The Funhouse was a large gray building whose doors were a crude clown’s mouth. On the windows, someone had spraypainted the word “SHATTER.” Trash lay all over the grass out front and it looked like no one had visited in ages. Candy turned to look at the other two behind her, lit her eyes up and grinned and opened the door. She, along with Jason and Bunny, her cohorts in the Coney Island Aliens, had skipped town a few days ago, and their car had just broken down a few miles outside of Chicago, in a field where they could see nothing else around but the Funhouse.
The first room inside did not match the dilapidated entrance– in fact, it was a well-kept museum full of unique things, beautiful and terrifying. A giant tub of ice seemed to contain an eight foot man covered in hair. There was a wall of taxidermied creatures sewn to each other, half one thing, part another: human arms primitively stitched to large fish, monkey parts attached to lizards. Three tanks contained men: one with wings, ancient, singing an old sea shanty; the other seeming to waste away, his sign explaining that such was the nature of his miracle. The third man was so immobile as to resemble a wooden sculpture– and yet he lived. A beetle the size of a dog scurried around frantically in a pen. Inside of a terrarium, a miniature city full of tiny people went about their business.
Past this room, a dark hallway led to a great looming computer, at which sat hunched a young man in a lab coat. The man appeared to struggle a great deal, as if whatever irrational signs and symbols the computer was presenting in abstract green bloops and blops vexed him. To his side stood a couple of men, also in lab coats.
Past the computer, there was a series of rides– roller coasters, log flumes, tea cups, a gravitron– all shut down, damaged, desperately in need of repairs. Then some sections of the Funhouse seemed as if they had been burned down entirely, long ago, and like no one had ever made any attempt to even begin to think about fixing them. Dirty people writhed on the ground in agony, perhaps on drugs, perhaps insane… Why were all these people occupying this old indoor amusement park, some of them seeming rather industrious? Why was some of it clean and some of it completely run-down?
The next door they saw led to an arena. The Aliens found their way to some empty seats. A show was about to start. “That’s Life” by Frank Sinatra croaked from a profoundly shabby old speaker system… in the year of our Lord 1972, something about the song choice felt more unreal than anything they’d seen in the Cabinet of Wonders they’d passed through. Looking around, the group was diverse racially, as well as in gender, age, body type…
The spotlight clicked into the center of the arena, on an ancient and pitiful businessman, someone you might see at the end of the night in a bar in Atlantic City, … ruddy, bloated, seeming to push the words out through sheer force of will through mealy, slurring lips. Behind him sat a group of old men who looked like Dick Tracy villains, top hats, cigarettes in cigarette holders, flamboyant suits, rings, proud grins on their faces… The man warned of the dangers of the outside world, that intruders could infiltrate and kill them all at any second. He seemed to forget all this in an instant, though, and began rambling on about famous actresses he’d tried to sleep with in his glory days, time he’d spent on exclusive luxury yachts… There was commotion as he spoke: some people seemed adamantly supportive, violently wailing and thrusting in agreement. Others shouted that he was lying, that he was abnormal, impolite. The Aliens snuck out.
They wandered down another corridor– how big was this place?– and found a room in which a small group of people sat on folding chairs listening to a preacher. The preacher said,
“O Lord, deliver us from this place! Would that we could leave! Lord, in this dark hour, through Your wisdom, help us understand. Why does the Council of Elders refuse to hear even our most reasonable pleas? Why, when the Funhouse has so few customers, so little income, must we all compete for such a small number of tasks: wiping down the attractions, feeding the attractions, attending to the needs of the Council of Elders, working in the food court, working security, and of course, those most sought-after positions of all… folks, you know what I’m talking about, maybe some of your parents always say, ‘Why don’t you work in the computer department?’ As if it was that easy. Maybe some of you are those parents.
“That one computer. The one that allllways manages to delete everyone’s payroll information. You know what I’m talking about, right? ‘BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! Information not found!’” The group laughs.
After the sermon, the Aliens sought an audience with the preacher. He took them to a food court inside the Funhouse. The gang ate Chinese and the preacher ate McDonald’s. The preacher explained that at the Funhouse, employees were unable to leave, but they had to pay for food at the foodcourt, they had to pay to see the attractions, which was the only source of entertainment, and they had to pay rent every month to the General Manager, the bloated, half-dead man they’d seen ramble incoherently earlier. There was a great shame attached to the idea of rebuilding any of the rides, or any of the parts of the building that had burned down. The food court jobs were considered shameful, too, as was working as a servant to the Council, but at least those jobs were available: no one was around to supervise any rebuilding, no one had any expertise in it, it was dangerous, and no one had allocated any funds for it. There was a labor union, but, he said, you could see how much good they did. As a result, an underground drug trade and various other criminal enterprises had emerged within the Funhouse.
“Of course people can leave, though,” Bunny said. “There are other jobs, other amusement parks, other towns.”
“Out there? Are you kidding me? The outside world is terrifying. And look, I’m cool enough to talk to you guys, not narc on you, but other people here? Strongly distrustful of outsiders. The customers terrify us. They all seem confused by basic things. They’re always demanding to speak to a manager. The men are constantly shouting wrong explanations of things to their wives and kids. You don’t understand. People have lived here for generations. People have been born and died in this amusement park. Parts of the park were built by slaves, that’s how long it’s been around. A man from the government came down after the Civil War and said they had to start paying the slaves, and they did, but certain attitudes remained. So now there’s a huge racism problem, in large part perpetuated by the Council of Elders.
“We understand that women in the outside world have finally been allowed to have some jobs like men usually have, and we think that’s great, because that’s how it’s been here for a long time– except, of course, they’re just vying for the same small number of jobs that the men are, and the General Manager and the Council of Elders are pretty disgusting towards women.
“Many of us have never seen the outside world at all. The General Manager has been in charge the entire time, as far as any of us know. He’s been an old man my entire life, and I’m not so young myself anymore. Anyways, I have my problems with our living conditions, but I think it’s a great place. I think it’s worth fighting for. They got McDonald’s here, and a Bigfoot frozen in ice.” He took a bite of his burger.
The preacher had extra cots in his quarters that the Aliens slept on. He woke them in the morning with coffee. As soon as people were awake and conversation got started, Candy said, “We want you to take us to the head of the labor union.”
Jason pulled her aside. “What are you doing? I don’t want to do that! We have no obligation to these people. I wanna get out of here. This place is creepy. These people are weirdos.”
“This man gave us a place to sleep and coffee when we needed those things! These people are suffering! Maybe we can do something! Besides, what are we, in a hurry? Our car is still broken down, which we haven’t even asked around about yet.”
The preacher took the trio to an office in the far northeast corner of the building. He explained that a few different people were currently jockeying for the position of union leader, but that maybe the candidates would all have an audience with the Aliens.
A woman in a crisp green suit opened the door. Behind her, a man with high cheekbones, wearing flannel and jeans, stood in a casual pose. Another man, in an untucked shirt with a tie, bounced around on a pogo stick. A second woman went over files with an aide on the other side of the room.
“Uhh, no!” the woman in the crisp green suit said. “We do not cavort with dangerous extremists!”
“Heyy!” said the preacher. “I thought we were cool, Shirley!”
The hunk in the flannel sidled up next to Shirley. “According to the most recent data, we lose 2-3 percent in our approval ratings every time we’re seen with you. So get lost!”
“Ignoramus!” Shirley shouted at the preacher.
“Fundamentalist!” shouted the hunk.
“Embarrassment!” shouted the man on the pogo stick. Then he wiped out and hit his head on a desk.
“Okay!” said the preacher. “My mistake. But look. These here are Bunny, Candy and Jason. They’re from a focus group and they want to help you all with your numbers.”
“Well please, do come in, you three! Reverend? Scram!”
Bunny and Jason were pretty lost in terms of what Candy’s game actually was here at this point. She wasn’t sure either, actually. Maybe she just wanted to figure out what these people were all about.
“So first we want to understand how the labor union operates,” she said. “If you could walk us through some of the stuff that you do, please.”
Shirley began. “Great! So there’s this bulletin board we have in the northeastern quadrant. And sometimes what we like to do is write something like, ‘Being nice is great’ on a piece of paper and put it on the bulletin board.”
The man recovering from a pogo stick accident chimed in. “So the idea is to get more people to also write, ‘Being nice is great’ on the bulletin board. So if we find out someone didn’t post ‘Being nice is great,’ we write a message on the bulletin board: ‘Looks like Jim Weatherby from the food court doesn’t like being nice! Sounds like a mean guy!’ And then hopefully Jim Weatherby loses his job and can’t support his family anymore. It’s a ton of fun.”
“The only problem is, then some absolute ideological maniac like your friend the Reverend will say something contrarian like, ‘Being nice is great, we can all agree on that, but how do we make it so the Council of Elders is nice to us in return?’ Something totally blasphemous like that. And then worst of all, the General Manager will post his own message that says, ‘Being nice actually fuckin’ STINKS! SCREW YOU!!’ And his followers just eat it up. They go nuts for it.”
“Huh. Okay. So what about outside of the bulletin board?”
“Well, we sell t-shirts.” Shirley pulled out a t-shirt that said GOOD MORNING on it. “Do you get it?”
“No? Is there like a secret meaning to it?”
Shirley, the hunk, the pogo stick accident survivor, the woman going over files and her intern all laughed.
“The G.M. in ‘good morning’ stands for General Manager.”
“Okay. But I thought you guys didn’t like the General Manager.”
“We don’t. It says, ‘good morning’ because one time he slept in and was late for a meeting. Like an absolute amateur!” They all laughed again.
“Uh. So, like… are you in danger if you openly criticize him? I know some managers have done some really bad, secret stuff to union people throughout history. Is this place bugged? You can just nod your head if that’s the case.”
“Oh, heavens, no! Nothing like that. We just think it’s more dignified to send a subtle message.”
“Don’t get us wrong,” the hot man in flannel said. “This General Manager is a really bad guy. When he goes to the food court? All he ever gets is McDonald’s hamburger sandwiches!”
“Very bad for you,” said Shirley. “He doesn’t seem to take care of himself at all!” She laughed gleefully.
“We’re actually pretty sure that he’s in cahoots with the General Manager of Vlad’s Freak Shack, the other funhouse up the road,” adds the pogo stick man. “We’ve been gathering evidence for ten years now and we think we might finally have something pretty soon.”
“Huh. So what does each of you propose to change if elected as head of the union?”
The woman working on files stood up. “I propose to tell the young people that they can achieve whatever they want in this life, as long as they try hard enough, reach for their dreams, and believe in success! That is, if my dumbass fucking intern ever gets these fucking files in order! Work harder, you piecea shit! I’m gonna shove those documents up your fucking ass!”
The intern, in a bowl cut and a pinstripe suit three sizes too big for him, pushed his head down even further and started moving his hands even faster.
“Jesus. Okay, what about you, sir?”
The pogo stick man said, “I propose to tell young people AND old people alike that if they work hard, believe in their dreams, and never give up on their goals, they, too, can have it all and achieve the wealth of the Council of Elders! Plus, I’m fun and accessible. Check this out, for instance: I love to eat waffles!”
“They’re my favorite breakfast food. My points go up every time I say something personal and quirky like that, even among Funhouse employees who prefer pancakes.”
“Wow. Alright, and you, sir?”
The stud in the lumberjack getup said, “I plan on telling young, old AND middle-aged people that if they go for it, reach for success, shoot for their dreams, remember that there is no ‘I’ in ‘team,’ and that if you can’t handle me at my worst you don’t deserve me at my best… that they, too, can be qualified to enroll in a new one-hundred-thousand-dollar-per-month, four-year training program to learn how to make food court food or be a butler to the Council of Elders, so that they can then be more qualified to compete with the eight people who currently fill those jobs, in case one of those people dies or something. Plus, I’m hot as hell! Look at this picture of me riding a bike!”
“Okay, that… God damn. Uhhh, Shirley, what do you plan on changing around here if you’re elected?”
“Good to know. So it seems like…”
Jason whispered in Candy’s ear: “Candy. Let’s just get out of here.These people are lunatics. We’re not gonna change their minds.”
Candy began: “So it seems to me like the main problems here are the absurd competition for a handful of jobs when there’s still major infrastructural work to do unrelated to any of those jobs, plus the history of racism, sexism, the fear of outsiders, and the way the Council of Elders uses that fear and hatred to get themselves rich and popular without ever actually doing anything… but it seems like all any of you are offering is sexy pictures, a school that sounds like a scam, intern abuse, vague platitudes about working hard, and lots of fucking around on a message board?”
“Call security,” Shirley said.
The intern fucked up a series of times trying to use the phone to get security on the line. His boss yelled at him so bad that Candy, Jason and Bunny started trying to help him. “Maybe you have to press 1 and then the number?”
Finally they got it to work, and ten men came down from the security office with machine guns in their hands.
[Excerpt from Too Much to Dream, a novel]