Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2012 v11n1
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Tall Enough

The boy didn’t care that he was tall enough this year. The roar of the roller coaster frightened him, and how it made people scream, and so he waited along the fence for his father and sister to ride. The train whipped around a curve and the boy saw his sister’s hands waving in the air. That summer, the boy would turn eight.

The boy wanted to go down the big, bumpy slide, his legs snug in a potato sack. He wanted to find the organ grinder and the bugle player with musical instruments all over his body. Restless, he traced shapes in the dirt with his shoe: a line, a circle, a triangle he pretended was a pyramid in Egypt, then a head on an arrow, then a sail on an explorer’s ship.

The brakes on the roller coaster hissed. The boy’s father and sister stepped from the track, bright and laughing.

“Feel brave, son?” His father nodded to the towering ride. Its beams were a weathered white, stacked into a lattice as intricate and impressive to the boy as the dinosaur skeletons he once saw in a science museum. The boy looked away from his father and shrugged. His sister clicked her tongue at him in pity or irritation. The sound made him scuff his shoe at the dirt again. As they began to walk the carnival, a heat bloomed in the boy’s chest, like when he got caught breaking something, or telling a lie.

They turned onto the midway and his sister squealed, seeing a face painter. She sat on his stool and said to make her beautiful. The painter brightened her cheeks and lips and drew a star around her eye. Admiring herself in the mirror, she combed her fingers through her hair, which was longer that summer than it had ever been. The boy felt shy before his sister’s features, so suddenly bold and striking. He told his father of the boys he’d learned of at school, boys from other continents who danced around fires with their faces painted as their elders beat on drums. Then he sat on the painter’s stool and his father bristled.

To the painter, his father instructed, “Make him a lion.”

The boy liked the cool, clay feel of the paints on his skin and the painter’s serious expression as he worked on him. The boy tried not to squirm, but he was excited to look in the mirror. He studied his new reflection and smiled, pretending to mew.

His father thrust money into the painter’s hand. “Since when do lions have little whiskers like that?” he asked.

The boy’s father and sister walked quickly on, eager to reach the next roller coaster. The boy lagged behind them. He wanted to look at all the blinking booths; he wanted to watch the cotton candy vendor spin sugar into floss. He liked how the corn kernels popped from their kettle.

The boy stopped when he saw the table of goldfish. Dozens and dozens of orange fish flickered their tails inside tiny bowls, a trick of the water making some look bulging and large. People lined up to throw ping-pong balls. His father and sister doubled-back to join him, his sister pouting and rolling her eyes.

But the boy ignored her. He imagined keeping one of those bowls on the table beside his bed. He imagined whispering good morning and good night to his goldfish.

The man inside the booth said, “Kitty want a fishy?” and handed the boy a fish in a plastic bag.

“He’ll play for it,” his father protested. But the man said it was the last night of the fair and he needed to unload his inventory.

The boy cradled the bag against his chest as his father and sister charged ahead. That night, the boy thought, he would tell his fish a story, an exciting story of the sea, with sharks and pirates. As the fish grew bigger, he would move the fish to a larger bowl and give him a plastic scuba diver to keep him company. Maybe one day the boy himself would become a scuba diver and live by the ocean. Or maybe he would live in the jungle. Or maybe he would be a face painter at a fair and paint the faces of fish and jungle animals onto the people who sat on his stool. The boy was young, but not so young that he didn’t realize he was young. He did not need to decide yet what he would be one day. If the goldfish outgrew the bowl with the scuba diver, the boy would take the fish to the creek that flowed through their backyard.

At the roller coaster, the boy’s father insisted he ride. “Come now,” he urged and the boy clutched his plastic bag. His father gripped the boy’s shoulder with a slim hand the color of milk. His sister looked back from the front of the line and narrowed her eyes, so the star creased into sharp points.

“Come now,” his father repeated and his expression looked strange, like a classmate’s when he stands before the chalkboard and can’t do multiplication. “Leave that here,” his father said and reached for the fish.

The boy said, “No,” and raised his arm, deflecting him. As he did, his own sleeve brushed his face, smearing his whiskers into a slanted black streak. Nearby, the bugle player marched past, blaring his notes and pulling the lever to pound the drum strapped to his back. It was a deep bass drum, and the boy felt his body vibrate with its rhythm.    

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