Let me ride on the wall of death one more time
You can waste your time on the other rides
But this is the nearest to being alive.
—Richard Thompson

 

‘You’ve got to go in there,’ Cal said. ‘It was the best thing at the carnival last year.’

The shiny hysteria in his eyes reminded Grace of Hamu, the skydiving pig whose performance had been their first stop that night. Hamu hadn’t done much for either of them – in fact, they’d talked about calling the ASPCA – but the Wall of Death clearly had been a transcendent experience for Cal.

‘I thought they’d die,’ he gasped. ‘I thought I’d die. It’s violent, it’s sick… you’ll love it.’

Grace studied the poster for the Wall of Death. Well-muscled hunksone of them sporting an eye-patch-rode motorcycles up the walls of a ring. Puffs of exhaust curled prettily from the Harleys’ tailpipes as the bikes hung parallel to a floor that seemed to sparkle malevolently, awaiting gravity’s assistance to pulverise man and machine.

‘The freaks you’re paying to see aren’t long for this world, and chances are they’ll take a chunk of the audience with them when they go,’ Cal continued. ‘It’s so awful, it’s exquisite. And if this one biker is still in the show, you’re in for a treat. He’s positively magnificent: not handsome, strictly speaking, and his nose is huge. I don’t know if it’s his mindless courage or the ciggie dangling from his pouting young lips, but it’s a slice of heaven when he rides up the side of the pit towards you, risking your life and his.’
‘OK,’ Grace said. ‘I’ll take a look, just to check out this heartbreaker. But it’s your treat – and I sure as hell don’t want him aiming that bike at me.
‘That’s what you say now,’ Cal said, laughing.

The two of them walked over to buy tickets from a well-used blonde selling ‘I Survived the Wall of Death’ T-shirts. Feeling superior and a bit envious, Grace wondered what the woman had been through to achieve her worn sensuality.

*

Cal and Grace parted black felt curtains that stank of exhaust and went inside. They climbed a set of stairs and joined a few dozen others who were leaning against a waist-high barrier formed by the top of a pit about 25 feet deep. Its smooth wooden walls were topped with crisscrossed steel cables intended to keep errant bikes from careering into the audience.

A door at the base of the pit opened. Out came a paunchy man with multiple tattoos that looked as if they’d been etched in the jail yard.
‘Ladies and dudes, on behalf of the California Hell Riders, I welcome ya to the Wall of Death,’ he began. He was wearing leather chaps and his grey hair was tied in Willie Nelson pigtails.
‘As you’ll soon understand,’ he announced, slowly pacing the pit’s floor, ‘it’s impossible for the brave men you’re about to see to get health insurance. So we’ve set up a special fund, based on donations from the audience. And the Hell Riders ain’t lazy. If ya hold your one-, five-or hundred-dollar bill over the edge during the finale, they’ll come ‘n’ get it.’ The barker indicated a few random spots where audience members might stand at the edge of the pit and proffer money. His wan gestures reminded Grace of a retirement-age stewardess pointing out emergency exits on the fourth shuttle flight of the day.
‘And now,’ the barker said, his voice rising to convey a morsel of enthusiasm, ‘lemme present the desperadoes of the Golden State, the scourge of the Catalinas, the bane of civilised men and women everywhere… the California Hell Riders.’
Grace thought these last words should have been accompanied by an apocalyptic racket as a swarm of Hell Riders rumbled into the pit. Instead, a thin man strode in. He was young, probably around 19, wearing black jeans and a white tee shirt. A blue-and-white gingham bandanna was tied on his head pirate style.
‘Let’s hear it for Robby,’ the barker tossed over his shoulder as he left the pit.
There was a smattering of applause and a wolf whistle, courtesy of Cal. ‘That’s him,’ he whispered. ‘That’s my Hell Rider.’

Grace didn’t say anything to dampen Cal’s high spirits as his eyes consumed his Rider, but she wondered how long it would be before they were out of the Wall of Death and she could devour something herself — say, fried dough slathered in maple-flavoured syrup.

Robby bowed, then walked over to a dirt bike half the size of the Harleys in the poster outside. He straddled the bike, turned it on, and gunned the motor. The noise grew louder as he began circling the floor of the pit, deafening as he picked up speed and mounted the wall. For the first time, the audience cheered.
He guided his bike up the side of the wall, four feet, then ten, before settling in at a comfortable height about halfway up the pit.
‘It gets good now, Grace,’ Cal said. ‘You wait and see.’
Robby swung his legs around so both were on one side of the bike. He leaned back on the seat, his feet pointing toward the floor as the bike circled the wall parallel to the ground at fifty miles an hour.
Grace believed that centrifugal force was like religion: one moment of doubt and you’re lost, flung into oblivion. Robby, who slowly separated a Marlboro from the pack in his shirtsleeve, clearly had no such fear. He lit the cigarette nonchalantly and the crowdhooted its approval, throwing fresh butts and dollar bills.

Cal nudged her with an elbow.
‘When I’m right, I’m right,’ he said, grinning.

Turning to check Robby out more carefully, Grace had to admit that was true. She decided Robby looked like a homely version of the young Elvis. The torso under his T-shirt was compact yet impressive and Grace admired his tattoo, a snake slithering across a wiry bicep. He was the type she went for when slummingin her fantasies, though she usually chose an unshaven hero whose sandpaper chin would rub all her soft places raw. Robby’s sallow skin was smooth and glistening, as if he’d shaved for the performance-or wasn’t old enough to have a beard.

He came back down to earth and two other Hell Riders, the barker and another plump, 40-something ruffian, emerged for a tandem act. As Robby sauntered toward the doorway, Grace pulled a dollar from her pocket. She tried to send it his way, but it fluttered ineffectually to the bottom of the pit.

Despite the imminent doom of the two new riders, who skirted innumerable smash-ups as they rode the Wall, Grace felt unmoved by the proceedings. That changed when Robby returned for the finale.

The bikers cut their motors and the one who doubled as the barker announced, ‘Ladies and gents, the three of us will now scale the Wall of Death at the same time. This is where that health insurance comes in handy, so if ya’d be good enough to hold out your bills, we’d be pleased to come up and collect them.’

The three bikers mounted the Wall. None of them seemed to have a set cruising altitude; their paths kept crossing randomly and precariously.

A woman with mascara-tnatted eyelashes thrust a dollar into Grace’s hand. ‘Go on, it’s a blast,’ she said with bullying hilarity, pushing Grace toward the rim of the pit. Grace sheepishly thanked the woman and held the money out.

An eagle sighting a telltale flash in the stream, Robby swooped in her direction. He looked in Grace’s eyes, rather than at the dollar or the safety cables. Shit, she thought, he’s going to kill us both, but I’ll die happy. Robby glanced down shyly for an instant, then locked on Grace once more before spiriting the bill out ofher hand with delicate accuracy. She regretted his precision, since it meant their fingers hadn’t come into contact.

She was seared by Robby’s much-obliged-ma’am courtliness. And impressed that he could convey it riding a dirt bike up a wall and straight into her face at forty miles an hour.

*

‘So are you ready to ride a Hell Rider?’ Cal asked as they walked from the fume-choked Wall into the windy September night. She and Cal were practically strutting, their gestures enlarged by horniness and a sense of adventure.
‘Jesus, you have a way of cutting to the heart of the matter, don’t you?’ Grace replied, straightening the elastic that held her strawberry-blonde hair in a ponytail.
‘Yes or no?’ he persisted.
‘I guess I’d give him a spin. I don’t even have to ask you.’
‘No, you don’t,’ he said with a grin. ‘Shall we cap off this magnificent evening with a night-cap at The Den?’
‘It’s full of lowlifes,’ Grace said.
‘We’ll fit right in then.’

To reach the exit, Grace and Cal had to thread through a tight row of booths. Plenty of attractions – the Guess-Your-Age Sage, the rifle range, the Crucible of Strength – remained open. The show was leaving town that night, so the carnies were burning up their reserves, flaring up in one last display calculated to pry a few more worn dollars from the fun-stupefied residents of Lima, Ohio.

A vicious-looking youth with a crew-cut homed in on Cal.
‘Can’t let your woman go home empty handed, can you?’ he shouted, gesturing toward some stuffed animals lined up behind him.
An array of squashed or elongated faces-a winking piglet, a poodle with heartshaped red eyes-stared out at Cal and Grace. Globs of stray glue marred the beasts’ ill-sewn canvas pelts.
‘All you have to do is aim the water pistol at the clown’s mouth and pop the balloon,’ the barker went on, rubbing a zit-ridden chin.
Cal and Grace studied the scene. Three people stood with water guns raised, poised to compete for the dubious trophies. The combatants were two teenagers who looked like they might be a couple and an older man with a port-wine birthmark that pooled from the left corner of his mouth like a cartoon speech-bubble.
‘No thanks,’ Cal said.
He exchanged glances with Grace and the two of them walked off quickly.
‘What’s the matter?’ the barker shouted after them. ‘Isn’t she worth it?’

*

A preserve for second-hand smoke, The Den was loud and packed with meaty men in bent-bill John Deere caps. Some were accompanied by even heftier women who’d topped themselves off with teased meringues of hair.

The most interesting Den denizens were the unaccompanied women who dotted the crowd. They tended to be thinner, with streaky dye jobs, drawn expressions and good legs. These women reminded Grace of the one selling Wall of Death Tshirts. She had probably slept with some or all of the Hell Riders-rutting in buses, trailers and tents from Bean Blossom, Oregon, to Laconia, Pennsylvania.
‘Will I look like that in a few years?’ Grace asked, pointing to a black-haired 40 year old whose shoulder blades sliced at the edges of her halter top.
‘No such luck, doll,’ Cal said with an evil smile. ‘You haven’t had enough sex.’ They ordered two double Jack Daniels and sat in companionable silence until the liquor sent warm feelers into their bloodstreams.
‘And I suppose you’ve had enough sex to achieve blowsy 40-something splendour?’ Grace asked.
‘I don’t want to brag,’ Cal said. ‘But I’ll bet I’ve been with twice as many men as you have. How many is that, anyway?’

Grace reflected on the trickle of men in her life: Walt, the earnest premature ejaculator she’d dated in college; Stewart, whom she had married in the mistaken belief that spinsterhood would be worse; and Joe, a horny but otherwise unremarkable tension-reliever she’d resorted to after her divorce three years ago.
‘Five,’ she said.
‘Hmm, worse than I thought,’ Cal said. ‘Make that three times as many men.’

Grace and Cal’s bourbon-stoked giggles were interrupted when a middle-aged man banged into the back of their barstools. Sunburned and sandy-haired, he looked like most of the men in the bar, except his baseball cap was on backwards in an inexplicable home-boy flourish.
‘Did I hear you correctly?’ he said.
‘This is a private conversation,’ Cal replied, shifting to try to close the man out.
‘Just let me ask you one question,’ the man continued, pushing his weight forward so his distended belly pressed against Cal’s back. ‘Are you a goddamn homo?’

He jerked his head and sloshed his drink for emphasis. Rusty yellow liquid, likely a whiskey sour, splashed on Grace’s white shorts and bare leg.

She down looked at her lap, then up at Cal. His pupils were huge, his jaw was working, and she could see he was going to erupt. Something-pride, whiskey, the Wall of Death’s afterglow-was driving him toward recklessness.
‘Why don’t you head back to the farm, homey,’ Cal said. ‘The lady and I would like to be alone.’
‘I don’t think you want to be alone with no lady,’ the man replied. ‘Am I more your type?’
‘Sorry,’ Cal said with a taut smile. ‘Maybe another night. I’m too exhausted from drilling your father.’
Grace and the drunk both let out a similar sound, a sort of whoosh. Then there was silence, as everyone-including the drunk himself-waited to see what he’d do in response.
‘You, fairy boy, you have no business in here,’ he said finally.
‘You’re right,’ Cal said, standing up. He turned to Grace. ‘Let’s head home and leave these decent folks to swilling beer and vomiting in the urinals,’ he announced loudly. ‘And that’s just the ladies.’
Shit, shit, shit, Grace chanted in her head during the long march to the door. If they made it out, she’d lecture Cal about his technique for winning friends and influencing homophobes.

Ten feet from the exit, Grace felt a hand on her shoulder. She froze.
‘So we meet again,’ came a syrupy voice behind her. The humid breath propelling it fluttered the hair at the base of her neck. Grace turned around. ‘Robby,’ was all she could get out.
‘I’m afraid you have the advantage,’ he said, extending a hand to shake hers. Finally, they’d touched. She felt the calluses on his fingers, the power of his
grip as he gave her hand a squeeze before releasing it.
‘No, Robby, I’d say you have the advantage with Grace here,’ Cal said.
Christ, she thought, did he ever know when to shut up? Tiny drops of sweat sprung from every one of Grace’s pores. She looked back at the drunk, who was glaring in their direction.
‘Is that so?’ Robby said.
‘What?’ Grace asked, distracted.
‘Do I have the advantage with you?’ He looked at her expectantly, then lowered his eyes. It was the same gambit he’d used in the Wall of Death, but this time his gaze trailed down her body.
Grace’s sweat and adrenaline began to compete with other, equally urgent, secretions. She couldn’t think of anything to say.’So your name’s Grace,’ Robby said.
‘Yes.’
‘Pretty name for a pretty lady.’ He offered her a cigarette.
Ignoring Cal’s snort, Grace grabbed a Marlboro and accepted ignition from Robby’s lighter. It was shaped like a panther’s head; when he pulled back the ears, the flame shot out its mouth.
Grace looked back toward the drunk at the bar. He was talking heatedly with three friends and all of them were glaring their way.
‘Yes, I’m Grace and I’m pleased to meet you,’ she said. She took a long drag on the cigarette. ‘But we’ve got to go.’
‘Really? You’re leaving?’ Robby asked with a stage pout. ‘Yeah, sorry, got to fly.’ She turned to Cal. ‘You ready?’
‘OK, Grace, if you’re sure. Or I could head off on my own and you could stay and have another Jack with Robby here.’
‘No, I better get you home safe.’

*

Sitting behidn the wheel of her Taurus, Grace felt wrung out. Cal was quiet too. For the first few miles, all the headlights in the rear-view mirror seemed menacing. Once they got close to Dayton, the tightly packed bungalows started to close in around them and they felt safe.
‘Grace?’
‘Yeah?’
‘What are you thinking?’ Cal asked.
‘Nothing,’ Grace said.
‘Come on, talk to me.’
Grace lit another cigarette and cracked the window. ‘I couldn’t just have sex with him backstage at the Wall of Death or in his smelly trailer or wherever we’d do it, could I?’
Cal didn’t say anything.
‘Could I?’ Grace repeated, her voice climbing toward shrillness.
‘Ah, Grace,’ Cal sighed. ‘You could. I would have.’
‘And that’s why we’re at this particular juncture, isn’t it?’
They laughed and Grace started to feel better. Visions of Robby’s dirty nails raking down her back were punctured by images of the morning or even the moment after, when she’d feel absurd and alone.
‘You and I have to make a pilgrimage,’ Cal said as Grace turned the car into his street.
‘Like to Lourdes?’ Grace asked.
‘No, to Coney Island. I went to the side-show there when I was a kid,’ he said, fishing around in his jeans for his keys. ‘A guy called the Human Blockhead pounded wooden pegs and nails into his nostrils. There’s no blood or anything, and he’s so happy doing it, it’s an affirmation of life. I think he’s still there.’
‘Maybe we’ll go next summer,’ Grace said, pulling into the driveway. The headlights illuminated a gnome with its hand raised in salute, the pride of Cal’s lawn-ornament collection. ‘I’d like to see that.’