I have been a carousel man for thirty-three years. I work the “B&D Carousell” on Coney Island—one of the originals manufactured by William F. Mangels—which my father operated before me. When my father started up in the business, there were twenty-odd full-sized wooden carousels along Surf Avenue, but mine’s the only one left. There are a lot of reasons for this, and I’m happy to give you the main one. Kids are different these days. They’d rather sit in a cave somewhere and twiddle a joystick than take a ride on a calliope.
“Whether or not a carousel makes you rich, Rubin, it can sometimes make you happy.” That’s what my father told me the day he handed me the keys to the crankshaft on my twenty-fifth birthday. And that’s the way it was for me. I had started out as a ring boy when I was thirteen, and even back then, the B&D was a one of a kind. It had a sixty-six-key Gebruder organ; thirty-six jumping horses, fourteen standers, and two chariots—figures whittled by the great artists from the Brooklyn school of carousel carving—and stainless steel rings that riders could grab for.
The sideshow guys used to say that I had sand in my shoes, and I suppose that’s true in a sense. All I ever needed was Coney Island. I worked hard in the summer months and stayed open weekends from November to April, making a few bucks here and there, enough to hang on to an apartment in Flatbush. My sister—my only family to speak of—died a spinster the year I celebrated my thirtieth anniversary as a carousel man, and after that, all I had was the B&D, but I never missed any other kind of life.
On one particular Saturday, not long after my sister had passed, I got to work early, feeling restless. Truth was, after all those years, I was thinking about shutting the carousel down for good. I had recently removed the brass ring because I couldn’t afford to give out free rides anymore, and I still couldn’t make it pay, even on $2.50 a ride. A buddy of mine knew of a job behind the watch counter at the department store downtown. It wasn’t much, he said, but it was steady.
The weather that day was Coney Island first week of November, back when the month still had something to do with it. I started the morning like any other by wiping the chalkboard clean, a ritual I had come to respect over the years. Then I took a fresh piece of white chalk and wrote “B&D Carousell”—the spelling favored by Mr. Mangels—plus “156 Days ‘Til Easter” and “Rides $2.50.”
By late afternoon, Surf Avenue was empty. Not a single kid had shown up all day, and I had run out of excuses regarding the grand chariot, a figure contributed by master craftsman George Carmel. Several of the carriage’s curved wooden planks had popped, and to fix them I knew I’d have to get inside so that I could see what else had rotted away. I had been meaning to do the work for some time.
A gusty breeze kicked up as I stepped onto the calliope, and sand kernels ticked against the horses. I made my way through the herd until I reached Belinda, grand chariot in tow, her head held a notch higher than the other ponies, and I smiled at her just like a school kid would. But I didn’t let myself dally. I stepped into the carriage with some difficulty, owing to a lower back problem that was beyond the realm of modern medicine. Adjusting my weight on the bench, I stretched my legs forward and leaned back under the roof. All sounds from the outside world cut off—so abruptly it startled me.
The chariot right off the top seemed small to me, much smaller than I remembered. My knees bent awkwardly into the planking, and my elbows chafed the sides. How long had it been since I’d been inside? Twenty years? More? Could this have been the same chariot where I once took my girls on date night? I raised my worn hand and touched the wooden mermaid carved into the bridge. I remembered staring at this fish girl when I was sixteen, back when she still had diamonds for eyes, and asking myself, Should I kiss Melanie Mendelsohn? I know it sounds crazy, but it was as if the mermaid spoke to me and told me to do it, a thing that until that moment I was sure I could not do. Now the mermaid’s face was barely a face, smoothed down over the years by the beating wind; the green wooden scales had chipped and flaked away, and the tail was cracked lengthwise. I rubbed my thumb over the soft wood, lingering in the empty eye sockets.
My back started aching, so I flattened myself lower into the chariot and craned my neck, peering into the hood of the thing, looking for white shavings of daylight where the planks had popped. I saw nothing and tried to shift; my neck muscles clutched at my shoulders in a spasm. When I looked up, I saw the roof of the carriage curling over me like a wave, blocking out the daylight.
That’s when I was overcome with it: spinning. The carousel had started to turn, sure as taxes. I quickly pulled myself from inside the pod and leapt out, but as soon as my feet hit the platform, I realized I was wrong. The B&D was completely still. I reached out for a jumper to steady myself and closed my eyes. When I opened them, I saw a boy standing on the sand at the edge of the calliope. I was surprised to see him there alone. Over the years, crime around those parts had gotten pretty bad.
“Hello, Mr. Polonsky,” he said. “Are you open?”
He couldn’t have been more than nine or ten. He wore a collared brown jacket with wooden buttons, and his hair was slicked back with something like brilliantine, which seemed strange for such a little guy. But the thing that really got me was his voice. It was as if he said every word twice, a fraction of a second apart, so that his sentences were out of register. It sounded as though he were talking underwater.
“Sure am, kid,” I said, jumping off.
He held out a dime, and I couldn’t help myself. I laughed. The carousel hadn’t cost a dime in forty years. I looked out across the road toward the ocean. An old woman passed by on a green bicycle and smiled. “That’s okay. It’s on the house today.”
The boy blinked, shoved the dime into his pocket, and stepped up onto the wooden planks. He searched out his pony carefully, touching haunches, petting wooden snouts. Finally he settled on Belle, a blue-eyed jumper, which was not a bad choice at all. I cranked her up and let her go, and she started with a shudder, her first time moving in a week. Organ music drifted down West 12th Street on a soft breeze from the ocean. I sat back in my folding chair and watched her spin.
The kid held on to the golden pole and leaned forward like a modern-day Lone Ranger. What struck me as he went around, rising and falling, was his laughter. It was a laughter as pure as any I’d ever heard, edging toward fear, but with a musical quality. It was as if several people were laughing, instead of only one, and it reminded me of something, although at that time I couldn’t say just what.
When the ride ended, he slid off his pony, wove through the horses, and leapt off the platform with two feet.
“Thank you, Mr. Polonsky,” he said. “That was terrific.”
He turned to go. “Hey, kid, wait a minute,” I said. “Do I know you?”
“Sure, Mr. Polonsky,” he said. “I come here a lot.”
I shook my head. In the summer, it was pretty crowded. And he definitely looked familiar, although I made it a point of pride to remember the names of the regulars. “Oh yeah, sure,” I said. “Well, it’s good to see you again.”
The kid smiled.
“Where’s your mom, kid? You live around here? You need me to call you a cab?”
He wrinkled his eyebrows. “Why, she’s just there,” he pointed toward the vacant lots where the old sideshows used to be, dark beyond the orange glow of the carousel. “She’s with my sister. It’s her birthday.”
I nodded. “Be careful,” I said.
“Thanks again, Mr. Polonsky,” he said. And then he turned and ran, his soft shoes tamping down the sand.
I shook my head and let out a short breath. “Crazy kids,” I said.
It was then that I first noticed the smell, air-popped caramel corn, and for some reason it didn’t occur to me to wonder about it, even though the vendors had stopped coming years before. The boy ran toward the gate and, as he did, he passed the chalkboard. That’s when it caught my eye—written there in white chalk, in my father’s simple hand: “Rides 10 Cents.”
When I looked up, the boy had disappeared into the dark, wind-swept street. I stood and ran toward the gate. I thought about my father just then. It can sometimes make you happy. For an instant, I heard the sound of a carnival on the breeze—the distant cry of a lonely barker and the laughter of young love. Then, as quickly as it had come to me, it was gone.