I sat on the edge of the big leather sofa, leaning on the armrest, and peering into the glowing tank. The fish were bright as the ripest oranges, with black-and-white splotches that extended all the way into their pectoral fins and tails. I sat still in the deep red-leather, watching them swim aimlessly and without much grace through the crystalline water – a world between six glass walls. Suspended and free from any danger, except not being fed, they opened and closed their mouths – pointlessly, I decided.

Paul Wong
Photo Illustration by EMMA FOSDICK/Daily

When my friend Brian came bounding down the stairs, the water trembled briefly, but the fish didn’t seem to notice.

“Ready to go, Chris?”

“Sure.”

We started across the athletic field behind his house, toward the elementary school we’d just graduated from. I kicked dandelions with the toes of my old basketball shoes. The late August sun was beating down and I was glad I’d worn shorts, though I was dying to wear the new jeans I’d gotten to start seventh grade with. Our first day of junior high was only three days away.

“Folger called. He said there’ll be some eighth grade chicks there today.”

“Oh yeah?” I said, only half hearing him.

“Like, it sucks that we have to go back to school and all, but it’s going to be so much more fun.”

I looked up and saw a bell tower in the distance. It was nestled in green leaves above the roofline of Clarence Center Elementary. “Yeah, it’s going to be different, I guess.”

“I think my mom’s gonna to take me to the mall again tomorrow to get the new Nike Air-Max’s.” I had gotten the same shoes a week ago. They were still in the box at home, waiting for junior high. Their price tag read: $120.00.

Traffic was busy on Clarence Center Road, which we crossed and headed west towards the fire station. This distance – from the school to the station – had been described to me as a quarter of a mile, and I have compared every similar distance to it ever since. As we walked, I kicked some stones and wondered if I could kick a single stone a full quarter of a mile. I lost interest as we crossed Goodrich Road and turned left down a path toward the fairgrounds behind the old brick fire station. Familiar sounds could be heard from quite a distance – the electric whir of the shoddy-looking carnival equipment and the bark of a VFW man reading off bingo numbers. Tall bur oaks grew along the path between two pavilions that were being used to barbeque chicken, and the spicy smoke swirled beneath the canopy.

To our right several booths were selling crappy-looking jewelry and knockoff designer sunglasses. Some kids from school were crowded around the booths. These “dirty kids” – that’s what we called them at school – wore sweats and oversized T-shirts, and their sneakers weren’t the coolest.

A few of them rode my bus. Casey Jamison and Kevin Cofta – they lived in shitty-looking houses outside of town. Through the bus window I saw junk cars in their small, gravel driveways and garbage in their yards. Behind Casey’s house was a chain-link cage full of dogs that were always barking. From behind the glass I watched Casey and Kevin disappear in the distance as the bus pulled away. I’d never talked to them. Now they glared at me as Brian and I pretended they weren’t there and headed onto the small midway of the annual Labor Day Fair.

The grass was all matted down in the outfield of the diamond where we played little league ball in the summer. The crews had been busy overnight hauling in the games and putting up the rides that would entertain us into our last night of summer. Trailers were open on the side and the carnival workers beckoned us to shoot targets or toss rings around bottle necks. The faces of the men and women were sullen, and some pocked with years of acne scars, and many had deep purple circles under their eyes. Their sinister voices tried to reach into our pockets and pull out all the single dollar bills we’d saved to buy peel-off lottery cards and tickets for the rides.

As we wandered by the games, Brian and I could probably have been mistaken for brothers. Our strides were even and confident, except when I stopped to whallop another dandelion with my toe; our faces and forearms were tan from a summer of riding our bikes to far-off lakes to go fishing and jump off limestone cliffs. We wore our Gus Macker T-shirts and fitted baseball caps – Indiana Hoosiers and the Boston Red Sox. The one difference is I wore the all-red Sox cap backwards, looking a bit younger and more defiant, but really just because it was molded to my head from being worn that way a thousand times.

“Win your mini-basketballs here, boys,” a man called. His mouth was small and black, and I could see he was missing two front teeth in the upper row. We kept walking.

“Let’s get some tear-off cards,” Brian said, ignoring the toothless man’s offer. Brian’s voice was phlegmy, like his nose was stuffed-up, probably from the allergies he suffered in the summertime.

“Yeah, good idea. These games all suck anyways.” Really I just wanted to get away from the shouts of the gamers.

The ground around the lottery booth was littered with thousands of tear-off cards. They fluttered like fallen leaves around the feet of about a dozen people standing around talking and tearing off little strips – trying to match five lemons, five stars, or five yellow birds. At the next booth over, a fat guy and a few younger kids were bending way over the counter tossing ping pong balls into mini fish bowls, trying to win those pet-for-a-day goldfish and I watched them struggle with the weightless balls while Brian paid for our cards. We each got three for five bucks, hoping to win back enough cash to recycle into another round. Brian’s first tear yielded five lemons – a top prize of twenty dollars. I came up fruitless on all three and tossed them to the ground where their strips caught and grabbed the dozens of other losers people had dropped.

Brian collected his prize money amongst a cheer of onlookers, and I turned again to the goldfish booth, where an old man was now helping his grandson throw the ping pong balls across the red vinyl counter towards the little bowls filled with cellophane. The man and the boy got one in, and the attendant handed them a plastic bag, rubber-banded at the top and bloated with air, a little faded goldfish suspended within.

I decided it was time to buy our tickets, so we could get the rides over with before the demolition derby and so Brian would shut the hell up about his twenty bucks. We decided to buy bracelets that would allow us to ride all the rides as many times as we wanted before the derby started. The guy snapped a green one on Brian’s wrist, and I protested when he gave me one that was pink and yellow. He just sat back in his booth, retreating into a shadow so I could only see his chin jutting out in the light of the window; it looked like a bright evil grin hanging in the dark.

I caught up to Brian just as he got in line for the Egg Roll – a Ferris wheel with enclosed compartments. Each “egg” spun its occupants in a counter direction while the main wheel circulated in time with the rock n’ roll that blared from a loudspeaker. We waited about ten minutes, and I wiped the sweat away from my face with the back of my wrist, leaving a wet streak across the skin.

Waiting in line sucked. The heat made me tired and I was covered in carnival dust. I felt like going home and taking a shower, but that would mean missing the derby. A boy ran by dangling a goldfish bag from his fist and I followed it until he disappeared into the crowd. My head was beginning to hurt from standing by the Egg Roll’s giant speaker.

“What the hell is this music?” I asked Brian, but he didn’t hear me. He was distracted.

“Hey, did you see those girls over there? They’re eighth graders. That one with the curly hair is Becky Davis. Did you see her tits?” He was shouting in my ear and making my head hurt more.

“Uh huh.”

I was yawned and thought about that goldfish the kid and his grandfather won, how it must be wandering around the fair with its captors, getting set on the table sideways while they eat their barbeque with barely an inch of water to swim around in.

When we finally got on the ride it took us up and down and tumbled us as if we were in a washing machine. A cross bar in front of us with a steel ring welded to it allowed any rider to spin his compartment either forwards or back. Brian took the control and, as the ride progressed, he clung to the ring and pulled back and forth on it like a zoo-kept monkey that’s stuck in a repetitious trance. I looked ahead, shocked by the feeling that must have been closest to how that pathetic little goldfish felt. The creaking machine terrified me, and I felt helpless within the swiveling pod. I was happy when it jolted to a stop.

The rest of the day progressed in much the same way: wait in line and hop on another ride, play a game in between and let the carnival take the money we’d earned mowing grass or just being spoiled. From the top of the Ferris wheel, we threw bingo balls at passersby, and we snuck a beer from the big tent amidst a bunch of unsuspecting adults. Brian drank his half in four small sips, and I downed the rest with one long pull and felt a little drunk. Brian kept pointing out this group of eighth-grade girls, and I admit, they were attractive – they piqued my interest – but I was still wrapped up in the idea of the goldfish and its helplessness.

Then my mind drifted away to the idea of starting junior high on Wednesday. I couldn’t be sure what junior high meant, other than having twice as many teachers, a locker and four-times as many kids in my class. Not to mention that these eighth grade girls would be everywhere with their breasts and their “tight asses,” as Brian kept saying. He finally got to the point that he’d yell out one of their names and they’d laugh and send back a tantalizing wave, then walk on as if they’d suddenly forgotten him. It didn’t seem that great to me.

We finally caught up with the group of girls on the Sidewinder – a tall ride that resembled two swinging hammers, now lit up in blue neon against the darkening sky. I looked across the steel mesh cage of our compartment at the girls, giggling and pointing back at us, calling Brian names like “loverboy” and “sexy.” Becky Davis was very cute; she had a mouth full of braces wrapped in chartreuse rubber bands and a freckled face framed in curly, dusty-brown hair. Her pupils were surrounded by cool-colored pools of blue, like the electric-blue gravel reflecting light in Brian’s fish tank.

After the ride we all met up by the exit gate, and the girls talked to Brian while I stood awkwardly nearby, scuffing my dusty basketball sneakers. “The derby’s about to start. Let’s go watch,” said one of the girls, and they headed across a small bridge to the field. Brian went with them and didn’t look back to notice me hanging over the railing, fixed on the little rocky creek below. I didn’t care about the derby anymore.

The stream gouged out the far bank and swept back across a little flat before it headed under the bridge. An old tire was lying down there with a pool in the center that was calm and protected from the pull of the current. Someone had tossed his ping pong goldfish down there, and it swam half on its side in the filthy water, mouth raised and gasping for air at the surface – the way all dying goldfish do, the way many of the fish that spent the day in plastic bags probably were gasping now.

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