Devil’s Lake

Fall 2016 Issue

Corinne Partelow: The Calypso-Whirl

The fair arrived at the tail end of summer, before the last of the blue chicory had curled and died. The air had turned slightly cooler, and the smell of sun-dried cornhusks gave way to budding apples, damp soil, and wet hay. A Ferris wheel had been erected at the center of fifteen fallow acres of Buckeye County farmland and every child within a 50-mile radius gravitated toward its spinning, centripetal force.

Rory McDaniel was no exception. Inside the cab of her father’s weathered pickup she shifted impatiently in her seat, her bronze-red hair pinwheeling around her face as the breeze swept in through the window. Her hopes had been set on arriving early enough to see the gates open, but that had happened nearly an hour ago. Even with that knowledge, her father drove with little urgency, always cruising at a steady ten miles below the speed limit with an elbow hanging out the window and a thumb fishhooked to the bottom of the steering wheel.

“You find out who your teacher is yet?” he asked Rory with a dazed expression.

She nodded. “Mrs. Woodcock.”

Her father let out a loud snort. “Well she sounds like a good time.”

“Lucy Blackwell says that Mrs. Woodcock is the best fifth grade teacher.”

“This Lucy Blackwell seems to know just about everything, doesn’t she?” he said as they rode over a stretch of algae-clotted pond where bullfrogs let out twangy calls like loose banjo strings. On the opposite side of the bridge, propped up against an apple tree, a wooden arrow read Buckeye County Fair in blue, hand-painted letters.

“She knows about astrology,” Rory said, hoping her father would be impressed. Lucy also knew how to cover up Rory’s freckles with skin-colored makeup, how to write spelling test answers on the inside of her arm without getting caught, how to pretend to speak a foreign language.

“Oh yeah?” said her father. “What’s the astrological sign for people who are full of shit? Is it Leo or Scorpio? I can never remember. Don’t tell your mother I said shit in front of you.”

Rory laughed and gave a conspiring nod. “I won’t.”

Her father’s frequent profanity had once been a source of embarrassment, and up until a year ago she would have jumped at the opportunity to report it back to her mother. But lately she began to view his cursing as a sign that he trusted her and considered her an equal. It didn’t really matter though since Lucy had recently taken up swearing around her all the time and Rory had started experimenting with a few four-letter words herself.

“Is Lucy in your class again this year?” her father asked.

“We’re always in the same class,” Rory said matter-of-factly. Ever since first grade they’d had the same teacher, lockers only two or three apart from one other, desks close enough that they could pass notes. Not having Lucy in her homeroom didn’t even seem like a possibility.

Rory’s father nodded, a smile forming beneath the copper-colored beard that grew like brushwood over the bottom half of his face.

They pulled into a lot of dingy cars and from a distance, Rory picked up the burnt-sweet smell of kettle corn and the sound of carousel music playing, its whimsical notes plucking at a sad nostalgia buried inside her. The fair used to be something she did with both of her parents. But this morning, after a hushed argument with her father, her mother had refused to go. So they left her at home, looking relieved—almost joyful at the prospect of spending the afternoon alone.

Rory hurried toward the ticket line, now and then glancing back at her father, who walked in deliberately slow strides, his favorite way to express his aversion to rushing. When they reached the gate, they pushed their hips through the turnstiles and hesitated by the entrance to absorb the end-of-summer revelry that had taken over the ordinarily quiet acres of Buckeye County farmland.

The fairgrounds were electric with the chatter of excited children, their eyes dilating at the pinks and yellows of dessert stands, their toes jitterbugging in bright plastic sandals. Some of the young men had removed their shirts and thrown them over a shoulder or tied them to a belt loop so they hung limply at their waists. Women bared their arms and shoulders, ready for tan lines and catching freckles in tops that haltered around the back of the neck. The smallest children, some with balloons tied to their wrists, rode the waltzing carousel horses around and around and around again beneath the gilded canopy.

“Not so fast,” said Rory’s father as she jumped in line at the custard stand to order a pair of vanilla peach twists. He handed her a bottle of sunscreen and pointed to a cluster of picnic tables near the edge of the orchard. “And make sure you get your nose real good. Remember what happened last time?” He poked her squarely on the nose, and in that moment, the camaraderie she imagined sharing with him earlier, vanished.

Rory sat in a spot of shade, squeezing the greasy lotion into her palm, dabbing it on her shoulders, on the tip of her nose, behind her knees, and on the tops of her feet, all the places she remembered getting burned before. Across the park the Calypso-Whirl spun and thrashed around like a strange metal monster. She had seen the ride advertised in a television commercial that showed images of children with wide chimpanzee grins and gravity-defying hair. Then the camera panned out to a helicopter view of the looping silver apparatus and little pairs of sneakers could be seen dangling from the cars before being tossed skyward. This is what she had waited weeks for, what had carried her through the slow-crawling summer days she spent doing crossword puzzles on the screened-in porch waiting for dinner to be ready, or for the inevitable fight to break out between her parents.

Rory’s father had finally reached the front of the custard line and was making small talk with the woman behind the window, who had stringy, gasoline-colored hair and skeleton wrists. Her ribcage stuck out from the middle of her chest like a hardened butterfly. He spoke to her animatedly as she pulled down the lever, rotating the cones and letting the custard swirl up into creamy peaks. His guttural laugh traveled over to the pavilion where Rory sat waiting for him. When the woman handed the cones to her father, Rory watched her mouth curve into a strange smile and she wondered what her father could have said to make her look at him that way.

“Where to?” her father asked after their cones started dripping and they gladly crushed what was left of them into their mouths.

“The Calypso-Whirl,” Rory said eagerly, pointing over the crowns of striped tents.

That one? It looks like a torture device,” said her father. “I thought you liked the swings. You know, the ride that doesn’t make you vomit.”

“That’s the one from the commercial, Dad,” she said, as if that were enough of an explanation. “Besides, Lucy says it’s the scariest.”

“Oh Lucy says it’s the scariest. What are you, a masochist?” Her father looked down at her seriously. He wiped his beard with a napkin and squinted over at the Calypso-Whirl again, sizing it up.

Rory dug the heels of her jellies emphatically into the ground.

“You don’t want to give yourself a minute to digest?” he asked her.

“I don’t need to digest.”

“Alright, alright,” he said, surprising Rory with an unusually quick surrender. The interaction with the woman at the custard stand seemed to have brightened his mood and Rory was reluctantly grateful.

“But if that thing twists my spine into a knot, you’re paying my medical bills,” he said.


“And if I end up in a wheelchair after this, you’ll be the one pushing me around. You know your mom won’t do it. She’d dump me off at the closest gas station and leave me there.” Rory laughed at the thought of this.

“I’m glad my hypothetical suffering amuses you,” her father said, tugging at a lock of her hair and giving her a warm smile.

At the Calypso-Whirl, a large, muscular man collected tickets, grabbing them from riders as if reclaiming something that had been taken from him. Tattoos crawled up his leathery skin like vines, from his wrists all the way up under his sleeves, kaleidoscoping over his forearms in bursts of skeleton bones and flowers. They spread up the sides of his meaty neck, behind his ears, and onto the pads of skin between his knuckles. As he waited for the ride to complete another cycle the man sat looking out into space, holding his cigarette still and letting the smoke curl up around him.

Rory and her father craned their necks as the ride started up, the three steel arms wheeling around, the enclosed cars attached to each arm spinning steadily. Every time a car flew past them they felt a breeze on their faces and caught bits of screams and laughter. Up close Rory realized just how tall the ride was and she squinted to see the top of the steel axis. It looked frighteningly thin, too thin to support the weight and force of the somersaulting cars. Rory’s heart began to pick up speed and she felt a trickle of sweat run down the crease of her lower spine. She looked up at her father, who seemed to be growing more excited as they got closer to the front of the line.

The Calypso-Whirl came to a stop again and a few people were let off, draping their arms around one another and walking dizzily toward the exit.

“Step up,” the tattooed man told Rory and her father. They squished into the car together and the man pressed a metal bar into their laps, clamping it tight. There was no backing out now. She gripped the red handlebar in front of her with white knuckles. Her father grinned down at her. “Having second thoughts?” She shook her head and looked away so he wouldn’t see the tears welling up in her eyes. She suddenly had a strong urge to cling to him like she did when she was little.

The door of their car shut and the Calypso-Whirl cranked into motion. Before long they were flying outward and upwards until their backs were to the ground and all they could see was blue sky with a few whipped topping clouds, and just as quickly, they dropped down so close to the ground that they could smell the wet earth.

When they were thrown back up again Rory caught a glimpse of the windmills on the eastern hillsides. Fields of corn stretched out to the west, green and gold, and apple trees stood in prim rows everywhere in between. Below her, the striped tent tops looked like strange mushrooms sprouting from the ground and the fairgoers moved around them like insects.

The ride sped up and soon the landscape and the sky swirled around in Rory’s vision until they were indistinguishable. Every time they catapulted upward, a fear would rise up in her throat followed by a rush of exhilaration as they dropped toward the ground again. Her hair prickled her cheeks and stuck to her tongue and her heart beat wild and red inside her chest. The metal bar pushed back against her weight and bruised her hipbones, but she didn’t care. It was possible, she decided, to reach a point where you could be too happy to feel pain. Filled with the same intoxication, her father let out a series of joyful shouts and nudged her playfully with his elbow.

Finally, the Calypso-Whirl slowed and Rory stepped off on shaky knees, delirious with the thrill of the ride. She’d never felt anything like it before. Her father laughed and let out a loud whoop.

“I haven’t done something like that in a long time,” he said, beaming. “Makes me feel like a teenager again.” With the blood in his cheeks and the way he was smiling, he did look much younger.

Rory and her father rode the Calypso-Whirl again, and then for another hour, then another, sometimes standing in lines of forty people or more, but always with a fresh anticipation, long ribbons of perforated tickets trailing from their fingers, and one of them repeating the same false declaration: “Last time. This will be the last time.” Then they would grin at each other, knowing that it was a lie.

By late afternoon Rory’s face had cramped up from smiling and her hair was in a hopeless ruby-hued tangle. Grinning and breathless, she and her father sat at the pavilion eating hot dogs in red and white paper boats, trying to remember how many times they went on the ride, but neither of them was completely sure. Her mother, they both agreed, would be too afraid to ever ride the Calypso-Whirl.

After lunch they wandered over to the carnival games. “Want to see your old man take a swing at the high striker?” Rory’s father asked as they passed a tall yellow tower shaped like a thermometer.

He let Rory go first and she hit the target with a rubber mallet. After striking out, her father took a turn. On his second swing he sent the puck all the way up the tower until it struck the bell with a clean, metallic chime. A few people clustered around the high striker applauded or gave him a nod of praise.

“Nice hit,” said a woman’s voice directly behind them. It was Desiree Blackwell, Lucy’s mother. Lucy stood at her side, but was busy plucking at a cloud of blue cotton candy.

“Lucy!” Rory shouted excitedly. The two girls embraced, their thin arms locking tightly around one another.

Rory’s father smiled at Desiree. “Think they know each other?”

“Nice to finally meet Rory’s father,” said Desiree, holding out a hand with black-painted fingernails. In one flickering glance he took in her long black hair, her slender legs exposed in cutoff denim shorts, and the silver rings on her toes. And in that instant, something in his voice, in his demeanor, changed, the way it had when he spoke to the woman at the custard stand.

“Care to take a swing?” he asked her, holding up the mallet.

Desiree smirked. Her voice was deep and filled with gravel. “Aren’t we a little old for this game?” she asked.

“Hell, the second you’re old enough to win the game is when you become too old to play it. That just doesn’t seem fair.”

Desiree laughed and reached for the mallet. “Fine,” she said taking one last sip of her soda before handing it to Lucy. “Just one.”

The girls looked on, eating tufts of cotton candy and smacking their lips as Lucy’s mother held the mallet above her head and slammed it down on the target with a force that surprised all of them.

The puck came close to ringing the bell.

Rory’s father whistled. “Has she been practicing this all afternoon?” he asked Lucy. “Tell the truth.” She blushed and shook her head no. Instantly the loudmouthed, cigarette-stealing Lucy Blackwell had been rendered tongueless in the presence of Rory’s father.

“God that felt good,” said Desiree, tossing her black hair behind her shoulder and winding up for another swing. This time she hit the target even harder, but still came shy of the bell.

“Here, let me show you a trick,” offered Rory’s father, touching Desiree lightly on the arm. “Bring it way back behind your head, like this. You’ll get more force out of your swing.”

Lucy turned to Rory, whispering in her ear through bluish lips, “I think they like each other.”

Rory felt a sinking feeling inside her stomach. She had been thinking the same thing, but to hear Lucy say it out loud seemed to cement it into truth.

“My dad does not like your mom,” she said sharply. “He’s married. To my mom.”

“Men can be attracted to women they aren’t married to,” Lucy said with a shrug.

Of course Rory knew this was true. She had heard her father remark on the beauty of other women before. But with Lucy’s mother, it was different. Rory’s father didn’t have to say anything for Rory to realize his attraction. Some strange magnetism had formed between the two of them in a matter of minutes and she couldn’t explain its sudden emergence, but she knew with certainty it was there.

The girls led the way to the House of Mirrors, located at the farthest end of the park. Its shape and red velvet curtains resembled an old-fashioned theater and painted on its outer walls were colorful murals of jokers, clowns, and Venetian carnival masks. Relieved that Lucy didn’t consider the funhouse too juvenile for a pair of almost fifth-graders, Rory slipped through the curtains behind her, leaving their parents at the nearby pavilion. In the first room, a row of crooked and curved mirrors lined the walls on either side and the girls peered into them, giggling at how each distorted their images.

“Look at this one!” cried Lucy. In the mirror her head had blown up to an enormous size, as if she were looking into the bottom of a spoon. The rest of her body was stretched long and thin like pulled taffy. In a second mirror, the girls had tiny heads and hips and bellies that swelled out like the bottom of a pear. In another, their reflections accordianed from side to side as if their backbones were made of ribbon.

The girls snaked their way through the hall of mirrors. In a corner of the maze Rory’s reflection mirrored behind her into infinity, reflection upon reflection, an army of herself with blue shorts and messy red hair. When she blinked, the army blinked with her. When she stuck out her tongue, they did the same. She raised a hand, letting a ripple run through her fingers, and they wiggled a hundred fingers back in perfect, centipedal synchrony.

“I’ll race you to the end,” said Lucy, her own army of reflections intruding on Rory’s. Lucy’s eyes lit up with a feverish competitiveness and before Rory could answer, she dashed away and disappeared among the mirrors. Rory raced forward, moving as quickly and carefully as she could through the silver labyrinth. She would not be fooled by illusions, by her own image running toward her or away from her on the walls. It seemed imperative that she make it through the maze before Lucy, as if beating her to the end would prove something, although she wasn’t quite sure what.

A few times she hit a dead end and had to backtrack to try another avenue. Sometimes she ran into other fairgoers wandering through the hall, pinching the fabric of each other’s shirts so they wouldn’t lose one another. Once, Rory caught a glimpse of Lucy’s black hair, of her long arms and legs among the glittering mirrors, but she couldn’t be sure if it was Lucy herself she saw or only her reflection. In an instant, however, the image of Lucy was gone. Rory zigzagged onward, her heart drumming through her whole body. As she twisted and turned through the maze, she caught a flash of her own determined brown eyes on every metallic surface.

Finally Rory caught sight of a giant, sideways cylinder painted in red, green, purple, and gold stripes and spinning in slow, hypnotic rotations. This, she realized with delight, must be the end of the maze. She jumped onto its surface, holding her arms out, bird-like, to balance herself. She slid through the cylinder easily and was spit out on the other side, where she collapsed in the grass and waited for Lucy. She smiled to herself. The rush was almost as good as riding the Calypso-Whirl, but not quite.

As she caught her breath, Rory glanced over to where Desiree and her father were waiting for them at the picnic tables. Lucy’s mother sat on top of a picnic table smoking a cigarette while Rory’s father stood with one leg propped up on the bench, resting an arm on his knee and leaning in toward her. He was talking to her in a low voice and she turned her head to the side to blow smoke into the sky, but her eyes never left his. He reached his arm around Desiree and let his fingers graze the area of exposed skin on her lower back where something reptilian was tattooed in dark ink. He looked at Desiree in a way that Rory had never seen him look at her own mother.

Rory couldn’t move. She could only keep watching even though she wanted desperately to look away. She could hear screams echoing from the Calypso-Whirl across the park, but they sounded frightening now, as if the ride were in fact designed to torture children. The heavy aroma of deep fried onion blooms suddenly sickened her and the heat of the sun intensified until she felt a burning across her chest. She realized, moving the strap of her halter top to the side, that she’d forgotten to put sunscreen there.

Her father glanced up in her direction and their eyes met only for a second. He pulled his hand away from Desiree as if he’d just touched a hot surface.

“You beat me!” shouted Lucy, who was peering at Rory through the opposite side of the revolving cylinder, her shoulders slumped in defeat. She shuffled through carefully and plopped down beside Rory in the grass.

“You won,” she said again, inviting Rory to gloat.

“What’s wrong?”

“I feel sick,” said Rory, drawing her hand to her belly. Her father and Desiree were walking over to them, smiling and talking like old friends.

“She doesn’t feel well,” Lucy reported, still panting slightly from the race.

“The ride finally caught up to you, huh?” said Rory’s father. There was no flicker of regret or embarrassment in his eyes as Rory had expected there would be. “I guess we better get going then.”

“We probably should too,” said Desiree. “It’s been a long day.”

“Sure has, huh Rory?” he said, searching his daughter’s eyes. He extended two hands to help the girls up. Lucy grabbed one, but Rory ignored him and pushed herself off the ground.

Her father turned back to Desiree. “You let me know when you’d like me to look at that carburetor.”

“I will,” she said, sticking her cigarettes and lighter in the back pocket of her cutoffs, where the square of the box had made a permanent imprint in the denim.

“See you at school,” said Lucy, her words trailing away as she turned to leave with her mother.

Rory stood still, her hand clutching her gut. She wanted to say something to her father, or to ask him something, but it was impossible. She wasn’t even sure what she had witnessed and she couldn’t think straight with the chaos of the fair swirling around her, but the motion of her father’s fingers touching Desiree’s inked skin replayed itself over and over in her mind.

“Want me to punch you in the arm so you’ll forget about your stomachache?” said her father.


“What if I kick you in the knees so you forget about it?”


“Smack you on the head?”

“Dad, stop.”

Her father looked down at her in surprise, as if realizing for the first time that his daughter was capable of feeling something other than a few childish emotions.

Rory turned to walk toward the exit and her father followed, this time quickening his step to keep up with her. The ground below them was a muddy patchwork of sneaker marks scattered with carnival litter. The sun sank steadily lower, drawing the shadow of the Ferris wheel into an oblong loop. The ride itself became a series of dark shapes in the glare of the sun: carts rocking, spokes spinning, feet kicking. Groups of young teenagers arrived, smoking cigarettes and waiting for dusk, when the rides would light up with firework-colored bulbs. All around them children with pink, sun-bitten ears whined or rubbed their eyes sleepily as they migrated with their parents toward the parked cars. Their lost balloons polka-dotted the sky.

author Corinne Partelow CORINNE PARTELOW is originally from a small town in Central New York. She earned her undergraduate degree from Gettysburg College and her MFA from George Mason University, where she taught courses in composition, literature, and creative writing. Corinne was recently a finalist for the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction awarded by Philadelphia Stories. She currently lives and works in Alexandria, Virginia. More from this issue >