By John Thomas Tuft
There is a dirt lane up to the McCrady place that wanders through the Bradford pear and crepe myrtle trees, passes the catfish pond, makes a half circle around the veranda next to the grape arbor, and ends in front of the faux antebellum farm house with the welcoming stacked porches and whitewashed posts. The smell of summer is in the air: a mixture of the acrid sweetness of honeysuckle, fresh mown hay warmed by the sun, and dirt. The rust colored dirt that smells of promise and potential, surety and sacrifice, dusty determination. Old Ned, his stud days nothing but sanguine memories now, passes the time in a lush field surrounded by a white fence, munching Kentucky bluegrass and sweet clover. Every once in a while, he snorts and tosses his head as he ambles from spot to better-spot to this-is-my-greatest-spot, one eye on the semi-literate magpies admiring their tuxedos while plotting who knows what against the crows and other lesser birds who pay them no mind whatsoever.
Out past the sagging barn that looks like it could use a good hug, through the restful orchard always hopeful for chilly nights still a long way off, across the stream struggling to keep up appearances due to the beaver dam a half mile upstream, up through the woods where shy deer do their best to show disdain for those caught looking, there is a large open field. At one end sits an old shed, simply minding its own business. Every summer, for as long as folks can remember, Orpheus McCrady makes the solemn journey to that old shed, unlocks it, and begins his ritual of preparation. He applies lots of bright colored paints, brass polisher, and good old-fashioned elbow grease. So all will be ready when its time for the fair. Hours and hours of a labor of love for the second love of his life. A genuine calliope. Time spent getting the old calliope in shape. Ready to sit there loud and proud between the ferris wheel and the merry go round. Thirty-two whistles of melodic shrillness that can be heard over in the next county on a muggy summer night.
“Cotton candy, Cracker Jacks, popcorn and hotdogs. Add pretty girls and shaved ice, throw in some teenage boys and games of chance, a dance floor for the gents and ladies, and you got yourself the fair,” says Orpheus. “Even Old Ned perks up when I crank up the ol’ calliope,” he adds. “Rescued them both from the same circus so they could live out their days being prime.” He looks around the rolling hills, wipes his brow and holds forth. “We don’t really add any new life to this world, ya know what I mean? Even our own lives ain’t new. Just borrowed.” With that benediction he rambles off to stake out where a lane of booths will form, stops, comes back. “None of that deep fried stuff, mind you. Who in tarnation’ wants a candy bar or cookie dipped and dripped? Ya hearin’ me?” He spits on the ground. “We’re all on borrowed time. This old place outlasts us all. Go on now, Mary will be screaming toodlebutts if I don’t get this done!”
A few evenings later the fair is in full swing. Shrieks of laughter, a golden cloud of smells, colors and smiles color the night happy. Mary is at the gate collecting tickets while Orpheus keeps a watchful eye on the human beans at play, minding the barkers chasing chance and steamers tempting tastebuds, at the same time as he’s blasting the pipes like he was on the Delta Queen river boat. Heat lightning bombards the horizon like an artillery barrage as the evening winds down. The last child is matched up with weary parents, the last kiss stolen behind the old shed, the money counted and squirreled away in Mary’s strongbox, the last piece of litter corralled and sent off to neverland, and Orpheus is strolling under the night sky. He bends down and comes up with a handful of dirt.
“You know what this is, don’t you?” He lets it dribble from his workworn hand. “Star dust.” He throws back his head as he laughs, hard enough that it bounces off Orion’s Belt and back again. “We’re made of the same stuff. That’s knowledge.” He runs his hands through his hair and goes to find Mary.
Later, he’s sitting on the porch, looking out at the pond and the pasture, the road and the trees, the barn and the beauty, when Mary pokes her head out the door. “You comin’ inside, Old Fool? Time for bed.” Orpheus winks and makes a grab at her. She pulls a face, but her eyes betray her tenderness. He gestures toward it all. All of it. “Any man who says he owns all this, any of this, is just a fool.” He makes a shy bow, his voice a whisper. “That there is wisdom.” Across the road, Old Ned finds the greatest of all spots and settles in for the night.
Words are magic, and writers are wizards.