Tell These Fine People What’s in Store for Them
Her wedding dress was yellowed. It lay on the grass, at the head of the rolled-out blanket, as a pillow would. Most brides, after the big day, have their dresses hermetically sealed in great, wide boxes, a little diamond-shape of plastic on top to reveal a bit of the gown inside. Or at least they fold them, wrap them in tissue paper, and tuck them into their grandmother’s trunk. But most brides got to wear their dresses. Most brides made it to the big day.
She wondered, she wasn’t sure, she didn’t know if she was alive or dead. She roamed the grounds of the carnival as she always had, and she could not be sure if the others saw her. She knew for certain that Bethesda saw her—Bethesda who read cards and palms; but then again, Bethesda had always been more sensitive than the others, more astute. Bethesda even talked to her. When Connie came into the woman’s trailer, unsure if she had walked in through the door or simply appeared there, Bethesda would look up from her table, gather up the cards, tie her silk robe tighter around her pale skin and put a kettle of water on the single burner for tea. They drank from the chipped china, and talked as all women talk, but she never knew if Bethesda could see and speak to her because she had the gift to, or because she always had, and nothing had changed. One time she even asked Bethesda.
“Am I dead or am I alive?”
Bethesda popped open her silver cigarette case, pulled out a long white stick and lit it. She blew out the first inhalation before she spoke.
“Christ Connie,” she said, “every girl gets her heart broken. What makes you so special you’d of died of it?”
But she moved her gray eyes away from Connie’s so quickly that Connie was not convinced. And no matter how many times she asked, Bethesda would not read her cards, or take her hand into hers, turn it over, and read the lines.
The bearded lady did not see her. Of this Connie was certain. But then again, she had never been much of a friend, had never been warm. The bearded lady viewed Connie’s act, as the merwoman, suspended in a glass tank of water with her big, rubber fin strapped over her legs, as pathetically delicate, wastefully ethereal, and the work of a hack. All Connie had, thought the bearded lady, was yellow hair that had grown past her thighs, and the bearded lady was not impressed by excessive hair. The bearded lady rolled her cigarettes from a pouch of loose tobacco she kept tucked inside her brassiere. She drank whiskey out of tin cups with the carnival hands, who wandered out of chain gangs, work farms, hometowns, the arms of women and debtors, and set up the merry-go-round or the carousel, lugged the shit-filled pails of the horses and elephants, and then disappeared when the carnival moved on to the next town. No, the bearded lady did not see or speak to her. She rested her thick, flabby arms on the table and rolled another cigarette, let the smoke curl around her black beard, not bothering to look up when Connie approached. But then again, she never had.
She remembered him; she remembered him like a childhood memory, vivid but with gaps in places, altered over time by the mind that holds it. She thought he was why she wandered the fairgrounds, and she thought of the dark tales they used to tell as children. A young woman is killed on the night of the dance. She roams the graveyard in search of her beloved. People see her at night when they drive past the graveyard. She appears in the headlights. The dress she wore to the dance flutters at the hem, but it is diaphanous. Connie didn’t know where to find him. She had the sense that they were different; that she was ordinary and he extraordinary, and this is why they were drawn to each other, and this is why they could not ultimately be together. This and other reasons; what they were she was not sure. The one time she asked Bethesda, Bethesda said, “He’s gone Connie. It’s all gone. Just leave it alone and move on.” And because she did not want to lose Bethesda’s friendship, did not want to drive her away, she never asked again.
The last time she had worked they were in Arkansas. The line to get into the fairgrounds wound from the front gate, back across the field, down toward the lake. Children, restless with waiting, hollered and splashed each other until mothers hissed at them to get over here. Women fanned themselves and wore dresses that stopped at their calves; the heels of their pumps were thick and did not sink into the grass. The men wore straw hats, smoked, and said little. The painted canvas signs of the bannerline outside the sideshow tent flapped violently all morning long, but only the midget Delilah said the weather was turning; she could feel it in her bones. The sun was bright; the sky pale blue. A reverend stood down by the water on an overturned crate and preached to those on line that what waited behind the gates—all things “unnatural,” all things “twisted and maligned”—were made unnatural and maligned by the hands of the devil. He preached until Big Jim, the headman, the man who ran the entire show and passed out envelopes of bills on pay day, sent some of the hands to quiet him down. Big Jim wore a patch over his eye, and when he did not wear the patch he slid a glass ball into the socket to sit in for the eye. He had lost it to a grenade in the Great War. And it was him who said, when Delilah rushed up on her little legs and tugged at the hem of the horsehair coat he wore year round, “The show must go on.”
“But it’s turning bad,” Delilah said. “ I can barely lift my arms my bones ache so.”
Big Jim did not even look down at her; he looked up instead.
“Look at that sky,” he said, “it’s perfect as a young woman’s ass.”
“It’s deceiving,” said Delilah, rubbing her shoulder.
Big Jim walked away and washed into the crowd that had begun to swarm in after the opening of the gates.
Connie could remember the curtain closing over the townies standing before her tank; she pushed herself up to the surface and gasped for a breath of air. In addition to strong arms, she had developed the ability to hold her breath under water for as long as three minutes, which was just enough time for people to stare, judge, doubt, renege on that doubt and believe, and move along to the next sight. One of the carnival hands helped pull her out of the tank. She unsnapped the rubber fin, a thick green heap embellished with mock scales, and slid out her wrinkled white legs. She remembered the wind whipping at the flap of her robe as she hurried across the grass; her long hair tucked into a cap, her eyes cast down, lest she be recognized walking on two legs by one of the townies. She went to his trailer, this she remembered. A record played and a woman’s dark, sad voice cracked its way out of the brass horn. He looked up when he saw her. Did he smile? Did he look up quickly? Nervously? She could not remember. Clouds moved across the sun, and everything went dark.
One time, after she first remembered this night, she paced beside Bethesda’s trailer for 15 minutes, trying to gather the nerve to ask her about it. But she did not have the strength; she felt as weightless as air. At night she slept on a blanket rolled out on the ground, because she no longer had a trailer. Her act had been replaced by the cooch show. She had watched it one night. She was the only woman in there, and no one seemed to mind. The air was stout with cigarette smoke and sweat. The girls’ breasts were ripe and taut, their nipples dark. The men groaned and pressed close to the stage. The biggest hands worked the cooch; they lined the foot of the platform below the dancing girls, to keep back the hungry men. At night Connie dreamed of screams and funnels of wind gliding across cornfields; sometimes they glided across oceans. This morning, she had gone to Big Jim. She asked him about the twisters, and did that mean anything to him? He shivered and pulled his coat tighter around his chest, shook his head, and said nothing.
The townies had gone home, the gates were locked, and Connie wandered. Lanterns hung outside trailers and beneath the dining tent, flames billowed in a faint breeze. She walked toward the tent and its light. She heard Big Jim talking to Bernardo, the lion tamer. His hair was black and thick; his frame short and muscular. Bernardo had trouble with the animals that day, he said; they were listless and did not want to be prodded into their cages. Now he was tired. He had missed supper, and sat at a wooden table lifting beans into his mouth as if his spoon were a shovel. “Maybe it’s the heat,” he said, and shrugged. It was August.
Big Jim pulled a silver flask from his horsehair coat and offered it to Bernardo, but he refused. He took a long pull and returned it to his breast pocket. He sat down across from him. Connie stood at the tent’s entrance, in the shadow of a lantern, and they did not seem to see her.
“I thought today of Jacob,” said Big Jim.
Jacob. The word clicked into place in Connie’s heart like a puzzle piece. Her heart grew lighter, even with this added to it. She moved nearer to the men.
Bernardo paused his spoon before his mouth. He watched Big Jim. Then he turned and looked into the darkness swarming over the carnival tents and the motionless rides. He stared back down at the bowl before him. He shoved the beans into his mouth.
“The heat is getting to you, too,” Bernardo said.
Big Jim took the flask out and had another pull. He wiped the whiskey from his beard. Its hairs were the color of autumn. He kept the flask on the table this time.
“I haven’t thought of him since the night of the twister. I locked it away in some prison of my mind.”
“What is there to remember?” Bernardo said. “He was a junkie.”
And this, too, clicked into a place inside Connie. She saw the leather pouch most men use to hold shaving tools. She saw it unrolled on the tabletop, holding, in a neat line, instead of razors and a lather brush, needles, and a strip of rubber, and a vial. Connie moved closer to hear every word of it. She was at Bernardo’s elbow.
Bernardo took up the flask. He grimaced and sucked in air as the whiskey burned down the length of his throat.
“Why do you buy that corn whiskey?” said Bernardo. “It’s like acid. Sell that ugly coat and you can buy enough good whiskey to last you for months.”
Big Jim ignored him; knew he was trying to change the subject.
“It wasn’t right what we did,” Big Jim said, “leaving him there.”
Bernardo dropped his spoon into the beans. There was still half a bowl waiting for him to eat. He pushed the bowl away.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He stood from the table.
“All the hairy beasts get crazy in the heat,” he added.
He walked away.
“But what about the girl?” Big Jim yelled.
Bernardo did not turn around, and he did not stop walking. Lightning bugs lit and went black around the fading outline of his body.
“You need some sleep,” he yelled.
His words, traveling forward, sounded empty.
With these new pieces, Connie went and unrolled her blanket and lay down, her head against her wedding gown. The sky was a slick wet stone. She did not know what town they were in. She could smell the water around them, water that smelled cool and like salt. The sound of a guitar started up, and soon Patti’s voice flowed into the night. Patti was the head cook; she had been raised in Mississippi. Before her people were carnival people they had been slaves, and she sang of love and of trouble. Connie closed her eyes. She was to marry Jacob, Jacob was a junkie, and the last night she had been the merwoman tornadoes had touched down in the town they were in, that town was somewhere in Arkansas, the phonograph in his trailer played a record that sang of the things Patti now sang of, and Big Jim and Bernardo had done something, or failed to do something, to Jacob, and also, now, she was sure she was dead. Connie opened her eyes. Blue moon, Patti sang, you saw me standing alone. Her voice was deep and clear; her voice was like a river, and every night it ran through every one of them.
The sunshine burned on her cheeks and forehead. She woke and saw the orange sun above her, the sky just around it white from its heat. She could hear the mechanical grunts of the merry-go-round, then the talker’s gravelly voice, calling come one, come all, step right up, and she knew the gates had already been opened.
She appeared in Bethesda’s trailer, and for the first time she did not care, did not worry about pushing her away. A young woman sat at the table across from Bethesda. Her corn-colored hair was weaved into a thick braid. The crystal ball was set between them, atop the red, lace tablecloth. Bethesda looked up at Connie’s arrival, but the young woman did not.
“If it wasn’t a broken heart that did me in,” Connie said, “then tell me what did.”
She knew now, for certain, that only Bethesda would hear her.
“This is not the time,” Bethesda said.
She cradled her long fingers over the cloudy ball and looked into it.
“Is it my grandmother?” the young lady asked. “Is it Nanna?”
“No, no. It’s someone lost. Someone trying to interfere.”
“I won’t let you rest until you tell me,” Connie said.
Bethesda leaned back in her chair.
“The ball’s gone dark,” she said.
“Three dollars for that?” the young woman said.
Bethesda reached into the pocket of her dress and pulled out three singles, handed them back to the woman.
“Perhaps tomorrow the crystal will be clearer.”
The young woman shook her head, took the money, and left.
Bethesda drew a cigarette from her silver case and lit it.
“You happy now?” she said to Connie. “Good money, gone.”
“Tell me who he was. Tell me who I was. Tell me how it happened.”
Bethesda tapped ash into her palm. She stood and went to the cupboard and took down a bottle of rum, unscrewed the cap, and tilted the bottle against her lips and drank.
“I’ve got nothing to lose,” Connie said. “I’ll stay here day and night until you tell me. I’ve all the time now a woman could want.”
She sat down on the purple velvet chaise lounge and crossed her arms. Bethesda laughed. She laughed so hard she choked and coughed.
“And is that supposed to scare me?” Bethesda started. “I’ve been living with your kind since I was a little girl.”
The hair on her arms was rising, peeling up from her sweating skin. She shivered and drank and spoke again.
“You know what they used to say about me back in Kansas? They said I was the devil’s daughter. Then they said I was the devil himself. Double, double, toil and trouble, they hissed at me on the playground. I’ve been living with your kind all my life. One more of you around means nothing.”
She lifted the bottle. Her throat bulged with each gulp she took in. She lowered the bottle. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
“You best go away,” Bethesda said, “you stay with me and you’ll be staying until the blessed day I die.”
Her gray eyes came alive, went wild in their sockets. She moved to the door of the trailer, opened it, and flicked her cigarette out.
“Now leave,” she said, holding the door open.
Bethesda locked the door and slid a record out from the crate. She pulled the disc from its sleeve and laid it onto the bed of the phonograph. She dropped the needle. The record spun, the woman’s voice sparked into the room. She sat on the velvet lounge with the bottle on her lap, where she would sit for the remainder of the day, ignoring the knocks on her door; ignoring the townies who wanted their futures told.
Out of the trailer Connie walked into the crowds and the heat. The smell of sugar and salt floated over the smell of warm trash. A little girl with hair in pigtails rode the teacups. An old man lifted his hat and wiped the bald crown of his head with a handkerchief. He watched the organ grinder, who, dressed in a long-sleeved, collared shirt, red vest, top hat, long pants, bowtie, and with a monkey roping around his neck, sweat thick streams down his cheeks. Gotta sing for your supper, the grinder said to the old man. The old man nodded, as if he knew it all very well. Connie rode the carousel. She went round and round. At first the children straddled the painted horses with gusto, whooping and hollering, spurring them with their heels like cowboys. They soon quieted, lulled into the rhythm of up and down, round and round. Those children that did see Connie ignored her, thought her just another part of the great wide world of grownups. There was no divide for them between the living and the dead. They knew nothing about death and the twists and cracks that had brought her there. They were as unaware of what had happened to her as she was.
After the carnival shut down, Connie walked across the fairgrounds, across the trampled grass and the yellow popcorn flattened underfoot. Flies buzzed around discarded cotton candy sticks, ice cream cups, and soda bottles. She saw Bethesda walking crookedly. Her robe was fastened tight around her body, but her feet were bare and her hair loose from the rubber band she had tied it back with. Connie ducked into the shadows, across from the bearded lady’s trailer. She was out there with some carnival hands, sitting on overturned buckets and a few chairs pulled out from inside; cigarette smoke drifted toward the sky in the moonlight.
Bethesda walked up to the group.
“I need some whiskey and smokes,” she said.
“Do I look like a general store?” said the bearded lady.
The carnival hands laughed.
Bethesda had drunk until the sun went down, until the rides stilled and the lanterns were hung, until her bottle was empty. When she threw open the cupboards, looked beneath the lounge chair, searching for more liquor and tobacco, she found she was out of both.
“Don’t give me a hard time,” said Bethesda. “I know you got tobacco in that filthy bra of yours.”
“Well now that’s not very lady like,” she answered.
“Come on over here,” said one of the hands.
He had a red moustache, and when he smiled, the gaps where four teeth had once sat showed.
“I got some whiskey for you.”
They all laughed again.
“Don’t bother,” said the bearded lady. “This one ain’t had anything but monthly blood between her legs since we were in Arkansas.”
Bethesda’s body stiffened and she dove toward the bearded lady. The bearded lady let out a single, deep laugh and simply put her hand against Bethesda’s chest. She didn’t even get up from her chair.
“Alright, alright,” she said.
Bethesda let out grunts and tried to swing around her thick arm.
“Take it easy honey,” said the bearded lady. “Don’t make me blacken up that pretty face.”
Bethesda’s breathing flapped her chest in and out with quick movements. She leapt back from the bearded lady’s hand as if it had shocked her. She yanked the tie at her waist and fastened her robe.
“I get it,” said the bearded lady.
She turned to one of the men.
“Give her some whiskey,” she said.
She reached into her brassiere and pulled out a pouch of tobacco. She handed it up to Bethesda.
“Here,” she said, “I got more in the trailer.”
Bethesda snatched the bottles of whiskey and the tobacco as if both had always rightfully belonged to her. She said nothing else and walked away, her body swaying, her bare feet sifting into the dust.
“Tell us our fortunes!” one of the hands yelled.
Those around him laughed wildly.
Bethesda turned toward them, but she continued to stumble backwards.
“You want to know your fucking fortunes?” she yelled. “You’re all gonna burn in hell fire!”
At this, all the men, and the bearded lady, too, roared with laughter.