My father died suddenly a few months before I turned fifteen. Overnight the August heat gave way to the briskness of autumn and going-back-to-school. It was the early 1980s; he had just had cable TV installed, and one station repeatedly showed the 1956 film Carousel. I sat on the living room floor, watching it over and over again.
I can’t recall him ever taking me on a carousel. But when I was little, he won a stuffed red bull for me at a carnival. I called her Red Rose and clutched her as I fell asleep in the back seat on the way home, looking up at the shadowy canopy of leaves lit by streetlights.
I grew up in Hough’s Neck, a working-class neighborhood on a peninsula just south of Boston. Four miles across the water is Nantasket, once one of the grand seaside resorts. The old amusement park there was torn down just a few years after my father’s death, but the Paragon Carousel, built in 1928, was saved.
When the restoration artist began stripping away the layers of garish paint, he found that the wooden horses, carved in a realistic style, originally had been dapple gray, black, chestnut, piebald. They stretch their necks, rear their heads, and shy, muzzles jerking aside. Some have been restored: painted by brush, glazed, and richly varnished. Like greenery on a marzipan cake, a garland of daisies, roses, and petunias trails across a horse’s white shoulder. An emerald saddle blanket is radiant as silk, its corner blown back gently by a sea breeze. The horses waiting for their turn appear cracked and riven, and have an air of bravery.
The Carousel News and Trader catalogued all the carousels made by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company between 1904 and 1941. Only twenty-five of its ninety-three carousels are listed as Operating—at the Santa Monica Pier, Hershey Park, Disney World, Nantasket—while the fates of the rest read like a casualty list, or a dossier of missing persons: Fire, Dispersed, Unknown.
In Carousel, a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical later made into a film, Billy Bigelow is a carousel barker in coastal Maine. Broad-chested, he wears a striped roll-neck sweater, and his slick, wavy black hair falls over his forehead. I have a picture of my father as a teenager with two friends, taken at Castle Island in South Boston in the late 1950s; they all have something of the look of Billy Bigelow.
The carousel owner, a jealous woman, fires Billy for flirting with a young mill-worker, Julie. Julie and Billy marry, but he can’t adjust to respectability; he loafs and sulks, and one night, he hits her. When he learns that she is pregnant, he is thrilled at the idea of becoming a father and vows that, however he has to do it, he will get enough money to make a new start for his family. In a bungled robbery attempt, he falls on his knife and is killed. After that he sits on a ladder polishing and hanging stars in purgatory, until he is given the chance, for one day only, to come back to earth to help the daughter he has never met. She is now fifteen, and unhappy.
The stranger approaches the girl as she sits at a picnic table, head buried in her arms, weeping; he tries to comfort her, telling her that he knew her father. But when he attempts to give her a gift—a real star, he says, from up there—she becomes frightened. Coaxing, pleading, grasping her hand as she tries to pull away, he finally hits her, and she flees.
Thirty years after I first saw the film, I stand at the balustrade that surrounds the Paragon Carousel. Floating out from the Wurlitzer band organ is “Yankee Doodle Dandy” or “In the Good Old Summertime.” It must play “The Carousel Waltz,” sometimes. I used to know the lyrics to almost all of the songs from Carousel—though after “This was a real nice clambake,” I only ever got as far as “and we all had a real good time.”
I would cry at the end, when Billy’s ghost sings “If I Loved You” and, in parting, whispers to Julie what he never told her while he was alive.
The sun starts to set, apricot, pink, and lavender, like colored sand in a jar. Lightbulbs and mirrors seem to be everywhere: they wink and streak as the carousel rotates, faster—then faster than I would have thought a carousel could go.
I spot them in the distance, just as they clear the motor-house, and I see their backs after they have swung past. I try to wave in time, but I just miss them. Interspersed and revolving, it all moves as one: milky polka dots on glossy, blue-gray hindquarters; three teenaged girls, gliding up and down and laughing as they snap each other with camera phones; a Roman chariot whose yellow-haired muse clasps a lyre, her eyes shrunken and skin flayed; fear of a recurrence, followed swiftly by fear of the unforeseeable, of some trick of fate; hocks and shanks, coronets and hooves, frozen in various attitudes of motion, falling and rising; father and daughter.
In a Twilight Zone episode, a man pursues his boyhood self onto a carousel. He wants to tell him to enjoy this time of his life, to urge him to seize his childhood and enjoy it. Terrified of the stranger who is chasing him, the boy falls off the carousel: and in the end the man walks away, limping.
The children rush through the gate onto the platform and scatter to find their horses. He lifts her onto one, a different one each time, and she gives it a name, always the same name. If there are reins, he puts them in her hands: she holds them loosely, unsure of what they do, and looks around in anticipation.
Soon she will be old enough to ride by herself. Every time, my husband offers, “Would you like to go on with her?” Every time, I reply, “No, you go.” When the bell rings and the carousel begins to turn, smoothly and slowly, time stands still. I stand at the railing, as if banished, and watch.
Kathleen Chaplin’s essay “The Death Knock” appeared in NER 34.1. She lives in Milton, Massachusetts.
Excerpted from “Waiting for Billy Bigelow,” a chapter of The Death Knock, a memoir in progress.
NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings.