By 8:30 pm, the line snaked three times around The Fount of Destruction, and Pete’s manager came by to give him the Jersey Joyland “keep it moving” signal, meaning: be ruthless and weed out anyone too young or too small. Pete forced anyone licking their soft serves or pinching tufts of cotton candy when they reached the front to move aside. If the kids grumbled or tried to hand off snacks to their parents, he pointed to the simulated smoke seeping out of The Fount’s interior, the lava-breathing monsters on the posters, the fake flames lapping the opening, and barked, “This is no ride for whiners!” Sometimes the fathers argued, got in Pete’s face, but he’d learned from his own dad how to stand up to that kind of aggression. The mothers of the rejected riders looked relieved; as kids disappeared through the entrance they could hear the booming voice of The Fount proclaim, “You will not return the same.”
Pete narrowed his eyes and surveyed the next load for kiddies to reject: a girl around 12 whose green pallor boded poorly, a little dude in a Carson Wentz jersey trying to puff himself up like the star quarterback, identical twin brothers shoving each other. He wouldn’t be sorry to leave Joyland behind at the end of the summer; by this time next year he’d have his degree and hopefully a real job in New York City.
At the exit, Pete’s coworker helped the kids unbuckle their safety belts, and then wiped down the seats of the ones who’d been so frightened they’d wet their pants. This kind of thing happened on other rides too – all Joyland exit greeters were given packages of wet wipes – but The Fount was known to be the most pee-inducing.
Joyland was 100 feet from the Atlantic, a boardwalk in between, but the nights were too black and the music too loud to see or hear the waves. The seagulls that snatched sunbathers’ snacks during the day – Shoobies from Philly who didn’t know how to guard their sandwiches or soft pretzels – stayed away in the evenings. Pete’s mom had sailed away on those waves, but unlike those exiting The Fount, she’d never returned.
The kid in the Carson Wentz t-shirt neared the front. Maybe 10, but short for his age. Pete’s gaze darted from the top of the boy’s head to the height chart. He was about to make the universal “you’re out” gesture with his thumb when a man whose forearms were as thick as the rotting beams holding up the boardwalk elbowed his way towards the front, a Coors in each hand. The kid’s eyes told Pete he’d already seen plenty of destruction. If he squinted, the boy’s missing inch and a half became less visible.
“You don’t look like the type to wet your pants. Am I right?” Pete leaned down, his voice not unkind. He’d been about the kid’s age when his mother had left.
The boy smirked, a tough guy. But Pete felt a kinship with these kids, the ones whose fathers spent most nights at the bars along Atlantic Avenue or sometimes in a holding cell until they could sober up. Who came home sowing strife, full of liquor, mean and snarly, like his old man.
“Go ahead,” he said to the boy, taking the requisite four tickets. He pointed to the next empty compartment, a few yards away from the fake flames at the Fount’s mouth.
The kid rushed past but then wavered when he got to his seat. Pete called: “Get in. You’ll make it.”
Julie Zuckerman’s debut novel-in-stories, The Book of Jeremiah, will be published by Press 53 in 2019. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, Salt Hill, The SFWP Quarterly, Ellipsis, formercactus, Sixfold, descant, and The MacGuffin, among others. A native of Connecticut, she now lives in Israel with her husband and four children.