I glanced at A. L. Shrank.

He shrugged and nodded, giving permission.

I ran off into the fog.

The long chattering clack and grind, the ascending slow clang, rattle, and roar, like some robot centipede of immense size scaling the side of a nightmare, pausing at the top for the merest breath, then cascading in a serpentine of squeal, rush, and thunderous roar, in scream, in human shriek down the abysmal span, there to attack, more swiftly this time, another hill, another ascending scale rising yet higher and higher to fall off into hysteria.

The rollercoaster.

I stood looking up at it through the mist.

In an hour, so they said, it would be dead.

It had been part of my life as long as I could remember. From here most nights you could hear people laughing and screaming as they soared up to the heights of so-called existence and plunged down toward an imaginary doom.

So this was to be a final ride late in the afternoon, just before the dynamite experts taped explosives to the dinosaur’s legs and brought him to his knees.

“Jump in!” a boy yelled. “It’s free!”

“Even free I never thought it was anything but torture,” I said.

“Hey, look who’s here in the front seat,” someone called. “And behind!”

Mr. Shapeshade was there, cramming his vast black hat down over his ears, laughing. Back of him was Annie Oakley the rifle lady.

Back of her sat the man who had run the fun house; alongside him was the old lady who spun the pink cotton candy machine and sold illusion that melted in your mouth and left you hungry long before Chinese food.

Back of them were the Knock a Milk Bottle and the Toss a Hoop team, everyone looking like they were posing for a passport photo to eternity.

Only Mr. Shapeshade, as coxswain, was jubilant.

“As Captain Ahab said, don’t be yellow!” he called.

That made me feel like a sheep.

I let the rollercoaster ticket-tearer help me into the coward’s back row.

“This your first trip?” He laughed.

“And my last.”

“Everyone set to scream?”

“Why not?” cried Shapeshade.

Let me out, I thought. We’ll all die!

“Here goes,” the ticketman yelled, “nothing!”

It was heaven going up and hell all the way down.

I had this terrible feeling they blew the legs out from under the rollercoaster as we descended.

When we hit bottom I glanced over. A. L. Shrank stood on the pier, staring up at us lunatics who had willingly boarded the Titanic. A. L. Shrank backed off in the fog.

But we were climbing again. Everyone screamed. I screamed. Christ, I thought, we sound as if we mean it!

When it was over, the celebrants wandered off in the fog, wiping their eyes, holding on to each other.

Mr. Shapeshade stood beside me as the dynamite men ran in to wrap their explosives around the girders and struts of the great ride.

“You going to stay and watch?” said Mr. Shapeshade, gently.

“I don’t think I could stand it,” I said. “I saw a film once where they shot an elephant right on screen. The way it fell down and over, collapsed, hurt me terribly. It was like watching someone bomb St. Peter’s dome. I wanted to kill the hunters. No, thanks.”

A flagman, anyway, was waving us off.

Shapeshade and I walked back through the fog. He took my elbow, like a good middle-European uncle advising his favorite nephew.

“Tonight. No explosions. No destructions. Only joy. Fun. Great old times. My theater. Maybe tonight is our last cinema night. Maybe tomorrow. Free. Gratis. Nice boy, be there.”

He hugged me and plowed off through the fog like a great dark tugboat.

On my way past A. L. Shrank’s I saw that his door was still wide open. But I didn’t step in.

I wanted to run, call collect on my gas station telephone, but I feared that two thousand miles of silence would whisper back at me of deaths in sunlit streets, red meats hung in carneceria windows, and a loneliness so vast it was like an open wound.

My hair grayed. It grew an inch.

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Categories: Bradbury, Ray