COUNTY FAIR • by Beth Konkoski

Mom had all but thrown us in the backseat of the station wagon, her rage boiling up front, as we sat in a gathering twilight and watched the Ferris wheel spin its rainbow jewels around the sky. No cotton candy, no fried dough, although its smell taunted us even from the giant empty field where we sat, parked. Not even the twenty-five-cent glass of freezing cold chocolate milk from the dairy barn we got every year because St. Lawrence County has more cows than people and their milk is important at the fair. Instead, we swatted mosquitoes flying in the open windows and fought silently over leg space on the back seat. And we waited.

I saw Dad first, a shape darker than the gray of the settling summer night; his body sloped along in work boots, jeans low on his hips. Like Jesus on the cross at church, his arms stood out from his head, long and weighty. We didn’t want Mom to know but couldn’t keep from squealing as he got close enough to the car for us to really see. The giant, stuffed panther rested around his neck, made the T shape of his body as he stopped beside the car. Smiling and turning to show us the head of his prize, a flash of one golden eye, he looked like Pa from Little House, smiling and reliable. The car’s front door opened, and in the quick splat of light, Mom jumped at him.

“That fucking thing does not come in this car. Do you hear me?”

He had done it, stood at the milk jugs and tossed three in a row down into their darkness. The guy running the game told him it took six trades, six wins to reach the biggest prizes hanging like furry perfection around the tent. Mom dragged us away on his third attempt to win and trade up, unwilling to watch Dad hand over another twenty. But he stayed behind, clanging the scuffed, weighty balls off the rim — determined, relentless, captured in his inability to back down, even though everyone knew the odds, knew those balls spun and bounced away far more often than they dropped in with a ringing thunk.

Now in the dark, looking out the window at Dad and his prize, I could picture the luxury of the panther’s black pelt in our tiny bedroom, how Abby and I would lay across its full, zoo-animal size, bring it out in front of the TV for The Love Boat and Fantasy Island on Saturday nights, wrap our arms around its sleek pelt and forget how drafty our trailer got in winter or how our toes pressed tight against the ends of our sneakers that would have to do until Christmas. It was the toy of a movie star kid. I had never wanted anything so much in my life.

Despite our tears and begging, dad’s apologies, and the moment he tried to curl Mom in a hug and make some whispered promise to her, we drove off with the sleek black fur lying on the grass, our mother’s hissing voice laying out the story of a week’s pay, every cent in his wallet, handed over to a carny behind a knocked together, splintery booth because our dad hated to lose.

Some lucky child whose parents could still buy groceries after the family trip to the fair got to find it lying alone in an empty parking spot and carry it home, its soft caress ready to ease her to sleep on the floor watching TV.

Beth Konkoski is a writer and high school English teacher living in Virginia with her husband and two mostly grown kids. Her fiction has been published in journals such as Split Lip Magazine, The Baltimore Review, and The Greensboro Review. Her collection of short and flash fiction, A Drawn and Papered Heart, won the Acacia Prize for Short Fiction and will be published in June 2024 by Kallisto Gaia Press.

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