Joe took the train out to an old town where a fall carnival was being held. He hadn’t been to a carnival in years and was kind of excited about it. As a boy his dad would take him to carnivals and festivals but would never let him ride the rides or eat the food. They simply went to walk around and look at things. He would be allowed to pick out one single thing to buy at the event that was under $10, as his parents never had much money. Nearly every time he thought of playing one of the games or get a lemonade from the drink stalls, but would ultimately settle on a single cotton candy. Any other day he would have simply driven to the town but had has train passes from work that were set to expire at the end of the year and thought now was a good time to use them up.
The interior of the aging train was made up of a stout grey plastic that ran from the floor to the walls. Windows let in plenty of light and curved around the corners of the train cars so the riders could easily see when their next stop was coming up. The seats were a bench style, made of black false leather upholstery that was touted for being easy to clean but never quite lost that chemical-foam smell from when it was first installed. The only metal that could be seen inside were the handrails and poles that were used only during the busiest of hours.
Once the train arrived he got off at the station along with several other folks and families that were no doubt there for the event. It was a potato festival so everything was potato themed in some way. Fries, chips, mashed potatoes, everything you could imagine made from a ball of starch was available fried, baked, or steamed. Joe wasn’t a huge fan of potatoes having them all too often as a child, but went along because an old friend from school was going to have a booth selling handmade wooden items in the art and crafts area.
He followed the crowd down to the center of the town where a huge lawn was converted into rows of tents and food trucks. Around the back were the ever popular pop up rides that followed these types of events around. One could recon they had probably ridden the same rusty Ferris Wheel or spinny ride since childhood and it likely hadn’t been updated since. All the rides were made of the same fold up iron that fit on an 18 wheeler, the paint chipped and cracked, simply pressure washed and painted over at the end of the season. Joe wondered if some of the rides weren’t being held together by 30 years of enamel paint. What was more concerning to him were the lines of children eager to ride such mechanical nightmares. Sure, they weren’t exactly the industrial roller coasters one would ride at a theme park but still, if one of the rides failed in some way you were gonna get hurt and the city would have to pay the insurance for it.
Joe walked away from the rickety ride area, past a small miniature pony stable, a petting zoo, and several extremely competitive games of horseshoes. He made it to the craftsmen tents to look for his friend Lisa. She made all manner of wooden things by hand from picture frames to chairs and such. Her most popular items were desk accessories like pencil holders and such that could be etched with your own name on it there at the fair. Lisa brought along her mobile laser etching tool that ran off solar battery packs behind the tent. Joe waved to her as he walked up to the table and they caught up on stuff things for a moment while he looked at all of her items on the table. She had been living a few suburbs away for years and got into the woodworking while recovering from a bicycle injury. Lisa was one of Joe’s more affluent friends who could not only afford a bicycle but ride it to and from work as she lived close to town.
Joe thought it was great she was doing so well with the business. She sold items online that were made of more rare woods and expensive resin composites that more than supplemented her income. Various buyers would pay a premium for custom stabilized wood pen holders but at this little county fair she stuck with the pine and cedar works that more people could afford. She had one of the new wireless card boosters at her booth that would send a digital business card to your phone or watch if you pushed the button. Nearly every vendor had these and some kids would run around hitting the buttons at all the stalls just to annoy their parents who were looking at nick knacks a few tents over. Joe decided to order a pen tray with his name on it from her. She handed him a tablet with the order form and told him all he had to do was pick the type of wood and what he wanted etched into it. He filled out the order form and gave her an address to send it to. She accepted the payment from his phone and he said his goodbyes.
After having walked through the other various craftsman and vendors Joe started to feel hungry and wandered over to the food truck village on the opposite end of the field. This area had some paved sections with water and power hookups that were left over from when the area hand been an RV park. It suited the food truck system very well as it allowed people to form neat lines and sit at tables near each one. Aside from the nightmare of potato offerings there were the usual veggie and fish burger trucks. Fish and chip trucks were the big hits as the lines went on forever at every one. Joe looked around and saw what he really wanted over in the more upscale food area; a corndog. He had them when he was younger when meat was less expensive. The sausage used was mostly various off-cuts of leaner meat which was hyped up as a delicacy but still more affordable than whole meat.
He walked over to the freshly red painted wood paneled food truck that was mocked up to look like a schoolhouse, or a dog house, he couldn't tell. Joe ordered a fresh dipped corn dog and a lemonade and watched as the stout woman behind the window proceed to cook his lunch. He watched as she took a long wooden stick and ran it straight through one of the sausages being kept in a below deck cooler. She then clamped a metal handle to the wooden stick and dipped the meat into a metal container filled with cornmeal batter, not once but twice to ensure it was coated well. The woman proceed to quickly lower the still dripping corn dog into an extremely hot vat of cooking oil. The metal handle on the stick clamped into a stand above the fryer to keep the corn dog in place while the oil violently bubbled and boiled. She then turned and grabbed a thick reusable plastic cup from a tall stack by the soda fountain. A metal scoop was used to fill the bright pink cup with ice before being placed on the counter. The woman turned to check on the corn dog which was nearly ready. Joe watched as the pink cup began to develop spots of purple where the ice was touching the inside. She then filled the cup from a large churning container of lemonade that was nearly white with sugar. The entire cup then changed to a very dark purple. “Sorry all I got left is the pink ones.” She said and handed him the drink. “I’ll call ya over when the food is ready.”
Joe thanked her and took a sip of the lemonade. He would normally be upset if someone filled a glass of anything to the very top with ice before pouring it but given the strength of the lemonade he was was glad she did. He normally liked sweet and sour things but this was making his forehead sweat. Joe decided to let some of the ice melt for a minute before having anymore and looked around to see if he recognized anyone else at the fair. He had grown up a few towns over and gone to a community college nearby for a summer so it wouldn’t be completely impossible to see someone he knew. Quickly giving up on that idea, the woman from the food truck called him back over to get his corn dog.
“Watch out now, it’s real hot.”
Joe smiled and thanked her before walking over to the condiment station. The handle of the corn dog was wrapped in white butcher paper, keeping any extra grease from hitting his fingers. It also kept the mustard from dripping all over his hands as he ran the corn dog under the pump, giving it a few bright yellow lines. Joe sat down at one of the nearby picnic tables to eat. He had worn his sunglasses that day but shady clouds were beginning to roll in overhead. With his purple and pink cup and corn dog, his 9 year old self was having an absolute blast. He could never afford such things as a kid, and was always envious of the other ketchup-faced and sticky-cheeked children. Joe decided to go for it and take a bite, at the very least to let some steam out of the inside. The combination of crispy fried cornmeal and greasy sausage was overwhelming. His stomach was going to reward him later with outstanding heartburn but for now he didn't’ care. Once the corn dog cooled down properly he quickly finished it and washed it down with the now diluted lemonade. He tossed the stick and paper into the trash but tipped out the rest of the ice in his cup so he could keep it. Disposable cups had been banned years ago and he didn’t want to just toss it in the recycling bin with the others. It had the logo: “Friar Truck” with a drawing of a jolly medieval priest eating a corn dog on it. Joe couldn’t bring himself to get rid of the thing and put it in his book bag.
The only thing Joe had left to do at the fair was give the games a shot. His dad always told him to not play them as they were rigged or a waste of money. “If you want a stuffed bear I’ll just get you one.” He would always say. Joe wondered why his dad even bothered taking him to fairs at all. He left the food truck area and made his way to the two lanes of gaming booths. They were wooden booths all painted white but each vendor inside was hosting a different game. Stuffed animals, inflatable toys, and various other prizes hung from the roofs and walls of each and every one. There was a group of teens playing a basket shooting game where the prizes were black basketballs painted in glow in the dark stars. Joe knew he had seen them in online stores for cheap, but these kids were throwing $10 bills at the guy running the game like they’re world would end if they couldn’t win one. There was the classic win a $2 goldfish ring toss game, throw the darts at the under inflated balloons game, and of course the pick the rubber ducks out of the mildew water game. Joe played every one of them. Just once. The folks running the game would always encourage him to play again, or offer him a discount or more chances if he played again. Each time he declined, knowing better than to waste any extra money that day. The last game he came across was one of the hardest ones, where you had to throw ping pong balls into rubber ringed glass bottles. It was the most fun because you never knew if your ball would actually make it inside and ping pong balls would just go all over the place. Joe handed the girl in charge $10 and was given a dozen brightly colored balls to use. Next to him was a little boy and his mom who came up to play at about the same time. Joe and the little boy tossed their ping pong balls at the bottles, neither of them having any luck. The kid was maybe four or five years old and loudly cheered each time one of the balls bounced out of the booth to the floor with various others. Joe tossed his last couple of balls at the same time, knowing he had no chance, and one of them made it in. The lights under the bottles lit up and music played from the ceiling. The girl running it reached up and handed Joe a big orange and green stuffed panda bear, to which he then handed over to the little boy. “Here ya go kid.” His mom thanked Joe for giving him the prize, watching her son put the stuffed bear into a strangle hold of a hug.
Clouds overhead had filled the entire sky which was growing dark as the wind began to pick up as he left the game area. Joe made his way back to the strain station a few blocks away. He quickly tapped his watch to the ticket console and stood under the awning at the loading area and waited for the train to arrive. A wet set of empty cars pulled up in front of him and the half dozen other people who were wanting to leave before the weather turned. Joe stepped in and took a seat near the back corner and watched the rain run down the glass of the windows during the rest of ride home.