1. My ragamuffin family walked the fairway at the Oceana County Fair, wild among the bright booths. This circus rainbow was staffed by sweaty men—Dad called them “carnies”—all calling out like preachers, urging us to shoot ducks, toss rings on bottles, throw darts at targets, capture the softest bear in the world. All glory, shining, though we had no money and my folks did not appreciate frivolity. They had come to see the prizewinning chickens. They had come to judge the sows.
2. But then, off on the grass, one man with a table and two chairs, a simple sign: I’ll Guess Your Age for Money. Maybe there was more, but I remember it was about betting. For a dollar, the carny would guess your age, and if he was off by more than a year or two, you got your dollar back, plus fifty cents. If he was right, well, you lost your dollar.
3. I felt a strange wonder when my father shuffled to a stop, his big boots layered with dust, and turned to my mother, my baby sister in her arms; there passed a look between them, as if some message had arrived to both at once. My father studied the man—the sheaf of dollars in his hands, the cigar stub shoved off to the side of his mouth like a wet stick.
4. The man saw them and rose to his pitch, and what I remember is all rhythm and persuasion, something like, All ya gotta do is let me look at you for a minute, all ya gotta do, and if I guess right, well, all you’ve lost issa small bet. You bettin’, man? Let me guess? I been wrong before. “All ya gotta do” made me tremble, made me feel like I was sliding downhill in snow. He was all friendly, holding the chair for my father. But Dad shook his head and turned to Mom. Another slow look, like dark water.
5. A creek-rising shudder ran through me as she handed him the baby, as not my dad but she took the straight-backed chair and sat down, prim as the Catholic she was, to let a strange man look at her for a whole minute. Imagine the carny’s surprise. Imagine mine. My mother was shy. Proper was her clearest word. But she knew the value of money, and she stared right back at the man. There was some measuring in that look that made me press my nails into my palms.
6. The man turned. “Your dollar?” he asked, I guess because he had to know not all our sleeves had holes, to know that Dad actually had the money. My dad pulled out his old army wallet, worn so thin I thought it must be empty. Reluctant as he always was about money, there was, in his handing off—yes, a dollar—the touch of the animal, the cagey way a fox can look when it pretends to be trapped, but it’s not.
7. The cigar man sat in the chair before my mother, and I watched as he studied what my grandma had called Mom’s Belgian bones. Big and strong, I’d guessed she meant. Cigar man could see us kids—me and my sister, my wild-boy brothers—and I knew then that my dad’s bet was all for naught: the carny would know how old my mother was because of us. Mom was young, yet old enough to have birthed all of us kids—it wouldn’t be hard to narrow it down. How could my father be so stupid? The carny would guess and the dollar would be gone, and there would be harsh words at the supper table. But also, this had something to do with death. With how close one was to it, and how far away. That ruler. Like the Christmas my uncle John died and everyone said “it was his time” and “at his age.” But this did not apply to her, did it?
8. There came a silence, strained quiet in that plot off the fairway, while my father stood holding the baby and let this man study my mother’s face, observe the shape of her hard shoulders under her grayed sweater, her baby-spit blouse, let him study her thick hands and veined wrists, and it came to me suddenly: it was like looking at the prizewinning hens, that way you study the structure beyond the feathers, and it made me want to yell at my father. I kept my mouth shut.
9. Then the cigar man rose, wrote a number on a board, and my father clapped his hands as my mother produced her driver’s license as proof, and Dad said, “You owe me a dolla fitty.” My mother rose, speaking softly: “I should be insulted, but I’m just glad you’re wrong.” Then a blur of money changing hands, and I cannot be sure, but I think she put her hand over my father’s and took the dollar and quarters before he did. What I remember is sharp tension, like a cold rippling, hands moving back and forth. Later, she was the one who bought the cotton candy, sweet as money.
10. And the huckster, not liking to lose, said to Dad, “Well now, I could guess your age for double or nothin’,” but the look from my mother said she’d had enough. And as we turned back to the lights and wonder, I heard the man mutter, “Old before her time.” And I looked up to see—was it the first time?—my mother’s white-laced braid, the crown I loved wound round her head, the pure white streaks that had come with the fifth child. I saw for that brief moment the wrinkles at her jawline, the trial in her eyes. Old before her time? What did that mean? Her time and mine were exactly the same, weren’t they? Before her time. Those words seemed to dull her crown even in the spinning rainbowed lights. What was time to a daughter, to a mother, to the dolla fitty she held now? What did the dollar cost us? What did time?
11. I was eleven then. I am many times that number now. My mother died, likely of COVID, at ninety-nine—we’d thought she would live forever. For all the times I’ve touched this memory, it remains saw-toothed: the way my father sold my mother’s age for a dollar fifty, the way a man who had never heard her giggle missed the softness in the palm of her hand, how she refused to look at my dad for the entire evening, how she bought that soft cotton candy and gave the change to me, to us kids, to run the fairway.
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