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Carousel Horse

by Howard Norman

 

At Glenn Echo Park there is a dance pavilion, and every Sunday afternoon, while my daughter is using the photographic dark room, I watch the dance lessons. The park has the elegant, ghostly decay of, say, the bustling boardwalks of the 1930s and 1940s eastern seaboard. I've sometimes thought I've heard merry-go-round calliope music when the merry-go-round, in the next pavilion over, was not even running. However, there is a merry-go-round; on certain days, the grotesquely grinning horses, camels, giraffes are covered with old quilts and tarpaulin, as if to keep them warm. I've never seen the merry-go-round's custodian actually swabbing down the floor round as a moat around the motor and other interior gears and machineries. But I have seen him-Everett-take dance lessons, wearing his work clothes, including shirt with name tag. One Sunday, the sign at the pavilion said, "TODAY: INTERMEDIATE LINDY. LESSONS BE-GIN AT 3-PLEASE DONT BE LATE!" I'd meandered up from the dark room, sat in a fold-up chair along the periphery of the slat floor, watched the three musicians-pianist, accordionist, saxophonist-warm up on the elevated bandstand. There were about twenty dancers; partners were easily chosen-I recognized some from past Sundays. Only one couple, as far as I could tell, arrived together, and they may have only just met up in the parking lot. Then from the staff parking lot not more than twenty yards from the pavilion, I heard an argument. I looked over and saw the custodian, Everett, and two other men, all dressed in green and wearing work boots and gloves. It was about forty degrees out; people in Washington, DC, tend to wear gloves in such temperatures. On a wheeled cart next to the men was a merry-go-round horse. It was white, with red and black reins and a black saddle. The saxophonist stepped to the microphone and said, "Our dance teacher, Ms. Brochamp, will be circulating amongst you, as always. This is the Intermediate Lindy. The band is here for your entertainment and accompaniment. Enjoy!" The music started up; Ms. Brochamp pressed her hand to the back of one woman, and danced alongside her, forming, for a few moments, a whirling threesome. The argument now included arm waving. Two of the workmen turned and walked away; one "flipped the bird" in the air, a particulary crude gesture in relation to the tableaux of pavilion, excellent band, dancers, dancers of all ages, I might add. Now Everett pushed the cart to the entrance of the bandstand. Then a small truck pulled up, and out stepped a woman, also one of the park staff. She wore green pants, shirt, and a bluejean jacket over a hooded sweatshirt. She looked to be about Everett's age, forty or so. "Sorry I'm late, Everett," she said. "Broken drinking fountain in the museum." "That's okay," Everett said, "I'm late too. We can just go out there, though. Let's just go out there." "Watcha got there, Everett?" she said, nodding at the carousel horse. "Goes between a camel and a giraffe," he said. "I repainted it and we had to hire someone to fix the eyes and teeth, chipped up." "Let's go-I'll help you, let's take it on up there. I'll help you with it. Where's Tony and Reginald, anyway?" "They didn't want to help," Everett said. "Let's just leave it at that, okay?" "Okay-Okay," she said, holding her arms up as if under arrest. Then Everett looked at me. "You're not dancing, are you, buddy-mind giving us a hand here?" I rode on the cart next to the horse. The woman-Nancy-drove her truck to the carousel. The three of us carried the horse to the merry-go-round. It was heavy, but quite manageable for three people. We set it down. "Hey, thanks," Everett said. "I've seen you around here, haven't I?" "Yeah, my daughter uses the dark room, in the photography building," I said. "Sure, sure, I knew I'd seen you," he said. "Okay, then," I said. "Okay, yeah, thanks," he said. We all three walked back to the dance pavilion. It took about a minute. Everett and Nancy immediately took to the dance floor. They didn't exactly flow; more, they bumbled about, dancing in their work boots. Otherwise, tennis shoes seemed the most popular, though some had arrived quite clearly dressed for the palace ball. Three or so hours later, as my daughter, festooned with cameras and camera bags, walked to the parking lot, the wind picked up and my eyes filled with tears, just from the sudden cold lashing. I looked over at the merry-go-round; through a lens of water the horses swirled, a certain elasticity and murderous rage on their faces, lips pulled back, necks stretching toward the pampas. Or some remote wind-swept expanse, continents and centuries away from the "roaring twenties," when the Lindy reigned. On the horse I'd carried, a little boy looked uncertain. Looking over the rail, his mother lit a cigarette for his father; the wind made it so that she had to use three matches. The mother noticed some expression of alarm in her son; "Don't look at the horse's face!" she shouted.

 

Howard Norman is a two-time finalist for the National book award-for The Northern Lights and The Bird Artist-and author of, most recently, The Haunting of L (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) and The Chauffuer: Stories (Picador, 2002). He is associate professor of creative writing at the University of Maryland at College Park. (updated 2003)

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