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The Carnival at Bray



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The carnival at Bray, hastily built for the short months of summer, stood on a rocky coastline in a maze of rickety gaming booths and creaking rides. It was separated from the rest of the town by a strip of asphalt road, and that separation somehow made it look lonelier, the pink and green lights of the old-fashioned Ferris wheel winking and dissolving in the reflection of the sea while the town remained steady, dim, and watchful. Margaret had already ridden the Takeoff, which made her feel like a pebble being skipped across a lake, the Crazy Frog, which whipped her back and forth so hard that she dinged her head on the safety bar and emerged with a painful purple egg already rising from her temple, and finally, Space Odyssey, which spun around so fast that centrifugal force held her and Ronnie to the cushioned wall like splattered bugs. Another girl, who was pinioned across from them, barfed, but the pressure was so strong that the puke no sooner arced from her mouth than it was sucked back with a wet splat all over the girl's own face. The ride ended abruptly, dropping everyone unceremoniously to the ground, and they fled the sour smell of peanuty vomit on wobbly legs.

Earlier that evening, after they'd eaten cheeseburgers at a seaside chipper, Colm had paid the woman at the counter while Margaret's mom pressed a handful of money into Margaret's palm and told her to take her nine-year-old sister to the carnival.

"We just want a little honeymoon time," she'd explained, gazing at her new husband's back and smiling so widely Margaret could see her missing molar. "We'll pick you up when it closes." Then she added, with her trademark brand of desperate optimism, "It'll be fun! A girls' night out, just you and your sis!"

Margaret had discovered that "honeymoon time" was just a sugary way of saying that her mother and Colm were doing it every chance they got, so she didn't bother pointing out that every night for the past three weeks had been a "girls night out," since the only people Margaret and Ronnie knew in the whole country were each other.

The announcement that, after a four-month courtship, her mother was marrying Colm and they were all moving from Chicago to Ireland wasn't really all that surprising. Five years earlier, when Margaret was in fourth grade, their father had walked out on them for a woman known in their house only as "Bitch," and Margaret's mom had drifted from romance to romance, each one a whirlwind and each one ending in disaster.

It was easy for Laura Canavan to meet men—she was only 36, had a soft, curvy body and clear green eyes fringed in long, mascara-tarred lashes, and she spoke in a gentle, low voice that men leaned in to hear. She wasn't unintelligent, but she was unimaginative; she'd always let circumstances dictate her social life. She started dating their father, she claimed, solely because he lived down the block from her and neither one of them owned a car. When he moved to Wisconsin to be with Bitch, she got an afternoon bartending job at Oinker's, a divey little tavern that for years had been a butcher shop and still retained a faint stench of pig blood. It was a convenient setup: when her shift ended, she just relocated to the other side of the bar, and those nights at Oinker's became her whole social life. Accordingly, it was the only place she met suitors. The first was Terry, a real estate agent who would walk around their apartment shouting into his cell phone, crop dusting the air with silent, sulfurous farts. Then came Ned, who "accidentally" walked into Margaret and Ronnie's bedroom naked, and finally Stan, the contractor, who, on the night he admitted he was "not technically divorced," stole a pair of cubic zirconia earrings, a laptop, and Ronnie's entire Beanie Baby collection before sneaking off before dawn.

But despite all the disappointment, Laura had remained a romantic. She always bounced back with remarkable hopefulness, though this hopefulness was often bracketed by long periods of despair lubricated by boxed red wine. In these times Margaret and Ronnie hunkered down at their Grandma Eileen's. Grandma Eileen was a chain-smoker whose walls were yellowy and thick with grease from decades of daily fry-ups for breakfast. Yet she had a sort of squalid dignity about her. Her home was a snowscape of beige doilies and her living room rug, though rust colored and old, was always scored with fresh vacuum cleaner marks. She was assiduous about dumping out her ashtrays, and, most importantly, she was kind to her granddaughters. She felt sorry for them. But it always seemed that just when Margaret and Ronnie were getting used to sleeping through the sunrise that poured into Grandma Eileen's front room each morning, where they roosted on the lumpy pull-out couch, their mother would get her act together, the clouds of her depression would clear, and she would come to take her girls back, lecturing them on the short car ride home that they must always remember that no woman needs a man to make her life complete.

It was the day after one such lecture that she met Colm, an Irish roofer who'd spend the warm months in Chicago doing construction work. He was replacing the gutters at Oinker's. Soon enough, the feminist rants were replaced by comments like, "Girls, when you know, you know." Margaret wanted to ask if she'd known with dad, too, or Terry, Ned, or Stan, but her mother's happiness was so acute that she'd have felt like a bad sport poking holes in it. And though Margaret was wary as ever, advising Ronnie to lock up what remained of her decimated stuffed animal collection the first time Colm came over for dinner, she'd had to admit that of all mom's boyfriends he was certainly the best looking. His skin was weathered and tan, with sinewy veins snaking up his Frisbee-sized hands. His black hair was so thick that it jutted from his forehead like the brim of a baseball cap, and his eyes were almost as blue as dad's. The fact that Colm was Irish solidified their mother's infatuation, since her own father had been from Donegal. When Laura sat down to deliver the news to her surprised daughters, she told them that, given their ethnic background, they shouldn't feel like they were moving to a foreign country but coming home. She kept calling Ireland the "Motherland" or the "Ould Sod," and she often brought up her father, who'd died before the girls were born. "If your grandfather knew I was bringing you back to the Motherland to live," she told them one afternoon, "by God, would that make him happy."

Colm, for his part, was crazy about Laura. He followed her around like a panting terrier, and words like fate and destiny were joyously lobbed back and forth between the two of them. Laura was so happy that she once even called Bitch by her real name which, Margaret learned, was Lucille.

They moved into Colm's small, clean home in Bray, a damp, briny place a half hour outside Dublin. The town stood on the edge of the Irish Sea, which was gray, lapping, and horizonless and reminded Margaret of Lake Michigan in March. They'd been there three weeks now, and since school wasn't starting until mid-September, she and Ronnie had little to do but wander the uneven, hilly streets, kicking at moss and trailing their hands along the rough white walls that stood at the edges of front lawns.

There weren't any street signs, and most houses didn't even have address numbers, but the girls found their way around fairly quickly. It was just like Chicago, Colm told them: if you wanted to know what direction you were going, just remember that the water is always to the east. But on the northwest side of Chicago, where they'd grown up, you had to ride the bus over 50 blocks east before you began to smell the water. Here, the sea was pervasive. On sunny days it glinted from the crests of hills or the walls of buildings, and at night, when she and Ronnie lay in bed, its restless sighing brought Margaret a comfort that she couldn't quite name. Even her clothes and hair began to take on its fishy, expansive smell. But eventually, and sooner than she expected, she stopped noticing, the way a woman stops noticing the scent of her own perfume.

The egg on Margaret's forehead was beginning to throb, but she agreed to ride the bumper cars because if she refused, the staccatoed incantations of Ronnie's please-please-please-please-pleases might give her a worse headache than the actual ride. Besides, they had at least another hour before Mom and Colm would come to get them.

The rink was mostly empty, with cars pointing every which way so that they reminded Margaret of those Hollywood blockbusters where a horrendous disease has caused a whole city's population to flee, abandoning their cars in the middle of the highway. Here and there a kid sat, watching the two of them from behind right-side steering wheels and waiting for them to settle in so the ride operator could turn on the green light.

Margaret felt awkward. At 14, she was the oldest person there. Everyone else was around Ronnie's age. Earlier they'd passed a group of Irish teenagers, boys and girls about Margaret's age, perhaps her future classmates at Saint Kilian's. They looked like a fun crowd, like people Margaret might want to be friends with. But despite her heritage and all her mother' talk of the Motherland, they looked foreign to her. The boys wore track suits and gym shoe brands she'd never seen at home. The girls wore tights with their skirts and used slang words that Margaret didn't understand. She'd been fascinated by them, but they hadn't even glanced in her direction.

Ronnie chose a shiny yellow vehicle, and Margaret picked a pale blue one. The ride operator turned a switch, and the electric current beneath her car hummed to life. Before she could even press the accelerator, a jug-eared boy who could barely see above his dashboard accidentally reversed into her at full speed. Her head whipped back, her eyes caught an image of cloudy sky, and then she saw white, drifting stars. The egg on her temple pulsed, feeling as conspicuous as a third eye. Gingerly, trying to move her head as little as possible, she steered meekly over to the rubber edge of the rink and stayed put while Ronnie and the other kids flew past, yelling, laughing, crashing. Margaret sat and watched, feeling entirely apart from all of them.

By the time the ride operator switched off the power and Margaret had moved unsteadily across the track to find her sister, Ronnie had befriended all the other kids her age, even the jug-eared boy who'd probably concussed her. One little girl was unfurling sheets of pink cotton candy and handing them out to the others. Margaret watched as she handed Ronnie a long piece and Ronnie took it and folded it up into squares, like origami, and then shoved the entire parcel into her mouth. The other kids laughed, and some of them began folding up their pieces, too. When Ronnie saw Margaret, she waved.

"Hey!" she called, her mouth full. "We're going to back to Space Odyssey! Come on!"

Margaret ached to make friends, to have other kids to talk to. But what was the point? What if the teenagers, the girls in the lipstick and jean skirts, saw her walk by with this group of 10-year-olds?

So she waved her sister away.

"Nah," she lied. "I'm just gonna go meet some people at the Ferris Wheel. I'll see you when mom gets here." Ronnie looked at her across the wet pavement and the ringing lights of the booths—Dart-a-Card, Smash-a-Can, Roll-a-Coin—as if she were trying to figure something out. Finally she shrugged and ran to catch up with the other kids.

The drizzle had quickened into a decisive, heavy rain, and the clouds over the sea rolled by, their dark shapes taking over the whole sky. The raindrops poked holes in the choppy gray surface of the sea. When they'd first arrived in Bray, Colm had told Margaret, "If you want to be a true Irishwoman, you've got to become an expert on water. Salty water and clear water, thick rain and misty rain, downpours and trickles, thundery rain and soft rain." She looked out at the sea. Colm had explained to her the difference between a sea and an ocean, but now she couldn't remember and her head hurt too much to think about it very hard. She reached up and gingerly ran her fingers over the bump, which started just under her wet hairline and stood out from her scalp at least a half inch. Back home, she thought, the bell would just be ringing for the last period of her first day of high school.

She looked up and saw that she was standing directly below the Ferris wheel, its twinkling arms reaching up in spindly supplication to the low sky. The reflection of its green and pink lights stretched out, wobbly, into the waves.

"Last ride. Last ride." a man called indifferently from the cozy shelter of his ticket booth. Margaret felt in her pocket and produced a few coins that flashed in her palm like silverfish. The man took the money, and indicated an open seat with a nod of his head. "Sit wherever you like," he said, and Margaret saw that the Ferris wheel was empty.

She sat in the nearest seat and pulled down the safety bar. The ride jolted, and she was lifted quietly into the dark, misty sky. The higher she went the colder and damper the air became, until she was so high that the ticket man looking up at her was as small as a board game piece. She could see the teenagers she'd seen earlier, walking down the shore in the direction of the town, huddled together against the rain. Directly below, Ronnie and her new friends were playing tag. Their tiny shapes darted around the maze of gaming booths like mice in an experiment.

Margaret could see into a bright square of window at a pub called Quayside, across the street from the carnival. Even as far away as she was, she could tell that the two dark heads leaning together were Colm and Laura's; they were sitting at a table with drinks between them, secret, private, obliviously in love. One by one, she watched the lights of the carnival booths winking out, and still she climbed higher. She looked east, out to where there was nothing but waves and darkness. She wondered what would happen if she tumbled out of her seat, splashing into the lapping nothingness, and how long it would take before someone noticed she was gone.   v

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