The County Fair

"I can hardly wait," I squealed to my younger sister and brother, grabbing Keith by the shirt.

"Stop it, you dummy," Keith shrieked, but I could tell he was just as excited as I was.

"Both of you calm down," Mama warned, glancing at Daddy as he maneuvered our old blue Chevy pick-up down the bumpy road that led to the highway near our house.

"You know, Sylvia," Daddy said in his best serious impression of John Wayne, "I heard down at Hersey's Store this afternoon that the fair was closed down early this year!" As he shifted into third gear, my heart almost stopped at his words. Then, as Keith, Kay, and I simultaneously sucked in our breath in absolute horror, I saw Daddy wink at Mama ever so slyly.

I glanced at my six-year-old twin brother and sister. Keith was already tearing up and wiping at his eyes, while Kay was staring straight ahead swallowing rapidly. "Hey, Keith, Kay, he's just joking," I yelled. As he came to a stop at the sign at the end of the dirt road, all three of us jumped on Daddy and started pounding him as hard as we could with our ten- and six-year-old fists.

"Young'uns," Mama attempted through her own laughter, "stop, so your daddy can drive!"

Warding us off with his big hands, Daddy pulled out onto the highway and our spirits were as high as the Georgia pine trees that lined Highway 441.

Finally, after what seemed like hours in my ten-year-old mind, but was only minutes in reality, I could see the bright lights ahead. My heart was beating as fast as our old hound dog Sadie could chase a cat out of the yard. I grabbed Kay's hand and we looked at each other glassy-eyed with excitement. The lights on the giant Ferris wheel were the first to come into sight. Red, blue, yellow, green. . . all the colors of the rainbow whirling in a giant circle high in the October sky.

"What are you going to ride first?" Keith asked Kay as we made our way toward the line of people at the entrance.

"I think I'll ride the merry-go-round," she said, her reddish brown curls bobbing as she walked hurriedly to keep up with Mama and Daddy.

"Not me," I said with ten-year-old authority. " I am heading straight for the Scrambler. Paula and I rode it last year and it was the best fun I ever had. I see Paula now," I shouted, starting to run. "Can I go, Mama, please?"

"Run on ahead," Mama said with a nod. "Now, Carla, you mind your manners, and remember to say, yes ma'am and no ma'am. These are hard-working people. And stay off that Bullet!"

"I will, Mama," I yelled as I ran to meet my best friend.

It was the most fun ever. With the smell of freshly fried corn dogs and newly spun cotton candy permeating the air, Paula and I ran straight to the Scrambler. We took turns sitting on the smash side. When our stomachs needed a rest, we decided to visit the booths. The women in the booths looked so glamorous. Most of them had on brightly colored blouses and skirts in various shades of purple and red and gold. They were all so friendly, and the elderly woman at the Pick-up-Ducks booth let us pick up two for free. You could tell that she was old because of the wrinkles that lined her olive-complexioned face, but she was certainly pretty to me. I especially liked the way her golden front tooth sparkled each time the lights of the Ferris wheel hit it just right.

As we made about our fifteenth round on the midway, Paula and I heard a commotion coming from the direction of the Hoochie-Coochie Show, the "den of sin" in Coffee County! I really didn't know what the term "hoochie-coochie" meant, but since the women who worked there danced outside the booth every hour or so to draw in more customers, I assumed it had something to do with dancing. It was rumored in the playground gossip that the women in the show stripped off their clothes in front of men! I didn't believe a word of it. But every year, the Hoochie-Coochie Show, the people seen outside watching, and the "sinners" who went inside were the topic of town gossip until Christmas.

"This will be good," Paula yelled, "Let's go!" We ran as fast as we could and arrived just in time to see Mama pulling a red-faced Daddy by his ear in the direction of the American Legion coffee stand. Several of our neighbors were all laughing and encouraging, "Get him, Sylvia!" as Mama marched off mad as a wet hen and Daddy followed like a whipped puppy.

After we all slowed our laughing, I looked up at the ladies on the stage. "Boy, aren't they beautiful?" I said to my friend with a sigh. Anybody in the entertainment business was beautiful to me. "Just look at their long blonde hair," I continued, "I wonder how in the world they get those black stripes up there near the part like that?"

Paula wrinkled her freckled nose, and her eyes mirrored my wonder. "I don't know either," she said leaning toward me with her 'I've-got-a-secret look,' "but, my mama says it comes straight out of a bottle. Reckon where you buy such bottles?"

The rest of the evening we spent in fair heaven. We rode the Scrambler four more times, the Ferris Wheel twice, and we certainly could not go home without a turn on the Merry-Go-Round. As we bobbed up and down on the garish painted horses, Paula and I saw the Fortune Teller's booth beckoning; our eyes met in understood agreement and as soon as the music and motion stopped and the ground quit swimming, off we ran. As we approached the canvas covered booth, we could hear the shrieks of what sounded like the embellishments of the "unknown tongue" I had once heard when I visited Franklin Holiness Baptist Church with a neighbor.

Also dominating our hearing were the sounds of screaming infants. It seemed the Fortune Teller was in a dilemma. Paula and I stood quietly at the edge of the booth, cutting our eyes at each other for several minutes. Finally, a bare-chested, dark-complexioned man dressed only in gold lame' pants and pointed slippers pushed his way through the curtained petition and with a snort made his way hurriedly toward the "See a Live Genie" exhibit. Following closely behind him was a petite, equally dark complexioned woman with coal black hair down to her waist. On each hip, she carried a baby, both squalling. Spying us and the line of prospective customers forming behind us at the edge of the booth, she ceased her shouting and smiled a huge smile revealing the whitest teeth I had ever seen. She motioned for us to enter, and we followed her between the curtains to the back of the booth and straight to the outside again.

In heavily accented, broken English, she said, "Hello, want fortune told?" all the while jiggling the two screaming babies in an attempt to quiet them. Paula and I silently nodded and watched as she placed the two babies in a kind of two-seater stroller and plopped a bottle into each screaming mouth. Then she pointed to us, then to the babies and started talking again. We could not understand her accent very well, but between her sign language and the few words we could make out, we finally understood that she was in dire need of a baby-sitter.

"Babies!" Paula and I both said at once and reading each other's mind's once more, Paula nodded and gave me the go ahead to speak. Remembering my mama's words "to mind [my] manners," I stepped up and said maturely, "Um, Ma'am, my friend and I. . .um, we'll be glad to look after your babies for a while." The woman may not have been able to speak clearly, but she understood what I said on the first try.

The next thing I knew, Paula and I took turns rolling the Fortune teller's bawling twins around the fair for the next hour in an old stroller with a chunk out of one wheel. As we rolled, I dreamed aloud of all of the great treasures she would probably herald upon us for baby-sitting. Finally, as we rolled around for umpteenth time, the fortune teller motioned for us to wheel in. She looked briefly at the twins sleeping peacefully, finally, and pushed the stroller over to a corner of the tent. Then she smiled, and said, "Now I tell your future!" Paula and I looked at each other and I could tell her heart was beating as fast as mine as we anticipated the revelations about to take place. She sat us down in the back of her booth and spent the next twenty minutes telling our fortunes. She foretold of marriages to wealthy, handsome men and long, healthy lives for both of us. She said that I would become a famous movie star and live in a Hollywood mansion (just what I wanted to be), and she predicted that Paula would travel to many exotic places.

Caught up in the excitement, I did not even notice how she seemed to lose a lot of her accent as she embellished upon our sweaty palms. I was so excited, I was about to burst. I could not wait to tell Mama and Keith and Kay. They wouldn't have to hoe tobacco or corn any more. No siree! I was going to be rich. Madame Regalia said so, and I knew it was the gospel!

By the time we ran into Mama and Daddy by the livestock station, it was almost ten-thirty, and our stomachs were so full of corn dogs and cotton candy that I thought I would surely burst.

Mama said, "Carla, it's time to go," and I was too tired to argue.

"See ya' tomorrow at Sunday School," Paula yelled running to meet her family, and I waved good by.

On the way home in the truck, Keith, Kay, and I competed with stories of who had the most fun and oohed and aahed over the trinkets and what-nots we had won. Mama and Daddy were really pleased to hear that we were gonna' be rich and through eyes that got heavier with every blink, I saw Daddy wink at Mama, who smiled. Could life get any better?

I wondered as the hum of the truck motor lulled me to sleep.

Twenty years later. . . Same Highway. . . Same County Fair. . .

"Mama, do we have to go to this rickety old fair? It will be the same old cheap crap we saw last year. I don't see why we don't just go to Six Flags instead," Jennifer whined as she pushed a video cartridge into the television set located over her head. "Don't you remember how it was?"

"I remember, Jennifer," I said soothingly as I maneuvered the Dodge mini-van out of the smoothly paved driveway," but you know that Daddy is a member of the Lion's Club, who sponsors the fair, and we have to go. Did you call Brooke to see if she was going?"

"Yes, I called her," she snapped, "but she said that her parents were taking her to the National Fair at Perry."

"I don't see why we can't go there instead. She said that Vince Gill is going to be in concert. Did you hear, Mama?" she pouted, "VINCE GILL!"

"Yes, I heard," I said, more sternly this time. "You mind your manners, young lady, and be nice to your daddy when we get there; do you hear me?"

"Yes ma'am," Jennifer sighed, resigned to her fate.

As I carefully pulled out onto the four-lanes of traffic, I glanced in the rear view mirror and watched Jennifer as her attention was now taken by the antics of Homer Simpson on the television screen and thought, her attitude is as nasty as the trash that lines Highway 441!

"Do I have to go in?" Jennifer queried as I drove into our reserved parking space. "There will only be 4-H kids here. I don't hang out with any of them. Please let me stay in the van."

"Absolutely not!" I interjected, eyeing the scantily dressed young woman standing on the curb. I watched as the girl pushed her bleached hair out of her eyes and flicked her cigarette in our direction. I continued to stare as the same girl, who looked just a little older than Jennifer, flagged down a newer model Cadillac and after a few seconds conversation with the elderly gentleman at the wheel, got in.

As they drove off, the teenager rolled down her window and shouted, pointing her middle finger at me, "Get your eyes full?"

Shuddering, I thought sarcastically, they banned the Hoochie-Coochie Shows, and now, they just allow solicitation right in front. I snapped at Jennifer, "I will not leave you alone in this van. Come on, I promise; we won't stay long."

At the entrance, we saw my husband, Marcus, wearing all of his Lion's club insignia and as he ushered us inside the American Legion Pavilion, he cautioned, "It's a rowdy crowd this year. They'll pick your pocket in a heart beat. Don't stay out there too long."

"See!" Jennifer smirked. As we entered the midway, the pungent smells of freshly smoked marijuana and spilled liquor permeated the air. "You couldn't pay me to eat a single bite of that stuff!" Jennifer barked, as we reached the food arena. "Look at that woman! You can see the cotton candy hanging from her arm pits, oh my God, Mom, look!"

I obeyed, and Jennifer was being truthful. As we rounded the first curve, I looked at the spot where the Pick-up-Ducks booth used to be and saw that it had been replaced with a shooting gallery with pictures of the President as a target. I clutched my purse to my side and averted my eyes as the vendor invited, "Come on over here, babes, and I'll shoot your target for you!" I slowed my pace when I saw the sign bearing the logo, Madame Regalia, Fortune Teller.

Could it be? I silently beseeched. No, it could not be! For in the place where a gracious, dark beauty dressed in shining colors had once foretold my future, now stood a hostess with green and orange hair, wearing tight, ragged blue jeans and a T-shirt bearing the insignia, "Yo FUTURE is here!" From the exclamation point at the end of the statement ran two arrows pointing to a hole strategically placed in the center of each of her breasts.

"Come on in," she beckoned, revealing her two missing front teeth.

"Mom, can we please go now?" Jennifer beseeched through clenched teeth.

"OK, Jennifer." I was too stressed to argue, "Let's go."

We hurriedly made our way around the creaking Ferris wheel, which suddenly stopped in mid-air. I cringed at the cursing of the two occupants stuck on top and hurried on. Stepping gingerly over frayed cords, I noticed the empty Merry-Go-Round slowly making its circle.

On the way home, Jennifer yawned and pushed her seat to the recline position. As she adjusted her head phones, she looked at me and recanted about the woman with cotton candy streaming from her arm pits, "Boy, Mom." she said disgustedly, "Could life get any worse?"

Carla B. Ricketson