written by lauren d. h. miertschin

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Tower

One from the archives -- you tell me: yah or nay, toss or file away?

A stroller and a Winnebago-like wagon, loaded with three toddlers, an ice chest and clip-on fan, sandwiched Tara as she scooted her feet across a sticky floor. Bruce’s fingers hooked into her belt loops. He pulled up behind her like a trailer in tow. Popcorn littered the floor. Air-conditioned air smelled of cotton candy, sweat, caramel, beer. Continuous haggling melded together into one sound – a sound they had grown to love. For them the whole scene conjured up irrevocable good moods. Tara and Bruce hadn’t missed a county fair in six years.

A row of smocked women reached out from behind draped counters, reminiscent of lepers who pawed after Jesus. They begged, challenged, even dared Tara to let them polish her jewelry. She flashed a ring with no signs of tarnish, a simple wedding band that fit loosely on her finger. They swore she’d walk away amazed, of course with a bottle of JewelKleen tucked into her bag for a mere $6.99. Tax included.

Behind them a young girl in a wheelchair roared with laughter. There was clanging and bells, rock and roll music, country western, applause, applause. Tara swore she even heard a bark. “Was that a dog?” she asked. But her voice only meshed together into that one sound – the county fair sound.

An orange balloon hovered above the chaos, creeping along, silently nagging. Tara followed it with her eyes until she crashed into the back of a leggy red-headed woman. The red-head spun around with the grace of a ballerina, then swayed, practically losing her balance.

“Watch it,” the woman growled and proceeded to plow her way through the crowd, swerving back and forth.

Opened mouth, Tara let an apologetic thought linger. A parachute tower loomed over the building’s glass ceiling. She shuddered.

Ashamed for resenting his wife, Bruce turned away. Why couldn’t she embrace the racing heart? Eyes glued to the falling parachute, he envied the screaming kids packed in like french fries. Lost in reverie, he reached for the balloon that crossed his path. It floated out of reach

His resentment did not go unnoticed, nor did the orange balloon. Tara ignored the former and watched the latter drift up and down, up and down. What did it mean? she wondered. What the hell did it mean?

“Must be a sign of good times.” The movie-star smile Bruce flashed revealed a pride in knowing what she was thinking.

“Sure,” she said and her eyes gazed past the tower in the sky.

“It dices, it slices, folks! We have for you here, the one, the only kitchen tool you’ll ever need.”

The crowd bottle-necked at those who stopped for a look. An amazing tool.

Like a seasoned chef the salesman tossed in a tomato, bell pepper, onion, both red and white. He turned the plastic handle and mixed up a batch of salsa in seconds flat. The crowd oohed and some of them wide-mouth awed. Tara denied the tortilla chip held out before her as she made for an opening behind a family of five. She cut off a stroller and lost Bruce to a group of Girl Scouts. Troop 339.

“Tired of dusting those hard to reach places?”

“We’ve got white fudge, double fudge, peanut butter fudge, and more . . .”

“Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you can make that old, cracked leather look brand new.”

“Foot massage?”

“Toe ring?”

“This hair tie does it all – braid, french twist . . .”

“Ice Cold Beer!”

Tara grabbed her husband’s hand and pulled him through the crowd to a row of aquariums with piles of oysters submerged in a few inches of water.

“For just eight dollars, take your pick – the treasure inside yours to keep.”

Bruce tugged in the opposite direction toward the beer. “I haven’t had one all day,” he complained. He flashed that star grin once more.

She fidgeted with the strand of pearls around her neck – four white pearls, and one black, treasures from county fairs past. Last year they found the black one. “A diamond in the rough,” Tara claimed – a sure sign that their marriage was meant to be.

Beers in hand the lovers zigzagged their way back to the oyster stand.

“You never know what you find.” The woman behind the aquariums held out her hand, her wrist adorned with dangling gold and diamond bracelets. A black pearl the size of a lemon drop lay in the center of her palm. “Worth five-thousand dollar,” she said. “Come, pick one.” After pocketing the pearl she swept her hand like a game show assistant, above the aquariums.

Tara stepped in, Bruce spooned up behind her. “How about this one?”

His wife tossed her long black hair to the side. “Bigger isn’t always better you know.” She grinned and batted yellow-brown eyes that many found so eerily attractive.

“That’s not what you said last night.” Movie-star smile once again.

A motorized wheelchair squeezed in between them. A biker couple pushed their way through the crowd for a better look. Which one held the largest treasure? No one knew.

“This one here,” Tara pointed to a black shelled oyster crammed in the front corner.

Bruce pulled a crumpled ten from his pocket. And before even giving change, the bejeweled woman took her butter knife and pried the oyster open.

Tara leaned forward. A white pearl would be nice – perhaps one with a tinge of pink. Her heart sped. Maybe they would find a treasure, one worth five grand.

Shells ripped apart, the woman dug her fingers into the gray jelly-like flesh. She didn’t flinch as she smashed it between her fingers. Hesitation first before she revealed its contents. Then she let the jelly fall between her fingers and plop onto the counter.


“That sucks.” Bruce tugged on Tara’s sleeve.

“Wait a minute.” Tara pulled back. An empty oyster? What did it mean? Sure, that was always a risk. Never a consideration. Was she barren? “What the hell does it mean?”

“I need another beer.” Tara jerked her head back, in the same motion turned from the parachute ride towering above, and made her way to the doors. Like a brick wall, a scorching block of air hit her. And that irrevocable good mood melted away.

“Come on,” Bruce said. “It means nothing.”

Tara sweated in silence – onward past dime tossers whose hopes zeroed in on Budweiser ashtrays and colored glass, candy dishes. They moved onward past boys who tried their luck at basket hoops in hopes of winning a giant Spongebob Squarepants. Onward past corn dog stands, pork chops on a stick and onions fried up to resemble flower bouquets. Forward momentum, no eye contact with vendors, they passed the miniature train depot city, snow cones and funnel cakes, and sweet corn served with margarine, but not butter because of food and safety regulations.

An old oak, its trunk spotted with chewed bubble gum gave them shelter from the sun. Teenagers screamed as their ferris wheel cages spun around and around. Skateboarder Dave juggled two running chainsaws and an apple on stage. He grabbed a bite between catches as he wheeled about, but didn’t actually chew and swallow the apple. He dug his teeth into it, then spit out the pieces as he caught the next chainsaw midair.

“Come on babe, it didn’t mean anything.” Bruce noticed his wife soak up tears with her sleeve during Dave’s encore. “Let’s go back and pick again.”

“Forget it,” she said. “It is what it is.”

As the heat bore down, Tara and Bruce made their way across the thoroughfare toward the art exhibit on the other side of the fun zone. Bruce insisted they stop for another beer – heat seemed to evaporate the juice’s beneficial effects. Drinks in hand, the crowd parted at an organ grinder monkey dressed like a man complete with a top hat, checkered pants, yellow shirt and multi-colored vest. He wobbled along occasionally stopping to collect quarters from fairgoers.

“How adorable,” exclaimed Tara. Bruce agreed and they crashed their beers together in a motion for cheers before guzzling down.

As if he knew her, the monkey stopped at Tara’s feet. With a tap, tap to his top hat he bowed, taking his time to stand upright, as much as a monkey can.

“Always the object of someone’s attention,” Bruce remarked.

The foot-tall critter tugged at his Guatemalan stripped vest as Tara slapped Bruce for a quarter. But then the monkey reached up to Tara and did something organ grinder monkeys never do: he handed her a quarter. Laughter erupted from the crowd. The startled monkey jerked around, and tore at his vest. He scampered away, extending his hat in search of more quarters.

“That’s it,” said Tara. She forced the monkey’s quarter into Bruce’s hand and chucked her empty beer cup at the trash bin. Three cups fell from the overfilled bin to the growing mound upon the asphalt. She snaked in and out of vacant spaces as Bruce picked up his pace to keep up.

Undecided on the empty oyster’s meaning, Tara alternated between chewing her lip and grinding molars. Took a month to realize that the wounded crow on her front porch signified her grandfather’s demise. Took a whole year to see that a field of daisies outside her sister’s town foretold her niece, Daisy’s, birth. There’s a message somewhere, she thought, and picked up her pace.

“What’s going on?” Bruce asked when he caught up with his wife at the pigpens. “Don’t you want to see the bunnies? We never miss the bunnies.” He flashed a cavalier grin, a little less-assured than his regular movie star smile.

“Sonya,” she said. “Gotta see Sonya.” Tara continued on past the rabbit cages and fast maneuvered a cut through the chicken displays.

Bruce headed off a line of hand holding first graders all dressed in green t-shirts to catch his wife. “What about quilts, the cakes? We don’t do Sonya till after the glassblowers. Look there’s Big Bess.” He pointed to an oversized cow chewing her cud as she lazed in a pile of hay.

“Hi Bess,” Tara said and off she was again scooting her way through the giant barn.

Next to the Mexican village where an elaborate fountain splashed overtly blue waters, stood a yellow tent dwarfed by an aged Jacaranda. It was no ordinary tent – not like a camping sort that one imagines. It looked more like something out of the Arabian Desert, its thick golden folds of material tied back with green velvet cords.

The sign outside read: “Psychic Reading $25.00.”

Arranged in the shade of the Jacaranda was a makeshift waiting room that consisted of an ashtray, an overfilled trashcan, and three white wicker chairs complimented by a floor littered with tiny purple blossoms. A lone woman with dark hair, cut in the style of Cleopatra, sat in one of those chairs. Her skin was smooth and pale, painted to perfection – dark lined eyes, plum colored lips. Foundation make-up barely masked a chain of bruises around her neck.

She crushed her cigarette into the ashtray and stood to greet Tara and Bruce. “Darlings,” she said. A swirl of purple blooms blew about her golden sandaled feet. “Are we ready for a reading?” Not a glimmer of recognition shone in her eyes, but they sparkled with a soothing welcome.

Bruce eagerly shoveled out twenty-five dollars. Then with a flip of the monkey’s quarter he was off, mumbling something about winning a barbeque.

An oscillating fan provided little relief from humidity inside the psychic’s tent. Wind chimes dangled at the doorway. Sheer red curtains decorated the windows. Though richly colored pillows covered the floor, Sonya and Tara sat in folding chairs that faced each other with a card table between them.

After tucking the cash into her bra, Sonya took Tara’s hands in her own. She closed her eyes.

“Oh dear,” she said.

“What?” Tara braced for the worst.

Sonya shook her head. “I see you’ve had your hopes dashed.” She opened her eyes and looked into Tara’s, momentarily losing herself in the yellow specks circling her client’s iris. “Something you were expecting did not come through. What is this?” She squeezed Tara’s hands.

Tara fidgeted in her seat and pulled one hand from Sonya’s. With it she tugged at her strand of pearls. Her mind drew blank. She shrugged.

“Oh, but I see,” Sonya said without losing a moment of eye contact. “You’ve also recently come into a little money from an unexpected source. Yes?”

Tara laughed. “I wish.”

“Think about it.” Sonya winked at her client. “Sometimes it’s right there in front of you.”

She released Tara’s hand and removed a tarot deck from her black velvet pouch. “Cut the cards into five stacks and arrange them in a row,” she said. Then she asked Tara which of the stacks she felt most drawn to.

For no particular reason Tara picked the center stack.

Sonya paused, looked into Tara’s eyes then attempted to catch an unnoticed glimpse of the time from her turquoise studded wristwatch. Tara noticed. An uncomfortable silence ensued before Sonya bowed her head and with her eyes closed murmured a short prayer beginning with “Dear Heavenly Father . . .” Then she proceeded to turn one card up from each stack, all but the center stack.

Swords dominated the cards. Conflict. The ace reversed, its white-gloved hand gripped tightly onto the hilt, plunging forcefully downward. Sonya read fear. Eight upright – the blindfolded woman surrounded by eight swords stabbed into the sand told of Tara’s entrapment. A knight waging forward on a white horse, his sword raised, seemed a messenger of frustrating news.

“Tell me. Why are you so fearful?” Sonya reached for Tara’s hand. “You are afraid to move without knowing the outcome. You silly girl. Darling, you are so young. Take risks.”

Then she flipped over the center card. A bolt of lightening struck a tower, set it ablaze and out of the windows tumbled a man and woman, falling through the sky. The Tower.

Sonya took in a deep breath. “Catastrophe.” She shook her head. “The foundation. Yours is cracked. A sudden and major change will occur unless you make some fundamental changes.” She spoke less stridently. “You’ve got to throw out your old habits . . . bad patterns.”

“Do you know what you’re saying?”

“Of course, darling, do you know what I’m saying?”

Tara’s eyes teared up.

Tara could deny it, but the meaning was clear. Sonya’s cards meant no more scrutinizing – no more agonizing over meaning, no more horoscopes, no more trips to the psychic. “But . . .”

“Do it.” Sonya looked sternly into her eyes. She gathered her cards together and placed them back into the pouch. Then she grabbed her cigarette case, walked back outside to the Jacaranda shaded waiting room, and lit up.

Tara found her husband waiting outside the tent his eyes glazed over. She noticed a crushed beer cup neatly stuffed into his shirt pocket.

“Hey Babe,” he said and smiled not unlike the first time they met. He had always claimed it was love at first sight. “What next?”

Tara paused and glanced over at Sonya who gave her a wink. “What next? I don’t know what next,” she said and slapped her husband in the rear. “Should be fun to find out.”

Bruce eyed his wife. Then before taking off together, he walked over to the psychic’s waiting room and chucked the crushed beer cup onto the trash bin. “See ya next year,” he said to Sonya.

“Oh, I doubt that,” Sonya said, then took a drag from her cigarette.

© Lauren D. H. Miertschin

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