September 26th, 2009 11:07 EST
The Merry-Go-Round Man
He had been the last to do so, but nonetheless, like the rest of them, Robert Greenway had run. He still could not believe it, but Henry Fleming and Lord Jim had both run and later could not believe it either. Henry Fleming had left his whole regiment in the lurch, a hundred men, and Lord Jim had deserted 800 on a sinking ship. He, Robert Greenway, had failed only 48 people "was indeed still failing them at this very moment, but at least he had not failed hundreds! Bobby Enloe had run, but Bobby Enloe had always known he would run, had thought it out ahead of time, was prepared to do it and, most of all, live with it. Greenway, even at 16, had convinced himself that he would never be a coward, that he was of better moral stock than Bobby Enloe; yet he had proven, in this greatest test of his life (though it had come earlier than it had for Henry or Jim), that he was not better at all. He was the same. Still, Henry had come back another to fight and been brave. Lord Jim had given his life for an entire nation to make amends for what he had almost done to the eight hundred. They were lucky, Jim and Henry. Robert Greenway could think of nothing he could do, and what he could do would have to be done quickly, both to save the four dozen he had left in jeopardy and to salvage his own name as well.
He was supposed to have worked until ten o`clock on this muggy August night, so his mother had not expected him home for supper. She and his father had apparently gone out to dinner, and Greenway had no key "so he had to squeeze himself through an open bathroom window when he got home at five instead, then fix himself a can of Spaghetti-O`s and, worst of all, eat it alone. Without anyone to talk to, to offer a suggestion, to give moral guidance, to assure him he was still the Robert Greenway he had practiced being, for the last decade and a half; he was doomed to have his conscious mind and his subconscious associations dominated by those 48 faces, aged anywhere from eight to eighty, male and female, pretty and ugly, good and evil, but now neutralized of their identities "a unit of sufferers knowing that they no longer had individual names beyond their group coherence, past fear but short of patience, crying out now for an act of supernatural intervention which, before this, could never have envisaged and, now, probably, really could still not either. Robert Greenway left his Spaghetti-O`s half-finished on the kitchen table and tried to fall asleep on the couch in front of the television.
In a sense Greenway had aspired beyond his reach "he knew that. On the one hand, he had recognized that as a potential flaw in his character for the last few years now, but on the other the Catholic Church had always lured him to do so, had in fact actively encouraged it. The picture, which dominated his mind, had come to be that portion of Michelangelo`s Sistine Chapel ceiling where God is reaching with fingers tightly extended to grasp the limp hand of self-involved mankind. While Greenway at sixteen was no longer sure that he accepted the myths behind Michelangelo and, indeed, all of Catholicism, he reached back with extended fingers nonetheless. Whether toward God, moral perfection, or an extreme narcissistic image of himself, he did not know. But he could never be accused of a limp hand "until today.
He had gotten the job through his father`s connections. His father`s boss was a major stockholder in Devil`s Den, the city`s largest and most popular, though considerably rundown, amusement park. Late each spring the park hired scores of high school and college kids to peddle Cracker Jack, run shooting galleries, supervise rides, and clean the place up once the merry-making had concluded each day. The merry-making, though, did not really ever conclude at Devil`s Den in the summer for it was open all night, and there was a certain clientele who found the hours from midnight till dawn the most enjoyable time to be there. They could ride the Ferris wheel, the Flying Turns over and over again without having to get off and sneak into the middle of a long line for a re-ride. They could smuggle beer in and drink it openly, the could curse and swear out loud, they could do things that signs "rarely people in authority "said not to: leap from one dodge-em car to another at the height of a ride, change places on the roller coaster at the last minute, tip the seat on the Ferris wheel violently back and forth in an attempt, either to dump fellow passengers over the side or to scare people in the car below them that they might have an unexpected rider descend upon them at any moment. Things at Devil`s Den were wild after midnight.
Which is why Robert Greenway liked the noon-to ten shift. Things could have been almost as wild. Nobody seemed to care much what the customers did, just the employees "but they weren`t. Parents and small children, grandparents and larger children, the non-drinking teenagers "these were the people who were around on the noon-to-ten shift. (And these were the people "forty-eight of them anyway "whom Robert Greenway had failed.) It was 1960, a year in which Disneyland was 2000 miles away from St. Louis and Disneyworld had not been thought of yet, a year antedating James Bond and Star Wars, " a year without easy drugs. Devil`s Den was still the ultimate in excitement (though it was destined to burn down the following year and that would be the end of that). Robert Greenway liked working in this place.
He had not at first, in fact had bitterly resented it. His father was the one with the connections, yet he had gotten a worse job than the seven other boys he had helped get in, also through his father`s boss, that summer. Robert Greenway was a sweeper whose sole responsibility was to keep the midway relative free of debris throughout the day. Though there were trash barrels all over the park, customers preferred not to use them. When they sucked the last dregs out of a snow cone, the dropped the gooey paper on the macadam walkway. If they bought popcorn and did not feel like finishing it, they not only dropped that, too, but made sure, as the carton went down, the remaining kernels sprayed into the hedges and pools of spilled soda where, baked by the sun, they would harden into place and become unsweepable. These Robert Greenway would have to kneel down to pull it up with his bare fingers. If they bought hot dogs or hamburgers, they would coat them with catsup and mustard and, just as liberally, would cover the waxed paper wrappers as well, then leave them facedown on the sidewalk for others to skid on,, track in, and trek from place to place. These footprints had to be hosed down "also by Robert Greenway.
Why had the other seven, who had parasitically ridden into the employ of Devil`s Den on the back of Robert Greenway, gotten better jobs than he? Jack Hartnagel and Terry McGovern had been placed in charge of a shooting gallery, though they did have the misfortune of working the all-night shift. Paul Wunderlich and Ben Rogers had been given a concession stand and been taught to scoop ice cream, make buttered popcorn in a huge plexiglass machine, and spin cotton candy out of that mysterious air jet in the counter. Jimmy Ready and Richard Burn had been given the merry-go-round to operate "a giant one which was 80 feet in diameter "they not only took the tickets and seated the riders, they started and stopped the thing as well! Why had he, Robert Greenway, the best connected, been made a common street sweeper? And why had Bobby Enloe, who had always known and so accepted the fact that he would flinch in the pinch, gotten the best job of all "he was the assistant operator of the roller coaster, the one whose job it was to make sure the guard bars were securely locked and push off the car exactly on time so that it would stay properly separated from the other set of cars that would arrive twenty-five seconds behind it on the same set of tracks. Bobby Enloe even claimed that sometimes, while the operator was at lunch, he was allowed to operate the controls that started and stopped the zooming cars as they departed from and stopped at the platform. All of these jobs paid the same "but the stature of each was different. Greenway was low man.
Yet, by July 15th. six of his friends had been fired. Greenway felt sorry for them, but they had gotten what they deserved "as had Devil`s Den for not recognizing that he, Robert Greenway, would have done better than any of them at their individual tasks in the first place. And as each went, Greenway was moved into their respective positions, and by late July, was approaching the very pinnacles of the carny game, where he should have been in the first place.
Wunderlich and Rogers were the first to go. They lasted less than two weeks. Greenway had to admit that 50 hours a week of hamburgers, hot dogs, Cokes, popcorn, and snow cones were a bit much. You had to do something to keep your sanity, though he personally would have brought a book to read during slow times at the concession stand. Which is what Wunderlich and Rogers should have done instead of their Pink Lady " scheme, which was the innovation that got them fired.
In one of the freak shows at the back of the midway there was a skinny, pale-skinned man of indeterminate age and no detectable personality or intellectual acumen who was billed as Pink Peter. " He wore tremendously tight pink leotards, pink rouge on his face, and had his hair dyed pink as well. Everything was pink, including, it seemed, the whites of his eyes. He simply sat on a couch all day reading a book with a pink cover on it, while people who had paid a quarter apiece to view him chided him on the fullest meaning of his title. He never responded. Three times a day he would show up at Wunderlich and Rogers` concession stand and, without having to ask, be given a hot dog, a Coke, and a snow cone, a green one. He did not have to pay for these either for part of his Pink Peter contract seemed to specify meals on the house. For lack of anything better to talk about, Wunderlich and Rogers began to cast aspersions on the man`s sexuality.
Which is where the Pink Lady gimmick was conceived. One morning both boys showed up for work dressed in pink pants and shirts, leftovers from the big pink-and-black fad of a couple of years before. They could not bring themselves to wear pink rouge on their faces, however, nor pink underwear that they assumed he wore. What they intended to do all along was, in the slow hours after the lunch rush, stick their heads in the cotton candy machine and load their scalps with bushy pink hair " that they managed to extend to shoulder length before the substance became too tissuey to hang any lower. So for the rest of the day they served their customers with these same pink wigs fluffing out in all directions, having to give themselves permanents of the stuff only every two hours when the heat and humidity had melted it. Supervision at Devil`s Den was so minimal that nobody seemed to notice Wunderlich and Rogers, who began to look like puppets in their stand until one old woman betook herself to the management and complained that she got hair mixed into my cotton candy and so did my granddaughter. " At this point the day manager, a portly balding man who was so pallid he rarely ventured onto the midway lest he risk sunburn "betook himself to the concession stand and saw what looked like two Mardi Gras leftovers dispensing for the consumption of small children the very same thing they were wearing on their heads as wigs.
At first he just stood and gaped, unsure of what to do. Then Pink Peter pranced up for his evening hot dog, Coke, and green snow cone.
Do you see what those peckers are doing over there, Al? " Pink Peter was miffed. They treat me like some kind of f*g, and now they`re making fun of me. You should can their asses, Al! "
Well, Pinky, I guess I will. But these kids have some kind of connections that got their jobs here. What will I tell Mr. Foster? There probably ain`t no regulation about jamming your head into the cotton candy machine. Ain`t nobody probably ever tried it before. " He took out a filthy handkerchief and mopped his balding head.
Just get "em on stealing, Al. " Pink Peter simpered with disgust. Exercise a little leadership for a change. "
What`d they steal, though? "
Pink Peter cursed once under his breath and gestured Al to follow him. He nearly collided with Greenway who was mopping up a pool of hot dog relish, Coke, and Fudgesicle that a ten-year-old girl had just vomited on the midway. Pink Peter even stepped in it.
Pink Peter confronted Wunderlich and Rogers and pointed back and forth from one to the other. You two pay for that candy, did you? "
What candy, Pinky? We didn`t take any candy. Rogers seemed sincerely confused, perhaps considered his cotton webbing ontologically transformed the minute it had connected with his scalp.
The crap in ya hair! You didn`t, did you? You`re fired right now. Ain`t that right, Al? "
Well, yeah--I guess so. You guys should have paid for . . . "
Shut up, Al. Okay, out of that stand right now. " Pink Peter was gesturing over his shoulder like a hitchhiker.
Hey, " the pink-haired Wunderlich snarled back at him. You can`t do that to us. Mr. Forster`s a big stockholder, he got us these . . . "
Mr. Forster owns twenty percent of the stock in this place, Bub. " Pink Peter snapped back, still hitchhiking, which ain`t sh*t compared to the fifty-one percent I own. Now get the crap outta here. " He pivoted on his heel, his pink suit suddenly looking more authoritative. You, over there. " He pointed to Greenway like Sitting Bull probably pointed at Custer. Take this stand over. Al`ll show you what to do. Get to it, Al. "
I better go wash my hands first, sir, because . .
No time. Get the sh*t into that stand or I`ll terminate your butt, too. "
So Greenway got into the stand, received fifteen minutes of training from Al, and prepared to run the operation for the remainder of the summer. But he wasn`t allowed to even though he never stole a thing, never was a penny short in his day`s receipts, was never anything but courteous to any customer, was ever aware as he watched a new employee do it, that he had risen a long way from the job he had previously held. The reason he did not keep this job long was that, within two weeks more, he had been reassigned to the night shift.
The reason he had been switched is that Hartnagel and McGovern had been fired as well. Pink Peter was out in front this time. Greenway had come to notice that this man had been no mere freak but suddenly owner of the controlling interest in Devil`s Den had stopped going home at six o`clock each day but stayed around in costume to prowl the grounds. He was still there when Greenway departed his stand at ten, and Greenway began to realize that it was his two friends in the shooting gallery that Pink Peter had stayed to survey.
For a week Pink Peter had just not stayed late enough, though on the night Greenway had chosen to stay to see what the difficulties were, the man lingered all night. This was the same night that was destined to be Hartnagel`s and McGovern`s last.
At about two in the morning a group of seven or eight semi-drunk middle-aged men strolled up to the counter. The average height of the group was 5`8 ", the average weight two-twenty, the average dress tee-shirt and dungarees, the average speech foul, the average noise hawhaw. Instead of selecting rifles from the counter before them and commencing to shoot at the moving ducks and rabbits that rotated around the track at the rear of the booth, the group handed several bills to Hartnagel and McGovern, bills neither boy made change for nor stuffed in the cash register but shoved in his pocket instead. The men began laying more bills on the counter in two piles, one to the extreme left and the other to the far right. As Greenway hid behind one of the supports that held the highest hill on the roller coaster, as he steeled himself for the every-fifty second rattlescream of the zooming chain of cars, he could see Pink Peter, still in costume even now, gawking from behind the tilt-a-whirl ticket booth. Then after all the money had been distributed, Hartnagel and McGovern selected a rifle apiece and placed themselves at either side of the booth behind the kewpie doll prize racks and commenced, in alternating turns, to fire. It was not at each other they fired but rather at the rack of dolls, stuffed animals, and pinwheels above each other`s heads. Hartnagel seemed much the better shot, hitting seven or eight prizes for every time he fired whereas McGovern hit only three or four. The pile of bills was, of course, much higher on Hartnagel`s side, and soon McGovern`s hair and shoulders were white with shattered plaster of Paris, his arms with globs of stuffing which Hartnagel had blasted out of the pandas and giraffes above his head. Even though whoever had their money on McGovern was clearly being taken to the cleaners, all the men continued to guffaw and cheer to two boys raucously as they popped up in turn to take their potshots at the other`s prize rack. The boys were laughing hysterically themselves.
Just a goddamn minute! " Pink Peter was sprinting over from the tilt-a-whirl. What the crap is this, a frigging cockfight? " He pointed at the customers. You gents get outta here, we don`t need your bidness. You, you two, " at Hartnagel and McGovern now, You`re fired. Now get your asses outta here and don`t ever show them around here again. " He snapped up a rifle off the counter and fired it twice in the air to back up what he said. Then, gripping the rifle by the barrel over his head "Cochise fashion except that Cochise, to Greenway`s memory, had never painted himself in pink war paint, he pointed toward the roller coaster support behind which Greenway hid.
You, you over there. Get into this stand and clean it up and get it running again. "
But I`m off duty right now, " Greenway said lamely as he emerged from the shadows. He could see Hartnagel and McGovern receding into the darkness beyond the merry-go-round, glowering back at him with real hatred. I can`t stay any . . . "
Look, kid, you want a crappin` job around here or not? You`re transferred to the night shift, starting now. And it`s after midnight, so don`t go tryin` to collect no time and a half. It`s a new day. You`re on till eight o`clock. " Without a choice, Greenway crawled under the counter and began sweeping up the debris left in the wake of the Hartnagel-McGovern shoot-out.
Greenway liked the shooting gallery job better than the concession stand one "it was less work and business at night was slow. Still, he envied Richard Burn and Jimmy Ready, who had the official title of Operators " for they ran the mighty merry-go-round. As Greenway arrived at ten each night, he would see his two friends, always somewhat condescending in their superior roles, wrapping up their day`s work and turning the marvelous, glittering machine over to the all-night crew, its mechanical calliope never missing a beat as it pounded out one of the ten marches it had programmed into it. Greenway even more resented their good fortune when the same group of hawhawing men began, a week or so later, to return to frequent the shooting gallery..
At first they offered Greenway ten dollars to shoot up the kewpie dolls themselves "why they could not be content with the rotating ducklings and robins on the target track Greenway could never understand "but when he refused them for three nights running, they paid their money and began shooting out the dangling light bulbs at the back of his stand. The next morning, when every last one of them had to be replaced, Pink Peter made a personal visit from his freak show to caution Greenway that his lack of cost-saving measures had been noted on his record. " When the men returned the next night eyeing the new light bulbs as they dug for the quarters in their pockets, Greenway told them not to worry about it, that they could shoot all the wanted for free as long as they shot at the proper targets, and they could win prizes even though they had not paid to participate. Which worked for about a week and Greenway gained his precious reputation back in Pink Peter`s eyes. But then the men got bored with it and insisted on having their prizes first and doing the shooting second. Greenway reluctantly agreed to this as well, and also to their further demand that their prizes be placed on the rotating belt along with the targets, at which point they devised a scoring system by which anyone who hit a legitimate target was penalized ten points but anyone who hit a kewpie doll or a bunny was awarded fifteen points.
At this point Greenway`s reputation began to decline again, for Pink Peter had noted that the prize/cash ratio in Greenway`s gallery was very poor for an all-night shift and implied that Greenway might be returned to the broom unless it improved. Plus the fact that Greenway was spending long hours before dawn cleaning up mangled button eyes, cottontails, stuffing, and the little green coats and hats the kewpie dolls had worn. So he tried to reason with his customers " they next time they showed up; and surprisingly they took pity on him and departed to the strength-tester and spent the rest of the time until sunup beating a sledgehammer on the pedal and making the bell ring almost every time. The bell could be heard over everything in the park except the every-fifty-second screamrattle of the roller coaster.
But they came back the next night with two cases of empty beer bottles "or rather 47 empty ones and one full one "and demanded that Greenway place them among the squirrels and ducklings on the belt, restructured the scoring system, and began gunning at the beer bottles spraying shattered glass like shrapnel all over the booth, except that, unlike shrapnel, it caromed off the walls and ceiling like jai lai balls. Greenway got himself out of the booth entirely during this operation and went to Al the next morning and told him he was having difficulties. To which Al replied that, if Greenway could not handle his booth, he could return to his mop and someone would be found who could.
Things got worse. After two more nights of beer bottles "during which time none of the men could seem to hit the full bottle (which counted a hundred points), they arrived with one case of empties and one of full bottles. The point value for the latter was reduced to fifty, and the firing began in earnest. Within ten minutes the gallery reeked of malt and dripped off the ceiling, the naked light bulbs, off the kewpie dolls` noses and the bunnies` ears. On Greenway`s final night in the shooting gallery the seven men arrived with cheaply framed pictures of their wives, which they ordered Greenway to put on the revolving belt, and again the artillery opened up. A hundred points for a shot between one`s own wife`s eyes, seventy-five in the mouth, twenty-five in the ear, and so forth. Minus twenty if someone hit somebody else`s wife and spoiled the game for him. (On the whole Greenway preferred this contest, for the amount of glass in seven picture frames was considerably less than in four dozen beer bottles.)
Then Greenway was relieved of the shooting gallery, not because he was fired, but because he was lucky "Jimmy Ready and Richard Burn were fired instead.
Greenway had witnessed the incident and could really not blame Pink Peter for the action he took. The wrongdoing had happened a few minutes before ten as Greenway was helping the woman who tended the shooting gallery on the earlier shift count her cash, and Jimmy Ready and Richard Burn were running their last merry-go-round circuit of the day. They had mentioned to Greenway that running merry-go-rounds got rather old hat after awhile "though it was a hell of a lot better " than working in a shooting gallery on the night shift when there wasn`t diddly squat to do. " So they had become intrigued with the possibilities second of the two levers, which controlled the ride "not the stop-go lever but the one marked momentum control " that had to be pulled back on firmly four times every ride. What, they reasoned, would happen if the second were neglected entirely? They had studied all about momentum in physics the previous school year and convinced themselves that they should experience it first hand.
What happened, of course, was what happens when you put a 33 1/3 record on a turntable running at 45rpms. That was in the first minute. In the second minute it was up to 78rpms, the calliope was beating out The Stars and Stripes Forever " as if it were being played on a street organ cranked by a monkey on a steady diet of pep pills. Little children were crying in the first minute, throwing up all over the up-and-down horses and stationary elephants in the second minute. At which point, just as Ready and Burn had decided the experiment had gone far enough and were about to try to slow the ride down themselves, Pink Peter burst through the gathering crowd of onlookers and gapers, fired Ready and Burn on the spot with one jerk of his hitchhiker thumb, then grabbed the momentum control lever and commenced pulling it violently toward his chest while the merry-go-round began to slow down the way a tractor trailer slows down when it plunges off the highway and careens down a steep embankment.
So Greenway returned to the day shift and became the sole operator of the carousel. Dealing now with toddlers and grandmothers and being at long last an Operator, " Greenway did his job with absolute decorum. He held the ride steady till all the children and old ladies were seated, ran it at its proper speed, pulled the momentum lever four (sometimes five) each ride, collected the tickets religiously, all to make up for his clandestine failure at the shooting gallery, never allowed anyone a free ride, not even a girl in a wheelchair whom he had helped onto a stationary animal and then off again when he discovered she did not have a ticket.
But Robert Greenway was still not totally happy "what he wanted more than anything else was Bobby Enloe`s job, the assistant operator of the roller coaster, the gigantically impressive Caterwauling Condor " whose first hill rose 200 feet off the ground below it, whose initial incline was powered by a special engine which propelled the chain of twelve linked cars at 40 miles per hour instead of the normal ten-miles-per-hour rate of the more traditional clickrattle of first hills and whose first drop-off pelted the train of riders through a series of fifteen more hills and four horseshoe bends over a two-mile course in fifty seconds at the rate of something just under the speed of 150 miles per hour. The Caterwauling Condor was known all over eastern Missouri as a pisser, " and Bobby Enloe had truly lucked out in having been assigned the job of Assistant Operator.
And then one day a Catholic nun glanced down as the car she was in sped along the tracks above the starting gate and spied Bobby Enloe urinating on the tracks as he awaited the arrival of the next set of cars. She complained to Al about this; and when Al said he did not know of any stated rule that said this was illegal, she went to Pink Peter himself, called him out of the freak show, off the couch on which he reclined reading whatever was in the pink-colored book. And Pink Peter went once more to the well. He assigned a new employee named Bruno Sebastianelli, a goody-goody altar boy and junior class president of Greenway`s private boys` school, to run the merry-go-round and inserted Greenway in Enloe`s job as Assistant Operator of the Caterwauling Condor.
But Greenway had aspired too high this time and, when he discovered that he had, he fled "like Lord Jim and Henry Fleming, like all of his friends would have except they had not been put in a position to. It happened on August 15th, two weeks to the day after he had begun work on the roller coaster.
For the first week Sam the Thunder Man, as the operator was called, was strictly conscientious in his training of Greenway for the job. Sam had run roller coasters all over the eastern United States and had given up a more lucrative job elsewhere twenty years ago in order to take over the newly built Caterwauling Condor in St. Louis. For many years he had admired its sheer power, its ability to instill fear, its reckless speed, perhaps its gimcrack construction, which for some reason people normally dubbed sane " subjected their lives to. But over the years the polish had worn off the job, perhaps also because he had lost 95% of his hearing due to the constant roar and clatter and screams of the Caterwauling Condor and its victims. Word had it that he could not even hear the phone ring in his bachelor apartment on Skinker Boulevard. And his nerves were bad because he lived his life in 51-second intervals. As the first two trains of twelve cars would glide into the loading platform, he would pull the five-foot lever to stop it, then he would allow ten seconds for the riders to unload, another fifteen to reload, then push the lever to dispatch the string of cars in the required 25 ½ seconds, at which point he had another 25 ½ to await the next string of cars while the previous one screamed its way around the tracks above him "which is why Bobby Enloe was caught urinating on the tracks in the first place: there was not time to go anywhere else and be back in 25 ½ seconds. Over the years Sam the Thunder Man had conditioned his bladder and bowels to perform on cue in four-hour intervals.
But the luster had vanished. Sam drank also, and frequently he did not wake up in time for work; and his deafness made it impossible for anyone to contact him at home. This is why the Assistant Operator was a very important position at Devil`s Den. He had to be prepared to run the Condor on his own at any time.
Within a week, with meticulous attention to the art of roller coaster running, and having developed an internal body clock of 25 ½ seconds, Robert Greenway had learned to operate the entire machine, which ran, just all the other rides did, 24 hours a day. Greenway did not know who ran it when Sam and he were off duty, perhaps it just ran itself. Sam the Thunder Man was The Operator.
Unfortunately, however, Sam came to work more sporadically once he was convinced that Greenway could operate the Giant Terrifier efficiently by himself. But this was all right with Greenway "not only had he, a lowly sidewalk sweeper, succeeded at Devil`s Den where the other seven of his friends had failed and been fired, he now in control of the mightiest ride in the park "perhaps the mightiest carny amusement in the Western Hemisphere! Rob the Roadrunner he came to call himself. He thought of buying out Pink Peter and Mr. Forster in his earliest adulthood, of running Devil`s Den from the loading platform of the Caterwauling Condor instead of from a soft couch inside a freak show, of forcing double and triple rides upon those cynical assemblages of random riders who did not seem sufficiently terrified when one of the two Condor trains gloated and sidebumped its way back into the loading platform. He adored the semi-soft texture of the giant stop lever as he felt it applying the side brakes to the approaching cars and the swift forward thrust of the same lever when it released the newly reloaded train down into the 50-yard tunnel to be snagged by the chain belt for the forty-mile--an-hour tow to the top of the first hill, from which it would be flung off into two miles of uncontrolled mechanical bombast at a hundred-and-fifty miles an hour! Rob the Road Runner! Rob the Roller Man! When Sam was not there and he got to run the ride all day long, he fought to control the look of power that surged through him when he slapped the go " lever and the train and its twenty-four passengers were sucked into the tunnel for their Death Ride, did not even try to disguise the look of cynical fearlessness with which he greeted them on their return "terribly rattled, heart weary, scared spitless "fifty-one seconds later. And in the intervening 25 ½ seconds he stood alone with the lever now limply in his hands, he stood alone and closed his eyes and breathed hard, listening to the noises above him, the shrieks, the pleas for redemption, the sordid Kurtzian horror, which, together, made it seem like the giant Condor actually did of itself Caterwaul!
Then one day in his second week, Bob Enloe showed up to watch Greenway run the ride he himself had once commanded. Unemployed, he carried a calculus book and a slide rule with which to explore his single intellectual interest. When not urinating on the tracks, Enloe had used his 25 ½ seconds respite between each ride calculating the pounds of thrust each train had off the top of the first hill, the real weight on the tracks at the bottom of that hill as the cars hit it at 150 miles an hour to suddenly curve upward and streak to the top of the second, slightly lower hill. He knew what the degree of embankment had to be on the first horseshoe turn to accommodate a train, which would have slowed to only 93 mph through the curve. To Enloe it was a mechanical device conforming to known universal laws, perhaps even preparing to break them if it cared to. Enloe was the scientist, Greenway the artist, the Michaelangelo of the Roller Coaster who responded to God`s outstretched hand with a power the Almighty would be chastened to encounter.
Hey, Greenway, how`s about lettin` me run that thing about five times, wouldja? " Enloe was already climbing over the wire fence that blocked the loading platform from those who had not bought tickets. I got some more calculations I want to make on this thing. "
Get the hell on outta here, Enloe. You got fired. This is my ride now. " With oily efficiency, Greenway stopped the second train, allowed ten uncounted seconds for the jittery passengers to unload, another fifteen, also uncounted, for the insertion of 24 more passengers, one boy and one girl to a car. This was a rough crowd, the sort who curse as a matter of form and act superior to everyone else, even to a roller coaster Operator. Greenway would enjoy watching this pack crawl off.
Come on, Greenway. I`ll give you a buck if you let me work it five times. I know more about what I`m doin` "n` you do. " He made a motion to take control of the five-foot-tall lever, but Greenway pushed him aside.
Not on your life, Enloe. Not for no money. " Greenway straddled the lever now, holding the soft top of it lovingly as he listened for the Number One train, due now in 25 ½ seconds. When it arrived, a representative group of Devil`s Denners groveled off and another representative group jumped in "approximately four young children, five grandparents, four parents, four teenage girls giggling hysterically in anticipation, and six middle-aged males "this was the passenger manifest as Greenway would later recall it.
As soon as the train jerked away from the platform and plummeted into the tunnel, Enloe tried to bump Greenway aside and take the lever in his own hands. Greenway bumped him back and snatched the lever into his own control. Nearly knocking Enloe onto the tracks as he did so.
Get the crap outta here, Enloe. There`s another train due here in fifteen seconds! "
Yeah, the first of the five I`m gonna run, Greenway. C`mon, I need these calculations for a project I`m . . . " At mid-sentence he again shoved Greenway aside and straddled the lever. But Greenway recovered quickly, snatched the lever back toward him as if it, rather than he would be the one to change positions on the platform.
The lever was five feet of cast iron, so it did not actually snap off "rather it just came loose, " and suddenly Greenway was holding it four feet farther down the platform than the last time he held it. Its lower extremity, an obscene ball of greasy teeth, oozed a filthy black glob on the platform as if it were salivating in anger at being manhandled. Greenway and Enloe gaped in stunned silence, first at the lever, then at each other. Then into the hole in the floor from which they had accidentally yanked it. And in the hole they could a cascade of washers, gaskets, sprocket wheels, and ball bearings disappearing into the thirty feet of darkness, which separated the platform from the ground below it. The next train, their body clocks told them, was only eight seconds away. In an instinctive effort to solve the problem in that amount of time, Greenway jammed the lever into the hole the way an amateur repairman makes one last frustrated ram with his wrench hoping that a hard rap would make the difference that careful tinkering had not. But Greenway lost his balance, he jammed so hard at the hole, and the lever slipped from his grasp and it, too, plunged thirty feet into the darkness. It sounded like a blacksmith`s hammer on an anvil when it struck bottom and bounced twice.
The faces of the two dozen teenagers smeared across Greenway`s eyes as they rocketed past the platform at something just under a hundred miles an hour. He could not tell if they were surprised, though there seemed to be some audible joy that they were getting a freebee " as they disappeared into the tunnel, the curve reducing their speed to not much above seventy-five.
I told ya ya should have let me have it, Greenway! " Enloe shrieked in semi-horror that was only seconds away from becoming totally real.
It`s not my fault, you son of a bitch. You`re not even an employee of this place, so you shouldn`t have been in here farting around. "
Instinctively the two boys threw their bodies at each other and they wrestled furiously on the platform, each apparently bent on shoving the other onto the tracks. They had come within two feet of the edge when Number One car and disappeared into the tunnel without a trace, the way a cigarette butt flushed down the toilet disappears. Enloe was the first to control himself "he was on top of Greenway pinning his shoulders to the wooden floor.
Look, Greenway, we got troubles "or you do. Sam ever tell you about Number One running faster than Number Two? "
Well, it does. You gotta delay an extra half-second every seventeen rides to keep them evenly spaced. Ain`t you been doin`that? "
Well, you are really frigged, Greenway. Not only can`t you stop those things, eventually they`re gonna help each other stop themselves. "
No, no, Enloe. We`re OK on that. Since it`s Number One that`s faster, that means Number Two can`t catch it. "
What do you think this contraption is, Greenway, a one-way highway to infinity? This thing might be shaped like a pretzel but in the long run it`s a circle. Pretty soon Number One is gonna be comin` around behind Number Two, and it`s not gonna know its own number is One and shouldn`t be actin` like it`s Two. "
How soon? "
Enloe jumped off Greenway just as Number Two powered by, its teenagers screaming multi-hyphenated obscenities that echoed out of the tunnel despite the deafening rattleroar on metal wheels on steel track. While Enloe worked furious calculations on his slide rule, Greenway sped down the ramp toward the entrance gate to the Caterwauling Condor and chained it shut. Spotting a Dixie Cup lid on the ground, a dry one, and scribbled on it Condor out of order, " and impaled it on a fence spike Above him the strings of cars belied this as they thunderrattled on. One, the train with the more diverse group in it, was currently involved in the 40-mph first-hill climb, and Greenway could see various passengers trying to unlock the guard bars by simply throwing their weight against them. It could not be done this way.
When Greenway got back, Enloe had completed his calculations and was hurriedly stuffing his slide rule back into its leather case.
The slam, Greenway, is gonna come between three and four minutes after midnight tonight. It`s gonna happen about halfway up the second hill. The first tap will have the impact of a five-mile-an-hour car bump. The it will back off and tail-end Number Two going down the second hill with the impact of 30-mph, then Two will hit the rail on the first curve because it`ll be going too fast. If it goes off clean-like, Number One can keep going on forever. But it Two don`t get off, One will smash into it and everybody`ll get it equal. I`m getting` outta here, Greenway. You got bad troubles. They gonna fire your ass just like they fired the rest of ours. " With this he pivoted about, his slide rule flailing behind him like a sparrow tail as he raced down the ramp, jumped the gate Greenway had locked, and sprinted out the employees` gate to the park. Just as he reached the gate, Number Two, bearing the teenagers, shot through the loading area like the Wabash Cannonball through some jerkwater Illinois prairie town that it would not even stop at nor deign to slow down for. The girls seemed to be crying, but the boys were really cursing hard now, their abbrieviated syntactical structures peppered with Oedipal, sodomistic, incestuous, and morganatic to Greenway`s as yet non-existent sex life. The tunnel swallowed them again.
Across the midway Pink Peter was sharing a Coke with Bruno Sebastianelli, totally oblivious to the slight change in pitch in the normal sound of the Caterwauling Condor. Greenway hated Sebastianelli, always had. Now he would be the next to control the Condor, and Sebastianelli would not get himself fired. Greenway`s only hope that this would not occur is that the Condor could never be stopped, that the best job Sebastianelli could get for the rest of the summer was guarding the entrance gate so that little kids could not wander onto the platform and be pulverized by a runaway train loaded with twenty-four skeletons. But even this would be enough to disgrace Greenway, and Greenway knew it.
So Greenway ran, deserting 48 people the way Henry Fleming had deserted a hundred and Lord Jim 800. It was an ignominious lot, and only the fact that they were fictional and he, Robert Greenway, was real would leave him unredeemed when their authors had gotten them off the hook by twisting the ends of their plots. Greenway could only take the bus home, eating half a can of Spaghetti-Os in a deserted house, and try sleeping until it was over a few minutes after midnight.
But he could not sleep. Never until today in his sixteen years witnessed abject terror on the face of a human being "not even in the movies because abject terror is not something that can be faked. Each time he started to doze off, the faces of the rearmost riders in the two sets of cars, the only ones he could ever focus on as they disappeared into the tunnel, recreated themselves in his conscious memory. In Number One it was an old woman and her granddaughter who looked to be about eight, the latter crying hysterically as if she could not devise an instrument of torture so cruel as the Caterwauling Condor, the former looking confused, as if after fourscore years she could not buy that this was the way it all ended "with both a bang and a whimper. The teenage couple at the rear of Number Two had more the defiance of youth. Both had taken to giving Greenway the finger as they rocketed through the loading area, though the girl looked like she might apologize if she ever got off. The boy seemed as if he would sacrifice his life for just one shot at Greenway`s teeth, the same way a marine might give up his to be one of the eight erecting the flag on Iwo Jima. Could this young man have unlocked the lock bar, he undoubtedly would have given himself three more circuits of the track just to get his timing right, then leapt from the car and hurtled his body into the standing Greenway, their bodies impacting at a hundred miles an hour. Greenway knew that none of these people liked him, that none would vote for him if there were ever a democratic election to determine who would succeed Sam the Thunder Man as King of the Condor. Yet he could not sleep.
He had never had to show true courage before, but surely these 48 by this time had mustered some. He was five miles away, but he could almost hear the teenagers, with the reckless bravery of youth constructing the most complicated epithets and hurling them with Faustian bravado at the gods, despite the fact that the gods, now, were in total control. In the other train, the grandmothers, parents, and children he imagined to be singing Rock of Ages " and Nearer My God to Thee, " so that if this were the way He planned to take them, then let it be so. He could hear them clearly on the on the reasonably quiet upgrades, then pressing their vocal chords still harder to overcome the clatterplunge of the downgrades so that God could hear them then, too. Robert Greenway was ashamed of himself.
At ten-thirty he heard his parents opening the garage door to put the car away, so he quickly shut off the living room lights, dashed to the bathroom at the back of the house and shinnied out the window. He wanted to run to Richard Burns` house and tell him what he had done, but people in power dared not admit mistakes especially to those who had given them power or to those from whom they had taken it. Greenway was alone at the top, perched perilously there, his situation almost as delicate as the 48 people he was in the process of sacrificing. Almost without willing it, he found himself the single rider on the bus downtown and, also automatically, he got off at the stop in front of Devil`s Den.
Things seemed normal, that is to say slow, this Wednesday night. The carousel was pumping out the King Cotton March, " and Sebastianelli was dutifully pulling the momentum control lever every thirty seconds. The spats from the shooting gallery were infrequently regular, the tilt-a-whirl was busy spinning away with quarter-full riderships. The midway was littered with popcorn boxes and snow cone paper holders awaiting Greenway`s janitorial replacement in the morning. There was no sign of Pink Peter who never worked Wednesday nights.
No one had yet recognized the trouble. Thos who wished to ride the Caterwauling Condor were merely reading Greenway`s Dixie Cup lid and departing dejectedly. For some reason, none looked above him or her to inquire why, if the ride was out of order, one could still hear the clattercade and hillshrieks above them. It was a good thing too that nobody looked up, for Number One was now within twenty feet of the rear end of Number Two, pursuing it the way a greyhound does a mechanical rabbit or a bitch in heat. The teenage couple at the back of Number Two were cursing and yelling at the father and son at the front of Number One, apparently believing that the man and boy at the front of Number One could slow it down if they just put their minds to it. In turn the man and boy were making sweeping arm gestures to the right side, as if this slower moving vehicle were hogging the passing lane. They were maniacal acts, both of them, made by individuals who had realized for the first time in their lives that the world was not created for them alone to have their way in. Robert Greenway realized a bit of this as well.
He was crying now as he sprinted toward the phone booth at the far end of the midway and dialed Sam the Thunder Man`s home phone. Sam answered the shrill bell but could not hear what Greenway was saying at the top of his lungs into the mouthpiece. Finally, after yelling back Is anybody there? " at least a dozen times, Sam hung up. Greenway ran to the front of the ticket booth of Devil`s Den and memorized the emergency number there, then sprinted back to the phone and dialed it. The voice that answered was Pink Peter`s.
Hello, Pinky, this is Rob Greenway. " He was half-panting, half crying.
Greenway, the kid you made the roller coaster assistant! "
Oh, yeah, so what? "
You know that lever that starts and stops the Condor? "
Yeah? " Pink Peter lengthen this word severely, his voice pitching high toward the end of it.
Well, you see, it . . . came off! "
Yes, it did! "
How long ago? " Pink Peter was not all cool-headed now.
About six hours ago. "
The phone hung up in a microsecond. Eight minutes later. Pink Peter wrenched his speeding pink Cadillac off Oakland Avenue into the Devil`s Den parking lot and gravel-sprayed to a stop just beyond the roller coaster fence. The car was lurching against its handbrake as Greenway sped over to him, pointing upward the whole way. Number One had moved within fifteen feet of Number Two`s rear quarters by this point. They were both climbing the first hill, the one in front seeming to tow the one behind, the condor face on the one behind seeming to grin evilly in expectation of devouring its mate the next time down.
Pink Peter raced over to the base of the first hill and started to climb a wooden ladder, which vertically scaled the side of the 200-foot tower. Greenway, knowing he was responsible, started up behind him.
Get the sh*t outta here, Greenway, " Pink Peter shouted back at him as they got three or four stories up. You`re fired. " He paused in his climb long enough to give the hitchhiking motion, which from below looked more like an umpire`s out-at-the-plate call. Pink Peter still wore his pink leotards.
Give me another chance, Pinky, please? " Greenway whined up at him. I know I can do it right. " He gasped for air as they reached the 75-foot mark. They stopped for a moment as the whole tower groaned under the force of both trains plummeting down the first hill at once. As Greenway hugged the ladder. They could see the city of St. Louis lit up below them, the lights of the houses reflecting off the Mississippi.
Why should I give you another chance, Greenway? Nobody else ever pulled that goddamned stick off. Just you, Greenway. I should`ve known you weren`t up to the big job. You were okay moppin` up barf. You made the right change in the hot dog stand. I don`t know what the hell you were doin` in the rifle gallery, but this is the first summer we`ve got into August without somebody bein` wounded of killed, and that`s all I wanted out of my night man. So you made it there, Greenway. " They were nearing the top now; higher than the Mississippi bridge towers. But people are like water, Greenway, they seek and find their own level. " He was panting so hard he was gulping out his sentences. You`re a merry-go-round man. You can make things go around, but you`ll never make them go up and down. I found my level, now you find yours "get yourself a carousel at some other carny. I`m no roller coaster man and neither are you. Now Sebastianelli "there`s a roller coaster man! "
At this they reached the top and stood on a narrow platform beside the tracks. It was windy up here, and Pink Peter`s long pink hair blew wildly in the breeze. Greenway`s light jacket flailed behind him like a magician`s cape. Under the single light bulb that illuminated the platform Greenway could see what looked like an electric light switch encased in a glass box which hung on the side of the railing. A badly painted sign below it read In case of emergency, break glass and flip switch. " Pink Peter removed his pink loafer and whacked it against the glass twice "it shattered readily. Then he put his hand on the switch and waited. Down below the two trains were gallivanting, one right after the other, before the small hills near the loading dock, the second doing whatever the first one did, then through the wooden tunnel at the bottom of the first hill. As soon as both were on it and coming toward Greenway and Pink Peter. Pink Peter flipped the switch. Both trains halted in an instant, as if they had hit a lead curtain.
Pink Peter scampered down the planks that lined the first hill to where the first chain of cars had halted halfway up. All of the girls and some of the boys were crying freely, hugging each other, their shoulders bouncing up and down. The smell of vomit and human waste was intense. Greenway could feel the steady stare of the boy in the first car on him all the way down the first hill "even after all these hours they still knew who had set them off on their ride that day, and as Greenway approached them more closely, he could tell the boy was going to address him. The boy did.
Youhorsejumpingskunkdiddlingcrapassingcowrapingmotherjumpingcrotchlickingsonofabitchofapeckerhead, you! " This was all he said. He returned to stroking his girlfriend`s head, who still had not let up crying in the slightest.
Greenway, " Pink Peter said summarily, those lock bars are designed not to open on an incline. So, you see, we`re gonna have to hacksaw them all out. Now, do me a favor, will you? Go down and relieve Sebasianelli on the merry-go-round. He`s been on a twelve-hour shift today. Tell him to get a hacksaw out of the tool shed and get his ass on up here so we can get to work. " Greenway turned to scramble down the rest of the hill. And, Greenway, don`t you come back, hear? I don`t think you should be present when these folks get out. "
So Greenway did as he was told, took control of the merry-go-round, summarized the problem (though not his own role in it) for the hated Sebastianelli, and told him to bring Pink Peter the hacksaw. But Sebastianelli acted on his own. His father was a plumber and had two acetylene torches in his truck. He phoned home, and within ten minutes his father arrived. Together they climbed halfway up the giant first hill. Each turned on his torch, and within thirty minutes they had extricated all 48 riders.
Roller coaster men are born, not made.