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About Dumbo

It is, in simplest terms, an eyesore. A needle prick to the pupil.

Imagine a wooden barrel, old and water worn. Take a chainsaw to its body, cut it into thin slices. Hang busted-open acorn shells onto its frame. Prop it onto a little stand. Now, make the whole thing a hundred times larger and push it up against an otherwise fine view of the unending sea. That is the Ferris wheel at Dumbo Park. It’s why Al stays in bed for an extra hour every morning. It alone pours the bitterness into his coffee and threads the stupefying scratch through his thrifted clothes.

Al is a repairman. His wife likes to call him an engineer, but he doesn’t do any real engineering. He listens to the hum of water through a steel pipe, the whistle of gas; tweaks a couple nozzles and valves. He leaves the complicated stuff to electricians and plumbers. To actual engineers.

His landline rings. It’s from Benny, same as every morning.

“Al!” Benny is a middleman, matchmaker for the handyman and the fix. He has one of those booming voices that snag attention.

Al tries to match his gusto, shouting from his belly. “Benny!”

“Buddy, you’re gonna fix the wheel today!”

“What wheel?”

The wheel, Al!”

Saliva catches in Al’s throat, tries to wriggle its way up his air pipe. He coughs. It rattles behind his ears. “I’m not fixing that junk.”

“You’re fixing it!” Benny’s chuckle rings through the speaker like a staticky bass, swallowing Al’s protests. “Alright! Have a good one, pal!” He hangs up.

Al is suspended in the wake of Benny’s noise. Balloons string themselves around his back and float him up and up and—POP. He comes hurtling down to earth.

He slams the handset into its flimsy receiver.

Benny is right. Al knows Benny is right, and Benny knows Al knows he’s right. He needs the cash. In his mind’s eye, Al sees Benny’s plum-colored face. He punches it, one fell swoop smashing that squash of a nose into a whole new pumpkin. He grins all dopey.

Still, it remains—he’s going to the wheel today.
Al curses, throaty and raw. His wife yells, a room over: “Watch that tongue!”

Al lives in a basement across from Dumbo—always has. Likely, always will.

That hulking Ferris wheel occupies the entirety of his bedroom window. He shuts his eyes against its blinking lights and wakes to its xylophone tones. Which is all to say it takes Al just short of two minutes to reach Dumbo’s wheel, feet dragged and all.

“Problem?” He hopes it’s jammed.

The operator shrugs, shoves his hands into his pockets. “Creaky.”

“Think it’s a sign,” Al grumbles. “Take it down.”

The operator laughs, like it’s some big joke. “Right.” He tugs a lever. The xylophone sounds, pitchy as nails on a chalkboard.

There’s a screaming creak whenever the wheel completes a half turn.

“An hour.” Al unpacks extension tubes, oil. He tightens his denim cap. His jaw is locked, and his neck is taut as a wrung-out towel.

When he moved into the neighborhood, Dumbo’s wheel was under construction.

Al had been a kid, kicked out of his parents’ when he couldn’t meet their rent. He stumbled onto the apartment out of sheer luck.

All he wanted was to be a sailor. Something about borderless horizons and a big dome of sky made his heart inflate, filled his lungs with clear air. He was handy with tools, so he sold it as work. For the meantime, he said.

Between one booking and the next, his meantime settled into permanency, like a swath of concrete dried too quickly under a sudden wind. He earned barely enough as a repairman to meet his own needs. Then, he met his wife and Benny and, suddenly, he had far too many reasons to stay on land; people he knew he couldn’t do without.

All the while, the wheel grew—from shambles of wood planks and nails to a bright chiming titan. It grew until it blocked his view of the sea.

He searched for the pockets of blue between each rotation, let his eyes soak in the water for seconds at a time. He waited.

Some might call Al a slow learner. Others might say he was just hopeful. Whatever the case, it didn’t truly dawn on him that he would never set sail until his thirtieth birthday. That year, the wheel became operational.

With time, his joints grew rusty as old metal gears. His days stretched longer. He developed a permanent bowline knot in his mid-back. All the while, Dumbo’s wheel kept turning. As he watched his life come to a stuttering stop, that Ferris wheel woke him each morning and seared his eyelids every night.

As he lubricates each bearing and axel on Dumbo’s wheel, Al thinks back on all the times he wished it would simply stop. All the times this wheel made him feel like the world was running along without him.

He considers jamming it, sticking an iron rod into a vital joint. He also considers less covert methods of destruction. Like setting fire to the hulking beast while the operator is still out. After years of spite, the enemy is within his control.

He resigns to leave it be.

There is nothing he can do to stop the wheel from turning, not really. He might as well let it run its course.

That night, instead of searching for the pockets of ocean beyond its wooden frame, Al stares straight at Dumbo’s wheel. He squints into its blinding lights, studies its cycles. Each one is smooth—silent. Only the bright hum of carnival music fills the air.

He can’t help but say it to himself, a phrase so quiet it sounds more like a breath to his wife, rather than words. It is full of marvel, full of wonder, a tentative hope not unlike the kind he’d once reserved for only the seas. “I did that.”

Kaitlin Tan grew up between Macau, SAR and Manila, Philippines. She is a freshman at Johns Hopkins University studying writing seminars and cognitive science. “About Dumbo” is her first publication.