That summer I worked in a large Pepsi can selling sodas at the state fair. There was only room for me, the equipment, a leaning stack of cups and a bunch of bees. A stool where I sat pouring sodas all day, well into the night. Kids got drunk and tried to tip me over in the can. Once I got stung on the webbing between my fingers. And that’s about all that happened, except I made close to a thousand dollars in just three days.
I was barely 15 and didn’t have luxurious tastes. I bought James Bond paperbacks and Dungeons & Dragons figurines. I wasn’t into drinking or drugs and didn’t have a girlfriend so I bought IZOD shirts and corduroy shorts and then all my money was gone.
My friends in the other cans made more than me, they took some off the top. It was easy because everything was in cash, there were no sales records. The guy owned several cans and came by periodically to take all the cash. I guess I could have been robbed, working alone with all that money. Still it didn’t feel right stealing from the guy who gave me work. I’d learned my lesson on stealing before. And I’d never do it again, not until I started that job at the drug store. And learned how much men’s razors, condoms and blank cassettes really cost.
Working at the fair spoiled the magic of going there for fun. I was in the food court in the thick of it with the grease and fried funnel cakes. The lights and sounds of games, people screaming on rides. The sense that everything was coated in a greasy film, the ground oily and gray.
I didn’t have a girlfriend then but wanted one badly. And that’s where I met Sara Kearney, whose family owned a stand and traveled around setting up shop in rinky-dink towns like ours. I didn’t know the word carny back then either, so it’s funny Sara’s last name was Kearney. But I did know the Fleetwood Mac song Sara, and I was ready to drown in the sea of love. Where everyone would love to drown.
Sara came by my can for the first time and gave me a look I hadn’t seen before, like she was trying to do telepathy on me or put me in a spell. She had her hair tied back in a bun but some of it spilled on her cheeks and got in her eyes. She brushed it away and seemed self-conscious about how she looked, pretty in a way that didn’t need make-up. She was sweaty and plain-looking. But when I watched her walk away through the crowd and look back at me, I was in love.
I started popping by Sara’s stand on break. The guy who owned the cans came by every few hours to let me go pee or walk around. Sara’s parents had a game with a bunch of bottles on a table where you tossed plastic rings and tried to get them around the necks. She recognized me and offered me a free round. She laughed and teased me. She asked if I was from around here and what grade I was in. I wasn’t skilled at that kind of talk but it’s like riding a bike, you just get on and start wobbling down the street.
Later that night I found myself in the bleachers at the football stadium with Sara’s tongue in my ear and my hands on her hips. She wore the same pair of jeans every day, I could tell by the aspect of the holes. But unlike the other girls in my school who wore ripped-up jeans, Sara came by hers honestly.
It was the last day of the fair and that meant Sara would be off to the next town, so we made plans to see each other at the end of the night and share phone numbers. But when it was time to meet Sara wasn’t there, and I knew she wouldn’t be, trading phone numbers didn’t make sense anyway. It’s like we knew what we were supposed to do but saw the uselessness in it. And part of me wished I hadn’t even met her.
But I did have a note she’d put in my hand that first time I visited her stand. It was just a scrap of paper and she’d written in pencil, Your cute in that can! I hope we CAN meet sometime!!! It made me smile, she came through on the paper somehow. With a little smily face that meant she liked me by the way she drew the eyes as hearts.
I didn’t know anything about anything back then. I was lost in my James Bond novels and D&D campaigns drawing maps on graph paper. Dreaming about being with a girl and some day growing up, getting out. Following those voices on the radio as they lifted me up and drew me to a place you imagine only exists for grown-ups. A place called experience.
We heard hints of something real in those songs about love and wanted to go there. Even for all the loss and wisdom it would bring. The heartache it seemed was part of the whole thing and that’s what they were singing about. You could have it but you’d lose it too.