ferris wheel
by Karen Ashburner

FIRST OF ALL you woke up tired and alone, hung over from the night before because you mixed Heineken with Coors Light and a lousy gin and tonic your mother made from the cheap gin she had left over from the “going away” party her co-workers held for her when she left South Carolina to be near you, her only daughter. And now here you are, living in her attic, hung over from her cheap gin, lonely and tired, wondering if a move from South Carolina to Alabama was a move up, a move in the right direction. You know a move from a four-bedroom, two-bath home in a “nice” suburban neighborhood to an upstairs attic loft with no bathroom is not a move in the right direction. Somewhere you made a wrong turn, and now you’re starting to think this mother-daughter thing isn’t really working so well, that your mother spends too much time telling your kid, “Sit up straight, Baby” and, “Mind your manners, Sweetie” when you’ve spent ten long years trying to teach the kid not to “sit up straight,” and not to “mind her manners” because you think this makes you a progressive mother. You think this makes your kid question authority. Your mother thinks this makes you a bad mother and now your kid sits up straight and places a white cotton napkin embroidered with butterflies on her lap before eating her PBJ and is on the cheerleading squad. She even knows how to do one of those cheerleader jumps, a “Herkie” she calls it, “named after Lawrence “Herkie” Herkimer,” she says. She’s full of trivia, this one, even knows all the common misspellings: “Hurkie, herky, hurky,” she says. “These are all wrong.”

Things didn’t get any better once you got up and moving. You were jumpy from the pills your mother said you needed to, “Make your back feel better from all that lifting, Sugar,” and you didn’t feel like taking a shower or brushing your teeth or combing your hair or putting on make-up but the errands still had to be run so you went to the drug store, and the Super Wal-Mart, and the “United States Post Office” looking like that. “What the Hell,” you said and while you were standing in line, waiting for your book of “Pressure-sensitive adhesive stamps, please,” the last guy that you were temporarily “in love” with walked through the door. You tried to hide. You tried to bend over the counter and look for something you might have dropped, like a penny or a dime, but when you came up for air, as the postal clerk asked, “Are you OK, Doll?” and a line of angry postal customers began to form behind you, he saw you. And then he smiled and you remembered why it was that you fell “in love” with him in the first place.

You met him at a party, one of your husband’s work parties. He flirted with you, told you how pretty you were while your husband “smoked” pot and watched girl-on-girl porno in the basement with his boss so that he could, “Get ahead, Honey.” You were bored, he talked to you all night; you stared into his eyes. “I’ve never seen eyes that color,” you said, “like chocolate.” He smiled. His lashes were long and dark; he blinked hard. You told him the story of your first Ferris wheel ride. He seemed interested, told you how funny it was that people always remember the small details. “I was ten, almost eleven,” you told him. “I was wearing a blue polyester Adidas jogging suit.” You told him about the sleeve of your jacket, about the iron-on patch you got out of the cereal box. “I ironed it onto the sleeve myself,” you said. He laughed. You told him how you were an only child and had ridden the Ferris wheel all by yourself, how your mother and father watched from below, waving. You told him about the cold night air, how it tugged at your hair, about the small, dirty man with the golden eagle tattoo on his shoulder, the one who opened the gate for you, smiled at you, touched your shoulder and ran a greasy finger over the outline of your training-bra strap.

But this morning you were not so suave. For forty-five minutes you stood on the sidewalk talking to him, sweating in the hot sun, catching up on what’s been going on in his life. He was “still a teacher,” he said, at the local college that “didn’t pay shit.” You thought he probably still fucked his students. You remembered the pretty blonde one who phoned him every day at noon after her Psych class. You spent five minutes saying things like, “I’m such a mess today,” until he finally asked, “What’s wrong with you, why are you so jumpy?” and you finally said, “Nothing," and then, "My marriage is over,” and he said, “Oh, where are you living?” In my mother’s attic until I find something better, you said. You told him you were hopeful, that you’ve always been a go-getter; you know something better will eventually come along. He asked about your mother’s house and you gave him directions as if he would come to visit, as if your mother would make him chicken and sweet tea and bread that would make his mouth smell like garlic. You told him about the heavy boxes; boxes full of needless things like books and papers and fancy red-lace underwear you never got around to wearing. “I left some on the curb,” you said. Some of them were still in the trunk of your car as you stood on the sidewalk of the USPS, sweating, talking, burning in the heat. You finally said you had to go and that you should “get together” for “a drink some time” and he said he “needed your number” and you fumbled around and said “oh” as he grabbed a pen and ripped a corner from a paper sack you think probably last held a bottle of whiskey. You wrote your name (first and last), and number (with area code) on that piece of ripped paper sack and are now not sure which you are more frightened of: that he will or will not call.

The afternoon did not get much better. Your daughter spent it asking you about airplanes because she’s still traumatized by the ones that “rammed into the buildings in New York” and wants to talk about it, all the time. She asked if there are any buildings in Alabama that might get rammed. You said, “No,” that, “Nobody cares much about Alabama.” At least not enough to ram it with an airplane, you said. “Jet airplanes and airliners use big airports,” you said. “We live in a small town, with a small airport.” She was not satisfied. You said the airport was more like an “air strip.” She asked about the flying farmers who fly their planes from the pasture fields and spray cotton around her small Alabama town. She has heard about the possibilities. “I watch the news,” she said. You tried to divert her attention by talking about the baggage and the moving belt and the little truck that takes it to the plane. “I saw the little truck,” she said. “When Grandma took me to Disneyland. Sometimes the men drive it in circles.” You told her, “Go ask Grandma about the Eskimo women who must chew and chew heavy sealskin before they can make shoes to keep their feet warm.” That is something to worry about, you said. Your mother told her that Eskimo women can now buy their shoes from the discount outlet in Anchorage and gave her a cookie.

When nightfall came at last you hit your head on your slanted attic roof five times before wallowing in the bed and obsessing about a letter you received from your former boss, the one who moved to south Florida six months ago to “escape the hot Alabama summers” and “frolic” in the surf. “Dear Molly,” he wrote. “I am in Florida. My house is a funny green color that shimmers in the sun. The swimming is great. I know they have hurricanes here, but none yet. Mother has gone to Chicago, but will be home tomorrow.” There were five paragraphs of these observations and it was signed, “Sincerely, John.” You wondered why it was that you were still obsessed about someone so far away, someone you would never see again. You thought about the letter you would write in return: “Dear John, It seems I wrote you the wrong letter, then I addressed it rightly, and you got it. I am glad of that, at least. Lately I have made so many mistakes.” You thought about the fact that most women don’t care to be forgiven, that no one ever writes adequately about the boredom of love. Then you turned off all the lights and undressed in the dark; tomorrow you would make a more determined effort to pay attention, to notice the faces, to notice the lovely blue flowers on the dining room table.

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