In those days—the summer of 1976—Ephraim P. Noble found himself in the unfortunate position, having to make ends meet, as a barker at a Bicentennial-themed carnival in the parking lot of a Sears at a mall outside of Baltimore. Worse yet, every morning before work he was required to have his face painted red, white and blue. The saving grace was that the face painter was a beautiful girl, a runaway with double-braided black hair, who touched his face with her fingers and brushes with such delicacy and, Noble thought, tenderness. She was a hippie, now becoming something else, as everyone was. She wore moccasins. She had bare legs. She wanted something, though it was hard to tell what. She was very quiet. On some mornings, she smelled like lemons. And on those mornings, she seemed to let her fingers linger over Noble’s face.
Noble was charged with barking for a ride called “The Fourth Chamber.” It wasn’t so much a ride as a weirdly condensed funhouse. The only thing Bicentennial about it was an enormous, frayed plastic American flag draped across the entrance, which you pushed aside, like a shower curtain, to enter. Noble had been fired as a professor from Penn State years earlier by a bald man who wore an American flag pin on his lapel.
The fourth chamber was different from chambers one, two, and three, as far as Noble could tell, in that patrons emerged from it stained with blood. Sometimes drenched. They emerged completely silent, vacantly. They never, as far as he knew, complained about their ruined clothes. On more than one occasion, they collapsed (usually it was a child) and Noble performed the CPR he had been trained to administer. In fact (and Noble recognized the coldness in his heart that made him feel this way) he looked forward to the collapsed patrons, as the CPR inevitably involved the smearing of his face paint, which meant a trip to the face-painter’s tent, who would touch-up and fix his smears, her face close to his in the sweltering afternoons.
On his last day on the job, in mid-October, Noble ventured into the Fourth Chamber after dark. The only way in was through chambers one through three, which turned out to be not much more than rooms with plastic skeletons, sprayed-on cobwebs, a butcher’s block, and strobe lights. The door to the Fourth Chamber was marked “Do Not Enter,” but of course everyone entered. You had to enter to leave the ride. The room itself was completely blank. No props, no weird lights. Nothing phony. Just what looked to be a small machine—like an antique typewriter but without the keys—in the middle of the floor. The machine seemed to vibrate slightly, like a film jammed in a projector, the frame shuddering. When you looked at it directly, it was hard to hold in your vision. It seemed to keep squirming away. On the black floor was a white chalk line that bisected the room, with an arrow at the end, pointing towards the exit. To follow the line meant to step over the small, black, vibrating machine. Noble did this. What surprised him was not what happened, but what didn’t. Or but what didn’t seem to. In other words: nothing.
He emerged from the exit into the glowing-dull-orange parking lot, a small flock of weirdly colored birds cutting briefly across his line of vision. As for blood, there were only a few spots of it on the backs of Noble’s hands. All in all, he felt no different. The world was, for better and for worse, the same. He made his way to the face-painter’s tent, and found her sleeping on her cot, her hunter green Girl Scout Lantern burning. He wanted very badly to kiss her forehead. To take her away from here.
He wanted to tell himself that he would come back for her, but of course he wouldn’t. And after all, she was not his. Nobody was nobody’s. He had read somewhere once that the earth was speeding around the sun at close to 70,000 miles per hour. Somehow, this fact comforted him. Not everything was as it appeared. As he was soon to find out.