I was going through my files today and stumbled across this old short. I’d posted it to another site, now defunct, back in 2012 and promptly forgot about it. It’s a flash piece. A little longer than most at 2700 words, but still too short to be anything else. It’s very loosely based on every small-town Southern city festival I’ve ever been to – from the booths to the petty politics. I dusted it off, read over it, added some things, removed some things, and cleaned it up a bit. Hope you enjoy it!
The prompt was a list of items. I don’t remember if we had to choose from the list or if we used all we were given. These were the words I chose/used:
- Bowling alley
- Pogo stick
- Lawn gnome
Melinda Jackson’s pick-up picked its way through the streets of downtown. A tiny army of volunteers swarmed the lamp-lit sidewalks like angry ants in the predawn hours, setting up day shades, folding tables, chairs, signs, and all the other necessary things for a simple small-town city fest. A few people paused to shoot her a look. She snorted and ignored them. She’d fought long and hard for her booth at the CityFest. Fought, and won. It’d take more than a passel of sour-faced holier-than-thou matrons to upset her now. No matter what they whispered behind their butter-won’t-melt smiles and sweeter-than-sweet tea platitudes, she refused to allow them to drain any of the joy from this day. This was all for Mitchell, and it was going to be amazing and fun and successful. Even if it killed her.
The day promised to be a scorcher, with temperatures in the mid-70s even before the sun crested the horizon, without a cloud in the sky. Thank goodness Walter was bringing water and ice from the bowling alley or they might melt into a puddle before the event even started. She eased past the flashy booth from the local women’s volunteer club. A placard in front promoted the organization with a list of charitable deeds, past and present, earmarked to receive the funds. She scowled at it. Mitchell’s family had petitioned the club for aid. They’d refused. Piss on ’em.
The next booth offered a raffle—pay a dollar for a chance to win one of three beautiful hand-sewn quilts—and fruity snocones. They also took names for various petitions to improve the local parks. Melinda had to wonder how much of the raffle money went to the parks projects and how much paid for the snocone rental. The quilts at least were donated, made by members of the local senior center. Reminded her a bit of that scene in the movie Happy Gilmore.
The First Baptist church’s congregation was offering salvation and funnel cakes…for a price. The Methodist church, not to be outdone, was selling soda but giving away ice and water. All refreshments served with a smile and a business card bearing their address and the appropriate bible quote. At least the mayor nixed the bullhorns this year. That had been a hot mess with both pastors trying to out-preach the other. The cops had to separate the two while the press nearly burned out their cameras snapping shocking photos and promising headlines swearing you won’t believe what happened next!
Girl and Boy Scout troops offered trinkets and bird houses and jewelry that the kids made. She made a note to swing by and buy at least one thing from each. She could always use them as tournament prizes later. As a former Girl Scout, she remembered slaving over the items and the disappointment of poor sales. She was only one person, but she did her part to support the kids.
School organizations took up the next few booths. The drama team was selling baked goods and auctioning some old props for a new show. Show Choir was selling dvds of their holiday performances. Oooh! The woodworking class had teamed up with the library club and offered a variety of Little Free Libraries. She was definitely going to get one of those.
All in all, the usual booths for an event such as this.
And then there was the Ten Pins Alley booth. Melinda argued for months with the CityFest organizer in order to procure a booth. They spouted the usual nonsense while failing to read her application. The city wanted only charitable organizations to participate so that festival goers wouldn’t feel like they’d wandered into the local flea market. They may not be an organization, but 100% of all proceeds from their booth was going to a charitable cause: Mitchell Landry.
Mitchell was an amazing boy. He was kind, gentle, patient to a fault, and one of her best employees. Everyone at Ten Pins loved him, from the other employees to the members of the leagues. He’d trained hard over the past two years for his shot at the Special Olympics and had won his way into the try-outs. Unfortunately, everything has a price and travel isn’t cheap. The organization helped a lot but they still needed at least $2000 to pay for hotel, food, and travel expenses while at the try-outs.
Melinda laid this all out at the CityFest meetings and pulled no punches. The Special Olympics were a big deal. Imagine how this would reflect on the city if he steps up on the winner’s podium and the press reported on his city’s support…or lack thereof. That at least made them stop and think. She wasn’t asking for money. She’d gone that route with the women’s auxiliary and been shot down. All she wanted was this booth. His family was emotionally supportive but struggling financially, and as the owner of the business where he worked, she needed this booth to help him reach his goals. Backed by every employee and most of the patrons, the city finally caved but they weren’t happy.
She pulled up to her designated spot just before 5:30am and huffed at the spitefulness of the CityFest clerk. Though Ten Pins hadn’t secured the last booth available, they’d been given the worst location: beside the row of Port-o-Johns off the main strip. Once the sun rose, it would be…odiferous, to say the least. Petty bastards. Grumbling beneath her breath, she went to work. The day shade bearing the Ten Pins’ logo went up easily. She tied off each corner to a bag containing an old 16-pounder.
Next came the tables. The things weren’t really heavy, just bulkier than was comfortable for her arms. One at a time it was, then. She slid one from the bed of her pick-up and snapped the legs into place. The second butted against the first in an L-shape. When the last of the tables nearly flew from her hands, she knew the Landry family had arrived.
“Hey, y’all!” Work stopped for a moment while they shared greetings and hugs. She saved the best for last and giggled in protest when Mitchell lifted her off the ground with a spin. “Augh! I’m caught. Help me, Will.”
“I’m not getting in the middle of that. You scare me.”
Mitchell’s dad, William, was a burly, lumberjack looking man standing at well over six feet with shoulders nearly half that in width. He had fiery red hair, a smattering of freckles across his nose, and a perpetual smile on his face unless you said something bad about his son. Then his red hair served as a warning that beneath his cheerful exterior was a smoldering temper. Once roused, it was hard to extinguish without someone getting hurt. William was rarely that someone.
“Silliness.” Lisa rolled her eyes heavenward and effortlessly rescued Melinda from Mitchell. “I’m surrounded by silliness. You see what I have to deal with?”
Lisa Landry was as petite as William was large. Barely over five feet tall, Lisa had been a cheerleader in high school with her eye on the lead position. Sophomore year, she took a bad fall that side-lined her forever. Four pins in her leg and months of physical therapy later, she regained basic mobility but her cheerleading days were over. At first her friends had been supportive, then they’d been overly sympathetic, and finally they simply drifted away. Three days before prom, her football player boyfriend dumped her for another cheerleader. He wanted to maintain his image and she no longer fit the mold. William found her crying and offered to take her to the local drug store for a milkshake. The rest, as they say, is history.
The four chatted happily as they decorated the booth with crepe paper streamers (made by Mitchell) and colorful posters (made by the Ten Pin’s employees). The tables displayed a variety of items donated by the employees and repurposed for the festival.
Walter, who worked the bar at night, was an amateur blacksmith who’d removed the springs from a simple pogo stick, welded the shaft so it wouldn’t slide, filed the bottom to a dull point, and bolted a brightly painted metal tray to the top to form a whimsical bird bath.
Mandy, a home economics student who worked in the café section, rallied her teacher and her class in making athletic jerseys sized to fit a bunch of lawn gnomes. Each bore the name LANDRY across the back and the Special Olympics logo on the front. Some had pennants glued to their hands, others had little plastic balloons. All were painted to match the logo. There were over a dozen of the smiling little guys, with more in production.
There were other items as well. Some Ten Pins t-shirts and booklets of coupons for the bowling alley, as well as a lamp made from a mechanical monkey and a placemat/coaster set from donated wine corks. It wasn’t much, but all were made or donated with love and all were designed with Mitchell and his family in mind.
William and Lisa moved the vehicles while Melinda and Mitchell put the finishing touches on their booth: plugging in her laptop to play the informational video provided by the Special Olympics, setting out pre-printed envelopes for those who wished to donate money and receive a receipt for tax purposes, and cutting up a few of the cantaloupes grown in the Landry’s small garden. It was already hot as balls out and the juicy melons would help with the heat.
The court house clock chimed the hour. It was time for the CityFest to begin. Junior ROTC carried the colors while the high school’s marching band played the National Anthem. Mrs. MacManus’s first grade class led the Pledge of Allegiance. It was mostly unintelligible, but the kids were cute as buttons so could be forgiven. The mayor mumbled through some kind of speech Melinda could barely hear. She really didn’t care enough to try harder. He was followed by the usual speeches given by the usual suspects…city council members and CityFest organizers who cared more for the sound of their own voices than they did the causes they claimed to support.
She’d tried to get the city to allow Mitchell to announce his bid to try out for the Special Olympics team. Like everything else dealing with this festival, she’d met with nothing but opposition. It totally baffled her until someone pulled her aside to “kindly” point out why. In a city of conservative religionists, the Landry family went against everything they’d been taught was right.
William’s family was poor, white, and pagan—worshippers of the ancient Norse pantheon. He was a registered priest of Odin. Heathens, as the helpful person pointed out, who were going to hell if they didn’t repent and find the one, true god. Lisa on the other hand came from a rich, black, and staunchly protestant family.
They compounded the problem, as the town saw it, with their son. Mitchell had been raised nondenominational but educated in all views until he was of an age to choose his own beliefs. With most of the city council attending either the large Baptist or Methodist church, they could not justify support for a biracial pagan boy whose developmental issues were seen as a sign of God’s disfavor. It simply wasn’t good for their image with an election in the fall.
Melinda had ranted and raged and fumed for days, and then she got her employees involved. Tony, who dealt with the shoe rentals, was an avid computer geek who spent more time online than any other functional person she knew. He created a Facebook page, Twitter account, and a blog to track Mitchell’s trek to the Try Outs. Working closely with the Landrys, he posted pictures of Mitchell’s training, interviews with coaches and co-workers, and the status of their GoFundMe account. The site featured maps of the CityFest with her booth highlighted and a complete schedule of events. It was so well organized and updated, they got more hits than the official one. Pictures of the donated items were a big hit, drawing interest from readers across the country. The numbers of followers on each medium had shocked her but also gave her a bit more faith in her fellow man. They could do this. She just had to have a bit of faith in her people.
That faith started to wane as the day trekked slowly by. Their unfortunate position meant only a few families wandered down the side street, either curious to see if there was anything there or simply in search of the portable bathrooms. Their first sale to someone who was neither a family member nor an employee of the bowling alley was one of the pogo stick bird baths to an elderly lady from out of town. She’d loved her stick as a child and was thrilled to see one upcycled into such a beautiful garden piece. They assured her it was well sealed and would hold water or seed and offered her some chilled cantaloupe. Mitchell carried on an animated conversation while carrying it to her car. That one sale seemed to open the floodgates and soon the booth was surrounded by people eager to meet the star athlete and peruse the unique collection of items for sale.
They remained busy for the rest of the day. The donation envelopes were long gone and replaced by regular mailing envelopes. Lisa ran to Walgreens for a second receipt book. All of the lawn gnomes found new homes, even the ones in production. Who knew the tacky-but-cute little buggers would be so popular? Melinda finally provided a spiral notebook for those interested in one. Hopefully, Mandy’s class could be persuaded to make a few more. The placemat/coaster sets had been a huge hit as well. She made a note to contact the local bars and restaurants. If they kept saving the corks, she’d offer the sets in the gift shop. Somehow, she’d get Mitchell to those try outs.
The only disappointment had been the monkey lamp. She’d been certain it would be a popular item. Made from a vintage toy, the little monkey was dressed in a vest and fez hat and held tiny cymbals. When you turned off the light, a music box played Brahm’s Lullaby while the monkey slowly tapped its little cymbals in tune. Tony had made it with something called an Arduino board. It was all Greek to her but it turned out cuter than it had a right to be and received more than its share of comments on the Facebook page. Still, out of all the items, only it remained behind. She gave its head an appreciative pat before searching for the packing materials to keep it safe in transit. As she was packing it up, she noticed a little envelope bearing her name in a bold, masculine script attached to the lampshade.
“Ms. Jackson, I would have taken the lamp hostage if I hadn’t feared you’d call the police and have me arrested for theft. As it is, I’ve decided to blackmail you into joining me for dinner in exchange for the price of the lamp or the remaining funds needed for Mitchell’s trip, whichever is higher. Meet me at The Pit Stop at 8:00pm tonight or I’ll have to stoop to more desperate measures. Aiden Carter”
Laughing, Melinda shook her head as she tucked the envelope into her pocket. Aiden had been trying to get her to date him for several months but she always put him off. In truth, she found the owner of the local biker bar to be shockingly attractive, sinfully sexy, and more than a little arrogant. She was convinced he was just looking for another notch on his bedpost, but now she wasn’t so certain.
“What are you up to, Aiden Carter?” The monkey lamp, muffled and secured in layers of bubble wrap, offered no answers. Melinda placed it in the cab of her pick-up and gave it a look. “You’re no help at all.”
She turned the truck towards the bowling alley. A flutter of excitement stirred in her belly. There was only one way to find out what was going on in Aiden’s mind. Tonight, she had a date.
For Mitchell’s sake, of course.
Final note: I really don’t know how the Special Olympics work, but I assumed that the kids have to train, compete, and qualify for the teams, the same as any other world-wide competition. These things cost money. While the Special Olympics may offer financial aid to offset costs (I don’t know if they do, I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt), it’s rare that an organization will foot the bill 100%. Thus the fund-raiser listed in the short.