Fiction by Jessica Fokken
[from the archive: this piece first appeared in print in Big Muddy issue 17.1]
Sometimes when Caroline awoke in the night she’d forgotten everything. She lay with her eyes closed and listened to the long, slow wail of a train in the dark. Often there was only silence. Sometimes crickets. A lone crow. She’d forgotten the stillness of the place she once called home. The night was too quiet; she couldn’t sleep. She rose and took a sweater from the chair near the door, climbed the stairs from the basement, and walked through the garage outside. She stood on the driveway barefoot. The train clacked in the distance, the wheels grinding against the rails. Dew formed on the grass. She had loved these nights once. Headlights swung over the houses, and darkness fell again.
Ben never understood. He didn’t see the romance in the quiet and the dark, he never had in the nearly ten years she’d known him. Their fifth wedding anniversary was only a few months away. She had loved the idea of a winter wedding, and though they never took an exotic honeymoon, Caroline thought about suggesting one for their anniversary. They didn’t travel so they could buy a house, new construction with granite countertops and laminate floors. For all she knew that house was empty now: the TV blank, the new dishes unused and standing in the cupboards, the bed undisturbed. A house she tried to make beautiful that Ben later called bland. Bland and boring, like Caroline.
Ben told her he was leaving. He didn’t love her, claimed he hadn’t for years though their marriage was so young, so new, Caroline couldn’t see how that time frame was possible. He couldn’t handle lying anymore, and he couldn’t wait anymore. There was someone else. He did not say she was younger but that she was fun and spontaneous and didn’t have to plan every aspect of her life. And so Ben was leaving her. Stable, predictable Caroline. She could never have predicted his departure or the fervor with which he fled.
Caroline stood in the driveway and listened. Almost nothing. The wind rustled through the fields near the house. She pulled her sweater tighter around her. She had a hard time sleeping when she left her hometown of Spencer years ago to move to Iowa City with Ben. After time, she began to find the noise of the city comforting: the continual sound of cars, shouts of her neighbors and their children. All those things that once terrified her. But now, the silence she used to love was unnerving.
She heard the front door creak open, and she turned back toward the house. A shadowed figure leaned out of the door, staring into the dark. “Caroline.”
She walked up the driveway to the door where her mother waited.
“What are you doing out here?” Mom asked.
Her mom backed into the house as Caroline stepped in. She shrugged. “Couldn’t sleep.
Neither said anything. Mom pressed her lips tightly together and turned back down the hallway.
In the morning, Caroline lay in bed and waited, listening to the footsteps and voices upstairs. Her parents moved through the same motions they had for years. She recognized the patterns and could imagine it all: the half-twist of her mom’s body as she handed a coffee cup to her dad, the way her dad would stretch his neck and point his chin upward as he shaved in long, careful strokes, their light kiss in the space between the cars in the garage, the slight tilt of her mom’s head as she offered her cheek. Caroline had watched them move through the morning routine since she was in high school and the family moved into this house. She remembered lying in bed with Ben in the same basement bedroom, whispering, “And now he’s making the coffee, and she’s passing him mugs from the corner cupboard.” She had envied her parents’ constancy, the predictability in their relationship. She wanted those things with Ben one day.
When the garage door closed, Caroline waited a few minutes before climbing the stairs to the kitchen. She poured herself a cup of coffee and stood before the kitchen sink, looking out the window at the landscape spread out before her. Her parents’ house was on the edge of town and bordered by farmland. When she was a teenager, she was secretly terrified by the cornfields behind the house and would refuse to walk by the open windows at night for fear of what she would see.
She finished her first cup of coffee quickly and poured a second before going back downstairs. She felt out of place alone in the house. She hadn’t called this house home for fourteen years. After Ben left, her mother pleaded over the phone, “Come home. Just come home. It’s what people do to heal.” And Caroline said, “Yes. Okay.”
She dressed and gathered her things and hurried upstairs to her car. She had nothing to do, nowhere to be, but she couldn’t bear to be alone in the house. She drove toward downtown and the main strip of highway. She thought about getting another cup of coffee and maybe walking through some stores to kill time. She would note which stores had “Help Wanted” signs in the windows, but she wouldn’t apply. Not just yet. She stopped at an intersection and looked down the street, trying to decide which way to go when the light turned. She noticed police cruisers parked at the corner and at each block. An officer walked to the center of the crosswalk in front of her car and smiled. She nodded at him through the windshield. Above the officer, the light turned green. He held out his palm toward her, and she waited. There were maybe two or three cars behind her.
A slow procession of semi trucks passed behind the officer. He twisted to watch, his palm still raised. She shifted her car into park, rolled down the window, and leaned out. The trucks were all flatbeds, and at first glance, looked like they were carrying piles of metal. As they passed, Caroline began to pick out familiar shapes in the bends of the bars, the faded red domes, vinyl seats and long chains. She imagined them pieced together, spinning, lights flashing. The truck carrying parts of the Ferris wheel passed, and she read the sign spanning the length of the trailer: “Middlebelle Midways – Family Fun Since 1941.”
The stoplight changed three different times as the trucks passed. Caroline glanced in her rearview mirror. A woman in the minivan behind her held a small child on the edge of the open window. The child was speechless.
Caroline rolled her window back up as the last truck passed. The officer watched it, turned, and nodded to Caroline. He stepped backwards out of the crosswalk as the light changed, and he waved the cars forward. Caroline raised her hand to him as she turned. She had almost forgotten it was fair time.
Over the next few days, Caroline began to see signs for the fair everywhere she went. The Clay county fair was the largest in Iowa. Local hotels usually filled months in advance, and people traveled from out of state to attend. Overnight, signs appeared on the streetlights lining the center of Grand Avenue. Businesses hung posters highlighting certain events: the weekend concerts, the drag races and tractor pulls, Kids’ Day and discounted midway prices. She attended the fair every year as a child. Later, as a teenager, she would wander the midway at night with her friends, their faces hungry in the flashing lights of the rides. They wore ripped jeans low on their hips, tangles of metal through their ears. One would steal make-up from an older sister, and they would smear their eyes with purple and smudges of black eyeliner and mascara. They would buy bottles of Coke and Tom Thumb doughnuts to share, and together they would stand in front of the carnival games, licking sugar from their fingers. Boys would approach and ask the girls – dare them – to ride the Viking Ship or Himalaya or Gravitron with them for a free ticket. “Come on,” they’d tease. “Don’t you want a free ride with me?” And Caroline would step forward, the daring one, fingers hooked through her belt loops. The boys knew she would eventually give in. Wild, reckless Caroline. She’d climb into the car next to the boy, grin at her friends, and press her leg to the boy’s. She’d scream and smile and touch the boy’s hand as the ride spun, her hair streaming and tangling behind them, tiny tears leaking from the corner of her eyes. There were one or two boys she kissed while the ride was spinning and the lights were streaking overhead and surrounded her like a halo, and the wind whipped over her bare skin, and on the ground her friends shrieked in fear and disbelief at her daring. When the ride stopped, she would smile her thanks at the boy, walk down the ramp, and rejoin her friends without looking back, the boy’s taste still on her lips. Brave, beautiful Caroline.
Caroline walked toward the commercial buildings on the fairgrounds, her hand deep in her jeans pockets. Her car was parked in the free lot across the street, a grass field the size of several city blocks that was kept empty for this purpose. She jogged across the street between cars. The town had installed stoplights next to the crosswalk between the parking lot and fairgrounds, but they weren’t working yet. Later, when the gates officially opened, there would be a constant stream of cars along the road and a matching stream of people wanting to cross.
As she walked, she noticed how much was the same as she remembered. She hadn’t come back for the fair in years; the last time was probably her freshman year of college. Pick-ups pulling trailers drove slowly along the road toward the livestock buildings. Teenagers led cows toward one building, horses toward another. A young girl passed carrying a cage, a rabbit huddled and shaking inside. Caroline stepped off the road as a truck approached. She turned left toward the food row and passed the familiar stands: hand-dipped Nutty bars, pork-chops served on a stick, onion blossoms and cheese curds. Strings of shining pink bags of cotton candy, apples covered in thick, molten caramel.
Her booth was in the middle aisle in one of the commercial buildings. Caroline’s mom surprised her with the job the week before. The university extension office needed someone to work their booth and help with recruitment efforts.
“No, I don’t need anything to do,” Caroline said. “I have a job.”
“And you’re on leave from that job,” her mom said. “And you probably aren’t going back to it. I know you don’t want to think about it or admit it now, and that’s fine, but do you really see yourself staying down there alone? Especially if Ben is still there?” Mom waited as if for a response, but Caroline knew she didn’t expect one and stayed silent. “You need something to do here. Something that gets you out of the house and around people.”
Caroline found she couldn’t come up with an excuse not to call, and she couldn’t find an excuse not to work. When she found her booth, she pulled on an Northwest State University jacket and arranged stacks of brochures and bookmarks, temporary tattoos and pins, and fact sheets on university Extension programs. Behind her, mounted into painted plywood, was a flat screen TV and DVD player that continually played a promotional video for the university. Caroline glanced at her watch. She had twenty minutes before the gate officially opened. Most of the other booths were already buzzing with activity, representatives and volunteers greeting their neighbors or spying on the “As-Seen-On-TV” salesmen as they set up their elaborate displays. Caroline didn’t greet anyone but sat and leaned her head on the table until someone announced, “And we’re open!” and a cheer went up around her.
Caroline managed to spend almost two months in town without running into anyone she knew, old friends or her parents’ friends or otherwise, before someone asked uncomfortable questions about why she was home or how long she was staying that she couldn’t deflect. She claimed easily, “Oh, I’m just visiting,” without hesitation. Only a couple of people asked about Ben, and she replied, “He couldn’t come this time.” She wasn’t lying, she thought. He couldn’t come because he wasn’t invited. Caroline knew Mom would never welcome Ben back into her home even if they reconciled. She would scoff. Reconcile? Why would you want to reconcile with that trash?
That first afternoon, she looked up and saw Sue, the organist at her parents’ church, meandering down the aisle. Caroline had no way to avoid the woman. She liked Sue well enough and chatted with her when she used to go to services. Caroline suddenly realized she wasn’t prepared to answer any questions about why she was working the fair, how long she was in town, and where is that husband of yours? She could lie again, make up a story about an obligation to the alumni association and Ben too busy to take off work. But the truth would come out eventually. Caroline didn’t know how many people her mom had already whispered her secret too, if she was already using the word Caroline couldn’t yet bring herself to say: divorce. Mom was not always good at keeping secrets; she often assumed Caroline’s pleas not to tell anyone weren’t serious. Within a few months of her marriage, Caroline thought she could be pregnant, and she told her mom and asked her not to tell anyone. She wasn’t pregnant, but the next time she came home, a neighbor patted her hand and whispered, “I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sure God will give you a baby when the time is right.”
“Oh, I’m not sure if there’s ever a right time,” Caroline replied, which left the woman silent.
Sue drew closer to the booth. There was no reason for her to stop there except to talk to Caroline; her kids attended college out of state. When Sue turned to the booth across the aisle, Caroline dropped to her knees next to the plywood TV stand, back to the aisle, and pretended to rummage through the boxes. She stayed in a crouching position, glancing toward the end of the aisle, until she saw Sue’s back turn a corner and disappear.
By Saturday evening, Caroline had developed a series of stock answers to personal questions she had to answer when she couldn’t escape, but her façade was starting to crack. A former high school teacher asked about Ben three times, and each time Caroline acted as if she hadn’t heard the question. That evening, a group of local students who attended the university showed up, eager to work the fair, to talk to people, to encourage high school students to apply. They wore university T-shirts and sweatshirts, their faces flushed, and after taking their places behind the table, they began calling out to people they recognized, ushering the younger, nearly forgotten, high school friends to the booth. A young man dressed as an eagle, the school mascot, stood in the aisle, posing for pictures with small children and directing people toward the booth. Another woman from the Extension office was there to supervise. “Take the night off,” the woman told Caroline and urged her to spend some time with her husband and enjoy the fair.
Caroline walked into the night air. People walked shoulder to shoulder, groups struggling to keep together. Parents pushed strollers; some carried children sleeping on their shoulders. Along the rows of food vendors, neon signs flashed in the windows, and red and blue lights blinked atop the stands. She wove through the crowd and twisted away when she heard a familiar voice. Voices of workers echoed over the grandstand as they prepared for the night’s concert. She walked toward the midway, the lights burning in the darkness.
Each year, the fair featured an extreme ride. Now, on the corner of the midway, sat a crane with a basket suspended at the top. Below the basket was a large inflatable bag. Caroline stood with the crowd and watched the basket lower. Four people climbed into the basket, and as it rose, two of them strapped themselves into what looked like parachute harnesses. The basket stopped, and the bottom opened to reveal one of the people suspended from their harness, clutching their knees, back facing the ground. Another woman in the crowd leaned toward Caroline. “Why would anyone do that?”
Caroline shook her head and stared up at the figure, which fell without warning. Caroline started, and the figure screamed, and in the time it would have taken Caroline to blink, the figure hit the inflatable bag. The bag began to deflate slowly. The figure stood – a teenage girl – and groped her way out of the bag, grinning and laughing. “That was awesome,” the girl screamed. She craned her neck and looked skyward. “My boyfriend,” Caroline heard her say to no one in particular. The girl jumped and cupped her hands around her mouth. “Come on, you wuss! Do it!” The bottom of the basket closed and opened again, and the girl’s boyfriend hung suspended and clutching his knees. As Caroline turned to leave, she heard him screaming.
She turned left and walked through the sheep barn. The animals turned their heads at her passing, bleating faintly. She emerged into a large crowd of people, some on horseback, staring at the arena. The overhead lights flooded the dirt corral. The announcer spoke quickly, calling names and times, the speakers crackling with his excitement. A cheer went up from the stands on the other side of the corral. Caroline rose onto her toes to look over the crowd. She moved to her left, skirting the fence. A steer rose while a man trotted toward his horse to the crowd’s cheers of the crowd. She had never seen the stands so full. She walked in front, climbed the stairs to the top row, and scooted down the bench, whispering “Excuse me, excuse me,” before sinking into an open space.
She spent most of her breaks during the week sitting in these stands watching barrel riding, pole bending, and team roping. She never watched rodeo or equestrian events before this week, and she didn’t always know what she was watching. But there was always something happening in the arena, always an empty seat, and never anyone who wanted to talk. That evening, the steers looked larger than she’d seen before, their horns more pronounced, though blunted. Men on horseback waited for their turn. The announcer called a name, and the stands cheered. Caroline thought the name sounded familiar, maybe, though she couldn’t be sure she heard the announcer correctly. The man at the front of the line stood in his stirrups, grinning, and waved toward the crowd. He took his place behind a rope, which was attached to the steer in a chute. The buzzer sounded, the chute doors released, and the steer broke loose, hurling its body forward, another man on horseback following. Caroline looked at the waiting cowboy. His smile was gone; his jaw was set, muscles visibly tense. Yet he didn’t move. The steer tried to run diagonally away from the chute, turned suddenly, and darted forward. The fence remained closed. The steer crossed the center of the corral, then the rope attached to the steer broke, and the gate swung open. The man kicked his stirrups before the gate was completely open, and the horse’s legs crashed against metal. He drew his horse up on the left side of the steer, released the reins, and slid sideways toward the steer. Caroline gasped in fear, unsure if the cowboy let go on purpose. The man reached for the steer’s horns, hooked his right elbow around one and grasped the other with his left hand. The horse began to slow, and the man pulled his legs fully away from the animal and planted them in the dirt. He turned the steer’s head toward himself, pushing down with his left hand and pulling inward with his elbow. He reached toward the steer’s nose until it was in the crook of his elbow, then jerked, throwing himself backwards, man and steer toppling into the dirt.
An official ran forward, waving a flag. The man released the steer and stood up, raising his fists into the air. The crowd cheered. The man whooped. Caroline pressed her fingers into her cheeks and stared. There was something familiar about him, something that reminded her of a boy she knew from high school. She could picture the remnant of the boy’s face in this man’s, a similar long jaw line now shadowed by scruff. But this cowboy couldn’t be him, she thought. Austin couldn’t physically wrestle a steer. She’d seen him a couple of times since high school, of course. He never left Spencer, never wanted to, not that Caroline knew. Ben had laughed at her the first time she introduced them. “You went out with him?” Ben asked when Austin walked away. Ben took in Austin’s sweat-stained baseball cap, the dried mud on his jeans, and the clear signs of manual labor. Austin’s limp. “I don’t believe it.”
The speakers above the corral crackled, and the man in front of Caroline turned around, grinning. “Four point three seconds! You ever hear of a time like that?”
The steer rose and was being herded back toward the chute. The cowboy swung himself back up onto his horse, waving to the crowd. He whooped again.
Once, shortly after she married Ben, she ran into Austin at the grocery store when she was doing an errand for her mom. She told Austin about her marriage, her stable, predictable job, the house she and Ben were looking at in a new subdivision. Austin listened to her explanation and said, “You’re nothing like I thought you’d be when you grew up.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“You’re,” he started, and raised one shoulder as if to shrug the question off. “You know what I mean.”
Yes, she knew exactly what he meant.
She sometimes thought during those nights in her parents’ basement when she woke suddenly that all her caution was really inaction. That her fear, her paralyzing fear of everything, was what made Ben leave in the end. Ben, whom she dated and married and believed she loved because he was unlike Austin. He was the daredevil to match her teenage recklessness. Her Austin who led her into the cornfields behind her house on a humid July night, when the stalks rose above their heads, and she could barely make out the stars beyond the arched canopy of the leaves. She would have believed him if he told her they were in a jungle, that jungles in fact grew in such orderly rows and trains’ horns echoed in the distance. They wove their bodies through the stalks until she wouldn’t have been able to point to the direction from which they came, but they would never be truly lost, she thought.
The summer before their senior year, Austin persuaded her to scale the fence around the community pool, and fell backwards off the ladder of the high dive. Caroline always remembered the sound of that fall. She stood next to his hospital bed, his leg in a splint, an IV needle taped to his hand, the steady drip of pain medicine. Her bare feet were cold in paper hospital booties a kind nurse gave her; her sandals were somewhere in the grass. She watched the doctor draw circles in the air just above an x-ray of Austin’s crushed vertebrae. Caroline thought they looked like crumpled balls of papier-mâché. Neither she nor the doctor could make out Austin’s slurred words, but she knew he didn’t understand the seriousness of what was happening. She and Austin smelled of Apple Pucker and chlorine. The smell of chlorine was forever linked to the smell of a hospital, forever linked to Caroline’s guilt over leaving Austin before he could get up from a hospital bed on his own.
And now, Austin, whooping on horseback.
Caroline rose and climbed down the steps, walked back through the barns and back toward the midway, toward the lighted loop of the Ferris wheel and the shadow of the Viking Ship cutting arcs of black across the sky, toward the screams rising high over the music. She walked up one row of the midway, past the game booths and the fun house, stepped over power cords roped across the ground. She bought a bag of doughnuts and licked the sugar from her fingers as she walked. The Tilt-a-Whirl, the Scrambler, and toward the back of the midway, the Gravitron and Himalaya, the Zipper and the Viking Ship, all lights and spinning metal. She stood next to a ticket booth and watched. The groups of laughing girls, the huddles of boys—this she remembered. This was all the same. She threw the paper bag away and walked back up the other side of the midway, ignoring the calls from the game booths, the victory and defeat of the players. She walked to the crane at the front of the midway.
The crowd around the basket was bigger now, though someone told her no one had dropped in maybe an hour. A couple of teenage boys shoved each other toward the entrance, but each one stepped back into the group. They grew silent as they watched her approach the entrance. She handed the woman in the booth her credit card and signed the release absolving the company of all responsibility. In the basket, one attendant helped her strap on the harness while the other worked the controls.
“Scared?” he called, his smile more like a leer. When she didn’t respond, he said, “You know you signed your life away with that contract, right?”
“Leave her alone,” the other attendant said. He took her to the middle of the basket, pulled down the cable and hook, and attached it to the carabineer on her harness. “All right,” he told her. “Last chance to back out. We’ll raise the cable, you’ll be suspended, and then we’ll open the bottom of the cage. I won’t tell you when you’re going to drop. Okay?”
The guy was young, maybe fifteen years younger than she was, probably a college kid on a summer job. She imagined him saying these lines to each person who came through. She imagined him at night, after the fair closed, climbing into the harness and basket, taking turns with his coworkers dropping onto the inflatable bag below. His smile was slow and shy. “Okay?”
She nodded, and he nodded, and the cable spun upwards, pulling her off her feet and tipping her backward until she was suspended over the bottom of the cage. She crossed her arms and gripped the harness as she was told, the boy steadying her. She turned her face to look at him. She imagined him as a teenager, just a few years younger, and herself half her age, and concentrated on his hand holding her shoulder and calf. That weight. That heat she’d almost forgotten. The almost sudden cold when he stepped back.
She gripped the nylon harness in her palms and closed her eyes. The basket whined as the floor parted. Silence. She opened her eyes and stared at the pulleys and the cable and the sky glowing above her, and waited to fall.
|Jessica Fokken‘s work has previously appeared in Midwestern Gothic and Literary Mama. Her story “Breakers” won a 2017 AWP Intro Journals Award and is forthcoming from Quarterly West . She earned her PhD from Oklahoma State University. Originally from the Upper Midwest, she now lives near Myrtle Beach with her husband, son, and dogs.|