by James Barnett
When the Ferris wheel stopped and they were swinging ninety feet above the midway, Clara told her husband Archie she was leaving him. It was one of those late fall, carnival nights at the fairgrounds on the edge of town. Uncomfortable in high places, Archie had pleaded his fear of heights, but Clara insisted that he ride with her. He focused his eyes on the lights of Joplin to avoid glancing down and considered what his wife had said.
“I don’t love you anymore,” Clara said, as if her previous declaration needed justification.
Watching a distant streetlight change from green to yellow to red, Archie gripped the lightweight metal bar that spanned their laps and supposedly provided a measure of protection. He tried to think of something to say, but “I’m leaving you” and “I don’t love you anymore” belonged at the end of a dialog about marriage, not at the beginning.
“You’re a good man, Archie,” Clara said. She wiped a tear from her cheek with her coat sleeve. “But I don’t feel the way I use to.”
The streetlights blurred. Archie wanted to undo whatever had been done to cause Clara to say these things. He loved their life together. During their twenty years of marriage, he had taken comfort in his wife’s companionship. Clara knew how Archie liked his eggs and his pancakes. Archie knew how Clara liked her anniversary steak at Western Sizzlin. He also knew, or thought he knew, how Clara liked her sex.
The notion that his wife might be having an affair hadn’t yet occurred to Archie, so he didn’t ask that question. Instead, he focused on fixing what was wrong. “How ‘bout you take some time off work and we go up to Lake Xavier?” he said. “I know we can work out whatever’s bothering you.”
They’d been happy at the lake. The rental cabins reminded Archie of his childhood summers. Clara read her novels on the screened porch while he spearfished down at the pier. With her job as a realtor, she could usually reschedule an appointment or two and get away for a couple of days. Time off wasn’t a problem for Archie. The local junior college didn’t renew his teaching contract; he’d been unemployed since the first of the year.
Clara sat in silence for a few moments. A shift in the breeze intensified the swirling calliope music and blew wisps of food smells from the half-deserted midway. When she spoke, her voice had an angry edge. “We went to the lake last month. You hardly spoke to me the whole weekend.”
Archie looked at his wife. Her hazel eyes regarded him without affection. He had seen that look before, but hadn’t paid any attention, thinking she was just having a bad day. Now, he began to realize that their relationship had shifted. Clara was different. She’d added some color to her dull auburn hair and was wearing it a little longer. He’d also noticed her running shoes in the foyer and was aware that she’d been exercising, although she never mentioned it. He could have told her that she didn’t need to lose any weight; in his eyes, she was virtually the same physically as when they married, except for the pounds she retained after the birth of their daughter, Maxine.
“I don’t remember the lake weekend like that,” he said. “We watched Cardinal baseball and you surprised me with a bottle of champagne to celebrate my birthday.”
“Archie, I wanted to turn off the television so we could sit on the porch and toast your fortieth.”
“We could’ve waited ‘til the game was over. By the time the Cards wrapped it up, you had already gone to bed.”
Clara leaned back in the seat, causing a creaking sound from the rusty cotter pins that fastened their gondola to the Ferris wheel’s ancient steel frame. Archie tightened his grip on the safety bar and was about to make another plea for the lake when he noticed Clara’s fleeting look over the side, down toward the bottom of the wheel. He followed her glance and saw a dark figure standing in the shadows, staring up in their direction.
Something else struck Archie as being odd. He and Clara were the only people riding the wheel. The boarding platform was empty. Why had the wheel stopped if no one was getting on?
While Archie was making these observations, Clara had been talking. “… and you’re content with the way things are,” she said. “Turning forty didn’t seem to bother you, but it scares the hell out of me.”
A gibbous moon floated above the lights of the regional airport, about three miles distant. “Forty’s just a number, Clara. I like our life together.” Archie searched his wife’s eyes for understanding. “Losing my teaching job has made things difficult,” he said, “but that was just a temporary setback. I’ve been working on my resumé.”
“There are things I want to do,” Clara said, “before it’s too late, before I set myself up to be a bitter old lady.”
Archie saw an opening. “Tell me what you want to do and I’ll do it with you. Is there someplace you want to go?” Clara’s expression told Archie he was on the wrong track. “Okay, let’s talk about it,” he said. “Please, tell me what you want.”
Clara wiped away another tear. “I want to write a memoir.”
Archie stared at his wife. A memoir. “Honey,” he said, “you don’t have to leave me to write a memoir.” He sensed a possible resolution to the dilemma, although it seemed too obvious. “Why, you can do it at home.” Feeling a welling of relief, he said, “I’ll fix up Maxine’s old room for you. If you need a new computer, we still have our savings.”
Clara’s laugh was merciless. “Savings? Your stretch of unemployment has wrecked our savings.” Her voice assumed a tone of superiority that Archie had never heard. “Besides, you’ve completely missed the point of what I’m trying to tell you. There’s no memoir in my life with you.”
Not knowing how to counter that statement, Archie kept quiet.
“Tonight’s when I change that,” she said. “I want to rob a bank.”
Archie’s jaw dropped open.
Clara laughed. “Not really rob a bank, Archie. But I’ve got to do something like that, something that takes me out on the edge, where I’ll have to rely on my instincts to keep me alive.” She was staring past Archie, her eyes wide, as if she could see a thousand yards into her future. “I’ve lain awake nights with my eyes closed and watched myself assassinate Taliban leaders in Afghanistan. I’ve rescued mountain gorillas from machete-wielding poachers. Dressed completely in black, my face darkened with kohl, I’ve stolen the Mona Lisa.” Her voice lowered back to reality. “And there you are the next morning, handing me my coffee. Jesus, Archie, I’ve got to get away from who I am.”
“Does Maxine know about this?” Archie said. Their daughter was newly married and starting her senior year at Missouri State.
“Yes,” Clara said. “She doesn’t like it. She’s afraid of what it will do to you.”
Archie felt the sting of knowing that Clara talked to Maxine before talking to him. But then, his wife could have simply left him without having this awkward Ferris wheel talk.
“Maxine wants her home place to stay the same,” Clara continued. “She wants her daddy and mommy to always be there, frozen in time, like some hokey television show.” The resentful tone was back in Clara’s voice. “I told her she was being selfish.” Clara looked out toward the city lights. “I had to make her promise me she wouldn’t call you and tell you what I was about to do. I finally convinced her that it would be best if I talked to you.”
“And what is it, Clara, that you’re … about to do?”
Clara leaned over and looked down at the man that ran the Ferris wheel. Turning back to Archie, she said, “That’s Blackjack Andy. He wants to take me with him when the carnival packs up tonight.”
Blackjack Andy for Christ’s sake! It took all of Archie’s self-control to keep from laughing in Clara’s face. But the urge to laugh was only momentary. His wife was telling him she belonged to another man. With this realization, Archie’s imagination stumbled into the cheesy funhouse down on the midway, the one with wavy mirrors and demented laughter. Instead of his own twisted reflection, he saw ghastly images of Blackjack Andy in the form of some kind of human bull ravishing his wife. “Oh Jesus,” he moaned.
Clara was talking again, “… Blackjack can give me the life experiences I need for my memoir. He wants to leave the carnival and go back to being a con artist.” With a dreamy look in her eyes, she said, “He needs a partner, and he says I’ve got what it takes.”
“Where did you meet this guy?” Archie said, leaning back to peer over the seat. The rig’s intervening web of girders made it hard to see the figure down below. He tried unsuccessfully to recall the face of the man who helped them into the seat and clamped the safety bar in place. But people on the fringe of society can be invisible when they cross your path. They probably prefer it that way.
“We met at the county library,” Clara said. For a moment, her face took on a quizzical expression. “He’s a carnival worker at night, but during the day Blackjack reads Proust and Melville. He said he’s working on his own memoir, and he’ll help me with mine.” Clara hesitated a moment, and then said, “That is, as soon as I can have my adventure.”
Archie groaned. A carnival stud on the prowl in Joplin and Clara thinks he’s a goddamn intellectual. Won’t the folks at church be full of gossip about this? “Poor Archie,” they’d say, “his wife ran off with the circus boy.” He’d have to listen to their insincere condolences, while they laughed among themselves, the men secretly thankful that it was Clara and not one of their wives. The women would have their own carnival daydreams about tattooed musclemen they’d seen lifting and straining among the guy wires and canvas.
“Don’t look so sad, Archie,” Clara said, misinterpreting her husband’s brooding face. “This won’t just be my adventure. You’ll have adventures of your own.”
Archie smirked at the thought: a library science teacher taming broncos or fighting as a mercenary in some South American jungle. He didn’t want an adventure, so he asked Clara for a compromise. “After your, uh, spree with Blackjack Andy, will you come home to write your memoir?”
Clara hesitated before speaking. “That’s a question I can’t answer,” she said, “until this next phase of my life is over.” A snippet of a calliope chorus floated past. “Archie, you should assume, for your own good, that you’ll never see me again after tonight.”
“What if I decide to file for divorce?” Archie said.
In a matter-of-fact tone, Clara said, “I’ll sign the papers, if you can find me.”
Archie put his hand on Clara’s shoulder. He didn’t know what else to say, so he simply shook his head, like when a doctor rises from the bedside of a dead patient, removes his stethoscope from his ears, and hooks it around his neck.
While he stared at the moths circling the carnival lights, he remembered something his wife said: He wants to leave the carnival and go back to being a con artist. There it was, as plain as anything. Blackjack the con artist had conned his wife. The carney bastard probably thought he could make some money out of the deal and leave Clara stranded in some bus station.
Archie saw what he had to do. It would be painful. Clara would hate him at first, for exposing her gullibility. But she would eventually see Blackjack for what he was and beg her husband’s forgiveness for jeopardizing their marriage.
“Clara,” Archie said, “I hate to say this because I know it will make you mad, but don’t you realize that Blackjack’s conning you? You said yourself that he’s a con artist.”
She was staring straight ahead. Her face was a mask of indifference. Archie waited for the anger to surface, the yelling and flailing.
Clara’s laugh began as a stuttering hum contained within closed lips. Still facing straight ahead, she broke into full voice howling that segued to teary-eyed shrieking. She laughed so hard she was gasping for breath and rocking the seat alarmingly.
Finally, Clara gained control and turned toward Archie shaking her head. “Oh Archie, you think I don’t know that Blackjack’s conning me.” Another wave of laughter ensued during which Archie was afraid the bucking seat would shear those rusty cotter pins in two, casting them down through the spokes and girders.
Archie was too bewildered to speak.
“Lord Archie,” she said, still trying to catch her breath. “I wanted to be conned. I did everything I could to make Blackjack believe I was the easiest mark he’d ever found.” She was quiet for a moment, until her breathing was steady again. “Hell, maybe I conned him,” she said. “Think about that. I wasn’t going to let that wild son of a bitch get out of this town without me.”
The funhouse visions flooded Archie’s senses again. This time, Clara was no longer an innocent victim. She deserved whatever abuse her sideshow paramour could throw at her. More than anything, Archie wanted to leap forward in time, to catapult himself past the inconvenience and the shame waiting for him in the coming days and months.
Clara leaned over the back of the seat and waved. “I told Blackjack to stop us up here so I could talk to you without distractions,” she said. “You don’t listen to half of what I say, so I thought this,” she rocked the seat, “would help you focus on what I wanted to tell you.”
Far below, a lever clanked, and the wheel shuddered noisily. Warped music blared from gravelly speakers lashed to the spokes. They jolted forward, rolling from the wheel’s center of balance out toward the periphery of its circumference. No longer over the girders, their seat swayed above the slowly approaching midway.
Archie could see that Clara’s knuckles were white as she squeezed the safety bar. He also noticed a slight tremble in her forearms. She sat like a strapped-in astronaut during liftoff, staring straight ahead, fully committed to the journey she had begun. What she was doing took courage. How Archie resented his wife’s bravery and despised his own cowardice in the face of a life change over which he had no control.
He turned and looked back toward the top of the wheel. Where he’d once considered that summit a place of danger, he now saw it as a lost refuge. His fear of heights had vanished. Archie now faced a more terrifying prospect – the fear of returning to earth.