I went to live among the freaks.
Three months in: “His eyeball was sinking,” Dale says, “so the socket’s probably smashed. Both his cheekbones are shattered, that’s for sure.” Dale is a giant game jock with thick, sagging hoops in his ears.
I wrap my mouth around a giant turkey leg and peel off a chunk of meat. Nod.
“Fucker,” he says. “I mean, I stay out of it.”
“What happened?” I ask, wiping grease from my lips with the back of my hand. The midway’s asphalt is growing hot beneath our feet. Dale unfurls his game’s canvas awning, and pins a few stuffed bulldogs, brown cigars sagging limp from their felt teeth, to the corners. The fair will open in 40 minutes, and by then Dale will be calling marks into his game, I will be in fishnets refilling my fire-eating gas can, and the high school band now rehearsing the National Anthem in the rodeo ring will figure out how to hit those high notes.
“You know, same dumb shit,” he says and I nod, but I do not know, not much. It’s what I’m hoping I’ll learn tonight.
What I know so far is that the carnie with the sinking eyeball was a game jock, and after some minor conflict exploded, the ongoing ride vs. game jock rivalry unfolded in another brutal beat down. This was the way of the carnival, I was told. A manic buzz always broiling that could be neither created nor destroyed, but spun on in little hurricanes of violence and excess. I’d just begun to glimpse the edges.
“I’m gonna buy a ranch after this season,” Dale says. “Get some sheep, steer. Nothing too big.” The August sun shines off his bald head, heat as consistent as the always-humming milk factory across the street.
“Maybe Wyoming,” he says, rubbing the cuts across his knuckles.
The stereotype of the American carnie as rough and lawless, toothless and tweaking, had proved both true and untrue, as stereotypes go, in my time thus far performing with a circus sideshow inside a carnival. We were show people, a category I was often reminded as being separate from carnies, but I’d heard people on all sides call themselves freaks. The carnival is a kingdom of self-identified outsiders. But what beat on everywhere, unwavering, was the threat of violence, a heavy breath on the back of the neck. Which is why events like what would be taking place tonight were scheduled: the carnie jamboree.
The party begins once the front gates are locked.
Rides across the midway that usually hold a few workers repairing a bucket seat or scrubbing barf are empty, though the bunkhouses behind our tent are full of carnies laughing and whooping, draping one another in togas. Usually this manic bounce pulsed through the kids with mouthfuls of cotton candy, wisps hardening in little red crystals around their mouths as they flailed off the scrambler, but not tonight. Tonight, that buzz broils everywhere. I am sure, even promising my faraway family in text messages, that I will be on the front lines of unbridled wildness.
I’ve run away with a traveling sideshow called The World of Wonders. We have sword swallowers and fire-eaters, knife throwers and a headless woman. Magic illusions. The human blockhead. Contortionists. And much more. Though most of our performers are skilled and seasoned, I’m new and arrived with only the ability to eat fire and my good attitude, which has slowly soured. Or toughened. Adapted. Dale yells, “Marry me, Ms. Hollywood,” every time I pass on my way to the bathroom.
“I would, but I think your wife would be mad,” I say, pointing to John, the wiry carnie in the balloon dart game beside him whose hand, I’d just heard, had been re-broken the night before. And this is how I learned to measure my success in the carnival. The speed of my retorts.
This, our ninth fair of the season, is a combined state fair for both Oklahoma and Arkansas, and though the corndogs and funnel cake and frozen bananas are now all too familiar, this is the season’s first carnie jamboree. I’m primed for chaos. Imagining an orgy with more face-splintering, circling meth pipes, destruction. Now that I’m an insider, I’m ready to come face to face with the blood and bones.
What does not occur to me at the moment of this bloodlust, will not until much later, is that I am actively seeking the violence. I want to witness the worst. Why? For the story I’ll tell about it later, sure, but there’s something else. Something uglier.
Earlier in the evening, a few of the lot men closed one of the bumper car rides early and carried the cars one by one out of the pen. The detached cars formed a long row behind the ride, glittering red and green and gold ovals ringed with rubber. The bumper pen was filled instead with tables holding huge trays of ribs, chicken, potato salad, green beans, and macaroni. Up front were auction items: leather work gloves, tool sets, an electric kettle, and ten or fifteen different kinds of liquor in decorative bottles with attached shot glasses. Our world-record-holding sword swallower, who lives in his van with two cats, donated one of the swords he frequently deep-throats.
In the bathroom, women spritz cotton candy body spray across their chests, vanilla surprise into their hair. “Want some?” one asks as I pass. In another version of my life, I’d have said no.
“Yes please,” I say, grateful, and hoping to cover some of what sweating through the Arkansas summer in full costume smells like.
Our sideshow crew rolls in to the jamboree and immediately our half-man returns from some dark corner with a baggie of Jell-O shots dangling from his teeth.
“It’s time,” he says, taking off one shoe—a leather work glove—and passing me a plastic cup. I start to squeeze it, but he grabs the shot out of my hand.
“Not like that,” he sighs. “Watch this,” he says, wedging the tip of his tongue between the Jell-O and plastic, then wriggling the tip and twisting the cup in a full circle.
“Did the strippers teach you that?” I ask. He worked as a strip club DJ for 13 years.
He raises his eyebrows, gives me a thin smile and begins tonguing another. “They taught me a whole lot more than that,” he says, swallowing and then twerking against my leg for a second before walking away.
I sit down and wait for something to happen. Something nasty. All around, people are talking and laughing and sipping, but I stay put. I have an idea that if I can get my face right up against one of the tent-pole beat-downs I’ve heard about, or directly beside John’s re-broken hand—now full of sores and boils from wrapping it in dirty pieces of cloth for so many months—then maybe I will have some way of measuring the vague darkness of this place. I want to think of myself as in a warzone, reporting back from the front lines in some meaningful way to compensate for my real status, which I keep chanting in my head over and over: deserter. If what I am doing is vital, maybe somehow it can be more ok that I left a very sick mom, a struggling family.
Here’s the worst thing that happened, I’ll be able to report. This is how close I was to it.
Of course, what I actually see are carnies sipping Budweisers and grinding and occasionally disappearing into the fairground’s darkness.
A well-dressed man with a full set of teeth sits beside me. Clearly a boss. Without looking up from his plate of food, he asks if I know why our sword swallower used to be called Lizard Red.
I do not, I tell him.
“For years, Lizard Red ran our reptile show,” he says. “One night, I woke up to a pounding on my door at 3 a.m. The rain was pouring and thunder was booming. ‘Get up,’ Lizard Red yelled, ‘The storm broke our 16-foot python’s cage and she’s somewhere down the midway.’” The boss chuckles as he bites into his BBQ sandwich, a lightness in his voice like he’s telling his favorite joke. “I wasn’t wearing any clothes,” he says, “and my first thought was—what do you put on to chase a giant python in the middle of a huge storm? I panicked, and put on all the clothes I could find. By the time I waddled out of my trailer, Lizard Red was walking down the center of the midway in the pouring rain with the giant snake wrapped around his body.”
“What did you do?” I ask the boss.
“Nothing,” he says. “We put the snake in its cage and opened for business the next morning.”
“I thought that story was going to end with something terrible happening,” I say.
“That’s our business. Steering clear of disaster.”
All week, the thick smell of BBQ smoke wafted over the Mirror Maze and Alpine Bob’s from carnietown, where Merlin, whose job it is to dispose of all the carnival tickets at the end of each day, lights them on fire. He cooks ribs.
“Had to find something to do with the tickets,” he said, holding a plate of ribs inside our big red and blue circus tent earlier that day, grease pooling in small orange rivulets across the Styrofoam. With over 135,000 visitors to this fair each year, thousands of tickets pass from the tellers to riders each day and make their way into the sweaty palms of kids in line for the Crazy Mouse roller coaster they’re finally tall enough to ride. And then they make meat.
Merlin stands across the bumper car ring and I smile, wave. He glares back, skin like run-over leather. I’d asked him earlier if I could interview him. “Nope,” he’d said.
The auction is jovial so I duck out toward the bathrooms on the far side of the fairground to see if teeth are snarling elsewhere. The carnival is empty, dark. The boats bob silently in their pool, a half-moon reflected on the water. Carousel horses stand stalled, mid-prance. Though I can still hear shouts from the jamboree, there is also now the soft chirp of cicadas in the low trees around the fair, the factory whirring and motoring on through the night, and a baby inside a trailer, crying.
I avoid the upturned pile of funnel cake beside the pickle on a stick. The carnival buzzes on elsewhere, somewhere, with tweakers and blood and those lucky enough to be fucking and here I am, in the center of it, but somehow always outside of it, too.
You’ll never believe what I saw, I start composing in my head, my eyes searching wildly across the grounds. They land on a mirror outside the Monkey Maze that shrinks my head, doubles my feet. It’s all wrong. Defeated, I return to the jamboree.
The country-rap remix of the summer blares from the bumper car’s speakers. A toothless, bone-skinny woman charges me from head on, then apologizes profusely and walks off. Take me with you, I want to say. Instead, I see Dale.
Dale’s silver hoops jiggle as he laughs and slaps the back of the carnie he’s talking to. I begin to walk over, a snarky joke readied, but he joins another group and they all turn to walk into the darkened fairgrounds.
“Dale!” I call, and he turns back to me.
“What about horses on the ranch?” I ask him.
“Sure,” he says. “Hell yeah.”
“When the season’s over?”
“Yeah,” he says. Then, “well, if I can save up enough. If not, then next year. Definitely next year.”
“Next year,” I echo.
“Night, Hollywood,” he says, walking toward the low moon.
The two honky-tonk bars down the road are closed and, despite Ft. Smith being the town where Elvis received his first military haircut, no rock n roll music blares from anywhere off the fairground. A few carnies form a semicircle around our half-man and ask him a series of anatomical questions. I want to say here that a fire starts or massive fight breaks out, something to commemorate the end of the night, but the jamboree just trails off into a tray of leftover ribs being scraped into a garbage bag for someone to take back to their bunkhouse.
Two people remain. One is a man whose lower jaw juts from his neck like a basketball hoop, the soft upper lip resting somewhere much closer to his head and his thick moustache nestled tenderly against the bleached blond locks of the woman who’d earlier body-slammed me on the dance floor. Despite a booming dubstep remix, the couple sways slowly, gently, a hint of vanilla mist as I pass.
Listen: here’s how close I was to the worst thing, I want to say when the next phone call comes from my family—there’s always an impending emergency call—I tasted iron when blood splattered my face, I smelled the sweat and sex on the crying girl. We’ll exchange field notes. My stepdad will recount my mom’s latest brain surgery, the leak of yellow fluid down her face, dried blood always underneath the nails, new staples on top of the puckered wounds running in every direction across her head. I can be close to this kind of horror. A third of her skull is permanently removed. This morning’s squinch of her eyes and gape of her mouth means pain in her post-language life. How is she? Always fighting. I want to say, I won’t always run.
The whoops and hollers continue in the distance, the night’s electricity, true to the second law, neither created nor destroyed, but still glowing somewhere further away than I know how to reach. The couple wraps their arms around one another’s shoulders and walk into the darkness, but the night’s controlled burn smolders on elsewhere. A vague threat of trouble and violence that can’t be put out, won’t be put out, until the season is through. I’ve just got to figure out how to find it. How to record the front line, capturing everyone else’s bloodletting so my own dumb freak heart stays in the shadows, quietly spilling and spilling and spilling.
Rumpus original art by Xavier Almeida.