By Michael Guendelsberger
Most of us who worked at Higgins Hollow that summer of 1996 had done so for at least two or more seasons. A girl I knew from high school said she could get me a better paying job at a produce store where she worked, but changing felt too complicated and unknown. Who wanted to stock peppers and onions and apples? At Higgins Hollow, I knew what to expect. I mostly worked the weekend, leaving the weekdays to doze at my parents’ pool. As summer jobs go, it wasn’t bad. I had a cake position as a ride operator but unlike most of the others in the park, I got to share my responsibilities. A miniature train—red and white, with a blue profile of an Indian chief on the side of each car—ran a three-mile track around the perimeter of the park. I spent my time either driving the engine or, more often, at the very back assuring that no riders jumped off when it got out into the woods or open fields. Butch Lennon, a low-key guy home from college for the summer, usually handled the driving duties. Every so often, we’d alternate just to prevent boredom and I’m proud to say that in the three summers we worked that train together, not a single kid jumped. (My replacement, some weaselly high school sophomore, had to chase down three kids his first night.) Sure, I could have gone and worked in an air-conditioned store, thrown on a green apron, and stocked a salad bar, but why? Those of us at Higgins Hollow felt we belonged there, at home amongst the clacking of the Hurricane lift track and the calliope music from the carousel. The smell of buttery popcorn, greasy and thick, hung in the air like a storm cloud. Red, blue, and green bulbs chased each other around the frame of the Ferris Wheel as teenage boys not much younger than ourselves rocked the cars to the screams of their girlfriends. I remained content at the back of the train each weekend, lap after lap, giving Butch the okay sign every time we went around turns, entered the thick woods down at the edge of the property, and through the field beyond the gravel parking lot. Butch always nodded back to me, affirming that no one had, or looked about to, jump from the train.
I feel the need to interrupt here and tell you not to confuse Higgins Hollow with the big places like Cedar Point or any of those Six Flags parks. When I worked there, we had two roller coasters at the end of a single, long midway, which was flanked by the same sort of rides you’d find at any county carnival. We had a Scrambler, a Tilt-a-Whirl, the Ferris Wheel, the carousel, and the requisite little kid rides: cars, helicopters that lifted into the air, and boats that cruised in a circle around a shallow moat. An operator could set those rides into motion with the single press of a green button, but the kids liked them perhaps because of their simplicity. They went around and around, doing the same thing, each car or boat or helicopter bolted to a central hub. A lot of us operators, with the exception of those running the kid rides, hung around together. Every evening from five to six, the midway closed to allow the operators a chance to get some dinner. This seemed unfair to the patrons but I suppose it gave them a chance to get the kids under the shelter house and some decent food into their stomachs. Those of us who ran the rides often hung around outside the concession stand building and flirted with the high school girls who worked within. A college guy named Mike managed the concession stand but in name only. Nobody actually reported to him. He wasn’t signing paychecks. Mike had been there at least five years by the summer of ’96—longer even than some of the seasoned vets out on the midway—and lamented the fact that he’d never been “promoted” to ride operations. To the rest of us, running the concession stand didn’t seem like such a bad gig. Most of the employees in the concession stand were high school girls and since the building wasn’t air conditioned, you’d see them working in denim shorts and tank tops. Mike never saw the bright side of it. Our employee parking lot, a gravel and dust swatch just outside the concession stand, served as our nightly socializing spot. We leaned roguishly on the hoods of our cars and smoked and drank. During these nightly gatherings, Mike told us more than once that he’d dug himself into a hole working in the concession stand: he’d been too proficient at his job by learning how to fix everything in it. If the ice cream machine froze up or the cotton candy makers jammed, the girls went to Mike. No one bothered the real managers anymore, who often hung around in one of the arcade rooms on the park grounds. They had immediate access to Mike and unlike some of the managers, he actually knew what he was doing. Mike had the responsibility but no real power. The owners trusted him to make the decisions and the girls looked up to him. At best, they saw him as a wise older brother. At worst, he was a goofy, gangly grump who felt he belonged somewhere more important. But like the rest of us, he wasn’t going anywhere. Deep down, he liked his job and the sounds and smells of those summer nights kept him from complaining to anyone but us. Although we never spoke directly about it—perhaps because we didn’t recognize it at the time—one specific reason kept us firmly rooted at Higgins Hollow weekend after weekend. Even if Mike possessed a deep distaste for his job, he had to admit that at least being in the concession stand got him closer to that reason than any of the rest of us could hope.
Her name was Tara Kelly.
Every summer, a fresh batch of high school kids found employment at Higgins Hollow. Most of them ended up in the concession stand or the next-morning park clean-up crews. Some got to hand out cheap prizes in exchange for skeeball tickets. Of all the girls that came each May and went again in October, none of us ever saw a single one who could compare with Tara Kelly. Blonde hair past her shoulders, deep blue eyes, and tanned long legs, Tara rapidly became the object of affection for almost every male on staff. This caused some light-hearted jealousy toward Mike, who got to spend four summers with her in that concession stand. Mike once said (during an after-hours conversation in the employee lot) she must have known the power she possessed. In one of their very first conversations, she courteously mentioned a boyfriend as if to let Mike know he need not bother. Mike didn’t push boundaries. Perpetually single, he nevertheless settled into the admirable role of her closest friend at the park. They spent whole days together, working side by side to hand out cups of soda, soft serve, and multi-colored Sno-Cones. Like the rest of us, Mike hoped she and her boyfriend would break up allowing him or one of us to swoop in and fill that role. Either Mike gave up earlier than the rest of us or he was just more realistic. “Not happening,” he said. “She’s going to marry the guy.” Mike shrugged this off because it wasn’t up to him. The boyfriend went to a private school, where he played football, and was rumored to have a scholarship to the University of Michigan, where he would start in the fall. We had our own mental images of the guy—the stereotypical beefcake wonder boy with a shark’s grin—but until that summer, we had never seen him. He came to pick up Tara on occasion but he always went to the customer lot. Mike watched Tara go to his car but even in the high-watt streetlights that dotted the lot, he never got a good glimpse of him. We nevertheless pressed Mike for details. What kind of car? (“Probably a BMW. Definitely new.”) How could we compete with that? “High school kid with a BMW,” Butch said. “Ain’t that something.”
The summer of 1996 began much the same way as the previous four—all of us hoping Mike would deliver the news that Tara and her boyfriend had broken up. He just shook his head. One night after closing early, Travis McClutchin (who ran the Tilt-a-Whirl) became hell bent on doing something about her. It was as if we’d all been waiting on death row and he, crumbling under the pressure, marched to the front of the line. He stomped out a half-smoked cigarette, stretched his back, and cracked his knuckles. In a rage of passion and confidence procured from two Bud Lite tall boys, Travis marched into the concession stand where those employees cleaned machines and mopped the floor. He asked her out right there in front of Mike and the rest of the shocked staff. Tara had been scrubbing the floor with a shag mop and she leaned it against the window, smiled at Travis, and said, “That’s sweet of you. But I have a boyfriend. Maybe if that doesn’t work out.” She nodded at him, picked up the mop, and dunked the head in the bucket of bleach water. He came back to us defeated and lit a fresh cigarette. “At least I did something about it,” he said and took a long draw. He knew as well as the rest of us that it didn’t mean anything.
Whereas the concession stand often turned over most of its members each summer, the midway operators remained consistent. This statistic didn’t apply to just the ride operators; you’d also see the same faces at the game booths and arcade barn most summers. The little kid rides were run mostly by a colorful group of retirees, including a skeleton of a man named Charlie Stricker. Charlie sometimes joined us for beers and smokes in the parking lot and told us stories about Korean prostitutes he’d known in the war. He bought us beer even though he knew most of us weren’t of legal age. “You’re gonna do it anyway. Might as well do it where someone can keep tabs on you.” When the park started its season in May, Charlie showed up like the rest of us and took his place at the kiddie boats. It was a simple ride—the kids got into boats that traversed a shallow circular moat. Charlie made sure kids were belted properly and then he pressed a green button that sent the thing in motion. He played Disney soundtracks for the kids on a portable stereo he brought every day. He’d clap at them, cheer them on, and those kids ate it up. Some of them would get off the ride and throw their arms around Charlie’s neck. He started the season that first weekend and then none of us saw him for awhile. By the third week of his absence, we all knew before we knew. Like usual, Mike had the story: Charlie had died of lung cancer—something he’d had for seven months and never bothered to tell anyone. His departure created an opening down on the midway and Mike hoped he’d finally get his break, that management would send him down to operate a ride. Of course they didn’t. They sent Tara down to take Charlie’s old post and that made it twice as hard on Mike—not only did he again get passed for an operator job, but now his closest friend had been relocated from concessions. Fortunately for him, it didn’t last more than that weekend. They hired a young college-bound kid named Brian Marx, who became Charlie’s permanent replacement. Tara went back to concessions and everything was right in the world.
We should have done a better job welcoming Brian into the fold but part of the issue was his station. With the exception of Charlie, the little kid operators didn’t hang with us. At the end of the night, they covered their rides and went home. They had no interest in cheap beer, thumping car systems, and bad cigarettes. Could we have recognized Brian wasn’t one of them? Sure. He had finished his senior year at Evergreen High School and so a few of the other guys knew him because they had seen him around the halls. I suppose you’d call him a good-looking guy: tallish, but too thin, as if he had a habit of forgetting meals. His face suggested gentleness and when he did speak, it was in a soft tone as if worried he might be interrupting something. During our dinner breaks, he’d walk up to the concession stand and quietly say hello to those in attendance, fill a cup with root beer, and make his way to the pavilion where he ate his dinner with the company of a book. While the rest of us piled into cars to get greasy pizza or fast food cheeseburgers, he preferred to purchase his meals from the grill tents. As May became June, we had accepted him as part of the Higgins Hollow scenery, just as we did the Frog Bog or the skee ball machines. He showed up for his shifts on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, ran his ride, seemingly kept to himself, and went home. We just didn’t think about him.
How he and Tara started talking is really anyone’s guess. Even Mike couldn’t get a gauge on that and Tara never told him. “It just sort of happened,” Mike said. “One day she didn’t seem to know who he was and the next she’s spending all her breaks down at his ride.” We had our guesses but Butch suggested the most logical one: Brian and Tara had struck up a conversation during a dinner break when he had come up to the concession stand. We admitted this made sense, but what made him different? Hadn’t we all tried that tactic too? There wasn’t a guy working in the park who hadn’t tried some sort of angle with her—what made him so special? In the past, Mike told us, Tara would take her breaks in the picnic grove where she’d find a secluded spot to read or write letters to her boyfriend. If he could arrange it (and he usually could), Mike planned their dinner breaks together—usually after the rides had opened again for the evening. After Brian’s arrival, this practice continued for a while but Mike said she grew distant and distracted. Normally, Mike and Tara would take their time getting back to the squat blue building where they spent so much time each weekend. That June, Tara no longer lingered.
Mike liked to pretend this didn’t hurt his feelings and he even expressed his own bewilderment at the way her actions pained him. He had no claim to her, after all. She was free to do whatever she wanted. He questioned his own view of their friendship: had it meant more to him than her? He started drinking more and tried to smoke but he never got the inhaling part quite right. After cleanup, he’d shut the lights off in the concession stand and hang with us in the parking lot. When he spoke about Tara it was as if he was trying to make sense of it. “She writes notes to him all day,” he said one night in late June. “And I’m not talking about these quick little ‘Hey how are you’ notes. They’re long winded. Pages of stuff. You remember that church picnic we had last week and it was super slow? She took one of those rolls of paper towel—the heavy brown ones they have in the bathrooms—and just started writing. She must have used half a roll writing to him. And here’s the thing: he writes to her too! They’re pen-pals and they work a hundred yards from each other! On her breaks now, she takes her letters to him and they sit together while he runs the ride. Then she comes back with a fistful of notebook paper and spends the next twenty minutes reading his wisdom.”
“She’s doing her job?” Scott asked. Scott ran the Ferris Wheel and that summer he’d used some of his spring earnings to trick out his red Mazda truck with a pretty serious stereo system. Thus, we gathered around his truck most nights and flipped through his massive books of CDs while we chatted. “If she’s not working, you could get her canned.”
Mike waved this away. “I don’t want her fired. You think anyone would listen to me even if I wanted to? She’s probably the best worker in there. I just don’t get the attraction. She’s known me for years. What’s this guy got?”
Travis brought up the obvious question: what about the black-haired, BMW-driving boyfriend?
Mike didn’t know. She hadn’t mentioned him in a while but still wore his class ring, threaded with red yarn to fit over the third finger of her left hand. Did Brian know about the boyfriend? “Don’t see how he couldn’t,” Mike said. “That ring is massive. I’m sure he must have noticed it by now. You know something? That was probably the first thing I saw when I met her. Like I was sizing up this potential opportunity and there it is: big and gold and annoying, right there in front of my face. It was like big sapphire eye saying, ‘Don’t even think about it.’”
We stood around the lot and dragged the toes of our shoes in the dirt. We listened to Pearl Jam’s latest album on Scott’s truck stereo and attempted to talk about other things. Travis tried to shift the conversation to one of the other girls in the concession stand, a junior from Greenwood who, Travis claimed, had given him her number. Most of us didn’t even know who the hell he was talking about. We finished our beers and called it a night.
The following weekend, Tara stopped wearing her boyfriend’s ring. The news spread through the ride operators over our breaks. Usually someone would stop by a few times a day to relieve us for ten minutes so we could take a leak or grab some water. We got the news from Travis, who had heard it directly from Mike. Butch confirmed it when he got back from one of his breaks: he’d gone up to get a Coke and he’d said hello to Tara. Sure enough, Butch said, no ring. Had she just forgotten it? Or had they finally broken up? All day we speculated and mentally composed questions we hoped Mike could answer during our nightly parking lot fellowship. We gathered in the lot and waited that night while Mike did inventory, took the cash boxes up to the front office, and came back to turn off the lights. “I don’t have anything,” he said as he cracked his first beer. “She wouldn’t tell me about it. I even tried Travis’s tactic: I just came out and asked her. ‘Where’s your ring,’ I said and she said she forgot it at home. So I asked her if everything was okay and she said sure. Right after dinner break when everybody goes back to the rides, things got kind of slow. She was over at the soft serve machine writing more notes to Brian. Pages, guys. Seriously. Then she folded them up and put them in her back pocket.” Mike shook his head and asked for a cigarette. Butch tapped one out of his pack and handed it over. “I can’t remember the last time we got to take a break together.”
We felt bad for Mike but some of us took a certain joy from it too. Mike had been the recipient of Tara’s attention and affection—at least more so than the rest of us—and now he’d been cast down amongst us: a cluster of clueless college guys on their first summer break, drinking beers in the parking lot of a closed amusement park.
If Tara had forgotten her boyfriend’s class ring that night, she continued to forget it every night after. We tried to tell ourselves we didn’t care, that we had better things to do. If we wanted girls, how hard could it be? Scores of girls came through the gates every Friday and Saturday night. Some of us succeeded in that regard, if you can call getting a few phone numbers a success. Did any of these conquests go anywhere? If so, no one ever said. Of course Mike continued to mope and we couldn’t cheer him up. Tara spent more of her free time at Brian’s boat ride. After closing, he waited down in one of the pavilions until the concessions stand closed and then he’d walk Tara out to her car. We watched them, of course, but they only talked. He made her laugh and in those halcyon summer nights, we believed that sound to be brighter than the greens, reds, and blues of the midway lights. We loved it and hated it at the same time. She hugged him and they always left in separate vehicles.
The Fourth of July at Higgins Hollow had the potential to be one of the busiest nights of the summer for the park. As long as the weather stayed clear, the place was usually packed. It was one of the few nights of the year the park opened its doors to the public—most of the time, the place was rented out for private events: summer picnics for local churches, companies, and unions. On July 4th, 1996, heavy rain kept most of the people away for the afternoon. Due to thunder and lightning, we had to shut down the rides for several hours and so us operators holed up under one of the pavilions and ate grilled burgers and hot dogs from the food tent. From our seats we could see the concession stand, which didn’t give our patrons much shelter either. Awnings hung over all the service windows but they offered maybe two feet of protection from the elements. As such, a lot of people came down into the pavilions where we sat and waited out the storm. From our vantage point, we could see through the concession stand windows. We watched Mike moving around with a sense of bored authority—helping unclog the soft serve machine which apparently had an annoying habit of freezing up at the worst times. A couple of new kids had started that weekend and Mike had to assist them too—teaching the right flick of the wrist that would wisp that final fluff of cotton candy onto the white paper stick. Tara moved around in there too, mostly staying close to the soft drink machine where she filled cups of ice in a distracted sort of way. We didn’t talk about it but we wanted the fluorescent lights to flash us a sign that her boyfriend’s ring was back on her finger. You could blame the gloomy day or the rain or the fact that two of the overhead lights had gone out in the building. We watched and hoped—because this unknown boyfriend seemed a better alternative to us than the idea that she would choose some stranger who had barely spent a single summer here. If she had to be with someone, let it be that boyfriend we knew little of rather than someone among us who, in truth, wasn’t one of us at all. Butch mentioned it later during one of our train breaks—Brian had not been around during the big storm. None of us could recall where he had spent his time. Maybe we should have asked him, but we didn’t.
The weather broke sometime around seven. We tossed our empty cups and paper plates into the trash cans, brushed our hands on our jeans, and made our way to our posts. By seven-thirty, the patrons had seemingly forgotten about all the rain and the midway came to life with lights, calliope music, and screams of delight from the kids. Brian appeared from nowhere at the boat ride. We loaded people into our rides and got them running and then let them off again. This cycle repeated itself over and over again, hour upon hour, with parents drunk on cheap keg beer screaming for the rides to go faster, higher. We obliged, all of us caught up in the magic of that night and the fact that summer still felt young even though the tipping point lingered on the horizon. We worked the brakes and tried to laugh along with them. We were losing something but like the rain, we tried to push the thought away. The rides chattered into the night as we tried to shrug off the gloom that had settled on us. Our understanding of those emotions escaped us; it waited on the other side of that same horizon with our unrequited love for Tara Kelly and the hope that maybe she would see one of us and recognize him for what he believed himself to be.
Higgins Hollow stayed open until midnight on the Fourth of July. The rides shut down at 11:30 and at midnight, the owners put on a firework show from the back field. Most years, Butch would load the ride operators up on the train and we’d chug out to the far perimeter so we had the best view of the show. None of us saw any reason why this year would be any different. Up in the concession stand, Mike did his best to make sure some of the employees could get out to see the show too. He didn’t care much for fireworks but he knew a break to view the fireworks would endear him to most of the employees in the building. The firework show was the one time on the Fourth of July that business slowed for the concession stand and Mike could run the whole operation with the help of one or two people. In years past, Tara had always volunteered to stay back and help him. Mike wanted to believe it was the closeness of the situation—that working the windows together made their bond stronger, martyrs against the Sno-Cone consuming public. They would laugh about it later and we sensed it too, that something passed between them that wasn’t quite romantic in its intentions but held a strong closeness nonetheless.
July 4th, 1996, proved to be different in every way.
Mike told us later that Tara came to him sometime around ten and asked if she could go out to see the show with the others. The ones who typically wanted to watch the fireworks were the first and second year employees—the kids who were likely starting their freshman or sophomore years of high school. She pressed him and how could he resist? Like the rest of us, he believed himself in love with her and after all, she said, she’d worked so many Fourths with him in the past. Surely he could let her take a year off?
And he did.
The rest of the story came from Scott. Apparently after they had all shut down their rides, Brian approached him at the Ferris Wheel and asked him. At midnight, would he (Scott) shuttle him and Tara up to the top of the Ferris Wheel so they could watch the fireworks? Along with the request, Brian pressed fifty dollars into Scott’s hand. How could he refuse?
Scott missed the train ride out to the fireworks with the rest of the operators. When Brian and Tara showed up at the Wheel just before midnight, he ushered them aboard and sent their car to the very top. He braked it and left them there for the duration of the show. Normally Scott pumped oldies music out of a top-shelf boombox he kept on a folding chair near his station. “Oldies for the oldies,” he had told us in the past. “The people love that shit.” But that night, as Tara and Brian slowly ascended to the peak of the Wheel, he switched from Frankie Valli, Freddy Cannon, and the Turtles to Henry Mancini, Bobby Darin, and Miles Davis. They stayed up there for thirty minutes—the entire duration of the fireworks. “I just left them alone,” he said, “I had a book,” he said, “and I just read that.” We knew Scott didn’t read but he never told us anything more about it.
I want to tell you some grand revelation about that night, that we all came to terms with the fact that Tara Kelly had finally escaped our grasp. None of us knew what happened at the top of the Ferris Wheel but we had to believe something did. This would be the subject of parking lot conversations for the rest of the summer but we never drew any real conclusions. Some marvelous event, we speculated, because Tara and Brian were inseparable after that night. By the end of summer, Mike stopped speaking of her. What their relationship in the concession stand had become was anyone’s guess.
One final event captivated us in the love affair of Brian and Tara. Her boyfriend showed up one Sunday afternoon and came storming into the concession stand, likely not knowing Tara had gone on break. Mike didn’t know the guy and at first he thought maybe the guy was just some irate customer pissed off about the fact that his kid had dropped an ice cream cone out by the Scrambler. Mike told us later that it didn’t take him long to figure out this wasn’t some random drunk guy—this guy was younger and angrier somehow. “Where is she?” the guy asked.
“Who?” Mike replied and by this time he’d already figured it out. The boyfriend, Mike said, stood about six feet and more or less filled the doorway of the concession stand. The cords of his neck stood out and though he spoke softly, his face had reddened all the way to the roots of his jet-black hair. Mike said he didn’t necessarily feel threatened by the guy but that he could tell he was most certainly not messing around.
“Tara,” the boyfriend said.
“Well, she’s on break at the moment.” Mike looked at his watch, trying to stay casual and nonchalant. “Should be back in another five or ten minutes.”
The concession stand had gone quiet. The younger workers, those who had just started their first summer at Higgins Hollow, stared at these two people as if they had never seen this kind of altercation before: a seemingly calm, yet enraged and rejected boyfriend, and their manager, who had the duty of keeping everything calm in the room. “Where is she?” the boyfriend said again.
Mike shrugged. “I don’t know. Probably down by the boats.”
Mike would say later that he wasn’t really thinking when he mentioned the boats. He did apparently tell Butch that in the moment he responded, he felt his own sense of rejection by Tara—that she had tossed their friendship aside for Brian, a guy who had not paid his dues and waited out the disintegration of her previous relationship. Brian was not one of us—so why should Mike care if this boyfriend wanted to find him? But the moment he said the words and the boyfriend turned to leave, Mike regretted the statement. What difference did it make if she had chosen some other guy? It wasn’t fair to Tara. She had chosen Brian and that should have been the end of it.
The boyfriend left and Mike encouraged everyone to get back to work. He saw the boyfriend only once more as he stormed out of the park. Scott told us at dinner break that night that the boyfriend hauled ass right up to the boat ride. Brian stood at the control panel and Tara sat in a beige folding chair next to him. The whole interaction lasted maybe three minutes. Tara stood up when she saw the guy and tried to intercept him but he pushed past her. He went up to Brian and took a swing. Brian had probably seen it coming and managed to maneuver out of the way but not before he got in the way of the boyfriend’s feet. Brian tripped him and the guy went sprawling across the pavement in front of all these opened-mouthed kids going round and round on the boats. A couple people, Scott said—probably parents of the kids on the boats—even laughed when the boyfriend hit the ground. He said it was kind of comical: here goes this guy down to the ground to a soundtrack of oom-pah-pah music from the carousel across the midway. The boyfriend got to his feet, pushed Brian right in the chest, gave Tara this dead-eyed, angry look, and walked off.
The rest of it we had to surmise from the events that transpired after the fact. Tara came back to the concession stand and the only thing she said to Mike was, “Why did you tell him where I was?” She didn’t even wait for an answer. She walked down to the opposite end of the building, seated herself at the cotton candy machine and refused to speak to Mike the rest of the day. At that time, Mike didn’t know exactly what had happened and she wouldn’t tell him. When he tried to ask, she told him to stay out of her business. By dinner, Brian was no longer operating the boats. Management had received complaints and they asked him to leave the premises. One of the managers came in and grabbed one of the concession kids, a second year employee named Bridget, and sent her down to act as his replacement.
After dinner that night, we all went back to our respective jobs. After the rides shut down, we stationed ourselves in the usual spots in the employee parking lot right outside the concession stand. The atmosphere didn’t cheer any of us. They cleaned that place in near silence, only interrupted when Mike instructed someone where to mop, what to clean, how much soap and bleach to put in a bucket of hot water. Tara left immediately afterward, not bothering to say goodbye to Mike or any of the rest of us.
She never came back.
The rest of the summer dragged on. Bridget gained a permanent spot as the boat ride operator and management didn’t bother replacing Tara in the concession stand. Mike said it didn’t matter anyway—by mid-August the summer had started to wind down, the remaining picnics didn’t boast the crowds of those in June and July, and soon a lot of the employees would begin returning to school. Many of them had weekend commitments due to fall sports or band contests and by early September, Mike practically ran the concession stand by himself. Of all of us, he had the best chance of hearing from Tara. He reached out to her, he told us, a few times. He tried calling once or twice and wrote her several letters. She didn’t respond to any of it. Mike joined us on the tear down and clean-up crew when summer turned to fall. All that calliope music and laughter and the click-clack of the Hurricane lift track gave way to the sounds of leaf blowers and the whine of power tools as rides were disassembled for winter storage. By Halloween, the Ferris Wheel Tara and Brian had rode on the Fourth of July was nothing more than a silver steel skeleton. One by one, we too started to disappear as we moved on to college and left town. None of us said anything about it, but we knew we wouldn’t be back—as if Tara’s departure had lifted some spell she’d set upon us. Without her, Higgins Hollow lost its appeal. We found we didn’t have much to talk about anymore and years later, when we’d run into each other in the supermarket, at school reunions, or at the parties of some mutual friends, we’d dance around the subject—probing one another for knowledge on her whereabouts, her relationship with Brian, or even the fate of the boyfriend. None of us knew a thing. Tara and Brian disappeared together and would stay so in our minds, their love for one another encapsulated forever in that summer of 1996.
Guendelsberger is the author of the novel,An End to Something. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of literary magazines, including The Penman Review, Rougarou: A Journal of Arts and Literature, Oxford Magazine, and others. He holds a degree in Creative Writing from Miami University and currently resides in Cincinnati, Ohio.