a short story

by Jeanette Castillo




            Oscar Mead was doing his daily grocery shopping.  He moved slowly down the aisles, his cane in one hand and a red plastic shopping caddy in the other.  When he saw something he wanted, he would stop and bend over slightly, moving his eyes behind their thick lenses to within inches of the label, reading carefully.  He very seldom bought anything that he hadn't bought before, it was just a habit.

            Oscar could not be called old-fashioned in his purchases, however.  He ate only packaged foods.  He ate spagettios and frozen dinners and frozen waffles.  He ate oatmeal that came in little bags, and just added boiling water.  He occasionally bought a value-pak of Twinkies.  He liked convenient food.  He had all the time in the world to cook, but standing in the kitchen chopping vegetables made him feel silly.  He shopped every day because he had the time, and like he told his son, "Food goes bad pretty quick with only one around to eat it, and I hate committing myself to eating something days ahead of time.  I like to go out every day and choose what I'm going to eat, like a lion on the prowl.  One day it might be a zebra, one day a wild turkey."

            His son had to laugh at that, and throw up his hands in resignation.

            Now Oscar was choosing his birthday dinner.  He had a pre-cut slab of watermelon and a pint of macaroni salad.  He stopped in front of the potato chips, and selected a small bag of Chili Cheese Fritos.  One thing he liked about false teeth, he could eat things that used to rip the roof of his mouth to shreds. Next he picked up a box of Hostess Chocolate Cupcakes, the kind with the little white swirl on top.  They had a sweet creamy center.  As he was bending over to read the label, Oscar wondered if people actually made the little swirl, or if a machine did it. He decided it was done by machine.  Imagine all the people it would take!

            Oscar had been a university professor up until five years before.  But once you are a university professor for that long, you are a professor until you die.  Oscar actually retired at age sixty-five, but then the History department brought him back as an emeriti, to lecture twice a week.  His students still called him all the time for advice.  Many of them were teaching at prestigious universities across the country.  They still called him "professor".  The woman who came to clean his house twice a week always called him "professor".  He had been a specialist in French History, and the great love of his life, other than his late wife, Gwen, was Napoleon Bonaparte.

            Not that Oscar had ever dreamed of being a dictator himself.  He was not a man of strong will.  He had always been rather malleable, and his students, university administrators, and family took advantage of this.  He went along with everyone, just trying to get a few more minutes to think about things.  Now eight decades had gone by and he was standing at the checkout counter, cane over his arm, reaching for a bag of gummy bears.  When it was his turn to pay he used cash, like always, and called the cashier by name, and asked about her children.

            On the way home Oscar thought about how it was his birthday, and wondered if he should do something special to commemorate it. He wondered what was on tv.  He thought about taking his groceries home and heading to the library, but he had two books at home he hadn't read yet, and reading was something he did all the time anyway, and so contained no novelty.  Somehow he felt he should do something unusual today. He parked his ancient Dodge Dart in the carport assigned to his condo and rolled up his window.  April 14th, and it was already hot.  That's what he got for living in the desert.  At least there wasn't any humidity, and the air conditioning was on inside.

            As he put his groceries away, all except for the macaroni salad, which he opened and set on the counter with a spoon, Oscar decided that he really did want to do something out of the ordinary today.  Something that would surprise his son, and make his daughter-in-law smile and turn her head away, hiding her mouth with her hand.  He wanted one more memory.  He took his salad and sat in his favorite chair. The phone rang.  It was his son, Louis.

            "Hey, happy birthday pops!"

            "Thank you."

            "Wow.  I can't believe you're eighty."

            "Well, son, how old are you now?"

            "You know.  I'm fifty-four." 

            "Now that's hard to believe."

            "So can Jill and I come over, Dad?  She made you a cake. We'll take you out to dinner."

            Here Oscar paused.  But this was the same phone conversation they had every year.  Every year he was taken to dinner, and although he hated to think of disappointing Jill, he said, "No thanks.  Can we do it tomorrow night?  A kind of belated celebration?"

            "Sure, Dad."  Louis sounded puzzled.  "Are you okay?  Are you feeling ill?"

            "No, no, not at all."  Oscar laughed for a moment, suddenly realizing what he wanted to do.  "I'm just feeling... contemplative.  I'm really fine.   Is tomorrow okay?"

            "Sure Dad.  I guess I'll let you go now."

            "Fine.  Give Jill my love, and tell her I'll look forward to her cake."

            Oscar hung up, hoping Louis wouldn't spend the whole day worrying about him, but at the same time deciding he didn't really care.   They’d never really been close; their relationship was overly polite, with the professor refraining from any prying or offers of advice on Louis'  personal or professional life.  Louis had always run to his mother for that.  Oscar sometimes listened behind the door of his room as Gwen reassured their son.  She told him little stories about when his father was young, and they laughed together.  Oscar's illustrations always seemed to come from French history. He flushed with embarrassment, remembering lectures he had begun with "Now don't make the same mistake Napoleon did..."

            Oscar drove his Dart to the filling station, pulling into the full-serve island, paying for the fill-up and tipping the attendant exactly one dollar from the wad of cash he fished from the pocket of his jeans.  The attendant was a lovely young woman, even in her gas station uniform, and Oscar couldn't help asking her if she attended the university.  When she nodded yes, he said, rather stupidly he thought, "Keep up the good work".  She laughed and waved as he pulled away.  She probably thought he was a crazy old coot, with his long grey hair and bow tie, and the little flaps of dark lenses he had clipped onto his glasses.

            Oscar got on the freeway and headed south.  It only took about thirty minutes to get from his home to an amusement park he had seen advertised on television.  He paid to park, and stuck his handicapped placard in the window as he pulled into the very first row.  He didn't always use the placard, sometimes felt guilty for it.  After all, he wasn't in a wheelchair, but at times his left knee acted up so bad he could hardly get around, and the doctor had insisted he get it, even having his nurse fill out the paperwork.  Oscar’s deal with himself was that he would use the placard on bad days, on good ones he would walk.  Today was a good day, but he made an exception because it was his birthday, and because the parking lot was huge, and completely full, and the hoods and roofs of cars stretched out in the sun almost blinded him.

            He made his way to a tram stop where other people were waiting for a ride to the gate.  The young families stared at him as he climbed on the tram, amazed to see an old man, alone, entering an amusement park.  He thought of the two or three times he and Gwen had taken Louis to Disneyland, remembering how having a small child made him feel somehow free to approach the place as a child himself.

            That's what it was that made Oscar decide to come to the amusement park and ride a roller coaster.  When Louis said on the phone, "Are you feeling ill?" he suddenly remembered saying that to Louis.  He got a clear picture of himself, bending over Louis, unstrapping him from a roller coaster, both of their hair standing on end.  That was the last time Oscar had ridden a roller coaster.  Now he was here to do it again, in honor of his eightieth birthday.

            He got the senior citizen discount at the ticket booth without even asking for it, but still the prices seemed steep. Not that he didn't have enough cash on him, but he looked at the families lined up beside him, totalling their cost in his head, and wondered how they could ever afford it.   The man and woman next to him had four children and paid close to two hundred dollars just to walk inside.

            Oscar was shaking his head as he entered the park.  A teenage boy with a camera suddenly jumped into his path and prepared to take his picture.  But then he saw Oscar was alone, not with the family of six that had come in behind him, children bouncing, dragging parents by the fingers.  The photographer moved quickly and snapped their picture, handing them a card.  "The pictures aren't free," he said, "but you can go look at them at this location in a couple hours."  The parents smiled wanly and led their excited brood away.

            For the first two hours Oscar just ate.  He ate churros and drank fresh-squeezed lemonade.  He had fried chicken, and a slice of pizza, and cotton candy. He walked around.  He couldn't believe how many roller coasters there were in the park.  There were roller coasters that did loops, there were roller coasters that ran on a track with cars suspended below.  Oscar stood with his mouth open, fascinated by the forces that caused the screaming riders to swing wide over the corners, turning them almost upside-down.  He saw a handful of coins drop out of someone's pocket.  Another way to shake money out of you, he thought, remembering the obscene amount he had spent on his eating spree.  The fluff of cotton candy in his hand had cost him two-fifty.

            He passed a coaster that looked like the roller coasters he remembered as a child.  It looked like a huge wooden spider web.   He saw a coaster that consisted of logs that floated around in little troughs of water.  At the end the logs fell down a huge hill, drenching everyone inside.  Oscar didn't want to get wet.  He kept walking.  He saw a sign that said COBRA with an arrow, and he started walking in that direction.  He passed underneath one of the troughs, and heard the screaming log riders above.  A drop of water splattered onto his head and sank into his scalp.  It felt incredibly cold on his overheated skin.

            Pretty soon he was staring at the biggest roller coaster he had ever seen.  It was the Cobra.  Instead of the wooden structure of a old-fashioned coaster, the Cobra was made up of unbelievably twisted steel tracks, with a support system that had maybe twenty percent of the number of beams that held up the wooden ride.  Oscar whistled under his breath.  The tracks made loops and turns that seemed impossible, and he watched a group of riders, strapped in by an elaborate shoulder harness system, go through three loops in rapid succession.  Oscar got in line.

            The line was longer than it looked, because wooden handrails set in a serpentine fashion herded people toward the boarding area.  But it was shady, and little nozzles sprayed mist over the waiting crowd.  Nice touch, Oscar thought, until one of them squirted him right in the eye.  As he moved back and forth with the line he kept noticing a little boy who stopped to stare at him every time he passed.  Oscar smiled at him, a smile he hoped was a scary old man smile, but it only encouraged the little varmint.

            The next time they passed, the little boy said, "Are you scared to ride the Cobra."  Oscar shook his head yes, and smiled, not trying to be scary this time.

            The line was about an hour long, but it seemed like in no time it was Oscar's turn to get on.  Another teenager was helping people get fastened in.  He looked at Oscar skeptically.  "Did you see the sign?" he asked, pointing.

            Oscar read it out loud.  "You should not ride the Cobra if you are pregnant, have a nervous condition, heart trouble or a bad back.  You must be this tall to ride."  There was a line underneath the last sentence.

            "I'm that tall," Oscar said.  "I don't have heart trouble, or a nervous condition.  I'm not pregnant as far as I know, and I don't have a bad back.  Can you hold my cane?"

            The teenager took his cane, mumbling something about not being responsible.  Two women got into the other two seats next to Oscar and the kid locked them in with the shoulder harness. The women were making subdued squealing noises already, clutching each other's forearms with beautifully manicured nails.  As he studied them he realized that they were squealing not in fear, but in anticipation.  He turned to the one next to him, a pretty blonde in a tank top, her face carefully made up, and asked "You've done this before?"

            "Yes."  It was the brunette who answered his question.  She seemed equally pretty to Oscar.  She looked a little like Gwen. Her hair was long, and curved over her bare shoulders, glistening in the sun with red and gold highlights.  The blonde turned to him and said, "Your first time?"

            "Yes," he answered, thinking how bizarre and somehow natural it was to be strapped into this contraption with two lovely women.  They were older than university students, at least thirty.  The age when Napoleon believed he could conquer Europe. 

            The coaster was moving now, and Oscar looked down to see his white knuckles gripping the edges of his seat.  His two seatmates were holding their tanned arms in the air, shouting "here we go" like a couple of little kids.  That is how Gwen would be.  Too bad Louis was like him.  If he weren't so old he would be really afraid.  But even on the way over he had imagined headlines reading, 80 YEAR OLD MAN DIES OF EXCITEMENT ON ROLLER COASTER. The park owners would probably try to find a way to use it to promote their rides to thrill seekers.

            The first hill was endless.  When Oscar and the women reached the top, it seemed they were about to fly off into space, and for a brief moment, Oscar looked around and saw the whole amusement park, with its monolithic steel structures and minuscule revelers. He could even see beyond, over the dry valley and the brown mountains all around, that had always looked soft to him.  They looked like sleeping giants, and he noted with pleasure that they still bore some green, his birthday coincided with the short but surprisingly abundant desert spring. 

            They were going down now, faster than Oscar thought possible.  His long, wispy grey hair was flying out behind him. The two ladies still had their arms in the air, as did many of the people he could see in front of him.  He loosened his grip on his seat a little.  The coaster seemed to be in an uncontrolled free fall.  His heart felt like it was stopping.  He felt like his teeth wanted to come out.  He remembered riding the coaster with Louis now.  How Louis had screamed and begged to be let off the whole time, as if the whole coaster could just be stopped, at the top of a hill, on a hairpin turn, anywhere.  That was Louis' first time on a coaster, and the last time they went to an amusement park.  Gwen had been sympathetic, but Oscar had teased Louis unceasingly, making chicken noises and taunting him for his cowardice.  Now, on his eightieth birthday, he was having a near death experience on a roller coaster.  Why did I do this, he thought, as he saw the first of the three loops approaching.

            After the first loop, which made Oscar feel that his brain was sloshing around in his head, and his stomach was wringing itself out like a dishrag, the others got easier.  A couple more smaller hills, some very jerky sharp turns, and they were pulling into the station again.  The two ladies were laughing hysterically, screaming at the people waiting to get on as they got off, "You'll love it!  You'll love it!"

            Oscar wasn't sure he could get off, and he craned his neck around to look for his cane and the teenager who had taken it from him.  The ladies were standing off to the side, looking at him with concern.  The shoulder harness was off, but he couldn't get up.  The ladies offered their hands and he took them gratefully.  "Are you okay?"  they said, almost in unison.  He nodded his head silently, then threw up all over their stylish leather sandals.  He thought it would have been better to die on the coaster, but the ladies hid their revulsion well, making clucking noises.  One of them retrieved his cane, and together, they helped him down the stairs.  It felt strange to walk on the asphalt again, he couldn't get rid of the sensation of the ride. They sat him down between them on a bench.  One of the ladies pulled a wad of napkins out of her purse, handing him one to wipe his mouth.  Then she and her companion went to work on their sandals and feet.  He noticed with shame that the blond was wearing bits of the pizza he ate, and the brunette seemed to have chunks of churro between her toes.

            The brunette disappeared for a minute and came back with a glass of water to dip the napkins in.  "Can you believe they charged me for this?" she asked her friend.  The same price as a regular Coke."

            The blonde shook her head, then turned to Oscar.  "Are you going to be okay?"

            "I'm very very sorry," Oscar said, suddenly wanting to cry like a child.  I've ruined your shoes.  I'm just horrible."  Then he really began to cry.

            Both women immediately got tears in their eyes.  "Listen honey," the brunette said, "you can barf on my shoes anytime. You looked so cute riding the Cobra!"  The other one started laughing, and Oscar laughed too, through his tears.

            "You're very kind," he said.  "Today is my eightieth birthday, and I thought I wanted to ride a roller coaster, but now I think I should have just gone to dinner with my son.  If I haven't ruined your appetites for the rest of your life, I'd love to take the two of you to dinner."

            The women looked at each other and smiled.  "We have to be home when our kids get back from school," the brunette said, a little sheepishly.  "I know it seems wicked of us to come here without our kids, but they're too young to ride the good rides." The blonde laughed, and so did Oscar.  "How do you feel now?" they asked him, almost in unison again.

            "Fine," Oscar said, and meant it. 

            "Good," said the blonde, "Let's ride the Cobra again."

            But Oscar declined, and so the two ladies took him on some of the other coasters, and then they had to part ways.  It was time for school to let out. Oscar decided to leave too, and they went out to wait for the tram together.  When they got on, Oscar asked the conductor to make sure they would stop at the handicapped section.   The women looked at him in surprise, and then laughed.  They told him their names were Phyllis and Eva (Phyllis being the blonde), and that they came to the amusement park once a month, to ride the rides.  They told him what day they were coming the next month, in case he wanted to meet them there. He said maybe he would.