Brian J. Sullivan
It was just barely 5:30 am in central Michigan as the streets came alive with a fury of activity, as exhibitors in chaotic organization arrived to unload their vans and begin setting up their tents. Each worked quietly and at his or her own pace, some alone, others with their partners. Orange-laced clouds gradually replaced the early morning darkness across the horizon. Heavy dew dripped precipitously from the metal street poles, signs, and mailboxes.
Limited pleasantries were exchanged with neighbors; lengthy conversations would have to wait until later. The opening hour was quickly approaching. School age children pulling wagons filled with coffee and doughnuts canvassed the streets in hopes of raising money for their church youth programs. The smell of fried onions and sausage drifted from the monolithic food trailers adorned with bright colored neon lights and stainless steel counters. Flatbed trucks with lift gates were unloading the last of the port-a-potties in a grassy area away from the food vendors. "Testing, 1, 2, 3, test, test, test," could be heard coming from the loud speakers down near the river's band shell.
Art patrons had begun to fill the streets in a controlled frenzy, searching for that perfect piece to buy. They came in all shapes and sizes. There were the show dogs or fashion queens who came dressed to the nines with perfect coiffured hair and painted toenails. Gold jewelry was hung in multiplies around every convenient location. There was an air of sophistication about them as their golden brown tans portrayed life of leisure rather than that of years of toiling out in the sun. They chatted with the other socialites who also happened to be at the fair and rarely came into the booth. The "Red Hat Society" women came in groups of 10 to 16 and moved in unison as they filled each booth space with their brightly colored dresses of red and purple. They sometimes looked and occasionally asked a question or two, but mostly they were out for the day's activity with the group and not all that interested in the art. Students studying art at the university came alone, studied each piece, asked serious questions, and usually showed the most interest, but they could rarely afford anything. Husbands tagging along tried to be smooth, showing interest in my work while asking if it was OK for them to sit in my chair as their wives shopped down the way. They made small talk but had no interest in art and expressed in no uncertain terms their desire to be home watching the golf tournament on TV. The young professionals came in their pressed slacks and collared shirts. They have the money but their knowledge is…
"Excuse me," an attractive middle age woman said. "Is this your work?"
It was the summer of 1965 along the banks of the lagoon at Brown Deer Park. Several weeks earlier I had graduated from the 5th grade. That day I was crayfish "crabbing" as we called it, with a piece of liver tied to a long string. One would throw the baited end of the string out into the water while keeping the other end held taunt. When one felt a slight tug, one would begin the process of slowly pulling the string back towards the shore. Patience was paramount because many times the crayfish would get spooked and you would have to stop pulling and let them become re-attached. Mind you, there were no hooks involved! Eventually you could get them close enough to the shore to see them tearing at the liver with their claws. Many times there were more than one crayfish attacking the meat. To catch them you had two options: one was to use a net and try to quickly scoop them up from behind before they darted away because they sensed your movement; the other way was to try to jerk the string, liver, and the attached crayfish up onto land before they let go. Both techniques worked equally well, which is to say only about 25% of the time. Hours could be spent in a quest to bring home a small bucket of crayfish.
"Hi Brian, what are you doing?" a voice said from behind me. I turned around to see who it was. "Hello Lori," I said back, recognizing her as one of my classmates. She climbed off her bike and walked over toward me. Lori Stevens was not your typical "girl." No, she preferred to play rough sports with the boys and wear blue jeans. Soon she wanted her own string with liver tied to it. I tied a piece on for her and quietly we sat their together, each intensely waiting for our own string to come alive.
Somewhere between trying to wipe the stinky liver smell off her hands and the excitement of pulling in another crayfish it "happened." Our mouths came together for that proverbial first kiss. We would never be the same again. We became inseparable, spending the rest of the summer together when ever we could. At the end of the summer her family moved away and that was the last I ever saw of Lori.
"Why yes," I said, some what startled, "these are my works. Sorry I spaced out on you—it's just that you reminded me of someone I used to know 35 years ago in a different part of the country."
"What's your name?" I asked.
"Lori Thompson. I live here in Grand Rapids, Michigan. And you?"
"Well I currently live in central Illinois, but I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin."
"I was born in Terra Haute, Indiana, but we moved to Milwaukee when I was 10 years old," Lori said.
A tear formed in the corner of her eye as they became moist. Mine were already cloudy. "You are Lori Stevens." I half stated/asked. "Remember crabbing at the lagoon?" No more words were said—powerful emotions simultaneously flushed any doubts. As we gently held each other as memories came rushing back as if it was only yesterday.
What a small world we live in. We spent the rest of our time during that art fair becoming re-acquainted, talking about past lovers, relationships, failed marriages, kids, vacations, dreams, and ambitions. At the close of the fair, Lori stayed to help me pack up my display. She currently comes with me to every fair she can. Next year we are planning to get married in our booth at the very fair which reunited us after almost 35 years of absence. And for hors d'oeuvres? What else, but crayfish!