The Fire-Breathing Termite

Tuesday, June 8, 2004

Your wait from this point is thirty-eight minutes.

The Fire-Breathing Termite lurks 150 feet overhead with screaming passengers scurrying across the mound. The August sun lashes Thomas’s neck, and he rubs it, looking around. The crowd stands too close to him and radiates its own heat.

“This heat is incredible,” Thomas says.

Kem mutters, “There’s no such thing as heat. It’s only electricity pulsating through one’s brain.” Even in the heat, she wears a blue, unzipped sweatshirt with a hood and pull strings. Her sweatshirt sleeves cover her wrists and most of her fingers, and under her sweatshirt, she wears a black shirt printed with “Pumpkin Picker: Basket.” She stands perfectly still, not seeming to breathe.

“What did you say?” Thomas says.

“Nothing,” Kem says. “Just searching for meaning in all this heat.”

“Any luck?”

“Yeah. I discovered heat doesn’t have meaning unless you’re stuck in it.”

Thomas barks a laugh and rubs his neck again. “I bet that’s something they didn’t teach you in your air-conditioned meditation class.”

Thomas learned he would ride the Termite a week ago. He was eating brunch with Kem and discussing vegetarianism. Kem was trying to decide if she cared enough about animal rights to stop eating animals. Thomas bit into his half-pound cheeseburger and gestured wildly before responding.

“It’s a world where you have to eat or be eaten,” he said and swung the burger past her face. “This may look innocent and defenseless, but if it had not been viciously killed and grinded, it might eat you and everyone you love, or, at the very least, some of the grass around your house. I know how much you love that grass.”

“I don’t have a house. And my dorm is surrounded by concrete, not grass.”

“That doesn’t change anything.” Thomas took another bite of his burger and meat juices dripped down his chin.

Kem leaned over, wiped the mess off his face, and put a finger on his lips before he could continue. “We’re going to Defying Adventures next weekend,” she said. “And you’re going to ride the Termite again. It’s all planned. Now, what were you saying about eat or be eaten?” Kem smiled as Thomas turned a Kermit shade of green.

Your wait from this point is thirty-one minutes.

A Fire-breathing Termite car, with six people sitting in pairs, slinks toward the peak. A few hands rise in preparation for the drop. One of the passengers wears a fluorescent orange shirt that clashes brilliantly with the red rubber termite that wiggles in the wind over the track. As the car reaches the peak, it hangs motionless before gravity tugs.

Thomas shifts the plastic bag holding Faust from his sweaty right hand to his left. Faust is still alive and swimming. For not the first time, Thomas wishes he had won the goldfish for Kem. He had studied the game booth for ten minutes before putting his money down. Each try cost five dollars and most players won on their second attempt. He tried four times before giving up. He hated to disappoint Kem, but even after changing fishing lines, he couldn’t catch the plastic fish’s mouth. Kem won the fish on her first try and handed it to Thomas. He took it, happy to be of some assistance, and named him Faust.

The Termite car shoots up through another hole near the summit of the mound. It twists and slows down as it rises twenty feet over the peek, providing the riders a moment of weightlessness. Kem claps and laughs as the car plunges in a twisting, fluorescent orange blur into a Termite hole. Thomas averts his eyes.

“So, how long is this line?” Kem says.

Thomas shushes Kem. “I’m concentrating on keeping my lunch down. I’m still doing pretty good with the frankfurters, but the slushy is problematic. I knew blueberry was a mistake when I bought it.”

Kem measures the distance between them and takes a tiny step back. “The line, freak. How long?”

Thomas points at the sign overhead, which flashes advertisements along its border and counts the waiting time digitally at its center. Kem glares at the sign and shoves her middle finger at it. The sign increases the wait time by five minutes. Kem groans and Thomas erupts in laughter.

Thomas met Kem freshman year partly because of his roommate John. John started university dating his high school sweetheart, a cheerleader a year younger than him. John and his girlfriend spent all their time in the dorm room before her senior activities and his newfound freedom doomed their love. They didn’t bother tying anything on the doorknob when busy. Thomas learned to listen warily at the door before opening it. John’s girlfriend took an almost obscene pleasure in Thomas’s interruption of their lovemaking. While Thomas enjoyed seeing her slender, six-foot frame sweating in rapture, the enjoyment embarrassed him terribly.

Instead of chancing an interruption, Thomas spent his time wandering the dormitory halls. Freshman orientation had finished, but classes had not begun. Thomas went from dorm to dorm admiring the murals painted along the walls by generations of students with either too much time or too much talent. Some were paintings of favorite cartoon characters or sports teams. Others were elaborate panoramic scenes painted in a realistic or surreal style. Most were half finished as if the artists lost interest or moved halfway through their work.

Kem sat outside her room with her legs stretched across the hall. She had large, slightly sloped eyes that dominated her oval face. Her arms and shoulders were droopy and her body looked like it was about to fall over. Kem refused to carry a bag and instead wore pants with many large pockets always full of stuff: books, candies, letters, pencil sharpeners, anything that was lying about. She emptied her pockets every evening, but by the next afternoon, they were full again.

A book was splayed across her knees and her head was bent over it. Thomas was surprised to see someone reading a book; he couldn’t imagine reading without an assignment. He stepped over Kem’s outstretched legs.

“I’m not going to grow unless you step back,” she said, looking up.

Thomas continued to stare at Kem. He wanted to say something, but his mind blanked. His body kept moving forward as his eyes locked on her. When he risked either snapping his neck or losing sight of her, he stopped.

“I was taught as a little girl that if someone steps over you, you stop growing,” Kem said. “I don’t know about you, but I’m barely five feet tall. I’m not going to risk losing even an inch. So, if you wouldn’t mind.” She pointed to her legs. Thomas stepped back over and she pulled her legs in to let Thomas pass.

“Mind if I join you?” Thomas said.

“You have a thing for short girls?”

“Great men stand on the shoulders of giants. Even a little man appears tall when standing there.”

“A little woman, too, eh?”

Your wait from this point is twenty-four minutes.

A black car roars through a hole on the side of the Termite mound. The car twists upside down and turns sharply. A second car explodes from the hole and passes underneath the first. The passengers from the two cars extend their arms. From this distance, the hands look like centipede legs propelling the cars away from each other. After completing the loops, both cars blast into the mound through different holes.

The line slithers and loops forward. Thomas feels frustration building inside him. The frustration is still as far away as an approaching train that appears motionless even as it draws near. Thomas watches Kem chew on her sweatshirt’s pull strings. He takes in her flavor—she smells like cherries, the real cherries before soaked in sugar and spray-painted for presentation on a sundae—and his frustration fades.

“Did you watch the South Park episode where Cartman buys an amusement park?” Thomas says.

“Didn’t he buy the park so he could have it all to himself?” She lowers her voice, pinches her nose, and says, “No more lines!”

“Ah! I knew it. Even lit. majors, with your holier-than-thou taste and sophistication, are vulnerable to modern culture.”

Kem scrunches up her nose and sticks out her tongue. “A little real culture wouldn’t hurt you, math boy.”

“I’m starting to agree with Cartman,” Thomas says. “Maybe it is worth a million dollars to avoid these stupid lines.”

“If this is a ploy to escape riding the Termite, it won’t work, you know. We need to get you over what happened last time.”

Thomas smiles weakly. “I’m looking forward to riding the Termite. I’m a bit curious what the ride looks like with my eyes open. It’ll be a new experience.”

Kem majored in English Literature. She was that rare freshman who knew what she wanted and never wavered in her studies. She read continuously, usually with a pen in her mouth. Thomas tried to read her books. He wasn’t much of a reader, but he forced himself to every night. Kem carried a book of Sylvia Plath’s poetry in a large pocket, the pages drawn with five-pointed stars, hearts, and heavy underlines.

Thomas walked her back to her dorm one night and recited Plath’s “You’re” to her. The night was cool with only pinches of moonlight marking the path. Thomas stopped next to a park bench and recited the poem. At the end, he placed one hand on each of her shoulders and said, “Right, like a well-done sum. / A clean slate, with your own face on.”

They had known each other only a month and Kem had already told Thomas that she was not over her high school boyfriend. After Thomas finished, she smiled and raised her hand. Her fingers were stained with ink. A pen in one of her pants’ pockets had exploded and blackened her hand. She brought her fingers close to his face but pulled away before touching him. “I don’t want to get ink all over your face,” she said and turned quickly. Kem’s knees buckled and Thomas put his arm around her shoulders for support. She tensed up, and then relaxed, leaning her head against him. He pulled her closer, and with a slanted gate, they walked home.

Your wait from this point is eighteen minutes.

This section of the line has no shade. The heat from the sun smacks Thomas’s unprotected skin in waves. The line moves forward. As it turns a corner, two lanes appear separated by a dull orange rope. Thomas follows the people in front and steps into the right lane. Kem peers down the empty left lane.

“Do you think that other lane is a return lane?” Kem says.

Both lanes make a sharp right turn ahead and nobody comes back along the left lane. “Not sure.”

Thomas considers the left lane. People have a tendency to choose the longer line. This is mostly an American phenomenon. In Europe, people fight each other for the shortest path to the front. Americans feel that the longer the line, the safer the choice. There is a group mentality to waiting. If the line is long enough, there must be something good at the end. This holds even if all lines lead to the same place.

Before Thomas dated Kem, he would never have given the left lane a second thought. Kem was an alpha female: her clothing was a season ahead of the fashion. She found garage bands and listened to their music before they hit it big. People who were around her unconsciously dressed like her; not one of her friends carried a bag anymore.

Kem loved to stay up late and discuss everything. She said she was her most expressive in the late evening hours when the streets emptied and the world quieted. She was lying in his bed one evening, resting her head on his chest, while he stroked her wiry, short hair, lengthened with blonde, braided extensions. A week had passed since she last corrected him for introducing her as his girlfriend. On the ceiling, Thomas had taped glow-in-the-dark stars forming the major winter constellations of the northern hemisphere. Like most of their conversations, the longer they spoke, the more philosophical it turned.

“You have to avoid the herd mentality,” she said. “Many times I do the exact opposite of what people expect. I like to watch their reactions. It’s about manipulating the herd: they’re my own cult. Most times, they don’t even think about what they’re doing. In a group, people aren’t terribly smart.”

“They aren’t that smart individually, either.”

“You know that’s not true, Tom.” Kem smiled. Even when she disagreed with him, she did it in such an endearing way that Thomas couldn’t help but love her. “People are brilliant when they’re given the opportunity to express themselves individually. But when you get them in groups, they’ll follow the easiest path, even if it isn’t the best or most interesting path. Someone has to rebel against the group and change the status quo.”

“We should go down the left lane,” Thomas says. Before he finishes, a man in jean shorts and his girlfriend jump the rope divider and head down the empty left lane. The floodgates open and a crowd follows. The left lane fills up quickly as Kem and Thomas watch.

“Eh,” Thomas says. “I was in no hurry.”

“Do I smell some sour grapes around here?”

“That sounds yummy,” he says and kisses the top of her head.

Your wait from this point is nine minutes.

After the turn, the line begins to weave through metal switchback stairs. This is the point of no cutting. Once you enter the metal structure, it is next to impossible for someone to catch up without cutting through an angry line of people. The only exit after this point is at the end of the ride. Thomas catches his last glimpse of a Termite car slowing down by completing a series of lazy loops around the bottom of the mound. This is where the riders take stock, checking that all their parts are where they are supposed to be. It is also where last time Thomas knew he would not be able to keep his food down.

The cars vibrate the metal stairs. While the stairs provide shade, the metal heats quickly, and near the top of the stairs, the heat becomes unbearable. Thomas places his hand on the bag and Faust rams its head against his hand. The water feels like silicone under Thomas’s fingers.

“I’ve heard rumors that goldfish are very stupid,” Thomas says. “The story goes that when they swim completely around their tank, they forget where they’ve just been. They think they’ve found a brand new area.”

“I don’t believe that theory. Faust is smart. I can tell.”

“Maybe. Perhaps he knows that there’s nothing better on the other side of the bag. The only thing out here is this hot line and a sickening fall.”

“You think they’ll let us take Faust on the ride?”

Thomas holds up the fish and turns the bag until Faust faces him. Faust’s lips purse, opening and closing before swimming away. “For his sake, I hope not.”

Thomas brought Kem to Defying Adventures to ride the Termite last summer. He wanted to impress her with his nonchalant attitude toward danger and excitement. It didn’t work as he hoped. Thomas gorged himself on amusement park frankfurters. He grew up eating frankfurters. His mother boiled them for dinner, barbequed them at family gatherings, baked them in casseroles for special meals with his father’s clients, and even fried them with eggs for breakfast.

When he went to college, Thomas vowed never to eat another frankfurter. Within a month, he craved them and broke his vow. He tried to limit his intake, convinced that the lips and ass meat could not possibly be good for his health. Kem had other thoughts and learned to use frankfurters to her advantage. When Thomas refused to attend artsy or tender movies, Kem would tantalize him with descriptions of the movie frankfurters. The movie theater they frequented served the gourmet variety: thin with a meaty, heavy flavor and grilled until the outside skin crunched. He sat through her tear jerking or indecipherable artsy films with a frankfurter, small popcorn, and Sprite. The meat flavor went exceptionally well with the salt of the popcorn and the lemon of the soft drink.

Before getting in line for the Termite last summer, Thomas ate three frankfurters. The cool weather and light rain kept the crowds away, and Thomas and Kem rushed from ride to ride with almost no wait. Thomas did his best to keep his composure, but after riding the Termite, he spattered half-digested frankfurter chunks all over Kem.

Your wait from this point is one minute.

The Fire-Breathing Termite cars stop in front of three gates. The attendants load the cars in quick succession. Before the previous car disappears, the next car is already loaded and ready to follow. When it is their turn, Thomas flicks the antenna attached at the front of the Termite car before sliding into his seat. Kem takes the seat next to him and two looped bars descend over their heads and shoulders fastening them to the plastic chairs. The attendant tugs on each person’s bar before hitting a big red button.

The Termite car springs forward, picking up speed as it explodes through a round hole. Thomas’s eyes adjust gradually to the darkness. Smoke fills the interior of the colossal chamber and lasers flash the darkness. The track glows sickly green and the car ahead of them disappears. A many-legged bug splatters against the side of the car with an amplified splat. The couple seated behind them shrieks. Two, thin, furry legs reach over the top of the car, brushing Thomas’s shoulder. A steep hill looms. As the car tilts to climb the hill, the bug detaches itself and falls away. Thomas’s stomach rumbles in time with the ratcheting of the ascent.

“If you’re going to blow, give me fair warning this time,” Kem says. Thomas doesn’t answer.

“I’m not joking. All I ask for is a fighting chance.”

Thomas looks down at the bag in his left hand. “Shit. I forgot to drop off the fish.

“Just hold on tight. If you can make, Faust will make it.”

“Poor Faust,” Thomas says.

Thomas places the bag in his lap and holds on to the bar with his right hand. The car continues to climb, jerking a bit as it slips from one of the ratchets. Kem raises both her arms and starts screaming. “Just warming up,” she says and puts her arms down.

The Termite car passes through a pitch-black tunnel. A brilliantly lit gash appears at the end of the tunnel. The gash expands and a windy gust washes over Thomas. He struggles to keep his eyes open to watch the ascent. It reminds Thomas of trying to look up while standing under a waterfall. The car passes through the open gash into daylight at the top of the Termite mound. The car begins to dip as it passes the top. Sweat pours from Thomas’s palms and warm fear bubbles in his hollow stomach.

“Oh yeah,” Kem screams and raises her arms. “Here it comes. Waiter, check please!”

The car plummets and picks up speed. Thomas’s head feels huge with the pressure and his ears pop painfully. The juices in his stomach gyrate. A heavy weight drops on his chest and he tastes blood in his throat. The car buzzes and shakes as it falls toward a black, round hole. Bright orange flames greet the car as it pierces the hole. The intense heat from the fire washes over Thomas as the car passes through the flames.

The car jerks to a stop at the bottom of the hill. The acrid smell of sulfur fills Thomas’s nostrils and he squeezes his eyes shut. The car speeds up as it climbs again, this time twisting inside the dark mound. The car continues to rotate, loop, rise, and drop. Sunlight burns Thomas’s eyelids only to be replaced by darkness stained orange. He concentrates on his whirling stomach and swallows the gastric juices that keep sneaking up his throat.

When he is sure he can take no more, the car rights itself and loops lazily around the outside of the mound, slowing down with each loop. Thomas takes a deep breath. There is a strange, ringing silence and he realizes that Kem has stopped screaming.

“That was awesome,” Kem says. Her arms are still above her head, her wrists flailing.

Thomas feels wetness on his pants. He looks down to find a watery stain covering his crotch and inner thighs. He holds the shriveled remains of a plastic bag in his left hand. He pictures Faust flying from the bag during one of the upside-down loops and writhing through the air before smashing into the dark ground inside the Termite mound.

Kem stares at him. “Is that water from the fish or is there something you’re not telling me?”

“Poor Faust,” Thomas says.

Kem places her arms around his neck. “I never liked that fish, anyway. He didn’t fit in any of my pockets.”

Word version

 Houston, TX | ,