She was doing it again, that thing she gave Paul so much crap for. She was watching Lily through the camera. It was so easy with her iPod twisted toward the girl, rapid fire shutter closing, snapping ten pictures so she could choose later which one Lily had managed the right smile, right glance, no blur, no glare; the picture for the Christmas card.
Lily’s legs draped over either side of the pony, her hands held tightly to the pommel, her back straight with tension, her face flushed with the thrill of being horseback. Paul stood next to her, one hand on Lily’s back, the sun piercing that crevice between his sunglasses and his face making him wince and turn inward toward their daughter.
“Smile!” Roberta called. “Smile!”
Her family smiled dutifully and then the ponies began to move. Lily squealed. Paul laughed. Roberta watched through the iPod lens, changed the camera from still picture to video, captured the movement, the sounds.
The pony under Lily lifted its hoofs just far enough to shuffle forward. A slow, deliberate pace, around the small paddock under the yellow vinyl tent, hay and concrete under foot. A soft clock-clock-clock as he and his four companions circled the tent, like the sound of high heeled shoes on a wooden dock.
Roberta looked over the edge of the iPod, to the outer ring of the small enclosure. Parents circled the tent, each watching their children aboard the ponies, as she did, through the lens of some recording device. A camera, a phone, a video recorder. Each smiling as his child passed by. The parents in the inner circle kept pace with the children and the animals, like less-enthusiastic show dog owners on Thanksgiving Day.
Roberta lowered the iPod, pressed the button to close the camera app, put the screen in hibernate and dropped it into her shoulder bag. The heat had found them, despite being October, and when she lifted her arm to open her bag, she’d caught a whiff of her own perspiration. Not as bad as the cows they’d just wandered behind, but bad enough to make her wince.
Paul had dropped his arm from Lily’s back and was now simply walking beside her. Roberta recognized that attention. It was as if he couldn’t decide whether she needed him there or not. He kept looking at her face and then stepping back a little, until he was out of her view.
Lily’s hands never left the pommel. Roberta waved at her but Lily didn’t wave back, she only smiled. It was a big smile, the kind that took up most of her face, her thick cheeks squeezed between the open corners of her mouth and the squints of her eyes. When the rotation made its way into the side of the tent exposed to the sun, Lily and Paul both turned inward, away from the light.
In the chute, awaiting their turn, was a Latino man and his three young children. Nearby stood a small but shapely Latina woman, readying her camera. Roberta watched the man lean down to hear the complaints of one small upturned face, he responded to the child in Spanish and then the woman added a sharper toned rebuke. The child cowered. The father stood upright. One of the siblings pushed the complainer. The shuffle went unnoticed by the father who had now turned to look at Roberta.
He must have felt her staring, she thought. She smiled at him, made eye contact, intended the look to be sympathetic. He did not soften his look and Roberta looked away, to the mom. She was watching the screen of her phone.
Somewhere nearby a baby began to wail and Roberta searched the crowd for it. There, in line to ride the elephant. A mother with a stroller squatted in front of the carriage. A small child standing near her began to pull on her shirt. She gently rebuffed him as she adjusted the baby, the source of the wailing. The small child turned to the father who had his phone in his hand, stared at the screen, and watched the elephant making circles in the enclosure beyond the line. When the boy tugged on the man’s shirt, the man pointed, phone-in-hand, to the elephant. The boy looked warily at the mother whose attention was on the carriage and then at the elephant looming large beyond the tall metal steps they’d have to climb to be high enough to climb aboard. The boy raised his arms to the man but he didn’t see. He’d gone back to looking at his phone.
“Hi, baby!” Roberta called, looking back at her own child, astride one of the four ponies on the rotating wheel. Paul had stopped following now and stood back against the inside of the paddock. Lily still clung to the pommel, the cuffs of her white shirt pooling at her wrists. White. A white shirt. What the hell had she been thinking?
The State Fair had been all dirty benches, suspect puddles, and strangers’ behinds brushing against one another. Crowds, animals, bleating intercoms and crying children. And it was hot. The whole outfit and the child wearing it would need bleaching when they got home.
The carousel horses needed paint, the thick leather bands strung like faux reins over the necks were soft and worn from too many children gripping them. She and Lily had boarded and then whirled beneath the music and the lights, Lily’s chosen black steed bobbing up and down and up and down.
Now Lily sat astride a real pony and the bob was subtle, just a sway of her tiny four-year-old hips in the miniature saddle. White skirt. Lily wore white with white, blue with blue, and a black polka dot turtle neck with a pink polka dot skirt. “Same same,” she would say, pointing at the two articles, “same same.”
Roberta looked back at the mom with the carriage, the baby had stopped wailing. The mother dragged the back of her hand across her forehead, stood and put her hands on the small of her back. She arched, stretched, turned, caught Roberta watching.
Roberta smiled, she meant for it to be sympathetic.
The woman smiled back. Pinched her pink blouse between her fingers, pulled it away from her chest, in and out, fanning herself, “hot!” she mouthed.
The mother turned away, looked down at the boy who had given up asking for attention and now stood, not touching anything, staring at the bottom of the man in front of them in line. The mother touched her son on his shoulder. He turned, looked at her, gratitude lit his face. He buried it in his mother’s leg.
Roberta looked back at the paddock. Paul had moved closer to her and now stood on the other side of the low barrier between them. She could touch him, reach him. He was still watching Lily. His features softened, a slight smile, amusement, curving his lips upward. He had his arms folded over his chest, the cotton of his t-shirt strained, snug, against his biceps and billowed below his forearms, tightening a little over his growing middle-aged belly. He still wore cargo shorts like a teenager and the same tennis shoes he’d had since college.
He turned, caught Roberta’s eye, and smiled, then looked back at Lily.
She may have fallen. The pony may have bucked, had enough, revolted. But it was unlikely. She sat, carried along slowly, around and around.
The arena attendant stepped in and lifted one of the metal bars jutting out from the center. He walked a few paces, turning the wheel, so the ponies, each one chained to a bar on the wheel, wouldn’t have to pull the weight with the bridles. So the ponies wouldn’t get tired of pushing the wheel, tired of turning circles, tired of ferrying children around, and stop. So the ponies wouldn’t revolt.
The attendant didn’t look at the children. He didn’t look at the parents. He watched the ponies.
Roberta watched the ponies, too. Their slow, bored clop-clop-clop with the slide of the hoof against concrete and straw. Around and around. Turning their heads a little bit outward, as far as the chained bridles would allow. Their muzzles wet with foamy sweat, their big black eyes wide open.
Roberta made eye contact with one. As he neared her, he strayed toward her, but the short chain on the bridle held him to the wheel. The wheel moved, he moved, underneath her, past her. The next one appeared. She looked at its eyes. It, too, strayed toward her, but the chain held fast and its head pulled back toward the center, lowered its gaze.
“Mommy! Look at me! Hi-yah!” Lily cried.
“I see you! You’re very pretty, darling,” Roberta said. She waved. That perspiration stench wafted toward her. The sweat had her shirt glued to her back, her bra soaked.
The ponies made another circle. Roberta found the pony’s gaze again. Was this the same one? The black orbs of his eyes searched hers. Then the chain tugged and he turned his face away. The next one, same thing, eyes wide, searching her face, head leading toward her.
She thought to reach out and stroke them. To comfort them. To empathize.
The attendant made a nickering sound and the ponies stopped. The two she’d looked at and had looked at her, were now facing away. She thought to circle the arena, smile at each, say goodbye.
Paul lifted Lily from the back of the third pony. Roberta looked at him. His black eyes blinked, once, twice.
“Thank you,” Roberta said.
Paul and Lily emerged through the chute, Lily at a run. She threw herself at Roberta. “I wanna go again!” she said. “I wanna go again!” jumping up and down.
Roberta laughed, Paul was already looking for the next attraction. He nodded toward the white vinyl tent behind them. Roberta smiled. She looked back at the ponies. The Latino man was hoisting his children onto their backs. The children’s mother stood outside the gate, her camera aimed at them.
Roberta took Lily’s hand and followed Paul into the tent. The snorts and smells of pigs quickly taking the place of those fathomless black eyes.