“You goin’ to the Fourth?” Emily had heard her cousins, Jimmy and Tommy, ask once a year ever since she could remember. “Goin’ to the Fourth?” She never asked anyone exactly what is the Fourth, or where is it, but she knew from the excitement in her cousins’ voices when they piled into the car with Aunt Louise and Uncle Grady that something special was going on. The car would go down the road in a cloud of red dust leaving Emily behind. She would wave until they were out of sight.
Emily supposed it was because she was only five and the boys, at eight and ten, got things that she would have to wait for. They already had bicycles and BB guns and a television. Emily had tried to ride Jimmy’s bike but fell off and skinned her knees. They wouldn’t let her shoot their gun. “That’s not for girls,” Tommy always said. They did, however, let her come over on Saturday mornings to watch Howdy Doody.
It was that time of year again. Jimmy and Tommy started talking about “Goin’ to the Fourth.” Emily wondered if maybe this would be her time.
“Emily, come on in,” Mommy called. “I want you to get a bath so we can be ready to go when Daddy gets home from work.”
“Where we goin’, Mommy?”
“We’re going to the Fourth.”
Emily hurried through her bath. “Goin’ to the Fourth, goin’ to the Fourth,” she sang.
“Oh, no.” Emily suddenly remembered the one thing the boys had told her about the Fourth. At the Fourth there was a big wheel that people got on and went way up in the air, then came down and went around again. The boys had a toy one that they let her play with. It was pink, hard plastic with little swinging seats. Sometimes when the seats came down to the bottom, they turned upside down. “Oh. I hope that doesn’t happen,” she worried. “I can’t stand on my head.” She decided to practice.
When Mommy came to tie her shoes, Emily was in the corner kicking her stocking feet against the wall as she tried to get her legs in the air.
“Emily Kay! What are you doing?”
She knew Mommy wasn’t really angry, even if she did have her hands on her hips. Emily could tell her eyes and her voice were about to laugh.
“I’m practicing for the Fourth.”
“What do you mean?”
“I can’t stand on my head. Jimmy and Tommy told me all about it.”
“I don’t know what those boys have been telling you, but…” Mommy never finished because just then Daddy came up the drive, blowing the car horn in his special “hello” way. “Toot ta toot toot”
In the car on the way to the Fourth, Emily was excited and just a little afraid about having to stand on her head. Then she laughed to herself. Would Mommy stand on her head and, if she did, would her dress go up. And what about all the other big people. This might be worth seeing after all. It might even be worth the risk of falling when the seats came down to the bottom.
Daddy drove the car into Crossville. Was the Fourth here? Emily had been here many times, and she’d never seen anything out of the ordinary. Mommy came here to buy groceries and dress material and new shoes. The three of them came here for movies once in a while. Emily wasn’t fond of sitting in the dark, but she did enjoy popcorn and the large colorful pictures. She’d seen Lady and the Tramp here.
Daddy pulled the car into a large lot where there were other cars. Uncle Grady’s car was already there. Jimmy and Tommy were there ahead of her. Bright lights glittered and flashed at Emily. Mechanical sounding music boomed at her. People were milling around among brightly colored tents. They stopped to talk to each other, and they were laughing. Everyone looked so happy.
As Emily walked around with Mommy and Daddy, people from the tents called out to them. “Over here! Give it a try!”
“Win a big one here!”
Mommy and Daddy walked on without answering the people. Emily didn’t understand. Mommy had always told her to speak when folks talked to her. It was the polite thing to do.
Mommy and Daddy stopped to talk to some friends. Emily listened for awhile but it was boring grown-up talk. Grownups never talked about games or Howdy Doody.
She tugged on Mommy’s skirt a few times.
“Stop that, Emily,” Mommy said.
“I want to see the Fourth,” Emily said.
All the grownups chuckled.
“Well, let’s go see it, then,” Daddy said, taking her hand.
“Here you go. Right here for the little girl,” a woman called to them from behind a counter. She was what Mommy would call a fleshy woman. In her brightly colored clothes, she looked nearly as big as the tent she stood in. Her eyelids were bright blue, and her cheeks had big red circles on them. Behind the woman hung all kinds of little plastic babies and dogs, whistles and beads. In front of the tent, pink and blue plastic ducks swam in a narrow water-filled trough.
“Should we let Emily pick a duck?” Mommy asked Daddy.
“Why not?” Daddy answered. “The Fourth only comes once a year. He handed the woman a dime. “Now Emily, pick the duck you want.”
Emily looked a long time. Except for the color all the ducks looked alike, battered and somewhat dirty. They swam straight ahead, although some swam backwards, and disappeared at one end of their trough. New ducks kept swimming in from the other end. “I wonder where they go,” Emily thought.
“That one.” She finally settled on a backward swimming blue duck that seemed a little cleaner than the rest. “I want that one.”
“Hand it here,” the woman said.
Emily looked up at Daddy who nodded. Emily lifted the duck from the water and placed it carefully in the woman’s beringed hands. It was a strange thing to do—buy her this battered little duck, and then make her give it back.
The woman took the duck, turned him over, and looked at his bottom. “Number nine,” she said showing his bottom to them. Then the woman reached under the counter and handed Emily a little brown bag.
“What is it?” she asked Mommy.
“Open it and see.”
Emily pulled the staple loose and looked inside. “It’s beads,” she said pulling out a string of green and gold glass beads.
“Let’s put them on you,” Daddy said as he slipped the necklace over her head.
Emily was still puzzling over buying a duck and getting beads when Mommy said, “How about some cotton candy?”
Candy made out of cotton? The pink fluffy cloud that Mommy handed her did look like a huge cotton ball. She took a bite. The soft stuff turned to sweet air in her mouth. She had pink sticky stuff on her face and in her hair. Pink spots of sugar stuck to her fingers and a big blob had attached itself to her elbow.
“How is it?” Daddy asked. From the look on his face Emily knew he was really pleased that he’d bought it for her.
“It’s good,” Emily answered while trying to pick some out of her eyelashes.
“Now what do you want to do?” Mommy asked.
“I don’t know,” Emily answered. After all this was her first Fourth and she didn’t know her options.
They led her to the source of the loud music. A merry-go-round! She had seen pictures of merry-go-rounds in her picture book. Colorful wooden ponies on poles bobbed up and down while going around and around. Daddy set her on one of the ponies then went to stand by Mommy on the ground. Emily went around and around. She kept looking for Mommy and Daddy. They waved at her and laughed each time she passed. They were having such a good time.
When the ride ended, she ran back to her parents.
“You looked just like Annie Oakley on that pony,” Daddy said.
“Yoo hoo!” Aunt Louise, followed by Uncle Grady and the boys, came towards them.
“Look what we got,” Jimmy said as Tommy showed her a large purple teddy bear.
“Where did you get that?” Emily asked.
“We threw darts at balloons and won it.”
“They spent all their savings on that bear.” Aunt Louise didn’t seem happy. “That fast-talking feller kept them throwing darts until all their money was gone. Then he gave them that ugly bear. A whole three dollars it cost them.”
“What the heck, Louise,” Uncle Grady said. “They saved up and the Fourth only comes but once a year.”
“We were on our way to the Ferris wheel. You want to come along?” Daddy asked.
Uncle Grady took his big watch out of his pocket. “Yeah, it’s about time for the fireworks. Then we got to get these two youngins home.”
Suddenly there it was before her. The big wheel. It stood taller than her house. Emily got into a swinging little seat between Mommy and Daddy. A man in a dirty tee shirt pushed a stick that made them go up in the air a little ways. They sat there while Aunt Louise and Uncle Grady got in a seat by themselves. Then the man pushed the stick again and they went up a little farther. Was this all there was to the Fourth? This time Jimmy and Tommy got in a seat with the purple bear between them. All the seats were filled; the man pushed the stick again and they went all the way to the top. When the seat stopped at the top of the wheel Emily wondered if she could stretch out her hand far enough to touch the big yellow moon. She didn’t dare try. She wanted to keep all of herself safely wedged between Mommy and Daddy. Then the wheel went down, down. Emily thought her outsides were falling faster than her insides could keep up.
“Whee!” Mommy said looking at her.
At the bottom, the seats didn’t turn upside down. It didn’t happen the second time around. She wasn’t going to have to stand on her head after all. This was fun! She discovered if she filled her lungs with air on the way up and let it out slowly her insides kept up with her body just fine.
Then the ride was over.
All the people were gathering at the edge of an open field.
“What’s happening?” Emily asked.
“It’s time for the fireworks,” Daddy answered.
Emily jumped when she heard a loud boom. It was louder than any of Uncle Grady’s hunting guns.
Everybody looked up. The sky was studded with bright colors. All the people said, “Aaaw!” as the colors came falling to earth. It looked like big flowers in the night sky.
The last display was an American flag on the ground. All the people clapped and cheered. Emily wondered how they got the color to hold still long enough to form the pattern.
“Time to go,” Daddy said, scooping Emily up in his arms. “You look sleepy.”
“Aren’t you tired?” Mommy asked.
“No,” she said around a yawn.
“Did you have a good time?”
Daddy put Emily in the back seat of the car. Then he took off his jacket to cover her up. She snuggled under the jacket. It was warm and smelled spicy like Daddy’s aftershave. For a while she played hide and seek with the moon as she watched it dance among the trees and sneak behind the hills on the way home. She felt safe and protected.
So this was what goin’ to the Fourth was all about.