I was married once. It was a carny wedding down in Gibtown. I was with the O’Sullivan Boys then. Had been for a few years. As long as I ran my show and kept my nose clean, Paddy and Derry had a place for me. By that time, I was just another carny. They didn’t have to pull me under their wing like Griswold had. They gave me a job to do each season. One year, I ran the ferris wheel. Another, I was the outside talker, standing out by the entrance, calling to the local folks to come and see the Bearded Lady and a blade glommer or two, to ride the newest rides and to try their fortunes at games galore, and “for the gents, a little something they might never forget.” If I did my job well, I was invited back. Which I was until that last season, when they even invited me to Gibtown for the winter.
Paddy and Derry were fresh off the boat Irish. Only they had got off the boat back around the Great War. Decades later, the boys still spoke with the brogue, fondly of the villages and red-haired lassies of their youth. To hear them, one would have thought they were born with a warm pint o’ Guinness in their hands and one of those lassies with her skirts lifted at their side. I had an idea at one time that I should skedaddle my way to Ireland one day to see if what they said were true. For some reason, the thought of those lassies just burned a hole in me. I’ve seen every corner of the States, but never made it across the ocean to find me a lassie.
Down in Gibtown, the O’Sullivan Boys spent the winter each year, resting up, looking for new acts, and generally acting the way showmen do. Drinking, sexing, and giving local coppers a little more than they wanted. I had my share of the first two, but wanted nothing to do with the law. My first morning with Griswold, I woke to the sight of a couple of carnies coming back to the back lot. Their faces were pulp and one limped along dragging his right leg behind while the other cradled his arm like it was fine china. They’d spent the night in the local jail after a brawl in the streets. Right then I decided I’d keep clear of the law. After all, I’d run from home to escape the same thing from my Pa. I never saw no reason to give a man cause to beat me after that. Well, except for that time in Chi-town.
* * * * * *
I couldn’t blame old man Griswold when he came to me, scratching his bald head and looking down at me because I wasn’t fully grown yet. “I needs you to get on outta here.”
I started to protest, but he stopped me. “No, nothin’ more. Get on outta here.” His bloodshot eyes, the water threatening to leak from the corners, told me he meant it. I figured he found out about Katie and me doing what we were doing. So, I went on down the road. It was only years later that I learned there was something more. That morning, I had no idea of a baby and everything else. I ran from the shame of having diddled with his daughter.
We was in a small town in the south of Illinois. Soon as I could, I hopped a train and found my way to Chicago. All the time, whether awake or asleep, I held a picture of Katie in my head. A movie reel really. I felt like I should go back for her. Like all men after their first, I believed I had found something no other man had known of. But I couldn’t. Griswold was there. I knew nothing good would come of it.
I had some money saved up from my two years with Griswold’s show. I got myself a room at Mrs. Mooney’s House for Travelers . Up on the third floor, a little room with a bed and a chiffarobe and a bathroom at the end of the hall. The only light came through the window. The sun during the day and the faint glow of the street lamps from two floors below at night.
Mrs. Mooney was gray and wrinkled. Afore I paid my first week, I knew she was widowed, her husband dying in “the war” – First or Second, I had no idea – that he was the best man she’d ever knew, and that they never had no kids ‘cause he was gone before they had the chance.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled, itching to get to my room. “How much’s the room?”
“You’re an impatient one, isn’t you?” Mrs. Mooney laughed at me, a rattling roll of thunder coming from deep outta her chest. “You look kind of young. Your ma and pa know where you’re at.”
I looked at her and she stopped laughing. “My ma’s dead and my dad don’t care.”
“It’s $2 a night, $10 for the week.” She scanned me up and down one more time. “You clean the bathroom on the third floor once or twice, I’ll knock a dollar off.”
I paid her for two weeks, full price. I was on my own time and wasn’t gonna be cleaning up nobody’s bathroom. I figured, too, I’d be ready to skip town and look for work on the road again by then. I know’d I was lucky. Sixteen years old, with money in my pocket, I roamed the streets of Chicago, barely spending enough time at Mrs. Mooney’s to catch a cat nap now and then.
It was the dog days of August. Somehow I always found my way each day to the lake. The girls were looking fine and I may have canoodled with one or two in the dark corners of the city. I mighta shown them a trick or two I learned from Katie. I mighta started forgettin’ about her too.
That might also be a lie I was tellin’ myself. A lie I’ve tried to believe in all these years later. The truth o’ the matter is I never forgot the girl. To this day, I can still smell her on a summer breeze and see her smile in the faces of the young ladies that prance through the midway. But for a few days, in simmering Chi-town, I talked myself into believing Katie was nothing more than a memory.
Chi-town simmered right on over before my two weeks was up. After a day at the lakeshore, whistling at the girls and avoiding their fellas, I found my way to Grey’s, a little shithole of a place that served me cold beer, no questions asked. That night I skinned a coupla goons at the pool table. I guess I was a little too much in my cups to gather they was none too happy about it.
When Tilly shut down for the night and sent me home with a hearty, “Til tomorrow, my boy Sally. Til tomorrow,” I pushed my way out into the night and barely had the “Ayup,” out of my mouth before they were on me. I got one lick in before I tried to run. I knew’d I was faster than the three of them. Only I wasn’t faster than the one who caught me by the shirt collar and slammed me to the ground.
“Hold on, there, little man,” he growled at me. “We gotta teach you a lesson about who you’re gonna snooker in this neighborhood.” He landed the first kick as his partners gathered around. Straight to my gut. Knocked the wind right of me and clear to Ohio. Then all three of them were on me. I surely thought I was gonna die there in the dark and damp of Chicago.
Only thing was that Tilly didn’t think so. She came barrelin’ outta Grey’s, a sight to see. She musta been seventy if she was a day. Smaller than me. But none of that mattered that night. Tilly charged them with a pool cue overhead, twirling it around, whomping at the air like the blades of a chopper. She had a glint in her eye and before those boys knew what had happened, she whacked one of them behind the knees, whopped another over the head, and finally broke the cue on the back o’ the third. She was screaming like a banshee and soon lights up and down the street were popping on.
They ran and I slinked back to my room, where I stayed for three days, barely moving but to hit the head and piss blood. Mrs. Mooney knocked on the door the second day. “You in there?” she called. I didn’t reply, so she used her key to let herself in. When she saw me, lying in the bed, the sheets soaked with sweat, my eye blacked, my nose with crusted blood, she backed right on out and shut the door behind her, and when I left two days later, she had no words for me.
It was then that I hooked up with the O’Sullivan traveling show. In the railyards, they was getting set to push off for their last month of barnstorming before heading down to Florida for the winter. I hooked myself into one of their cars and settled down.
* * * * * *
Even resting up in Gibtown, down near Tampa, the O’Sullivan Boys set up shop. A few tents and rides and games, and every now and then, they’d fire the whole thing up, oil the wheels, crank the doors open, and put on a little show for the locals. That summer a few years after I joined up, when they rolled the covers up, Paddy came to me.
“You interested in sumthin’ different, Sallie?” he asked.
“Aiy, mate,” he cackled. “Mebbe you oughtn’t be so eager.”
“Anything for you, Paddy.”
The old guy cackled again. “I think it’s time to put a little freak in you.”
I gulped, but stood firm. “Yassir.”
“We’re going to need a Human Pin Cushion this next year. You up for it?”
That night, I took the first darts to my back. Stuck a few needles through my skin. The ladies gasped. The men stared. But before it all, Paddy gave me a nip from his flask. Or two. And Derry slipped me a pill. Called it a greenie and told me it was a trial run. The next I stepped up and chewed a light bulb and swallowed it down. I walked on broken glass the third night and didn’t feel the darts.
After that third night, when I made my way to my bunk, I was stopped by a voice. “Come on over here, Sallie.” Quiet, soothing, and titillating all at once, it both tugged at me and pushed me away. I took a few more steps and she came out of the shadows to greet me. Clarisse Snow, the Tattooed Lady. Now, you gotta understand something about the times. Nowadays, with everybody sportin’ a tat, you might think nothing of it. But back in the day, a girl with her arms sleeved with scenes, snakes slithering around her neck, and her torso bearing the most colorful depiction of O’Sullivan’s Traveling Show around … well, that was a might scary for a boy no matter the courage I thought I had. “Come. I can help you,” she whispered, taking my hand in hers and pulling me to a tent in a corner of the lot.
That night, the Tattooed Lady licked the blood from my wounds and I discovered the tattoos she had the paying public never got to see.
That’s how the winter of my 19th year progressed. I became one of the freaks. No longer a talker perfecting my spiel or running a midway game, I was part of the show. Clarisse did a lot more than lick the blood off’n me. She held me when I got the jitters, which came along all too much that winter. In the hours before each night’s show and again in the wee hours of the morning, when I’d wake from a nightmare of my body being sawed in half or of ice picks being jabbed in my eye. Too, Clarisse showed me a thing or two when she calmed me. Things with her hands and her mouth and her words. I was someplace else that winter and Clarisse was my captain.
I guess Paddy or Derry saw something else in me, cuz a few weeks in, they set me up right. With the midway crowded and the rides full, Paddy brought me out after my show and walked me to the chump-twister. I knew something was up. The juiceman was stringing up extra lights, making the thing look like a Christmas Tree and the 4th of July all at the same time. Then I saw Clarisse sitting on one of horses with the pole stuck through it, dressed like I’d never seen a carny or a freak dress before. All done up like a beauty queen she was. With one hand gracefully wrapped around the pole, she patted the horse next to her and winked.
“I think it’s time for a carny wedding, Sallie,” Paddy said to me, grinning from ear to ear. “What do you say?” He swept his hand out and bowed to me.
I noticed then that the sounds of the midway had quieted and looked behind me. Carnies were lined up, the rubes poking their heads up trying to see what’s going on. Then, Alfie, that winter’s talker, stepped forward. “Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s a rare sight indeed, but tonight, the O’Sullivan Traveling Show is pleased to invite you to,” and some of the carnies began drumming their hands on their legs and whistling up a storm, “the wedding of the Tattooed Girl and the Human Pincushion.” He lifted his voice above the din, “So, step right up, and make sure to wish the happy couple well!”
Paddy prodded me forward. “Let me be the first to congratulate you,” he chuckled into my ear. I guess I coulda stopped the whole thing, but that woulda been a mistake. When the show begins, you can’t do nothing to stop it or you’ll be out before the sun comes up in the morning. And it was clear this was part of the show. Truth was that I kinda liked the idea. Me and Clarisse had something special, I thought. Why not marry her? We’d be able to travel with the O’Sullivans together and maybe one day have little tattooed pincushion kiddos.
I stepped on up the platform and sat on the horse next to Clarisse as the ride started its slow spin, her horse going up as mine went down. Clarisse held her hand out to me and I grabbed on, thinking we’d never part again. Yeah, I learned something else a few weeks later. Freaks stick together as long as they stay freaks and to stay a freak you had to go all in on the thing.
Derry was there on the platform. He said a few words to us quietly, and pronounced to the gathered crowd that we were man and wife. Thing is, nothing changed between Clarisse and me. Not right away anyway, but two nights later, with a couple of weeks left in Gibtown before we broke for the North, Paddy sat me down and told me about Dajo, a pincushion who operated in Europe in the 40’s. The man would have fencing foils run through his body, back to front. Paddy asked me, “You want to try?” He even had some grainy black and whites of a man, barechested and bearded, standing steadily as another stood behind him with a foil in hand, stuck in his back, the point coming out just to the right of his belly button, a barely visible trickle of blood leaking down.
Paddy offered me his flask. I took a swig and felt the whiskey burn its way to my gut. “I dunno,” I said. “Lemme think about it.” I didn’t really. I knew I didn’t wanna do the trick. I avoided Paddy and he only asked me one more time before we brought the tents down and folded up the rides. He didn’t offer me his flask that time, there was no knowing smile. Just the question. And my answer. “Nah.” It was a good thing, too. Years later, I read about Dajo. About fistulas and scar tissue and tunnels formed for the foil to slide through his body. And about the freaks that died trying to duplicate Dajo’s foil trick.
Turns out I wasn’t the kind of freak the O’Sullivans wanted, but once Paddy had me start as the Human Pincushion, he couldn’t see me as anything else.
Turns out when the O’Sullivan Boys Traveling Show broke things down and moved North, there wasn’t a place for me. “Sorry, Sallie, but we’ve got everything we need for the season,” Paddy told me has he rolled an extra twenty off his roll and stuck it in my envelope.
Turns out a carny marriage can end as quickly as it begins. Clarisse disappeared those last coupla days in Gibtown. Didn’t see her until I spotted her boarding the O’Sullivan train headed out of town. She looked at me. I know she did. And that was it.
Turns out I still had a lot of lessons to learn.
*** END ***
And, if you’re still with me, I’m open to ideas of what the next story should be. Name a character that has shown up here who needs some fleshing out, a back story, an adventure of their own. And we’ll go from there. It looks like Sallie is the central character, but there are plenty of others who should get a cameo, don’t you think?