Here is a little child sitting in the gondola of a Ferris wheel, nervously crushing fistfuls of cotton candy into nuggets as they wait for the ride to start. She and her mother are in number 16.
Her mother says that she may need to hold hands so she doesn’t get too scared. It’s not a trick, like something Grandfather Bear would say to give courage to Little Bear. The mother is some form of scared all the time. Most of the time, the mother’s fear gets crushed down into manageable handfuls. But not always.
She has found herself in charge of her youngest child on the final fun trip of the final week of vacation. The oldest kids are too busy to go on a day trip; the tweens band up and run off together, being cool; the dad is bonding with big sister who desperately needs to be treated like a little kid for once. So it’s the mother and her youngest, navigating the world of the amusement park alone together. It was a long ride to get there, and now there are long lines for everything.
There are rides that are out of the question. Some of them drag you up to ludicrous heights, turn you upside down, shake you very hard, drop you, shove you backwards, put you in the dark. Why would you pay someone to do this to you, when it happens to you anyway on some random Tuesday, just in the course of ordinary living?
But the rides with no lines are all the same: Around and around and around. It’s hard to know what to do. So the mother and kid alternate: Rides that are too boring, and rides that are too scary.
Here are all the moms, draped along the fence, watching their baffled little toddlers swoop up and down, up and down inside metal dragons that beep and flash and whine. “WHEE! WHEE! WHEE!” shout the moms, grinning.
Here’s a little cluster of blonde cousins rushing and tumbling into the serpentine line barrier at the double decker carousel. One child wants desperately to ride the only giraffe, but there are many other people in line. “Whyn’t we just duck under the fence?” a woman rasps.
“We all have to wait our turn,” her sister answers mildly.
“Aunty will make sure you git that giraffe,” the first woman insists. “You’ve ben such a pretty girl all day. Aunty will make sure you git that giraffe. Pretty girl.”
The mother, shriveling a bit inside as she imagines meeting these pretty girls in fifteen years, is relieved to hear that her own daughter wants to ride the panda, instead.
She finds a horse next to the panda, and surprises herself by heavily climbing up on it. Her legs are the right length for the stirrups, so maybe it’s a normal thing to do. The horse’s tail looks like a real tail, and someone has taken so many pains painting scenes from Venice on the ceiling and brushing in little yellow and pink bouquets in between the mirrors.
A chubby hispanic man gives his shell-shaped bench a spin, and it twirls, and he beams like a baby. It is a beautiful carousel. There has never been such a beautiful carousel. It’s two stories high, and everyone on it is smiling. But the ride is very short.
Here are a set of tiny twins, dressed to the nines in identical new sneakers, athletic shorts, and patriotic tank tops, strapped carefully into a blinking helicopter. All the other kids are yanking on the bar, jerking and swooping and clanking up and down, but the boys are staring solemnly ahead and moving smoothly on their appointed rounds, around and around.
“Pull on the bar! Pull it toward your belly! Make it go up! Don’t you wanna fly?” the operator screams. They do not. Their father comes to collect them when the ride is over. God willing, he will understand that they did what seemed right to them. They are extremely small and the world is very big.
It seems to the mother that everyone is very small, not just the spindly little children. The mother feels the smallness of people under the poundingly hot sky, their strange fragile limbs willingly buckled into machines. You must not ride this ride if you have certain heart conditions.
You must not ride this ride if you are pregnant, if you have back or neck ailments, if you have had recent surgery, if you are sick, if you are alone, if you are poor, if you are a fool, if you are afraid. Are you afraid?
She can’t help it. She tells her six-year-old that they need to hold hands, because she is afraid. Her daughter is not surprised. It is scary up there.
But by the time they reach the top of the Ferris wheel, they have stopped clutching each other. They have risen above the noise and the heat, and the air is cool and quiet. They can see the lake sparkling.
The little girl hands the cotton candy to her mother for safekeeping, and she says the things that every single person says from the top of a ferris wheel, except she’s thinking them for the first time: Everything looks tiny from up here. The people look like dolls. But they are not dolls, they are real. They look little, but in real life, they are big, she says.
Amazingly, one of the real doll people they see is Daddy, waiting in line for the log flume ride with the other kids. The mother texts him. “Turn around. Look up at the top of the Ferris wheel.” They see him turn around. They wave frantically. They see him wave back, tinily. The little girl shouts in her giant, giant voice, “HI, DADDY! HI, DADDY!”
She is so big, he hears her.