In the cattle barn at the Johnson County Fair, a big-boned farm-boy sits in an aluminum lawn chair reading the January issue of The American Stockman. In the stall next to the one where the boy sits, an Angus steer munches his way through a manger full of alfalfa. The steer, Bevo, is Kale Macky’s 4-H project, and his closest companion for the last year. Tomorrow, after the judging, and the auction, Kale will go home with money in his pocket, but he will go home alone. Tonight, like generations of 4-H competitors before him, Kale Macky will spread his bedroll and sleep in the tack stall beside his steer.
It is the fourth day of the Johnson County Fair, near six o’clock–a sweet time of day; the time between the dusty heat of mid-day August and the cool, humid night of laughter and excitement along the midway.
The buzz of the fluorescent lights overhead, the flies turning lazy circles in the still air have lulled Kale into a dreamy state of mind, a mood broken when Kale hears, behind him, “Your cow?”
Kale turns to see Paul, a boy he knows from school, and Paul’s friend Danny.
“It’s a steer, dickwad,” says Danny.
Paul shrugs, “Whatever.”
“What you guys doing?” says Kale.
Danny says, “Came to the fair. We thought we saw you down here.”
“I’m just minding my steer.” Kale puts the Stockman into the footlocker beside him.
The three boys are recent graduates of the eighth grade. The boys have not been Kale’s close friends, but Kale feels a kinship because they are inhabitants of the lonely island between the child’s world of junior high and the on-ramp to adulthood in high school.
They chat about the fair, the old Ford Paul’s uncle will give him when he turns sixteen, and Kale’s chances at the judging tomorrow.
The boys are talking about what boys always talk about – girls – when Jane walks into the barn. She too is a classmate, stranded in the land between junior and senior high school.
Looking at Jane walking down the dusty aisle in cut-off short shorts, a pink t-shirt, and tennis shoes, Paul says, “She’s hot!”
Kale and Danny grimace. Jane is not “hot.” She is fourteen. But she is pretty in a gawky fourteen-year-old-girl way.
“Cool it, you dork,” says Danny. “She’s not deaf.”
Jane joins the boys in the tack stall next to Bevo.
They talk for a while about things teens talk about–school, other kids, and music. Danny likes Taylor Swift. Jane says she likes Taylor too, but she really likes Katy Perry. Jane would go see Katy Perry if she ever came to Indianapolis. Her seventeen-year-old sister got to go to Indianapolis to see Justin Timberlake last spring.
It grows dark outside the barn. Danny says, “Wanna walk down the midway, see what’s happening, maybe go on the “Tilt-a-Whirl?”
“Okay,” says Jane.
Kale says, “I think I’ll pass.”
Danny says, “C’mon. Your steer’s not gonna croak if you’re not here to take care of him.”
“It’s a nice night, Kale. It’ll be fun,” says Jane.
At her smiling encouragement, Kale relents.
Outside the stock barn, the last trace of sun is gone from the sky, and the carnival lights grow bright. Shrill screams from the riders on the Tilt-a-Whirl meld with the roar of the roller-coaster, and the smells of cotton candy, corn-dogs, and elephant ears. The music of the fair drifts down the midway toward the four teens.
They are passing a game booth when a skinny young man with long greasy hair flips a baseball to Kale. The carny stands in front of a pyramid of lead milk bottles.
“Win your girl a teddy bear,” he says.
Kale flushes. Jane is not his girlfriend. She is pretty, with long brown hair and brown eyes flecked with gold, but she is not “his girl.”
Paul says, “Don’t do it, man, it’s a sucker game. Nobody wins.”
Danny says to Paul, “Just because you can’t do it don’t mean nobody can.”
Kale flips the ball, hand-to-hand. He is big for his age. He has a good arm. He glances at the booth ablaze with fluorescent light. Moths flit around the purplish neon glow, dancing to the calliope music coming from the carousel. Stuffed animals – pink elephants and smiling giraffes – hang from the roof. Above everything, golden teddy bears beckon from a high shelf.
Jane goes up to the guy who is running the booth.
“Does anybody ever knock them over?”
The carny in jeans and a black Grateful Dead T-shirt, his sleeves rolled up to his shoulders, holds the ball up in front of his face, as though inspecting it.
“Sometimes, people get lucky.” The guy flips the ball at a pyramid of bottles. Hitting the middle bottle at the base, the pyramid tumbles, leaving only one bottle standing. “Sometimes but, like I say, you gotta be lucky. It’s mostly luck.”
He says to Kale, You sure you don’t want to give it a try? Win your girl a teddy bear? Three balls for a dollar. Two games for a buck and a half.”
“Come on,” Paul cries, “It’s a sucker game.”
“Hold on.” Kale fishes in the pocket of his jeans and comes out with a hand full of change, handing the guy four quarters. If Paul were not with them, Kale would have walked down the midway, but Paul’s cynical smugness makes Kale want to do it just to shut him up. It would feel good to knock the bottles over, give the teddy bear to Jane, and leave Paul and his whining behind. Jane isn’t “his girl,” but he imagines himself handing her a big stuffed bear and walking down the midway with her beside him.
The greasy guy restacks the bottles and hands Kale two more balls, telling him he has three chances to knock all six bottles off of their stand.
Kale hands two balls to Jane. She takes them from him, touching his hand.
“Good luck.” She smiles.
Kale steps back, raising the baseball over his head like a big-league pitcher. He aims for the center bottle at the bottom of the pyramid. He throws as hard as he can. He misses high, grazing the top bottle which topples and falls to the platform taking another bottle with it. Four bottles still stand.
He is more careful with the next throw. His pitch is not as fast, but more accurate. The ball hits the middle bottle sharply, knocking it over, toppling two other bottles with it. The last bottle teeters but remains upright.
Paul’s cynical smirk is flagging.
Jane gives Kale the third ball and takes his hand in hers as if to anoint it. “You can do it,” she says.
Danny slaps Kale’s back like he is the hero defending the honor of eighth-grade boys against the invading carnivals of the world.
Kale ruffs up the last ball with both hands. Concentrating, he throws. The pitch hits the remaining bottle, not squarely but solid enough. The bottle rocks to the side against a downed bottle falls and rolls off of the platform.
“All right!” says, Danny, slapping Kale’s back again. Jane squeals, bouncing on her toes. She takes Kale’s arm and hugs it to her.
“Oh man, that was close,” the carny says.
“What do you mean, ‘close’?” Kale says, “I knocked ’em all down.”
“Yeah, but you got to knock them off the platform.” He points to the printed sign on the side of the booth: ALL BOTTLES MUST BE KNOCKED OFF OF THE PLATFORM.
“You wanna try again?”
Kale, feeling foolish for believing he had won the prize, blushes. He reaches in his pocket, but he realizes he does not have another dollar.
Jane says something intended to be comforting.
“You want to try it again?” asks the carny.
“Nah. I gotta be getting back to my steer.”
Kale turns toward the barn, wondering if his embarrassment is displayed on his flushed face.
The other three turn with him but Kale says, “Why don’t you guys go on down by the rides. I gotta get back to Bevo.”
After they have separated, Kale glances toward the lights at the end of the midway, on the other side of the gulf between the darkened stock barn and the bright music. The last he sees of his friends, they are laughing, walking toward the rides, Jane with the two boys.
Back at the barn, Bevo is laying in straw chewing cud. Kale gets fresh water for the steer then settles into his tack stall. He hangs his John Deere ball cap on a nail and picks The American Stockman out of the footlocker. He makes himself comfortable in the straw, resting his head on his bedroll where he will spend his last night at the fair.
He reads a while. The buzz from the fluorescent lights makes him drowsy. His dreamy state is broken when he hears a voice.
“What you reading?” The voice is Jane’s.
In the bean field behind the fairgrounds is a pond with a short dock. The dock could be a pier on the island of marooned teens. There are two sets of shoes on the dock, a pair of white tennis shoes, the kind that fourteen-year-old girls wear to county fairs, and a pair of plain brown cowboy boots. The boots are worn and curled at the toes, run over at the heels. The tops of the boots no longer stand without a leg in them, but flop over like they have worked too long with too little rest.
In another place, Kale and Jane might make love in the grass. In another time, they would not be out here in the August moonlight without a chaperone. But here, on the dock, on the island between past and future, Kale and Jane hold hands with their feet dangling in the water, because this is Johnson County, Indiana in the year 2008, and this is the way a boy and girl, fourteen years old, still do such things.
The moon, two days from being full, and the blinking neon lights from the fairway, are not bright enough to make out the color of a girl’s eyes. Kale can only see the shape of her face, the curve of her chin, and the midway lights sparkling in her hair. She watches the fireflies floating above the cattails on the edge of the pond. He counts the stars reflected in the still water.
Holding her hand, Kale reclines onto the warm planks that still radiate summer heat. He smells the summer pond and looks up into the star-riddled sky.
Jane turns to him. Night bathes her hair in stars. She puts her hand on his chest. Can she feel his heart? How could she not?
“I’m glad I came,” she says.
She lies beside him, still holding his hand. Together, they listen to the far-off laughter and music drifting over the water. The night air carries the rush of the roller coaster and the screams of the riders.
“Where do they go in the fall?” she asks, but what she is saying in her true heart is, “Do you feel what I feel holding your hand?”
“Where do WHO go?” he says, not understanding the question, but greedy for her voice.
“I don’t know,” he answers, gently caressing her small hand in his big one. And his hand says, “Yes, I feel the warmth of your body and my body rejoices in your heat.”
They lay side-by-side together in silence, no longer boy and girl, not yet man and woman. Alone on a pier in a summer night, they could be castaways, alone on the island of first love, discovering the treasures that have always been buried there awaiting discovery by seekers with open hearts.
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Author of: The Heart Doctor a romance novel