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Carousel by Jamie Feldman

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Jamie Feldman holds an M.Phil in Creative Writing from Trinity College. Her fiction appears in That Dammed Beaver and Honest Ulsterman, among others. She has also written plays and a novel. Jamie is from Halifax, Canada, but now calls Dublin, Ireland home.

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There were only two reasons a guy like me would come back to his hometown: a wedding or a funeral. Luckily for me, it was the former. Cedar Grove still looked the same as the day I was born: perpetually stuck in 1979 with its wooden bungalows, cracked asphalt, and front lawns dotted with expired dandelions and clumps of crabgrass. The colours never changed, only faded with each passing year. The streets wound and met at odd angles and the road paint had long been worn away. Muscle memory guided the car through the town, past the greying courthouse, taking the shortcut by Landry’s Dairy, and cruising alongside the flooded ballfield until the good pavement ended and the potholes began. The car stopped on Hawthorne Street. It was a strange feeling to have come that far, to a place I knew so well, and not feel any satisfaction in having arrived. Like I said, nothing changed. 

I got out of the car, leaving my overnight bag in the trunk just in case, and looked up at Donnie Stadler’s house: baby blue wooden siding in need of a paint job, a few shingles missing from the roof, but there were new Adirondack chairs on the lawn, and WELCOME had been freshly painted on the mailbox. The lace curtains rustled in the front window. Time was running out. I grabbed the box of store-bought whoopie pies from the passenger seat and rummaged on the floor for a package of sunflower-printed paper napkins I hoped would make up for the fact that nothing was homemade. 

“Little Dickie Donovan!” said a woman from the front door. “Is that you?”

“Richard is fine,” I said, ensuring the napkins and pies met her before I did. Logic indicated that this was Donnie’s mother, but Donnie’s mother was a sturdy, lean woman with coal-black hair. It stands to reason her hair would no longer be dark, but the obese woman clinging to the railing to complete the two steps from the house to the driveway in no way resembled the woman I remembered. 

“Leave him alone, Ma,” said Donnie from the doorway. He held the screen door with his bad arm, and took my offering with the other. “You gettin’ fancy on us, Dick?” he said, passing the napkins to his mother.

“Oh, sunflowers,” she said. “You must have paid a fortune!” 

“They weren’t for you,” I whispered to Donnie as we went in. In a few minutes we’d each be served whoopie pies set upon sunflower paper napkins and that would be enough.  

Now I waited for the inevitable question period: Have you settled down yet? Dating anyone? Still working for the government? Those cushy desk jobs got good benefits, don’t they? That must be how you look so good, eh? What’s your mother doing? Is she still married to that man from the city? She still lives up there? So they didn’t get divorced, then?

In my experience, it was best to just provide yes or no answers. Those asking the questions would fill in the details as they saw fit, regardless of any information provided. Yes, Mom was in the city with a man who wasn’t my father, but at least he got her out of Cedar Grove. I’m not sure if I could have on my own. Donnie couldn’t get his mother out. He couldn’t even get himself out. Then again, when he came back from those two years in the infantry, I knew he wouldn’t be leaving like the rest of us. He never told anyone what happened when he went away. Lots of folks speculate around here, but old friends don’t talk to each other about stuff like that.

Donnie’s mother was still sizing me up while Donnie rummaged through a bookshelf for our twelfth-grade yearbook. I had tried my best to dress down and match Donnie’s presumed wardrobe of a hooded sweatshirt and jeans, but my jeans were too dark, sweatshirt too fitted, shoes too clean, and hair too combed.

“You know what’s different about you, Dickie?”

“Richard,” I corrected.

“It’s those fancy glasses you got tacked onto your eyes. You used to have such a happy face.”

“That’s what happens when we get older, I suppose.” 

“The doctors said my Donnie should be wearing expensive lenses like them. Said he only got half his vision in his right eye now, but they don’t know what they’re talking about. Look at him. Perfect sight. Always has. They’re just after the money, ya know.”

Donnie was squinting at something across the street.

“Take them glasses off, Dickie, and tell me how many fingers I got up. I betcha you don’t need them either,” Donnie’s mother continued. 

“Three,” I lied, staring at obviously two, albeit slightly blurry fingers waggling a few feet from my face. I put my glasses back on and joined Donnie at the window before she could say anything else. 

“You can almost see it from here,” he said. “There. In the yard. That’s Carl.” 

Across the street, something metallic glinted from behind a yellow house. It was the only yellow house on the street and it belonged to Maggie Mae. 

“It was supposed to read carousel, but the metal’s all worn off. Only the C and the A and the R and the L are left,” he said.

“So that’s Carl,” I said. Indeed the metallic glint resembled a gold post, presumably attached to a painted horse on a track. 

Maggie Mae, just like the song, never wanted to be alone. She always was, though. As long as I can remember she lived alone in that yellow house with the purple shutters and unpaved driveway. Refusing to adhere to the original community’s asphalt conformity, her driveway attracted any neighborhood kids on bikes who wanted to try out their best skids and slides in the gravel. Any resulting skinned knees and cut elbows promptly received medical attention in the form of a warm cloth, large bandage, and one of Maggie’s special orange juice popsicles. I always pictured her as so much older than she really was back then. Adulthood always seemed so foreign and far away. In truth, she couldn’t have been much older than I was now. 

I never thought it strange that Maggie lived alone. It wasn’t unusual in Cedar Grove for husbands to go away to work or to just go away. Some of the older kids used to tell stories about how Maggie Mae lived with a man once. I would have only been a toddler then. They’d say he had a pink face and a loud voice. He wore steel-toed pit boots and drove a beat-up station wagon that swerved all over the road. That was before Maggie made popsicles, when the shutters weren’t purple, and no one rode bikes through the gravel. Mom used to say that cop cars would drive up and down Hawthorne Street every Saturday night until one time an ambulance came with them. After that the cop cars disappeared and so did the man who lived in the yellow house. 

“Is Maggie Mae home?” I asked.

“Not tonight,” said Donnie. “Her sister’s helping her get ready at her house. You can see Carl, though.”

“The carousel.”

“Yeah. I helped put him back together ya know. Man, he was so beat-up and broken when she found him. Brought him over piece by piece. Looks pretty good now, though, don’t ya think?”

Donnie’s uncle gave him a job in the family’s welding shop. I knew he had been teaching Donnie the trade in his spare time, but officially Donnie just drove the truck. He didn’t have his papers or anything like that so on the books he did pickups, deliveries, that type of stuff. Once a month Donnie would get sent up to the city. He’d give me a call, we’d go down to Flannigan’s and I’d buy him a drink. That’s when he’d tell me about Carl. He said she found it in the dump, probably abandoned after the Fall Fair went through town. It’d be too much trouble to haul broken fair rides from town to town, so I suppose if anything was beyond repair, they’d just leave it in whatever place they were passing through. 

Maggie Mae’s narrow lot tapered in the back and stretched all the way to the gravel pit behind. It was the longest backyard on the street. Odds are her yard ended a far bit closer to the house, but knowing Maggie she probably went and cleared the extra land by hand and claimed it for herself. Beyond the yard and behind the gravel pit was the dump. It wasn’t one of those big city landfills where everything’s covered in needles and condoms and carrot peels. This was one of those specialty places where people dropped off big-ticket items like leaky refrigerators, outdated washing machines, and the occasional air conditioner. They also took back paint and car batteries and even offered a goodwill donation box. It was a one-stop drop for people who could buy rather than repair their broken possessions. 

When we were in high school, Donnie used to know how to break into the goodwill donation box and a whole bunch of us kids would rummage through it looking for designer labels and tags. Anything displaying a brand name we thought would make us look cool was snatched up, removed, and brought to Maggie Mae’s. I always went for jeans. It didn’t matter what size. I’d cut off the logo tag from just above the belt loops and get Maggie to sew it onto the same spot of my own discount pair. Those were the days of lemon gin or stolen vodka consumed without cups around the drum from a washing machine. If you could get them out, those drums made perfect fire pits. Then one of the younger kids got stuck in an old refrigerator while playing hide and seek and no one hung out over there after that.

“Maggie’s building a carousel,” Donnie said one day at Flannigan’s. “Found it at the dump. Guess they don’t know what to do with it so they’re just letting her have it.”

“You’d think they could get some scrap out of it,” I said.

“Guess not. She’s got the whole thing in the yard now. Took forever to drag it over all broken and beat-up. She’s getting me to help put the pieces back together.”

Donnie always gave me progress updates when we went to Flannigan’s. First they put it together and then got it running. I guess Donnie’s uncle taught him well. It was sometime during the painting that “it” became “he” and “the carousel” became “Carl.” It was good for Donnie to have something important in his life, and good for him to spend some time with Maggie. Not too many kids on Hawthorne Street now. Not too many kids anywhere still play hide-and-seek and get their kicks driving bikes through gravel. 

The street was empty now as Donnie and I made our way to Maggie Mae’s backyard. He had taken his pair of tinted gas station driving glasses but as soon as we hit the first blade of grass in Maggie’s lawn, he whipped them off. She had trained him well. Maggie hated sunglasses. She always said, “Why make the world any darker than it already is?” 

“Looks pretty good, don’t he?” Donnie said, patting one of the fiberglass horses. He rolled down his sleeve and rubbed a small smudge on the attached golden post. “Gotta look perfect for tomorrow.”

“He looks good,” I said. Carl did look good. They had done a good job. When I first saw a carousel on the front of Maggie’s wedding invitation, I wasn’t sure if it was Carl or some photoshopped internet art. In the picture, Maggie Mae was seated upon one of the horses. It had a white body with a blue mane and purple eyes. Up close I could see the brush strokes, the colours custom-chosen by Maggie, but in the picture it looked majestic. Lots of folks have backyard weddings. Not too many include a carousel. 

That night, Donnie insisted we head down to the pub, reintroduce me to the familiar faces, and reminisce. I never understood the need to live in the past. It always seemed more productive, or perhaps just hopeful, to look forward. Then again, I was the one back in Cedar Grove, sitting around a wooden table with Donnie, Billy G. from two streets over (who was now Billy G. from three streets over), Billy’s sister Maxine, and Mike “The Machine” MacDonald. I’m not sure why we called him that but whenever someone said Mike The Machine, you always knew exactly which Mike they were talking about. 

The usual topics came up: high school, football, Maggie Mae. Mike brought up all the girls we knew before he was married. He married the homecoming queen, but now he did just about all he could do to keep from having to come home to her. Billy owned the pawnshop and played online poker. He says he once won enough money to fly to Australia and back but had to use it to bail his sister out of trouble. Maxine bounced around from job to job, guy to guy, city to city. Billy said that time he had to spend all his poker money, Maxine had been missing for six months and then out of the blue called him up from a truckstop in Fort McMurray saying the police were looking for her after her last boyfriend got booked for dealing blow. But Maxine never does any drugs. That’s what Billy says anyway.

Maxine bounced her way over to the empty seat next to mine and slid her hand down my thigh as she reached for an onion ring off my plate. “Remember that time I had you pinned up against the goalpost in the football field?” she said, licking the grease from her fingers. “Wasn’t that your first kiss?”

“How’s Lulu?” Donnie asked with impeccable timing. 

“She’s great,” I said and removed Maxine’s hand from my leg. 

“Lulu?” Maxine said. “Who’s she?”

“Oh, she’s beautiful. Tell her, Dick.”

Maxine leaned over again and grabbed another onion ring, placing it on her ring finger and giving it a little twirl.

“Don’t,” I said, waving her off.

“What? I don’t see any ring on your hand. Are you engaged to her or something?” 

Donnie choked on his beer, nearly causing it to come out of his nose. Maxine glared at him before she bit off her battered ring and moved on to the next available lonely guy in the bar. Donnie and I walked back to his mother’s house after that. I paused in the driveway for a moment.

“You coming in?” Donnie asked.

“In a minute.” I took a deep breath. I had forgotten how visible the stars were out here. I glanced over at Maggie Mae’s yard. The moonlight glinted off of Carl and bounced into the street. I walked over to where I had parked, exhaled, and finally took my overnight bag in from the car.

.  .  .

The wedding was simple but beautiful. There were no chairs or a live band, no grand procession or white doves, but it was elegant nonetheless. Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” played from stereo speakers as Maggie appeared on her front steps. She was all ruffles and white tulle with a bouquet of lilacs tied in a purple ribbon. Her friends and neighbours stood in a semicircle around Carl, and she gave little waves to the crowd as she joined us to stand beside the painted carousel horse with the blue mane. A justice of the peace (and former neighbourhood kid) read standard vows while Maggie Mae slipped a ring on her own finger. She then presented Carl with a large steel ring of his own, which Donnie was invited up to weld into place. Maggie Mae had to stand back so the sparks wouldn’t land on her dress, but after Donnie was done, she gave the blue-maned horse a little kiss and they were pronounced married like any other couple in the county. 

I only got to talk to Maggie for just a moment that day. She was always so busy with everyone else, making sure they had gotten a slice of cake or a glass of lemonade. I was about to sneak away when she cornered me at my car.

“Richard,” she said. “You look like a Richard now. All grown up.”

“Congratulations, Maggie Mae. It was a beautiful wedding.”

“No, it wasn’t. It was weird and fabulous, and I loved every second of it. I’m happy you could come.”

“I’m happy that you’re happy.” I smiled. Maggie frowned.

“I’m gonna tell you something, Richard. I saw this documentary once about the human body. Apparently every cell in the human body regenerates itself except for the cells in the heart. Did you know that?”

“No. I can’t say I did.”

“It’s like a cycle. We remake ourselves every so often but our hearts are still the ones we were born with.”

“That’s… interesting.”

“Isn’t it, though?”

“Maggie Mae!” someone shouted from across the lawn.

“That’s my cue,” she said. “I best be getting back but do have some cake before you leave. Take a slice back with you if you like.”

“Thanks,” I said. “And congratulations.”

“You already said that,” she said and hiked up her dress to prevent grass stains. “But thank you again anyway.” 

I took Maggie’s advice and went back for a slice of cake and to tell Donnie I was heading home. I walked past Carl, who was now fully operational and hosting numerous neighbourhood children. There were once again several bikes parked on Maggie Mae’s lawn and it wouldn’t be long before the bandages and orange juice popsicles reappeared, too. I stood beside the homemade cake and watched Carl turn round and round, when there, upon a pink and silver pony, was my three-year-old daughter.

“Lulu’s having a good day, isn’t she?” said Lulu’s mother from behind me. 

“I thought you said you wouldn’t come.”

“I changed my mind. We just got here.” She took my hand with her left and I held out our tangled fingers to inspect. 

“Not about everything. You’re still not wearing the ring I gave you.”

“I haven’t given it back yet,” she said.

“So it’s still a maybe?”

She shrugged. “You’ve got a good heart, Richard. Come on, let’s take Lulu home.” She walked toward Carl and our girl on the pink and silver pony. “You coming?”

“Did you know the cells in your heart don’t regenerate?”

“What?”

“Nevermind,” I said, running to catch up. 

Carl slowed and another group of children clambered aboard. Lulu refused to get off. “Again!” she shouted. Carl’s music started up again and he began to turn once more. I jumped on, planning to pull Lulu off before he spun too quickly, but instead noticed an empty horse behind hers. I mounted the blue pony as Lulu’s mother jogged along side.

“What are you doing?” she said. “We have to go.”

I reached my hand out to her hoping she’d take it. “We’ve got time,” I said. “Why don’t we go for a ride first?”