MEET ME AT THE FAIR….said the undertaker
Our county fairground was a cow pasture on the outskirts of town. With a splash of a few machines, colourful tents, carousel music and shady carneys, it was amazingly transformed in a few hours.
My father never missed a chance to advertise his funeral home, even at the county fair. Before our family moved into town the rival funeral director had pressed palms from his fair booth for years. The duelling undertakers kept a close eye on each other and my father had no choice but to stake a claim. When he spotted his chance to set up his own booth he flew to the task.
It wasn’t really a booth, but his own fine, open tent erected by his gravediggers. Somehow my father wangled a prized position at the entrance from where he greeted folks from all corners of the county as they arrived. I’ll admit it sounds a bit strange to be met by an undertaker at such a merry event, a bit SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, but in a small town an undertaker was considered part of the community in the same way as a fireman, preacher, or doctor – a service provider.
Under the tent was everything one needed to recover from the scorching evening sun. Women with pink faces and large bottoms fanned themselves while resting their swollen feet and ankles. They sipped cold drinks and gossiped as people passed on their way to the belly of the fair. I dug down into the boxes of calendars, pens, pencils, potholders, and handed them to passers by. The funeral home’s name and phone number throbbed on every item in bold black type as if flammable.
In the corner of the tent sat two large tanks of helium. My father and his employees spent hours blowing up balloons with the stuff. They twirled a string around them and then strung them up along the tent poles. They floated through the air in the hands of children who kicked up dust on the fairground. Not a year passed that my sister and I didn’t eat the helium in huge gulps. We filled the balloons, inhaled, held our breath and then spoke like munchkins. Hilarious. My mother warned us of brain damage.
After sunset, carnival lights lent their glow to an otherwise blackened sky and the children were led home, high on sugar. The haunted house ride picked up a long line of customers. Ours was a church-going, god-fearing town. Men passed the hoochie coochie girls with one eye to the ground, the other to the swaying hips inside a tight dress. They lingered as long as they could without being obvious. Many strolled around to the back entrance.
Throughout the week tractor pulls, (still don’t know what that is) a beauty pageant, judged in rather close proximity to the heifers, hogs and tobacco, were awash in a sea of blue ribbons and tiaras. A peculiar odour of cow patties and popcorn wafted through the evening air.
At the time, I thought how terrific it was that my father was lucky enough to spend every night at the fair from opening until closing, four or five hours of shaking hands, handing out balloons and listening to people talk incessantly about the heat. It was summer, school was out and the days were long and lazy. True for me, but not for the undertaker, who was still on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.