Taylor Tyler Trailer Fire
Late September, third weekend of the Big Tent Ghoul Prom. The maples are going lurid. Up along this stretch of the Connecticut there’s silt in the water and shores dotted with Dunkins and Indian trails and the corpses of industry. Saturday afternoon and it’s still light.
Tyler parks in the employee lot and smokes a pre-shift joint. Bees hum in the dumpsters. The real cops don’t bother with the employee lot and most of the Big Tent security guys are stoned already. It’s almost a job requirement, certainly during Ghoul Prom. Tyler lets her phone charge for the length of the next song. If Jimmy doesn’t call by sunset, nothing doing out west. But if he does, well, Tyler’s ready. She’s updated her resume, fixed the font. Referrals lined up at no small price. A new cover letter personalized for one Ms. Asha Kapour, head of Human Resources at Haven Retreats, two hours away in the Berkshire hills. The Saturn idles, sends more carbon into the atmosphere. Tyler doesn’t really have gas to spare. The song ends and she gets out.
In the employee center, Tyler checks the call list, confirms it, she’s Scary Mary again. Pretty regular now. She fetches the blotched dress and cloak from a locker, the big black boots, the doll. She sits in front of a mirror with the makeup and pulls her hair into a spout.
Taylor girl what’s up? says Creepy Steve. He stands behind her with a cleaver and a grin. He’s wearing a bright orange wig. Early thirties, working Big Tent, has a girlfriend or says he does. Tyler’s getting into character and gives him a baleful look. Not in the mood. If he puts his hand on her shoulder she’ll chew it off.
Tyler, she says.
Not Taylor. Tyler.
Creepy Steve affixes the clown nose to his face.
Oh, right. My bad.
Most of the year, everyone works concessions or rides or the ticket turnstiles, but come Ghoul Prom competition is tight for the costumes. Madame Arachnid, the Subterranean horde, Bad Priest, Giggles the Red Clown – it’s a shitload of orientation but it beats working the Dipping Dots. You always get stung working the Dipping Dots. And it’s fun, usually. The Big Tent crowd is in rare form at Ghoul Prom. Primed for a scare. There are warnings for those who aren’t – “You are now entering the Cursed Court! Proceed at your own risk!” – and the park gives out these big fluorescent safety balloons to hold if you’re really sensitive. Sometimes special needs kids get them, or old people.
Tyler likes Scary Mary mostly because she’s lazy and Scary Mary does more with less. The other characters scream a lot, you have to run around, hide behind things, remember these narratives. The Pillager has that axe to carry, the Undead their rib bones. Mortadella has a whole borderline thing she does with people’s hair and a cauldron. Scary Mary mostly just wanders around, lets her slack gaze and the red-mouthed doll do the work.
Madame Arachnid isn’t a rough gig either. The spiders are mostly plastic.
How different would it be at Haven Retreats? Jimmy said it was great there, pure class from guest services to groundskeeping. Crystal water coolers with mint in them in the lobby. The employee pay was so good that there was a no-tipping policy and nobody complained. Big Tent Ghoul Prom allowed tipping but nobody tipped and everyone complained.
Jimmy lived in a real house with two roommates, one of whom was a nutritionist, and his own bathroom. He’d finished his probationary period and now had health insurance and an employee-match retirement account. He went to team retreats. Tyler was still sharing the bathroom in the double-wide with her cousin, her cousin’s boyfriend and occasionally her cousin’s boyfriend’s buddies, at least until the end of the month. One of Tyler’s cousin’s boyfriend’s buddies was talking about another place opening up. It probably wouldn’t. Maybe her cousin’s boyfriend would go back to jail instead. Maybe Tyler would violate him.
In his last message, Jimmy had said something might be coming open in health services where Tyler could use her occupational therapy credits. Manipulate rich people discs, open hips, introduce folks to their own posterior chain. Send those fortunate souls back to the world even more fortunate.
She’d have to act fast, though, if there was an opening. Those jobs are like smoke.
Tyler wasn’t messing around with Jimmy anymore and didn’t know if he thought they might do so again in the future, in his apartment, when the nutritionist was out. She wasn’t opposed to it necessarily. They hadn’t messed around since back in the spring, when he was still living across the river and they’d meet in the bleachers or at the Subway after work and smoke weed together and listen to weird K-Pop in his car. They’d had that little scare and he got freaked but she’d managed it. Wasn’t the first time. Hopefully the last. Whatever. He took the job at Haven Retreats shortly thereafter – he had marketing experience and his dad knew some people. Changed his number but said he’d stay in touch and he had, for the most part. Kept saying they should get together.
Now he was hooking her up with an interview. Maybe he missed her. Maybe he felt bad. Didn’t really matter which one, far as Tyler was concerned. Probably a little of each.
The sun is half-set and Mr. Henry calls the ghouls to order.
Saturday night big crowd, he says, rubbing his hands together. Getting dark. Give them what they came for.
Mr. Henry takes his job seriously, more seriously than Tyler can handle sometimes.
Madame Arachnid has a small tarantula clipped to her ponytail and a much larger tarantula at the end of a coiled spring in a wooden box with a loose lid. Her shawl is a cobweb. She stands next to Tyler.
You smell like weed, she whispers.
You smell like dick, Tyler whispers back.
Madame Arachnid smiles. Tyler sort of knows her. Her name’s Jess or Jazz or something. Hooked up with Creepy Steve earlier in the fall behind the snow-cone machine. Tyler doesn’t judge, though. Everyone hooks up with Creepy Steve once. Tyler did, last summer, on one of the sticky weekend days a few weeks after Jimmy left and she was bored and maybe a little sad but not pregnant. Anyway, unmemorable. With Creepy Steve once is usually enough.
Madame Arachnid, or Jess or Jazz or whatever, flashes her palm toward Tyler, a little vape pen in there. She tucks it into a cloak pocket full of rubber spiders and winks.
Where are you? Front or back?
Front, says Tyler.
Jess or Jazz nods.
I’m at the back. I’ll find you.
Funny thing about Ghoul Prom is that there’s not much space between ghoul and guest. They come out of the woodwork. Big girls so sun-burned you can almost feel the throb coming off the top of their boobs. Rail-thin woodsmen in camouflage and hockey coats. Gold chains angling for a brawl. Grandparents and parents and uncles and cousins and nieces and toddlers, ambling in herds like water buffalo. Everyone vibrating with nervous energy.
Tyler heads through the back of the employee center, slips out a side door, emerges next to the whack-a-moles. There’s still some light but the smoke machines are on. Tyler hears the whinny of chainsaws. There go the Subterranean.
Tyler cradles her baby and moves into the crowd, blunting her eyes, letting her lips go slack, could be just another exhausted mamma dragged out into the fray on a Saturday night by a husband who has no idea, none, except for the redness covering the front of her dress and the doll’s chin.
She slips into the margins of the alley. It’s not like with the Pillager or Chop Chop, running up on folks. There are no big screams, no stampedes. People don’t notice her until they do. They glance, glance again, and pull back. They cross themselves, clear a path. Bad luck coming through, dear patrons. Lower your fried dough and mourn.
It’s important not to make eye contact unless you want to take it there.
They glue the doll’s eyes open. The red is just water and food coloring. They used to use corn syrup but it got too sticky and hard to clean. Plus bees. So no corn syrup any more. It’s not like the bees don’t have options.
Teen girls in packs. Grumpy dads. High-school couples pressing their thighs together on the Ferris Wheel. Tyler spots a family group and drifts over towards them. The adults are watching their phones, orienting themselves, looking for the signposts. The youth tug and meander. Tyler likes to start the evening with a good creep-out and groups were best for that, loose groups where you could do close work, get right in, pass as one of them. Then the slightest nudge and down they go, dominoes of fear.
Sometimes people would curse at the ghouls and run to Mr. Henry to complain. Mr. Henry would say what are you doing at Ghoul Prom if you get mad about being scared? He’d offer them a balloon and they’d decline it.
The uncle is looking at his phone when Tyler brushes against him. He moves slightly, assumes it’s a niece, assumes it’s just the price you pay in a crowd. Tyler stays right there, holding her doll, staring into the middle distance. A grandmother notices, exhales sharply, and the rest of the group looks up. It’s always the grandmothers who see her first. The uncle thinks they’re staring at him, then sees Tyler and jumps. Drops his phone but catches it on his sneaker top. The younger girls shriek performatively and back away. Everyone in the group laughs, Jesus get me out of here laughter, except the grandmother. Tyler turns to the group and they scatter, heading up the path towards Colossus, towards the bend past which the Undead wait.
Tyler has a bag of tricks but it’s too early in the shift to dip into it. You never know what the night will hold. People can get aggressive. Boys will try and impress their friends. The big girls will tire. Dads will hit the Bud Light Lime, get sad and look for redemption. All the ghouls are trained in de-escalation, trained to get in and get out. On the rare occasions when someone won’t let it go, won’t end the engagement and move along, Tyler might need to go into her arsenal. Make eye contact. Move her lips wordlessly. If necessary, extend her arms, offering the bloodied doll to them. Take him then. Take him if you want him. Bring his hard mouth to your breast if you’re not scared.
General rule is you could only offer the doll to a guy because the women would take it.
Tyler trails slowly in the wake of the group. Her cell-phone’s in her pocket, hard to get to because it’s below the overcoat and she can’t take her hands off the baby. Sometimes she thinks she feels it vibrate but she’s not sure. Pretty sure though. Maybe. If it’s Jimmy she’ll call him right back. The sun’s fully down now and what light remains is just a gold ribbon along the western horizon. Maybe it’s still light over the ridge. Maybe it’s just one gold ribbon from here to there.
Tyler holds character but scans the path ahead. Madame Arachnid is standing in the smoke across the Cursed Court, box under her arm, spiders cascading down her shawl. There’s a break in the crowd and she nods in the direction of a side alley. A group of girls walks between them and Madame Arachnid tosses a handful of black widows at them. They scream and scatter and when they’re gone Tyler looks for Madame Arachnid but she’s gone too.
Tyler waits until she gets to the pinball arcade before sliding out of the Cursed Court. Mr. Henry is pretty strict during Ghoul Prom. Maybe it’s a remnant of some other previous job, where things mattered. He’s already fired four people this season.
Tyler finds Jess or Jazz behind the bathrooms. She’s already sucking on the vape, exhaling ribbons of smoke that blend in with the smoke-machine smoke and the chainsaw smoke and the exhaust smoke to halo the park-lights. She has her spider-box on the ground.
Kid had a seizure on Colossus, she says, passing the vape to Tyler. Got stung by a bee. Security’s taking him out on a stretcher.
Tyler tucks the doll under her arm and hits the vape. Seizures happen probably three times a season. Usually in the daytime. Most exciting thing those security guys get to do.
What’s in this, she asks.
THC, the girl says.
Tyler nods, sucks again.
What’s your name, she asks the girl, who looks at her funny.
Jace. Jeez, Taylor.
Tyler holds the smoke in her lungs for as long as she can before coughing it out, which makes her laugh, which makes her think of Giggles with his clown suit and cleaver.
You still hooking up with Steve?
Tyler passes the vape back, pats the doll’s plastic head.
No time, what with the kid and all.
She reaches beneath her cloak to dig out her phone, holds it up in the park-light. The display shows one call, just missed, a local number. She doesn’t have new Jimmy in her contacts yet.
Tyler presses redial but nobody answers and eventually she gets a generic robot voice that says leave your message.
Hey, she says. Jimmy. This is, uh, Tyler calling you back. What’s up? I’m at work right now but let me know. If there’s that spot I’m ready to go and I definitely want it.
She goes to end the call but has a moment of remembering the playgrounds and the K-Pop songs they didn’t know the words to and whatever they went through last spring and how whatever his motivations are now it’s nice that he’s still trying to help. It would be nice to see him again. She wouldn’t be opposed to it.
She brings the phone back to her cheek, the baby back under her arm.
Thanks for doing this, she says. Then: Can’t wait to see you. She tries to make it sound casual and upbeat, like you’d say to a friend, but she’s not sure she got the tone right.
She looks over at Jace, who is trying to hold her smoke but fails and coughs and spiders fall out of her pocket and skitter across the pavement.
Tyler laughs into the phone.
Sorry, she says. I’m a little stoned right now. But, um, yeah. Anyway. Call me back.
Tyler slides the phone back into her cloak.
Jace looks at her.
Tyler shakes her head.
Thing about a job, she says.
Sounded like more than a job.
And anyway you got a job.
A real job, Tyler snorts. Not, like – she gestures to the doll, the spiders, the whole of it – this.
Jace tucks away the vape and picks up her spiders. She wobbles slightly and laughs again.
There’s still an hour until the park closes.
My name’s Tyler, by the way.
Not Taylor. Tyler.
What did I say?
You’ve been saying Taylor. It’s Tyler.
Tyler looks at Jace, her tiny pupils, the tattoo on her neck, the bugs in her hair. They won’t have this sort of kid where she’s going.
This was fun.
Yeah. Jace shrugs, smiles. Ish.
Ish, says Tyler.
You gonna miss it.
Not that much.
Right, says Jace. Not that much.
They straighten their rags.
Okay, Tyler says. You go that way.
Jace picks her box up off the ground, nods at Tyler like they’re business partners and wobbles off back toward the Cursed Court.
Tyler gives her a minute, then follows.
The walkway’s empty but up ahead the alley is thick with patrons and smoke. This time of night the kids are sugared and the dads are moody. Tyler takes a centering breath, summons her persona, cradles her doll. She’s the best Scary Mary. What will they do without her?
Her phone buzzes in her cloak. She pauses in the walkway, turns her back to the crowd and fishes it out. Local number again.
Hey, she says. I just called you back.
She wonders what he thinks of the ‘can’t wait to see you’ part, decides to let him bring it up. Good thing she said she was stoned.
What? he says. I can barely hear you.
I’m at work. I just called you back. I want the spot.
You called me back?
Tyler hears a voice in the background, something low and cajoling. Maybe the nutritionist. She hears Jimmy cover the phone with his hand.
Then, to Tyler, he says, Whatever. Listen, Ty, that spot in fitness is coming open. The one I told you about. I told the head of HR good things about you. Asha Kapour. She’s big time, doesn’t mess around. I gave her your cell. She’s going to call you.
The voice in the background is saying something else and Tyler hears Jimmy speak to whoever it is, hears him say hold on babe.
Oh, she says. Oh.
She’s already lowering the phone when he starts talking to her again but all he’s saying now is good luck and it’s a little late for that.
Tyler drops the phone back into an inner pocket. The Cursed Court opens up and she slips into the crowd, strokes the baby’s brow. A father notices her and steers his family away. A grandmother blesses herself. Tyler stares at nothing they can see.
A light to the left, a group coming through Cursed Court with a glowing safety balloon held high.
Madame Arachnid is parallel to the group as they pass by and in the jostling of the crowd the spider in her hair falls off. Tyler hears her laugh and sees her reach down for the spider and watches her drop her wooden box on the ground just a little too hard and wouldn’t you know it the big tarantula pops out, right next to a big boy holding the safety balloon.
The boy startles, cries out, lets go of his balloon. They tell you to tie it around your wrist but no one ever does. It floats up, ballistic, headed for space. You have it and then you don’t and that makes the kid cry even more.
Madame Arachnid reaches for the big plastic spider. Protocol in these situations is to apologize quietly and keep moving, hope the family understands. They signed the waiver.
Jace can’t get the big spider back into the box. Every time she bends over more baby spiders fall out of her pocket. The crowd around her jumps and laughs and now Jace is playing to it, scattering spiders and hamming it up.
The big boy’s mom is mad. She starts screaming at Jace. People aren’t sure what’s performance and what’s not.
The mom’s sisters join in. Jace is on her knees. A whirlpool is forming around her. Now Giggles the Red Clown clomps down the path in his big shoes, making a distraction with his fake flowers and his cleaver, his bad jokes, har-dee-har-har let me cut your throat. Let me make a balloon animal out of your lower intestine. Let’s see how many of you I can fit in this crawlspace.
Laughter, screams. Some people run away. Others run to watch.
The mom is standing over Jace. Steve tries to redirect her. I need these spiders for my next trick, he says, but the mom pushes him and he steps back, arms up. Physical contact is not allowed. He’s holding the cleaver, though, and it must look threatening because the kid’s dad steps forward and pushes him harder and he’s wearing those stupid shoes so of course he goes down. And of course the cleaver hits him in the temple and of course it’s dull but not so dull that it won’t open a gash.
A random comes out of the crowd and pushes the dad. An uncle pushes the random.
The mom’s still screaming and the kid’s still crying as his balloon floats off towards Saturn and Steve is trying to crawl toward Jace to get his big bloody mitts around her and Jace is offering her cobweb shawl to put pressure on the wound. Security is with the swollen kid in the parking lot.
Nobody notices Tyler. Nobody sees her sink to her knees.
You think you can have what you want?
O-, moans Tyler.
Longer the second time, holding it until it goes ragged. She sucks in a deep breath.
The people around her turn to look and, once they do, back away until the circle that was around Jace and Steve and the big teary boy migrates to her. She is its center. The scuffles stop. The unmarked collect the bloodied. Teens cover their ears. Grandmothers bear witness. Tyler makes eye contact with the big boy. He stops crying but she goes on. She hears Steve saying something, hears Mr. Henry coming through.
– but she’s already committed, really hitting it, the unbearable tool in the false bottom of Scary Mary’s toolbox, the hammer move, and soon enough time has stopped and it’s just the silent crowd and fake smoke and Steve and Jace and Mr. Henry in the Cursed Court and some belated security guys rushing to the wreckage, surrounding but not approaching Tyler, Tyler the red-chested virtuoso of loss.
A lot of people can’t find it. If you can, though, who needs an axe?
Dave Fromm is the author of a sports memoir entitled Expatriate Games and a novel entitled The Duration. He lives in western MA with his wife and kids.