By bud smith
The night they took his father off life support, we scaled the fence and went to the top of the Paralyzer. Not trying to die. But something blurry and near that.
The water was off in the park, but we did the hundred and seventy-five foot drop down the tallest slide, on burlap sacks, screaming and eyes clenched and oh my god oh my god.
I’d stolen the burlap sacks from the hardware store I worked at. They had Italia stamped on them because they’d come from Italy. Cool.
Get this, they used the burlap sacks to stuff between valuable fountains and statues that were shipped in wooden boxes bigger than me and this was the funny part, people, most of them Italians anyway, bought the statues to stick in front of their beach front summer homes, either placing them at the base of the driveway or on the back of the house facing the ocean.
My whole plan in life had been to replace Scott on the forklift at the hardware store when he went to college, but he never went and neither did I. He’s probably still driving that forklift, good for him, the privileged little shit.
I lost that job because I sometimes sledgehammered those statues apart for fun after work to feel better about myself.
Here’s some hard science—did you know, the terrifying ride down The Paralyzer was at least three times faster than when the water was on and the park was stuffed with city kids come down to Jersey for the weekend? On a burlap sack, water off, you could go down the slide like a greased blur. Without the resistance of the fat chlorinated water, your ass would get hot and your hair would blow back and your face get all taunt and you’d forget how your mom was fucking the garbage man and your dad had gone off to another nightly news war zone. The drop on a regular day felt like one thousand feet. Now the drop felt like a million feet.
When we got to the bottom, the trough that usually slowed everyone down was empty of water and we went sailing onto the concrete.
Bouncing. Skidding. Elbows and knees skinned.
Blood cascading off ripped flesh.
But Mike jumped up, and said, “Let’s do that again!”
Up the cling clang structure we sprinted.
So strange, all my memories being resurrected by the local paper.
Yesterday I read about the park in the paper, the slide burnt to the ground, and it surprised me to see it was only a hundred and five foot drop from the ground level to the top of the highest water slide in Splash Castle.
But the night Mike and me had the park to ourselves, was the night his father lost his battle to an unidentifiable malady. There was a heat lightning storm, too, the sky over Seaside Heights, the weirdest purple. Green clouds over the Sky Lift. Pink lightning looking like it was kissing the tip of Arcade Pier.
Climb a hundred and seventy steps(?) and at the top, we could reach out and pluck down the emerald clouds like cotton candy.
From the top of the structure, we could see the boardwalk, and the ocean smashing against the sand. We could see the Ferris wheel and the Human Slingshot that flung people out over the ocean in a basket and then pulled them back to safety with great rubber bands. I could see all the stands where I’d lost my newspaper delivery money trying to win a Game Boy or a Walkman or even a stuffed heart to give to any of the girls in my class who didn’t know what my house looked like.
And from the top of the Paralyzer I could see Mike’s equally shitty house just three blocks away. A doomed bungalow with trash in the yard blown by a bay breeze that never stopped to warrant picking up the trash. The lights were off because his mom was at the hospital.
Another thing I just read in the newspaper yesterday—his mom remarried twice after that. Both times, the husbands wound up in critical care. She was putting poison in their Gatorades. Or in the case of the third husband, in his nightly scotch and water. Eventually everything you do taps you on the shoulder and you have to turn around and face it.
Thing is, you never really know anything, or anybody for that matter until they save you, or try to kill you.
The Paralyzer had two fiberglass tracks. When the water in the park was on, it was fun to stand at the bottom and watch the people (who thought they were the bravest!) race each other down. It was also fun to watch the girls who would come down with their suits ripping off or their suits giving them wedgies. I was missing a front tooth back then, this was the best I could do.
But that night, the park was deserted and it was just me and Mike and he was always getting into trouble and this time he had me along to get in trouble with and I didn’t mind because I was bored too. All the statues smashed. All the banana peels smoked, to no effect. Five dollars worth of quarters stolen out of parked cars along Sherman Ave., windows left open, New York plates. Go fuck yourself. We couldn’t afford the Human Slingshot, so here we were.
This was our fourth time down the slide, and over the fence, out on the main drag, we could see the cop cars that had shown up with their lights not even flashing. The cops were standing on the sidewalk looking up at us on the top of the structure. I wondered which of the neighbors on the drag had seen us. I scanned the street, saw a woman and a man standing in their yard smoking cigarettes, looking up too. I’d key their yellow Camaro the next day.
“We have to go down to run,” Mike said.
“Okay! 1-2-3 …”
We launched down the twin slides of The Paralyzer and when we hit the ground, I ripped my leg all up on the concrete.
The cops still couldn’t get in the gate, and even better for us, we knew how to get out of the park without having to go back over the fence.
If you go into the maintenance room hidden behind Black Burt’s Cave, you can squeeze past the PVC plumbing pipes and the giant pool filters that pump water to Lazy Lagoon, and if you’re wild enough, you can pull up the grating and you can crawl through a small tunnel that goes out underneath the sidewalk and across the street and into the storm drain in the dirt parking lot that charged you $3 for the whole day, rather than fighting the meter.
You just walk in the sewer for half a block pretending like you’re a ninja turtle and there’s even a ladder and a sewer lid on Mike’s street. His dog did look like a giant rat that could teach you things if you got high enough and listened.
Up on the street, we ducked behind cars and watched the cops as they waited for the manager to come with the key.
This was a good distraction on the night Mike’s dad left the earth. Getting away, this is one of my only triumphant memories, to be honest.
Last winter I saw Mike at the county mall. It’s been going on twenty years. Strange how radically people can mutate when you don’t think about them.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I was working part time at the mall that Christmas, doing gift wrapping outside of Sears. It’s not like I’m a great gift wrapper or anything, but they were only paying $8 an hour, so I don’t think they were expecting the best anyway. No one cared that I was gin blossomed and listening to a Public Enemy cassette tape with my headphones on.
Mike walked up with a board game, Mouse Trap. I didn’t even know they still made Mouse Trap.
He recognized me, I didn’t recognize him at first. I took my headphones off. His voice had changed octaves.
Mike wasn’t the mile a minute kid I remembered from middle school with a fade haircut and a lightning bolt on the side of his head. His face was doughy and wounded.
He had his hair combed in a part. He wore a pink satin suit.
The woman he held hands with was five inches taller than him. He introduced her as Lilly and later, at his chiropractic office, he confided in me that she was ‘the greatest Vietnamese lover I’ve ever had.’
He’d grown a mustache and looked like a pedo. But I guess he could look at me and say, “What happened to the rest of his teeth?” and “Is that a pint in your pocket or are you happy to see me?”
Before he left the mall he handed me a card for his chiropractic services and I said, “I’m fine really, my back is great. Have never had a problem.”
He looked at me all funny and he said, “It’s not just for your back, you know.”
He thought that chiropractic medicine could cure any disease, which is just about the most insane thing I’d ever heard in my life.
I don’t know why I thought that way because I’d been to acupuncture three times, there used to be a little storefront in the strip mall by the tire shop.
Each time I went for acupuncture, it was different.
I had terrible acne all the way up to when I started sandblasting at Millvile Machinist. They put the needles in my palms. Hundreds of needles. And in a month my skin was clear, but it might have been from the sandblasting too. I’d been fired by the time the month was over. I don’t know.
I tried to quit drinking once. They put the needles, five needles in each ear. That worked for a day, but then the drinking got worse.
Another time, over a long winter, and my fiancé on the verge of leaving me, even circling an ‘end date’ on a calendar she brought over to my room at The Shamrock Motel … I couldn’t get an erection. In desperation I went again to the acupuncturist and the guy put a needle behind my left knee, another right over my heart, a final one into my throat, the Adam’s apple. That worked for the thing with my dick, but my fiancé still left. Took the calendar with her.
Who knows what magic is?
After Christmas, when all the gift wrapping was done and I needed rent, I got a different job, working overnights at the aerosol spray can factory in the industrial park and the shift manager who hired me gave me a photocopied piece of paper with three different clinics I could go to to get a drug test.
I was clean at the time but still nervous to take a test, I’ve failed every test of my little life. So when I recognized one of the testing places as Mike’s chiropractic office, I went there without thinking twice about it.
There was a beat up diesel BMW in the driveway. Gold. The house had two flags hung by the door, one with the Italian flag, the other with a lotus flower on a tie dyed backdrop.
The chiropractic office was around the back though, and down a little set of brick steps slowly turning back into clay dust.
His office was in the basement of a lonely old house, junk stacked in all the windows I could see in. I assumed he was living upstairs. In one of the windows I could see that A Tribe Called Quest poster I remembered from his bedroom. The house had rose gardens, the flowers shriveled up and uncared for. A buddha statue with the left arm snapped off. This house reminded me of his mother’s house by Splash castle, but stretched out like silly putty pulled to its maximum.
Maybe it was just the garden that reminded me of his mom’s grimy bungalow, and how she’d kept a lot of plants. Mike had grown a marijuana plant there in the garden and it grew so tall and stuck out like a sore thumb but no one ever said anything because they either felt bad about his dead dad or they didn’t know what a marijuana plant looked like.
Strange now, they’re everywhere. You see kids walking around the boardwalk with t-shirts with marijuana leaves on them and you see kids driving around in cars with bumper stickers with pot plants all on them basically taunting the cops. I don’t even look cross-eyed at a cop, let alone taunt one. I’ve always assumed I got lucky that one time by beating them, and I have no other luck with them left or anybody else.
Before I could even ring the doorbell, Mike flung the door open. He shook my hand and pulled me inside. He was wearing the pink suit still, but a lime green dress shirt underneath. We were in our late thirties that day but I almost laughed when I saw he still walked the same. In the halls of Central Regional High School people called him Monkey Mike because he walked like a chimpanzee or something, kind of slouched forward and arms dangling. Here he was, time spanned like a blink, still the same walk.
But the last time we’d hung out before that, we were kids, just seventeen, screwing around with cars that were driving down Double Trouble Road.
I’ve never told anyone this, but we caused a pretty severe wreck.
We had a fake flashing light on the top of the car that we got at a novelty shop in the mall and he was driving, I was in the passenger seat, as he gassed it good, chasing a car for no reason, in the rain, sun falling behind the pines. I remember laughing, reaching across the car and pounding the steering wheel so the horn blasted out all sinister. At the bend, the car skidded off the asphalt and struck a tree head on. We kept driving.
At a table in Fried Paradise we stared at dead pieces of chicken and crinkle fries covered in red goo. And listened to the real cop cars, the ambulances, the fire trucks as they blasted down route 9 towards the tragedy we’d caused and I’m only writing about this now to you because I love you and trust you and I’m plastered and hope you don’t repeat it. Feel like I could have gone to jail five times for the stupid things we did when we were kids.
Last night, I laid in the dark and drank a six pack in bed, thinking about those people in that car. Who were they? Did they survive? I guess I could look it up at the library on the film machine, old newspapers. But I think I’d probably do something bad to myself if I saw what I think happened. I’d rather just pretend it was all a bad dream. Or that I’m in the dream now and if I wake up I’ll get punished by some cosmic judgement more potent and bizarre than I can comprehend here.
It’s as if each of these beer bottles contains a dose of magic that keeps reality shrunk back, hidden in the fuzzy shadow of water parks, and boardwalks, and the sweet confectioner sugar stink of zeppoles fried at the stand across from the carousel. For my thirtieth birthday, a woman I nearly married paid for me to go to the dentist and get an impression of my gums made, false teeth made from that. I have the false teeth somewhere, but I don’t wear them. They hurt me. Everything in the present hurts me. Oh wait, I don’t have the teeth … I just remembered what I did with them. I smashed them with a baseball bat on my thirty fifth birthday. Edge of the frozen boardwalk. Ferris wheel dark.
I don’t think Mike was ever the same after that accident. We never talked about it, and never would for as long as he was alive.
And there in the basement chiropractic office all these years later, I could see it first hand. How much he’d vanished and been replaced by a pod person with a blank mind, coping. Same walk though, ha. And he had no shoes on, was barefoot on a dirty rug that I could feel through my work boots, even.
There was a cramped waiting room, stuffed with hundreds of magazines, “Need anything to read? Take some of these with you when you go. Lilly gets them from the trash. She’s an angel.”
Something was different, something I hadn’t noticed in the mall. He spoke slower. He spoke as if stuck in half-speed. Brow perpetually soaked with sweat.
The kid who I’d known was gone, but I wondered what he saw when he saw me.
We all go to sleep and wake up totally different. Strangers walking through the wreckage. Odd ducks tip toeing beyond the debris. People with eyes closed in the $2 cinemas of our own random lives.
“How’s your back?” he said.
“The back is good,” I said. “No problems there.”
I showed him the paperwork for the factory.
He looked at the paperwork for a long time.
“You can pass a drug test?”
“Yeah,” I said.
He nodded, seemed impressed.
“I’ve got synthetic piss if you need it.” I declined. “A factory? What will you do there?”
“Drive the forklift I hope …”
“Didn’t you do that when we were kids? Over at the hardware store?”
“Just once, I fucked up and a crate slipped off and crushed the back of this guy’s pickup truck.”
“Better luck this time.”
He stared through me for a minute and I got uncomfortable.
I said, “Okay, give me the cup or whatever. I’ll fill it and you’ll finally get to see my piss up close. It’ll be a whole new chapter for us.”
He faked a laugh, got the cup.
I went into the bathroom and the light didn’t work, but it didn’t matter. There was daylight sneaking in from a window almost obscured by things piled up against it outside. After the piss test, a special cap screwed on the plastic jar, and a test strip showing I wasn’t obliterated on ten different separate things, Mike said, “Come on, I’ll show you my office.”
His office was wood paneled and stunk like mold. The walls were covered in posters showing different traumas of the spine. Everywhere I looked was a different skeleton. A different stack of cartoon vertebrae. A separate way the rungs of human life can be pulled randomly off a happy ladder to smash into/onto a hard surface. Pain waits in the wings to overtake well being. Some people they just never walk again.
Mike opened his drawer and took out a pipe. He started packing it with weed from a ziplock.
He lit the pipe with a match. Took a deep hit.
He passed the pipe to me. I had a clean bill of health and a job in the morning, so I went for it.
I smoked. Eyes narrowed. He reached behind him and pushed play on the stereo. A cassette whirred to life. Something exotic.
“That’s nice,” I said. “What are those instruments?” I pointed at the stereo as if the stereo was another person sitting in the room, someone to love and teach me things.
“Đàn bầu, and Đàn đáy.” The music on the tape sounded like the scars of the world being melted off by sunshine and waterfalls. Waves of glowing birds. In came the flutes.
“Dandy. Gotta get me one of those.” I leaned back. “You still play guitar?”
He held up his hand. His middle finger and ring finger were gone on his left hand.
“Did you know that the passage of time is like a demolition derby, and no one wins?”
“No one wins a demolition derby?” I said, surprised, I never thought about it. “I think someone has to win it, or why do it?”
He shrugged. His jaw was slack. His tongue like a slide.
The weed was mixed with PCP, but he hadn’t told me that. We sat there for probably two hours, talking, blabbing, drooling, but I can’t remember a single thought or a single word. It was a visit that unvisited itself. When Lilly’s footsteps were heard upstairs, our little pow wow next to the maps of the spine was over. He slapped his palm across the tape deck and the paradise popped off. “This was fun,” he said.
On my way up the brick steps, back to the street, I tripped over my own feet and went face first into the rose bushes. Cut my moneymaker all up. But on one saw. And no asked what happened.
It was the one time in my life I’ve taken a cab, leaving my car parked there on the street. Chalk that up to fear and personal growth. The cabbie was parked a block away in the lot of Food Universe. I begged him to take me home. He was in the middle of a sandwich. I climbed in the back of the car, and waited until he was finished with his sandwich.
When he was finished, he threw the trash out the window. Seagulls descended in a swarm.
“Where we going?”
“Double Trouble Road,” I said. “Drive me into a tree, fast as you can.”
“Get the fuck out of my car.”
“Shamrock Motel then,” I said.
“Seven dollars. And show me it now.”
I held the money up. He reached back and grabbed it.
“Not another word, fruit loop.”
There is security footage of the The Paralyzer being burnt to the ground. The news keeps showing it, like someone will sing.
In the video, a man in a pink suit appears on the concrete walking underneath the purple and yellow slides that wrap together in the sky like twisty straws.
I am surprised that I don’t know what the twisty straws were called. Now it’s too late. They’re just called Melted Molten Goop. They’re called ash in a dumpster.
The man in the pink suit is carrying a jug of fuel in his left hand. As he starts to climb the structure you can see him in the footage as he gets to the first platform and switches hands, carrying the jug of fuel in his right all the way to the very top.
At the top of the structure, he takes something out of his back pocket and no one is sure exactly what it is. The police don’t have any idea, but I know it is a burlap sack from Sal’s hardware just around the corner.
At the top of the structure, the figure begins to dump the jug of fuel all the way down the slide.
He lights a match, the slide goes up in a whoosh of fire.
The figure plummets down on the burlap sack and goes screaming through the flames all the way to the bottom of the Paralyzer.
He does a tumble onto the concrete, pops up, pats himself off—and in the footage, is seen sprinting back up the structure one last time.
Bud Smith works heavy construction in NJ. His books are the novels, F 250, Tollbooth, and I’m From Electric Peak, among others. www.budsmithwrites.com
Art: “Bourbon Street” by Michelle Johnsen
Michelle Johnsen (art editor) is a nature and portrait photographer in Lancaster, PA, as well as an amateur herbalist and naturalist. Her work has been featured by It’s Modern Art, Susquehanna Style magazine, Permaculture Activist magazine, EcoWatch.com, EarthFirst! Journal, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and used as album art for Grandma Shake!, Anna & Elizabeth, and Liz Fulmer Music. Michelle’s photos have also been stolen by AP, weather.com, The Daily Mail, and Lancaster Newspapers. You can contact her at mjphoto717 [at] gmail.com.