After Sam Allingham's “One Hundred Characters”
For one: your nephew, cry-screaming—it’s his fourth birthday. Then there’s your sister, a mom, so much like your mom, the way she announces, “We’re from out of town!” to the pimpled ticket-taker, the sunburned slushie-slinger, and the other moms lined up, rocking themselves as they lean on strollers.
And there is your wife, her smile, a character she performs for the family. Not that they notice you've been fighting. This may be why other people have children: a distraction from each other, from themselves. Your wife orders a slushie with a shot of rum in a plastic cup shaped like a dog, grinning or snarling.
This place is familiar to you, to a younger version of you who’s been on your mind lately. The summer after Dad died, you worked security at a park like this. You became well acquainted with the costumed performers, coked-up co-workers, snaking lines, urine-stink of the lazy river, and squeals of outdated rides threatening collapse. It’s been years since you thought of that old place, that old desolate you, and the girl who operated the Tilt-o-whirl.
A text interrupts the memory: your officemate again. The copying machine is busted. Your reflection on the screen is another version of you that you never intended to live.
The Tilt-o-girl dreamed you'd become a musician with a fun-loving tour bus driver and "non-creepy" groupies to play checkers with and drink green smoothies—though you never did either together with her, just fast sex in the staff trailer nick-named Tricky for the park’s Mickey knock-off. (Omar from the Pop-Rocket dubbed it “Dicky” and Janet from the Ice Cream Scoop called it “too sticky.”)
Another text, this one from your wife standing behind you: If we wait any longer, we won’t be able to keep up with our own kids. You turn, and she nods toward a grandmother with a wet towel over her head, a grandfather panting like the hypoallergenic poodle you got to postpone this conversation. Their kid stares blankly into a screen; her kid(s) an absence.
You take a long look around: ex-biker dads, their tattoos mocking their loosening skin; ex-sorority moms, how they pose for selfies like centerfolds; the grandparents they dragged to watch their kids run, cry, trip, spit… and paint their faces: a butterfly, a tiger, a puppy, a pirate.
Do you even know who you are yet?
The first time you contemplated fatherhood was back when Amanda, the Tilt-o-girl, showed up at your security station with two candied apples and news of a positive pregnancy test. You both left your apples on the pavement with the discarded bones of turkey legs and cotton candy tumbleweeds.
Perhaps that was when your own dreams of stardom quietly went supernova. Or maybe it was after you made the decision together; you drove her to the clinic, rushed past the protesting men shouting, “Murderers!” the scowling women and their children holding signs, “Would you kill me?” and “What about me?” above a photo of a baby with a toothless smile.
In the waiting room, you saw a teen holding back tears, a stoic woman in her forties, a mom already wrangling four children: two coloring, another spinning around and around, the last sleeping, slung to her chest. You remember them all, including the chatty nurse who took Amanda back. You waited with the only other un-father to whom you didn't speak, overwhelmed with devastating relief.
Your wife talks to the heat, to God, to no one. All listen. None listen. You haven’t told her about Amanda and the pregnancy. She helps your nephew maneuver The Claw, and after they retrieve a plush baby doll, you decide it's best to wait.
At the show, your nephew fixates on the singing bird puppet, your sister on the unseen puppeteer, and the singer standing conspicuously off stage. Your wife watches a single mom hugging her enraptured daughter tightly on her lap while you watch the underpaid guard who has memorized the choreography and contemplate whom he dreams to be: a dancer for the ballet? The person in the bird suit? Anybody less bored?
It wasn't long after you left the park job that you met your wife, a fellow bartender at the venue you dreamed of playing. She let you into her group: a clean-cut hippie, a straight-edge punk, and an adjunct professor who also tended bar. She introduced you to another side of the city with humor and warmth. She encouraged you to dream again of new versions of yourself: a gigging songwriter, a pit performer, a band director on a rostrum, or their assistant hastily amending charts. You dreamed with her, too, of the clear-eyed researcher she'd become, the nurturing teacher—how she loves students, Emma.
You push through the crowd, nephew on your shoulders, Emma beside you. She watches the leathery-skinned divorcés exchanging numbers and necking teens and manages to both smile and tighten her brow. Then the jovial melodic announcer says, "The parade begins in ten minutes."
You see a running toddler fall; her older sister picks her up and bounces her on one hip, then their mother walks over and kisses her head. For a split moment, you think you've seen Amanda. Not the mother, but the older daughter caring for your child.
“What is it?” Emma says.
The music begins. A teen guard, just like you were once, clears the path for jugglers, unicyclists, acrobats, trumpeters, the fuzzy dog suit guy, and a float of people painted like wildflowers.
You squint through the procession, trying to find Amanda again, but she's gone. You briefly catch your sister's gaze and think of Dad. Had he been around when— What would he have told you? What would you say to your child? Your child.
Emma squeezes your hand.
You’re ready, you think. You might just be.
The performers spill onto the pavement. And then come your past selves, Emma’s, and your future selves too, a family, all join the parade.