Okay, I say to myself in unconscious homage to Henry Rowland, this time for real. It's our second crack at selling stuff from a stall, and we're feeling confident. We're nothing if not prepared.
Two weeks ago my wife and myself did our first craft fair, which was at an old people's home in Boerne. No-one came and we didn't sell much. Now we're at a bimonthly farmers and artisans market on the southside, which seems more promising. It's a regular event, the weather is good, and there are already more people here than were at our previous outing, maybe three times the head count of vendors and mostly the real thing - no thrift store clowns painted dayglo to be seen, at least not yet.
The place is outside, a drive-in cinema during the evening, thus necessitating some sort of canopy beneath which Bess and myself can set up shop. Luckily it turned out that we already had one, bought five or six years before when I found it cheap in the local supermarket. The original idea was that I could set it up and weed the garden in the shade on particularly hot days, but the setting up was more laborious than I'd anticipated, so I put it all together, took it down, then shoved it in the garage and forgot about it. Earlier in the week, I had a look for the thing, then set it up in our garden once more by way of a dry run for today. The canopy is a sheet of something artificial stretched over a lightweight frame of tubular struts. I spent about forty-five minutes failing to assemble the frame. Each time I poked the end of one tube into another, the whole thing shifted and a tube at the other end popped out. There was quite a lot of swearing, until - following my finally bothering to look at the instructions - it dawned on me that one is supposed to construct the roof support, then pull the covering over it so as to hold everything in place before attempting to attach the legs. Armed with this new information, I was able to erect the thing in about fifteen minutes without too much difficulty. One of the tubes now had a kink in it but seemed to hold up okay. The kink came from when I hurled it across the garden whilst shouting bollocks following the millionth occurrence of it having disconnected itself from a neighbour, so the struts are probably made from aluminium foil, or maybe the wrappers of 1970s chocolate bars.
I left the canopy standing overnight. The guy ropes had come out next morning, causing the whole structure to lean. I replaced the original tent pegs - or whatever the fuck you call those things - with gardening staples, which are U-shaped and much tougher, after which the canopy stayed up for another two nights without giving any indication of being about to explode, catch fire, collapse or whatever. I took this all to be a good omen, despite my having invented at least three new swear words during my initial attempt to raise the thing. I also chose to ignore the omen of Grace, one of our cats, peeing on the sheet of covering material as I was engaged with slotting the tubes together. She backed up, raised her tail, and just let rip. The plastic material yielded quite a lot of noise when hit by this jet of liquid and Grace looked pleased. That's what I think of your shit canopy, she seemed to be saying.
Once again I've made sandwiches, a ton of pasta salad and filled a couple of flasks with iced tea, and here we are. We unload the car and dump it all next to the pitch of a guy selling wares in patriotic red, white and blue, wooden letters spelling out the word mom and so on. It's kind of windy, which you only really notice when trying to assemble what is effectively a massive kite, but we get there, albeit with some swearing; and then come to mooring it all down with garden staples, simultaneous to my gaining new insight into just how hard Texas soil can be after baking under a hot sun month after month. I hurt my fingers trying to push the things into the earth. I may as well be attempting to push nails into concrete, so it necessitates some swearing.
'Fuck this,' I hear myself saying. 'Let's go home.'
'Here.' Our neighbour comes over. He's taken pity on us because I expect it's obvious that we're new to this game. He has a couple of bright red saddle bags and he ties one to each of the guy ropes I've been unable to secure. 'These bags were cheap at the dollar store,' he tells us. 'I fill them with sand. You can get the sand at Lowes.'
I pick up one of the bags then place it back down. It's pretty heavy, so I get to work on my display frames. I've made them myself, and it took a few weeks - wooden beams no longer than four foot so as to fit in the car, holes drilled so I can bolt them all together like Meccano. Usually each would stand seven foot tall, but the canopy won't allow for such height, so instead of one frame upon which I would display twelve canvases, I have two four foot frames holding six canvases each, one set up at either side of our pitch. Each frame has holes in the feet through which I can drive tent pegs so as to keep them from blowing over, except I have the same problem with the guy ropes, and I can't ask our neighbour for more sandbags. In the end, each frame gets two pegs each, one front, one back, and even these I haven't been able to drive all of the way in. The frames rock back and forth in the wind every so often.
Between the frames we have the table upon which Bess sets up her stones and other things she has painted. We also have a couple of folding chairs. At length we're sort of ready and all we have to do is wait for the crowds. Some vendors are still arriving and setting up, so I guess we've done all right.
We sit and wait, watching the shadow of the canopy creep across the grass at the front of our pitch. We realise we're sat in full Texas sun, and that we should have set up facing south. It's going to be a hot fucking day. The wind keeps us sort of cool, and if things are flapping a little in the breeze, we should be okay.
'Did you see the other guy's paintings?' Bess asks. She points down the line, past our helpful neighbour to another pitch selling canvases.
'I'm going to have a look around,' I tell her.
I cross the field to the screen of the drive-in, a peculiar deco construct painted sky blue on the far side. This side is a curved wall with a raised concrete stage at its base. It reminds me of the sound mirrors along the Kentish coast, back in England. Facing the screen is our semicircle of pitches, thirty or forty stalls selling all manner of stuff. There are houseplants and cacti, and the homegrown vegetables - potatoes, squashes, and peppers - look pretty good. Then there's the usual jewellery, the obligatory and puzzling presence of an insurance company, or possibly someone selling double-glazing, and of course wooden toys, some hardware. Two other stalls sell painted canvases. One features mostly views of the Alamo, technically competent but probably reliant upon how much you like the Alamo. One of their pictures is on sale for $200, which makes me feel good because my paintings are cheaper and - I would like to think - more interesting.
The next stall features canvas renderings of Harley Quinn, the Joker, Batman, various superheroes and cartoon characters, and nebulously identified Aztec rulers copied from what were probably illustrated children's books. The colours are bold, but otherwise it's ugly and amateurish, and is as such a further boost to my confidence in the worth of my own work.
Having walked the full circle, I'm back at our pitch.
'How was it?'
'Mostly pretty good,' I say. 'Better than Boerne.'
'I'll have a look around in a bit.'
The punters begin to arrive, hardly a tsunami, but we nevertheless experience more interest during the first thirty minutes than we had for the entire day at the retirement home. This seems encouraging. Bess sells two painted rocks, and everyone seems to like my canvases. One woman additionally notes that, ranging from $60 to $40 based on how much I'd personally be prepared to pay, they seem reasonably priced; although she isn't buying.
We sit. We wait. My pictures sway in the wind.
An old guy with a soft voice and the biggest ears I've ever seen tells us how he himself was once a painter. He likes my work. We both know he's not buying but we don't mind because he seems such a nice guy.
'Did you see those ears?'
'I couldn't really miss them,' Bess says.
'What did he say anyway? I was trying to listen to his story but I kept thinking about his ears. You know that your ears supposedly never stop growing for as long as you live?'
'It was distracting,' she agrees.
'He must have been about three-hundred.'
The wind steps it up a notch. Out tablecloth flaps but is kept in place by the weight of the painted rocks. The sun is really punishing on our backs and the tops of our heads, but the piped music coming from a speaker set up near the stage is mostly old blues records, some bluegrass and Tejano - an improvement on the autotuned stadium country we had piped all day at the old folks' home.
'This is still preferable to Boerne,' I say, and the wind gets a little stronger. We watch the canopy shift restlessly for another half hour, interspersed by conversations with people who don't buy anything.
Suddenly the canopy is leaning. One of the guy ropes has popped out, the one at my back. Its opposite sags accordingly.
I stand and another gust hits my canvases on the frame to the right, twisting them forward and snapping the wooden beam to which they are secured. The whole structure seems suddenly drunk.
'It'll be okay!' Bess rushes forward in an attempt to set things right, but there's really nothing she can do.
'I think I've just about had enough.'
I loosen the clamps holding my paintings to the broken wood, because I'm going to take these canvases back to the car, having nothing on which to display them. I find I am also stacking up the paintings from the undamaged frame without having consciously decided to do so. I can't sit in the blistering heat wondering whether the wind is going to screw it all up for us, not all afternoon, not for another three hours. A great deal of preparation went into this and it seems as though it has been in vain. This undertaking has felt like one of those dreams in which you're back at school without trousers.
'It's okay,' I tell Bess. 'I'm just packing up my stuff. We don't have to leave.'
She's already wrapping up her rocks and placing them back in the travel bag. I feel awkward, as though I've ruined it.
We're giving up, even though it's only noon.
'This was only forty dollars,' our helpful neighbour tells us as we cast envious glances at his canopy, a sturdier affair than ours, steel bars and springs which collapse down to something that fits in the trunk, and which can be assembled in minutes - as we've seen because everyone else has the same type of canopy.
It turns out that Grace was right.
Next time will be better, we tell ourselves as we drive home to our air conditioning.