Thinking about Negrito made my stomach lurch like I'd dropped off a cliff.
"Anyhow," Mason continued quickly, "it's a waste of money. I didn't like it last year."
"You've been to the Fair every year of your life!" I said.
"So I ought to know what I'm missing, right? I just outgrew it, Tex. That's all there is to it."
He tasted the chili, then added some more peppers. Mason's chili was good and strong.
"Well, I ain't And I'm going," I said. He didn't say anything.
"I ain't going to outgrow it, either. I'll think the Fair is fun no matter how old I get."
"That," Mason said, "is quite likely."
I breathed a little easier. At least he wasn't going to try to keep me from going.
"Can I take the pickup?" I asked finally.
"Nope. No way. Last time you drove it by yourself you got in that drag race that almost killed you. You wouldn't last ten minutes in the city. Anyway, you don't have a license."
That was pretty corny. We both started driving when we were twelve years old. But he never had let me drive in the city by myself.
"I bet Bob'll drive me and Johnny," I said.
"Probably. Bob doesn't have the sense God gave a goat. Here's three bucks. That's all you're going to get, so don't ask for any more."
I was surprised to get that much. Mason didn't part with money easy. If Pop had been here he probably would have given us ten bucks apiece.
"I wish Pop would come home," I said. Mason looked hacked-off. Just mentioning Pop got him irritated lately. You'd think since he was Pop's favorite kid, he'd be a little easier on him. I'd known Pop liked Mason better ever since I can remember. It was a little hard to figure, since I was the one who acted like him, who wanted to be like him. Pop and Mason weren't anything alike. Pop never took anything too serious. Even that time I got into law trouble, he got over it quicker than I thought he would. Pop was a lot of fun. Mason wasn't exactly Mr. Chuckles.
"Maybe he ain't coming back," Mason said. It seemed like my heart stopped beating for a second, then started off at a gallop.
"What makes you say that?"
"Well, he's never been gone this long before. He's not making any money rodeoing anymore, it's just an excuse to go roaming around with the other good ole boys. I figure one of these days we're going to slip his mind completely."
"You're nuts," I burst out desperately. "He's coming back. You're crazy to talk like that."
"Maybe so," Mason said, but he didn't sound like he meant it.
"Is your hair wet?" he asked suddenly.
"Yeah, I just washed it."
"Again? You washed it yesterday."
"Yeah, well, Jamie said it looked better when I wash it every day."
"Jamie gonna pay the hospital bills when you come down with pneumonia?"
There was a funny kind of quiet. Our mother had died of pneumonia. It was a long time ago.
"I bet Pop's home by Thanksgiving," I said.
Mason said, "You're on."
Sunday was the first day of the Fair and Bob Collins drove us into the city for it. He had a date with him, so me and Johnny had to swear to sit in the back seat and not move and not talk and only breathe enough to keep us alive. Bob had driven us places before.
We lived about twenty miles from the city. That was good in a way, since it was close enough to get to when you got really bored with a small town, and you probably knew what was going on more than somebody in a small town who was a hundred miles away from a city. But it was bad, too, since as soon as you said you were from Garyville, the city kids thought you were a hick. Almost all the kids in our town wore long hair and old jeans and smoked grass and got drunk, just like the city kids, but somehow everybody thought it was more cool when the city kids did that stuff. Especially the city kids.
Me, I liked living in the country and some of the other kids liked it, too. Some of them pretended they did because they couldn't live anywhere else. Then you had the people like Mason, who were itching to get out. I couldn't quite figure out why.
Me and Johnny kept our word and didn't pester Bob a bit on the way to the Fair, in case he decided to turn around and take us back. (We had several things planned for the way home, when he couldn't do much about it.) We did clown around a little bit, but I doubt that he heard us--his girl friend talked a mile a minute. Bob dropped us off in front of the north entrance to the Fair grounds and told us to meet him there at ten o'clock, then he drove on to the movies or wherever he was going.
It cost a dollar just to get into the Fair, which was a good inspiration for trying to figure out a way to sneak in. I'd managed it the year before, and me and Johnny walked up and down the fences for about half an hour looking for a safe spot to crawl over. Maybe a lot of people had managed it the year before, because this year there were too many cops and guards to even try it.
"Shoot," I said, as we forked over the dollar at the entrance, "that leaves me two bucks. I'll get about two rides out of that."
"Don't worry about it," Johnny said. "I'm loaded."
Johnny never tried to brag about having money--he got five-dollars-a-week allowance, and could usually get some more from either Bob or Jamie, and he'd been saving up for the Fair for a long time. He was real generous, not to show off or anything, it was just that money was something to have a good time with, and if you were his buddy, he wanted you to have a good time, too. I liked that attitude. I never felt bad about letting him pay for anything if I didn't happen to have any money. Mason, man, he wouldn't let you give him the time of the day.
I was sorry Mason was missing the Fair this year, but I was glad to be there with Johnny. Whenever I went with Mason, he just about drove me nuts, because he wanted to plan everything out. He'd walk up and down, and look everything over, and decide exactly which ride was the scariest, and which game he could win at (shooting baskets last year he cleaned up on stuffed animals), and where to buy the cheapest hot dog. We'd be there an hour before we really did anything.
The only kind of plan I ever followed was going through the mile-long livestock barn first, so I could look at the different breeds of horses. But this year I didn't feel like looking at a lot of horses, so after we gawked at the cattle awhile I said, "Let's head on out to the Midway."
Johnny said, "Sure," not asking a question. Johnny was smarter than most people thought. Once you get a reputation for being scatterbrained, people always think you never have a serious thought in your head, but that isn't always true. I ought to know.
We ran from ride to ride, just hitting the scary ones. Some were fast, and some flipped you upside down, and some whirled you around, and some did all three about a hundred feet in the air. Between rides we ate corn dogs and fried chicken and ice cream and corn on the cob. When we weren't eating or riding we played the games, trying to knock down bottles with baseballs, or pitch nickels in a plate. I won a big red toy poodle rifle-shooting. They always screw up the sights or something on those rifles, but after one round I figure out how to compensate for it, and the rest is easy. I am a very good shot. I hunt ducks mostly.
Johnny won a bear, throwing darts. We felt silly carrying the animals around and gave them to some little kids. Then we watched the preview of the girlie show, but you had to be eighteen to go in. Johnny wanted to go through the freak show, so I stood around outside while he did. I'd been through the freak show before, and last year it depressed me for some reason.
Me and Johnny got kicked off the double Ferris wheel. Even though it was the highest ride at the Fair, giving you a view of the whole city, after some of the other rides it seemed a little tame. So we livened it up a little by rocking back and forth. We were on the top wheel, trying to scare each other, forgetting neither one of us has the sense to be scared. We almost flipped the seat, but then some people down below noticed and the operator brought us down in a hurry, yelling at us before we even came to a stop. He was a mean-looking carnie, and we shot off before he got a chance to do
much more than holler, "You kids want to kill yourself, go jump off the Mad Mouse!"
We ran behind a hot dog stand, and leaned against it, laughing.
"Well, I wondered who those two idiots were, and I might have guessed."
I turned around. There was Jamie and some other girl. Jamie had on blue jeans and a blue sweater and a funny blue Fair hat with a big feather in it. She looked really cute.
"We were just having fun," Johnny said. "That's what it's for, isn't it?"
"You moron," Jamie said. Then she said, "This is Marcie, her mother brought us."
I'd seen her friend at school, but hadn't paid much attention to her. Ninth-graders don't mess around with seventh-graders much.
We started down the Midway again, Johnny and Marcie walking together, me talking to Jamie.
"You're almost looking human again," Jamie said. "I'm surprised at how many people believed that sleep-walking story you were giving out."
"Well, I do sleep-walk," I said. People always seemed to find that fact more interesting than I do. "You didn't tell them any different?"
Jamie shook her head. "Wouldn't do me any good if I did. Mr. Super Cool Mason can do no wrong, as long as we get to the state finals in basketball this year."
Some of the couples we passed had their arms around each other, with one hand in the other's back pocket. That looked like fun, but I didn't think Jamie would go for it.
"You guys been to the fortune teller yet?" she asked.
"Naw, we wouldn't waste money on junk like that," Johnny answered.
"She really is good," Jamie said. "Come on, let's go. I want to hear what she tells you guys."
We followed along. Jamie had a way of making you do what she said. Anyway, if the fortune teller was any good, maybe I could find out where Negrito was. We stopped outside the booth.
"No way," Johnny said. "I'm not going to throw away a whole dollar."
"Well, hell, I'll pay for it." Jamie slung her purse off her shoulder.
"Cole's going to cream you if he hears you cussing like that anymore."
"He's not here to hear it, is he? Go on in."
Johnny took the dollar, winking at me. One of his favorite tricks was to see how much money he could worm out of his family. He was good at it, but then, he wasn't related to Mason.
"Maybe you guys could ride home with Bob and us," I said.
"No thanks," Jamie said. "I'm around them enough."
"You know, Jamie," Marcie giggled, "your brother is really kind of cute."
"You should see Charlie," Jamie said shortly. I got the definite feeling she didn't like other girls being interested in her brothers.
Johnny came out of the small tent. "Did she say you were going or staying?" Jamie asked him.
"Staying," Johnny said.
"What are you talking about?"
"You'll see." Jamie started to get out another dollar.
"I'll pay for it," I said. It was my last dollar, and one Johnny had loaned me at that, and I sort of wanted to save it to do the shooting gallery again. Jamie liked stuffed animals. But I wouldn't feel right letting her pay for anything.
I went inside the tent. It was kind of cramped, and so dark after the neon glare outside that I had a hard time seeing at first. With the curtains pulled shut, all the Fair noises seemed muffled and far away. The place sort of gave me the creeps.
"Sit down please."
My eyes had adjusted enough to see a lady sitting behind a table. She was younger than I'd thought she'd be, dressed up like a gypsy. You could tell it was a costume, though, not something she'd wear all the time. I sat down. I'd never been in that kind of a set-up, and I wasn't sure what to do.
"Cross my palm with silver." She held out her hand. Now if Johnny had been in there with me, the whole thing would have been funny. But alone, I didn't feel like laughing. The hairs on the back of my neck were tickling me. I had that happen before once, when I seen a ghost.
And now even the little hairs up and down my backbone were standing up, tickling me. This place was creepy.
"You mean pay you?" I asked, after a minute. It'd look funny to Johnny and them if I rushed out without getting my fortune told. She nodded, so I handed her the dollar.
"When is your birthday?"
"October twenty-second. I'll be fifteen," I added. She looked at some kind of map spread out on the table. Then she said, "Let me see your palm."
I held out my hand. She took it in a firm hold and looked at my palm for a minute or two. Then she said, "Your far past: You are a fourth-generation cowboy. Your near past: violence and sorrow. Your next year: change. My best advice: Don't change. Your future: There are people who go, people who stay. You will stay."
She dropped my hand. "You may think to yourself one yes or no question."
That was what I was waiting for. I thought "Will I get Negrito back?"
She was quiet, then said, "I'm sorry, the answer is no."
Up till then she'd been using a fakey, gypsy-type voice, and to hear her turn human on me was the scariest part of the whole thing. I got up, glad to get out of there.
Johnny and Jamie and Marcie were waiting for me. It was hard to get back into the mood of the Fair. I was still thinking about Negrito.
"What did she say? Going or staying?" Jamie asked.
"Staying, I reckon," I said, "whatever that means."
"I think she's a fake," Jamie said suddenly.
"Now's a fine time to decide that. After wasting all that money," Johnny said.
"Well, it wasn't your money so shut up. I think she's a fake. What else did she tell you, Tex?"
"Said I was a fourth-generation cowboy, and I'd had violence in my near past."
"Great. You walk in there wearing boots and a cowboy hat, with the remains of a fist fight all over your face, and she sees you're a cowboy with a violent past. Real powers, all right."
I'd forgot my face hadn't quite healed up.
"Anyway," Jamie went on, "for you to be a fourth-generation cowboy, your father and grandfather and great-grandfather would have to be cowboys. And you told us your grandpa had been a preacher."
That was right. Pop used to tell us about the wild stuff he did when he was a kid, then say, "Well, I was the preacher's kid, so what could you expect?"
"What did she tell you?" I asked Jamie. I got the feeling that Jamie was a person who was going.
"That I'd be married three times, and I know I couldn't stand it once."
"Good," said Johnny, "that'll save three guys a lot of grief and misery."
I wanted to ride something real quick, to get back into the mood of the Fair. The Zipper was one of the scariest rides they had, so we rode it next, Johnny buying the tickets for all of us. Jamie sat with me, and Marcie rode with Johnny. We could hear them both hollering, while Jamie'd gasp, "I don't see what's so scary about this." It flipped us upside down and went straight up in the air and came straight for the ground.
"It ain't scary, it's just fun," I told her.
"You're crazy, Tex."
We spent the rest of the evening paired off. It was almost as good as having real girl friends.
I thought about cutting through the livestock barns on the way out, for one quick look at the horses, but didn't. I'd got back to being happy, which is the right way to leave the Fair, and there wasn't any sense in doing something you knew would make you sad.
I was real sorry when ten o'clock came and we had to split up--Jamie and Marcie going to the south entrance to meet Marcie's mother, Johnny and me heading for the north to meet Bob. I could be wrong, but I think they were sorry we had to split up, too.
We were a little late meeting Bob. He had parked down a side street to wait for us, and we tried sneaking up on him and his date to see if we could catch them making out, but they were just talking.
"You want to go by and see Charlie before we go home?" Bob asked, when we got in the car. Charlie was the oldest Collins kid. He went to med school and lived in an apartment in the
"Sure," Johnny said, "we haven't seen Charlie in a long time."
"Mason mind you being out late?" Bob asked me.
I shook my head. The only thing Mason minded me doing was skipping school. I could come in at five in the morning, just as long as I was up at six to get ready for school.
"How about you?" I asked Johnny. "Won't Cole get upset if you're out late?"
Johnny grinned. "Not as long as I'm with Bob. Bobby can do no wrong."
For some reason that remark set Bob's girl friend into a fit of giggles. Bob just kept his eyes on the road.
Walking into Charlie's place was like still being at the Fair, only without the rides. There were a whole bunch of people there, running in and out. As soon as we got there Charlie introduced us around as his family: Bob was his younger twin, he said, and since they looked an awful lot alike, people seemed to accept it. But he also told them me and Johnny were the second set of twins in the family, and our names were Mutt and Jeff, and he told people Bob's girl friend was their aunt. And some of the people there were in a condition to accept that, too.
Charlie Collins was one of the blonde Collins, like Cole. Everybody liked Charlie. He knew it and wasn't afraid to let you know he knew it. And everybody liked him, anyway. He wasn't as big as Cole, but nearly, and rugged-looking. Like a whiskey ad in a magazine. Clothes that would look silly on anybody else looked fine on him. Jamie had always called him Jet Set Charlie, and that was what he looked like.
Right after we got there he fixed us a drink. I thought it was 7-Up till I took a big gulp and choked on it.
"Charlie..." I heard Bob protesting, and Charlie said, "Come on, Saint Robert, I don't get to see you guys that much anymore."
And Bob ended up having a drink, too.
I was pretty thirsty after all that running around at the Fair, and I gulped down my first drink, and the second one, too. It tasted really good, like pop with a zing to it. The only thing I'd ever tried drinking before was beer, and I never could get a taste for it. Beer tasted awful sour to me. This stuff was sweet. I was on my third one when I noticed things were looking extra bright and sharp and I had to talk louder because my hearing was getting funny.
I'd never been drunk before. I know that's hard to believe, me being so close to fifteen years old, but it was the truth. Pop never had been much for booze, partly, I think, because his prison stretch had something to do with bootlegging, but mostly because he didn't need it. Pop always had a good time.