Salt wind had peeled the green, blue, and yellow paint from the Ferris wheel gondola that swept Joel and his family up into the night, sweetly launched them toward the evening star. This detail, the sea-battered paint, will return to him decades later. That night, though, they all curved heedless through the indigo balm of August oceanside air and stopped, gently rocking high above the clacking roller-coaster and gleeful screams and taffy-sweet carnival atmosphere, cradle rocking with the whole wide Atlantic darkly moonlit and undulant before them, and Joel thought, This is just like the mantis movie, this is where the unsuspecting people sat when she rose up, up, up out of the ocean, a hundred feet and more of star-glimmering carapace and mandible.
He shivered in the settling gondola, held aloft by the benevolent ride operator–or the merely forgetful operator, or the operator distracted by a girl in short shorts and halter top—Joel shivering as delicious dread played every key along his spine. Pray! Said The Mantis, discovered early one Saturday morning on television and watched in purest awe, the awe a different age reserved for burning bushes and fiery wheels in the sky, watched as his abandoned Quisp turned to mush in the plastic bowl. In that moment of sublime, submarine revelation it became his favorite movie, and would ever remain in his top five even as more sophisticated fare replaced simpler, as if it knew what was coming.
He sat beside his father, across from his mother and sisters, right where the big scene in the movie happened, right there at the Myrtle Beach Pavilion, destined for its own sad fate in the future, reduced and razed and transformed into the parking lot of urban renewal cliché. He scanned the dark swells with a hero’s steel-eyed gaze and his heartbeat went hummingbird fast because at any moment, anywhere out there—well, you never knew.
You never knew what was beneath the black waves and murky green water. No one else in the gondola appreciated the awful, wonderful danger of their situation. When the mantis strides out of the ocean, the Ferris wheel becomes a rotisserie of helpless, screaming wieners, a rotating buffet—his unique contribution to the critical literature about this film, a comment he will write in his early forties on the Radiation Cinema! blog. He spared a glance for his clueless family. His parents stared at opposite corners of the gondola, at dirty candy wrappers and discarded, trampled popcorn buckets, tiny jaw muscles throbbing. His older sister slumped against the laughably unsafe safety bar, gazing at the crowd where it swirled below, its own kind of human taffy, and thought her angrily opaque teenage thoughts, while his younger sang Row Your Boat for the hundredth time, or at least the sixth or seventh.
All this will be given back to him years later, the understanding of what went wrong and why it all happened, all made clear when the mantis does step from where she had been hidden, crossing into the world Joel shared with his family and other billions, the mantis with her blistering memoir and tour of mayhem. Then, for older Joel, middle-aged, forlorn, and lost Joel, as one of the devoured, everything will make sense. And isn’t this the way of paracletes and messiahs, he will think, be they carpenter or shepherd or B-movie atomic insect? Trailing long streamers of fragmented time, they return forgotten pieces of memory and history whether people want them or not.
Joel in the gondola? Joel sits rocking in wonder at the mysterious, starry ocean with his family all together for the final time.
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