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by Meghan D.S. Muchow
It wasn’t so much the Burning house that attracted attention; it was the rusting carnival rides that surrounded it on all sides. It only took a glimpse of the tipped Zipper cars by the road or the Ferris Wheel gondola perched by the mailbox to send a visitor in the opposite direction toward Main Street. The house, a custard-colored structure, sat on a three-acre lot in the dead space between Manchester, Iowa, and the equally small town on the other side of the county line.
Scrambler cars sank into the front yard. A popcorn stand housed leaves in its glass box, and a cotton candy machine hid the last remnants of snow. Rollercoaster cars remained connected to one another but separate from the tracks that slept in a pile nearby. An octopus ride with only two arms, each pimpled with broken bulbs, extended rotating cabs into the air, reaching up to the house’s second-story window like a fire escape. Underneath, a beached tugboat with a face painted on the front smiled at the road.
Every morning, Jim Burning sat in the rides and read the day’s newspaper. He started with world events, which was best read in the lone Tilt-A-Whirl car that teetered on the metal track. For the sports update he followed the dirt path through the grass to the nearby spinning strawberry. He saved the best for last, moving to the back yard, past the chairs and chains for the trapeze swings and around the oversized teacup, until he arrived at his most prized possession: the Kamikaze—a metal cage lined with seats that, in its day, soared like a phantom ship through the air in a continuous circle.
Jim unlocked the barred metal door and guided it back into place behind him. The ride’s smooth, vomit-retardant seats gave him a view of his entire yard through the bars. Batting loose pieces of netting that hung from the ceiling, he lowered himself into his usual spot, facing the house next door. And there he stayed for the remainder of his morning re-reading Marmaduke.
The owner of the neighboring ranch house had been an elderly woman who had never lived anywhere else. That is, until last fall, when they took her away to assisted living and left the daughter to tend to the home. At first a For Sale sign had occupied her front yard. The sign eventually disappeared—the daughter, however, did not.
She stood outside one morning when the music of Jim’s ice cream truck approached. The small square truck coasted to a stop in his driveway. He hadn’t found time to wedge open the old machine’s hood to unplug the circuit to the looping music, and he personally didn’t mind the predictable tune that limped out of the speakers whenever he pressed the gas pedal. He stepped out onto the gravel wearing cargo jeans, a white shirt, and his work apron, as he always did for the third shift. Short brown hair stopped exactly at the cutoff of his baseball cap. Because winter still nipped when the breeze was just right, he was tucked inside a white, puffy-sleeved jacket that he had purchased because it reminded him of the tire mascot in the commercials he saw at the dentist’s office.
“I can barely see that vehicle of yours.” Tammy stood on her shrunken front porch, sweeping her arm at his yard. “You’ve outdone yourself to camouflage it.”
It looked as though the wood might collapse under her weight. He had told her before that obesity leads to hypertension. He would remind her again later.
“I bought it from a guy over at the Polk County carnival,” he said, patting the hood.
“And what on earth were you over there for? Looking for another eye sore to add to your collection?”
“The carnival runs in my blood,” he said, stuffing his hand in his pocket and making for the house.
“I have a question for you,” she said.
He counted through his keys, which he kept in order based on the amount of grooves cut into each one. The house key had more ridges than the key for the cabinet on the rolling popcorn machine, but was less complex than the one for the Kamikaze door that he unlocked each morning. His thumb ran vertically over each one, reading the dull, jagged edges.
“I’m talking to you,” she said as she teetered down the steps in her pajamas and bathrobe. Her slippers shuffled through the wet morning grass, their camel color streaking muddy brown.
“Some newspaper stuffed inside those will help remove that moisture,” he said, watching the grass mark the fabric.
“You would know all about newspapers, wouldn’t you?” She pointed at the yellowed grass that often housed her garbage and recyclables. “I’ve noticed my morning paper has gone missing from my bins the last couple of weeks.”
Jim’s keys slipped, clanging as they hit the metal weather-strip that kissed the toes of his boots. He stared at the empty space she continued to point at. When the old lady had lived in the house, she had brought the paper inside, carefully clipped the coupons at her kitchen table next to the window, and placed the remaining pieces in the recycling bin. But now it always sat on top of trash bags, where Tammy chucked it after stooping down to retrieve it from the end of her driveway. Each morning he watched as she crouched and toppled into the driver’s seat and turned over the ignition until it finally caught. Standing next to his front door, he waited until he could no longer hear her chugging car, and could no longer see her heading toward the bank where she worked. Then, and only then, did he cross his lawn, lift the black trash lid—turning his face to avoid the metallic odor of tuna cans—and grab the tightly rolled paper.
“Chapter 107 of the Code of Ordinances states that only items placed in the designated recyclable bin are off limits for salvaging,” he said, bending down to retrieve his keys.
“And Tammy McGuire’s Ordinance doesn’t care for people snooping around on her property,” she said.
“The street doesn’t belong to citizens,” he said.
“What are you, a city worker now?”
“I work for Value Foods.”
“Yes, I know,” she said, stuffing her hands into her robe pockets.
“I am a grocery stocker,” he said. “Grocery stockers are not considered city workers, so therefore I am not employed by the city, though I do work within the city limits.”
“I know where the Value Foods is,” she said, digging at a small dirt patch with her slipper. “That’s the reason I want my stolen property back. I’m sure you’ve heard of the sweepstake they’re putting on for a free year of groceries.”
“I can’t enter,” he said. “Employees of the proprietor are not allowed to enter the contest. It is written plainly on the sweepstake advertisement.”
“Well that makes one of us,” she said. “Nancy at the bank already entered. But I can’t win if I don’t have the entry form. The form you stole from me this morning.”
“The paper belongs to your mother,” he said. “She paid for the subscription. The paper is hers. She can enter the sweepstake. It is not your paper, so you cannot.”
“Like the house, the paper is mine now,” she said. “Nancy told me the cutoff for the contest is tomorrow. I’ll expect to see my paper on my doorstep in the next hour. And the contest entry form better not be missing.”
Jim jammed the key into the lock and leaned against the warped door until it cracked away from the frame. The tan walls of the house were bare, just as he preferred, with the exception of the phone next to the kitchen doorway. He kept it for emergencies. On the rare occasion that someone called, Jim often yanked the cord from the jack to silence the harsh ringing.
He sat down on the couch and unlaced his boots, grabbed the rag that dangled from his front pocket, and wiped them down. Then he stuffed each boot with brown packing paper before tucking them into the box he’d purchased them in. He showered, lathering his hair with shampoo for exactly three minutes, and dried himself with the over-washed green towel. After he dressed he poured orange juice into the glass with the wide rim, molding his lips over the thick edge as he sipped between bites of his breakfast sandwich, which he prepared on the red plate because it was Wednesday.
That’s when he saw Tammy walking the property line. After a minute of peering into his yard, she crossed over, just managing to squeeze by the motor of the Octopus to avoid tripping on the chains attached to the trapeze chairs. Her clothes snagged on metal as she shimmied through the lawn items as she made her way to the back of his lawn. She hesitated before peering into the lopsided command booth by the Scrambler cars that he planned to repair, a grimace on her face. He knew she didn’t see the potential. All he needed to do was sand it down, brush on some paint, and twist in new light bulbs.
Tammy slowed down to stare at the carousel horse that hung in a tree like one of Santa’s reindeer. Its eye, now faded from years of enduring the Iowa heat and bristling winters, stared distantly at her house, keeping an ever-present watch. He moved from window to window in the house as he watched her navigate his metal garden. She poked at a children’s car shaped like a caterpillar, and steered far away from the spinning teacups, where a ghost with long black eyes and a skeleton wearing a top hat leaned like drowsy men against the backrest. He would include them in his haunted house someday. But for now, they were his test dummies, keeping the rides company until the real thrill seekers arrived.
Finally, Tammy stopped in front of the Kamikaze, where the newspaper’s edges lifted in the spring breeze.
He flipped the lock on the back window of the house and pushed it open.
“Don’t go near that,” he yelled from inside the house.
She pushed against the ride’s door, which sat slightly askew. When it opened, she set one foot on the ship’s floor and leaned into it, checking the stability of the structure several times before she squeezed through the frame and into the cage.
U-shaped safety harnesses hovered over her head as she passed the rows of seats. And there, in the front aisle, the paper rustled. She bent to grab it, holding onto the neighboring harness for balance as she gathered the dispersed sections. But she pulled back, slapping the harness down when she saw the small plastic man clutching the business section to his chest. His body ended at his waist, where he seemed to disappear into the molded seat, as if the harness she dropped on him had cut off his lower extremities. His golden turban was spun like the top of an ice cream cone, and a dark goatee flimsily hung from his waxy chin.
“Don’t touch him,” yelled Jim, who climbed over a bumper car and tripped on Super Slide mats as he ran from the front door toward the Kamikaze.
“What is that?” she asked, shoulders raised tightly near her ears, forming a rounded hump in her back. She reminded him of the hunched-over witch that ate children in the story they read to his classmates in grade school. At the very least it explained her weight.
“Get away from my things,” he said, the metal door of the ride slamming behind him, disrupting the sleepy morning air.
He elbowed her on his way to the plastic man. The papers she collected fell from her hand and spread out on the metal floor. They stood together in the oversized birdcage, her back pressed into the wall of bars as he tugged on the harness to free the doll.
“You’ve locked him in,” said Jim. He intertwined his fingers and rested them on the backward brim of his baseball cap. Then he paced the length of the aisle, his words a sputtering motor on an old tin fishing boat.
She edged toward the ship’s exit, keeping her eyes on Jim. She pulled on the door. Then she pushed. But it only moved an inch before catching on the lock. She tried again, the clamor sending birds from the bare branches of the trees to the electrical lines.
“It’s locked,” she said above the metallic noise.
“You locked him in,” Jim said, still pacing.
“We’re stuck in here,” she said, raising her voice over his mumblings.
He tugged at the harness again and probed the top latch, pinching at the raised metal mechanism.
“Stop worrying about that stupid doll,” she said. “We’re locked in—the two of us.”
“He’s not a doll. He’s Zoltar.” He continued inspecting the harness. “It should be just a standard automated latch. I’ll just need to find the release hatch underneath the floor.”
She shifted in front of the door, her robe ties sweeping the floor near her feet. Despite the cool air, she flapped her arms to fan herself, exposing her Miami Vice t-shirt and the portion of her stomach that couldn’t be contained by the stretched cotton.
“There’s no latch,” she said. “We’re trapped. We can’t get out.” She began to suck two sharp breaths in and then exhale, her arms reaching away from her so that her hands could hold her belly.
“It’ll be easy enough to access from inside,” he said, dropping to his knees to crawl, his hand sliding over the raised diamonds printed into the metal floor.
She continued her timed breathing.
“Stop that racket,” he said. “It’s distracting.”
“This is what people in distress are supposed to do to remain calm. Pregnant women do it all the time when they’re going into labor.”
“Do you see a small square cutout in the floor?” he asked. “Approximately two feet by two feet. They didn’t have the technology to cleanly cut operational accesses back when this was welded, so it should be rather noticeable.”
“I’m sure the history of all of this junk is fascinating, but I need to get out of here.”
“This is not junk,” he said. He squirmed through the aisles, wiping his hands across the floor in rainbow arcs.
“You must have a key to this thing,” she said, her face red from the breathing exercises. He stopped when he reached her, unable to get around. When she didn’t move, he climbed over the seats and continued searching.
“Where is the key?” she asked.
His body hovered so close to the floor that his shirt hung from his stomach and dragged underneath him, gliding on top of the metal.
“Where do you keep your keys?” she asked again, flapping her robe, which now showed dark half-circle moons in the pits.
“Behind the front door in my house on the second peg to the right,” he said.
She turned to face the yard. Her chunky fingers wiped hair back from her forehead, glistening with sweat.
“I found it!” he cried from underneath the seat a few rows back.
“The key!” she said, and sidestepped to peer down the aisle he occupied, only to find him prying at a crevice in the floor. Again and again he ran his nails across the gap until finally it gave, exposing the guts of the ship.
His hand disappeared into the hole, followed by the knocking of metal on metal until every seat sighed and snapped. She stumbled back as he climbed past her on his way to Zoltar, grabbed a fistful of harness, and with a slight tug lifted the barrier.
“Now, stick your hand back down there and release the door,” she said, inspecting the hole in the floor.
He wiped his greased hands on the rag from his pocket. “There is no release for the door.”
She kicked aside the fallen papers to unveil nothing but solid metal.
“Well then who can grab your keys from inside?” She looked to the sun, as if she could read the time from its position in the sky.
“No one is allowed in my home,” said Jim. “If you look at the deed, you will find only my name. That means I am the only one who can say who goes inside. No one has permission to enter. Just me. And my dad.”
“Well when your father comes, he might just find us in here,” she said. “Only we’ll be dead. And if by some miracle we’re still alive, we’ll be starved, so I hope he brings snacks.”
“He works for the carnival,” said Jim. “There wouldn’t be time right now for him to visit. This is a busy time of year for the circuit. Between assembling and disassembling, and of course the ride transportation and the safety checks.”
She slumped onto the floor, her legs squished against her stomach in the small aisle. She took a deep breath in, her large body expanding even more than usual. “There are no carnivals in March,” she said.
“He’s probably working a show that traveled south for the winter.”
“You don’t even know where he is?” she asked.
“You can make the carnival a full time profession if you’re willing to move where the weather tells you to go.” Jim continued to adjust Zoltar in his seat until he was perfectly squared with the front of the ship.
“Well the Manchester carnival is in July,” she said. “So looks like we’ll only have to wait four months to get out of here.”
“The last time he was here was when I was seven,” said Jim, finally settling on an angle for Zoltar to watch the budding sprouts on a nearby tree. “He took me to the carnival.”
“Seven?” she asked, as if only repeating his words to show him she was listening. She looked down and studied the newspaper picture of the new Manchester Dairy Queen, where a giant dilly bar crowned the steeple of the building. She flipped the page to the sweepstake entry form.
“He was gone the next morning,” he said.
Tammy looked up.
“Mom told me he left to work for the carnival to help us make money.”
“Did your childhood dog happen to run away to a farm down the road, too?” she asked.
“I never had a dog as a child.” It took Jim several times to balance the doll so the legless bodice wouldn't tip over onto the floor. “Now, if I could just find the machine this guy came from, we could give him a proper home. But for now, this will do.”
“If you want to know your future so badly, just predict it yourself,” she said.
“Only Zoltar can do such a thing.”
“He’s not even a real person.”
“That’s irrelevant,” he said. “I had never met him until that night at the carnival. My dad gave me a coin, and Zoltar told me of all of the good fortune I would have someday.”
Jim reached into his back pocket to retrieve a small black wallet, ripped the Velcro fastenings apart, and produced a small, folded slip of paper. He ran his thumb over the bump of the crease.
“Someone close to you will soon leave. Be prepared for their return and your fortunes will multiply.” He slipped the paper back into his wallet.
“That was a long time ago,” she said.
“When I get him working, I’ll invite you over and we can discover your future. But you will need a quarter. So make sure you have a quarter. A real one, so the machine can read it. Zoltar won’t take one of those Canadian coins that people try to give me as change at the gas station.”
“Well, that’ll be difficult,” she said, “seeing as we may be trapped here forever.” She looked out over his yard. “They should really require a tetanus shot to be on this property.”
He joined her to gaze at this collection.
“I’ll have people lining up to get on these rides once I fix them up,” he said.
“Fix them up?” she asked, eyeing each dilapidated piece of steel.
“My dad will come back someday,” he said. “And when he does, he’s going to be impressed.” He took the rag from his front pocket and wiped at the rust scabs on the cage bars.
“These rides have seen their last days of glory,” she said.
“They are merely retired. A few need a bit of mending. But that’s why I get them cheap.”
“You paid for this carnival graveyard?” she asked.
“No. Loans pay for the rides. And then I pay the bank. You work there. You should know how loans work.”
She pursed her lips and toyed with the door, pinching at the lock from where she sat.
“I’ll make it all back,” he said. “And my dad will come. He will hear of this carnival and the crowds. Maybe he’ll see the ad I’ll put in the paper. He’ll come, and we’ll run this show together.”
The white, frosted grass twinkled with color in the sun. A clown stared at them from the back wall of the house, pointing toward a funhouse mirror. Jim could see it: a man spinning cotton candy into hand-held clouds. Parents lining up behind gates to watch their children defy gravity. Riders would squeal. Hydraulics would gasp. And his dad would sell tickets or load young couples onto the Ferris Wheel. Then, in the evening the two of them would eat lasagna on blue plates and look out the window at the world he had created.
He reached into his pocket and retrieved his keys, fumbling his fingers through them.
“You had the key all along?” she yelled, snatching at a seat until she gained enough momentum to stand.
“You did not ask me if I had it,” he said, his face flat and blank.
“I asked where it was. How we could get it from the house.”
He slowly shook his head. “You asked where I store the keys. I told you, behind the front door in my house on the second peg to the right.”
He turned the key and Tammy pushed past him and marched to her property, grazing the rides and stands on her way. Behind her, the paper ruffled on the cool metal floor.
Jim followed, pulling the door behind him, checking to make sure it was secure.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Zoltar,” he said, heading toward the front of the house. He stopped on his way to readjust the stirrup of an automated horse. Its legs were outstretched, as if in full pursuit toward the field across the street, but beneath its body was the pole meant to jostle children back and forth. He had picked it up at an auction several years back after the old drug store closed. For a moment he continued toward the front steps, but then returned to slip a quarter from his pocket into the coin box. A whinny and the sound of galloping escaped the machine, but the horse itself remained frozen. But he just smiled. There was still time.
The next morning, Jim hummed to the tune of his truck until he lifted his foot from the gas pedal and rolled to a stop outside of his house. It took both hands to thrust the lever into the slot marked with P. In front of him sat Tammy’s bins at the end of her cracked, asphalt driveway, where in the absence of her car he could see the brown weeds that had survived the winter and filled the gaps.
He ran his fingers over his keys as he approached the house, counting past the garage key to the one with the notch in the tip that aligned with the front door. As he did so, he noticed the morning paper lying limp in his yard no more than five feet from Tammy’s porch. It was still bound with a rubber band, its light grey paper soiled from nesting in the wet grass. He sighed, pocketed his keys, and retrieved it. The paperboy should know to wrap the paper in plastic this early in the year. Tammy should know to walk it over to his stoop instead of lazily tossing it onto his property. He would tell her the next time he saw her.