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Art always wakes up before dawn on festival day. Has done for seventeen years and this year is no different.
Maggie used to get up with him, but he’s been doing this alone for the last two years. They’re the anomaly among their friends where he’s the last husband standing, left alone with all of his wife’s old friends. But they get on well enough, he supposes – they still get dinner sometimes at the pizza place on Main Street like they’d done when Maggie was alive. He can’t talk about baseball as often as he’d like when they’re all together, but he can’t expect any other woman to be the kind of woman that Maggie was. She remembered all the Orioles starters, all the way back to the fifties, and they’d gone to every game they could during the glory years before they’d had the kids and moved out of the city. Maggie was the only woman he’d ever met that would argue with him about the game, that would sit and fill out her scorecard, and shout at the top of her lungs whenever anything good, bad, or in between, happened down on the field.
God, he’d loved that woman.
He’d never told her enough. But things were different then. His grandson, Jack, was always telling his wife that he loved her, kissing on her in front of the family and everything.
Things were different now.
He’d shown her in other ways, Art had. Making her coffee just the way she liked it (one cream, five sugars), sitting there quietly while she watched all those cooking shows he’d always hated, wearing those god-awful hats she used to knit him every winter.
He wasn’t the best at telling her, and it’s the one thing, looking back, that he wishes he could change. Maggie had always been the better of the two when it came to those sorts of things. She’d freshen her lipstick and put on one of her nice dresses every night before he got home from work, always made sure the kids were clean and fed and well-behaved. She packed his lunch every single day and the guys down at Sparrows Point were always so jealous of the things she’d sent and tried to bribe it off him (though nothing was going to get him to pass up one of Maggie’s meals – he’d sooner jump into the steel furnace).
And she used to get up with him every morning on festival days, even though he woke up at five just so he could sit on the couch with a cup of Folgers and watch the news. She used to get up and sit beside him and they’d talk about all the buildings going up in town because it never quite made sense that this was the same place they’d lived for the last forty-five years.
He remembered when it was pretty much all farms up this way. At least it had certainly seemed that way when he and Maggie moved out of the city to start their family. But then the base started growing, military transfers and all that, and the town had had to expand to hold them all.
It had grown quietly, subtly for a while, but now Art sometimes looks around when he walks down Main Street and he can’t quite believe that this is the same place he’d watched Sarah and John grow up.
He’d started the festival seventeen years ago for that exact reason. Well, it was mostly because Bill on the town council was pushing him to do it, but he only agreed because he thought it would be the perfect way to create something small, something important, something that would make the town, for a Saturday, the town that he remembered. The one where families got together and laughed and ate and shared stories – a town where people really connected with one another.
Maggie’d encouraged him to do it, too, and once Mags was behind it – well, there was really no way that he was going to be able to say no after that.
When he wakes up this morning, so many things are the same – the news is on, the coffee is percolating, he’s eaten one slice of toast and he’s got his eggs frying up in the pan. Everything is almost the same.
Everything is almost the same. As long as he doesn’t think about it too much.
He slides his eggs out of the pan, nudging them carefully onto the plate so he doesn’t burst the yolk. He’s not really sure why it matters, not when he’s going to grab his fork in two seconds and burst them until all the white, of the eggs, of the plate, have turned a rich marigold yellow. He’s not sure why it matters, but it’s probably just habit at this point.
Mags was always so careful about how she gave him his eggs. Maybe it’s a homage to her.
He walks – well, more accurately, shuffles – into the living room and grabs his tray from the side of the sofa. It takes him a moment to get it done, a bit of jiggling and frustrated mumbling, but he finally gets the table open and the legs stable, and he settles heavily into the sofa with a soft groan.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that this is his body. That this old body – the one that makes him shuffle, bends him over a bit at the waist, makes his movements so much slower than he imagines they’ll be – is the one that he’s living in now.
He remembers the way that he’d felt when he was younger. Like that body would always be the one he got to live in. When he could play volleyball down the ocean for hours, when he could haul his kids around town, scoop them up without a second thought. When he could pick Mags up like he had the night they were married and kiss her until they couldn’t breathe.
This new body hadn’t come overnight, but the change had been subtle. For a while. Once his knee had gone, it had been a pretty rapid decline after that. The doctors had said that the new knee would fix him right up and, sure, he could go up and down the stairs without as much trouble as he used to, but Art would still swear up and down that his knee hasn’t been the same since they replaced it with that damn piece of titanium.
Art grabs his fork and punctures the yolks, watches as the yellow pools across the plate while the news anchor talks about a triple homicide in the city the night before. His mind wanders.
He’s not exactly dreading what he’s got ahead of him today, but he can’t honestly say that he’s looking forward to it either. It’s hard, after working on something like this for as long as he has, to admit that it’s finally coming to an end. The kite festival had become a part of him, something that he could lean on when he had nothing better to do after he’d retired. It had been especially important these last two years since he’d lost Maggie, and well—
He wasn’t sure what he was going to do after today.
It’s been part of his life for the better part of forty years now, flying kites, but it still sometimes seems like such a random thing to have fallen into. He’d really taken to flying kites when he left Sparrows Point in the eighties. It was something he’d done with the kids down the ocean for years, but after he’d left the mill, he found that he liked getting outside and breathing air that wasn’t tainted with the smoke and gases he’d gotten used to. He still hacked and coughed and Maggie still nagged him to go to the doctor, but he felt better when he was outside, and so between flying kites with the kids and his new job down the dock, his coughing wasn’t too bad most of the time.
That meant, of course, that by the time they caught the mesothelioma it was already pretty far gone. But he manages it well enough.
And Maggie’d still gone before him and he’d never thought in a million years that that would happen.
He’d started this festival in 2001, the year after he’d retired from the dock. Maggie had gotten tired of him puttering around the house (the random renovation projects he’d undertaken were nice for a while, but the day she came home to find that he’d taken out the floors in the kitchen was close to being the last day of his life) and Bill had been asking him to organise something for the town anyway. He’d served with Bill informally on the town council for a few years before he’d retired, advocated for better transit down to the city so people could get to work, helped build that new playground by the library and renovate the armoury, that sort of thing. He’d been telling Bill that the town needed some more community events, outside the parades they hosted that never really encouraged too much interaction. Things had changed since people had started moving to the county – people didn’t know their neighbours anymore and they needed something that brought people together and got them talking, got them doing something fun.
“Something like the kite festival down the ocean,” he’d said. “I take the kids down there every year for that.”
That was all it had taken to have Bill Serrell hounding him for the next six months until Art’d finally cracked and agreed to start organising the damn thing.
That first year was more successful than Art had ever imagined it would be – they had fifteen hundred people out there that day. They ran out of the kites Arthur’d brought in the first two hours, the food stalls were cleaned out by noon.
The next year, they were ready.
It was like that for a decade – hundreds of people milling around the park for hours, drumming up business for local food vendors, getting people out of their houses and into something that, for many of them, they’d never tried before. It was Arthur’s pride and joy, this festival he’d been badgered into, and as he watched it grow and change over the years, he found it impossible to imagine that there might be a time when they wouldn’t be able to run the festival any longer.
That was all it had taken for the festival to start taking a down turn.
The local credit union was willing to continue to sponsor it for the first few years after things started getting rocky, was willing to hear Art’s argument that the weather hadn’t been great in 2013, that the festival had accidentally coincided with another town event in 2015. They’d been willing to hear his arguments all the way up until last year when Art was able to convince them to fund the festival one final time before they officially pulled funding.
People just weren’t showing up, not like they used to.
They couldn’t keep spending thousands of dollars on kites (that was always the one place Art was never willing to compromise, the kites) for people that weren’t bothering to come fly them.
So when he shows up at the park this morning, stacks of signs in the back of his truck, his friends, people who’d been volunteering with the festival for the last decade already setting up tables underneath the big shelter tent at the head of the field, Art’s got a bittersweet feeling in his stomach that he’s trying his best to smother.
It won’t do to get everyone worked up about this today. Not when they have such a good day ahead of them.
Mark, his old buddy from the Ocean City kite festival organisation, grabs a stack of signs out of the back of his truck when Art backs in.
“How’re you doin’, Art? Ready to fly?”
Art grins at him as he steps out of the truck, walks around the back and grabs his own stack of signs. “Can’t complain, Mark. How’re you?”
A steady stream of people arrives at the park while Mark and Art walk around the field setting up the sponsorship signs. After all these years, it’s a well-oiled machine – he watches as people grab the kite boxes out of his pickup, start setting up tables and unfolding chairs and setting them around. Susan, one of Maggie’s old friends, is here, earlier than usual, and Art shakes his head when he realises that she’s brought (again) her obscenely large bubble wand.
He hates the damn thing because he always ends up with soap all in his shirt, but the kids love it. That’s the only reason, really, that he hasn’t asked her to stop bringing it.
It’s just before ten by the time they’re finally finished setting up, and Art walks back to his truck and pulls his kite out of the front seat, the old, weathered orange one he’d started flying back in 2001.
This kite hasn’t been out in years, but under the circumstances – it seems fitting.
A few people show up over the next few hours – a young woman with a son, a little blonde boy who is, Art can tell, smart as a whip, and Art helps them set up their kite before he continues to mill around the field, checking in on everyone that’s here, getting settled in. He helps a few kids get their kites up into the air, explains to politely engaged parents that you don’t really have to run to set a kite up in the air. If the wind is blowing right and you’ve got enough string out and you hold her up high enough, the kite should just float right up out of your hand.
He still sees a few parents set their kids running to get the kites up, even after he’d told them, but he’s got other things to be getting on with and decides not to bother with it.
The food trucks come up, park along the far side near the hill, and a few people gather over there, especially once the kids realise that the snowball truck is there. Susan’s bubbles are all over the goddamn place, but he’s having a hard time being annoyed about it because the kids, now there are a few of them, maybe a dozen or so and their parents, seem to be enjoying them.
It’s a steady stream throughout the day – never too many people, never enough that Art thinks he could go back to the credit union and ask for another year of funding. But it’s a decent last year, enough of a turn out that he feels like he can call the day a success.
It’s well gone five by the time the last person leaves the park – Mark and Catherine had offered to help him clean up and take down the tables, but he’d rather just be alone, and so he tells them that it’s alright, that he’s got it.
“The credit union is bringing a breakdown crew by round six,” he says. “I’ll just start tidying up until then.”
It’s a lie, but they don’t know that, and so they go home to their families and Art is left alone to soak in the last few bits that he can.
He sits for a long time under the tent, feet stretched out in front of him in his old Orioles folding chair, the one that’s so frayed and sun-bleached that you can barely even see the old logo on the back. He sits there for a long time, listening to the traffic on 22 rushing past. The speed limit is thirty-five there, technically, but that’s never stopped anyone from blazing down that hill doing fifty at least. It used to drive Maggie absolutely crazy, and he chuckles to himself, thinking about all the things she’d have to say about it right now.
He sits there until the sun starts to dip below the trees in the neighbourhood across the way and then he pushes himself up out of the chair, mumbles about knees that he shouldn’t have bothered to replace if they weren’t going to work any better, and starts pulling the credit union signs out of the ground, stacking them on top of one another in the centre of the tent. They’re all over the damn field – he’d forgotten in the bustle of the day that they’d stuck them all around the perimeter of the park – and it takes him the better part of an hour to shuffle around and gather everything up.
He wishes every year that he’d remembered to bring his wheelbarrow, but he can’t lift the damn thing into the back of the truck anymore, not on his own. He could have asked John to pop over and help him out, but he wasn’t ever going to do that.
“You’re too damn stubborn, Arthur,” Maggie would have said. She would have pointed her finger at him and scolded him like a boy, and he would have deserved every word of it.
Still, knowing it doesn’t mean that he’s going to make a different decision.
He starts carrying the signs to the back of the pickup, dumping them unceremoniously into the back. He takes them in small piles, maybe fifteen to twenty signs each time, and so it takes him a few trips back and forth before he’s got them all.
The tables are a bit more of a production.
He manages to get them all onto their side easily enough, collapses all their legs without too much of an issue (it takes a little bit of struggling, especially with the one that’s got the leg with the rusty bolt, but he manages it). Carrying them over and lifting them into the truck, though, is another matter entirely.
He ends up dragging the damn things across the grass in an awkward, bumbling sort of way that he’s sure looks absolutely absurd. It takes him a moment to figure out how to get them into the truck bed, but setting them up like a ramp and sort of sliding them in is the only way that he’s going to be able to do it on his own.
He’s broken out into a mean sweat by the time he’s finally finished and his heart is racing faster than it has in years, and so he takes another minute, sits down in his chair, and lets his breathing settle.
It just wouldn’t do to have a heart attack in the middle of this goddamn field, least of all because he still doesn’t quite trust Upper Chesapeake, no matter who bought them. The university might own them now, but Art still can’t bring himself to believe that it’s more than some poor little county hospital – it’s why he still makes the trek all the way down to Hopkins whenever he’s got to go to the doctor, which is more and more often these days. It’s a pain in the ass, but at least he doesn’t have to go through the tunnel. And he’s able to schedule the appointments now so that he misses most of the traffic.
Well, when they haven’t got the roadway all blocked off for some construction project or another.
He decides to leave the tents for the night, figures that he can give someone in Parks and Rec a call tomorrow and have them pick them up. They’ve rented the tents from them anyway, it never did make sense why one of the festival guys had to be taking them back to the main office every damn year. He’s sure someone is bound to call him before the night is out to ask where the tents are at, but he could barely get the tables apart – there’s no way in hell that he’s going to be taking those tents down on his own.
Art doesn’t bother to get anything out of the back of the truck when he gets home, just shuffles inside and makes a mental note to call John and ask if he’ll come over tomorrow and help him get everything out and put it away. John and Clare were travelling, maybe, but it had been a few weeks since Art had called him and so it was possible they were back now.
Jack might come over if John couldn’t. Or maybe Abby. Art didn’t really want to have to pester Abby with something like this, but if he couldn’t get any of the boys over – he wanted to think that he could do it on his own, but his knees were already red and angry from the day he’d had and he knew that there was no way that he was going to be able to do all this on his own tomorrow.
He grabs the folding tray from beside the couch where he stuck it that morning, sets it up in front of his usual spot on the couch and clicks the tv on before he shuffles back into the kitchen. He’s missed the local news – it’s just some cop show on now – and so he flicks the channel to the Food Network and the sound of something sizzling fills the house. He looks at the television for a moment, watches the woman on screen cut up some vegetable that Art has never seen in his whole damn life, before he makes his way into the kitchen.
He hasn’t got much in the fridge – he’d forgotten to go food shopping the other day – but he’s still got one of those frozen lasagnes that Clare had made him a few months back after he’d gotten his knee done again. She’d been all worried that he wouldn’t be able to get up and get around and she’d made him damn near a dozen of them, all nicely frozen in their individual tins.
He sets the oven to preheat and wanders back into the living room to watch whatever they’re cooking up on TV while he waits. It takes their old oven fifteen minutes to get up to temperature, even longer to cook the lasagne because Art never did learn to leave the door closed longer than a few minutes, so it’s over an hour before he’s finally got his dinner ready. He thought, for a moment, that he should grab a plate, but it’s just him and he’d rather not wash a dish tonight if he doesn’t have to. The dishwasher is rarely full enough these days so he almost never runs it, often deciding to wash all his dishes by hand instead. Maggie would have an absolute fit if she could see him now, but the dishes start to smell when they’ve been in the dishwasher so long and, really, it only takes a few minutes to run a soapy sponge over a plate, it’s not like he’s standing at the sink for hours doing the washing up.
The lasagne pan is still hot, so he brings one of the old pot rests out to the living room with him. He digs his fork around in the lasagne to kick some of the steam out, and then he gives himself a moment to lean back into the cushions while he waits for it to cool.
He should’ve remembered to get ice for his knee while he was up, but he’s already sitting down now and that will aggravate it more than not having the ice.
It’s not until he gets up a few hours later and shuts the television off that Art realises the entire house had gone dark while he was eating dinner. He hadn’t turned on the light – it had been early evening when he’d sat down and the house had been reasonably light – and he hadn’t noticed the gradual darkening of the room as he sat there, people cooking on the screen in front of him, a slowly emptying lasagne pan on the tray in front of him.
Art doesn’t bother flipping on any of the lights as he walks back into the kitchen – he just drops his fork into the sink and gives the metal tray a rinse before he throws it into the recycling – but he does flick on the switch at the bottom of the stairs when he goes up for the night. The sudden brightness of the light in his eyes temporarily stuns him, and his hand grips tighter onto the banister as he starts to make his way up.
It takes him a minute, lifting one leg at a time up each stair, but his legs never have been right since that knee replacement, no matter what the doctor says. It takes him a minute, but eventually he’s at the top of the stairs.
He remembers, then, as he pauses to catch his breath, that he’s left his shoes downstairs by the front door – he knows that Mags would kill him if she’d come home and found those shoes sitting out, but he figures, now, that it’s alright if he just leaves them there for the night. He’s got to go back out tomorrow anyway and finish getting that stuff out of the back of the truck. He’ll have to remember to call John, or maybe Jack, see if one of them can come over and help him. He can already tell that his knees are going to be seriously hurting tomorrow and he knows that he should probably stay off them altogether, but it’s not like he can just leave those signs in the truck for ages just because his knee is feeling a little sore.
No, he’ll get it done and then it’ll be over.
He takes one last deep breath before he flicks the switch at the top of the stairs and shuffles off to his room in the dark.