Have a Lovely Day
By Jen Corrigan
It was too beautiful a day for anything to really happen. It was the kind of day you see in movies, like when the guy and the girl first meet at the dog park, and the girl’s German Shepherd shits on the guy’s shoe, and they have a big laugh and then get married. Or the kind of day in those paintings in the waiting room at the dentist office. Picturesque, with the sun falling down lazily from the sky, winking off the glossy top of the carousel and blinding the patrons drifting around and around on the Ferris wheel. That kind of day.
That summer was lush and mild, and the amusement park was having a record-breaking season. The story of the park’s seasonal success, if you could even call it a story, was covered over and over by the news channels; it was a frothy, fun community story, with nothing offensive or controversial to it at all. Just sunburnt middle-aged moms and dads being interviewed next to the soft pretzel stand, their children whining in the background, faces covered in that fluorescent nacho dipping sauce.
A few years later, though, the park would close due to dwindling business, and the owner would slip away to Mexico or somewhere, his funds near dried up. The city would be left to tear down the rides on the condemned lot, but the city would lose interest and funds halfway through, and drunk teenagers would dare each other to break into the park and climb up on the highest rides they could where they’d smoke up and fuck.
I was there at the park one Saturday, before the park closed down, with my older brother Jeff. He had just gotten his license and was itching to take the old family Chevy out. After hounding Mom for half the morning, she finally threw her hands up and shouted, “Fine, yes, take the car, just get out of my hair.”
Jeff had been conceived in the backseat of that old Chevy, Dad had told us once with a wink. “Don’t say that to the boys. They’re too young to be hearing all that,” Mom had said, but she was smiling when she said it. She swatted Dad on the shoulder with the wooden spoon she was using to stir the spaghetti sauce, leaving a big red stain on his white T-shirt.
“You see that?” Dad had said to us, pointing at Mom in mock outrage. “Your mother is nuttier than a Snickers bar. A madwoman.”
Dad winked at us again, and Jeff winked back. I blinked.
“Now,” Jeff said to me, revving the Chevy’s engine too hard, “are you actually going to go on some rollercoasters, or are you going to puss out like you always do?”
The jab hurt in a way that shamed and embarrassed me, to the point where I wanted to shout at him. I wasn’t there for me at all. Mom, out of earshot of Jeff, had whispered in my ear, pleading with me to go with my brother to the park.
“No,” I had said in a rising voice. “Why should I?”
“Shh, shh! Just please, David, do it for me. Spend some time with your brother. He’s been having a rough time lately.”
“Jeff is a rough time,” I snapped. And with that, I went right to the door and put on my shoes so I could go with my brother to the amusement park.
Jeff whirled the car into a newly vacated parking spot, a spot that a rusted-out minivan had been patiently waiting for. The minivan blared its horn, long and loud. Jeff smirked to himself.
“That was a real shitty move, man,” I said, but I couldn’t help smiling, too.
Mom called that shared smirk encouraging, as in “Don’t encourage him, David.”
Jeff shrugged and twisted the keys out of the ignition. He tossed them up and snatched them back out of the air, like a bear snapping its jaws down on a leaping trout.
When we got out of the car, the minivan was waiting for us, hovering there in the middle of the row. The driver had rolled down his window and leaned his blotchy red face out. His children shrieked and whined in the back.
“Hey, asshole,” he barked at Jeff. “That was my goddamn spot.”
My brother put on a slightly bewildered and moderately sheepish face just as easy as some people put on a Halloween mask, and fake limped over to the man’s tomato face.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Jeff simpered. “I guess I wasn’t paying attention.” He smiled a crooked, embarrassed smile.
The man’s eyes flicked down at Jeff’s twisted leg.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, the flush slowly receding from his cherry cheeks. “No harm done. Besides, won’t hurt my kids any to walk a bit farther, hell, probably do them some good.”
Jeff grinned at the man and somehow managed to make his eyes twinkle with goodwill, like a modern-day Tiny Tim.
Jesus, someone give that boy an Oscar.
“You have a good day, sir.”
“You too, son. Take care, now.”
The man rolled up his window, muffling the screams of his snot-nosed kids, and maneuvered the clumsy van down the parking lot. We walked toward the park gate, my brother keeping his legs twisted and uneven. Once the van was out of sight, Jeff started walking normally again.
“You’re terrible,” I said, still smiling. “Karma’s going to bite you in the ass for that.”
“Oh, please. I’ll hold the door open for a little old lady at some point, and I’ll be back to normal. Equilibrium, dear Watson.”
“Yeah, well, maybe you should keep walking all fucked up for the rest of the day. What if we run into that guy in the park?”
Jeff reached over and pulled my baseball cap down over my eyes. I batted his hand away like I was shooing away a horsefly.
Shoo, fly, don’t bother me.
“So what if we run into him? Jesus, you worry too much. You take your nerve pills today?” he asked.
Jeff socked me in the arm and moved to flick my hat off my head, but I dodged him, stepping away as nimbly as a fat kid could. I misjudged my footing and came down hard on the side of my foot, twisting my ankle.
“Goddamn it,” I cursed, and Jeff laughed.
“Perfect,” Jeff said. “If we run into that guy again, at least one of us will be limping.”
I looked ahead at the admissions gate. A mother was holding back her daughter’s stringy hair as she threw up pink and blue all over the pavement. The little girl clutched her half-full bag of cotton candy in her fierce, sticky hand.
I paid for admission for both me and Jeff with money I made from tutoring other kids in math. I didn’t make a lot with only charging five bucks an hour, but that didn’t matter that much to me. Math was the only thing I really understood. It was calming and based around rules and logic and things that couldn’t be changed. A square is a square, and one and one always make two, unless you get into that high-brow theoretical math with imaginary numbers and shifting constructs and that kind of shit. I liked talking about math, but it didn’t seem like anyone else wanted to. The next best thing was tutoring other kids, who would pay me to talk at them about math, just enough for them to scrape by with grades good enough to stay on the football team.
The only kid I didn’t charge was Miranda Goswell, a shy, pretty girl with freckles who lived with her mother in the trailer park at the edge of town. Miranda never told me outright that she was poor, but I saw her with her friends at McDonald’s every day after school, never buying anything. She’d wave off her friends, saying she wasn’t hungry or wasn’t feeling well or was trying to watch her figure.
I only saw Miranda’s mother once. I saw her one evening when I walked Miranda back to her place after tutoring her at my kitchen table. Miranda’s mother stood on the rickety makeshift porch in front of the trailer, her arms crossed over her chest. Her mouth was set in a taut line. She had looked at me the way my mother looked at Miranda.
“You lost it yet?” Jeff said, weaving fast between the clumps of wailing children and their exasperated parents.
“Your V-Card,” he said impatiently. “You lose it yet?”
I had to walk double-time to keep up with my brother’s long, lanky strides. My breath grew rapid and shallow in my chest. I could feel the sweat starting to pool in the flab of my armpits.
“How about that one girl that’s always coming over? Mandy, or whatever.”
“Yeah, her. She cherry?”
Jeff rolled his eyes and sighed. He nudged me to take a turn down a left path, a path that led to the biggest rollercoaster in the park. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Jeff was never the type to save the best for last, always eating the cherry off his ice cream sundae right away and unwrapping the biggest present at Christmas first. Jeff was impatient; Jeff lived in the now, something he was always telling me to give a try.
“She a virgin? Come on, man, try and keep up.”
“I don’t know. Probably? We’ve never talked about it, I guess. Why does it matter?”
Jeff clucked his tongue and threw a sly glance over his shoulder at me as I huffed and puffed to keep up with him, my stomach jiggling against my T-shirt. I tried to focus on following the path Jeff made as he bobbed and weaved through the clusters of pink, beach-ball-shaped park goers, but my gaze kept drifting up and up at the roller coaster looming overhead. It was a monstrous thing, all shiny black metal twisted around and around on itself. Its name, The Guillotine, was emblazoned in kitschy, old-timey letters across a giant sign above the entrance to the queue.
“A girl who isn’t a virgin has someone else to compare you to. Better to have one who doesn’t know any better and will think you’re the best lay she’s ever going to have. Makes the whole experience less stressful.”
I clenched my jaw. I didn’t want to be just a lay to some girl. I didn’t want to think of Miranda as just a lay either. I should have told Jeff to shut up, that he didn’t know everything in the world. I should have told him to go fuck himself or punched him in the jaw.
“I don’t know, man. It’ll happen when it happens.”
“Well, just make sure you use a rubber. You don’t know where that trailer trash pussy has been. Oh, goddamn it.”
The line was longer than what we had both expected. Like a lumpy, tie-dyed caterpillar, the line wound back and forth between the chains set up to designate where people should stand. Jeff kicked at a metal pole and swore again, loudly. A pale, doughy mother in the middle of the line shot Jeff and me a hard, slit-eyed glare. Her little girl held a grape lollipop in one hand and a pinwheel in the other. The girl’s face was stained sticky with purple.
“We could go do something else and come back later?” I offered. “Maybe go grab a corndog or something.”
Jeff shook his head and made a face like my suggestion had physically hurt him.
“The line’s always going to be long for this one. It’s the only good coaster here. We’ll just wait.” He turned to me and eyed me up and down. Reaching over, he jabbed at my stomach with two sharp pokes. I stepped away before he could land a third one into me. “Besides, you don’t need any snacks, Pillsbury.”
I flipped him off and turned away, my arms crossed stiffly. Jeff didn’t say anything, but I could feel him staring into the back of my neck. My ears burned.
We didn’t talk to each other while we waited, shuffling along slowly as the line worked its way up to The Guillotine. It’s hard to remember exactly when Jeff became how he was; it kind of just happened gradually, with little things here and there. According to Mom, Jeff never really adjusted to Dad’s death. She said adjusted, but I think what she really meant was that Jeff never got over it. “Jeff will be alright,” she said to me over sticky buns at the luncheon after the funeral. “Your brother is having a hard time adjusting. Your brother’s just sensitive.”
“Hey, man,” Jeff said, nudging me with his shoulder. “I’m sorry I called you that. That was uncalled for.”
I shrugged with one shoulder, and looked ahead at the few people left in front of us. I did the math in my head: If the coaster held 20 people at one go, we were on the next ride. I felt a not unpleasant punch somewhere in my gut.
“It’s okay,” I said, kicking at a cigarette butt and sending it skittering across the wooden platform. “You can’t help that you’re a dick.”
I looked at Jeff from the corner of my eye; he was grinning at me with his big, toothy mouth. He reached over and pulled my cap down over my eyes again.
“You got me there, Davy. And hey, we don’t have to go on this rollercoaster. Or, I mean, you don’t have to come with me. I know they’re not really your scene.”
“No, I’ll go on it. I stood here for fucking ever, so I might as well go on it.”
Jeff smiled at me in what I thought was a proud way, but he looked down quickly and poked at a half-empty bag of popcorn with his shoe. The roller coaster roared back into its starting position, rattling the wooden platform beneath our feet. It was one of those floorless roller coasters, the kind where you’re strapped in by your chest with your legs dangling out into nothing. The riders, with just one or two exceptions, were caught in slightly differing moments of exhilaration, smiling and laughing in an exhausted way, faces red from being licked by the wind and adrenaline. A teenaged girl at the front swung her legs in small circles, giggling, her head leaning against the back of her seat.
In one smooth motion, the riders were released. With what seemed like regret, they slowly got up out of their seats and followed one another to the exit.
“Thank you for riding The Guillotine,” said a bored female voice over the intercom. “Have a lovely day.”
The operator beckoned the guests ahead of us and helped them get arranged in their seats. I nudged Jeff and pointed to a splintery, faded wooden cutout of a clown standing with his fat, white-gloved hand sticking out to the side. Across the clown’s stomach read the words, You must be this high to ride this ride.
“Do you think we’re high enough to ride this ride?” I waggled my eyebrows up and down.
“Almost certainly not. Shit, if we were stoned, it’d be like having twice as long of a ride. We’d be falling forever.”
The ride operator, a sunburnt cherry-tomato in khaki shorts and white polo, waved us over and pointed to where each of us was to sit. Jeff plunked down in his seat and saluted the operator who scowled at us and told us to have a nice ride before beckoning over the next few people standing in line.
Surprised at myself, I didn’t feel anxious or scared at all. I looked ahead at the track as far as I could, following it with my eyes until it climbed up out of my sight. Once I really thought about it, roller coasters were mathematical monsters, with all the centrifugal force and velocity and stuff that went into it. It was like mathematically suspending gravity, so, just for an instant, you could feel like you were flying up and up and up, like maybe you’d never have to come down.
“So, if you have to be a certain height,” I asked Jeff, “does that mean midgets can never ride roller coasters?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” he replied, scratching at the crust of a squashed bug on the side of his seat. “Must suck to be a midget.”
The bored female voice over the intercom instructed us to sit still as the restraints lowered themselves over our heads and locked into place. My stomach clenched, but not out of fear. Instead, the pit of my belly buzzed and vibrated with a bizarre sense of anticipation, excitement.
The voice told us to have a lovely ride. The floor dropped out beneath our feet, and we shot off into the air.
It’s hard to remember what I was thinking about exactly as my brother and I zipped up into the sky and plummeted down seconds later, the coaster banking a hard right and our bodies rattling around like marbles. I thought about everything and nothing as we were suspended in the sky. I thought about Miranda’s freckles, and I thought about the probability that our children would have freckles, and then our children’s children. I thought about how, theoretically, time moves differently if you move really fast or slow; I wondered how time was moving right then as our bodies were propelled mercilessly through the air. Next to me, Jeff whooped and hollered, but I couldn’t make a sound. I looked down at the people in the park, who grew smaller and smaller until they were just swarms of multi-colored dots, rainbow ants.
My stomach lurched as we began our descent, and I could see myself outside of my body, falling, twisting down and down and down. I saw my face, and I saw that I was smiling. The wind whistled in my ears so hard I heard nothing.
After just seconds or hours, we slowed down, and my organs settled back into the cavities where they belonged. Smoothly, we slipped back to the beginning of the loop. The floor rose up beneath our feet once again, and the restraints unlocked and lifted off our chests.
“Thank you for riding The Guillotine. Have a lovely day.”
Jeff jabbered on and on about the ride, about how he was sure one of the kids in front of us was going to barf and then it would hit us square in the face and get in our mouths. I followed him out the exit and into the sunlight, smiling wordlessly. The ground below my feet felt softer, and my bones felt wispy and light, like I’d just woken up from a hard, deep sleep. I wondered vaguely if Miranda liked roller coasters. Maybe I’d swing by her house next weekend and see if she wanted to go to the amusement park with me. That is, if Jeff would be in a generous enough mood to give us a ride.
“Oh man,” said Jeff, clamping a hand to his belly and leaning up against a light post. “I could really go for, like, a hotdog now or something. Do you remember the hotdogs at Fenway Park when Dad took us, the big foot-long ones? Those were the best I’ve ever had anywhere.”
“That was just you and him that went. I didn’t go, remember? I was sick.”
“Oh yeah, that’s right.” With his dirty fingernails, Jeff scratched at the light post. A flake of black paint chipped off. “And you just stayed in the hotel room with Mom, reading a book of baseball statistics, like a big nerd.” He looked at me out of the corner of his eye, and his mouth twitched. “Dad thought you’d grow up to be gay, you know.”
It was stupid to feel hurt by that, but the sharpness in my stomach took me by surprise. Like Dad’s spirit had risen just for an instant, just long enough to punch the wind out of me and leave again, just like that.
“Why would he think that?” I said. I tried to keep my voice even and nonchalant. But Jeff knew that it would bother me; otherwise, why would he bring it up?
“You were always just a little girl about everything, never wanting to go outside or play sports or watch guy movies with us. Dad didn’t say it mean or anything, just in passing like, ‘Life’s going to be tough for Davy; he’s probably going to turn out gay.’”
“I’m not gay.” My voice shook, and I could feel the tears, wet, hot, stupid tears, climbing up and over the rim of my eye. I coughed and looked away. My face burned red and furious.
“I know, man,” my brother said. He reached out to clap a hand on my shoulder. I flinched but I didn’t pull away.
“Hey,” said Jeff “where’s your hat?”
I put my hand on top of my head and felt nothing by my prickly buzz cut beneath my palm.
“Oh, shit. Must have blown off.” I glanced over at the roller coaster, humming as the next bunch of park guests ascended the first big hill. Just beyond the chain link fence, beneath the curve where the coaster swung hard and low was my hat, stark orange against the dark green grass. I pointed at it with my thumb. “Gone now,” I said.
“Dad gave you that hat,” said Jeff. He shot me a stony look. “Your golden birthday, remember?”
“Yeah, I remember.”
I looked back at my hat, lying just beyond the fence. A rusted sign hanging down off the top read ABSOLUTELY NO PARK GUESTS BEYOND THIS POINT. VIOLATORS WILL BE ESCORTED FROM THE PREMISES.
“Well,” said Jeff, “what are you going to do about it?”
“What are you talking about? It’s just a hat.”
He glared at me and said nothing.
“Fine,” I said, “I’ll ask someone who works here about it. Maybe they can grab it for me after the park closes or something.”
Jeff cracked his knuckles and scoffed. “Someone else might get it before then. Here, I’ll be the lookout. Just hop over the fence and grab it. We’ll get it and go before anyone can see us.”
“I’m not fucking joking, David.” He stared at me directly in the eyes. I stared back and refused to blink, just like that episode of Walker, Texas Ranger when Chuck Norris stares down a wolf up on that mountain. My eyes burned, but I kept them open.
“That is stupidly dangerous,” I said to him. “I’m not going over there.”
“It is not dangerous. Look, you’re not going to go and climb up on the track; you’re just going to go and grab your hat, and then we’ll move it.”
Staring into my brother’s blue eyes, electric and crazed-looking, I felt afraid of him. But I stayed silent and stayed still.
“Okay, be a pussy then, just like always,” Jeff said, shaking his head like he was disappointed in me, like he was my goddamned father. “You be the lookout and I’ll go get it.”
I felt my cheeks growing hot and red. At that moment, I hated my brother. I hate you, I said to him in my mind. I hope you have the gift of telepathy so you can know how much I hate you.
“I’m not going to be your accomplice and get banned from the whole place because of you. Just leave it. We’ll get it later, I promise.”
Jeff was done talking to me. He meandered casually over to the chain-link fence.
I turned away and looked out at the park, not as Jeff’s lookout or anything, but just because I needed something to look at besides my brother. Not too far away was the Carousel in the midst of its umpteenth revolution, jangling away at its merry, tinny tune. A young boy with glasses clung to a crazed-looking horse as it bobbed up and down. He didn’t look out at the world spinning around him; instead he looked up at what I can only imagine were the gears pulling his horse up and pushing it back down again.
I heard the screams as if in a dream, but I didn’t turn around, because I knew what had happened. I just stood there, tracking the time by the sounds of the park operator yelling over the automated female voice that was repeating, “Thank you for riding The Guillotine. Have a lovely day.” I listened as the sirens came along with the paramedics and the police who murmured into walkies. I listened as one of the cops shooed the curious onlookers away, stern, lying to them and saying there was nothing to see here. I listened as two teenage boys regretfully let themselves be herded away.
“Did you hear what happened?” said one of them. His voice glittered with the excitement of knowing.
“No, did you?”
“Yeah. Some kid crawled over the fence and the roller coaster came along and bam. Dead.”
“Yep. Took his head clean off. Wish I could have seen it.”
Far away I heard myself think, Well, I guess that means the funeral won’t be open casket.
I laughed, laughed as hard as I’d ever laughed in my life, laughed so hard it hurt way down deep in my stomach. Doubled over, I sank to my knees and let the laughter thunder through my body. My muscles couldn’t hold themselves up anymore, and I lay down on the ground, back flat against the pavement, my head resting right by a half-eaten funnel cake on a greasy paper plate. Looking up, I opened my mouth and let the laughter float up into the sky. I lay there, and laughed, and laughed, and laughed.
Jen Corrigan is an editorial intern at the North American Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Linnet’s Wings, Litbreak, Heather, Apocrypha and Abstractions, Penumbra, The Olive Press, Yellow Chair Review, Icarus Down Review, and Cease, Cows.