Sideshow We are a dangerous place and we move towns every night. These thrills are not so cheap for us. All of our days repeat like this one, set up, performed and torn down again while you go to a home that just stays there. You watch high-wire acts because you believe in the distance to the ground, the chance of an accident. The girl in the tiger cage is prettier the closer she gets to teeth and claws. You come to the freak show because you want to stare at something you can feel better than and we are so reassuring here. And in Louisville, Bedford, Bloomington— we are home in the moment of the drawn curtain, the gasp of surprise. We love your shocked faces. You put on such a show for us in Kansas, where the hills are black with Model Ts for miles. Kentucky, and we know to expect a fight. You rubes, tourists to our moveable city, it is not how you think. In our own kingdom we are none of us jesters. Our banners unfurl like the letting down of hair after hours, when we drink and play cards and laugh at all of you, gullible and frightened children. For fun, we code-talk in front of the crowd. When the fat lady says worried for my job, we know she’s spotted corpulence. Hope there’s an extra platform—I see one of us in your sea of awe-dumb faces, unaware of his own potential. We are more than our mothers’ tragedies, our fathers’ drinking. Four hundred years ago, we would have been cast into water. One hundred, shut up in asylums, made to disappear. Now, we meet kings. Wear yards of lace. Our weddings are in all the papers. We are not the things God got the most wrong. We are in high demand. Some of the carnivals, they’ve got a woman with a false beard on. Not enough freaks to go around. Epilogue The man on the platform is rolling a cigarette with his lips. The spieler calls him a prince, mentions his wife and four children. The banner outside promises the Real, Living Caterpillar Man— the prince has no limbs, is wearing only a knitted stocking that encloses his torso. The crowd cheers as he strikes the match. The girl on television is eating pottery and cigarette ashes. Her mother cries into the camera; the soundtrack indicates we should all be concerned. The doctor uses words like toxic, damaged, break down. Across America, couch-dwellers cluck and sigh: that poor girl. In the twenty-first century we are entertained at a distance— the new freak looks just like us, but she cannot stare back. It is all right to gawk through the screen, convince yourself the medical expert is no showman, the teaser not a bally platform, this way so different from the one that came before. All the same acts fine-tuned to our sensibilities— it is scientific. They are getting help. In the late 1800s, a Thai girl with excess body hair was exhibited as Darwin’s missing link. Medical journals ate it up. Tell me: when you say thing of the past do you feel the words fighting to stay in your mouth? The camera pans lovingly through a therapist’s office. The voiceover promises unusual, shocking, exotic, extreme. History takes another turn on the platform, hears the same applause.
March 25, 2015