Reconciling Regrets

There’s so much superstition and motivational garbage about regret. Regret nothing. Live without regrets. Love without regrets. But who can definitively categorize anything as a regret without experiencing it? You never know. 

And isn’t the truest cliche the one everyone learns with time, that you regret what you didn’t do ever so much more than what you did?

I had one of those, when I was far too young for regret. 

Every summer between four and sixteen, my sister and I spent with or father. We had good times; she’d have a stroke of she heard me say this, but our father was orders of magnitude better at entertaining his children than our mother was. I’m sure it wasn’t her fault; she went back to school when I was young, and didn’t have the time for things like that except in the summer, when we were gone. Or I could simply be making excuses for her. I excel at that. 

Good times, though. Square dancing and dulcimer playing and concerts in the park on the denim quilt my stepmother hand-tied in red string. Yard saling and flea marketing and cutting through Canada to reach New England. 

We went to a Greek festival once, and to a score of miniature shops full of tiny chairs and tiny beds and tiny plates and tiny forks. We spent a day in Frankenmuth, pretending to be Bavarian. We stayed in a cabin on Mackinac Island; we slept in a fire tower in the middle of a forest. 

We went to a dude ranch once, and I wandered off and fell into a freezing Colorado stream while wading where I probably wasn’t supposed to be. It wasn’t too bad, though; I didn’t get completely soaked. 

It was always hard to keep me away from running water. 

But I remember one experience I did lose precious childhood sleep over, fretting because I didn’t take the plunge. I don’t remember where we were; the Kalkaska County Fair? Osceola County Fair? 

One of the carnies was in charge of a wall–a large white wall of Wacky Wallwalkers. 

And I didn’t get one to bring home because I was too grossed out to touch one. 

I didn’t want one, but I was a kid, and the option was given me, and by gum, if somebody offered you a new toy, you took it. 

It had nothing to do with the stickiness, nothing at all. I had no idea what they felt like, because it was the first time I’d even seen them. 
It was the way they moved, the sudden jerkiness of a step, or six. The jostling jiggle of the loose appendages flying free in the carnival air. The sudden stop after a flip or tumble when they reattached themselves to the wall. 

They hurt my sense of reality, my understanding of how the world worked. All I wanted was to deny their existence, to push them as far away from myself as I could without ever making physical contact with anything so offensive. 

I couldn’t take it. But it was free. I couldn’t reconcile those two things. Could not. And I kicked myself for it for the longest time, to the point that I had nightmares about giant Wacky Wallwalkers. But I never told anyone. 

And I never, ever had a Wacky Wallwalker. 

Milk Bottle Magnetism

I know everybody’s story is more interesting than mine, but it’s been so long, I feel like I have to get this off my chest. I miss her so much now, and some nights, she’s the only thing I can think about when I’m lying in bed awake. So you can listen, or you can not, it don’t bother me either way. I just have to tell it, is all. Here goes.

I first saw her on the midway, one Saturday night probably twenty-four, twenty-five years ago. I’d been working with the carnival for just about two years then, and while it hadn’t gotten old yet, I could see that coming round the corner, not too far off now. I’ve always been one to need new experiences, and while some of you think that carnies have it made, it’s still the same thing, day in and day out, same people, same job, and same marks, just with little bit different faces.index

But I’m trying to tell you about her, about what she meant to me that one precious day. I know I get off track, but I just miss her so damn much, still. I was working the milk bottle game, trying to scam some marks out of their money because that was my job, not because I’m that kind of person. I always hated that part of the job, but I loved it at the same time. It’s power, you know? I couldn’t lie to her, though.

She walked up with a couple friends and I knew she was alone, because the other two were holding hands and sucking face every chance they got. She was tall, and tan, and beautiful. And when she smiled at me she blew away every overcast day I could remember, her smile was that bright. Ponytail and no makeup and cutoff blue jean shorts, but not so short that people would judge her on sight.

I remember the one lonely brown curl stuck to her neck with sweat from the heat of the day. Laid against her skin like that’s where it belonged, and the sweat not taking anything away from how beautiful she was. I couldn’t imagine her sweat having any kind of bad smell, but I remember I got so aware of my dirty carny clothes and my own sweaty stink. I don’t think she noticed, though.

She came right up and laid her five down for her three balls. I fumbled setting them on the rail for her, and that earned me another half a smile, which was worth more to me than any amount of green paper. I stepped back to let her take her shots, and she missed, all three. Didn’t even touch a bottle. She laughed, and the music in that laugh made me smile like I haven’t since. Not once since then.

Nothing measured up to her.

Somehow I was able to talk to her, and I told her to give it one more shot, on the house. I handed her the ball, and when her finger brushed against mine I knew she was the one for me. She thanked me, and gave it her best, and I’ll be damned if she didn’t knock ’em all down with that shot, something that should have been damn near impossible. It wasn’t my first go-round, and I knew how to set those bottles up right, but she did it. I think she loved my confusion more than she was excited about the prize she won, because she took that giant green bear and held it against her hip without another glance at it. She kept her eyes on me. Lord knows I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

“What’s your name?” she asked me, still smiling.

When I told her it was Roger, she made a face like she was filing that name away somewhere special in her head, and she caught the bear in the crook of her arm as she reached into her pocket and pulled out a pen. She took my hand off the rail and flipped it over to write her number on my palm. I caught my breath as she leaned in to to put her lips right next to my ear.

“Call me tonight,” she whispered. “I know you; you’re everything that I am. Call me.”

She winked at me as she squeezed my hand before setting it back where it was on the rail, and interrupted her face-sucking friends to drag them off to the Gravitron.

I tried to call her that night; I tried over and over, but I never got anything more than a busy signal. I was for sure that she had to know her phone was off the hook, that she’d come back to see me again, that she’d send her friend back, something, anything. Nothing, that whole next day. I was in misery.

And the very next morning, she made the front page of the paper. Those face-sucking friends of hers had driven the three of them off a bad curve, rolled the car, and lost all of their lives. That was it for me; I walked off the midway that minute and never looked back. I caught the next train I saw rolling down the tracks and lived the hobo lifestyle for a few months before I found a place that almost didn’t remind me of her.

And ever since then it’s been the same. I can’t stay anywhere for too long without starting to hear the tune of her laughter, without glimpsing that bright shining glow of her smile. She was the one for me, and I lost her before I even had her. I know there’s nothing that I could have done, but I still blame myself for losing her.