My phone rings almost as soon as I enter the Renaissance Fair. My dad calling. Odd, I think. We usually text to plan phone calls. Could something be wrong? I watch my friends stream through the stained stucco arches of the fair entrance. The phone buzzes, insistent. I press it to my ear and emit a nervous hello.
“Hi Cody,” Dad says, “I’ve got some bad news.”
I remember when Michael told us he would be taking us to the Renaissance Fair.
I scoffed, assumed he was joking. Ren fests are for George R.R. Martin types: barrel-shaped, bearded men in homemade chainmail. We were visiting Michael to explore Washington DC and to drink and to pick up loose women and to generally have the kind of crazy time that leads to as many injuries as memories.
Then Michael notified us that he was trying to line up matching chainmail outfits. Suddenly, it seemed like he wasn’t joking. Maybe we young men really were going to spend a dusty Sunday afternoon with overweight fantasy enthusiasts, clinking barrel-shaped mugs of frothy, cheap beer while a bow-legged man on an aged horse cantered lamely at a target. Maybe it would be okay? Maybe it wouldn’t be weird? Maybe it would be some kind of adventure?
The place is billed as Maryland’s largest Renaissance Fair – or maybe the east coast’s largest. That strikes me as a bit like saying “World Largest Turkey Sandwich.” I mean, great job, but who is really going to turn out to eat the world’s largest turkey sandwich? That’s so much lunchmeat.
Based on the traffic jams and parking fields, though, many, many people will turn out for the region’s largest ren fest. Thousands of people on a random weekend in October, far removed from the typical tourist season time period. People of all stripes too. Men, women, young, old, black, white, and definitely a whole lot of “other.”
I wear a gold chain (broken) and a friend’s watch (dope). Not quite the matching chainmail outfits that were promised, but I feel ready to take on the day nonetheless.
“Casey passed away in her sleep last night,” Dad continues.
I watch a man in a red leotard re-apply gold paint to his face. “Casey died?”
“We found her this morning when we came over to pick her up for lunch.” Dad sounds calm, contained. He relays the facts like a newscaster, laying out what happened without getting caught up in the emotional details.
“That’s just…wow. So unexpected.” My friends are bunched up now, scouring the map for turkey legs and jousts.
“We were definitely surprised. We thought she was asleep, so I went in to wake her up and, well…” He trails off. It’s been an hour since he touched the still body of his deceased mother-in-law. It’s a wonder he can talk about it at all.
The Renaissance Fair is both dramatically more and less than I expected.
I pictured a circus, dense with colorful big tops and urine-soaked carnival rides. A hairy man at a plywood stand would sell beers far too large to cost $2. At some point there would be a lackluster parade and a raucous joust. The whole place would reek of impermanence – if we so much as blinked, the tents might fold into trailers and haul themselves away, leaving behind only dusty footprints and heaps of tacky Mardi Gras beads.
I was right about the joust, at least. But this Renaissance Fair was built to last, the stages and stands constructed of sturdy materials, arranged concentrically among the ravines and hillocks of an old growth Maryland forest. And rather than one limp stand selling cheap beer, dozens of vendors sold every type of food and drink you could possibly lust after, everything from the coveted turkey legs to the deep fried Oreos of Texas state fair fame. Meticulously crafted signs spelled out the offerings in bold, colorful fonts. Lines of draped cloth separated the man selling delicate clocks from the woman selling intricate rugs. Massive stages and intimate amphitheaters were tucked into every corner. You couldn’t stagger ten feet without stumbling on something to gape at.
It was altogether too much to take in. I almost longed for the flashing lights and disco soundtrack of the circus’s aging ferris wheel. Whereas I had expected an afternoon of mockery at the expense a decrepit fantasyland, I suddenly found myself in an honest to god theme park. I was too busy being slack-jawed to let loose any cutting remarks.
Dad continues to explain the situation, what had happened, what would happen. It’s all very clinical, like a doctor prefacing a minor surgery.
“Really, this is how she would have wanted to go,” Dad says at one point. Or maybe I say it. “Quietly, without pain, without lingering.”
Casey was clever. She spoke her mind. She was smart and determined. She was a broad array of colorful adjectives that you apply to women who break the mold. She was Casey, and she was pretty cool.
She made cakes for my birthdays. Always bundt cakes. Every year she checked to make sure I still liked chocolate. Whipped cream frosting, layered on thick because I liked that part of the cake best. She put chocolate chips in the frosting too; maybe that was the real best part.
I sent her postcards when I traveled. Typically, I would buy a card in the airport at the last minute, mind already focused on what I would be reading during the flight home. Sometimes I would forget. But every couple of months, she’d get a card from me from some exotic location like Johnson City, Tennessee or Fort Meyers, Florida.
When we visited her in Traverse City, she made a point of reminding me that I was always welcome in her home. With my parents or otherwise. “Bring your friends!” she would encourage. We could stay downstairs, where there was a bedroom, a living room, a full bath. All the comforts of home, no fees, and she promised we’d be undisturbed. It was a tempting proposal that I wish I’d acted on.
I eat a turkey leg. I drink a potent combination of beer and mead called a bee sting. I watch a bad joust half-heartedly. I find a filthy elephant giving rides in a desolate pen.
And yet, it’s a magical day, filled with wonder. The Renaissance Fair. There’s simply too much going on to not be intrigued, despite my obvious distraction. Or perhaps it’s because of the distraction that I’m having a glorious time. The lingering memories of my father’s phone call have left behind a new voice in the back of my mind, a voice reminding me that life is brief, life is often cruel, and life is what you make of it.
So I enjoy the day. I watch a man ride an enormous device composed of balanced rings, his shirtless, top-hatted form nimbly leaping between the rings as the motion of the device chases him inexorably towards the ground. I climb into a two-person hammock chair with Michael, our swinging, entangled bodies like the raw, straining birth of twins when we try to get out. I watch a crude German unicycler crack edgy jokes and I aggressively raise my hand every time he asks for a new volunteer on whom to heap abuse.
I think to myself that, while I could spend the day mourning Casey’s death, she would likely prefer that I celebrate life – hers, mine, anyones, so long as there’s celebrating. And the Renaissance Fair is kind of the perfect place for a celebration.