Carousel Luster

by M. Kolbet

February 15, 2023

“The attendant slapped a metal band around my horse and nodded approvingly—I had buckled myself in, though I was equidistant from childhood and debility.

“Hey, buddy.” It was an adroit combination of hello and goodbye. We hadn’t met eyes and would never speak outside this moment, which began to feel like a Sedaris essay. Without more ceremonial interactions, some arc of familiarity, I couldn’t share that sometimes spinning around was drug enough to cure me. At least it used to be.

The metal band would tell him which horses needed wiping down after the ride—safety precautions in a contagious world—though all the horses fairly gleamed already. The room was a feast for the senses, from the bright, painted wood and fiberglass horses, to children in winter coats whose protection from the cold seemed to depend on how bright the garments were. Brash purples. Gaudy reds. In the corner there was an idle popcorn machine above which hung half a dozen bags of cotton candy. They could withstand this winter, too, and another ten to boot. Eager fathers planted themselves, cameras raised, ready to catch their child rising and falling, prancing around again and again.

The carousel was, if nothing else, a new way to structure reality.

Behind me were a couple of first-timers, probably no more than three, who weren’t shy about sharing their uncertainty. Actors who couldn’t be bothered with the subtlety of whimpers, they wailed at irregular intervals, refusing to be mollified by distraught mothers or the compromise of a bench seat.

In the noise, I was reminded of a time when I’d waited out a rain storm inside a Biffy. Here the smell was only slightly less cloying.

I wondered what would happen when we started moving. When the music began to play.

My own charge, Brown Beauty, caught me with one steady eye that seemed to say: You’re lucky. I’m here all week. I’ve seen this routine before.

The attendant and his assistant finished marking horses and tightening belts, even those of a gang of truculent six-year-old kids who swore they were fine just holding on. Some simply swore in general. Today, just a few days before Christmas, might be a celebration with one parent before the kids were passed back to something officially designated by the calendar. Today was about memories, a holiday of minutes. Happiness, after all, is one small discernment found and searched for and reclaimed and lost again.

Time pauses when you’re a dot in a circle.

All of us riders were fresh. We’d waited in line, waited while the horses were cleaned, excited for our turn. In a moment, the central engine purred and we started our counterclockwise rotation. The carousel possessed enough magic to force time backwards.

It was never any one place, either. No passports. No hometowns. No more worries about the past. No more serious conversations: I want to tell you this before I leave. I could almost forget that repetition is a kind of dying.

“Isn’t this fun?” a mother lilted, swaying between the economy of children. Her toddler, with a fixed regard, offered a plaintive yelp and appeared unconvinced. The cry suggested fun ought not be the first consideration. Rather, one should focus on perceived physical safety. Or mental cushioning. Or the size of a young bladder and how often it needs to be emptied.

The first-timers added further commentary through bodily discharge, and I prayed their diapers were up to it.

If there was fugitive waste, surely watchful mothers would alert someone before slyly vanishing. None had on the previous ride, though—I’d studied their exits.

If there’d been a stain, a puddling, surely the assiduous attendants would do more than a cursory wipe of the majestic beasts in tableau. They hadn’t. Their attention, careful as it was, always favored efficiency.

If an accidental expulsion spreads beyond social bounds during this ride, well, that’s a problem for another generation of itinerant jockeys.

We’d made three circlings when a boy in front of me caught his reflection in one of the mirrors on the central hub. It was a shaky thing. An instant of delight transformed into fear and sorrow.

Though he recognized himself, and despite his grandmother bending and smiling over him, he trembled, as if discovering the horses were headed for war, conditions which caused him to doubt this circular strategy. Or perhaps this was some ritual of initiation. He’d have to memorize as much as he could of “The Destruction of Sennacherib” before the ride was over.

I pitied him. Some days there’s no way to accommodate Byron.

Wisely, the grandmother kissed him and turned his gaze forward. All he had to do now was catch the next horse.

We’d come here to hide from the universe, but such escape was never accessible for long.

“Waaaaaaah!”

Some other youngster’s emotions had been caught in unhurried centrifugal force. I thought perhaps it would be more evenhanded to tell children they were to ride a hurdy-gurdy and let the onomatopoetic mystery of the name prepare them. Merry-Go-Round, Carousel, both failed in that regard.

We looped again. And again. It dawned on me that carousels represent, at best, a moral vision. Our journey didn’t trust us to roam free as smoke but hinted at some cowboy code. The aimless ride focuses us on the here. The now. Not trifling resolutions for tomorrow or petty regrets from yesterday.

Too soon it concluded.

“My horse stopped in the up position,” a girl whined. “You’ll have to help me down.” Her father was there in a flash, looking like one of those lizards who is friendly up to the point when it eats its own young.

I thought of a line from the poet Delmore Schwartz: Time is the fire in which we burn.

This interlude had been a small portion of a long holiday season, with the stretch of another year ahead. Maybe these visits would become a tradition. It would be one they’d loathe and simultaneously gild in memory. They’d say they couldn’t wait to go again, perhaps mention it offhand in November, when it was time to plan. They’d secretly hope for an early snowstorm or an unexpected guest who’d monopolize their time. Families, or portions of them, would wait for their chance, climb up in an ecstasy of anticipation. Such cycles can make anyone believe in forever.

A button would launch them into motion that was too slow for a trot, too contained to make even a drunkard dizzy, always punctuated by the crying children who wanted nothing more than for the ride to end so they could leave the ersatz horses, the spinning, everything behind.

About M. Kolbet

M. Kolbet teaches and writes in Oregon. Recent works have appeared in Metonym and Gold Man Review. Sometimes he wonders if cynicism is as liable to catch as other recent contagions.