Fair to Middlings: A Novel in 200-Word Chapters (Part 4)

A Tale of the Roaring Presses

Part 4

Possumhaw, Randolph County

The Big Kick-Off


Roy Henry was barely visible in the sea of CAT caps and tractors and American flags by the time the combined junior/senior high school/community bands from eight-and-a-half area towns began their warm-up scales.

“Look at him go,” marveled the mayor from the podium, watching the newshound work the crowd while the hippie photographer worked the bandstand.

“Wxxvvx ffvvvnnvvv viiid kooooh!” echoed the sound system, borrowed from the drive-through section of a now-shuttered fast food restaurant in Chester.

Taking this as an unanticipated signal to begin, director Surly Gribble sniffed bitterly, tapped his baton over and over on his podium for silence, then led the band through an Olympics fanfare that sounded like it needed mass quantities of performance-enhancing drugs to make it across the finish line. But finish it did, and the fairgoers cheered, and Surly took a bow, and another one, and Amber Lee dropped her cymbal, and a middle-aged matron about the size of Big Bill strode out from behind the sousaphones and took her place at the podium beside the mayor.

The mayor shrugged. “Welcome to the 2010 Possumhaw Bagoo Festival,” he said into the sound system. “And here to start things off right, our national anthem!”


“Hmmnnntdiiiih hrawwwwkfffffff reeehhhkkkkkleeeeeeerrrrr…!”

“Stop hidin’ under the booth, Capper,” Erlene said. “It’s just Sister Missy Sue.”

“Hanoiiiiiiiiiii,” said Cap dolefully, voice an octave higher than usual. “The screaming! Make it stop!”

Erlene kicked him. “The screaming never stops. Go find Mama!”

Cap howled.


“What th-“

Mama looked up from her pie pans.

“Surprise!” The uniformed man in the doorway bore a zigzag scar under his left eye and more firearms than Qatar. “I just couldn’t let you down, Mama.”

“Randy, my angel!” Mama, covered with flour, ran over and squeezed him like she would never let him go. A couple of rounds nicked the refrigerator. “You’re a guard now,” she marveled.

“Sure,” Randy said, kissing her. “Got a question for you.”

“You can stay here,” she said.

Randy kissed her again. “Who’s that dead fat guy in the cellar?”


The mayor breathed a sigh of relief as Sister Missy Sue left the stage, assisted by three aldermen. Time for the Opening Ceremony Parade of Transportation. Four times around the field, tractors, Sherman tanks, the cop car, the cop cycle, horses and pickups and all.

The crowd hushed in anticipation.

The mayor took the mike.

“Hnnnt hnaaawwww, hlehhht daa pwehhttt peekimmmm!”


“Oh, wowwww!” marveled Petey, snapping pictures.

Sheepsled Elvis waved at the crowd and cracked his whip. The team quickened, slightly, but then the lead ram, White Fang, spied the flower show entries and turned left. The other sheep, being sheep, easily followed.

“Ohhh, wowwwwww!” marveled Petey, shooting the ensuing melee.

Roy Henry bade goodbye to the county historian, Duane Lee Loudermilk II, and waddled his way through the crowd in the direction of the carnage.

“Sic ‘em, Roy Henry,” said one of the aldermen, with a laugh.


“Pie smells good, Mama.”

Randy, dressed in some of Cap’s clothes, boots muddy, stopped by the stove for a whiff.

Mama handed him a couple of bottles and some dishrags. “Ain’t done yet,” she said.

Randy beamed. “What happened to the one in the freezer?”

Mama beamed back. “Fat reporter dropped it. He’s sorry.”

“He’d better be.”


“I’m sorry,” Roy Henry sympathized, scribbling furiously as the entire Possumhaw Volunteer Fire Department applied first aid to Sheepsled Elvis, the eight little old ladies who attacked him, three sheep and a tractor driver named Earl Boy who didn’t get out of the fire truck’s path in time.

White Fang ate his notebook.

“Wowwwwwww,” marveled Petey.


After the parade came a sound system-less musical interlude from thirty or forty middle-aged and elderly women in hoop skirts the color of rotting salmon.

“Bummer,” marveled Petey, reloading his camera.

A nearby alderman nodded wearily. “The Mary Todd Lincoln Singers always show up. You getting this all down, Mister Bloodhound?”

Roy Henry looked up from his spare notebook (he still had two more left to go) and nodded dourly.

“Isn’t your wife up there, Eldred?” asked Jerry Lee through a mouthful of funnel cake.

The alderman nodded dourly.

“If they’re from the Civil War era,” Roy Henry mused, scanning the chorines, “why are they singing ‘Feelings’?”

“Yeah, Eldred,” mumbled Jerry Lee, wiping his greasy fingers on his uniform.

“Mary Todd Lincoln had feelings too, OK?” Eldred said, sounding embarrassed. “Don’t write that down, Roy Henry.”

The journalist didn’t. His gaze was fixed at the end of the second row. “Isn’t she too young to be singing in a group like this?”

“My wife?” Eldred laughed. “I’ll tell her you said that.”

“No,” said Jerry Lee, still spitting crumbs. “Carmen Electra over there.”

“Oh, her,” Eldred said. “All us old folk think we’ve seen her somewhere before.”

His brow furrowed.


Next came a speech from the county historian on the history of the Possumhaw Bagoo Festival, going back to antediluvian times.

Roy Henry’s pencil scribbled wildly.

“I used to sing in a group called Arlene, Carlene, Darlene and Rhonda,” the young, hot Mary Todd Lincoln Singer told him softly in her attractive Ozark accent. “I was Darlene. Even though my name is Bobbie Lee Gentry, just like the famous singer, oh, you never heard of her, you’re too young. Quit staring at me like that, you look like Ole Blue chasing a fox.”

Roy Henry nodded, lost in thought.

“It was the great lost Mounds civilization that deserves the credit for bagoo as we know it today,” Duane Lee Loudermilk II droned at the podium. “They took the primordial ooze from the Mississippi Valley and stirred in the bits and pieces of swamp root and ginsengwort and the crumpled eggshells from the Great Piasa Bird…”

“He’s making this up,” marveled Petey, snapping pictures of the sleeping audience. “Sic ‘em, Roy.”

“Oh, wowwwww,” Roy Henry marveled as Bobbie Lee Gentry shared her dream of someday becoming a historian too. “Or a reporter,” she added, stroking his mustache.

A flash went off.


“I want that photo,” Bobbie Lee said. She lunged for the camera.

“Me, too,” said Roy Henry, mustache leering.

Petey was already gone. “We gotta find him,” said the singer, gazing around desperately.

“Petey’s no blackmailer,” the newsman said quietly. He took a quick breath. “You married?”

Bobbie Lee’s eyes sparkled, then regained their innocence. “Not,” she said, reaching over and stroking his mustache again, “yet.” Seeing his bloodhound eyes come to life, she smiled and tossed her titian hair. “Let’s go find him,” she suggested. “You can leave, can’t you?”

Roy Henry glanced over at the podium. Duane Lee Loudermilk II was galvanized by his own drivel, even though only White Fang remained awake to ignore it.

“Our county’s founding father, Hamilton Makler, proclaimed a day of celebration throughout the land to commemorate the marvelous gray stew that kept the people at the fort alive during the long, harsh summers of 1792, 1793, 1798, 1809, 1814 and 1823-45. O glorious stew! O ambrosia!”

The county historian’s eyes had the same rabid gleam as the late Elizabeth Borden’s.

The ram snored.

Roy Henry shook his head to keep from falling asleep. “No problemo,” he said. “I know where to look.”


Four hundred ninety-two parked vehicles later, they finally located Petey’s van. “I wasn’t there when he parked it,” Roy Henry explained. “He’s probably downloading the pictures into the system at work.” He pounded on the door.

“Go away!” yelled a voice from within.

“Good gravy!” said Bobbie Lee, pulling the handle. It didn’t budge.

“It’s me, Petey!” roared Roy Henry, hitting the door with his fist. And wincing.

The door slid open slowly, and the photographer’s face, haloed by sweet-smelling smoke, emerged. “Can’t be too careful around here,” he explained. “I’m downloading pictures …”

He yelped with pain as Bobbie Lee smacked him upside the head with her five-hundred pound purse.

“I want that picture!” she said.

“Okay,” said Petey, checking to see if his jaw was broken. “Take it easy. If you didn’t want your picture taken, you shouldn’t’ve been onstage.”

“At a public event,” added Roy Henry by rote, preventing a second near-fatal attack by taking Bobbie Sue in his arms. “Of course,” he said, eyes sparkling, “we won’t use it. As a favor to you.”

Bobbie Lee’s fury melted. “I didn’t mean destroy it,” she said. “I just meant give it to me.”

Roy Henry’s mustache smiled.


“Sister Missy Sue Perkins, of Possumhaw Baptist Church,” Roy Henry read from the opening ceremony program as Petey typed the information into the computer under her photograph.

“Holy roller, eh?” Petey blinked at the shot of her in full song.

“American Baptist, actually,” Roy Henry marveled. “Only one in this part of the state. Once you’re south of Belleville…”

“…sings the national anthem during the grand opening ceremony of the annual Possumhaw Bagoo Festival,” Petey continued as he typed.

“The highlight of this week-long event is the tasting of the bagoo at noon Saturday,” Roy Henry said. “I still don’t know whether it’s a soup or stew.”

“It’s both,” said Petey. “I lived on the stuff in college. We kept the pot going for a week at a time and threw everything in it but the kitchen sink.” He sighed heartfully. “By the end of the semester, it ate the kitchen sink. And Starmonkey, our student advisor…”

He pressed a few keys and the Mary Todd Lincoln Singers appeared.

“Crop out those people sleeping in the background,” Roy Henry said.

“You can’t see me,” Bobbie Lee complained.

The couple shot appeared.

“Crazy lady kills photographer, film at 11,” Petey said.


“Those are the ones I picked,” the photographer said, tapping the keys and making all the pictures go backward one at a time. “Sheepsled Elvis, the tractors, the parking lot when I went to send those shots of the basement where Big Bill bought it…” Onscreen, a fat Shriner wearing a fez was smiling at the cellar stairs.

Outside, the defective sound system roared back to life. “They musta fixed that loose wire,” Bobbie Lee said. “Gotta go. We’re supposed to be singing again real soon.”

Roy Henry grinned and consulted the program. “Not today,” he said.

“In Sparta,” Bobbie Lee said. “Gotta hurry or I’ll miss my ride.”

“We’ll drive you,” Roy Henry said hopefully. But she was already gone.

“Something’s not right here,” Petey said. The Shriner disappeared as the computer switched off. “Either she’s up to something and she’s using us, or she’s crazy.”

Roy Henry really hoped it was the former. His mustache leered. “Everyone here is crazy. I remember Mama…”

“Mama probably pushed Big Bill down the stairs,” the photographer continued as they left the van. “Nobody wants to do anything. Lord knows how many others…she tried to kill you.”

“Call the police,” said Roy.


“Ffwwwwhhhhhhh kaaaahhmmmmmmppiiiinnnne demmmmmoliiishunnnn terrrrpeeee izzzzaabowwwwwt tooooo peeeekiiiinnnnnn!”

“Just in time,” said Roy Henry, reaching the safety of the diner’s refreshments booth as a rusty combine barely missed him at 70 mph.

“You’re back,” Erlene said as the newsman stared incredulously at the farm implement nitro demolition derby under way on Judd’s Field. “We were wondering what happened to you.”

Roy started scribbling.

“Hanoiiii,” whimpered a voice at his feet.

“Hi, Cap,” the newsman said, following the race. “Anyone ever get killed at one of these things?”

Several piercing screams answered his question. The machines suddenly stopped and slunk away guiltily in the directions from whence they came.

“Stand back! Give him room!” Young Grover was already gaining control of the situation.

“I’ll do it!” hollered Jerry Lee. He fired several rounds, clearing the crowd. “Medic,” he added weakly.

As Roy Henry sidestepped Erlene, Cap suddenly sprang into action, vaulting over the booth and beating the entire volunteer fire department onto the field. By the time Roy Henry got there, Jerry Lee lay writhing in pain with a bandaged foot and Cap was tying off a tourniquet while the E.M.T.’s carefully lifted a thin figure onto a stretcher.

“Owwwwwwwww,” moaned Petey.

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