by Corey Mesler
The Mid-South Fair has been going on for centuries, certainly back to the days the Druids used Stonehenge for similar recreation. And, I have been attending regularly my entire life, or at least since I arrived in Memphis, Tennessee, from the frozen North, in 1960. When I was a child I found the Fair as exotic as the jungles of Southern Guangdong, and its Midway as fraught with excitement and danger as life’s tangled absurdities. A stroll down the Midway was eye-opening. You could see pretty women scantily clad, some walking with impossibly handsome men, some in the “shows.” What an anfractuous atmosphere! The sights, the sounds! What convivial chaos! One could see wonders. And, one could just as easily get one’s pocket picked.
There were freaks and geeks and basilisks. There were mermen and a tiny equine and afreets. There was a woman, the fattest woman in the world, who sat on a woebegone stool, while the rubberneckers passed by so close to her they could smell her sweat. It was rumored that an Ancient Man lived inside The Old Mill, back behind the Mill’s rickety public façade, deep in darkness like Gollum. It was said that he was as old as the rebuilding of Samaria, and that his heart was not a human heart. There was something called The Fun House. One entered its Addams Family frontage at one’s own risk. The floors tipped and tilted, mirrors sent you in the wrong direction, the dead rose from their provisional habitations, to point at you (you’re next!), and at the end you had to negotiate a rotating barrel, the final test of one’s mettle. I often failed. The Fun House was like the Fair itself, in microcosm. One often felt the ground shift and buckle; one often fell short in the final trial, The Zippin Pippin, say.
Also, walking the Midway, you were a gull for the barkers and snake oil salesmen, whose voices almost drowned out the grinding of the giant gears of the Fairy Land rides, and the thunderous rock music pumped from myriad directions into the air already redolent of mustard and fried things and humanness. These barkers invariably told you how easy their games were, some would even demonstrate by flipping a softball into a basket, or knocking milk bottles off their stool. “Hey kid, hey kid,” they called. “Listen to me, kid.” Sometimes we walked on. Sometimes we paid attention. Often it had to do with our expenses. Could we risk fifty cents on a rigged game? Well, of course we could. And did.
Prizes as large as Yugos hung suspended in these booths, brightly colored and seemingly made only for Richie Rich. Occasionally you would see kids strutting down the Midway with one of these gargantuan stuffed animals—a monster okapi, say, or a curveting dragon—but the word on the street was that they were paid to walk around with them. No one actually won a Giant Prize. Invariably if you were able to get the softball into the basket, tilted in just such a way to make it nearly impossible, you were handed a trinket, a Chinese handcuff, or a keychain, or a comb, or a smaller version of the monster toys, cheap little lions and bears and apatosauri stuffed with sawdust. It was explained that you had to win 3 times in a row, or more, to qualify for the really desirable toys, the Gigantean Inanimate Animalia.
It didn’t matter, of course, when we were kids. The Fair wasn’t fair. So what. Where else did you encounter such larger-than-life people, such unremitting and enjoyable frenzy? Your eye could find no rest. It was an alternate reality, a place of dream and fantasy, a place of magic and jeopardy. When I was old enough my friend Pat Morgan and I used to catch the city bus from our adjunct suburbs and ride it into Memphis proper, to the Midtown location that year after year, forever and anon, held the Fair. We would arrive sometimes about 7 or 8 a.m., hours before they opened up the rides and booths. We would bide our time among the livestock, or in one of the exhibits where they showed farming equipment or the artwork of promising teens. In time we would breakfast on a pronto pup or fiddlestick. By the time we were ready to ride the rides our stomachs were full of churning sweetness and tartness and sodium and grease. It was a heady olio and often the more boisterous rides were places of wild upchucking.
Year after year I attended the Midsouth Fair, never missing, as true to it as Romeo was to Juliet. Later, when I was in my 20s and 30s, the Fair was a great date. I took many girlfriends to the Fairgrounds, held their soft, feminine hands while tripping around, encircled by all that grotesquerie. It was sortilege, really. The Fair was like an aphrodisiac. I remember one first date with a woman I had just met. In front of one of the games of chance, perhaps one involving a firearm with a bent sight, I suddenly pressed myself against this stranger, this new woman I had just met. She smiled like Eve. It was on. I credit the Fair with greasing the tracks, so to speak, for that erotogenic relationship. Another year I double-dated with my friend Eddie and his gal. Eddie dubbed that year The Year that Corey ate a Turkey Drumstick as Large as a Pterodactyl’s. And on and on. So many years, so much adventure, so many riotous, perdurable memories.
This has all been preface. Now I will tell you the story. The true story, the story that we have gathered to hear. Though true, this story contains enchantment; doubters take heed.
There is an infirmity, a sickness, a condition, which one might call the converse of The Midsouth Fair, the jubilant Fair’s antithesis. Where the Fair is outside, open, streaming, teeming, lively as a fire, and emblematic of the buccaneer inside the average human, this debility is like a prison, a prison of the mind, a prison built and peopled by the mind, a webby crapulence that swallows the heart, the psyche, the soul. And its name is Agoraphobia.
Somewhere in mid-life I contracted Agoraphobia. I will not delineate the details of the debility. You know the worst of it and the worst of it is that I became afraid to leave my home. Sometimes I even became afraid of simply being at home, my troublesome cabbage, the old prevaricator, telling me I was unsafe. Fear is real. Fear can harm you in innumerable and unforeseen ways, right up to and including jugulating you. Fear is a killer. I became afraid of fear.
Years have passed since I was first diagnosed. Drugs have been dispensed. Therapy sessions have been convened, some calm and soothing, some devastating in new ways. The drugs can blunt a panic attack, sometimes steer one away, sending it back into the collective unconscious where it was hatched in dark devilry. Sometimes the drugs seem to do nothing at all. Sometimes the drugs might as well be a handful of beans. You know drugs.
Agoraphobia gathers losses the way iron gathers rust.
So, among other losses, I lost The Midsouth Fair. I missed over a decade’s worth. I missed the Fair when my wife, Cheryl, and daughter, Chloe, went, returning home full of fried Twinkies and with tales of exotic animals and bravery. My daughter rode the Zippin Pippin one year, one of the world’s great old wooden roller coasters. As a younger man, I only rode the Pippin once. I would rather be beaten by a gang of kids with sticks than ride it again. But I was proud of her and she was proud of herself. And I ached for the things I was missing. Not as badly as the night I missed her one and only violin recital in elementary school, but in the general I’m-left-behindness of the malady.
Agoraphobia literally means “fear of the marketplace.” The Fair, with its booths and merchandise and noise and barkers and crowd, would seem the agoraphobe’s worst nightmare. In dreamtime, it is the marketplace. In reality, too. Hence, I didn’t even try to go. Year after year my wife and daughter went without me, even though the Fair was walking distance from our home. And year after year I experienced that strange admixture of relief and guilt which is germane to the agoraphobe’s world. Still, I missed the damn spectacle of The Midsouth Fair, my memory making it larger than it is, making it more harum-scarum, more potent.
Then, recently, in one of those strange happenstances that seem to plague my city, it was decided to end the Midsouth Fair’s run at the Midtown Midsouth Fairgrounds. It had something to do with using the space for retail development or somesuch. So far that hasn’t happened. But it forced the Fair to move and where it moved was into the adjoining state of Mississippi, just over the border. This seems sad to me, another memory of my childhood in Memphis gone forever, like Sivad dying. Like the Merry-mobile ending its sweet route of ice cream dispensary. This also effectively put the Fair out of my reach forever, way beyond the tether that keeps me close to home. If I ever entertained notions of returning some year before my daughter grew to eschew the Fair’s hedonistic pull, there would be only one more chance.
So, 2008, the last year came. It was much discussed. The final Midsouth Fair at the Midsouth Fairgrounds. My wife and daughter made their plans. I was filled with disappointment and a nervous fatality. This was truly a sad end to a lifetime’s entertainment and experience. One more thing that would never come again. If life is a series of fatalities, this one ranked somewhere in the middle of the regret index. Higher than not being able to stomach Taco Bell’s delicious but gut-bombing fast food, but lower than not asking Garland Draper to my high school senior prom.
The night arrived. My wife and daughter, full of blithe advance wonderment, went to the Fair leaving me to the couch and TV, my place of refuge, shame, disappointment, solace and self-recrimination. I sat and stewed. Something was on TV, a movie on TCM perhaps.
Then I said, no. To myself I said, no. To the TCM movie I said, no. And to the cacodemon called Agoraphobia, I said, emphatically, Dammit, No.
I called my wife on her cell. I am going to try to come meet ya’ll, I said. Try not being the sort of awe-inspiring self-possessed verb my therapist would be proud of. My wife, my loving wife, said, Wonderful! We’ll meet you at the gate.
While walking to the front entrance of the Fair my heart beat a wild tattoo. I can’t do this, it said, in syncopated thumping. Archfiend heart. Hobgoblin heart. But I answered back, what’s the worst thing that will happen? Never mind, I knew the worst thing and the worst thing was a panic attack, a very public panic attack. I won’t go into how horrible a panic attack is. Suffice it to say I wouldn’t wish one on my worst enemy, with the possible exceptions of Dick Cheney and whoever is heading up the Aryan Nation right now.
My wife and daughter stood just inside the gates of the Fair. In the gloaming, their cheerful, radiant, congenial forms drew me on. They believed in me. The threshold was easily passed, if I had the money, if my legs worked. I smiled tightly and waved. They waved back, with enthusiasm, and perhaps a little pride. Perhaps, I want to believe, a little pride.
I crossed over. I was inside. I was at my final Midsouth Fair. My first steps were tenuous. The ground was too spongy, like trying to walk on a sea of swan-down. My wife’s velvety hand felt like a lifeline. The walk around the midway, poorly attended here in its death throes, was pleasant enough. I was very nervous. My wife smiled faith; she smiled support. My daughter chattered away about what they had already seen, especially at the exotic petting zoo. She insisted I had to touch a yak. So, first we stood among anomalous animals and petted and fed and cooed to them. It was oddly calming. I was beginning to think I would be alright.
Now, here let me confess, if it wasn’t clear already, I loved the games of chance at the Fair. Even after my father explained to me as a child how they rigged them. I loved throwing darts, baseballs, footballs. I loved shooting squirt guns into clown mouths. I even loved, occasionally, having my weight or age guessed. But, what I loved most, because it was the only sport I was somewhat skilled at, were the basketball games. This year, my first year back in donkey’s years, there seemed to be a dozen different basketball booths, perhaps reflecting the popularity of the sport. I tried one where the goals were only about fifteen feet away and low, about brow-level. It seemed too easy. But I knew the swindle. The circumference of these rims, friends, is not officially checked by the NBA or NCAA. The circumference of these rims is just slightly larger than the basketball itself. I rimmed out three straight shots. I sighed. It was what I expected yet I was still mildly disappointed. But it could not dim my pleasure, my relief at actually attending. Woody Allen said 50% of life (or was it 80%) is showing up. Perhaps he knows an agoraphobe or two. Showing up, to me, anytime, anywhere, is a true accomplishment.
We walked on. My daughter wanted to ride rides. Her father tried to gently explain to her his theory of how unsafe it was to not have your feet on the ground at all times. It was a beautiful evening, the empurpling dusk ignited the Fair with goblin light. The rides themselves were lunatic explosions of color and luminosity and racket.
We passed yet another basketball booth. The barker, who bore a slight resemblance to the actor Harry Dean Stanton, was calling to me. I have, over the years, developed a firm resistance to such corny carnie come-ons. But this poor schnook seemed desperate. The midway was so empty. The barkers all wanted you to play with them because business was bad. I relented. I was a sport.
At this particular booth the goals were about 70 feet away and a good 20 feet in the air. Or so it seemed. But to match the difficulty to the prize this booth only gave away Giant stuffed animals, the legendary kind no one actually won. Why not? I thought. Three balls, two bucks.
My first two shots were awful, Shaq-like. It appeared as if I had never shot a basketball before. Before I took my third shot I thought I had figured something out. Perhaps one of the imps of the perverse had whispered to me, put a little backspin on the ball. I did. I feathered it up there with a silky, intuitive backspin, a gyration as pure as the planet’s own. The ball danced on the rim for a few agonizing seconds—my wife, my daughter held their breaths—and fell to earth as dead as Aristophanes, as dead as my previous shots. Ah, well. I smiled at the barker. Thanks, I said.
One more for free, he said.
He said, one more for free.
Huh, I shrugged. Ok, I thought. I regathered my chi; I stood before the empyrean goal one more time. I let that fourth ball fly just the way I let the penultimate ball fly. Its spin was like a turning wave against the land wind. It gently kissed the back of the rim, it gently bussed the front of the rim, and, friends it then fell through. Damn! I said. Damn! The barker looked at me with Eeyore eyes as if I had somehow cheated him, as if I was an old formerly loyal friend who had just slept with his wife.
Chloe’s eyes were wide. Was it really true? Could she really pick any of those mammoth stuffed toys? The barker, in his disappointment, said, hey, pick a low one. I don’t wanna have to climb on the ladder to get one of the higher up toys. He spit once, his blessing.
Chloe went straight to it. A white Siberian tiger. Gorgeous. The carnie took it down and handed it to her. It was as big as she. Her face was a delicious mixture of joy and pride and disbelief. I think my face must have shown the same emotional amalgam. My wife clapped and hugged me. I was a King. I was a Potentate. I was a Magus. I was a Virtuoso.
I was effing Superman.
We walked around a little bit longer. I had to carry the tiger sometimes, it was that ginormous. And the other fairgoers looked at us askance. We know the game, their envious but skeptical looks said. You didn’t win that. But I did, friends, I won it with the fourth ball, the one only bestowed upon the beatified.
I did, friends. I won it at the Final Midsouth Fair. I won a prize bigger than any prize I had ever before won. It was a liminal event. I won a prize bigger than anything I had ever even dreamed of winning at the Fair. And I also won a large white Siberian tiger, which my daughter loves, which has become the physical embodiment of Family Triumph, and which now sits on Chloe’s bed, taking up the half of the bed upon which Chloe does not sleep.
And now they have moved this Carnival of Delights and Frights across the border into some place called Mississippi. This is just wrong. It’s hard to explain why. It’s hard to grasp the tail of dream-memory.
Corey Mesler has published in numerous anthologies and journals including Poetry, Gargoyle, Good Poems American Places, and Esquire/Narrative. He has published 8 novels, 4 short story collections, numerous chapbooks, and 4 full-length poetry collections. His new novel, Memphis Movie, is forthcoming from Soft Skull Press. He’s been nominated for many Pushcarts, and 2 of his poems were chosen for Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. With his wife, he runs a bookstore in Memphis.
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