Quentin Carter grasps the metal bar on his lap with the nervous ferocity of a child wringing his covers in the dark. He was never a child afraid of the dark, but he is an adult very much afraid of roller coasters. Technically an adult. He is 22 and made uncomfortable by both the words “boy” and “man.” The cars have not begun to move down the tracks and already, he can feel his palms growing slick on the metal bar.
He is sandwiched between Gina Snow—a freckly college student with elbows folded neatly into her seat—and Bill Rogers, “man” in its most spectacular definition, what Quentin is certain he will never be. At 6’ 5” with arms like wooden clubs and still-brown hair receded into a distinguished fur at the back of his head, Bill Rogers is one of Wichita, Kansas’s premiere real estate lawyers and Quentin’s boss of three weeks. Gina is the summer intern who runs court papers back and forth between the office and the courthouse and has admitted to Quentin that she is not entirely sure why her job exists with the advent of online filing. Before and behind them are other lawyers, assistants, and law clerks with Rogers & Price on an Office Bonding Trip to Joyland.
Quentin has worked for Rogers & Price a total of three weeks and is “damn lucky,” his boss says, to have joined their ranks in time for the OBT. Every three years at the end of August, the firm makes the pilgrimage to the outskirts of town where Joyland grows increasingly desolate. Fewer and fewer rides continue to function, strung together now by a padlocked SkyDrop, a defunct Tilt-a-Whirl. Those still in operation have, at best, lost their sheen to rust, like the SwingAlong or the teacups. At worst, well, Quentin is sitting on the worst. The Wolf’s Head is a decades-old wooden roller coaster, white paint flaking like dandruff from its tall stick-legs.
Quentin’s younger sister Janine sent him off this morning with a taunting “Awoooo,” her chin pointed up at their kitchen ceiling. Janine loves the Wolf’s Head and has described the coaster to him in detail. It crawls to a slow start, creaking at an almost-snail pace around the first bend and chugging slowly, slowly to the peak of the 80-foot drop. There, it tips cautiously over the summit and plunges into a thicket of trees below. The best part is over in the first thirty seconds, she says. Once at top speed, the coaster roars into a series of side-loops and miniature drops. Nothing like that first thrill, where you can feel your stomach hovering in your ribs.
Quentin suffered many a grade school field trip at Joyland and even the occasional baseball team end-of-year party in high school. Somehow he always managed to break off from the group lining up for the Wolf’s Head. He’d accompany another group of boys to get funnel cakes or duck into the bathroom without warning. Even the Roundabout, he would ride ten times in a row in self-defense. So Quentin has never ridden the Wolf’s Head before—has in fact never ridden a roller coaster at all—and he had been hoping to keep it this way.
Today, minutes ago, they strolled as an office—a pastiche of gangly twenty-somethings and accomplished fifty-somethings and a handful of mid-thirties associates—through the gates of Joyland. Two steps in, Bill Rogers announced, “Let’s start the day out right, whatta ya say?” nodding up at the Wolf’s Head. Quentin drifted to the back of the group, praying that his absence would go unnoticed. But his boss—his attentive boss, who’s already treated him to Royals tickets, who chose him from a pool of fifty-five applicants and claps him on the shoulder when his research turns up something helpful—turned to find him. Bill smiled broadly when he spotted Quentin and shouted across the group, “Ya feelin’ the fire, Q?” He flexed his club-arms to the side like he was rowing.
Until three weeks ago, on his first day at Rogers & Price, no one has ever called Quentin Q. He’s exerted significant energy in pretending it doesn’t faze him to hear it, that he is a natural Q. As a teenager, he’d been fascinated by James Bond’s Q, even imagined the character was himself with the parted, swooping hair in the future. Collared shirt and satin tie. Job of important, but mysterious nature. He used to hope that some of his classmates might adopt the nickname, but hearing it now, Quentin understands why they didn’t. The slightly nasally, stuttered nature of Quentin suits him in a way the bold concision of Q does not. For whatever reason, the moniker reminds him of his meager stance of 5’8” and the patches of skin at the sides of his mouth that refuse to grow hair.
Quentin nodded and pointed at the bathrooms. “I’m gonna take a leak,” he said. “I’ll meet you in line.”
“Oh, good thinking,” Bill agreed with a clap. “Let’s all empty ourselves out before we do it on that 80-foot drop,” to which the group responded with a collective hoot of laughter, far too robust, Quentin felt, for the situation at hand. All twenty of them filed into the men’s and women’s rooms respectively and waited until all twenty had filed back out. As the group proceeded five-deep to the Wolf’s Head on-ramp, Quentin felt his leg muscles beginning to fail him. Bill was adjusting his Royals ball cap and praising the day for its sunshine when Quentin stumbled a few paces beside him. “Ope,” Bill chuckled, “Forget your coffee this morning?”
Quentin does not even drink coffee, a fact which he’s concealed by accepting a cup every time Bill brings him one unbidden and pouring the contents bit by bit into the base of the small office tree at his feet. He tried, too tamely, again: “I might grab a funnel cake. I—forgot breakfast.” Bill insisted that the Wolf’s Head would wake him right up and then they’d all get funnel cakes together, on him.
Now the cars are inching forward and Quentin is wishing he’d turned right around and run as fast as his short legs would take him, good impressions be damned. Gina, to his right, is smiling peacefully as though her favorite romantic comedy is about to play on TV. Bill, to his left, seems delighted to be squeezed into the modest-sized seats, metal bar digging a cleft in his legs. “Seatbelts, team!” he calls out to his employees. “Anybody goes flying out, Price is gonna have a new case on Monday.” Price deals in personal injury law and turns around to give a stern shake of the finger to potential coaster-leapers.
Quentin has never noticed that his saliva has a taste, but now, suddenly, it does. It’s the taste of copper, or perhaps he’s bitten his tongue. His hands have grown painfully hot on the metal bar. His stomach is not going to hover like Janine claims, because it seems already to have liquefied and dripped down around his intestines.
“Ya doin alright there, Q?” Bill has been asked to remove his ball cap and has stowed it between his knees for the ride.
Quentin does not think he can call up any words without vomiting into his lap, so he pries a hand loose from the bar and gives a shaky thumbs-up. Bill claps him on the shoulder, the same way he does at work, and leans over him to ask Gina the same. She looks momentarily surprised to find there are people beside her, but recovers with a contented, “Ready to go.”
They are going already, of course, and Quentin hears it, the infamous creak of the wood as it rounds the first bend. He cannot believe they are all riding this thing of their own, free will. It approaches the hike and tips them all back in their seats. Slowly, slowly, it begins its ascent, so slowly that Quentin is shocked they have not begun rolling backwards.
Bill is drumming an elaborate beat on the metal bar and singing We will, we will, rock you. The vibrations run all the way up Quentin’s arms until they have surely altered his heartbeat to echo it. An associate turns around and adds Sock you. Bum bum. Pick you up and drop you. “Ohhh, good one Kenny,” Bill says.
The skinny, wooden beams chirr bitterly as the cars climb, a clack-clack-clacking issues from beneath them. Someone from the back is saying I think I can I think I can. Quentin closes his eyes and pictures himself at home on the basement floor, cement cool against his back. He has just run a five-minute mile, he is powerful, he can do anything. He breathes. When he opens his eyes, the trees have fallen below them, but they are only halfway up the incline, wheels straining audibly against the rusted tracks. There is no way this climb is only thirty seconds, his sister has exaggerated profoundly. He can hear his heart beating to Queen in his ears. He hopes it’s impossible to vomit at this angle.
Bill Rogers takes out a video camera and captures the view as they rise. It’s a small digital camera, the kind only people over fifty use anymore, Quentin thought this morning, when his boss filmed them lathering on sunscreen in the parking lot. Bill has turned the lens on him and Quentin tries to arrange his face in a smile, but cannot be sure he’s achieved one by the time Bill swings it behind them and tells everyone to wave. Bill then points the lens at himself to give his own thumbs-up, and pans back to the front as they clamber nearer the top. The dull screeching of the tracks has begun to sound like a warning cry. A few hands go up in anticipation of the drop. Quentin is not crazy, he is not letting go of that metal bar. He thinks to himself that he will not live through this. That when they pull up to the unloading platform, he will have disintegrated into a hot pond of flesh that his boss or Gina will have to step over. Make it stop, he prays, My fucking lord, make it stop.
And then, as though someone were listening, it does.
Bill Rogers is jerked back in his seat as the cars lurch to a halt mere feet from the summit of the Wolf’s Head. Thankfully he has wrapped his camera strap around his wrist or it might’ve tumbled free of his grasp. A sprinkling of inhales can be heard in the sudden silence. A collective breath is held. A few people with arms raised lower them cautiously and look behind them.
Bill hasn’t ridden the Wolf’s Head since three years ago on the last Office Bonding Trip, but he’s never heard of it stopping midway. He would like to say he’s not in the least concerned, and this is almost true, he’s mostly not concerned. Most likely the spaced-out teenager who boarded them has accidentally pressed a button or they’ve suspended the ride to check on a piece of equipment. But it’s also true that neither option puts him terribly at ease.
He would like to say something comforting to Quentin Carter, his office assistant of three weeks with the most endearing, most eager-to-please smile he has ever seen. He hasn’t been smiling that smile this morning, for some reason, which hits Bill with a deep chord of disappointment he’s surprised to be feeling. He’s been looking forward to the Office Bonding Trip, especially with his new assistant under his wing, his new assistant who looks so unabashedly the way Bill himself has felt for many years—adrift, uncertain, eager to be taken into the care of another. Bill has hoped that this trip might establish a sort of understanding between them. He's felt it's still too soon to take him to a baseball game—they'd talked Balboni's HR record and whether another world series could be in the cards in the interview—so he simply gifted him at the one week mark with Royals tickets to use with a special someone. Or if not equals, then counterparts. Just two men adrift on a roller coaster. He tries to think what one man adrift on a roller coaster would say to another as he folds his camera back up and stows it in his pocket.
“This is the dramatic pause,” he says finally to Quentin. “But we might as well enjoy it, 'cause it’s all downhill from here.” He winks and locks his fingers together behind his head. He would recline, but they are all already reclined, looking out over the impoverished park, scant crowd sauntering between rides. Three children run in circles around their mother at a picnic table. A group of teenagers fall in line at the hot dog stand. A toddler screams in his father’s arms by the Whack-a-Mole. Joyland is more of a nod to amusement now than a true theme park. Only a dozen or so rides still running. Mostly, Bill continues to bring his firm here out of nostalgia and because there are never any lines. Beyond the park, he can see the distant vista of the plains. The outlines of a few tall, stark buildings stand out to one side, a network of neighborhoods knotted around them, while a wide expanse of green-and-brown grass is ostracized on the other.
Bill searches for anything in the landscape that Quentin might find interesting. Unfortunately, the Wichita State baseball field is on the other end of town. “You know, they say that highway is haunted,” he says, pointing to a road in the distance, with two long, deep ditches carved out on either side of it. He looks to Quentin, who squints his eyes in the direction he is indicating. Gina, beyond him, has her eyes closed as though she has fallen asleep. Bill does not pretend to understand Gina. Their conversations have always been a few beats shy of a standard interaction. She’s not awkward, exactly, simply in her own world. Bill knows that she has a fiancée at KU med and suspects she’s simply counting the days until she graduates from Wichita State and her real life begins in Salina.
Quentin’s face has blanched on the ride up, Bill notices, and suddenly he regrets impinging on the boy’s breakfast. His wife is like this—when she’s gone more than a few hours without food, she grows shaky and pale. Once when they found themselves stuck in traffic outside Kansas City, the last of the tangerines already eaten, she requested a story to distract her from the thought of food. Bill does the same now for Quentin, launching into the story of the girl who was riding her bike on the shoulder of the haunted highway and was startled by a semi-truck over the edge, into the ditch. Her body was never found, the story goes, but her screams and the clicking of bike wheels can be heard still at night. Quentin is pondering the story, or perhaps he’s focused on something else in the distance. Still, he hasn’t said a word since the ride began.
“If anything is haunted, it’s this roller coaster,” says Price over his shoulder, suspended above them. “You know that boy’s head still rolls around the tracks sometimes.” His eyebrows go up. “Maybe that’s what we’re caught on.” He smirks, proud to have outdone Bill’s story.
“C’mon, that’s not a ghost story,” Bill responds. “That was real. Somebody’s kid.” A decade or so prior, a boy had ridden the Wolf’s Head and lost his hat on the ride. A Chiefs hat or something, some team he liked. Afterward, he jumped the fence that cordoned off the ride and ducked under the tracks to retrieve it. At the same moment, the cars were making another trip around and took off his head as they swept the base of the drop. The boy was twelve or thirteen, right around Quentin’s age at the time, Bill thinks. Price had followed the case closely, unimpressed with the tactics of the lawyer working it. Bill nudges his own hat further under his thigh.
“Oh good,” Price says, nodding behind them. “Spiderman’s come to save us.” They all turn and catch sight of a squat man lumbering up the narrow set of steps at the side of the tracks that Bill has never noticed before. Of course there are steps, when he thinks about it, although somehow it detracts from the fun of the ride. The feeling that he’s placed himself for a few minutes in the hands of the unknown. The man is wearing a blue Joyland polo and huffing in palpable annoyance up the steps. He stops one car beyond Bill’s where Kenny and Price are strapped in.
“Okay, men,” The man claps, breathing hard. “Who did it?”
Kenny and Price look at each other, bemused. “Who did… what?” Price asks.
“C’mon, I don’t have all day. That’s—” he gasps for breath “—a hell of a climb and it says on every—damn sign you can’t bring cameras on the ride. It’s a safety—hazard and we sell pictures at the end for—anybody who wants one.”
Slowly, it is dawning on Bill that he is in trouble, the way he was once in trouble for shoving another boy who beat him at Four Square, that the roller coaster is stopped in midair because of him. He knew the park had seen increasingly strict regulations—the case of the beheaded boy so many years prior had not shut them down, but it had threatened to. The ownership made a big show of following safety protocol since then and apparently, this has still not let up. In truth, Bill had never read the signs by The Wolf’s Head. He’d simply wanted something to remember the day by.
“You’re not the only one with a camera,” the employee continues, pointing at a camera affixed to a skinny pole at the side, “We got it all on tape. And I seen it was somebody right about here. So you might as well tell us who y’are, cause you’re gettin’ off right now with me. That’s a major offense and we don’t take nothin’ lightly here at Joyland.” He is looking sternly from Kenny to Price who are too taken aback to respond and before Bill can summon up a response of his own, Quentin’s hand is in the air beside him. The man in the blue polo looks back at him and says, “You?” Quentin nods and Bill sees that the boy is serious. His jaw is set. He is fully prepared to take responsibility. From anyone else, Bill might find this brown-nosy and obnoxious, but from Quentin he’s left momentarily speechless. The man in the polo is gesticulating wildly and it’s not until Quentin fumbles with his seatbelt that Bill finds his voice, in a higher place than he left it. “What?” he laughs. “No, no. That was me. See?” He extracts his camera from his pocket and waves it at the man in the polo. “Me and my video camera. Woopsy.”
“Yeah, we’ll woopsy you,” the man is muttering as Bill unbuckles, “Y’ever try to kill somebody with your damn technology on our goddamn roller coaster.” Bill puts his hand on Quentin’s shoulder for a brief moment before he steps out. He smiles, a weak smile that cannot, surely, convey any of what he wants it to. “Enjoy the ride, kid,” he says and begins the tedious journey back the way they came.
Kenny and Price and the rest of the crew will be laughing shortly—Bill Rogers kicked off the Wolf’s Head, a story they will repeat endlessly in the office, will relish the retelling of. But for now they are turned in their seats, watching the back of Bill’s head as he descends, shepherded down the steps of the roller coaster by a sweaty Joyland employee.
Gina watches her boss, too, his bald head shrinking down the stairs, and it’s a strange moment, like being told for the first time that adults are people too. She had the flicker of such a moment last month, when she was leafing through Brides Magazine with her mother, who paused to say, “You know, we’ll have to get you some birth control now. What kind do you think you’ll want?” Gina stuttered, unprepared for the question, but her mother had insisted gently, adding in a conspiratorial tone, “Trust me, we’ll want to get you started before the big day.”
The conversation feels distant now, from her perch in the air above Joyland. But at the time it jolted the breath from her, as though she’d missed a step at the bottom of a staircase.
She taps her fingers along the metal bar in her lap impatiently. Quentin Carter, the legal assistant beside her, is not making conversation, as the lawyers around them are with their seatmates. For this, she is grateful. If she’s made to wait, she prefers to do the waiting silently.
The city stretched out before her, Gina feels that she is seeing Wichita the way she’s felt in it lately—somewhere on the outskirts, as if watching from above. It is such that, flipping through Brides Magazine in her parents’ kitchen, she felt that one piece of her was turning pages, pointing at dresses, and another piece had drifted off up to the light fixture, uninvolved and spared a conversation with her mother about sex.
Her mother was correct in presuming that she and Carl had not yet slept together. Oh no, they had been very careful. They were saving themselves. For each other, for the Lord, out of respect for the holy union of matrimony and maybe even for their parents, who would die if they knew they had already slept in the same bed, if they knew where their hands had been.
But ever since Carl had proposed, the light had gotten harder to see. Engagement seemed an especially tricky, especially gray area. There was not going to be anyone else, after all. They had already made the commitment, after all. What was the harm in jumping the gun by a few short months, by maybe one short year? But every time she felt Carl growing hard in his boxers and she crawled on top of him with her clothes on, every time they rubbed maybe very slightly back and forth against each other, eventually they would break apart and hold one another at arm’s length. They would whisper, “We can’t do this.” They would breathe, “Not yet.”
One night, maybe a month ago, just before this conversation with her mother, she and Carl had had a slip-up. Not a huge one, though honestly, Gina was not sure how big it was in the scale of sexual purity slip-ups. No one at church spoke in much detail about sex, so it was hard to know just where this fell. But she knew it was somewhere on the chart, because Oh my God. She didn’t like to say that, but there just weren’t any other words for it. Oh my God.
It was the night of Carl’s birthday and she’d been saving her new, blue dress for the occasion. It dipped lower in the front than any dress she had worn before, but the long sleeves (albeit see-through) seemed to make up for this. The bottom was shorter than she’d realized in the dressing room, without shoes on, but when she saw Carl’s face, she decided: good. She was entitled to one flattering piece of clothing. All night, his eyes had not left her. And when finally they got back to his dorm room, he’d thrown her onto the bed in her blue dress and kissed her all over. Ravenously and then slowly. Her chin, her chest, her stomach, between her legs. Somehow, she was no longer wearing her panties and still, he was kissing her between the legs. There was no protocol on where one should be kissed, that much she was sure of. Nowhere in the Bible was kissing of any sort discouraged. Although, the kissing began to slow and deepen and her chest had tightened and her body—her whole body really—relaxed and began to simmer with a strange and beautiful feeling. Like she had partially melted or ascended already to Heaven. She thought this was the best she would ever feel, but it continued to feel better and better (and fuck it—she did not say the word, she only thought it—Carl was a man of the Lord, he knew the boundaries. If this was within them, so be it, within them) until that pressure in her chest and between her legs broke, in bright, incredible waves, across every muscle in her body.
It’s a strange thing to learn, after twenty-one years of living, that there is a whole separate realm of feeling. Gina had shuddered for nearly an hour afterward in his arms. And Carl, he was happy, so happy, to have shown her this feeling, but the guilt began to creep in on the happiness. Soon he was rubbing his face with his hand, running his fingers over his lips as a detective might feel out a crime scene. They’d crossed the line, he decided, and though she knew he was right, Gina had been praying—not praying, she would not have prayed such a thing—she had been hoping he would not realize it.
But the whole next day, she’d floated about on a tiny cloud of understanding. There was more than she’d ever known out there. There was Carl and there was the Lord and there was sometimes sadness and there was happiness also and there was that. She was grateful for the knowledge. She thanked the Lord and she thanked Carl for the knowledge. But she began to long for its fulfillment—to crave it, really, in a way she had not craved anything before.
On the weekends, in his dorm room in Salina, she let her legs fall open beside him. She clasped his hand in hers and set it gently on her hipbone, willing him, willing him lower. But his hand tensed up now and he brought it to her stomach, where it sat innocuously at her belly button.
So, fine. If he would not give it to her, she thought, she would find a way to it herself. When he fell asleep, she crept her fingers under her panties, probed cautiously. It was a fleshy and foreign feeling, as though what she found there might not have belonged to her at all. But she couldn’t do it beside him, she realized, with Carl’s Bible on the bedside table. When she got home to Wichita, in her own dorm at night, she stopped to examine the long, ribbed shaft of the pen in her hand. The pen she’d been using to make diligent notes in the margins of her history textbook. Quietly, gently, though there was no one around to hear, she had set the textbook aside and run the grip of the pen between her legs, over her panties. She felt her skin growing hot, the first pulsing of it, but just as soon it died out. Several times more, she tried. The same pen, over her panties, the same direction, then a new one. Twice it began again, but both times was extinguished in a matter of seconds. Frustrated, she threw the pen across her dorm room, where it clinked against her floor lamp and lodged in the shag carpet.
Gina had almost given up on finding that feeling again. She resented Carl for what he denied her, but she loved him at the same time for his strength. She was lucky indeed to have found such a man of God. They could wait. She could wait. She’d waited this long, after all. But today, minutes ago, a curious thing happened as she settled into her seat on the Wolf’s Head. It was the same, worn, wooden seat it had always been. But her new cloud of understanding came with her. This time, when the cars shook to life below her, the moment they began to rumble slowly down the track, a familiar warmth took hold of her. A familiar tightness gathered in her chest and between her legs. She was breathless for a moment, focusing on that feeling. She was determined to maintain it, determined to bring it out of her. She called to mind a picture of the blue dress, but that felt wrong, so she replaced it with the top of Carl’s head—blond hair in tight curls, dripping bits of sweat on her thighs, glancing occasionally up at her. The vibrations of the car rang easily through her. She felt the heat spreading along her legs, her body melting, a tear beginning in her chest and suddenly, they ground to a stop.
Sky, boss, a camera, trees far below them, there was life happening all around her. One of the beauties of it. To be in one place and another simultaneously. Dual existence. A perfect cooperation of realms.
Now, as the shuddering is revived beneath her, she closes her eyes and feels herself slipping back to that limbo land between them.
As the rotors scrape again at the tracks and the cars quiver unsteadily forward, Quentin finds himself breathing in double time. At least he is breathing. But he is not ready, is not ready, is not ready. It’s all he can think as he watches the first car crest the edge. His car is smack dab in the center of the pack and when it reaches the summit, he sees the city he grew up in the way the birds see it. He sees it all simultaneously, the way he’s heard that images and sound bites travel back to those who are dying on a speed reel in the last few seconds of life.
He sees the apartment of the girl who told him three weeks ago that she might, maybe, love him. He sees the koi pond in her backyard where Quentin stood as she said this, watching the fish swim in slow, serene circles. He sees the gate he walked back through, claiming that his parents would want him home soon for dinner. He sees his father’s old Buick that he drove to meet her for the last time two weeks ago, the day before his boss gave him two Royals tickets. He sees the yellow shirt she wore when she broke up with him, sees the oily red gloss on her lips when she said, “As long as I’ve known you, you’ve been scared of the big stuff.” It was a long time she’d known him.
He sees other things, too, like the baseball field at his high school, the pitcher’s mound where he struck out Gary Hunter his senior year, but then flubbed against Jordan Carr in the bottom of the ninth. He sees his parents’ house where he’s living still and the hot chicken stew his mother made for dinner last night. He sees their next-door neighbor’s porch swing, the one he broke in the middle of the night in tenth grade after drinking his first Corona. He sees the bush in his own yard he ran with his friends to hide behind, watching Mr. Boylan step out in his boxers and scan the yard for intruders.
He sees his father suggesting law school and his fear, even, of law school. He sees the job listing at Rogers & Price, where he can test the waters, sees the warm smile of Bill Rogers surrounding him like a bear hug.
He sees, as they begin the descent, the head of a boy he knew rolling around the tracks. He had not known him well, but for a season they were on the same T-ball team and Quentin sees the newspaper that day, years later, with his old friend’s gap-toothed smile and cowlick spiked up on the front page. He’d remembered him, of course, the boy who hit only home runs from the T. The boy who ran fearlessly from base to base, who ran fearlessly under the Wolf’s Head for nothing more than a Chiefs hat.
And then, they are falling, further and faster than Quentin has ever wanted to fall, a dense net of trees obscuring the bottom of the drop. And Quentin feels it—it’s the way his sister described. His stomach has floated up into his ribs and hovers there. Everything inside him, actually, has leapt up of its own accord—his kidneys, intestines—he can feel all the many things that make him him. When they dip below the trees, he settles back into himself with a jarring thump and cannot help but wonder at his own power of survival. At full speed now, the Wolf’s Head takes them up around a series of bends and side-loops. Quentin feels the wind rushing past him and sees the ground streaming below them and smiles in shock at the feeling of adrenaline in his veins. He cannot remember now why he was scared, can hardly believe he’s spent so many years hiding at the funnel cake stand. It seemed possible he would melt into nothing and what a crazy thought that had been. Of course, it seems so obvious from up here: he will live. And to know that you can fall from 80 feet in the sky and live—well, he’s never felt anything like it. Quentin lifts one hand tentatively off the metal bar and raises it in a fist of success. At the next drop, he lets out a triumphant whoop alongside his screaming coworkers.
Bill Rogers watches his employees scream their way around the Wolf’s Head from a park bench below. The man in the Joyland polo eyes him from his post beside the dazed-looking teenager at the operating board. Jesus, Bill thinks, give it up. The man in the polo has forced Bill to delete his footage on the roller coaster, which seems an unnecessary, even heartless, measure to Bill. “We got pictures you can buy from the booth over there,” the man explained, standing over him until the footage had been erased.
When the cars disappear behind the far side of the coaster, Bill stands and approaches the photo booth. He scans the photos on the screen for a picture he’s in, but it seems they only take photos on the downhill side. He finds, instead, a picture where Quentin’s eyes are wide with an ingenuous shock and his hair stands on end. Gina, beside him, has her eyes closed as though she were settling into a warm bath. Price bares his tonsils below in what is surely a gleeful bellow. Kenny’s arms are raised in two fists, something between joy and defense.
“That one,” Bill orders and has it printed in an 8x10. When the photo’s delivered in a brown paper slip, Bill slides it out and writes on the back: Q, Ride it while you can. –BR
These are recycled words. The words his father used shortly after Bill’s twenty-fifth birthday, presenting him with a blue-and-chrome-plate Suzuki motorcycle, second-hand but polished to a majestic gleam. His father hadn’t given him more than a card and a squeeze on the shoulder for his birthday since he was ten. But it wasn’t for his birthday, his father contended. Bill had just passed the bar and landed a job as an associate with a big firm downtown. His father did not say Congratulations or You’ve earned it, though Bill heard these things in the silence between them. He said instead, I know you’re a fancy lawyer now, but you should ride this thing while you can.
And Bill had. He rode it every day to his fancy office in a fancy new building until he wrecked it on a patch of black ice on the east side of town. He walked away with a broken ankle and a broken rib and a nasty gash up his forearm, but all told, he was much better off than the cruiser. He took it to a repair shop anyway, to see about its prospects. It was totaled, they said, the frame of the bike was completely done in, the tank had split all the way open. Bill was married by this time to Marlene, who confessed that the motorcycle had made her nervous anyway. That she would be put much at ease if she knew he was driving a Honda or a Volvo—Christ, a Jaguar, so long as it had sides and four wheels.
So he traded the crumpled Suzuki in for a Volvo sedan. He kept a dented, chrome side panel, which he mounted on the wall of the garage, and Marlene apologized for being such a Nervous Nellie. It was fine, he told her, she was right. Though he wondered from time to time what his father’s words had meant exactly, how long while you can was supposed to have lasted. And he would wonder, again, if it was really fine, when Marlene concluded she was too much of a worrier to have kids. Bill liked his life with Marlene and he spent the bulk of his time at work anyhow. He lived and breathed real estate law and on the few weekends he didn’t work, he and Marlene drove to Kansas City for a baseball game or live jazz and dancing. It would’ve been a chore fitting the tantrums and swim meets and band practices of a kid into that life. And he was a child himself, really. He still feels this sometimes. How could he have been entrusted with the care of another?
And yet there were times when he feared they had made a wrong turn. At the park, first, on a Sunday afternoon, when a kid lodged his kite in a tree and stood on his father’s shoulders to retrieve it. Later, when Price’s boy showed up at the office and hopped into his dad’s over-sized leather chair, spinning it in exuberant circles. Most recently, when Quentin Carter stepped into his office, hair parted too neatly to the side, already prepared to admire him. A few moments—and there were so few, really, in the long and fulfilling ride that has been his life up to now—when he suspected the world of continuing on without him.
Now, looking up at the Wolf’s Head, he feels a surge of anger that he hasn’t felt in years. The same anger that threatened to end his marriage when Marlene had reached menopause. It wasn’t until the onset of her hot flashes and nightly massage requests that Bill realized he had still harbored some hope. He experiences the anger now like a motorcycle engine revving to life. Like a gleaming Suzuki that could tear through a metal guardrail. That could spin out of control and leave itself wasted. He eyes the Joyland employee in his glass booth, fat lips turned down, and imagines twisting them off in the name of petty justice. For a moment, Bill believes himself capable of anything.
But it’s himself, really, that he’s angry with. He asks for things other people want every day and usually, he gets them. In large settlements and redrafted leases. Super Lawyers named him a Rising Star and then a Super Lawyer and finally one of the Top Ten Lawyers in Kansas. “The meeting point of charm and intimidation,” the Wichita Business Journal said in his profile. His partners and employees respect him, admire him. He speaks at Rotary Clubs and legal conferences and hundreds of people take notes. When it comes to one damn thing that he wants, though…
He didn’t even fight for his footage from the roller coaster, he remembers now. He’d erased it himself, while the pit-stained man in the polo stood over him. He’s built for one kind of finesse, he knows. The Great Procurer of Results, so long as it’s not for himself. Don’t ask him how to get one damn thing for himself.
He looks down at the photo in his hand and considers keeping it. He’ll set it on the mantle in his living room and remember the day that everyone else rode The Wolf’s Head. He considers throwing it away. A trash bin sits an arm’s length from him by the counter. But he pictures Quentin mounting it on his wall at home—studying the photo the way Bill studies the Suzuki side panel. Not quite knowing what it means, but knowing that a balloon will fill his chest if he watches it long enough. That even passing it briefly, the knowledge of its post on the wall is enough to send a light tug under his sternum, to amplify his heartbeat in his ears. In the end, he knows what he’ll do. He opens the paper envelope and slides the photo back inside for Quentin.
By the time he tucks it under his arm, the cars have pulled up to the unloading dock and his partners and employees are climbing out. Kenny beats his chest like a gorilla and Price slaps him on the back, two people who’ve conquered something together. When Price turns to Quentin and squeezes his shoulder, Quentin tilts his head to the sky and sings “Awoooo” in a rare display of self-assurance. Gina, even Gina, wears the faint smile of deep satisfaction.
As they stride down the exit ramp, Bill attempts to exhale the anger from his chest. It’s too close to the surface. It prickles at his skin. He breathes in, exhales again. He watches Quentin hop a flaking rail. He pushes the anger down instead and feels it settling in his gut. A latching, locking feeling. Heavy. The sun emerges from a patch of clouds then, reflecting off the Land Slide to the right. Bill squints through the glare and assumes a smile, prepares the joke he will make about the size of a Joyland holding cell. Soon Kenny spots him at the booth and the hollering pack lopes toward him.