Chris S. Burns Contra Mundi

Our whole world was less than a square mile, and though we were always moving we were always completely fenced into it. Our parents liked it that way. They didn’t want the world outside the fair and found the fences comforting, but I still get claustrophobic thinking of it and still wake up sometimes sweating and feeling like I can't move. When my parents said things like “One day you can operate any ride here, Elena! Take your pick!” they didn’t know I would later joke “Is death a ride? Can I pick death?” They meant well, but every time they talked about our future we despised them a little more. Every time, I was one step closer to running away.

John Iverton, my best friend, was a natural showman and could convince anyone of anything, so he seemed interested when they talked like that. I didn't have his confidence then. The best I could do when they talked about our futures was avoid cringing. I would fix my eyes on some point on their face and stare. I imagined myself as the most defiant force I could, the Zipper. The Zipper was a ride like a semi-truck was a pickup. It was a clanking, rending monstrosity, an insult to any rational world. Its uncomfortable seats and unpredictably spinning gondolas slinging along its also spinning 60-foot oblong frame could make even the strongest people queasy. If there was a ride that didn’t give a shit, that wasn’t afraid to show its height and muscle, it was the Zipper. I wanted to be defiant like that, to be gigantic and unyielding, fierce against the face of them.

It was hard not to hold our parents’ zeal for their own isolation (and for ours) against them, but it wasn’t their fault. They were stuck in time. When you live in a traveling fair no one sees the world in terms of time, not really. Sure there were days of the week, birthdays, holidays, but there wasn’t any sense that the passage of years mattered. The only thing that ever changed was what we put in the deep fryers. Our lives were supposed to be just like our parents lives had been, and their parents. They would have been too, except we had something our parents never had which could show us so much of the world outside our own: we had iPhones.

I spent all of my time with John, and most of it watching TV shows or videos and dreaming of the outside. I was eleven and shy. He was thirteen, and in charge of it all. He had just started to find peach fuzz across his upper lip and was very proud. I was showing the slightest sign of breasts that would eventually grow, though they never got big. We’d known each other our whole lives but we were at just that age when people started to joke about us dating, and old enough to get the jokes.

My parents operated a food booth selling foot-long hot dogs, the ones with the ends sticking inches out of the bun to prove how gigantic they are. They'd come back to our trailer at night dripping the sickly sweet smell of boiled sausages on top of the French fry smell that seeped into everyone in the food pavilion, just one of the many odors of the heart disease, cholesterol, obesity that took so many people I knew as a child. I still fight back a gag if I walk past a hot dog cart.

John’s parents operated a Midway booth – the one where locals try to throw ping pong balls into jars filled with water, and if they land one they get some cheap stuffed animal to give to a girl or their kid or whatever, and if they miss John's father or mother or one of the teen workers would upsell them, always talking some patter:

“One more try, only an extra dollar! Get that prize!”

“Your choice of any animal on the bottom if you sink the next one!”

“You’re not going to quit now are you?”

The Midway thrives on ego, on the idea that you, yes YOU!, can win this dumb little thing if only you try hard enough. The games were for the most part honest, just really hard, and the barkers were great at keeping your wallet open while you kept humping the dream that your next try was the winner.

John and I spent our days being home schooled with the other kids. We were all of us stuffed in a trailer reading or doing math problems over and over again. Our teachers were mostly the grandparents or the oldest kids and we never knew who would be in charge on any given day, but it didn’t really matter for all any of them cared what we learned. They knew we needed a basic education but never expected us to need anything more. They seemed more concerned with keeping us contained. So we practiced reading or math or whatever for a few hours but mostly I just remember the older people telling stories, or the kids playing dice or cards or just sitting, sweating and slack jawed, and waiting to be released.

After school we’d run errands for the adults, moving tickets or money or notes through the park, pushing canisters of generator gas or propane, whatever. I often ran errands for Leroy, who was one of the oldest people still actively working. Leroy was a mechanic. He fixed rides when they broke down, but mostly he tuned them up and kept them running so that they wouldn’t. He could fix anything. When there was problem with one of the RVs the owners couldn’t fix, Leroy would take care of it in no time.

Leroy really belonged there. He was definitely old school, as “fair” as anyone could ever get. The lifestyle, the movement and bad food and sun, they had ravaged him as much as any of the old timers. His skin looked like rough leather and he had crags down his cheek like peeling paint, not hidden at all by his grizzled stubble and thin sideburns. His fingers were thin and bent and senseless from a lifetime of handling tools and working with hot engines. He smoked and drank constantly, though I rarely saw him drunk. But despite the time and bad habits and gas fumes, the burns from engines, he was undiminished. He wielded hammers and torqued lug nuts and talked away to whoever would listen. He was old enough to remember when the games were rigged and everything was a con. He even remembered Geek shows from when he was a child. And he was old enough to still talk in Ciazarn, the carny talk our grandparents used. My parents would slip into it if they were stressed or frustrated, or if they were trying to be difficult or confuse a local, but it had (thankfully) filtered out by my generation.

Still, all of us kids could understand it. Ciazarn was really just English with a lot of slang mixed in so that “rubes” or locals couldn’t understand what you were saying. At its most complex it was like Pig Latin – they’d add z’s into syllables and it would sound like gibberish unless you were used to hearing it. Leroy talked it so well it seemed like a completely different language coming out of his mouth. It was the sort of thing I generally hated in old timers, but Leroy was so good-natured, and he didn’t talk down to me. Whenever I came around to see if he needed any help he would teach me about what he was doing. After days spent not learning anything in school and just sitting around bored, it was nice that he paid attention to me. So even though he called himself a “waxie” rather than a mechanic, and talked about going to the “donniker” when he meant bathroom, or about fixing “zamps” whenever he was working on a kid’s ride, I liked working with him.

When we were done with school and errands for the day, and when our parents were working night shifts, distorted in neon, hustling locals too exhausted and strung out on junk food to make good decisions, John would come and get me, saying “Let's go eat,” and off we went to the 'exotic' booths.

For us, the exotic food section was a forgone conclusion. The shawarmas, curry, and Thai stands were all together, right next to the alligator tail or ostrich burgers or whatever weird shit the fair was serving as a novelty. These were separated from the mainstream foods – the hotdogs, turkey legs, and ice cream – by whatever deep fried horror was working that season. Deep fried Oreos or Twix bars, deep fried bacon, Pop-Tarts, Kool Aid, all of it (as far as I was concerned) belched up from Satan's asshole just like the rest of fair. Some seasons they’d have deep fried butter. Just butter, because the way people eat at the fair, and the way the people who live in it eat, we might as well all have just said fuck you heart! Fuck you, old age! I don't need you!

The reason I hated the food and the reason I had to escape were the same reason: my grandmother. She’d died when I was eight, of diabetes. She’d taken care of me and lots of the other kids when our parents were working their attractions, and I missed her so fucking much. She was in the hospital in Florida and already missing a leg when we went out that season. I don’t remember what city we were in when she died, just that no one was there with her, that she died alone while we were on the road eating the food that killed her. When we went back for her funeral it was one of the few times I wasn’t surrounded by the fair. That’s when I decided I would leave one day and never look back.

John and I avoided the Deep Fried section. We knew that was food you could only get at the fair, and we wanted to eat whatever seemed farthest away. The exotic foods were an escape. Learning about Vietnamese sandwiches, eating chow mein or Swedish meatballs, that was just us practicing for our future. We'd take our foreign food to whoever's trailer was unoccupied and watch TV or YouTube, scroll through Instagram, and dream of the bigger world from our small, miserable one, and we’d plan our future somewhere else.

My plan was to be a forensic investigator. We binge-watched several versions of CSI and they always did cool things in cool places. They wore nice clothes and seemed so confidant. When they ate out, they ate in restaurants with tablecloths. John and I, who'd only ever eaten at the fair or fast food, would try to guess what they were eating. State fairs have a lot of food but none of it looks like the food on TV. Our conversations would go, “Is that a chicken? It's so small.”

“Right? A leg that small would never sell next to the Giant Turkey Legs.”

“Lobster looks . . . complicated . . .”

“Why do they have such big plates but they're never full?”

“I've never seen lettuce that color in real life. What do you think that salad even tastes like?”

Wanting to be a forensic investigator may have been odd, but not as odd as John. He wanted to be a surf instructor. The fair spent every winter in Florida so we knew the ocean, but he had never surfed. He just liked surf movies. We streamed Point Break over and over, along with Step into Liquid or Chasing Mavericks, a dozen others. And don’t get me started on fucking Surf Ninjas. Every once in a while he would give in to my pleas, my “NOT Surf Ninjas again” or even “Okay, a surfing movie, but how about Blue Crush?”

“Okay, Blue Crush,” he said once, “but only because you look like Michelle Rodriguez.”

“Michelle Rodriguez isn’t even the star of Blue Crush,” I said.

"Elena Isabella Tejada," he said, using my full name, "that doesn't mean you don't look like her. You're totally a Michelle Rodriguez!"

I knew I was no Michelle Rodriguez – I was as dark as her but my features were too plain and I wasn’t near that tough – but we were adolescents trying on flirting, and it was flattering to hear him say it. John knew how much I admired her, how she was so ferocious but so cool all the time, even in interviews when it was really just her talking. She wasn’t afraid of anything. I could never star in a movie, not even a movie like Blue Crush. Jon could have been in one of those movies, though. He had the same look as the surfers in YouTube videos, tanned from being outside all day, lanky, with long and wispy hair and eyes that didn’t need sunglasses, and he smiled like a surfer, and was always smiling.

So me, the nervous future forensic investigator, and John Iverton, the upbeat future surfer, would sit on the floor of my parents' trailer and escape to Miami or Las Vegas or Hawaii, and plan our real escape.

It wasn’t until much later that I thought to figure out what a forensic investigator really did. I Googled it. It turns out you need a lot of school, but being home schooled by people who were home schooled meant getting into universities, especially the sorts of universities with high-end science programs, was never going to happen. I could read an IMDB description or the captions on an Instagram, but honestly, even the Wikipedia pages about forensics were pushing the bounds of my language skills. Maybe more important, the more I read about forensic investigating the more I realized it just wasn’t as fun as it looked on TV. And trust me, that’s a concept I get. The fair isn’t as much fun when you live in it.

No one ever knew that John and I tried to run away. We had walked the fence for weeks, looking for an opening as though it was a religious ceremony. I wanted us to climb it, or just to go out the front gate during the day. Either would have been easy. But John said it was better to wait for it to give us an opening, that it would be a sign. So I waited and we walked the fence. Every new city could be the one where someone got lazy.

This time, someone had done a shit job putting it up and it was missing the tie-offs, one whole section just propped against another. There was no moon, and it was July and warm outside. Everything was perfect for a getaway. It felt like fate. We packed bags and hid them behind the Mirror Maze. Late at night after the final security sweeps, wearing our darkest clothes and leaving no notes, we met in the shadows behind the Gravitron where older kids went to make out. We made our way behind the quiet midway games, crossed the open central corridor under the Ferris Wheel, and slipped through the nighttime-dead rides until we were behind the Maze. Once there we crouched low, scanning the empty parking lot.

John had developed the plan months before. Every fairground has buses that stops near it. All we had to do was make it to the bus stop and then ride it to the biggest nearby station, whatever the closest “downtown” was. From there we’d catch a bus to the capital of the next state over. We assumed we'd be harder to track across state lines. Then we would work some round about way to the West Coast where John could learn to surf and I could learn to investigate.

We had six sandwiches, $128.00, a six-pack of Coke, and as many clothes as we could fit in our backpacks. We pushed through the gap in the fence and we ran hard. But we weren't athletes, and our eating, well, if you’ve been paying attention, fair people aren't very healthy. We were out of breath before we made it a hundred yards. John could have easily outdistanced me but made sure to stay by my side. The bus stop we’d found online was only just past the galaxy of parking lots, but by the time we got there we had slowed to a weak, gasping jog.

If we seemed underprepared in our provisions, we were way more underprepared to get on a bus. We leaned panting against the wall of the covered stop, ignoring a homeless guy who was sitting on the bench, and assuming a bus would just appear. The homeless guy was in his 50s with his grey hair pulled back in a ponytail. He had a large army-green canvas bag stuffed under the bench and his once blue, now grey blanket folded on his lap with a book on top. He was unperturbed by two wheezing adolescents running for their lives. After our panting turned to breath he spoke up.

“If you two need some water, I’ve got plenty,” he pointed to a mostly full gallon jug sitting against the wall. After a moment he continued, “Are you trying to catch a bus, or running from something?”

He seemed harmless enough and we were used to talking to strangers. Plus, we knew we needed more information and this guy seemed nice enough to give it, so as he continued to ask questions we explained to him the story of our escape.

“Between 11 PM and 6 AM no buses come through. This is my bedroom!” He laughed at his own joke. “Even if you wait till mornin’, you'll have to take more than one bus to get to a big hub station like what you'd find in a ‘downtown.’ And,” he looked as us as though he didn’t want to embarrass us, and continued quietly, “to get to the next state over . . . it’ll cost most of what you have.” We were sitting on the bench with him by then, John’s long hair messy from the jog, the first hairs of puberty across my legs tipped with salt from the running.

The homeless guy continued. “You two seem like nice kids. Even if it's bad there . . . a lot of people out here were runaways once. Running away isn’t as easy as it seems. I don’t know why you’re leaving and I don’t want to pry, but if you don’t really have to get away . . . maybe you should go back, at least until you plan a little better. You could learn more about the busses, and find somewhere to stay in advance.”

We knew how to read people. On the Midway reading people was part of the job. Seeing how to push them to buy another go, knowing if you should use guilt, or ego, or play them against each other, knowing who had quit already so you didn’t waste your time. Seeing inside people and manipulating them was part of our culture. John's eyes, dilated in the bug covered florescent lights of the bus stop, looked like a local who'd lost his last dollar and didn’t have a prize to show for it. I knew what I saw there, even though I'd never seen it in him before. I recognized it, but I, who was used to being afraid of things and to being unsure, I didn’t know what to do with it in him.

I knew my eyes would have changed, too, but not like John's. This man was from outside. He knew the outside in ways we didn't, and he was telling us how to get out. Better planning. More money. We could do that. My eyes must have been alive with plans.

The homeless guy looked at us with pity. “I'll walk back to the gate with you to make sure you get there okay.”

“No, that’s fine.” I said. “We’ll sneak in the way we got out.”

John and I looked at each other, neither prepared for this, neither knowing what to say. “Thank you, for helping us.”

“Didn’t do much. Stay safe now.”

We walked back with our heads down and backpacks heavy even though we left the sandwiches and Coke with the guy. This was John’s plan. He said this would work! I was so furious I was going to punch him until I saw that he wasn’t smiling.

On our long walk back I started to replan.

“This was like a test run, like how all the rides run their first ride of the day empty. We can plan this better. I’ll help more this time.”

John said, “We’ll have to keep scouting the fence,” but there was no excitement in it. I could tell.

I’d known John Iverton my whole life, had let him speak for me as long as we'd been talking. My plans had always revolved around him. This time, his words weren’t our meanings. I still had hope, but his smile was gone, and his eyes were down. John had wanted to be a surfer. Surfers have the confidence to take a wave, but also to be taken. They don’t quit because of a few near-drownings. John had fallen off and wasn’t going to get back up. He would never be a surfer.

I think that even before our attempt he was more scared than he could deal with, and that us waiting for an opening in the fence instead of just jumping it or sneaking out was stalling, was him not admitting to himself that our fantasy of escape had gotten out of hand and that he didn’t really want to go. I think this failed attempt was just a setback for me, but was the final straw for him. I must have known, and not known how to admit it.

As seasons passed we still went to school, though eventually we were the ones teaching. Instead of running errands afterwards, I formerly apprenticed as a mechanic under Leroy. Many were surprised he took me on “even though I was a girl,” but the two of us had always gotten along, and if Michelle Rodriguez could work on engines in movies, I could in real life. Besides, I liked the work. It was solitary – just me and Leroy and engines and machines. I didn’t have to deal with my parents, who wanted me to work in the hot dog booth. We didn’t have to deal with anyone.

Also, he knew I was on my way out the door and didn’t mind, which made things simpler. Leroy showed few signs of slowing down. “I need an apprentice like I need a working set of nipples” he said when I first started with him. “Not planning on dying anytime soon. But you ain’t learning nothing useful for real life in school. At least I can teach you things you’ll be able to use when you get out of here.”

At first I just carried his tools or fetched oil or water and watched him while he explained to me what he was fixing. It wasn’t that different from what I’d always done with him. After the first few weeks he had me do all the work while he told me what to do and why. Later I would explain to him what I was doing while he watched and smoked and took an occasional pull on his flask. When I did especially well he’d offer me a swig from the flask to me and say, “You’re doing great!” I spent a lot of nights after the fair closed when the engines cooled off tightening nuts and greasing pistons, trying to stop weird vibrations that seemed to come from everywhere in the rides at once. We worked constantly on the Zipper, which was the most dangerous ride and needed the most maintenance. It was always my favorite.

Jon and I were still close. That night had been the first night we snuck out, but only the first of many. We’d go over the fence or just right out the front gate. We went to city centers, movie theaters, liquor store parking lots, tattoo parlors (my first was the outlined silhouette of a bus stop on my shoulder; his was barbed wire wrapped around his lean bicep). We were always still together. I planned and saved. He did too, at first, but less and less so. We were holding out for a chance when we knew we would make it, and in the meantime I tried to think that having someone to complain about a shitty place with can be almost as good as not being there, and that eventually we’d meet a local who’d offer us a place to crash or we’d finally have enough money.

But wintering in Florida when he was 18 and I was 16, John arranged to take over management of the Tilt-A-Whirl from the couple who owned it. It was a smart decision – it was easier work than the Midway, and paid better – but I couldn't imagine John Iverton spending the rest of his life playing it safe and jockeying a vomit ride, and I was ashamed for him. I didn’t know if I understood his reasons for staying. I probably never will know for sure.

We could have fucking made it. So many times we could have just left, and taken the risk. And here John was legally able to leave, but he was committing, staying on permanent. There was nothing left for me to wait for. I was on my own.

Early that season, in Tempe Arizona, I took my chance. We had been through Tempe every year I could remember. John and I had even been out into the city the last two years, had gotten drunk bumming around on Mill Avenue. I had used their buses and everything. I’d been Craigslisting a guy in Palm Desert who agreed to sell me his V.W. Microbus. It was the camping model with a pop-up top and a kitchenette, just a smaller version of the trailer I’d lived my whole life in. I could afford it, and thanks to Leroy I could maintain it. It was a start. So it was in Tempe that I saw John for the last time. His hair was still long and beautiful, his skin tan, his peach fuzz grown out into a beard. John was a man.

I found him manning the Tilt-A-Whirl line. “I’m going,” I said, not needing to elaborate. “I’m really going.”

He looked at me, my body grown but compact and wiry and already lined with weariness and maybe ferocity, the lines of living on the road and working with machines, my dyed black hair in a “don’t fuck with me” bang cut, and for just a quick moment, just long enough to take someone's ticket, those beautiful eyes of his had shame in them. He knew he hadn’t been the person I had waited for him to be, that he was going to spend the rest of his life here.

“Do you have a plan?”

“Better than last time. I’ve been saving, but I could use more. All you can give me.” I waited while he took another ticket. I looked at the Tilt-a-Whirl, freshly painted under John's management, bright and clean on the surface but oily and mechanized underneath, ready to spin people into oblivion forever.

He didn’t question me. We went to his family's trailer and he got together all the money he had. He handed it over silently and waited while I stuffed it into my sock. It was more than I expected. We didn’t have much else to say, we just stood in the same space, avoiding eye contact.

“Good luck,” he said, finally looking up, and hugged me for the last time.

“Thanks. You, too,” I said, hoping there was no animosity in it, because I didn't want there to be, and I wanted to remember him as the person who hugged me, not as the person who abandoned me with a hug.

I slipped out of my parent’s trailer that night after the final sweeps and wound my way through the darkness of the empty fair to the side of the Midway closest to the Mirror Maze. The only note I left was “Elena Was Here” in black sharpie on the mechanical panel of the Zipper where Leroy would find it. John knew I was going and would tell people. He understood that I was willing to risk safety and comfort to be free. My parents wouldn’t understand my choice, but they wouldn't be surprised either. I threw my bag over the fence. I climbed over quickly. I knew by then that I wouldn’t be a forensic investigator but I knew how to get on a bus, how to get downtown, and to the next state over.


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