Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Snapshot #9: The Arbus Carnival

BY TERRI BROWN-DAVIDSON

After her experience with the bum, Diane couldn’t stop thinking about the photographs. They pushed toward her in the middle of the night, in the darkness of her bedroom, fragmented, odd. Teeth, she fantasized about. And severed fingers. And wrists ridged with scars.

It was time to make something happen.

She was fifteen when she got the call, when she first saw into the secret hearts of all the dead creatures surrounding her. Her family had decided to vacation again at their cabin. It was there that it happened: alone, in the woods whose branches arced over her head in foliage downdragging with rain. The sky, gray, sagging low atop branches. Her saddle shoes crammed with pebbles. Diane strolled through the woods at dusk. Through copse after copse she ambled, creating a longer and more torturous path back to her mother and father, holed up with her brother, Howard, and her sister, Renee, in the cabin.

It was there that it happened.

The raccoon was so decayed that it looked as if it had never possessed more than half a head. Black ants streamed its muzzle. Glints of white bone, teeth gleaming through what remained of the jaw, a fragmented darkness, a chaos swarming with a whiteness that could have been maggots. Diane touched her mouth. The blood warm inside her lips. She fingered her neck pulse, a throbbing that intensified as it did during the darkest nights when she locked her door and lay with the covers over her, inhabiting only the sensation in her gently moving hand. A locked door, she thought, eyeing the raccoon. A locked death. Let me in. Let me in. Already, she sensed, death had little to do with feather-winged angels in the Andersen fairy tales who bore sad crippled boys to Heaven. Big Claus and Little Claus. Oh let me drown my parents in a river, she thought. Oh let me sink to the river bottom in a sack weighted with stones and go rock-cold unconscious. She knelt in her knee socks, in the ridiculous green jumper, white lisle turtleneck, her mother’d forced upon her. Oh let me. She touched the muzzle with her fingertips, the putrefaction separating like sodden bread between her fingertips, the raccoon going to pieces in her hands. She looked at the muzzle fragment she let sit on her palm. A warm, stale stench, like the body of a little girl shut too long in a sickroom by her parents’ orders.

It was seconds before she breathed.

She knew the carnival was coming to the little town located only a mile from her cabin. And wanted to go, this town–Durban–a ten-minute stroll away. Already she’d wearied of sailboats on a blue-glassed lake. Of campfires and enforced jolly singing (“Row Row Row the Moat, Drown Inside a Stream”) and marshmallow-toasting each night (though she liked her marshmallows carcinogenic, their taste like charred paper after she’d snuffed the flames). She wanted to go, but her family, unlike her friend, Sadie, didn’t go to fairs. The Russeks also never masturbated or farted or talked with oatmeal in their mouths, though Diane–already–did all of these things with a certain measure of precocious-girl pride.

She was in Howard’s tiny, yellow-wooded bedroom. “I have to,” she said.

Howard looked up. He was sitting on the edge of his bed in long trousers and socks that slid down over the tops of his loafers, a pad in his hand. Her brother loved to make up a new rhyme scheme every day–a “scaffolding,” he called it, for the “bastard sonnets” he enjoyed writing–and every day attempted to make up rhymes so slanted, preposterous, he ended by crumpling up the sonnets.

“Congregate,” Howard says. “What rhymes with that? Triple rhyme.”

“Hesitate,” Diane said. “Fornicate,” she added, and laughed.

“Or half-berate.”

“Or…fuck the gate.”

They subsided into silence. Then Diane said, “No, I really mean it.”

“Let’s get them toasted,” Howard said. “Then I’ll just say you went to a singalong.”

“That’s too easy,” Diane said. “Better plan?”

“Ahh. The sweet sight of Mother in her cups,” Howard said. “She could drown in a bottle of tequila. Awfully depressed these days, don’t you think?”

“Yes,” Diane said. “Lusting after a little green worm.”

 

 

In the end, the easiest plan seemed best. Diane walked along a deserted country road at ten p.m., a straw protruding from between her teeth because she felt a little James Cagneyish that night. Moon poured across the rock-strewn road in yellow pools, sticky-seeming when–entranced by the illusion of honey–she crouched to touch them. She walked until she was breathless.

Then: the Ferris Wheel, ascending.

Its light. A dozen seats climbing, candles tilting flames, yellow, a more intense orange, against the blackest night sky she’d glimpsed in a while. She chewed a piece off her cuticle, swallowed. Stooped and pulled off her saddle shoes, dropped a few pebbles in the road. Tugged her shoes on again, ran. It couldn’t come fast enough toward her, photography, the rest of her life.

 

 

The secret heart of the raccoon. What had she learned? What had the empty spaces inside its gone eyes whispered, the bone she stroked like a Braille book on her palm? It had intuited her secrets. And imparted its own. It spoke more freely, that silence, than most of the people she knew.

She went to the tent she’d longed to see since she was twelve, when she’d taken a peek at one of Howard’s favorite books. TALES OF THE WONDROUS AND STRANGE, a large lavender volume with gilt-leaf lettering on its spine. In there, she found specimens of humanity she’d never dreamed existed. The Half-Man, Half-Woman. JoJo, the Dog-Faced Boy. The Human Pincushion. She began stealing the book from Howard’s dresser drawer each night, perusing the thick-leafed pages with a flashlight. There were some photos, too, so odd, monstrous, she wasn’t positive they weren’t fake. The one of Chang and Eng, the Siamese twins, especially fascinated her after she discovered that they’d married, had children.

She longed to encounter a carnival, a freak.

Why?

Like the raccoon, freaks had secrets to impart.

The tent was bright green, enormous, with red lettering so intense it looked blood-splashed onto the canvas. “The Baby That Was Never Born.” And “Damascus, The Amazing Sword-Swallower.” And “Jericho Jane: You Decide.” Diane stared up at the tent, dazzled, appalled. She hadn’t brought her coat, and the wind was so ice-laden that she shivered, goosepimples rising along her arms. She stooped, pulled up her socks, took her place at the end of a line. A thin man with suspenders and a greasy pompadour took her ten-cent ticket then pulled back the flap, let her and the others in.

She entered. As her eyes adjusted, the darkness shifted, flickered crimson. Glimmers of things that looked like objects…though she couldn’t make them out. Red-velvet ropes that swayed above yellow-sawdusted floors. A collection of shiny things.

She joined another line.

Jeers. Catcalls. And something that sounded like singing. Diane tried to listen at first, couldn’t separate the sounds. Finally, she just let them wash away in distant and more distant waves. The line wended far back inside the tent. People shuffled, coughed. A few people dropped out of line, walked quietly toward a flap in the back that a carny stood by, guarding.

And then she was at the front.

She was looking at a table. A large card table covered with a sunny yellow tablecloth that draped all the way to the sawdust floor, with different types of jars. Small canning jars, such as the Russeks’ poorer cousins used for apricots and blackberries, with gold, screw-top lids. Gargantuan lab-specimen-type jars polished so brilliantly that their surface sent off a shimmer that radiated into Diane’s eyes and behind them, her entire corneal mind flooded with light. And inside these jars–ten or twelve –all types of oddities floated in a clear or reddish substance. A dead and pickled bat, its dull leathery wings shriveled, hung upside-down, suspended. A fish skeleton marked with a piece of masking tape on which was printed “PIRANNA.” But it was the largest jar that tempted Diane. People before her passed through the exhibit, exited by the red-velvet rope, walked out through the tent flap.

She sank to her knees. Peered into the jar. The big-headed baby, lightly curled, was afloat. Its head sagged toward the front of the jar. Its neck, very slender, seemed to consist only of the bone whose growth had been interrupted by a death. This was how Diane saw herself, she realized, watching. The big-headed one. The freak of nature. So vulnerable that the baby, too, she thought, must be female. She placed two fingers against the jar. “Move it along. PLEASE,” a man behind her said. Diane didn’t care. The bulbous eyes, fixed, lidless, peered into her own. She framed it, took a mental snapshot.  She needed to remember. This, and the raccoon. She needed to remember.

The man tapped her on the arm. “Please,” he said.

“A second,” Diane replied.

She didn’t get up. Inside her mind, she was turning the pages of a book. It wasn’t TALES OF THE WONDROUS AND STRANGE. It was her mother’s book: THE INCORRUPTIBLES. Saint Bernadette Soubirous, excavated after her death, had appeared as fresh and lovely as the day she’d died of TB of the bones. They’d placed her long, black-gowned figure in a glass-and-gold coffin at St. Gildard, propped her dark-cowled head on a pillow, angled her face to the left. Her downcast eyes. Her flexible, molded mouth. She was beautiful, Diane thought. A beautiful freak. Diane stroked the jar while the man behind her grew louder, more insistent. Diane stroked the jar and dreaded the second she’d be forced to part from her big-headed baby girl.

“Move it,” the man said suddenly, and gripped her arm.

A startled hush. Diane gazed up, feeling her lips curl back from her teeth. “Do you know who I am?”

Silence. Then, quietly, the man replied, “A…freak?”

A few people laughed. Diane stared at him, willing her face blank, until his own gaze shifted and he coughed. Then, still watching him, Diane dropped out of line. Moved toward the front. She wasn’t done here yet. And not because she was a Russek. She needed to be here, in Durban. A locked door. A locked death. She segued, as invisibly as she could, into another line. It didn’t matter about the baby. She was already inside her mind, floating formaldehyded inside her gleaming glass jar, where Diane could see her–love her.

It was enough.

 

 

The next line was more lively. A large, block-lettered poster straddled the sawdust on a tripod: “JERICHO JANE. Is She a Man? Is She a Woman? YOU DECIDE.” Diane shifted eagerly. A dull murmuring from the front. She craned her neck but couldn’t see anything. Gasps, exclamations. Diane swallowed. Suddenly, she was nervous. As nervous as if she were about to go on a date–which was ridiculous.

Then, she was there.  Diane looked. And looked. Then, slowly, rubbed her mouth.

The woman was sitting on a folding chair, her long legs splayed. She wore a dispirited-looking pink negligee, near-translucent, that was fan-blown around her body. She also sported boxer shorts. Diane bit her fingertip. A man in front of her wolf-whistled. The woman glanced at him, looked away. Then, her lip curling slightly (but Diane saw it, she did, and shivered), the woman reached inside her negligee, pulled a fullish breast out. “Holy Jesus,” another man said. Smiling, the woman reached down to her boxer shorts, stood up briefly, tugged them down, let them drop around her ankles, waggled an inert, tiny penis two-fingered toward the crowd, stooped and yanked the boxers back up, sat back down to a silence that seemed to grow thicker by the minute, a silence so thick that Diane couldn’t breathe anymore, wasn’t sure she wanted to. And Jericho Jane didn’t look at the crowd, seemed to gaze at some distant point far over their heads as she started to sing, so quietly that Diane wasn’t sure other people even heard her. What was she seeing? Diane wondered, and felt as if she might cry. Maybe, like her, she longed to escape from her life. Maybe, like Diane, after the last show ended, she went outside her tent, ignoring the carnies’ chatter, and found a small, green patch of grass which had survived the bitter season with its vividness intact, and lay down on that grass, gazed up at the sky, and, like Saint Bernadette, like Diane, inhabited that pure sweep of black dotted with white stars.