Roller Coaster

Fiction
Terri Moran


“Do you remember that mousetrap you and your father used to ride?”

Since I can’t make sense of your question, I pretend I didn’t hear it. I hum along with the radio under my breath, scrub harder at the potato we will share, along with a small spinach salad and a broiled breast of chicken each, for dinner. I wonder if this is another sign. Another symptom.

“Wasn’t that the name of it? The Mousetrap? That roller coaster.”

I put down the vegetable brush and the potato and turn to lean against the sink and smile at you. Grateful because it is true.

“Jeez, Ma, I can’t believe you remember the name of that thing! You never, ever would ride it.”

You smile back and put down your cup of coffee. “No, I did not, but I remember sitting across from it watching you and your dad. The two of you just loved that roller coaster. Lord knows I never understood why.”

I turn back to the sink, pick up my potato and brush and of course I can’t help but remember.

*

How each summer, during the week Ellen went to band camp, you and Jerry and I made the four-hour trek south to Lakeland. We would check in at the Lakeland Motel, just off the freeway. Jerry would take a walk-through to make sure everything was satisfactory, a habit he developed after we came back from dinner our first time there to find a Hershey Bar I had left on the bed covered with ants. Our stay at the Lakeland was free that summer, so we returned year after year. Jerry said he was impressed with the way they dealt with customer dissatisfaction.

When he was sure everything was okay, Jerry and I would carry in the two suitcases, one that you and he shared and one for me, and set them on the side-by-side luggage racks. While you unpacked, I would lounge on the stiff, shiny orange, beige and brown bedspreads, pull back the matching flowered curtains and look at the shimmery heat rising from the hood of our Cutlass parked in the spot right outside the room. I liked that the car was so close, as if it were in a driveway, our small, homey space together.

Later, we would walk across the parking lot to the Lamplighter Café for dinner. I always ordered a grilled cheese sandwich because they served them with French fries and as many sweet pickles as I asked for. For dessert Jerry and I ordered apple pie with cheddar cheese on top—the house specialty. Then I would wait while you and he drank coffee and smoked after-dinner cigarettes.

Finally, Jerry would turn to me and say, “Well, kiddo, are you about done?” He would pick up the green receipt, and while you went to the restroom, we would walk hand-in-hand to the cash register, which sat on a glass display case filled with gum and candy and mints. Jerry would smile at me and roll his eyes. “Your mom skipped dessert again. Do you think we at least ought to get her a pack of Beeman’s? ” And I would roll my eyes too and nod, and we would buy it, because we knew it was your favorite and you could never find it at home.

At night I would lie in my bed and watch TV and wonder if things could be any better. I thought about Ellen at band camp, but it wasn’t until I got older that I wondered why our trips were timed so oddly, why she didn’t go with us. Of course, by the time I was old enough to wonder, I was old enough to understand that I, being younger, viewed Jerry as my father. He went to work, cut the grass on Saturday, helped me with math. Ellen, though, still remembered the man who had once done the things Jerry now did, and even though he never made any attempt to contact us, or maybe because of that, she could never forgive any of you. Or me for loving you.

The next morning we would get up and after French toast at the Lamplighter, we were off to Lakeland Amusement Park. We arrived early and got a parking spot close to the gate. You wore a big sun hat and carried a tote with Coppertone and a long-sleeve shirt for me to wear as the day went on and little red boxes of Sun-Maid raisins.

I remember you hardly went on any of the rides. It was always Jerry and I. First the spinning rides, the saucers that went in circles, the metal caterpillar that whipped up and around its track. Those rides made you queasy you said, but you joined us in the Haunted House where we rode all three close together in the little car. You liked that kind of scary ride.

Then came the roller coaster. That was the reason we came to Lakeland the first year. Although the park was known for its roller coasters, that summer they had introduced a ride called the Mousetrap. Jerry had seen a commercial on television about it—Like no other roller coaster in the USA!—and he had been talking about Lakeland ever since. When I laughed at a grown up being so excited about an amusement park, you told me the story of Jerry’s childhood, how his parents had died when he was small, how he had bounced from relative to relative. That was one of the things that made you love him, you said, when that childlike part of him came out, when he got excited about silly things. You liked to see that.

You didn’t, however, like to go on roller coasters. I remember the first time we saw the Mousetrap you stood looking at it in horror.

Jerry said, “Well, c’mon, let’s get in line.”

You didn’t move. “No, I don’t think I can go on this one.”

Jerry protested that that was the reason we were here, but still you refused. He seemed bewildered, as if he hadn’t anticipated this, had no Plan B.

And even though I was afraid, I said, “I’ll go!”

He said, “There’s a height restriction for this one, Emily, I don’t know if you can.”

But I ran to the cardboard boy by the entrance to the line, and as I stood with my back to him, feeling for the top of his head just beneath mine, said, “See, I make it!”

And Jerry came close and said, “Well, I’ll be, Emily, I guess you do. She’s growing up faster than we thought, El.”

So you went over to the bench across the way, and Jerry and I waited in line for the Mousetrap. I remember you sitting there, your tote on the ground by your feet, your sandals with a daisy on the thong, your white pedal pushers and matching shell top. Your red sun hat. Every now and then as we waited, I would catch your eye, and you would wave and I would wave back, and I would feel the comfort knowing someone in a strange place, in a crowd.

Then we were climbing into our car, the seatbelts clicking, the shoulder bar coming down. At first we proceeded slowly along at ground level, but then we began to climb. I could hear the steady, rhythmic thump as the car went higher. I looked out, fascinated, at all of Lakeland. At the top of the hill, I caught my breath at the sight of Lake Erie in the distance. And then our car plunged. I came up out of my seat, my body rising up, my shoulders hitting the bar, Jerry’s arm coming across to restrain me. My eyes watered from the force of the wind in my face. Half way down we whipped around a corner, throwing me sideways into Jerry. Then we began to climb an even higher hill. We plunged again, snapped around another bend, and then, in what was the big attraction of the ride, actually curved around and rode upside down for several feet.

When it ended Jerry saw I was shaking. “That sure was a scary one, Emily! But damn, wasn’t it fun? I haven’t been on a ride like that in my life!”

And so I swallowed hard, smiled at him and laughed and said, “Let’s do it again!”

He laughed too and said, “Your mom’s been real patient. Let’s go ride the carousel with her. We’ll try to talk her in to letting us ride again later.”

And we did, one weekend each summer until I turned 18 and left for college.

*

“Do you think it’s still around?”

I am taken aback, because we have been quiet for a while, and the thread of our conversations doesn’t stay with you. “I don’t know, Ma. I don’t even know if Lakeland’s still around. If the Mousetrap’s still there, it’s gotta be close to 40 years old. Why?

“I was just sitting here thinking I might like to take me a ride on it.”

*

I know you will forget, that it was just a light that went on that afternoon, but the next morning you ask me about Lakeland again. I nod crisply, promise that I will check to see if it is still open, and then do no such thing. Just when I have decided that you have forgotten, when I have breathed a sign of relief, you ask me once again as I set your oatmeal in front of you on Friday morning.

“Did you ever find out if that Mousetrap is still there?”

So I know that this is not one of those things that flits through your head only to be forgotten by the time you speak the next sentence. This is one your mind seizes, like a terrier on prey, shakes, doesn’t let go. Same as the story you have told for the past year, every time someone visits, about Ellen sticking Jerry during a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey at her tenth birthday party. Like the trip you and Jerry never took to Washington State, but which you nonetheless remember well enough to tell anyone who mentions Seattle that you hate that town. This amusement park ride is one of those things that, in spite of everything, has taken up residence in your brain.

“I didn’t, Ma. Let me get on line right now and I’ll see what I can find out for you.” I go to my computer, open Google, type in “Lakeland Amusement” and just like that, there it is. There’s a home page with smiling families having fun on the beach of Lake Erie, the park in the background, Ferris wheels, roller coaster tracks. I see a list of the rides, click on it, scroll down and find it, the Mousetrap. God, how can that thing still be around? I think about lying and feel guilty. I close out and walk back into the kitchen.

“Yeah, it’s still there, Ma.”

“What day is today?”

“It’s Friday, Ma.”

“So tomorrow is…”

“Saturday, Ma.”

“You don’t work then?”

“Nope.” I don’t remind you that I don’t work at all anymore, that I stay here, that I take care of you. That is one of the things you do not remember. Or maybe you choose not to.

“Well, then we could leave tomorrow morning. If we did that, when would we get there?”

“We’d get there around noon if we left early. But Christ, Ma, you’re talking about a four-hour drive in the car to take a ride on a forty-year-old roller coaster. There’s so many things wrong with that I can’t begin to tell you.”

“I don’t see what’s wrong with me wanting to do something fun.”

“Play bingo, Ma. Rent a movie. You’re eighty years old, you have arthritis and high blood pressure. You can’t sit for very long. And you have been afraid of that ride ever since they built it.” I don’t mention your other illness, because we don’t talk about that. I don’t tell you that your ability to make a decision is impaired, that the possibility exists that on the way to the car tomorrow you will look at me in vague bewilderment and ask why in the world you are outside.

“Emily Elizabeth Monroe! You know very well that I was never afraid of any carnival ride!”

*

I wake up the following morning and prepare your oatmeal, sit down in my pajamas to read the paper and drink my coffee. You come out of your room in your yellow and brown plaid shirt and your pink and white checked cropped pants. Then you laugh at me and ask if I’m going to ride the roller coaster in my pajamas. Clearly I won’t be spared. I get ready to go, throw on my jeans and a T-shirt, a Red Wings hat. I pack a tote with some SPF 45, throw in a sweater for you because you often get chilled, some bottled water, some fruit. I think about suggesting that you change, but you are so happy, so excited that I settle for toning down your makeup and putting your straw visor on your bed head.

We get to Lakeland Amusement Park right before noon, so we can’t park close. I think about dropping you off at the gate while I park, but immediately dismiss that thought. You have to stay with me. We’ll just have to walk slowly, take rest breaks. I find a spot in Lot T, and we bundle out of the car. Just as I finish rubbing the sunblock on your arms, face and calves, the Lakeland Shuttle pulls up, and the driver asks us if we need a ride. You protest that you can walk just fine, but I tell you that I am 45 years old and although you may be spry, the less walking I have to do, the better. So we climb into the shuttle and we are on our way.

I am flooded with memories once we enter the park. Nothing has changed. There just beyond the entrance are all the kiddie rides, off to the left is the petting zoo. I have the sense that no time has passed, that when I turn I will see Jerry by my side laughing, holding out the Lakeland map that the petting zoo goat took a piece out of, even though it was in his pocket. I expect that when I turn back to look at you, you will be young, younger than I am now, lithe in your white outfit with your lovely black hair flowing to your shoulders in stark contrast. But then I do see you, in your plaid and checks. I see my own large denim-clad legs in front of me as I walk. I feel that empty space where Jerry would be. I know that this is something different.

We go past the spinning rides, and you encourage me to go on them. I don’t, because I don’t know what to do with you. The stimulation of the rides will be too much for you if you go on them with me, and I can’t leave you sitting on a bench. Instead, we wander through the gift shops, watch the children at the petting zoo but do so from the other side of the fence because I don’t want you to be bewildered by the animals. I wonder what I was thinking, bringing you here, and I wait for you to be overwhelmed by the activity around you. But at worst you seem a bit out of your element. Still, I wonder if I should have brought you, why I didn’t lay down the law.

As we walk past the cotton candy stand, you stop and rummage through your purse for your wallet. You have never wanted cotton candy in your life, have always shunned sweets. Now you watch as the young girl spins the candy around the cardboard stick. This must be a Lakeland throwback, because all the cotton candy I’ve seen in recent years comes in plastic bags. But she spins, twirls, watches you, smiles.

You smile back and say, “My daughter brought me here to ride the Mousetrap. We always came here when she was a little girl and we had such fun. Now we’ve come back, and we’re going to have such a good time!” You actually wrap your arms around you and hug yourself, twisting from side to side.

In your mismatched outfit, with your gray hair and your little hunched back, the girlish gesture is so incongruous that the cotton candy girl and I look at each other and smile. She gives you your candy, holds out her other hand to you and says her name is Estrella Martinez. And from that place in your brain that still amazes me, you say, “Star.”

She smiles and asks your name, and you say, “Eleanor Monroe.”

Bless Estrella, she holds your hand in both of hers and she says, “Mrs. Monroe, I hope you have a wonderful time today at Lakeland.” Then she hugs you, in all your plaid and checks.

After we have been at Lakeland for about an hour, walking some, taking rest breaks, I begin to think I may be off the hook, that you have forgotten about the Mousetrap. And just as I have this thought, we round the corner and you point and shout “There it is!” I can only marvel at your brain and how it decides to kick in when least I want it to.

“Yep, that’s the Mousetrap. You ready, Mom?”

“Oh, no, honey, you know I just hate that thing. I’ll have a seat over here.” You head slowly to the bench on which you sat once a year for nine years and sit there again.

“Ma, I thought you wanted to ride?” I can’t believe I’ve asked you this question, but even now I am astonished by these quirks of behavior.

“No, honey, I’m just here for you to have some fun. You go on and have a good time, and when you’re done maybe we can go on the carousel.”

Of course I can’t leave you. And then, how magical, your friend Estrella from the cotton candy stand comes up. And even more magically, you recognize her. You smile and wave as she approaches. She says she is on her break. You tell her that I really want to ride the Mousetrap, and she says that of course I do, it is the feature attraction of Lakeland. She catches my eye briefly and then she looks at you and says, “Mrs. Monroe, you must tell me how you get your makeup to look so smooth. I try and try and I just cannot blend mine like that.” She sits by you, takes your hand. Then she points with her chin at the Mousetrap, nods and mouths, “Go ahead.”

And I hand her my tote and go to the line, past the cardboard boy who is now a good three heads shorter than I, and I begin waiting. As I take my slow steps forward, I look at you and Estrella. You don’t look back at me now. You only look at her as she holds your hand, the two of you turned toward each other, talking, laughing. It does cross my mind that I am waiting to ride a roller coaster that always scared me, one that is now decades older. But I will ride for you. Because I know that Estrella will be watching. She will see my car as it crests the highest hill, and she will point it out to you. You both will gasp as my car begins its descent, you will laugh to see my hair fly behind me and my mouth open wide in a scream. When I am done, I will hug Estrella, be teary-eyed at her kindness. You and I will drive home, and at some point on the way, as the sun sets, you will become unsettled, demand to know where the hell you are. If I try to explain, you will tell me that you know better than that, I shouldn’t try to pull your leg. No one rides a mousetrap.

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“I am a writer living in Phoenix, Arizona. My story “The Way Things Are Now” was published in the March 2006 Toasted Cheese Literary Journal.” E-mail: tmoran[at]cox.net.

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