Sid sat at the kitchen table, reading his morning newspaper. He couldn’t help but glance longingly at the empty chair across from him, especially as today was May 12th–his 75th birthday.
“Seventy-five years old,” he mused. “Who would have ever thought it?”
The day was noteworthy for another reason: the carnival was back in town. In fact, for the past 50 years, the very same carnival made the annual journey to his little town of Mulberry, Oregon. It was also the place where he had proposed to his late wife, Mildred, 47 years ago.
Cancer had abruptly and unexpectedly taken her away from him just three months ago, and when she died, a large part of him died with her. Sid had felt so desperate, yet tender, as he sat by her side that fateful day. She had died at home where she belonged, with the bed facing the window so that she could admire the garden that she had loved so much. And he still vividly remembered the expression on her face as he bent down to kiss her on the forehead for the very last time, for she looked so peaceful and relieved to finally be out of her pain.
Sid almost smiled as he read the advertisement in the paper for the carnival.
Yes, he had proposed to Mildred in the tunnel of love all those years ago, back when he was nothing more than a nervous engineering apprentice with minimal prospects at best, and Mildred was a first-year nursing student. He hadn’t expected her to accept his proposal, as she did nothing without taking time to think things over. And yet, that was the humble beginning of almost half-century lived together as man and wife. They certainly had never been rich, but they managed to acquire a cozy house and live a contented life together. Their only regret, in fact, was that they never were able to have a child.
Every year when the carnival returned, Sid and Mildred always went to relive the moment in which he proposed. But this year was going to be different, because his beloved best friend was not going to be at his side. He considered the possibility of not going, but he felt somehow that Mildred would have wanted him to go, to reflect on the memories they had shared on that seemingly magical ride.
His mind made up, Sid grabbed his hat and coat and got into his red 1976 MGB, which had been Mildred’s dream car. Despite being over 30-years-old, the car ran and looked as good as new. As his arthritic fingers fumbled with the key in the ignition, he only longed to feel as strong as the car did.
In a few moments, he was pulling up into Mulberry City Park, where the carnival was held each year. Sid parked the MGB, opened the door and struggled to his feet. It took some time to make it over to the entrance as his age was definitely starting to show all the wear and tear upon his body. His muscles ached and complained at every step, yet it was a perfect May morning and he breathed in the scent of the flowers.
Mildred always loved the spring, he remembered.
A tear started to creep out from the corner of his eye, but he bit his lip and forced back the sentiment, dabbing his eye with his handkerchief. “A man should never cry in public,” he remembered his father telling him. “Grief should be a private affair.”
Sid dutifully paid the $7 entrance fee to the vendor at the gate, and remembered when it had only cost 25 cents to enter. It seemed a bit excessive, as he was only going to go on one ride, but then his task would be complete. It was still early, and there wasn’t much of a crowd. The carnival wouldn’t get busy until after the sun went down, and then it would be full of kids and hoodlums. He and Mildred always despised that, for over the years they had noticed that the teenagers seemed to be getting more and more ill behaved and disrespectful.
As he waited in the short line before The Tunnel of Love, he passed the time quietly surveying the faces of the folks operating it, as many of those faces had also been returning here, year after year. It struck him as odd that the carnival always seemed to be twice this large and three times as grand as it looked now. The paint on the walls was starting to chip and fade, and the ride looked as though it was long overdue for a face lift. In fact, there were signs of aging all about. It’s like glancing into a mirror, he thought.
Just as Sid was about to board the ride, a young giggling couple exited and almost bumped into him, as they only had eyes for each other. He smiled as he remembered what that felt like. The carnie in charge of the ride looked surprised when Sid confirmed that he was going to ride alone. “We don’t get much of that on this ride,” he sneered, revealing a distinct lack of teeth in his weather-worn face.
Sid took no mind, however, because he was on a mission. Once fitted snugly into the seat–which felt much more cramped than he remembered it–he looked at the empty place beside him, and the tears began to well up once more. This time, he allowed them to trickle gently down his wrinkled cheeks as his journey began with flashing lights as he disappeared into the tunnel. Sid closed his eyes as he passed the painful strobe lights at the entrance, but after a few moments, he opened them again so he could look for the place where he had proposed.
Suddenly, he was aware that his fading vision seemed much better somehow, and even his aching bones no longer throbbed. He looked down at his hands and was taken aback at how the bones under the smooth skin were straight and flexible, and he could open and close his fists without the slightest twinge of arthritis.
“What has happened to me?” he wondered aloud, as a strange and wonderful feeling of well-being washed over him. It was then that he recognized the perfume. How could he not? It had been his Mildred’s favorite; she had worn it for years, never tiring of its delicate, floral scent.
He glanced to his right, straight into the green eyes of his beloved wife, looking as young and beautiful as the day they had met. As his heart beat faster, he tentatively stretched out his hand towards hers, and suddenly, he understood everything.
* * * *
Six and a half minutes later, as the ride pulled back into the loading area, the carnie spied the old man slumped down over the safety guard. Startled, he rushed over to lift the man’s head, amazed that the still body appeared to be smiling and looking completely at peace.
There was much fuss and excitement as police and ambulance sirens filled the air. After a few photographs, the officers were satisfied as to what had happened and the body was taken away.
“He must have had a heart attack,” the carnie said to anyone who would listen.
“The old fool should have never gone on a thrill ride by himself. No sir, henever should have done it…”
Author P.S. Gifford