Sideshow

By Charlie Riccardelli

lindbergh baby“Bring out the Negro!” someone shouts from the crowd.  Echoes of agreement follow.

“We want to hear about the Lindbergh Baby!”

“Where’s the truck driver?”

The carnival barker takes a drag on his smoke, a shot from his flask, listening to the crowd.  He sits backstage, hunched down in an old wicker chair with a collapsed seat courtesy of Zip the Pinhead.  Outside he can hear the jeering, the catcalls of the audience.  They shout obscenities.  They stomp their feet on the sawdust covered ground.  They conjure commotion as Dimpled Dorothy the Fat Lady belts out Mae West’s “I’m No Angel”, shrill and off-key.

The crowd acts more vicious than usual.  The barker tilts his head back, stealing a peek from behind the curtain, scoping them out.  Record numbers today.  Each wooden bench overflows in flesh, twenty souls crammed into a space meant for twelve.  They nosh on popcorn.  They feast on funnel cake.

Aisles bustle with patrons, settling down in the leftover refuse from sideshows past.  A row of young boys and girls gawk up from the foot of the stage, munching on snot, sucking down saliva.  It used to be when the crowds flood in the park like this, a patrolman would shuffle everyone off. Now patrolmen make up the standing room at the back of the show site, pushing people aside with the end of their batons when the view is blocked.

The carnival barker pulls himself up out of the chair, splinters caught in the seat of his pants, brushing away what he can.  He checks his face in a musty mirror and wipes a little schmutz from the corner of his mouth.  He tips up his boater hat, strikes up a smile, makes a turn to Esmeralda the Bearded Lady.  “How’m I looking, darling?”

“Like you’re a pint of gin too low,” she says, struggling to tug out the knots from her whiskers.  “But maybe they won’t notice that.”

Across the back of the stage, the barker zeroes his sights on a thin, plainly-dressed Negro male standing alone in the corner.  A tall man, certainly, though you wouldn’t notice with the way he hangs his head to his chest, his sad, tired eyes kept to the floor, never looking up to catch the stares of his fellow sideshow attractions.  His posture shows the tuft of gray hair collected at the front of his thinning hairline.  He’s had it since he was a teenager, but the last two years of stress contributed its own shade to his aging body.  His suit, his only dress attire, once a fine coat and slacks he purchased for his wedding thirty years earlier, now shows the wear and tear along the seat and arms from attending dozens of police questionings, depositions, trials, and interviews.  It hangs limp on his gaunt frame like it might on a hanger.  He circles in his corner, each step becoming smaller and more hesitant than the one before it.

William Allen can’t bring himself to take a piss anymore, not when he can help it, at least.  That’s what the small steps are for.  A little motion and he finds the tension of his bladder easing a bit, the growing, urine-induced erection in his pants cowering back while he waits for his time on the stage.  Colored bathrooms stand far from the show site and he can’t handle the idea of draining himself out back against the building and along the animal pens like the carnies do, leaving puddles and mounds in the way of foot traffic.

There came a time right after he discovered that Lindbergh Baby’s body that William couldn’t keep it in during the nighttime.  His dreams sent him on back to the woods out near Hopewell, the bumps of those unpaved roads hurling him up and down in the passenger seat of the company truck, one hand around the tip of his dick, trying to keep himself from leaking.  The other delivery man, Orville, showed him mercy, swerving the truck down into the brush, singing out “We got a schedule” a half dozen times as William ran bowlegged a few feet beyond the shoulder of the road, directing his attention to a nearby tree.  Orville didn’t like a late deliver, and especially not since he told William to make before they left.

He undid the button of his fly, letting a warm stream hit the base of the tree, trickling down into a line of ants.  They scrambled up the base, toppling down upon each other.  William watched them kick and struggle to regain their balance, seeking shelter underneath a swatch of cloth on the ground.  The remnants of a shirt clinging to the remains of a child.

Small, this infant.  No more than a year old, looking tinier with pieces of him scattered around a shallow grave.  His right leg gone.  His left leg sitting next to his bloated, leathery belly.  The swollen stub of his left arm pointed to the distance where bits of bone fragment indicated the table scraps of a wild animal’s menu.  Its cheek hung in tatters, the flesh of the mouth all crumbled and deteriorated.  A puncture at the top of the skull collected the local flies.  One eyeball managed to avoid the pecks and paws of the critters.  The eye focused on William, eyebrow furrowed, mouth agape.

William went to call out to Orville, call out and tell him what he stumbled upon down in the brush, but nothing came from his lips every time he went for a sound.  He hunkered down to the ground, feeling like his knees might give way from beneath him.  His feet kicked out behind him, his left hand pressed up against the bark of the tree while his right sunk into the soft earth.  “Get out of here,” he said to the ants, brushing away a cluster gathering near the baby’s skull.  He hurled a fistful of dirt against the tree, bits ricocheting back at him, a dozen stray ants wrapping around his palm and fingers.  He flicked and crushed the insects against the legs of his pants.  He saw more swarming through that little boy.

William would awaken with his sheets soaked at the thought, sobbing in fits, his wife Loretta rubbing the back of his head, ignoring the wet linens.  His youngest kids hung close to their parents’ door, risking a smack to hear what escaped from their father’s lips, just the same as the New Jersey State Police, the FBI, and most every person in his Trenton neighborhood once they heard about the discovery.  Loretta never asked to know, she only heard his cries.

“William,” the barker calls out to his newest attraction, grabbing at the sleeve of the William’s coat.

“Yes, sir,” William says, grabbing at the knot in his tie, twisting that noose a little tighter around his neck.  “Am I supposed to be out there now, sir?”

“If you were supposed to be out there now, you’d be good and goddamn out there,” the barker spits.  “C’mon, get your head together.  Stop daydreaming about dollar signs.  You remember how we rehearsed it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you’re not gonna fuck it up, are you?  I don’t invest my time in a fuck-up, you hear?”

“No, sir,” William says, his voice dying out.  “Wouldn’t mess anything up for you.”

“That’s good,” the barker says, snapping a light smack across William’s face.  He pulls a bottle of Blind Pig Gin from deep in his jacket pocket, letting the content sway to-and-fro against the glass interior.  “You need a nip?”

“No, sir, I’ll be alright.”

“You say that now,” laughs the barker, taking a swig, a thin line of gin trailing from his lips down his chin.  He scoops it up on his finger, sucking away every trace along with the dirt and grime under his fingernail.  “Give it time.  A little liquid courage might make you think the people you’re dealing with are half human.”  The barker sputters and wheezes at the sound of his own joke, looking to the other sideshow freaks.  “Ah, don’t sweat it, my lovelies.  It could be them I’m talking about,” he says, hooking a thumb behind his back towards the audience.  “Maybe both of y’all.”

The barker shuffles out onto the stage with a grin, hands clapping.  He tips his bowler in the air, like he’s performing, but it’s the only way to mask his fanning of flop sweat.  The crowd cheers.  “Aw, wasn’t she wonderful, folks.  Once more for our very own Dimpled Dorothy.”

The crowd whimpers out applause, some light clapping, some mock hurrah.  The masses make up for it in cat calls.  Two stage hands step out on into the open.  Dimpled Dorothy lies out on an over-sized fainting couch, hands digging deep, scratching at the folds of her skin.  The men pick up either end, doing their best to keep balance.  Dimpled Dorothy shouts to them, clinging for dear life.  “Hold ’er steady, I’m delicate here!”  The crowd eats it up, hollering and carrying on.

The barker shoots out a smile, nodding to the crowd.  “Isn’t she wonderful, folks?  For our next attraction…” but before he can continue, boos and hollering rise up over the barker’s words, a bitter mob demanding for the truck driver to appear on the stage immediately.

The barker shakes his hands in the air.  He shushes.  He shouts.  “Ladies and gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen.  Keep with me…please.  I want to give this man a special introduction because he is truly one of the greatest attractions we’ve acquired for our show in my fifteen years with the company.  Here at Coney Island we’ve treated you to some of the finest spectacle the globe has to offer.  Master Chau the headless Oriental.  Took-Took, our beast from Borneo.  Zip and Pip, the French pinheads.  Sights as terrifying and exciting as any you are to find in these United States, but none as tremendous as our next guest who we found just across the way in the great state of New Jersey.”

A spectator shouts out, “Yeah, great and terrible.”

The barker pats down his forehead with a handkerchief.  He craves gin.

“I am loving him with the flop sweat,” says Klaus the German Midget, climbing atop a table near William, beckoning the man over, his small hands pounding against the warped boards.  “William, let us speak a moment, you and I.  It will take as much for that dummkopf to control those savages.  Sit.  Sit sit sit.”

William approaches Klaus, settling next to the diminutive man where he patted his hand, sweeping away crumbs and dust before he does.  Klaus pulls the remainder of a cigar from the front of his shirt pocket, brushing bits of grass and dirt from the end.  “The nerve.  Left in the park like it does not have puffs left to be had.”  The old dwarf cradles the stogie in between his lips, letting the end in his mouth bump against his remaining teeth.  “I like you, William.  Even for a schwartze, I like you.  They do not.”  Klaus points his free hand across the wing, to the other freaks who watched the two men with acrimony.  “Such monsters to look at them, but we are not, William, you and I.  Am I correct?”

William looks to the freaks, their cruel glares prickling over his skin.  Dimpled Dorothy holds a protective hand around Ameliana the Armless Woman, her dull stare reminding him of her comment, “Southern women simply do not consort with the colored half.”  He drops his gaze from hers, tucking his hands in between his legs, his tongue rolled up to the roof of his mouth, unwilling to answer.

“I heard this man they call the Jafsie sells tickets for concert halls to talk of how he helped hunt the Lindbergh Baby kidnapper.  I hear him on the radio and his words in the paper, but I still do not know what he did for this baby, you see.  And he makes so much money this man, for people to hear his story which he’d tell if only so one man in a room knew him to be famous.  And look at you, William.  You did so much more for that family, to find the body as you did.  What a lucky find.  If it weren’t for that schwartze skin of yours, you could be in the concert halls, too.”  Klaus spits saliva from his mouth, hurling his cigar in the direction of Zip and Pip, both screeching as they run away from the stogie, huddling behind Dimpled Dorothy.  “It had bits of horse shit on it.”

William thought out his words.  “I guess I’m not as comfortable talking about it as some folks’ll be, Klaus.”  He looked to the dwarf for some semblance of understanding, but Klaus laughed at him, chuckling like a child, his high nasal hiss drawing attention from people out as far as the audience.

“Shame for you, William,” said Klaus, gathering big gulps of air as he fights to catch his breath.  “You are already an opportunist, are you not?  Just because you are not an opportunist as much as others doesn’t change things.  You can learn from us Germans about such things.  Think of Chancellor Hitler from my country.  He is a crafty fellow and seizes what he can, never his thoughts between small success and large success.  That is why he is a great leader to my people.”

Opportunism.  The label stings William, enough so that he can’t focus on the dwarf’s raspy words anymore.  He did not want to be here, did not want to tell his story like this.  Three years ago he might have made more money selling his story to Liberty Magazine or Colliers.  Three years ago the press came to his family’s apartment, hanging out in the hallway, talking with the superintendant for information about the Allen family.  His younger children wanted to say hello to the newspaper men, to speak of their papa the hero, but he held them back, saying, “Those fellas out there with the paper and pencils are trying to make a circus of that little boy’s death, and that ain’t right.  They don’t want to see all the good that this here family has flowing through its home.  They just want to hear about the ugliness going on outside of it.”  William took his children Melora and Daniel by their hands.  “Doing the right thing and wanting something out of it means you didn’t do much right at all.”

William stood by those principles long after he lost his job over the time taken by the authorities for further questioning, the trial, disrupting his work environment.  Those principles remained after his reward money dwindled away and after people like those now paying ten cents to hear him speak couldn’t be bothered to hire him to unload crates off a truck or sweep a factory floor.  Still far beyond even that, when his oldest moved back in with his own wife and daughter, and his boy Arthur cut out across country to ease the burden on a nine person family living in one room with no money.  Yeah, his principles burned up like his baby granddaughter’s wooden toy duck and the table legs, trying to keep pneumonia from killing off his family in an unusually harsh winter.

Loretta called William’s job offer from the Coney Island sideshow as an answer to the prayers she’d been asking for all along, that all those lit candles in church and the requests for God’s blessing had come, ready for a hail of hallelujah.  “The Good Lord heard my calls,” she said to her husband nights after the news came, her arms wrapped around him as they lay on the small mattress laid across the floor.  She pulled their blanket over his shoulders, giving him extra threads for the choice he had made.  Loretta never doubted her man to do the right thing for their whole family.

Alana and Mazy the Siamese Twins clomp over to William on their four heels, Mazy leading the way while Alana serves at the caboose.  The sisters swing their bodies around to face William.

“The audience is expecting you, William,” says Mazy.

“Yes, right away, William,” confirms Alana.

“Thanks girls,” William says, watching them swivel at their conjoined hip, sashaying to their bench.  William feels the knots loosen in his stomach and the unease set in.  His body’s shaking like the barker on a bad day.  He remembers the crowds for his testimonies and how he ignored them, focusing on the judge, on the lawyers.  He never aimed his sights on the spectators or the cameras.  The prosecuting attorney told him ‘treat your testimony like a conversation between friends’.  The idea seemed easier without such a vicious crowd surrounding him.

“I think you’ll enjoy our next attraction,” the barker says, waving a hand to the wings, gesturing for William to come closer.  “William, why don’t you come out here?  Give the folks a treat.  C’mon, will ya?”

The people in the crowd look and wait.  A waterfall of sweat pours off the overheated barker, so fast and heavy you could ride a wooden barrel down it.  The barker steps off stage, arms flailing, voice hissing.  He grabs William by the end of his sleeve, pulling him to center stage.  He whispers into William’s ear.  “The only way you can make this more difficult is if you keep going about it the way you’re going about it.  Follow?”

William nods.  He settles down onto a wooden chair located in the center of the stage.  He folds his hands into his lap.  Eyes averted from the crowd.  Backstage he can see a gathering of the freaks—Klaus curled up on the floor with his playing cards in hand, the twins listening and knitting separate ends of a long scarf, Akbar the Knife Thrower shining his blades—all ready for a different kind of spectacle.

“This man here is Mr. William Allen,” the barker proclaims, slapping his attraction on the back of the shoulder.  William’s feels the pain ripple across his back, his body aching from years of moving furniture off the back of trucks.  The barker shoots him a real ‘fuck you’ look.

“William is a real courageous man, folks, few like him in the world.  Shall I set the date for you?  May 12th, 1932.  A bare stretch of road running through the woods of Hopewell.  William Allen’s behind the wheel and he makes one heck of a discovery.”  He looks at William, still solemn in his chair.  “You want to take it from here, William?”

The crowd sits in silence, waiting for a word from William.

The barker instructed William in a week of rehearsals, to tell the story, but to do so by punctuating it with the more unsettling elements.  “You talk about how bad you needed to piss,” the barker ordered.  “Talk about that baby down to the nitty-gritty disgusting stuff in scalp.  Hell, if he had a scalp to get disgusting in the first place.  Exaggerate for all I care, they won’t know the difference.  It ain’t a funny story, but if you can make up something, you got your pants wet, something, it would lighten the mood.”  William followed directions and practiced, but he couldn’t get it right.  Two years repeating his story for questionings, depositions, and a trial became routine.

William looks to the barker, motioning him to move in closer.  The barker lends an attentive ear.

“Do I have to sit or stand, sir?” William asks.

“Do what you want,” the barker whispers, “Just get going with the story, will ya?”

William nods.  He moves his eyes up to the audience.  “Ladies and gentlemen,” William chokes out his first words, his easiest, since he knew the barker never started a speech without them.  “I just…well…Orville…he was driving, actually.”

A man shouts from the back of the crowd.  “Speak up.  Can’t hear you back here.”  William can see this throughout the audience.  A child in the front row cups his hands around his ears.  A father hoists his daughter upon his shoulders so she might get a better view.

William clears his throat.  “Orville was driving, actually.  He…well…he liked to take the first leg of a delivery, ’specially one as long as this one, going out of state and all.  He’d sleep all the way back, waking up in the delivery bay pretending like he never left.  Yeah, he liked to pretend he never did work at all.

“We had to take side trips for this delivery less we wanted to spend the hours of the day waiting for roadblocks to open up.  They had these men, not exactly police officers, you see.  Nothing like uniforms or none of that.  They dressed in suits and ties, but they carried guns like cops’ll do.  They’d let their clean shoes go kick up all the mud and the dirt getting drove in by all the cars.  I don’t know no government cop from Adam.   I struck ’em for some bootleggers like I’d seen once on a delivery, minus the burlap sacks over their heads, but it don’ make sense to go bootlegging, not with no Depression on.

“Then they stopped us, and Orville, he gets to talking with the man, answering all the man’s questions with a few shotguns backin that fancy suit man up on both sides.  I took it for relief.  Orville, well, he’s a white man, and I figure he’s better off talking to guys with guns than me.  He’s talking and I’m looking.  Looking right out from the cab.  Out there in the woods, just beyond the road, you could make out the cops in blue.  Their dogs on metal chains, sniffing at the ground.  Reporters too, they sniffed harder than the dogs.  Only a few feet away.  Newspapermen.  Cameras filming.  The grass was trampled and dead.  You could see more broken flashbulbs off the path than blades of grass.  I kept quiet, kept out of it the best I could.  Orville, he knew what was going on with this kidnapping and I didn’t know much of nothing.”

“What do you mean you didn’t know nothing bout what’s going on?” says a man standing in the aisle.  He pats down sweat from his cocked brow.  “Don’t you read the papers, boy?”

“No sir, I don’t.  Can’t afford the papers nor radio neither.  I’ve got my responsibilities.  I got a family.  A wife and kids and a daughter-in-law and a little…”

“What are you saying?” cries the sweaty man in the aisle, finger wagging on in the direction of William.  “I got a family too, you hear?  I take care of mine and I can afford a few cents a day to keep up with the world.  You saying I’m not responsible, is that it?”

The crowd shouts the man down.

“Can it!”

“Shut up!”

“Let the negro speak, damn it!”

William shuffles off to the side of the stage, waiting for the crowd to die down some, hoping to avoid the hysteria.  The barker grabs at his arm, shoving him in the opposite direction.  “No one wants to hear your fucking sob story, you get me?  Move things along.  Lighten these goons up.  Talk about your pissy pants.” William agrees, returning center stage.

“I don’t mean to offend you, sir.  Paper’s not the most important thing for me to have around in my life, but I’ve seen the posters.  That curly-haired little baby boy’s pictured pasted on buildings and telephone poles.  You’d see him up in store windows and you’d hear the talk about his mother and Mr. Lindbergh.  Everybody knows him.  World’s most famous pilot.  Most famous American, I suppose, next to the president.  Or not even.  Yeah, you can’t expect a man to be completely in the dark.  People are looking for the kid and it’s been a while since it happened, I don’t know, weeks or months.  People just wanted to find him.

“All of a sudden, a man came up to my side of the cab, all in your average dress, same as the fella talking to Orville.  He framed his face in my open window, half pulled down his face.  I…”

William looks off stage to the barker.  He waves for William to continue, his bottle of booze hung low, splashing drops along the legs of his pants.  ‘Like we rehearsed it,’ he mouths.

“I…he gave me such a fright that I wet myself some.”  The audience hollers with laughter, throwing up bits of food to the stage.

A patron in the front row rolls an empty Coke bottle along the wooden stage right up to William’s feet.  “In case you need to squirt, huh?”

“Thanks,” says William, brushing aside the bottle with the toe of his right foot.  “That man by my window, he got to questioning me, sizing me up.  He leaned over to my side, chin poking out, trying to see if he could get a sight as to what’s in the bed of the truck.  ‘You know,’ he says, ‘we could go rifling through whatever it is you got back there if we need to.  We got that kind of authority.’  I told him we just needed to make a delivery, meant nothing to hold them up.  He told me every car, cab, or truck that come around here holds them em, whether they mean to or not.

“The men with the shotguns slammed their hands down on the hood of the truck, sent us back on our way.  ‘Relax boys,’ they said.  ‘It’s a routine inspection for everyone.  You’ve got nothing to be guilty about.’”

Once more the story is told, never to a more spellbound audience than those before William.  Women cry.  Children cling to their parents with unease during the more gruesome bits.  The man who spoke with such hostility to William before holds his boy around the shoulder like he’s trying to keep him from ever getting away.  The story pushes these families a little closer together as it wedges William’s further apart.

William watches their fixated faces.  He takes a peek backstage.  The freaks sit cross-legged on the stage, transfixed.  He coughs.  “After my testimony, I walked out the back doors of the courthouse, getting congratulations from men in suits.  Officers mostly, I think.  Telling me I’m a good man, a fine man.  Finest Negro they know.  They made room coming out the courtroom for the Colonel Charles Lindbergh.  He shook my hand, but he couldn’t look at me.  And his Missus took hold of my hand and held it tight, felt like I was about to lose all the blood in my fingertips.  She gave me her blessing and a hug too.  Said I was a great man.  I think I remember giving her a smile, cause I didn’t know what else to do.  Didn’t know what she wanted me to say to that.  What had I really done?”

William’s thoughts continue long after the act, the barker elbowing William offstage for the next attraction.  In his daze he cannot hear the sound of the audience trudging out of the show site, satisfied customers all, nor does he notice the grim stares of his fellow performers.

He runs down the half dozen steps to the stage entrance, rushing to get off behind the stage, but it’s no use: William’s already pissed himself.  Christ, for all he knows it happened during the show.  He pulls a handkerchief from his coat, doing his best to soak it up, but the pee’s already trickled on down the length of his leg, directed by the thin hairs of his leg towards his right sock.  “Ah, Christ,” he whispers.  “God damn.  God damn it all.”

There is no pleasure to be had in the carnival after dark.  The only light to penetrate the dreary landscape comes from inside the tents where a group of carnies mull around a makeshift poker table made of crates, passing a bottle of grain alcohol amongst themselves.  They smoke and carouse, they place wild bets to intimidate each other.  They gamble away their paychecks, their valuables, their women.

They toss scraps of food out through the entrance where the rats congregate for late evening meals.  Rats, who feast better than most of the employees, their bellies sagging down in the grime and dirt.  The sideshow sharpshooter used to get three sheets to the wind off of gin, blasting bullets in every disease infected rodent that passed his way.  He’d stumble and he’d stammer.  He let a slug tear through their bodies and watch the rest scatter.  The braver ones stayed to dine on the entrails of the fallen.  Once, the sharpshooter’s aim ambled, sending a slug into a tent.  Took the toe off a ride operator.

The night grows colder out here by the ocean, especially as the season progresses.  No way of staying warm in pop-ups and trailers.  Dimpled Dorothy and Master Chau warm each other with their bodies, he submerges into her gut.  She coos, she moans.  This Chinaman’s secrets of the Far East have been revealed.

William’s tent lies on the outskirts of camp, far from the gambling, well beyond the smoldering embers of a fire some still prod in hopes it might burst back to blaze.  No one would camp with a colored, which suits him fine.  He’d drive a man to madness, the way he rustles in the night, unable to sleep without the feel of his sweet Loretta lying next to him.  Her warm breath upon his neck.  Her cold feet kicking up on his own.  He counted the lines in her face.  He worries that each stood for a time he disappointed her.

Never again.  He traded in his grandfather’s watch that morning to the carousel operator for two dollars.  He mended socks and hemmed dresses for all the freaks.  He poked around the arcade for runaway pennies.  Soon he could add his carnie money to the collection, a stack of bills to bandage his battered dignity.   He keeps asking after the barker about his money, when he’s going to be able to stuff an envelope full of bills to send out Jersey City way, to keep his family in food and warmth.  The barker smiles over his steak dinner and tells him ‘soon’ even though it will be indefinitely later.

William thinks on his son Arthur, clear across the country.  No one’s heard from him in as many months.  A lot of young men have gone west.  Even more have come east.  He hopes Arthur keeps safe, hopping trains, dodging railroad bulls.  Maybe he can make it home again.  Maybe they both can.

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Charlie Riccardelli teaches at the University of North Texas where he also studies in their creative writing PhD program. His stories and articles have appeared in American Literary Review, Wilde Magazine, Lamplighter, Rivercraft, and Essay Magazine. He exclusively writes historical fiction since he discovered James Ellroy novels.

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