Saturday, October 31, 1953.
took the first drag off my cigarette as I stepped onto the midway. I held the smoke in for a moment and felt a bit more relaxed as I exhaled. It was much more crowded than I had expected for a Halloween night. That didn’t matter. Despite the lights and happy screams of children and adults alike, this old carnival was a depressing sight for me. There I was, just turned thirty and working for a small-town paper covering a shitty carnival—on its last night, no less. I didn’t even know who I was writing for. What kind of person would want to read a review of a carnival after it was too late to go? But what the hell, it was a paycheck and all-expenses-paid night of second-rate entertainment, so I decided to make the best of it.
I strolled down the midway, passing food and drink stands. I saw a hot dog stand called “Ernie’s Wieners” and began walking toward it when I noticed the “Geek” tent next to it. Ah, that carnival classic—the geek. The man who will eat live bugs, snakes, or whatever else for small change. Its bizarre placement next to the hot dog stand killed my appetite. I’d probably be unhappy knowing what was in any hot dog, but the thought of the geek’s leftovers being so close worried me.
I took a right at the geek tent and walked down a stretch that included the “Hall of Mirrors,” a “Test Your Strenght” game—yes, strength was misspelled—and some exhibit called “World of the Future.” Since I knew what the hall of mirrors was, I decided to skip that and go straight to the “World of the Future.” The wooden sign outside depicted spaceships, sleek aerodynamic cars, and the moon. It was apparently notable that the moon would still be there. I paid a dime and entered the tent.
Inside was a collection of low quality art and models depicting some vision of what transportation would be like in the coming decades. It took us from ten years in the future, decade by decade, to fifty years in the future, at which time, it predicted, we’d all have jet packs and be able to vacation on the moon. I might enjoy that if I’m still alive in 2003.
When I was back on the midway, I slowed as I approached a crowded intersection near “Dunk Bozo.” That’s when I first met that damn clown. Looking his way was my first mistake. I only glanced at him for a moment, but that was enough for him to notice me.
“Hey, buddy,” he called out, “you in the black fedora and white shirt.”
I stopped. That was my second mistake. He sat on a platform above a tank of water in a cage protected by chicken wire.
“Here at the carnival all alone?” he shouted at me.
“Yeah, so what?” I asked as I lit a cigarette.
“I just sees a lone man who doesn’t appear to be very happy, and I says to myself ‘he seems out of place.’”
“Oh, nothing, nothing. Tell me, sir, what brings you here?”
I decided not to tell him that I was a reporter. “Nothing in particular.”
“I bet I know what brings you here,” Bozo said.
“And what would that be?”
“The girl show. Come on, fess up.”
“So what if it does?”
“Oh, nothing, nothing. I just think it’s pretty sad when a fairly attractive young man can’t get no woman that ain’t being paid to entertain him. But I suppose you got some reason.”
I took a drag off my cigarette as this annoying man continued.
“You an alcoholic? A depressed drunk? I’ll bet that’s it. You look like a suicide waiting to happen. That’s probably what keeps you from getting girls.”
I knew what he was trying to do so I turned and left.
“Walking away from me and on to the girly show?” he continued. “That’s alrighty, just don’t kill yourself on the way over.”
Was it that obvious that I was down on my life? I tried to forget about it—and about that damn Bozo. I had a story to write. I didn’t need to spend all night trying to dunk some obnoxious clown.
I took a right off the midway after Bozo’s tank. There wasn’t far to go in this direction. The road or path, or whatever the hell you call it, ended at the Ferris wheel. I went toward the Ferris wheel, but didn’t yet get that far. After only a few steps, across from the merry-go-round, an exhibit to my right caught my eye. The banner read, “Betty the Brainless Woman.” Underneath the main banner was another sign that said, “Born Without a Brain!” The next show was in three minutes. I waited.
They let me into the Brainless Woman tent with two couples, one married and one younger couple that appeared to be on a date. Inside stood a doctor in a white coat with a stethoscope around his neck.
Betty was on a table behind him. She looked like a woman sleeping on her back. She was an attractive blonde who was about thirty years old. She had on a hospital gown.
Some wires protruded from under the gown and ran to a machine, which sat on the floor behind her head. It was about three feet high and had some dials on it.
The doctor gave a half grin that was higher on one side. “Welcome, one and all. I’m Doctor William Thomas, and behind me is Betty. Betty was born in a small Midwest hospital twenty-nine years ago last week. I worked at that hospital at the time. Betty’s birth caused great panic throughout the hospital and the town. It was the biggest tragedy the town had ever seen. The tragedy was that Betty was born without a brain.”
To my surprise, this “revelation” caused a few of the spectators to gasp.
“Betty’s parents were, of course, horrified to hear of their daughter’s terrible condition, but even more horrifying was the lack of sympathy they showed for their newborn daughter. They didn’t care for her welfare or well-being at all. No. They were only worried about their own lives—about how the tragedy would affect them.” He paused for a moment. “They hoped she would just die.”
The twenty-something girl in the audience wiped the tear that ran down her cheek. Each of the four spectators I shared the tent with was visibly moved. I’m sure I looked concerned, too. Oh, I wasn’t concerned about “poor” Betty. I was concerned that rational-appearing adults seemed to believe this cock-and-bull story.
“I knew then what I had to do,” the doctor continued. “With the parents’ blessing, I adopted Betty. I quit my job so I would have time to care for her. I devote twenty-four hours a day to her care. This show is our only income. Without the money we raise from attendees like yourselves, I wouldn’t have the money to take care of Betty’s medical needs. You make her life possible.”
Holy Jesus. At that moment I heard a sniffle from the married man in the crowd, and his wife was crying. The doctor repeated his thanks then pointed to a jar where they could leave donations if they felt inclined. Even after their reactions, I was still shocked to see both couples leave money. I’d had enough of this and headed for the exit.
Next to Betty’s tent was the supposed corpse of an Old West outlaw called Black Jack Elmer McCurdy. This I had to see. The carny that introduced the exhibit said the McCurdy was a train robber killed in the late nineteenth century. Law officers shot down McCurdy and, when his body went unclaimed, the undertaker decided to make some money with it by putting him on display. He’d been on display ever since.
McCurdy was dressed in western garb and had a six-shooter holster around his waist. His skin was brown and mummified. He wore a cowboy hat. My gut told me that the exhibit was yet another fake. Maybe not. How hard could it be for a carnival to get hold of a dead body? Still, I wasn’t buying the Elmer McCurdy story.
Past the outlaw’s tent was the Ferris wheel. I had no need to go there. I glanced at that and at the merry-go-round then turned back to the midway. I continued past the midway until I was in another section. I stopped and looked around. To my left was the “Museum of God’s Mistakes,” with a sign underneath that expanded on the exhibit: “Human Oddities, Ten-in-One.” To my right was the “Sword Swallower” tent, and straight ahead was the “Female Revue.”
A midget barker stood on a platform next to a half-naked stripper, trying to convince the men that gathered around that the show was worth the price of admission. I was here to do a job, so I decided to hit the “Human Oddities” and the “Sword Swallower” first, and then I could spend some time at the revue.
The “Human Oddities” were in a dark, creepy tent, which was fitting. In the first booth was the bearded lady, which didn’t interest me at all. After her was the half man-half woman. It was the third oddity that caught my eye. He was a man named Popeye. Although this middle-aged, dumpy man looked nothing like the cartoon sailor, he did wear a sailor suit and hat. Nothing appeared extraordinary about him, so I asked, “How does dressing like Popeye qualify you as an oddity?”
He said nothing. He just looked at me. Suddenly his eyes popped out of his head. The eyeballs were completely out of their socket and in front of his eyelids. He smiled.
I nodded. “Have a good night, Popeye,” I said and walked on.
“You do the same, sir,” the freak responded.
The next one was billed as the “World’s Ugliest Man,” and the billing may have been right. What a mutant. The man had no nose, just two holes in his face. He had a hair lip and two bucked-teeth that pointed virtually straight out. The rest of his teeth went in all kinds of directions. He definitely could have used a good orthodontist. But that wouldn’t have fixed his other problems, not the nose, not the hair lip, not the, oh my God, I was still trying to deal with his teeth when I noticed the ear. Notice I didn’t say ears. He had one normal looking ear, but the other one, his left one, was the biggest goddamned ear I had ever seen. It was almost as long as his head. And it was thick too! This isn’t hyperbole. It looked like a two-inch thick piece of ham was stuck to the side of this poor man’s head. I had to turn away. I couldn’t take any more of that ear. I only hoped it wasn’t real.
The next oddity was much more pleasing to the eyes. She was billed as “Tiger Girl.” I’m not sure who they thought they’d fool with the stripes painted on her body and glued on whiskers, but this scantily clad tigress beauty was sure more fun to look at than that last of nature’s mistakes.
After her was an armless, legless boy. The “Human Torso” wasn’t much to look at so I passed him quickly. The “Cyclops” wasn’t much better. He wasn’t actually a Cyclops, with just one centered eye, but had three eyes. The third eye was in a canyon he had in his forehead. I thought the third eye was fake but the deformity seemed real.
“Wolfman” was next. His name described him well. He was one hairy beast. After him was “Serpent Boy.” I couldn’t pass him up so quickly. He only wore a pair of small black shorts so he could show off his skin, which was covered in scales. He had no hands or feet. Each limb just tapered off like fins. I took my time studying this. If they faked this, it was damn good. I couldn’t figure out how they’d do it. He looked at me but didn’t say anything. I’m sure he knew that I was trying to figure out if that was his real body or just some horrible illusion.
The last oddity was billed as “The World’s Fattest Woman.” She was a wretched sight. She was a middle-aged woman in a two-piece swimsuit. The cottage cheese look of every inch of her body was undoubtedly real and extremely disgusting. The fat rolls completely covered the bottom half of the swimsuit that I could only assume she wore. She smiled at me. I felt sick to my stomach. How could somebody do this to themselves? I knew I wouldn’t be eating for a while after seeing this mound of grotesque flesh. The worst part was the fans that were blowing on her. I’m sure she needed them to keep cool under all of that fat, but the odor they blew over from her smelled like dirty feet soaked in urine. I hurried away from that pile of blubber as fast as I could.
I exited the tent and just stood for a moment as I caught a breath of fresh air. Then I was on to the sword swallower—who, as his name suggests, swallowed swords. The country rubes seemed fascinated by him. The act did nothing for me. I was eager to get to the female revue if for no other reason than that I could sit down for a moment. I was sure the revue itself wouldn’t hold any excitement for me. I already knew all about these kind of shows for reasons that need not be explained. Anyway, it was a second-rate carnival, and I expected second-rate strippers.
Outside of the tent, the girl used to draw the crowd in wasn’t bad looking at all. Inside, the first stripper to perform in the packed tent was a haggard blonde who went by the unoriginal name of Juggs Mackenzie. She knew how to move, was obviously an experienced performer, and seemed not to mind the occasional call of “Grandma” from the crowd. She kept her bra on, probably because if she took it off her enormous breasts would hang to the floor. She had to be forty, minimum, and looked as if she had lived forty very rough years. The reaction of the mostly male audience was mixed, though she did make a few fans with her heated simulated sex against the tent pole. She reminded me of a Negro prostitute in Tulsa called “The Black Hole.” The Hole looked as if she had been pretty once, too, but the years had not been kind to her either.
The next performer was the redhead I saw outside. Her large breasts were her biggest asset and she used them well, most impressively when she spun her tassels in opposite directions.
Following her a very pretty blonde girl took the stage. She was missing something the other girls had—legs. This legless beauty used her hands to walk around the stage. As she stripped, I didn’t notice much because I couldn’t take my eyes off of her pretty face and long blonde hair. Finally, I looked over her body. It was perfect—except for the lack of legs. She was missing the top heavy load that the previous two strippers carried, but what she did have looked much better. They were nicely shaped and very perky. She was in great shape. I couldn’t find an ounce of fat on her. Whatever she was paid wasn’t enough. I almost felt bad watching her perform naked in from of all of these men. When she finally did leave the stage, I decided it was time to go. At the exit I looked back to see an attractive twenty-something brunette take the stage. She had the cute girl-next-door look, and I was sure she would put on a hell of a show, but I was done with the kootch show for the night. I turned to walk out. Ah, what the hell? I decided to stay a little longer. There was something about that girl on stage. She was so cute that I couldn’t bring myself to leave, so I stood at the back of the tent and watched. She put on a good show, but my eyes just stayed locked on her cute face. When she finished her performance, I left.
I made my way back to the midway. At the far end of the midway stood Devil’s Lair. I bought a ticket. Devil’s Lair was a car ride spooky house, with a satanic twist, which was obvious from the name. The exterior was devil red, black, and covered in flames. Inside it was divided into three sections. It began with a ride through a cemetery, which was followed by coffins and skeletons, and after that were the fire colors of Hell. It was cheaply made but had good character. It succeeded in creating a creepy atmosphere and was surely enjoyed by everyone who passed through its gates.
As I walked back down the midway, I saw a crowd watching as two carnies dragged an extremely obese man toward the exit. He was ranting about how he would “get that damn Bozo.” Bozo was at his dunk tank, laughing hysterically.
I lit a cigarette and looked around the dwindling crowd as closing time approached. A light drizzle began to fall as I headed for the exit.
h, fried cheese on my break. It kept Otto going. I liked my job and liked it when everybody was looking and paying attention to me, old Otto, but I sure did love my cheese breaks. Oh well, back to work. Was time to let some asshole get his kicks by trying to dunk me in a tank. I knew how to pick ’em out good—to find the ones whose biggest thrill in life was putting someone else down—down in the tank in my case. Oh, I did love watching the frustration build when they couldn’t dunk me. I had a good job.
I was sad it was the last night of the season. This Halloween night signaled the end of my working year. At seventy-two years old, it would seem old Otto needed the break, but that was not so. I got energy and life from my job. I did not want a break. I’d be here with my friends in the fun carnival atmosphere year round if it was up to me.
I entered the tank, got back into my seat, and looked over the marks. It was a big crowd tonight. Old Otto—I mean Bozo as I was in character—old Bozo thought he found his next mark.
“Hey, buddy, you in the black fedora and white shirt,” I yelled to the man.
He did not appear to be enjoying the midway. The stuffed shirt looked at me.
“Here at the carnival all alone?” I shouted.
“Yeah, so what?” he answered.
Oh boy, I was reeling him in.
I questioned this unhappy man’s reason for being here. He tried to cover his annoyance, but Bozo knew I was getting to him. We had a quick back and forth then I let loose the attack that old Bozo thought would bring him in. I was wrong. He turned and tramped away.
I continued trying to bait him, but it was no use. The man had more self-control than I thought. Oh well, there was a nice size crowd watching Bozo. I had plenty of people to choose from. I looked around until I spotted a young man about twenty, with slicked down hair, big glasses, and an awkward way about him. Bozo knew he had his next customer.
“Hey, four-eyes,” I yelled. He glanced my way. I pointed to him. “Yeah, you buddy.”
“Me?” he asked timidly.
“Yeah, you with the pimples. Why don’t I see a girl by your side? None want to be with you?” I could see his face turn red with anger. Bozo done good.
“I’ll have you know that I’m here with a girl. She’s in the restroom.”
“Hey, kid, your sister don’t count.” By the look on his face, I could tell I nailed that one. Oh boy, I had to laugh. I was reeling him in. He began to walk closer, but slowly. He paused between each step. “It’s okay, son, some of us just don’t have what it takes with the women,” I said. “I bet you have lots of hobbies to keep you busy. No, don’t tell me, let me guess. You collect stamps. I am right, ain’t I?” His face was crimson as I hit another one. He now stomped over. I smiled. “You’re not gonna try to dunk me, kid, are you? Come on now, you’ve probably never picked up a ball in your life.”
That did it. He took out his wallet and put down a dime for three balls. “I’ll show you,” he told me as he shook his fist, which he made with the thumb on the inside.
He picked up the first ball and threw it wildly. It went about five feet too high and well to the left of the target. It was comically bad. I was glad he didn’t show any ability. It was a cold night and I did not want to get wet.
Still, I let out a laugh at his pathetic throw to egg him on. I was enjoying myself.
He said nothing. He just turned beet red, picked up another ball, and took a deep, long breath. He stared at the target, brought his arm back, and threw the ball almost directly into the ground. Ha! I said nothing, just laughed. I could tell that irked him the most.
“I’ll show you,” he exclaimed, his voice breaking.
He picked up his third ball. This time he wound up like a crippled girl softball pitcher, threw, and hit the chicken wire in front of me. Then the guy sprinted away. I think he may have been crying. That made me feel bad. This was all usually good fun, and the customer understood and enjoyed the game, with the exception of a man here and there who wanted to kill me. It pained me that I made him cry.
The crowd felt bad for him, too, and looked a little angry. I wanted to move on, but before I could pick out the next target, a big, athletic-looking man stepped up and bought three balls. He didn’t need three. He dunked me with the first one. He then bought another set and dunked me again on the first pitch. He repeated this a third time.
The crowd enjoyed it, but it threw off my game. For the rest of the night, I had a hard time bringing in customers, and when Bozo did bring ’em in, they gave up after three balls. I even failed to bring in normally easy targets like feminine boys, weirdos, tomboys, and shorts. Before long, it was getting late, and our profits for the night were probably at an all-time low. Then I spotted the lard-ass that would save the night.
He was one of those big, sloppy assholes who probably ate twelve meals a day and got the food all over himself. This was a real glutton.
“Hey, tub-o,” I called out to him.
He kept walking.
“Hey, fatty, I’m speaking to you.”
That did it. He looked over. “Are you talking to me?”
“No, I’m talking to all the other fat-asses around here. Of course I’m talking to you. Anyone else here the size of a Zeppelin?”
“Why you…” He trailed off as he stomped over. “You can’t talk to me like that.”
“I think I can. In fact, I just did.”
“I’ll show you,” he said to me, and then he asked Leon, “How much are the balls?”
“Ten cents for three,” Leon told him.
The man put down his money and picked up the first ball. He gave me a cold stare.
I encouraged him. “Don’t give yourself a heart attack. Throwing a ball is a lot of activity for someone of your immense size.”
He gritted his teeth and took slow, deliberate aim. He threw and missed by a good foot.
I burst out laughing. “It’s okay, tubby. That was a nice try. Why don’t you go home now?”
“Why don’t you shut the hell up,” he shot back.
He grabbed his next ball and quickly threw it. It was out of control and missed by a few feet.
“Whoa, whoa, lard-butt, calm down. You’ll never get me like that.”
A large crowd gathered around. They were loving the exchange.
“Listen you,” he said. It was clear that his emotions had taken over, which was good for me. “I’ve just about had enough.”
“Well, if you dunk me, I’ll stop. But I don’t think you can dunk me.”
The spectators loved the challenge.
“Oh, yeah,” the genius retorted.
He grabbed his third ball then stopped. He stood still, intensely staring me down. Then he took a deep breath. He threw. Oh, it was close, much closer than I expected. He missed by maybe an inch. Typically as the marks get more emotional the throws get worse, but that damn near got me. He pumped his fist at the close miss and threw down a dime for three more balls. The man had a determined look in his eyes. He again took his time. His first throw of the new set was very close, again maybe missing by only an inch or two. That was as close as he would come. He became more frustrated, and his last two throws were far off. After his third throw, I yelled to him, “Come on porky, you can do better than that.”
The comment worked. He bought three more balls as the crowd grew even larger. It felt good to have the crowd back after my earlier lull.
The big man missed by a lot with the next three balls. After the last one, he let out a horrific scream. That’s when the real fun began. The lard-ass climbed onto the counter—how it held his weight I do not know—and jumped toward my booth. Screaming like an animal, he grabbed the chicken wire.
“Come and get me, you disgusting pile of blubber,” I taunted.
I couldn’t control my laughter as this madman pulled wildly at the chicken wire. Spit was flying from his mouth and drool ran down his chin as he screamed at me.
The two carnies that grabbed hold of him had a hard time pulling him down. They were finally able to drag him away. He was kicking and screaming like a giant baby. The huge crowd watched, and I was ready for more business once I was able to stop laughing, but a light drizzle started and the crowd slowly dispersed. No matter, it was late and closing time was almost here, and, anyway, that man’s tantrum was a great way to end the night and the season.
I waited a few minutes until the patrons were gone, then I left my post and walked through the drizzle as a few other carnies closed up shop. Only thing still open was the girl show. Most everyone was all ready to go home tomorrow. I’ll admit it was a long summer. Still, I’d rather have kept going, but Otto would make the best of his break. I took time to walk the near empty midway, which was soon completely unoccupied. I made a circle around the carnival as I thought about the good times I’d had here. Soon Otto was soaking wet. I headed to the trailers. That was when I saw Mary.
It was a little while later when my boss screamed. “There’s been a murder.”
To continue reading the book, purchase it wherever books are sold.