Tilt-A-Whirl

By Nancy Miller Gomez

Featured art by Scott Webb

It was a hot day in Paola, Kansas.
             The rides were banging around empty

as we moved through the carnival music and catcalls.
             At the Tilt-A-Whirl we were the only ones.

My big sister chose our carriage carefully,
             walking a full circle until she stopped.

The ride operator didn’t take his eyes off her
             long dark hair and amber eyes, ringed

like the golden interior of a newly felled pine.
             She didn’t seem to notice him lingering

as he checked the lap bar and my sister asked
             in her sweetest, most innocent—or maybe

not-so-innocent—voice, Can we have a long ride please,
             mister? When he sat back down

at the joystick, he made a show
             of lighting his smoke and the cage

of his face settled into a smile
             I would one day learn to recognize.

Here was a man who knew
             his life would never get better,

and those dizzying red teacups began to spin
             my sister and me into woozy amusement.

We forgot the man, the heat, our thighs
             sticking to the vinyl seats, our bodies glued

together in a centrifugal blur of happiness
             beneath a red metal canopy

as we picked up speed and started to laugh,
             our heads thrown back, mouths open,

the fabric of my sister’s shirt clinging
             to the swinging globes of her breasts

as we went faster, and faster,
             though by then we had begun to scream, Stop!

Please stop! Until our voices grew hoarse
             beneath the clattering of the pivots and dips,

the air filling with diesel and cigarettes, and the man
             at the control stick, waiting for us

to spin toward him again, and each time he cocked his hand as
             if sighting prey down the barrel of a gun.


Nancy Miller Gomez’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Poetry, Shenandoah, Rattle, Massachusetts Review, River Styx, American Life in Poetry, Verse Daily and elsewhere. Her chapbook, Punishment, was published in 2018 as part of the Rattle chapbook series. She has an MFA from Pacific University. She lives in Santa Cruz, California where she co-founded an organization that provides poetry workshops to incarcerated men and women.

Originally published in NOR 27.

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