Last Day of the Season
Molly appeared lost. An old woman, no children in tow, ambling around an amusement park? But she walked with purpose.
A security guard, only recently hired, watched Molly and began to approach her. His colleague, a man who had seen Molly walking here many times before, lightly touched the young man’s shoulder and indicated for him to stop.
“She knows where she’s going,” the older man said.
“I thought maybe she was a bit…ya know…not sure,” the other replied.
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But trust me, she’s mostly all there. You don’t want to get her started, though. She’ll talk your ear off about her husband all day.”
The guards moved on, carefully scanning the park for food brought in from the outside. There was an initiative, direct from park management, to crack down on that sort of thing. However, the younger man couldn’t help glancing back as Molly disappeared from view behind a ring-toss booth.
She continued on her way. And, just as the older guard had said, Molly knew exactly where she was going. In the rapidly warming sunshine, though, it might take her a while to get there. She was in no special hurry.
A young mother bumped into Molly, apologized, and continued berating her child as they went. The young, thought Molly, are not as strong as they think they are. No, they are not even as strong as they look. Growing old, now that takes a strength that the young don’t have. It takes many years to acquire that kind of strength.
Walking on, Molly eventually saw the building she aimed for. A rollercoaster car rattled above her. She did not hear or feel it. The sad magic of her destination had already cast its spell.
Taylor saw Molly approaching. His shift at the Fairy Tale Theater often coincided with Molly’s arrival, and so, of all the park employees, he knew her best. The Friendly Helpers--damn it, what a stupid title, Taylor thought every time he heard those words—moved around the park every hour or so, operating a half-dozen different attractions during the day. But his schedule frequently brought Molly and him together. He was the one who had spoken to her first, back in May, when she began her daily visits, and he was the one who had then shared her story with the other kids taking turns to operate the Theater.
Many things perplexed him about Molly. For example, he could never quite tell if he was happy or sad to see her. She was a sweet lady, no doubt. But her story, and the way she shuffled along, and that old person smell that lingered after she had gone. He just couldn’t.
“Good morning, Molly!” Taylor said, a smile dutifully arriving at his lips.
He always made the mistake of greeting Molly five seconds or so before she was close enough to hear him, so he then called out again.
“Good Morning, honey,” she replied. “A hot one today.”
“Sure is! Let’s get you inside so you can cool off. I’ll open the doors in just a minute.”
“Every half hour,” Molly added.
“Yes, Mam,” Taylor confirmed. “…Right on the dot.”
Taylor checked his watch, shuffling even more uneasily than usual in the old woman’s company. This would be his last chance to tell her. By the time Molly emerged from the Theater—sometime around three o’clock this afternoon, if his friends weren’t exaggerating about how long she stayed in there—he’d be on the other side of the park operating the Super Gliders. Either Kimberly or Matt would be here by then. Like him, they were high school seniors looking to make a little money over the summer in the least unpleasant way available. But Taylor knew they wouldn’t tell her. They’d all agreed not to. But was that the right thing?
Molly picked through her handbag looking for tissues and a chap stick. Taylor contemplated the news his supervisor had given him last week about the Fairy Tale Theater, about how it was being ripped out—along with a couple of the older ‘baby’ rides close by—to make room for a new virtual reality laser-tag hall. And jeez, thought Taylor, the removal of this place was long overdue. It just wasn’t getting the job done anymore. A bunch of metal figures all wobbling around on creaking tracks, showing wear-and-tear that no amount of new paint could cover. Parents brought kids in here more to get out the sun than to see a show, and while Taylor did not exactly feel invested in the park’s long-term success, he felt kind of embarrassed as children left the Theater complaining how “stupid” and “lame” it was.
But should Molly know? Should she be given the chance to know that this time was the last time? He and the other Friendly Helpers had all determined that it was best if she didn’t. Taylor remembered how Steve had quipped about Molly also ‘probably closing down over the summer,’ and that it was even-money how the old lady would never live to know the Theater was gone. Steve was a dick, Taylor thought, but maybe he was right in this case. Why upset Molly now when it might all be for nothing?
“Will you be here next year?” asked Molly.
Taylor sucked in hot air, momentarily shocked by how Molly’s words oddly echoed his own thoughts at that moment. He shook his head, almost as if to get her out of it.
“What did you say?” Taylor replied with awkward alarm.
“It’s the last day of the season, isn’t it?” Molly explained. “I’m wondering if you’ll be back next year?”
“Oh,” said Taylor, “right…I’m not sure, really. This is my Senior Year. Hopefully this time next year I’ll be packing for college and stuff. But you never know, I guess. I’ll always need the money, right?”
Molly nodded. Taylor, still a little flustered, opened the door to the Theater. As Molly passed by he decided to touch her shoulder affectionately, a gesture of something more than ephemeral acquaintance, some connection that, young as he was, Taylor understood that Molly might need and he also would remember for a long time. He reached out, but Molly, oblivious to him now, had moved with uncharacteristic pace. His hand merely brushed lightly against her back. She didn’t seem to notice.
A few kids and parents trickled into the Theater behind Molly, but the place wouldn’t attract any real numbers until the midday heat arrived. Taylor counted--but not really—with his clicker the number of people coming in (the place had not once come close to reaching capacity in all his time there). His attention was on Molly. She took her regular seat, close to the speaker boxes at the side of the stage.
The Fairy Tale Theater was small. Three rows of ten seats arcing away from a semi-circular stage. Woodland murals, painted long ago by a relatively unskilled hand, dully ornamented the walls. Tiny squirrels and owls, all with vacant looks set into in their simply sketched faces, peered out into a scant audience preoccupied with the discomfort of their seats.
Taylor placed a sign on the outside of the door reading “SHOW IN PROGRESS: NO ADMITTANCE,” shut the door behind him, and flicked a switch to initiate what had, when it was built in 1986, been a modestly impressive mechanical display.
“Enjoy the show, folks,” Taylor said with what sounded convincingly like optimism. He was proud of how he could do that, show after show.
Molly closed her eyes. For her now the job was to disappear from this place, to be anywhere but here. It didn’t matter where. Her living room. Maybe the little bench in her back yard where they had sat together in the evening and drank white wine.
Even with her eyes closed, she sensed the stage illuminate. The music began. The fourteenth movement of Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals. They had enjoyed that tune so much, Molly and Robert. It was so light and joyful. Only since Robert’s passing had it occurred to Molly that it was the end of the piece, the final movement. For all its jollity, it was the end of the thing. In music, Molly thought, joy and finality can exist together so easily.
For a moment she caught herself, as she sometimes did. Oh, this was all quite silly, she knew. But it was all silly in the end. She was not naïve. She and Robert had shared fifty-five years. They had been happy. She had never believed that there was just one person in the world for her, a soul mate. No, there were millions of people out there that Robert could have been happy with, that she could have been happy with. But it had just so happened that it was the two of them who had loved and spent all that time together, the two of them that had come together and settled down. It really meant quite little overall, she sensed, but to her and Robert it had been the life they lived. Until…And now there was…this.
“Tell me a story, Robert,” she sighed. “Won’t you read me a story? You know how I love it when you do.”
Molly’s whispers were hushed enough—and the music loud enough—that no one in the audience heard her.
Once upon a time, so long ago, in a land very far away,
There lived a princess who, try as she might, could not be happy…
“Yes,” whispered Molly, before her words retreated into unspoken thought, “that’s a good one. I love the way you read that one.”
Taylor watched Molly, half-concealed in shadow at the edge of the spotlight. He knew her story almost as well as he knew the story that Robert read in here thirty times a day. Molly’s husband had been given the gig of reading and recording this fairytale for the show back in ’86. The details, as Molly had presented them to Taylor a few months back, were patchy, but he understood the basics just fine. Her husband had been friends with the brother of the guy who owned the park back then. There had been a professional actor—some guy who’d had two lines in an episode of some TV show called The Waltons once, apparently—lined up to read and record the story, but he’d gotten a better offer and bailed on the park at short notice. Molly’s husband, Robert, had stepped in. He was a librarian and read story hours at the library for local school kids.
Then, Molly had told Taylor, her husband passed away (she skipped the thirty odd years in between Robert speaking the story and breathing his last). It happened back in January--or was it February? Taylor didn’t remember exactly--and Molly eventually started these daily visits to the Fairy Tale Theater so she could ‘spend time and talk with him’—and that was the phrase Molly had used, casual as you like. Just here for a chat. To hear his voice. To “talk with him.”
Taylor became aware of some noise in the Theater and his gaze drifted away from Molly. A couple of little kids in the back row, restless and fidgety, were cutting up. Taylor prepared to ask them to be quiet, but the mother handed each kid a gadget. They were immediately soothed by the thin veil of blue light now shrouding them. Taylor glanced across at the only other people in the audience. The dad was texting—angrily it seemed—while his kid looked at the stage bored, picking at loose threads on his arm rest.
Molly submerged herself in Robert’s voice as the story went on, lifting and sinking a little with each wave of intonation. She didn’t notice the old static crackle beneath the words like gravel under foot. His utterances were no longer the mere movement of sound through air, but tangible, physical threads to which Molly gripped and pulled her husband back to her. He emerged through his voice, the whole presence of the man, and with her eyes closed there was only him and her, only the two of them as they had always been and always would be.
The minutes passed. Robert spoke; Molly alone listened. Finally, when the story was done, the creaky metal figures all shunted to a halt, Taylor flicked on the lights and pushed open the door with a pop and a bang. Heat and sunshine burst into the tiny room. Slowly the two families made their way out. Molly, eyes now open, sat in her seat. As always, she showed no signs of leaving. She was rooted, staying a spell.
Gently closing the door behind him to keep in the cool air, Taylor slipped outside. In the distance he saw another Friendly Helper coming to relieve him of his watch over The Fairy Tale Theater. Taylor had been excited about this being his last day at the park, the last day of screaming kids, sunburn, and the occasional pool of vomit to be mopped up. But now he sensed behind this little stopping, behind this tiny ending, a great finality that was somewhere lurking behind all things. It was the first time he had thought this, the first time he had understood such a thing. He did not like it.
Molly sat alone inside the theater. Robert, I love that you are always talking about Living Happily Ever After. You always were a ‘glass half full’ one, though, weren’t you? But I think I see your point. I think I see what you are saying—what you mean—with all those fairy tales you loved so well.
She breathed deeply, held the air in, and her lover’s words played on in her head, echoes of an echo of a story he used to tell.
Tiny tin figures on stage stood in silent contemplation, rusting players soon to be free of their script. The metal beams of the Theater itself creaked a little as the sun at last reached its full height above them.
About the Author: Paul Gleed has recently published short fiction in The Broadkill Review, Truman State University's Greenhills Literary Lantern, and the University of Maine’s The Sandy River Review. He has also placed creative non-fiction in the Roanoke Review, a piece nominated for The Best American Essays 2018. He holds a Doctorate in Renaissance Literature from SUNY Buffalo.