7.11 / Pulp Issue

Ghost Pianos & Idle Hands

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 “Every day, it’s a-getting closer, going faster than a roller coaster…
Every day, it’s a-getting faster, everyone says go ahead and ask her”

-Buddy Holly “Everyday”

A man, a woman, and her child, all walking too fast through a carnival. Jacki, a young Hispanic woman with that sweatshirt and black no-pants pants thing going on, is dragging her toddler, Toni, by the arm. Jacki’s boyfriend, Anthony, a red-faced, muscular punk, stomps along with a bundle of helium “Happy Birthday” balloons. He’s the kind of asshole who wanted a boy so bad he named the girl after him anyway. They bounce lower and lower as they rebound through the crowd, the excitement hissing out of them every few feet or so.

The balloons, too.

One particular balloon, just a crumpled bag of deflated silver scraping the gravel behind them, catches every sharp corner and ankle it can, as reluctant as a kid hanging onto a doorjamb.

Surrounded by bright colors, happy families and voices, this group stands out in their manic desperation to get on a ride, any ride.

Toni tugs, tugs, tugs on her mom when a shorter line of bodies suddenly catches her eye. She breaks free to run ahead, and Jacki watches her scamper up to the tail end of calmer family units waiting for some short kid with the audacity to check the height of others. Anthony takes advantage of the distraction to kick the rest of the sagging balloons away in disgust, and Jacki finally turns her full attention to him, eyes blazing in anger.

“What?”

“You know what.”

The kid tries to measure Anthony to get a laugh from the crowd because Anthony is, of course, short as shit. But he knocks the stick out of the kid’s hand and steps up to wait for a carny valet to bring around his car, arms crossed tight.

Ten minutes later, the three of them sit silent in a slow-moving Model-T, riding a rail around a track with no corner sharper than the curvature of the Earth. Toni hangs out the back window to stare at the other creeping cars, and Anthony sits brooding, his arms still locked and pale from loss of circulation. He watches the steering wheel turning on its own. He knew the ride with the shortest line was gonna be the worst.

“Bothers you not driving, doesn’t it?” Jacki finally says without looking over.

No answer.

“Thought so,” she sighs.

“What was that supposed to mean?”

Jacki thinks she hears the squeak of his brain working, then realizes it’s just the wheel brushing his belly.

“This ride sucks!” Toni squawks. “Where’s all the twists and turns?”

“It’s not that kind of ride,” her mother says.

“What was that supposed to mean?” Squeak.

“Where’s the water?” Toni squeaks right back.

“It’s not that kind of ride,” Jacki repeats wearily, on autopilot, sort of like the car, more like those ghost pianos in the westerns that play tired, tuneless carnival music.

“Does it go any faster?”

“Not that kinda ride.”

“Oh, yeah?” Anthony says sarcastically. “Then what kind of ride was it?”

He’s asking about something else, so Jacki answers like something else.

“A calmer, comforting, more realistic one.”

“What are you talking about?” he suddenly wants to know.

“What are you talking about,” she says without the question mark.

“Talking about this,” Anthony hisses, suddenly headbutting the steering wheel. “Is this how it happened? Show me how it happened.”

“Jesus Christ, calm down, asshole.”

Jacki frowns and looks away out on the window. She’s had this conversation way too many times while driving and doesn’t want to encourage him with too much attention. And the idea of this argument in a car that doesn’t occupy his hands suddenly terrifies her.

But he says it again, and now she’s feeling spiteful.

“Show me how it happened, Jacki.”

“How what happened.” Again, not really asking.

“You know what.”

“Anthony, please, not now.”

“Is that how it happened? Him behind the wheel? You on top? Just tell me. Is that how you two crashed that fucking car? Someone forgot to keep both hands on the wheel, didn’t they? Then where the fuck were the hands? That’s why he ended up dead, swinging naked like a chimp from a fucking tree?” Pause. “You’re lucky to be alive, huh?”

Jacki knows he’s not talking about the crash. This is more like a threat. A lot more.

“Just shut up,” she says, throwing a thumb back at Toni. “I’m not talking about this again. Not here. Not again. Not ever.”

“Not ever, huh? You know,” Anthony starts, eyes on the fake road, hands floating over the fake wheel out of habit. “If you two woulda been on this bullshit ride instead, that accident would never have happened. He’d still be alive, you two would still be fuckin’, and I probably woulda never known shit. Would I?”

She says nothing, looking around to the families in the other cars. No one is smiling. And at least two couples have started arguing, too.

No wonder this line was so short, she thinks.

“That couldn’t have been the first time. No fuckin’ way, no fuckin’ way. No. Fuckin’. Way,” he goes on. “That’s what it took, huh? Him to get fucking killed before I found out?”

“Is that why I have to hear about this shit every couple of months? Because you feel you were robbed of your chance to kick our ass?”

“I just want you to admit it.”

“You don’t want me to admit shit,” Jacki turns full on him, furious. “You know how pathetic you sound? You’re not angry because I cheated. You’re angry because he’s dead.”

He considers this a second, eyes lingering on the line where her crotch was devouring her tights. Her clothes always seemed to get tighter when she was mad, even tighten when they were at an amusement park.

“Nah, I’m pretty happy he’s dead actually.”

“Anthony, you know what it is? You’re just angry because you had to fake compassion by my hospital bed, right there in front of Mom and everyone. You don’t think about how I was affected, or why any of it happened, or how someone actually died that day. And you don’t care. You just feel like you were cheated out of a chance to hit somebody. Well, quit fucking whining about it and do something.”

He considers this, hands greasing the fake steering wheel with a squeaky snakebite.

“You can’t stand the fact that what happened to him and what happened to me,” she pauses to make sure she gets the mouthful just right. “Was worse than what you think happened to you.”

Proud of herself, she stops to watch his hands wring his sweat out of the plastic, laughing when he turns it hard left and the car doesn’t do what he wants.

“Actually, you know what?” she says. “The more I think about you, the funnier you get.”

“Where’s the big twists!” Toni suddenly shouts from behind them. “I thought this was a ride!”

“It’s not that kind of ride.”

Jacki looks to the other rides on the horizon, wishes she would have picked any ride but this one. But it’s been “Slim Pickens,” ever since they walked in. And by that, she thought every one of these mutts manning controls reminded her of that hayseed asshole in Blazing Saddles.

She never feels she’s in good hands at a fair so cheap and ugly.

Fair? Or was it an amusement park? she wonders. Carnival? Anything but Theme Park, always hated that name.

“So who was driving?” Anthony says, a bit quieter. “Just tell me that. Please. Then I’ll drop it. Who was driving? You or him?”

“I don’t want her to hear this, Anthony.”

“Twists!” Toni stomps a foot.

“Not that kinda ride,” she says. “This one’s more like real life.”

As if to prove this, Anthony actually reaches for a radio dial on the fake dashboard to drown out the child before he catches himself.

“Are you that fucking stupid?” Jacki laughs, then notices another couple off in the grass with their plastic hood up, the husband hunched over the space where the engine would be. He’s looking all concerned, wife pouting.

“He was driving, wasn’t he? So you fucked him while he was driving?” Anthony says, punching the speedometer sticker once, twice. The car shakes.

“Enough. Three years I’ve been listening to this. I’m not talking about it anymore.”

“Three years and you’ve never given me any answers. I just want to know why you would even think about doing something like that, especially in a car.”

Silence.

“Fucking answer me!”

Impossibly, oncoming traffic seems to be drifting into their lane, and the helpless drivers glance over at them nervously. The rest of the drivers are arguing now, a flurry of loose hands, profanity, and exasperation. One man leans out to eyeball Anthony. Forgetting it’s a ride, Anthony reacts like he would on any road.

“What the fuck you lookin’ at?”

The woman in that car reluctantly restrains her man.

“Keep driving asshole,” Anthony mutters. Then, “Hey, did that motherfucker just cut me off?”

Anthony reaches for a rearview mirror to adjust to check the traffic behind him. He laughs when he sees there’s no mirror, of course, but he’s not very convincing.

Jacki tugs her leggings loose again and leans over.

“Are you losing your goddamn mind?”

“Could be.”

He pulls hard on the fake steering wheel, and it turns out it isn’t completely fake after all. The car bumps against the guide rail, and Toni giggles, finally excited.

“Do that again and we’re getting out,” Jacki warns him.

“No, do it again!” Toni squeals, clapping. He bumps the rail again.

“I’m pulling over so we can talk about this.”

“You can’t pull over, dumb ass,” Jacki says “This isn’t real. None of it.”

Jacki slumps forward, her head in her hands in frustration. The sensation of a dashboard sinking into her chest is strange, but not unfamiliar. Not entirely unpleasant. She wishes it was dark enough to pull up her sweatshirt and feel the cold plastic on her skin again.

Staring at her, Anthony pulls on the wheel again and the car lurches harder against the rail, almost clearing it. Toni is actually clapping her feet now.

“You realize we aren’t in a car, right?” she says softly. “You realize we’re not pulling over on the side of the road to talk, right? You realize this is a fucking ride, right?”

Anthony ignores her and, with two more quick turns of the steering wheel, he finally jumps the rail. Other fake drivers stop punching their dashboards to voice their concern, and some kids even start crying as the renegade Model-T crushes its way through some ratty flower beds, cuts off the line of sputtering gridlock, and heads for the nearest fence. Jacki opens the door and jumps out, pulling her daughter with her.

“Where are you going?” Anthony pleads as they start running. “Please, just show me what you did. Show me on this ride and no one will get hurt, I promise. Show me. It’s safer here. Think about it, this is the perfect place for it…”

Heads crane out of the other cars to watch Jacki with Toni in tow, and Anthony’s car belches and bumps its way along the rope fence surrounding the track.

“Show me what you did!” he yells.

She says nothing, almost running now.

“Stop.”

She still says nothing and gets ready to gather Toni up to run.

“How do I even know she’s mine?”

Jacki is now holding her breath, the only way she can say less than nothing.

Then she stops.

“Did you hear me?” he says, punching plastic over and over and over, fist running red.

“I heard you,” she says. “Nobody’s yours.”

“I know what happened,” he says. “So do you. You’re not mine and neither is she. Tell me I’m wrong. You lied all these years.”

“You’re right. You know what? You’re so good at predicting human nature, you should be named an honorary human being.”

Anthony takes a moment to imagine himself at this ceremony and what that trophy would look like, then he jumps out of the fake car, too. He decides the “honorary human being” trophy would be waist-high and topped with a little gold man flexing a bicep.

Jacki and her daughter walk off the ride, out the entrance, brushing past a man who’s trying to talk the slouching teenager with the measuring stick into letting him on the ride with his dog. The dog is almost tall enough.

That’s when Anthony is in front of everyone at the gate, blocking the way out with a small revolver he’s pulled from his skin-tight jeans like a magic trick. He doesn’t have to look at the teenager for the barrel of his gun to find his forehead like a magnet.

The kid drops his stick. Then, suddenly unarmed and helpless, the kid decides to run. Anthony turns the barrel on Jacki. Toni bites her lip in excitement, and there is an audible cheer from the back seats of the other Model-T’s as the children mistake the action for part of the ride.

Theme park indeed, Jacki thinks.

“Get back in there. Move!” he tells her, obviously trying to sound like the movies. She wonders why he didn’t just shout “movies!” instead.

But past the measuring sticks, real screams are starting. She looks up to see soap-white fists wrestling control from steering wheels and taking every car off the rails. Weapons are flashing everywhere now, snapping free of conceal-and-carry holsters or coming around from behind every back like that bouquet nobody wants. Pistols, rifles, even a buck knife, some jutting through the thin canvas roofs of the fake antique cars as workboots skid alongside in the dirt or sandals flip off and toes dig in like the fucking Flintstones. One vehicle gets stuck on the rope fence, fighting it like a bug strip until another car rear-ends it and flips it free and over.

What do they call this goddamn ride? Road Rage Rehearsals?

Jacki squeezes her face in her hands in disbelief as two men slide over the nearest hood, rabbit punching each other in the face until one of their boots hooks the grill and they wrench their sputtering ride completely sideways with them and disappear into a mushroom of dust.

Then it’s just Anthony, his five-foot nothing blocking out the scene as he walks slowly up to Jacki, then behind her, pressing the gun to the small of her back, and she thinks about how the carneys should use metal detectors instead of rulers.

He pulls up Jacki’s sweatshirt with the egg tooth on the barrel, and as the cold metal sinks into her skin, she inhales sharp and starts to walk.

A gun stashed in anybody else’s shorts would have warmed up by now, she thinks.

Toni’s eyes are positively glowing in excitement. Jacki’s too.

“Do those come with the cars?” Toni whispers.

Her mother says nothing as they march forward. Back to the track.

“Mommy?” Toni sighs, tugging on the leg of her mother’s tights and popping them out of the crack of her ass one last time. She’s trying to make sense of everything she heard earlier from the back seat, some talk about her conception. “Was I born on these rides?”

“Maybe,” Jacki says, still not afraid. She’s never been afraid of anybody that short and wouldn’t start today.

It’s a hot afternoon, triple digits, and the cool kiss of the metal feels too good on her back.

The problem are the steering wheels, she realizes. Ghost pianos and idle hands.

Anthony pushes Jacki to move faster back to the ride. She drags her feet like that silver birthday balloon, and he’s pulling her like she’s pulling Toni when backfires from the tiny cars and their lawnmower engines start popping like bullets, but more like cheap fireworks. He says a line from a movie again, but he fucks it up.

“Show me on this ride or no one gets hurt.”


David James Keaton is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and the Editor of Flywheel Magazine. He recently snagged a Spinetingler Award for his story in Crime Factory #8. As far as his own crimes, he once ate a cricket for five dollars. Those were 1993 dollars.
7.11 / Pulp Issue

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