This Life of Mine Unraveled
Nicole slowly walked past the hot dog concession to her right, briefly glancing at the children ahead who dangerously ran from their parents into the nearby human traffic jam. Finding the next thrilling ride was their intent, cutting through small gaps between the vast sea of strangers, all aimlessly swimming in their own directions. Nicole refocused her attention ahead and realized she had briefly lost herself in the oasis of silence watching the children scurry away. She had no idea why she visited the county fair alone at the same time each year, especially since she had never been particularly fond of fairs. She couldn't quite explain the purpose of her visits, and she chose not to think about it. She was equally utterly clueless as to why she followed the same exact routine each time she came. Yet there she was, heading directly towards the favorite part of her visit - the ferris wheel.
She had the sequence of events carved into her muscle memory. She stood in line behind many families, some of which had children like the ones she had seen earlier - completely unable to remain still. She blocked out all noise and chatter and stared at the bay, eyes piercing the depths with intensity. She exchanged her money for a ticket, another faded piece of paper but with less intricate patterns. She waited her turn to be secured in a seat, her posture upright and deathly stiff. She sat alone as the ferris wheel rotated around, her mind hypnotized by the circle it slowly carved into the air. Her mind was bleached, purged. Not exactly made anew but cleansed, as whatever unknown thing that had ailed her simply vanished.
Something broke her from the trance of going through the familiar routine; a voice startled her.
"Ma'am, I'm sorry, but my manager just told me that this is the last ride of the day. Someone forgot to tell me we have an inspection scheduled, figures. Are you riding alone? All spots on this ride are currently full except one, and there's an older gentleman already sitting there you'd have to ride with, if that's okay. If not, we can get you your money back or a free pass ticket for a ride at a later date, whichever suits you."
Nicole glanced at the carnie, a term she detested. She preferred the more exotic term 'showie', something she first heard from a close friend in college who studied abroad in Australia. As she considered using the term 'showie' at some point during the fair the same voice from before broke the trance she was entirely unaware she had re-entered.
"Ma'am, I don't mean to be rude, but I need to know what you want to do here. We can get you fixed up with your money or a free pass, but we gotta do it fast. If we don't get everything ready for inspection, I could be out of a job, nothing personal. So, what's it gonna be?"
Nicole focused her attention on the old man that sat alone in an open cart. He was tall and gaunt, his sharp knees stabbed the metal railing securing the front of the cart. He wore a gray t-shirt tucked in firmly underneath his jeans, making his protruding stomach a bit more visible. His strands of hair bobbed up and down in the wind, which clearly didn't seem to bother him. His bifocals seemed like they were glued to his head, yet for some odd reason it didn't seem like he was looking through them at all.
Nicole realized that the old man hadn't moved at all since she'd been in line, he just sat there frozen and lifeless. She felt an impulse to get the ticket and come back tomorrow, as there was an aura of something not quite right with the ride. She inhaled deeply and consciously made the decision to ask for a free pass, but her mouth told a different story.
"I can ride with him, that's fine" Nicole said as if such a mix-up was a normal occurrence. She felt a brief chill run down her spine as she started walking towards the cart, putting on the seat-belt restraints, and watching the door to the cart being latched in place. She felt light-headed, almost like she were watching someone else control her own body while she was left as a helpless bystander, victim to all the rampant sensations of her own confusing life.
The Ferris wheel began to turn. Nicole and the old man sat next to each other in silence, not moving in the slightest. At the highest point of the ride, Nicole flinched and instinctively ducked when something as loud as a gunshot went off below her. She looked down to see a small cloud of smoke billowing out of the base of the Ferris wheel, which let out a tired moan as it slowly stopped turning. Beginning to panic, she looked in all directions, hoping that she'd see something that would make all of it okay. She focused her gaze on the old man. He had still not moved since she had heard the noise, at least as far as she could tell. She stared at his chest, wondering if the old man was still breathing. What if he had been dead ever since she had gotten into the cart? His skin did look awfully pale. Her spine chilled at the thought. This was certainly an abrupt change of events to her typical routine at the fair.
Another loud noise made Nicole jump, but this time it came from the squawking communication speaker tucked in the corner of the cart.
"Ladies and gentleman, please remain calm. Our apologies, but we've had a bit of a mishap with some of the mechanical parts, but it just means that we'll be motionless for a period of time, particularly until our maintenance guy gets back with the replacement parts. I'd give it about thirty minutes or so, and again, I'm sorry. If you'd like a refund or anything my manager will be here until everyone is safely off the ride. Bear with us." - The speaker clicked off and was met with audible groans and chattering from the other carts.
Nicole suddenly turned her attention towards the old man next to her that had appeared devoid of life. She let out an involuntary yelp. The old man had his head turned directly towards her, his piercingly wide eyes focused unwaveringly into her own field of vision. He slightly leaned forward, as if he was expecting something. He changed his posture and spoke.
"Did you think I was dead? Jumpin' Josephat, this is the first time anyone's ever ridden with me. I used to directly tell the carnie to let me sit alone, but I stopped doing that recently because I thought they got the message after the 20th time. "
Nicole stared at the old man blankly. She was frozen, numb.
"My name is Tim McGrennell. What's yours? " The old man waited in anticipation
"N-nicole." Nicole answered back with hesitation
"Well, Nicole, I've been coming to this fair and riding the Ferris wheel once every year for the past fifty-two years. Not once has it ever broken down on me. And as I said before, no one has ever ridden with me. You're the first" The old man looked down at his feet, as if reflecting on something troubling
Nicole's attention perked up, realizing that the old man might have a fair routine similar to hers.
"I've been going for seven years. Do you also not know.... why?" Nicole asked reluctantly, worried about how the old man would judge her state of mind.
The old man laughed, scanned the entirety of the fair below, and refocused his gaze on Nicole.
"I know now, but I only recently figured it out. I'm too late to do anything about it. But you, you have all the time in the world." The old man smiled and nodded, confident in what he was saying.
"What do you mean?" Nicole asked, completely lost
"Let me guess, you've been coming to this fair by yourself. You tell your loved ones that you're headed to the store, but at some point during the year you drive down to this fair, you walk around for a bit, you ride on the Ferris wheel alone, and then you go home, sound about right?"
An expression of shock and confusion flashed across Nicole's face, scrunching her eyes and raising her nose.
"Not only do you ride alone, your brain shuts off while you're riding. It's like you lose a chunk of time from riding because you cease to exist. Then you go home and continue living your life like nothing happened, year after year. "
Nicole's attitude quickly shifted to nervousness. "Tim, who are you, really? How in the world do you know all of this?"
The old man laughed again, and stared at the sky, crossing his arms and shifting in his seat.
"There are only a few reasons why people ride Ferris wheels, let alone by themselves. The first are children who fascinated by the height it reaches. I'm ruling out that possibility here, because even if you're particularly in touch with your inner child, it doesn't explain why you're here alone. That leaves couples who want some alone time and people who need some time to think. Unless there's someone here in this cart you haven't introduced me to, I think it's safe to say that you're here to think, to reflect. So the question becomes, Nicole, what are you reflecting about? What haunts you so deeply that you have to keep coming here every year?"
Nicole's heart sank. She turned her gaze inward, struggling to speak. "I... don't know."
The old man nodded his head and breathed deeply before speaking again.
"I can tell you why I'm here. For seventy-eight years, I lived a life that most people would call pretty successful. I survived Normandy. I got a very well-paying job at an aluminum plant. I married a beautiful woman and had a large family, a brick house, a dog. I thought life could never get any better, I thought so smugly that I'd reached out and grabbed the American Dream and my life was complete.
I had already retired after my wife passed away and I'd saved up enough money to live comfortably for a hundred more years, even after saving a large inheritance for my grandchildren. After Elaine passed, I spent a lot of my time reading a lot of the books she had collected over the years but had never read. Many of the authors I read made mentioning of philosophers and great thinkers who talked about happiness and life. I picked up a lot of those books, wanting to see how someone as happy as I'd been stacked up to these literary figures.
What I found made me ask a lot of unsettling questions. Surely much of what I'd accomplished in life made me happy, but as the reaper inched closer, some of what I'd read began to haunt me. My own mortality frightened me like anyone else, but I began to ask: after my death, how would I be remembered? My loved ones would remember be as a fantastic father and grandfather, or at least I'd hope, but what else? Is the passage from birth to death nothing more than the cushion of the love of others?
Now, don't get me wrong, Nicole, having a lot of loving support is more than likely necessary for anyone to happy, but there's more to each of us. As I began to sit and reflect alone in my apartment, I realized I'd never known myself. I was living someone else's life, a life prescribed to be complete by the rest of society, something I never questioned. Again, making sure my loved ones were happy and had food, water, clothes, were important, not disputing that. But how was I supposed to be satisfied with simply that? Who would tell my individual story as I knew it? Why would the world let me fade into the night as nothing more than a tally mark in the pages of history textbooks?
I began to write pages and pages of materials, asking myself who or what I could have been if I would have pursued what was within me the whole time instead of what society asked of me. To this moment I'm still not sure what that answer is. It's more than likely too late for me, I'd old and feeble and barely made it to the Ferris wheel by myself this year. But you, Nicole, have a lot of time. You have to ask yourself, who are you?" The answer to that question is the gateway to your own immortality. Find who you are, live and die within it. You will be remembered for your own perspective, your unique worldview. Your contribution to this runaway madness train known as humanity."
A surging noise of electricity hummed in the background, and the Ferris wheel lit up. The ride was moving again.
The speaker box squawked once again: "Ladies and gentleman, I am so sorry for the wait, we're moving now and we'll let you out cart by cart when you get to the bottom. Please remain in your seats. Thank you"
Nicole and the old man stared at the horizon, the setting sun, and didn't say a word to each other as they waited their turn to get off of the Ferris wheel. After getting off of the cart, they walked silently towards the parking lot, walking in near perfectly synchronized stride, eyes looking forward but the mind elsewhere.
Nicole's car was directly ahead, so she stopped, but the old man continued walking, gaze unbroken.
"Tim" Nicole said softly.
As the old man turned, Nicole ran towards him, and embraced him in her arms.
"Thank you." She whispered, even though she was far more grateful than a typical 'thank you' conveyed, she simply had no other words to express what she felt.
After a few moments, they separated, started their cars, and drove their separate ways into the beautiful chaos that is the world. Nicole floored her gas pedal, driving with intensity and passion in a random direction. She didn't know where she was going, but she knew one thing: she was going to find herself, no matter what it took.
© 2015 Cecil O'Dell