The fairgrounds smelled like funnel cakes and cow manure. I didn’t mind the smell of cow manure from a distance because it was a little sweet, but up close, it got too sour and stung my nose. The sun had set, and the lights on the rides and the game booths blinked intensely, painting puddles red and yellow and blue. I watched flies buzz around the trash cans. I watched the Texas flag wave over the Ferris wheel, and I watched the rides spin and rise and drop, the riders screaming as they bounced around in their seats. The music from the rides was too loud but sounded thin, like the speakers were old and worn out. It was fast rock music that was supposed to make you more excited on the rides. I didn’t think it was good music for kids.
A lot of kids were at the fair. Most were older than me. They didn’t stay by their parents, and a lot of them looked like they lived at the trailer park. They were mean and rough and happy, and I didn’t understand what they had to be happy about. They moved around quickly and had a lot of energy and smiled at each other with mean, dirty faces. Watching them made my head feel funny, like it was being squeezed. I didn’t want to talk to them.
Grandma and Grandpa had brought me to the fair to have fun, so I felt mostly happy. I was glad to be brought to a place to have fun, and if someone had asked me if I wanted to be there, I would have said yes. But if I had asked myself if I wanted to be there, I would have said no. I didn’t know that I could ask myself that question, and I didn’t know that I would have said no. My grandparents were smiling at me, and I knew they were trying to make me have fun. Their smiles were bigger than usual, meaning that this was an important time for fun.
We had walked through the display building with all of the arts and crafts, and then we had walked through the livestock barn. I enjoyed watching the fat steers lounge happily on soft shavings with full bellies. When we came out to the main concourse, I told Grandma that I didn’t want to ride any of the mechanical rides. They made me nervous, and I didn’t like the exhaust fumes. We walked away from them, and I watched Grandpa’s work boots make prints in the dirt. The prints had straight lines with a circle in the middle. I looked back at my shoeprints next to his, and they were much smaller with a zigzag pattern. We stopped at a part of the fair that wasn’t so loud and bright, and I noticed the soft breeze on my face. It was easier to breathe. I looked at the cars parked outside the fence and the cars driving on the road away from the fair towards town. The distant lights looked like stars that had drifted down to settle on the flat landscape.
I put my hands in the pockets of my denim jacket and waited for Grandma and Grandpa to tell me what we should do next. Grandpa pointed at a ride where six small donkeys stood in harnesses attached to wooden poles that looked like wheel spokes. The donkeys walked in a circle like they were the outside of the wheel. For five tickets you could ride a donkey for five turns and wave at your family each time you passed them. Grandpa asked me if I wanted to ride a donkey, and I said yes. Grandma led me to the entrance, and I stood in line as other kids rode.
One girl old enough to wear makeup yelled, “Woooo, this is just like riding my grandpa’s horse!” She raised her hands above her head and waved them side to side as her donkey walked. I thought she probably didn’t know much about her grandpa’s horse and only yelled like that so people would look at her. The other riders remained quiet.
The man working at the donkey wheel stood in the shadow on the other side of the ride from where I waited. He was skinny and old, and his hair stuck straight out of his hat like a scarecrow’s. His clothes looked worn out. He never said anything, and he held a lever that he pulled to make the donkeys stop and go. After they had walked for a few minutes, the man pulled the lever, and the donkeys stopped. Adults went in to help the kids off, and then it was my turn to ride. I looked at Grandma, and she put her hand on my shoulder.
“It’s your turn, Luke,” she said.
She led me to a brown donkey. The donkey held
his head down low, and his eyes were half closed like he was about to go to sleep. His ears pointed back at his saddle, and he didn’t look at me or move at all when Grandma lifted me onto his back. My legs were too short, and my feet didn’t reach the stirrups. Grandma squeezed my hand onto the saddle horn.
“Hold on tight,” she said.
The man pulled the lever, and the donkeys started
walking. My donkey kept his nose just above the ground as he walked. I felt the thin, course hair on his neck. I didn’t think the donkey was healthy, and I thought he looked sad. I passed the man working the lever. I expected him to be watching us ride to make sure everything was okay, but he wasn’t. He was smoking a cigarette and looking at the road outside the fence. He had mean eyes, and I was glad when my donkey passed by him. I thought he didn’t like me. My grandparents waved and cheered when I passed them, and I smiled. This was an important time for fun.
The donkeys stopped after five turns, and Grandma came to help me off. I looked at the donkey again. His eyelids drooped, and he didn’t look at me. Grandma and I went back out to where Grandpa was waiting, and a kid in front of me jumped up and down as he walked to show that he was excited after riding a donkey. I didn’t jump as I walked.
“Great job, bud. Ride ‘em cowboy,” Grandpa said. I felt embarrassed because I didn’t really ride like a cowboy. The man with the lever made the donkeys stop and go. But I smiled at Grandpa and nodded when he asked if I wanted to go get a treat. Grandma and Grandpa talked for a minute about what else we should do at the fair while I looked back at the donkeys. The scarecrow man pulled the lever again.