The Sky Lift had been stopped for at least fifteen minutes when Alan’s daughter let go of the stuffed animal. She was hovering there in front of him in a red gondola, above the tar-painted roof of the bumper car rink. Alan was stuck in a blue chair, ten feet behind her, treetops just inches from the soles of his shoes. For the duration of the ride, he’d watched her dangling the large banana with sunglasses over the railing, flirting with the idea of dropping it. And when she finally let it go, the yellow fabric slipping through her thin fingers, Alan felt his entire body clench like a fist. Banana-Man seemed to freeze in the open air like a bewildered astronaut before freefalling toward a mass grave of washed-up cartoon heroes, deflated novelty crayons, and plastic baseball helmets on the roof below. He bounced once—his sunglasses flying off—then he lay lifeless near a pool of filthy water. Somewhere, off on another floating chair, a small child shrieked.
Photo Illustration: Sarah Sitkin
This was not the way things were supposed to happen. This was not anywhere near Alan’s top ten imagined scenarios for a day at the Fairgrounds, all of which involved wholesome 4-H sponsored father/daughter bonding. The recent facts were these: Whitney had just finished junior high and, somehow, since the moment she graduated, she had managed to do something terrible and offensive every day of the summer. Mostly these offensive things included her high school boyfriend, River, and missing her curfew by a mile. Just two days ago, she had stumbled into the house at 3:00 a.m., thinking he and his wife were asleep. In reality, Alan watched from the dark of the dining room, still as a ninja, as his daughter hummed a tuneless song to herself while devouring half a log of cookie dough straight from the tube. She then placed a wad of dough in their George Foreman Grill, and was presumably about to cook it when she passed out in the middle of the floor. He had to carry her to bed and put her down like a toddler. And before he left the room, she’d uttered one phrase, intoxicated and half-asleep.
“Sorry for puking on your car, Dad.”
Things had erupted the next day, which had led to weeks of solitary confinement, and now this, their lone outing of the summer. So far, the day had been a war of attrition, and not in the way Alan had hoped. At every former point of interest, Whitney refused to even attempt enjoyment. She described the downy lambs at the petting zoo as “full of despair.” The Miracle of Birth Barn was “live heifer porn.” The rides were “carny deathtraps” and the food was “diabetes on a stick.” These phrases in addition to a couple of “what-the-fuck-evers” had constituted the majority of their conversation, and she punctuated every comment by tapping texts into her phone like Rachmaninoff. After two and a half hours, Alan felt ready to surrender or feed himself to Teddy Bear, the state’s largest boar.
Then, miraculously, around mid-afternoon, things had turned a corner. And it had begun with a game of Skee-Ball on a warped, dusty lane. They were walking silently past the Midway when Alan noticed the old machines, lined up beneath a row of hanging prizes. Skee-Ball was the only carnival game he had ever been decent at, and when he used to take Whitney to Chuck E. Cheese as a child, she’d delighted in watching him pile up those coiling yellow tickets. Alan wasn’t the most coordinated of men, but there was something about the combination of his large hands and his lanky, almost simian arms that created the perfect catapult for those odd hardwood balls. He’d developed an unorthodox ceiling-bank method as a teenager, and after a few consecutive rounds on the worn surface of the State Fair lane, the old muscle memory returned and he began nailing those tiny 150-point slots like a goddamn assassin.
With each fresh rack, he inched closer to a winning score. And after three games, he heard the murmurs of a small, easily-impressed crowd gathered around his lane. When he finally hit the last shot on his tenth game, sending his point total soaring above the magic, stuffed-fruit-winning number, his spectators had cheered and even Whitney had managed a non-ironic smile for the first time when he placed the banana gently in her arms.
But a lot could happen in one hour.
A day could grow uncomfortably warm, for instance, inching from an endurable eighty-five degrees to a sweltering eighty-eight. The sweaty crowds could grow so large that any fairgoer trying to head upstream could be continually jostled and elbowed by one of many jean-shorted families. Or, if this wasn’t enough, a father could notice something in his daughter’s purse when she was in the bathroom. And then, ignoring all of his best instincts, that father could reach into the secret confines of the open purse and extract a small brightly-colored piece of plastic that housed—it said right there on the packaging— One. Lubricated. Condom.
Then the daughter could return from the bathroom catching him red-handed. And he could say this to her in a stern voice: “Why are you ruining your life?”
Now, in the sickly pink dusk of the Fairgrounds, a half hour after his find, the Sky Lift was no longer moving, and Alan’s Banana had been sacrificed to the land of forgotten prizes. Ahead of him, his daughter sat perfectly still, resting a palm on the railing, her wispy hair, now dyed black, pulled into a loose ponytail that flickered in the warm breeze. In the gondolas behind him, families were getting restless. He could hear the high-pitched children’s questions about the stoppage and the reassuring parental platitudes in return. It was a tone he used himself not long ago.
It had only been a year since he’d stopped turning off the lights in Whitney’s room at night. Per their ritual, he had waited until the last possible minute to say goodnight, hit the switch, and close the door, in the order she liked. Even at eleven and twelve years old, she’d still insisted on having him do it. No matter how distant they had been from one another during the day, he knew to stand at his place in the doorway around eleven o’clock and wait for her to adjust the covers the way she wanted them. Then she would turn over and give him a thumbs up, which is how he knew to hit the light. For a moment, before he closed the door, he knew his daughter was safe in his house, and that she still needed him in some identifiable way.
He was lucky now if he got to see Whitney make it to her bedroom at all. They had never spoken about this change. In fact, aside from yelling commands, he hadn’t been speaking to her much at all. Like when he followed her onto the Sky Lift twenty minutes ago, for instance, and silently rode one chair behind her, watching his daughter drift through the air, just far enough away to seem like another world. His body was so tense, he could feel his teeth grinding. In front of him, Whitney looked so calm, so resolved.
Before he had much time to think it over, Alan stood up in his gondola, which he knew was very much against the rules. The little scooped out lift chair wobbled slightly under his old tennis shoes. Beneath him: leafy trees and tiny people, a few of them already looking up and pointing. He reached up for the thick cable above him and gripped it with both hands. He tested it, hanging safely over his blue gondola. This sent a mild vibration through Whitney’s chair. She turned around and stared at him, open-mouthed. Alan could see that her eyes were wet.
“Dad,” she said, “What the hell are you doing?”
He decided looking down would be a terrible idea, so he just fixated on his daughter’s face, which, surprisingly, looked more frightened than pissed off. He reached out and clutched the wire in front of him, leaving his lift behind. Someone below yelled something frantic, but Alan couldn’t hear it. He was moving now, hand-over- hand, toward the red hanging chair in front of him. The adrenaline made him weightless. All he could feel was the sun-warmed metal fibers in his grasp and his heart pounding through his entire body. Then he risked a look at the banana below, and that was enough to freeze him. He was only a foot or two away from Whitney’s gondola, and he could not make himself reach out again. He heard a police walkie-talkie crackling somewhere on the ground.
His daughter’s face was so close to him. He could see the small scar beneath her bottom lip from when she’d once toppled off her bike.
“Twenty-five percent of teenagers have an STD,” he blurted. “It’s an epidemic.”
Whitney’s expression changed from shock to a slack baffled gaze.
“Dad, are you giving me a sex talk…”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe.”
His body weight, he now realized, had fully returned, straining his forearms.
“I think the police are coming,” Whitney said.
“I don’t know how to talk to you anymore,” said Alan.
His daughter blinked twice and sighed.
“Just don’t fall,” she said.
He obeyed her. Which meant just hanging there like an orangutan over the bumper cars. His arms were really starting to burn, and his legs suddenly weighed five hundred pounds. But he managed to ignore all this. The light of dusk had dimmed enough to highlight the dizzying lights of the Midway in the distance, and he watched everything spin. He had a sense that the Sky Lift was going to start again any minute, the whole thing dragging him forward along its path. Whitney met his eyes. He wanted to say something else; she was just within his reach. But still he just hung there, suspended. Unable to move forward, unable to let go.
All rights reserved to Peter Bognanni.
Photo illustration by Sarah Sitkin.