She’d been strung together by men with black lungs and chapped hands who would never see a ride. Unbound by the edge of summer 1972—The Big Dipper settled onto the seafloor and bled rust.
“We were riding until we were swimming to get back,” a boy, with two fewer teeth now, spoke into a microphone held up to his mouth as though he could lead them.
“The track,” Simon Gray, the roller coaster’s designer, spoke plainly into the cameras.
“It jumped the track, came unhinged . . . during a period of negative gravity,” Simon rubbed a palm on his forehead.
The broadcast cut to footage of the ride in full force, at night with its bright lights gleaming.
“Negative gravity overcame it. Now please, go home,” he told the advancing journalists. Simon rose one tired hand. “Please,” he said, “home.”
“The Big Dipper was one of the eternal things. Wild, like it would keep running slat-to-slat, getting taller. My friends said there were going to be trips to the moon someday,” Barbara Long, twenty-seven, of Venice Beach, did not blink as she spoke into the television cameras. “N-B-C, A-B-C, C-B-S,” she said, “tell me, why has everything become an indecipherable alphabet? What does everything stand for again?”
No one could answer her.
“It jumped the track,” Simon Gray told his wife and child as he opened the front door to their home at 484 California Avenue.
Over TV dinners, they’d been silent for hours until this statement. On their Zenith color television: The Big Dipper thundered between interviews, a ghost casting a blue glow over six-year-old Glynis’ green beans and Carol Gray’s pork chops.
Carol took in her husband’s eyes: downcast, empty. She waited for a moment, wiped the sweat from her upper lip. The living room simmered in the hot light from the fatal afternoon, and Simon Gray chose not to say any more.
He sat down next to his wife, hoping she would hold him, let him fold against her. She stood. Glynis stopped eating, pushed her peas underneath her cotton napkin.
Carol dusted breadcrumbs from her lap.
Simon faced her, “Now don’t start blaming this on me too. Don’t you goddamn blame this on me.”
Carol shook her head back and forth. Something like rage came up in her, muted, waiting.
“Watch your language,” she patted Glynis on the head, “you didn’t hear that, dear.” She crossed her arms over her chest, rubbed her seafoam green rosary between her thumb and index finger.
Simon picked up a cup of water from Carol’s metal TV tray—threw it against one of their knotty pine walls.
“It’s plastic,” she told him, “doesn’t break,” before taking Glynis by the hand, out of the living room, down the pink shag-carpeted hallway. The little girl tugged back toward the television, her father’s face, on-screen, now telling her, “Go home.”
Simon sunk into the silence left by his family’s exodus. He looked at the news, thinking of how what had rolled so fluidly across his computation paper had caused this.
He began to mumble, his mouth trying to form something to prove that he could not have made this mistake. This could not have come from his design, not his work but something much bigger that he was only half hip to; he said this to himself.
“Something unhinged,” he was whispering now, walking down the hallway, running his hands along its blue rosebud wallpaper.
“Can you forgive it, in you, can you see? Something came unhinged; something got loose,” he jogged out of the front door and onto the newly re-paved street.
“Please forgive me,” he yelled to Carol, to Glynis. A neighbor threw her door open, a stray calico cat darting inside between her feet, and she abandoned cursing the Grays for their chaos.
Carol pursed her lips and tightened her fists—the tips of her carnation pink nails indenting the beds of her palms with red half-moons.
“You said you knew what you were doing, Simon, said it was safe—could have been Glynis. She’s been riding more than any kid in the world—our daughter. It has taken three lives and made a hollow core of us. For that, I can’t forget your part in this, the association of you with this.”
“You know what it is I’m doing?”
“You’re leaving me.”
“We’re going to my sister’s.”
He walked toward her, but she stepped back. He knelt and hugged Glynis, who began to cry.
“Keep your chin up, kid, and have fun at Aunt Cathy’s, you hear me? Toughen up. You get hives, remember, from all that crying.”
Carol took her daughter’s hand, kept walking down the middle of the street. Simon slowed behind them, hands brushing his jean pockets for the keys to his truck.
“Figure your life out, Simon,” Carol whispered thinly into the quiet night.
She started her car, pulled a cigarette out and let Glynis light it for her with a match before throwing her white Triumph Spitfire in reverse, driving it past him.
A candlelit vigil for the three lost souls had begun in Pacific Ocean Park when he pulled up, the asphalt lot nearly full. He tried to collect himself, found a parking spot, thought of Glynis: how it was that she was here when she could be gone. “If she was . . . if she was,” he breathed in, deciding that he would have to find her. He would go after her. It was that simple.
The wooden tangle of the ride itself was unchanged. A group of teenage boys wandered in between the Dipper’s beams, drinking whiskey stolen from their fathers’ silver flasks. Still, coaster cars waited in a row, ready.
A collective utterance of misspoken prayers filled the park. Simon cut through the crowd toward the coaster, avoiding cameras and throngs of journalists left swirling between the rifts of grief that seemed to push them back and forth between shattered parents and silent, stunned children.
Simon kept his eyes on his high-top sneakers, maneuvering between people he knew would never let him pass if they knew who he was.
He found the conductor’s door unlocked, the young operator’s jacket draped over the back of the control chair. Glittering pieces of a shattered Coca-Cola bottle littered the slatted floor.
Simon traced where the brass key entered his roller coaster’s control panel, gripped and turned it from OFF to ENABLE. The engine whirred to a start, its mechanisms crackling with electricity that seemed to seep up through his calloused fingertips, working through his veins and into his blood as he left the booth, running toward the main stage. He felt a knot in his throat; he couldn’t stand to watch nothing being done, no one trying anything to fix this. Entering through a side door, he took the concrete steps two at a time and found the stage to be a hollow core of the pulsing park. Simon turned a single blue spotlight on.
A twisted rope burned his hands as he began to pull open the red velvet stage curtain. He swallowed, but his throat remained dry.
The cacophony of the crowd intensified. The curtain opened three quarters; he stopped pulling. Simon’s sun-kissed arms felt numb; the blue spot of light illuminated nothing on the waxed stage. He walked toward it, fluorescence meeting his bleached expression, leaving his face white and unready under the same glare it lent to traveling magicians who released doves and white rabbits simultaneously. He tapped the microphone but nothing came. Slowly receding to the sound engineer’s booth, he imagined the way John Wayne would walk across a desert. He adjusted his polka dot bow tie, flipped the power switch of the mixing board, turned the volume knob clockwise.
Looking out at the candled crowd and flashing cameras, he took his position behind a podium left behind from a hypnotist’s show that morning. The knot in his throat released when he opened his dry lips.
“Hello, my name is Simon Gray, engineer and designer of The Big Dipper. And this, here, is going to be my press conference,” his words unfurled from the sound system, every camera on him now.
“I’ll be taking a ride on my roller coaster. And anyone is welcome to come with me.”
He looked at the news reporters’ cameras. He pictured Carol and Glynis’ eyes reflecting on the convex glass of a television screen.
He tried to speak plainly. He thought of Westerns, of John Wayne, again, the movies he’d seen by way of broadcasts he’d caught on Sunday afternoons while Glynis did her homework on the living room carpet, and Carol made dinner.
“I will attempt to ride the broken track to its drop-off point. I can’t say what will happen then, but when I get there, I hope to understand. If I, or if we, live, it proves those three souls were wanted elsewhere—much purer than I. It will prove that matter has nothing to surrender on its own free will. It’s not up to us.”
He paused, wiped the sweat from his brow. He exhaled above the microphone; his breath rumbled through the loudspeakers.
“I believe it’ll prove that man is immortal. Sins and sickness seem real now, but they will be . . . they will be illusions someday, just as the dreaming in sleep now seems real but isn’t. Pain will become our next dream, simply. We’re just moving through layers of dreams is what I’m holding this conference to say, as designer and engineer of The Big Dipper.”
He paused for a moment, pockets of reporters advancing, starting to yell out their questions. He had to squint to see through the sudden, white blizzard of their flashing cameras.
“I’m about to crash through a barrier of space and time; people, this is what I’m trying to tell you as plainly as I can. I’m going to drive us through to the next level, and we’re going to find the three people that lost their lives on this roller coaster. This crash will mean something. I will give you a sign from the other side, so to speak, when I’ve found them. I will turn the lights of my truck on—it’s in the west lot, license plate 4NZZ424.”
Silence spread over the crowd, no one knowing if laughter or tears best met the words they were hearing, only a calm, sudden understanding settling into some of their bones—that something was going to happen, again.
“What I’m saying is this: nothing was taken, just as nothing was ever given. It always just was. No lives are gone. They’re just missing. And I think I know where we can find them. I believe they might have gone somewhere I can trace,” Simon explained.
Mothers stood in numbed horror at the spectacle, left holding onto their living children by threads of their clothing like bouquets of balloons.
Simon said the coaster would leave in fifteen minutes and continued to explain that anyone was welcome to accompany him, but the sound cut out on him.
Returning to the booth, he found James, a conductor hardly past his teens. The boy’s skin flushed as Simon approached. The teenager had cut his hand on a shard of the broken Coke bottle. A drop of his blood hit the worn wooden floor, absorbed into its grain.
“Are you ready for this?”
“You’re out of your fucking mind, Simon.”
“Hit the RIDE START when I give you my signal.”
Simon smiled, charged with something magnetically cohesive which the boy understood didn’t leave him with any other option but to listen.
“Alright,” James said, “OK.”
Simon entered the first car of the coaster and waited for someone to come with him, to understand something of the work they had to do.
He waited while photographers snapped his face. He did not smile but concentrated on his leather-banded watch.
At the thirteenth minute, a man emerged through the swelling crowd. He tugged slightly on his graying beard, adjusted his patched pants and approached the roller coaster’s designer. A small, tattooed mermaid sunbathed on the man’s neck. Simon looked down at the man’s shoes, loafers with holes tethered through their suede.
H O L D F A S T was tattooed across the man’s hands, a letter on each knuckle. Black anchors adorned each thumb with their chains winding across his veiny hands. Walt Jones pulled a book from his back pocket.
“I know what you’re talking about, sir; I read it all here in this book.”
Walt held up a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
“It’ll be another level we’re taken to,” the man began to address the crowd. “See, this bird, he dies again and again, but you see, he’s never really gone. It’s just another plane of thinking that he’s taken to where he finds what he’s looking for.”
Simon nodded, assured his singular companion understood their purpose.
The crowd, partially, applauded. Several fierce pleas were shouted for the men to save themselves. A preacher, who’d been guiding a youth group for the day, came forward. He began to speak of the unspeakable evils which undoubtedly dwelled in the ride’s chains and levers. Something had possessed the coaster. He could tell them this much.
“You’ll be taken to a dark place where those who tempt such forces always go,” the preacher gave his final protest and backed away from the ride, lifting his arms to form an X.
“Leave me be,” Walt Jones replied, assured in his every step toward his seat that they would ride The Big Dipper into a new world, maybe to a constellation of seven stars, or somewhere with two moons and an aquamarine sky.
“I know where we’re heading. It isn’t a dark place. I’ll tell you that much for sure,” Walt combed a hand through his wild gray hair, paused on the eyes of strangers now concerned for him in a way that was unlike anything he’d known.
No one ever looked at him. No one looked at him and cared about what happened to him, not since he was a boy, and his mother was there, cleaning his cuts when he fell—pebbles sticking to his open gashes. He hoped she would be there; he prayed they would feel no pain.
Simon stretched his arms out to Walt. The senior man tucked his blue book with the soaring gull on its cover back into his left pant pocket, empty except for two dollars. He shook Simon’s hand. Both of their palms were trembling, icy.
The group of young boys, still drinking, had gathered to form a front row. They now chanted for The Big Dipper to take off.
Simon helped Walt into their rail car. Neither man put on a seat belt. Simon turned to James in the control booth and gave him the thumbs-up sign, smiling to the boy he knew was in too much shock to refuse this signal now.
The lights began first, clicking on down the track. Technicolor ruby, sapphire, and citrine tinted bulbs waited to lead them precisely toward the curve where the last rail cars had crashed down to squalling waves.
James shifted the ride into gear.
“Here she goes,” Simon calmly announced while the crowd stood watching, breaths caught between heartbeats, thoughts swallowed up into nothing between the sight and sound of this which they could not believe.
A squad car arrived with its siren screaming as the ride began clicking to life.
“She was supposed to go, wasn’t she?” Walt yelled to Simon. “People were waiting for this one? For the other to get back?”
“They never got to ride.”
Walt grabbed his head until he realized he was not wearing a hat and let his hair catch the wind.
The police siren stopped. An officer advanced, settling for listening to the rumbling of the ride’s wood, loose with pieces inflamed in places from the crash—too much pressure put on each part.
The preacher organized a robust prayer circle, dropping to his knees in its middle.
Simon felt the wind carry his breath away. He inhaled, air running through his lungs and filtering through his blood, absorbing into his smile which, now, he could not stop. Something in him had aligned, something fragmented had coalesced, and it poured through him. He wanted to understand it, to get inside of it and stay.
“This is it! Right?” Walt bellowed, bracing himself.
“Here she comes,” Simon did not close his eyes.
Walt lifted his arms above his head. “Holy Mother of Mary!” Walt’s voice swept upward while gravity pulled his stomach down.
It was then that negative gravity overcame them.
Without seat belts, the men were ejected from their rail car, unlike the passengers earlier in the day who had faced the ocean while fastened to their rogue seats.
Thirty feet separated Simon and Walt from the dark water below, not much different than falls both had faced as young boys—cannonballing off the high dives of public pools. Instinctively, they rolled their bodies into tucked positions before hitting the waves, filling their lungs with air before plunging into an aqueous embrace. The metallic grind of steel against water reverberated through their bodies. They felt the cold grip of the car pulling them down, the warmth of its wheels losing heat.
Steam lifted from the surface. Walt opened his mouth to ask Simon if they were alive but shut it when he felt water pour in.
The men kicked, being pulled by the undertow of the sinking rail car. Walt spat out salt water. “Goddamn black hole,” his head sunk under the water.
“Float!” Simon pulled his companion’s collar.
Walt kicked his legs, felt how his limbs were moving just fine. He pushed all of himself the surface. Both men now lying prostrate on top of it all—they spun, turning wildly on the wake of the crash as though their bodies had become the hands of a sprung clock.
“Don’t fight it,” Simon spoke calmly, “we’ll lose our power.”
Walt stared up at an airplane passing over a starless sky. The crescent moon was a sliver slipping down the night. “What power? We didn’t make it anywhere,” he said. “What world is this we’ve come to?”
Simon breathed in and out as the salt water began letting their bodies go—the pool of force they’d created coming and going with all the attention the natural world could show a thing like time, enveloping and lulling them to the beat of waves bound for shore.
“Keep floating,” Simon looked back at Walt, though only saw the man’s bare feet.
“Not much choice, otherwise,” Walt felt his teeth chatter against each other; the only threat now was the cold.
Simon felt the sand skidding along his back before he saw the shoreline. Seaweed entangled his wrists as he pushed himself up. They’d been pulled them back to the shore of the amusement park. They’d returned to where the crowd had piled in around them then dispersed, scattering into the vehicles, back to single-family homes, apartments, trailers, and townhouses. In these dwellings: they scanned the news for a followup on Simon Gray and his companion, but upon finding nothing, assumed this was because the news did not cover suicides.
The ocean had taken in the men and moved them to its current, the tide easing their bodies back from the shock of the throw from the roller coaster. Their scrapes cauterized, ceased to bleed.
“Well, here we are,” Walt announced, pushing his wet body up by putting his hands on his shaking knees, as though they were merely arriving late to a party they’d been expected at an hour earlier. Encased by the balmy July air, he took off his shirt and rang it dry as his feet picked up dry cakes of sand with each step.
Simon scanned the beach. A lone police officer, smoking a Marlboro, approached them with a yellow slip of paper.
“Simon Gray?” the officer said, but this was not a question; he knew this man.
“Yes,” Simon, too, took off his shirt, began to wring it dry.
“You’re charged with operating a non-rail-worthy railway vehicle. At the bottom, there, you’ll see your court date,” the officer stepped back in reverence of the energy that swarmed around Simon like a cloud of bees that could turn at any moment to deliver their sting. The officer turned to leave, radioing in that the ambulance on standby could leave.
“How do you like that, didn’t even ask of our injuries!” Walt bent down to touch a spot of blood showing through his drenched, linen pant leg.
“We’re fine,” Simon scanned the distant lot to the side of the amusement park; the silhouettes of two figures were illuminated by the recession of the ambulance’s flashing red lights. He beckoned for Walt to follow him.
The men made their way past the empty park, its breath taken out of it now. There was nothing alive here.
Simon moved his fingers over his blue lips and pinched them to try to draw his blood back to greater circulation.
A whistle blown from two small fingers between thin lips sounded as they exited into the lot. This shrill noise was what Simon used to alert Glynis. It was the sound that let her know he was near. He’d use it when he took the first steps into the family’s home or arrived to pick her up from the playground.
Streetlights cast an orange luminescence across the asphalt and gave the landscape an unwavering stillness.
Only a light wind off the ocean pulsed against the palms, titling their fronds to the east. In the shadow of one of these trees, stood Glynis—whistling. Behind her, Carol sat on the hood of Simon’s 67’ Ford. She’d been too nervous to drive; a taxi had dropped them off a half hour after they’d seen his press conference air. Carol had found the keys in Simon’s truck. And when she had just resigned herself at midnight that he was gone, his ether given up to the stars, she’d turned the headlights on.
Simon approached them as though they were a mirage in a desert while Walt sat on the ground picking stipes of seaweed off his threadbare T-shirt.
Carol’s mascara had smeared down her cheeks, dripped down to stain her white, lace dress. He noticed this first. She ran toward him, wrapping her arms around his body, transferring her heat.
He bled saltwater from his skin onto her as they said nothing, an osmosis of feeling flowing from the cracks in his soul and pouring in through the seams of hers. Where something had come undone, unhinged between them, this space began to close.
Band-Aids littered their pink shag carpeting. Glynis slept in her room under the tranquil cover of her princess canopy bed. Carol poured hydrogen peroxide on a cotton ball and dabbed at a scrape on Simon’s arm. He winced.
Walt sat in a lime-green velvet recliner in his plaid boxer briefs.
Carol poured the antiseptic over a new piece of cotton and told Walt to hold it against his knee.
Ice packs scattered across their bodies, teetering on sore shoulders and bandaged against stiff lower backs.
The 2 a.m. news repeated the story of The Big Dipper’s crash.
A needle lay on the carpet that Carol had used to dig an embedded chip of silvery paint out of Simon’s hand. She’d sterilized the tool in a candle that burned atop their Heywood Wakefield coffee table. Walt picked up this needle and held its tip to the candle’s flickering flame. The man rose, the shaking of his knees eased now. He walked to the kitchen counter and picked up a Bic pen off a stack of unpaid bills, cracked the writing utensil open above an envelope.
“You said you wanted to go after those people, Simon, right?” Walt asked.
Simon craned his neck away from the television, its glow bathing him and Carol in lilac light.
“I did,” Simon swallowed water from his aluminum tumbler. The taste of salt water was still there against his gums.
“You ever considered letting them come after you?” Walt drained the pen’s fluid into a saucer. “When I was in the Navy, we let life come after us by bringing ink against our skin, letting it change us.”
Simon studied Walt’s tattoos: a dagger sliding through a diving swallow above his heart, a nautical star on his back above a full-sail ship, crossed cannons on a bicep above a sea turtle, and a dragon breathing a flash of fire below this.
“I’ve got a swallow for every 5,000 miles sailed,” Walt traced a line of birds that circled his wrist, “and an anchor for when I became a boatswain. We tattooed a pig and a rooster to prevent us from drowning.” Walt sat again, lifting his leg to show the bold lines of a pig on his left knee and a rooster on his sinewy, right bicep, “How you survived this evening without tattoos is beyond me.”
“A pig and a rooster?” Simon stared into the images canvasing the man’s tan, crepey skin.
“They’re the animals kept in wooden crates. When a ship capsizes, the crates float and wash ashore with the animals in them—alive. Pig on the knee, safety at sea. Rooster on the right, never lose a fight.”
A Pink Panther Flakes cereal commercial dropped off the screen; Barbara Long’s interview cast over them.
“The Big Dipper was one of the eternal things. Wild, like it would keep running slat-to-slat, getting taller—” Simon clicked off the TV. “That—give me that, what the girl said.”
Carol placed a fresh ice pack on Simon’s aching shoulder. “One of the eternal things, here,” Simon drew a trail with his index finger down the muscled bicep of his left arm.
Without hesitation, Walt began, dipping the needle from the flame to the ink, then into the flesh of Simon’s arm. The ink and blood swirled together inside Simon’s skin. Carol watched. The television aired The Big Dipper again in its ethereal hues.
The letters were formed with fluidity in a thick, black cursive script. Walt’s hand did not tremble, moved as smoothly as a rudder cutting through soft waves, pushing against Simon’s pale skin with its red blood below rattling through blue veins.
Carol collected the bandage wrappings from the floor, the cotton balls, the Band-Aid covers, “You two were really going to crash through a barrier of space and time?” She searched her husband’s eyes, but they were vacant. A shuttering of pain seemed to wash through his body, but this did not show on his face as Walt progressed through the tattoo, finishing: Eternal. Simon did not answer, but Carol felt his mind working over the question, tracing her words. The broken space between them had connected again as though the spot where her DNA stopped and his DNA began had aligned. They had no words for this feeling, for the structures of life which divided and brought them together. But each felt this electricity had been recharged. Where negative gravity had overcome them, now, a positive force had flooded in.
Walt began the last word, curling the top of its capital T.
“People, those kids on Haight-Ashbury, they’re always saying be here now, but where is here and when is now?” Simon asked, not averting his eyes from The Big Dipper clacking across the television.
“Here is who you are, and now is what you are becoming,” Walt raised his needle, cleaned it once again.
Simon looked at Carol, and she took in his glance, let him fall inside her eyes—cosmic pools of gold-flecked emerald. She let him rest inside this moment between them as they knew if here was who they were and now was who they would become, and they had made it through this—then forever was a given. They would continue to slip, to fall, to hold, to mend, and exchange this velocity between them. This equation of here and now was a steady force, the rails of their love holding them as they clicked from day to day, gaining momentum, coasting on its power in the lulls that broke between them. With this movement, in-flux, bridging the here and now, they would continue to call it love even when it wasn’t, when it defied the bounds of this word.
“Be here now,” Carol whispered, leaning in toward her husband’s ear, “I will always.”
“Because,” Simon took in the beauty of her being wrapping around each word she’d said, “we are one of the eternal things.”
“Hold fast,” Walt told them, setting down his ink and blood-tinged needle as though an artist finishing an indelibly virtuosic work, “and you always will be.”
Jordan Faber is a writer based out of Chicago, IL. Her fiction has most recently appeared in TIMBER, Lunch Ticket, and Dream Pop Journal. Her work in theater has been produced at The Greenhouse and Victory Gardens theaters in Chicago. Growing up, Jordan attended the Iowa Young Writers' Studio several times. Jordan received a BA in Creative Writing from Knox College and an MFA from Northwestern University. While at Northwestern she earned a Princess Grace Award nomination. She has worked as a fiction editor for Black Spring Press in London and in development for the Sundance Channel.