Another short story I posted on my blog in serial form several years ago. Sideshow is a story in which, ultimately, a young couple’s dreams come true in a way that neither could ever have imagined…
It wasn’t often a real circus rolled into a town as small as Bushell, Georgia, especially on a dull Thursday afternoon of the hottest week of the dustiest summer anybody could remember. It wasn’t something to miss, even if Rosemary Day was blind and her Aunt Fanny said it was ‘all perfect foolishness and come away from the window at once, child.’
Rosemary ignored her aunt to slip out as far as the porch where she could wave and yell along with the neighbors on each side of her aunt’s house. She listened to the shouts around her, delighted with the dull vibration of elephants’ feet and the tinkly clatter of an Eastern pipe-flute.
The parade lasted less than five minutes—Bushell’s main street was that short—but Rosemary strained to hear the last clinks and clanks of the procession, wishing she could go to the outskirts of town and be there as the tents bloomed into great canvas mushrooms in the empty fields.
All the splendor and sparkle of the moment faded with the restraining hand her aunt placed on Rosemary’s shoulder. “Come away,” her aunt insisted. “I don’t like the looks of those carnival folks.”
“Circus folks, Aunt Fanny,” Rosemary replied, resisting the hand for a moment. “Blake Brothers Big Top Bonanza Extravaganza. I heard the ringmaster announce it.”
“Well, whatever it is, it’s nonsense. And wicked, too. Wicked nonsense. Gives me bad dreams just to think about how wicked those carnivals are.”
Maybe nonsense, maybe not—Rosemary wasn’t sure. But she thought a little nonsense might be a nice thing, once in a while. Just like going to movies at the Imperial, snuggling into the plush seats, and dreaming that her life would someday bloom into a romantic adventure, far from her aunt’s house in Bushell. Far from her aunt, too, Rosemary imagined, allowing herself to be steered back into the house by the pressure of Aunt Fanny’s insistent fingers—but she would send the occasional postcard.
Rosemary had no way of knowing that for just an instant during the circus parade, her unseeing eyes had met those of a very strange creature indeed. From his seat in the side show wagon, he had turned back in his own length to watch her, wondering if she had realized exactly who and what he was.
He marked the house—a tall, yellow-brick spinster in the midst of its more voluptuous and welcoming neighbors—carefully in his mind. He would be able to find it again, after dark.
Later that night, although the air was still just this side of stifling, the man pulled his jacket collar almost to his ears and slipped away from the carnival set-up. No one marked his passage through the empty lots at the far end of Bushell, and he was intent only on the tall yellow house he remembered.
Crouching in the dubious cover of a neighbor’s spindly, end-of-summer garden, he watched a spare, older woman—she matched the house—empty a dish pan into the flower pot by her back door. He was aware of the movement of pale curtains at the gabled window over the porch, stirred by the faintest breath of the night. When the lights went out downstairs, the yellow house was completely dark.
Upstairs, Rosemary sat at her window, listening to the night. She caught the faintest rumble of hammers and voices and thought it sounded almost like the crew was singing curses at each other as they strained to raise the Blake Brothers Big-Top Bonanza Extravaganza. She dreamed of sights she would never see. What must a tiger look like? Or a snake charmer, or a Wild Man of Borneo?
She jumped as a flurry of pebbles rained against the shutters folded back to either side of her window. There was a faint, soft scratching, then silence. Again, the pebbles pattered on the wood.
This was better than any book or movie, Rosemary thought, and more mysterious. She leaned toward the window, tensed to catch the slightest movement from the street.
“Howdy,” a man’s voice said, almost in Rosemary’s ear. “I’m Jack.”
Rosemary jerked back, grazing the side of her face on the frame of the window. Before she could raise her hand to the scrape, cool fingers were there, trembling over her skin.
“Who are you?” Rosemary whispered, turning her face into his hand, following its touch.
He marveled that she did not turn away from the sight of him, until he understood she was sightless.
“I’m Jack,” he said again, and that was enough.
Perched on the peaked porch roof over her aunt’s porch, Jack told Rosemary about his life with the circus, and how the stars looked away across the world in other skies. He brought the clowns, the contortionists, even the dry, gray hide of the elephants to life for Rosemary, all the time watching her face and the wonder reflected there.
Jack came the next night, too, when the carnival was winding down, easing over the porch, somehow clinging with fingers and toes, right up to the second story of the house where Rosemary waited at her window.
Aunt Fanny snored on, untroubled by whispers and dreams and the age-old kind of magic unfolding right over her head. She loved her niece, she meant well, but unfortunate blind girls like Rosemary should not be encouraged to dream of romance. “There’s heartache enough in the street,” Aunt Fanny often remarked, “without asking it to sit with you in the parlor.”
The next night, Jack was so late that he was early. He apologized with wisps of still-warm cotton candy, pulled off the paper spool in thin strands to melt on Rosemary’s surprised tongue. Still, it was much more than the promise of spun sugar that lured Rosemary over the windowsill, at last, to sit on the porch roof beside him.
Jack settled Rosemary onto his folded jacket to protect her from the rough surface of the shingles. He invited her to touch the tattoo on his bare arm, and her sensitive fingers could feel the faintest difference between his skin and the inked design. His arm was very different than hers, Rosemary thought. She smiled to herself, pleased to have that different arm between her and the distance to the ground below.
“We’re pulling out tomorrow,” Jack said. “Show’s run its course.”
“Where…” Rosemary had to clear her throat to finish, “where will you go?”
“Farther south, maybe, for a while. Norah—she’s our Fat Lady—has folks around New Orleans she hasn’t seen in a while. Look at that,” Jack said, not knowing what else to say. “Sun’s coming up.”
“I know. I can feel it,” Rosemary said. Her fingers, gritty where she’d licked cotton candy from them, followed his arm down to his hand where it rested near her elbow.
“Jack,” she hesitated, thinking briefly of Aunt Fanny, “I’d like to feel the sun come up in New Orleans, too.”
It was easier than she ever imagined for Rosemary to run away with the circus. She simply lingered on the porch after supper until Aunt Fanny finally went to bed, grumbling about night chills and willful, headstrong girls and what was the world coming to when children didn’t do as bid by their elders.
Earlier, Rosemary had written a note for Aunt Fanny, carefully guiding the pen with the edge of her hand so the lines would not trail off the paper and be lost. She slipped it under the front door and sat down on the steps to wait.
Jack came at last, in a truck driven by a sad-faced clown. They eased down the street and idled to a stop across from the yellow house. A tiny Chihuahua stood at nervous attention in the clown’s polka-dot lap and he kept one white-gloved hand wrapped around the dog’s ankle to keep it from leaping out the open window as Jack leaned across and whistled, low, to catch Rosemary’s attention.
It took almost no time to drive back to the carnival, and the clown dropped them off at a trailer full of people, all shrieking in a language Rosemary couldn’t understand. Hands pulled her here and there, but they were gentle. At some point, Jack and all the other male hands that belonged with the deeper voices were ushered outside and they began to laugh and sing in their strange language. The women set-to in earnest, handling Rosemary as if she were a child or a doll.
“Bellisima,” one of them sighed, snatching at Rosemary’s hair with a comb.
“That Signori Jack certainly works fast,” another giggled, peeling Rosemary out of her dress as neatly as a grape.
At last the women were done and they led Rosemary out of the trailer, leaving her alone against the side of a rough canvas tent. She clutched at it, hoping that Jack would find her soon.
“Miss Day,” a deep voice said, startling Rosemary. “If you will be so good as to take my arm, I will direct Norah, our most charming and talented Fat Lady, to begin, no?”
“No,” Rosemary squeaked. “I mean, yes. Oh, yes.”
The ringmaster—Marko the Magnificent—laughed out loud. “No, yes—yes, no—simply different sides of the same thing, my dear. Come, then. Our Jack is waiting.” He drew her carefully past the anchor stakes and inside the shelter of the tent.
It was impossible for to Rosemary appreciate the scene before her; Norah’s vast rump hung almost to the floor on both sides of the red velvet stool and she trembled all over with excitement and the effort of not crying—not yet. Marko the Magnificent caught her eye and gestured once with the tip of his leather whip. It was time.
Norah’s pink, dimpled hands rose with a flourish, then fell. She pounded the old, cracked keys of the steam calliope, causing both music and a procession of smiling clock-work milk maids and youths in gilded plaster lederhosen to issue out of the depths of the organ. Thumbo, the World’s Tiniest Man, was perched on a stack of milk crates by Norah’s left elbow, poised to mop her streaming face with the pillow slip she kept tucked in her bosom for sentimental occasions.
“Are you ready, Miss Day?” Marko asked Rosemary.
She nodded, jangling the bangles on her borrowed veil. It belonged to a dancer in the sultan’s harem show, but it made a fine bridal headdress just the same.
“They’re coming!” Thumbo shouted over the noise of the calliope. Norah abandoned the sheet music in front of her and craned her head back over one shoulder, trying to catch a glimpse of the bride. Fresh tears welled up and breached the dam of Norah’s cheeks until Thumbo staunched the flood with the already-damp cloth.
Marko patted Rosemary’s hand as he guided her between the hay bales and barrels that served as seats for the audience. Bare light bulbs dangled from each side of the makeshift canopy overhead, flipping and flickering shadows every which way. Rosemary stumbled and Marko glared at the red-nosed auguste whose oversized clown shoes stuck out in the aisle. The clown made a rude face and the points of Marko’s waxed moustache quivered, but Rosemary walked on, tugging at the sleeve of Marko’s scarlet frogged ringmaster’s jacket.
The calliope groaned under Norah’s manipulations as she ground out a particularly wheezy version of ‘Here Comes the Bride’. Rosemary smiled beneath her veil, wishing she could see her surroundings. It wasn’t so bad to be blind—she’d never known any other way—but she would have liked to view the splendor of her own wedding party, just the same. It smelled splendid anyway—all fried dough and wild animals and exhaust from the generators that powered everything. It was as exotic as anything she’d ever read or dreamed of in her little room above her aunt’s front parlor.
“Beautiful,” Norah sniffed, snatching a quick musical heading before she lost her place. The wedding march was sliding into a sort of oompah-pah that was more in keeping with the German figurines that waltzed in and out of the calliope.
“She’s something, all right,” Thumbo said. “Looks like the Flying Fanandas must have dressed her—she’s spangled from stem to stern.”
“Ohhh…” Norah breathed, shuddering with delight. “I wish somebody else knew how to play the ‘Bridal March’…”
Marko led his charge past the calliope and up to the steps of the carousel. He looked to Norah and twitched one perfectly tweezed black eyebrow; her hands slid off the keys with a final, mournful ‘bride’. It was all quiet, except for a few moths flapping against the light bulbs.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” Marko said, his voice as bold as if he were addressing a full house at a three ring show, “We are gathered together to witness the union of Miss Rosemary Day—“ he swept a bow in Rosemary’s direction, “and our good friend and comrade Jack, the Human Rat!”
The audience roared, stamping their feet against the hard-packed dirt.
“Jack, Jack, Jack!” they cried with one voice, clowns and acrobats and snake handlers all mixed up with barkers and dancers and fortune tellers.
“Miss Day, if you please…” Marko helped her up the carousel stairs and eased the veil back from her face.
Rosemary smiled at all the people she couldn’t see, her new family. In the morning, they’d take her far away from this place, away from the little room where she’d spent her whole life, shut away from warmth and laughter and feeling. What would Aunt Fanny think, Rosemary wondered, to find her niece run away with the circus?
“The ring, Jack?” Marko prompted, and Rosemary became aware that Jack was already there on the carousel, waiting for her. His long, cool fingers closed over Rosemary’s hand and she flinched, just a little, although he had warned her he grew his fingernails long as part of his act.
Rosemary heard footsteps. The Incredible Frog Boy—his name was Roy Pruett and he was 40 if he was a day—shuffled onto the carousel and pushed something into Jack’s hands. Rosemary felt the flat, confused webbing that should have been separate fingers on Roy’s hand brush against her cheek, and then he was gone.
“By the power invested in me,” Marko intoned, “by the mighty auspices of the Blake Brothers Big-Top Bonanza Extravaganza—” his pause was well-timed, but the effect was shattered by Norah’s tremendous nose-clearing honk into the pillow-slip. Marko glared at the offense and Norah shrank back against the calliope, wringing her hands and batting away Thumbo’s further attempts to minister to her.
“—I now pronounce you RAT AND RAT-WIFE!” Marko said as Jack eased the ring onto Rosemary’s finger.
Rosemary’s heart skipped a little as Jack tucked her arm through his to guide her between the painted unicorns and bears toward the low-slung double swan seat on the carousel.
“Begin!” Marko shouted, stepping down from the platform as Norah, sniffling, fidgeted through the sheet music until she found something appropriate.
One of the roustabouts threw a lever and the carousel lurched into motion to the strains of ‘Love Makes The World Go Round’, complete with steam and lederhosen.
Rosemary and Jack circled, circled again, and three times made their union complete in the eyes of the circus family.
“Greetings From Baraboo!” the card exclaimed in bright red letters above a picture of an old-timey circus wagon.
Aunt Fanny held it at arm’s length, trying to make out the message without resorting to her reading glasses. A photograph fell out of the card as she opened it. Groaning, Aunt Fanny bent to pick it up.
“Dear Aunt Fanny,” she read aloud from the card, “Congratulations to you—you’re a great aunt again!”
Aunt Fanny shook her head and glanced at the photograph. It was a picture of Rosemary and the two older boys, all smiling at the camera, and pointing toward the blanket-wrapped bundle Rosemary cradled across her knees.
“Hmmph…” Aunt Fanny snorted. “Just like the others. Looks like a drowned rat.”
She placed the card carefully back in the envelope, and smoothed the ragged flap where she’d torn it open. She propped the snapshot against a ceramic clown that Rosemary sent from Sarasota the year before.
“Well, I never,” Aunt Fanny said, shaking her head. And she never did.