Fiction: How Carter Jimson Came to Rest
By Robb T. White
Carter Jimson wobbled in his boots. Drunk again in the middle of the day, he thought visiting the Northtown county fair was a great idea. That is, until he arrived and was overwhelmed by the humidity, the pungent mix of heady aromas ranging from manure and pig feces in the nearby 4-H barn through the nose-prickling, sugary, cotton candy stalls to the body odors of the crowds surrounding and jostling him. At this time of day, hours before the bulk of teenagers and sex-seeking males showed, the crowd comprised mainly young couples with squalling babies in strollers and sticky toddlers. Some of the more aggressive single men, hoping for an early start in what Carter’s set called “the poontang prowl,” elbowed him aside as he came abreast. Two raggedy streams of fairgoers, one clockwise, the other counterclockwise, moved at a similar leisurely pace to take in all the lights, action, and sounds of the annual fair.
The majority of people disgusted Carter as he threaded his way in the wrong direction because they refused to see him. Some he made brief physical contact with thought that a splash of perfume or cologne made up for daylong sweat and stinking armpits.
His belt cinched uncomfortably tight, he worried his faded silk Army jacket with service patches sewn on the back. When LuAnn threw it in the dirty clothes hamper that first time, he nearly lost his mind. He pointed to his prized “tunnel rat” patch in the center of the back and told her she’d need a tunnel to hide in if she ever damage that jacket.
The patch featured a smiling rat standing on a ribbon with the Latin motto: Non Gratus Anus Rodentum (“Not Worth a Rat’s Ass”). Carter barely topped five-foot-five, the perfect for worming into those dark tunnels filled with boobytraps of deadly spiders, punji sticks, and grenades to blow you into tiny pieces deep underground, all to protect the Cong’s weapons caches.
He completed a full circle and did another, going around and around, less steady in his gait with each circuit. Carter was annoyed no one paid attention to him, even though his combat engineer patches could be read from twenty feet away. Other than a few sidelong glances, the two streams of people moved uniformly against each other around the invisible pole of the center of the fairgrounds. Between the booths and game stalls he ambled, head high despite the blurry vision and the salt-sweat irritating his eyes; people coming toward him parted like a bow wave.
Gradually the crowd’s inertia forced him more and more to the right side of the human stream. Four men in their late twenties at the pyramid toss in camos, all sporting high-and-tight buzzcuts, and a couple flexing heavy biceps under tee-shirts looked fit enough to have stepped fresh out of Parris Island boot camp. But they, too, ignored him when he slowed, hoping to be spotted by “brothers in arms.” Forced to keep pace with the mass of human flesh, Carter was on the verge of writing off their indifference to the ancient rivalry between the Army and Marines. Dumb bullet-catchers, jarheads, he thought, until he spotted one of their group standing back and winding up for a throw. He caught the image of a blue neck glyph. Carter shook his head sadly. More evidence of decline. The armed services were lowering standards so much recently by taking recruits with tattoos and criminal records they’d be signing up lunatics straight out of the asylum next.
Hell in a handbasket, he thought sadly.
Now and then, a furrowed brow and a wrinkled expressions by some granny or frumpy mother with toddlers in tow told him his inebriation in public wasn’t appreciated. Back home guzzling beers on the small deck of his double-wide, which he’d been doing for every day of the fifteen years since he and LuAnn split up “amicably,” although that was her lawyer’s word, he entertained the notion he’d be admired and thanked by large numbers of his fellow citizens at the fair “for his service.” As the beers came and went, some collected for future target practice with his trusty Desert Eagle, some heaved toward the burn pile to smash into fragments, he fantasized whole groups of people stopping to admire him as he strutted past. By the time his fantasy spun out, he was mobbed by pretty young girls and ample-breasted woman with adulation in their eyes. He liked the idea of him stooping to pat the youngest girls on the head while their older sisters cast glances of immodest lust in his direction.
By the time he parked his Honda Civic and stepped into a blistering noonday sun, the humidity turned air to water vapor and his jacket made him sweat under the arms and down the back. He refused to take it off, clinging to the fantasy of men who hadn’t seen combat, seeing him approach, would hang back ashamed while their girlfriends stepped forward for a better look.
Stepping through the entrance, he reveled in the image of himself climbing the steps of the grandstand for the start of the demolition derby; hundreds of pairs of eyes watching the decorated veteran, men with admiration and many burning with envy, women with desire.
What disappointment, then, to be met with apathy and disregard or, worse, scowls. Angry, wanting more beer, he decided to eat something first. He recalled walking past a food truck with the big decal of a basket of french fries and a cruet of vinegar; he turned around to find it.
He stood behind some chattering girls and decided to eavesdrop, curious what girls that young talked about nowadays. Years in the service made him adept at cursing, even in chow lines, but the slang of youth had largely escaped him.
The girl in front of him was animatedly talking about some girl Cheryl and not in a complimentary way. Carter tried to hold himself still but he seemed to be moving forward at the same time. He accidentally bumped the girl’s shoulder, who turned around and gave him a hard, appraising look before turning back to her companions: “Yeah, I seen him talking to Cheryl at Tim’s rager. She’s such an emo.”
That led to a round denunciation of Cheryl, whoever she was, involving letters and numbers in some kind of secret code and heaps of praise upon this unnamed boy—or so Carter assumed from words like “sick,” “snatched” and “fire,” although he wasn’t too sure. When he and LuAnn were married in Monroe, Michigan because they weren’t old enough to elope in Ohio, they didn’t talk gibberish like this—only hippies did and look what plagues of drugs and loose morals they inflicted on America. The country hadn’t been the same since.
Carter thought that maybe these girls would be different if he spoke to them. Maybe they’d want to know all about his service, even though they weren’t even agleam in their mothers’ eyes when he went off to war.
“Sounds like you girls are enjoying the fair,” he said, interrupting the girl he’d bumped a moment ago.
Silence. All three stopped talking at once like yardbirds when a hawk’s shadow passes over. Then the dirty looks followed by a mutually reinforcing assault:
“Mind your own business, you old creep.”
“Yeah, weirdo. Go bother someone else before we call the cops.”
“Take a long walk off a short pier, old man.”
That stung. He’d used that cliché himself.
Carter was stunned by the viciousness of their reaction. He’d meant nothing more, he told himself, than a jovial, even polite, comment. He stutter-stepped backwards into the young male holding a styrofoam drink, sloshing it on the boy’s his jersey.
“Watch it, you stupid old jerk!”
Carter stepped away from the line for french fries as calmly as he could order his legs to go and maintain a semblance of dignity. It wasn’t easy. Without turning around to confirm it, he was hotly aware that gazes were turned on him, none in the way his earlier fantasies on his trailer’s deck had depicted. Shame, confusion, rage—all tumbled around in his mind at once like bright chips of plastic in kaleidoscopes. By the time he’d made another half-circle, his neck still burned, and he had a boiling desire to do something to redeem his lost honor.
Stupid girls, I’ll show you . . .
His stomach rumbled. He needed food first.
His nose led him to a series of stands and food stalls that sold fried Oreos, cotton candy, funnel cakes, and corn dogs. He moved from line to line, devouring whatever he’d purchased at the other stand. He wolfed down two fried pickles and most of a fried turkey leg before ending with two desserts: cheesecake on a stick and a syrupy concoction of cream puffs dipped in batter, deep-fried, and drizzled with melted chocolate and caramel. Gorged on the atrocious diet he’d consumed in minutes, he hoped a few walks around the circle might help deflate the balloon of his stomach. He hitched up his pants and picked up his pace. His physique no longer “as slender as a weasel’s,” as LuAnn used to say, he walked along, still pleased by his robust appetite. Only beer distorted his shape, he regretted. The round belly protruded no matter what shirts he wore or tucked in or left hanging outside his belt. He rivaled a woman’s belly in the mid-stages of her pregnancy. One of LuAnn’s cruelest remarks zinged him from some corner of his neocortex: You look like you’re carrying a miniature Ben Franklin stove around your middle . . .
Carter walked on, passed rides he’d loved as a kid. Among his peers, he was fearless when it came to climbing trees and hanging from branches, scratching an armpit and making monkey sounds. The heat and greasy foods increased his vertigo a notch looking up at the gondolas on the cables overhead, seeing the SkyRiders’ dangling legs. The Carousel, the Giant Slide, the Ferris Wheel, the Rotor, and many rides he remembered in the past tricked out to look modern and trendy with new names and paintwork like the Swing Tower, which—he could have sworn—resembled the old Spyder ride of his youth. Instead of Elvis hits, they played that godawful rap and hip-hop junk the neighborhood punks played too loud as they drove past his trailer.
The longest line was for the Slingshot, a two-seater, reverse bungee ride that shot a pair of riders 100 feet into the air at 75 m.p.h. The majority of people in line paired off by the same gender. No couples older than twenty-five or so, he assessed. He wondered whether the males were afraid to show fear to their women. No doubt, it was a “dare-you” kind of ride for anybody. A pang of nostalgia hit him because it was exactly the kind of daredevil ride he’d have loved in his youth. He swerved toward the end of the line until he realized he’d have to stand still for an hour or longer, which mentally oppressed him. His ankles would swell, as though the entire Earth were itself a ride accelerating upward through his feet.
He kept going instead, guided by the fuzzy gyroscope in his head while his abused digestive system nagged him with LuAnn’s voice. He promised her, way off in Coalton, West Virginia, he’d course-correct in the future, eat some vegetables. He ambled past the Bumper-Car tent with its revving engines, squealing drivers, and the familiar odor of warmed banana oil. He slammed his car into his cousin Jerry McCafferty’s at thirteen so hard his cousin bit through his lip.
Maybe it was a combination of nostalgia and sensory overload brought on the late afternoon shift in daylight that got to him in his aimless rounds. Walking past the Kiddieland section of brightly colored cars shaped like friendly fish, smiling dinosaurs, and pretty ponies, he came to a ride he’d ridden dozens of time with Stevie Schroeder, Jerry, Johnny Kiernan, and Danny Rose, his old pals from the neighborhood: the Scrambler.
The syncopation of glittering lights, organ music piped through speakers, and barkers advertising games and prizes, might have been the last straw in his overburdened state. Carter Jimson wasn’t immune from lapses in playing it safe; it’s what made him volunteer for the Tunnel Rats. In later life, though, his sanity was mainly threatened by bouts of gluttony or drink.
Even in youth, he fell prey to that urge to show off with reckless behavior. He had the scars to prove it. At his going-away party, Jerry dared him to jump into the Northtown River from the swing rope boys had tied off on the limb of a Willow tree overhanging the river. After consuming most of a bottle of Jameson, he held on too long and cartwheeled straight down to the rock-strewn riverbank, ending up in Northtown General with sixty-two stitches in his forearm and left thigh. He told his recruiters he'd done it working underneath a car and managed to get his reporting date postponed to heal.
A ride on the Scrambler was just what the doctor ordered, he thought—not so much to prove his mettle to these indifferent yokels but to reassure himself some things in life could not change. What Carter forgot in the slipstream of his memories of fairs in the past was the rapid and terrific speed of the Scrambler with its set of three primary arms and a second set of smaller arms attached to open carriages with a lap bar attachment. Its design enabled both sets of arms to rotate simultaneously with the inner arms going faster than the outer ones, thus multiplying the centrifugal force and the feeling of hurtling sideways through space. Centrifugal force wasn’t the only thing operating to becloud your senses: you think you’re going to crash into the spinning carriage ahead of you.
Whoever named the ride found the perfect bon mot for it in the notion of scrambled eggs swished by a fork from side to side. In the U.K., they give it a milquetoast name: the Twist. In Australia, the Cha Cha—an even less apt nomenclature for this wondrous design with its tightly controlled momentum of a dozen revolutions beneath pairs of lights that dazzle the rider’s already warped sensory intake: three pairs of sweep lights, three pairs of gable lights, and the mast lights. All of which at night, especially, incline the rider to an unearthly sensation of being removed from your body altogether.
Unfortunately, Carter’s Scrambler wasn’t the one he remembered in his youth—the traditional “grasscutter.” This was the “next stage” version, more like the modern Sizzler, a faster ride with a platform and faster-moving, heavier arms. This latter had the deadlier reputation with six fatalities chalked up since its first appearance, mainly under the name Scrambler, but also known by Twister or Merry Mixer.
Carter looked around to see as many as four passengers crammed into a single carriage, whereas the rest all had couples, young and old, he was the only solo rider for this trip.
Carter knew he was in trouble the moment the ride operator punched a couple buttons and yanked a big lever three-fourths his height to start the ride. First, his stomach lifted from its normal position to just a few inches below his breast bone. That, he felt, wasn’t normal. As it accelerated and the g-forces began to climb, Carter couldn’t hold his position in the middle of the stainless-steel seat. For one thing, his hands were sweaty. For another, his guts were churning in dismay at the abrupt disequilibrium.
By the time both arms had made three complete rotations, he was bunched at the end of the cart, gripping the lap bar as though two or three invisible passengers were pinning him there. After the next two rotations, the gravitational forces in play tripled; he was a 300-pound man—and gaining weight with each extension of the arm.
As an experienced drunk, and a far worse one after LuAnn left, he knew he was about to vomit. Every time the g-force was at maximum, the carriage was mere feet from the steel railing surrounding the ride. For one split-second time stopped, and no forces acted on him like Einstein’s man falling off a roof. At each point of stasis before those arms flung him at high speed to the next “stop” in the star-shaped revolution, he had a look at one person closest to the railing. People watching the riders. They were in slow-motion or he was in slow-motion; he could no longer tell. He would glimpse a face—man, woman, girl, boy, or child—and off he would go in the opposite direction. His mind became a tableau of chopped images; a child about to pluck a handful of pastel cotton candy, a mother with an exasperated expression on her face, a girl checking her smartphone. Time fell to zero, then it accelerated to the speed of light, or so he thought in his desperate state to keep the contents of his stomach from forcing their way up his esophagus.
Carter used every mental trick he knew from his Vietnam days to keep fear at bay. He thought of terrifying seconds in the palpable blackness beneath the earth where ever grunt and noise is magnified by terror you’re about to drop into a pit of sharpened sticks or that click wasn’t your teeth chattering but a wire you tripped and a buried grenade is about to go off in your face. Combat followed by the slow drip of hours passing. He thought of a shoreline in the Caribbean, tranquil turquoise waters lapping his ankles; he thought of that sure touchdown he blew when he tried to one-hand the pass from his quarterback. He thought of the drudgery of basic training, forced marches, a drill sergeant down in Fort Hood he tried to emulate and a West Point lieutenant in Saigon he wanted to kill.
Nothing worked. The stinking casserole of beer and greasy food came roaring up and flew out of his mouth in a thunderous yelp of horror. Carter’s hands clung to the bar in a white-knuckled grip as his own body revolted. His head thrown back in loud spasms of vomiting, he was unaware of the grotesque ribbon of foul-smelling clumps and hot, gaseous liquid that flew out from behind his head in a crazy ribbon. The big mechanical arms of the Scrambler never stopped their plotted motion. People close to the ride and some even farther back were spattered with the contents of his stomach, portions of half-eaten food recognizable despite the stomach acid that tried and failed to break them down. Half of an intact fried Oreo hit a man standing in a group of others with his back to the Scrambler. Most of what Carter ejected struck someone or several people at every one of the points of the moving star’s rotation.
Somewhere in his neocortex, Carter knew people were pointing and yelling about him. Mostly from the bystanders at the rail where the bulk of his vomitus sprayed the crowd. Those few faces etched into his brain at the split-second hesitation before the next thrust of the arm were no longer at rest; they were all animated, moving, yelling, pointing. Pointing at him. Carter could barely see anything. His throat seemed to expand and contract like an accordion of its own volition. He feared suffocating. Those rock-and-roll chicks—Janis Joplin and Nicolette Larson—choked to death, swallowed their own vomit. The black guy, who played the guitar behind his head, Jimi something, didn’t he suffocate to death, too? Not me, O Lord, please . . .
He talked to an Army recruiter two years ago who underwent torture training by waterboard. He told Carter it was like having somebody’s hand jammed down your throat all the way to your stomach. By then, Carter was unable to sit upright. half-slumped in the seat, afraid of slipping to the carriage’s cantilevered foot rest, he was sure that he’d be ejected. Visions of his head smashing into the railing at high speed like a rotten cantaloupe only aggravated his nausea. But the spectacular, first explosions of vomit, a veritable Möbius strip of fluttering spume, were winding down, exhausting themselves, and were reduced to a few staccato bursts of sour-smelling bile as Carter’s stomach emptied.
His neck ached from then snapping motion of his involuntary spasms; his stomach muscles cramped and his ribs were one throbbing mass of nerve endings. Each rotation of the arms was an unbearable descent into Hell. He’d pass out if he had to endure another full rotation of those soulless arms plunging him back and forth through space, endlessly moving, shaking him like a muskrat in a rat terrier’s mouth.
Carter used whatever mental energy prayer had to send a message to the ide operator, who at that moment, was sitting on a three-legged stool oblivious to both his distress and the crowd hollering at him, staring at his cell phone. Riders always screamed. He’d learned to tune them out months ago and paid attention to one thing only: the timer for starting and stopping. He had no interest in the people who rode his Scrambler between here and Bumfuck, Oklahoma every year. They were the same everywhere, anyhow—a blur of tickets in outstretched hands. Yippee-doo.
The crowd around the Scrambler grew as word spread that something was wrong. Shouts from bystanders grew louder, the operator continued ignoring them. It wasn’t until a heavy-set man in a yellow Hawaiian shirt with parrots lobbed a cherry snow cone at the operator that splattered chunks of crushed ice all over his sneakers that he looked up in anger. When he saw people pointing at Carter Jimson’s head whipping back and forth and lolling on his chest in the carriage that his angry surprised look shifted to shock. He knew at once he had a problem rider.
Carter’s last eruption of projectile vomiting emptied his stomach completely. By a stroke of blind luck, it sprayed a fine, yellow mist of bile over the three girls from the french-fry line gawking at the railing who’d insulted him earlier in the day. Their curses briefly rose above the din of the crowd’s collective noise like a trio of loud canaries in the canopy. Some teenaged boys in heavy metal shirts and studs pointed at his whirling carriage and laughed. Children clung to their mother’s or father’s hands, unsure what was happening as their parents jockeyed for a closer look.
Einstein’s happiest thought, in fact and as he often said to colleagues at physics conferences and in letters, was that man falling off a roof. No forced acted upon him, he claimed, which led to the general theory of relativity, a bunch of math on “ghostly fields” neither particle nor wave and too complex for even Cambridge physics major until their senior year.
Carter’s situation was different: lots of forces were acting upon him, externally and internally. His stomach spasms were so severe that, though he had nothing left to eject, he lost his grip on the lap bar too often, and in his weakened state, was flung to the opposite end of the carriage, slamming into it with such force that he nearly passed out. Only fear of falling to the floor and being flung into the metal bars of the railing kept him conscious.
The vomit that spilled from his mouth and dribbled down his chin dried like slug trails from both corners of his mouth in the shape of a handlebar moustache. The relentless collision with air molecules converted the muck to a crusty paste against his skin like some accoutrement of a Halloween gag mask. He was delirious by the time the operator grabbed the lever handle in a two-handed motion.
The ride would have come to a hard but safe stop were it not for the melting ice beneath the operator’s sneakers. Enough had melted to act as a lubricant beneath his feet. In his panic to stop the ride, he failed to set his feet properly—not that it took a great amount of physical strength. Slipping beneath the wet ground, his body went out from under him and he slammed his head into the stool he’d just vacated, knocking him out cold. The lever jacked itself back into position as the teeth missed locking into place just like a faulty house key with missing ridges or valleys.
More screaming, more antics among the crowd, and not a little sadistic pleasure in the new development of the unstoppable Scrambler gone berserk.
Carter Jimson, a man in motion, was unaware of all of it. His condition had deteriorated so rapidly as to be comparable to a person who had eaten a mess of green potatoes; his symptoms were identical: vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, dilated pupils, headache. The final symptoms were fatal: paralysis and shock if professional help did not intervene. Mere stoppage of his runaway ride was almost moot.
Carter shared another symptom toward the end; he hallucinated. For the briefest instant, he was convinced LuAnn had vaulted from out of the crowd to land in the seat beside him. She had no difficulty hanging on. The ride might as well have been stopped. He wanted to ask her how she managed to leap the crowd and wind up in his carriage out of all of them. She was never athletic, although he didn’t want to say or think that. The words didn’t come with the thought.
She spoke easily: “I told you to knock off the beer, didn’t I?”
I like beer . . . Did he say it or think it, he wasn’t sure anymore. Maybe he said it years ago before the divorce—probably said it many times. It sounded so familiar—
Carter sat in a spinning carriage on a rock hurtling through space while it orbited the Sun at 67,000 miles per hour. The Earth itself, at Carter’s latitude, around 41.5 degrees North, rotated less than at the equator, roughly 730 m.p.h. Carter didn’t know that and wouldn’t have cared if he did.
Nor did he ever at any point in his life wonder about the fact he existed in a solar system moving along at 828 kilometers-per-hour inside one of the lesser arms of the Milky Way galaxy, itself spinning relatively slowly at 130 miles-per-second, but much more impressively, was moving inexorably at 370 miles-per-second in the tug of the Great Attractor, well off the plumb of the Big Bang. Impressive though this beyond-imagining, dense mass in the Hydra Centaurus supercluster might be that Earth is hurtling toward is an even more predictable and spectacular head-on collision with our neighbor galaxy, Andromeda, at an incredibly fast 300,000 miles-per-hour. It would be a billion years before this happens, although no human being will be on Earth to notice the reaction of these massive forces at play, people long removed from Earth’s ecosystems by then. An irrelevancy, perhaps, considering that of the billions of galaxies in the observable universe, all have a red-shift spectra—meaning they are hurtling away from us, many at speeds greater than light-speed, and one day all light in the cosmos will blink out.
Carter’s appendix burst just before he died, and so he never saw the ride brought to a halt, never saw his own legs dangling just above the platform as they freed him from the lap bar that his right hand still clung to in a cadaveric, white-knuckled grip. His next and final ride was to Northtown General on a gurney in a speeding ambulance, sirens wailing down Route 11, passing cars going the opposite way, as oblivious to the Doppler effect of his speeding vehicle as he was.
Carter Jimson’s perpetual motion finally came to rest one floor down and two rooms over from the OBGYN operating room where he came twisting and spinning into the world seventy two years earlier straight from his mother’s birth canal.
Robb T. White is a Midwestern writer of genre fiction, especially crime, noir, and horror. White has two ongoing private-eye series. Betray Me Not, a collection of revenge tales, was selected by the Independent Fiction Alliance as a Truly Best Independent Book of 2022.