We both knew it was the shittiest carnival in the Tri-State area, but we were going anyway.
During lunch, Susan and I went out for a smoke break and just kept walking. We walked through the football field and into the skeleton of the bleachers. Underneath, in the grey coolness, Susan pulled out stolen Home Ec scissors and cut off her jeans into shorts. She stabbed the point under the faded ghost of her back pocket and started to circumnavigate each thigh, sawing the blue denim. The pale sliver of her skin slowly grew into a slice. One leg, two legs. Susan stepped out of the denim tubes like she was shedding an old useless skin, the fabric circles newly forgotten on the gravel, perpetually sticky from decades of spilled sodas.
My turn. I pulled my arms all the way inside my red t-shirt, my arms stiffened into a taut teepee, a cotton triangle. I held my breath as Susan started to snip with the stolen scissors, from my waist up to my chin. The cold tips of the scissors dotted my skin with a metallic rat-a-tat. When she reached the neckband, my white skin burst out, like cutting into a giant baked potato. She knotted the ends under my bra line and smiled.
Susan shook a paper bag in my face. “We got this!” She unrolled it open – the bag was full of miniature bottles of booze. “I’ve been stealing them from my cousin the stewardess. Her apartment is like a bar for midgets.”
“Renee?” I asked. Renee was leggy and had hair like a magazine. She always spoke very slowly and clearly, like she was reading cue cards.
“Yeah, Renee. There’s some rum, some vodka. And a few with no labels that taste like nail polish remover.”
Susan handed me two, then she tucked a few into her back pockets and slid the rest into her white knee socks. Her ankles were lumpy like shin guards or some strange disease. Susan unscrewed a tiny bottle, drank half and offered me the rest. I pinched my nose and gulped it down. It was like drinking fire.
“Ready to roll,” she said.
Newly ventilated, we walked a few blocks to the bus stop intending to ride to the end of the line. At mid-day the bus had only a handful of passengers – mostly sleepy-eyed old people and a red mouthed girl circling, circling in a Word Find book. A man clutching a wrinkled plastic bag marked “ patient’s belongings” stood up from his seat and of course sat next to me. I was determined to maintain a 1inch buffer zone between us, waist to knee, but I couldn’t stop wondering what was in his bag. It seemed pointy and I swear it even moved.
At the last stop, only Susan and I and the Man with the Plastic Bag were left. Susan easily climbed off and watched me through the window. I waited for the Man to get off but he wasn’t moving. I fake coughed. He was like a statue. Finally, in an awkward synchronization, I flattened my palm over his plastic bag to feel the invisible contents like a half-assed Braille (it was warm!) then scaled the next three bus seats and hopscotched to the door. On the sidewalk, Susan was laughing her hiccupy laugh.
“You’re an idiot,” she said, her eyes tiny as she struggled for breath. “And we’re still not there yet.”
Susan kept laughing/hiccuping at me as we headed out of town and toward the faint shapes of the carnival in the distance – the tiny triangles of tent tops, the faraway circle of the Ferris Wheel. A spindly tree like a lollipop met us along the road and we rested in the dark dust of its diagonal shadow.
“This sucks,” I said. “It’s taking too long, and my feet hurt.”
A tinny clatter and a noisy flash of yellow burst through the air and Susan jumped into the middle of the road, stuck a thumb in her mouth and then dramatically jerked it out with a hitchhiker’s Fuck You.
Susan ran to the yellow as the yellow sped to Susan. You know when you are walking towards another moving object and for a brief moment it’s hard to tell if that thing is moving towards you or away from you? It seems stuck in space, a two second illusion, until suddenly it is bigger or smaller than you thought; it appears or moves. Time snaps back.
The Lay’s Potato Chip truck rolled to a stop at her feet and the driver fluidly swung out of the doorless door, gracefully carried by momentum and balancing on one foot.
“Ladies,” he announced, “I’m here.” His hair was wig- like and his blotchy face was an angry connect-the-dots.
Weighing the instant odds of two against one, we hopped into the potato chip truck.
“I’m Tom.” His fingers were strangely long, stretched out like Silly Putty, with one hand on the wheel and one hand conflicted between the gear shift and the air.
Susan plopped on an upside down, plastic milk crate up front and I sat on the weird hump between the seats that vibrated with each shift of the gears.
The hundreds of foil-y chip bags crunched at every bump in the road. The truck smelled like a magical cloud of potatoes.
“I never knew there were so many different sized bags of chips,” I told Tom.
Snack size, variety packs, standard, family size, industrial,” he recited, that right hand counting out each word.
“I settled back into the lifeboat-sized bag of crinkle cut chips and watched the landscape unspool through the hole where Tom’s door should have been: Telephone poles, stop signs, billboards, a random car. Birds like parentheses coasted over the trees. It was the world’s most boring movie.
We were starving and begged Tom for some food. He only let us eat the failed experimental favors, the discounted disasters, like tartar sauce and dill pickle, that even the prisons wouldn’t order, and we munched and watched the far-off shapes of the carnival become bigger and real.
Susan pulled a nip bottle from her sock and passed it to Tom. His long fingers held it carefully like a science experiment. “Don’t worry, I’m not trying to poison you and steal your truck,” laughed Susan. “Besides, I can’t drive a stick.”
Tom drank. Tom’s relentless voice was a blurred abstraction, like the teachers in Charlie Brown. Susan methodically tossed every other potato chip out the truck window, like a Hansel and Gretel trail of evidence, just in case.
Ten minutes later I watched Tom watching Susan suck the salt off her fingers, one by one. It was time to go.
We asked Tom to drop us off at the next pay phone near the bridge so we could pretend to call our Moms. I grabbed two bags of ketchup-flavored chips and Susan and I held them up to our foreheads, like puffy sun visors, as we loitered at the pay phone until Tom drove away. Flip flapping the metal hinged return flap, I found a wedged disc of petrified gum sandwiched between two pennies. I tried to flip it – heads or tails – but realized both sides were the same and skipped it into the dust.
When we walked the three more half-moons of the bridge, we realized we were close to the carnival. Susan threw her bag of chips into the air like Mary Tyler Moore’s hat and caught it with a defiant two-fisted clap. It burst with a pop and an explosion of potato chip confetti over our heads.
Susan sprinted ahead of me. She saw the jagged sections of the not-quite-assembled carnival fence. We walked through a limp gate and into the carnival grounds. The sun was too bright and we were too early; workers were still setting up the midway. The food trucks clustered at one end, their windows and doors opened wide. The smaller games were in trailers, with sides flipped open like aluminum wings, and the bigger games were plopped in the center under plywood and canvas roofs, strung with Christmas lights. The rest of the field was filled with the noisy beginnings of the mechanical rides – hammers and shouts, thuds and clanks. Snakes of electrical cords, yellow, red and blue, S’d out across the patchy grass. The air smelled like high school – sweat, weed and French fries.
Susan and I wandered around, trying not to trip, looking fake busy so we wouldn’t get kicked out. Everyone had a job to do, even the little kid carrying a cardboard box full of light bulbs. The men had the nonchalant fluidity of the well-practiced, smoking without hands while pounding in tent stakes or dragging sheets of plywood with thin ropes. An oval-faced woman with a cigarette laugh jabbed inside a gigantic ice machine with her scoop and yelled “You fucker!” into its noisy cavity. Dogs chased each other through the aisles of trailers. Even their barks seemed tired.
I ripped open my bag of chips and offered one to a dog. He barked a feeble bark and extended his face towards my fingers. His teeth were small and sharp. We ate the whole bag.
I looked around at the slowly assembled carnival, the gradual crescendo of noise. I didn’t want to see the carnival stretch and grow and come alive, powered by all those hands and grunts and pulleys. I needed to walk into a ready made dream and get swallowed into a technicolor world of junk food and roller coasters and spin art. The relentless sunlight had bleached the magic from everything.
This was the world of the mundane, the chipped and the broken. I didn’t want to see how things really worked, the daily grind of the worn out and the disappointed, the mechanisms. I wanted, no, I needed, to see the fake world, the world that would appear at dusk, under the promise and disguise of darkness. I realized I didn’t want to share my chips with the sad dog – I wanted to walk a ridiculous invisible dog on a starched, rhinestone leash. I imagined myself with the empty leash, bobbing side to side, like a needle searching a compass walking a dog nobody, including myself, could see. Susan and I went to find the guy selling leashes for invisible dogs.
A guy who looked like Jesus and wearing denim cut offs staggered by, lugging huge plastic bags stuffed with plush animals, over his shoulder, Santa-style. When he got to the Whack-a-Mole trailer, he pitched the bags over the counter and shouted “Ger-On-I-Mo!”
Susan turned to me and we both laughed.
We wandered, trying to waste the daylight. The crooked rows of the carnival were like a misshapen grid of a small city, arms radiating out from the biggest tent and the Ferris Wheel.
Almost imperceptibly, the dimmer switch of the sun was being turned off. Slowly the crisp edges of things got fuzzy, dissolved. The creeping twilight softened the world before the carnival lights switched on. Sounds somehow became brighter and sharper.
We took a left at the Tilt-A-Whirl and meandered down an aisle of campers, pup tents, and vans. Makeshift clothes lines stretched from the side view mirrors to trees and some upside down shirts hung, flapped low to the dusty ground. Inside out jeans were spread out on the tops of a few tents, their wet weight sagging down the roofs like pairs of legs. The sole of a foot poked out from the slit of one tent. A van was parked sideways, doors slid open; a partially deflated bright blue air mattress dripped over the edge. The van smelled like wet newspapers and instant coffee.
The redhaired girl was thin lipped and wide hipped. She slowly walked past us, hips like a metronome, with a tin of sardines in her hand. I had never seen anyone eat sardines, just old people on tv who didn’t want to eat cat food. The red-haired girl plucked out a tiny fish and held it over her mouth, an expectant seal. She bit off half, the salty tail still pinched between her fingers. I could smell the ocean.
“I’m starving,” I said to Susan. I walked over to a food truck and looked inside a glass case at the giant baked potatoes wrapped in tin foil, split and bursting. “They look like shiny pillows covered with butter.”
“If I wanted something healthy I would have stayed home,” Susan said. “I want something terrible and delicious, like a deep fried snickers bar. But I’d settle for a pickle on a stick,” she laughed.
A little boy sitting on a yellow plastic milk crate looked up – his lips were stained an unnatural purple, like frostbite or some forgotten disease. He crushed the waxy paper cone in his chubby fist as he crunched the fluorescent shaved ice. He saw us watching him and stuck out his blueberry tongue. “That’s exactly what my kid will do,” Susan laughed, as she gave him the finger.
Above us, around us, the sky was greying. Sparse lights dotted the Midway. The Corn Dog trailer was yellow and glowing like a topaz. Cartoon corn dogs danced along the cut out windows; one wore a top hat.
Susan tap, tap tapped a nip bottle of vodka on the counter. “Trade?”
The lady at the corn dog concession looked around and nodded. Her eyebrows were like boomerangs hovering over her small eyes. Her magic marker nametag said Beverly. She pushed open the trailer door with her hip and leaned back on the silver door after it slapped shut.
She was a bisected Beverly – the top half all ropey in a nicotined T-shirt and the bottom half, solid and bulky, her legs like furniture. A brassy Harley Davidson belt was her leather equator.
“Shit,” Beverly said, flick flicking her plastic lighter. “You girls got an extra smoke too?”
Susan said, “Yeah, we’ll trade you for two more.”
Beverly went back in and grabbed a deformed corn dog out of the tiny food tanning booth. Susan jammed it into her mouth like a doughy lollipop. The bright red dot of the cigarette lit up the center of Beverly’s face in a soft orange circle. For a minute we were all three of us quiet and happy. I fanned my mouth with each bite, exhaling steam and pretending I was in Antarctica. Susan was chewing and waving her corn dog in the air as she babbled at Beverly. We drank giant cokes from sweating cups the size of trash cans. Then when they were half full, we emptied some rum into them, stirring the drinks with our pointer fingers.
We stopped by the spin art booth to watch a girl with a yellow braid, thick like an animal’s tail. She bobbed her head and circled her hand over the spinning paper discs, trying to understand the rhythms of the machine, the mechanics of the color. Finally nodding yes, she picked up a plastic bottle of paint in each hand and squeezed, systematically, and then punctuated with a squirt.
Susan peeked over her shoulder – “It looks like a bunch of butterflies in a blender!” She laughed. “And I’m already bored! Let’s go win something.”
“Pop my balloons!” the girl with the midriff yelled at passersby, mostly men. Her hair was crimped brown with blonde stripes, like burnt bacon. She wore jeans unbuttoned and flapped open; her deflated belly filled the acid washed V. Hanging below was a bulging canvas money pouch, filled with quarters.
“I want to win a bunny-on-a-stick!” decided Susan and she slapped down coins on the counter. The girl with the bacon hair was surprisingly graceful as she disappeared the quarters and, pivoting, offered Susan a fistful of darts.
On the wall was a big grid of quivering balloons, white and firm and slick. Low in the bottom corner two shriveled balloons dangled from their blue thumbtacks, as if someone had run out of breath before reaching the end.
“Even a moron can win,” Susan laughed, and the girl rolled her eyes up towards the crispy bangs.
“Knock yourself out,” said the girl as Susan threw her first darts wildly – gutterballs all.
I guided her hand. “Here, hold it like a pencil.” We threw in pantomime – like launching a paper airplane over and over again.
Susan pushed my hand away and threw. Pop! Pop!
Bounce. Pop! Bounce!
The girl smirked. “Even a moron can win. Pick your prize – pink or blue?”
Susan picked a pink bunny dangling from a bamboo stick and twirled it like a majorette.
Now I was determined to win a prize. I wandered the midway, sucking on the surviving ice cubes from my giant coke and spitting them back into the empty paper cup.
The kid had a smashed nose and a reluctant shirt – one sleeve chewed away and every button somehow missing. He was surrounded by rows of shimmering plastic bags, each knotted and filled with a single lethargic goldfish. I had found my game.
The sign said, “WINNERS ONLY.” He said. “Everyone a winner!”
I asked, “Even me?”
He laughed. “Probably.”
There was a wooden platform cluttered with glass fishbowls of all different sizes. Some were smaller and painted gold. Those were the ones that won you a goldfish in a plastic bag.
Throwing a ping pong ball is like throwing air – weightless and directionless. It was impossible to give a ball any force or guidance – it cluttered and sputtered and ricocheted. The kid with the smashed nose was Paul and he seemed to take my failure personally; he handed me a second, then a third, free bucket of ping pong balls.
I threw and threw. Paul sighed then looked left then right then behind us, before he slamdunked some runaway balls into the golden fishbowls. “We have a winner!”
“Oh!” I said, then silently mouthed thank you.
Paul handed me a plastic bag filled with water; the fish inside swam in sad circles. He shook his head. “Everyone a winner!”
I held my plastic bag fish up to my face and kissed him, my lips puckered just like his. “You look like a Freddie to me.”
Behind us someone was having an explosive coughing fit. I turned around to see a guy with a plastic axe sticking out of his head, smoking a bent cigarette and choking. “Shit!” he croaked.
“Can I touch it?” I asked.
“Touch what?” He laughed.
He puffed on the cigarette. “Be my guest.”
I reached out and jiggled the axe handle. It was attached to a cheap wig that shifted on his head. Blood oozed in the matted hair. “Taste it.”
I dipped my finger in. It was sweet.
“Strawberry jam. It slides off my head, but it looks so much creepier than ketchup.”
Someone screamed. “Corey!”
“Shit – that’s me. I gotta go back to work.” He blew a misshapen smoke ring that stretched and drifted and lazily dissolved. “Come see me in the Mansion of Death,” he called over his shoulder as he hurried away.
Plopped in the center of the Midway was the control center, the heart, the nucleus of the carnival – the ticket booth. I half expected to find a very important person inside, someone serious, vaguely authoritative, like the Wizard of Oz pulling all the strings. Maybe a man with an elaborate moustache and a fancy wristwatch? Instead, the teenage girl at the ticket booth had explosions of freckles on her face, arms and throat. I handed her my folded five dollar bill and she handed me an accordion of ride tickets. She was reading a horoscope magazine, underlining parts with a red ballpoint pen. “Here,” she said. She was the kind of girl that talks with her eyes closed.
I shoved the tickets into the waistband of my shorts.
Susan rescued another bottle from her socks. We filled our mouths with the orphaned ice from our Cokes and poured in a tiny vodka. I gargled, and the ice cubes clanked against my teeth.
We wandered the midway and stopped in front of a giant, shiny igloo – The World of Mirrors. The building was two stories tall and covered in a mosaic of mirrors; a crazy glittery slide that seemed stolen from a Las Vegas swimming pool ran from the roof to the dirty ground.
“We gotta go in!” squealed Susan. The bored kid wordlessly took our tickets and we clumped up the metal steps into the disorienting world. The first room was lined with mirrors – wavy metal reflective ribbons. Susan magically pulled out another pair of nips. We clinked the miniature plastic bottles together in a noiseless toast, guzzled them, and dramatically tossed them over our shoulders.
Standing in front of each fun house mirror, I saw myself contorted, pulled and pushed. Susan and I did a tug of war at each mirror, making instant before and afters. I became the fat lady with a tiny head. I flapped my arms that transformed into tentacles. I shrunk down into a stubby human ice cube.
We gyrated, watching ourselves become grotesque in seconds, manipulated like a comic strip transferred onto a chunk of Silly Putty and stretched. And then a step to the right, a smooth flat panel, and we were ourselves again.
We spun through a revolving door that opened into a teeny room, the size of a phone booth, lined with mirrors. Even the ceiling and floor. It was claustrophobic, dizzying, coffinlike. I put out my hands to steady myself, closed my eyes and rested my forehead on the cold glass. It was like ice. Susan grabbed my elbow and wheezed into my hair, “I feel like I’m dying.” I felt her words on my neck but saw her face and mine all around us, faceted and everywhere. It was weird to watch yourself, to surround yourself, an out of body experience that felt almost televised. My fingers traced the edge of the wall and walked themselves down the slimmest of passageways then pulled me after them.
And I pulled Susan.
The tunnel opened onto a big space paneled with dozens of mirrors of all different sizes. We saw hundreds, thousands, of ourselves reflected back. On a jagged wall, I saw endless accordions of me, stretched to infinity. The room was a reflective igloo.
“I’m too confused and buzzed to figure this out,” Susan whimpered.
I looked up at the ceiling and my lost face looked down at me. All around were our endless selves, both life size and microscopic, reflected in the complicated mosaic of mirrors, watching us and being us. The boundaries blurring, skin and glass; the soft pulsating world morphing into an angular silver universe. The discoballness of the walls flashed metallic and still animated with streaks of fleshy peach as we shifted, breaking down our movements into Star Trek cubism.
Then Susan pulled me down to the floor next to her. “I need to be rescued and I don’t care how,” she cried out in a voice part laughing, part panic, part drunk. “S-O-S!”
I could almost see her shouts bouncing off the walls, ricocheting between the dozens of our faces. I rested my cheek on her shoulder and waited.
“I don’t want to die in here, looking at my own dumb face,” Susan wailed.
“I think we can last 72 hours without water,” I told her and laughed and closed my eyes. I heard faint sounds that became closer and louder, and separate and identifiable – giggles and bubblegum bubbles bursting. A little girl’s head poked itself into our cell. “You okay?” she asked, punctuating it with a pop.
We were being saved by an 8-year-old girl with gum in her hair and a faded Hawaiian Punch T-shirt.
“Thank god!” cried Susan.
The girl giggled. “My brother sent me in when you didn’t come out. It happens all the time but usually it’s the confused grandmothers. You can follow me out, but just so you’ll know, use your hands, and just take every right turn – right, right, right, right.”
Susan and I x’d our arms and 1,2,3 we hoisted each other up. We followed the girl, just like she said, four rights and the rope of her braid flopped side to side. Finally, the girl led us to a curtain of sparkly ribbons, like a carwash with invisible water, pulled it away and hopped onto the slide, feet first, and slid into the now darkness. I jumped on next and Susan, still unsteady, hesitated a second but then dropped down behind me. The plastic tube of the slide twisted us in a semi-circle, and then ended abruptly, dumping us onto a cloud of sand. We were free.
We were dusty and drunk. I was shocked to find Freddie in his plastic bag, still crumpled in my fist. We both survived the House of Mirrors and I had somehow managed to not kill him.
The three of us sat on the dirt for a few minutes, recovering. My knees and palms were coated in a fine film of earth.
A guy in a red T-shirt and gold scarf walked towards me and I realized he was talking to his scarf and his scarf was a snake. I stopped right in front of him and asked him directions to the Rotor. He had hands so dirty they were shiny and he pointed into the distance, making shapes in the air. My hand had a life of its own and my fingers traced the pattern on the snake’s skin. He was tense and heavy and thick, a shimmery coil of muscle.
“I bet you already forgot the directions,” he laughed, and he crossed his palm protectively across the snake.
I attempted to recreate the Snake Man’s instructions, following my own finger in the air. I cut behind the Zipper, then The Tilt-A-Whirl, past the wall of screams from the Sizzler. I got tangled in the lacy 8 of forgotten panties, rolled down from the waist to ankle and left in the patchy grass.
Susan and I were feeding each other French fries with those tiny wooden pitchforks and laughing when an enormous guy with Stretch Armstrong arms casually approached us. He shook out a large paper coil of ride tickets in front of our faces.
“Ladies, I have a proposition for you.” His tiny head and giant cartoon body distracted me from his actual words. His voice was kind of Southern and all the syllables were dragged out, doubled, tripled, like a sports announcer. LLLaaddeezzzzz.
Susan’s very loud YES snapped me out of it. “What did you just agree for us to do?” I asked, assuming we were a package deal.
“We’re going to help out John. We’re going to work in the dunking booth…”
“…as Dunkees.” I finished her sentence. “But you can’t swim.”
“I won’t need to,” answered Susan. “John promised me nobody ever hits the target hard enough.”
I hoped Susan knew how to float.
We followed John past the Skee-Ball and the dime pitch games and up to the big plexiglass box with a ladder bungie-corded to one side. A garden hose ran up the outside and down the inside, the water gushing to fill the big box. The flow was randomly interrupted when a van drove over the hose, one axle at a time.
“It’s easy,” said John. “All you have to do is sit there and smile.”
He took Susan’s hand and helped her up the ladder like she was Miss America. Susan climbed down into the tank and shimmied out onto the hinged seat. Her red sneakers dangled a few inches over the top of the water. She patted the place next to her. “Karen!” she shouted through the dunking booth.
I held Freddie up to my mouth and kissed him through the plastic and carefully plopped the bag onto the grass. It collapsed and spread wide; his crystal clear and shapeless universe suddenly had a bottom, a green, green base. Freddie darted pointlessly at the ground, trying to taste the grass through the invisible barrier of the plastic bag. I untied my sneakers, lined them up next to Freddie and climbed into the tank. The hinged seat swayed and strained as I awkwardly crouched next to Susan, then unfolded my legs one at a time. My big toe skimmed the water.
Susan excitedly grabbed my hand and we both looked through the streaked plexiglass cube at the crowd watching us. Our breath fogged the invisible walls and their faces were blurry and vague. Droplets of water raced down in rows like a beaded curtain. There was a new soft glow of the sunset and the systematic click, click clicking of the carnival lights switching on, section by section.
A teenage boy who was all forehead and acne handed John his ticket and John piled a pyramid of softballs at the kid’s feet. The teenager rubbed a ball on his pants leg as if he was polishing an apple. And then he threw it. Susan whistled and waved at him and I punched her in the arm – “Shhh!” The ball missed the target on the side of the booth by a foot. Susan laughed and pulled her shirt over her head. Now I had to laugh. The kid with the terrible face missed again and again. Susan stuck her tongue out and he gave her the finger as he shuffled away.
Next up was a little girl on her father’s shoulders. Through the foggy walls of our tank she looked like a monster, all heads and arms and legs. Each hand handed John a ticket and he counted out twenty balls from the suddenly bulbous hammock of his Tshirt; the weight pulled his vneck down, taut, to his belly button. John stood in front of the father and daughter, she shrieked “Go!” and all four arms grabbed the balls and threw wildly at the target. Most crisscrossed and hit each other, negating the effort; the little girl tossing hers like a too-warm can of soda out the car window. The intensity scared us. “We’re goners,” I told Susan and took her hand, ready for our carnival baptism. I watched the flurry of arms and circles through the steamy hazy tank and heard the heavy thuds banging the walls. I closed my eyes and squeezed Susan’s fingers tight. There was silence then suddenly, fists and feet, punching and kicking, shook the walls, making the water vibrate and bounce in concentric circles, like shock waves emanating from the epicenter of an earthquake. The suddenly furious little girl and her father wanted to kill us.
I braced myself flat handed against the wall before I realized we were safe – the dunking booth was a fortress. John, his overstretched shirt now drooping like a deflated Santa suit, grabbed the man’s arm – “Don’t fuck with my tank!” The man knelt down and the girl crablegged off his shoulders, magically returning into mere mortals in search of a Slurpee.
We were still dry and Susan was feeling invincible. “Just one more,” she pleaded. “John promised we were done after three throwers.”
“I miss Freddie,” I complained, thinking of him swimming in his collapsed plastic bag purgatory. “This is the last time.”
The daylight had faded and different lights came sputtering on in a drunken procession. Chunky Christmas lights strung from wires, tent to tent, made pinpricks of brightness in the new almost darkness. Long tubes of light came down from the giant bulbs at the tops of heavy poles that lined the perimeter of the carnival.
Slowly the rows squeezed itself open and a motorized wheelchair buzzed up to the dunking booth. A woman in a faded pink track suit, her very thin hair pulled tightly back with a rubber band clutched the joystick with a clawlike hand. “My turn,” she croaked.
John took the zigzag of tickets from her hollow lap and replaced it with a pile of balls. I couldn’t understand how she was going to throw anything with her frozen lobster hand.
Susan cackled – “This will be quick!” She crunched her own hands into angry C’s and pantomimed throwing knuckleballs inside our cube. I punched her for her rottenness and for doing it in the Lobster Lady’s face and with so many people watching. Nobody deserved hands like that.
John rummaged behind the dunking booth and connected the duct-taped extension cord to a car battery on the ground. A windmill of colored discs started spinning, throwing rainbows into the box from behind. Bubbles and jelly beans of red, yellow and blue floated and melted all around us, like a silent discotheque.
The mechanical sun behind the tank reduced us to shadows inside it. Susan and I sat on that shelf, between the air and the water, and it was as if we were suspended between outer space and the sea, in the limbo of this world, and we held hands and waited for the fluke knuckleball to hit its target.
As the Lobster Lady spastically threw her last ball, the boy with the Terrible Face ran out of the shadows. With a triumphant smile of sweet revenge he punched the dunking booth target with both hands, then looked into the tank at us and mouthed, “Fuck You.”
The thwack of the target jolted the cube and the bench collapsed, dumping us.
The water was shockingly cold. The semi-darkness and haze of the tank was a mysterious and strange ocean. For a few seconds we were a confusion of arms and legs and mermaid hair, struggling to get our bearings in a slow motion underwater ballet.
When we stopped fighting we floated to the top. The tank was smaller than it seemed, and we stood up, our chins over the waterline.
Deflated, defeated, we climbed out of the tank, grabbed our sneakers and Freddie and left the scene of our humiliation. Our wet clothes were fused to our bodies making our limbs stiff and robotic. Herky jerky, we walked down the Midway, hair stuck to our faces like seaweed.
We were idiots.
A smirking kid at the Pickle on a Stick handed me a roll of Bounty and I wrapped my dripping hair in a paper towel turban. Susan bent at the waist and I wound the roll around her head until it became a white volcano, her ponytail erupting from the peak. Then I tucked one end of the paper towels into the neck of her T-shirt, like a bib, and said, “Hands up and spin!” She spun. Then I self-upholstered myself, from neck to knee.
We walked the Midway, puffy and damp. Civilians assumed we were some sort of bargain basement carnival act and the carnies just shook their heads. We looked like cartoon avalanche victims. My soggy sneakers squished noisily as we wandered around. I could feel the paper towel layers hijacking the wetness into itself.
The kid who was running the Rotor was leaning back onto the red metal silo of the ride, one foot flat, the other knee bent like a human number 4. His giant knuckles casually rested on the control joystick marked ON/TILT/ SPIN/OFF. Susan walked over to him and I watched them talk. Susan pumped her flat hand up and down next to her head as if she was measuring the uncertain heights of an imaginary family. He laughed, she laughed. He alternated his bent legs – 4, 4.
“Here!” She said and pointed at me. I shuffled over. “You can’t ride the ride like that,” he said. “Hold steady.” He pulled out his pocket knife and slid it under the bottom edge of Susan’s paper towel cocoon and gently sliced upwards. It crumbled open like wet bread.
Susan tugged at her T-shirt, reinflating it. When he turned to me with his knife, I flinched. “You’re next,” he said impatiently, as he sawed through my layers.
With his right hand, he hoisted Susan into the Rotor and with his left hand he slapped her ass square on the pocket. The door was rounded like a submarine and had a little window at eye level. I kicked the blobs of wet paper towels off the platform and the kid helped me in too. I waited that embarrassing millisecond for the thwack that never came.
Susan asked, “Maybe the centrifungal force will dry us out?”
“Fungal? No, FU-gal,” I laughed. “It will dry us out while it makes us stick to the walls.”
The door slammed and clicked. The Rotor was a giant tin can with the lid sliced off. Skinny stripes of neon wrapped the top edge like a brilliant crown. The walls were black and painted with cartoony planets and stars, like a science fair planetarium. A voice shouted out of the tiny, tinny speaker mounted above my head: “Everyone stand against the walls, backs straight, both feet on the floor, hands by your sides. If you wear glasses, please remove them and put them someplace safe.”
We watched the others adjusting themselves. A brother and sister who must have cheated to pass the height requirement started to giggle and I realized they were twins – red hair and braces and matching striped shirts. A brave (or oblivious) grandma tucked a tissue underneath her watchband while next to her a short, middle aged man in a suit, like a ventriloquist dummy, nervously whistled. Double dating teenagers mercilessly tickled each other. One girl snapped her gum and blew the biggest bubble I had ever seen. It grew in puffs and hovered in front of her face. Her date popped it with a stab of his pointer finger; a cloud of gum covered her eye and blunt bangs like a pink blindfold.
The metal walls and floor had soaked up the heat from the morning sun and were warm to the touch, feeling almost alive. I lifted my foot and watched the wet footprint slowly evaporate on the floor as if I was never really there.
The voice clicked off and the music started, a kind of generic free form space jam and the Rotor jerked to a start and slowly started to spin. Riders were laughing, hands flat against the wall, gripping uneasily on the smooth wall to keep balanced. Across from me the twins were holding hands; one of the double daters looked seasick. The overhead bright light suddenly clicked off and above us, the dark night sky became our dim nightlight.
“Enjoy the ride!” boomed the Wizard of Oz voice out of the speaker.
The room spun faster and the music blasted. One double dater screamed.
The click-click-click of jean rivets scraping against the metal walls became a rhythmic swoosh. I heard a man’s nervous laugh as the Rotor haltingly sped up, like a treadmill gaining momentum. I tried to grab Susan’s hand but she had pulled her fingers into an ecstatic fist.
The Rotor spun faster and the air became a whoosh, became a thing almost visible, an almost pressure I could feel, like competing hands somehow both pushing and pulling me into the wall at the same time. The air became louder, like the roar of a waterfall. Across from me, the face of the skinny girl with braces pushed into a rubbery grin; her metallic mouth glinting randomly like Morse code, in the cyclone of her crazy hair.
Faster and faster we spun and then we all felt a clunky shift and grinding of gears and slowly the floor began to sink away until it disappeared. Then a creak and another awkward shifting of rusty gears, a hesitation, and the Rotor tilted 45 degrees. The giant cylinder was spinning so fast I was losing track of where I was – I was in the same place but also seemingly opposite of myself.
The rings of neon suddenly switched on, circling us, dyeing us an extraterrestrial and transparent purple. I pointed my toes, dipping into an empty ocean. I was standing on air. The centrifugal force was pinning me to the spinning wall. The Rotor spun even faster, the thick halo of sound, the demented music of the midway punctured by screams and cries and shouts, all somehow terrified and exhilarated at the same time.
I swear I was lifted off the speeding wall. I hovered. My solidity was dissolving; animal, vegetable, mineral no more. I was transformed into a swirling mass of particle and energy. I was a galaxy. I was the Big Bang waiting to happen.
I was air.