“I was a Navy SEAL,” Red says. He’s sitting in the front seat of the van. He bought new bright lights for the tent, but they’re the wrong wattage, and Tommy has sent us to Lowe’s to exchange them.
Aside from that morning backstage, this is the first time I’ve been alone with Red, and my heart is pounding. I don’t have much chance to interact with him aside from when he directs action during setup or teardown, much of which I flub since I can’t remember exactly how each different piece of vinyl siding is folded, for example. And we don’t interact during performances, since he has his own stage—on which also sits that glorious, gleaming electric chair—and his own code of conduct he’s developed after enough years on the road.
“The thing is,” Sunshine had told me, “he’s been doing this for so many years, and seen so many people come and go, that it’s sort of pointless for him to remember names. Especially at the beginning. If as the season goes on he sees that you’re gonna make it, that you can hack it, the likelihood of him knowing you drastically increases.”
If he knew who I was, if he—dare I dream it—respected me as a performer, then I’d be a real part of what was happening here, a GTFM showperson earning her keep. And if I understood who he was, maybe some secret of the show, of life on the road, of bravery, would be unlocked.
When I ask Red about how he started performing, he begins with his time as a Navy SEAL.
“In Vietnam, I was on a team that snuck in to rescue people. Generals and POWs. I always either headed up the platoon or was in the very back. One day, my commander was up front, leading, and I was bringing up the rear. We hit a field of land mines. Booby traps.”
He pauses, takes a sip of coffee from the plastic Big Gulp coffee cup he holds between his legs. In the tight confines of the car, it’s impossible not to smell him. He smells like an old, important costume piece. Not a new, fresh sweat, but an older, deeper smell that has settled permanently into fabric or wood or air. It is the kind of smell that never lets you forget how long he has been working hard, and how hard, which all makes you think about why. Why has he done this for so long?
“My commander stepped right on a land mine. He knew it. We knew it. He didn’t move. Held it down with his foot while the rest of us passed by. We were just a little ways past him, and I was in the very back, when he thought he could get away in time. He thought he could leap off it. He tried, but he didn’t move fast enough. The bottom half of his body flew into the air and landed right on top of me. His knees knocked me to the ground.
“When I came to, I realized my mouth was open and I was screaming. I couldn’t stop. The other guys from the platoon were yelling at me to shut the fuck up. There were gooks all around, and they thought I might give away our position. I couldn’t stop. I wouldn’t. They dragged the commander’s legs off me, but I just kept screaming and screaming. I’d cracked.
“Someone in the platoon pinned me down and held his hand over my mouth. Then they got tape. They taped my mouth shut to mute the sound of the screaming, and then when that wouldn’t work anymore, they knocked me out.
“I got sent home not long after that. And I decided to kill myself. What else was there to do? But I thought that I’d do one last thing before I offed myself, and that was go to Woodstock.
“There, I met people who had a way of explaining things about the world like I’d never heard before. They gave me some peace.
“So I went home to the carnival. I’d been there before, from when I was fourteen on to when I joined the SEALs. When I went back, I learned to be an electrician, light up the midway. Did that for a while, then worked as an electrician on the Lakota Indian reservation.
Learned about things in the spirit world I’d never even dreamed about. And from there, I went back into sideshow work. Performance. I met a fakir I studied with who taught me to control my breath and heart rate, to slow it down almost completely. To control pain. Those things are all related—the people at Woodstock and the Lakota Indians and the fakir. It’s all about your mind. And your mind’s control over your body. Once you achieve that, you are free.”
“When I was in my early twenties and living in Carmel,” my mom began in my memory of the telling, the first line of a story I had often begged to hear. We were sitting in the bathroom as she combed my hair after a bout with lice. It was late at night.
Sometimes a story suddenly changes. It was one story, meant one thing. And then, boom. The story becomes newly clear.
I had stories I held on to about my mom, but the longer it had been since I’d talked to her, the more the ground shifted from beneath those foundational ways I thought I knew her. Or, really, how I thought I’d lost her.
“I shared a house with my friend Tweedy. She worked a nighttime waitressing job, and I worked a daytime shift for a travel agency. When I was alone in the house, I started hearing strange sounds. Doors and windows would close on their own, and something that sounded like footsteps in the attic. I thought we had raccoons or possums living up there, even though I knew the weight of the steps meant something heavier. I ignored what I could, afraid to think too much about these kinds of things. But the sounds kept happening. Finally one day, I asked Tweedy if she’d ever noticed anything strange in the house when I wasn’t there, and she eventually told me she’d heard a lot of creaks as well, and that the cabinets in the kitchen would sometimes slam. She heard the same footsteps, too.”
“Then what happened?” I asked. She liked to be goaded.
“We didn’t really know what to do,” she said. “It felt good to know she’d been experiencing these weird things, too, because it meant I wasn’t crazy, but it also made everything scarier. The next night, while Tweedy was at work, I went to bed and tried to think about other things. I heard the footsteps again, upstairs, and this time they were right above my bed. They stopped. I rolled over so my back was to the door, convincing myself to remain calm and that probably these were just animals. Then I heard the bedroom doorknob twist. I heard a creak. The door slowly opened. I was too scared to turn toward the door, so I just lay there, staring at the wall. My heart was pounding. I heard the faint sound of footsteps walking across the room. And then, and this is the sensation I’ll never forget, I felt the weight of the bed shift, as if a person sat down on the edge of the mattress. I was petrified. I couldn’t move.”
I sat rigid in my chair, heart thumping.
“Finally, after I don’t know how long, a minute or two maybe, the weight let up and whatever had been pressing down on the bed lifted. I heard steps back across the room, and then the bedroom door shut. As soon as I could move my limbs, I got up and out of bed, and went to spend the night at a friend’s house.
“The next day, Tweedy and I decided we needed help. We searched the newspaper’s classifieds until we found an ad for a woman who specialized in dealing with the dead. When she arrived at the house, the woman said she was a medium and could communicate with spirits. As soon as she stepped inside, she took a deep breath and put one hand on her heart. ‘I feel the presence of someone with unfinished business,’ she said to the room. Then, to us, ‘We are going to need to perform an exorcism.’
“‘Why us?’ I asked the medium. ‘Other people lived here before and we never heard anything about this.’
“‘The spirits choose who they think will be open enough to com- municate with them,’ she said. ‘They chose you.’
“I wasn’t sure if I believed the medium, or even in the medium, but I didn’t know what else to do. We told her to go ahead with the exorcism, whatever that meant.
“‘Can it hurt us?’ Tweedy asked the medium.
“‘No, probably not. Most spirits aren’t able to harm anyone, and don’t really mean to be frightening the living. They’re just stuck here and sometimes need some help to move on.’
“The medium turned off the lights, lit some candles, and got herself into a trance. ‘O spirit,’ the medium said, ‘we mean you no harm. We will not hurt you. We are here to help you. Are you with us right now?’
“We were frozen, listening, but nothing responded.
“‘Spirits, we are here to help you,’ she repeated, ‘we mean you no harm,’ and as she was talking, the shutters on the windows started opening and closing. ‘Let me know what you want and we will try to help you, as best we can,’ she said, and the coffee table, I kid you not, started shaking. I was getting scared, very scared, wondering if we’d gotten mixed up in something we shouldn’t have. I wanted to leave but knew, somehow, that it was necessary for me to stay. That this was a moment to face the thing that seemed so far beyond my control.
“The coffee table’s shaking got more and more violent, and finally, incredibly, it lifted into the air. The medium was yelling and turning herself all around the room, directing her voice at any place the spirit might be. The table was five and then ten feet in the air, still shaking, but completely and totally elevated, unmistakably floating. The shutters were still slamming and the candles were flickering and the whole thing was so strangely like a scene from a movie that it was hard to tell if real life was happening. But my overwhelming fear had almost turned into something else. Some trust in the larger universe that whatever was happening was going to be okay.
“Finally, the table dropped back down to the ground and the shutters stopped slamming and the medium stopped yelling. The candles were all out. The medium turned to where Tweedy and I stood hugging each other and said, ‘There is a woman in this house. She died here. She’s missing something, and that is why she’s still here. I think I know where it is.’
“The medium led us out the back door, to the small tile patio where we smoked our cigarettes. She used a hammer to swing at the patio tiles, breaking away small pieces at a time until she had cleared out most of the stone. About six inches under the dirt, we found a small wooden box. Inside were a few objects that a child might have collected—a glass bottle, some dried and crumpled flowers, a tattered white scarf.
“‘Do these things belong to the woman in the house?’ we asked the medium.
“‘Her daughter,’ she said. “‘Now what?’ we asked. ‘What comes next?’”
“‘Nothing,’ she said. ‘The woman will leave, I think. Maybe she already has. She just wanted these items back out in the world. She didn’t want her daughter’s treasures buried.’”
“And that’s the end,” my mom said. “You can go to bed.”
“I’m scared of ghosts,” I said.
“There’s no reason to be,” she said. “If you don’t want a ghost to come, close your heart to the idea of a ghost and it won’t be able to communicate anything to you. Say, No, ghosts, I won’t hear you, and I won’t see you.”
“But you didn’t.”
“No, I didn’t. I wanted to hear them.”
“I guess I was just curious.”
“What did you learn?”
“That the world is much more mysterious and magical than most of us think it is.”
She’d said this before, when I’d asked, as a small child, if Santa Claus was real, why photographs worked, how cars kept running once the gas light came on. The world is much more mysterious and magical than most of us think it is. This was some basis of her great belief in how the world worked, a foundational mystery and magic that was beyond our capacity to understand but our great duty to explore. If we were ready for it. If we could open ourselves to the terror as well as the joy that comes with that deep unknown. I was not ready. Not then, not later. But she always has been. And maybe however her brain has rerouted in these last years has opened even more channels toward some new, deeply beautiful mysteries, and maybe sometimes when I feel disappointed that her eyes, which still haven’t fully returned to green, are vacant when I’m telling her about our afternoon plans, she’s actually in some dark living room in another lifetime, watching coffee tables shiver through the air and taking in the new map of the mysteries.
Rumpus original art by Xavier Almeida.
Excerpted from The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts by Tessa Fontaine. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May 1 2018. Copyright © 2018 by Tessa Fontaine. All rights reserved.