Before work every day, I pack my bag with a fresh supply of earplugs and rolling papers. Earplugs, because sitting beside a roller coaster for nine hours a day isn’t kind to the eardrums. Rolling papers, because it’s something to do when it’s quiet. They’re soft, fibrous, and very therapeutic to fold. When the lines are short and the gate operators are standing around making small talk, the rolling papers are in my hands and I’m folding something. It keeps me busy until closing time — then the park is no longer my reality, other things are, and the real work begins.
When we were kids, my brother and I were close friends. We used to sneak outside at two in the morning, with some of dad’s Coors tucked away in a plastic bag, and run down, past acres of dew-soaked cornfields, to the creek behind the Hendricks’ farmhouse. On the beaten creekside that was our little haven, we drank, laughed, and told stories about girls, our dreams, the world. The first time my brother earned a paycheck from Mary’s Diner, he bought tobacco and rolling papers, and we made cigarettes. The Hendricks almost caught us that time — we were coughing so loudly that Mr. Hendrick stumbled out of the house with a floodlight and yelled at us to scram. We got away, laughing and clutching bags of our paraphernalia as we scrambled home.
During some day in spring, we were relaxing next to the creek, as we usually did: my brother was reading an Asimov book, I was tobacco-less and lazily throwing paper airplanes made of empty Camel packets across the gentle stream as far as they would go. When I ran out of packets, I had the idea of substituting my rolling papers as raw materials for replacement aircraft. Some trials showed they didn’t make good planes, but the feel of the papers was soothing, and it was as therapeutic to fold them then as it is now. Sometimes, when we went out for a smoke, I’d bring a few different brands of papers to experiment with. Besides planes and cigarettes, I started making cranes, fortune tellers, pinwheels, all sorts of things.
I started selling a few of my more detailed creations to the liquor store we frequented, and they put them on display atop the cash register. When I entered high school, my art teacher, a kindly woman named Ms. Moss, was impressed with my work, and she bought me my first origami book. My final project took months to create: it was an origami phoenix made of hundreds of folded parts. Each curve had to be angled with machine precision; each edge aligned with its neighbor like clockwork. Dozens of failed attempts went into its making. But when the final pieces locked into place, the avian that resulted towered over the competition, reveling in a vibrant symphony of such striking reds and oranges that attendees of the art symposium stood still for minutes, absorbed in its presence.
On the last day of freshman year, Ms. Moss tapped me on the shoulder and told me that if I kept up the progress, she’d do whatever it took to get me into art school. My mouth was open for a good few seconds before my mind kicked into gear; I didn’t know anyone who’d ever gone to art school, not from our town; but I agreed, and we shook on it. From that day on, as soon as I got home from school, I’d sketch an idea, then completely absorb myself in a ritual of folding, cutting, and pinching. Sometimes, when I fell into my blankets, exhausted, I’d dream of my figurines whispering into my ear, telling me what to create next.
Months moved by slowly, marked with the leaves of red maples, then the birds flying south, then the swirl of a thousand graduation caps. Amidst happy tears and hugs, my brother, the once-avid smoker and hooligan, was off to Yale. On holidays, when he came back, we took him to Mary’s Diner, where we ordered double and triple helpings of Hoosier chili, his favorite and a dish absent in Connecticut.
I started frequenting the creek alone after my brother returned to school. At work, Dad was promoted, and he spent more time working on the West coast. Mom was always at work — she taught history at an elementary school and ran a daycare part-time. But when Dad came home, he and mom would get into yelling matches over my brother’s tuition. I went to the creek when I sensed they were about to start.
Once, I sneaked a look at one of Dad’s credit card bills and realized that Dad spent a lot of time at casinos on his business trips. I slowly got impatient with selling origami. It was just pocket change, and it wouldn’t help my brother, it wouldn’t help me. I spent my earnings on cigarettes and alcohol. They felt like better ways to pass the time.
Big brother came home for Christmas during his second year at college. He was easy-going and cheerful as always, but it didn’t feel like we were really talking to him. When I knocked on his door at two in the morning, cradling two beers in my hands, he was hunched over his desk, poring over a huge mass of papers. Looking over his shoulder, he shook his head, and I slowly retreated back to my own room to wonder at the ceiling. I mean, it kind of made sense, he was at Yale now, and had to be official and all, right? He wasn’t going to be a farmer, like all our relatives. He was an Ivy League hotshot and our little town’s superstar. He had a lot riding on his shoulders, and hell, maybe he knew about dad’s gambling problem too. Either way, we couldn’t be the same old kids anymore.
By the time I graduated high school, I was simply mediocre. I didn’t too well grades-wise, and I rarely found the will to work on my art. I remember Ms. Moss begged me to apply to art school, and I did. I guess she still had some faith in my abilities, because she stayed after school to help me put together my portfolio, and to practice interviewing. I owe her a lot for that. A few months after I got the handshake and the diploma, I left the creek and all of it behind for art school in Pasadena, California.
It was my first time living away from home. Mom and I got on a plane with our beaten up suitcases; we slept to tiny cornfields whizzing past and woke to rolling expanses of misty green hills. We took a rickety rental car past the little campus of Caltech straight to Pasadena. Move-in and orientation were a blur; the only part I vividly remember was seeing the rows upon rows of kilns during my first trip to the ceramics studio. This became a class that I enjoyed — I learned that clay had all the malleability of origami, but gained a unique luster after it was heated and cooled down. I enjoyed art for the first time in a while, just by playing around with it.
Otherwise, school was a slog: I got up at seven o’ clock and microwaved breakfast while I waited for the bus, then spent the rest of the day cooped up in a studio room learning about biology, or the human form, or something like that. After class, since the tuition for this school was sky-high and God knows if Dad had kicked his gambling habit, I part-timed at a pizza parlor just south of campus. School was tough — there weren’t many artists where I came from, so it was hard to compete with the geniuses I sat next to in studio. Suffice to say, this little school intimidated me.
One semester into my sophomore year, I got a call from mom. She was crying on the phone, and her voice was all garbled. Still, I managed to make out that it was something about my brother. It wasn’t hard to tell that it was bad news, so I decided to go home and sort it all out. So, I submitted a leave of absence to the little art school in Pasadena and flew home.
Mom and some of my brother’s friends from work were already sitting in the intensive care unit when I arrived. One of his friends told me the grim story of what had happened: my brother was preparing for a big patent case, and he’d been working overtime for almost a week. It was around one in the morning, when he suddenly fell sideways off his chair, clutching the side of his face. He was out in a pile of his own vomit by the time he hit the ground. Fortunately, one of the other guys in the office called 911, so the paramedics got to him before his stroke got any worse. The doctors told us they were worried my brother might lose his vision. They did some eye tests and his left eye was doing okay, but his right eye remained unresponsive. But it was still too soon to tell.
It’s hard to consider what’ll happen if my brother doesn’t recover. I guess neither of us can finish school, and my parents will have to stick around to care for him. Since mom was in the ICU almost the entire day, someone had to work. A few weeks later, I got a local job at the advertising agency through one of Ms. Moss’s friends. I’d work there most of the day, then take the night shift at Mary’s Diner. The diner closed down for renovations a short while after, and I was looking for another job when a flier for Ol’ Indiana in the hospital waiting room caught my eye. My brother and I used to ride the Roaring Thunder, one of the roller coasters there, when we were little. We had a contest where we both rode it three times in a row and then, right after we got off, we tried to walk in a straight line to the churro stand across from the roller coaster. It often took some time for us to get the baked goodies into our hands. Now, it’s been three months since I first donned the Ol’ Indiana uniform. Besides the fact that I operate the Roaring Thunder now and have to walk in a straight line or get fired for intoxication, Ol’ Indiana hasn’t changed a bit.
Before I leave for work every day, I restock my bag with a fresh supply of tobacco and rolling papers. When I’m on breaks, I smoke in the employee parking lot. During one of my work breaks around two weeks into the job, I realized that I forgot the tobacco. I emptied out my pack and shook it a few times before I sat down on a parking curb, conceded defeat and sullenly stared at the rolling papers laid out in front of me. Well, they weren’t going to fold themselves. I pondered folding some cigarettes at first so I could smoke at home, but then I decided to try something different. I folded a few little pieces first, then started fitting them together.
For the next couple of days, I was sitting in the parking lot, making my origami toolkit for the first time in years. The next week, the kids found a line of cranes, army men, fortune tellers on my control stand. I gave my creations out to some of the little ones, and they were ecstatic. There was a feeling that doing this gave me, the feeling that I still had some control in this chaotic world. From that day on, I left the tobacco at home.
Today, it’s not too busy, so I’m sitting here folding something else. I’m trying to make a hummingbird, and the current series of folds are forcing me to be really nimble with my fingers. It’s not easy, but that’s okay. I made a bunch of backup parts just in case this one doesn’t fit correctly. Things are looking better now: they did another test on my brother’s eyes, and they’re both better now. I don’t know if it’s just a fluke, but regardless, he and I will make it through. Whether it’s smoking next to a creek, operating roller coasters, or giving away origami to kids, life goes on. For now, I’ll just sit here next to the Roaring Thunder, humming to the park music, and eventually, my world just might change for the better.
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