Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Roller Coaster, Part I

Originally published in The Colored Lens
credit: Instagram @oscarliii
No Country Club for Old Men was built at the bottom of a small mountain, much like everything else in Martinsville, Virginia. The town had more hills than convenience stores and the one leading up to Bob Woods’ country club was particularly steep. I biked to work and often tried to pedal the last stretch. I usually failed and ended up walking the rest of the way. Tonight was no different.
A little before ten I parked my bike beside the hedges lining the driveway leading up to the club. I wiped the sweat from my face with my shirt and looked up at the mountain. Spiked and bald at the top, the rest of it was ragged with trees, its bottom hidden by the club and the only palm trees in Virginia. The sounds coming from inside were loud; the day’s party was going late.
Woods had made it clear I was not to interact with any of his guests, so I went around the side and waited by the dumpster. It wasn’t my area of choice, but it was the only place away from doors and windows. I tried to pass the time by picking up on conversations drifting from inside, but I couldn’t make much of the excited chatter. With an occasional popping noise I imagined champagne bottles and overflowing glasses, the kind that looked like upside down China-hats. I envisioned people dancing and singing karaoke in one corner and drunkenly discussing politics in another.

The gaggle of laughter bunched together and began to move the length of the club, towards the front. They were finally leaving. I checked the time on my phone. It was near eleven; I had been waiting a full hour. I stuck my head around the corner a safe distance and watched the group as they exited. Woods’ guests were surprisingly mixed in age. There were some who couldn’t be much older than myself, and others well into their fifties and possible sixties. Their ages weren’t the most intriguing, however. It was how they all seemed to enjoy the same drunken high on life. Their intoxication was almost palatable in the night air; I thought I could smell the alcohol coming off of them. I watched as the last stumbled to their pretentious cars and fondled their wives or mistresses.
When I was sure I wouldn’t be seen, I rounded the corner and found Woods standing at the entrance. He had a drink in one hand and his wife’s fingers in the other. Mrs. Woods, however, stood to the side, as far away as she could without their arms forming a bridge. Though she stared blankly in my direction, I doubted she noticed me. Mrs. Woods couldn’t have been older than thirty-five and I only thought that high because of her husband’s gray hairs, not hers. Her face was done up like a doll’s and no matter the weather, occasion, or season, black leather pants always hugged her thighs and left little to the imagination. She ‘could get it,’ as my friends would say. And judging by the lifestyle of Bob Woods, she probably did. She puffed on a cigarette. Her husband watched his departing guests with a euphoric smirk.
I approached slowly. I hoped someone would notice and acknowledge me. No such luck.
“Another successful night, Mr. Woods?” I asked with a half laugh that held more anxiety than humor.
Woods looked at me suddenly, as if I had intruded on the privacy of his thoughts. He raised his brow and his eyes searched my face for recognition. He soon found it, and his countenance turned to one of annoyance. By now, this was routine. To him, I represented the end of his fun, even if only for a night.
I shifted uneasily as he stared at me. He let go of his wife’s hand and motioned for her to go and wait at the car. She did.
“I want the place spotless by morning,” he said. “And strawberries in tomorrow’s shake. The week’s pay is by the kitchen.” He tittered and took a sip of his drink. “Don’t spend it all in one place.”
“I’ll have everything exactly like you like it, Mr. Woods,” I said. “Is there anything else I can do? It’s no problem at all, sir.”
He grunted, began to leave, and then stopped. His smirk came back. “Tell me . . .” He circled his drink in the air. As if he were actually trying to remember my name.
“Tommy, sir.”
His smile widened. “Thomas. Tell me, Thomas, how old are you, again?”
“Eighteen, sir,” I said.
“How does it feel? To be eighteen.”
From the look on his face, I thought a sudden pain had struck Mr. Woods. Then I realized he was trying his hardest to hold in his laughter. With that realization came another: the man was clearly drunk. More so than I had seen yet.
“It’s . . . it feels good, sir,” I said. I tried to think of something witty and came up with nothing. “I can’t drink yet, though, so that sucks.”
Great one, I thought. All of a sudden the cool August night felt hot and sticky.
Woods sipped his wine and mulled over this. He swayed to one side and then the other. As he did, I glimpsed the inside of the club behind him. Now it was my turn to hold in my reaction: the place was a mess.
When I looked back at Woods, his urge to laugh seemed to have passed.
“Good boy,” he said and patted me on the shoulder. He stumbled past me and off the porch. “Drink all you want,” he called back. “Tonight is for the young!”
The club was in a worse state than I had thought, or feared. I walked around to get an idea of what I was dealing with. As I did I remembered a comedy skit about chimpanzees catering a party. The result had been much like this. Champagne, wine, and vodka bottles littered the floor, some broken. The party had enjoyed a variety of appetizers, meats, and fondue, and remnants of each could be found in all parts of the club. A chair was overturned in the middle of the main room. Next to it was some rope, a blindfold, and a single high-heeled shoe. There was a pile of clothes in one of the hallways. There were three bathrooms. Two of them had vomit-covered floors. All three had known guests needing urinary target practice.
I sighed after seeing all of the devastation and began to gather cleaning materials from under the sink, which was, funny enough, empty of any dishes. When I had replied to the ad on an Internet job site some months prior, I hadn’t expected anything quite like this. Though I couldn’t complain (and didn’t)—it helped me save, and I didn’t have to pay taxes.
Besides, I had one thing to be thankful for: there wasn’t an upstairs.
Four hours later I gathered the trash bags—five full ones—and took them out to the dumpster. I walked through the lobby, through the halls and the bathrooms, and, satisfied, headed for the kitchen to prepare breakfast when something caught my eye.
The door at the back of the club. It was open.
Woods kept all of his rooms locked and made it clear that even if they hadn’t been, they were off limits. Of course, that had been the perfect spark to my curiosity. But he’d never failed at locking every door, and in a lot of ways I was grateful. Without temptation, curiosity is like a flower in a desert.
That had just changed. One of the doors was ajar. And this was no normal door. It was solid steel like the wall surrounding it, protected by a security keypad. It only lacked a skull and crossbones sign warning: KEEP OUT.
And now it was open.
“He must have been shit-faced wasted,” I whispered to myself.
I didn’t think about it long. It seemed like a no-brainer at the time. I’d see what there was to see and leave. How could I have known the room would hold a great weakness for me?
I looked around at the empty country club and then pushed the door open. It didn’t creak. Inside was dark, the air different. Cooler, better-tasting. I felt around on the wall and found the light switch.
I stared, shocked, and then burst out laughing. A roller coaster. Four cars, each with four rows of seats. Yellow lightning bolts stretched over red metal. Its tracks disappeared into two black tunnels on opposite walls. Behind it a glass wall overlooked the left side of the mountain. Outside, the tracks led from the side of the club to a hole in the mountain, barely visible under the stars.
“Really?” I said, unable to stop grinning. “Woods, really? A roller coaster?” I spun around like a kid who had just been surprised with his first car and raised my hands to my mouth. This. Was. Awesome.
It took a few minutes before my excitement fell away and left only the decision before me. Compared to the rest of the country club prior to my cleaning, the room was relatively tidy. Still, there was the occasional sign of life: a champagne glass here, a piece of paper there, and a baseball cap in one of the roller coaster’s seats. My giddiness began to swell again. The roller coaster was not only functional, but I began to suspect Woods treated his guests with it. If I left without riding this beauty, I’d think of it every night I went to work. I’d look up at the mountain as I walked my bike up the hill and imagine a red roller coaster with lightning marks racing around inside. It would haunt me.
I checked the room for surveillance cameras and saw none. Confident I wasn’t being recorded, I went over to the control panel on the left side of a metal platform. There were two levers. One green with a dollar sign painted below it; the other red with the word refund.
I lifted my hand towards the green lever but, curious, pulled the red instead. I thought it was broken; it didn’t stick. I tried again, and this time held it down. For a second, nothing happened. Then the roller coaster’s engine roared and it started to roll backwards, towards the tunnel on the left. When I let go of the lever, the coaster slowly returned to its starting position.
“Weird,” I said.
The green lever didn’t require me to hold it down. The coaster made a slightly deeper sound as it started up again. Bulbs lining the tunnel’s entrance shone a brilliant white. Beyond, the walls glowed a hot red. The safety bars in each car came forward and clicked into place.
I tried to push the lever back into neutral. It didn’t budge. There was no stall button. I looked at the roller coaster crawling into the tunnel, my dream disappearing with it. Now or never.
I jumped the rail separating the control panel from the boarding area and ran to the mouth of the tunnel. The coaster had yet to gain speed and I slipped into the seat of the back car without much trouble. I wiggled my legs between the cushion and the bar just in time to look up and see the stars appear above me. The coaster slowly approached the mouth of the mountain. As I was taken inside, I wondered for the first time if this was a mistake.
And then, the coaster stopped. It puttered to a roll and then a full standstill, the engine winding down. Terror crept into my bowels, making me uncomfortable. The green lever had been broken after all, and now I was stuck here. Woods would find me like a raccoon with its paw inside a trap. And I’d be out of a job.
Such worries were short-lived. The coaster shot forward, pressing me against the seat. My breath caught and a sharp pain lodged itself in my chest. Lights stretched around me; I could make out nothing more than long lines of varying color. The coaster continued to accelerate. The wind picked up. The agony in my chest grew. It all became too much; I clenched my eyes shut.
Without warning the ride took me higher. Up, up. I opened my eyes. The crazy lights had disappeared and the coaster had found a cruising speed. Black surrounded me, and ahead, a blue glow. I squinted at it. There was something in its center. Something familiar.
A clock. Big and round, it hung from the ceiling of the tunnel, right above a crest in the ride. The coaster slowed as it rounded the top of this hill. My face came so close to the clock I thought I could reach out and touch it. I almost did, and would have if not for the world dropping out from under me.
I plunged into pitch-blackness. I screamed and fell, fell and screamed. The coaster jerked to the left and then to the right, bruising my shoulders against the walls of the car. My insides shifted as up became down in the dark. The dips came without warning. I was a slave to the will of the coaster; it did with me what it wanted.
I don’t know exactly when, but somewhere along the ride my screams turned to yells. I had been scared shitless since the moment the coaster fired off into the tunnel. And I enjoyed every minute of it.
Another sharp turn and the coaster erupted out of the mountain and into the night. The wind was cold and harsh. I raised my hands against it, and yelled harder. The track circled and descended toward the back of the country club, slowing as it went. I coasted, and took the moment to look up at the sky. The stars were out in full form, the moon pregnant and high. I didn’t remember either being so bright before.
The coaster re-entered the county club. When it stopped, I pushed the safety bar forward and found it tougher than I thought it should be. With some effort, it moved, and the ones in the rows ahead of me all clicked forward in succession.
My first thought as I hopped out of the car and on to the platform was I had to go again. Then a sudden wave of dizziness took my balance and I grabbed the railing to steady myself. I leaned there for some minutes, waiting for the dizziness to pass. When I closed my eyes I saw the bizarre lights of the tunnel dancing against my lids and felt once again every flip and throw of the ride. The lights gradually abated and the world went from a spin to a twirl.
I awoke in a panic and then slowly realized where I was. I had fallen asleep with my torso hanging on one side of the railing and my legs on the other. I blinked the sleep out of my eyes, groaned, and then gained enough sense to wonder how long I’d been out for. I pulled my phone out of my pocket to check the time. The battery was dead. I grunted and put it back in my pocket.
I turned back to the roller coaster and felt a tingle in my spine. It had been, without a doubt, the best roller coaster I’d ever ridden. But I couldn’t ride it again, I decided then. That would be pushing my luck. With the appeal of sacred adventure now gone, I could think clearly. Just because there were no surveillance cameras didn’t mean Woods didn’t have a way of knowing when his roller coaster was in action. If he did, I could explain the first run as an accident, an unmanned accident. Two trips wouldn’t fly.
When I was satisfied nothing was out of the ordinary, I went into the kitchen to fix Woods’ breakfast shake. I had half a mind to leave it undone, but that would rouse suspicion. After fixing his smoothie, I covered it with saran wrap and put it in the refrigerator. I settled for one more sweep of the country club and then checked over the roller coaster with fresh eyes. Maybe it was my tired mind playing tricks on me, as I’d never noticed this before, but the lightning bolt on the side seemed to give the metal worm a smile. I shivered at the thought and quickly left the room.
I cogitated over whether to close the door or not. The chances of Woods remembering he’d forgotten to do so himself were slim, and leaving it open might make him wonder. Still, I wanted to leave the room untouched, or at least give that illusion.
I hoped it would be enough.

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