Tyler stroked his burgeoning and profoundly disappointing mustache as he watched the rigs hauling the rides onto the fairground like meandering elephants. The entryway was, one of the drivers complained, encroached upon by the subdivision that had sprung up in the last year. One of the trailers left a rut in the new sod lying like shingles on the soft ground in front of the corner house. The fairground earth was much more solid and the tracks the vehicles left there were faint green lines where the patches of clover and dandelions and grass, fresh mown, had been pressed down and turned over. Beside the Ferris wheel, Tyler found a tire-flattened garter snake. When he moved it with his boot and it flipped belly up, he had to look at the sky to keep his eyes from crying. Somehow the paler flesh reminded him that the snake had been, until the carnival arrived, a living thing.
That night, Tyler worked the chain between the line and the Ferris wheel, whose thousand lights he thought could have been a beautiful compliment to the night sky if they weren’t so bright as to be, rather, a disappointing, yellow attempt at daylight. The white sweatshirt he had to wear hung over his jeans in an obscuring way that he was unhappy about, but they hadn’t had his size when they handed the uniforms out and they said if he cut anything off the bottom that they’d take $20 off his next pay cheque. He was fiddling with the hem when a guy who had such a great mustache that he actually looked like Freddie Mercury walked up to the chain beside a girl in a poodle skirt with a big, pink fake flower in her hair. “What’s that flower called?” was all Tyler could think to say.
“Hibiscus,” the girl said.
Tyler checked the bulge in the guy’s pants.
“You got a problem, faggot?” the guy said.
Mack was working the wheel. “I said, Next, Tyler,” he shouted.
Tyler unhooked the chain and got out of the way as invisibly as he could manage.
He lay on his thin mattress for a long time that night, staring towards the ceiling and thinking about the guy who’d called him faggot and the bulge in the guy’s pants.
Mack came in around two a.m. He’d been with Marie from the ticket booth, his sweetheart, and he smelled like beer, cigarettes, sex and dusty, dying summertime.
Tyler rolled over.
Mack said, “Hey!?” in that late night voice that is more whisper than shout, but a bit of both.
“You jerking off?”
“I can’t sleep.”
Mack walked over, holding out a can of beer.
Tyler sat up. The can held a distant memory of cold. “Will this help me sleep?”
“You really are a good kid.”
Tyler cracked the can and took a bitter sip. He hoped it was dark enough that Mack didn’t see the distaste on his face and read it as ungratefulness.
Mack’s can snapped and hissed. Mack drank. “Tastes terrible warm. Sorry.”
“No. Thank you.”
Mack sat down at the foot of Tyler’s cot and lit a cigarette. They sat there like that, silent, each happy for the company.
Tyler woke to the sound of passing voices, his empty can a few inches from his nose. Mack was asleep across his legs. Tyler gently slid his feet from beneath Mack’s thighs, ribcage and cheek.
He went to the mirror and looked at the wisps on his upper lip. If he moved a few inches to the left a sunbeam crossed his face and rendered his mustache invisible.
That first full day of the fair, the crowd was mostly kids and parents and old people bringing their “famous” pies for a contest in the tiny agricultural tent. Around noon, Tyler spotted the Freddie Mercury guy trying to lean nonchalantly on the temporary fence surrounding the Ferris wheel. The girl with the hibiscus in her hair was nowhere to be seen. Freddie was alone. When he looked over at Tyler, Tyler looked past him, to where people were starting to line up for the demolition derby. Undettered, Freddie walked over with a swagger half-murderous, half West Side Story. When he was a few steps from Tyler, he adjusted his penis through his tight jeans. “Hey, you, fag.”
“Come over here.”
Careful to stay a few feet behind the fence, Tyler walked the ten feet to where Freddie had stopped.
They were far from the line, but Freddie still spoke low and vulnerably. “You get a break, ever?”
Tyler checked his IRONMAN watch. “In twenty minutes.”
“Meet me behind that school.” Freddie pointed with his chin then rolled his lower lip from between his teeth out to meet his upper lip in a sneering pucker.
“Why should I?”
“I want to show you something.”
Tyler caught his involuntary laugh and turned it into a spittle-spraying snort and Freddie’s face broke character for enough time to reassure Tyler that if he did go behind the sand-coloured, single storey primary school across the ditch and up five feet from the fair-grounds that Freddie was not planning on beating him up, but probably make out with him. “Sorry.”
“Maybe I’ll see you,” Freddie said, his features fixed, his act back on.
Tyler spent the next twenty minutes craning his neck looking for Jerry, who was coming to relieve him, and angling his body so that the people in line didn’t spot the press of his penis against his jeans beneath the hem of his sweatshirt. He wished he’d shaved his mustache. His “mustache.” He wished he could be absolutely sure that Freddie wasn’t going to have a bunch of hick cronies hiding in the bushes to help him kick Tyler’s ass.
Jerry was stuffing the last half of a hotdog into his mouth when he arrived, three dollops of mayonnaise having streaked the dense stubble on his chin on their way to staining his already condiment-mottled shirt. Jerry had to finish chewing before telling Tyler to go take a break.
Tyler walked with his hands thrust into his pockets, dodging children racing away from calling parents. He slowed before he reached the ditch. Freddie wasn’t visible, but was, Tyler figured, probably behind the oversized bit of building that could only be the gym. There was a row of cedar trees along a chain-link fence that separated the back yards of a row of bungalows from the packed dirt and determined grass of the playground. Tyler easily hopped the fences separating the back yards until he found a yard that, through the hedge, gave him a clear view of Freddie leaning against the tall, blind wall of the gym against which, during weekdays from September to June Tyler would bet boys threw tennis balls and red, white and blue Indian rubber balls. Freddie had one foot flat against the wall, the other planted far enough out onto the asphalt that he achieved the angle of lean he wanted. His face was still and calculated, too—tough-guy pursed lips under his black mustache—but his hands were flitting like tiny birds searching for the perfect perch.
A screen-door squealed and slammed shut somewhere behind Tyler and Tyler flinched. When he was sure that the door wasn’t right behind him, Tyler turned back to Freddie. Freddie was craning his neck as if he could lift his head high enough to see anything over the row of tall cedars. Crouching, Tyler searched for a gap between the trees that he could squeeze through to hop the fence. When he found it, Tyler awkwardly rolled over the top of the chain-link, his too large sweater catching unnoticed so that when Tyler tried to turn to walk towards Freddie, he was held back. Of course, the hated garment didn’t rip.
This time when Tyler looked, Freddie had spotted Tyler and settled his hands against the pale brick. Once Freddie was satisfied that they’d made eye contact, he placed his head gently against the wall, then looked upwards. It was a pose Tyler recognized from his father’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. Tyler smiled. A giggle lifted his chest and shoulders; it wasn’t all giddy arousal that set his diaphragm dancing. Theatricality was distasteful to Tyler and with the threat removed from Freddie’s act, the act became clownish, sad, too human for Tyler.
An engine backfired over by the grandstand and Tyler suddenly heard the storm of engine noise that had been growing steadily for who knew how long.
Freddie reached out one hand and with his other he clutched his erection. “I knew you’d want to take a look, Sweetheart.”
Tyler walked into range of Freddie’s arm and Freddie grabbed his shoulders, pulled him closer.
“You do want a look, don’t you?”
Tyler could feel a laugh tugging at his cheeks, tickling his ribs. “Uh. Can’t people see us here?” Tyler glanced over his shoulder at the row of cedars, the row of houses.
“You’re safe with me, Baby.”
“My name’s Tyler.”
“Have a feel, Tyler,” Freddie breathed into Tyler’s ear. Freddie grabbed Tyler’s wrist.
“What’s your name?” Tyler asked.
“Call me Daddy,” Freddie said.
Tyler pictured his father in his navy-blue janitor’s uniform, the Brant County Board of Education logo embroidered over his heart, his modest, direct, honest heart. “What’s your name?” Tyler asked again.
Freddie pressed Tyler’s hand against his penis. “I know you want to take a look, Baby.”
Tyler’s laugh announced itself with a pfft and a spray of spittle. And of course the timing couldn’t have been worse. Freddie let go of Tyler then. Tyler stepped back, covering his face. Freddie wiped his face on his upper arm.
“What the fuck?”
“I’m sorry,” Tyler said. There was a collision by the grandstand, the rain of glass and scream of metal much less horrible under the chorus of engines, but reminding Tyler of the potential for violence here. “I’m sorry, it’s not you.”
“You should get out of here,” Freddie said.
Tyler knew Freddie was right, but he still asked, “Are you OK?” So he felt like he maybe deserved the punch in the gut. Whatever boney thing that Freddie hit Tyler’s head with was maybe less deserved.
It was still daylight when Mack gave Tyler a cold can of beer to drink and a second one to put against his goose egg. Other than Mack offering to find and punish whoever did this to Tyler, who said, No, it was OK, the two didn’t speak. Mack didn’t ask how it happened, so Tyler didn’t have to make anything up. After Mack left to go see Marie, Tyler lay looking up at the ceiling wondering if he could clear enough of what actually happened from his mind so that he could fantasize about Freddie. He fell asleep before he could figure it out.
Toronto, June 2015
Emoji sequence: Anne-Marie Longpre, the brains behind West End Alternative's Sweatshop, a fashion business program.
Story: Lee Sheppard