Beth wanted to take a vacation and Benny insisted on driving so she picked a destination in the same state. Niagara Falls was still a seven hour drive though, so they hit the road after an early breakfast. Benny took route 80, heading West through the Lincoln Tunnel. She had rolled down her window once they were out of the city, enjoying the fresh April air.
They had been driving for an hour when Beth spotted a creature through the woods alongside them.
“Oh look,” Beth said. “A moose.”
“A moose once bit my sister.”
“She was trying to feed it, which you’re not supposed to do evidently, and it bit her hand.”
“Was she okay?”
“No, she got rabies and died,” he trolled.
Beth didn’t think his joke was funny.
“She was fine,” he grumbled. “Got out of doing dishes for a month though, the lucky idiot.”
“You never do the dishes now,” she pointed out.
“The perks of living with you,” he winked playfully and she chuckled.
“The moose must be a wanderer though. You don’t see many in this area.”
“Do you think he has a flying squirrel friend?” Beth joked.
“What?” Benny didn’t get it.
“It’s a cartoon. Got cancelled a while back but it was pretty popular.”
“I don’t really watch television.”
“Then what’s the one in your bedroom for?”
“For important things like chess matches and documentaries.”
He took an exit ramp off the highway and Beth pulled out the map from the glove compartment.
“Are you sure this is the right way?” she asked as she tried to decipher the scramble of crisscrossing lines.
“We’re making a short stop here,” he told her. “Hope you don’t mind.”
“Where is here exactly?”
He grinned at her. “If I told you, it would ruin the surprise.”
So Beth watched the road for any signs until she saw the big lettered billboard welcoming them to ‘Bertrand Island Amusement Park’.
“Really Benny? Don’t you think we’re a little too old for these kid fairs?” She laughed, trying to hide her anxiety. Beth had never once gone to such a place, her childhood devoid of the normal, carefree fun that most children indulged in. She wasn’t upset at the deprivation now, but she really didn’t want his pity over the matter.
“Humor me,” he requested, practically glowing with mirth as he parked the car. Beth got the feeling this wasn’t about her or her past and mustered up a smile of her to match.
He bought two entrance tickets and Benny made a beeline straight for the barn, with Beth in tow. Given the early hour, only a few other customers strolled about.
The center of the space was occupied by a metal horse with a leather saddle surrounded by thick piles of hay, a three foot brick wall forming a circular perimeter to the area. A plaque read ‘Ride ‘Em Cowboy’ and there was a man with a cowboy hat standing at a podium that seemed to have some controls on it.
“What is that?” Beth inquired.
The ride operator cheerily answered. “Why this, ma’am, this be a bucking bronco. The finest mechanical ride this side of the Mississippi river. Would ya care to take a gander at the beast?”
Beth turned to Benny in confusion.
“Maybe I should go first,” he offered.
“You look like the right man for the job, if I do so say myself, sir!” The man handed him a glove that he put on and he shed his leather duster on the wall before mounting the contraption.
The cowboy flickered some gears and the metal horse came to life, moving in a circular motion as well as up and down, gradually picking up the pace and letting out horse sound effects. The object of the exercise seemed to be hanging on for as long as you could. Benny made it maybe twenty seconds. He might have lasted longer if he didn’t have one hand keeping his beloved Akubra hat atop his head throughout. Beth clapped, figuring that would be the encouraging thing to do.
“Not bad,” she told him when he returned to her side.
“You think you can do better?” he teased, their competitive natures edging each other on.
“Let’s make this interesting, shall we?” Beth proposed. “Winner controls the radio.”
“You’re on.” They shook hands, just like they would before a chess match.
Beth was very glad to be wearing pants today and shook her limbs loose before she swung her leg over the mechanical horse. Seating herself firmly in the saddle, she gripped the handle that jutted out from the horse’s neck with her gloved hand.
She could see Benny smirking at her from the sidelines, sure of his own victory. Beth had a strategy though. Instead of relying on her legs grip on the smooth metal, she used momentum to her advantage. Moving her torso towards the figure when it tilted up and leaning back when it swung down again. This worked much better than Benny’s stiffness and death grip on the handle.
She stopped counting once she made it past his time and just let herself enjoy the ride. After a while she started feeling dizzy though so she asked the operator to turn it off and he obliged with a hoot and holler.
After buying some hot dogs to eat later for lunch, they got back on route 80 until Benny took the 611.
“Is this another detour?”
“No it’s a shortcut, you can get on the 90 faster if you cut through here to Scranton.”
“Hmm, isn’t Scranton famous for something? It sounds familiar”
“Well it used to have trolleys like they do in San Fran, called it the ‘electric city’.”
“No, I think it was in a song on the radio.”
“Oh yeah 30,000 pounds of bananas! About the truck crash that happened there.”
“Let me see if I can find it on the folk station.” Beth started flipping through the channels before stopping on one that was playing a song she decided would be fun to hear.
“I don’t think that’s it,” Benny told her.
“No but I really like this song.”
“I can’t even make out what he’s singing.”
“Oh you will when he gets to the chorus.”
The beetle was filled with the sounds of Elton John as he sang about Bennie and the Jets. By the end of the song, they were both singing along and laughing.
The sound of police sirens interrupted their fun. Benny pulled over, half-expecting to see some kind of car chase, but the police cruiser parked behind them. Beth turned off the radio.
A middle aged white man in a blue uniform strolled up the rolled down window.
“Mornin’ officer. Can I help you?” Benny said in a no-nonsense manner with his hands on the wheel. The only people to never piss off were the po-po.
“License and registration please.” The man said gruffly.
Beth took out the paper from the glovebox while Benny dug out his wallet.
Handing over the requested items, he asked, “is there a problem officer?”
“Do you know how fast you were driving, son?”
A part of Benny bristled at the form of address, but swallowed the bitterness like it was cough syrup.
“Over the speed limit, that’s for damn sure.”
Benny didn’t think so, but he knew not to argue with a cop. Better to take the ticket now and not pay it later. After all, what were the odds a New Jersey ticket would follow him back to New York?
The officer started scribbling on his pad when he suddenly looked up and bent down to the window again to stare at Beth. “Hey don’t I know you from somewhere?”
“I’m Beth Harmon. The chess player.”
“You’re the gal who beat those Russians!”
“Well I am a mighty big fan of yours. I may not know much about chess but I sure do hate ‘em commies.” The man started saying, much more casual with them now.
“Actually sir we’re headed to Niagara Falls and I’d really like to see them before it gets dark. It’s such a long drive.” Beth told the officer with all the Kentucky charm she could summon. She sensed that they would be detained for a while if she let him go on.
“Of course, you folks have a nice day!”
The officer left them without issuing the ticket and Benny looked at Beth in disbelief at the turn of the events.
“What?” She asked him teasingly. “Do you mean to tell me that the great Benny Watts never got out of a ticket with his chess celebrity?”
“Shut up.” He said without any real malice, pulling onto the road again.
They played a few verbal games once Benny got on route 81 and started heading North.
In one game Benny tried playing the advance variation of the Caro-Kann defense, she doubled one of his pawns, and he even went for an exchange of queens, reminding Beth of their first match in Vegas. However by pushing her pawns, maneuvering one of her rooks back to king’s rook one to limit his king's movements, and forcing him to give up material to avoid mate, she was able to corner him into resigning.
“Is that how you wish Vegas had gone instead?” he asked amiably, no hard feelings over his loss.
“I thought you said regrets are a waste of time,” she replied.
“Yes, but reflections can be useful.”
“Hmm I’ll be sure to polish my trophies when we get back then.”
“While you’re at it, can you do mine too?”
Eventually they pulled into a gas station to refuel, buy some Cokes and eat their hot dogs in the car.
“I like the ones on Coney Island more,” Beth commented.
“Yup, can’t beat Nathan’s,” Benny agreed.
After that, they didn’t make any more stops and let the radio play some more.
Beth asked Benny if he knew any car games but he said he didn’t want to play the ones he knew and grumbled something about family trips. So she decided to make up her own game. She would find strangely shaped clouds and ask him what he thought they looked like. If he said what she was thinking of, one point for her and if he said something else one point for him.
She found one that looked like a turtle. “What does that cloud look like to you?”
“Turtle.” +1 for Beth
“What about that one?” She thought it was a fish.
“Submarine.” +1 for Benny
She found one that looked like a pawn and thought this would give her the tie breaking win. To her disappointment when she pointed it out he looked at the cloud for a while and slowly said, “lamp post.”
Beth sat back with her arms crossed disappointed until she caught the smile he was trying to hide. He knew what she was doing! She playfully smacked his shoulder.
At one point Benny turned West off of route 81 onto route 90 and then took the 104 to Rochester, driving along the lake shore towards Niagara Falls.
Beth had seen the ‘sea to shining sea’ that Kathy Bates wrote about in America The Beautiful. She’d played tournaments in San Francisco and Miami, letting her visit beaches that bordered the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans respectively. She was surprised to see that Lake Ontario, as Benny told her it was called, seemed just as vast as the ocean, though she knew the cartological size difference from geography class. There was a gentle peace to the waters that had a calming effect on her and as she gazed out of the window at the shoreline, she dozed off into a serene slumber.
She awoke to the sound of thunderous roaring, startling until Benny’s hand found her own and he said, “we’re here”.