In the minds of many, the last half of August belongs to the state fair. I’ve been just once. Danielle and I brought Caleb when he was four years old, and she was pregnant with Hollis. After squeezing through crowds of sweating people—some of them strangers to sunscreen—and stopping to gobble a deep-fried candy bar, we ran against a tent with mesh walls. Inside were said to be thousands of butterflies and some exotic jungle growth. We could hear excited youngsters. Danielle decided to park her pregnant self outside, next to the tent’s exit, to rehydrate while Caleb and I tunneled in and paid for admission.
The scene within did not disappoint. Saturated color and graceful symmetry bobbed all around us, and the butterflies alighted on our heads and bodies and put us under their spell. The trance could not be broken, even by amped up kids who were far more frenetic than the insects. At first, I stayed with Caleb as his impulses carried us through the tent, its gauze walls admitting the crowd’s murmur and the hot dogs’ rendered fat. After some time, I drifted to the gift shop in a corner, admiring the glass pretties and turning now and then to follow Caleb’s meanders. This place was so unexpected! It was an oasis. It…wait, where did Caleb go?
I could see maybe forty kids in the tent, but none of them were my son. Okay, he’s in here somewhere. Maybe behind a bush or something, right? Stay cool. I got methodical, looking each child in the face. After noting that he or she was not Caleb, I moved on, sweeping slowly through a scene that no longer enchanted. No sign of him. I wondered if I was too calm, and if Danielle would suggest that a major freakout was in order. Danielle. Right outside the tent’s exit!
At the doorway, I asked a young guy if he’d seen a kid go out by himself. Nope, sure hadn’t. Blinking into hard light, I met Danielle, who looked confused and accusatory. She was alone. “Where’s Caleb?” I explained that I’d lost track of him, that he just wasn’t in there. But he wasn’t with her, either. And he was four years old. “What?! Oh, shit!”
We didn’t draw up a search plan with x’s and o’s on a napkin. She took off running along the tent’s perimeter, scanning the crowd and calling our son’s name, more ragged by the second. That tipped me over. I re-entered the tent through its exit, to search one more time. My pulse was jacked, and though my armpits squirted sweat, I felt chilled. The mash of colors inside the tent made me nauseous. Again, I wondered if I was acting too deliberately. “Caleb? Caleb?” My voice sounded shaky and weak. The squealing kids and the butterflies paid me no mind and I hated them. Some other parents looked up, recognizing something raw and out of place in this wonder bubble. He wasn’t in here. Not in here. Not fucking in here!
Now I dashed outside again. The crowd was no longer made up of individuals, it was a swarm that had swallowed my son. My only son, whom I loved to pieces. He was so bright and happy and I’d failed him. Just because I’d been checked out for one little minute. No!
Then they were coming toward me. Both of them. Crying. “Where were you, buddy?” Danielle had found him by the tent entrance. He’d lost sight of me inside and had bolted out through the entrance tunnel. Once outside, he’d whirled and scanned his small horizon as the crowd enveloped him. He’d been confused and panicky. Two women had watched with concern and then alarm as a lone man approached and beckoned Caleb to come with him. The man had taken him by the arm. One of the women asked our son, “Is that your dad?” The man had spun and melted away. The ladies comforted Caleb until Danielle found him. Whoa.
What I felt when I thought I’d lost Caleb is nearly indescribable. It was a compound of fear, guilt, anguish, and sorrow. I’ve only felt a comparable emotion at one other time in my life. I’ll bet you can guess when that was. I’ll show you what that was like, in time. Until then, enjoy the glory of summer!