Authors: Emma Straub
Tags: #Fiction, #Short Stories (Single Author)
Abraham was trying to fix the Hall of Mirrors. It was the gardening shed until he took it over. It was too close to everything else not to be a part of the tour, he said. Then you tell me where I’m going to put my shovels, Judy said back. The shed was too small to fit more than five or six people at once, four if one of them was Abraham.
“Don’t you think you should come up with something different to call it? Like, if you’re calling it a hall, don’t you think it should have a hall?” Greta sat on the ground next to her father’s toolbox, which wasn’t a box at all, but a stained canvas bag.
“People come for the attractions, babygirl. It’s all how you present your case.” Abraham had briefly considered going to law school, several times. His voice boomed from inside the shed. It was missing a roof, so it wasn’t even a shed anymore; it was just a bunch of walls.
“I see,” she said, lying down in the grass. The cool, flat
flagstone path crossed under the backs of her knees. Greta looked straight up at the sun and imagined that she was tied to railroad tracks. If she stayed put long enough, someone was sure to come along to rescue her.
“Hand me the hammer, will you?” Abraham stuck his hand out of the hole where the ceiling should have been.
Greta rolled onto her side and blinked enough times to have the world make sense again. The clouds were solid masses of Marshmallow Fluff, the kind that Judy would never let her eat. If she lived inside a television commercial, she would be able to reach up and take a pinch. Greta extended two fingers and tried, squeezing nothing but dumb, blue air. “I’ll be right on it, chief,” she said.
Every year, during the high season, Abraham hired Joe from the library circulation desk to come and work the Ferris wheel. Joe was seventy and had fought in a war—Greta wasn’t sure which one. He wore an army green cap with a short bill to keep the sun out of his eyes, although his freckled and sagging skin suggested decades of reckless summers and melanoma.
Joe stood by the gate to the Ferris wheel. He took his job very, very seriously. There were safety issues, he knew, and he was in charge. Abraham liked him because he never smiled, which Abraham thought was hilarious.
“Afternoon, Joe,” Greta said. She plucked at her left wing. It was sticky outside, and the straps adhered to her bare skin.
“Greta.” Joe nodded, and continued to stare straight ahead.
People were milling around the Forest, as much as one
could mill around. There was a single path, and arrows pointed you in the right direction. Unless you hopped a fence or consciously disobeyed Abraham’s
Trespassing Is for Trolls
signs, there was only one way to go. But people seemed to like it anyway, at least most of the time. Women usually took pictures of their children standing next to the wooden dwarves outside the Snow White cottage. Sometimes they even climbed onto the tiny wooden beds, even though they weren’t supposed to. Greta never stopped them. Teenaged siblings shoved one another into trees. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Greta’s room was in the back of the house and looked out into the trees. They were big and natural and Abraham wasn’t allowed to cut them down. The Forest and the highway were on the other side. Looking out her bedroom window, the house could have been anywhere in town, in any town in the county.
Judy knocked, and then opened the door without waiting for a response. She was carrying a hamper full of clean laundry and dumped it out unceremoniously onto Greta’s twin bed. She’d unpinned her braids, and they swung around her shoulders.
“Thanks, Judy,” Greta said. The lumps of clothes on the bed made faces: this sleeve was a mouth, that sock an eye. There were highlights of living at home: When Judy washed her clothes, they were always softer and better than Greta remembered them. Abraham’s beef stew that cooked in red wine all day long and made the house smell like it was somewhere in France. Knowing that the keys to the school bus were hanging on a hook in the kitchen, as though anyone
could take them and drive it off into the sunset. Sometimes Greta took the keys and sat in the driver’s seat and pretended she was on the highway—a different highway, one that went somewhere.
“Sure, love.” Judy came over with the empty hamper hiked against her hip and stood on her tippy toes to kiss Greta’s forehead. She smelled like caramelized butter and soap. They stood next to each other and stared out the window into the night, though Greta looked mostly at their reflection in the glass. The fairy tales Greta had always liked most were the ones from Judy’s childhood—the banker father, the homemaker mother, the tidy house in the suburbs of Long Island. Her grandfather had worn a suit every day of his adult life. He’d had a tie rack. Her grandmother wore pearls. It was almost too much to bear, the thousands of choices that led up to Greta’s existence. It all just seemed so unlikely. How could you know which parking lot to sleep in, which wax to use, which tie to wear? The choices went back further than the trees, back so far they became myth. Greta had never met her grandparents. There was something about Abraham they didn’t agree with.
In August, cars pulled in and out all day long. Women had yappy little dogs on leashes and sometimes even in their purses. Two boys, older than her, but still not grown-ups, came into the ticket booth on their own.
“Want tickets for the Forest, for the Ferris wheel, or both?” Greta’s pointer finger hovered over the cash register.
The boys looked at each other, which gave Greta the opportunity to do the same. The one on the left was shorter,
darker. His hair was so dark brown that it was almost black, like in comic books. The sun was directly overhead, and Greta almost expected to see little illustrated windowpanes when he turned his cheek toward his friend.
The other one spoke first. He was taller and thinner. Judy would have called him a string bean. “Uh, I don’t know. Which would you recommend?” he said.
Greta stroked the tips of her wings. “I’d do both. I mean, are you in a hurry?”
They were not.
Boys from school were out of the question. If they were interested, it invariably had more to do with wanting to get a blow job on the Ferris wheel and then tell everyone at school. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t done that, wouldn’t do that. When people heard that you lived in an amusement park, they’d believe anything. When boys came from other places, though, it was like the opening scenes from
. No one from home was there to watch, so you could say whatever you wanted. No one would ever know how nice you’d been, how sweet. Everyone always promised to write and to call. It almost didn’t matter that they never did.
String Bean’s name was Jeff; the other one was Nathan. They were from somewhere in Ohio where they had the biggest roller coasters in the country. They were driving home from a trip to New York. String Bean thought he remembered the Forest from a trip he’d taken with his parents as a kid. They liked the Ferris wheel, and Nathan said he liked her wings.
After selling them tickets, Greta took the boys on a private
tour of the property. It was the end of a slow day. If someone really needed to get in, they could buy a ticket from Judy at the restaurant. Greta left a sign.
The first stop was the other side of the old barn, where the imaginary unicorns lived. “Don’t bother looking,” Greta said. “There aren’t any.” Nathan whinnied and pawed the ground with his sneaker.
The second stop was the path up the hill. Greta knew better than to take them to the house; they didn’t want to see that she really lived there. They wanted her to be a magical tree fairy, who only wore wings and flip-flops and never went to the bathroom. A few feet up the trail, the path veered to the right. Greta hopped the fence and led them to the left.
They sat in the still-roofless Hall of Mirrors, which had yet to acquire either a hall or a mirror. They each picked a wall and leaned against it, their feet all touching in the middle. It was just starting to get dark, and overhead flocks of birds settled onto branches and told each other what was for dinner.
“So what do you do for fun around here?” String Bean waved his feet back and forth, sending his Converse All Stars into Greta, then Nathan, then Greta again.
“Oh, you know, stuff. Gets pretty wild, as you can imagine,” Greta said. They were maybe twenty. Greta did the math and mentally bumped herself up to eighteen. There was no reason not to. Nobody wanted to feel creepy.
There were things Greta could tell in the Forest that she couldn’t at school, like which boy wanted to kiss her. String Bean was the chattier of the two, but Nathan looked at her in
a way that she recognized, like he was trying to put together a stereo without having read the instructions. Every now and then there was a breakthrough, but mostly his brow stayed tight with concentration. He kept his eyes on Greta’s mouth. She could see it, even in the dark.
“Do you get out of here much?” Nathan asked. He had small hands, almost feminine, and he rubbed them together, making a swooshing sound. “You should come to Ohio. There’s all kinds of crazy stuff there.”
He was handsome, but didn’t really seem to know it. That was the best kind of boy, Greta knew. If they’d gone to the same school, he might still have talked to her in the halls, might still have looked at her that way. His eyes were a better brown than hers, richer. There was so much to see in the dark, if you really looked.
“Oh yeah? Like what?” Greta thought about the part in the movie where she would just decide to go somewhere, with boys she’d just met. They would stop at the same trucker diners that Abraham liked, but the food would taste completely different. Sometimes, when she was in the right mood, Judy would talk about her life before Abraham, all the places she’d been, where she’d eaten the best pieces of pie in the whole country. Greta liked to think that someday she would have those stories, too. She and Nathan would drink coffee all day long, just so they could talk more. They would wish that Ohio were farther away. Maybe when they hit Ohio they’d just keep going. Eventually String Bean would understand, and he’d buy a bus ticket home.
Boy with the Boot
. In the middle of this fountain, there’s like this little boy. A statue. I don’t know.”
Nathan shrugged. “In Cleveland, there’s the world’s largest rubber stamp.”
Greta nodded. “What about movie theaters? Or places where the waitresses wear roller skates?” Maybe in some states, it was still 1975, or even earlier.
String Bean pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and they all took one. Soon the glowing red tips were the only things they could see. Greta started writing words in the air, and the boys had to guess. She wrote
, with all those loop-de-loops. She wrote
. She wrote her name.
The Forest was closed. Greta could hear Abraham pulling down shutters and flipping switches. Nathan and the reluctant String Bean drove to the campgrounds in the Enchanted Forest State Park for the night, so that they could come back the next day. Everyone agreed that they hadn’t gotten their money’s worth.
At night, Abraham liked to drink wine and smoke a few joints. Judy valiantly tried to keep up, but her body just wasn’t big enough. She had one big mug full of red wine and declared herself tippled.
“I’m going to bed!” she announced. She kissed Greta and Abraham on their foreheads and padded down the hall to the bedroom, wiggling her bottom slightly as she went, and sometimes wagging a finger. Greta thought there was probably always music playing inside her mother’s head, music only she could hear.
Abraham passed his joint to Greta. The kitchen table was dark and wide, old wood. It had been a door in the barn, before the barn became the ticket booth and the Abandoned
Unicorn Rehabilitation Center. Outside the window, the Forest was dark, the forest was dark, the world was dark. Only the light over the Enchanted Forest sign still lit the night, and the road at the bottom of the sloping hill.
“So,” Greta said, sucking in a cloud of smoke. “Do you ever think about what would have happened if Judy’s bus hadn’t broken down here?” Fate was an issue. The gray cloud rumbled around in her throat, drawing maps to places that might have been, places that could be.
“That bus and I,” Abraham said, “have an unspoken connection. It would have found me eventually.” He beckoned for the joint with a flick of his eyebrow. The coarse hairs over his upper lip somehow managed to escape being singed. The smell was warm and skunky. Greta wondered if people driving by could smell it, too.
“You know that’s not what I meant.” Greta’s eyes felt tighter in her skull, as though they were receding farther into her head. She put her palms over them to make sure they stayed put.
“Well, babygirl, some questions are beyond us all.” Abraham extended his arms over his head, leaning back with the joint in his mouth. He tilted his neck so that his face was pointed toward the ceiling, and let out a smoky burp.
“You are disgusting,” Greta said.
“That may be, but I am yours.” Abraham rocked forward in his chair and patted Greta’s hand with his own. She wondered what it was like to have a normal-sized father, what that would be like. Would you grow up and think everything else was normal, too? Would you see yourself everywhere, in every
family’s station wagon? How would you remember which family you belonged to?
The next day, Nathan came back alone. String Bean waited at the park. When Nathan came back to the ticket booth, he smiled. His teeth weren’t perfect, but they were close, with only a slight snaggle along the bottom row.
“Hi,” Greta said.
“Hi,” Nathan said back.
He was as good as anyone. There was something safe about his face, something that she knew she wouldn’t love forever. In Ohio, roller coasters pierced the sky, unapologetically reaching for something higher than the earth. As far as she was concerned, there was no going back.
It was a Monday, and the park was closed. Judy was at a daylong meditation retreat in Rhinebeck, and Abraham was being Walt at the Enchanted Forest Public Library—his one appointment of the summer season. Greta packed a small duffel bag—wings, underwear, socks—and took it with her in Nathan’s car. She couldn’t leave without saying good-bye.