He has a workshop on the way out of town, the side that leads toward farmland and then fields and then pretty much nothing for two hundred miles. The carousel workshop used to be an old pig barn, my daddy told me once, but somewhere along the way someone gutted it. Knocked down all the interior partitions and scraped out all the straw and dirt and crap down to bare earth and then laid big, wide pieces of hardwood in the place of the pig muck. Daddy said it was damn near insane to gut an old red barn like that when you could just build something new. Said it was a lot of work, whoever did it.
I think the man who makes the carousel horses did it. I’ve seen him, standing thoughtfully in line at the Super Fresh, quiet like he’s always quiet, and I think that he looks like the sort of man who has the patience to turn a pig barn into something pretty. There are a lot of rumors about him and that workshop, here in town. That there is more to him and his horses than meets the eye.
I think there’s plenty enough with just the eye-meeting part. I like watching him in the Super Fresh. I like just looking at the way he looks when he’s standing in line with his middle and ring finger hooked round the handle of a carton of milk. His nose has been crushed to one side and straightened at some point. He’s tall and stands with a light hunch to his back. It makes him look humble. Other guys in the Super Fresh will look at me and raise their eyebrows and smile in that way — you know, that way — when I tug down my skirt to keep it from showing too much butt cheek. But not the man who makes the carousel horses. He rarely looks up, and when he does, it’s in quick, polite glances, like a longer look would be an insult. He has a wonderful wide mouth and I like to look at it. And also at his fingers on the milk jug. I would like to be that milk jug.
I’m going to go to his workshop.
HIM: I like to know where my carousel horses go to. I’m not good at keeping records, though, so instead of a proper accounting system, I have boxes of scratch paper and rumpled business cards and fast food napkins in the corner of the workshop. All of them with numbers and names on them, some place that a horse has gone to. I don’t know, really, the circumstance that would make me try to relocate one. But something about asking people for their number makes them remember yours, and a surprising number of my horses have come back to me.
They’re the broken ones. The ones that were around when children ignored the recorded announcements and signs that tell you not to climb on the legs or tails when mounting up. They’re the ones that get unloaded after shipping and there’s a slippery moment, someone says “shit,” and then they have to call me. They’re the ones that stay pretty while the rest of the park becomes ugly, and then, when the horses become ugly too, they find their ways back.
I love making the horses, carving something new, finding ears and eyes and nostrils. But it’s another sort of love to repair them. It’s a harder love, because you have to remember that the creature before you is not beautiful now, but it can be again, if you have the patience and belief there. I make them new limbs, slide on new paint, gild the lily once more, because carousel horses have to be a little ridiculous if they are to impress.
I have to remember not to make them too beautiful, though. I learned early on that beauty is intimidating. People want to ride a horse that is more beautiful than a real horse. But when something is too beautiful, it’s frightening.
HER: His workshop looks enchanted. I haul on the wide door, opening the few inches I need to get in. A wide swath of early morning sunshine sweeps in ahead of me, crawling with motes of dust. At the end of it is the man who makes the carousel horses. He’s bent over one of them, its legs crooked on either side of him like a real horse, and the sight of it makes me thrill a little. All around him there are horses. They hang on the walls, tip against each other in the corners, wait on stands, peek out of boxes bigger than me. They’re more colors than my closet holds, something I didn’t think possible. Their liquid eyes watch me as I walk into the workshop.
He doesn’t look up, even as I stand directly beside him. He is painting a fine gold line on that thing that holds a saddle on. I knew he’d be working already. It’s hours before even the Family Dollar will open up, but ‘round town, they say he never sleeps and he never stops working. Well, I heard a rumor once that he sleeps on Christmas, but that’s idiotic, because if you were going to sleep one day out of the year, would you seriously pick Christmas?
“Your workshop smells really good,” I tell him. I smile, because Mama told me once that smiling makes people like you and I’ve found out it’s true. I don’t know if it will work on someone who’s not looking at you.
“You probably smell the pine,” he observes, his attention unwavering on the perfect line he is drawing.
“Probably,” I agree happily. I feel proud of him for attending so well to the horses, like I had anything to do with it. “I’d like to stay here and watch you work.”
He doesn’t say anything, just keeps working. He’s making a curlicue now, at the end of the line. I have a pair of a boots that would look fantastic with that on them.
I ask, “Is that all right?”
“What?” he says. And then, before I can repeat myself. “Oh, yes. Yes, that’s fine.”
HIM: I prefer my workshop to the outside world. It’s quiet, and here, I’m sure of myself and my work and my time. I know precisely what needs to get done. The days unwind in leisurely to-do lists: gold detail on the gray Trojan horse. Start work on the purple filly’s face. Package the blue and red mare for shipping. It’s lonely work, during the day. Quiet.
I’m always sure of the quiet. It has no expectations. But this girl — no one took care, when making her, to make her unbeautiful enough for me to be able to look at.
HER: I’ve cleverly thought of questions to make the man who makes the carousel horses speak. He’s quite notorious round town for not speaking. But believe me, I’ve been with a lot of boys, and the one thing you can be sure of is that a man will always be happy to talk about himself.
“How do you pick the colors?” I ask him.
He doesn’t look at me straight on; just that quick little dart of his eyes in my direction and then back down to his work. “They have to be different from the last one. Sometimes customers want a specific color.”
“Do you have a favorite color?”
He shakes his head. He keeps painting the saddle a brilliant green. I keep waiting to see if he cries his own tears into the paint — some people say he does that — or if he pricks his finger and puts his own blood in the red. But he seems to be just painting.
I scrounge for another question to keep him talking. “Do you make their legs go the same direction every time? The same shape, I mean? Running?”
He shakes his head. He licks his finger and rubs out a bit of line he’s just painted before replacing it with a flourish he’s happier with. He frowns at the line for a long few minutes and for a moment, it’s like he’s standing in the Super Fresh with his gallon of milk or a head of cabbage. I just like looking at him looking at his work, his fingers crumpled up to fit around a paint brush.
“Why did you tear apart this barn?” I ask. “Instead of just building a new one?”
“Most things,” he says, “Get thrown out long before they’re used up.”
“But they’re old.”
“Old things have soul. That’s a lot of souls to throw away.” He doesn’t look at me. “Don’t you think this workshop has a soul?”
“Like magic?” I say. “Like a real soul? People say you do magic here.”
I wait to see if he disagrees with this statement. He stands up, wiping his paintbrush on a rag. “I can show you how I carve a face.”
I’m willing to watch him do anything. I try to anticipate where he will be going so that I can walk in front of him and wiggle a bit, but he always seems to be looking somewhere else. He sets at a partially shaped bit of wood and begins to carve curls of wood off it. The way he does it, it’s like there was already a horse’s wide open mouth inside the wood, and he was just taking the wrapper off. I look to see if he sprinkles it with holy water like Mary Lou at the Sure Kuts Salon says, but he just seems to be carving plain old wood.
“People say your workshop runs itself even when you aren’t here,” I say.
The man who makes carousel horses sort of smiles at this remark and I taste the vanilla-ice-cream-sweet flavor of victory. I want to see the magic.
“I can show you how I package them,” he says.
And he takes me to another corner of the massive workshop, and he shows me a white, shiny horse with a mane the color of blue cotton candy and a bridle the color of blown June roses. He shows me how he wraps her in plastic and paper.
“Does she go in a cardboard box now?” I ask.
“A crate,” he says. “I’ll have to lift her in. How did you know the horse was a ‘she’?”
I smile my best smile. My pre-game smile, one of my boyfriends used to call it. My Mama calls it my picture smile. “Can I help lift?”
HIM. I make the mistake of lifting my eyes to look at her and all my ease vanishes. She’s poised and perfectly made up. Younger than me, but it doesn’t seem that way. I feel judged and overwhelmed and even though I know it’s only my reaction to her face, it’s hard to push it away.
I drop my gaze. “I don’t want you to get hurt. Best if I do it.”
While she watches, I finish packaging the mare for transport — she did know it was a mare, though I had painted the horse in gender neutral reds and blues, and surely that counted for something?
I am uncertain, and I am not used to being uncertain in my own workshop.
HER: It is getting late in the day. The sunlight’s become a long red patch in the windows that pigs used to sight-see out of. If I thought the workshop looked enchanted before, it’s downright otherworldly now. Everything is intensely colored, half in the warm evening light, half in black shadows. I don’t want to go. Everything I’ve been feeling since I fell in love with the man who makes the carousel horses has crystalized into two things: I want him to kiss me. And I want to see magic.
“They say,” I tell him as he sweeps up wood shavings from the floor, “That at night, the carousel horses come alive.”
He stops sweeping and rubs the back of his head. He looks tired. Not like someone who only sleeps on Christmas. He doesn’t look at me. After a long moment, he says, “I will show you my horses.” He says “my” like it’s more important than “the.” My heart beats fast.
I go with him to a door in the back of his workshop. I hadn’t realized there was more than the one big room that we’d been in all day. But he leans the broom against the wall by the door and then leads the way into a room that is all lit long and blood-red with the afternoon sun. In the middle of it is a carousel, dozens of horses leaping and pawing and bucking, in every color ever thought of. Most of them are covered in plastic, but all of their eyes look at me. My skin tingles. I’m certain that this is where the magic happens. This is where the man who makes the carousel horses does his enchantments.
“They’re beautiful,” I say.
“These are the ones who have come back to me,” he says. “Broken or damaged or just run down. I repair them and keep them here.”
I walk up to one and lift up the plastic. Underneath, it’s a coal black horse with a blood-red bridle, and I run a hand down its face. It is smooth as glass. I double back to stand directly in front of him. He’s looking past me at some part of the floor. “Look at me,” I say.
He doesn’t. Normally this is where I would slide a hand into the boy’s shirt and all barriers remaining between us would melt away. But there is something so completely not looking at me in the way that his eyes are averted that I can’t work up the bravery to touch him. My Daddy told me once that some boys are not the kissing on the first date type, but I’d never met one. It feels remarkably bad, is what it feels, not getting kissed by the man who makes the carousel horses.
I take a step back and watch his body relax. I say, “Will you show me the magic?”
He says, “I think you ought to go.”
He says it in a voice that matches his not looking at me. It’s very definite. I feel suddenly embarrassed. Like, I have stayed in this man’s workshop all day hoping for kissing and magic and he never wanted to do the first and there never was the second. It’s like he had plastic over the top of him like his carousel horses, and now that it’s pulled off, I can see that he’s just a guy ten years older than me who spends all his days working over inanimate objects. Maybe he could be converted from a pig barn to a workshop, but I haven’t got that kind of patience.
So I go. I don’t even bother to wiggle as I do.
HIM: I watch her go, this time, because she’s more real when she’s disappointed. Then I sit at my work bench until the night grows long and black, until the disquieted feeling goes away. When the sun is gone, I go back to my carousel room.
I gently lift the plastic off the coal black horse with the red bridle and put my hand on his face. It’s smooth as glass, and then it isn’t. Breath fogs the plastic.
It is very beautiful.
Author’s Note: Took my kids to Busch Gardens yesterday and while on carousel thought: I could make them prettier than this.
image courtesy: kuckibaboo