Hard wind, everything tossing, chains snapping, cars rocking, Tanner shut down the Hell bound, looked around: Dreamland a delirium of flying coffins. “Fucking Jim.” Tanner searched the labyrinths. “Fucking Jim.”
The dream lanes were jammed – the usual midsummer night’s bedlam: trailer park vamps in their short skirts, beehive bouffants, more makeup on their doe eyed faces than on a circus clown’s (each of them promising their own wild ride for a box of popcorn and some cotton candy on the side), the townie gangs looking for different thrills than the amusement park could provide with its danger rides, the working class couples and their kids from the prefab housing developments around the industrial districts, the ethnics from the city’s edge, as awed as if they found Shangri la or Alice’s Wonderland, the designer drug Goths double dosing on the carnie lights and circus trimmings, plus, grifters, pickpockets, perverts, whores, drug pushers, panhandlers and the too numerous to classify odds and ends strolling alone or together through the land of never never, where, if he didn’t move quick, might make “never” forever for some unlucky reveler.
Tanner shouldered through the mayhem, everyone around him enjoying the big wind as if it were an added attraction, laughing, screaming with glee as they clung to one another and ducked the flying debris, arcade tents flapping, café tables tumbling. “Fucking Jim.” Rides awry, storm clouds chased across the sky. “Man, you better get moving.”
“Shut it down!”
Tanner shouted at the gangly kid operating the Flying Squadron.
Wide-eyed, the skinny kid gaped at him.
“Shut it down. You’ll kill someone!”
The mock planes were rocking, dipping as they whirled on their lines, veering with the gusts into the branches of the giant trees, which were everywhere, and made the “amusement park a park” according to the old man who refused to cut them down, despite the numerous warnings and frequent safety citations, which he bribed his way out of and were seasonally forgotten.
“Chain them!” Tanner hollered. “Chain them when you’re done!”
The kid stared at him, blankly.
“They got anchor hooks on the bottom!”
“Because of the wind.” Tanner brooded, “the wind …”
They were in for a big one. “The big blow from Kooky mo,” as Jim called it, the winds sweeping across the plains along tornado lane, which gave the windy city down the highway its stormy nickname. Jim, Stacey, the old man should have seen it coming (like on TV?) and done something.
“Move!” Tanner shouted and the kid almost jumped out of his skin. “Now!” Hope you don’t end up in my platoon, simpleton.” Tanner brooded, as his thoughts flashed back to the day he had gotten himself into this mess.
“This summer you’re a danger runner.” Jim had handed him a beer and informed him when they opened for the season. “If you want. Tagart’s off to Iraq. Joined over the winter. Says he can’t wait to get there, although he was hoping for Afghanistan. Itching to serve anywhere. He’ll change his mind when the bullets start to fly. You know the drill: when the big blow comes, shut the danger rides down. Yours first, of course.” Jim waved his can of beer. “Then help with the rest. Twister anywhere around, we close the park down – or anything near as fierce. You know how these summer storms get around here: monsoon rain, lightning and thunder, bar the door and duck for cover. Buck and Whitey round out the crew. But I’m counting on you. I assume you know the pay raise for your upgrade in responsibility and authority: zero. That’s the old man for you, thinks I can be everywhere. In other words you’re a volunteer. It’ll ruin your summer, so if it’s a no can do I ain’t blamin’ you.”
“Zero and a beer.” Tanner lifted his can in the air.
“I knew I had me a sucker here. Bet Uncle Sam’s got one too. Suppose you’ll be joining like Tagart now that you’re through with school?”
“I been talkin’ to the recruiter.” Tanner had stiffened. “But I’ll finish the season. That’s no problem.”
“Young men and heroism.” Jim had shaken his head. “When will it ever end?”
“You joined for Nam.” Tanner had reminded him. “You won a decoration.”
“You don’t win nothin’ in war son. You only lose. War changes you. Besides, they were draftin’ then. They would have got me in the end.”
“There ain’t no jobs, Jim. That’s kind of like draftin’. I don’t see any end to this recession.” (And I ain’t going to get anywhere working here. That’s for sure!) Tanner had added to himself as he downed his beer.
The Hell Bound, The Flying Squadron, the Spinning Jenny and Ferris Wheel, the Parachute, the Merry-go Round – six rides where a strong wind could hurt someone. Whitey had quit; Buck didn’t show up for work. Without Jim he was on his own. There was no way Tanner could close the danger rides alone. They were too spread out and with this wind anything could happen in a split second. Two down, four to go. “You got to move fast.” Jim had warned him. “The crowds are the hang up. Knock someone down if you have to. They’ll be OK. Better than havin’ some guy take a high dive from the Parachute or Ferris Wheel.”
Rides of every kind spinning before his eyes, criss-crossing, cascading, dropping, climbing, intertwining – the Scrambler, Roller Coaster, Tilt-a-Whirl – fifty altogether, making him dizzy as he pushed through the mobs, all scattered amidst a forest and connected by a maze of lanes that would drive a laboratory rat insane. Tanner could hardly remember, on any given day, exactly where the rides were, or anything for that matter. The maze went every which way. You could get lost in the Dream Lanes. Plus, they were as mad as a Mardi Gras in New Orleans, filled with barker booths, game galleries, arcades, fireworks, everything topsy turvy – Spin the Wheel, Shoot the Ducks, Ring the Bell, Pitch the Penny, Dunk the Clown, Fool the Wizard, Knock Down the Bottles, See the Giant, Midget, Bearded Lady, while crazy calliope music played on speakers throughout the mayhem: “Carousel,” “Home On The Range,” “Meet Me In Saint Louis,” “Waiting For The Robert E. Lee,” “In The Good Old Summertime,” “Sidewalks Of New York,” mixed with heavy metal and acid rock. If you didn’t get dizzy enough from the rides the relentless music would blow your mind.
“The old man designed the park hisself.” Jim had informed him when he first hired on three summers ago during his first high school break and Jim showed him around. “Can’t ya tell?” That made instant sense and explained a lot. His first impression of the old man, when he shook his hand, was that the amusement park owner was as mad as a Hatter. He certainly cut a fine, distinguished figure with his snow-white, designer cut hair and clothes you only saw in movies about millionaires. But his sky-blue eyes looked hypnotized, as though they were looking, not at Tanner, but through him and beyond him and Tanner was just something in the way, which confused and amused him, while something way deep in the back of his mind was what consumed him. “He designed some of the rides too.” Hands in the pockets of his faded jeans, head bowed, massive shoulders rounded, staring at the ground, Jim had given him the lowdown, as they strolled around, drawing him in with his drawl and creating a bond between them, man to man, which was probably something he learned how to do in Nam when he needed his men to back him. “The Hell Bound and the Flying Squadron to name a few. Hell, he had a hand in most everything from the Tunnel of Love to the Pony Rides and the Magic Rings. Maybe you noticed, the park has a strong flavor of war to it all? There’s the Combat Zone computer arcade and the motor boats which he calls Destroyers, and, of course, the Rifle Range. The old man was a bomber pilot during Nam. He bombed Hanoi, Laos, Cambodia, an assortment of ports and villages along the coast. He dropped Agent Orange on jungles, dropped Napalm. He was a frequent flyer whose distinctions for missions couldn’t have been higher. We met there in between his runs and my adventures with shooting “Gooks” with guns. That’s why I’m here. I was just a punk kid, not even eighteen, younger than you. He was an officer and a gentleman but somehow we got along. We met in a bar enjoying whores and liquor. His dream was Dreamland even way back then. He has it all planned and I was in, at least as the foreman. He must of got the idea for the park with every city he blew up and every forest he burned. Maybe I’m haunted in a way by every enemy soldier I shot. But I can see him up there with his wizard eyes gleamin’ and dreamin’. I think he wanted to turn all that horror around, make something scary but fun and no harm to anyone. Don’t we all. War is hell, son. I wish I had me a magic wand that could erase it all. This is his land. His parents left it to him, used to be a farm. There’s a big house at the end which he lives in. Looks like another fairytale from Dreamland. You may have noticed it drivin’ down the highway. It’s hard to miss. He entertains all the big wigs there, political, industrial. He never had me and Beth over, but he sure likes to drop around our little shack in the winter when the season’s over. Brings a bottle of the best. We talk about Nam, whores and war and how lucky we got outta there. He’s a strange one. I don’t know if I owe him everything or nothing. I’ve been in on this thing since day one. Job, shack, I think the main reason I’m here is so the old man can look back.”
That wasn’t true from what Tanner knew. The old man couldn’t have gotten the park off the ground without Jim around. They were wild times back then, thirty-five years ago. The area was unincorporated. You had to depend on the state police to keep peace. They were few and far between. Jim was the enforcer. Tanner knew all about Jim from his father. “You workin’ where? Can’t you get a job as a stock boy or grocery clerk? That’s a lowdown, lowlife carnie world and the guy you’ll be workin’ for is a psycho killer. Yeah he was a hero in Nam. But I went too and I didn’t come back with my screws loose. That place will corrupt you. That lunatic Jim belongs in prison. I could tell you stories.” Which his father proceeded to do and they were shocking, if they were true. But Tanner thought they all were probably small town gossip and rumors. He did believe you didn’t mess with Jim back then. He must have handled everything from the usual drunks and punks to the biker packs and townie gangs. He had to. You still didn’t want to get on his bad side now at fifty-nine. He still had the build, pretty much, of that farm boy who joined the Marines and with his cold black eyes and unruly hair you knew he still played the same game of truth or dare. Sometimes Tanner thought Jim prowled around like he was still in ‘Nam, looking for a fight that he could get his hands on. He found them now and then, as legal as they could be. Tanner had seen him toss around guys like bales of hay. Jim was a shit kicker boy back in his day. They don’t make them puny.
Yeah, the old man was a strange one; that was for sure, Tanner brooded as he ducked out of the crowds and cut through the trees. The old man and Jim, now that were a tag team. A duo right out of a Barnum and Bailey dream.
“Shut it down!” Tanner yelled at the kid running the Merry-go-Round. The painted ponies were the ultimate danger ride in this wind, at least for toddlers. It could knock them down and break their little crowns and you might not be able to put them back together again. “Get the kids off! Close the ride! But start it up circling again or the top will blow off!”
“Run it with no one on it!”
“I don’t get it?”
“Just do it!”
Thunder rocked the reeling rides. Lightning streaked across the blackened sky. The gusts of wind brought bursts of rain. “Three more!” Tanner brooded, clothes flapping, hair tossing as he maneuvered through the mobs. The Parachute, the Ferris Wheel, the Spinning Jenny. Fucking Jim. If that old hillbilly was drunk in the back of his van again with some trailer park Tramp, Tanner hoped, this time, he got what was coming to him from the old man. Yeah, Jim sure had his own little harem. Tanner frowned. Tent lights blinking. Up-ended trash cans were tumbling across the Dream Lanes. The rain lashed at him. A harem for the head honcho – why not when he had plenty of treats to tempt the tricks: popcorn and rides and a wonderland of bright lights and good times. But could Tanner complain? He did plenty of that in his own way. All the ride runners did. His father was right: carnie life would corrupt him. Dreamland was a dream. Girls were everywhere all summer. Pretty tanned teasers looking for fun and Tanner was more than willing to oblige them. This was the place to have it. It was in the air like magic. Dream and reality all mixed up, chills and thrills. He had his share of rides through the Tunnel of Love. He had his wild nights with drinking and gambling and carrying on. But that was on his own time. He wasn’t fooling around with bimbos on the job. Tanner was sick and tired of covering for Jim. “I think I got me a sucker here.” He sure did. All his “volunteers” were. War hero or not, there was a limit. Right now he wished he were big enough to kick Jim’s ass. He deserved it. Look what he was doing to his wife, Beth. ‘Course it wasn’t his business, but it made Tanner sick. Sanford, Edwards and all them other politicians. Infidelity seemed to be the law of the land or the craze of the nation. He didn’t know if Jim was under the spell of the usual mid/old man life crisis thingamabob or if he had been doing it all along. He sure had been at it since Tanner had known him. Did Beth know what was going on? She never showed it if she did. Maybe she was just standing by her man. Everybody seemed to stand by her man. Tanner was tired of looking out for Jim and his wild side. Screw the medals. If it wasn’t for Beth, the old man, his volunteers, Jim would probably be a hobo panhandling for cheap wine and change, if his brawling didn’t land him in prison. After a couple of years in the military Tanner would muscle up. He imagined himself with big biceps. He would come back and knock Jim’s block off, just for the hell of it.
“Shut it down!”
Tanner cupped his hands and hollered at the kid running the Spinning Jenny. Mouths open, eyes wide, laughing, screaming, waving their arms as they flew in all directions, inside out and upside down, the spinners were having the time of their lives, as the wind and rain lashed at them and they whirled around, maybe in some imaginary Katrina or other catastrophic dilemma from which they soon would be rescued safe and sound.
The kid shook his head and hollered back. He was wearing a big popcorn carton on his head as a rain helmet.
The old man was suddenly standing beside him, dressed in a fancy rain slicker with a matching hat – an outfit that must have cost about as much as a Cadillac.
“In the back last I saw him.” Tanner lied. “Some trouble in the arcade. I think a fight.”
“I can’t contact him.” The old man stared at his hand radio, which was sputtering and hissing. “All I get is static. We’re closing. If you see him tell him. Tornado warnings for almost every town, village and hamlet. Mute point at this point.” The old man looked around. “Everybody’s leaving anyway.”
The crowds had finally given up on Dreamland for the day and were taking off in droves as the rain came pounding down the Dream Lanes. Some were running, or moving at a trot, trying to beat the mass migration to the parking lot.
“I’ll tell him.” Tanner looked up over the trees at the Ferris Wheel which was still circling around with riders, the cars rocking with the gusts of wind. “Soon as I shut down the Parachute and the Ferris Wheel.”
“Never mind that.” The old man snapped. “Just look for him and help him in the arcade or whatever he’s doing.”
“Fucking Jim!” Tanner cursed to himself as he stalked through the fleeing mobs. He knew where to find him; that was no problem. Jim’s beat up van would be parked, as usual, somewhere in the ring of trees which surrounded the old man’s mansion. So what was his detail? Help Jim? “Hey Jim, move over man. The old man sent me. It’s my turn.”
“Were shutting down!” Tanner pounded on the counters of the barker booths as he went along. “Twisters coming. Hide the leaded ducks, the blunt darts and crooked target rifles! Batten down the hatches! Evacuate before it’s too late and tell Jim if you see him!”
“Slow down soldier.” A grip like iron grabbed him – Jim. “Don’t spook the crowds son. They’re spooky enough without you announcing cyclones.”
A popcorn box pulled over his head, sporting his usual shit kickers grin, Jim hovered over him. “So the old man’s shutting everything down, even the underground eateries and the Tunnel of Love?” Must be a bad one>”
“Jim. Where you been?”
Tanner gave him the evil eye, his face grim.
“Puttin’ a pony down.” Jim shook his head, his expression forlorn. “That new Shetland went wild, threw a kid, buckin’ and kickin’. When the runner tried to grab him, he bit him. I chased him off, gave the kid first aid. The kid’s OK, just bumps and bruises, scared. We may have a lawsuit on the way. They can’t hit the old man for any kind of real money; but the park don’t need the bad publicity. It’ll probably all get settled in a friendly way, a key to Dreamland, free everything for the rest of the season. I had to call the sheriff, the vet, make a report. Sure did hate putting that pony down. You know how they are, cute as buttons, like little toys. But you can’t take chances. He was kicking up a storm, damned near broke my arm.” Jim held up his hand and Tanner noticed his arm was wrapped in a sling. “Maybe he was half crazy anyway and the big blow riled him? We’ll have to see what the vet says. Hope he wasn’t carrying anything contagious.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
Tanner swallowed hard and felt ashamed.
“All in the day.” Jim shrugged and his smile returned. “You got it done, son. I been lookin’ around. All the danger rides down. Good job. If you want to stay on the clock, make some extra pay, I got some soft duty to throw your way. I need me a big blow emergency merry-go-round babysitter trainer. Somers is the trainee. Good kid. He’s always looking for extra work. Says he needs the money for college. He’s there now. Dogs in a steamer and cold brew waitin’ for you. A bag of clothes in the office you can change into. Clean jeans, sweatshirts, rain slickers. Pants a little big but you can hitch them up. Be good enough. I’d get him started, myself, but after I close down I got to get back to the stable. Vet’s still there. We got to figure out what happed and I still got to bury that pony somewhere. When I’m done I’ll drop around.”
“No problem.” Tanner found himself mumbling. He couldn’t face Jim. Not the way he damned and cursed him. He knew how hard killing that pony had been for him. Jim loved those little horses, for some reason. His face lit up every time he looked at them. He was always petting and patting them, giving them sugar cubs, drawling Southern nothings in their twitching ears. “Somers is a cool dude. I’ll help him get going.”
“You’d be helpin’ me too, as usual. Stay as long as you want. All night if you’ve got nothing to do. The old man will grumble some at having to fork out the extra funds. But training must be done, and if anyone can do it he knows it’s you. The old man has noticed you. He ain’t no fool.”
“Fucking Jim.” Tanner brooded as he cut across the crowds toward the offices. “He always wins.” He felt guilty and angry at the same time because it could just as well have been the other way with Jim having himself another roll in the hay. Still, it put some pep in his step, Jim’s compliments on how he’d done and the old man knowing who he was.
“Mary, Mary, quite count weary.”
In the cinder brick fortress, which looked more like a military installation than an amusement park office, Mary, the old man’s daughter, was seated at he desk recording stacks and piles of money down to the penny.
“Tanner, Tanner, mind your manner.”
She frowned as she counted. The take had been bad, the day’s receipts way off. The old man would hit the roof.
“Penny for your thoughts.”
She waved him off.
He found the bag of dry clothes and changed in the washroom. It felt good. He donned the yellow raincoat, pulled up the hood and went out into the monsoon.
The rider-less carousel was circling in the blackened downpour, lights blazing, calliope music playing, painted horses bobbing up and down.
“Under here!” Somers poked his yellow-hooded head out from the hatch beneath the floorboards. “Studying the gears. Trying to figure out how you shut that damned music off before it drives me nuts!”
“I’ll show you how it all works.” Tanner crouched down in the whipping winds. “Keep the music on ‘til the crowds are gone. You may want to keep it on all night; gets spooky looking at those charging horses going round and round without a sound. Besides, it helps you stay awake. Keep the lights on. Jim keeps a watch from his shack. If he don’t see them, he’ll think something’s happened. There’s a tarp under there, a pole and some folding chairs. Bring ‘em out and I’ll show you how we make a tent. I’m gonna slow it down a bit.” Tanner pulled the lever. “Got it going too fast.”
Somers tossed out the pole. Tanner slid it over and plunged it down a deep small hole. The tarp came next. There was an iron ring wrapped up in it. Tanner fixed the ring on the top of the pole and threw the tarp over it. There were hooks in the ground to which he attached loops at the ends making a little poncho like tent.
“Looks like a teepee.” Somers scrambled out of the hatch carrying the folding chairs.
“More like a headless Mexican bandit to me. Here’s the opening. Jim put it together for the merry-go-round babysitter when the park opened. Said he found out about the top blowing off the hard way. The old man told him, with these winds, he should have anticipated that. Jim says he thought the old man was the expert in aerodynamics.”
“The ride’s that old?”
“Don’t look it, does it? But it’s the original. Those painted ponies were created by Eastern European craftsmen. Jim says each one should be in a museum.”
“I guess they are something, now that I look at them.”
Somers watched the carousel horses circle before him, nostrils flaring, manes flying, eyes on fire, legs leaping.”
“Let’s get in!” Tanner held open the flap for him. A small steamer of hot dogs and a box of beer on ice circled around the carousel. Tanner grabbed them and ducked inside. “Fucking Jim.” He brooded as he sat down next to Somers and dug in. “You can’t stay mad at him.” When and if the blow stops, you can go home. Jim will let you know. I had to stay all night once. Almost drove me nuts. There’s nothing to worry about. The ride will keep going. If anything weird happens, if anything starts to fall apart or starts blowing off, contact Jim. He gave you a hand radio? OK. But if that don’t work, if there’s too much static, turn off the lights. Jim will be here in a flash.”
Tanner liked Somers. They had been in classes together. Somers was smart, cool. They should have hung around with each other more through school.
“Hear you’re joining?”
Somers popped his beer.
They ate and watched the carousel, listening to the thunder rumble and the winds wail.
“Looks that way.” Tanner shrugged. “Got to get through this recession. After, I’ll go to college on the G.I. Bill. Hear you’re startin’ now?”
“I’m going to give it a shot.” Somers frowned as he chewed his hot dog. “Since I have some kind of job. Seasonal, menial, but maybe I can pick up another something for the winter. I’ll have to live at home for four years, go to a state school. I applied for a ‘needs’ scholarship but I doubt if I’ll get it. My parents can’t help me with anything more than room and board. It’s going to be hard, maybe impossible. But I can’t complain. Most people I know are just trying to survive these days. Keep a roof over their heads, feed their kids.”
“Stars twinkle above.
The calliope music blared amidst the raging storm.
“It’s the loveliest night of the year.”
“When I was a child, I rode a painted pony on a carousel surrounded by my family, who waved at me, merrily, as I whirled toward my happy destiny, dreamily.”
“Nothin’. Just made it up. I’m hoping to be a writer in the future. The teachers always told me I had a knack for it.”
“It’s all a dreamland ain’t it,” Somers sighed and sipped his beer, “life?”
“Yeah, till you get on a real danger ride.”
“What’s that?” The little tent was shuttering, rattling on its pole.
“Somethin’.” Somers parted the canvas, peeked outside. “It’s Jim.”
They crawled out and steadied each other, as the wind and rain whipped at them. Jim stood swaying on the merry-go-round. His battered van was parked beside it, engine idling. He was strapping the dead Shetland pony to a carousel horse, tying the two together so they rode, side by side, bobbing up and down with each other, as the ride went round and round. He guzzled from a whisky bottle as he worked.
“What you doin’ Jim?”
Tanner scrambled up the platform. Somers chased up after him.
“You boys can go home.” Jim was blind drunk, his expression grim. He lashed the horse heads together, took another swallow from his bottle and glared at them. “Weren’t nothin’ wrong with the pony, vet said.” His eyes looked dead. “Scared is all. Scared little pony. No need to kill him.” He staggered across the platform and moved the lever. The ride went faster. “Ole man wouldn’t a kept him no ways. Useless little pony. Too scared. Would of sold him to a glue factory.” He downed the rest of his bottle. Pushed the lever further. Tanner and Somers had to hold onto each other. “Tired of killing.” Jim muttered. “You boys git.”
The ride was reeling, the tent top flapping and fluttering. Tanner and Somers jumped off, just as Jim shut the ride down and the top went flying like some great ghost into the storm.