Rich wraps the rest of his Italian sausage in its greasy wax paper and puts it in my purse while we wait in line for the Ferris wheel.
I point at the sign. Tickets: 4. No Food or Drink.
“I’m gonna want it if we get stuck at the top,” he says.
“We’re not going to get stuck at the top.”
I count eight tickets and tear along the perforated edge. A man in a dirty Cardinals cap takes them and doesn’t say anything when I thank him. He drops the metal lap bar and locks it with a force that rattles the cage.
“St. Louis,” Rich whispers, peppers and onions on his breath. “That’s how you know these are traveling carnies.” He leans back and puts his arm around me.
When the ride operator leaves the next cage empty, Rich says, “Evening out the weight.”
The climb is lurching. Over the prize tent and past the Tilt-A-Whirl, I see my sister in her red hooded sweatshirt with the gold crescent moon, but it is not my sister because she doesn’t live here anymore and she gave that sweatshirt to Goodwill before she left for Santa Fe. I know because she let me look through the trash bags first and take what I wanted. I took this patchwork purse, which from now on will probably smell like an Italian sausage sub.
Rich’s hand finds mine and he kisses me as we crest.
We pass the Cardinals cap with each revolution. He smiles, and his crooked teeth are like Rich’s crooked teeth, are like my own. A girl loses her grip on a purple balloon. One classic rock song plays on a boom box while a cover band plays another from the stage by the beer tent. The balloon rises with us, passes us, is gone.
“It’s not like it used to be,” Rich says. “There’s barely anybody here.”
It feels true, but it’s not. There are as many people here as when we were in high school. We just don’t know them anymore.
Before Rich, I lived with my sister. When my sister left, Rich moved in and brought his cat, Nelson.
Nelson sits at the window, hissing at people as they enter and exit the pizza place across the street. Sometimes he gets out but he always comes back.
We tumble out of the cage and spend three tickets on a funnel cake. Rich has a sweet tooth. At night he likes to smoke and suck on crispy M&Ms until they tear up the roof of his mouth. He doesn’t like it when I try to trace the raw ridges with my tongue.
I let him have the middle, coated in powdered sugar. I tear off a piece from the edge and hold the dough in my mouth until it melts. It tastes like fryer oil.
We pool our money once a week. I empty my purse and pockets and organize my tips on the kitchen table in piles of ones, fives, and the odd ten. I stack the change to make dollars, two quarters and five dimes, nineteen nickels and five pennies.
Rich gets paid in twenties, fifteen of them every week. We count it all and I write the total in a notebook we keep on the microwave, then we put a chunk of it in the rent envelope and most of the rest in the grocery envelope. If it’s a bill week, we pay them together and split whatever’s left. Rich calls this shit money, because you can do shit with it.
My sister taught me how to be the banker in Monopoly. Two five hundreds, two one hundreds, two fifties, six twenties, five tens, five fives, five ones equals fifteen hundred. Fifteen hundred is what you start with, and you spend the rest of the game trying to get back to fifteen hundred.
She wanted me to come with her. We would get another place together, find jobs, cover for each other when we didn’t feel like going into work. She never said it would be easier with me there, but we both knew it would be. She didn’t know anyone in New Mexico, just knew she didn’t mind the heat.
I didn’t ask Rich if he wanted to go because I knew what he would say. He’s got friends, his cousin, a boss who needs him.
Forget about him, my sister said.
Her Monopoly strategy was to spend it all at the start. Sometimes she raked it in, but she didn’t care if she went bankrupt. She could always play again.
Rich spots his cousin X and X’s new girlfriend, whose hair is dyed a wet blue-black. We head to their picnic table.
“Want some?” X holds a glistening bag of butter-oiled popcorn under my nose. I take a handful. It’s cold.
“This place is lame,” X’s girlfriend says.
“There’s a beer tent,” I say. “They probably card, though.” I know she is not twenty-one, because X has dated teenagers for the past eight years.
X glares at me over the girl’s shoulder.
“Too bad,” she says sarcastically. “Looks like a real party.”
We all look at the beer tent. Our junior high social studies teacher holds a plastic cup that’s half foam. Rich’s boss from the auto shop distributes a round to his buddies, who wear bandanas to advertise that they ride motorcycles. It is roped off to keep the beer in and the kids out, but she’s right: it looks like a holding pen for old men.
X stands for Xavier. Me and Rich and X are the same age, but we didn’t go to high school with X. His family left, moved to Springfield to start over after his little brother fell off a roof and died. X came back when we were nineteen, his arms covered in full sleeve tattoos, clouds and doves and tombstones.
My sister had a crush on him back then. She went to his band’s shows and hung out at the mall where he worked. They had sex once, and she told me much later that he gave her a bloody nose slamming her face into the headboard.
“Let’s do bumper cars,” X says, and the girl perks up.
“Why not,” Rich says, but I hold up our remaining tickets. We have exactly eight, and we haven’t eaten any real food.
“You go,” I say. “I’ll watch.”
“No,” Rich says. “We’ll go together.”
“Two against two,” X says.
There is no line. X and his girlfriend choose a blue car. Rich picks a yellow one.
“Why don’t you drive?” Rich says. “The point is to hit things.”
“Make a move,” the ride operator calls out. He finishes a cigarette and throws the butt in the grass.
I get in the driver’s side and buckle in. Rich lowers himself in beside me. Half the cars stand empty, huddled in the corner like nesting sea turtles. The operator gives it a minute to see if anyone else is coming, then flips a switch for lights and music.
X takes off toward a wall and cuts it just in time, comes careening back toward us. I test the pedal and lurch ahead.
“There you go,” Rich says. “You got it.”
I avoid a little girl and hit her dad instead. He calls out instructions but she seems to know what she’s doing, slamming at top speed into strangers, moving on.
X is coming for us when the little girl T-bones him. He spins out, his girlfriend’s black hair whipping his face.
“Get them while they’re down,” Rich says. I turn the wheel and take aim, but X sees me coming and zips away toward the wide north corner.
He doesn’t look at us this time. He’s going after the girl. He cackles and says something to his girlfriend as he steps on the gas.
The little girl is stuck in a corner.
“Reverse!” her dad says.
“What are you doing?” Rich says as I accelerate toward her and brake at the last second, stopping between her and X. We take the impact.
“What the fuck?” X says as the power cuts out. The lights go dark and the music winds down like a dying toy.
The girl climbs out over our car. She smiles at her dad and says, “Did you see me?”
“Rematch,” X says.
“We’re out of tickets,” I say.
“Get more,” X says.
I bought the tickets with my shit money. I give Rich a look that says if he wants more tickets, he’ll have to use his shit money.
“One more ride,” Rich says. He pats his back pocket, one side then the other. “Wait. My wallet is gone.”
Rich jokes sometimes, but I can tell this isn’t one by the way his eyes dart clockwise as he backtracks through the afternoon.
“Maybe it fell out in the bumper car,” I say.
We look back at the ride, which has started up again.
“She’s right,” X says. He never uses my name. “It’s probably in the car.”
If my sister were here, I would bet that she took the wallet. She is good at making things disappear. When we were kids, she always wanted to trade places and trick people, but I didn’t like to pretend I was someone else. When we were in high school, she did it behind my back, let teachers think she was me when they caught her smoking next to the gym, showed up at my job when I wasn’t working and hung around with my coworkers, ate the free fries and picked up my paycheck.
It’s not lying if people make assumptions, she said. Just don’t correct them. You can be me if you want, she said.
We stand at the bars that separate us from the drivers and watch a group of high schoolers ricochet off one another. Rich tracks the boy in the yellow car. When the boy is close enough, Rich calls to him about the wallet, but the boy doesn’t hear.
The boy is puny and has cystic acne. We watch him forget himself. He guns it and laughs. He evades his friends, then allows himself to be crashed into and laughs again.
“Hey kid,” Rich says when the music cuts out. “Is there a wallet?” Rich mimes. “On the seat?”
The boy looks around and says, “Sorry, man.”
“I bet he took it,” X says quietly.
I don’t want a fight. “Let’s check the Ferris wheel.”
The grass is trampled. The week after the fair leaves, it always looks tragic. The grass can breathe again but it stays down, knocked out, and then it snows. It grows back in the spring, but never lush or tall like other fields. It’s like it knows the fair is coming.
We march over to the man in the Cardinals cap. He pulls the lever that starts the Ferris wheel turning and looks down at us.
“Get in line,” he says.
“Hey man, have you found a wallet?” Rich says. “In one of the cages?”
“Get in line.”
Rich moves toward the back of the line, but X stays put.
“We just have a question,” X shouts over the music. “We’re not trying to ride.”
The ride operator ignores him.
“We’re not trying to ride your idiotic ride.” X kicks the side of the metal steps. “You took it, didn’t you?”
The ride operator assesses X. X is tall but skinny and the ride operator must think he can take him because he stops the ride and descends the steps.
The people in the cages peer down at us. They are stuck. A man at the very top shouts, but I can’t hear what.
“Are you accusing me of something?” the man in the Cardinals cap says.
Rich tries to put himself between the man and X, but X pushes Rich out of the way.
“X,” X’s girlfriend says.
“Yeah, I am,” X says. “You stole my cousin’s wallet.”
“Listen,” Rich says. “It probably just fell out in the cage, we just want to check.”
“You listen,” the man says, but he is looking at X. “I don’t like being accused of things I didn’t do.”
I will myself to be more like my sister, who knows how to take control of a situation. If something is going down that my sister doesn’t like, she puts a stop to it.
That’s when I see her again. Her red sweatshirt with the gold moon. Her dark ponytail, her hoop earrings. I know it’s her by the way her jeans look from the back, how the seams strain at her thighs. Her tiny feet, in the white sneakers we used to share.
“It wasn’t him!” I scream at X.
Everyone looks at me. X, X’s girlfriend, Rich. The man in the Cardinals cap, the crowd that’s gathered around. The people waiting in the cages.
“I know who it was,” I say. I point past the crowd, between the truck selling too-sweet lemonade and the ticket booth. “It was her.”
They all look. Nobody seems to see her, and now I have lost her again.
I take off, Rich running behind me. I don’t look back to see if X or his girlfriend are following us, but after a moment the Ferris wheel starts up again and all the people in the cages cheer.
I scan every person for a sign of her, suck in air searching for her scent. I reach out to touch a red hoodie, but it is not her. It is a boy with a stuffed gorilla and a mouth stained cotton-candy blue.
We stop at the ticket booth, out of breath. “What did she look like?” Rich says.
I turn in a circle, trying to orient myself toward the gold shimmer moon. “Like me,” I say.
The real moon is full in the sky, but the sun has not yet set. Rich and I walk the fairgrounds, looking in the grass for his wallet.
“I wish we had tickets for a drink,” he says.
I’ve still got shit money, enough shit money for a lemonade or a large pop. I open my purse and dig past Rich’s sandwich, which has leaked meat juice on the fabric.
There, under the Italian sausage, there it is. Its dark leather is incongruous with the ivory quilting and delicate stitch work.
I close my purse and fasten all the snaps.
“What are you in the mood for?” I say. “I’m buying.”