The air was a potent mix of fried dough and animal shit. Cornstalks swayed at the end of the parking lot as Celeste applied a fifth coat of mascara to her fake eyelashes. She checked her lip liner one last time before snapping the compact mirror shut.
It was 7 o’clock and August was breathing dry heat like a hay fever. The sun pummeled down. So many people back home discredited summer in the North, but she learned it wasn’t something to fuck around with. It knew what it was doing.
The dust stirred around her ankles and the county fair banner curled limp in the hot wind. Greasy machinery snarled in echoes across the lot, dripping down the metal skeletons. Conveyor belts hummed, gears chewed into other gears. Lovers kissed in public.
She waited in a line that wound around the Tilt-A-Whirl, next to the booths with the local Republican candidates, red and blue buttons shining slick above their watery eyes, their starched collars. They eyed her as they straightened their ties and whispered to one another. She gave them the middle finger with her eyes and ordered a 20 oz. diet coke and a corndog. The soundless exchange of dollar bills creased in all the wrong places, hands with dirty fingernails, half moon cuticles shredded around the edges. Was there a rodeo here? She wandered over to the taller rides, thinking of young men in tight denim, their thighs gripped hard onto horses.
A couple cut in front of her. The girl’s blonde hair wound around her sweating neck in a French braid and she flecked her tongue at a swirled vanilla ice cream cone, the boy’s hand resting in her back pocket.
She walked on, puffing up dust, foundation melting past her cheekbones. Why did all of these rides sound like death traps—Kamikaze, Vortex, Viper, Pharaoh’s Fury.
She watched the Kamikaze for a while. The whole thing looked like two dangling legs, kicking faster, picking up momentum and teasing to the top slowly, splayed, glowing like flares against construction paper up to the tipping point, to the moment of dislocation, only to fall and start all over again.
She staggered towards the bathrooms.
The stalls were cleaner than she expected. She pushed back the flimsy plastic seat and hung her head over the rim. The back of her knees felt wet. She rested her cheek on the edge, it was cold for a second, and then a hot rush of what was left of her $6.95 was floating. The white tile was slick on her heels, covered in muddy footprints like smeared crop circles. She pushed herself away from the toilet, wiping her mouth, and leaned against the wall. The smell of bleach was heavy, they must have just mopped in here. All her senses were screaming “public pool” and the humidity made her feel like she was swimming. What’s the difference between bleach and chlorine? Are they the same thing? Why did she even come here? It’s funny the crowds you cling to when you spend most your time alone. Her nose was burning now and she was underwater again. Dark red swimming trunks and a large t-shirt she insisted on wearing even in the pool. She could still hear them shouting, calling names. It echoed down through the blue water and she sat at the bottom, watching everyone tiptoe across the deep end. She could’ve just stayed down there forever. Her lungs burned. She let herself float back to the surface.
Night claimed the fairgrounds and everything flared with a new, wild sheen. The smoke from the barbeque pits made mirages of the ferris wheel.
The west end was quieter and lined with tents. She tried her hand at some of the games. She had a pretty good arm but they always glued down those milk bottles anyway. Someone half muffled a familiar slur behind her and she turned to find a man in a lime green tracksuit staring, spry chest hairs curling over the zipper. He took a bite of the elephant ear that drooped over the paper plate in the crook of his arm and whistled. She took her last baseball and beamed it at his leg.
She needed to get away fast because he was pissed and limping towards her. The closest ride without a line was the Musical Swing Starflyer, so she ducked beneath the metal bars and let the attendant with the tired eyes and halitosis strap her in. She mumbled prayers to god hastily, hoping the ride didn’t go upside down.
The music started, some crackling carnival tune infused with country rock. The speakers were old. The giant twelve-pointed star slid up the pole and pulled them all with it. She held the chains on either side of her tightly, preparing for the worst. As it rose further and began to spin, the swings flared outwards until the star above her was a blur of firecrackers and lightning. The wind blew back her thin hair and dried her skin of the sweat from the bathroom.
The crowd below teemed into some deliberate design. Lines wound around trash cans and everyone shuffled forward at the same steady rate. She saw the man in the tracksuit yelling into his cell phone, his wife holding a stuffed polar bear almost as big as she was. Celeste ached for her. Her mother probably didn’t raise her to have too many opinions, and she’d follow around that scumbag for the rest of her life, keeping the kitchen clean, ironing his khakis, scrubbing their bathtub. Chlorinating the above-ground pool.
Beyond the last tents, she could see the moon. Something like hardened cream. Like dried ivory soap. Her hands were aching and she looked at her palms to find blood. Eight fingernail marks dug deep into the skin, dripping just a little. She brought her palms to her mouth and the metallic taste washed over her tongue. The Starflyer kept spinning.
Taylor Kigar. Chicago, Illinois.
Call and Response is a photo-literary exploration devoted to the relationship between photographs and words. Using photographs from the Looking at Appalachia project, writers are encouraged to respond narratively to a single image in 1,000 words or less. We hope to use this platform to expand our community and encourage collaboration between photographers and writers. Learn more about how to submit here.