Rich needed to find some friends. He stepped into the midway and saw John Hester, Louie Borden, and Bill Hartman. They were from his class. They laughed and joked for a while over some small talk and jesting. Rich continually looked toward the grandstands, expecting the cowboy to walk out into the midway any moment.
“Hey, John, ya looking for a date, somebody to cuddle up to on the Ferris Wheel or to take through the haunted house?” Rich asked.
“Sure, who ya got in mind, Melinda Cawlings?” John said.
“No, no, not her,” Rich said
“Cindy Lipman?” John said.
“The one I have in mind, really looks good in jeans,” Rich said.
“Dora Gamble,” John said.
“No, it’s nobody you know,” Rich said.
“See the cowboy wearing the gray hat,” Rich said pointing toward the grandstands where the lonely cowboy was scratching behind his ear.
“Is she next to him?” John asked squinting.
“No, no, it’s the him!” Rich said.
Rich then told them about the close encounter and how he slipped away.
Louie joked, “You do have that look.”
“And I notice you’ve been looking a lot too,” Rich quipped. “You can’t take your eyes off me.”
The boys meandered the midways and merchant’s booths the remainder of the afternoon.
County fairs are one day a bare field with a few empty buildings and for a week they become a teeming village, a confluence of sights, sounds, and smells. Enthusiasm radiates from every parcel. Every step and corner turned is a different and more stimulating encounter. The incredible smells of cotton candy, barbecued chicken on an open pit, roasted peanuts, fresh baked breads and pies, and popcorn, gives warmth of home and little doubt you are among friends. The sounds of people shuffling along gravel midways, laughter, happy talk, and lilting voices, bragging men, giggling girls, laughing children, crying babies, the barker’s commanding call from game concessions, happy mysterious music from the rides, and the motors of the rides are like listening to an orchestra. Alone they are annoying and have little substance, but together a smooth pleasurable symphony. Vibrant colors stampede like a Van Gogh, except they spring to life in twinkles, sparkles, glows, and shimmers.
Rich continually watched for his cowboy friend. This did not escape the notice of John, Louie, and Bill, who periodically let out a warning cry, “There he is!”
At six, Rich met Joe at the secretary’s office. Joe was a year older, savvy with the girls and he had a car. It was that candy-apple red ‘57 Chevy convertible – the sharpest car at school. It seemed to Rich, that Joe always had a line of girls waiting for his attention. He knew how to dress, how to act, and was handsome. Rich liked being around him because everything they did was new and exciting.
“Let’s find some girls,” were the first words from Joe.
“Let them find us,” Rich joked.
“I got the charm, looks, and car. All I need is you to keep score and take care of the overflow,” Joe said smiling confidently.
Rich and Joe walked the midways until they saw two girls from Joe’s class.
“Watch this,” Joe whispered as the girls walked toward them. “Connie, Cathy, how are you doing?” Joe said sickeningly sweet.
“We’re fine,” Connie said brushing something invisible from he shoulder.
“Indeed, you are fine,” Joe said. “I can see that from here.”
“How about you two?” Connie smiled.
“I’m having a great time,” Rich said smiling at their pretty faces.
“Who have you seen here so far?” Cathy asked Joe.
“You two are the first,” Joe said then added luridly, “I just got here. Speaking of first, can I be your first?”
She politely laughed. “How bout you?” Cathy asked Rich.
At first, Rich didn’t know whether she wanted him to respond to her question or Joe‘s lurid response. After a stammer and some quick thinking Rich said, “John, Louie, and Bill, I walked around with them for a while.”
“Any girls?” Connie asked.
“Monica Hower, she’s over at the 4H display,” Rich said. “I’ve been here since eleven,” he added uncomfortably.
“What all have you been doing since then?” Connie asked.
“Oh, I went to the rodeo for a while. Until some cowboy tried to pick me up.” Rich smiled bashfully.
“What!” The girls exclaimed with their mouths agape and looking at each other.
“Where is this cowboy? I’d like to meet him,” Cathy said.’
“Oh, you’re not his type, believe me,” Rich said. “He’s only interested in, cowboys.”
“Hey, you girls want to walk around for a while and maybe we could take a drive in my convertible,” Joe suggested rocking heel to toe.
“That’s okay,” Cathy said.
“Oh I hate to, but we got to meet up with Sue and Wanda in ten minutes,” Connie said.
“I must really be repulsive,” Rich thought. “These girls turned down a ride with the neatest guy in school because of his derelict friend.” Rich wanted to crawl into a hole.
“If you should change your minds, just have it announced to meet me at the secretary’s office,” Joe said. “But don’t lose out.”
“Sure,” Cathy said wrinkling her nose.
They parted. Joe was annoyed. “Stuck up pigs, they’re nothing more than a couple of rich tramps,” he said. “We’ll find a couple of girls.”
They saw some other girls, but it seemed as though Joe’s confidence was shaken. He said hi, smiled politely, and walked on.
They saw four girls from Rich’s class, Mary, Linda, Sally, and Deb. Rich waved and walked toward them.
Joe stayed away as if he were looking for someone more important, popular, or prettier. Joe seldom talked to underclassmen. He always dated girls his age or older. It was all about status with him. He worked hard to impress those who might advance his image. Rich’s friends were too insignificant and trite.
“Is that Joe Deacon?” Mary said, directing the attention to the rest of the girls to look in Joe’s direction.
“He thinks he’s better than anybody else,” Linda said scornfully and the others murmured affirmatively.
“He’s one of my friends,” Rich interjected before anything else could be said. “We’re walking around together.”
“He is?” said Sally.
“Oh, you know what we mean,” Mary said. “He’s this big important upperclassman.”
“He’s really a nice guy and a lot of fun,” Rich said defensively. “Do you guys know him?”
They all said they did.
It was difficult for Rich to imagine why these girls seemed so unimpressed with Joe. Perhaps they were saying that because they knew he would not give them a second look. On the other hand, they may see what Rich really saw; a guy playing a role to cover up his own inadequacies.
Joe joined them, but from a short distance. He was clearly not interested in them. He was looking for better things; kids more popular. However, Rich and the girls seemed to just drift down the midway. Rich motioned with his head for Joe to come along. Joe did so, reluctantly.
The four girls, Joe, and Rich stopped next to the basketball foul shooting concession-stand and talked.
The man at the concession stand rambled persuasively into a handheld microphone and out a muffled, crackling speaker. “Three shots for a quarter. Ya make one get a priceless pin that easily attaches to a shirt or blouse for all to see. If ya make two the reward is greater. A pretty little stuffed animal that any girl, wife, or child will cherish for years. Come on little girl, bring yer daddy over here and have him win a little puppy for yer, little girl. Doesn’t have t be house-broken. If ya make ’em all, ya get the grand prize. You’ll be the envy of the fair, the best foul shooter at the fair, or ya won’t leave the fair lonely, if ya catch what I mean. Just step right up, slap down a quarter and take yer best three shots.”
Rich watched passively. No baskets were being made. Participants complained, but the concessionaire assured, “Everything is regulation. Just step up and test yer skills. Three shots for a quarter. Ya make one, ya get a pretty pin. Ya make two ya get a little stuffed animal. Ya make all three ya walk away with a big stuffed animal for yer sweetie.”
Sally suddenly blurted, “Why don’t you try to win something?”
“Nah, it’s rigged,” Rich asserted.
“I’m not afraid,” she said. “I’ll try.”
She gave the man a quarter and failed miserably at each attempt, but had fun trying.
“Step right up here young man, show the little lady how it’s done.”
“Go on,” Sally said and pulled at Rich’s arm.
The other girls urged also.
Joe said, “There’s one born every minute. Every carnival needs a clown.“
Rich reached deep into his pocket, pulled out a quarter, and slapped it on the counter. The man tossed Rich the ball. He caught it sharply with a slap that sounded hollow.
Rich looked at him as if looking over the tops of spectacles. “You get another pound of air in this ball and it’ll explode.” Rich stepped back, held the ball at arm’s length in front of his eyes, and let it drop to the blacktop. It bounced almost to Rich’s chest. “The balls are overinflated,” Rich said.
“Everything is regulation,” the man said.
“Whose?” Rich smiled.
“Just take yer best shot, you can make it,” the man said.
Rich stepped to the foul line. He remembered what Mrs. Dotson taught about poetry, “The most effective, with the least amount of words, that are linked by the natural flowing rhythm of thought and word. Rich translated that into shooting a foul shot. “Achieve the minimum amount of velocity necessary for the ball to ease over the front of the rim and do so with a flowing rhythm.”
The first shot bounced high off the front of the rim and back toward the man. The next shot was with slightly less arch. It went through. The next one did the same.
Rich picked out a small stuffed animal and asked Sally to hold it.
Rich gave the man another quarter and made three straight shots. He gave him another quarter and made two of three. He gave him another quarter and made two of three. By this time all the girls were holding stuffed animals. A crowd gathered. With each shot, cheers arose. Rich made the next nine shots in a row. He never felt such exhilaration. It was as if he was in a display window and everyone gleefully spying on me, but he did not hear them. They were like puppets that came to see a human to perform.
The silence and his trance were interrupted. “Okay, Cousey, let’s give somebody else a chance.”
The crowd protested.
The man was slowly losing his entire prize inventory. “Come on, let’s step right up and win the little lady a prize,” he said trying to deflect the protesting mob.
They grew bitter and angry.
“I’m going to close her down now,” he said looking at Rich.
Rich slapped a quarter on the counter. He glared.
“Come on,” Rich said. “I’m getting tired. How about somebody else given it a try. It’s on me.”
Another boy took up the challenge. Rich stepped back to watch another contestant miss two and the third shot bounced back to the man. The ball slipped out of his hands and bounced into the midway. Rich grabbed it and lofted a one hand set shot that singed the nets. A cheer erupted from the crowd. Rich threw his arms up and shook his head in disbelief. The man at the concession did the same. Rich started to walk away with Mary, Linda, Sally, Deb, and Joe holding the stuffed animals.
The man called out, “Hey, kid. Come here!”
Rich walked toward him. He smiled and tossed another large stuffed animal to Rich and said, “Now get out of here and go back to the Celtics.”
They walked the midways the rest of the evening. Rich’s reputation preceded him. There were congratulations from people he’d never seen before. The girls were happy to be with Rich. Imagine that! And Joe helped carry stuffed animals like a porter with baggage. He began to fade like one of those people outside a display window, just one face in the crowd, a puppet on a string. It felt strange to Rich, receiving attention that normally went to Joe.
“Let’s take a ride downtown in my car,” Joe said exuberantly.