Ida sat pristinely at her vanity table, positioning her new, blonde wig perfectly on her head, fastening it to her scalp with an army of hair pins. She was an elegant-looking woman in her mid-twenties with two small children. George was seven years old, Eleanor was eight. Ida’s tempestuous husband, Dimitri, had been an esteemed songwriter before he was sent into the first world war.
Ida stood up to examine herself in the full-length mirror, admiring her golden hairpiece, tucking invisible wisps of her mousy, brown hair back. She walked the length of the hallway to the back of the house and entered the room. She instructed George and Eleanor to get ready for the county fair. They had been looking forward to it for weeks. All of the other kids in the neighborhood were excited about the roller coaster. This was to be the first year that the elevated railway joined their town‘s festivities.
Ida walked back towards the living room, her anxiety growing with every step she took closer to her husband. Dimitri was sitting in his wicker rocking chair in front of the fireplace, clutching a half-empty pint of scotch. He was a sloppy version of the man Ida had married, slumped in his bathrobe, scowling in the general direction of her approaching footsteps. She rounded the corner cautiously, mentally and emotionally bracing herself for the confrontation ahead.
Dimitri had come stumbling home the night before, blind drunk, and passed out in his rocking chair. Several hours later, a reoccurring nightmare about a particularly gruesome trench battle in France startled him into consciousness. He reached for the scotch immediately. The glass felt smooth and cool on his flushed fingertips as he removed the stopper. With a sad, heavy sigh, he tipped the bottle up, letting the poisonous, amber liquid flow down his throat, washing over his sorrows.
Dimitri smelled like death the way only a true alcoholic does, his body was rotting from the inside out. It was the stench that always surprised Ida, no matter how often she encountered it. He looked her up and down, narrowing his glassy, bloodshot eyes. For a moment, they were locked into a sinister game of cat and mouse. Ida inched toward the coat rack by the front door to retrieve her handbag.
“Where do you think you‘re goin‘?” Dimitri growled at Ida.
“I‘m taking the children to the fair, darling, because you‘re not feeling well…” she replied quietly.
“You‘re not going anywhere without MY permission.” he bellowed, rising to his feet, falling back down, and getting back up again. Dimitri was originally supposed to take the family, but he had lost track of the days. The past few months had been plagued by his severe drinking binges, violent blackouts, and extended periods of passive-aggressive behavior. He had been shipped home from the German front a year earlier to recover from a severe case of shell shock, a badge of defeat he carried with shame. He was different when he came home.
Dimitri tried to resume his career a month after he returned, but the amplified sounds of the musical instruments in the studio triggered terrible flashbacks and vehement panic attacks. Even his beloved piano, the most integral part of his process, rang out so loudly at the softest stroke of key, that he thought his ears were filling up with blood and subsequent flashes of bright white forced him to his knees. He initially began drinking because of this, to soothe his nerves. As time passed, he drank to snuff out his perceived failures and his deep depression. He ultimately devolved into a raging, unmanageable alcoholic.
He had completely forgotten about the fair and his obligations as a father until the second Ida reminded him. He felt emasculated, infuriated. Demetri stood and stared, seething with frustration, focusing all of his aggression on her. He wanted to hurt her. Ida picked her gloves up off of the wall shelf. She pulled them on hastily, feeling her husband’s smoldering gaze burning a hole through her.
“Children!” Ida beckoned forcefully.
Dimitri was past the point of total inebriation; he was in a place where nothing made sense and all he understood was primal rage. He couldn’t mentally process the situation. His sick brain had convinced him that it was the middle of the night and Ida was sneaking off to another man. It was almost noon, the sun was bright in the heat of July. Ida’s husband began staggering towards her, crazed, burning with hatred.
“Carnival slut!” Dimitri screeched, barreling towards her.
Dimitri had always possessed an unusually explosive temper, but it wasn’t until he lost his job that he began to hit his wife. The violence had only escalated with his drinking. Ida was afraid that he might accidentally kill her or hurt their children. As he flew towards her, she prepared for the moment of impact, instinctively covering her face with her arms so he would be less likely to leave publicly visible bruises Ida was a private woman and she certainly didn’t like being interrogated by nosy neighbors.
“Whore!!” Dimitri shouted, pushing Ida into the wall shelf, his hand clamped hard around her neck. He pressed his face into hers, snarling, and for a split second, she thought he might try to rape her. It seemed like the logical next step in this sequence of hellish events. Dimitri’s spite-filled eyes settled, as if for the first time, on her shiny, honey-colored wig. His pupils dilated with rage. His eyes were normally dull brown, but now, the severity of his anger infused them with flecks of terracotta.
“Did HE buy you that stupid-looking thing? You disgust me, you filthy whore!“ he spat. Ida swallowed hard as his grip tightened around her throat. She experienced a brief moment of confusion before she realized he was referring to her wig. She shuddered and recoiled in apprehension of what he might do to harm her this time. Her black eyes momentarily glistened with panic, but despair soon consumed her and she surrendered to her abuser. Demetri grunted and grabbed the wig with his free hand, still firmly in control of Ida. Despite his incapacitation, he had an abundance of brute strength.
He struggled clumsily to rip the wig from Ida’s head as she screamed out in pain. He lost his balance and shifted his weight, pulling Ida underneath him and falling on top of her. He still had a firm hold of the fake hair and he continued tugging and yanking violently as his wife screamed out in pain. With a loud ripping sound, the wig came unfastened, knocking Dimitri away from Ida as the hairpiece flew into the fan. It got caught on one of the blades and spun around and around.
It was that moment in time, the moment Dimitri saw the children standing at the end of the hall, that brought him back down. He immediately released Ida, who slumped to the floor with a soft thud. He walked over to the hearth of the fireplace, picked up the bottle, took a heavy swig, and gagged. Dimitri ripped off his bathrobe and stomped clumsily into his boots. He seized his jacket and fedora from the hat rack. He slammed the front door open and staggered off into the blazing light of the world outside, presumably to the tavern down the street.. Eleanor and George waited until they heard the sound of their father’s footsteps in the gravel disappear, then slowly moved towards their crumpled mother.
Ida ran her fingers gently through her short, dark hair, feeling the patches that were missing. The cuts and scrapes were tender and bleeding where the pins had been torn from her scalp. She stood up and smoothed out her skirt. She pulled the lamp string three times and watched the fan blades slow to a complete stop. She climbed onto the wooden coffee table and grabbed the wig. Ida stepped down and sighed, studying her precious golden tresses. For a brief moment, her expression betrayed a pang of sadness, then her face was blank.
She cleared her throat and walked into the master bedroom, resuming her position at the vanity table. Ida dabbed alcohol on her sores and taped her scalp up with bandages. Carefully, she pinned the hair she had left to the inside the wig again. She noticed the bruises blooming around her neck in the mirror‘s reflection. She walked to the bedroom closet and picked a silk scarf to tie loosely around her neck. Her head began to throb. She walked back into the living room to find her children sitting patiently on the sofa, eyes wide with fear.
“Thank you for being so good for Mommy,” she smiled, grimaced, then smiled a bit more softly. Eleanor and George stared up at her. She had fixed her makeup and changed the shade of lipstick she was wearing. “It is time to go now.”
The trio walked along the sidewalk. The sky was developing the rich copper hue of the setting sun. Eleanor looked up at her mother. Ida’s scarf was tied neatly on the side, but as she walked, it shifted slightly, revealing part of a deep charcoal-purple mark on her throat. The soft light shone off the sharp planes of her cheekbones. She fidgeted with her wig, patting the sides to make sure everything was still perfect. The air was infused with the scent of fresh cut grass. They strolled in silence for about fifteen minutes. They arrived at the iron park gate and Eleanor smiled at George, excitement glistening in her eyes. She looked at him as if to reassure him somehow that everything was going to be okay now that they were out of the house and away from their father. George smiled when he saw the roller coaster.
“Can we please go on that?” George asked his mother, pointing to the shiny red contraption looming behind them, eyes large and pleading.
“Oh, yes! Please, mother, please?” Eleanor added, clapping her hands softly in anticipation. Ida looked at her children. They were following her lead, acting like nothing terrible had happened earlier, pretending they were happy. She absently stroked her hair as she smiled, nodding her permission. George and Eleanor gave their mother a big hug and they all continued toward the long line, settling into their place, gazing up at the marvelous machine with the other amazed patrons.
By the time they reached the front of the line, the sun had settled into the horizon, leaving behind a deep blue and violet blanket punctuated by sparkling stars. The attendant ushered them into the lead car; Ida first, then George, and Eleanor at the far end of the cab. When the three cars behind them had been filled, the carnival worker went through each one to lower the metal safety bar and back again to double check. Once everything seemed to be in order, he walked towards the control station and pulled a lever.
The roller coaster roared to life, jolting forward, startling Ida and her children momentarily. They exchanged brief, nervous glances and burst into excited laughter. Ida grinned widely, forgetting her abrasions. She looked upon her beautiful children with tenderness.
“Hold on!” Ida said to George and Eleanor as the machinery growled and released, moving the car forward. The family looked out onto the vast fairgrounds, see a little more of the landscape as the roller coaster slowly climbed the tracks. The steady clicking of the metal fell off rhythm for a moment and Ida felt her heart beat faster. They were halfway up the steep incline.
“I want some candy!“ George enthusiastically pointing to a man making saltwater taffy. “The vendor looks so tiny from up here,” he noted.
Ida looked down at the long line of everyday, fair-going people. They gawking up at the people in the roller coaster, watching their ascension to the peak. The air was filled with laughter and shouting as the patrons on the roller coaster grew more and more excited. The cab remained suspended in air for a split second at the top of the rail. Eleanor and George were screaming at the top of their lungs, squeezing the safety bars as tight as they could. Ida held her wig steady on her head against the wind. In her free hand, she clutched her handbag to her chest. She braced herself for the descent.