Janice adjusted her brimmed cap to block more of the hot sun, and pushed the sunglasses back on. August’s end could turn hilly in a heartbeat, but today the summer heat poured over the county fairgrounds, thick and humid. Green grass aromas mingled with horse scent near the stables; she always started here, looking at the massive workhorses, then the gleaming competition animals, dedicated owners brushing them in long firm strokes, or fussing with last-minute adjustments to braids – in the animals’ manes or the tight efficient hairstyles of the riders. Nobody looked at Janice. They were focused. That was okay with her.
From the horse barns, she circled toward the cow barns. Because she walked alone, she skipped past the 4-H calves and the milking cows, drawn instead to the long-haired Scottish highland cattle raised on a couple of local farms. They ignored her, too. She pulled out her cellphone and snapped some pictures of the emotionless faces, the massive shoulders and backs. Let other people focus on the glitter of the Midway where the Ferris wheel slowly repeated its long arc, most of the seats empty until sundown. Janice wanted farm-type photos, to make her point: You could go to the county fair and appreciate the agricultural competitions, the dairy bar (not the beer tent), the maple tasting booth and displays of quilts and preserves. See all the award ribbons, blue for first prize, red for second, white for third. Look at the kids’ happy faces.
Not that Ally would be convinced. Actually Janice felt bad about the phone conversation. She’d called Ally, first thing this morning when she picked today for her annual visit to the fair, thinking the younger woman would jump at the chance to come along. Sponsorship – accepting the role of older sister, “good” parent, wise woman who stays calm in emotional hurricanes (mostly) – Janice liked the role, and the regular phone chats with Ally that felt so useful, and so affirming. Watching Ally come to grips with the real challenges of sobriety, rebuilding from financial disaster, family ruin, work stuff, well, Janice loved it. And she didn’t need to be all that wise, honestly. Just listen, repeat back the screwy parts so Ally could hear herself and pull things together better. Add a few twelve-step sayings at the right moments, like “Live and let live” or “One day at a time” and be reassuring. Actually, she was much better at sponsoring than she’d been at actual parenting.
Her phone pinged and she saw a text from her son, saying good night. His summer in France, as intern on a film set, fit him perfectly. It touched her that he still liked to say good night to her, and she sent a quick reply, along with one of the cattle photos. His immediate response was a smiley face, followed by “zzzz.” Sleep time in Paris, or Nice, or wherever it was today for him. Janice smiled and stuck the phone back into her side pocket.
Inviting Ally to come to the fair – well, it just seemed natural to invite a friend along for fried dough or maple cotton candy and the barn rambling. But she’d missed part of Ally’s back-story, clearly.
“Sh*t no,” Ally had exclaimed loudly over the phone. “I did too much drinking at the fair. I’m not ready to go back there. Sorry, Janice, thanks and all that, but no way. And don’t bring me back any souvenirs, okay? Wow, that’s a blast from the past. Listen, I’ll call you back this evening, I’m headed out to make deliveries for the store. Bye!”
Actually it hurt for a moment, feeling rushed through the phone connection and dumped for the day, even though that didn’t make logical sense. Ally’s reply showed good sobriety, good Program sense. Janice shook off a twinge of loneliness and turned the back corner of the field, toward the rabbit barn and the children’s exhibits.
From here she could smell the hot familiar scent of French fries and deep-fried “blooming” onions, the deeper aroma of sausage and peppers, classic fair food. Good thing the fairgrounds hadn’t been part of her own “drunkalogue” – she could enjoy its daytime casual nostalgia and rural-life promotion on her own terms. She snapped a photo of a woman with long dreadlocks, buying some fresh-squeezed lemonade. From the back of course, so she wouldn’t need to ask permission if she ever wanted to use the photo in a competition or someplace.
Randall Family Apple Crisp. The cheerfully decorated red cabin on wheels jumped out at Janice, rocking her hard-earned calm. Randall. No, it couldn’t be, could it?
She moved to the other side of the wide walkway, setting more distance between herself and the food trailer. Edged past, hoping her dark sunglasses hid enough of her face. Took advantage of a gap at the far side to see behind the little structure, where a white-haired man in a blue apron worked an old-fashioned cherry pitter, setting aside the glistening seeds and dropping the hollowed fruits into a steel bowl at the other side of his table. Echoing Ally’s expression from earlier, Janice whispered aloud, “Sh*t no. I’m not ready.”
Which was true, and not true. She’d worked her way through the twelve steps (“suggested steps, but only if you want your life back,” her own sponsor had told her, more than five years ago now). Buckled down to restoring her life, as much as she could. Even built up her part-time job for the school district into a full-time one with summers off, so she could actually afford her mortgage and taxes at last. Life was mostly darned good.
But the Randalls. Well. She circled around the food trailers to a miniature park hidden at the edge of the truck parking area, and perched on a rock next to an unexpected tiny pond where a pair of ducks swam. She wondered what kept them there, but the puzzle didn’t take her full attention. Instead, the feel of Bud Randall’s warm arms and the exciting rub of his thick beard with his deep kisses came back to her as if it were only yesterday, instead of – quick counting – ten, eleven years ago. The old man peeling the apples, that must have been Bud’s father. She’d only seen his parents once, no reason to recognize them again. But it had to be.
Step Nine: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. Well, the phrase at the end was why, when she’d officially worked her ninth step, she hadn’t made contact with Bud. Maybe she could have figured out a way to reach him, but she told herself at the time that there was too much risk of crossing paths with his wife, of causing injury. The affair lay deep in her past. Why stir up trouble, as long as she promised herself she’d never go there again?
Besides. Right. She remembered more clearly now. She’d been scared. Scared that if she saw Bud Randall again, she’d step back into the circle of those strong arms and reach for his casual, cheerful tenderness the way she had when it came with a shot of Scotch and an hour or two of classic jazz, while they made love – only Bud, in all her experience, could call extramarital sex “making love” and pull it off. She knew he didn’t mean he loved her. Just that he loved what they did together. If he loved anyone besides himself, surely it was his wife, because he’d warned Janice – the only time she’d known the scary side of him – never to put his marriage in jeopardy. Not ever. And she’d kept the agreement, honored it more than she’d honored her own marriage, come to think of it. “Sh*t no.”
Janice closed her eyes, felt the sun pulling sweat onto her face, sunglasses slipping some. Was this some Higher Power moment? Was she supposed to make amends to the Randalls somehow? Running through it all in her memory, she still felt like she didn’t owe any apology to Bud – she’d given him playtime, easy and cheerful and only a little bit boozy, and kept his rules, and enjoyed it while it lasted. No surprise when he stopped getting in touch; she’d known he’d get bored, head to another lover or just back to his wife. Of course, she’d used it as an excuse to ramp up her own drinking, toward that last year of binging that knocked her sideways and took her into AA at last. No regrets about that.
But Celia Randall, Bud’s wife. Janice got the message loud and clear: She owed amends to Celia. Could she make amends without causing injury?
A truck rumbled past, kicking up dust. Janice sneezed, and sneezed again, and pulled out some tissues to blow her nose. The twenty-dollar bill she’d meant to spend on lunch for herself and Ally fell to the ground. She snatched it up, tucked it in the other pocket where her cellphone nestled, and stood up, still trying to feel out the possibilities.
When she reached the cherry pie trailer again, the old man was gone. Instead, a middle-aged woman wore a fresh blue apron inside the little kitchen-on-wheels, taking a steaming pair of fresh-baked pies out of the oven. For a moment Janice wondered, then realized the decade hadn’t treated Celia all that well. Guiltily, she also observed the woman’s left hand, no rings at all. But somehow still connected to Bud’s family, so she worked at the fair with them? Well, it wasn’t Janice’s business.
The sign by the window said “Five dollars per slice, seven fifty with ice cream on top.” Janice did the math. She tugged out her wallet from her fanny pack and checked. Grocery money set aside. Well, she’d just have to make other grocery plans this week.
She stepped to the window and asked, “Can you make me ten servings of cherry pie in some kind of tray or box lid or something, so I can carry them?”
The lined face looked up from the oven and smiled, without any recognition. “Sure. Give me five minutes. You want them with ice cream, or without?”
Janice swallowed hard. She pulled the twenty out of the side pocket, and three more twenties from her wallet. “With.” Laid the money on the sill of the order window, and pulled out napkins from a dispenser, counting a dozen, and waited with her back turned to the trailer, just in case.
When the cardboard carrier of ten ample servings of fragrant cherry pie with generous scoops of vanilla ice cream came toward her, she pushed the four twenties across to the woman, noting the relief on the tired face. Janice lifted the tray, said thanks, and turned toward the cattle barns.
Behind her, Celia Randall – or whatever name she used now – said, “Wait a minute, I’ll get your change.”
Janice called back, without turning, “It’s all yours.”
And sped up her pace, so she could reach the teens in the 4-H aisle before the ice cream totally melted.
Not all of the teens liked cherry. So she still had one left when she reached the far door of the 4-H barn. She left the emptied tray next to a recycling barrel and kept walking, eating the final serving on her way back around the fairgrounds toward the car parking lot. Would she tell the story to Ally later on, an example of how the steps and the amends kept cycling back, how long it could take to clean up your drinking years even when you’d been sober for so long?
Maybe not. Maybe silence was the key on this one.
But at least, Janice reflected, she’d found some way to make a gesture toward Celia. She hoped it was enough.
Well, of course it’s not, she snapped back to herself, nudged by something she figured was her Higher Power, pushing her a little further. She figured it out, though. Next summer she’d plan to get another dozen servings of cherry pie. With ice cream.
Beth Kanell lives in northeastern Vermont, with a mountain at her back and a river at her feet. She writes poems, hikes the back roads and mountains, and digs into Vermont history to frame her “history-hinged” novels: This Ardent Flame (June 2021), The Long Shadow, The Darkness Under the Water, The Secret Room, and Cold Midnight. Her poems scatter among regional publications and online. So do her short stories and memoir pieces. She shares her research and writing process at BethKanell.blogspot.com.
© 2021, Beth Kanell