Freakshow

Red had grown up in New Mexico and Clarence had grown up in New York, and both of them had been to Alaska and Colorado and Africa and once, Mardi Gras, which they didn’t talk about. But neither of them had ever been to Chicago, so that was where they went that summer.

It turned out that Chicago was hot and crowded. The train rails that seemed to be overhead everywhere they went made Clarence nervous enough that once he almost walked into traffic, distracted by looking at them. Red actually did walk into traffic, but to be fair they had been trying to flag a taxi and nothing else was working. They stayed two days and then went south.

So: somewhere in the middle of Illinois, summer of ‘71, just the two of them. They found a carnival had sprung up overnight near the motel they’d gotten, and wasted the entire day there, getting sick on cotton candy and things fried in oil. Clarence spent nearly an hour in the petting zoo, and came out covered in goat hair and with a new hole chewed into his shirt. Red fussed over it for five minutes before dragging him off toward the ferris wheel.

They weren’t halfway there when Clarence dug his heels in, swallowed down the mouthful of miniature donuts he’d been working on, and pointed. “Hey, look!”

Red looked. They found a great wooden sign, high and hand-painted hanging over a dark doorway:

EXOTICS OF THE WORLD! BEHOLD ODDITIES, RARITIES, UNBELIEVABLES!

“What—like, Australians? Heck, we see those all the time.”

“Let’s find out!”

Off they went, a gangly young man and his companion, the one that kept making bystanders double-take with their shaggy hair and delicate features, woman’s hips and man’s shoulders. Red had long since stopped noticing the stares the two of them drew. Red could do anything, be anything, they’d decided long ago, as long as they had Clarence there with them.

They stepped into the dark and found themselves multiplied by a thousand, moving in the wrong directions. “Mirrors,” Red said, fingers brushing Clarence’s. They felt an answering squeeze, warm in the cool cavern.

Past the mirrored hallway they found the crowd, wandering in twos and threes between velvet-roped displays. Here was a shelf of the impossible: a human ear growing out of a living mouse, a fishbowl of eyeballs, a formaldehyde-jarred thing that, by its placard, claimed to have once been human. Further in, more goats (Clarence was first delighted, and then quiet) with too many legs, and a calf with two faces.

Ahead, light, and a barking carnival man. “Beware, there, ma’am, not too close! That, there, is the only satyr still living on this continent!” A distant metal rattle, a howl, a chuckle. “The stories I could tell you about this one! No, no, not in delicate company, boys. See me after the tour and I shall tell you a tale to turn your ears red. Even you, sir!”

Red reached the back of the line first, Clarence delayed. “Didja see that damn thing in the cage back there?” he muttered. “Didn’t look like no cursed Aztec skull to me.” He got no answer.

The barker led them further in, further on, between the Thin Man and the Bearded Lady and the Canvas-skinned King, whose entire body crawled with elaborate tattoos. Here was the Toad Princess with her bowed legs who could sing in eleven languages. The Circassian Woman. The red-skinned Martian with his massive head and minuscule hands.

By the end of the tour Red had gone mute. It took Clarence twenty minutes and a huge cone of chocolate ice cream to unglue their lips, as they stepped into the ferris wheel’s seat, just the two of them. They said: “They were all people.”

“The show back there?” Red nodded, staring at their ice cream. “Well—I mean, sure they were. Most of ‘em. Not the goat.”

“Scout, come on.” Red glanced over the edge of their seats as the crowd below shrank and shrank. “You know what I mean. They were are people who just looked different, were born different—unlucky–ugh. Just forget it.”

They took a savage bite of their ice cream as Clarence studied them, and in ten seconds were whimpering at the headache it brought with it. By the time they’d finished shaking their head and pulled their thumb off the roof of their mouth, they were nearly at the top of the ride. “Hey,” Clarence said, “I’m sorry. Probably I shoulda realized. Aw, c’mon, don’t shrug. I’m sorry, really I am. You’re right.”

No answer, still, but they didn’t protest when he scooted a little closer in the seat to put an arm around them. “Hey, sweetheart, c’mon. You ain’t a freak.”

“I never—I didn’t say that.”

“Yeah but you’re thinkin’ it now, ain’tcha?” Silence. “You are not a freak,” Clarence repeated, leaning in close, letting his other hand find their bare knee. “Say, look. We’re at the top.”

Red looked, peering out over the edge of the car to find a world of scurrying ants far below. The tents and tiny vendor carts with their umbrellas patchworked the dusty ground with color, and from here they couldn’t see the freak show sign at all, like it had never existed. Clarence’s hand was warm on their skin, the pad of his thumb slowly tracing the outlines of their kneecap and maybe sliding up, just a little.

“Well,” Red said, and looked back over at him. They had thought they’d had another thing to say, but it got lost on its way to their mouth. Left with nothing else to do, and with Clarence’s face just a couple of inches away, a stopgap was necessary. They touched his jaw with their free hand and kissed him. He tasted like sugar.

Ah. There were the words they wanted. “Love you.”

“Love you too. Wanna burn the freak show place down tonight after they’s all gone? Maybe leave ‘em a big pile of cash, tell ‘em to get outta there?”

“… Maybe.”

“Maybe yes?”

Maybe.