I’m a line-sit for the Ultimate Roller Coaster. At first, I thought the job would be depressing, everyone standing in line waiting to ride-n-die, but what I do is altruistic. I’m helping my clients out, making it easier for them to accept the end.
At my last job, Forever Nails, I hated the clients. The rich bitches would sit, wrapped in their polymer-apricot, age-reducing skin bags, and offer their nails to me like I should be grateful for the chance to make them pretty. Which I wasn’t.
That’s not to say I don’t do a few nails while in line. It boosts morale. Your nails should look good when you face that first mega-drop, I tell them. It’s the little things that count, I say. Take your pleasure where you can.
The ride operator swears he can spot where I’ve been. “Their faces may be covered with sores,” he says, “and they might weigh no more than 85 pounds, but goddamn, if they been near Miss Polly, they got the nails of the healthy-wealthy.”
The Ultimate is your basic out and back twister, but with g-force extreme. At 3 g, people scream; at 6 g, they black out; at 10 g, people die. The Ultimate swoops up to 11 g no problem and if that’s not enough, everyone’s necks get broken on the final curve, which whips around from a sheer vertical drop at 220 miles per.
The train comes back from its run, loaded with the dead. Disney’s Disease Clean Machine™ scoops the bodies out of their seats, whatever they’ve expelled is hosed off, and it’s all sanitized for the next run. We’ve got five trains running twenty-four seven. It’s so popular, especially with the teen-terms, we’re open Christmas and New Year’s.
The Ultimate’s latest ad campaign goes like this: When you’re ill, exercise free will. It’s the Ultimate!
The wait can range from five hours to three days, depending on the season. Like all amusements, we’re busier in the summer. I’ll line-sit anywhere from one hour for a bathroom-and-dinner break to one whole day for an extended visit with the family. Some of my colleagues will sit for longer than that, but I don’t like to. I get friendly with the terms around me, and it makes me sad to leave them.
The Ultimate pays a decent salary, but the real money comes from tips. And last week, after six months on the job, I met Paul, my biggest and sweetest tipper so far.
I had relieved some ten-year-old leuk so he could visit mommy and daddy at the Disease Avoidance Program’s Good-bye Center. Friends and family are not allowed in line, unless they’re also carrying Certificates of Terminality issued by the Death Commission. Security’s been a lot tighter lately, too, ever since a group of perms stormed the platform, overwhelmed the ride operator, and demanded a suicide ride. We lost five healthy-wealthys that way, all of them teenagers. Worse, none had reproduced yet.
I watched little leuk run to the gates to meet his family. From a distance, he looked like any normal boy running across any parking lot—not a bald-headed term with less than two days to live. I was glad his last few moments would be spent on the world’s most thrilling roller coaster and not in a state-sponsored gas chamber or, God forbid, lying in a hospital bed wasting our money.
“You’re Miss Polly,” said a voice behind me. I whirled around.
“What’s it to you?”
He laughed. “You’re famous.”
I raised my right eyebrow.
“You’re the nail lady.”
The term had late-stage AIDS II. Covered with pustules, papules, macules, and nodules. Shingles and scaling. Totally gross. But the Rolive seemed to be working. He was energetic, his eyes were clear, and he wasn’t shitting himself.
“I was hoping you’d line-sit near me,” he said, clapping his hands together. “And my dream has come true.”
He held out his hand. It was blue and it was all bone, the veins poking out like an old lady’s. I shook it; it was cold, dead, a mannequin’s hand.
“My name’s Paul,” he said, and with a jerk of his head, flicked a patch of blond hair out of his eyes. He had been good looking in his day. “Can you help me?”
I fetched my manicure kit out of my bag and snapped on the rubber gloves.
“Let’s see those nails,” I said.
Oh! Such terrible, terrible nails. So tiny, covering only half the fingertips, with cracks down the middles and a flaky texture like poached fish.
“Sorry, Miss Polly,” Paul said.
I patted his hand. “It’s not your fault,” I said, and pulled the collapsible loveseat out of my bag, assembled it, and we sat down. We were so far back in line, we wouldn’t be moving for at least six hours. I put on my mask and got to work.
The terms around us shuffled away from the video screen and gathered to watch. They were silent, almost breathless. With just one shot of Livon, the TV blared at their backs, you can live on.
“Where you from, Paul?”
“Welcome to Florida,” I said.
“They say you’re an angel.” He reached out and brushed my hair off my shoulder. “I believe it.”
“I’m not that kind of line-sit,” I said, letting go of his hand and folding my arms across my breasts.
My friend Mr. Johnny had been that kind of line-sit. He’d worn the fortified rubber suit, carried the needles of bleach and disinfectant, kept his mask on at all times. It didn’t matter. He made a lot of money, but he still caught e-coli 2000. When his time came, he didn’t choose the Ultimate, though. He went for Russian Roulette. Go out the tough guy’s way, their ad says. With a bang.
“I didn’t mean any disrespect, Miss Polly.” Paul waved his stick-man arms in protest. “Believe me, I don’t want that kind of line-sit. I honestly think you’re pretty.”
Paul’s med-band alarm went off. He pulled out his Rolive.
“Want one?” he asked, shaking the bottle so the see-through pills rattled. “I’ve got more than enough.”
“I am that kind of line-sit.” I accepted a pill. “Thank you.”
“You’re older than I thought,” Paul said.
“I thought I was pretty.” I swallowed the Rolive and got back to buffing.
“No, I mean, how old are you?”
“Wow. It’s just that . . .”
“I know,” I said. “Most people my age are either dead or in line. I’m lucky, what can I say?”
Lucky? Lonely is more like it. I was ten years older than most of my co-workers; only the healthy-wealthy reached my age, and they wouldn’t touch me with a sanitized ten-foot pole. I’d reproduced almost ten years ago and immediately enrolled my offspring in the Disease Avoidance Program like everyone else. I see them once a month in a sterile, controlled environment. A boy and a girl, cute as can be. They look healthy, but you never can tell, especially during the early stages. The first sign is fatigue, and the leap from perm to term is winged and fleet. Or so the ad goes.
When I was done, Paul had ten full and beautiful nails. Squared off at the top, perfect crescent moons at the bottom, they were the color of fresh peaches. I added a smidgen of dirt underneath a few of them, to go with his western-style shirt and Wranglers.
“There,” I said. “Better than new.”
Paul looked at his nails. “They’re perfect,” he said.
A dying girl came up to me, holding out her hands.
“Do my nails, Miss Polly,” she said. “Please?”
I opened my manicure bag and got back to work.
As I was gluing the girl’s fingernail on, Paul spoke: “I was in love with someone once.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“He chose drowning at sea.”
I grunted and continued filing.
“He was a romantic,” Paul said.
“Sounds like it.”
The rest of the line-sit passed like that. I ate everyone’s Rolive, did everyone’s nails, and Paul told me his story. It was everyone’s story. He made it past childhood, left the DAP, went out into the world developing med-formatics for the Contagion Committee, and got sick.
Little leuk came skipping up, the effects of his Livon shot flushing his cheeks and brightening his eyes.
“Mom says I’m lucky to be riding the Ultimate,” he said, tugging on my rubber coat. “She says she wishes she could ride it.”
“Maybe she will one day.”
“I hope so,” he said. “Here, Miss Polly. Mom said to give you this.”
He gave me my tip—it was just a few dollars, probably all they could afford. I took the cash and moved on down the line.
“Good bye, good bye,” everyone said as I left. “Thanks for the manicure.”
“Miss Polly!” Paul ran after me. He grabbed my hand and placed a fat roll of wet bills in my palm. “This is for you,” he said.
I was scared to touch the cash, even though I knew his contagion level was in the green zone. I put the money in my pocket without counting it. It paid my rent for the next three months.
Two days later I was line-sitting near the platform, where you can hear the trains roar and the terms scream. I hadn’t done any nails in hours. I rarely do that close. The terms are at the point where the ride’s the thing, and no amount of buffing, clipping or polishing is going to distract them from the Ultimate.
I was fatigued and worried because of it. Sometimes I was careless: I didn’t always wear my suit and mask, and I occasionally touched the terms’ skin with my bare hands. I ran my fingers through my hair. None fell out. I took out my mirror and checked my tongue. Nice and pink. My skin looked clear as well. I checked my pulse, felt my abdomen, massaged my armpits and neck for lumps. Everything seemed normal, and I had a Certificate of Health in my bag to prove it. Still.
What I really needed was more Rolive.
“Miss Polly!” someone was yelling several hundred feet up the line. “Miss Polly? Are you here? It’s me, Paul!”
He couldn’t see me from where he was, couldn’t know I was in that section of line. I ignored him.
“Miss Polly!” he yelled again.
My line-sit—advanced melanoma, colorful moles like a patchwork quilt—came back from her bathroom break. I moved up the line to where Paul was.
“Miss Polly,” he said when he saw me. “Can you wait with me?”
“It’s against policy,” I said. “I could get in trouble.”
He rattled his Rolive.
“I guess a little while couldn’t hurt.” I held out my hand.
We took our pills and listened to the roller coaster. The first drop is as high as a skyscraper and the screams—they don’t sound human.
“You think the ride’s as great as they say?” Paul asked.
“No one’s been back to tell.”
“What about that guy who survived? The one who came back healthy.”
“Urban legend,” I said. “No one’s come back.”
The line was actually moving this close to the platform. The terms were restless, nervous, shifting their meager weight from foot to foot. Covered with sores. Bleeding gums. Losing hair in clumps. Ulcerating. Dying.
“Miss Polly,” the ride operator caught sight of me, “what you doing way up here?”
“Nails!” I grabbed Paul’s hands.
The ride operator was sixteen years old and pumped on steroids and ovoids—shaved head, no neck, muscle that rippled when he moved. He was wearing stretchy black pants and latex gloves but he’d taken off his shirt in the mid-afternoon heat. Strictly against regulation. He gestured toward the next group of riders, who were clinging to each other behind the guardrails.
“Step right up, folks!” he barked. “Thrill of a lifetime.”
“This is it,” Paul said. “I’m next.” He was still holding my hand.
Little leuk cried out for his mommy.
Paul and I moved through the turnstile with the rest of the crowd. Someone mooed. Everyone laughed. “Lambs to the slaughter,” someone else said. A few people laughed. Paul slipped me his bottle of Rolive. It was almost full.
“Guess I won’t be needing these,” he said.
“It’s for the best. The good of the group.”
“Society and all that,” I said.
“To be healthy-wealthy is hard . . .” he began.
“Disease is stealthy,” I continued.
“To stay alive . . .”
“Don’t get filthy,” we finished together.
Paul got into the first car; little leuk snuggled in next to him. I helped the ride operator check the safety bar and waved good bye. The operator pulled the lever, and the coaster rocketed off. Paul threw his arms in the air.
“Good looking nails on that crew,” the ride operator said.
“For what it’s worth.”
“Better them than us.”
“For sure.” I shook my new stash of Rolive. “Want one?”
He held out his hand and I filled it with pills. I was feeling generous.
“Thanks,” he said, popping a few in his mouth.
“Don’t thank me. Thank Paul.”
“Thanks, Paul!” he shouted. “Unlucky bastard.”
I sprayed myself with DermPatch Protector II and sucked on my Rolive like it was candy. I turned away from the platform and headed for the end of the line. Terms held their nails out to me as I walked by. There was no way I could fix them all.
Robin Becker’s debut novel, Brains: A Zombie Memoir, was published in 2010 by HarperCollins. The same year she won a short fiction Artist Fellowship from the Arkansas Arts Council. She teaches creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas.