The Misuse of Old British Words by Don Peteroy

My name is Melissa Everett. I am the girl who accidentally cut off Nadia Felin’s legs. I was a ride operator at City Island Park, making $5.25 an hour. I’d only been there a month when the incident occurred. The park had barely trained us what to do in case of an emergency, they just made us watch this forty-five minute videotape. It was old, stretched, and the speech didn’t match the lip movements. It made us giggle. My supervisor, Luke, was watching riot footage on Youtube the whole time. He never once looked up and said, “This video is serious.” He even chuckled when the tape slowed down, and said, “I’ve had nights when everything was like that.”

At first, I ran the Merry Go Round, which was easy. Then they moved me onto the Hell Plunge, a ride that lifts passengers 200 feet to the top of a tower and drops them at sixty mph. The instructional video for the Hell Plunge said that there are three emergency stops buttons: One in the control booth, one at the line attendant’s station, and the third near the ride, somewhere. On my fifth day at the Hell Plunge, I was so tired. And then those girls came. They walked with their noses pointed upward, their hair sandy blonde with red highlights. They had diamond earrings and necklaces. Gold rings weighed down their stupid, little hands. They wore matching magenta shorts with the word “Girl” on the ass, like it was some kind of joke. Such theatrical bitchiness.  

I was in the operator booth while my coworker, Dan, strapped them in. He radioed me the go-ahead, and I sent them up. I thought they were screaming because they were scared or enjoying the ride. City Island Amusements never trained us to differentiate one variety of wailing from another. I heard something snap, but you must understand, the park is so loud. You just automatically dismiss those sounds. When they were twenty-feet from the top, Dan shrieked. I left the booth and yelled over the noise, “What?” He pointed to the top of the tower, jabbing his index finger at the air like he was pressing a button. There was a cable hanging over the passenger car. Although Dan was standing three feet from an E-Stop button, he said, “Hit the E-Stop!” and pointed to my booth. I rushed back inside, but, by then, the passenger car was already descending. I hit it anyway, knowing the ride can’t stop once free-fall begins. When the car gained enough momentum, the cable sprung up. A streak of blood ripped through the air, like the sky had been gashed open. When the ride leveled, I saw her, slumped against the shoulder straps, blood trickling onto the platform. The cable had severed her legs. Onlookers jumped the gate and rushed toward me, yelling, “Let her out!” I tried explaining that when E-Stop is hit, only a technician can remove the shoulder straps.

The EMTs arrived, and Luke had me come to his office to write a statement. A panel  asked question after question, from what I’d eaten that day to specific issues at home. They gave me a drug test, a vision test, a hearing test. When they asked why this had happened, I said, “It was loud, but it didn’t seem like anything was out of the ordinary. It was the ride, not us. I mean, shouldn’t the ride be able to check itself for problems?” I was unable to articulate the reasonable argument that all these machines should have internal mechanisms that perform systems diagnostics, say, every five seconds.  I asked, “What’s going to happen now?” Luke answered, “We don’t know. It depends on what the Felin family does. But for now, we need to suspend you until the investigation is concluded.”

The night that Alexander Mikov arrived, my father and I had been playing Scrabble, trying to take our minds off of what happened. We hadn’t played a game since I was in first or second grade. We hadn’t done anything, really. I didn’t understand his Scrabble tactics; he was making up words, insisting they were Old English. I couldn’t refute him: he owned a used book store in Yonkers and got his bachelors in English after coming home from the first Gulf War. We were arguing over the questionable word “secan” when the doorbell rang.

The man said he’d come representing Kormin Felin, the father of the girl whose legs were severed. He wore a brown button-down shirt and olive colored Khakis. His pockmarked face reminded me of an abandoned parking lot, and heavy veins moved beneath his neck, rising up to his bony cheeks and thin lips. “Representing? Are you a lawyer?” my father said.

“Please, allow me in,” said the man, his accent heavily Russian.

He sat on the couch and looked up for a moment, sniffing the air, his eyes surveying the photographs on the mantle. “It was a tragedy,” he said.

“Why are you here?” my father said.

“Mr. Felin asked me to get a feel for Melissa’s environment, to see what kinds of circumstances would lead to such absentmindedness.”

I said, “It was an accident.”

            “An accident, yes,” he said, drawing his lips in to a tight smile. “Mr. Everett, may we speak in private for a moment?” My father glanced at me. He knew something I didn’t. 

            I went down to the basement instead of my bedroom, assuming I could hear the conversation from underneath them. I was wrong. The thick floorboards and central air conditioner’s hum muffled their voices. I looked over at the workbench, where my father kept a forbidden tackle box. My mother had once remarked—in secrecy—that it was full of horrifying war photographs, too gruesome for my eyes. My dad took them in Saudi Arabia, where he was stationed as a prison guard. I imagined they involved torture.

Had I not heard the door slam above, I might have finally looked though the box.

            Upstairs, my father sat in his recliner, his head in his hands. “What happened?” I asked.

“Seventy-two hours,” he said. “You have seventy-two hours before you meet with Nadia Felin to tell her why her legs were cut off.”

            I said, “It was an acc-“

            “No,” he said. “That won’t suffice.”

            “I don’t understand. Who was that guy? Why do I need to explain anything?”

            My father pointed to my legs, and moved his index finger through the air, as if severing them. I asked if we should notify a lawyer. He said, “I don’t think you understand the nature of this transaction. This is the nicest thing they could do.”

Dad stayed up all night prancing in front of the living room window, and twice he ordered me to pack my bags, but then changed his mind. I watched him in the darkness, my eyelids falling, and then jolting open at the sound of his footsteps. He’d rush toward me, stare, and then return to the window, again and again, all night, wanting to say or do something. His lips would part, his heavy breathing displacing unspoken thoughts. I couldn’t help but think about the obscure Old English words he used when we played Scrabble, whether they were imaginary, a way for him to create meaning and move ahead, or if they were real but forgotten. At three in the morning, he said, “It was a failure to connect.” I was half aware, on the brink of sleep. I said, “The cable?”

“No, no,” he said, running his fingers along the window curtain. “Seven months of guarding ghosts in that prison, it did something to my awareness.”

This I knew: Dislocating the mind is as easy as snapping a shoulder out of its joints. He’d explained the method to me many times over the years, and made it seem as important as learning to ride a bike. His tone never changed, the language was as precise as an instruction manual for mainframe. The Marines had trained him to have a hyper-awareness of his environment, to the point in which his cognition became inseparable from the external world. He’d learned to become what enclosed him, to eradicate the boundary between “individual” and “context” so that any changes in his surroundings would trigger an automatic change in self. By internalizing this mode of consciousness, his ability to live within a reasonable emotional spectrum—to be able to feel and express humanly—had been overridden. His singleness of purpose had become combat survival, to kill without psychic consequences. Now, I got the feeling that he would stop at nothing to relearn how to connect.  

His explanations never made sense. Certain words, like “cognition” and “context” sounded made up, and it wasn’t until I cut off Nadia’s legs and saw what he was fighting not to feel, that I began to understand the method.

When the sun came up and my father lay fully-clothed in bed, I considered running away, but I couldn’t leave my father like that, whether he’d feel the enormity of the loss or not. I walked to the library to research the Felin family, to find out if the fear they’d evoked in an ex-Marine was real. I found lists of indictments concerning their diamond smuggling activities in the 1980’s. Their corrupt history of evasion afforded me the certainty that they could easily get away with severing my legs. I looked for reasons to transfer the blame to City Island Amusements. I scanned articles and legal documents, and, to my benefit, I found that state officials concluded that the cable had undergone progressive fatigue. Due to its concealment, it would have been impossible for City Island Park ride operators to detect its deterioration. Inspectors noted that the cable had a rust color, and broken wires, or “flat fractures,” so many that the cable was unable to endure its normal load capacity. Repeated cycles of loading had ultimately led to separation.

When I returned home, my father was in bed. I stood in the doorway. He said, “I wish I knew what you felt right now. All I can do is attach a word to it, categorize it.”

“I’m scared, Dad.” He stared at the ceiling.

“I’m sorry that I never understood you. Please, Melissa, can we try?” He tilted his head up.

“I want to understand you, too, Dad.”

He took me to the tacklebox in the basement. He said, “This is the truth about my experiences,” and he handed me the photographs. I had expected to see something hideous, inhumane, but there was no blood, no bodies, no torture. Just troops posing in front of an empty jail cell. Bare chests and bunk beds. Reading comic books. Newport’s dangling from their lips. Playing soccer. What did he see? Was his field of view so distinct, so refined, that only he could discern the shadows of concealed corpses and discarded bodies? Or was the emptiness the real atrocity? He said, “After a long enough time there, we suffered. We waited and waited for a prisoner. One day, we got one. He barely did anything wrong: he’d stolen a boat that was carrying broken drilling equipment. We brought him to a cell, and circled him, like he was our savior. Then one of the privates said, ‘You ever play soccer?’ We taught him the rules of the game.”

My father put the pictures back in the box. I asked, “Did you ever kill anyone in the war?”

“No,” he said. “But I thought of it, and I still do. Do you know what it’s like to be granted mastery over death, and to never use it? It feels like the opposite of God, like emptiness, Melissa.”

“And you played soccer with the man you were supposed to torture and kill.”

“I hesitated,” he said. “We all did.”

Hours before I left, my father loaded his gun and then made dinner. We ate Hungry Man pot roast meals, and for the first time since the incident, he spoke at length about the Felins. He wouldn’t hesitate to kill them if they touched me. I told him that all I’d have to do is tell the truth: that if it had been anyone else on the ride, I would have been more attentive, but I couldn’t escape my own subjectivity, my biases slowed me down.

“But it was an accident,” he said. He spun the plastic fork in the mashed potatoes, then looked up at me. For the first time I could recall, he looked covetous.

“I wish I could be in your mind,” he said. “Then I’d know.”

He rested the gun on the table.

That night, I ran away, as though it were the last time I’d ever use my legs. I hopped over hedges and lawnmowers and rushed through drainage tunnels and behind Wal-Marts and climbed junkyard fences and sprinted along train tracks and around tenements and across suburbs and along the Hudson River. I leapt into the air and landed three days later, here, nowhere. I ate the discarded everything-bagels behind Dunkin Doughnuts and bathed in the open rain and watched a mounted TV at the train depot, their reports about how I’d gone missing, how investigators were looking into my father, how they’d questioned the Felin family. They interviewed Nadia. She dragged her prosthetic, metal legs into the camera’s view and expressed her concern for my welfare. I envisioned her father somewhere nearby, off camera, afraid of how my disappearance would cause suspicions. Nadia said to the newsman, and to all of New York, “Melissa, please come home, it’s not your fault.” Her expression was vague and dry, like the words my father used. Or maybe what she said was real. Detachment isn’t as easy as snapping a limb from its socket.

            After my father had revealed the contents of the tacklebox, I asked him what would have happened had he killed the prisoner. He said, “As programmed as I was, it’s impossible to fully extinguish guilt. I think that at the core of our being, there’s a need to keep each other alive, and although it can be quieted, it can’t be removed. I would have spent the rest of my life sabotaging myself, letting people know in the most subtle ways what I’d done, but I’d never be able to verbalize it without some kind of ambiguous mediation. I’d be quiet about it.”

            “Dad,” I asked, “Is ambiguous a British word?”

            “It might be,” he said.

            There was a train coming in, bound for Cleveland. I didn’t know what was there, but it was as far as I’d allow myself to go before returning home.

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Don Peteroy: Don is a social worker in Cincinnati, Ohio. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Timber Creek Review, The Susquehanna Review, and The Prose Menagerie. He is the 2009 winner of the Hopton Short Story Award, and Robinson Essay Prize.