The idea rose ten stories into the air. Open gondolas shaped like birdcages painted royal blue, canary yellow, purple and green. Striped canopy roofs. Lit up spokes stretching every direction and all of it changing colors. “A Ferris wheel,” said Jimmy to out loud, to no one, “is exactly what we need.” He secured the replaced sections of rusted track behind the dragon’s head and climbed back into the train at the top of the roller coaster. The ocean was rough, typical for November. White caps chopped clear out to the horizon line and high tide rushed up underneath the pier. He surveyed the park: torn leather Scrambler seats, Flying Swings clanked and tangled, an empty cement square where the Orbit once stood, and the faded blue ticket booth where a young Rosalind with her blond ponytail and sweet sun freckles had studied for a college entrance exam she’d never take. They’d been in this together, a family business. Third generation. Only Ros was gone, having just left him after twenty years. He rode the coaster to the bottom. Why not a giant Ferris wheel? Biggest on the Jersey Shore. He pulled out his phone to tell her, still doing even that after two months.
His grandfather, Frank, started Funland Amusement Pier in 1935 with a jumbo lime-green slide on a wide section of boardwalk that stretched out over 7th street beach. Grew it into one of the greatest parks on the Atlantic coast with an imported carousal and state-of the-art roller coaster. In 1982, when Frank was hit by a car riding his rusty Schwinn to work, operations went to Jimmy’s dad, James Redshaw Sr, who added a water flume and the county’s first go-cart course in time for the upcoming season. That summer eighteen-year old Rosalind Cooper was hired as a ticket taker and Jimmy became her first real boyfriend. By the end of the season she was pregnant; much to everyone’s surprise, particularly Sherry, the girl he’d dumped only weeks before. But the future was bright and marriage seemed the easiest thing.
Two decades and not a technical glitch. Until last May when, without consulting him, Ros tried out for the beach patrol. A thirty-eight year old mother of two college girls! It had been a tough year. His father had died of a heart attack over Christmas and Funland operations fell to him. Two weeks before opening day Rosalind announced: “They took me.” As if he could simply replace her with any old high school kid still needing a seasonal job.
He was not entirely surprised. Eventually the Tilt-a-Whirl made the children too dizzy. Over time they lost interest in the galloping horse on the Merry-Go-Round, stopped stroking the coaster dragon’s golden head, screaming, “faster!” at his iridescent scales—the days of half-expecting real fire to stream from his open mouth gone with a snap. Not for him, however. Never for him. The flume ride still made Jimmy’s stomach leap in a way that nothing ever could.
She’d left him the Thursday after Labor Day. He came home from work at 8pm after grabbing a hotdog on the boardwalk. The carousal horses were starting to flake and chip; the train couldn’t go another year without dismantling and oiling all the tracks. The house was dark. Ros had taken to staying out late those last few weeks. Guard parties after races. “They expect me,” she’d said. He drank coffee, surfed websites and read customer reviews on the FunLand site. When he got around to checking the time it was almost midnight.
The note was in their bedroom. Propped against layers of frilly pillows. The soft loops of her handwriting reminded him of others left in lunch boxes. He half-hoped a love letter, but it had been years. He called her phone. It was disconnected. He called again. Checked the number and called again. And again. In her closet were sweaters on shelves, some pants, winter things. The red velvet dress she wore when they took the girls to the Rockettes at Christmas. In the crowded theater row, her face had been shadows of green and red, she clutched each daughter’s hand. They were seniors in high school then, Jess and Jen. In a year they’d be gone. After the show he’d taken them to dinner, a new restaurant at the top of the city. White search lights, bright yellow neon flashing in crystal, glass, and steel—all of it reflected and blurred from skyscraper to sky. He splurged on a vintage Bordeaux. Said something funny and Ros had tossed her head back. Peals. Oh God, her laugh. Jimmy took the dress off the hanger. Pressed his face deeper into the plush fabric, trying to pull something out. Her scent, some clue, anything. He lay on the bed with her dress until it grew wrinkled with dark matted splotches. The sky was black and starless. Black, then blue, then blue black, thick with fog.
When it seemed morning enough, he went to work. No doughnuts, too much coffee. He shut the door to the office and locked it. Tore apart her desk. She’d taken her computer and the photos. He found her keys in Jess’ 2nd grade clay pinch pot. The bottom drawer revealed a photo of him, face up under a stack of printer paper. He’d given her that camera for her birthday. She made him pose so many times that day. He wore an impatient smile. Employees were calling on the walkie-talkie and Rosalind wouldn’t let him answer. When had he last seen that photo on her desk. The other day? A month? He waited a week before calling the girls. If anyone asked he said she was on a trip.
The London Eye, the Cosmo Clock— those were the real deal. Even the online images gave him chills. All lit up in the night, towering into the clouds at the edge of a waterway. Metal spokes and bright white cars against a blazing pink sunset at the Georgia State Fair. Ferris wheels of this scale were not cheap. After several days searching he found a company in Ohio that could build one the size he needed for the least amount of money. He’d need a loan, but his dad always financed rides like this. Certainly the wheel would pay for itself after five successful years. He would check with his mother. A courtesy, at this point, since he was in charge now. Jimmy had taken to visiting her every few days since his father had died, delivering status updates, reports and asking questions. After Ros left, he resorted to phone calls, she was worried and he was long overdue to go see her.
Sally Redshaw greeted her son on the porch of the Queen Anne where they both grew up. At seventy-eight she still walked the length of the boardwalk most days, held onto her height with shoulders thrust back. Her white hair was sleek and styled a sharp chin-length. Same bright smile. Keen mind. She only stopped doing the books and payroll a few years ago.
“Jimmy. What a surprise. Look at you. Skin and bones. Let’s make you a sandwich.”
Black and white photos of aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins posing in front of various FunLand rides looked down at him from the entry hall. “I’m.. don’t.. have a lot of time.” He took the brochures, printouts and sketches he’d drawn on paper scraps out of his briefcase. Spread them over the oak table.
In the kitchen, his mother pulled white paper deli packages out of the refrigerator. Pumpernickel slices from the breadbox. “Take it with you. What’s all that?”
“You’re going to love this. A Sky Wheel…. biggest one for miles.”
“A what?” She pulled a pickle out of a jar and held it with two fingers, suspended over the counter where it dripped a small pool. “Where on earth will that go?”
Jimmy held up the photo of Vienna’s Reisenrad. His mother loved all things European. “Stunning, isn’t it?” he said. “I was thinking the vacant area near the Bumper Cars.”
“The old Orbit spot? A giant Ferris wheel there?” She dried her hands on a dishtowel and looked over his shoulder. The photograph shook in her grip. “Not there, Jimmy. My God that accident still seems like yesterday. You know it was before they had the height restrictions, yet we knew better not to let little ones on that ride even then. But, that boy’s father made such a stink. The child was your age at the time, tiny thing and he slipped right through the padded belt and flung clear across the park. In full view of a crowd.” She set the photo down, lifted his chin so he could see her sharp blue eyes. “Your father kept that space empty for a reason. He always said, ‘let it be a reminder of what’s easily lost if you’re careless.’” She pulled out a chair and sat down. “Not a day goes by I don’t think about that boy’s mother and feel responsible for it.” She picked up a sketch. Is this Rosalind’s idea? She’s been eyeing that space for years and seeing nothing but dollar signs.”
Ros had mentioned filling that spot. Each ride brought in its fair share and real estate on the pier was scarce. They had run out of room some time ago. “No, this one’s mine. A contribution to the family legacy.” Jimmy walked over to his sandwich and took a bite. The sun poured through the window warming his cheek. Maybe if they’d taken that cruise to the Bahamas. If he hadn’t ignored the advertisements Ros always stuck with magnets to the fridge. She was probably somewhere warm right now. With the lifeguard she took off with. Jimmy had been searching guard rosters up and down the coast. He was down to Cocoa Beach.
“Dad also said we should always be adding new attractions so people don’t get bored; that we need to give them what they want before they even know they wanted it.” He kissed the top of her head. “We’ll dedicate it to him. Name it the James Redshaw Super Wheel. What do you think?”
“How will you pay for it?”
“I’ve got it under control. No problem.” He’d call his father’s banker first thing in the morning.
“It has been awhile since we added something. Maybe its time for a change, let go of old tragedies. As long as you are sure about the funds. Good lord, don’t call it the Super Wheel though, too corny, The Redshaw Sea Star has a much lovelier ring. I’ve always been fond of starfish. Why not a lighted appliqué in the shape of one?” She traced a finger along the spokes in the photo. “I guess it’s time to move on. He’d have liked this.”
Jimmy gathered his things. “I knew you’d love it.” He pushed in the empty Windsor chair at the head of the table and kissed her on the forehead.
“You’ll need Council approval on this one. Do you think you have the votes?” his mother said. “Sherry Dupree is a stickler on development projects these days.”
“Any chance you still play cards with that council member’s wife. Maybe can you talk to some of the others at your Art Council board meetings?” He felt his cheeks flush.
“Of course. Did you think I actually liked to play bridge?” She took a bite of pickle. “Talk to Rosalind, sweetheart. Forget that silly beach patrol, she really should be joining some of these boards and clubs. I’m not going to be around forever.” She winked. “Best if you met with Sherry.”
Sherry Dupree was formerly Sherry Tuttlehead. Decades ago, Jimmy had dated Sherry the summer before she left for college. He’d slip her free tickets so she could hang around the rides all day. At first he was impressed by her maturity and self-confidence. Late at night he took her upstairs to his father’s office. One morning Sherry showed up in a bright pink mini dress that showed off the fresh scrapes on her knees from the matted carpet. That was both Rosalind Cooper’s first day and the end of Sherry. A casual meeting over coffee was unlikely even after all these years.
Jimmy wrote a deposit check for $50,000 to the Happy Valley Amusement Equipment Co. Sure, he was betting. But the council meeting wasn’t until mid-December. Construction had to start by January if they were going to have this thing in motion for the upcoming season. Besides, he needed blueprints. How else could the city see what an asset this wheel would be? Anyway, new rides tended to pay off. The wheel would be beautiful. A landmark.
Once, when they were newly married, he and Ros took a trip to Coney Island and rode the famous Denos’ Wonder Wheel. Ros was very pregnant. It was a warm spring day and they arrived before the crowds on an early Friday afternoon. Up over the park fence they lifted into floating music from radios and storefront barkers. The beeps and sirens of video games fell away until there was only the creaking of the wheel. Below them people moved silently along the boardwalk with bodies and heads tiny like miniature dolls. Houses, hotels and vehicles on the street were mere toys. At the top, their car came to a stop. Rocking as a slight breeze picked up. All around was sky and ocean, ocean and sky—blue, green, grey, and bright. The openness stole Jimmy’s breath. If he looked hard enough, he could see several islands away, maybe even their new little house with his very own garage.
He placed his arm carefully around Ros’ shoulders. “This guy Denos. He was a hot dog vendor. Married a gal named Lula. Told her someday he’d buy her this wheel for a wedding present.”
“Fat chance,” Ros said. She moved toward the latch. “Ugh…I’m sweltering.”
“It’s true. I read it on the plaque down there. You wouldn’t think he could’ve done it. But he did. Almost a quarter of a century later. He told her a ring this big could never get lost.”
Ros ran her fingers along the mesh wire cage above the seat. The wheel started with a jerk and she reached for her stomach. “I need to get off this thing,” she said, “or this baby might just deliver itself right here.” Her t-shirt was soft and damp, skin tight beneath his open hand and he shook his head, marveling, wouldn’t that be something…a baby born on a Ferris Wheel.
City Council just needed to see the design. He could make them understand that from such a height the entire town would become precious, a sliver of light, thin strips and square grids of color surrounded on all sides by a solid canvas of endless green water. So slight you could slip it in your pocket, set it on a shelf. They’d say yes. The loan would come through, of course. It was a risk, sure, but a calculated one. FunLand hadn’t been denied approval in the seventy-five years they’d been in operation. He didn’t expect to be told no now.
The preliminary council meeting was scheduled the next week and the design for The Redshaw Sea Star arrived in the mail. Still no decision from the bank. Jimmy ran it over it to his mother. He unrolled the blueprints on the kitchen table. Eight giant pylons in an A shape held the structure together. There was the star: multi-armed in varying lengths pressed over hundreds of thin spokes. Soft with personality, like an actual sea creature. The baskets were exactly how he’d imagined them: octagon with a thick colorful band and a scalloped canopy roof. The entire structure stood 160 feet tall and came with over 100,000 LED lights. It was spectacular.
“Tell me you have not paid a dime toward this,” Sally said.
“Just for the blueprints.” Jimmy knew better, but once they got approval… “How did the meetings go?”
“The Chamber supports it, so Brian does. Dave and Beth are likely yes, both. Saw Sandy at bridge. Tom is a firm no. She said the neighbors are complaining like crazy over this light thing. Maybe if you got rid of the lights, cut the height in half.”
“No way. So, three of six. What about John or the mayor?”
“The mayor can’t be counted on to break a tie with a yes vote. John is our competitor. How did it go with Sherry?”
“She’ll come through.” Jimmy rubbed the callous along his left finger. He stopped wearing a wedding ring years ago. Knew a guy who got his finger torn off when his ring got stuck on the jib of a sailboat. Ros used to complain. “It can’t possibly hurt you at dinner,” she’d say, “unless you’re worried it’ll get caught in a fork.” Eventually she stopped wearing hers too. Said it made her feel claustrophobic. He thought she meant the same way she felt when she wore pajamas to bed or turtlenecks on a cold day. Now he saw things differently.
“Huh? What do you mean?” He looked down.
“It’s been weeks. You haven’t mentioned her. When I call she never answers. I’ve stopped by and she’s not there. I know her beach job is over. What’s going on?”
“Nothing, really. She’s on a trip. A little vacation thing…just a few weeks. You know. She’s been a little out of sorts since the girls left for school. Said she feels like her job as a parent is over.”
“Ha. I should be so lucky. A trip? You can’t be serious. You’re a good boy, but don’t be foolish.” She gave his shoulders a squeeze. He pulled away.
“We’re fine. I have a lot on my plate.”
“You always do and you always have, James. I know how it goes. And Rosalind, she isn’t so keen on FunLand. Not like I was. That means you need to find time to do things together—outside of work.”
“Yeah. Well it’s a little late,” Jimmy said.
“Never too late! Now go get Sherry’s vote and tell your wife to get home.”
The house phone was ringing as he pulled into the garage. His jacket caught on the door handle and tore as he lunged: Hello. Hello? Ros is that you? Ros. Nothing, then a click. It had to be her. What was that in the background? A set of crashing waves, a whistle? Typing. In the emails to the girls that night he told them he thought their mother may have called, but he’d missed it and had they heard from her? They wrote back and told him, don’t worry, Mom’s okay. She’d contacted them at school. And she’s sorry. Really, very sorry. But she has to do this right now. Are you okay Dad? They each asked. You’re okay, right? The Sea Star, how’s the wheel going? Tell us about it. They avoided answering his questions about her whereabouts. He didn’t respond to their emails. Let them think he was dying; maybe they’d come home to find out. The next call was the banker. “She’s just not penciling,” he said. “I’m sorry.” And gave him the number of another broker—high-risk loans he called it. Jimmy took the chance. What were a few more years to pay it off? The wheel was worth it.
For the preliminary review city council meeting, Jimmy walked up the steps to City Hall, a grand art-deco brick building with a copper dome, built in the nineteen-twenties. He’d imagined an elaborate room with skylights and ornamental details with sweeping views out over Main Street. But, the noon City Council meeting was held in the basement where a popcorn ceiling grazed the tallest heads. Jimmy was prepared with plans, drawings and a written speech:
“The Redshaw Sea Star is not simply an attraction for the FunLand Amusement Pier, but exists as a draw for our entire town. There are hundreds of small communities that offer what we do: a boardwalk promenade, amusements, kitschy motels, and take-out joints. But, who among us have a giant Ferris wheel? Children will beg their parents to take them to the town with the wheel. And once people experience the view of the wide expanse of ocean, all their worries and cares will seem infinitesimal…”
Jimmy examined each Council member expression when he used the words, “we” and “is,” Sherry’s lips maintained a tight line the entire meeting. Three smiles and nods, two frowns, and one impossible to tell. His mother was right. It was all going to come down to a girl he’d slept with then treated badly all those years ago.
Both the Duprees and Redshaws belonged to the Yacht Club. Sherry and her husband ate there every Saturday night in the summer. It had been ages since Jimmy ate at the club, but he steeled himself and went for a cocktail during the dinner hour hoping to catch a conversation. There she was by the window, unmistakable with her bleached hair and layers of coral pink on her exaggerated lips. Positioned by the bar, near the path to the women’s room, he threw back a Macallan 12 and another, possibly a third while he waited. Sherry nearly walked right past without either of them noticing. “Jimmy?” she said, and faced him, “Haven’t seen you here in a while.” She looked behind him. “Where’s the wife?”
“Thought I’d come by for a drink. Unwind a bit.” She must have ordered the shrimp scampi..with extra garlic. His hand involuntarily shielded his nose. Had her breasts always been that big? He attempted a winning smile. “How’s things?”
“We’re quite well, thank you.” She took a step back. “You, I hate to say, look a wreck.”
“Wait! Just!” He lurched toward her. “Why? Sherry.”
“Yes?” A stare so sharp he flinched.
“Excuse me?” She tapped her spiked heeled shoe like an impatient parent. Back in the day she made that move when he kept her waiting. His old annoyance rallied his confidence.
“I hoped. Consider it. A yes vote. For the Sea Star.” He kept a hand on his drink. The ice only cooled his palm. Sweat dripped down the neck of his rarely worn suit.
“I carefully consider every vote that I make.” She walked toward her table and then turned back around. Her eyes were snakeskins. “Jimmy, are you lobbying me? Here, at the club?”
“Yes. No. Of course you do.” He pulled the cocktail napkin from under his glass and it tore it trying to wipe his forehead. “Forget it.”
“I see. Give your mother my best. Bye now.” Her perfume settled in around him like the dying flowers after his father’s funeral.
The night of the vote, the third floor City Council space was filled to standing room only. Jimmy had offered overtime to any employees that came out in support. He sat at the front table as if he was on trial. Sally Redshaw worked the room like the hostess of a cocktail party, giving out hugs and blowing kisses. He caught fragments of her conversations: “We are naming it after him, God rest his soul;” “Once this thing is built, Tony, you’ll be able to raise those room rates.”
The council members shuffled papers. Sherry’s seat was vacant. A crowd crammed along the back wall and spilled outside the door. Some carried signs “Those Lights are too Bright” and “Save our Sky.” The local paper had come out with support. A reporter typed in the corner. The room grew quite. Sherry burst through the side door, her grin showed lipstick stuck to her teeth. When Jimmy caught her eye, her face closed. The meeting started. He gave a brief review of the plans and the same speech. Only this time he added:
“The light show will be the epicenter of this attraction. The lights will act as a beacon to guide tourists to make their memories in our community. The Redshaw Sea Star will draw photographers from around the world to celebrate our jeweled night sky.” When he finished, there was some applause. He tossed a smile in Sherry’s direction. She looked down at desk, picked up a pen and began to tap it.
Several residents who lived in the neighborhood near the pier spoke out. “We don’t want some mondo Ferris wheel blasting our front yards,” said a bald man in a white tank top with a sunset decal. “Those lights are gonna keep our children up all night.”
People clapped for him too. Jimmy couldn’t tell who got the louder applause. It didn’t make sense. These people already lived with the looming racket of the roller coaster, the splash and screams of the water flume. What difference would a Ferris wheel make? He had made an offer of free rides to any residents impacted by the construction. Still, they seemed unreasonably disgruntled.
Penny Blackwell, the Chamber of Commerce president, presented a letter signed by thirty local businesses. “Likely there were citizens who were against electric lights when they were first invented,” she said. “You can’t stop progress. We believe the Redshaw Sea Star will be awe-inspiring.”
Two council members leaned their heads together. He couldn’t hear what they were saying. Sherry raised her finger. “May I ask a question?” Her voice wavered and a wide, fake smile spread across her face. Had he really kissed that mouth?
“Mr. Redshaw. I’m concerned about the financial resources, major construction, and very tight time frame that an undertaking like this monster wheel requires. An amusement of this size for a modest family business to pull off is quite a feat. I’ve seen enthusiastic entrepreneurs overestimate their ability to manage a project of such proportion, resulting in failure.” She took a big breath, puffed out her cheeks and blew air loudly through her shiny lips. “What if you simply can not complete what you set out to do? Especially for a man in your…. situation. Who will clean up your mess? We’ve all experienced the result of abandoned construction projects, now eyesores, in our great town.”
Eyesore? Look at those drawings— each of the sixty gondolas in watercolor. No two alike. He’d commissioned a local artist. My situation? Who couldn’t love that sea star playfully attached to the center? Some of the protesters started chanting: “No Deal on the Wheel. No Deal on the Wheel.” He had the money. Or almost. The new broker had given his word that he’d make a deal happen. The construction team was scheduled to start next week. He could not possibly fail at this. Jimmy stood up. He twisted the gold band fished out of the drawer where he’d left it all those years. Two smiles, a nodding head, four frowns. They would deny him? He sat back down. Pressed fingers into his forehead. Ros’ letter swam in fragments on the lids of his closed eyes. Don’t try and find me, it’s best if we have some distance right now. I need to think.
“Mr. Redshaw?” the mayor said. The room fell silent.
When they first met, Rosalind Cooper spoke in a soft voice, often drowned out by the roar of the amusement park. On their days off he used to take her to quiet places deep within the inlet dunes where they’d whisper until the sun burnt their skin crisp as pork rinds. Get her on a roller coaster, though, and she’d shriek so loudly you’d think it couldn’t possibly be the same girl. Those times her mouth was like a tunnel with the real Rosalind soaring out. He’d been sure of it. Sure as cotton candy whipped up so sweet and dances by the light of the moon with the ocean all lit up and rushing under their feet stepping and sliding to waltzes and jitterbugs on the Music Pier laughing that they were born too late. And the Big Band blew horns while grandparents took care of two little girls tucked into beds dreaming of painted horses riding off into meadows thick with daisies. He spun his Rosalind until her glittered skirt ballooned out into the air like she just might twirl up and away into the Starry Starry Night. No, not away, but into his arms where he held her tight. From the park you hear the happy sound of the carousal…under the boardwalk out by the sea……. that’s where they’d be. That’s where she’d be.
He stood up then; cleared his throat. “MY WIFE LOVES FERRIS WHEELS.”
Silence at first. Some snorting, then shushes. A fierce whisper, “Go wait outside.” His mother’s hands pushed at him and her voice trailing away: “So sorry, so sorry. Since his father died. You can’t imagine.” People cleared a path. A few sympathetic hands touched his shoulder. The crowd was talking. The mayor calling, “Order, order.” The click of his mother’s heels grew louder until she joined him again just outside the door. “Let’s go James.”
Jimmy walked five dark blocks to the boardwalk alone. Unlocked the gate that led to the pier. Oil and rust, fresh paint and turpentine; smells he could depend on. Cool steel, spokes and gears. Predictable things machines; they made sense. You see an engine, take it apart and put it back together. There’s logic to that. Funland was so still he could hear the ocean quiet, then crash under the boards below him. When was the last time he swam there? At the end of the pier he gripped the railing as black waves grew taller and taller in the half moon light. He would swim up to each hoping to float over before it crested. Rising and falling, rising and falling and each time he’d just make it over when the next set arrived, higher than the one before. Out past the break is a lifeguard boat. A tall, blond guy in red Birdwell shorts stands in the center and blows his whistle: “Go back to shore.” The guard becomes Rosalind wearing her velvet Christmas dress: “Jimmy come home. Dinner is ready. We’re waiting for you.” The waves break and suck him back but he still swims toward that boat. Arms and legs flail and kick but he goes nowhere. A white basket with a scalloped canopy rises out of the foam lifting him from the water and up into the cool quiet, high above the sea. Waves shrink beneath him. The boat becomes a speck and then it is gone. The entire Ferris wheel emerges then, illuminating the sky and extinguishing all other light with its one glorious sea star.