When I was ten, a catalogue arrived in the mail, the first thing I remember receiving outside of dull blue birthday cards from distant family members. It was called 100 Projects For Boys Ages 8-13. I read it cover to cover, flipping each page with trembling, mosquito-bitten fingers.
All the boys in the neighborhood who had gotten the catalogue got together at the center park, a green space with a slide and sandbox near the middle of our neighborhood. We discussed the various projects and decided that this was the right summer to build ourselves a roller coaster.
One boy, Simon Bitters, who wore thick glasses and had a birthmark on his cheek, said that we could never build a roller coaster because we could never agree on whose yard to build it in, and would fight over who would get to use it first. He thought we should all save up to buy go-karts and minibikes instead. He argued that those, at least, could be kept at our own houses. He proposed we form a neighborhood-wide kart club.
No one liked Simon Bitters, and we laughed away his doubts. We took a vote right then and there to build the thing in Jakey Flaurent’s backyard, which sure irked Simon. Everyone liked Jakey just about exactly as much as they didn’t like Simon. Jakey’s mom and dad let him have a pellet gun with which he could coolly shoot down a robin on a phone line half a block away. Jakey’s dad bought him a tall, round swimming pool, and his mom served us big tumblers of Kool-Aid and grilled franks whenever we would all come to swim. Simon couldn’t swim because he had tubes in his ears and he was sensitive to the sun. “Guys,” he would always say when we decided to go swim, “the sun could literally kill me!”
“Shut up, Simon,” we would say, then would each give him a shove as we ran to get our swimsuits.
When he got on his bike and pedaled away from our meeting in the park, we could see that he was fuming. We could hear him mumbling under his breath like he always did. Simon was always complaining about something. We were all just about sick of it. Anyway, his folks always talked to each other in Dutch and his house smelled like boiled cabbage even when his mom wasn’t cooking it.
Just to be a sport and show everyone how much he liked the idea, Jakey sent away for the plan book for the roller coaster that very afternoon at his own expense. He swore to us that our roller coaster would be better than anything they ever had at the old fairground. We had an impromptu round of applause for Jakey. It was a big day for all of us.
The next step, we figured, would be to start putting the money together for the parts of the roller coaster. Those of us who already walked paper routes bugged the delivery centers to give us an extra street. The rest of us dug old mowers and hedge clippers out of the backs of garages and took them door to door offering cheap mows and trims. We worked cheaper than any lawn crew ever would, and people seemed to like that. Within about a few days we had hand-shaken our way into a summer-long agreement for weekly yard maintenance for every house within sixteen blocks.
We saved like crazy, asked our folks for receipts with birthday presents, hoarded anything we got from first communions, bar mitzvahs. Every penny went toward the roller coaster fund.
As we dampened our backs and fried our faces under the summer sun, garden-weeding, sidewalk-edging, we talked about the coaster names whispered fearfully by other kids at summer camps. We recounted tales from kids at youth groups who described distant amusement parks. Star attractions like The Comet, The Fastball, and The Blue Streak were on our minds. One boy, Chuck O’Steen, said he had been on a coaster over at the Big Lake Park called “The Raging Wolf.” We all nodded our heads at that one. It was a wild name.
Nearly all of us had pocket-sized notebooks with a running list of killer names for our coaster, notebooks we kept closely guarded for fear of our ideas getting out to the big coaster manufacturers. If they had spies, they’d be looking for kids like us, who longed to create their own fearful drops and twisted turns.
That fall, we returned to school, and our textbook margins began to fill with winding track spirals, huge swooping hills, loop-the-loops, banked race-car break-necks. We raked leaves and collected cash. We waited for our instructions to arrive in the mail, the plan book, our marching orders.
When the book finally came, it was late October, and we had just finished our winter plan for driveway shoveling. We gathered again, all of us boys, and Jakey brought out the plans in a big brown envelope. He told us that his dad, who was a well-liked private contractor in the area, had gone over the plans and had determined how much we would need to build our coaster. We tallied our individual sums on fingers and scraps of paper. If we pushed hard through Christmas, Hanukkah, and the huge snowbanks that would soon block neighborhood driveways, we figured we might just make it by the first warm days of the spring.
We could feel the roller coaster, could see it on the horizon just about to come into view.
Just after Christmas there was a rumor that Alex Fratelli had gotten a new bike as a present. Some of us boys didn’t think this was such a big deal, but many figured we should ask him about it anyway.
“How come you got a bike, Alex?”
“Why didn’t you ask for money like the rest of us, Alex?”
“Aren’t you serious about the roller coaster, Alex?”
Alex said he had asked for money, but his mother had insisted on the bicycle because she had to pick up more shifts at the Laundro-Matic and couldn’t pick him up from school anymore. He said that the bicycle was a cheap one from the second-hand bike shop.
Some of the boys thought his story sounded suspicious, and told him so.
Alex told us that if that was how we felt, we could take our damned roller coaster and go straight to hell.
We all felt that Alex was way out of line in saying that.
Jakey said that he, for one, wasn’t so sorry to see Alex Fratelli off the project. He hadn’t been pulling his weight on saving up money from the beginning, and his part wouldn’t be too hard to make up. Anyway, why should greedy old Alex Fratelli get to ride a Schwinn 10-speed while the rest of us saved so very diligently?
Naturally, everyone agreed.
When the last snows began to fade from the grey and freshly cracked pavement, we took an informal poll of our collective savings. We were close. We brought all the money together at Jakey’s place and each stacked our piles on the coffee table in his living room.
Jakey sat at the center of the couch and counted the lot dollar by dollar. When he was done, he sat quietly for a moment with his eyes closed, thinking. He announced the total.
We held our breath, staring face to the next face, the chill from the open window penetrating through to our blood. We were short. We had done so much, but we were still short.
We weren’t going to make it.
Before anyone had a chance to really panic, Jakey stood straight up and announced that he would speak to his father.
The lot of us gathered there in that living room sat silently, our teeth locked down, eyes wandering aimlessly from face to face. There were worst case scenarios out there beyond our thoughts, and none of us wanted to let them creep in and drain our hope. So we stayed still.
After what felt like an hour, Jakey strode back into the room with a very serious look on his face, and cleared his throat.
He addressed us directly and said that he had an announcement. His father, who was, as we all knew, well-liked in the local construction and contracting world, had many contacts for hardware and supplies. With his discounts, there was a chance that what we had would be enough.
We cheered for Jakey then, we cheered and whooped and shook hands, just to try it. We had done it. By God, we had done it.
Once again we gave Jakey a round of applause, and even gave him three-cheers, something we had seen our parents do between cocktails at promotion parties and 80th birthdays for treasured great aunts.
Three cheers for Jakey. Hip-hip-hooray!
We collected the money in a shoebox, stacking it carefully inside, and closed the lid so that it might be handed over to Jakey’s father. The hours and hours of our hard labor, the toiling, the slaving away was all a memory. It was time to see the roller coaster come to life, and we were ready.
The morning construction was supposed to start many of us drank our first brown tastes of coffee watching sunlight peek through shades into breakfast nooks and dining rooms. We had long days ahead of us, sure, but the thin morning light held no pain.
Each of us boys turned up to Jakey’s house with tools borrowed from our fathers, too-big tool belts cinched to extremes around our waists. In the backyard, beyond the fence, Jakey was dressed in steel-toed boots and a yellow hardhat bearing the name of his father’s contracting company, “Red-E Contractors.” The “E” was large and was indeed red. Across the grass were surveying stakes bow-tied with red ribbons denoting where our coaster would stand, and as we gathered near the back porch picnic tables, Jakey’s dad stood up and motioned for all in attendance to be quiet. We boys hushed up, and after a moment, Jakey’s dad’s friends quieted down too. Jakey’s dad took a big drink from his beer, then wiped his mouth and belched. We giggled at that.
“On this… ostentatious day of my boy… Jakey… his first erection. His first construction job, I just want to say something,” he said, taking another drink of his beer. “Goddammit boy, I’m am just so proud of you, and.” He took another drink and spilled a little on his button down shirt. “You kids are gonna build one hell of a fuckin’ roller… whatcha… thing.” He coughed. “Jakey!” he said a little louder, “I’m fuckin’ proud of you Jakey, my little fuckin’ man! My boy!”
Jakey’s mom pressed on his dad’s shoulder and said something quietly into his ear, but he shrugged out from under her hand.
“No!” He whispered it through his teeth, a loud whisper we could all hear. “I’m just tryin’ to tell Jakey how goddamned proud I am, goddammit, so just hold the fuck on!”
Jakey’s mom turned pretty red and she turned and walked straight inside, hurling the huge sliding glass door open as she passed. She closed it kind of hard behind her.
Jakey’s dad belched again, although it wasn’t as funny this time, and then mumbled something about us getting to work, which we all agreed was probably a good idea at this point.
Jakey organized us into teams to get things started. Some of us were set to post hole digging with an array of shovels. Some of us went to the track assembly area and were given hammers, nails, and big screws with bolts. The rest of us he put on the creative team. He gave us markers and paper and told us to come up with a finalized name for the coaster, then make a sign for the thing.
Most of us couldn’t believe how much lumber, and metal, tie bands, and boxes of screws and nails there were piled up in Jakey’s backyard. To our eyes it was like pirate loot. A stockpile of treasure. We dove in, driving nails into wood, digging out patches of dirt where support posts would go, and measuring slats for sawing by the bigger kids. It wasn’t easy, any of it. We had splinters, and smacked fingers, a few cuts, but we kept going, and not one of us cried.
Once or twice one of Jakey’s dad’s friends would come over from the picnic table and show everyone something about building. One man would show how drilling a small pilot hole would help line a screw up. Another would show how to hold a bolt top with a wrench while ratcheting a nut down to the washer against the wood. I learned how to use a planer, an electric sander, and how to use the hammer’s weight to drive a nail.
Around noon the creative team came over to show us the sign they had come up with. It was painted sparkling gold, blood red, and an explosion of blue at the middle. It read in giant orange letters (a little crooked) “The Big Boom!”
The rest of us studied it for a minute, everyone keeping really quiet. Then a few people started asking questions.
“The Big Boom?”
“Why did you have to use so much gold paint?”
“Why is the explosion blue?”
Jerry Kowalski, who was the closest thing to an artist any of us knew, explained their process. He told us how some of the creative team felt that since it was a big project, the biggest any of us had ever done, the name should have “big” in it. Then someone had suggested that it was like the Big Bang from science class. But, Jerry explained, the rest of the creative team felt that sounded too nerdy, and we didn’t want anyone to think we were a pack of nerds, so in the end they had taken a vote between The Big Bomb, The Big Boom, and The Big Project, which he was completely against.
We boys discussed the sign amongst ourselves, unsure of what we collectively thought of what they had come up with, until we heard Jakey say, “Well, I think it sucks ass.”
Jerry looked him straight in the eye from where he was standing with the creative team and said “Well I think you suck ass.” And with that, Jakey stormed into the house.
At first we weren’t sure what to do with Jakey gone. His dad was asleep at the picnic table and most of his friends had gone once the beer and soda cooler was empty. Someone suggested that we call it a day given everything that had happened. The rest of us agreed that it was probably alright. After all, we had gotten quite a few posts in the ground. A few sections of track formed up nicely. We had a name, at least.
Over the next few weekends we worked sweaty days and shop-lit nights behind the Flaurent’s house, at first filling in post holes with quick mix cement poured from a wheelbarrow, then finishing track assembly. We learned how to curve wood by wetting it and weighing it over guide pieces. We learned what a mitre saw was and how to use one. We learned how to identify different types of screws and how their shapes matched their functions.
After the first weekend, Simon showed up, an old carpenter’s hammer in his hand and a measuring tape on his belt. No one said anything about it. Another set of hands was useful, even if they were Simon’s. He set to work beside us as we sawed into plywood with carefully snapped blue chalk lines, big sawhorses spread out with a boy on either side catching and stacking the new shapes as they fell away from the whole.
All the while, just to the side of us, our roller coaster was taking shape, the physical manifestation of months covered in grass clippings, waist deep in snow banks. Most of us kept our eyes down, though, afraid to look at it. To look at it was to take it in, and you couldn’t take it in. It embodied too much, the form beginning to solidify behind the Flaurent’s house, the nights on our beds counting nickels and pennies, drawing little renditions of our favorite roller coasters from our exhausted dreams in damp summer sheets.
By now we had annexed Mrs. Flaurent’s garden, which she didn’t seem to mind so much, and had integrated Mr. Flaurent’s shed as a high place to start the coaster. When we reached the fence at the back of the Flaurent’s yard with one meandering section of the track, we hopped over and bargained with Mrs. Jenkins next door for the use of the yard. She agreed that it was alright as long as we promised to mow around the support beams and not leave any garbage back there. We built across the fence, back over, past the shrubbery in the back corner and over into the empty lot on the far side, through the fence alley around the way, and down to the end of the garage, before circling back. There were two hills with motorized bicycle chains that clunked the car upward and over the hill, dragging it with an old big-toothed gear we bolted into place. The boys who dared to look at the contraption said it was magnificent.
Some of the boys said their parents were taking notice, praising how they were learning useful skills, putting in some hard work, seeing a project through.
Finally, just in time for the beginning of July, we were ready to lay the last section of the track, one of the swoops at the bottom of the first hill. Some of us arrived early to help pry the wooden rails into place, and to plane the connection by hand to smooth the transition.
And all at once The Big Boom was complete. Our roller coaster was complete. It was done, and before the Fourth. Jakey told us to wait just one second, and disappeared into the door on the side of the garage. A moment later he came out holding a moist brown bottle of beer straight from his dad’s fridge. He walked straight up to the section of rail we had just laid in, and held the bottle up above his head. When he smashed it against the wood, beer and glass trickled down to the grass beneath, glinting in the sunlight. He turned around smiling. It was official. Our roller coaster was finished.
We stepped back and finally took the whole thing in, no longer wary of seeing a rough collection of plank, nails, screws, and various cuts of sheet metal. We wanted to take in this whole massive thing we had created, and we stared fully at it, breathing slowly.
“That’s it?” Someone at the back of the group said it. We never found out who.
True, it was smaller than our biggest imaginings, squatter than what we might have dreamed about. Many of us, though, knew in our hearts just how exciting it would be to ride, whatever its size.
“Well, who’s gonna test it?” asked Jakey, arms on his waist, his construction helmet slightly askew.
No one spoke up. The Big Boom might not have been huge, but it was still a roller coaster. It was still meant to thrill and terrorize.
“Come on, pussies, someone has to test it,” said Jakey. He tapped his foot, indicating that he was waiting. Finally, he jabbed his finger at someone. That someone was Simon, who shook his head violently from side to side, trying to scoot to the back of the crowd.
Jakey, anticipating this move, started chanting “Simon… Simon… Simon… Simon.” Some of the rest of us joined in, too. Someone shoved Simon toward the coaster and he looked back at us as if to plead for our sympathy. We just kept on chanting. So Simon, bravely as he could, stepped forward to the ladder and climbed into the car. We belted him in with the old seatbelt Jakey’s dad had picked up at Rinker’s Junkyard when the money was running low. We checked that the bolts holding the seat down were tight, that the nails in the fiber board exterior of the car were pounded in, and found only a few were bent over. Everything looked as good as it was going to get. And then it was time. Jakey started the countdown.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2…………. 1!
We shoved the car forward and it latched to the chain, bumping heavily up the hill, rocking forward and backward, Simon jolting along with the shocks, ascending. When it reached the halfway point, Simon turned his head to look to the side, not toward us, but toward what must have been the horizon, the distance, checking the height of the ascent. Turning forward again, he clutched at the sides of the car with his hands, fingers going red, then whitening with the force of his grip. As the car reached the end of the chain, deposited at the crest, Simon’s eyes went wide. He sat perfectly still as the car clunked once more, crept the few inches forward to the drop-off, then slipped silently forward, downward.
The car pushed toward the crook of the hill, gaining speed, and as it did, gaining sound, the sound of a thousand roller skaters thrashing the sidewalk, the bump of a train crushing trestles into the gravel, a whoosh of speed just at the edge of our hearing. Simon, weightless, windswept, shrieked a hellscream until his yowl was cut off by the sharp ascent up the first hump of track. In that instant Simon’s eyes glowed with what might have been astronaut pleasure, the shadow of the unknown world of antigravity. The car slipped up the hill like a feral animal while red-faced Simon was pressed back into the seat, his eyes glued to the approaching hilltop.
Upward, upward he rolled, metal wheels creaking, rail grinding, a spark or two spitting from beneath the car. The wood of the construction flexed weirdly in places, settling, extending, smacking. Simon, his blue t-shirt caught up in the speed of his ascent, pressed back against his skinny frame, held in his chest a deep breath, knuckling down on the handholds. Simon rose up, up, up, and at the top of the track the car soared free of the rail, upward, upward. He continued on, loose from the bonds of the earth, his face a mask of serenity. He soared upward, rising above even the eaves of the house. The wheels of the car spun crazily, unrestrained by track or weight, whirring out a metallic hum. Simon and the car reached their apex eye-level with the chimney of Jakey’s house and hung there in the air. They passed in front of the sun, a blinding corona around the car and Simon, yet not one of us took our eyes from him. Then Simon and his chariot changed direction and plummeted to the grass.
When the ambulance got there, Jakey was in his room and we could hear his dad yelling in another part of the house. His mom was helping the ambulance crew however she could, phoning parents, making sure everyone was alright. We heard a paramedic say “broken arm; wrist.” We heard “fractured coccyx.” We didn’t know what a coccyx was, but we knew what it sounded like when it broke. We knew it must have hurt like crazy. Simon had screamed like hell until the ambulance got there, and we had all just stood and watched.
So, we veterans of the roller coaster project went on to celebrate Independence Day with lead in our hearts, a fresh failure. For many of us it was the first of what we assumed would be many disappointments. A life lived from screwup to screwup seemed dingy and grey, yet we were resigned to it. It was our fate. Barbecues, ice chest-cold sodas, and bright explosions in the sky did not lift our spirits.
We heard that Jakey’s parents were getting divorced. These rumors get around when the weather is hot. Some of us knew how that felt, though some of us didn’t. Someone said that we should try to fix whatever had gone wrong with the coaster, and some of us agreed that we ought to since it was our coaster after all. Some of us figured it was our right considering the hard work we had done, all the hours planning, saving, and building.
I didn’t go, but the boys that did said that Jakey was just sitting in the broken car in the grass, and that he shot at them with his pellet gun when they told him they wanted to try to fix the coaster.
I spent the rest of the summer building a model airplane with a real combustion engine. It had a custom blue and green paint job, and little ailerons and stabilizers that adjusted to wind levels. It had tiny, inflated rubber tires, and it sputtered to miniature life when you primed the motor.
I took it to the old fairground to try it out. The trees had turned wild around the clearing where the fair used to be. They had grown thick and shadowy.
I launched it from the where the last rusty metal bars of the Ferris wheel lay. It flew down, way down the green space, past the bumper car building, past the concession stand where the fire had started, over the tree line. It winged out over the forest, and off to where I could no longer see it.
Jared is the host of the Functionally Literate reading series. His fiction has appeared in decomP, Monkeybicycle, Bridge Eight, Digital Americana Magazine, and in Fantastic Floridas. He was the recipient of a Luso American scholarship from the DISQUIET International Literary Conference in 2013, and received his MFA in Creative Writing in 2014. You can find out more about Jared’s work at jaredsilvia.com.
Header Image: Creative Commons, photo by Chilly Chill.