Twilight Eyes Page 14

Like a bat sucking blood, a chilly premonition lay on the back of my neck, drawing all the warmth out of me.

Although I could have been admitted free, I bought a ticket for two bucks, a steep price in those days, and I went inside.

The tent was partitioned into four long chambers, with a roped-off walkway that serpentined through all the rooms. In each chamber were three stalls, in each stall a platform, on each platform a chair, and on each chair a human oddity. Joel Tuck’s ten-in-one was a rare bargain for the marks—two extra attractions to gawk at, two additional reasons to doubt the benign intentions of God. Behind each freak, extending the length of the stall, a large and colorfully illustrated sign outlined the history and explained the medical nature of the deformity that made each living exhibit worthy of a featured spot in Shockville.

The contrast between the marks’ behavior outside and in here was startling. On the concourse they had seemed morally opposed to the concept of a freak show, or at least mildly repulsed, even while being irresistibly drawn by curiosity. But in the tent those civilized attitudes were not in evidence. Perhaps they had not been convictions but merely hollow platitudes, disguises beneath which true, savage human nature hid itself. Now they pointed and laughed and gasped at the twisted people they had paid to see, as if those upon the platforms were not only deformed but deaf, or too simpleminded to understand the abuse directed at them. Some marks made tasteless jokes; even the best of them were only decent enough to remain silent, none decent enough to tell their crude companions to shut up. To me the “exhibits” in the ten-in-one demanded the same reverence as one might bring to the paintings of old masters in a museum, for they surely illuminate the meaning of life as well as the work of Rembrandt or Matisse or van Gogh. Like great art, these freaks can touch the heart, remind us of our primal fears, induce in us a humble appreciation for our own condition and existence, and embody the rage we usually feel when we are forced to consider the cold indifference of this imperfect universe. I saw none of those perceptions in the marks, though I might have been too hard on them. Nevertheless, before I had been in the tent more than two minutes, it seemed as if the real freaks were those who had paid to take this macabre tour.

Anyway, they got their money’s worth. In the first stall Jack-Four-Hands was sitting, shirtless, revealing an extra pair of arms—stunted and withered but functional—growing out of his sides, just a couple of inches below and slightly behind a pair of ordinary, healthy arms. The lower appendages were somewhat deformed and obviously weak, but he was clasping a newspaper with them, while he used his regular hands to hold a cold drink and eat peanuts. In the next stall was Lila the Tattooed Lady, a self-made freak. After Lila came Flippo the Seal Boy, Mr. Six (six toes on each foot, six fingers on each hand), the Alligator Man, Roberta the Rubber Woman, an albino simply called Ghost, and others presented for the “education and amazement of those who possess an inquiring mind and a healthy curiosity about the mysteries of life,” as the pitchman outside had put it.

I moved slowly from stall to stall, one of the silent ones. At each exhibit I paused just long enough to determine whether or not this was the source of the psychic magnetism that I had felt pulling at me when I had been out on the concourse.

I still felt it tugging. . . .

I went deeper into Shockville.

The next human oddity was more well received by the marks than any other: Miss Gloria Neames, the 750-pound woman, who was supposed to be the fattest fat lady on earth. It was a claim I would not have considered disputing, neither the part about her size nor the part about her being a lady, for as gargantuan as she was, I nevertheless sensed in her a demure manner and sensitivity that were very appealing. She was seated on a specially built, sturdy chair. Getting up must have been difficult for her, and walking must have been nearly impossible without assistance; even breathing was an ordeal, judging by the sound of her. She was a mountain of a woman in a red muumuu, with an enormous belly rolling up to an overhanging shelf of bosoms so immense that they ceased to have any recognizable anatomical purpose. Her arms looked unreal, like half-comic and half-heroic sculptures of arms rendered from mounds of mottled lard, and her multiple chins drooped so far down her neck that they almost touched her breastbone. Her moon-round face was startling, serene like the face of a Buddha, but also unexpectedly beautiful; within that bloated countenance, like an image superimposed on another photograph, was the arresting and moving promise of the thin and gorgeous Gloria Neames that might have been.

Some of the marks liked Gloria because she gave them an opportunity to tease their girlfriends and wives—“You ever get that fat, baby, you better look for a freak-show job of your own, ’cause you sure aren’t staying with me!”—pretending to be joking but getting across an earnest message. And the wives and girlfriends, especially those at whom the message was aimed, those who were a little overweight themselves, liked Gloria because in her presence they felt positively svelte and stylish by comparison. Hell, beside her, Jelly would have looked like one of those starving Asian children in a magazine ad for CARE. And nearly everyone liked the fact that Gloria talked to them, which many of the freaks did not. She answered their questions and gracefully turned aside impertinent and too personal inquiries without embarrassing either herself or the jackasses who asked.

Standing at the fat lady’s stall, I had the psychic impression that she would play an important role in my life, but I knew it was not Gloria who had drawn me into Shockville. That ominous and irresistible magnetism continued to tug at me, and I drifted toward the source, deeper into the sideshow tent.

The last stall, the twelfth, was occupied by Joel Tuck, he of the cabbage ears, he of the steam-shovel mouth and bile-yellow teeth, he of the Frankensteinian brow, he of the third eye, giant and freak and businessman and philosopher. He was reading a book, oblivious of his surroundings—and of me—but positioned so the marks could look up into his face and see every grim detail.

This was what had drawn me. At first I thought the adducent power that I felt was originating in Joel Tuck himself, and perhaps a measure of it was, but not all of it; part of the magnetism came from the place, from the earthen floor of the stall. Beyond the rope and stanchions that delineated the limits of the public area, there was an open space, about six feet wide, between that line of demarcation and the edge of the wooden platform on which Joel Tuck sat. My eyes were drawn to that dusty, sawdust-covered patch of ground, and as I stared at it a dark heat rose from the earth, a disturbing warmth totally separate from the cloying August heat that stuck to every square foot of the midway; this was a heat that only I could have felt. It had no smell, yet it was like the odorous steam rising off a bed of manure on the farm. It made me think of death, of the heat that is the product of decomposition and rises from a rotting body. I could not grasp what it signified, though I wondered if what I sensed was that this spot would become a secret grave, perhaps even my own. And, indeed, as I dwelt on that shuddery possibility, I became increasingly certain that I stood at the brink of a grave that would be opened in the near future and that some bloody corpse would be stashed there in the deepest hours of the night, and that—

“Why, if it isn’t Carl Slim,” Joel said, finally noticing me. “Oh, no, wait, sorry. Just Slim, wasn’t it? Slim MacKenzie.”

He was poking fun at me, and I smiled, and the occult emanations rising from the ground faded quickly: dim, dimmer, gone.

The river of marks had ceased to flow for a moment, and I was temporarily alone with Joel. I said, “How’s business?”

“Good. It’s almost always good,” he said in that mellow-rich timbre, like the announcer on an FM station that played only classical music. “And what of you? Are you getting what you wanted from the carnival?”

“A place to sleep, three square meals a day, better than just pocket money—yeah, I’m doing all right.”

“Anonymity?” he asked.

“That, too, I guess.”


“So far.”

As before, I sensed in this strange man a fatherliness, an ability and willingness to provide comfort, friendship, guidance. But I also sensed, as I had before, danger in him, an indefinable threat, and I could not understand how he could encompass both potentials in regard to me. He might be mentor or enemy, one or the other but surely not both, yet I felt those conflicting possibilities in him, so I did not open myself to him as I might otherwise have done.

“What do you think of the girl?” he asked from his seat upon the platform.

“What girl?”

“Is there any other?”

“You mean . . . Rya Raines?”

“Do you like her?”

“Sure. She’s all right.”

“Is that all?”

“What else?”

“Ask nearly any other man on this midway what he thinks of Miss Rya Raines, and he’ll rhapsodize for half an hour about her face and body—and gripe for another half hour about her personality, and then he’ll rhapsodize some more, but he’ll never just say, ‘She’s all right’ and be done with it.”

“She’s nice.”

“You’re infatuated,” he said, his bony jaws working laboriously, his yellow teeth clacking together when he stressed the harder consonants.

“Oh . . . no. No. Not me,” I said.


I shrugged.

His orange eye fixing me with a blind yet penetrating stare, his other two eyes rolling with mock impatience, he said, “Oh, come, come, of course you are. Infatuated. Maybe worse. Maybe falling in love.”

“Well, really, she’s older than me,” I said uncomfortably.

“Only a few years.”

“But still older.”

“And in terms of experience and wit and intelligence, you’re older than your years, at least as old as she is. Stop fencing with me, Slim MacKenzie. You’re infatuated. Admit it.”

“Well, she’s very beautiful.”

“And beneath?”


“Beneath?” he repeated.

“Are you asking if her beauty is more than skin deep?”

“Is it?” he asked.

Surprised at how successfully he was drawing me out, I said, “Well, she likes you to think she’s hard-bitten . . . but inside . . . well, I see some qualities every bit as attractive as her face.”

He nodded. “I would agree.”

Farther back in the tent, a group of laughing marks approached.

Talking faster, leaning forward in his chair to take advantage of our last moments of privacy, Joel said, “But you know . . . there’s sadness in her too.”

I thought of the bleak mood in which I had left her last night, the clutching loneliness and despair that seemed to be dragging her down into some dark, private pit. “Yes, I’m aware of it. I don’t know where it comes from, that sadness, or what it means, but I am aware of it.”

“Here’s something to think about,” he said, then hesitated.


He peered at me with such intensity that I could almost believe he was reading my soul with some psychic power of his own. Then he sighed and said, “Such a stunningly beautiful surface she has, and beauty underneath, as well, we’re agreed on that . . . but is it possible that there is another ‘underneath’ below the ‘underneath’ that you can see?”

I shook my head. “I don’t think she’s a deceiving person.”

“Oh, we all are, my young friend! We all deceive. Some of us deceive the whole world, every single fellow creature we meet. Some of us deceive only selected people, wives and lovers, or mothers and fathers. And some of us deceive only ourselves. But none of us is totally honest with everyone all the time, in all matters. Hell, the need to deceive is just one more curse that our sorry species has to bear.”

“What are you trying to tell me about her?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said, his tension suddenly flowing away. He leaned back in his chair. “Nothing.”

“Why are you being so cryptic?”



“I wouldn’t know how,” he said, his mutant face bearing the most enigmatic expression I had ever seen on anyone.

The marks reached the twelfth stall, two couples in their early twenties, the girls with heavily lacquered bouffant hair and too much makeup, the guys in checkered slacks and clashing shirts, a quartet of country sophisticates. One of the girls, the porky one, squealed in fright when she saw Joel Tuck. The other girl squealed because her friend had done it, and the men put protective arms around their women, as if there were a real danger that Joel Tuck would bound off his small stage with either rape or cannibalism in mind.

While the marks made their comments, Joel Tuck lifted his book and returned to his reading, ignoring them when they asked questions of him, retreating into a dignity so solid that it was almost tangible. In fact, it was a dignity that even the marks could sense and that, in time, intimidated them into respectful silence.

More marks arrived, and I stood there for a moment longer, watching Joel, breathing in the odors of sun-heated canvas and sawdust and dust. Then I let my gaze slide to that patch of sawdust-covered earth between the rope and the platform, and again I received images of decomposition and death, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not figure out exactly what these dark vibrations meant. Except . . . I still had the disquieting feeling this dirt would be turned with a spade to make a grave for me.

I knew I would come back. When the midway was closed down. When the freaks were gone. When the tent was deserted. I would sneak back to stare at this portentous plot of dirt, to place my hands against the ground, to attempt to wrench a more explicit warning from the psychic energy that was concentrated here. I had to armor myself against the oncoming danger, and I could not do that until I knew precisely what the danger was.

When I left the ten-in-one and returned to the concourse, the twilight sky was the same color as my eyes.

Because it was the next to the last night of the engagement, and a Friday, the marks lingered longer, and the midway closed up later than the night before. It was almost one-thirty by the time I had locked away the teddy bears at the high-striker and, laden with coins that jingled with every step I took, went down to the meadow, to Rya’s trailer.

Thin, wispy clouds were backlit by the moon, which painted their lacy edges purest silver. They filigreed the night sky.

Having dealt with her other cashiers already, she was waiting for me, dressed much as she had been the night before: pale green shorts, white T-shirt, no jewelry, no need of jewelry, more radiant in her unadorned beauty than she could have been in any number of diamond necklaces.

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