Authors: Emma Straub
Tags: #Fiction, #Short Stories (Single Author)
ld rides were easy to come by if you knew where to look. Places went out of business all the time. Abraham drove to Pennsylvania and Ohio to check out people’s old Scramblers and Whack-a-Moles and Zip-Dee-Doos. If Greta was out of school, she went with him and gave her opinion on the rusting metal giants. She was sixteen now and could be trusted with important decisions. He rarely bought anything, though. Most of the time he’d come home and say, “You know what? I’ve got an idea!” Then he’d vanish into his shop for a few hours or a few days and come out with something strung together with pieces of old tires. All of the attractions at the Forest were homemade except for the lonely Ferris wheel, which poked dramatically over the tree line. There was a guy in Big Sur who carved things with a chainsaw, and he and Abraham had some kind of deal going. It
had something to do with weed. Every now and then a truck would pull up and deposit a burl dwarf or wizard or unicorn, and there’d be something else inside, too. Abraham liked it when things looked like they could have occurred organically, like when a tree stump looked enough like a miniature castle to label it as such, but you’d still have to squint and maybe put in some windows and turrets in your head.
Greta knew that things were confusing on purpose. The Enchanted Forest was an actual place, that’s why lots of people stopped. On the map, there was a small triangle of green, labeled
Enchanted National Forest and State Park
, and Abraham’s Enchanted Forest roadside attraction was on the highway headed in that direction. Before Greta was born, her parents, Abraham and Judy, had made enough signs to divert even the most dedicated of road warriors.
Look out, goblins ahead! Magical pony crossing! Entering Fairy Dust Area! Food! Rides! Unexplainable phenomena! Visit the Enchanted Forest, Five Miles!
His goal was to be the Northeast’s answer to Wall Drug and South of the Border, but to actually give people a good reason to stop. Sure, he wanted them to pay admission, but more than that, he wanted to give them a worthwhile experience. He wanted to give them poetry and apple pie, the good kind of Americana. He and Judy had bought the land for nothing and then built the whole Forest from scratch, except for the trees. Greta knew that tourists considered the Forest a rip-off; after all, it was mainly a path through big old trees with some plaques telling you to look out for some imaginary thing, a Ferris wheel, and a place to eat lunch. But she also knew the truth: most people didn’t look hard enough.
Apparently, you could see the upper rim of the Enchanted Forest’s Ferris wheel all the way from New York City, which was thirty miles south. At least that’s what Abraham liked to say. He was big bellied and big voiced and liked to say a lot of things. Sometimes Greta made lists in her spiral notebook.
Today, Abraham made a speech about different ways to reuse plastic water bottles and it lasted for twenty-six minutes. Almost all of the ideas involved using way more plastic. What if no one wants to go inside a Trojan horse made of garbage?
In her sixteen years, she couldn’t remember ever calling her father by anything but his first name. Abraham’s enormous gray and white speckled beard was reason enough.
Greta’s parents met in 1975, back when things were cheap. Her mother, Judy, was driving across the country in an old school bus with her then-boyfriend, who was a candlemaker. The boyfriend—Greta could never remember his name, no matter how hard she tried—would set up camp somewhere and make candles long enough to sell them at craft fairs and farmers’ markets, and then, when he’d made enough money to last a few hundred miles, off they’d go. The problem was, one day the bus wouldn’t start, and he decided he’d rather keep moving than stick around and make more candles. He gave Judy the bus and the buckets of wax and all the spools of heavy string for the wicks, and he was gone. For the next month, Judy and the bus sat in the parking lot and made candles on the asphalt. That was, until she met Abraham. The way he liked to tell it, Abraham fell in love with the bus first, then Judy. It was a win-win situation.
The old yellow bus now sat on the edge of the Enchanted
Forest parking lot, as though a crowd of fifth graders was on an endless field trip. They’d had it towed. You couldn’t see much of the Forest from the parking lot; that was the point. You had to pay your money before you saw exactly what you were paying for. It was always fun when the lot was full—when she was little, Greta would wander between the parked cars, weaving in and out, trying to count all the states from the license plates. Every now and then there was something exciting, like California or Colorado or Alaska, but mostly it was New York, New Jersey, Connecticut. All the ones she could spell without writing them in the air with her finger.
Of course, these days if the lot was full enough to have cars from Alaska, it meant that Greta was supposed to be inside, taking tickets or busing tables or walking around smiling at people. She was supposed to be a fairy. Judy had sewn her some wings. The costume really wasn’t so bad. Greta could wear whatever she wanted as long as she had on the glittery wings, which she could put on and take off like a gossamer backpack. Most of the time, Greta put them on over her T-shirt or sweatshirt, depending on the weather. They were adjustable. Here’s what Greta liked to wear: normal clothes. Not the kind that the popular girls wore, the ones whose parents had moved from the city, with brand names glistening off their breast pockets and waistbands, but the kind of clothes you wouldn’t think twice about. That was her goal: to blend. The wings made it more difficult, but when she was at home, what was the point? There was no one to convince.
During the off-season, the long months between September and May, Abraham made money by going into local public
schools and libraries and doing readings as Walt Whitman. He wore his cleanest clothes and a hat, though the beard and the voice were the real selling points. People would stand up and applaud, except for the small children, who would cower behind their parents’ legs and occasionally burst into tears.
The tenth grade had read
Leaves of Grass
in English class that spring. Greta knew what was coming. The school wasn’t big; everyone else knew, too. The teacher probably assigned the book because she’d seen Abraham do his shtick at the Enchanted Forest Public Library. High schools were always a joke in May, no matter where you were. The seniors were already into their colleges or technical schools or had jobs at the mall, and the juniors could see the light at the end of the tunnel. For everyone else, it was just the looming summer, and the sunlight, and the tanning lotion. During the year, it was easy to pretend that she had dreamed up the Forest and her parents and that, really, she had a normal house and a sister or two and a neutered dog, but once the summer was under way, it wasn’t so bad. Abraham was funny when she had no one to compare him to.
Lincoln High School sat in the middle of the town proper, which was a fifteen-minute bus ride down Route 17 from the Enchanted Forest. People had started getting their learner’s permits, and riders were dropping like flies, but Greta didn’t mind. She couldn’t imagine what kind of car Abraham would help her buy. The school bus, at least, was neutral.
He’d beat her to school somehow, despite the bus’s head start. When Greta pulled open the heavy door to the main corridor, people were already giggling in a way that was impossible to misunderstand.
a boy from her geometry class called out. There was a portrait of Herman Melville in the mall’s Barnes and Noble, and the beard was similar. She nodded and kept walking, holding her book bag tight against her chest.
Abraham’s voice reached her first. It was “O Captain! My Captain!” and it was coming from the direction of the cafeteria. Greta knew most of the big hits by heart, not on purpose, just because the house wasn’t that big and Abraham liked to practice. Greta took a minute to picture Abraham in his Walt Whitman outfit, standing in front of the hot food trays. There were three bays for food—gross, grosser, and grossest. She usually ate from the first one, the salad bar. Greta imagined Abraham sticking his chubby finger into the plastic bucket of Italian dressing, and picking up a handful of cherry tomatoes without using the tongs. He loved cafeteria food. She knew that Abraham would stick around to eat, either before or after he spoke to her class, still wearing the Whitman outfit, and undoubtedly still in character. Greta could picture all the nerdy, bookish kids loving him, and crowding around his table. They would all look make-believe and pale next to him, imaginary. They would slop up their applesauce and macaroni and cheese and not believe their luck. Abraham could do that to people, make them feel important, like they had something interesting to say. She took a breath and rounded the corner, her sneakers squeaking on the glossy red tiles. She looked through the glass-paned door at her father.
Abraham, or rather Walt, wasn’t just standing in front of the lunch trays. One of his hands held aloft a slotted metal spoon, and the other was clamped over his heart. His eyes
were closed. It was only the middle stanza. Greta closed her eyes, too, and waited for it to be over. The room was quiet aside from her father’s voice and the clinking of cheap, school-issue flatware. There was going to be applause, and laughter. The ratio seemed unimportant.
Judy was in charge of the restaurant, which had a lunch counter and five tables, too small for the busloads of Japanese tourists. In season, there was always a line out the door. Everyone paid cash and bused their own tables—it was part of the appeal. Greta’s favorite part of the entire Forest was her mother’s apple pie. Some writer had mentioned it in a guidebook once—
You’ve Got to Eat This!
—and now people drove out of their way just to order a piece. In July and August, Judy baked fifteen pies a day. She’d been almost forty when Greta was born; Abraham was a decade older. It was some kind of miracle, Judy liked to say. “My tubes were all going the wrong way,” she told Greta. “You were the only one who knew where to go.”
The restaurant was painted green both inside and out, with fake vines winding their way up the walls in between the tables. Judy had drawn each of the leaves individually, so they were all slightly different, like snowflakes or the wooden creatures lining the path to the door.
“What do you think about a strawberry pie today, honey? Or maybe something with only red ingredients? So you were never sure what you were eating?” Judy set a fork and a knife at each place setting. It was still early enough in the season to experiment. Later in the summer, people would complain.
Greta watched her mother bend over the tables, stretching her small back. She didn’t wear any theme clothing, only stuff you could order from the L.L.Bean catalog. When her hair was loose, it hung down to the middle of her spine, but it was never loose during the daytime. Every day, Judy twisted her hair into two long braids and fastened them to the top of her head with bobby pins. Her hair was beginning to be more gray than brown. The effect was something like an aging Swedish milkmaid. It was her only concession to the fairy tales happening around her, in her pies, on the walls.
“Sure, Judy.” Greta had Abraham’s body and Judy’s face. She was taller than her mother by eight inches, and sometimes Judy still seemed surprised to have given birth to something so big and patted her daughter on the shoulder, shaking her head. Their faces were the same, though. Small ovals with tight brown eyes and plump, pale lips. Greta liked that they looked similar—it was proof that there were some things in the world more powerful than Abraham. “Red pie sounds good.”
“It could be Rose Red Rumble!” Judy said, excited. It was good to give things theme names; that made people feel like it was worth three dollars a slice. The apple pie was called Sleeping Beauty’s Revenge. Judy and Greta wrote most of the fables that appeared on plaques around the property. They retold fairy tales, sometimes with two different versions, Disney or Grimm. Greta had always preferred the Disney versions, which appalled her parents. Abraham would rail for hours against the dumbing down of Cinderella. It was nothing without the bloody toe stubs, he said, nothing at all.
When Greta was little, she’d let her father dip her feet in red paint and then run, screaming, through the crowd.
In June, when people started to pile into their cars and RVs and station wagons, Greta came up with an attraction of her own: Who Wants to Kiss a Fairy? It was located behind the dining room or a little ways into the woods or wherever else no one usually went. She didn’t charge; that would be gross. Instead, she kept an eye out for interested parties, and gave them
when it was time. Here were all the boys who ever came to the Enchanted Forest and looked like they deserved a vacation fairy: the blond from Massachusetts with all those sisters; the tall, tan one from Florida who was alone with his mother; the funny one with the red hair who was soft all over. Most of the boys who came to the Forest just glanced at her boobs in the fairy costume and didn’t even say hello.
It was only kissing, nothing gross. The blond one was the first. He was reading about Jack and the Beanstalk underneath Beanstalk’s Ladder, the tallest tree in the Forest. Greta sidled up next to him and plucked at her wings, which she put on backward, so that they were growing out of her chest, a concession to the boredom of the endless summer days. The blond blushed and didn’t say hello, but she could tell that he was interested. It was a silent flirtation. They both looked around the corner, where his mother and three sisters had already scurried. A blond head soared above on the Ferris wheel. They had at least five minutes.
If the Enchanted Forest were in a movie, they’d always be playing Bob Dylan or Van Morrison or maybe even Leonard
Cohen in the background. Greta thought about that a lot. Sometimes when she was taking a shower or helping her mom in the restaurant, she’d imagine what kind of scene it would be and what would be playing to set the mood. Most of the day would end up in a montage; very rarely were things important enough for a whole scene. Her favorite movies were the ones where people just did normal stuff: go to school dances, eat dinner with their parents, take walks, and talk to each other about their problems. The point was, no one in the movies ever seemed to realize how good they had it. No one ever lived on the side of the highway with Walt Whitman and a bunch of wooden dwarves.