By Brian C. Mahon
Thomas Warner was ready to purchase Mr. Mortimer Schrift’s famous Tunnel of True Love. He fixed his bowtie, smoothed his black hair, and patted the scuffed leather briefcase. The diner gossip was right: Mortimer Schrift was getting out of business. Thomas only knew Mr. Schrift as the man who, every spring fair, stood at the tunnel’s entrance in his barbershop quartet candy-striped coat and straw hat. Schrift never hollered for customers but always had a steady supply.
Mortimer Schrift wasn’t wearing his calling-card coat when Thomas rapped at his trailer door in the fairgrounds’ back corner. It was three hours before opening. Schrift hadn’t yet slicked back his peppery hair with pomade. But with a cup of coffee in hand, he waved Thomas in, patting the armrest of a brown and beige checkered sofa for his guest while pulling up a stool for himself. Thomas excitedly opened the briefcase and handed over one of many wrapped stacks of twenties, grinning with a sparkle in his blue eyes, “Sir, I mean to buy your ride, sir! I’ve come to this fair nearly half my life, and I always saw you with your crowds and, well, I called the phone number listed in The Cuyahoga Caller and heard you were lookin’ to sell. Fair manager said you wanted twenty thousand, sir, and that is what I have!”
Mr. Schrift smiled, his bushy eyebrows going up and down and looking at the rows of neatly packed twenties in Thomas’s lap. “I see you’re serious, kid. How old are you? Nineteen? Seventeen?”
“I’m twenty-two, sir.”
“Twenty-two. I see.” Schrift doubtfully looked Thomas over. “No offense, but I was hoping for an older buyer.” He rubbed at his chin. “You married?”
“No sir, not yet. I am engaged though,” Thomas blushed, “High school sweetheart.”
“High school sweetheart, huh?” He ran his fingertips up and down his candy-cane suspenders, smacked his lips, grimaced, then pouted, then shrugged. “You should be secure enough.” Mortimer Schrift gestured to the bill of sale Thomas held in the tips of his fingers and, for the first time in seventeen years, the Cuyahoga Spring Fair opened without Mr. Mortimer M. Schrift.
The first night, Thomas fielded more questions than customers. He tussled his hair with nervousness, explaining over and over, yes, this was the famous Tunnel of True Love, and no, Mr. Schrift was no longer there. The second night was just as busy, but the town’s gossipers spread the answers around enough that Thomas could smile a little more, slap the podium, and holler, “Welcome, welcome to Warner’s Tunnel of True Love! Find out if your other is going to stay your other right here!” The line kept him busy, and as he counted and pocketed tickets, his attention was always set on the next pair stepping up and not once on those stepping out.
Thomas met his fiancé, Jen, at Timbo’s Diner the next day for lunch, hand holding, and a promise to dedicate the tunnel to just her for the night’s last ride. Ten minutes before fair’s closing, she arrived, wearing a light-yellow spring dress and gold ribbon for her auburn hair. Thomas scooped her up and helped her into the wood-carved swan car.
As the car kicked forward on its tracks, Thomas sighed at the pleasance of her perfume, saying, “This is my first time on the ride. Never had reason to, but when you said yes last year, I thought, well, I wanted the tunnel to be our ride to symbolize my love for you, Jen.”
Two cupids peeled away the curtains. As the red cloth parted, the swan’s jerky motion settled into a glide, lightly nuzzled by lapping water. They were in a placid stream, shimmering with rippling reflections of moonlight and a twinkling starry night. Light mist thickened the air, leaving every breath slightly moist and cool. Jen snuggled in closer to Thomas and rested her hands on top of his. “I love it, Tommy. The inside is magical, isn’t it?”
Thomas took in the new night’s sky, the reedy embankment, his mouth going curiously agape, murmuring softly, “You got that right, love.”
“Oh, Tommy! Look, it’s an image of us! That’s so neat!” Joy plucked away like harp strings in her voice.
A black-and-white projection of Jen and Tommy played against a sheet of mist, silent but for a cricket chirping. They were at Timbo’s, Tommy looking out the window while she sipped at a milkshake.
The swan passed under another image, a few more crickets chirping. It was only Tommy, counting a handful of twenty-dollar bills and shoving them into a nightstand, next to .38 revolver. Her fingers loosed from his.
In the next drifting projection, she’s reading at the park on a sunny day, the wind picking at the pages in her hand.
The crickets hummed.
Tommy was across the park from her, grabbing Travis Manning’s little brother by the hair and ripping a wallet out of his jeans – Thomas felt her shove him.
The hum rolled to a roar, and a stiff breeze picked at the stream’s surface. Another, Jen waiting on tables while he’s at the Dwyers’ house stealing their car, driving it to a chop shop, being handed a stack of cash.
Last, in color, Thomas stealing a scuffed leather suitcase from his grandfather, on his way to the fair.
Cupids pulled away the exit curtain to return them to the merry chimes of the few rides still playing under the remaining lights. Jen, flush, slapped him before jumping out of the car to disappear into the thinning crowd.
Thomas stayed in the swan when it halted next to Schrift’s former podium, where Schrift never invited couples to The Tunnel of True Love and never turned them away.
Darkness closed in section by section as lights went out and static reminders called through loudspeakers for everyone to make their way to the exit. The fair was closed.