“Isn’t this damn line ever going to move?”
“No, Erik, it isn’t,” Lee said. “This is hell, and we’ll be standing here for all eternity. Just to annoy you.”
“I believe it,” Erik said.
“Erik,” Bobby said, “I know we dragged you here against your will, but try to have just the tiniest bit of fun, huh?”
“Yeah, try not to make us wish we were dead, too,” Arthur pleaded.
“I’m told that the dead have very few problems.”
His friends sighed; Erik the Grim had spoken.
Through the tightly packed mass of people thronging the state fair, Erik brightened suddenly as he spotted an old man holding a fresh caramel apple by its stick.
“Hey! I’ll be right back.” He left the corn dog line and his friends and walked toward the man with the caramel apple. The crowd seemed to part, and Erik could see the man perfectly well.
Despite the late August heat, the man was wearing a medium green suit and a gray hat and well-shined black wing-tip shoes. His black tie was held in place with a gold tie clasp. The man stood in the middle of the lane, staring at his apple. Erik thought he seemed a little sad, but then the man smiled and bit heartily into the caramel apple. As Erik approached, the man found an empty bench to sit on.
He looked up as Erik drew near. “I haven’t had a caramel apple in years,” he told Erik. “I used to enjoy these when I was a boy. As a special Halloween treat, my mother would make apple cider – fresh, homemade cider, mind you – and popcorn and caramel apples.”
“It looks good,” Erik said. “Where did you get it?”
The man gestured vaguely. “Over there. There’s a little stand.”
Erik looked over his shoulder but there were too many people to see anything on the other side of the lane.
Erik went off in search of the stand. He weaved in and out of the people in the crowd and tried to look around or over their heads. He broke through to where the food stands were. He could see his friends, still in the corn dog line, and when Arthur looked over, Erik waved to let them know where he was.
Erik walked to his right, away from the corn dogs. He had to walk back onto the street occasionally so as not to cut through the lines of people waiting for giant pretzels and funnel cakes and salt water taffy.
He went around the corner and found a row of manufacturers selling agriculture-related goods and services. None of them seemed to be offering caramel apples in addition to their other wares.
Erik made his way back to the bench and found the old man. The caramel apple was about half gone.
“I wasn’t sure, at first,” he told Erik, “but then I realized beyond all doubt that I wanted this. My wife and I shared a caramel apple at this fair the first year after we were married.” He sighed. “That was a long time ago, and she’s been gone – well, too long. Too long. That was how I realized how much I wanted this.”
“I can’t find the stand where they’re selling those,” Erik said.
The man gestured again. “Over there. It’s just a small stand. You’ll find it if you really want one. Like I did.” He bit into the apple again.
“If I really want one,” Erik repeated softly. He left the old man on his bench again and went to the left this time. His friends were almost to the front of the corn dog line. Beyond that was an ice cream novelties stand, a barbecue beef sandwich booth, and a Knights of Columbus spaghetti diner. Around the next corner were T-shirts and hats and sunglasses and balloons and other paraphernalia.
Erik shook his head and decided to try to get exact directions from the old man.
There again seemed to be a hole in the crowd, and Erik saw the old fellow looking at an apple core. Once more, he spoke to Erik immediately.
“What happens to the core of a person when the outer being has been used up?”
Erik sat next to the man and looked at the apple core on its stick.
“If the person was a good person, then surely something good must come from his core.” The man’s hand, still holding the remains of his treat, slipped down onto the bench. “Surely it must.”
The old man drew a long breath and released it. His eyes closed, his head fell onto his chest, and he did not take another breath.
“Mister?” Erik prompted. He shook the man a little, but the man did not respond.
Erik stood up, looking for one of the seemingly innumerable highway patrol officers who kept the peace at the fair. Not one was in sight just then.
He sat down by the old man and looked at the apple core. When he looked up, he had a direct line of sight across the street. Where it had not been before – sandwiched between the funnel cakes and the salt water taffy – was a thin food booth. A man in a clean white coat and white paper cap looked into Erik’s eyes and held out a caramel apple.
Erik’s eyes bulged and he felt cold in the afternoon heat. His head began to shake, and he made it shake left and right in an unmistakable sign. The man holding the caramel apple bowed slightly and withdrew the offer.
Erik looked at the dead man again, then he looked back across the street. The caramel apple booth was gone. There had never been space enough for it.
Erik leaped up and stood on the bench. He finally spotted an officer and waved him over. The patrolman confirmed Erik’s diagnosis and called for an ambulance. Erik told the patrolman about the old man’s last moments; the officer took Erik’s name in case someone had more questions later.
As the ambulance pulled away, Erik saw his friends walking toward him.
“Did you see that guy die or something?” Lee asked.
“Yeah. I was sitting with him.”
“Man, that’s creepy,” Bobby said.
They stood together in silence for a moment.
“What do you want to do now?” Lee asked the group.
Erik looked again where the caramel apple booth had been.
“Let’s go have some fun.”