My mother first visited Spokane to see Expo ‘74 and to meet my father’s extended family. I hitched a ride as a fetus, and only know these stories secondhand: the Soviet Pavilion, President Nixon at the opening ceremony, my legendary aunt, Lucy, nearly undone by cancer, struggling to navigate the crowds at the first environmentally themed world’s fair. We were the little city that could. Although not mine yet, Spokane would come later, after 20 years of military life, traveling to other cities with other fairs.
When we lived abroad, fairs were the way I remembered America. The corn dog, the caramel apple, the loping pony rides. Cowboys with hats tilted back, wisps of cotton candy, the hawkers as they called you to adventure. It was already there, this love for the muddy walkways and the vendors’ windows. I grew up on manicured Army bases, and felt only delight for that moment I got to feel the scruffy backs of goats, to feed them from the cup of my palm. Books had taught me to keep a lookout for a greedy rat hunting wrappers with words printed on them, or the delicate script of a spider’s web advertising Some Pig.
I can see them, my father’s family, introducing my mother to Spokane. To the shiny version of Expo ‘74, with the classic Clocktower and Opera House, the river snaking through, the IMAX screen promising a future of natural and technical wonders. Spokane! We might be anything! A city of tomorrow. To enter by the Carrousel and the marvelous suction goat, and wander into the park along the pathways to the falls. The mesmerizing city of trains.
I’d have leaned against my aunt Lucy’s hip, and posed there on the bridge. She was the kind of woman gangsters in the old movies refer to as a dame. A hard drinking, hard smoking, bright, curvy woman with a wit so quick it had dashed around you twice before you’d noticed. I think of Expo ‘74 as hers and mine. One of us leaving and the other on her way. Nobody wants to think about that part: how temporary the fair is. The boom and bust of summer. How we gather with our neighbors and family to hear a series of bands play while the bees alight on ears of corn and sticky smears of barbecue.
Fairs are my favorite outdoor markets, as reliable as my childhood. Glasses of lemonade in their hands, my mother and my aunt, raise their drinks to the camera. The photograph catches the light failing around them, the tiredness in her shoulders, how close I am to appearing. Expo ‘74, the last photographs anyone has of her. I wish I could tell Aunt Lucy about the first time I took my son to the county fair. I offered to buy him some elephant ears and he stopped, heartstruck, and yelled up at the vendor: “You can’t eat those! They need them! Those poor elephants!”
Jill Malone grew up in a military family, went to German kindergarten, and lived across from a bakery that made gummi bears the size of mice. She has lived on the East Coast and in Hawaii, and for the last 18 years in Spokane with her son, three dogs, a hedgehog, and a lot of outdoor gear. Jill has an MFA from Eastern Washington University. In 2011, she married a performance artist and addiction counselor who makes the best risotto on the planet. “Giraffe People” is her third novel. She blogs at jillmalone.com. Whenever Jill goes to a fair, she starts freaking herself out with scenes from “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”