We don’t mean to make you sick. We mean only to remind you of the essential rule of chaos to which all things in the universe are, or should be, subservient. Relax! You’re safe in us – safe as if you were in the bottom of a spinning teacup, but better and more comfortably accommodated, semicircular padded shell to contain you, safety bar across your lap! And much less likely to vomit than if you were on one of the newer thrill-seekers’ rides, thrown to dizzying heights and spun at the end of a tether before being flung earthward at dream-like, death-defying speeds, like some kind of amateur astronaut. Only slightly more likely to puke than if you were on a merry-go-round, primitive, gentle granddaddy to all spinning flat rides. You will want to control us, and to a certain extent you may. Throw your weight from side-to-side, pull back on the safety bar, and maybe we’ll stall at the outer edge of an orbit before snapping back suddenly on the next downward turn, spinning, spinning, before stalling again, stuck at some other point in the orbit. Our secret is in our essentially uncontrollable controllability, like life itself. Like gravity. Like love. Like falling in love. No two trips ever the same! our inventor’s motto. Also, A ride for the kids AND the grandparents, his other motto. We offer a mild, gently whirling, first-kiss sensation meant to make you yell, Whee!!! and What fun!! Not, Stop! or Oh God, let me off now!
So you come to us at the close of day, our tired spinning platforms sputtered down to a low idle, no longer moving, all seven seats empty, axles heated from the day’s labor, seat cushions littered with popcorn and change and carnival tickets and lost rings and trinkets. The concert’s over and the concert pavilion closing, spectators by the hundreds spilling out of the pavilion’s main entrances and exits, heading for home – but not you. You and your fiancée and the friends (another couple) who introduced the two of you months earlier. You wind your way back through the fairgrounds for the rear exits, along the dirt path at the fenced-in periphery, the same way you entered earlier in the evening. We saw you. We remember: walking somewhat faster then, kicking up dust and eagerly passing a flask, the same four of you – stylish young men in blazers; women in summer skirts – intent on a good time; ready for your transformation at the hands of the one and only, the man in black. Johnny Cash! His final, farewell tour! History in the making!
But really, could anything have lived up to your expectations? Johnny Cash seen from the highest section of the pavilion, barely ant-sized and hunched beside the diminutive June Carter Cash? JumboTron telecast of his sweaty head slightly out of sync with what you could hear, up there in the nosebleed section? I hear that train a coming … it’s rolling round the bend … We understand.
And now your concert is done, but your fun is not, your money not all spent, your willingness to be impressed or to impress yourselves upon one another not done yet, nor your appetite for …What? Call it fun. Call it un-fun. Call it diversion. Sky darkening to mauve-velvet, two stars visible in the clammy, still hot air, smells of popcorn, cotton candy, fry-bread, horses, pigs, mixed with cooling earth, diesel and cut grass … Until you see us under the spectroscopic lighting, your favorite childhood ride, always your favorite – Hey, it’s the Tilt-A-Whirl! I love the Tilt-A-Whirl! How could anyone not love the Tilt-A-Whirl? – operated by the walrus-mustachioed beanpole man from Saskatoon, a man driven by nothing, if not his own internal cravings for constant dizziness, for a constant internal spin cycle of chaos both controlled and uncontrolled in accordance with whatever few bills he might find in his wallet at the end of the day, the price of the cheapest liquor, proximity to an open bar or package store, vestiges of will power and the number of hours before his next shift. Sloe-eyed, silent at the levers. Years he’s been at this same job. Enough to know how to play us like the guitar slung around your hero Johnny Cash’s shoulders.
“No, man, sorry. We’re done for the night. No really, I’m closing down. Can’t do it. Sorry.”
Watch his arms as he pulls a final lever, turns a key. The veins and sinews in his arms. The knuckles on his hands, each a refusal, a whitened and dime-sized denial, thickened with calluses, each saying, No, done for the night, as he prepares to padlock the entryway.
“But please,” you say. “It’s our favorite ride! And our friends are leaving tomorrow morning. It’s their last night in town! They got married on a Tilt-A-Whirl! Come on!”
We knew you loved us. We didn’t know you were a liar. But this is also OK. We’re all liars at the fair.
“It’d make it so special … something to remember.” And here come the dollar bills, the 10s and 20s peeled from a silver money-clip to match your silver watch, your silver flask, and flashed at the operator, making him salivate internally – hold out a little longer; calculate the risk, the loss, the time drunk. “How much does it take?” you say, flipping more bills at him. “Just a five minute ride? Come on. Really, even for 40 extra dollars? Sixty? Seventy? What possible harm could come of it?”
At last, the inevitable swish of skirts, sandal and loafer heels tapping lightly around our treaded walkway …
What you could not have known: We are both controlled and uncontrollable and your surrender to us is not only unconditional, but also dependent upon whosoever operates us. In the hands of a carny with a canny eye for chaos-motion and an intuitive sense of basic geometry we can spin and spin and spin and spin and SPIN and spin some more. You wanted diversion? You wanted memorable? Feel as he subtly adjusts your forward momentum at the crest of one swell, stalls and accelerates suddenly for maximum backward velocity on the next descent, then stalls again on the incline to whip you back around the other way, faster, faster, again the acceleration through the next peaks and valleys, the stall, the whip-around, until you’re all done laughing. Until the world is a sickening, unmitigated blur and his hunched figure at the controls is a barely distinguishable fixed point at the edge of an ever-shifting event horizon – until your groans and cries reach his ears and in response he gives you more. More and more. Not five minutes. Not 10. He gives you what you paid for. Stalls and spins and accelerates until your eyes feel as if they’ve melted through the back of your head and the pit of your stomach is caught in your throat….
Isn’t this what you wanted? A ride to remember?
All the way home and for days after you will not be sure of your footing. Nothing will stay where it belongs, the edges of sight dissolved, the core of reason gone wobbly on its axis. At home she is longer than normal in the bathroom, much longer, no sound of puking, only the sink dripping into itself – point-point-point? Wake in the middle of the night, sweating and uncertain to feel beside you and find her gone.
Soon she will no longer return your phone calls, your fiancée. No lights on at her house, no car in the drive. The centrifugal force of whatever fate flung you together, caused you to meet and to ride the Tilt-A-Whirl after hearing Johnny Cash sing for his final time in your hometown, that fate is now yanking you from the course of your intended future and all the subsequent spiraling over the hills and valleys of time, the easy glide you thought would comprise the rest of your years together, and dropped you down alone. Because she learned a little too soon something essential and repellent in your nature that night, something she might well have adjusted to, learned to live with and love over time, but now won’t. Ever. She’d seen your insistence on having things your way regardless of the rules or consequences, and your wish to control things beyond control.
In another life, the one you’d envisioned, this might never have become associated with nausea and dread for her, might in fact only have dawned upon her much later, reflected in the eyes of your needy, beloved children and then might easily have been dismissed as whining. As asking for too much. Always, asking for too much. Like the kid you were then. Like the kid you still are and always will be. She might have identified it then and said, No. Get it yourself. And smiled in your direction, shaking her head. But not now.
Now she lives on the other side of the continent and is mostly satisfied. Only distantly nauseated by thoughts of her mortality, the life that one day spins us to death … her new husband’s incurable gambling habits …
She will not ride the Tilt-A-Whirl. Never again. She will not let her nieces or nephews or anyone she knows ride the Tilt-A-Whirl. She won’t set foot on a fairground.
For all of this, we blame you.
Gregory Spatz teaches in and directs the MFA Creative Writing program at EWU. His most recent book publications are “Inukshuk” (a novel) and “Half As Happy” (stories). He has never met a talking Tilt-A-Whirl.
Lead photo credit: