Excerpts > Winter 2003

R. T. Smith

Stop the Rocket


From the first day of school, all the whisper talk was about the Rocket. Who was kissing who, the Blue Demons' lame single-wing attack, the dreamy new algebra teacher Miss Dauber with her saddle oxfords and silk blouse, even the polio scare those topics rose, fell and dwindled on the buses, around the lunchtable and in the foggy locker room but spooky speculation and hazed-over recollections of autumns past trained our attention on the annual appearance at the Spalding County Fair of E. J. Hippodrome Entertainment's most legendary ride. I didn't know anything about it myself. I didn't know it could show me my life.

Who can remember what it's like to be in seventh grade? You come in with your blue book bag, your gym shoes and lunch money. It's nineteen sixty, and you don't know if you're supposed to be collecting plastic replicas of Roy and Trigger or snickering over dirty pictures behind the Rexall. You wonder if voice change, whisker fringe and the circus-like sex drive are supposed to grab you by the throat or if you have to wait for some slow-motion Technicolor bomb to go off in your genes. You still want to flip spit balls at Stella Ray Prusey or play French legionnaires' last stand in the old Georgia Pacific caboose behind the switchyard with your running mates, but while you're thinking about smashing ripe pumpkins and filleting the frog in beginner science, your fast classmates are running toward the rough crowd, learning to smoke, talking dirty and bragging about how they plan to defy all caution and ride the Rocket till tattooed gypsies drag them off. The older boys with souped-up Chevies will show the way: they'll eat the wind and won't weep or heave or holler for it to stop; they'll ride that rogue rocket straight to hell.

Back then, my daddy was the best barber in Peach, and he loved to whistle "Summertime" or "Yellow Rose of Texas" while he ran the buzz clipper, snicked the scissors or dipped a comb in green Barbicide. He was a skinny cricket of a man with a Vincent Price moustache and quick fingers, an uneasy way of standing as if he was balanced on some tightrope in his mind. Smell of bay rum. Wire glasses. He gave the closest, hottest shave in town and kept his razor stropped to a legendary edge, but I didn't see how he could bear to look across the narrow Horton's Hair-and-Now shop six days a week and see his face getting progressively smaller in the dueling mirrors as he got older and balder with no adventures or wildness to break the rhythm of "just a trim today?" and Billy Divine's latest salesman joke. He knew all those Peach men who worked at the bleachery or Dundee Mills and raised a corn crop or hogs, guinea hens or peanuts along with their own table vegetables. He knew the orchard folks who picked for Pomona or gathered acorns. He shared their gossip and hunting stories and fears, but although most of the adults in Peach were a quiet people, churchy, not sure they wanted to see the world in its deadly colors, they still loved the yearly fair and reveled in its green cotton candy and foot-longs, its cherry smash and candy apples that could break your teeth, the Tilt-a-whirl and Screamer Coaster that whizzed and clanged around the field by the river sycamores where Hippodrome set up its ramshackle razzle-dazzle as if a tardy summer storm had blown it in by night behind the scent of fresh-cut hay.

We didn't share the interest, though, my family. My daddy was more likely to drive us up to Atlanta for a pops concert or take us to the rim of the Blue Ridge around Helen to see the mountain leaf show, eat Talmadge ham and drink clean cider. Mild fun, sober. He might even take us to a cake walk at the Masons or a garden show, but he did not love the fair.

And I didn't care. I mean, I hadn't known enough to. I was always too busy around harvest moon wondering whether I would be a wolfman or Crockett for Tricker Treat, but the year I hit junior high, I lost my immunity and caught the craze. I mean, just think of all the wild talk, people claiming you'd have to be one fearless man to ride that Rocket, have to be a tough fellow like Luke Tartwin or Junior Stemple, or just plain crazy like Brudder Biggers. They said the laws of gravity would be suspended and you'd feel things like somebody in a waking dream. It went to your head like cheap wine, all that talk. Even a couple of high school girls claimed to have survived flying in the Rocket, but I don't think they could produce a witness. It was almost exclusively a male ordeal, the space rocket to manhood, knighthood in the court of rusty, soaring steel.

The actual ride was a great old big thing, they said, taller than the courthouse, a radio tower-like structure with a short axle and one long arm with a rocket car at each end. Back and forth it would swing, a huge lit pendulum against the sky, all its lights blinking and the screams like noises the damned will surely bark out after the Coming. They said nobody every recalled what they had seen out the portholes, the sparkling panorama you went up on the Ferris for, the county stretched before you, the Flint River a dirty ribbon catching sunset, the people below like ants on a scavenger hunt. You were too busy saying your prayers. I kept trying to picture it, but I always saw the pendulum on our grandfather clock, and it didn't seem so scary, since it kind of paused or rested out on the end of every arc, but then I remembered the Edgar Poe story of the gears and wheels clacking and moaning as the big razor descended and the rats snacked on you. And when somebody told me the body of the Rocket twirled while it swooped, I felt the goose skin shiver my neck.

The rumor had sneaked around that some hotrod pilot down in Valdosta or Rome had somehow come unbuckled and been flung to death in the Rocket, but it had the feel of a rumor, and nobody had seen it written up in The Constitution, so it just upped the locker room ante of brag and swagger.

Descriptions of the travelers who would show up one night to bolt the Rocket together and raise it and the rest of the booths and rides and tents by driving spikes into the earth sent even more of a chill down me. They sounded like pirates, and people said they swigged kickass while they worked and swore a blue streak, that they refused to wear gloves and would snarl at people if you looked at them wrong. But our neighbor Margie Larue told me they all had such honeycomb-drowsy voices and the deep coal eyes of swamp people, it was like they knew some secrets about the world and the runaway heart, and that drew you in like foxfire.

"You're not going, and that's it, so Katie-bar-the-door," mother announced, but I knew if daddy hadn't said it, it wasn't true yet. My running mates Brotherton Eisenhower (whom we called BE), Earl Dollarhyde and Starturkey Waddell were planning to ride out with Earl's Uncle Banjo on Thursday night. I prayed my daddy wouldn't deny me the right to run hard with my pack, and here was the strange thing about him: he had this idea of justice that was more important than even what he wanted. He never raised his voice or sharpened his eyes when he thought somebody was off base. It was logic, he said, that had to rule our house. Logic and calm and the unsleeping quest for wisdom. After dinner, he gave me a close talking-to with a crumb of pie crust stuck just on the side of his mouth, hanging on the fringe of his moustache.

"It's exciting," he said. "I know it is, a giant pin-ball machine of a place, full of dangers, traps in the shadows, run by people we could not trust or respect. Shills and misfits. I don't mean to judge them sight unseen, but it pays to be wary.

"And I know all the he-man talk about that ride as the big test, so I know the kind of fellows who spit between their teeth and say they'll defy it. Now I don't want you to feel you're under custody here or not trusted yourself. I understand you're dying to go. You believe you need to, and that's a strong motivation, so I won't stand in your path a gentleman doesn't but you've got to promise me that you won't let any mob of boys, especially older boys who might have got their hands on a can of Jax, shame you onto that Rocket. You can play on Sparky's Bumper Cars and ride the Mighty Carousel ponies or the Flume. Mirror Maze, okay; Clown Dunk, fine. You can toss rings and pitch at bottles for Kewpies and see the stretch man, Tiny Bob, Herman the Human Torch and the whiskered woman. I'm not even worried about the Twin Ferris or the Screamer Coaster, but you must promise me..." and here he reached into his pocket and pulled out a fresh five-dollar bill "...you will not use this gift from me personally to see a hoochy-kooch show or shoot a gallery rifle or ride the Rocket." As I reached out for the money, he pulled it back a couple of inches and said, "Promise, you hear."

Just at sunset Earle and I had ducked out of the 4-H chicken show tent, where we had mostly speculated on which roosters might be born fighters and how a whole egg passing through the vent never seemed to kill a hen, and we looked across the weird bazaar of the county fair and then up, up, till our necks cricked, to where the red and yellow lights along the Rocket's base and arm were just twinkling on like candy constellations. The whole place was a dazzle of barker voices, calliope pipes, sighs and cheers, the rattle and zoom of the Tilt-a-Whirl and E. J. Hippodrome's Twin Ferris Wheels cutting huge zeroes against the gun-blue sky as the passengers let out a good-natured whoop and sigh. It was all gaudy tawdry, spiced with smells of chili and scorched popcorn, sawdust and the sickening appeal of spun sugar on paper cones. I wanted to get my future from the voodoo woman Sister Mystery, and Earle was set on the music from the bandstand where Bubba Juke was just tuning their guitars, but we heard BE's voice calling out, "Y'all come watch me to show the hair on my chest, buddies. I'm going to fly and spin like Flash Gordon, Master of the Purple Galaxy. Badass Rocket, here I come. Va-room!"

I don't much remember how they talked me around it. It was Earle who gave me the quarter so I wouldn't exactly break my word, and we got pushed up to the front by a swarm of people before I could see the cheat in my own reasoning. The operator locked the bar in front of us and slammed the hatch. I didn't even see him really, but I smelled the fumes on his breath and the oil on his licorice-looking hair, and after that I shut my lids tight, which probably made it worse; the clanky sounds and rattle of chains reminded me of the cart in the Transylvania Castle, and the smell was gasoline exhaust like a drag strip. We couldn't have been slinging full tilt for more than two minutes before they realized I had been shaken free of my belt and launched against the seat in front, losing my dinner at every shake. They called it the Rocket, and I was surely seeing stars and comets and the quivery Northern Lights. It didn't help the way the brake or something stopped us quick and flung us again. I remember a whole bunch of hands reaching toward me in a blur.

Then the ambulance whipped its red light around us, and there was another streak of colored fire coming from inside me. I was strapped down but trying to throw up again, and everything went by the windows fast and swervy.

The pain wasn't the main thing, though. My lower arm bone was just barely broken, a hairline crack. Before long I was wheeled out into the lobby where my father was coming through the glass door in argyle socks and matching vest. He was tapping a rolled up paper against his thigh as if he had a lap dog to punish. The pie crumb was gone.

As always, I had to have my radar on to detect the scald behind it when he spoke: "Well, Brooks, I guess it was just too much for you to resist. I should have realized. And you can't take the entire blame. After all, there's a whole crowd of yahoos out there, some of them grown men, slapping backs and making dares. Of course, I don't know how many of them gave their word about it."

I wasn't even tempted to explain that his money hadn't come into play, and all I wanted to do was go home and retreat to my room, to slink down in the bed with my plastered arm angled in its sling like a deformed chickadee wing. But it wouldn't be that easy.

"You're the second boy today who has been in that emergency room from the Rocket, so it has to be stopped, and we're going out to the fair right now and see what we can do."

I was trying for invisibility as we walked through the thinning crowd, past the freak show, the candy apple stand and the Scrambler, toward where the Rocket was unloading its dozen or so passengers, who were themselves walking unsteadily and leaning on the chain-link fence. I didn't want to look anybody in the face, so I remember a lot of shoes, most of them scarred brogans and scuffed hushpuppies, a few frayed Converse tennis like my own. My father eased us through the crowd, who were mostly there only as spectators and had no intention of climbing aboard, and he opened the gate and walked through with me in tow.

"Wait till I get these people out, damn it." The man holding the hatch open fairly spat out his words. "Can't you read the damned sign?"

He was a lanky, bronzed fellow with ropey neck muscles and a chestnut-sized adam's apple. He wore black Levis tucked into dirty white western boots. His khaki work shirt was drawn closed at the top by a string tie with a steer head slide. Stitched above his heart pocket was the name Coy in leaning letters, and he had eyes like a water snake stuck into a face textured like a screen door. My impression was that he stood there coiled up, weight on the left leg like he was saving the right for something sudden and important. I thought he resembled a battle-worn Babylonian archer in my history book. Next to him in the flickering midway lights, my father looked like Mr. Peepers, and I knew there was no way any barber on earth could persuade this runaway from some distant world to change his mind, even about how much gravy goes on the grits.

"My name is Carter Horton, and this is my boy. A mishap on your ride broke his arm earlier this evening. The second injury today. This Rocket appears to have some safety problems, and perhaps we should consider getting it inspected in the light of day before somebody is terribly maimed."

"Says who?" This time he did spit, into the sawdust right between my father's shoes, which were coated with wood dust over their daily shine.

"I believe I just told you that. Carter Horton."

When the man reared back his head to bray, I could see both the nasty black spots in some of his teeth and the gold nuggets sparkling in others. But his laugh moved down to his throat as he leveled his face and then glared along his sharp nose at my father. The Babylonian was four or five inches taller, and his shoulders were broad. He was so weathered, not even Sister Mystery could have guessed his age in people years.

"And how will you plan to close it down?"

"I was hoping to bring you about to my view by reminding you how many people have been damaged. Children, mostly. I was hoping you'd call it a night and spend some time tomorrow looking to your buckles and bars. But if I have to, I'll just stand here in front of the gate, and people will understand."

The crowd was closing in and whispering, but I couldn't work out if they were taking a side. Then the man made a smile on his mouth without showing any teeth. A smirk, I suppose you'd call it, and you could tell by his eyes that he was enjoying the whole scene.

"Well, I can tell you, Carter Horton, that you would be trespassing then. You would be preventing these good folks from their excitement, and that would piss me off. It ain't no secret that this feature of the show has bona fide popularity. Now step aside, asshole. I'm trying to make a living here."

That was what he said: "asshole."

"No sir."

That was when the carnival man reached out with his dark, gnarled hands and took my father by the arms and slung him back so that he stumbled and fell into the fence but did not quite go down. His glasses flipped off somewhere, and I didn't know what would happen next. I couldn't imagine my father fighting, but I knew he wasn't likely to just quit, either. He recaptured his balance and stepped forward again, but as he got close to the gate, the man's arm shot out, his fist catching my father just under his left ear and knocking him into the oily sawdust.

I could see the crowd of hands again, this time reaching toward my father, as the men in their coveralls and khaki work clothes clustered around him, and I could suddenly hear Sheriff Clowsey's voice asking what was going on, then saying, "Stand back, stand back" with that air of command nothing but a badge can confer.

"What happened, Carter?"

But my father couldn't talk. You could see his jaw was wrong, turned a little cattywhompus, and he just glared at the man named Coy. Then somebody said, "This carney pushed Mr. Horton down and then punched him."

When the sheriff looked toward the dark man, he saw what we all did, a sneer. He couldn't have had more scorn in his face if he was a card-carrying demon.

"That right, mister?"

"Trespassing. He wouldn't let people get on the ride. He was trying to interfere with my operating a legal entertainment."

I didn't get to see much more, but the next day I heard it from everybody, especially BE and Earl. They all wanted my close-witness details of "the fight," which had evidently led to the man being carted off in cuffs and a padlock slapped on the entry gate to the Rocket. I had gone with Mr. Prusey and Stella Ray to rush my father to the hospital, and Uncle Banjo brought my mother over in his truck. Daddy's jaw was broken, but Doc Mutaspaugh was sure the wire job would hold it back in place. Most of the awful appearance had been from it being whomped out of joint, but the doctor straightened that right away. Nothing he did stopped my mother crying and fussing, though, and every once in a while she'd turn her hot eyes on me and glare. It was the Blame Look, and I'd seen it before.

When I got home from school, he was sitting at the Formica table, sipping Orange Up through a straw, and his face had bruised out purple as his prized hollyhocks. With the afternoon's flat light falling across his expression, he had a sadness about him I wasn't used to. His spectacles had cellophane tape around one of the hinges, and he was in his day-off blue shirt. He could talk a little bit and ask for things without moving his mouth, but he wasn't saying much. I figured he didn't have an appetite to traffic with the likes of me for the time being. Together, we must have looked quite a sight, though, him with his head bandaged around, and me with my cast arm slung in a diaper-looking bandage.

"He'll have to go to jail, won't he, daddy? They'll all have to go away."

I wasn't sure if I wanted the fair disappeared like everything that had happened was erased or if I wanted everybody to pretend it had just been a meaningless scuffle. Did I want to be the boy whose father had shut down the legend? I was afraid I wouldn't have a life then, that people would shun me for being the cause of them losing something that marked the end of summer and drew boys into being men. On the other hand, I knew there was a wound in our house that wouldn't heal overnight.

My mother was wiping down the counter, and she stopped and gave me that Look Without Forgiveness. She was a corn-silk blonde and could go real scary-pale when she was on a tear. I knew she had wrath inside her and that only daddy's soft words could bridle her back.

"Your father won't press charges. The man spent the night in jail, but he's out already, scot-free, probably having a laugh and a bottle of beer right now. The rides and the fair will go on, but that Rocket won't be lighting up and shooting back and forth, rattling people's brains in this town again. The Thaxton boy's family is talking about suing, and I'll just bet you those Hippodrome folks will be out of here lickety-split come Sunday morning, so the two of you did it: you shut it down. But look at what it cost. Just look at yourselves."

Then he reached across the table and took my good elbow in his fingers, easy at first, comforting. I could almost hear the wire on his jaw vibrating when he spoke.

"When you get healed, you'll have a garage to clean out and lots of hair to sweep up. I figure you owe me five dollars, son.

"In the meantime, I believe I've earned the right to sign your cast."

As he reached for the Parker in his breast pocket, his fingers tightened on my funnybone, and his touch didn't feel soothing anymore. It began to hurt as he squeezed, to steady his signature, I suppose, and looking into his bluejay-blue eyes, I was glad.

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