by Jeremy Perry
I could smell the elephant ears, funnel cakes, and all the other carnival food a block away. I heard the screams and excitement coming from kids tilting and whirling on their favorite rides. The Patriot Festival was back in town. This annual event kicked off summer and all the seasonal events that followed. People from all across the county and three surrounding counties came to enjoy our small-town tradition.
But tonight something much bigger was taking place. All American Wrestling was in town and my favorite wrestler Superstar Bob Dunlevy was on the card ready to defend his regional heavy weight title against Dirty Dan Montel. I had my ticket and I was going to see what some were calling “the match of the century.”
Earlier on the phone I had talked to my friend Richie Martinez. He said he needed my help with something.
“What is it?” I’d asked.
“I can’t say right now, Preston. Just meet me by the freak show tent.”
“Okay, Richie, but I’m not missing the matches.”
“You won’t. Just meet me by the tent.”
When I arrived, I checked my wristwatch and it read 6:15. The matches started at seven and took place in the high school gymnasium just a half-block away. I still had plenty of time to find Richie. The evening crowd was piling in. I walked past a few familiar faces, but most people I didn’t know. I saw people sitting in lawn chairs around the talent show stage watching a young girl picking a banjo. The food booths were lined side by side like every year and further down the midway were the games, the funhouse, and other amusements.
In the farthest corner of the festival grounds was the freak show tent. That’s where Richie wanted to meet. On the way, I saw the carneys working their booths telling everyone who past how easy it was to win. “A prize every time! Step right up!” A short carney wearing a rebel flag hat yelled over at me. “Hit one balloon and you’re a winner! Come on over, bud! Give it a try!”
I shook my head and kept walking. “Maybe later.”
Every year the freak show was a huge attraction. The Bearded Midget Lady had been with the show as far back as I could remember. Lizard Man was a new attraction last year. He had green lizard skin tattooed all over his face and body. His tongue had been notched giving the appearance of a forked-tongue reptile. I didn’t consider him a natural freak. He had created his look. The Bearded Midget Lady was a real freak. She was born with her body and looks. She embraced her freakish nature and I admired that.
I stopped at a booth and bought a ticket. I thought I’d take a tour of the freak show tent since I was meeting Richie there anyway. When I got there I expected a long line, but there were only nine or ten people waiting. The entrance was divided in the middle. People entered on the right, circled the tent, and exited on the left. This was the same set-up as last year.
Two girls exited and one said, “That lizard guy’s so weird!”
“Definitely,” said the other girl.
A four panel sign hanging on the tent displayed illustrations of the inside attractions. The top right panel was Lizard Man. The bottom-right was Delores, The Bearded Midget Lady, and next to her was Alfonso, The Contortionist. He was new to the freak show. The top left panel was Gilda, The Mermaid, who was also new.
The carny taking tickets was sending people through two and three at a time. The line moved along and I made it inside with a girl who looked about my age. We traipsed down the makeshift hallway that was petitioned off with dark curtain barriers. Twenty feet in and to the right was Lizard Man. He moved around in a tall Plexiglas box. Mounted high in a corner was a flood light, and on the floor I saw a food dish with slices of fruit in it. On the far side was a log inclined against a boulder. He moved around slowly in his lizard habitat. He wore green Spandex shorts and like I said, the rest of him was tattooed and covered in green lizard skin. He came crawling over and stopped in front of the girl. His eyes locked-in on her. His head made snappy jerks, left, right, up, down, and his tongue flicked the air. He played the part well. The girl snarled her nose, bunched her face in disgust, and walked out. A fly landed on my side of the glass. Lizard Man saw it and stretched his neck and leaned in to strike. He lunged and the fly buzzed away. He scurried over and grabbed a piece of fruit, and then climbed the log. His tongue flicked the air. I’d seen enough of Lizard Man and headed down the curtained hallway.
I came to the next exhibit and saw a wooden box in the middle of the room. The room was sectioned off by a velvet rope like the ones used in movie theaters. On the ground in front of me were two stage lights casting a low shine on the box. I’d seen lights like these used in school plays. The box rattled and shook and a side door on hinges fell open. The stage lights lit up and there inside posed in profile view was Alfonso, The Contortionist. His back seemed to be folded in reverse. His chin and upper torso touched the ground while his head rested between his legs. His toes and feet pointed in the same direction as his face.
Some girl behind me said, “Oh my god! How did he get in there?”
Alfonso said, “Would you like me to show you?” He had an accent but I wasn’t sure from where. Staying flat to the ground, he maneuvered with short sidesteps using his feet and hands until he cleared the box. He was shirtless and wore black tights and on his feet were black slippers. Crab-like, he circled around until he faced me. His eyes met mine then darted away. He looked around the tent and smiled at the other people as they walked in. He unfolded himself and went into a handstand. He lowered and pressed up demonstrating his strength and balance. He extended and locked his elbows and then pulled his left arm away, balancing all his weight on his right arm. He didn’t look that strong. He was an average-sized person, maybe even a little on the small side. He was extra lean with no definition in his muscles. Using both arms now, he dipped again to the floor then pushed and sprang to his feet. A few people cheered and clapped. I left to go on around the tent.
I was familiar with Deloris, The Bearded Midget Lady. As I said, she’d been with the freak show as far back as I could remember. She sat in a tiny rocking chair and pulled smoked from a corncob pipe and then blew it into the air. Her mouth was toothless and her beard was gray, patchy, and wispy. A lamp and table sat beside her. She wore a flowered print dress and her hair was gathered in a bun on top of her head. She swayed back and forth in her tiny rocking chair and was in the middle of telling a story when I walked in. She told of a girl named Katrina. She said Katrina lived in the country and because she lived so far out there weren’t any kids for her to play with except for one…Lydia, who lived two houses up the hill and was a couple years older than Katrina. They played and got along fine in the beginning, Deloris explained, but then Lydia started testing Katrina, calling her names. She called her mother terrible names too. She threw rocks at Katrina. Even rubbed mud in her face.
“Then one day,” Deloris said, “Katrina had decided she would end Lydia’s bullying ways once and for all.” She paused and her toothless mouth sucked from the pipe’s stem. She tilted her head back and blew smoke into the air. “She’d asked her mother if she could bake cookies for Lydia’s birthday.” It wasn’t really Lydia’s birthday, Deloris explained, but Katrina needed those cookies. When her mother wasn’t looking, Katrina dumped poison into the bowl of powdered sugar. An hour later, the cookies were baked, cooled, iced on top, and then stacked neatly on a plate. With a smile on her face, Katrina headed up the hill with the cookies.
Deloris struck a match and touched its tiny flame to the bowl of the pipe until smoke rolled confidently. She waved the match out. “And Katrina watched with delight as Lydia devoured cookie after cookie. She waited until Lydia began clutching her stomach as sharp pains stabbed her insides. She fell to the ground, foamed at the mouth, and begged for help. Katrina smiled and laughed and skipped all the way back down the hill and she was never bullied again.”
Serves her right, I thought. Lydia got what she deserved.
The last stop in the tent was Gilda, The Mermaid. She looked to be around twenty-one or twenty-two years old. Right away I could see she was just a regular girl in a mermaid costume—in a wetsuit with a tailfin. None of that mattered to me because Gilda was beautiful. She wore a bikini top that pushed and bulged in all the right places. Boys my age and even some older men gathered around and stared. We couldn’t help it.
She swam around in a tank that looked like an oversized dunking booth without the collapsible seat. On the back wall was a picture of dolphins and starfish and other ocean life. Gilda swam around flapping her tail. She was a great swimmer. She would go under and circle the tank and then resurface for a quick breath and back under she would go. Then she stopped and floated in a corner. She stared off not looking at me or anyone else in the room. Her chin stayed just above water. Her tailfin swayed back and forth. I wondered what she was thinking. I wondered if she was happy doing what she was doing. She didn’t look happy. She hadn’t smiled once. Maybe mermaids weren’t supposed to smile. She looked uncomfortable displayed out in the open in front of everyone. I felt sorry for her.
Then a man said, “Show us what you got under that bikini!” Everyone heard it. I knew Gilda heard it too. She dunked under and swam toward the front of the glass. The man was smiling and snickering. I wasn’t laughing and neither was anyone else. “Oh, come on,” he said and mimed a raising motion of his shirt as Gilda swam toward him.
She surfaced. “You want me to take off my bikini? Is that what you want?”
“Hell yeah!” said the man.
“Okay, but you gotta step closer. Only you can see. No one else.”
His face lit up with joy. He did as Gilda said and when he was close enough, she dunked under, turned, and flapped her tailfin sending a tidal wave over the side of the tank that soaked the man from head to toe. Everyone in the room laughed. I laughed too.
“What the hell! You bitch! You’ll pay for that!” He pointed and cussed as he walked out of the tent.
I’d seen enough and thought I’d better find Richie. I exited the tent and saw him right away, but he didn’t see me. He was holding a long metal pipe. I walked on over.
“Hey, what’s up?” I said.
“Where you been?” he asked.
“I was inside the tent.”
“Come on, man. We gotta go. Here.” He handed me the pipe.
“What’s this for?” I asked. “Where we going?”
He told me we were going behind the school bus barn. I knew that’s where some of the kids would go during the festival to smoke pot and drink. I told him we didn’t have time, that I was going to miss the matches, but he insisted. He said that’s where Nick Taylor was. Nick was the boyfriend of Richie’s sister, Allison. Richie told me she had come home the other night with bruises on her arms. She had begged Richie not to tell their mom and dad.
“I’m going over there to whip his ass. I need you to make sure no one jumps in, okay?”
I didn’t want to be involved, but Richie was a good friend of mine.
Nick was three years older than Richie and me and was bigger than both of us. He was a senior over at the high school and was the star pitcher for the varsity baseball team. I’d seen his fastball. He could throw some heat—but I’d seen Richie fight too. He was tough, but he didn’t look tough and that played to his advantage. His opponents underestimated him. Richie never went looking for trouble, but he never backed down from it either. He was a good friend to have on your side.
Behind the bus barn, people stood around talking and laughing. A couple people passed a joint back and forth. I saw Nick and so did Richie. Two other boys from the baseball team were there too. Nick was a cocky asshole for sure. He had his arm hooked around the waist of a redheaded girl. He whispered in her ear and she laughed.
Richie went right up to him and didn’t waste any time. “What’s up, asshole?” He smashed a straight jab to his mouth. Nick’s arm dropped away from the girl and he shuffled back on his heels. The redhead screamed. Nick collected himself and threw a heater that glanced off Richie’s forehead. The strike had no effect. Richie let loose with a flurry of lefts and rights to Nick’s pretty face, which was already bleeding from the first punch. Richie could hit like a sledgehammer.
By now, the others were gathered around watching. I brandished the pipe in plain view giving anyone who thought of jumping in a fair warning.
“Come on, Nick, kick his ass!” said one of the baseball boys. He inched closer to the action.
“Back up,” I said. “This has nothing to do with you. Let them finish.”
“Oh, you his bodyguard, you little prick?”
“Just leave them alone,” I said. The boy stepped toward me and I reared the pipe and nodded, giving the signal that I was ready if he was. He backed away and I’m glad that he did. I didn’t want to hit him.
Nick slipped and fell to one knee. Richie rapped another solid hand of balled knuckles against his nose. If his nose wasn’t broken before, it was now. Nick fell onto the grass and the fight was over.
“Stay away from my sister, asshole,” said Richie.
“Come on. Let’s go.” I grabbed Richie by the arm and we took off.
My watch read 6:45. I had fifteen minutes before the wrestling matches started. I had plenty of time to walk to the gymnasium. I handed Richie the pipe.
“You going to the matches?” I said.
“I don’t think so. I’ll probably go home or maybe go to the arcade.”
“Alright, man. Be careful and watch your back. I’ll catch you later.”
“Okay,” he said. He walked one way and I headed back the way I’d come.
I approached the freak show tent and by now the line to the entrance snaked for several yards. I thought of buying another ticket and going through again, but I didn’t have time.
On the backside of the tent I saw a man and woman arguing and yelling. The man was doing most of the yelling. He stood over the woman while she sat on a picnic table. He pointed at her and cussed. The girl looked familiar. I knew I had seen her somewhere but I couldn’t place where. Then it hit me. She was Gilda, The Mermaid—except she wasn’t wearing her mermaid costume. Her hair was wet, slicked back, and gathered in a ponytail. She wore a white t-shirt, sweat pants, and sneakers. The hum of the carnival atmosphere drowned out most of what the man was saying, but I could tell he was pissed. I inched around closer and cocked an ear. I pretended to check my watch or act as if I was waiting for someone.
“Why are you always doing this shit?” said the man. “All you have to do is swim around and smile and look pretty. It’s not that difficult.”
“I’m not putting up with these assholes anymore, Ray. I told you that in the last town.”
“You knew what you were getting into when you signed up for this job. Don’t give me your shit.”
“I like the work, Ray, but you have to get a grip on these perverts. It looks bad for business.”
“I’ll decide what’s bad for business. If you don’t get your ass back in that tank in full costume in five minutes you’re finished. Understand?”
“Hey, lighten up, pal,” I said after hearing all I could stand. I moved closer.
“Who the hell are you?” said Ray.
“A paying customer, that’s who.”
“I heard what that asshole in the tent said to her. He had no right to say that.”
“Mind your own business, kid. This doesn’t concern you.” He turned to Gilda. “I mean it. This has to stop. Get your fucking act together.”
Brushing me off didn’t set well. I could see Ray was an asshole.
“Look, you better back off,” I said. I stepped closer yet. He saw me approach and squared up, as if he was ready to fight.
“Oh, I ‘better’?” he said.
He looked like all the other carneys. His eyes were dark and sunken and when he spoke I saw chipped black teeth and discolored gums. He came toward me and that’s when Gilda jumped up and stepped between us.
“Take it easy, Ray,” she said. “He’s only a kid. You hit him and you’ll get us shut down for sure.”
Ray looked at me and then looked at Gilda. He backed away, held up five fingers. “Five minutes. That’s it.”
“Sure, Ray, five minutes,” she said. He rounded the tent and was gone.
She returned to the picnic table. “You probably shouldn’t have done that, you know. You could’ve been hurt.”
“He didn’t have any right yelling at you.”
“He’s my boss,” she said. “But you’re right, he doesn’t. I guess I’m just used to it. Thanks for sticking up for me.”
“Sit down, if you want. What’s your name?”
I sat on the picnic table beside her. “I’m Preston.”
“I thought your name was Gilda.”
“No,” she said smiling. She appeared embarrassed. “That’s only my “stage” name.” She flashed air quotes for emphasis.
“Maybe you could get a different job?” I said.
“I’m a high school dropout. No one will hire me, except the ones that don’t pay much. Ray pays pretty well. And it’s not always like what you saw. Sometimes the old perverts get to me. But it’s easy money, though.”
“Ever tried getting your GED?”
“I’ve thought about it,” she said. “But it’s hard to walk away from the money.”
She told me she was nineteen years old and that her mother had multiple sclerosis. I wasn’t sure what that was, but she said her mother needed assistance with her daily routine. Someone had to come to her house to help out and that cost money.
“I feel like I’m stuck in a rut and there’s no way out,” she said.
“Maybe someday it’ll get better.” I wasn’t sure what else to say.
She seemed to shake away the thought. She turned to me. “I really appreciate you sticking up for me.” Then she leaned over and kissed my cheek. “Maybe I’ll see you again next year.”
“Maybe,” I said as I felt my face heating up.
She stood. “I’ll see you later, Preston. I better go before Ray comes looking for me.”
“Okay. See you later, Misty.” I watched as she walked away, pulled back a flap on the tent, and disappeared back to the life of being a pretend mermaid.
I looked at my watch and saw I had five minutes before the matches started. I made my way through the crowd and headed toward the gymnasium. I shoved my hand into my pocket to make sure my ticket was still there, and it was. That glorious ticket was my pass into heaven, as far as I was concerned.
Walking through the crowd I felt like a salmon swimming upstream. I bumped people, said excuse me, and on occasion found an opening that allowed me to lengthen my stride only to be stifled again by a pack of slow shuffling bodies.
Finally, I cleared the crowd and saw the doors to the gymnasium. It was as if these doors had a luminous, heavenly glow that beckoned me to the holy land. I immediately picked up my pace.
Several yards to my right, I saw two people heading in my direction. Nick’s two pals from the baseball team were in a full-on sprint. They had found me, and this time I was alone and without a metal pipe to help even the odds. I made a dash toward the doors.
“Come back here, you little prick!” said one.
“We’re gonna kick your ass!” said the other.
I glanced over my shoulder. I had a thirty-yard lead but they were older, more athletic, and gaining on me. I worked my arms, legs, and all my momentum. The people, bushes, and other objects were nothing but blurs. I became tired and sensed my pace slowing. But then, when I was sure I was about to receive the beating of my life, I made it. I swung the door open and stumbled inside. Out of breath, I pulled my ticket and extended it to a woman who sat at a small desk. She tore it in half, handed me the stub, and I walked on by.
The doors opened again and the baseball boys entered.
“Tickets, please,” said the woman.
One of the boys shook his head. “We don’t have any.”
“Sorry, boys. You can’t go in without tickets.”
“We’ll only be a second,” said one of the boys.
“Sorry,” the woman said again.
I smiled basking in my victory.
“Better watch your back, you little punk,” said one of the boys. He flipped me the bird and I returned the gesture as they walked out. They would likely be waiting for me when the matches were over, but I didn’t care. I’d worry about that when the time came.
I hustled down a long, empty hallway and opened a door. I heard the sound of the bell and the roar of the crowd. Two men in the ring locked-up. I found my seat and knew in only a matter of time I’d be watching my favorite wrestler defend his heavyweight title. I was on top of the world. I smiled, looked around the gymnasium, and felt I had indeed entered the holy land.
Jeremy Perry is an American writer whose books and stories span many genres. His stories have appeared in literary magazines such as Cowboy Jamboree, Plumb Journal, Variety Pack, and Hello America. Jeremy Perry lives and writes in southern Indiana. For all book and story news visit https://www.jeremyjperry.com/.