Honest Tom and His Dream:
In 1977, Tom Callaway had a (ten-year-old) dream that one day he would own a Ferris wheel, or at least some kind of carnival ride that he could set up in the back yard of his house and ride whenever he liked. He was an avid carnival-goer—a regular grind show freak—from an early age and could name every genus of carny simply by looking at their unattended booths.
Career Path, as Viewed by a Teenager:
When Tom turned the ripe age of fourteen, his father insisted he get a job. He preferred that his son work for the bank as a teller's assistant, or maybe for the mill yard as a go-over-there-and-get-me-some-coffee boy. Tom didn't like this, though, because all he would have thought about (had he gotten either of those jobs) was what the view looked like from the top of the Ferris wheel. So Tom decided to disregard his father's opinions and slyly apply to work under the tent-top, for which he was immediately considered due to his obvious love for all things carnificent.
Tom's Teenage Years, Summed Up in One Word:
Why Tom May Have Been Disappointed with His Job:
Imagine being a bird. Now imagine that, as a bird, you enjoy flying (very much so) but for some reason, you can't. From what you can remember (before you injured your wing?), you enjoyed flying so much that if there were some kind of ride, maybe made of metal and shaped like a giant wheel with seats on it, and if that ride gave you the feeling that you were flying—wind in your face and enormous, expansive open space between you and the earth—you would love that ride and you would ride that ride every day. Now imagine being a bird, still, and pretend that you started working for a company that happens to own that ride—pretend the company is in the business of hiring birds—but they told you no one that works for the company is allowed to ride it. Imagine that, as a bird, you were slated, instead, to hang up fliers around the company's premises, and the fliers that you would hang up (using a stapler, one that could accommodate a bird's wing) would feature high-resolution pictures of countless birds riding that very ride, all with ecstatic looks smattered across their faces. Imagine seagulls laughing as if time and illness and deterioration were non-existent, that everything was perfect and life was wholesome and complete once you took a seat on the ride. Imagine pigeons or orioles or blue jays, all with the same overjoyed laughter, leaving only with an enchanting nostalgia for their time on the ride, which could be revisited at any point in which they desired, because none of them had to hang up fliers with a stapler. Imagine one bird in particular, maybe a sparrow or a dove, and pretend that he loved the ride so much that he asked you, the bird with the broken wing, to take a picture of him as he laughed and giggled and experienced ultimate happiness from the top of the ride. How was it? you would ask this little bird-boy, the collar of his shirt still wet from tears of joy. It was everything I'd ever want from a ride and more, he'd answer, shortly before his bird-mother beckoned him back over to the cotton candy stand.
Tom's Outrage, a.k.a. Reverting from the Bird Metaphor and Back to the Story:
Tom was outraged. He said as much to his father, which was ill-received, probably because his father told him originally that he should work for the bank or the mill yard. It was so ill-received that Tom's father may have never really respected Tom again, despite the fact that Tom would go on to live a very modest life, owning both a modest house against a treeline, and a modest store that sold modest office-supplies to its modest customers. If you asked Tom today, he might recall a particular moment when his father seemed most upset, an argument about mowing the lawn that ended in a shout: I don't care if your fucking hands hurt from stapling fliers; you'll go mow the goddamn lawn, and you'll like it!
Tom, Who Went to Mow the Goddamn Lawn, but Didn't Like It:
That day, Tom started up the gas lawnmower with a fervent jerk, jolting the pull cord so hard that his arm, had it not been attached to the socket of his shoulder, would have flown across the yard and landed somewhere in the woods. Had Tom been a bird, his wing would have snapped from the pull of the cord, wing-feathers flying out in different directions and landing scattered around the mower.
The Next Day Back at Work:
Even though he finished mowing the lawn like his father asked, Tom's foolish yank on the pull cord had left his arm deflated like a balloon animal that had popped in the greasy hands of a child. Tom tried to ignore the pain because thinking about it reminded him that his father made him mow the lawn, which reminded him that the lawn had grass on it, which reminded him that grass existed in life, which reminded him that the Ferris wheel was situated on a plot of yellowing grass, which reminded him that he wasn't allowed to ride the Ferris wheel, and that all he could do was watch it revolve, endlessly, children screaming and laughing and crying from laughing. Being reminded of all of these things in short succession caused Tom to miss the mark when stapling a flier (one featuring a high-resolution child smiling like a jester on painkillers), stapling his thumb instead.
The Staple that Broke the Bird's Wing (Tom's Thumb):
Tom spent the next hour in the infirmary-tent with a bandage wrapped around his hand. The tent was red on the outside, but the inside tent-walls were white, which seemed almost red when the sun shined on them. Tom noticed that the blood on his bandage, which was localized to the area surrounding his thumb, was a similar color to the insides of the infirmary-tent, and this made him happy for some reason, though he didn't know why.
An Itemized List of What Tom Did Know:
- He was tired of working at the carnival.
- His father preferred his lawn be short.
- No place needed that many fliers, no matter how many screaming children inhabited it.
- He still loved Ferris wheels.
- His spirit animal might be a bird with clipped wings.
- He still had a stinging hatred for anything that needed stapling.
Tom's Next Course of Action:
After leaving the infirmary tent, Tom knew that he couldn't watch children enjoying the Ferris wheel from afar anymore, at least not without letting off some steam.
Tom's Guerilla-Flier Warfare:
The format was simple, yet decisively destructive. Preparatory Phase: wake up earlier than Father and drive to the fence that surrounds the perimeter of the carnival. Without catching your pant leg on the top wire of the chain-link, climb into the park and locate kiosk. Step One: remove previously stapled flier (with staple remover, so as not to leave behind tracks). Step Two: flip previously stapled flier upside down and place firmly back on board. Step Three: staple flier in all four corners, precisely over old staple marks. Repeat for every flier that currently exists inside the carnival compound.
Judgment Day, or Why Tom Was Asked to Leave the Carnival and Never Come Back:
Every flier-wall and kiosk in the park was now home to roughly twenty or thirty fliers, each one flipped upside down and stapled back on the board. The scene was almost mystical at first, crowds of folks standing around and staring at walls, heads tilted to the right or the left just enough so they could barely make out what the flipped over fliers were saying. Stagnant. The crowds, unmoving, staring in confusion, like packs of pigeons—necks craned—looking at loaves of bread locked behind display cases.
What Tom Imagined the Packs of Pigeons Might Be Thinking:
"Why are they all flipped upside down?"
"Who would do this?"
"Is this some sort of strange joke?"
"That's a really bizarre marketing technique."
"I'm actually pretty good at reading words upside down."
"Fucking carnival people."
His Father's Outrage and the Ensuing Punishment:
To say that his father was outraged would be severely undercutting the tone of his voice when he yelled at his son. The dialogue, which Tom has attempted, from time to time, to reconstruct from memory, may have gone something like this:
Father: I told you to work for the fucking bank, and now you go and fuck up your job at a carnival.
Tom: But all I was doing was stapling paper—
Father: —even worse; how could you fuck up a job stapling paper?
Father: No. To say that I am outraged would be severely undercutting the tone of my anger.
The ensuing punishment, which was fitting in the eyes of his outraged father, would have Tom stapling a stack of 200 fliers around local businesses in West Harmon.
What the Fliers had Written on Them:
The Man Tom Worked for, and His Particular Tendency to Prefer Most Things Stapled:
If Tom's new employer were a bird, he would've likely been an albatross, or some other large, swooping bird with webbed feet and a slow demeanor. When they first met—Tom, slouching and clearly unhappy with his father's punishment—Mr. Lambert requested that Tom take off his shoes when he enter the den of his one-story townhouse, but suggested he wear shoes when walking through his kitchen, because his dog was old and didn't always make it outside before it had to urinate.
The Time that Tom became an Amateur Playwright:
Tom's deadline for the assignment was written on a note left by the refrigerator:
I need these 47 manuscripts stapled and shipped to the following addresses by 3 p.m.
Tom never asked his employer what he did for a job, but figured he was some sort of playwright, since what he was stapling seemed to be a script for a play. Silently, while stapling each copy in the left-hand corner, he presumed that Mr. Lambert wasn't very good at his craft, and that most (if not all) of the documents he was mailing would inevitably be rejected. He even went as far as to add small "suggestive" changes to the lines he felt were unnecessary or gaudy. One change that he enjoyed in particular was a small edit to the main character's opinion of his father:
Sampson: (looking left, offstage) My father is an
honorable man. embarrassment to his community.
The Time that Tom became a Secret Agent:
After tiring of tweaking lines in Mr. Lambert's scripts, Tom wrote down the address of an art house and kept it in a drawer in his bedroom for safe keeping.
The Time that Tom became an Amateur Art Director:
Dear Mr. Lambert,
We would like to inform you that we have thoroughly read over your script and, although we do not have space for it in our current company, we would like to formally commission a one-act play that will run in your town in roughly two months. You, of course, will have editorial rights over the entire production, but we would like to strongly suggest that the setting take place at a carnival downtown...
A Note Left by Mr. Lambert, upon Receiving Acceptance:
A theatre company wants me to put on a one-act about a kid riding a Ferris wheel. I'm not exactly sure why, but they asked that the main character be a scrawny teenager. They used the word "bird-like." Tomorrow you and I are going down to the carnival at the edge of town to scope out the scenery.
Why Tom May Have Been Ecstatic with the Chance to Star in a Play:
Imagine you are bird. Imagine, slowly (while being pensive and humming bluesy tunes), that you have been in a cage for years and that through the bars of the cage you can see the sunlight. Through those bars you can see sky and trees and other birds who are happily gliding from branch to telephone line to branch. Now, imagine that the hinges to the door of the cage have rusted almost all of the way through, and, with a swift push of your bird wing, the door will fall to the carpet.
Tom and His "Fear of Heights":
Tom had finally returned to the carnival grounds. Mr. Lambert ordered him not only to stand next to the Ferris wheel (to see if his complexion and stature felt right when juxtaposed), but to get on it. To sit in one of its cradled seats and ride it, round and round, until he knew that Tom was exactly right for the part as the main character, in a play that would define his role as an influential American playwright. If asked today, Tom wouldn't be able to recall the exact dialogue between him and his employer because of the twanging pain of excitement that collected in his gut. If he had to guess, it may have gone something like this:
Mr. Lambert: I'm going to need you to get on the ride, Tom.
Tom: But, what if I'm afraid of heights?
Mr. Lambert: I don't care what you're afraid of.
Mr. Lambert: —look, Tom, I need to make sure we do this perfectly; this play could very well define my role as an American playwright.
The Quiet Moment on the Ferris Wheel:
Tom sat, beaming in one of the blue cradled seats, and waited for the ride to start. He'd never noticed the fabric of the seats before—rough burlap with a paisley stitching—and thought about how they must be water-resistant to ward off rain drops. The metal bar that dropped from above his head clasped the lower half of his body in the seat at his waist. In moments, the ride began to move, Tom's feet shuffling anxiously around on the steel floor. Rising towards the sky, Tom's cart swung back-and-forth slightly. He thought about all of the times he'd watched from a distance as the carts made the same swaying motion. He could see Mr. Lambert down below, standing on the yellowing grass, looking back up at him as he climbed higher and higher into the sky—
The Still Moment on the Ferris Wheel:
—and then the ride stopped. Tom thought it was just a regular stop, the ride operator hitting the red button and letting a few passengers off, with new smiling children piling on in place. But he noticed a crowd of folks standing at the foot of the wheel, glancing up in what seemed like his direction, although he couldn't be sure. As he waited, Tom looked out across the sky, across the carnival grounds and across what he could see of his town. He could see crows perched on telephone lines, pigeons pecking at spilled popcorn next to a trash bin near the entrance.
The Man Yelling with a Megaphone:
Man with Megaphone: Son—can you hear me? (turning to his left)—is this thing on? How do you turn this on...
Tom, who redirected his gaze from the birds and the sky down to the crowd, could hear the man with the megaphone.
Tom: I can hear you.
Man: Okay—okay, that's good. Are you alright? Everything is going to be fine; it's important you know that everything will be fine.
Tom: I don't know what you're—
Man: —A bolt in your seat (holding up a large, metal bolt) has detached and fallen from the ride.
Tom: What do you mean a bolt has—
The Loud Moment on the Ferris Wheel:
It happened in seconds, at least from what Tom can remember, his cradled chair making a loud metal creeeeak noise, and then a clannnnnk to accompany it. And then he was upside down, the metal squeaking, his cart swaying, hanging on by what seemed like one single bolt. The bar that clasped across Tom's waist was the only thing keeping him from plummeting to the ground below. To say that his heart was racing (which Tom can remember telling his father later that day) would have been a gross exaggeration, if it weren't entirely true. In the distance he could see the crows, upside down on the telephone line, the pigeons pecking strays of popcorn as the surface of the carnival grounds pretended to be sky for once.
The Moment Tom had (What He Would Later Call) an Epiphany:
While the crowd anxiously waited for Tom's cart to tumble, haphazardly, to the yellowing grass below, he could just barely make out the face of a kiosk in the distance. On it, he could see various fliers of children riding the Ferris wheel, but one flier in particular stuck out as he hung upside down: A high-resolution photo of a giddy child with a cone of cotton candy in his hand. The picture, which Tom saw right-side-up, was one of the last few fliers he'd posted upside down from his days working for the carnival.
The Conclusion, Hidden behind a Framed Newspaper Clipping:
It took the firefighters 45 minutes to safely remove Tom from his cart, a sight that was caught by a freelance journalist who happened to be taking his son to the carnival that day. In the picture, Tom seemed calm, collected, something that was noted in the caption beneath the photo:
Local teenager, Tom Callaway, 16, pictured here as firemen released him from the broken, dangling seat of a Ferris wheel. When asked what was going through his head at the time of the accident, he answered: "Staplers—just staplers."
BIO: Dillon J. Welch has a BA in English from the University of New Hampshire. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Gargoyle, Heavy Feather Review, and Red Lightbulbs. Find out more about him here: http://embellishthelawnmower.com/