“Yeah, ‘m comin,’” he says. I pound down the stairs.
“Mornin’ Mama,” I say, breezing through the kitchen.
Her back’s to me and she’s standing at the stove. “Your brother up, Gil?”
“Yeah.” I stop. Her tone tells me there’s more.
“He’s going to want to go watch roustabouts put up the tents. Make sure he does his chores, first.”
“Yes Ma’am.” I reach for the screen door and her voice pulls me up short, like a horse on a spade bit.
“And make sure you do your own, while you’re at it.” She looks over her shoulder from the stove, without turning around. “I’m helping the principal get ready for the first day of school, so I won’t be back ‘til supper. See Tommy gets his lunch.”
“I will, Mom.”
She nods, flashing me what passes for a smile and turns back to the stove.
I head for the barn, going through my chore list on my way. It’s gotten longer, now Dad’s gone. Max meets me at the door, his tail wagging lazily. When I don’t say anything, it droops.
“Okay, okay,” I relent. “Come on Max.” His tail goes into overdrive as I head for the feed room. He bounds ahead like it’s hunting season.
Tommy joins me and gets busy flaking out hay from the bale outside the feed room while I fill the water buckets and measure out the grain for the boarders’ horses. Show season, so Nancy’s reining horse is on Omolene. The Holden’s foals, here for halter breaking are both on supplements, too.
“Think they’ll have fireworks this year?” Tommy asks as he drops a flake and a half in “Twelve Gauge’s” feed bin. There’ve been rumors the last couple years they cost too much for the town.
“Don’t know. Paper didn’t say.”
By the time we’re done feeding, Mom’s at the back door. “Breakfast,” she calls.
It’s not a request. Tommy’s closest, so he’s in the kitchen first, at close to a dead run.
“Hands,” Mom reminds him as he reaches for a plate.
I walk in and stand to the side to wait my turn at the sink. Mom faces me, hands in her apron, as she wipes them off. She meets my eye. She doesn’t have to say a word. I nod and receive the faintest of smiles in return.
After breakfast, Mom’s on her way to the school in the pick-up. We turn the horses out, except for Nancy’s quarter horse. I put a fly sheet on him and tether him outside, then check on the foals. They’re done eating, so I halter each in turn and lead them out in the small pasture beside the barn. The colt doesn’t want to cooperate. What’s new? I’ll work with both of them, later.
Tommy starts on the stalls at one end of the barn and I start at the other, working toward the middle. The stalls, corral and shed row are all clean by nine. “You comin’?” Tommy asks.
I nod. “We have to be back for lunch,” I remind him.
The fair-ground is really the city park, such as it is. Sparse trees line the edge all around. Allison’s businesses, hem the park in on three sides. The switchgrass and blue stem growing in the large open square has been mowed close for the fair, and their cut stalks are already brown in the sun.
The handlers are getting ready to unload the animals. They’ll line them up along the gravel road, next to the siding, like always. A block down Fourth Street, a tent is going up already. I catch sight of Old Mr. Hawthorne across the street from the park, leaning against the doorframe to Sissy’s Kitchen, looking on. Even at this distance his pipe, posture and bib-overalls are unmistakable.
I look back at the tent going up and the water tower next to it. Except for Tolliver’s grain elevator on the other side of town, the water tower is the only thing you can see of Allison from the highway. Last time it was repainted, they made the letters bigger so it could be read from the highway, but the winter blizzards and summer sun since have already taken care of that.
“Look!” Tommy points with one hand and digs me in the ribs with the other.
The first elephant appears at the door, stepping gingerly down the ramp, coming to a stop at a bark from one of the handlers. She moves stiffly, as the handler positions her. Is she in pain, stiff from the train ride or both, maybe? The lead elephant is followed by two more, even more tentative than the first.
“Weren’t there five or six, last year?” Tommy asks.
I nod silently.
“The horses are coming out!” he shouts. Before I can respond he says, “That one’d be tough to ride bare back. Look how high his withers are!”
A handler positions the gelding and he stands. He drops his head to nose the ground hopefully, finding only pea gravel and bone-dry dirt. The handler returns to the ramp for the next horse. Inside of fifteen minutes, the first gelding is joined by eleven more horses, all from the same car, all dappled roans with dark manes and tails.
“They’re lookin’ a little off their feed,” Tommy observes. “S’pose it’s all the travel?”
In another ten minutes, Tommy is restless. “Let’s go down to the park and see what’s up there.”
“You go ahead. I’ll catch up.”
Tommy breaks into a run as I cut across the town square, headed for Sissy’s. Mr. Hawthorne is reaching into his shirt pocket as I cross the street. He pulls out a packet of Sir Walter Raleigh and fills his pipe, packing the bowl with single-minded absorption. Up close, his face looks like Elm bark—weathered and resigned, like the town.
“Mornin’, Mr. Hawthorne.”
Mr. Hawthorne nods. “Mornin’, Gil.” He strikes a match against the doorframe and sucks on his pipe. “Come to see the Road Show set up?”
Mr. Hawthorne sucks audibly on his pipe and the sweet aroma of tobacco wafts on the wind. “Can I count on you for the second hayin’?”
“Yes sir,” I confirm, hoping we get enough rain to need a second haying.
Hawthorne nods again—more to himself than me. “I’ll send Mike over to let you know when.”
He sucks on his pipe for a while in silence, then he pushes his Massey-Ferguson hat higher on his forehead before tugging low over his eyes. He turns to go, then stops. “Tell your Ma I’ll give her the same discount as always, if she hauls.”
“Thank you, Mr. Hawthorne. I will. She’ll appreciate that.”
He peers at me as though seeing something new in me. “You got one more year a school left, right Gil?” He takes another noisy intake on his pipe.
“Not sure. “Service, maybe?”
Mr. Hawthorne reaches up and rubs his left shoulder and I know what he’s thinking. “Believe I’ll get me another cup a coffee.” He takes another pull on his pipe, which has gone out. He frowns and knocks his pipe bowl out on the heel of his boot before heading back into Sissy’s Kitchen.
“See ya, Mr. Hawthorne.”
As I turn up Fourth, the first prickles of heat dampen my collar. A couple tents have gone up already, a temporary respite from its usual bland sameness. Looking back toward Main Street, I see Bibler’s Hardware is still closed. Orlo’s late, not that it matters. Everybody not out in the fields is watching the only attraction in town, anyhow.
I stare at the sum total of Allison, including the church and the one block business district on the other side of the park. This is all of it—every bit. I know it’s just my imagination but everything looks like it’s shrunk during the winter. The church looks old and cheerless, even from this side of the square. And the Preacher hasn’t made the usual call for volunteers to re-paint it, this summer. Won’t be here next year anyway. And nobody’s comin’ to replace to replace him that I’ve heard of.
Behind the town square I can see Mr. Moreland’s pasture and “our” hill behind it. The hill Donna and me climbed that day we cut school, spring before last. She waited until the last day of school, this year, to tell me they were moving away. I still don’t have her address. I look at the sign in front of Moreland’s pasture. “For sale by owner—all or part. 800-800-land.” No takers, I’ve heard of.
I hear the rustle of grass behind me and when I turn, Tommy’s headed for me at a dead run. “Big Top’s going up,” he shouts, unnecessarily. He skids to stop and waves in the direction of the tent going up in the middle of the park where the ball diamond is. “Isn’t that the one they used last year?”
I look at it and shrug.
“Time for a new one.”
Dusty red panels alternate with a faded yellow. I turn my attention to the roustabouts hauling on the lines, dragging them taut while others drive the stakes, the ring of sledges delayed by distance. Heavy movements, weighed down by the pitiless sun.
One of them walks toward us, stopping at the Igloo jug. His Adam’s apple bobs with effort as he gulps water, his head tilting to empty the cup. He draws a second cup and bolts it down, as well. When his head comes down the second time, he looks at me with eyes empty of options. He gives me a half-smile full of somewhere else. With a nod in my direction, he crushes the cup in a huge fist, tossing it in the plastic bag hanging on the jug.
I sweep my eyes along the horizon to the west. As I drop my eyes to the only town I’ve called home, it looks even smaller. Like is it’s shrinking, even as I watch.
I hear Tommy’s boot scuffing at the dirt. Getting restless.
I take one last look at the distant horizon, feeling it pulling me. I look down, surprised that I’m still here. The whisper of the August wind tickles the hair on the back of my neck, too intimate, too familiar.
“Wanna go?” Tommy asks.