We’d usually get to the county fair early afternoon, and Dad would pay, a sort of once-a-year penance. We’d walk right past the vendors, tanned, hard-skinned Indians from the reservation selling pink and yellow silk-screened T-shirts saying New York and moccasins and little toys and things like that. Past the tables of folding knives and shining switchblades and games to win a pink stuffed toy or a chipped fair mug. My father coasted by the cotton candy like the mechanical rabbit at the racetrack, the smells of fried dough mixing with the dry dirt under our feet, the hot dogs, (placed just right near the main drag so you couldn’t miss them). One path. I had grown accustomed to my father’s blinders, but it had taken some years, and I still tagged along behind him, just a kid, smelling what I could, imagining winning a giant pink bunny, soft, smelling of dust or sawdust, and then giving it to the prettiest girl—or maybe just the nicest—I saw at the fair. But we’d always head to the animal barn, never the deformed animal barn next to it. That barn was covered in faded cloth with pictures of strange animals on it. My father thought that was cruel.
They don’t deserve that, he’d say. Seein’ something with three horns or two heads ain’t gonna help us. Plus that shit ain’t real. Real is a moving, breathing animal that you can see. Not stuffed or in a jar.
I’m not sure if my mother is still moving or breathing, but I’ve never seen her, so to my father’s way of thinking, she isn’t real. She’s gone. My birthday is what I call the anniversary of her death. My father says she took off—left me at birth to fend for myself—but I don’t believe that.
I believe that I was the last thing she saw on earth.
I was told simply and plainly once by a guest speaker at school, a Vietnam Vet, a local guy, who had a limb missing, his left sleeve lifeless, that life was hard. But imagining or thinking about something else—a nice place, an unexpected present, the fair—would almost be like living it. He stood in the front of my class, talking real slow, swaying like someone was pulling him with an imaginary rope, and said some people could imagine better than others, but that bad situations make you better at it. Why, I had asked. Or someone had asked. Because you have to do it more, he had said. I remember he was dirty like my father, could have used a haircut, but he didn’t seem like a bad person.
So I imagined places I read about in schoolbooks. The Midwest (the wind). Niagara Falls (the water). And made-up places (I can barely describe them but I have a feeling about them). Places I would only see with my eyes closed.
The barn that housed the animals on our farm was bigger than our trailer and our trailer smelled like boots. Most of the land was just dusty ground. My father fed the horse, Willy, the pigs, goats, and dirty chickens. He never treated the animals well. Because I worked so long in the field, kicking for potatoes and whatnot, and because I wasn’t allowed to help the animals much, our livestock showed a sickness: yellow eyes, patches of hair missing. Take Willy: she was a good horse, and strangely loyal to him, but she’s all ribs, and her head droops. She smells bad, like vegetables left out too long.
The animals were like my father: sick, tired. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you, or something like that. And that’s why I loved to see the animals at the fair so much, because they were big and healthy. Like the best they could be. Even dad—skinny, hard face—really marveled at them at the fair. And he’d put his hand on my shoulder and squeeze me as the smell of hay and rich dirt and the bleating and mooing seemed to lift us. This was about the only time he had touched me as a father should. And it was only then that he made me proud, although, at that time, I couldn’t really define that feeling.
At the fair, I’d forget everything else. Maybe it was because my father was around so many people. Maybe it was because we stood with healthy animals, a heaven of sorts, that he let me be. Like this is where he envisioned himself after he died and he showed it, although I never asked him about it. So he acted like a man.
The fair’s animal barn was the size of ten of our barns. You could see it from a good distance, bright red paint with white trim. I saw town men painting it one afternoon about a week before the fair kicked off. I was heading toward the hardware store to get some nails (and a bag of free popcorn). I had watched, leaning on a fence, just letting the thing hold me there, suspend me from the world, spacing out for a good twenty minutes. Then at home, I asked my father if we could paint our barn. Give it a new life. He had tried to grab me, asking, no, demanding why nothing was ever good enough, but I backed off. So I had to imagine the fair barn as my barn. Giant sliding door in front that could fit twenty people across. It looked like a big mouth with two windows for eyes, filled with more hay and animals than I had ever seen in one place.
But the day of the fair, all I did was ask what would it be like if our animals were as healthy as these animals. Maybe I meant, why are they so sick? Or, why must you take it out on everything but yourself?
I guess I wasn’t sure what I was saying.
A strong shot to the back of my blond head whipped me forward, and I jammed my front teeth through my upper lip into the wooden fencing that held a big sow. At home, I might’ve seen this coming, but at the fair, in front of these animals, in front of that many people (at least two to every animal) it shattered me.
I remember scraping down the fence, falling to my knees. My white t-shirt got stuck on a nail on the way down, and the cloth pulled out, like something was shooting right out from my chest. Then, face to face with that sow. Her eyes were deep black, so dark, and I focused on the individual hairs on her snout. She grunted. I could feel blood running into my mouth, over my bottom lip and down my chin, like a premature goatee.
Get up, boy, my father hissed. I imagined his face pruned, eyes as slits, lips clenched together as he stood behind me, legs spread. I pulled back from the fence. My shirt ripped. I looked down and already could see a red stain growing just above where the nail had pricked. Blood dripped from my mouth. It looked like my chest had exploded.
Now! Get up, boy. The others on our side of the barn were quiet. Like church. My father pulled at the back of my shirt, the collar roping around my neck. I blinked, still watching the sow. She let out a heavy breath. Still on my knees, I pivoted to my left. I faced the open stable door and watched the late afternoon light pouring into the stable, highlighting the cows and pigs to my side. I just knelt there, swaying, maybe, wobbling, maybe, like that Vietnam Vet, and I imagined the fair: the hot dog smells we had passed; the laughing children who knew only laughter or remembered it that way; the creaky rides and toothless men announcing their games of chance. And then beyond: route 30C west to the farm in Helena, the long, dusty road; there were the tired mornings and hard dust days. My father had hit me in the one place I enjoyed.
Someone reached out and put a hand on my father’s arm; he shrugged it off as if he were removing a loose jacket. I knelt in a pile of horse dung, the core warm, and, as I leaned forward, toward the door, the smell escaped. Farm people like us watched: leathery skin, bent over from years of lifting. They wore faded clothes. Many had probably seen this type of thing before. This scene, though?
An old farmer, a woman, stepped towards me and bent low, her dark hands on her knees. You okay? she asked. She wore a plaid shirt, grey hair pulled back tight, like it stretched her face. But she smiled. Was it a mask pulled tight?
I raised a hand to her, brushed her hip with my fingers, then touched her side, feeling that the woman was real. I rested there for a second, then pivoted toward my father. Tank top, wiry, unshaven, dark arms, old white jeans that he only wore away from the farm. The blood filled my cheeks.
Get up, my father barked. Time you learned! His clenched his fists. His neck always pulled long when he screamed, and his tendons flexed, like his head would shoot off.
I smiled, breathed out little blood bubbles through my clenched teeth. More blood ran down my chin. My father stepped toward me. I breathed in deeply, inhaling a mixture of blood and dung-stink. I let the smell sit for a moment in my lungs, and then I rushed the blood out toward him, as fast as I could, like a giant dam opening, with a force that would later leave my throat feeling raw. It gushed past my teeth, slid over my puffed lips and was released into the thick barn air. If life was a movie, it would have all been slow motion. I sort of yelled when I did this, maybe a cry, releasing something. Most of it painted his pants. He looked like the beginning of a wild canvas like I had seen a picture of in school.
Red is a base for a lot of things.
When I spat, the old farmer backed off, waving her arms wide, spreading the crowd. She did not stop me. She watched me, like she knew the history, or maybe she knew that she couldn’t stop us. Let the dogs fight until one dies. I looked up at my father, his stupid smile, nodding head like a broken farm machine. He twitched his fingers in my face. My left hand grabbed his belt, rising, pulling him closer, right hand on his shoulder, leverage to stand. And in my arm, I packed fourteen years of burns, punches, name-calling and the knowledge that what my father had said was actually true—that my mother had left me long ago to fend for myself with this man—and released it into his face. But I hit him in the neck, just below his right ear. A thwap, a wrist slap. Nothing like a boxer would.
But it was me.
I slipped back as I made contact. But I put everything into it. Like that boxer would have. Imagine the force going through the target. I imagined I was in another place, any of the other places I had ever thought of, doing exactly what I was doing now. Prizefight in a throwback barn. Blue and red trunks. One punch.
I think he staggered back into the wood fence a few feet behind him. He no longer smiled. And all those years of plowing, hucking hay and taking the abuse had paid off; he had taught me to hate, something that would always be with me.
On that day, a county fair day, an escape-from-the-farm-sort-of-day, a promise-filled day, a day better than most days, I had tried to break my father's jaw. And I probably fractured my wrist. I’ll never know how bad I had hurt him because who knows if I’ll ever see him, and if I do, whether he’ll tell me or not. I walked into the fleeting afternoon.
That evening I took my t-shirt off and sat in the top row of the grandstand. I watched the demolition derby in its entirety, and I didn’t look for him. I followed the cars tirelessly attacking each other until one by one they died, the dust flying (the inhaling, the coughing), the sun dipping. The thunder and rumble of the cars. I sucked on my shirt the whole time, and only when the sun had been gone for some length, did the bleeding stop.
When I was young and it was fair day, my father and I, following chores, would walk together to the livestock barn. He would hold me close, like a father should, and I would lean against him, his smell, the soil and wheat smell of work, as a son. That’s how I remember it. Because I thought the fair would change him, that he would always act like this. This time. And I remember in the big barn, walking through with my father every year, noticing that there were little beds set up between the animal pens. They were made up of hay bails and covered in thick blankets.
For the farm-hands, my father would say, as we looked at a particular bed with a pair of dusty boots at the base or a box of magazines to its side. So if somethin’ disturbs the animals, like a wolf’s howl or a fox running close, the ‘hands can hush the animals and speak to ‘em.
I remember doubling back to the livestock barn after the derby. Standing in the doorway, I could smell the hay, sweet and dry inside. Small domes of light shown from weak lanterns. I saw the old farmer woman who had bent low and asked about my health earlier that day. She was still there, so I asked to stay on one of those hay bale beds, to sleep near the animals, to do what I could.
Without a word, she nodded and pointed into the dark. Maybe she had made up a bed for me, just in case—maternally, you know—but probably there just happened to be a few extras. And now I realize that she did this more for me than for the protection of the animals because what could I provide?
That night, amidst the grunts and movements of those animals scraping against the rough fencing, pawing the ground, I knew I was among the chosen. The best would be prized, as only a county fair could do. Daily, I knew they’d be cleaned up and kept; blanketed and brushed; the stalls and floor would be swept, the animals safe with the farmer. All around me, the air was warm and good, and the smell was summer. As I lay awake I imagined the moon above me, its distance from me, its diameter, its composition and the light it provided me and the light it gave my father, probably back at the farm. And for the first time, I imagined that same quiet light shining on my mother somewhere too.