Carl Harlon had a singular, stunning thought as he balanced himself against the carnival’s bright orange plastic storm fence: she is breaking my heart. He watched as she made her way through the crowd, past dartboard balloon games and milk bottle pyramids. She swayed when she walked, her hips swinging slow and deliberate, like a runway model in slow motion. She ate cotton candy and laughed easily at the barkers who tempted her with giant stuffed pandas and cowboy hats made of foam. But what he noticed more than anything was the cruel reality that she was with a man who was not Carl Harlon.
Only a few weeks earlier, Carl was having a different problem. He seemed to be turning into a thirteen year old girl. He wasn’t sure how it happened. One day he was a grown man, working for an accounting firm, living a respectable, mundane life. And the next he was attending stargazing classes and scribbling pictures on the cover of his notebooks. Hearts and arrows. Clouds and sunrays. In large block letters, he wrote the name of the woman who stole his heart: HEIDI. He wrote it back-to-back and sent it snaking across the notebook in playful paths: HeidiHeidiHeidiHeidiHeidi.
And also: Carl & Heidi.
The night class wasn’t his idea. It was Stan’s.
“You need to do something with your life,” Stan said.
“I do plenty,” Carl said, “You should talk. You work at a gas station. I’ve got a career.”
“I’ve got a wife and kid,” Stan trumped, “That is a life. You need more life.”
This embarrassed Carl terribly, his younger brother giving him advice. Stan, the family man. Handsome. Funny. Personable. Somehow he’d maintained his sense of confidence even as he managed second shift at the Super Pump. It wasn’t natural, the younger sibling having the fuller life.
“What do you think about going back to school?” Stan offered, “You could get an advanced degree, meet some people.”
Carl knew he meant “meet some women” and appreciated his not saying it. Stan had met a lot of women at college. He always got the girl. And when he got the girl pregnant, he took the first job he could find. Then he did something unimaginable. He became very happy. Suddenly he was quoting poetry and talking about the plan of the universe and sighing so much, always the sighing. It’s like he’d lost his mind, he was so sick with love. Carl watched his brother’s transformation from a distance, not quite sure how he felt about Stan being in such a dreamy state. It seemed unstable behavior, surely leading to a disastrous outcome. “I’ve got plenty to do at the firm,” Carl argued, but signed up for an Astronomy class the next night at the local college.
Heidi appeared in the doorway of the first class almost immediately after Carl had found his seat. She walked directly towards him as if pulled by tractor beam, and sat right next to him.
“I'm Heidi,” she said as she unpacked supplies from her school bag.
She slapped him on the shoulder. “Like Sagan!” she said, “I knew there was a reason I sat next to you.” She poked at him. “Fate,” she said, and winked.
Carl wasn't used to being slapped and poked, but he liked it. He liked what fate had to offer. Fate was radiant, with golden hair and luminescent skin. She smelled like candy. Carl found himself taking deep, surreptitious breaths.
The following week, she sat next to him again. They developed a nice pattern together. He arrived very early, she strode in a few minutes late, shaking her head at herself. “I just got here two seconds ago,” Carl would lie, so they could be partners in tardiness.
She liked to make jokes about the Astronomy professor, Dr. Brown. Heidi would lean in towards Carl and whisper her musings to him. Like a secret. Dr. Brown was a serious man with a penchant for apocalyptic reminders that humans were mere dust in a vast, unimaginable universe. Once he spoke of black holes, how they were created by a star that implodes so heavily, the collapsing in on itself reverses gravity and causes such a tremendous pull that not even light can escape. He said, “If a man were to get near a black hole, his body would pull down into the hole like a great stick of taffy, stretching the man to nothing but a ribbon of floss until he was swallowed completely.” Dr. Brown thought for a moment before he continued. “Nobody knows what’s on the other side of a black hole,” he said, and held his palms out like the scales of justice. “Could be paradise, could be an endless, insufferable death spanning time and space as we know it.”
Heidi whispered in Carl’s ear, her breath sweet with cherry cough drops. “Hope it’s paradise,” she said, rolled her eyes, and poked him with the eraser end of her pencil.
After every class, she said, “See you next time, Carl Sagan” and made a quick exit. Carl’s stomach always tied up in knots, because he knew he should be taking some sort of action--asking her out to dinner or a drink, or a coffee, or for any reason to spend more time with her. But she shimmied away from him like liquid mercury--bright and fast and impossible to catch.
He mouthed what he wanted to say, just to get it out of his system. “I miss you” he said silently as she walked away, “I miss you when you’re gone, Heidi.”
Carl found himself unable to concentrate at work. The numbers that used to flow effortlessly from his head to his fingers were somehow re-routed into strange patterns on his calculator that didn’t add up. He switched to writing figures out on paper, but they inevitably devolved to words, lists of locales having nothing to do with accounting: the beach, the cafe, a museum, a rock and roll bar, a mountaintop.
He created flip-page animations on post-it notes. H – HE – HEI – HEID – HEIDI
And on the last page it climaxed with: HEIDI HARLON. He flipped through the cartoon and sighed. He wondered why he even came in to work, to add numbers all day with nothing to show for it but more numbers. He knew right then that he could not live without her. It was a desperate moment that left him frozen with another staggering realization: Dear God, I am sick with love.
“Help me,” he pleaded to Stan.
“Take her to the carnival,” Stan said.
This hadn’t made it on any of Carl’s lists. He abhorred carnivals. They were dirty and loud and their nomadic nature made him distrustful of everyone involved. “How about a coffee shop?” he asked.
Stan winced. “You need to try something fun, original. Do the carnival. Everyone loves carnivals.”
Carl remembered the carnival from his youth, the annual 4th of July freak show that rolled in to Franklin Park and set up shop for the holiday weekend. He thought of one awful ride in particular--The Trabant--a giant spinning plate housed with thousands of bright lights. It sent its passengers lunging up and down as it slowly spun on its axis. As a boy, he stood in line and watched the ride undulate-- flashing strobes and screaming mouths and hands in the air. At the right angle, the underbelly would reveal itself: gears and grease, pistons and extension cords duct-taped to sheet metal. Carl vomited before he could leave the line.
“I don't like rides,” Carl told Stan.
“So play a game. You could win her a prize. She’d love it.”
Heidi did like to joke around, Carl thought. If she didn’t love the carnival outright, she might appreciate it in an ironic way.
At the next class, Carl couldn’t contain himself. He didn’t want to wait another moment before asking her out, so he abruptly started speaking before she even sat down.
“There's this crazy thing in town,” he said, “Maybe—“
“The carnival? I’m going to that tonight!” she said.
Relief (that she was already planning to go) and disappointment (that she was already planning to go) formed a wave of confusion that washed over his ability to respond.
Luckily, she added: “How about I meet you there?”
“Great,” Carl said, and wondered through the entire lecture if it really was great.
After class, Heidi turned to him before her dash out the door. “See you at the carnival, Carl Sagan!” she said and was gone.
“I can't wait,” Carl whispered, a bold step above simply forming the words. “I love you,” he said quietly. He closed his eyes and tasted the candy air she left behind.
The plastic orange fence was more of a decoration than anything, a boundary to mark the carnival’s beginning and end. Carl stood by it simply as a method of steadiness and order. He surveyed the grounds from there, able to watch the flow of traffic, to study the different games he might easily win. He was relieved to see there was no Trabant, but other more ominous rides loomed on the edges of the park. Spinning things with hydraulic noises. A particularly alarming shriek rose above the festival din and forced Carl to look in its direction. As fate would have it, this was when he spotted Heidi.
She was as beautiful as ever. She had a different way about her, an easiness that revealed another life away from her scattered, rushed manner in class. Maybe it was because she was holding hands with her date, a ridiculously handsome man who Carl immediately imagined worked in firefighting or professional hockey. Carl felt a crushing all-over pain, immediately followed by total panic--he could not be seen waiting by the fence like a lost puppy. He must plunge himself deep into the crowd.
Soon he was amongst all the people of the carnival, huddling shoulder-to-shoulder between gum-snapping and parental commands. He ducked down behind heads and balloons and corn cobs as the crowd milled along, all the while keeping his eye on Heidi and her date. The self-flagellation began as he shuffled his feet. How could you be so stupid? What made you think her friendliness was anything more than just that?
Before he knew it, Carl found himself stuck in a line. There were steel cattle fences on either side of the crowd, corralling everyone to some unknown destination. “Excuse me,” Carl asked one of the kids in front of him, “Where does this line go?”
“The Century Fugue,” the kid said, “It’s a total rush.”
“Oh no,” Carl said, and stretched his head up above the crowd. Heidi was thirty feet behind him. “Oh no,” he said again.
“Oh yeah, the kid said, “It really is a rush.”
As the crowd inched forward, Carl heard the fugue music coming from a circular building just ahead, but he couldn't see what was happening inside. There was only the sound of harpsichord notes layering on top of more notes, growing louder and more insistent. Carl took one last look back at Heidi. She was locked in a kiss. His thoughts misfired and scattered, his breath went shallow. He was utterly confused. So much so that he didn't even notice he had walked straight into The Century Fugue.
The ride was a centrifuge for humans. Carl lined up against the wall like everyone else, and watched a mad organist in the center pretend to play the taped Baroque music. The volume increased as people found their spot against the wall, and clavichords joined in. He felt movement, but because the ride was enclosed, he couldn't see anything spinning. But he was definitely moving. Something set his head firmly against the wall. Something pulled his arms and legs back and positioned him in a spread eagle. Suddenly the fugue music ceased and flugelhorns took its place. Blasts of brass set the riders hooting and hollering. A warning. The frequency of the spinning kicked up a full notch. The floor dropped. Carl’s cheeks moved back in a rictus grin. The mad organist let out an insane cackle, but strangely Carl did not feel he was in danger--only that perhaps things would be different soon, or already were.
Maybe this ride is not only spinning in circles, Carl thought, maybe it was stretching him out little by little, first his face, then his neck and heart, until his very soul was just a ribbon of floss headed for the unknown on the other side of a black hole. “Hope it’s paradise,” he said out loud, but nobody heard him over the blaring horns.