BY Tessa FOntaine
Behind the Gravitron 3000’s crown of American flags, the sky’s looking more and more like a bruise. We’re in Maumee, Ohio. Even the performers from California, half of us, earthquake people, know that a sky going green and purple means tornado, and one by one the mermaid and knife-thrower and fire-eater peek around the edge of the tent between acts to look directly onto the emptying carnival midway. The low sky opens with rain and bursts of wind that knock over a tank of Rastafarian-painted hermit crabs beside our show. The fire-eater widens her eyes at Tommy the talker, our boss and her on-again off-again boyfriend for years. She hisses, “Thomas. Close the show.” They’ve been slamming their trailer door for days. He shakes his head no and everyone ducks back. But not Red.
Red, a lifer, stands in front of the big striped circus tent in his kilt, arms crossed over his round bare belly, still bleeding from the Dr. Frankenstein act he’s just finished where he’s jammed metal corsage pins through his neck and cheeks and calves. He appraises the ceiling of clouds as a dribble of blood weaves through his red beard stubble.
“Well,” he says, voice barely audible over the wind, “I know I’m gonna die on these stages. Today’s as good a day as any for that.” He claps his hands with false finality and turns back into the tent. I nod in agreement. I know this doesn’t make much sense, but the corsets I wore and chains I escaped and the taxidermied Icelandic Giant I glued back together all precluded danger from feeling much like danger. Or maybe it was the bright lights. Or that the danger felt a little good, a reminder that there was always more that could be lost.
Look here, born alive and the strangest of them all.
Enter this house, this far-away domestic scene: A man wakes in the dark and goes to his office to research travel agents who specialize in the Leaning Tower of Pisa for the blind, L’arc de Triumph for the legless. When light comes in the window, he goes back into the bedroom and sits on his wife’s side of the bed. She stirs, her good leg bending and straightening. “Morning, Cutie,” he says, leaning low to wrap his arms around her torso before he pulls her upright and shifts her hips so her legs reach down off the bed.
“Na na na,” she says quietly, hoarsely. She presses and releases her lips with little smacks just after she wakes every morning, like each new day has a taste she wants inside.
Their daughter stands in the hallway, watching their negotiation while thinking of a place freaks went to die. She’d heard rumors of a small town somewhere in Florida. She’d heard that at one time, the town had the world’s only postal counter designed for dwarves. That conjoined twins ran a lemonade stand off the highway. That the town had permanently altered its legislation to allow for elephants and tigers in every front yard, their trainers throwing knives around unblinking women in sequins when the mosquitoes weren’t too thick. She’ll leave for the town in one week. Her mother is out of the hospital after one year. Give her a round of applause.
My boss and I stand in the drizzle on our bally stage, a small platform outside our tent on the carnival’s midway where we put on free shows and talk up the acts inside. “You don’t have to wait but you do have to hurry,” Tommy bellows, but he’s cut off by the loudspeaker announcing the pygmy goat parade.
My wrists throb. I’ve escaped these handcuffs 18 times today, but that’s the job here, a little pain, a little delight, always a calculation—what will it take to woo the two teenage girls yawning as they watch our bally. Look at my danger, I urge through a squint in my eyes. Imagine yourself locked up. One of the girls starts texting.
Look here, they’ll dazzle.
With one arm beneath the woman’s good arm and one arm over the other, the man pulls her upright, his body standing in for her right side, and they pivot to the wheelchair. “She has the softest skin of any person I’ve ever known,” he says again and again. “It’s surreal. Touch it. Here. No, Touch it.”
As an act of kindness, or apology for tragedy, a lot of people give the woman lotion. It comes in the mail, in birthday packages, on their doorstep. Maybe they know about the skin. Want to help preserve that miracle. But the daughter finds herself, when she helps clean out some drawers, with an armload of lotions, lilac, eucalyptus, rose, fresh linen, in glass bottles and blue jars, in plastic tubs, oblong or circular, organic, elixers, Chinese, tubes for the eyes, for daytime, for scars, for nighttime, and the metaphor of trying to carry so much is too obvious and also fundamentally right, that leaning stack she keeps piling against her chest even though she knows, she knows, it will tumble.
The house they rent is entirely covered in wood slats like the hull of a ship. It seems that they might always be embarking. The woman is in her wheelchair. They’ve named it Bubbles. She spends all her time there, except for when he lifts her onto or off of the toilet or into or out of bed or the car. Occasionally the daughter lifts her onto or out of something, but she always feels like an intruder. The tenderness required for transporting a paralyzed body is vast. Sometimes she hides in the other room when it is time because she is a small, scared person in her heart. Sometimes she finds herself laughing there, alone, both hands over her mouth, for no reason.
Story goes, a few performers were passing through a tiny Florida town on their way to Sarasota, Ringling’s winter headquarters. In the batch were the giant Al Tomaini, who claimed to be eight feet four, and his wife Jeanie, the half-girl born with no legs. They noticed how peaceful a certain patch of swamp was and decided to stop right there. Not too close to any one thing, not too far from anything either. They set up camp by the river and opened a little cookhouse. Once they and a few other sideshow performers settled in, the rest came quickly. It was a place for the winter months, when carnivals take a break, where the unusual would be usual. A resting place. A retirement destination: Gibtown.
In the offseason, Red lives in a van with his two cats in Gibtown, where the thick, hot air is heavy as a costume. Red melodically lists his orphanage and foster home addresses like a nursery rhyme, ending with a Philadelphia home he escaped by walking out the door when he was sixteen and carrying on, step by step, the act of walking a continual falling and catching oneself, until he reached New Orleans.
“The carnival was in town,” Red says, “and they were looking for guys to run the rides.” A few days later, he met a family of gypsies operating a small sideshow. “They were looking for a new sword swallower. Said, ‘if you learn to swallow swords, you can come with us.’” It was the first time anyone had offered to keep him around. That was 47 years ago.
Red pounds the flat steel face of a gearhead tent stake further into the dirt with a sledgehammer, the ting ting ting and occasional spark just over my right shoulder as I wink to the teenagers. I’m learning the art of distraction. Thunder cracks. Red prepares for the deluge.
“Now watch Ms. Mimi L’Amour escape from these chains. Her world record is five seconds. Can she break it?” Tommy says, and begins the countdown. I plant my feet hip distance apart and take a deep breath. “Five!” he shouts and I spin fast to face the tent behind me, my back to the audience, “Four!” throwing my arms down hard in front of me to loosen the chains, Red pounding the steel, “Three!” one and then the other wrist are out and lightning flashes and I have the chains in one hand, start my spin back to face the audience, “Tw—” but the loudspeaker interrupts: “Attention fairgoers. This is a tornado warning. All attendees of the Lucas County Fair must evacuate the fairgrounds immediately,” and the thunder cracks again right on cue and everyone across the fairgrounds is suddenly moving very quickly.
“Banners!” Tommy screams back into our massive tent. I clamber down the bally stage already drenched as the seven other performers meet me at the front banner line. The banner bearing the two-headed Egyptian princess billows and snaps like a ship’s sail, cracking and giving in to the storm.
I imagine the tornado splitting all the banners down the line, the boom of toppling poles like canon fire and the ship below suddenly tipping and sloshing as the waves crash further onto the deck, the ship four days out to sea and unrescuable while deckhands are tossed into the waves and then it’s not deckhands flailing as they sink below the churning sea, it’s my mom, her paralyzed body sinking like stone.
“Banners! Go! Go! Go!” the knife-thrower screams. Hands are flying, sequins throwing off the rain. We yank the slip-tie off the metal pole, unwind the rope holding the top of the banners taut, its tail splashing to the mud below. Breathing hard, we wrap and wrench the ropes around each of the canvas rolls, muscles shaking, looping slip-knots and cinching, squeezing each banner into a tight roll, squinting against the onslaught, “Tighter!” Tommy is screaming, each of these banners a few hundred bucks we can’t afford to replace.
I see the body she works hours every day to keep alive betraying her as it sinks. I see this because I have a heart bursting with fear, because I should feel fear here, inside a tent as a tornado descends. But I don’t. I fear only her. I mean, for her. I mean.
My mom doesn’t have half the bone plate in her head anymore, as in, no skull on one side. She can’t do things like get on an airplane because we rely on that bone to keep the pressure stable in our brain. She’s had multiple strokes and more emergency-this-is-the-end-say-goodbye-right-this-second’s than I can actually remember anymore—six? eight?—and so moving her body further than 10 minutes from a hospital is totally and completely out of the question and now she is finally home, though continued emergencies take them back to the hospital regularly, and just when my brother and I and the rest of our family think we can take a breath and try to figure out how to make this kind of life normal, we hear this:
It’s from my stepdad. He clicks “Buy.” Two tickets on a ship bound for Europe.
“If we’re going to die soon, we might as well die somewhere beautiful,” he says. And so my parents are about to leave on a trip to Italy. Nobody thinks they’ll return.
Ropes slap the mud puddles and spray. Mascara and eye-shadow smear our faces. My fishnets are splattered and as I’m running to the next banner my heel sinks into a puddle and I stagger, my shin hitting a rusted tent stake which grabs and rips my fishnets, cuts my leg open. Blood. “Go! Go! Go!” Tommy screams, pointing to the next banner, and I go.
“You want to know about bravery?” Red asks in the van, new bulb clasped between his hands. Earlier that day, we’d heard there was a possible storm approaching and were hurrying back to the fair. “If you were paying attention, you would hear laughter all the time. Even breathing is laughing.” I look over at him, waiting for the completion of his thought. He’s staring out the window, expressionless.
Look here, Ladies and Gentleman, this next act drained the blood from my head the first time I saw it: The woman’s back is to her daughter, wheelchair scooted right up against the couch. The woman stoops slightly forward and then straightens up, her left arm disappearing in front of her and then arcing out wide as she straightens again, a grey t-shirt between her fingers.
A pile of clean laundry lies on the couch in front of her, t-shirts and socks and bras and sweatpants that the daughter had been planning on folding very soon, any day now, in fact. But here she is, the mother she spends hours convincing herself isn’t really inside her body anymore. Because what would that be like? How would it be possible to carry on? But here she is with a crumpled grey t-shirt between her fingers, shaking the wrinkles out. The daughter holds her breath. The mother shakes like this a lot, little spasms. Sometimes big ones. Seizures. And now she is using that little shake to complete a domestic task the daughter hasn’t seen in almost three years.
She sets the t-shirt down on the couch, away from the pile of laundry, and smoothes it flat with the palm of her hand. She cannot see the daughter behind her. Here is her bony hand, the one that was always covered in color from her textile business, and more recently, the hand that was hooked up to so many IVs that it took on its own face and attitude, a shaky-headed Medusa.
That hand was the only thing that moved in the first months when it didn’t appear she’d ever really wake back up. The daughter watched it like watching it would conjure a prayer. Watched it twitch against the starched white hospital sheets, move slowly up from her side, trembling, toward her head to touch the skin covering her brain on the half of her head where her skull had been removed. Watched it touch her eye, here, now here, dried blood, dried rivers of brain fluid against her temples, she’d watch that hand make its way back home to her side, tremble, and begin it all again, that journey up to try to understand what it was missing, here and here and here. She’d grab it to kiss it still and whisper terrible apologies and the hand would rest calm and motionless for a moment before it pulled away, readied to move on, she was ready to move on, she moved on and then they made her come back.
The rain falls harder and harder, sheets and buckets and daggers of it hitting me from every direction as the wind makes it impossible to hear nearly anything but the high-pitched cry of emergency coming from somewhere I can’t see. Carnies run toward the cinderblock bathrooms. On the other side of the fence, one or two fairgoers linger, a few cars speed away, but mostly they’re gone. Just like what happens each night, carnival bosses shut the gates around the fairgrounds, locking our performers and hundreds of carnies inside.
“Seek immediate shelter!” a policeman calls through a megaphone. But Big Big Ben has the nine-foot boa constrictor across his arms and is slowly coiling her back into her box. He is in no hurry. There’s work to be done. He purses his full pink lips at the snake, kissing her on the mouth as hard rain devours him and the thunder cracks.
The sirens bounce off the cow barn. Rain pounds. Red screams for us to untie the tent’s sidewalls, thick vinyl seventy feet across by forty feet deep. A huge gust of wind could find any opening and pick the tent up from the inside, ripping it open or carrying it into the sky. This will not happen today. We will not be afraid.
“Are you crazy, get to the bathrooms!” a carnie with a snarl of blond curls hollers as he runs for permanent shelter. It’s time to go. The wind plasters our hair to our faces and then all of a sudden stops dead. A second. Two. And then it picks up again, the tree branches whipping one another as they’re stripped of their leaves, the flags on top of our tent snapping and cracking. Gold glitter smears across the Mermaid’s face beside me. I catch her eye for a moment, and it’s wide and spooked, but goes right back to the ropes she’s tying. It’s time to go. We live in the back of a semi-truck and we won’t leave it. We make $3/hour and we won’t leave it. Inside the tent, we dart and dodge one another, locking the mummy cases, tying up curtains, gathering knives. We tie and twist. The wind sounds like a train. We lock and pin. The Fiji mermaid is safe in her coffin. The headless woman’s mirrored chair is well-wrapped in wet pillows. Though Queen Kong isn’t the last taxidermied gorilla in the world, her presence here, alongside her freak family, makes the extraordinary individuals a collective of ordinary love, and that, that, is reason to tie her blankets tighter despite the darkened sky.
Look here. In their grand finale, the two great American daredevils will leave on a ship for Italy just after the daughter leaves on a plane for the sideshow. Get their autograph. Get it now, while you can.
The woman’s palm flattens each crease with careful rhythm and precision against the couch. The daughter never helps. The woman folds in one worn sleeve and then the other. Smoothes the creases. Smoothes the collar, evens out the sides. Her other hand remains tucked unmoving in her lap but this hand is grabbing the bottom of the t-shirt and folding it up against the shirt’s shoulders, creating a rectangle perfect for stacking in drawers, this little miracle of normalcy on a couch in a wooden house on a cool spring evening. The daughter makes a sound and the woman swivels her head and looks at the daughter for just a moment and lets out a little silent laugh.
She cannot talk or walk, but this. Here it is, a chore. Ordinary life.
In the end, Tommy finally yells for us to get the hell out of there, though it’s almost impossible to hear. The rest of the fairground is emptied of people and the wind is throwing hair across our faces like whips and the sky is mauve. The fire-eater and Mermaid and knife-thrower and I all run, no longer possible to dodge puddles, past small tree branches that have come down, past food tents leaning sharply away from the wind, and finally make it to the cinderblock bathroom already stuffed with carnies. We’re breathing hard, can barely see for the makeup smeared across our faces, the membrane of stormwater covering our bodies. We take paper towels to wipe our eyes and laugh with the hysteria of danger, unsure what else to do. The fire-eater inspects my cuts. I inspect hers.
“Where’s Red?” she finally asks.
We look around, but he has not made it into the bathrooms. Someone with a weather radio says the tornado has touched down a mile from our carnival. We push past the other carnies standing in the doorway and peek our heads out the bathroom’s mouth, craning our necks toward our big red and blue tent down the midway. The rain is falling up. It’s almost impossible to make out what’s what, but I’m pretty sure I see Red just outside our tent, two of the center ropes wrapped around his hands as he throws his body back against the wind, fighting that tornado himself, a battle—anyone would say—that there is no way he could actually win.
This may be a trick of the shadows, but I’m pretty sure he is open-mouthed laughing up at the sky.
This essay is an excerpt from the forthcoming memoir by Tessa Fontaine to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. More excerpts can be found online at The Rumpus. Other recent work appears in Creative Nonfiction, The Normal School, Seneca Review, DIAGRAM, and more. Tessa lives in Salt Lake City, where she chases her dog as he chases snakes, and is a PhD student in prose at the University of Utah. Find more work at: www.TessaFontaine.com