The carnival that signified the finish of the summer would also be the subconscious destination of Mr. Charles Miller.
Charles had business that brought him to Chicago. To his delight not only had his affairs been successfully resolved, but the matter concluded earlier than he had expected. He now had several extra days before he was to fly to his home that was far, far away.
Over a celebratory Friday night drink in the Deerpath Inn, his quite cosy Lake Forest hotel, he recalled his childhood in Waukegan, the former industrial city north of Chicago. He wondered whether the Lake County Labor Day Carnival still existed. His helpful and knowledgeable concierge confirmed that the event still took place, in fact, it was on that weekend. The carnival began on the Friday evening and ended with the literal bang of fireworks that lit up the dark sky of the first Monday of September that was Labor Day in the United States.
After Saturday morning breakfast, he drove his rental car north to Waukegan. He somehow had the feeling that he was being drawn towards something he could not place in a manner he could not explain, as if he was caught in a subtle rip current. The rip was invisible to those not in the know of the lore of the ocean, but it would pull you away from the shore and sometimes to your doom before you knew what was happening.
He arrived in his now dilapidated hometown and neighbourhood where the population demographics had changed and the once lovely area was denuded of its tall shady trees and once vacant lots. He parked and walked the pavements of his neighbourhood but his mind was in a different time...
He was the youngest of his neighbourhood's gang of children. The children younger than him were in their infancy and incapable of outside play, so he would always be the 'kid' of the gang.
The gang played every day after school and all day long on Saturdays and school holidays until dinner time or when the streetlights went on. In the summer their playtime was slightly extended into the darkness as the parents watched them from their porches and reminisced on their own childhoods. They lovingly watched them as they played kickball in the streetlight and chased the lights of yellow fireflies across their lawns. Otherwise the only time the gang went out at night was trick or treating on Halloween.
During the week they would return home from their schoolroom labours. The gang hurriedly talked to their parents, then changed into their play clothes; in Charles' case they were blue jeans, 'tennashoes' and a baseball cap. They'd meet one by one in the street until they all were together and they would decide what they wanted to play.
Sometimes they'd go to the overgrown vacant lot that doubled as Deepest Darkest Africa, South Pacific Islands in World War II, or the planet Venus where the girls would unite to battle against the Spacemen. Other times they would play hide and go seek in the neighbourhood churchyard, a church none of the families in the neighbourhood attended, or play kickball or whiffle ball in the tree lined street where they would flee to the kerb when the infrequent car would pass by and the driver would wave to them.
He had read that young children laughed hundreds, if not thousands of times a day and he recalled in his neighbourhood that was a certain fact. Everyone seemed to get along and did funny things or told funny stories. If they had none of their own exploits or jokes to tell, they'd recount a funny scene from a cartoon, comedy short, movie or television show that would set off laughter as they played their games. Though their weekdays at their neighbourhood school and their hour or so of church on Sundays seemed to last an eternity, their playtime never seemed too short, and there was always tomorrow....
When the weather was awful they would remain in their homes to watch the Three Stooges, cartoons or a '40s or '50s afternoon movie, or they would play with their toys.
The only time they left their neighbourhood as a gang was going to a summer carnival, to the large parks in the summer for exploring jungle type ravines or in the winter for sledding and ice skating, or they went to the downtown cinemas to see and loudly cheer movies together; as they walked back home the gang vocally relived all the fun parts of the film.
Sunday was the exception to their playing together. Their traditional parents proclaimed it a 'day of rest', the children translating that as 'no fun allowed'. The neighbourhood streets and vacant lots were deserted as the children were nowhere to be seen. Charlie had imagined some of his playmate's parents belonging to 'strict religions' where they'd spend the entire day inside a church. In reality the children were with their parents either visiting and having lunch with their relatives or being taken on 'the Sunday drive' where their fathers fantasised about being the captains of ships of exploration. The children were rewarded with ice creams in return for their not being loud, obnoxious or car sick.
His own father worked on both days of the weekend and toiled four extra hours on Wednesday and Thursday nights to pay for their lovely home in their safe pleasant neighbourhood. His father's day off was Friday that he'd enjoy with his wife whilst Charles and his older brother were in school. On Sunday mornings Charles would go to church with his mother, come home to watch action packed 1940s serials or 1950s television shows, have lunch, then watch a classic Golden Years of Hollywood film on Picture for a Sunday Afternoon; until his mother shouted at him to get out of the house where he'd walk through his deserted neighbourhood playing games in his mind.
Charles had never forgotten the break from the routine when he was watching a classic Picture for a Sunday Afternoon on the family's black and white set. There was an unexpected knock on the door. It was Charlotte, one of the girls in the neighbourhood gang who like the others, was older than he was.
Instead of the usual 'Can you come out and play?' she asked 'Can I talk to your Mom?'
Charles wasn't in any trouble so brought his mother to the door as he returned to his war movie.
His mother delightfully brought Charlotte into their living room and explained that Charlotte wanted to see a movie but her parents would only allow her to go if he went with her.
'What's the movie, Charlotte?'
'What's it about?'
'It's a Cary Grant detective movie.'
'Wow! A Cary Grant detective movie!'
Charlie was excited and found himself on his first movie date as Charlotte's parents drove them to the Academy Theatre, paid their way in and gave him money to buy the pair of them popcorn. Life didn't get any better than that, and when thinking about his life later, he recalled that the Technicolor film had some profound effects on him.
The grownups said nothing lasted forever, to which the kids would reply that 'school certainly did'. However, one by one the children stopped coming to play. No one said anything, but there was an instinctual sense that they had grown up and would never return. Nor did they, and it always amazed Charles that he never saw them again in the neighbourhood, as if they had vanished to a different world. They left one by one without a good bye, until there was but him and Charlotte and Betty Jo. He certainly didn't mind playing with two girls as they were fun to be around and they made him laugh. Then one day they were gone, and he was left all alone...
The ball games he played with other boys from other neighbourhoods were never as much fun as his playtime with the neighbourhood gang, and soon the ball games were replaced by going to the cinema on a weekly basis. He had some pals in high school who, like the kids in the neighbourhood gang, were years ahead of him in school. Then they dropped out or graduated but he kept in touch with a few of them.
He no longer knew anyone in his old neighbourhood, his neighbours were long gone and their children had moved to unknown locations. After walking around the grounds of his Glen Flora Elementary School he had a splendid lunch at Louie's; the bar, pizzeria and restaurant of the neighbourhood.
There was nothing left in the once thriving downtown area, its shops and cinemas were also long gone as well as the lakefront factories that employed their fathers. After driving by Waukegan's attractive harbour and beachfront he drove to the fairgrounds, the site of the Labor Day Carnival. Again, he felt as if he was being drawn towards something he had no idea of, but he would know it when he saw it.
It was nearly four o'clock when he arrived at the fairgrounds. He chuckled at the memory of that time in his childhood when the streets would empty and all the kids would be watching an RKO Tarzan movie on a Milwaukee television channel.
Looking at the Labor Day Carnival sign, he imagined he was William Holden in Picnic.
The sound of the carnival crowds over the loud music, the smell of the junk food for sale and the sight of the rides designed to make you vomit that food were the same as they always were. In his childhood, the carnival was the place where anything could happen...He was in a state of nostalgic bliss and was not fighting or questioning the feeling of being pulled somewhere...
He recognised that the music was now playing Ricky Nelson's String Along. Suddenly it seemed that there was one woman, who was set apart from the crowds. She seemed about his age but her spectacles did not make her seem familiar, yet he found himself walking towards her.
'Charlie? Charlie Brown?'
It was the voice that he recognised before he recognised her face that now resembled her mother's face.
'Charlotte! Charlotte Stephens! It's you!'
She radiantly smiled and they embraced.
'It's Charlotte Ryder now. And where did you spring from?'
'Sydney! I had some business in Chicago that I finished early. I just had a spin around the old neighbourhood and lunch at Louie's, then came here. I can't believe it's you!!!'
'Yes, it's me. Two husbands, three children and one grandchild later! And you live in...Australia???'
Americans always said the word with delight.
Charles Miller, the 'Charlie Brown' of the neighbourhood gang laughed.
'Yes, I ran out of places to go and I'm Down Under permanently!'
'How many kids do you have?'
'None. My Dad convinced me that once you have children you'll never have any more free time or spare cash.'
Charlotte laughed with her mouth but her eyes showed an extreme disappointment.
'Where are you living, Charlotte?'
'Are you still in touch with Betty Jo?'
'I'm not in touch with anyone from Waukegan since leaving high school. I went to SIU, picked up a degree and a husband, then the kids came one by one, then the first grandchild came and another one's on the way'.
'And how did you ever end up in Australia?'
'I loved travelling, and when I thought about it, it was all thanks to you.'
'What do you mean?'
'Do you remember when you came over to my house and we went to see Charade together? After I saw that movie with you I wanted to travel to and live in all those beautiful places in the world and solve mysteries with someone like you'.
She laughed, 'It was just a movie to me...I'm no more Audrey Hepburn than you're Cary Grant!'
'You were Audrey Hepburn to me...Didn't you tell us that one day you wanted to write mysteries?'
'You remembered!', she gushed in an amused but shocked manner.
'How many have you written? You were a great story teller.'
'None. Charlie, every girl goes through a Nancy Drew phase. First she reads those adventures, then she wants to live them, then she wants to write them, then one day there's more important things.'
'Grades, the opposite sex, worrying about what others think about you, college...you never worried about those things?'
'No, they weren't important to me. I dreamed of solving mysteries with someone like you in Paris or the French Alps, then I lived the dreams, maybe someday I'll write about them.'
'So you've got a future as well as a past?'
'I've always been stuck in the present, Charlie. I rarely had time to think about my childhood and I'm afraid to think about my future where I'll grow old and die, hopefully later rather than sooner'.
'Charlotte's Web', he pondered. 'That was the first book I ever read where people understood and accepted death.'
'I loved that book', she enthused, then grew pensive, 'I cried at the end.'
'What do you do for laughs?'
'I enjoyed watching my children growing up and laughed at the things they did. Then my grandchild came along and I love and laugh at her growing up....', she paused and asked, 'You never have grown up, have you Charlie?'
'No, you and Betty Jo left me one day without saying good bye and then I was on my own.'
'That's the way things are Charlie. that's the way they've always been. But what did you do after school? I've never met anyone who's never grown up.'
'I joined the army, which is really a form of prolonged adolescence but with stricter parents, saw the world, earned a degree in criminology on the G.I. Bill, but I preferred soldiering so I soldiered around the world or worked as a private eye...Neverland incarnate. Then I came to learn I was getting old and needed a steady income so I settled down in the public service as an investigator.'
She laughed, 'Well, you always were playing with your armymen, I was forever playing with my dolls.'
'But we played "Guns" or "House" together.'
'Then you became International Detective and I became domestic housewife.'
'That's it in a nutshell, Charlotte. Did you want the life you've got now?'
'It happens, Charlie, for better or worse, and with me it was for the better, it happened.'
She smiled and held her hands up in the air.
'"Hurry, hurry, hurry come on the run"! I still remember you singing that all the time!'
'That's all the words of that song I knew, but I kept singing it! I remember when you and your sister moved into the neighbourhood. We were looking at the moving van and both of you ran up to us and we were friends ever since!'
They were united in fond nostalgic smiles.
'You know I've always wondered what made you and the other kids stop coming around to play without saying goodbye on that particular day. Did you wake up one morning and think "This is stupid", or did your parents tell you that you were suddenly too big to play, or did you find new friends? How did it happen on that one day you never showed up anymore?'
'"Sorry, Charlie"', they both laughed at the memory of the television commercial of the cartoon tuna fish who wanted to be caught and eaten, but never was.
'I honestly don't remember. I just don't know how it happened; maybe it was all of those things together. I've never thought about it...You're the only person I've known or ever heard of who asks about those things'.
'I'd love to know, Charlotte. It's truly important to me, maybe it can help me figure out my life.'
'Like we used to sit on the curb together? Figuring things out between the games we played and the jokes we made.'
'Exactly! You remember us sitting on the kerb together! Your memories are coming back!'
She radiantly smiled, 'They are coming back, Charlie Brown, for the first time in ages they're coming back!'
A small five year old girl who only slightly resembled the childhood Charlotte accompanied by what looked like Charlotte's daughter joined them.
'Charlie, this is my daughter Therese and my granddaughter Susie. This is my favourite of the gang of kids I played with when he was your age, Susie. We called him "Charlie Brown".'
'Hi, Mr. Brown', smiled Susie.
'Hi, Susie. It's great to meet you', Charlie smiled.
'Are we going now Grandma?'
'Yes, we are Susie. I've got to leave you again, Charlie Brown...but this time I'll say "goodbye".'
They embraced without words but Therese could sense strong feelings between them. Charlotte picked up Susie,
'And what have you been doing, Susie?'
With Therese by her side they merged into the crowd of the carnival, leaving a wistful but wiser Charles.
Author Notes: I am the author of three Extra Dimensional/Ultraterrestial military science fiction novels MERCENARY EXOTIQUE, OPERATION CHUPACABRA and WORK IN OTHER WORLDS FROM YOUR OWN HOME! as well as two travel books THE MAN FROM WAUKEGAN and TWO AUSTRALIANS IN SCOTLAND. I live happily ever after with my wife in paradise (coastal Kiama, NSW Australia).