After the sun finished setting and Sam’s brother’s friends showed up stoned and Sam’s brother peeled fifty dollars out of his fanny pack for the both of them and Sam’s mother gave them free admission tokens to the fair, telling them about the tiger show, and the lightning bugs really started blinking a lot out in the field behind Sam’s family’s muffler shop where they parked cars all day in the sun, Sam and Chester waited on the side of the highway for the traffic control officer to hold the line of traffic and let the two of them cross the highway. Clay Walker or somebody else was singing at the bandstand.
Full night fell on the state fair and all that neon and barbecue smoke and fry steam and cigarette smoke and generator fume and wood smoke caught in the humid mid August West Virginia haze. Shadows beamed across the highways from either side of the fairgrounds and crisscrossed over walkways, fractured over gyro stands and funnel cake stands and Dunk Bobo the Clown. You might not expect it but once you skip through the fairground and out the other side and over the highway after waiting for the other traffic control officer to hold the line of traffic, and through the overnight campground bypassing all of the Airstreams and Winnebagos and campfires and generators and headlights and domelights and flashlights, all the howdys and fuck yous, all the way up on the hill by where the elementary school used to be, where they’re building a new Wal-Mart for this side of town, sometimes it’s not laughter and gasoline engines you hear. Up above the shit, you can hear the bugs and the birds, a bobcat if you’re luckier than everyone else.
After they put the overnight campground between them and the fair, and the fair between them and their families, they ran.
The air was muggy and thick and close to the skin. Chester pulled off his shirt and tossed it in the air and howled. Sam slapped Chester’s belly. Mosquitoes rose from oozy pools all around the construction site, following the smell of sweat. Sam parted her hair with her hands. It was oily, and slick with sweat it clung to her face. They were sixteen.
“Chester, wanna know what?” She hooked her thumbs under her spaghetti straps. She stretched them out and let them snap back onto her chest. “I love summer.”
She pulled an old 7-11 thermos from her backpack. Her backpack said “SAM” on the front. She twisted off the lid and took a drink. Sticky red fruit wine dribbled out the corners of her mouth and ran down her neck.
“Aw shit,” she said. “I ruined my fuckin shirt.”
“I remember my first time too,” Chester said. “It was very romantic.” He reached for the thermos. Sam punched him.
“Looks like you’re probably going to have to take it off now,” he said, like it was the cleverest thing in the world.
Making fruit wine was Sam’s father’s hobby. It was an old family recipe. It was thick and more like strawberry syrup than wine. She squirted a long stream at Chester through her teeth. It fell like rope, a long red stripe down the front of her shirt.
“What do you know,” Sam said. She made a face.
Chester puffed up his chest. His stomach was flat and strong. He had an outie. Sam stood beside him. In one direction, they watched cigarette lighters blink in the dark fields where people kissed in parked cars. They watched lights flip on and off in RVs. They stared into the heart of the great psychedelic haze above the fair itself. The Zipper was bright purple neon. The Orbiter was a mess of greens and yellows chasing circles. The Pharaoh’s Fury was yellow, and bigger than all the rest except for the Big Wheel, the Giant Wheel and the Dutch Wheel. The Dutch Wheel stood higher than everything else at the fair and glowed and blinked in whites and reds and blues. People were screaming for Clay Walker and John Michael Montgomery.
John Michael Montgomery was butchering The Grundy County Auction and because when John Michael Montgomery butchers anything for free in your hometown, you go watch. They both hated that song. Of course by the time they made it back down the hill and back across the camper lot and back into the fairgrounds and across the fair to the fence and gate closing off the bandstand, John Michael was just holding his guitar and touching hands with people in the front row and hopping around. Chester guessed he would play his version of I Can Love You Like That, but Sam figured if he opened with Grundy County he was saving the real cheese for the end of the show.
They went and stood by the Dutch Wheel for a while. Sam bought a funnel cake with whipped cream, powdered sugar, chocolate syrup and sprinkles. Bobo the Clown called Chester a little big ear boy and goat wrestler. Sam called Chester a little big ear boy and a goat wrestler. A girl scout in uniform sunk Bobo’s ass on her first throw. Chester bought a lemonade and mixed in some of the wine. It wasn’t very good. Sam and Chester leaned on each other. When the girl scout sunk Bobo a second time, he said into the microphone that he was going to tell all the little ugly boys at school that she liked them.
Through the mud and hay between stands and stalls they wound their way on the edges of the crowd through families and dates and cliques. When they saw Sam’s brother and Sam’s brother’s friends, they ducked behind the FFA pavilion doors. They crossed the highway back toward the camper lot again.
“When does your brother get out?”
Chester stood with shoulders back and neck straight. He took a long and very manly pull from the thermos, and gagged on it.
“He goes before the judge in two weeks,” he said.
An American flag flapped colorlessly in the wind atop a crane. The crane wasn’t even as tall as the Pharaoh’s Fury.
Sam sat down on the dirt and tipped the thermos to her mouth. She drank, filled her cheeks and swished it around. Some of it squished back out between her lips, and she put her hands to her face again. It dribbled down her neck again. Then she laughed and rest came out.
“You’re so fucked,” Chester said and he sat down beside her. Sam pushed the wine at him and he took a big gulp. He squirted some, more than he meant to, at her chest. He watched it run down between her little kid’s tits and stain her tank top. Fast, he looked away. For some reason he said, “Payback.” She cussed him anyway. Her fingers made little sounds sticking and unsticking to wine and skin. She yanked her shirt off and twisted the wine out of it, swatted at the air with it.
“Why don’t we do this more often?” she said. “I mean, the greater we, not just you and me we. But you and me too, I guess.” She leaned back on her elbows and let her head hang back like deadweight. She pushed her chest up. “Fuck the fair. If I was boss, I would get the fair set up and make it real smoky and foggy and spooky like it is right now but not let anyone in and instead charge fuckin admission to come up here and sit. That would be somethin to see.”
Chester was quiet. She looked at him. His face was funny.
“Chester, close your mouth. Isn’t like it’s the first time you’ve seen me naked.”
“Uh,” Chester said. He was looking away. “Ain’t polite.” He tried to look away more than he already was.
“What, you or me?”
Like a lot of girls in their grade that year, Sam was wearing a glitter-filled fragrance spray from the mall. Even though the fragrance had worn off there was still glitter all over her skin. Chester noticed how it sparkled on her chest even now with so little light, and he noticed how sweat and wine had moved the glitter like sediment at the end of a river, shaping shiny thin lines around the curves of her body.
“Since when are you polite?”
“Since when do you have titties?” was all he could say.
Sam fell onto her back and flopped out her arms. She made a sound like UGH.
She said, “Hello, all women have titties, man, fuck. Look all you want, I don’t care. It’s just skin.”
And then she added a little quieter, “Anyways, these are real small, so, fuckin proportionally speaking, you’re only being a little un-polite.”
Chester fell onto his back too.
“I never seen them on a real girl before.”
Sam busted into laughing.
“Well where else would you see them? Goddam, Chester.”
They both sat back up and looked at each other. Chester said, “You know what I mean.”
Now they both busted out laughing. Sam punched Chester in the arm, lighter this time. Sam played softball and could punch like a boy, which is what boys always told her. She looked at his belly and his pants were pulled low and she looked at the hair growing in a line from his bellybutton.
She said, “I don’t care if you look at my tits. They’re mine, and I don’t care if you see them, so look all you want. I give you permission because I like them a lot and I like you liking them. So.”
She looked around for the wine thermos. It took her a minute to find it. She drank and shoved it at Chester. He tried to talk and drink at the same time.
“No I don’t, no I don’t,” he said, he tried to say through a mouthful.
She said, “What the fuck.”
She said, “What about that tent in your jeans?”
Chester laughed and pulled up his knees. “Fuck.”
Sam pointed at the wine in Chester’s hand.
“Catch up, little big ear boy.” She shot up and walked over to a silent front end loader behind where they were sitting. She climbed into the driver’s seat and pulled down her pants and pissed on it. When she returned Chester was sitting up, staring down the hill. She put her hand on his shoulder.
“Anyway I don’t know what we’re supposed to do or what is going to happen,” he said, looking out at the lights. “Do you think the judge will release him?”
The air in the hills got thicker. Sam shivered. Chester’s nipples stood out.
Chester said, “It’s gonna rain.”
“Let’s go swimming,” said Sam.
Now they picked their way across the construction site and the lights from the fairground and the campground were more than muted. Some of the lights stretched out in long orange and yellow fingers through the cloud, like sunbeams underwater. Behind the maw of the Wal-Mart foundation there was a little path down this side of the hill to the river, where there was a little kayak and canoe boat launch. Sam and Chester stood nude as angels on the edge of the river where it lapped at the banks. Their toes were just behind the waterline. She turned around and bent to jam their clothes into her backpack, then tossed it away. She ran at a dead sprint into the river. She dove a shallow dive, and then popped up and hollered. She tossed her hair back. Her white skin was blue where the moonlight hit it.
“Quit looking at my pecker!” Chester hollered at her. And then, “Is it cold?”
She just yelled “HA!” and dove backward in response. He followed her in and dunked himself.
“Either it’s warmer in here than it is out there, or I’m drunk.”
“You’re drunk,” said Sam, and they paddled out to where they had to tread water to stay above the surface. Chester floated on his back. Sam went under and swam beneath him.
“This is kind of like when our parents used to wash us together,” she said. “Except now we’re drunk.”
“Yeah, sure, that’s the difference.”
They were treading water together. Sam’s foot bumped Chester’s leg. Chester bumped Sam’s leg with his foot.
She said, “You got mean toenails, man.”
“Sorry,” he said.
He bumped her hand with his hand. She dove under the surface and her ass broke the surface. She splashed the water with her feet.
He said, “You mooned me.”
She said, “I opened my eyes underwater, but I couldn’t see anything.”
He said, “Aw goddamn it.”
She said, “Lil big ear boy’s littlest ear gone and sucked up into his belly?”
He said, “What the fuck” and “No” and “Maybe” and “I mean yes, obviously” and “It’s just dark.”
He kicked his feet in her face and floated up on his back. His penis was swollen sort of and floated on top of the water in a silly way. Sam laughed.
“It’s so hairy.”
“What, like you ain’t?”
He paddled toward her and reached his hand out. She yelled and turned away, splashed his face.
“Like you’ll ever know!” She laughed and swam and laughed and dove. She surfaced and rubbed the water from her eyes. “Sure wish we had more to drink.”
Chester yelled and dove and reached again, and this time palmed her lower belly. He felt a little stubble where his pinky touched lowest.
She said, “Chester,” and wasn’t laughing. “I don’t think I wanna do that.” She treaded a little away from him now.
He said, “Oh.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “What did I do?”
“I don’t know. Nothing. Just don’t.”
“I thought you liked me seeing you.”
“You ain’t seeing right now.”
“I’m sorry, Sam.”
“Don’t be. It was just that shitty basement wine.”
They sat on the grassy bank, clothes clinging to their wet bodies, watching the river flow. A few raindrops splashed on the surface, tiny dimples rushed away downstream. Neither of them bothered to point out that it was going to rain.
“Who did you get all shaved down there for?”
“No one,” she said. “For me. I don’t know.”
“Well if you don’t shave for anyone why do you shave at all?”
“Because I felt like it, Chester.”
“You can tell me who, I won’t care.”
“No one. I don’t know, Chester. Just for me, I wanted to. Why do you care? Why does it make you mad?”
“I’m not mad. I’m just trying to understand why you would do something like that then, that’s all.”
“You don’t have to understand. I don’t have to explain it.”
“I thought if you actually cared about our friendship, you’d want to explain things to me.”
“Have you ever had sex with anyone?”
“Let’s talk about this kind of stuff some other time.”
“So you have?”
“No. No. I don’t know.”
“You don’t know if you’ve had sex or not?”
“I don’t know. I’m just so fucking stupid. Fuck, Sam. I’m sorry.”
“You’re not stupid – ”
“You said I was.”
“No I didn’t. This isn’t my fault.”
“Oh, okay. So it’s mine? Okay.”
“It’s – ”
Chester jumped up and turned away. He walked over to the Sam’s backpack and emptied it, grabbing his clothes and tossing hers to the side.
“I don’t fucking get you anymore.” His voice cracked.
“What, are you just going to walk home by yourself in the rain?”
“Yes. I don’t know. No. Let’s go. Let’s get out of here. Don’t worry, I won’t look at you.”
“Chester, you’re not being fair.”
There were only a few hours between them and dawn, and in the morning the sun would burn off the clouds that remained, and the morning mists and dews. The fair would start up. They would ride their bikes from their homes to Sam’s family’s muffler shop where they will park cars all day in the hot sun, where Sam’s brother’s friends will show up stoned and Chester’s brother will still be far away and Sam’s brother will peel bills out for them at the end of the day, where the lightning bugs will blink and dance among the Outbacks and the Silverados and F-150s parked in the field.
They walked the distance up the hill and down the hill and back through the RV campground, across the highway where the traffic control officer had long since gone home, past the Mexican kids shuttering funnel cake stands and gyro stands for the night, past dark and empty admission booths, and across the highway where the other traffic control officer had long since gone home too. The rain was really coming down now. It drummed on everything.
Low orange light buzzed from the sodium lamps along the highway and from the floodlights on the side of Sam’s family’s muffler shop. The lights did little in the rain. They picked up their bicycles and Sam walked up the street on the side her house was on and Chester walked up the street on the side his house was on.
Have you ever heard a bobcat at night? They sound like screaming banshees.
The next day the tiger show was cancelled. Apparently the night before some boys had snuck in to play Touch The Tiger, Take A Drink. The tiger thought her cubs were being threatened and swatted one of the boys and got another one’s leg in her mouth and whipped him around a bit. A man, maybe one of the FFA dads, was carrying a gun and shot the mother tiger. One of the cubs got loose and ran out into the rain and started to cross the highway. Had it gotten to the overnight campground, it would have likely panicked, but if it had gotten to the hill and up and over and down to the river, it would have been free. It would have been free but a man shot it too.