Echoes of Aurora
This week’s magical story by Ellen Klages is appearing in digital form for the first time. The story originally appeared in print in What Remains (Aqueduct Press, 2009) ~ Julian and Fran, August 20, 2023
Echoes of Aurora
by Ellen Klages
Cedar River was a summer town.
You’ve seen it, or one just like it. Off a state highway, on the edge of a lake—a thousand souls, more or less, until Memorial Day. Then the tourists come, for swimming and fudge and miniature golf. They laugh, their sunburns redden and peel, and when the first cool autumn breezes ripple the water, they leave. The carnival is over.
Jo Norwood grew up in the flat above her family’s penny arcade. When she was eleven, her mother ran off to Milwaukee; after that Jo helped with repairs and opened in the mornings, filling the change machine and rolling the wooden clown out to the entrance before she could escape to her tree house. There she nested, hidden behind the screen of green leaves, cotton in her ears muffling the hurly-burly and the melancholy cheer of the carousel. The day after high school graduation, she ran away too, and did not return until her father’s funeral.
In those thirty-five years, Disneyland and the interstate had lured the tourists away to brighter lights, and Cedar River had become ordinary. Norwood’s Amusements sat shuttered at the end of Beach Street, garish paint faded beyond pastel.
The mortgage was paid off; Jo’s father had sold the carousel horses, one by one, to collectors, for property taxes. But when she screeched open the big wooden doors, she was not quite prepared for the emptiness.
The air was cool and almost sweet with mildew and the first blooms of rust. A score of pale rectangles on the concrete floor were memorials to Norwood’s former glory. Only the fortune-teller, the Magic Ray, the nickelodeon, and half a dozen brass-cranked Mutoscopes remained, each of them coated with a film of gray dust.
Jo was single and newly retired, unsettled and unencumbered. Her time was her own, but she had no desire to linger. She would sort and sift through her inheritance and sell anything of value, find a realtor, put a few things in storage. Two weeks. A month at the most.
She awoke in her old bedroom, the oak outside the window fractal against the colorless April sky. A few tiny green buds, like match heads, dotted the filigree of bare, dark twigs. No coffee in the cupboard. She walked two blocks to Lake Street and had breakfast at the café, dawdling over the crossword and a second cup until there was nothing to do but begin dismantling.
Bert Norwood had been a tinkerer, his workshop a narrow room at the back of the arcade. A wall of cubbyholes and cabinets held gilded fittings, ancient light bulbs, half-toned sepia postcards of cowboy stars no one remembered, all smiling teeth and gabardine. Jo made lists and teetering piles, temporarily creating chaos out of order. As she laid unmourned bits of her past out on the counter, she began to tap her foot and sing along with the nickelodeon.
“Be kind to your web-footed friends—”
Jo stopped, holding a Lash LaRue card in mid-air.
Whose nickel had turned that on?
The arcade floor was dim, the only illumination a row ofwhitewashed windows high along one wall. The paint had flaked away in places, and in a finger of afternoon light, sparkling with dust motes, a copper-haired woman was dancing. She wore a loose green sweater that floated out from her body as she turned and spun, like a leaf before a hard spring rain. The melody echoed, a brass band in a tin box; the piano keys clicked under invisible fingers.
John Philip Sousa ended with a flourish. A floorboard squeaked under Jo’s shoe. The dancing woman looked up and waved, as if they were old friends, reunited after a long absence.
“Do I know you?” Jo called. Possible. It was a small town.
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