|Too Many Brass Rings
Dante A. Cinelli
1998 First Prize Fiction
Photo of Dante.
John Rodie ran the Magic Carpet Merry-Go-Round on Route 110 on Long Island. He thoroughly enjoyed being proprietor, watching children smiling and laughing as a parent held them in spite of the thick leather straps securing them to the lacquered horses, glistenening green turtles and miniature giraffes. One of the few great pleasures left in his life was strapping them in and glancing surreptitiously at them while being close to the blue or deep brown eyes watching his movements. When they looked up with curiosity at the old man with silvery hair and short white beard, they suspected he had another identity, strengthened by the tune of Jingle Bells in the background. Overweight with a slight paunch, there was still a large remnant of his diminishing strength of youth, not unlike the slow crumbling of a great pyramid. The abrasive wheels of time and circumstance were grinding their inexorable work on his seventy-year-old frame and psyche. However, he would wink and smile at the riders, although most times not garnering a reaction, let alone a smile. However, the wink was rewarding enough.
Today the park was due to close three days before Christmas Day and move south to warmer weather and more lucrative fields. Rodie owned his own concession, not like the others who leased or ran them for pay from a large company. This season, however, was his last. He had decided not to go south. He had willed the ride and all accoutrements to a niece in Florida. She could do whatever she wanted with it, lease it out, run it with her autistic boy, or sell it if she so chose.
At noon of the last day, a group of school children in a large yellow bus pulled in nearby and lined up near the ticket stand. After a handsome full-figured woman put her index finger to her lips they abruptly quieted down.
She turned to the propietor and with a pleasant smile and a twinkle in her light chestnut-colored eyes said, "How are you, Professor Rodie?"
"Fine, fine, thank you." His head tilted slightly, not recognizing her.
"Sam, Samantha Reyes. I was in your American history class in high school and European history at the University. I was your neighbor in Northport, remember? I thoroughly enjoyed your lectures on the Renaissance. I thought I'd teach it myself, but I ended up in grammar school. But now, I love it.
"Samantha, Sam, I'm sorry, I didn't recognize you. You've become more beautiful. How're you?" They hugged warmly.
"I'm fine. How's Mrs. Rodie?"
"She passed away a few months ago."
"Oh, I'm so sorry,"
"Yes, well, her passing was a blessing. So you're teaching and. . .?"
"And I got married three years ago and have a baby boy. Here's his picture.
"Handsome little rascal, " said Rodie," What's his name?"
"Tommy Lee. I named him after your son. He always treated me so nice in school when I really needed it, Mr. Rodie. And even after we graduated."
"Sounds like you had a little crush on him, Sam."
"It was more than a little crush, Professor."
"Sorry, we didn't know. Well, let's get your class on these animals, shall we? They're eager to go. They need a lot of exercise you know," he chuckled.
She introduced him to her class as her former teacher and they orchestrated, "Hello, Mr. Rodie," in unison.
After limping to each child and strapping them in, he started his "Multicolored Magic Carpet Ride." He imagined his animals coming to life; obedient, docile under the instant love of their new masters. The children were treated to the longest ride in the "Carpet's" history. The repertoire of glorious songs and waltzes were interspersed on the new tape with Christmas standards, ending with The Blue Danube.
Because "Mr. Merry-Go Round" declared that "a lucky ticket" had been turned in, he put up a "closed" sign and asking who wanted a new animal to ride, rearranged the children. He removed the dark steel rings from the free-ride mechanism, which usually had only one lucky brass ring for one free ride. He opened the box with the rest of the spare brass rings and put them all in the dispensing apparatus. The arm extending to the animals as they passed. He slowed the ride down so that each child could easily grab one. All but one was successful. So, Jennifer's reindeer was stopped next to the prize and she plucked it with ease. Tears quickly metamorphasized into a furtive smile as Rodie had her take an extra"golden" ring as a memento.
He gave them more cycles of songs. They won all the prizes he had on the shelf…dolls, hats with fluffy fuchsia feathers, paper mache canaries on a string and stick. They chirped as the tail feathers spun. He refused the brass rings back from the children as extra gifts.
Samantha had to refuse another magical trip since the bus was scheduled to take them back to school.
Before she left, Rodie asked her to come into his trailer for a gift he wanted her to have.
He opened a military wooden trunk and removed a carefully wrapped package of letters and placed it in her bare hand. "These are from Tommy Lee. They're the last letters he wrote."
At first, she refused them as too valuable to him to part with, but he insisted, saying that he memorized them anyway. He knew she would revere them and cherish them. Besides, he was to be heading south tomorrow and was traveling light, leaving most of his possessions behind. She finally accepted them with deep gratitude. Just having them in her hands and the thought of later being able to read his words was a gift which made her heart pound in her chest.
Samantha thanked him and invited him to spend Christmas with her family, but he graciously refused with deep thanks and regret. He had made plans, and after speaking to his brother, a priest in Columbia, he'd be gone for the holidays.
She kissed him on the cheek and squeezed his hand. Her perfume and soft leather glove reminded him of his wife and days of subtle fragrances and gentle spring days.
She left with the children waving good-byes from the school bus. They would remember the nice man, the ride of wonderment and beautiful music for their lifetimes.
The prearranged call to his brother went through with the minimum of difficulties.
"John, how are you? Merry Christmas," crackled a voice over thousands of hills and valleys.
"Fine, fine, Billy, Merry Christmas. How're you!"
"Good, good. We're preparing for the Christmas pageant and Midnight Mass. There'll be hundreds of people carrying lighted candles to the church for the service. It'll be quite a sight. Sure you won't change your mind and fly down? We could lie in the sun-soaked lake front and have a New Year's toast like the old days. I'd really enjoy your company again, Johnny."
"Who wouldn't? I'd love to Bill, but I've got packing to do, for the winter season."
"I thought you were going to give up the ride and sell it."
"I am, but I decided to give to Marcy after it gets set up. Someone will probably run it for her."
"That's great, Johnny. But come on down afterwards. We can have a few laughs and talk about old times," he repeated. "We couldn't do much when I came up for the funeral...Johnny, you still there?"
"Johnny, are you all right? Come on down, please!"
"I'm fine, Bill, really. I just need a rest that's all. I'm retiring for the second time now as the 'Merry-Go-Round Man'. This time it's not as hard as the first, but I'm gonna relax a bit. I just had a wonderful bunch of school kids on the ride. I think we broke the world's record on the length and brass rings won," he chuckled and ultimately laughed. "Maybe we'd make the Guinness' Book of records."
"It's good to hear you laugh again, John."
"Don't worry about me, will you? Remember, I'm he older brother. I'm supposed to worry about you. That's what I promised Mama. But you were always a pain in my ass, Father Bill, until you ran off and decided to become a nun," he laughed heartily.
"You were the pain in the ass! I had to help the 'big brain' in Math," joining in the laughter until it diminished to an unduly long silence.
"Listen, Bill, I've got to go now. Have a nice holiday. Light a candle or two for me too, will ya? I love you, Bill."
"I will. See you soon then. I love you too, Johnny. Take good care of yourself. Merry Christmas."
Rodie put the telephone down slowly into the carriage.
He went to his player and inserted a special homemade copy of the entire favorite pieces and songs he and his wife enjoyed through their lives. It started with her favorite of "The March of the Siamese Children" and ended with his, "Swan Lake".
Now, he could play it loudly since he was away from the other trailers and some were empty anyway, from the early travelers south. More were breaking down their rides and leaving by the minute since the park was closed.
A light silent snow began to blanket the park as he peered out the window to the main traffic on Route 110. The thousands of headlights gave an eerie glow as people drove to their homes or to do some shopping for the season. The park crew in the foreground was dismantling the red and green ornamental lights. The sight was a work of art in motion and stagnancy, he thought.
As the door opened after a gentle knocking, Gyrene Morton popped his head into the entrance. "Excuse me, Captain, you gonna join us for a holiday drink this evenin'. Some'r gonna be leaving tonight to avoid the mornin' rush."
"Maybe later, Gyrene. I've got a slight headache. But come on in. We'll have our holiday drink, just you and me. Two combat veterans from the big war. We're the last of a dying breed, you know. I've got something special for us. Been saving it for, oh, a long time for something, but it's been so long I forgot what," he smiled.
He limped over to the kitchen cabinet and retrieved a bottle of Chivas with dust on the shoulders. He brought it over with an ice tray and two large tumblers and filled them to the brims. They toasted the season as they clinked glasses.
"Merry Christmas, Gyrene."
"Merry Christmas, Cap'n"
The sixty-five year old scotch disappeared quickly as Rodie drank his with slow ease. Then he filled the tumblers again.
"Whew, that's smooth, Cap'n. haven't tasted stuff that good since '45 on Okinawa after the war ended. What were you saving it fer?"
"Oh, just for a good drink between friends, I guess. By the way what's your real name?"
"Morton, Nathaniel, D. USMC. Sergeant, 621033, Sir"
"Gyrene, my name is John."
"Knowed that, Cap'n"
"Well, you can call me John after all these years, you know?"
"Rather not, if'n ya don't mind, Cap'n." He again gulped his drink down like a goldfish being swallowed on a campus green.
They talked for a while about the trip to Florida, the great battles of the European campaign and the South Pacific and of small trivial things. Rodie filled the last of the rare scotch into the tumblers.
Again the golden orange lava had no effect on Gyrene's insentient esophagus as Spangles, Baubles and Beads began near the end of the tape.
Gyrene got up steadily and as he climed down the step of the trailer, asked, "When you gonna be there, Cap'n". Linda'll wanna know."
"If I change my mind, I'll catch up to you guys. Give my regards to everybody, " he said, "in case I don't make it."
As the finale to Man of La Mancha roared to its conclusion, he sang a few lyrics and he sipped his half -full tumbler. The fluid no longer starburst in his stomach as it burned its way there.
Perry Como's Wind Beneath my Wings came on and he chimed in as he and his wife used to do, but she'd emphasize, "Did you ever know that you're my hero? On other occasions, he'd change it to, "Did you ever know that I'm your hero? launching both of them into laughter, then ending the song together.
The pain was alleviated again, but he was not drunk this time. As Swan Lake began, He went to his military locker again. Knelt on his good knee and went carefully through his things, his old uniforms, his khaki blouse and trousers preserved in clear plastic packets with mothballs and calcium chloride tablets within, his barracks cap with a tarnished brass eagle, his officer's hardware, combat ribbons and purple heart. Down deep to the left of the trunk was a hefty object wrapped in oilcloth and cosmaline. He brought it over to the table and meticulously wiped it clean.
The second and last time Swan Lake began. He sipped a little more of the Chives and welcomed the numbing glow of the alcohol and exhalting strains of the music's lifting his spirit to the usual heights, into the long dark tunnels of unwanted memories and finally, into sweet and painful reverie.
He looked long and deep into his wife's picture. He drank in her warmth and smile, his young son's fixed laughing countenance, then he looked at the other photograph of Tommy squatting in a camouflaged uniform wearing a coolie's bamboo hat, holding his automatic rifle and a small shy-looking oriental boy standing next to him. It was taken a week before he was killed.
Rodie took the German luger, inserted the muzzle in his mouth, and quickly pulled the trigger.
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