That’s what the teachers called them when they arrived at school every year in early October. Even though they looked worn-out in their faded, frayed clothes, I imagined their lives as worldly, exotic, roving from place to place, delivering three days of carnival razzle-dazzle to small towns like mine.

I envied them because they never stayed at school long enough to take a spelling test, to hand in math homework, to get grades on anything. Envied them because I figured they got gobs of fair stuff for free: sideshow tickets, plush teddy bear prizes, corn dogs, cotton candy, all the fried funnel cakes they could eat.

When they showed up in sixth grade, I asked the girl in my homeroom where she was from, and she said “Matt Armstrong Shows.” I wondered, how could someone be from the fair? Didn’t she have a home somewhere? I wanted to know, but I didn’t ask because I didn’t want to embarrass her. I also wanted to hear about their adventures on the road, to compare their experiences to my family’s cross-country vacations. Had they seen the Grand Canyon? Did they stop at Stuckey’s for salt-water taffy? Did their dads belt out cowboy songs while driving down the highway?

Most of all, I longed for tips on how to score better-than-basic prizes when I played the games of chance. How should I pitch the ping-pong ball to make it plop into the goldfish bowl? How come the darts I threw bounced off the balloons? Perhaps the girls from the fair would share the secrets to winning with me. But when I approached them on the playground at recess, they bunched into a nest under an oak tree, so I left them alone.

Later, at the fair with my sister Ann, I saw a girl from my math class working at the goldfish booth game. A canvas apron bulging with ping-pong balls dangled from her waist as she crouched to retrieve more balls from the mud-mashed grass. Saw another girl from school with a too-tight ponytail handing fistfuls of darts to a knot of teenage boys. She stepped aside right before the boys pop, pop, popped row after row of balloons, then swaggered off with stuffed teddy bears wedged under their armpits, leaving her to yank darts and deflated balloons from the pocked plywood. In that moment, she looked old in more of a tired than grown-up way, and suddenly playing booth games didn’t feel fun anymore with those girls stooping to collect my spent chances.

Ann and I headed down the midway toward the Tilt-a-Whirl. While waiting in line, I noticed, beyond the rainbow-spangled lights, a string of aluminum camper trailers parked at cockeyed angles, like a derailed train. That must be where they stay, I thought, remembering the  girl who’d told me she was from Matt Armstrong Shows. It didn’t seem right that I got to live in a two-story brick house with four bedrooms, a fireplace, a front porch, a covered garage, and a two-acre yard with pecan, magnolia, and sweet gum trees.

Edging closer to the Tilt-a-Whirl, I stared at the dark, oily chain churning beneath its round red platform, at the grinding gears, raising and lowering and tilting and spinning the red-domed tip carts. A leathery-faced man with a cigarette clamped at the corner of his mouth tore my pink paper ticket, led me and Ann to a cart, then jerked a metal bar across our thighs. Closing my eyes, chin pressed against my chest, I tightened my grip on the bar as the Tilt-a-Whirl lurched into motion. Squeals and screeches echoed from the tip carts as gravity colluded with centrifugal forces to generate waves of chaotic rotation, a dizzying four or five minutes until the engine shuttered to a stop. I pushed the bar forward, staggered off the platform, my body still thrumming to the hollow, chirpy strains of oom-pah-pah music blaring from bullhorn speakers, then Ann and I walked to the Ferris wheel, where our grandmother sat on a bench, waiting to drive us back to our settled lives.

Jean Coco’s essays have appeared in Ninth Letter online, New Delta Review, Hippocampus, Stone Canoe, and the Christian Science Monitor’s Home Forum. Her current project is a memoir-in-essays. A Louisiana native, she lives in Baton Rouge, where she scouts the curbs for still-good stuff to donate or repurpose. A few objects have appeared in her essays.

Photo by Dinty W. Moore