Secret Origin of the Ferris Wheel
by Bob Proehl

It’s a long time I’ve been talking to you now. I remember because our one-year anniversary was the night of Sam’s funeral, and that’ll be two years ago a week. Malice keeps the obit on her fridge, and on the rare occasions I’m allowed into her apartment, it stares right at me from under a Miss Bison City Diner magnet. Some nights after I’ve said goodbye, I sit out on the roof of my car and look out at your lights. Water rushing down the Falls pushing electricity through a thousand filaments. Hundreds of car batteries throwing double their number of headlights onto the highway and I wonder how many of those drivers were listening. Origins have a habit of compelling their own exposition, have you ever noticed that? I learned that from comic books and Bond movies. Plans, secrets and origins, all of them force their own telling. And this is mine.

In the beginning I’d yell. That’s not quite true. I’d sit and twitch and wait for some feeling, some thought to move through me. It wasn’t like it was coming from out of my head because, you know, we say train of thought for a reason. There’s a track. Starting point and destination. A path in between. ‘Til it moved through me. But what I wanted was to yell. Be a speaker. Broadcast.

Fuck, I’m babbling, I was trying to tell you about the Ferris wheel. Takashi said never to tell where we are, but he also said I’d know how to make it work. And I think telling about the Ferris wheel is how to make it work. Which starts with the fits.

I had moved back in with the folks for a bit. Buffalo has this awful gravity. When things go terrible out in the world, it pulls hardest on you. A few blocks of viable city, radiating abandoned factories in all directions, fading into suburbs and finally the quiet and flat of the Southtowns.

When I moved back into the suburban homestead, I reset all the presets on my car stereo to the Canadian stations. WEDG. WJZT. WHTT. The only decent radio in Buffalo comes out of Toronto or Niagara Falls. That way since I was a kid. I made friends with old friends again. Took a job as a substitute teacher. Every morning the phone would ring and they’d tell me who I was for the day. Buffalo started to wrap its sweet and smothering arms around me for the first time in a long time, and the city whispered, Welcome home, little voice, soft and breathy in my ear, welcome home.

 

This crowded, humid party, month or so later. Sea of vintage T-shirts. Little walk-up in Allentown, not much for windows, and May was already hotter than it should’ve been. Apartment cluttered with things either broken or had worked better before they’d got there. An old-time spinning wheel. Lamps with pretty shades with no bulbs. A wall with a dozen black and white family pictures, all different families. Most everyone sitting or slumping against walls, and any time you brushed someone, there was a smooth slippage of skin against skin. Sam was plunking out German cabaret songs on a busted upright piano with Mel curled up next to him making origami swans and tossing them at people. There was a girl I didn’t know trying to roll a cigarette on the lid of the piano but every time Sam hit a hard bass note, tobacco would jump off the rolling paper and she’d curse and stomp her foot, rattling the chain she wore on her wallet. When she’d finished she popped the rollie into her mouth and lit it up. I was futzing with a handheld Bakelite radio I found, twisting the knobs so every now and then it’d squawk at me. Trailing puffs of smoke, the girl engined across the room. She grabbed the Bakelite out of my hands, gave the dials a quick turn and handed it back to me playing Hank Williams, crisp and clear.

“Is that Double-you SeeSeeEn from Toronto?” I asked. On good days I could catch traces of the Canadian Country Network in the car.

She pointed with her cigarette to the collection of antique radios on the shelf behind me. “The SunTone is Double-you Bee See Bee, the Orion I think’s Double-you Jay Zee Tee and that little Koyo is Double-you Eff Em You.”

I shook my head. “You can’t get Eff Em You up here. Eff Em You’s out of north Jersey.”

She shrugged and fixed a bright green stare on me. “You can with that one.”

She said her name was Malice and asked me who I was thinking about right then.

I was so surprised by the question I blurted out an honest answer. “Alan Freed.” Not to be clever. It’s just at that moment I was thinking of Alan Freed. More specifically, I was thinking of a radio tech at Well Known Bible Words. See, in the early days of radio, they regulated how much wattage you could have. Religious stations had special dispensations so they could broadcast further. And one of the biggest religious stations in the country was Well Known Bible Words in Buffalo. Broadcast range from Chicago to New York. I told Malice about Alan Freed, broadcasting black music late night on low wattage WXEL out of Cleveland. The signal sputtered into Buffalo on fumes. I told her how all the WKBW transmitters were sitting idle anyways and someone picked up these scratchy signals from WXEL and rebroadcast them out of the WKBW transmitters after midnight. Kids in New York waited around with their dials tuned to 95.5 for the signal to come burning out of Buffalo. Dark and secret in the night. Brilliant and blaring and new.

I imagine I got a little shrill. It happens. Every reason for her to glaze over. Walk away. But Malice stayed. Listened. When I was done she asked me if I knew anything about ley lines. Which I didn’t, and I told her so. And she said “That’s all right, the geomancy’s mostly groundwork,” by which she cracked herself up. Then she said the metallurgy was the more interesting end of it anyway, handed me a card and said “You should talk to these people,” and she walked away. The card said Ephemeral Technology Application League and on the back was a phone number with an exchange that would have been somewhere in the Southtowns.

I kept the card in my pocket for days, not sure what to make of it. I’d run my thumb over the raised ink at work. I’d pretend not to think about it. When I finally called the guy on the other end said, “Oh yeah, yeah, you’re the Talent Malice told me about. Can you meet us out here at the Spot at midnight?”

Secret midnight meetings. I had the feeling I stepped into a Hitchcock movie, or a Hitchcock movie had been constructed around me. A mechanism clicked in and I couldn’t stop from going. He gave me an address and that night, just as Tom Jolls gave the last word on tomorrow’s weather, I shut off the news and drove out to the Southtowns. Radio signals fizzled out, one at a time. Flat in every direction except behind. Buffalo a torch in the rearview. Run-on sentence cornfields. Parenthetical towns with single standing stoplights. Black-and-white photo abandoned factories with For Lease captions. I turned up the static on the radio. Car full of white noise. I followed the directions I’d been given until I found myself in a dilapidated amusement park, shut down for about ten years. A Colonial Williamsburg for the fifties, complete with rust and slow sweet rot. I parked the car in a huge empty lot and passed through a turnstile next to a ticket booth. The main drag split off into smaller paths of broken asphalt snaking between skeletons of rollercoasters and husks of Tilt-a-Whirls. I headed for the Ferris wheel they’d asked me to meet them at, past an intertwined circulatory system of waterslides near the far end of the park.

It towered over everything else in the park. I could hear the creaking of the uppermost cars rocking back and forth in the wind.

“Hold up,” yelled a boy’s voice, nervous. “I’ll turn it on.”

Metal grated on metal and suddenly four hundred bulbs on the Ferris wheel blazed to life. Tiny novas of circus color. Instant constellations. Ready-made galaxy. The boy and I stood across from each other on a patch of dead grass. Drenched in royal blue and candy apple red, kelly green and taxicab yellow.

“It’s not that they left the power on,” the boy explained. His hands flailed through the lights. Now orange. Now purple. “We brought our own power.”

His name was Takashi and he never stopped moving. He had a pair of glasses with one massive lens in a tortoiseshell frame and one small rectangular lens in an almost imperceptible wire rim. He snapped the glasses off whenever he made a point, and he made a point every ten seconds. His car was parked right in front of the Ferris wheel, which looked like it might topple at any point. A screeching carnival death. All the while he talked he waved his glasses wildly at the Ferris wheel, spouting technical terms I couldn’t understand. Ohms and amps. Modulators and generators. When he was finished, I said it’s nice to meet you Takashi, but what the fuck are you talking about. And that’s when he finally stopped. He fumbled his glasses back onto his face, both lenses reflecting jittering flashbulbs at me.

“It’s a transmitter. I made it into a transmitter.”

My mind reeled. The Ferris wheel wasn’t dilapidated or teetering, but intricate. A web of crossbeams and support wires in staggering mathematical arrangement. I imagined it vibrating with radio signals. Throwing them off into space. How they’d surge up from the base, taking two paths at once, splitting out again from those. Expanding exponentially. Crossing, branching and recrossing. Infinite permutations within a wheel.

Not just a transmitter but a Burst Override Transmitter, which he called a Bot. A larger version of something the Ephemeral Technology Application League, which he called Et Al, developed a few years before. Takashi only had time for abbreviations. It was the Bot. The Et Al. The Refo. The idea was a Bot would send a really strong signal for a really short amount of time. It’d be so strong and set up so it would write itself over all the signals in the area. Not more than three miles on a good day, for not more than ten seconds. Since the original Bot was small enough to ride shotgun in an economy car, Et Al would use it to jack countercapitalist slogans into classic rock radio broadcasts during rush hour. Takashi described the modifications he’d made on the original, converting it into what was in front of us. When he was done, he put back his glasses, which he had pulled off when he yelled “A Rapid Random Frequency Oscillator!” and I tried to bring him back with questions I could understand.

“So what’s the transmission length on this?”

“Tops out at around fifteen minutes.”

“And what’s the broadcast range?”

He grinned the first and still best Takashi grin I’ve ever seen. Paused for effect. Leaned in and whispered.

“Cleveland.”

 

 

Some other night, Takashi and I clambered up the ironworks into one of the upper cars, pulling a six-pack of Molsons up after us with a pulley Takashi rigged. It wasn’t real ’til I climbed it. ‘Til the ironwork bit into the my palms and my shoes went frantic looking for a girder to push me up some. The car yawed to the front to let us in. Rocked back before settling into a gentle lull. Takashi kept a bag of weed and a glass bowl tucked in a rip in the fake leather cushion. Stoned, he’d talk about Tesla and Radio Free Europe, his dream of setting up a Bot that could catch broadcasts the Rwandan military used to start the Hutu genocide and override them with Os Mutantes songs. He said nothing boosted a signal like the human body, why holding the rabbit ears on a teevee made the picture clearer. Can you imagine an antenna built of people holding onto one another? A base signal, broadcast through viscera. Grey matter. Genitals. This sent him into a fit of giggles and made our car pitch and roll. Made the city lights sway drunkenly. Trails across the dark ’til Takashi calmed down and the car steadied.

One night, he asked what my magic word was, and I went blank.

“You must have given Malice some sort of magic word, that’s how she operates. She wouldn’t have sent you otherwise.”

I thought about it and said how maybe it had been Alan Freed. Takashi said that was trite. Magic words always sounded like you expected them to. Abracadabra. Hocuspocus. I remembered my conversation with Malice at the party and everything leading up to her giving me the card.

“Dubble-you Kay Bee Dubble-you?” I offered. Takashi lit right up.

“That’s how they picked this!” he shrieked, pulled off his glasses again. He told me before Et Al even reached out to him, a couple members had traced the ironwork in this Ferris wheel back to the original WKBW transmitter dismantled in 1959. Takashi said he was just the tech guy. Et Al had found him by triangulating a Bot signal that broke into the fourth quarter of Buffalo Bills broadcasts at the two-minute warning, overriding the closing minutes with Crimson and Clover by Tommy James and the Shondells. Which meant Takashi had expanded the broadcast time of the original Bot by a factor of fifty. They put him in touch with a group who called themselves metal historians. Spiritual metallurgists. And another group Takashi referred to as “the scary map kids.” The metal folks were up front about why the Metal, but the map kids were cagey about why this Spot. And Takashi for the Tech. All capital letters: the Metal, the Spot, the Tech. Once the plans for the Ferris wheel were on paper, he knew it’d function cause the Tech was all checked. But what they thought would make it work was the Spot and the Metal and the Tech and the Talent.

“Work for what?”

Takashi put his glasses back on and shrugged. “Malice must figure you’d know that.”

My jaw was still dragging in the amusement park dust. The shed was a full broadcast booth, mixing board and mic. The room was hardly big enough to swing a cat, but when the door shut behind Takashi, all the sugary smells of outside were gone. New metal and ozone. I stammered and asked if I could mention the Ephemeral Technology Application League on air. He said Et Al members were encouraged to talk about Et Al to other potential members. I said your words aren’t clear, am I allowed to talk about it, and he said you’re an Et Al member now, and anyone who stumbles across this broadcast and sticks with it is a potential member. As long as I didn’t tell people where we were. He reached across me with his left hand, flipping a switch on the board. Tiny indicator lights punctured the black of the transmitter’s front panel and the board began to hum.

“It’s on,” he said, and walked out of the room.

“Shut it off when you’re done,” I heard Takashi yell from outside. “We don’t want them to find us.” His car door slammed and he drove off. I put my hand against the metal of the transmitter. The hum and buzz ran all the way up my arm. A lulling in my bones, resonance in my joints. I stared at down the mic and leaned in ’til my lips pressed against it and my breath condensed on the wire mesh. I felt a yell building up in me, but the cold of the mic against my lips reminded me volume would take care of itself. I parted my lips and whispered into the ear of the whole city. Hello.


 

Bob Proehl is a writer, bookseller and occasional DJ. His short fiction has appeared in Stone Canoe, Essays & Fictions and 400 Words. His first book, The Gilded Palace of Sin was published by Continuum Press in 2008 and is a non-fiction account of the brief career of a sixties country rock band. He grew up outside of Buffalo but now lives in Ithaca NY with his wife, stepson and cats, and is looking for an agent for his first novel.