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Oct/Nov 2010 Fiction

The Numbskull Piece

by Chase Dearinger


Here we are: my evangelical family, my Jewish wife, and me, blasting like a stick of dynamite through the Ozarks, a Cracker Barrel and a half a tank of gas at a time, descending on Branson like it's Zion. The first Cracker Barrel was lunch in Tulsa. The second was dinner in Springfield. The half tanks of gas are a result of my father's insistence that when you get below a half tank of gas, the mileage is terrible. And when the mileage is terrible, the terrorists win.

Dad's a lay-pastor at a house church and a self-inking stamp salesman.

"We're entering Baldknobber country now," he says, taking his right hand off of two o'clock for the first time on the trip and pointing to a billboard advertising the Baldknobber Country Jubilee. Two hillbillies with their front teeth missing stretch out their red suspenders, their clunky boots hanging in mid-air, heels clicking. Below them a man with a burlap sack on his head is tied up with enough rope to measure the Oklahoma-Missouri border.

"What's a Baldknobber?" my wife says.

"They're like the Klan," I say. "Except they don't discriminate. They burn everything."

"They allow that kind of thing in Missouri?" she says. Miriam's never been to Missouri.

"No, no," Dad says. "That was back during the 1800's, back during the frontier days. When men owned the land they claimed and the government didn't interfere with it."

"You just got raped and pillaged by Baldknobbers," I say. Dad shoots me a glance in the rearview mirror. I pretend not to notice.

 

This trip's especially tense because today is Thursday, the day before Rosh Hashanah, the day before 5770 begins. Miriam would have never agreed to go to Branson on a High Holy Day—especially not our first High Holy Day since we got married—but I made her promise she'd go to Branson, no matter what, long before I knew the trip was going to fall on the new year. It's the kind of promise you have to force Miriam to make; otherwise there's no chance in hell she'll go. Plus, we're moving, and this will be my last chance to make the annual trip to Branson with the family. In just a few months, we're both going to graduate school at Brandeis, seventeen hundred miles away, and we'll probably never make the trip to Branson again.

When we found out the trip coincided with the holidays, I thought our marriage was over for the entirety of forty-five seconds. Finally she quit glaring at me and said something.

"Well, we're finding a temple or a synagogue there. It's a mitzvah to hear the shofar sound, you know."

I didn't know. I wasn't Jewish and I never will be. I only honor mitzvot (and only some of them) out of respect for her. I couldn't believe she would agree to it, but then again she married me. She's mostly kosher but would never be caught dead within a hundred feet of a mikvah.

"Okay," I said. "But I'm not eating kosher on the trip. I can't pass on the ribs at the Mine Restaurant at Silver Dollar City."

I anticipated great anger.

"What's the Mine Restaurant?"

"It's a restaurant in an old mine."

"Of course it is."

 

Now we're sitting in the back seat of my parent's Chevy Impala, separated by my thirty-four-year-old mentally disabled brother, Brad, who believes it's his Christian duty to sacrifice his own space by sitting in the middle, allowing Miriam and I all the leg room. My parents are playing the Fox News Channel on their XM radio, like they have every second of every day since Brad got them the service as a Christmas present. There's a story about a cult in Texas that's holding a fourteen-year-old girl against her will on their compound. Federal agents have been deployed, resulting in a standoff.

"Those Mormons," Mom says. "They're a sick bunch." Mom especially hates Mormons because her sister is one. Nothing on the radio has indicated Mormons of any kind.

"What's a cult?" Brad says.

"A cult is a group of religious people that worship anything other than God and Jesus Christ, Brad. It's a scary thing."

Miriam pulls a worn copy of Les Miserables out of her bag and opens it up. I know she's only pretending to read because she's read the thing a thousand times and because she gets sick if she reads in a car. The trip has officially begun.

 

We get to our cabin around seven and have only a half-hour to settle in before we leave for a show: The Dixie Stampede. Our room is drowning in gingham and paintings of geese. There are matching twin beds. Miriam sits on her suitcase and drops her head in her hands. I look at her for a minute; despite the fact she's upset, she's beautiful. Her giant mop of dark, curly hair buries her tiny frame. I imagine what her green eyes look like beneath her hands and when she looks up she's crying.

Of course I don't say anything.

She starts to pull bras and t-shirts and hairdryers out of her bag and stuffs them all in the top drawer of the chest that corresponds with her bed.

"Do we have to go to this show tonight?" she says.

I close my eyes and push a burst of air through my teeth.

"What?"

"Please don't do this," I say. "Of course we have to go. I promised we'd go. Plus they already bought the tickets. This is the Dixie Stampede, for Christ's sake. Not the Presley's."

"I don't even know what that means," she says as she sits down on the bed.

"This is really important to me," I say. "We'll have plenty of opportunities to go to Rosh Hashanah services in the future. But this is the last time that I'm going to be able to make this trip."

"What is so important about this trip? What is so important about going to Branson every year? It doesn't change. It's the same as it was last year," she says.

I think about how I heard a butterfly garden has moved in on the strip, in Andy William's old theater, and how Waltzing Waters, a water-piano-light spectacle and my first show, has gone out of business. I think about how I loved all those things and how they were gone and I wonder for the millionth time how Miriam can love someone that loves Waltzing Waters. Or loved Waltzing Waters.

"That's not the point," I say. "It's just about being with the family, seeing the same things we see every year, and remembering those things."

I know this is totally lost on Miriam because she has never had the sort of family I have, the sort of family that drives to Branson every year to see the exact same things over and over again. All she had was a single, angry mother who only left her house to go to work. The tradition made perfect sense to me for some reason, but I just couldn't seem to find a way to explain it.

"I know it's about family," she says, even though I can tell she doesn't. "I just really don't want to be here."

I sit down next to her on the bed, wrap my arms around her and bury my face in her big curly hair, breathe in.

"I know," I say. "I don't, either."

The room tenses up and I can tell that we're both fully aware of the fact that what I just said completely contradicts with everything else that I've said. Miriam takes the high road and continues the conversation, ignoring the obvious fallacy in my statement.

"But you're the one that made us come."

"It's more complicated than that," I say. "Look, I only want to be here half of the time I'm here. The rest of the time I put a smile on my face because they expect us to be here."

"Why do they expect me to be here," she says.

"It's sort of a rite-of-passage, you know? Everyone in the family goes to Branson. And now you are family. So if you want them to consider you family, you kind of have to do what family does." I squeeze her tighter but she only shakes her head. "We're moving, Miriam—this is the last time we have to do this. It's just two nights. Two nights and we'll be back to the city where our lives are. And our dogs."

The dogs comment makes her chuckle. She has two poodles that she treats like children. I take advantage of the lighter mood and pull her back on the bed with me and kiss her.

"I love you," I say.

Of course she doesn't say anything.

 

The lobby at The Dixie Stampede smells like pork and body odor and horseshit. Dad loves it.

"Get a whiff of that," he says. He sticks his big chest out in the air and tilts his bald head back and breathes as loudly as he can. "This is real entertainment—live action and food."

Brad's embarrassed by the show Dad's putting on so he elbows him in the ribs. Dad winces and Brad laughs.

"Are we going to get a new puzzle this year?" Brad says.

"Of course we are," Dad says. "Why else would we come to Branson?" Dad grabs Brad around the shoulder and pulls him into his side. My family, you see, is obsessed with jigsaw puzzles. They buy a thousand-piece puzzle at a little toy store in Silver Dollar City every year and put the thing together over Thanksgiving. Last year was a sunset at the Grand Canyon. The year before that was basket full of kittens. The year before that had been Old Faithful erupting in the snow. I came back every Thanksgiving and we would sit around the dining room table for a couple of days, putting every piece together and catching up on each other's lives, after which Dad framed the puzzle and hung it with all the others on the south wall of the garage.

"This year we're getting a duplicate, though," Mom says. Mom's the deputy of traditions, the one that makes sure everything runs smoothly and regularly for Dad. Sometimes it seems as if she doesn't believe she has any worth outside of taking care of things: giving Brad rides, picking out his clothes, making sure I'm present for everything, ensuring that no one says anything bad about Dad, explaining the tenets of Christian orthodoxy to Miriam. Mom's the one who first tried to convert Miriam, explaining to her that no one can live a real, satisfied life without the redeeming love of Jesus in their heart. I'm praying she doesn't try it again on this trip. She's dutiful and cannot understand anyone that wants things for themselves, not others. Since she doesn't work, she has all the time in the world to call me on a daily basis and harass me about whether or not I'm going to go to Branson in the fall. This process begins as early as March. Shortly thereafter, the threatening calls begin for Thanksgiving and Christmas. At Christmas, everybody has fun. I mean everybody.

"Why are we getting a duplicate?" I say.

"Don't want another numbskull piece like last year."

 

A numbskull piece was what we called a piece from another puzzle, one that didn't match in shape or color. We'd gotten one last year, and it had caused Brad to destroy the whole puzzle.

"Don't force it," Dad said. "If you have to force it, you know something's wrong."

Brad forced it, and a thousand pieces of a Grand Canyon sunset momentarily hung in the air, tantalizing us, just before they crashed on the table and scattered around the floor.

"What the fuck?" Mom said.

"You can't say fuck," Brad said. "Mom said fuck, Dad."

 

What sounds like a trumpet blasts over the PA, indicating that the madness is about to begin and everyone that occupies the big, red lobby starts to pour into the arena and climb the steps to their seats.

"Where's Miriam?" Mom says.

I haven't even noticed that she's gone. I scan the lobby and locate her by the front window, staring at something outside. I come up behind her and put my hand around her waist.

"Are you ready, honey," I say.

"Look," she says, pointing up at the sky. Above the hot, flashing lights of the Branson strip the sky has plunged into a deep purple and a few stars have started to come out. "There are three of them."

When the first three stars are visible in the sky, the new day has begun.

"L'shana tova," I say. She looks up and smiles. I kiss her on the forehead.

The arena reminds me of one of those shows where knights joust and you shove your face full of meats and beans that no one in the middle ages would have ever eaten. Only at this show it's not knights and lances—it's horses jumping through burning hoops and freaks with giant hair singing country and western music. We're sitting in the fourth row, and I've managed to get Miriam at the end of the row so that she doesn't have to answer Brad's questions or hear Mom's incessant remarks. A woman with bright blonde hair and a pink flannel shirt is racing around barrels and waving an American flag. When she rides by our side, Brad stands up, takes off his hat, and puts his hand over his heart. Everyone stares.

"Get him to sit down," I say to Mom.

She glares at me. "Let him be himself."

"So is this what rodeo is like?" Miriam says.

"I have no idea," I say. "I've only been to a rodeo once in my life, and all I remember is a bunch of spider monkeys dressed up like cowboys, riding on the backs of German Shepherds wearing saddles."

"That's way more entertaining that this," she says.

A cowgirl with painted-on freckles and a giant, gold cross dangling between her huge breasts stops in front of our table and sets down our drinks, which are in giant tin cups that seem impractical for real cowboys to carry.

"A Coke and a Diet Coke?" she says.

We nod.

"And I have here that you two ordered the chicken," she says. "Is that right?"

We nod.

The barrel-racing patriot takes her horse behind a screen and two clowns come out. One of them steps in a pile of shit that the patriotic horse left and the crowd erupts in laughter. They're not quite circus clowns and they're not quite rodeo clowns; their faces are painted but they're dressed like cowboys. A microphone lowers from the ceiling and bumps one of them on the head, sending an amplified thud through the arena. The clown does a somersault. Brad laughs so loud he snorts and Mom shoots him a look. The clowns seem to be debating whether Dolly Parton—the owner of The Dixie Stampede—is going to make an appearance tonight, when the fake-freckled cowgirl comes back with our plates. She drops the giant metal saucers in front of us: they're both covered in beans and three giant, glistening sausages. Miriam looks nauseous.

"We ordered chicken," I say. She looks at me like we didn't just confirm a chicken order a half a clown act and a patriotic barrel racer before. We didn't even order them then; we ordered them five months ago when Mom demanded that they sell tickets two months before they usually do.

"I can't eat this," Miriam says. "It's not kosher."

"Oh," freckled-face says. "Is that like a dietary restriction or something?"

"Sort of," Miriam says. "It's a religious thing."

I eye the girl's cross and Miriam shoots me a dirty look, thinking I'm ogling her breasts, something I never do.

"Oh," cross tits says. "Like you can't eat pork because you're an Islam?"

Miriam closes her eyes.

"Look," I say. "Just get the pork out of here, okay? We ordered chicken." I just want the problem solved so that we don't draw attention, but it's too late.

"What's the matter here?" Mom says. She's leaning in front of me and sizing up the waitress.

"Nothing, nothing," she says as she picks up the plates. "Just a mix up."

"They need chicken," Mom says. "Because she's a Jew. And Jews don't eat pork. And The Dixie Stampede needs to respect that."

Mom looks at Miriam and winks. Miriam reluctantly thanks her. By the time the clowns are done the waitress is back with two chicken plates. She drops them in front of us and tells us to enjoy.

"Where's the silverware?" Miriam says to me.

I laugh. "You're supposed to eat with your hands," I say. "It's authentic."

All of a sudden the crowd roars and bangs their metal cups and plates and I look up and Dolly Parton is being lowered down from the ceiling with the help of wires. She starts into a gospel medley and the crowd cheers louder, their greasy fingers extending into the air, their mouths stuffed full of pork sausage and Dr. Pepper. Miriam pokes at her chicken with her finger and sighs.

 

This morning we're headed for Celebration City, a small carnival-like theme park that regularly rides off the coattails of Silver Dollar City. As promised, I've found a Jewish congregation so that we can be present when the shofar sounds and God moves himself from the seat of judgment to the seat of mercy. I'm hoping Miriam will do the same. The only Jewish congregation in Branson, however, is a messianic congregation that meets inside a fake cave in Celebration City. We've left the family behind at the cabin.

"I mean I know they're not the best Jews out there, Miriam, but they're the best I could find on such short notice." She's somewhat amused by my sardonic tone.

"It doesn't matter what kind of Jews they are. The mitzvah simply says that I have to be present so that I can hear the horn."

 

Miriam and I met in our last year of college in an Irish literature course. Our professor was a Polish alcoholic that would drink with students at the bar across the street from the English Department. Miriam knew everyone because she studied English; I studied history. We would sit at the bar and have long conversations about musical theater and religious history and Cheaters, a late night show in which a smarmy Italian man would catch cheaters red-handed and turn them over to their overly-aggressive partners. My agnosticism intrigued her, and her Jewishness, for some inexplicable reason, turned me on.

"So why are you Jewish?" I asked her once. "You actually believe all that hocus pocus that the rabbis tell you?"

"I'm Jewish because that's what I am," she said. "That's my identity. Who are you?"

I didn't have an answer.

Eventually we crawled out of the bar and started doing what Dad called "courting." After we graduated, we married. She was a mystery to me; something beyond the scope of my small existence. I never have figured out what I was to her and still wonder twice a day why she would marry into a family like mine. My parents never openly acknowledged the fact that I married Jewish. They treated the situation like they did my brother's disability: with silence. They were there when we stood under the chuppah and I broke the glass. Dad only asked that he could say the benediction, which he closed emphatically in the name of Jesus Christ, the redeemer of the world and all who are in it. They even bought us a car. But it was assumed that we would be around for Christmas and Easter and that everyone, I mean everyone would participate. And we did. I wouldn't have cared even if they had said something; Miriam knew who she was and as long as I was around her, I did, too. Despite the fact that Dad is usually the evangelist, it was Mom that first tried to convince Miriam to ask Jesus into her heart a few months after we were married. The scene ended in a fight that the two have never openly acknowledged. They've left her alone since, but I'm still waiting on the day that the case is reopened.

Now I teach history at a high school in Oklahoma City and she goes to graduate school at a metro college in the suburbs. We've both been accepted to start graduate programs at Brandeis in Boston, however, where we'll start in the spring.

We park the car by a wall of ivy that guards the outside of Celebration City and go through the turnstile. The park is empty except for a lone man in a dark blue jumpsuit who's spraying down the blacktop paths with a rubber hose. He's got a giant beard and is wearing a pair of those glasses that get dark like sunglasses when you're outside. Miriam hates those.

"You two here for the service?"

We nod.

"Just follow Rock ‘n' Roll Boulevard down past the games and turn left on Astronaut drive. That'll take you down past the merry-go-round and into Dino-Land. Once you get to Dino-Land, you can't miss the cave."

He's right: you can't miss the cave. It's a giant, paper-mâché monstrosity that's been painted brown. On the inside you can see the infrastructure: two-by-fours and chicken wire. There's a group of maybe fifteen people standing around the mouth of the cave, all wrapped up in their tallit, shaking each other's hands and drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups. At the back of the cave there's a stage, on top of which the cave-dwelling Jesus Jews have set up a makeshift ark, which looks like a trunk that my grandfather used to travel with.

"They keep the Torah in a trunk," I say to Miriam.

She laughs.

A big guy with a beard bigger than the janitor's walks over and sticks out his big, meaty paw. There are little banjos on his kippah.

"Welcome to Temple Aron Hakodesh. I'm Rabbi Cohen. What brings you two here today?"

I reach out, and his giant hand swallows mine, and he shakes me like I might have gold coins hiding inside my jacket. I reach with my other hand inside a basket by the entrance, pull out a paper-thin skullcap, put it on my head.

"She's here to –" I cut myself short and turn to let Miriam speak for herself.

"We're just here to hear the shofar," she says.

"Ah, good," the rabbi says. "L'shana tova."

"L'shana tova," Miriam says. She's smiling bigger than I've seen her smile in the past few days. The rabbi looks at me.

"Howdy," I say.

We sit in the back row, and I immediately realize that this in unlike any temple or synagogue I've been to before. There's a choir on the bimah, and I'm pretty certain that I recognize two of the people in the choir as cast members from The Dixie Stampede. They sway and clap like a gospel choir during the prayers, and as I look out into the small group of people that make up the pitiful congregation, I wonder how many of them are actually Jewish. There's a black couple. And a man with a missing tooth who looks like he posed for the Baldknobbers billboard out on HW 76. But Miriam's content, so I don't mock.

When they get to the Shema, the choir starts to get a little crazy, and I notice that the prayer is different than usual. I don't know much Hebrew, so I can't say for sure how much is different, but when they get to the end of the prayer, I hear the word "Yeshua," which definitely doesn't belong. Miriam notices it, too.

"They've changed the prayer," she says.

"Every prayer is different in every prayer book," I say.

"But not the Shema. The Shema is a mitzvah, it's in Torah."

Of course I don't say anything. We have to hear the shofar.

After the Shema the entire congregation starts clapping, and the people in the front row start a dance that looks like a cross between River Dance and how I imagined Russians once danced and the way I dance when I'm drunk and there's no music. They circle around the seats, arms linked, lifting their knees and tapping their feet and kicking out their legs.

"That's Davidic dancing," Miriam says. "You won't see it anywhere but at messianic temples."

"You mean cave dancing?" I say.

When the dancers make their way around once, they link arms with the second row of people, and it continues this way until the whole congregations is dancing in circles while someone on the bimah plays a fiddle and a clown and a cowgirl from The Dixie Stampede clap their hands and sing something in Hebrew. On the last go-round, one of the black Jews grabs me by the arm and pulls me with him. I'm terrified, so I grab Miriam by her arm, and before we know it, we're circling around inside the giant fake cave, lifting our knees and kicking, bouncing, and swaying and picking up momentum. I don't know how to do the dance, but I do it anyway. Everything is a blur now except for the music and Miriam's face, and she's laughing. Laughing and dancing, and her curly dark hair bounces around her green eyes, and I feel her arm cradled in mine. The music stops, and Miriam and I keep going until the black Jew grabs me by the arm and stops us. We laugh, and the fake-cave Jesus Jews all clap. We sit back down, and I notice my kippah has fallen off.

A thin old man in all black and a bowler hat joins Rabbi Cohen on stage. The rabbi reaches under the podium and pulls out the giant ram's horn. I've never seen a shofar before and I laugh to myself at the idea that I'm in the Dino-land section of Celebration City on a Friday morning to hear an ancient-looking Jew blow air through a dead animal's horn. After the rabbi says a word or two about the significance of the shofar, the old man puts his mouth to the end of it. His face turns red and his cheeks puff out like a fat chipmunk, but no sound comes.

"It's really hard to do," Miriam says. "It takes just the right balance of concentration and pressure to sound it. And the work of God."

Just as she finishes whispering this to me the horn lets out a deep moan followed by nine staccato blasts. The rabbi shouts something in Hebrew, and the old man lets out another long, concentrated blast. These alternating sounds and Hebrew shouts continue for several minutes while everyone sits in silence. Miriam closes her eyes. I close my eyes, too, but I don't see anything.

As soon as the blasts are over, we get up and sneak out of the cave.

On the way home, I pull the Impala off the road and park at the bottom of the observation deck at Shepherd of the Hills, an outdoor theater that also rides off of Silver Dollar City's turn-of-the-century magic. The observation deck climbs up into the sky like the Space Needle, only a third as tall and an eighth as interesting.

"Listen," I say, "I just want you to know how important it is that you're here with me. I mean, I know how important the holiday is to you, and it means a lot to me that you'd be here, now."

She's in a good mood, I can tell, because she doesn't cry.

"I know this is your last chance to do this with them," she says.

"It's not just that," I say, "I just want to be here. I know that's hard for you to understand, but I really do care about them."

Miriam doesn't have family like mine, so I'm hoping she understands how I can care for people who look insane to the outside world.

"I know."

The observation deck is closed, and for some reason I get the desire to break a rule, something that's somehow more sinful in a place like Branson. You have to think about the children, after all.

"Do you want to go up?" I say.

She nods.

The elevator inside is turned off, so we have to climb the ladder a hundred feet to the top. I let her go first. Halfway up she lets out a whimper and says she doesn't want to go any higher. I feed her the line about the old woman swimming halfway across the Atlantic, which doesn't really fit the circumstances, but she buys it. I open up the small door at the top of the ladder and help Miriam up the rest of the way. We spill out onto a felt floor inside a room made of glass. Below us, in every direction, the Ozarks roll out like waves, strange monuments too tall to be hills and too short to be mountains. Table Rock Lake cuts through the valley, quenching the sharp reds and oranges and yellows that spread over the treetops like fire.

"Isn't it beautiful?" I say.

"I know you love them," Miriam says.

"I do."

"It's amazing how something so gaudy and ridiculous and fake can be built right in the middle of something so beautiful, something so real."

She puts her head on my shoulder, an odd, sentimental gesture that she never makes. I like it.

"This area was originally populated by miners in the middle of the nineteenth century," I say. "They dug deep into the sides of these mountains looking for lead. But it's all gone now."

"What's gone," she says.

"The lead."

"You know when you talk like a history teacher, it makes me want to have sex with you," she says.

"I know."

We make love on the floor of the Shepherd of the Hills Observation Deck.

 

Fall is in full swing at Silver Dollar City, and there are enough pumpkins and scarecrows to start a Halloween army from hell. We feel a warm blast of air as we step out from the gift shop into the park itself. There's a gift shop of some sort wherever you turn: on your way into the park, on your way out of the park, in line for a buffet, going into a roller coaster, coming out of a roller coaster. And that's on top of the voluntary shopping. You're basically buying a ticket to go inside and shop while you preoccupy your children with rides and enough funnel cake to stop a grown man's heart. Except we don't have any kids.

"I want to get another one of those tintype old-timey pictures taken," Mom says. "We need to replace the old one now that we have a new addition to the family."

She winks at Miriam and bumps hips with her.

"Have you seen the one hanging in the hallway?" Mom says.

Miriam shakes her head.

"Your husband's only two. But he looks like such a gentleman. He was too young to understand that you're not supposed to smile in the pictures. Back in the old days it took so long to take the picture that you couldn't smile. Smiling's inauthentic."

"Well, I'm going to smile," Miriam says. "I hate serious faces."

But she's always got a serious face, I think to myself.

"Well," Dad says, "we'll just have to add it to our long list of adventures."

A seven-foot tall cowboy walks by us wearing a duster and slinging a revolver. Behind us two women in a booth work on the same gingham that someone vomited all over our cabin. The air smells like fried food, and a flood of memories from my childhood momentarily choke me up until I remember how gaudy and ridiculous everything is. I think I hear someone playing a banjo in the distance until I realize that the sound is coming out of a plastic rock with holes in it.

"Where are all the slaves?" Miriam says.

"There aren't slaves," I say. "It's 1889."

"Oh," she says, "where are all the disenfranchised black farmers?"

The monster cowboy turns back and shoots her a look.

"Easy," I say. "They're watching."

"You two be nice," Mom says.

Two eight-foot nutcrackers, signaling that the Christmas season is around the corner, guard the toy store. Two acne-ridden teenaged frontier boys in straw hats and denim vests attach Christmas lights to the exterior, signaling that it may have already begun. Inside, it's madness. Several dozen children have converged around giant wooden barrels filled with bright toys: wooden, jointed snakes, dog leashes without dogs at the end, Jacob's ladders, plastic knives with retractable blades, cap guns. Dad heads straight for the back: puzzles and games.

"What do you think?" he says. "Should we do a landscape this year, or people? Ooh, ooh. How about animals?"

He's pointing to a two-thousand-piece puzzle that depicts a sunset or sunrise on the Serengeti, two lions circle around a herd of defenseless zebras.

"I like that one," Brad says.

"Is there a follow-up puzzle in which the lion stands over the zebra with its guts hanging out of her mouth?" Miriam says.

Brad laughs so hard he snorts. "That would be awesome."

Mom comes up behind Miriam and grabs at her hair with an alligator mouth at the end of a long stick. Miriam lets out a yelp and turns around.

"What's wrong with you?" Miriam says.

Mom ignores her and moves in on the African puzzle.

"Ah, I like it," she says. ‘Two thousand pieces? I don't know."

Mom and Dad discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the puzzle, and Miriam walks away. I ignore her at first, intrigued by the possibility of doubling our puzzle piece capacity at Thanksgiving. I don't know what it is about puzzles, but they fascinate me. At first they're nothing but a blur of colors and shapes, a chaotic cluster of little parts of the universe. And slowly they come together; after sifting through them and comparing them and finding their mates, the tiny world starts to take order, make sense, and eventually there's unity. I see Miriam sitting alone on a split rail fence outside of the store and decide I should do something, so I go outside and sit with her.

"What's the matter?" I say. "Toy store not enough stimulation for you?"

I elbow her in the ribs, something that always annoys her. But she doesn't move. When she finally looks up, I can tell she's been crying again.

Of course I don't say anything.

"I just want you to know," she says, "that I'm not helping them with that stupid puzzle over Thanksgiving. We're not helping them with that puzzle over Thanksgiving."

The blacksmith across the street hammers on a glowing spike. Sparks ignite, and embers slowly fall into the sawdust floor of the workshop. A mother pulls a stroller back, seemingly afraid that her baby will combust if the hot flashes fall on it.

"What are you talking about?" I say. "The puzzle is the whole point of Thanksgiving. If we don't do the puzzle, we'll just be awkwardly sitting around in the other room. My mom will be pissed."

"Then we won't go to Thanksgiving."

Something rears up inside of me, and for a moment and I hate the fact that she's my wife. I've never met someone who cried so much over puzzles and theme parks and animal horns. Someone who cries over something I love: my family. For a moment I'm filled with doubt, doubt about my family, doubt about my marriage, doubt about Branson and the shofar and the fiery fall leaves that have been laid in the lap of this beautiful country. Doubt about everything. It's difficult to love someone who doesn't love what you love. I try to remind myself that she's my wife, that I have a duty to her, but for some reason, it's not working. The family's inside, arguing over the merits of African puzzles, and suddenly I'm not joining them for Thanksgiving. I hate myself more than anything for being incapable of sympathy, so I just give in.

"Fine," I say. "No Thanksgiving. We'll just get through this trip, and we'll be done for a while."

She nods in acceptance of my offering, but her face remains expressionless.

I hear the rattle of a rollercoaster behind her, and I remember that it was the first rollercoaster I ever rode. Dad took me while Mom and Brad stood outside the fence and took pictures of us.

We find Dad inside, irate because they only have one copy of the puzzle. He's explaining to the cashier, an old woman whose breasts are spilling out over the top of a too-tight girdle and a mile of lace, that a puzzle of that many pieces is bound to have a numbskull or at least a few missing pieces.

"What's a numbskull?" she says.

"A piece that doesn't fit," Dad says.

Mom's growing impatient, too, and has pulled her reading glasses out of her fanny pack and is rummaging through an envelope of cash.

"Oh, don't worry about it," she says. "Let's just buy the thing."

Dad agrees, but I can tell he's apprehensive by the way he grabs Brad by the arm and talks down to him.

"You hear that, Brad? Rolling the dice. Bad idea, but I guess it will have to do. Your mother's got her heart set on that African sunrise."

"It's a sunset," the lacey cashier says.

"How can you tell?" Brad says.

"It's on the box."

She points to the side of the box, which says "Safari Sunset." She stuffs the box in a big brown paper sack that looks like newsprint and hands it over to me.

Afterwards, we go on Brad's favorite rollercoaster, Fire in the Hole, where you ride through a town and watch electric Baldknobbers rob and burn a frontier town to the ground with red, yellow, and orange tissue paper. The fire department is there, but in all their crazy antics, they've forgotten to bring water.

Then we go to the wood carving station, where Dad tries to sell the man behind the counter on a new line of woodcarving tools that he picked up last year at the Bass Pro Shop. Dad, the evangelist. It's not just Jesus he's constantly hawking, it's carving tools and NetFlix and Propel Fitness Water. Everybody everywhere needs to know about what's best, and Dad knows the answer. He's just trying to help. The country-bumpkin cashier in a Confederate jacket says he'll look into it, and Dad doesn't buy anything.

Mom wants to go to see a stage show at the saloon, but for some reason they're closed. Instead we stand in line for a half hour to watch three old women who look and dress like Aunt Bee make scented candles and talk about their husbands. Mom buys three of the candles for her Mormon sister but has to put in her two-cents.

"If you're going to talk about your husbands, you should at least pretend you're in the nineteenth century," she says. "You've got customers here that paid good money to experience the 1880's."

They smile and nod their heads. Mom can't help but condescend.

 

It's lunchtime, finally, so we head to The Mine. There's a half-hour wait in the line that tunnels down through the rock into a fake-lantern lit passageway that feels like it's leading to the center of the earth. Miriam and I are propped up against the wall, not speaking, when Brad comes over and leans next to Miriam, who inches closer to me and crosses her arms.

"What's your favorite part of Branson?" Brad says.

"I don't know, Brad. This is my first time here."

"But you like it, right?"

"Well, yeah. I guess."

"I love you, Miriam," he says. "I love you a lot. Not like in a romantic way, you know. But like in the way that Jesus loves all of us."

"Thanks," she says.

I elbow her in the ribs, and she fights back, kneeing me in the side of the leg. We laugh, and Mom and Dad smile. I take the paper sack with the puzzle inside and hit her on the head. She punches me in the stomach, and when she lifts her hand back up to hit me again, I hold out the box in self-defense. Her fist comes crashing down on the box, which tumbles to the ground. Mom gasps.

"Careful," Brad says.

I reach down and pick the sack up by the corner, but the paper tears and the box rips out, turning end over end down the hell-bound incline. It teeters for a second; the whole family is poised on the edge, and the lid comes off, spilling two thousand pieces of a safari sunset all over the waterlogged, stone floor. Several retired couples in fanny packs and visors back away, looking confused and embarrassed by the subterranean madness.

"What the fuck?" Brad says.

Mom's eyes turn into a pair of full moons. "What did you say, Bradley?"

"You say fuck," Brad says.

The foul language is lost on Dad, who's on his hands and knees already, scraping up the pieces and dropping them in the box. He doesn't say a word. He just grabs handfuls of Africa, his tongue sticking out the corner of his mouth. I get down next to him, but he pushes me away, slamming the tiny pieces of cardboard into the box. He murmurs something about us jack-assing around.

"I'm sorry," Miriam says.

No one responds at first. Mom looks at me from behind her reading glasses.

"It's okay," she says. "It's just a puzzle."

Dad stands up with the muddied puzzle box in his hand and pulls his tongue back into his mouth. I reach out to take the box back, but he pulls it away.

"Why don't you let me hang on to this," he says.

Miriam crooks her arm through mine, and I realize it doesn't matter why she would marry me. I'm okay with mystery.

"You better watch your mouth," Dad says to Brad, who looks at the floor and grabs one of his elbows with his hand.

The line finally makes its way to the serving station, where haggard women in red and white-checkered aprons slop food onto giant metal plates that look like they came from the Dixie Stampede. I think one of them was one of the candle makers, and I think about asking her about her husband. She drops a rack of ribs on the plate and hands it to Miriam.

"No pork," Miriam says.

The old woman rolls her eyes and hands her a premade vegetarian dinner, which is on a paper plate. She picks up Miriam's plate and hands it to me.

"No pork," I say.

Miriam smiles.

 

Now we're doing the last thing on our list for Silver Dollar City: taking one of those old-fashioned tintype photographs. Mom picks a modest, floral cotton dress and a matching bonnet. She sits on a barrel and holds a basketful of sunflowers. She's upset because she doesn't know what to do with her fanny pack full of money and itineraries. We try to talk her into wearing it, but she insists it will ruin the photo, make it unbelievable. She finally hides it inside a milk pail. Dad and Brad and I dress up as confederate soldiers; each one of us stands up straight and rests our gun on our shoulder. The photographer sticks his hand out from underneath the black curtain and motions inward. Next to me is Miriam, who's wearing a blue carriage dress and holding an umbrella over her shoulder. The cameraman gives us a thumbs-up and we all put on our most serious faces. Miriam smiles.

 

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