by Cari Dow
The marching band, dressed in orange and black thick polyester uniforms, pranced by, playing the school’s fight song. Royal Kaufman felt the sweat from the hot July evening clinging to the top of her head. The shiny red firetrucks rolled down the main street blowing their sirens and misting the onlookers with cold water. The small town was settled in lawn chairs along the grassy sides of the road that made up the town’s main road. After the last baton twirlers and the Shriners drove by on their tiny cars, Royal smoothed her sweaty clothes and crossed the road. She worked her way through the herd of people going in the same direction.
Royal careened through dozens of groups that swarmed around the beer tent talking like thirsty, noisy mosquitoes. She poked her head above the crowd to look towards the picnic tables that sat end to end in rows as far and wide as the length of the tent. She found her family sitting at two tables in the back.
Her father who wore layers of clothes no matter what the temperature, was in his traditional long sleeve flannel that was buttoned to his expansive midsection with a faded t-shirt underneath that said, Gas, Grass or Ass…No One Rides for Free. A favorite. Newly retired after 40 years as an English teacher, he spends most of his days reading and obsessively watching CNN. Her mother, also a school teacher sat close to her father, not because she was still in love, but to keep an eye on him. She needed to be close just in case she had to tell him to shut up or to mind his business. Royal’s mother was a tiny woman who was less than 5 feet tall and had a shocking amount of dark frizzy hair. She spends most of her free time in the garage doing woodwork and crafts, truthfully, she’s out there to avoid Royal’s father. Royal’s sisters and brothers who also still lived in Manhattan, Kansas, along with her parents, were spread out at the tables.
Every year the Kaufman family migrates to the annual “Field Days.” It’s a carnival-like event lasting three days, it kicks off with a parade and ends with a firework display. The beloved bacchanalia starts at noon and goes until midnight each night. The kids go for the rickety rides and the games no one can win and the adults go for the tents full of beer and the unsanitary food. The Kaufman’s go to talk loudly over each while prying into each other’s lives and to eat excessive amounts of unhealthy food. A family past time. It’s better than a high school reunion because there’s a high chance you will see everyone you know. It’s both awful and awesome.
Since becoming a counselor on a nearby military base, Royal’s family solicits her for provocative details and salacious stories about the clients she sees. She occasionally obliges them changing the names. She entertained her family once with a story of a married woman she was counseling. She told them her name was ‘Sydney’ and how ‘Sydney’ was eager to leave her husband, (who up until then was only guilty of not paying attention to her), for a coworker who she swore looked just like Bradley Cooper. Royal, who secretly judged ‘Sydney’ as a person, loved telling them she saw a picture of Bradley and it was more like Bradley Cooper’s much older and less attractive uncle. ‘Sydney’ left her husband and followed Bradley all the way to Texas where she works as a custodian in a psychiatric hospital and must be living the dream.
Royal felt a surge of emotion as she stood under the tent in the suffocating hot air. Earlier in the week, Royal was asked if she wanted to relocate to the East coast, to another military installation. It would be a position that came with better pay. A position that meant leaving Kansas. So far she was undecided and needed a few days. She let herself imagine what living somewhere else would be like, what the East coast would be like and she dared to imagine what leaving her family behind would be like.
The next day, day two of “field days,” she sat with her family watching the brave souls climb into the rides. When Royal’s mother gets really bored she lets Royal know how she really feels. And how she really feels isn’t pleasant. That night she said loudly under the beer soaked tent, how man hopping and a “devil may care” attitude isn’t doing her any favors. By force of habit, Royal sighed, trying to hide her now twitching eye caused by the anxiety of a conversation she has had many times. Again, she told her mother dating isn’t actually man hopping nor does she disregard anything in her life.
Once while waiting in line at a Red Box at Walmart, Royal met a guy who she later mistakenly introduced to her family. Outsiders are fine but the Kaufman’s will prey on the weak. The weak is anyone who would be liked. He noticed her Walking Dead shirt and decided she must be cool. He took a long time to consider her looks. He could tell that people looked at her quickly, in passing, and they probably thought she was cute, maybe even pretty. He could tell most people probably didn’t take time to look longer. If they had they’d notice that even though she was short and her weight made her look curvy or voluptuous, she wasn’t fat. She had the subtle thickness of someone who eats what they want but works out to keep most of it off. If they looked harder they would notice her dark eyes that were shaped like very large, engorged almonds and a roundish face and her lips that weren’t pouty or duck like but full. Her hair was dark and long and swung around her waist in an effortless mane. If someone took extra time to really look they would notice she was stunning. He became brave and said, “So, who do you think Negan killed? Royal smiled knowingly.
Royal felt pangs of guilt while looking at the somber faces of her family while telling them about her job offer. Her mother shook her head no repeatedly and every so often said “no way.” Royal looked to her reasonable father whose only opinion was that this news was “a real boner killer.”
After they said their goodbyes, Royal stayed a little longer and looked around at the people who were still there, drinking and eating and laughing. She looked at the tents and the scene that was the Field Days. She marked these days on her calendar every year. She felt the music playing from the band beat in her body and the sweat of the 90-degree night bead down her back. She looked at the beautifully manicured grass and rose bushes that lined the streets, care that only came from a town whose people adored their community. She brushed a tear away.
Day three and the last day of Field Days: Royal met her family at the field. At the same tables. The motors from the rides were groaning as they cranked and spun their passengers recklessly into the air. Her family wanted to drink, eat and talk. A Kaufmann family band aid. Because Royal felt remorseful that her family was dealt a blow she thought she would perk them up with a little work related morsel.
She shared with them the torrid details of a woman who was getting counseling for her obsession to spitting in her husband’s food. All his food, all the time. Not quite content with just spitting in his food, she pissed in his cup every morning before making his coffee. Royal told them how the woman she now referred to as, “Ms. Disgustington”, said she can’t help herself but she swishes her husband’s toothbrush in the toilet water of the dirtiest toilet in the house and her day doesn’t feel quite as complete without brushing the dog’s teeth with it before returning it to its holder on the sink.
Blank stares. Her mother started to laugh and couldn’t stop. This meant she would piss her pants as she squeezed her legs together and shuffled to the porta potty.
“She’s sick, she needs help,” Royal’s father said jerking his head toward the porta potty.
Royal laughed all night and in the back of her mind she thought about her decision as she looked across the table and around the field at what makes this place so addictive. The Kaufman’s looked at the sky while the barrage of fireworks lit up the darkness. Somewhere during all the OH’s and AH’s, Royal knew what she was going to do.
Weeks later while driving, Royal glanced in her rear-view mirror as she passed the “Now leaving Kansas” sign.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student