David Alan Jones
I am braced by the sound of the wheel turning, its jangle hammering on the soft, early autumn air. With my hands pressed hard into the pockets of my plaid coat, I watch the wheel, spinning in the harsh glare of upright floodlights. It is a monster, filled with monsters, and so it makes a monstrous sound.
Sometime in late summer, no one bothered to mark the date, the fair rolled into town. Center of the freak show stage, the exotic dancers’ tent (shaped like a huge, red turban), and the hall of a thousand screams, a group of well-tanned and dirty laborers constructed a massive wheel. It was silver; thick aluminum, about the width of my arm, and the perfect length to accommodate a fifty gallon drum — the kind you see bums using to contain campfires in the city.
The fair never began. Oh, there was an opening night, but no one rode the carousel, or the bumper cars, or even the flax sack slide which had always been so popular with the children. Everyone was drawn to the wheel; young, old, and hammered. The mayor was there with his wife and kids. Satchel Browne from the firehouse stood nearby. Several boys from the coal mine slouched in a black-stained gaggle near the floodlights.
A geek appeared at the great wheel’s base. I say appeared, because he was not and then he was; a lank, thin man in a top hat and tails, his long white hair heavy on his spare shoulders.
“A goodly crowd we have tonight,” he said, without benefit of megaphone or loudspeaker. But we all heard him. “My name is Marcus Paid, and this is the wheel of Equipoise.”
“How’s it work?” asked the Mayor.
Paid smiled – his teeth were crooked, yellow things – and said, “Step close Mr. Mayor, and let me show you.”
“Have we met?” said the fat man.
Marcus Paid ignored him.
Two young men, both clad in overalls and nothing else, rolled a fifty gallon drum into the light. It was military green and looked heavy.
“The lid, if you would be so kind, Enos,” said Paid.
Enos, the larger of the two men, prised the lid off with a crowbar. Every eye in town was on that drum.
“The wheel isn’t a taker, it’s a giver,” said Paid, addressing the crowd, his eyes like two black spheres in his head.
He lifted a dress out of the drum, and I heard several women near me suck in their breaths. It looked to be silk, or perhaps moleskin, in the gathering darkness. It was purple and gold, its sleeves pricked with pearls, and its long skirts adorned with pleats.
“It was a favored thing, this dress,” said Paid, showing those hideous teeth once more. “But the woman who owned this pretty ornament was a sad creature indeed. She had no want for material things, but her heart was empty as a well gone dry. Much like many of you.”
Paid’s last words hung on the air — or perhaps on our ears — creeping round our collective thoughts. And the longer he was silent, the more I knew he was right.
“This dress was her pride. It was the mark of her station — her place above the masses. While she dined in solemn luxury, her neighbors starved. The day she gave this dress to the wheel, was the day she found true happiness. Now she is light. Now she is the same.”
“Sir, I’ll have you know we don’t allow scams in our town. You may take us for rubes, but we have the might of law on our side,” said the Mayor, trying to bluster over Paid’s incontrovertible words.
“Give me your ring, Mayor. Put it in the drum. If you don’t feel immediately lightened of your high station; if you don’t realize in that very instant that we are all the same, then I’ll return the ring to you. I’m promising you communion with your fellow man. Or do you think yourself so great compared to the common folk that you won’t share in their plight?”
I wasn’t sure what “plight” Paid meant, but I felt it all the same. The Mayor was being a stuffed pants bill grubber.
The crowd started to murmur, and the Mayor looked nervous.
“Alright,” he said, pulling a thick gold ring off his thick short finger. We all knew that it was an academy ring, but I can’t remember which academy. No one does, not even the mayor.
He dropped the ring in the drum and the young men sealed it up with the dress under the watchful eyes of Marcus Paid.
When they hoisted the drum onto the wheel I could hear other things, some metal, some paper, rattling inside. Even then I didn’t wonder what those things were. It didn’t matter.
With braided horse rope they secured the drum to the inside of the wheel’s arching form. When it was done, Marcus Paid pulled a lever on the wheel’s base, and the behemoth began to spin.
It was a slow thing, moving the little drum the way an elephant might move a tick on its sagging belly. We watched as the drum rolled up one side, across the upper curve (so like a slate sky), down the other side, and then back near to our humble place on the earth.
When the drum was even again, when it lay with its bottom facing our Mayor, Paid touched his arm and said, “Do you want the ring back, Morty?”
“No, sir,” said the Mayor, his voice not so much sound as air seeping from his guts. He whispered something, but none of us could hear.
Paid leaned close, then turned, smiling at the crowd. “He wants to go home and get his bowling ball for the wheel.”
We cheered. Our mayor had conquered his vice. It wasn’t something anyone said; nothing we discussed later that night over coffee and cake. It just was.
And so the town lined up. Paid had no end of fifty gallon drums, and the wheel seemed like a voracious beast ready to eat up our pride like maggots on infection.
That night I was number thirty in line. I put my lucky quarter and a twenty dollar bill of no significance into an off-white drum. I’ve never had much to speak of, but money has always been my vice.
Days and weeks have come and gone. The fair is still in town, though it was scheduled to move out just two weeks after it arrived. Everyday we gather at the wheel, watching it turn afternoon into night into morning. It’s finally filling up, as our good townsfolk empty out their prideful lives into the wheel’s ready circle.
Yesterday the Ingles put their daughter, Maryanne, into a yellow drum. She was sleeping.
A beautiful girl, that Maryanne; her parents’ greatest pride. I remember my own mother commenting once how she wished she’d had a little girl so pretty, with long golden hair, dimples, and striking blue eyes. Maryanne cried for quite a few hours, but she’s stopped now. I guess those drums are airtight.