“Careful! They won’t be worth anything if you rip them!” Duane said, divvying up tickets between the four crazed kids flying high on cotton candy and an overdose of sensory input. He came away with little wisps of blue and pink stuck to his hands and sleeves.
Duane’s wife, Catherine, began laughing. “Tiffany and I will keep an eye on the little monsters. You boys have fun.” She kissed Duane on the cheek as the children bolted away, feet barely touching the ground.
“We’ll meet you by the Ferris wheel in an hour,” Tiffany said, quickly turning to follow Catherine and the kids into the thronging carnival.
Duane and Terrance watched their wives and children disappear into the crowd.
“Ahhh… to be a kid again…” Terrance said.
“I never liked cotton candy, even when I was their age. I think Sandi had more stuck on her face than she got in her mouth,” Duane chuckled. “Ugh, I need to wash this sticky crap off my hands…” he began walking away, pinching his hands together as if pretending to be a lobster.
“Sandi keeps us on our toes…” Terrance said, following Duane through the crowd. “The youngest ones are the wildest. Luckily Wade is level-headed and protective of his little sis.”
“How old are they now?” Duane said, washing his hands at a plastic station set up by the port-a-potties.
“Sandi is seven, and Wade turns twelve this year. How about your little ones?”
“Sebastian turned nine right before Christmas. Olivia is ten. God, I’m terrified to have teenagers in the house.” Duane flung water off his hands, then wiped them on his jeans.
“Time flies…” Terrance slapped his old college roommate on the arm. “It’s terrific to see you, brother. Crazy how much our lives have changed. You have a beautiful family. I’m glad the wives and kids are getting along.”
“Me too. Should we go get a beer?”
Duane and Terrance began winding through bodies until they reached a tent serving keg beer surrounded by many men combating the stresses of family time with hoppy suds. After ordering two beers each, the old friends sought out a quieter area to catch up. They settled for a dusty corner at the carnival’s fringe with an excellent view of the multi-colored Ferris wheel, the rainbow lights brilliant against the night sky’s dark canvas.
“Chug one for old times sake?” Terrance said, raising his full plastic cup toward Duane.
“To simpler times,” Duane said, his cup rising in cheers.
“Cheers to that,” Terrance said, and they slammed their beers, Duane finishing in half the time. “Jeez! You still got it!” Terrance said, wiping his beer-soaked face.
Duane laughed. “And you still need a bib…”
Terrance wiped futilely at the beer dribbles staining the front of his shirt, shrugging. Duane slid his full beer into the empty cup, belched, and Terrance followed suit. “So tell me,” Terrance said, “how are YOU fairing with this adulting business? Because, man, sometimes I feel I’m barely holding on…”
Giving his old friend a reluctant look, Duane said, “Man, straight to it, eh?” He sighed heavily. “Just between us? No sharing with the wives?”
“Where do I begin? I’ve been a parent now for over a decade, married longer than that, but I still feel entirely ill-equipped. There are days I get home from work and feel like I entered the wrong house––like I’m invisible, spying on someone else’s family. I dunno if that makes sense…”
“It does, actually,” Terrance replied. “I’m just grateful for Tiff; she’s definitely the glue that keeps us together. It’s kinda like us, sitting here watching this damn Ferris wheel going ’round and ’round. We’re stationary, watching from a distance, but it just keeps on spinning.”
“God, you’re right. I keep thinking I’ll wake up and feel like a real bonafide adult one day, but besides a bigger gut and some back pain, I’m not sure I feel any more mature than when we were skipping class to chase tail and get fucked-up.”
Terrance laughed as he was sipping his beer, adding some more splatters to his wet shirt. “I’m right there with you. I suppose if we still feel like stupid kids, we may as well act like them?” He gestured toward the spinning Ferris wheel.
“All right, as long as they’ll let my fat ass on…”
“You’ll be fine, big boy.” Terrance led Duane toward the ride, and they joined the line behind a man in a blue cap and a young girl with long blonde braids. They finished their beers, and Duane took the empties to drop in a trash can while Terrance held their place in line.
When Duane returned, the line had grown by a half dozen. Directly behind Terrance, a gray-haired couple with entwined age-spotted hands stood smiling wistfully at the colorful wheel, eyes gleaming. Duane grinned at the old love birds, reminding himself to keep his conversation PG while near others. “Shoot,” Duane said, digging into his pockets. “I gave all the tickets to the kids…”
Terrance began to reply, but the man directly behind him tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to see the shiny-eyed man holding out a couple of bright yellow tickets, a gentle smile on his wrinkled face. “Here you go…”
“Wow, thanks! Are you sure?” Terrance replied.
“We have more than we need,” the old man said, his companion echoing the sentiment with a nod. “Just consider the perspective of the spinning wheel as you young men take the journey…”
Thanking the strangers once more, Duane and Terrance mounted the steps to enter the ride, both pondering the old man’s enigmatic comment. Terrance handed the attendant both tickets and entered the carriage behind Duane, overlooking the difference in color between the fistful of tickets in the attendant’s hand and the ones they’d been gifted. The carriage door closed behind them, and the wheel rotated to allow more passengers. Expecting to see the old gray couple enter the ride next, Duane was surprised to see two spunky teens clamber into the carriage instead.
“Weird,” Duane said. “Consider the perspective?”
“Ehh, he just meant to enjoy the sights as we rise above our problems. Don’t think on it too hard; you’ll short something out.” Terrance swatted Duane in the gut with the back of his hand playfully as the wheel shifted again.
“Right…” Duane tittered with unease.
The friends fell into silence as the Ferris wheel took them higher and higher as more passengers filled the carts below them. The expansive carnival danced and sparkled below the carriage swaying in the warm air, sounds rising in discordant echoes and muffled clamor. Instead of carrying the men forward in the same direction, the colorful wheel began its fluid rotation by taking the friends’ carriage backward to descend and rise again. For the briefest of moments, the air became thick, soupy, and both Terrance and Duane’s breath slowed as they drifted down and away.
Duane’s knuckles went white on the safety bar, his field of vision fading away to a haze of memory. The carriage lowered, and memories flooded his mind. Sebastian and Olivia racing backward in time through elementary school, soccer games, kindergarten, daycare. Cooing happily in diapers on the shag-carpeted floor of his and Catherine’s first apartment. Sebastian’s birth, then Olivia’s, their first cries, those sleepless nights. His first sight of Catherine coming down the aisle on their wedding day, his knees going weak. Their first date, the day Catherine had walked onto the car lot, and he’d made her laugh with a self-deprecating joke about used car salesmen. Then back in the dorms with Terrance at college, flashes of debauchery, a weekend Terrance had gone home, and Duane had been homesick, crying, hollow, longing…
Around and around, the wheel spun, taking Terrance backward in time as well, memories enveloping him in a whirlwind of emotions: nostalgia, despair, hope, grief, desire…
The Ferris wheel clanged to a stop, the carriage a pendulum on its hinges with the momentum. The memory wheel ceased briefly; Duane and Terrance having a moment of respite in the present. Terrance turned shakily to his old friend, and their wide eyes met. Confounded, neither felt the need to dry their tear-stained cheeks. The wheel jerked again, this time propelling their cart forward. As the visions began, the friends became deaf to each other’s sobs. And to their own.
Terrance saw his little girl, Sandi, growing, blossoming like a flower in rapid time-lapse footage. She was eight, nursing a broken arm after falling from a tree. Now Sandi was fifteen, getting her learner’s permit, Tiffany scolding her for short skirts and too much makeup. High school graduation, college, at home on the couch with a pint of ice cream, nursing herself back from heartbreak. Giving her away on her wedding day to a young man with red hair and tears in his eyes. Then Wade, joining the Marines, his mother wailing the day he was deployed. A knock on the door, two men in suits. Taking a letter as Tiffany crumpled to the floor. Another ceremony, jumping at the three successions of synchronous gunshots, watching his firstborn being lowered into the dirt… Tiffany going gray, Terrance’s own wrinkled hand in hers, them finding laughter again, rediscovering joy…
Around and around, the wheel spun, a kaleidoscope of color awash on the shifting sands of time.
The Ferris wheel came to a halt with Duane and Terrance’s carriage positioned at the bottom. The acne-scarred attendant unlatched the door, but the passengers remained motionless. “Umm… sirs? The ride is over. Please exit the cart…” the attendant’s voice crackled.
“Oh, yes, of course,” Duane replied, shaking his head, nudging Terrance out ahead of him.
The old friends exited like sleepwalkers, a somnolent expression on their wet faces, ignorant to the curious glances and mutterings of onlookers. Moments later, Duane and Terrance found themselves back in the dusty, fence-lined corner, once again watching the Ferris wheel’s concentric multi-colored rings. “What just happened?” Terrance said, forcing the question from his emotion-constricted throat.
“I… don’t… know…” Duane replied. “Did you see… something? Like a dream? A vision?”
Terrance’s voice cracked. “I saw… everything… Before. After. Oh, God…”
Duane grabbed his friend in a bear hug as the waterworks came once more. After a few minutes, the friends regained their composure just in time to see their wives and children saunter over to the Ferris wheel and begin scanning the crowds.
“Our parties are waiting,” Duane said. “I guess we’re going to have to discuss this later…”
“Maybe we shouldn’t,” Terrance replied. “I think I’d rather file this experience away as an unsolved mystery.”
“Ok,” Duane said, curious what Terrance had seen. His own emotional ride into the past and future was weighty enough to utilize all his worry.
Tiffany and Catherine eyed their husbands curiously as they rejoined the party with spectacular shows of affection; kisses, hugs, and I love you’s, and I missed you’s commensurate with returning from a two-week business trip.
“What’d you boys do?” Catherine said. “Drink too much beer? Relive old times?”
Surprisingly, Terrance and Duane replied in perfect harmony. “Something like that,” they said, then looked at one another and laughed heartily.
Instead of making their way to exit the carnival as planned, Duane suggested they buy another round of tickets, offering to escort the kids for another flurry of carnival madness. Terrance agreed wholeheartedly, saying, “We only live once,” and Tiffany and Catherine began speculating on the exact quantity of beer their husbands had consumed during the hour they were alone.
As their husbands led the children away, Tiffany nodded towards the Ferris wheel. “Whaddya say, Cat? Wanna ride the Ferris wheel? Relive our youth?”
“Sure, why not,” Catherine replied.
As Catherine and Tiffany entered the line, an old gray-haired couple slid up behind them. “You young ladies need some tickets?” said the man with vibrant, beaming eyes, two glowing yellow tickets protruding from his extended hand.
Tiffany took the proffered tickets with gratitude, and minutes later, she and Catherine entered the ride. Surprisingly, the old couple had slipped out of the line without either woman noticing. “This is going to be fun!” Tiffany said, and the Ferris wheel began to move.
Around and around, the wheel spun…