The Day of the Junket: A Short Story

February 1993

Ed Newton hated the annual Ozarkland junket with a passion that rivaled anything else under the sun. Fire ants? Those he figured had a purpose. His car breaking down? It’d get fixed. Lizzie? Well she was kind enough to leave Mountain Falls. The annual Ozarkland junket? Oh, that was hell.

Why did he hate it so much? It was after all the start of the spring tourism season. Mountain Falls was a tourist town. Tourists meant money and for The Mountain Ridge Courier, increased sales.

It was simple: Ed hated tourists. He hated the way the flooded his town without paying any attention to the fact there was a real community there. They acted as if Mountain Ridge was nothing more than part of the park and everybody in it was an attraction to gawk at. Most of them were northerners who “just looooved” his accent.

And they didn’t even want to be in that area. Mountain Ridge was a stop before Branson for most of them. So not only were these patronizing assholes in his town, they couldn’t hide their disdainful view of it. What an insult it was too. Ed hated Branson like he thought any right thinking individual should.  Mountain Ridge was better than a poorer version of that hellhole.

Regardless of Ed’s thoughts, and he knew not a goddamn person cared, he still had to go out and do the annual fluff piece. Thus Ed dragged himself out of bed and down Highway 7 on a cold February morning to the site. The day was so gray and ugly it seemed to justify his dour mood. Might even snow that day.

Ed’s side throbbed, likely the continued result of the kidney stone he’d had last month around the time of his 38th. The moment had to have added a gray hair or two to his brown mop. Ed wasn’t a tall man, wasn’t very heavy. A slight thing, they called him. He was fine with that. It was his eyes that conveyed his strength. They pierced through the bullshit around him.

Ed pulled up to the site. There it was: Ozarkland. From the outside it looked like a state park more than an amusement park. There weren’t any roller coasters peaking above the gates. The “rustic” buildings were visible from the gates, buildings filled with candies and “authentic” crafts. He could hear the rush of the water rides, a sign the park’s signature rides were up. The only thing Ed noticed looked new was a fresh coat of paint on everything.

A familiar face greeted Ed at the gates. Rick Parker, a reporter from the Little Rock paper , smoked on a Marlboro. Ed had encountered Rick quite a bit through the years and liked the guy, a rare feat for him. Rick was good at his job and never looked down on Ed. He was likable enough not to be hated for being so goddamned good looking.

“Newton!” Rick called out. Ed extended a hand. “Good to see you again.”

“Nice to see you, Rick. You get this assignment this year?” Ed said. Rick looked off.

“I’m curious to see the junket. Given the numbers–” Ed knew what he meant. It was no secret the place hadn’t been at its peak in years. The rumblings grew louder every year.

“Look, there’s been a slumping economy. Why the hell else do you think Clinton got elected?”

“It’s not just that. This place won’t last much longer. Time’s up.” There was no glee in Rick’s voice as he made the quip.

“If so then that’s that. It’s how these places work,” Ed said.

Their discussion was silenced by a school bus pulling up. Given the weather, the decision to hold the junket seemed weird enough. The school district always bussed kids in for the junket. It was supposed to be a kickoff to spring or something like that. Given the challenge of coordinating that, the late winter blast probably couldn’t derail the event.

The students got off the bus, small explosions of energy. They talked loudly about things Ed couldn’t give less of a shit about. Another reason Ed hated the junket. It was hard to be in your mid 30s and already cynical about the youth but there Ed was. The bullshit country these kids liked annoyed him. Nothing about Confederate Railroad rang true to a Willie Nelson fan.

Then she got off. Amy Raye Ostler was one of Ed’s oldest friends. Her warm smile was betrayed by the lines under her eyes. Ed knew she was going through a rough patch with her husband who he’d always liked. This might’ve been a chore to Ed but to the 5th grade teacher it was an oasis.

Amy walked up to the reporters. “I’m craving some fudge. Y’all?” she said with her twang.

“I’m amazed you can be happy to be here,” Ed said. Amy had once worked in the park as Lilabelle, the park’s equivalent of a princess. She was a popular character in the novels the par was inspired by, the town beauty. Amy wasn’t bad casting then but by now time had drained her a bit. Still, even Ed knew that no matter how much she might’ve been a sister to him, seeing her in a two-piece was a sight to behold.

“Look, I get to take a day away from worksheets and endless lessons on grammar. Besides, I liked my summers here! The drunken assholes who hit on me were worth it for the fun of getting to play a character every day,” she said.

Rick coughed. Ed shot him a glare out of impulse. “Amy, this is Rick Parker with the ADG. He’s up here to cover the junket,” Ed said. Rick extended his hand. Ed knew he had nothing to worry about. Rick was single but he also wasn’t a lech. Regardless, he couldn’t stifle his protectiveness.

“So you’re a teacher?” Rick asked.

“Fifth grade english and math,” Amy said.

“And you know Ed how?”

“We grew up together. He’s probably my oldest friend honestly. Only one still here at least. Not since the Baldwins left.” Amy said. The Baldwin family ran a chain of grocery stores that had started to infest the region. Ed missed Lizzie and Eddie Baldwin. They were good folk.

The park’s CEO walked over to the trio. Bill Teller was a born salesman. His haircut, his attire, his tone of voice all managed to convey high class rooted in southern values. He was a caricature who happened to be completely sincere. Ed didn’t know if he liked the man or despised his existence.

“Edward! Rick! What a joy to have you here to kick off the season! And Lilabelle! You haven’t aged a day!” Ed definitely despised Teller.

“Good morning, Bill,” Ed said.

“I’m eager to give the park a look! I want to hear all about the new season,” Rick said.

“Come on in then. The park is open!” Teller opened the gates and the chaos that was the elementary school kids swept over the facility. Ed hung back for a moment, letting the kids pass, then pulled out his notepad.  He preferred the notes to a recorder. Enough interviews were lost early in his career to make him a notepad user for life. Rick had his recorder out by contrast.

The first site in the park they stopped at was the midway, which Teller seemed extremely proud of. Ed couldn’t fathom why. The games were, like all fair games, a rip off. They felt especially bad next to the video games Ed had seen in Springfield in December.  Still, the kids clamored to waste their parents’ money. Christ, kids were stupid.

The next stop was the food stand. It was right at the front to grab attention. This year, the park would be serving onion blossoms. Ed jotted a note about the authenticity of the item. It was fascinating how Teller talked about his pride in the stands. They were food stands.

Fortunately, samples were on hand as befitted. Ed took a bite of the fried onion dish. God damn it. The thing was delicious, he had to concede. On a cold morning a bit of salt and grease hit the spot. Ed took a swig of a Coke as he huffed the fumes of the area. He felt the stirrings of joy in him.

The joy faded as they made their way to the craft booths. Ed liked the candies but he hated the rest of it. It reeled of the tacky, inauthentic tourist trap south. Sure mason jars were used for a lot of things but out of necessity, not because it was “how we do things.” Ed also hated the misspellings. There was a good sized used bookstore on the town square! It was insulting to see “yew” and “hickry”.

From there it was off to the rides. The site no longer loomed as it had to him as a kid. He’d enjoyed his first time on Uncle Merle’s Timber Ride so much he’d tried to set a record among his friends for most rides that summer. After he turned 14, he hadn’t gone back for 13 years. Only the last four junkets had gotten him to the park and he never went again during the season.

Ed studied the vague attempt at a roller coaster, the Wild Tornader. It wasn’t impressive. Teller gave his spiel about the classic nature of the wooden coaster and led the men onto the ride. It was a typical rickety coaster. Rick was genuinely getting into it but it deeply bored Ed.

The junket concluded with a visit to the bandstand where Teller rattled off the events. As always the Ozarkland Hoot ‘N’ Holler Jamboree would be performed daily. To Ed the entire revue was an insult to his hometown. There were also performers announced. The highlight seemed to be a Ferlin Husky/Jeannie C. Riley double bill. At their prime, this damn place could afford both. It didn’t seem like a good sign this was the best they could do now. They were washed up when he was a kid! He couldn’t hold his tongue.

“So you’re not looking at any up and comers? I’m sure there have to be some younger acts you could get in,” Ed said.

There was an awkward silence. Teller had a very revealing defeated look on his face.

“We talked with a few but there’s not the name value recognition. It’s pointless to spend the money on some kid nobody’s heard of! We’re bringing in the acts people know,” Teller said.

“Makes sense to me. Fits the demographic of the park,” Rick said.

Everybody in Mountain Ridge knew better than to get Ed Newton arguing. He was infamous for not losing a fight. Regrettably, on this day, he chose to fight.

“You’re not getting any youth in that way. I know you like your older demographic but come on. You don’t get any kids in, you die.”

“Ed, we do just fine with families, I’ll have you know,” Teller said.

“Of course you do. And eventually the kids stop demanding to come. Then they grow up, become people my age, and they decide their tourism dollars are better spent in Branson. You even have any new rides this year?”

“We don’t need any! What’s your point, Newton?” Teller seethed. For all his showmanship, the man inside clearly felt wounded.

“I’m just not seeing that much new here. I’m concerned about your future,” Ed said.

“Sometimes it’s ok to rest on what works. Look, maybe things could be better but I’m still hoping for a good year,” Teller said.

“I wish you luck,” Ed said. The standard pleasantries were exchanged and Ed walked to the gates, passing Amy.

“You leaving?” She asked.

“I just don’t see a story. I might get a few hundred words out but the place is dying,” Ed said.

“Don’t celebrate too much. Some of us are going to miss it,” Amy said.

Ed was almost to his car when he heard the voice. “What the hell is wrong with you?” Rick stormed up to the reporter.

“Look, I have to try and spin the news that nothing has changed. That our town’s pride and joy, the hub of our business, it’s dying!”

“It’s his business. His livelihood,” Rick said.

“And it disgusts me. Walking through that goddamned place feels like walking through a minstrel show.”

Those who knew Rick Parker in Little Rock considered him among the nicest men they’d ever met. His reputation for pacifism was especially notable given he liked the roughest bars in town. It took a lot to make Rick hit a man. Ed Newton crossed that line.

As Ed cradled his jaw, Rick scowled at him. “Christ you’re an unhappy, defensive shit,” he said as he stormed off.

Ed stood for a long moment. Rick was too nice. Even the punch didn’t hurt that bad. Guys like Rick were the entire problem. They loved the old south and the things they cherished as kids. What the hell was there to love?

He stared at the park. He had to wonder if it would really be that bad if it closed. Maybe then the town could move on and grow up. It would stink for the people who loved it but maybe it was for the best. The place was a relic of a time passed. It was time to let go.

Ed sped off from the site, hoping it would be for the final time.

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