Katie Jean Moulton

The Scrambler

I find myself stuck at the top of the Ferris wheel with my mother and her first boyfriend.

I anticipated the Ferris wheel. Said, You and J.K. go and I’ll stand below and take your picture. But my mother scrunched up her face into a pout and now we are three in a row in an open-air car. We are three above Vigo County, the trampled fairground, the Demolition Derby, above the cloud-churn on the high horizon, above the Human Bullet, above the teenagers blinking and clustering like constellations in the dirt. My widow mother, me, and the one-time bad boy who sped her to the junior prom in a ’67 Chevy cranking REO Speedwagon. We are all too old for this.

My mother is nervous. Her freckled hands slide over the plastic lap bar. J.K.’s hand rests on the back of the seat, and we may as well be dangling from a porch swing, except these days, J.K. gets nervous about speed and stomach-drops, and it shows. On the way here, he eased his compact SUV through the turns, and I wondered whether the two of them had taken this drive to the fairgrounds before, before she ever looked twice at the boy who would be my father, and how she must have grinned at J.K. from the passenger seat, all-teeth and teenaged and helpless. Now my mother pats his knee. I watch the buzzcut-blond boys swinging the car below us, sticking their tongues out at me, and I feel like turning my eyelids inside out so I won’t see anymore.

Before forty years somersaulted and collapsed in the faded denim twilight of the Vigo County fairgrounds, my mother and I spent the day in her hometown, cleaning out the house she grew up in. In the den, my grandparents worried each other over furniture arrangements for the new condo. In the halls, my aunt and uncle stuck Post-Its to iron toys and scrap cloth and the very walls, staking claims to the stuff of a life. My mother and I were left to the dream-business of photographs. I was just about to show her her own wedding album—in particular, my young father, nine years dead, with hair that curled to the shoulders of his tuxedo—when she said, You’ll come to the fair, right? and, It’s okay because it’s not a date, right? So I said yes, and yes again, and wondered when life got so long.

Back on the ground, we step off the Ferris wheel, and my mother pulls my wrist in both her hands, winding us through the barelegged crowds. The people have driven from all over Vigo County and beyond, across the river, as they have for eighty-three years. They’ve come hauling kids and animals. They’ve come to walk through a world designed to be easily torn down, packed up, carted off again. It is built, it is demolished, it returns. The animals win prizes, then they parade into crates and trailers to meet their fates. Miss Vigo County Fair 2012 mucks the goat pen in sash and curls, after all. She shovels and smiles and never drops her crown, even when no one is watching. In this way, she goes on.

J.K. trails a step behind us, but I am aware of her aware of him. When we climb the stairs to board the next ride, J.K. stays on the ground with his hands in his pockets. He smiles, and my mother waves, and I am glad I guess that there is finally someone else here to watch her. One more ride and I will leave them here together, unchaperoned, unrefracted. The two of us climb into a covered car strapped to a circular track. Inside the cage, I sit in front of my mother toboggan-style, so close she would not have room even to braid my hair. After this I’m leaving you, I say, but the ride has already started: We hurdle round and round, and my mother hollers laughter until the wheels slip sideways beneath us and still we spin, leaning in toward the core axis, and her hand holds my sleeve like a lifejacket, and still she laughs, trying to get out a question between breaths, but the spinning center lifts and whirls and we tilt upside down, glimpsing forever through the bars, and we are laughing inside out, maniacs with all our seams showing, until at last it’s gone on too long and my mother clutches tighter to my arm, in its thin skin and muscle, and her scared laugh sucks into a gasp and I can hear what she’s been asking—Is it okay? Is it okay? Is it okay?—and she is afraid, and I want to tell her I can do nothing to save us, and my hair in her face is fine and soft and breaking like my young-dead, long-dead father’s hair, and I want to tell her yes because she wants me to, but we are caught in the spin, and my mouth’s caught open, and I am the hinges that never break, and I am my father still watching if she needs me to be, and even if she doesn’t, I yell yes to her, spin, fall, fly, yes, because we are caught in all this, and all this is all there is is this this this.

Katie Jean Moulton is the Associate Editor of Indiana Review. Her work is forthcoming in Post Road and Columbia. She is an MFA candidate at Indiana University, where she was awarded fellowships in fiction and for international travel.