Bully of the Town

They had been playing the beer garden at the State Fair for the better part of a week, and were getting a bit tired of the routine. They played from noon until closing time at 10 p.m., a long day. In the morning they’d be in the shade, but all afternoon long the sun would beat down on the little riser that was their stage. Their throats were sore from singing.

“You guys should play more instrumentals,” Sal, the guy who ran the beer garden said. “Easier on your tonsils and on my ears.” They rarely spoke to him since he wasn’t the one who hired them. They still had to be nice to him since he was the one who okayed their daily meal allowance: one hamburger or two hot dogs, fries and a drink.

“Girls want to hear us sing,” Billy said, even though he only sang back-up. It was true; you never saw a girl looking all dreamy-eyed during “Telstar” or one of the other all-guitar numbers.

“You’re not playing for them,” Sal said, since the girls who were attracted to the band were too young to come in by themselves and would stand watching on the other side of the white fence that ringed the beer garden. “You’re being paid to bring people in the gates.” Sal could be gruff but he never was that hard on them. They were the least of his worries, between health inspectors, employees stealing from the till and carnies coming in paying a nickel for a cup of hot water, then putting free ketchup in it to make tomato soup.

They learned as the week went on that what Sal said was in their interests, too. They were supposed to play when the place was empty, to fill it up, and stop when it was full. It went against their instincts; they liked to play for people, even old people. It was more fun to play for a crowd than a bunch of empty chairs, but they’d wised up after a few days. You had to take every break you could if you were going to make it through a week-long gig.

“Thank you very much,” David said as they finished a song to applause. The place was a little more than half full, but it was still early. He looked at Sal who gave him the sign to cut it off. He wanted to turn the house again before the dinner crowd came in.

“We’re going to take a little break right now,” David said into his microphone. “But we’ll be back before too long.” With that he turned off his mike and amp and started to unplug his guitar.

“Aw, come on y’all. I just got here,” a woman said to him. She was fat and red-faced; she’d been drinking from the smell of her breath. She was holding a brown bottle in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

“Sorry, ma’am. Those are the rules,” David said.

“Whose rules?”

“Union rules,” Billy said with a sly smile as he kept moving away from the bandstand so as to make a clean break.

The woman watched him go. Tony, the other guitar player, was still putting his stuff away carefully. “You still got you two and that other feller. You don’t need a drummer—come on.”

“Sorry, ma’am, but our contract says we get a 15-minute break every hour,” Wayne said. “You can come back and hear us play later.” He always spoke with an air of authority that seemed out of place given his age; it was because his father was caretaker of the fairgrounds, so it was like his home.

“Do you all know Bully of the Town?” she asked David. As she did, Wayne and Billy both broke out laughing, which they did nothing to stifle.

“I don’t believe I’ve ever heard it,” David said. Tony was done with his gear, so he stepped off the riser onto the grass and joined Wayne and Billy off to one side.

“Aw, you know it,” the woman said, then began to sing. “Lookin’ for that bully, bully of the town,” she sang. She was drunker that she’d seemed at first, David thought. They’d learned a lot about adults in the course of playing for the first time in a place where alcohol was served. They weren’t all stiff like high school teachers. They would get unusually friendly, especially at closing time, when they’d offer to pay money for the band to keep playing.

The woman was dancing now, holding her bottle high in the air as she slowly turned around, blocking David’s way to the exit. “I asked Miss Pansy Blossom if she would wing a reel,” she sang, and David looked at the other three who were bent over from laughing. “She says ‘Lawd Mr. Johnson, how high you make me feel.’” The other customers were enjoying the woman’s antics, and some started to clap in time. “Yes I’m lookin’ for that bully of the town.”

“Go on and play somethin’ for her,” a man said, as he took out his wallet. “I’ll give ya two bucks to keep her dancing.”

The woman heard him and turned around to face him. “Why thankee,” she said. “If you pay the piper you’ve got to pay the singer, too.”

“Naw, they’s perfessionals,” the man said with a smirk. “You was dancin’ fer free, so just keep on doin’ what yer doin’.”

The woman didn’t take offense, she smiled and curtsied, then began her song and dance again. “It’s a good old song, you oughten to learn it,” she said to David. “Go on and play some,” she said.

His guitar was a hollow body, so he strummed a few chords and the woman began again. “When I walk this levee round, round, round,” she sang, and once again began to spin. David looked over at Sal, who just shrugged his shoulders as if to say he didn’t care.

“Every day I can be found, found, found.”

He felt ridiculous, but he kept playing three chords which bore no relation to the melody. “When I walk—this lev-ee round I’m a-lookin’ for that bully of the town.”

The woman’s face was growing redder, making it contrast more with her fat white arms. The man who’d offered the money was clapping louder than anyone, and David wondered how long the woman could keep singing.

“Woo!” the woman said, stopping to sip her beer. The dance had made her dizzy, and she began to fall in David’s direction. He caught her against his guitar and slowly righted her.

“You okay?” he said. He used the moment of her discombobulation to take his guitar off and put it on the stand.

“Yeah, I’m fine, don’t you worry,” she said. She gazed out over the tables and took in the customers, who had for the most part turned their attention back to their beers and each other.

“Do you all need a singer?” the woman asked David.

“No ma’am, we don’t,” he said politely, hoping to end the encounter without further incident.

“Because I’m a singer!”

“You sure are, ma’am. There’s another band down at the other beer garden, close to the midway. Maybe they need one.”

“They’s colored,” the woman said. “I want to sing with you boys.”

“Well, we don’t get paid enough to take on another musician.”

“I wouldn’t charge you. Hell, I’d sing for free.”

David looked over at the other three, who had made their way out the entrance behind the woman’s back and were giggling at him.

“We couldn’t do that, ma’am. You’re a professional—it wouldn’t be right.”

“Naw, I’d do it for the fun of it,” she said. She turned to throw her empty beer bottle in a barrel and David saw his chance to escape. He stepped towards the exit but she caught him by the arm.

“Don’t go nowhere,” she said. “Let’s put a quarter in the juke box and dance, you and me.”

He looked at Sal, who was laughing now, along with the fry cook and the bus boy.

“Do you like ‘In the Mood’? Do-da-doo-da-do-do, do-da-de-da-de dah,” she sang as she put her arm around his waist and began to lead him in a dance.

“I told you you should learn some instrumentals,” Sal said.

“Ma’am, I’ve got to go,” David said and broke her grip. “We only get 15 minutes, I’ve got to eat.”

With that he was out the entrance as the woman called after him. “Okay, I’ll come back and see y’all later, ya hear? You boys are the best thing at the fair.”

He hurried away and the other three caught up with him.

“You started a fan club!” Wayne said; just like him David thought.

“You guys weren’t much help,” he said.

“What were we supposed to do—she was drunk and blocking the exit,” Billy said.

“You could have distracted her,” David said.

“You two seemed to be enjoying each other,” Wayne said.

“Bite me,” David said, and went off to get a milk shake at the Dairy Building. His throat was sore.

The Ferris Wheel

“There’s nothing lonelier than a ferris wheel at night from a ways off,” he said.“You aren’t at the fair, and you want to be.  You hear the girls screaming from the rides, and you figure everybody’s havin’ a good time, and you’re not.  You want to get goin’ before the carnival closes for the night, but you know by the time you get there it’ll all be over—all the fun will be gone.”

He said this as we were cleaning up his truck.  The last kid had come up for ice cream a good half hour ago, and we had shut down the grill before that.  We were right next to the fairgrounds, but we were separated from it by the RV lot—surrounded by vans and pick-up trucks with camper compartments in the bed and over the cab.

“I’ve been workin’ this truck for exactly fifteen years now,” he said.

“Did your dad used to do it?”

“Yep, till he got too old.  Me and Charlie would help out as soon as we were old enough.  The truck body plant shuts down the last two weeks of August, so it’s a chance to make a little extra money.”

I was waiting to see if my girlfriend would show up.  She and her friend Pam had gone over to the midway to walk around one last time.  I hoped they hadn’t met anybody.  Candy was like that—a flirt.  The reason I liked her was the reason every other guy did.

“Is your girlfriend gonna swing by here or do you want a ride home?”

“She said she’d come back.”

“Waiting for a woman—get used to it, kid.”

He laughed softly.  “You can’t live with ‘em, you can’t live without ‘em, but either way, you’ll spend a good part of your life just sitting around waiting for ‘em.”

I nodded to show I kinda knew what he meant.  He acted as if waiting was boring, but it wasn’t for me.  It made me nervous, because I never knew if Candy would come back with a bunch of other kids, which I didn’t want.  I wanted to be alone with her.

“I’ll stay here for awhile longer if you want.  Why don’t you go take a shower down at the latrine?  You’ll feel better, and she’ll appreciate it.”

“It’s too late already.  If she comes by while I’m down there, she’ll just go home without me.”

“Well, I’ll make her stay.”

“Thanks.  I’d rather not take the chance.”

I dragged the trash bags over to his car and threw them in the trunk.When I came back he had closed up and was sitting on the steps that the little kids stood on to reach the ice cream window.  I sat down next to him.

“I know what you’re going through,” he said as he tapped a cigarette on the pack and lit it.  “I can remember when I was in eighth grade, first time I held a girl’s hand at a dance I was about ready to explode, and I don’t mean from gas.”

I laughed at that.  He was a good guy to work for.  “Was that who you married?”

“No, that was just puppy love.  By the time I was a sophomore I thought I’d found the real thing—hell, I knew I’d found the real thing.  I was getting’ it, fer Christ sake.”

I didn’t understand him.“What did you get?”

He looked at me like I was crazy.  “Poontang, what do you think?”

“Oh, right,” I said as if I’d understood all along.

“She was hot.  She talked me into it.  I wanted true love.”

“And that’s your wife?”

“No, she was gone by the beginning of the next school year.  But you figure—if we lived in the old days we woulda gotten married, had kids—that woulda been it.  But her dad was in the Air Force and got transferred way the hell up to New York.”


“They lived right over there,” he said as he pointed to a lot where there used to be a trailer park, just across the highway, with the utility poles and the gravel streets the only sign there had ever been anything there.

“The Air Force’d move people in and out on short notice, so at any one time there might be five or six trailers empty.  The kids who lived there—the Air Force brats—knew where each one was as soon as a family’d leave.  You could have parties in there and no one would ever know about it.”


“Yeah.  They’d leave the beds behind, even the mattresses.It was government housing, all you owned was what you brought with you.  One time I told my mom I was staying over at a friend’s house and my girl and I spent the night in one of them empty trailers.”  He snorted a little laugh.  “We moved a stereo in there and listened to one album, over and over.  Then we fell asleep with our clothes on.We didn’t have sex that night.”

He was being so open with me, I asked him a question.  “Why not?”

“Neither one of us was ready for it.  We knew we weren’t.  Anyway, we were just lyin’ there when the sun came up, not wantin’ to face the day yet, getting our first exposure to the . . . uh . . . more everyday part of sleeping with someone, when one of the caretakers comes bustin’ through the door.”

“Holy cow—what did you do?”

“Nothin’.  When he said we had to leave, we left.  And he said don’t ever do it again.But we didn’t obey that part.”

“What did you do after that?”

“What came naturally.  We had gotten close that night, but the next time we went into the trailer park’s laundromat.  It closed up at eleven, but nobody checked on it.”

I tried to sound thoughtful, but I could barely contain myself.  I wanted to know how they did it.

“So what happened?”

“She picked me up from work with her girlfriend.  They had been working on a pint of rum.”

“Where’d they get it?”

“Floyd Williams, Sr., down at the ice plant.  They’d give him money and follow him over to the Sportsman’s Club.  He’d get them a bottle and keep the change.”

“I see.”

“Anyway, her girlfriend was in the front seat with her boyfriend, and she was all over me in the back seat. Everybody was pretty liquored up.”

“And you had a party in the laundromat?”

“Not a party. We turned out the lights and just drank for a while, pouring rum into cans of coke. Then her girlfriend left in the car and we were there alone. In the dark. Half drunk.”

“Uh huh.”

“One thing led to another.”


He was quiet for awhile, and took a drag on his cigarette.

“She was hot to trot, and . . . uh . . .mentally at least, I was not. “

“Why not?”

“Well, I’d just gotten offa workin’ eight hours in a barbecue restaurant and I smelled like a slab of ribs and was about as greasy.”

“What did you do?”

“Buddy, sometimes your body will do things your mind doesn’t want to.”

I was quiet for a moment.  “So that was your first time?”

“Sort of.  Since she’d been drinking, and I’d just got off work, neither one of us thought to bring a rubber.”

I was getting confused.  “So you didn’t do it?”

“No, we did.  Somehow with all the moanin’ and groanin’ we agreed I’d pull out.”


“Which, when you’re sixteen and have never done it before isn’t as easy as it sounds.”

“Oh.”  I waited for him to start talking again, and when he didn’t I asked “So what happened?”

He dropped his cigarette in the dirt, and stepped on it.  “I pulled out, but I was scared shitless.  I figured she was pregnant for sure, and I got all upset.  I took off my undershirt and wanted her to, you know, like do something with it to catch the sperm.”  He snorted.“What the hell did I know—my biology teacher was a taxidermist.”

We both laughed.

“Then I walked her to her trailer and kissed her goodnight.  And we hugged each other and were both cryin’.  A hell of a way to lose your virginity, isn’t it.”

“I guess.”

We looked up towards the carnival when we heard a boom.  The fireworks had started, and we saw the first one explode high over the grandstand.  That meant that the fairgrounds would be closing up soon.

“Then I just started running,” he began.  “I ran across the highway, and into this field here.  It was a good mile and a half to my house, but if I cut through the fairgrounds I could shave a half mile offa that.  And as I was runnin’ through this field I threw the undershirt away.  Then I climbed over the gate at the fairgrounds and kept on running ‘til I got to the fence behind my house. And I crawled under and walked into the house like it was just another night.”

“Did your parents see you?”

“Yeah, my mom came downstairs.  My heart was pounding from running, and ‘cause I was upset, but I acted like it was just another night after work, we just had to stay later because—I don’t know, I made something up, dishwasher broke.  Have to say, I shoulda won an Oscar for my cool, calm performance.”

We sat there in silence.  There was one last question I was bustin’ to ask him, but couldn’t right away.  Then it just came out, the way sometimes you just jump in the water after standing there cold and scared.  “Did—did the undershirt thing work?”

He broke out laughing hard now.  “That’s a good one.I’m sure it didn’t, but she didn’t get pregnant.  I’ll tell you though, if you ever want to see time move in slow motion, that’s the way to do it.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re waiting to find out if your girl’s pregnant, and she’s countin’ the days, and tellin’ you how late she is.  You know what I’m talking about, right?”

“Yeah,” I said.“Sorta.”

“If she gets her period, she’s not pregnant.  If she doesn’t, she is.  So you’re waiting—“

He looked at me like a math teacher, expecting me to sum things up in my head.

“For her to get her period,” I said after a few seconds.

“That’s right.  She did, nothing happened, she moved away, and I moved on.”

I stared straight ahead, listening to the katydids.  After awhile I heard some voices talking low, approaching us.  It was Pam and Candy, done with the carnival for the night.

“Is this your girlfriend?” he asked.


“Which one?”

“The one with the brown hair.”  I wanted to sound as if I’d been around, and was as experienced as he’d been at my age.“  I dated Pam—she’s the blonde—for awhile but decided I liked Candy better.”

“Man about town, huh?”

“You missed a great band,” Candy said as they walked up.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.  The Lavender Hill Mob.”

“I’ve heard of ‘em.”

“I’m Billy’s girlfriend Candy, and this is my friend Pam,” she said to Roy as she stuck her hand out.

“Nice to meet you both,” Roy said.  I could tell he liked Candy right away.  “I’ve heard a lot about you,” he said, looking at Candy.

“Did lover boy kiss and tell?” Pam asked with a smart aleck tone.  That was one of the reasons I broke up with her.

“Nope, just a man-to-man, heart-to-heart talk.”

“I thought men didn’t have those kind of talks,” Candy said.

“We do, when we run out of things to say about football,” Roy said.

“We’ve got to get home,” Pam said.  She wasn’t getting anything out of this.

“We’re closed and Billy’s done,” Roy said.  “He’s all yours.”

“Well, it was nice to meet you,” Candy said.  “I hope you survive the fair.”

“I hope I do too,” Roy said.  “Nice to meet you, Pam.”

“Same here,” she said.  She couldn’t care less.

We started to walk towards the highway and I turned around to say goodbye to Roy, and saw him looking at me.

“Take care of that girl, okay?” he said.

“I will.”

French Chefs Use August to Hone Skills at US State Fairs

SEDALIA, Mo.  It’s August, the month when nearly all of France is on vacation, but chefs Jacques Perine and Jean-Claude Tourine have chosen a destination that most of their countrymen wouldn’t think of.  “We cannot sit upon our derrieres if we want France to remain the gastronomic capital of the world,” says Perine.  “So we go where the latest innovations in haute cuisine are to be found.”

Un chien de mais

Perine and Tourine are touring the United States to sample the food at the nation’s state fairs, long derided by nutritionists as cesspools of fat, salt and starch, but nonetheless revered by the French who have a history of raising neglected aspects of American culture such as jazz, “noir” films and Jerry Lewis to the level of art.

“I think these congo bars are gonna take the blue ribbon.”

“In America, there is free and open competition at your state fairs for ribbons of bleu, blanc et rouge,” says Honore Dessous, proprietaire of Les Deux Pneux, a petite boit de nuite on the Left Bank in Paris.  “Thees ees the only way to challenge the hidebound orthodoxies of le cordon bleu,” the official French cooking authority that regulates everything from the number of eggs in a standard-size quiche lorraine (3) to the number of tentacles on un escargot (4).

Four, count ’em.

The two Frenchmen make their way to the Women’s Exposition building at the Missouri State Fairgrounds here to view, critique and record new developments in la cuisine Americaine, including new uses for native American foodstuffs such as Kraft Mini Marshmallows.

“Sacre bleu!” Tourine says as he slaps his forehead.  “Look how they have combined yams with pork ‘n beans and the little marshmallows!”

Perine nods with approval, but he’s more interested in seeing what novel uses have been made of Rice Krispies, a cereal with baking applications that is little known in France.

Fruity Rice Krispie Kebabs

“Hmm,” Perine says as he scratches some notes on a spiral pad.  “The Fruity Rice Krispie Kebabs are a fun-filled family snack that combines healthy fruits and unhealthy sugar sprinkles with a rice-based cereal that is simply to die for!”

Tourine grabs him by the wrist, causing his pen to skitter down the sheet of paper, but when he sees the sumptuous spread of Jello-brand gelatin salads, he forgives his countryman.  “Look at that lime Jello-and-pear-and-green grape mountain!” Perine exclaims.  “Wait until the restaurant critic at Paris Match gets a load of that one!”

The two gourmands stuff themselves with American cheese and cracker samples, then step outside to walk off their healthy repast.  “You know,” Tourine says, “we should do something to repay our American friends, they have been so good.”

“You are right,” Tourine says, and he withdraws an 16-ounce can of escargots from his bag and offers it to Clell Furnell, a fairgoer passing by.

Consolation prize for Rice Krispie ‘n Escargot Squares

“Here,” Tourine says.  “We have enjoyed eating so much in your country, this is my way of giving something back.”

Furnell is clearly moved by this gesture of international understanding, and is quick to express his appreciation.  “Why, thanks, little buddy,” he says to Tourine, who at 5’6″ is a good five inches shorter than him.  “Snails make great bait when you’re bass fishing.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Those Crazee French.”