By Justus E. Taylor

2,605 Words

Copyright 1991 by Justus E. Taylor

spaceThe mile-long walk from his new, asbestos-free, high school over to the Fair Grounds in Ravena took Rafael only twelve minutes, because he was excited. The annual carnival in this rural Upstate New York village was one of the few stimulating things that had punctuated each of his sixteen years; like buoys in an ocean of stagnating routine that he always wanted to "fast forward." The prospect of hanging out at the carnival had turned his classes from boring to unbearable, so he had cut his last period, which was only a phys-ed class anyway, he protested to himself. Now blaring music and canned laughter pushed him along the narrow sawdust lanes, between the water gun and dog races, the coin pitching, the dart tossing, the kiddie rides, while he eyed the nurturing breasts and stout rear ends that country summer women carried. And every so often, between the times when his blood seemingly shot up, geyser-like, to set his brain dancing, he remembered his deceased father, dead just before Christmas the year before, and all that he was missing.

spaceHe often thought of his father, a veteran of thirty-seven years as a meter reader for the electric company, always with his head plunged deep into some adventure story, completely undistractable by his wife or any of his seven children. And then he had died all of a sudden, his heart attacking him, probably for never doing anything interesting, Rafael dared to think, and the heart had left his father completely dead within one hour. What was the last story he had been reading? Can't remember, but it surely wasn't about being stuck in this small town.

space"Step right up young man, ha ha, c'mon, c'mon," the words were so loud they seemed to be exploding right inside his ears, and Rafael was jerked out of his reverie. At first he hardly believed it but right there in front of a tent was a real carnival barker, straw hat, red vest, black pants and red arm-garters, holding up the cuffs of his white shirt. He waved a bamboo cane in the air to stress his teasing invitations and around his neck hung several large pendants on gold chains. One pendant bore the numbers 666, and another said aerobic exorcises, while the third was hidden by the other two. "C'mon, the biggest thrill of your life. I, Little John the Conqueroo does gayrontee you. C'mon in young man. Tell me, what did the thief steal on Dragnet? Why just the fax, man! Yeah! Ha ha ha. Step right inside. What did Dolly Parton say when they asked for a good money investment ... that's right, she put her hands under her tits and said 'cee dees? Yeah man, get it, ha ha ha." As he hit the punch lines, the barker pressed a switch in his left hand and a recorded drum sounded rim shots and then a bass thud, while an electronic audience leaped out of a loudspeaker with uproarious laughter," ho, ho, ha ha ha!"

spaceRafael was drawn in just like iron filings to a magnet. In an instant he was standing right inside the flaps of the tent, in front of a ticket booth that had an incredible sign that said "ten cents." The booth attendant was a big fat lady who had a Santa Claus beard and wore a red tasseled cap with a marcasite pin of a serpent affixed near its top. As Rafael pushed a dime forward to her he couldn't help smiling, actually fearful that he was failing to see some other sign that must have said at least two dollars. But she simply looked back at him with a sneer, accepted his offering and pointed him farther into the interior. He immediately encountered two immense mechanical contraptions that resembled slot machines; one blue and one pink. The blue one was the most accessible and had a bucket seat attached to its front where he was able to seat himself. He noticed that the arms of the seat contained little metal sensors at the fingertip position, and while turning his head to get the feel of his surroundings, he saw that the pink machine was partially blocked off by several six foot high screens that stood on clawed feet. When he turned to face his machine again, a large circular coil of what appeared to be copper descended from above and encircled his head without actually touching him.

spaceRafael's attention was then seized by a sensation of his hair standing on end, as from a magnetic field around his head. Simultaneously, the contraption began a very low frequency hum that steadily rose in pitch until it momentarily hurt his ears but then passed into inaudible ultrasound. The part of the device that would have displayed the spinning apples, cherries and other fruits if it had really been a slot machine, instead lit up like a tv set. Three words appeared, filling the screen: "Dial A Life," and after a pause of more than ample reading time, the message: "press keyboard 'enter' for your choice." Rafael was then intrigued to see what appeared to be a menu of life styles, physical characteristics and occupations rolling down the screen before him. Intermittently spaced there was the word "other?"

space"So this is the big 'thrill,' Rafael bitched, "a chance to sit here and watch television!"

spaceEventually, as the seemingly limitless list of life choices, occupations and appearances rolled before his eyes, Rafael's curiosity overcame his disappointment and he began scrutinizing the list for some choice to experiment with. He was strongly tempted by "astronaut," but he let it pass, as he also did with "gangster, banker, heavyweight champ, porno star, fighter pilot," and so on. But he hit "enter" for "Super Bowl quarterback," even before he had consciously made a decision to do so. Instantly, his five-foot-nine, one-hundred-and-forty pound frame literally blew up and out and he actually became six-two, a hundred-and-ninety pounds, finely muscled, in the peak of condition. Fright and happiness fought for dominance in his mind as he looked at his new body, in uniform, on the football field! The stands are filled and his teammates were around him in a huddle.

space"Oh shit, this is the greatest feeling in the world." The thought kept spinning around in a foggy part of his mind as he played perfect football, leading his team to repeated touchdowns, without fumbles, interceptions, broken plays or even any penalties! The crowd roared for every move he made, and he knew he deserved it, because he was fantastic. But in the midst of an uproar that accompanied a thirty yard pass, while the ball was still in the air, the big machine dropped out of ultrasound, down through the range that hurt his ears, and the tv screen blinked off, and his hair lost the magnetism and the copper coil around his head rose away to the ceiling. He was left with his nerves tingling, his whole body soaked in sweat, while his eyes stared so hard at the tv screen that they seemed to try and pierce it and find the football field within.

spaceAt first came a numbness, then painful nausea, cold sweating, depression and a trembling in those fingers which only moments before had been throwing those perfect passes. And he was five-foot-nine again!

spaceRafael believed right through to his very soul that he had been that Super Bowl quarterback. He had lived it as real as he had felt when he had beaten up the nerd at school, or when he had his sexual initiation with Lois Mandrake. But now he was so empty. There seemed to be nothing holding his parts together, as if he was about to fly apart like a shotgunned clay pigeon. He bounced up and down violently in the bucket seat, and banged his fists on the seat's arms, desperate to trigger the machine back into life. After moments that were escalating into panic, the tv screen lit up again, the copper coil descended and the hum spiraled through pitches till it hurt his ears a little, and then it became inaudible. The menu of lives rolled on the screen again, but this time suggesting entirely different life experiences, but always interspersed that "other" category as before.

spaceAt first Rafael was almost violently annoyed. Where was that football game, his team, the Super Bowl? However, soon he had been distracted by the many tantalizing possibilities tumbling endlessly before him. Again, he hit "enter" without first forming an intention to do so, as soon as his eyes perceived the words, "rock star." This time the reality was even more intense, but also seemed to last only half of the time that he had been a Super Bowl star. And the damned machine then shut down at the very instant that he was naked and climbing into bed with the third groupie who had forced herself on him that same night. And while his virility could have matched that of a desert island castaway! He yelled and kicked the bedeviling device as the screen went dark , repeatedly lifting himself several feet out of his seat and flopping back as though he weighed three hundred pounds. He suffered the aches in his thighs and groin that had dogged him at puberty , and exactly as it had been at that time,he was insane for a sexual release!

spaceAfter a pause that seemed twice as long as his previous wait, the contraption lit up again. But the menu did not roll. In its place there appeared the message: "one for one, go to the pink machine!" Rafael became furious again and kicked the machine, but the only apparent effect was to cause the message to flash urgently. He slammed his fists on the keyboard, tried to shake the whole device like a pinball machine, but nothing worked. The message flashed and flashed and he decided that if there was any hope of seeing the groupies again he had to go to the pink machine.

spaceWhen he stepped around the partitions that partly hid the pink slot machine, he could see no difference between the two contraptions except that the front of the pink one was almost completely covered with hash marks, crossed out in groups of five, similar to the markings he had seen on movie warplanes, extoling the number of downed enemies. As he sat down in the bucket seat of the apparatus, his weight tripped a switch and the device began to function exactly as the blue one had'done. But the message that appeared on the tv screen was very different. It said: "Dial A Death!" Then a menu of accidents, murders, sicknesses, suicides, war deaths and crib deaths paraded in front of him, in gory details of mutilation, leprosy, cancer, burning at the stake, falls from high places, radiation poisoning, and of course gunshots, tortures, electrocution, suffocation, poisons, hanging, AIDS, sharks, snakes, starvation, volcanic lava, drowning, fire ants, bee stings and many forms of death that Rafael didn't even recognize. Instead of awaiting his choice The big slot machine's images bagan to spin faster and faster, as though Rafael had just inserted five quarters, then it suddenly stopped with one statement glaring in his face: "Rat Rabies!"

spaceRafael instantly tried to leap out of the seat, but his body wouldn't obey him. He had the sensation he had had in many nightmares as a child. He could see danger and he tried to act but his body would be immobile while his brain was alarmed, and he would strain to make his muscles work while a horror bore down on him. He was lost in a low, narrow, dark cave and he heard the squeaks and rustlings of thousands of smelly rats which came running from cracks and crevices, pairs of eyes bobbing and flashing as they neared, and then their bites. Oh God, please God, their bites, and the agony of his tearing flesh. He screamed for help, for mercy at the fearful loss of his own blood, cascading down from wounds all over his body. Then the rabid spasms of his throat muscles into knots of searing pain as bubbling saliva worked to choke off his breathing. When he couldn't bear the anguish any longer he began to sense his life leaving his body. He hoped his heart would stop, or his brain explode, to relieve him from the hurt.

spaceSuddenly the machine shut down! The copper coil lifted, the tv screen went dark. He immediately regained the sense of control of his body, but he was afraid to open his eyes to look at himself. Hoping that all his body parts were with him, he bravely peeked, then rejoiced. He was whole! He leaped from the bucket seat and headed for the exit, but then hesitated, and finally stopping in his tracks. He remembered the Super Bowl. He remembered sex with the groupies! The rats quickly drifted far away as he turned and went back to seat himself a the blue machine.

spaceThis time, after to screen announced, "Dial A Life," and before the menu unfolded, there was an ominous message: "one for three!" This gave Rafael a momentary anxiety pang in his stomach, but he went right past the queasiness and he agreed by pressing "enter." The menu rolled and he carefully scrutinized it, to find an even better experience, topping the two he had already "lived."

spaceTwo hours later Rafael was finally making his way back to the blue 11 machine but he was no longer returning voluntarily. He just couldn't help himself, even though his body was emaciated and in constant pain. He had very little pulse and was exhausted. There was no doubt in his mind that he had lost a lot of weight. Something was telling him that he was really going to die! And on each round the blue monster continued to seduce him, even though it had continued the escalate the cost for each life experience, and now was flaunting a ratio of "one for ten! "He desperately rummaged through his mind to find some way of saving himself. His mind and eyes seized on the "other" category on the rolling menu. Straining out of fear and despondency, he got an idea and typed in after the word "other", the words,llmy father's life."

spaceThe blue machine immediately went dark and silent. He felt strong and healthy in an instant, able to leave the seat without any strain. He was suspicious but also deliriously happy as he looked himself over and proved that he was back to normal. He then dashed for the exit.

spaceWhen he got outside of the tent, he was shocked to find that it was already late at night. The carnival was going at fever pitch and there was a long line of the gullible waiting impatiently to get into the tent.

spaceAs Rafael tried to run past the barker, his way was blocked and Little John the Conqueroo taunted him and chanted, "What did the guard say to the condemned as he strapped him into the electric chair? Why, he said 'trag gesund! Wear it in good health!', ha ha, ha ha ha!" He then stepped aside and Rafael ran off into the night.

spacePicking his way along the dark rural road that led home, he thought about his father again. He guessed that if he worked a little harder in high school, he might be able to become a supervisor at the electric company. His father might have been proud of that.


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