from the book 642 Things to Write About:
Describe five memories—events you remember really well. Then take one of them further.
1) My mother taking me to a carnival on a random cloudy day.
2) Kara likes my shirt.
3) Walking with Caleb and Charli.
4) Getting laid off, twice.
5) Buying comics with Scott
I remember my mother taking me to the carnival one random cloudy fall day. I don’t remember seeing any other people there. We rode a few rides and a guy who ran one of the games kept trying to get us to play one. He showed us how to beat it, but I was maybe 8 or 9, NOT athletic or confident in my abilities at all, and I just wanted to ride the scrambler again. This guy, however, wanted in my mother’s pants. She wasn’t having it, she just wanted to take her kid to the carnival. We didn’t have much back then, so a random day of fun like that went a long way and I wonder sometimes about her motivations for that day. I believe she just wanted to take her kid out for some fun.
But what if…?
“Pulling Her Weight”
The autumn wind wrapped around the boy as soon he got out of the car, a beat-up old VW Bug that hadn’t had a muffler in years and sounded more like a Harley when it passed by than a piece of German engineering.
The carnival had been set up in an empty lot next to a Wendy’s, and all around, the boy marveled at the bright, colorful rides with their flashing lights and spinning cars.
Mother paid for a string of tickets and asked the boy “Where to first?”
He pointed to the Scrambler and together they were whirled around in Spirograph-like circles, the boy laughing as the machine went faster and faster for a too-brief moment, before slowing and letting them off.
He ran around to the entrance again and Mother gave the ticket-taker another bundle of red cardboard to let them back on.
If the boy noticed they were the only two there that day, it didn’t register consciously. He was just happy to be out on a random day, enjoying carnival rides with his mother.
It wasn’t often they got to do things like this together. Most of the boy’s days were spent in school where he was part of a split third/fourth grade class in yet another new school, the fourth one in four years. And now here he was again, after yet another move, and another new school.
He’d started in kindergarten, he and Mother living with her boyfriend, but the boyfriend was abusive, and Mother had reached the end of her rope. School number two was when they were living with Uncle Jed, then the next year he and Mother had their own place, this time with Aunt Trudy.
He didn’t know why they had moved out of that place; he was only seven and such things were beyond the limits of his worldview. All he knew was that now they lived with his grandparents in a one-bedroom house down the street from school number four. Moving so often, the boy didn’t make friends easily, finding it better to entertain himself, so he was perfectly content to ride the rides with Mother, the only constant in his life up to that point.
There had been a brief period earlier in the year, the summer before third grade, when Mother was dating a man who lived on a farm and the boy had spent a few days there alone with him. He’d watched the man build a shelter for his pigs, and the boy remembered seeing one of those pigs, dead, half-eaten by a coyote.
Another time, he remembered spending the night with his grandfather, who wasn’t really his grandfather, but he and Grandma had been together since before the boy was born, so as far as the world was concerned, he was Grandpa. Grandpa had a farm just outside of town, not near as big or as impressive as the other farm. He and Grandpa had stayed up late watching horror movies and the next day, the boy helped Grandpa plant seeds in the garden.
He remembered Grandpa and Mother arguing the day before. Grandpa said something about Mother not pulling her weight, but the boy thought that was weird because Mother wasn’t fat.
Mother said she was broke, but that was weird, too, because she seemed fine to the boy.
Grandma said she should have thought of that before she spread her legs.
The boy had seen his mother exercising once and she had spread her legs while doing stretches, but he didn’t see a problem with that.
After he had helped Grandpa in the garden, things calmed down. He would come home from school and do his homework in the kitchen, then play outside until it was time to eat dinner. At the end of the day, Grandma and Grandpa went to bed while Mother unfolded their bed from the couch and they went to bed, too.
Life fell into a dull rhythm. School, play, eat, bed. Over and over with no break in the routine until this cold autumn day in the empty lot next to the Wendy’s.
After the Scrambler, they headed to another ride, the Tilt-a-Whirl, but a man who operated the basketball game called them over. “Make a basket and win a prize,” he said.
The boy wasn’t interested, he just wanted to spin around as fast as he could. But the barker was persistent, and Mother stopped.
The object was to toss a ball into a basket. If it stayed in, you won. If it bounced out, you lost. He showed them how easy it was, making several baskets in a row and telling them exactly where to aim. The boy had to admit, he did like the look of the stuffed animals along the wall. He nodded and smiled, thinking this was going to be an easy win, then he could get back to the rides, this time with a new friend beside him.
Mother handed the man a dollar, and the man handed the boy the ball.
He shot, aiming for the spot in the basket where the man had showed them. The ball went in, then bounced back out and fell to the cold autumn ground.
The boy wanted to cry. He’d aimed for the right spot, why hadn’t it stayed in? He and his mother walked away from the game, the boy thinking how much he wanted that stuffed animal, and feeling bad he had made his mother waste a dollar when he knew how few of them she had.
He asked how many tickets they had left, and Mother said, “Enough for three more rides.”
He scanned the carnival, trying to decide which three he wanted to ride. They still hadn’t made it to the Tilt-a-Whirl, so that was next. The Octopus scared him, so that was out. He didn’t see a lot of other rides that looked like something he would enjoy, so maybe the Tilt-a-Whirl again and then the Scrambler one more time? But if they went back to the Scrambler, they would have to pass the games and he didn’t want to look at the games again.
After they rode the Tilt-a-Whirl for the third time, he noticed Mother was crying and he didn’t know why; they were having a great day.
“What’s wrong, Mama,” he asked.
“Nothing,” she said, sniffling and wiping her eyes. “I’m ok. I promise.”
“But you’re crying.”
“I’m fine,” she said. “I promise.”
“Is it time to go home now?” he said, looking at her empty hand where the tickets had been.
“Not just yet,” Mother said. “Are you having fun?”
“You like it here?”
“I love it here. Well, the rides anyway. I don’t like the games so much.”
Mother was definitely crying, no matter how much she tried to wipe away the tears. He wished he knew what she was so sad about.
“How would you like to stay and ride some more?”
“Can I? But we already used the tickets.”
“Well, how about this,” she said and wiped more tears from her face. “How about … you help them out with some stuff they need help with, and they’ll let you ride as many rides as you want.”
“Really?” the boy said, smiling wide, but not wanting to seem too happy with Mother crying like this.
A man appeared at the boy’s side, and he looked up and saw it was the man from the cheating basketball game. The man put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and Mother said, “You’re gonna go with him and I’ll be back later to get you, okay?”
“Um … okay, Mama. Don’t forget.”
“I won’t,” Mother said. Before leading the boy away, the basketball man shook Mother’s hand and the boy watched him stuff a wad of money into it and that made Mother cry even harder. She cried so hard she had to run away and the boy watched her go, wondering how long he had to help out before he could get back on the rides.