Nov/Dec 1997  •   Fiction

In a Freak Show

by Sean Nighbert

Life story. Wallace, who now wants to be called my "Off Track Betting Agent," calls and wakes me up at noon. Says there's a carnival in town, and a sideshow freak there owes him for a number he let ride on the Derby horse last May. Says I owe him, so he wants me to call in the debt.

"Why don't your normal runners get it, Wall?" I say.

He says, "You mind yours. Go to the sideshow and get the cash. This a freak calls hisself Lobster Man or something. It's three hundred bills. Tell him who sent you. And it's Mr. Wallace."

He hangs up and leaves me to my hangover. Sure enough, the paper has the carnival listed in the Today section. Lansing Park near Fourth and Cooper. I try to go back to sleep, but I keep on seeing Wallace's face in my head, so I get up and break out an old black suit I used to wear when I sold policies for Cosmopolitan Life Insurance. Not real policies. You know, life insurance on kids and babies. For ten dollars a month, you, too, can get a ten-thousand dollar policy on your five year old, Ma'am, and shit like that. It's easier to beat the horses than the streets.

Now, I'm not a runner. I don't do numbers. But when you owe someone like Wallace twelve bills, you do what he likes you to. I don't even have a Pabst for breakfast, and he wants me to go to a freak show. I never collected debts for anyone before, and the whole thing makes me nervous. But, after a couple drinks at Larry's, I decide to beat the Saturday crowd and amble my way to the park. I practice my tough guy look the whole way down, and at least a few people are scared by it. Tough guy. Wallace is a tough guy. He don't have to practice. Just looks at you over those god damned rose colored glasses and points at the seat. That fuckin' guy could scare the shine offa your boots.

Everybody on the midway knows where the freaks are. They are always to the left of the center tent, a guy on stilts tells me, and I wonder what the fuck he means, because tents are round and don't really have sides. Left of which side? I guess I don't get the joke. But a man in clown makeup shows me where to get tickets, and I pay a midget P.T. Barnum and walk through two golden gates that say across them: "The Finest Sideshow In The Land." Two guys on stilts are tossing bowling pins on the other side of the gate. There's already a crowd. I ask one of the stilt men where the good stuff is.

"Down the main strip," he calls down to me. "That's where the best exhibits are."

Exhibits. Like this is a fucking museum. The stilt men are juggling torches now, and the smell of tar hits my nose. I watch the flames for a few minutes before I walk towards the main strip of freaks. After looking at a few of the run-of-the-mill bullshit exhibits—world's largest rat, two headed calf—that kind of shit, I spy the freak I'm looking for.

The man in the window calls himself the "Lobster Boy." He's hardly a boy. I'd guess him at least fifty years old, and, judging by the beer bottles and cigarette butts lying on the ground beside him, he is a drunk lobster boy. His hands are deformed so that they form two clumpish claws. One of his grotesque hands holds a cigarillo, which he puffs between slurps of Red, White and Blue. Lobster Boy has little stubs for legs that end in little grey clumps, not like feet at all. To heighten the effect of his deformed hands, the side show has him wearing a plastic lobster tail. They also have the little room painted like an underwater scene with a mermaid in the back corner. The bright red plastic tail keeps getting under his feet as he paces the six-by-six room, surrounded by plexiglass on three sides. Faces line the walls.

"What the fuck you looking at?" he says to a teenaged girl beside me. She turns away, her face reddening.

"We paid to see you. So shut your hole, freak," her boyfriend spits at the little man. His tough guy look is pretty polished.

Lobster Boy throws a full beer at the boy. It hits the window and shakes it, and the crowd is temporarily shocked. The can splits open and beer spurts everywhere. What a waste of good drink, I think.

"Fuck me!" says Lobster Boy, as he realizes he's thrown his last can of Red, White and Blue at the zit-faced teenager.

Lobster Boy rings a buzzer and lights another cigarillo. He has it gripped between his teeth and it shakes when he growls at the crowd. A door in the back of the room opens and a wheelchair edges into view. Another Lobster Boy is sitting on the chair. He is fifteen, maybe twenty years younger than the drunk in front of me, and he has no legs to speak of, just little nubs with toenails. They whisper, and the younger sideshow freak gets this nasty look on his face. All of a sudden the older freak clubs the younger one in the face and storms out of the little door. Most of the people leave with him, because it suddenly doesn't seem as fun to stare at a Lobster boy with a bloody nose.

Outside of the room, the older Lobster boy comes walking through the crowd (without his tail) and enters a tent marked: "The Amazing Sheila Ann—come see the World's smallest African-American Woman!"

The sign takes me off guard, because I've never heard of a PC freak show. What a world. The crack dealers in my neighborhood are calling themselves "Street Pharmacists," and the strippers at the club I sometimes go to have taken to calling themselves "Sex Workers." It's a crazy fucking world. I stand outside the tent, wondering if inside there's a mini-Rosa Parks demanding equal treatment for all freaks and shit like that. After a minute, I decide that there's only one way to find out. So I follow Lobster Boy into the tent. Inside there is a tiny black woman, only two and a half feet tall. She is enormously fat and sits beneath a fan. A sign behind her reads: "I will stand up for a dollar." Another reads: "I will sit on your lap for a picture—three dollars." Lobster Boy walks across the tent and starts rooting through a small fridge in the back of the room, while Sheila Ann pays no attention at all. He hands me a beer, pulls out one for himself, and struggles with the top. We are the only people in the room, except for an elderly woman who is taking a picture of Sheila Ann. I feel this tap on my hip as the lady walks out.

"Give me a hand here fella," says Lobster Boy, looking up at me. He holds up the bottle of beer in his claw. He is too drunk to see that it is a twist off top, or maybe he can't open bottles. I open the beer and hand it back to him.

"Here you go," I say. "Who was the other lobster?"

"My son, of course. This is a God damned family sideshow!" he says as he raises his bottle.

"I don't want to... I mean, well. Wallace sent me to get his money," I say. "He says you owe him three bills."

The Lobster ignores me. I am suddenly aware that I haven't introduced myself. He pulls hard from the beer and eyes the woman.

"You're a debt collector. What you gonna do? Break me up? Cut off a finger? Fuck Wallace," he says as he downs the first bottle and snatches mine out of my hand. "You drink my beer and then pull this shit! Sonfa' bitch, I should rip your fucking head off your shoulders."

Lobster Boy stumbles back a step or two. His eyes are wild and angry. I suddenly can't remember my tough guy look.

"It's not like that. He just asked me to come down here and see about it. I don't care if you pay or not," I say.

He downs the second beer and grabs another from the fridge. His face and neck are turning red. Life story—I can see that I'm going to get it either from Lobster or Wallace.

"Fuckin' weasel come down here and drink my goddamned beer, look at my wife and ask for money. God damned pencil neck," he says and slams the fridge shut. "Mama, we got a pencil neck here."

Sheila Ann finally takes notice and gets up and walks over to us. She motions for me to hit it while I can, and I start to ease my way to the tent flaps.

"Let's take it easy on the booze today Ernst. Jacob can't do another night show," she says in a soothing southern accent.

"Fuck him. He's got no ambition. None. And fuck you for taking his side all the time," says Ernst. He turns to me. "And fuck you while I'm at it, weasel."

"Excuse him, he doesn't know what he's saying half the time," Sheila says. "Most of the time."

She starts to say something else, but Lobster Boy cuffs her on the side of her head with a clawy hand. Sheila rolls like she's going to fall, then rights herself and straightens her hair. She holds up a stubby finger and draws a line in the air.

"Excuse us for a minute," she says to me. I start to go but before I get a chance to get out he's on her and has a claw around her throat. She's kicking and scratching, and the veins in her head are popping out. Lobster's gritting his jaw, and I can hear his teeth grinding.

Her voice is raspy and close.

"Heyyy..." she gasps, seemingly to me. I don't like to get involved in these types of things, but I can see that I am already.

So I kick Lobster Boy in the back. Both of them tumble down, and he suddenly turns on me, grabbing my wrist. His claws are unfuckingbeleivably strong, and I feel like he's going to break my damned arm. He's got me with one claw and is clubbing me with the other hand. Life story, to be beaten up over a marital thing between a Lobster Boy and the World's Smallest African-American Woman. Now I can taste blood in my mouth, and I punch out and connect with something soft and scratchy. When Ernst lets go, I keep on hitting him. My fists pound him in the face and chest, and he heaves vomit onto the floor and over my arms. In the momentary lapse, I remember Wallace and decide to belt him a couple for the debt, just so I can tell Wallace about it later.

Suddenly I am being pulled off the freak from behind, and I can feel kicks and punches being thrown against me. Something catches me in the gut, and I lose my wind. I look up and see Sheila Ann and the younger Lobster. He has a baseball bat and is swinging it at my head. I'll be lucky to get to my feet again. Life-fucking-story—Man Killed in Freak Accident at Carnival. I kick at the young Lobster's wheel chair and manage to push it out of range. Half crawling, half running, I make it out of the tent. Security is waiting outside.

It takes a while to regain my wind, but the security guards wait silently for me. Sheila and the Lobsters sit inside the doorway of the tent, arm in arm, claw in claw. When security sees them, both the young men in black t-shirts shrug their shoulders and turn away.

"Fucking freaks," one of the men mutters as he disappears into the crowd that has formed to watch me dry heave. Someone in the crowd tosses me a bandana, and I dab the blood from my chin.

"Got your ass kicked by a freak!" says the same teenage boy who was in the Lobster tank when I walked in. He still has the tough guy look on for his girl, I guess. "A freak with no legs!"

No sooner do the words leave his mouth than a beer bottle hits him in the ear. He shrieks and goes down to one knee. The Lobsters are on him in a flash. Sheila Ann is egging them on. The teenage girl is screaming. She looks at me in terror.

"Help him! The freaks are killing him!" she screams.

I get up and dust myself off. The younger Lobster starts slapping the girl. The security officer runs to help the kids.

I hear the young lobster yell, "Freaks? I'll show a freak to you, bitch!"

A crowd has formed. The girl is screaming. A man next to me yells,"Stop this! For God's sake!" He gets a punch in the gut from Sheila Ann and doubles over in the dust. A full scale brawl begins between the crowd and the Lobsters, and I'm convinced the freaks will win. The older Lobster sees me through the dust.

"I'll fuckin' kill you, you sonfa' bitch," he rants as he tries to break through the crowd.

I don't even pretend to go back in there. I suddenly understand why Wallace wanted me to make this run, but I guess I'm not that mad. I'm counting my teeth and watching the Lobsters take on four or five guys when the real police arrive. The crowd splits apart, and in the middle of the dust the teenage couple is huddling together, bleeding. The younger Lobster is out of his chair, walking on his hands. He's yelling something at the gathering crowd.

"Come on! Well... Do it!" He menaces from the ground.

His father grabs Sheila Ann and turns to go back to his tent. He waves a deformed hand at the rookie officer who's trying to read him his rights and says, "See my manager you fuck. I got rights you sonfa' bitch. Even if."