Weather.com, you’re on my Double-Secret-Probation List (and maybe that other list, too).
Now and then you find yourself planning an entire weekend around a weather report. This was the first weekend of the Prince William County Fair, Virginia’s biggest fair, a Major Event in our household. We do not miss the fair. Sunday was Half-Price Day, when both fair admissions and ride bracelets were half the normal price. When you’ve got three little boys who are all crazy for carnival rides, half-price ride bracelets are a big deal, particularly when even the puniest kiddy ride on the midway will cost you three bucks per ride, per kid, if you purchase ride tickets. So I knew we would be attending the fair on Sunday. I also knew that the long-range forecast called for thunderstorms. But I thought we might be able to finess the weather, get the boys’ rides over and done with between rainstorms, then concentrate on the fair’s indoor activities.
As soon as I woke up on Sunday, I checked weather.com. On our two prior visits to the fair, we had gone in the late afternoon and evening, to avoid the hottest, sunniest part of the day. But weather.com told me to reverse my usual plan. The hourly forecast for our zip code predicted a high of 81F (not at all bad for Virginia in mid-August), overcast skies early, and then 70%-80% chances of rain from 3 PM on. The fair’s gates would open at noon. I figured I could gorge the boys on rides for three hours, and then, at the first sign of rain, the family and I could duck into the animal husbandry displays and pet the goats and sheep and cows under a good, solid roof.
So, we headed off the to the fair sans hats and sunscreen. What did we need hats and sunscreen for if it was going to be cloudy and rainy all day?
We rushed through breakfast to arrive at the fair soon after the gates opened. It was muggy. It was bright. It was hot, a good ten degrees hotter than the forecast predicted. Still, since we got there relatively early, the fair wasn’t crowded, at least not at first. The boys went on the Chinese Dragon mini rollercoaster and the Flying Swings/Raging Funnel and the Flying Dumbos (I’m sure Disney doesn’t let hinky-dinky carnival operators call it that, but that’s what I call it) and bumped their noses against the glass panels inside the Monkey Maze. They rode the Crazy Bus together, crammed into a miniature school bus with twenty other riders while huge pistons hurled the bus through the air. The older two went on the Parasail Rider (kind of like the Flying Swings, but with a sail-like panel which riders can swivel to make them bobble up and down while swinging around). I took my littlest, Judah, on a couple of those kiddy motorcycle/ATV merry-go-rounds and let him jump in a bounce house. His big disappointment was that the one ride he’d been talking about all week, Quadzilla, where he could ride a four-wheeler on tracks through a spook house, was temporarily closed for repairs.
Dara and I stood out of the direct glare as much as possible and waited anxiously for the few dark clouds spotting the sky to cover up the sun and provide us some relief. I watched the crowds linger in front of the games of chance and thought about Ray Bradbury, whose first story collection had been called Dark Carnival, who had written one of the greatest dark fantasies set on a midway, Something Wicked This Way Comes, whose childhood imagination had been fired by visits to fairs probably much like this one.
After two and a half hours of putting the kids on rides and taking (costly) beverage breaks, we decided to catch one of the 3 PM shows. A few more darkish clouds dotted the sky, but it still didn’t look like the thunderstorms the forecast had called for were anywhere near. We headed over to The Magic of Agriculture: Agri-Cadabra show, which we had seen earlier versions of the prior two years. The managers of the Prince William County Fair must like this guy, and he does put on a good show (even if his jokes disparaging West Virginia get a little stale after you’ve heard them a time or two). His grand finale is inflating a giant green weather balloon with a leaf blower, then inserting most of his body into the balloon, where he creates an elaborate balloon animal before emerging from his rubber cocoon. What can I say? It might not be Ray Bradbury’s idea of a proper show for a carnival midway (I think he prefers his magicians a bit more traditional and somber), but for me, it never gets old. My kids invariably get a charge out of it, perhaps akin to the charge the young Ray received from the fingertip of Mr. Electro, his earliest mentor in the ways of the fantastic.
Unfortunately, I had trouble concentrating on the show because I felt myself cooking. My wife reached over to touch my dark brown hair. “Touch your hair,” she said. “You could fry an egg on your hair. Mine, too.” Yup. She was right. My fingers came away smoking. And it wasn’t a magic trick.
Immediately after the Agri-Cadabra show, I herded my crew under the livestock barns, then went to refill our cup of $6 lemonade with water from the bathroom (there was still a little sugar and a couple of squeezed-out lemons at the bottom of the cup, so the tap water acquired a vaguely lemonadey tinge). I peered again at the sky. Where was this rain I had been promised? Where were the clouds to mask that brutal sun? We petted the goats. I made friends with a goat named Black Locust. I tried to figure out the reason for her name. She was black, yes, but not remotely insectoid. Perhaps she’d acquired that name due to her eating habits? I looked over at Dara. She was hors de combat. No more sun for her. But the boys were still clamoring to go on more rides.
I decided to take the bullet. I volunteered to lead the Midway Death March. Dara would remain behind with the goats in the shade. The boys hustled back to the Monkey Maze. I pressed myself as close to the wall of the ride as I could, clinging to whatever shadow was available. We ran into one of Asher’s friends, Maggie, and her grandmother. The kids all wanted to go on different rides. The lines had gotten much longer. The sun remained fierce overhead. Maggie’s grandmother and I decided to divide and conquer. We split the little group. Her half headed off to the Giant Ferris Wheel. Lucky her; the line was in the shade, and the gondolas had canopies. I got to stand in line for the Flying Swings. No shade there.
My older two boys went on the bumper cars. Judah had a mini-meltdown when he learned he wasn’t tall enough to ride. I yanked him over to the side of the bumper car pavillion, where the unused cars were stored, where there was a smidgeon of shadow to stand in. I pressed my index finger onto the skin of my forearm. The impression remained ominously white for a few seconds. I recognized what I had to look forward to that evening–squirming uncomfortably in bed while my skin reminded me incessantly what an idiot I had been. The boys wanted to ride the bumper cars again. I lacked the energy to deal with a renewed Judah meltdown. I told the boys they could pick one final ride before we went to pick up their mommy at the goat barn, but it had to be one they could all ride.
We saw that Quadzilla had been reopened. Judah began jumping up and down and flapping his hands. We got in line. The line didn’t move. The operator seemed to be taking forever to get the children out of the cars and seat more kids in their places. I shouldn’t get too angry with the man for not hustling with greater alacrity under that brutal sun; in conversations with other carnival employees, I learned they are housed in trailers, are paid an average of $300 a week, and have to buy all their own meals at the fair, which leaves them about $15 per week to spare. They do this from February to November, taking only a six-week break around the holidays to return to wherever their permanent homes are. So the man moved like a camel beneath the desert sun, conserving his energy and his internal moisture. If I were in his place, I suppose I would, too.
I felt my epidermis about to ignite. I yanked the boys out of the line. “No Quadzilla!” I thundered, substituting for the overhead thunder which had never made its appearance. “Maybe next year. Pick something else! Something with no line!” I shoved them toward a lame-o kiddy ride that none of the other fairgoers evinced an interest in. They dutifully boarded it, then rode it with blank faces. I could see they were all done in, too.
I marched them back toward the goat barn. On the way, we passed a row of standing wooden cutout figures, the kind that have oval holes cut where their faces are, the kind that invite you to put your own face in the oval and have a picture taken of you as a farmer or a fireman or a race car driver. One of the cutouts was of King Kong holding Fay Wray; you could opt to be either the gorilla or the maiden. All of the cutout figures stood unutilized when we passed. No one was taking pictures beneath the broiling sun.
I stared at those holes where faces should be, those voids, and I thought about Ray Bradbury again. Grandpa Ray, Master of the Dark Carnival, who had finagled ways to see King Kong in the theaters dozens of times as a kid. Ray had always been around for me; I’d watched his Beast from Twenty Thousand Fathoms and It Came From Outer Space at least as many times on Creature Features as a kid as he’d seen King Kong, and his A Medicine for Melancholy had been one of the first science fiction books I’d personally owned. My novel The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501 owes an inestimable debt to Ray’s Fahrenheit 451. He had always been around, and he seemed to go on forever, as though he would live forever, just like Mr. Electro had commanded him when Ray had been a boy–“Now go and live forever!” But he wouldn’t live forever. One day, I would live in a world without a Ray Bradbury. It would be like staring at those cutout figures with oval holes where faces should be.
I made myself a promise. Next year, when the Prince William County Fair comes around again, we won’t go beneath the blazing midday sun. We’ll go at twilight, the time Ray Bradbury tells us is the perfect time to walk within the neon glow of the midway’s dark lights.