Nick and Frank picked up Prin in front of his apartment in Terre Haute. This was the day for their visit to Dizzy’s World, the only amusement park nearby that was still open. Prin brought along a multipack of Pringles, his way of helping Nick stay off the Doritos. This got a good laugh, and he liked that these two older Indiana men—“light blue collar”—liked him too. He didn’t say much from the narrow bench back seat of Frank’s burgundy crew-cab F-150, which was space-shuttle clean and smelled like a lemon grove of baby wipes. With talk-radio holler in the background—“Today on the Perry Schlaffler Show: the White House’s Jordan Peterson whitewash, the truth behind Jerusalem artichokes, and more of your calls about the Geryon Jackson case”—he listened to Nick and Frank trade stories of what they had eaten, ridden, thrown up, and won on their many trips to Dizzy’s World, back when they were young, and then when they were dating their wives, and then when their kids were young. Lots of them, in all cases, even if the rides and attractions had changed over the years. Neither man had been to the park since the end of the American century.

Listen to an audio version of this story

Terre Haute thinned out fast going east along Highway 42 after it stopped running beside the interstate. For forty minutes, they rode through big flat farmland, the ground in springtime looking like blanched brown rubble, no longer frozen but not yet furrowed. Industrial sprinklers lined the far edges of the fields, like giant steel crabs waiting for the go-ahead. Beside newer and older and stove-through and fossilized barns were all kinds of cars and trucks, four-wheelers, dirt bikes, and at least one army Jeep. Some were on blocks, others were tarped, all were American. The houses on the farmsteads were generally older but dignified, or tiny and dollhouse perfect, or tiny and maybe abandoned, with front curtains that looked like they’d been closed since the day the officer and a chaplain knocked on the door with news from Normandy, Vietnam, Afghanistan. Beside the long straight drives and bright fat hatchet mailboxes were shuttered vegetable stands, some with signs promising to See You Next Summer, others still offering fruit pies and silky corn sweeter than sugar. Closer to the road, there were also cars for sale, and signs—homemade, professional, and professionally made to look homemade—asking you to choose adoption, love Jesus, support the troops, study natural law, support the police, bring back the gold standard, never forget 9/11, never forget 9/11 was an inside job, John 3:16, Make America Great Again, Make America Great Again, Again!, vote Yes or No to assorted Indiana ballot measures, sheriffs, and judges, Just Say No to MAT clinics, and also, God Bless America. Some of the farmland had deer stands, and a few had billboards: half were advertisements to advertise here, and the rest were for bankruptcy-protection services, treatment clinics, churches, the nearest Cracker Barrel, and law firms specializing in workplace-accident settlements.

Just before the farmland gave way to a sudden, sharp bolt of evergreen forest, there was a billboard promising fun for the whole family, just three miles plus five minutes ahead. The sign featured a picture of a circus showman with a spinning globe for a head, pointing towards a park that looked like a walled medieval city. The globe-headed showman was surrounded by a constellation of starry-eyed, apple-cheeked children. The sign was faded and peeling, and the children’s faces looked scabrous and anemic. Three more billboards counted down the miles and minutes to the destination.

“Are you sure this place is open?” said Prin.

“There’s cars in the parking lot,” said Nick.

“There’s people in the parking lot,” said Frank.

The three men had been hired by an evangelical millionaire to help build a theme park inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. Prin was one of several university professors involved with the project, alongside people in procurement and construction. He understood that footnotes were life-or-death matters for the one group and that hearing about footnotes was a death sentence for the other group. He had been hired as the go-between.

“We can’t exactly drive to Disney World and obviously can’t get tickets on short notice to that creationism park down in Kentucky,” said Frank.

“Do you mean Genesis Extreme or BJ’s Bible World?” said Nick.

“Genesis Extreme. BJ’s Bible World moved to Tennessee after it lost that court case. Whereas Dizzy’s World is right here, near town. The plan is, we’ll walk through and can figure out if there’s anything there—ideas, or even material—that we could use for the Dante parks. Then we bring it back to the others around the table to make sure it works, budget wise and timing wise. Okay?” said Frank.

Prin and Nick nodded. Nick went to say something to Frank, ask him something, but he didn’t. Before signing on to the Dante project, they’d worked together in the head office at the evangelical millionaire’s company in Terre Haute for years. They knew each other’s families, what had happened in each other’s families, to each other’s families. Which is why Nick could have asked another question but also why he didn’t.

There were a dozen vehicles in the gravel parking lot, rusted out family vans and cars with back seats crammed high with whatever the users had been able to grab but not pawn when they were last kicked out. There were a couple of older, nicer cars at opposite ends—a BMW 323i and a Chrysler 500, both black, with tinted windows and fat silver mag wheels, engines on, music on, windows going up and down at each rag-and-bone visitor to the drive-through. There were so many, it was hard to think that even in this little parking lot, in just another little town in Indiana, the pills had undone so many of them. Some were standing still, but most were slouching towards nothing in particular, only shuffling around the parking lot, back and forth and back and forth between the black cars and their cars and a couple of picnic tables, back and forth between scores and getting to get to score.

“Frank, are you sure this is a good idea?” said Nick.

“We’re already here. And they’re in the parking lot, not in the park,” said Frank.

“They’re not really hiding what’s going on,” said Prin.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore,” said Nick.

“We’re in Indiana,” said Frank.

They parked at a distance from the other cars and walked to the entrance, where the security guard was sunk deep in sleep in a Corolla parked chevron style.

Three women approached. The first had stringy hair. The second had almost no hair. The third had serpentine dreadlocks. They were all pockmarked and scratching their chests. The first asked if they had any more clean needles. The second asked if any of them was Arun or knew when Arun was coming. The third asked for a ride to . . . work? Frank and Nick and Prin kept walking. The three women followed for a few steps, then turned back to slow-rolling stones. Others came up and then backed away, surprised that Prin and Frank and Nick were real and here.

Dizzy’s World was open for business. It seemed medievalish. The front of the park was a fortress-like wall made of chopped-down telephone poles topped by mostly vacant flagstaffs.

The ticket booths, single-person boxes painted long ago to look like ladies-in-waiting and men-at-arms, were shuttered and barred and padlocked and double bolted. One had a message in ballpoint pen written on a cardboard flap, directing visitors to the snack bar to buy tickets.

The snack bar’s counterman was big—big in the chest, arms, neck, and face. It was a cold spring day, and he was wearing a clean white T-shirt, as if to show off his muscles. No: he was showing off his unmarked arms. They couldn’t see his bottom half, and the top part of his bald head was cut off by the menu board, which was sponsored by a soda pop from the nineties. In the back corner of the snack bar, a stocky brown dog in a studded black collar worked over a big white bone, paying no attention.

“You law enforcement?” the counterman said.

“No,” said Frank.

NARCAN reps? You’re supposed to call first,” he said.

“No. We’d like three tickets to the park,” said Nick.

“Lawyers? Caseworkers? Church people?” he said.

“No,” said Frank.

“Family? Looking for somebody?” he said.

No one answered. Nick was looking at Frank, who was texting.

“Got a picture? I don’t know their names, but I’d probably know the face,” he said.

Frank was now staring at the counterman, chewing his lower lip, gripping his phone.

“Would you really know the face? Even from an old picture?” Frank said.

“Probably. I don’t know. Maybe. Most of them come by here for something at some point every day or so,” said the counterman.

“Are you saying all of them are in the parking lot?” said Frank.

“No. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying park security isn’t what it used to be,” he said.

“Can we actually go into the park or not?” said Nick.

“You can. But if you want to ride anything or play a game, you need to come tell me. We’re on reduced staff, and that’s me,” said the counterman.

“So then, three tickets,” said Frank.

“Okay. None of my business what you do in there, but just so you know, law enforcement does come through, uniform and plainclothes,” he said.

“We’re here for research purposes,” said Prin.

“And my dad read Hustler for the articles,” said the counterman.

“We’re consultants for the new Dante theme-park project in town. We’re looking for some ideas that would make sense for the two parks: Heaven and Hell,” said Prin.

“You’re in the right place. Fifty percent at least,” said the counterman.

“I used to come here when I was a kid. Felt like heaven back then. I used to bring my kids here,” said Nick.

“Yeah, I know. Cash only,” said the counterman.

Beyond the snack bar, the park was a broad spread of asphalt broken up by rusty kiddie rides, vacant concession stands, and empty game stalls.

“One summer, I won a Walkman for my daughter, right there. We went to Arby’s to celebrate. Megan loved Arby’s. Loves. We were right there,” said Frank.

He pointed at a stall that had wire baskets of baseballs beside an empty shelf. There were broken beer bottles all over the floor. Frank pretended to pitch a ball or two, then winced and pressed the small of his back. He leaned back and pretended to paint the ceiling of the heavens until the pinch went away.

“Does your daughter live in town?” said Prin.

“Maybe, she might,” said Frank.

His voice had dropped.

“So then, what’s the plan?” said Prin.

“Yeah, Frank. It was your idea that we come here, and to be honest, looking around this place, I’m kind of wondering what we are expecting to find. I heard Dizzy’s World wasn’t what it used to be, but I had no idea it was like this. I’m not sure we’re going to find any good ideas in this place for the Dante parks,” said Nick.

“You never know. Let’s keep walking,” said Frank.

They passed more of the same—a make-your-own T-shirt kiosk called Iron On Maiden, a prop-and-costume karaoke studio called Crewsade, both stripped bare. It felt like they were walking through the ghost of an amusement park. They came to the centre, a massive plastic-and-metal elm tree attached to an industrial-sized winch, its limbs and trunk painted fudge brown and the greenery above with peekaboo windows cut into it. There was a small arched door in the middle of the trunk. The door was closed.

“The twirling elf tree!” said Nick.

“Yeah,” said Frank.

“You could spend all day in there, and it was perfect. I used to think that was what it was like, to be kind of like God—sitting still, above it all in one of the windows, and everyone smiles when they see you and you smile down at them and watch the whole world circling around you,” said Nick.

“I remember . . .”

The door opened.

Head first, part by part, a young man crawled out of the elm tree, dragging his chin on the ground. Feet first, on her belly, a woman slid out after him. They were skinny enough to fit through the child-size entry. They looked at Nick and Frank and Prin sleepily, then walked away slowly. After a time, two little boys came out of the tree. They followed their parents, the bigger one holding on to the smaller one by his backpack.

“I really don’t think this is the place for us,” said Prin.

“Just keep walking. It’s not the place for those kids either, but they’re here. People’s kids are here,” said Frank.

They went by a boarded-up, burned-out House of Horrors, and a padlocked water ride called Courtney Lovers’ Lane, past little stages whose lights and wiring had been stripped and a puppet theatre missing its curtains. They came to a spinning teacup ride. Each of the cups was painted to look like a toothy bar wench. The ride was called Tea and Strumpets. There were people splayed out in a few of the teacups, false dreaming. There was movement in one teacup. A man and a woman. Nick and Prin walked faster.

“Frank! Let’s go! What the hell are you doing?” said Nick.

Frank kept looking.

“Let’s get out of here,” said Nick.

“I agree,” said Prin.

Frank joined them.

“We are here for work. We came here for ideas for the park, and we are being paid for this day, and I intend to fulfill my responsibilities and my commitments,” he said.

“Easy, Frank. We all know why we’re here. At least, I know why I’m here and why Prin’s here. What about you?” said Nick.

“I am here for the same reason you are, Nick. And I know we’re not finding what we were hoping to find, but we said we were going to do this, and so let’s do this. There’s not much more to see, but if you want to go back, fine. I’ll give you my keys, and you can wait in the truck,” said Frank.

But he was already walking ahead, straight towards the park’s main ride.

It was a small wooden rollercoaster. It was old, but it didn’t look broken down like everything else, maybe because it had always been wind washed and a little rickety. A wooden cut-out knight held a sword sideways beside the entry gate, indicating how tall you had to be to ride the dragon. There wasn’t much to it, so far as rollercoasters go. It had a short flat run that led into a single steep ascent, which turned into a gradual drop that crested as a long, easy curve that eventually returned you to the start. The ride wouldn’t take more than a minute. The front car had a fierce dragon face, and the rest were patterned in dark-green scales. The middle cars had arching wing tips, and the last one had a black barbed tail.

“Actually, that’s perfect,” said Prin.

“For what?” said Nick.

“Halfway through the Inferno, I think it’s the seventh circle of their descent down towards the Devil, Dante and Virgil are stuck because they can’t go any further on their journey by foot. They’re surrounded by rivers of blood and deserts of fire. So they take a ride on this human-faced monster. I don’t remember its name, but it’s kind of like a giant scorpion or snake. So far, the most the other professors have come up with to translate that part of the poem is to paint the monster’s body between two levels and have people walk down the ramp,” he said.

“But that’s so boring! I mean, I don’t understand 90 percent of what’s going on in Dante, even after the PowerPoint version you had them put together for us, Prin, but even I can see something scary and fun and true to what happens in the story if we put in a rollercoaster that looks like a monster. I mean, this is what we really want for the parks, right? And people will come, just for the rollercoaster. Who wants to walk when you can roll? Right, Frank?” said Nick.

“Yeah, that could work,” said Frank.

He was texting and looking around, scanning, searching the fairground.

“Do you think we could replicate this to fit in an arena? Or source it somewhere else? Or even—not like it’s getting any use here—if it can be reconditioned, even take this one! Obviously we’d have to get engineering drawings for it, and then we’d have to safety it, and—actually, it might just be easier to go with a custom build based on this. What do you think, Frank? You’re the procurement guy,” said Nick.

“Yeah,” said Frank.

Nick wanted measurements. He counted the steps it took him to go around the ride, and then, groaning a little with the effort, he bent down and tried to figure out the power supply, the state of the track, the wooden frame.

Prin waited beside Frank until Nick came back.

“This thing would turn into kindling if we tried to move it, but Frank, with six months’ lead time before we start testing everything in September, we could ask for a design concept now and have our main ride, right here, ready for opening day. Right, Frank? And probably Terre Haute people coming to the park are going to remember and kind of like that we’re doing something inspired by Dizzy’s World, right? Frank?” said Nick.

“Yeah. Yeah,” said Frank.

He kept texting.

“Frank! You’re worse than a teenager with that phone,” said Nick.

“Sorry. My wife keeps messaging me,” said Frank.

“Prin, could you take a few pictures for us? I just need to talk to Frank about something,” Nick said.

“Sure,” said Prin.

He took out his phone and went around the rollercoaster, taking pictures. Prin was far from home. It had been nearly two years since he’d gone to the Middle East to open a satellite campus for his Toronto college. The plan had failed, following a terrorist attack that Prin had survived, and the college had shut down and the building had been turned into a luxury condominium for seniors. Prin had been granted early retirement and, in exchange for signing a nondisclosure agreement about what had happened to him, a monthly stipend that wasn’t enough to support his family. But he’d also become a kind of minor disaster celebrity—the professor who was mistaken for a suicide bomber—and, with that profile, he had been approached to work on Dante’s Indiana. Prin was glad for this, really for any kind of work that took him away from the dark wood of his Toronto life. His wife and children had moved in with his wife’s family in Milwaukee because of the renovation work to their house back home, officially. There were other reasons, nondisclosed to the children.

Prin looked back at Frank and Nick. They were two sixty-year old men in Dockers and hard-toed shoes and Carhartt jackets. They were discussing something in a way that seemed somewhere between confession and argument. In the end, Nick hugged Frank, who didn’t hug him back. But he was nodding.

They agreed—Nick announced they agreed—there was nothing else to see in the park today.

The passenger-side window of Frank’s truck was shattered. The glovebox was open, and papers were strewn on the floor mats. The highway transponder and garage-door opener were gone. The navigation screen was cracked and its metal lining scuffed and dented. Someone had tried to prise it out of the console with a bent, blackened spoon. The tins of Pringles were dumped out and thrown aside. Pringles, all the way down.

They looked around. The same cars were there and the same cragged, wandering people, though a few were now watching Frank and Nick and Prin.

“Should I go get the security guard? I think I saw him sleeping before. Should I at least wake him up?” said Prin.

“He wasn’t sleeping. That was something else. That’s probably why he took this job,” said Frank.

“Coming here was a mistake. Let’s clean this up and get out here,” said Nick.

“Should we just try to sweep glass out onto the pavement?” said Prin.

“Probably not the first people to do it. Hey, careful there, Frank, moving around those papers. They’re probably covered in broken glass,” said Nick.

“The Arby’s coupons! The Arby’s coupons!” said Frank.

“What?” said Nick.

“They’re gone! Look down there. No, I’m serious. Come in here, and look down there. LOOK! My Burger King coupons are still there. My Jimmy John’s, my Potbelly’s, my Domino’s. The Arby’s coupons are gone, Nick. Gone!” he said.

Frank stepped back and away from the truck, Prin and Nick giving him space. His face was red and lit up, and his eyes were big and glassy and pulsing, like he was about to cry but also had just won the lottery and might stab someone. He kept opening and closing his hands, clutching for something and getting only air. He turned to look at the crowd in the parking lot and walked towards them, faster and faster and then running.

“Megan! Megan! Where’s Megan! Which one of you knows where Megan is! I’ll give you money if you tell me where’s Megan! Where’s Megan! Megan! Who knows Megan?” he said.

“Come on, Prin,” said Nick.

They jogged across the parking lot and reached Frank just as he’d taken out his wallet. The people who had been shrivelling away from him were undulating forward now. Suddenly everyone knew Megan.

Nick told them to get away and pressed down on Frank’s hands so that he put his wallet back in his pocket. Most of them wandered off, mouths gaping. Not all of them did. Prin saw two had remained. Tree-planter Jesus types in windbreakers and dirty jeans, sunken faced and sad eyed. They were calculating something. They were fidgety and chewing on their raw red faces.

“Nick,” said Prin.

“I know. Frank, we need to leave now,” said Nick.

“She’s here, Nick. It makes sense. The Arby’s, the Walkman, it makes sense. When I would drive Megan to the clinic for her methadone, we’d go to Arby’s afterwards. That was the treat. And it was working! Damn it, it almost worked. She has to be here,” said Frank.

One of the two men jerkily jumped into Frank, reaching and reaching for his wallet. Nick went to push him away, and the other one started patting his pockets. Looking for what?

“KNIFE!” said Prin.

Did he say that out loud?

“KNIFE!” said Prin.

“Who? Frank, watch out!” said Nick.

The BMW honked its horn hard and long and everyone stopped and looked. The door opened and the music stopped and a very young man stepped out. He might have been sixteen. The Chrysler 500 drove up beside his car.

“End this shit! Right the fuck now!” he said.

The first tree-planter Jesus let go of Frank and the other put away his knife, and they ran away a few feet and stopped and turned back and did the same motions again.

“This is a quiet and peaceful place for quiet and peaceful people,” said the dealer to the assembled. “You all are fucking that up. You two motherfuckers standing over there—one more time, and then you are going to be banned from my parking lot, understood?” he said.

But they had already wandered away.

“As for you, Super Dads or whatever the fuck, you are going to get fucked up any second now by one of these people and then the police come, and that’s not happening in my fucking parking lot. That is not happening. It is time to go. It is time to go, and you are never coming back here. It is time to go, and you better go, or my boy in this car beside me is going to make you go,” he said.

“Do you know Megan?” said Frank.

Randy Boyagoda
Randy Boyagoda is a professor of English at the University of Toronto, where he is also principal of St. Michael’s College and holds the Basilian chair in Christianity, arts, and letters. He is chair of the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize jury and currently writing a new novel, entitled Dante’s Indiana, on which this story is based.