Plastic banner flags attached to a string fly above my head. They hold an artificial pleasantness comparable to banana Popsicles, or blueberry muffins bought from a store; the triangular flags’ function is solely to mark off the carnivals games from the food booths. Oh, the foods — tamales, tostadas, flautas, halupki, haluski, hot dogs, French fries — all flavorful offerings to customers of discriminating taste who don’t see the women and men tucked in the kitchen cooking hot foods in the heat of the summer sizzle. I apply sauces to the flautas from the condiments table — spicy green, tangy red, cool cream colored – homemade is better when combined with the outside air. I walk into the area where games of chance are played.
Looking upward, the plastic nature of the flags contained a hidden beauty to my eyes I confess. That material which to a child adds texture and color is ignored by the festival guests who walk unaware underneath it. The markers remain unremarkable to the bifocal-eyed men lined up against the rope of the beer garden. Unimportant to all but my eyes I assume.
I watch with wonder the carnival that contains a combined crew of white-haired and sturdy church ladies and tough looking Puerto Rican men wearing yellow tees with Spanish words splashed across which I cannot read (but I recognize the rosary decal on their backs). The races mixing — Eastern European old immigrants with young Puerto Rican ones sharing a faith, a nod, a laugh. Side-by-side, the people stop to listen to the eight-piece band of aging men reliving the glory days of yesterday when their hair was long, and their futures bright. Fading into old age as ungracefully as they may, the music was the same as twenty years before. They play with skill acquired over time, where years before passion led them.
The band members take turns demonstrating the prowess, while a silver haired lady in tight spandex pants (whose black color does little to hide her girth) dances with the abandonment she must have used forty years before as a beautiful young woman, hair flowing over her back, when she danced with her sweetheart, beckoning her to come away with him. Then joining her on the grass dance floor, a Latino lady a foot taller than her middle-aged partner sways to the tunes as she leads him in the steps. I stare at his stubbly fingers and thick glasses which give away his Down Syndrome. His exuberance overcomes me; he looks as if he dances in this hour a thousand times more happily than I did in my youth. I envy him — full of joy in the middle of a sparse crowd of church going people and town folks who love the festive atmosphere on a sweaty night in August.
The man with Down Syndrome and his neighbor exit the grassy place dedicated to those too carefree to mind if the rest of us stare at the spectacle of their happiness.
A man with thin hair and a thin beard moves past the metal chairs on the other side of our table where I sit with my grown son and daughter. Following him is his companion, a woman who’s probably his age, but he looks younger somehow. He turns to us and asks, “Can we sit here?”
There are many empty chairs in the beer garden. I reply, “Sure.” The friendly nature of the carnival has made it impossible to deny such a small favor.
He replies, “I can’t face that.” He points to the band.
I nod in an almost agreement. His companion sits down across from us; her buttered pierogies contain irregular lines which is a telltale sign a hand rather than a machine created them.
The man looks as if the Flower Revolution had captured him in a time warp, but his lady wears a sensible tee shirt and shorts and looks like today’s ordinary woman. He returns with his beer in a small plastic cup. I glance and notice that a truck is facing the band and three taps are attached to the silver wall in its bed, and so the beer flows from a pick-up. He starts to talk. He’s a talker. The lady is not.
We begin a dance of questions followed by answers as the band takes a break. He’s a cook and he told us he likes beer; beer is good any day, so is weed — as he says it, he covers his mouth remembering he is at a church festival (as if the covering of the instrument of revelation might protect his admission). Not missing a beat of timing, I change the topic to address his lady and how are her pierogies? I mention my grandmother’s Pigs in the Blanket (we never called them by the polish name of halupki, but we are not Poles) were superior to the ones being served. I point out she used half pork and half beef. The man states that’s the proper way to make them for pork contains grease. He explains he learned such things in his four years in cooking school, things like adding stout beer to turkey. We become friends, and he asks me my name. His is Slim and he tells me he won’t remember mine, but it’s okay as we’ll probably never meet again anyway.
The band begins again after their break, and it’s too loud to talk to Slim and so I look across the triangle colored flags and see a young Hispanic woman full of vitality and youth walking across the grassy field. She has dark ringlets of hair long and lovely, full lips, dark eyes, and a voluptuous shape with her tube top orange dress flowing over her large breast and skimming her slight tummy. She is captivating as only someone who is unaware she is beautiful can be, and she manages to weave past the lawn chairs dotting the field and scoops up her month-old baby from a white-haired woman and kisses the child. Then the saxophone playing brings me back the table and to Slim. He is surprised that these two are my children as I suppose he thinks I look too young to have raised them. All the years of wishing to look older seems to have tilted back to wishing to be younger. But I tell him I am very near to the number of his years lived wandering this earth.
A man who looks the part of a young hippie, pink tank top, braided hair, glasses and stubbled chin, walks over to us and says my son’s name. They spent their teenage years playing music together in various places around the town. I ask him how is his little girl, and say she must now be walking instead of crawling. He replies his apartment is small and so chasing her down is easy. Those happy days of too small apartments glow inside my mind as I look at my own children sipping beer. My son gets up and faces his friend, and they converse as if his years away at college hadn’t happened as it goes when meeting an old friend.
Then it was time for me to go back to working at the games. I bid everyone good-bye. As I walk out of the beer garden, I spy some now grown neighborhood children looking the part of musicians with dreadlocks, beards, and bare feet. These were gentle kids, almost sweet little boys and I knew them well when they played music in my living room. Looking at them, I wonder if middle-aged ladies clutch their purses when the musicians pass them on the street, but yet these are the best of men I would attest.
I notice a good looking young man, shaved head, sunglasses blocking out the sun, and his lady; she’s taller, with a hooped ring hanging off of her long, upturned nose. Something about the ring doesn’t quite work, and it appears out-of-place rather than a symbol of rebellion. His demeanor is that of a movie star as he holds firmly onto her hand.
I turn my head as a flute sounds over the noise of the people sitting in lawn chairs. As I walk underneath the plastic flags, I see an artless Spanish Madonna statue that sits on a table that I pass. Still, Mary’s crayon sky blue dress and golden shiny crown have a childlike attraction to me.
For a moment, I stare at the fake and unnatural red roses placed at the foot of the statue, and I see the irregular beauty of such a Madonna. The statue is shaped into an image that a child would hold in high esteem. It’s surrounded by Christmas lights. Small white bulbs attached to a string of green remind me of the Madonna’s role at the original Christmas.
The closing of the summer is marked by a calendar of festivals, and in the oppressively hot night, I wish it was almost Christmas again.
The setting sun casts off its white light over the puffed-up cloud. Florescent brightness illuminates the sky, so clear that it looks artificial. In the clarity of the sun’s rays, I hope for the moment to last a little while longer, yearning like I did when I was young and the church festival was comforting. The fear of summer ending became the joy of seeing old friends that would continue the journey alongside me as fall brought us back from the long break. For a moment I was that girl, small and insignificant, wanting to capture with words what I saw.
Seasons drafted by the slow daily hours eventually reach the finish line. Looking back, I can’t believe the summer is over — where has time gone? Could I already lived so many days?
I must admit that my summer has been over long before. Oh, how a glance of things seems like I’ve lived a life full and fruitful. The days may be numbered, but the heart is still studying its muse. Yet I wonder if hurried others see the plastic nature of a carnival; or seeing choose to gloss it over with an artificial smile?