Aphelion Issue 246, Volume 23
December 2019 / January 2020
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The Wheel

by David Alan Jones

I am braced by the sound of the wheel turning, its jangled hammering on the soft, early autumn air. With my hands pressed hard into the pockets of my plaid coat, I watch the wheel, spinning in the harsh glare of klieg lights. It is a monster, filled with monsters, and so it makes a monstrous sound.

Sometime in late summer, no one bothered to mark the date, the fair rolled into town. Situated between the freak show stage, the exotic dancers' tent (shaped like a huge, red turban), and the hall of a thousand screams, a group of well-tanned and dirty laborers assembled a massive wheel. Its rim was silver and the perfect width to accommodate a fifty-gallon drum——the kind you see bums using for campfires in the city.

The fair never began. Oh, there was an opening night, but no one rode the carousel, or the bumper cars, or even the flax sack slide which had always been so popular with the children.

Everyone was drawn to the wheel: young, old, and hammered. The mayor was there with his wife and kids. Satchel Browne from the firehouse stood nearby. Several boys from the coal mine slouched in a black-stained gaggle near the lights.

A geek appeared at the great wheel's base. I say appeared, because he was not and then he was; a lank, thin man in a top hat and tails, his long white hair heavy on his spare shoulders.

"A goodly crowd we have tonight," he said, without benefit of megaphone or loudspeaker. But we all heard him. "My name is Marcus Paid, and this is the Wheel of Equipoise."

"How's it work?" asked the Mayor.

Paid smiled——his teeth were crooked, yellow things. "Step close, sir, and let me show you."

"Have we met?" asked the fat man.

Paid ignored him.

Two young men, both clad in overalls, rolled a steel drum into the light. It was military green and looked heavy.

"The lid, if you would be so kind, Enos," said Paid.

Enos, the larger of the two men, pried the lid off with a crowbar. Every eye in town was on that drum.

"The wheel isn't a taker, it's a giver," said Paid, addressing the crowd, his eyes two black spheres in his head.

He lifted a dress out of the drum, and I heard several women near me suck in their breaths. It looked to be silk, or perhaps satin. It was purple and gold, its sleeves pricked with pearls, its long skirts adorned with pleats.

"It was a favored thing, this dress," said Paid, showing those hideous teeth once more. "But the woman who owned this pretty ornament was a sad creature indeed. She had no want for material things, but her heart was empty as a well gone dry. Much like many of you."

Paid's last words hung on our ears, creeping round our thoughts. The longer he held silent, the more I knew he was right. When he spoke again, our eyes belonged to him.

"This dress was her pride. It was the mark of her station——her place above the masses. While she dined in solemn luxury, her neighbors starved. The day she gave this dress to the wheel, was the day she found true happiness. Now she is light. Now she is equal."

"Sir, I'll have you know we don't allow scams in our town. You may take us for rubes, but we have the might of law on our side," said the Mayor, trying to bluster over Paid's incontrovertible words.

"Give me your ring, Mayor. Put it in the drum. If you don't feel immediately lightened of your high station; if you don't realize in that very instant that we are all the same, then I'll return the ring to you. I'm promising you communion with your fellow man. Or do you think yourself so great compared to the common folk that you won't share in their plight?"

I wasn't sure what plight Paid spoke of, but I felt it all the same. The mayor was being self-righteous.

The crowd began to murmur. The Mayor looked nervous.

"Alright," he said, pulling a thick gold ring off his thick short finger. We all knew that it was an academy ring, but I can't remember which academy. No one does, not even the mayor.

He dropped the ring in the drum and the young men sealed it up along with the dress under the watchful eyes of Marcus Paid.

When they hoisted the drum onto the wheel I could hear other things, metal and paper, rattling around inside. Even then I didn't wonder what those things were. It didn't matter.

The men secured the drum to the wheel's curved rim with braided horse rope. Then Marcus Paid pulled a lever on the wheel's base, and the behemoth began to spin.

It was a slow thing, moving the little drum the way an elephant might move a tick on its sagging belly. We watched the drum climb into the air, cross the night-dark sky, and return, back near to our humble patch of earth.

When the drum came even with the mayor the wheel stopped spinning. Paid touched the fat man’s arm, and asked, "Do you want your ring back, Morty?"

"No, sir," said the Mayor, his voice not so much sound as air seeping from his guts. He whispered something else, but none of us could hear.

Paid leaned close, then turned, smiling at the crowd. "He wants to go home and get his bowling ball for the wheel."

We cheered. Our mayor had conquered his vice. It wasn't something anyone said; nothing we discussed later that night over coffee and cake. It just was.

And so the town lined up. Paid had no end of fifty gallon drums, and the wheel seemed like a voracious beast ready to eat up our pride like maggots on infection.

That night I was number thirty in line. I put my lucky quarter and a twenty-dollar bill of no significance into an off-white drum. I've never had much to speak of, but money has always been my stumbling block.

Days and weeks have come and gone. The fair is still in town. Every day we gather at the wheel, watching it churn afternoon into night into morning. It's finally filling up, as our good townsfolk empty their prideful lives into the wheel's ready circle.

Yesterday the Ingles put their daughter, Maryanne, into a yellow drum. She was sleeping.

A beautiful girl, that Maryanne: her parents' greatest pride. I remember my own mother commenting once how she wished she'd had a little girl so pretty, with long golden hair, a dimpled chin, and beaming blue eyes.

Maryanne cried some during the night, but she's stopped now.


2016 David Alan Jones

Bio: David Alan Jones, presumably busy searching for his locker, failed to provide a proper biography for us.

E-mail: David Alan Jones

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