An excerpt from “County Fair”


Jean Sheperd (July 26, 1921 – October 16, 1999)

I so enjoyed listening to his radio broadcasts, and reading his stories. This is an  excerpt from  “County Fair” which appeared in the September 1969 Playboy magazine. You might actually had bought the magazine for the stories.


“Ahead, the other occupants of the Buick had gathered around the car and were fanning the hood with somebody’s white shirt. The steam rose higher into the heavens. The car behind us began honking; then others joined in. This only bugged the old man even more. Out the window went his head. “SHUT UP, YOU JERKS” he yelled at the line of cars. They honked even louder.”

“The Buick was not the only car giving off steam. Several others had begun to percolate in the heat around us. The crowd ahead had begun to push the Buick off the road, like some great wounded whale. There is nothing deader than a dead Buick. Finally, we were able to squeeze past the stragglers and once again move on toward the fairgrounds. A biplane towing a red-and-white streamer droned over the line of traffic: FISH DINNER ALL YOU CAN EAT $1.69 JOE’S DINER RTE 6. We were so close now that the sounds of the fair began to drift in over the roar of motors: calliopes bleating, whistles, merry-go-round music, bells ringing, barkers.

Two cops in short-sleeved blue shirts waved the cars in through the main gate and past a cornfield to the jam-packed, rutted parking lot just inside the grounds. Flushed and sweaty, these two men faced the pressing horde of hissing, steaming, dusty rattletraps with the look of men who are struggling with a totally uncontrollable force that threatens to engulf them at any moment. One blew his whistle in short, sharp blasts that matched every breath he took. With his left hand, he seemed to gather the cars in a steady hooking motion that pushed them on past his right hand, which moved like a piston in the air, shoving the heaps through the narrow gate. The other cop, taller and sadder, stood astride the center line of the asphalt road and glared slowly and deliberately at each car as it rolled past him.”

“The old man, by now totally hot under the collar, muttered barely audible obscenities as we drew abreast of the first cop. “What was that, buddy?” The cop’s voice was level and menacing, cutting through the racket of the Pontiac’s piston slap like an ice cube going down your back on a hot day. Instantly, an electric feeling of imminent danger whipped through the car. Even my brother stopped whining. “Uh .. . pardon me, officer?” The old man had turned on his innocent voice, which always sounded a little like he was slightly hard of hearing. He stuck his head out the window with exaggerated politeness. “Did I hear you call me a son of a bitch, buddy?” The tall cop was approaching the side of the car, his eyes piercing the old man like a pair of hot ice picks. “Uh . .. what was that, officer? Sir?” “You heard me.” A ham-like hand rested authoritatively on the door handle; a heavy foot clunked solidly on the running board. The line came to a halt behind us. ”I’m sorry, officer. What was it you said, sir?” “Did you call me a son of a bitch?” “Oh, heavens no! Mercy me! Why, good gracious, you must have heard me sneeze. I am troubled with hay fever.” The old man sounded amazingly like an Episcopalian minister. He sneezed loudly into his sleeve as a demonstration.”

“I had seen the old man get out of many a tight squeak before, but this performance topped them all. I drank it in, knowing that I was seeing a master at work. My mother said nothing through it all, just looked nervously pathetic, which seemed to help the old man’s act. “OK, buster. Just watch yer lip, y’hear?” “Why, bless my buttons, officer, I certainly will. Yes, indeed! That is fine advice. Heavens to Betsy, I certainly will.” With a flick of his wrist, the cop waved us on. The emergency was over. The old man let the clutch out so suddenly that the car jerked heavily twice before lurching forward. An elderly, toilworn Chevy pickup truck carrying a farmer, his wife, seven kids and a Bluetick hound had stalled just ahead of us. The old man, out of pure reflex, muttered: “Son of a bitch!” Realizing he wasn’t yet out of earshot, he covered it with a loud, juicy sneeze.”

I still laugh  despite being  able to practically recite this passage.


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