Arms Raised in America
D Ferrara is a frequently published writer of articles, essays, and short stories in publications including The Penman Review, Green Prints, The Law Studies Review, The New York Law Journal, and RIMS Magazine. Her short story, Then and Now, was long listed in the Able Muse Write Prize for Fiction; her screenplay, Alvin Lindemeyer Takes Canarsie, was a Top Finalist in the ASU Screenwriting Contest; her play, Favor, won the New Jersey ACT award for Outstanding Production of an Original Play; and her plays, Sister Edith's Mission and Business Class, were produced at the Malibu Repertory Company's One Act Play Festival. Three of her full-length film scripts have been optioned.
Worst storm to hit the Midwest in almost thirty years, the radio said. Thirty years ago, she had been living in New York. She did still. The Midwest was a dimly realized concept having something to do with cows. Cornfields.
Her flight had been diverted two hundred miles from where she needed to be. She drove madly for five hours before her cell phone found service, a few miles from her meeting. The message: meeting cancelled, with not even an apology for her wasted trip.
She pulled to what she hoped was the side of the road, hazard lights ticking. Resting her forehead on the steering wheel, she listened to the rain clattering over the car, tallying up the costs: So many drops for airfare, the rented car, the hotel room, missed opportunities elsewhere . . . Time. Lost. Useless.
Somehow, she found her hotel. Without having been here, she knew the rooms would have beige walls, a hunter green and burgundy bedspread, a too small desk, a too hard chair, rubbery pillows. Faint whiff of must. A room with anywhere outside and nowhere within.
All this was a reminder that the promise of clean sheets had replaced the spirit of discovery, as if the point of travel were not to experience the new but to recreate the same place again and again.
The apologetic young man at the front desk explained that the restaurant was closed because of the storm; he offered her cereal from the breakfast supplies in the lounge.
"Or," he said with a smile, "The Mall is still open."
He pulled out a glossy map with stores, restaurants, vendors on carts, movies, and "attractions" in its pleats. He pointed out the door to an enormous structure (revealed by a sudden flash of lightning), circling items on the map, describing with enthusiasm the wonders so close at hand.
She could park in The Wild West and be in the food court without going outside at all, the clerk said. When she hesitated, he confessed that housekeepers had not made it to work and he would have to make up her room.
She left her bags and headed for The Mall.
Inside was perpetually fluorescent day. She found a directory listing stores and restaurants. Four Mexican. Three pizza. Burgers. The Korn Dog Palace. Sushi. Sushi? No. Not here.
On the map, The Mall was square, with layers of stores surrounding something called "The Great Plains." She was on New Orleans Jazz Way. "You Are Here" was opposite the food court.
She crossed the Plains. To her surprise, the Great Plains held an amusement park. The mechanical sounds were rides—"attractions."
Buried in the innermost reaches of The Mall, the Great Plains was invisible even to its vast parking lots. Yet every ride was running, like carnivals in parking lots, flashing temporary pleasures to attract customers.
It wasn't helping.
The Plains reeked of frying food: donuts, funnel cakes, corn dogs, french fries. There were ice cream parlors, a "steakhouse," taco stands, chicken joints, cotton candy, soda, lemonade, face painting, and souvenirs. Remarkably clean, fresh-faced young attendants in polo shirts proffered greasy tidbits.
That wasn't helping much either.
Over her head, roller coasters rushed. One, designed to resemble an old-fashioned train, clattered and clanked. The second, a sleeker, rocket shape, whooshed. For the third, single cars with four seats facing inward hurtled down metal slopes, tilting, pivoting around its center.
Far above, rain sheeted through the darkness onto a glass ceiling.
Some people had braved the Great Plains.
A lone man rode in the front of the train coaster, without expression, staring. Up the steep climb, along the edges, down the drops—he made no sound or gesture—crammed into his undersized seat.
A woman in tight pink capri pants and a pink cap set on fluffed, dyed-black hair passed. Heavily powdered, the woman strode on stiletto heels, shadowed by her miniature self—a tottering girl, also packed in makeup, clothes rhinestoned onto her thin frame.
Their path was crossed by a phalanx of strollers—no, not strollers. Small wheelchairs, with pale children slumped, strapped. One child, androgynous, tufted blond, had a breathing tube. The fat, pale pushers wore professional indifference.
She averted her eyes.
She had not been to an amusement park since childhood. Some of the rides were familiar: the roller coasters, a huge Ferris wheel, a carousel. Others were frightening. "Axe": rows of seats, swung high and turned upside down, upending its two or three riders in padded harnesses. "Spider": eight huge arms spun wildly, holding small cages rotating in the opposite direction. "Kangaroo" dropped caged passengers down a pole, bumping along the way.
In the center were gentler treats—little trains, miniature roller coasters, bobbing balloons. Along the periphery: doors and caves, haunted houses, space trips, and cartoon adventures.
A group of girls with long wet skirts and head scarves rushed from the log rides. Their attire would have raised no eyebrows in Beirut, though pure American giggles escaped the somber scarves.
Several gathered by a kiosk, laughing and pointing. A bank of screens showed photos of the riders, captured at harrowing points.
The cameras had caught the girls as the logs plunged down the steepest decline, some gripping safety bars or their scarves as others raised their arms high, triumphant.
Past the photos was a sign, "Extreme Trampolines." As a child, she had loved the sensation of height and flight, jumping on beds and sofas until she grew too tall.
The trampolines were on an upper level, each straddled by poles with long elastic ropes, like bungee cords.
"Am I too big?" she asked the smiling young man.
The young man was polite. "No, ma'am. The harnesses are weight-tested. You're plenty light."
She was grateful that he did not question why a middle-aged woman in a rumpled business suit would want to jump on a trampoline in a soggy Midwestern Mall.
"How much is it?"
"Oh," she said, "Tickets."
The young man shrugged. "Tell you what. If you want to jump, go ahead. I can't turn down my only customer after she's come out in this weather."
He helped her onto the trampoline and into the harness, clipping everything behind her back. The harness could move freely as she jumped, allowing her to flip forward or back without fear of missing the trampoline or hitting the edge.
For a minute, she stood, uncertain.
"It's okay," he encouraged, "just jump. You'll get the hang of it."
"How long do I have?"
He smiled broadly. "Ten minutes, an hour. Till there's somebody else."
On her first jump, the surface seemed spongy. She stumbled to her knees.
She jumped again. Keeping her knees straight, she went higher. She leapt again, rising high above the trampoline, above the rides, the grim faced man on the roller coaster, the giggling girls with their head scarves fluttering above the roller coaster, the pale children in wheelchairs, the painted lady and made-up girl. She jumped, gripping the elastic ropes, as if she could rocket through the glass ceiling, through the rain, beyond gravity.
She landed lightly, and her spring tossed her into the air. At her apex, the storm pulled down a power line a half-mile away, plunging the Old South, the Wild West, the Great Plains and the rest of ersatz America into darkness. Emergency lights freckled on. Some rides stopped cold; gravity defeated the rest. Screams and squeaks and curses and fear and comforting voices rose.
Cameras captured one last round of screams and arms, the grim man, the scarved girls, the Pink Duo, rows of empty seats, then blinked into darkness.
At that moment, she thought of riding the roller coaster as a child, gripping the safety bar.
And although it was not the same thing at all, she raised her hands above her head and soared.