The following short story is based upon a page from the The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, a non-fiction book by Erik Larson presented in a novelistic style.
In the book, there is a story about a man who freaks out on the Ferris Wheel, an attraction introduced at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The man throws himself against the cage, windows and herds people around the small container as it does it’s 9 minute rotation.
This short story is a creative perspective of the woman who came to the gentleman’s rescue in an unique way.
Eloise Campbell’s heart raced as she walked under the canopy of white lights that blanketed the crowded fairgrounds as if the stars fell from heaven to bless this spectacular event.
“It’s so beautiful,” was the only phrase that kept coming to her mind as she walked among people in long, sparkling gowns and Sunday best suits with carnations. She knew she was under-dressed in her brown tweed skirt suit and sensible, but well worn, kitten heels but that didn’t take away from the glimmer of the event.
No. She was caught up in the energy that hummed and zipped through the crowd. Every booth highlighted another dream, another invention. The laughter, the smiles and the gleam in people’s eyes showed the glimmer of a better future.
It wasn’t the first time she had traveled beyond the limits of her small rural hometown; but it was the first time she wouldn’t be going back unless it was to visit. She had long ago outgrown the comforts of the dusty Illnois farm town. She was meant to be more than a mother or a school teacher, at best.
The world was changing. There was new innovations. New inventions. Big cities were creating offices. These offices needed people who could type or file or make coffee. She wasn’t sure what the first two were but she excelled at the third – so why can’t she learn the others?
Eloise was certain that none of them dealt with chalkdust or children.. At least she hoped.
“Sinners,” the voice of her former beau and neighbor, Jacob McGee, crept into her mind, dousing her enjoyment for a brief second like a splash of cold water on the cold winter night. He felt the city offered nothing more than “devil’s dreams,” paving the way for sin and into hell.
Eloise wasn’t sure what to make of that statement, then or now. It was easy for McGee to point the finger at change and innovation. Yet, what if some of the items being featured at the Worlds Fair did change the world? What if it did open doors that were previously stuck or not even imagined? Or at least let you see a different view of the world we live in. One that is more expansive and ripe for opportunity. One that existed outside of an Illinois town.
She looked up at the giant wheel with it’s tiny cars of people that spun in a circle. She felt the excitement coursing through her. A chance to lift above the stars of the event to be closer to the real stars. They called thespinning cars the Ferris Wheel. She heard people talking that it was named after the inventor.
Someone envisioned this. She marveled at the idea that someone was able to think of spinning cars.
The line shifted as the doors opened and riders scurried to get their seat on the bit of history in the making. She was to be on the next car. What would it be like to float up from the ground? To be suspended in the air away from the daily life? The daily view?
To Eloise, this was the experience of a lifetime – just as the sign in front said. The rotating wheel came to a store and the doors opened, allowing the previous group to exit. Some appeared excited, while others appeared to be nauseous. The burly man blocking the entry stepped aside and Eloise was caught up in the current of patrons.
She was pressed tight to the opening on the opposite side, giving her a view of the crowd in line, and weaving through the various vendor booths. With the sound of metal sliding on metal, the door was closed and latched from the outside. The container lurched, like when a car slipped gears, and she was pulled from the ground.
She felt the movement in her belly before she noticed that the people were becoming smaller. The rush of being lifted as if she had wings made her light-headed, but not in a bad way. It was almost giddy. Like the time her Uncle Wilbur let her take a sip of his homemade moonshine. But this time there was no aftertaste.
The car paused a quarter of the way up as the container below offloaded and reloaded with more passengers. There was a gentle sway to the car, as if it was singing a lullaby to the passengers, comforting them on their trip around the Ferris Wheel.
She heard a sharp intake of breath and turned towards the man next to her. She smiled and he winced in return. The car rotated once again to let on another group of passengers, lifting them higher.
The man reached out and grabbed her arm. Eloise was shocked by the sheer terror she saw in his eyes. Instinctively, she raised a hand and covered his. He risked a brief smile before his face collapsed. She turned to see the sprawling countryside and felt her heart soar.
“It’s so beautiful.” It was a phrase she had been saying in her head, but it finally escaped out her lips. It was nothing like she imagined and was an amazing experience.
She turned to the man on her right but noticed that the two of them were having two separate experiences. Her mother used to say that the cats like the tight spaces in the barn rafters, not to chase mice, but because they felt warm, safe and contained.
Eloise watched the man and an idea came to her. That maybe, he just needed a bit of containment. A way to feel warm, safe, and tucked away. She looked down at her wardrobe and realized the only thing she had to offer was the clothing she had on.
Well, that’s what slips are for, she thought to herself.
“Trust me,” she said, sliding out of the skirt with the man steel gripping her arm. He watched her with worry and a touch of hope. Hope that she could help him. She hoped she could too.
Eloise grabbed the dark brown, thick material and threw it over his head.
Silence. There was no loud protesting. His breathing had slowed. The grip on her arm lessened.
She turned her attention to the world out her window, marveling at how small it appeared and at the same time how large. There wwas something that blossomed, hope? Hope that there was more to life.
“Here we are.” She said, and pulled her skirt off the man’s head. “Safe, on the ground.”
“Thank you,” the man said.
“Thank you,” she returned. Until that moment, she felt like she was doing something wrong, forbidden or sinful.
In reality, there was something different that called out from within her. There was a big world waiting for her.
She needed to soar.