Angus and Chester: Roller Coaster Enthusiasts
“Dad, did you know that the Tennessee Tornado has the largest inversion of any Arrow Dynamics coaster?”
I look down at Chester, who looks up at me through his safety goggles and beams like a puppy who’s just brought you his favorite toy. I feel a pang of embarrassment. How many twelve-year-old boys take meticulous notes in a spiral notebook on all the rides they’re going to ride, then bring the notebook so they can whip it out while they’re in line? Sometimes I just want to take it and toss it right in the trash.
But I don’t do that. Instead I raise my eyebrows and say, “Really? The largest inversion?”
His grin gets wider. “Yep. 110 feet tall.”
I nod. “And, uh … what is Arrow Dynamics again?”
“Dad, I already told you before!” Chester exclaims. “Arrow Dynamics was responsible for some of the biggest advancements in the roller coaster industry. They invented tubular steel track design, the modern inverting coaster, the modern suspended coaster, and they even had the first log flume!”
“Oh yeah. I remember now.” Well, maybe I don’t remember the specifics, but I do remember him talking about it in the car.
The line moves forward, and us with it. I look back to check out the lady with the nice rack some more, but now my view is blocked by a man whose body looks like a beanbag chair. How the hell is he going to fit into one of those seats? This isn’t an airplane, Fatty, you can’t just book two seats.
It’s not like I ride roller coasters just so I can leer at the women in line. But what else am I going to do while waiting forty-five minutes for a ride that lasts a minute and a half? Besides, you know, listen to my son rattle off facts about interlocking loops, zero-G rolls, and the difference between suspended and inverted coasters.
The kid eats, sleeps, and breathes roller coasters. When he’s not preparing for our next trip, he’s playing Roller Coaster Tycoon on the computer, and when he’s not doing that, he’s drawing blueprints for these fantastic coasters that twist and turn in ways that I’m not even sure modern engineering is capable of. Maybe I should be discouraging this sort of thing. Or maybe I should make him join some kind of math club where he can sit around and talk about physics with all the other little nerds. But Chester isn’t interested in anything like that; everything he wants, he’s already got. I should be worried that he doesn’t really have any friends, but you know what? In twenty years, when he’s a world-renowned coaster designer and people are lining up by the thousands to ride his rides, I’ll be able to skip to the front of the line and say, “This magnificent son of a bitch right here? My son made that.”
It’s ninety-two degrees in Pigeon Forge, and the humidity makes it feel even higher. Every man, woman, and child in Dollywood is making the same dangerous gamble: leave your clothes on and sweat like a pig, or take your clothes off and get scorched. I guess more people would rather risk a sunburn than risk offending others with their body odor, because there are plenty of camisoles, spaghetti-strap tanks, and even bikini tops for me to feast my eyes on. But it seems like the women here get fatter and uglier every year. And the men are even worse.
Take this Jeff Foxworthy-looking dude who’s with his kid right in front of Chester and me. His gut’s like a portable shelf. He probably sets his plate of nachos on there when he’s wallowing in front of his TV. If you took a guillotine and chopped that potbelly clean off, he’d be a normal-looking guy. I mean, ok, he’d still look like a slob, with that uneven mustache and that stubble and that … what is that, a mullet? I don’t even know what you’d call that haircut.
Am I being overly harsh? Maybe, but that’s only because nothing in the world terrifies me more than the possibility of looking like that man. We’re probably about the same age, me and him, but you’d never know it from looking at us. If you stood the two of us side by side, you’d probably think you’re looking at completely separate species, like if you put a modern human next to a Neanderthal.
So excuse me for taking pride in my own body. I work hard for what I’ve got. I sweat and I sweat until I feel like a sponge that’s been squeezed dry. I choke down chunky protein shakes and bland chicken breasts and I lie in the tanning bed until I feel like a raisin, and I do it so that women on the street will think I’m ten years younger than I really am.
“Dad, did you know that the Tennessee Tornado has a drop of 128 feet and reaches a maximum speed of 63 miles per hour?”
“You don’t say? Here, drink some water. You’ve gotta stay hydrated.”
Chester takes the water bottle without complaint. He wanted a soda, but there’s no way I’m going to let him have one. Not in this heat. He’ll just get all hyper.
Then he starts talking about the height of the coaster’s chain lift hill, and I notice that Jeff Foxworthy’s kid is staring at mine. My hackles start to rise whenever I see other kids staring at Chester, but then I realize that this kid isn’t staring in a judgmental or hostile way. He seems genuinely absorbed in what Chester is saying. He starts to inch closer.
Where the father is scruffy, paunchy, and generally mediocre, the son is anything but. He’s got a nice mop of blond hair and large, inquisitive eyes. He looks to be around the same age as my son, but unlike my son, he seems completely comfortable in his own skin. He’s probably got a good four inches on Chester and he’s got long arms and legs that will make him well-suited for wrestling, swimming, or any other sport he decides to try. Basically, just looking at this kid, you can tell that in five or six years he’ll be crushing it, pussy-wise.
He takes another step, and now Chester finally notices him. My son shrinks back, recoiling from this unwanted invasion into his personal space. But then the blond kid does something odd: he takes out a little electronic organizer with a tiny LCD screen and a folding top. I haven’t seen one of those things since the late 90s. He types something into it and shows it to Chester, and suddenly the apprehension and distrust just vanish from Chester’s face, and he steps forward and shows the kid his notebook.
“The lift hill is 163 feet tall and has a vertical angle of fifty-four degrees,” Chester explains. The blond kid nods and types something else into his organizer, and soon he and my son are, in their own peculiar way, having an animated discussion about coaster design.
Of course, Jeff Foxworthy has been watching his son this whole time, and now that our kids are both absorbed by Chester’s notebook, he finally looks up and makes eye contact with me. He falters and his eyes go a little wide, and I can tell he’s a little bit intimidated. And why wouldn’t he be?
So of course I immediately and without hesitation spring forward and approach him, flashing my teeth in a brilliant smile. “Looks like our boys are hitting it off,” I remark.
The guy doesn’t smile, just nods. “Yep. Purness is kind of an egghead too when it comes to numbers and angles and shit.”
Oh God, it’s bad enough that he looks like a redneck, but he even sounds like one too. He must be a local, or at the very least must live in Tennessee. And what kind of a backwater, white trash name is “Purness?” That’s what I want to ask him.
But I don’t do that. Instead I extend my hand and say, “I’m Angus, by the way.”
He accepts it, pumps it once, and withdraws his own hand back to the safety of his grimy, ill-fitting jeans. “Clyde Campbell.”
“So Clyde,” I say. “Are you from around here?”
“Knoxville,” he says. “So, pretty close.” It sounds more like “Knox-vul.”
“Oh, so you guys must come here all the time.”
“Nah, this is our first time.” As the line moves again, Clyde lets Purness and Chester pass him so he can hang back with me. “Those tickets ain’t exactly cheap, you know?”
“Tell me about it,” I say, even though what I’m really thinking is, What a schmuck. I mean, has he seen how expensive Disney World is? If he knew how much I paid to go skydiving or bungee jumping, he’d shit a brick.
“So what about you?” Clyde asks. “Where you from?”
“Oberlin, Ohio. Less than an hour from the roller coaster capital of the world, baby.”
He stares at me, as if what I’ve just said isn’t already self-explanatory.
I raise my eyebrows. “You know, Sandusky? Cedar Point?”
Clyde nods slowly, finally allowing a slight grin to crack his placid expression. “Aww yeah, right. I saw that place on the Travel Channel one time.”
As we round a corner, Clyde and I both pause to check out the butterfly tramp stamp on a woman bent over to tie her kid’s shoe. Her body’s not great, but come on—how are you not going to look if you’ve got the chance? Now I see an opportunity to bond with my fellow red-blooded American male.
“You know, the rides here are better than I expected,” I muse, “but what I want to know is, when do I get to ride Dolly Parton?”
Clyde’s face screws up and his mustache quivers. “Man, that’s gross. She’s in her 60s.”
I feel hot shame and hope it doesn’t reach my face. I slap him on the shoulder and say, “I know, dude, it was a joke.”
When Clyde stops, it feels as if the entire line stops with him. “Well, it ain’t funny,” he mutters. “That woman is a national treasure.” Then he keeps moving, and the world unfreezes.
Now I know the shame has reached my face. Is this guy for real? I mean, okay, sure, “Jolene” is a pretty good song, but come on, “national treasure?” Am I really out of line here?
Clyde abruptly swivels around, a huge grin unfolding, and slaps me back. “Man, I’m just pullin’ your leg! I can’t stand country music.”
Well played, Jeff Foxworthy. Well played.
We keep walking, and he adds, “Hey, you know what it says over at the water park?” He moves his hand in a straight line, highlighting an imaginary sign. “‘In the event of a water emergency, Dolly Parton’s breasts may be used as a flotation device.’”
He lets out a loud, braying laugh that draws the attention of a few people around us. I chuckle, even as I try to distance myself from him, and the realization dawns on me that, for just a moment there, I actually cared what this guy thought of me.
Clyde’s guffaw also draws the attention of Purness and Chester, who pause their conversation to stare at him. Chester, who is basically uncomfortable with other people displaying emotions in general, looks at me as if he’s concerned for my safety. Purness gives his dad the kind of look that I would normally associate with an exasperated wife: He rolls his eyes, shakes his head, and turns back to Chester.
I watch Purness do this and finally my curiosity gets the better of me. “Sorry, I just have to ask … what’s with the electronic organizer?”
Clyde replies, nonchalantly, “The boy don’t really talk, so he uses that thing instead.”
Technically, that is an answer to my question, but he knows damn well it’s not the answer I’m looking for.
“Yeah, I gathered that, but I mean … why?”
Clyde shrugs. “Dunno. He was just born that way.”
I don’t know why, but that feels like a lie to me. We’re now at the point where I can actually see the boarding area, where teenagers sit on the dividing rails and large groups begin the complicated process of figuring out how to all ride at the same time. We’re probably looking at another twenty minutes, and now I’m not sure if I really want to know this guy’s life story.
But then Clyde turns the tables on me by asking, “So what’s with the goggles?”
“Chester’s practically blind,” I explain. “But he likes to see everything that’s happening when he’s on the ride, and he doesn’t want to risk his glasses flying off. Hence the goggles.”
“What’s there to see? The whole thing’s over so damn fast.”
I smile. At last, an opportunity to prove what separates me from him.
“You know that moment when you get to the top of the hill, and you look out on the entire park? That moment of anticipation before you go over the edge? That split second of calm where you stop and ask yourself, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ In a way, that’s the most intense part of any thrill experience.”
Clyde gapes at me. I hope I didn’t use too many big words for him. “‘Thrill experience,’” he repeats, and pauses to let the taste of those words linger on his tongue. “Who knew there was so much to it? I guess you must be some kinda expert, huh?”
“Well, I don’t want to brag….” I definitely want to brag. “But I’ve completed five tandem jumps and three solo jumps, I’ve gone bungee jumping, cliff diving, and I’ve even gone BASE jumping. So I guess I know a few things about thrill seeking.”
Clyde nods and strokes his mustache. He probably doesn’t even know what some of those things are. Then he asks, “So what does your old lady think of all this?”
Who cares what she thinks? She’s a lying, cheating, manipulative bitch. That’s what I want to say, at least.
But I don’t do that. Instead I say, “Who cares what she thinks? She’s a lying, cheating, manipulative bitch.”
Once again, it’s like the whole world just freezes. Purness whirls around and gawks at me, his mouth hanging open. Clyde is stunned, and Chester? Chester just keeps on talking, because if it doesn’t interest him, he might as well have not even heard it.
“Well, damn!” Clyde exclaims. “Tell me what you really think!”
He must be pretty pleased to see me make an ass of myself. But I’m not about to give him, or anyone else in line, the satisfaction of seeing me wring my hands and apologize. No, if you know you’re about to crash, you bail right away and then roll with it. That’s what a pro does.
“That’s right, fuck her!” I say, even louder. I even look around to make sure people know that I want them to hear me. “Thinks she’s such a great mother, well where’s she right now? I’ll tell you where she is, she’s off getting nailed by some limp-dick choir director while I’m taking our son on a great vacation!”
Suddenly this bald, beady-eyed pig-faced man with two chins leans over the divider and grabs my shoulder. “Hey buddy, you want to tone it down with the language already? This is a family establishment, for cripes’ sake!”
I spin to face him and brush his hand off. “What are you going to do if I don’t? Are you going to fight me?”
To my surprise, he doesn’t even flinch. “No, but I’m sure security will be happy to escort you out.” He gestures toward the two security guys just outside the ride’s waiting area, who have taken an interest in the disturbance. I doubt that even the two of them together could drag me out of here. And even if they could, it would be worth it for the chance to rearrange this shitheel’s doughy face.
But then I look over and see that Chester has finally noticed that something is wrong. His notebook drops to his side, and his smile falters. Purness looks like he’s about to cry. And then I realize that I’m the bad guy here. I’m ruining everyone’s good time. I don’t want us to get kicked out. And I’m sure as hell not going to prove Paula right.
So I exhale slowly, and unclench my fists, and go to my son. I kneel down so that I can look him in the eyes. He looks back at me, but I don’t think he really sees me. I think he sees a world of angles and straight lines, a world of gears and chains and pistons. In Chester’s world, humans and machines follow the same rules.
“Chester, I’m sorry,” I murmur. “Those things I said about your mom, they’re not true, I’m just….” But of course, they are true. I can still picture them together, Paula’s face buried in a pillow, the choir director’s bald head covered in a glowing sheen of sweat.
“Dad,” he says, “the line’s moving.”
I stand up and let Chester turn and follow the college kids in front of us, who have been snickering about us this entire time. And I guess the pig-faced man isn’t done with me yet, because just as we start to move, he calls after me, “Yeah, you better walk away, jerk!”
And that’s it, I’m pivoting on my feet and surging forward with fists raised and my lips curled back in a snarl, and then there’s Clyde, right in front of me, holding me back.
“It ain’t worth it, man. Just let it go.”
He’s sturdier than he looks, because I strain against him and he doesn’t budge. Or maybe I’m not really trying. I think just the sight of the goofy bastard is enough to calm me down.
“You’re right,” I say with a sigh, and then drop my fists. We ease back into the flow of the line, but I’m still breathing hard, and my face is still warm.
Clyde hands me a cold bottle of water. I take a long swig, pour some out on my face, and hand it back to him. Then I take off my sunglasses and finally let him see my eyes.
“Thanks. For holding me back.”
“Shit, man, I didn’t do it for you,” he says as he screws the cap back on. “I did it for your boy. It’d be a damn shame if he didn’t get to ride ’cause his dad’s a jackass.”
“You’re right,” I say again, feeling like a deflated balloon.
Clyde keeps his eyes on the boys as we enter the final lane before the line splits off into separate rows. I can tell from the tension in their shoulders that they’re both still on edge. And Purness keeps glancing back at his dad.
“So how long you and your wife been divorced?” Clyde asks.
“We’re not divorced,” I say. “We’re not even really separated.”
“But either way, she ain’t here.”
I shake my head. “She’s such a hypocrite. I mean, she gives me shit for not being around enough, but who’s the one taking Chester on all these trips? Me.” On some whim I can’t explain, I pull out my phone, find a picture of Paula, and show it to him. She’s got captivating green eyes and lustrous dark hair, but she loses a couple of points because of her big nose and pear-shaped body. “Can you believe a woman like that would cheat on a guy like me? I mean, the irony! I could have any woman I want, but I’ve been faithful the entire time we’ve been married. Meanwhile, she’s off sleeping around with guys who look like….”
“Like me?” Clyde offers.
I flounder, searching for a way to respond, but then he grins. “Relax, it’s a joke.” He takes a drink of water. “Listen, man, I don’t know nothin’ ’bout your wife or your marriage. But I’m guessin’ that whatever she’s unhappy about, it ain’t sex.”
“And yet she went and banged some other dude,” I say, raising an eyebrow.
“Yeah, I guess so….” Clyde frowns and turns his attention back to the line in front of him. As we move forward, an uncomfortable silence rushes in to fill the gap between us. Suddenly, it feels critical that I get Clyde to explain what he means—and yet, I have no clue what to say.
When we stop again, Clyde turns back and looks at the boys. Chester is tracing the motion of a roller coaster through the air with his hand as he walks Purness through it. Purness nods slowly, his attention never wavering, the World’s Best Listener.
“Your boy sure loves roller coasters, huh?” Clyde says.
I puff out my chest. “Yep. He’s a real thrill seeker. Just like his old man.”
Clyde strokes his mustache. “If you say so.”
I nearly stumble over his words. I’m not used to being dismissed like that. But before I can form a proper response, the line splits as people break off to choose their rows. Clyde moves past me, puts his arm around Purness, and leads him away without another word. I want to yell after him to go fuck himself.
But I don’t do that. I don’t do anything at all.
For once, Chester and I don’t get in line for the front row. Maybe it’s because I’m distracted, or maybe it’s because Chester wants to ride at the same time as Purness. Although, if he is at all sad that he no longer has the boy to talk to, he’s not showing it. He immediately refocuses his attention on me.
“Are you ready for this, Dad? This is going to be awesome!”
And this is the thing I will never understand about my son. For someone who studies and obsesses over roller coasters as much as he does, who’s ridden as many as he has, you’d think he’d realize that there are way more exciting coasters than the Tennessee Tornado. Coasters that are newer, bigger, faster, with more loops and turns and crazy features. But every time Chester rides a new coaster, he gets so excited, you’d think it was his first time ever riding one.
I guess I have to envy that. Because compared to jumping out of a plane from 23,000 feet, riding a roller coaster doesn’t even register as an experience. Hell, even jumping out of a plane doesn’t have quite the same impact it used to. That’s the hidden danger of thrill seeking; like any other addiction, you have to get more and more of it just to get the same effect.
Now we’re in our seats and pulling our shoulder harnesses down. I listen to the click-click-click of restraints and the low nervous chattering of the people around us. I watch people’s feet swing (no matter how old you are, it’s impossible to resist doing that) and study the apathy on the ride attendants’ faces, and wonder if they even bother to ride these coasters anymore.
I can’t stop replaying Clyde’s words in my head. If you say so. Like he knows something I don’t. Like he knows my son better than I do. But what if he’s right? If I’m wrong about Chester, what else am I wrong about?
My thoughts dissipate like a puff of smoke as the train finally lurches out of the station. We ascend the lift hill and shield our eyes from the sun that hovers directly over the crest of the hill. I should have put my sunglasses back on. I tell Chester to close his eyes, or look away, but I know that he won’t. He’s finally stopped talking; he’s just taking it all in. Savoring the anticipation.
We reach the top, and there it is, all laid out before us, the entire park as God above must see it, or as Chester views his creations in his computer game. We see steel scaffolding rising up to meet the sky, buildings and paths, woods and fields and the road beyond, but we don’t see people. From this height, they’re too small to notice.
Then there is motion, and sound, and at one point a bright flash of light, and then it is over. We collect our things and make our way down the exit ramp. Chester plods along as if walking through a dream. He is silent, contemplative, but in a moment the dream will end, and he will forget about the coaster he’s just ridden and talk about the one he’ll ride next.
As we pass through the turnstile, I slow to a stop. I put a hand on Chester’s shoulder. He turns back to me, confused. This isn’t part of the routine.
“Chester, I was just wondering,” I say. “I’ve never asked you this, but … why do you love roller coasters so much?”
His face goes blank. This is the face he makes when he’s thinking. He’s not too big on multitasking. He blinks once and replies, “Because they’re fun. And scary. And because nobody tells me I can’t do it.”
He continues down the ramp, but my feet stay rooted to the wooden planks. People move around me, annoyed, but none of them are brave enough to tell me what they’re thinking.
He’s talking about me, I realize, my stomach sinking in horror. The person who tells him he can’t do it—it’s me. That’s what I tell him whenever he asks about one of my other hobbies, like parasailing, rock climbing, or snowboarding. He can’t do those things, and he probably never will.
He can’t because of his terrible eyesight, his balance disorder, his seasonal allergies, and all the other genetic deficiencies he got from Paula. He’s an imperfect creature, and the only way he’ll get to fly is if he’s bound to a track. A roller coaster might give him the sensation of freefall, but it will never compare to the real thing.
This is the first thing in his life we’ve ever shared together. But he’s not doing it because of me. He’s doing it in spite of me. Even if he doesn’t realize it.
When I catch up with Chester, he’s checking out our photo from the ride. There’s me, curling one meaty bicep and roaring at the camera. There’s Chester, peering out from behind his goggles, his eyes wide, his mouth peeled back in a grimace. You wouldn’t think from looking at the picture that the boy is having any fun at all. It looks more like he’s trying his hardest not to pass out or throw up.
I ask him if he wants it. He shakes his head. We turn to go and see Clyde and Purness checking out their picture as well.
We walk over to them and see for ourselves. It’s a great photo. Clyde’s hair is flying back behind him, covering the face of the person behind him. His smile covers his whole face, and Purness’s expression is nearly identical. They really look like father and son. There’s no attempt to be funny or clever, it’s just two people having the time of their lives. At the sight of it, my anger at Clyde melts away.
Purness looks up at Clyde, who shakes his head and says, “Purness, you know I ain’t got the money for that shit. We’d just lose the damn thing anyway.”
Purness nods and turns to resume his conversation with Chester. Chester gives his out-of-ten review of the Tennessee Tornado and compares it to one of the coasters he built in his computer game. Purness types something into his organizer, and from the way my son responds, it’s clear that Purness is arguing with him. But it’s a friendly argument. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Chester have a friendly argument; in my experience, you either agree with him, or you keep your mouth shut.
Clyde is still looking at the photo up on the screen with regret. Without asking him, I pull out my wallet and approach the counter. But when I give the cashier the number of the photo, Clyde cuts in.
“What are you doing?” he says, his brow creasing. “I don’t need your charity, man.”
“I thought it would be a friendly gesture,” I say.
He crosses his arms. “We ain’t friends. I don’t know you, and from what I’ve seen, I don’t want to. You got some real issues, man, and if you don’t take care of ’em, your boy’s gonna grow up to be just like you.”
I look over at Chester and Purness conversing in a language I can’t understand.
“No,” I say. “He won’t.”
Justin Eisenstadt is a fiction writer and musician currently living in Spokane, WA. His fiction has appeared in Connotation Press: An Online Artifact and Behemoth Review. He also co-writes a blog with his partner, fellow fiction writer Katherine Bell, called “We Write Together.”