Tell These Fine People What’s in Store for Them
Connie followed Bethesda at a distance. She stopped when she saw her at the top of the stairs before her trailer door. The lantern hanging there was unlit and her body just a silhouette in the darkness. Only when she was back inside her home, did Connie walk away.
The tent was full with townies. Connie sat in the seats surrounding the ring. She decided this morning to stay close to Bernardo; perhaps he would reveal something. Women held fans that fluttered through the thick heat. Peanut shells, loose hay and popcorn covered the dusty ground below them. The children were giddy with anticipation. When Bernardo walked out into the ring, flanked by his two massive lions, Magnetic and Opulence, the crowd howled. The lions’ manes, which Bernardo brushed every night, flowed golden and feathery. The beasts leapt onto their posts, two barrels painted with blue and white stripes. Bernardo brought his right arm against his waist, and he bowed before the crowd. Then the show began.
He grunted a single word, and Magnetic, understanding the secret language between them, jumped down from his post. Opulence sat, distracted, licking his paws, shivering his mane to toss away the circling flies. Bernardo smacked both of his hands against his chest, and Magnetic leapt like a puppy and placed his front paws against him. The crowd awed with delight. Children looked up to parents as if asking was it real. He ran his hand across Magnetic’s spine and spoke to him to go back to his barrel. The other lion looked toward the seats Connie sat in, and he flicked his long tail once, twice. Bernardo called Opulence. He had to call him three times before the lion turned his head. For a moment he studied Bernardo, then he hopped down and went to him. Again Bernardo tapped his chest, and the lion did the same as the first. But when Bernardo lifted his arms over his head and began to move in a circle, Opulence did not follow, did not tiptoe on his hind legs as he always did, in a kind of dance with Bernardo. Opulence roared. He lifted a paw and swiped at the man’s face. Bernardo was quick. He leapt back, untouched. The crowd gasped. Bernardo looked down at the lion; the look on his face one of disappointment, as if an old friend had just hurt his feelings. Then he remembered the crowd. He looked up and smiled. He called to the beast, walked over to the vacant post and signaled him to get back on it, but Opulence paid no attention. He gazed at the crowd. The children waved to the lion. Bernardo called him again. The heat in the tent seemed to thicken, to double, like yeast-laden dough.
Connie saw his eyes spasm, the lids fluttering in rapid succession as a twitch of nervousness pulsed through Bernardo. He would likely cut the act short, skipping the jump through the hoops. Big Jim would be angry, it was the highlight of the show, and people expected it, but he would cut it short regardless. Finally the beast seemed to hear Bernardo, and he slowly, reluctantly, sauntered toward his barrel. The flies had multiplied. They hovered around Opulence’s mane in a black cloud. The lion paused, shook his head, and the flies pulsed away in unison, then gathered again. Opulence looked toward the seats. He bounded over the border of the ring, galloped across the stretch of track that divided the crowd from the performer, and ran toward the stands.
The crowd shrieked; men snatched children by their arms and women fled from their seats. Connie watched the beast draw closer; its black eyes morphed to green, the green of moss, rich and wet with life. It soared through her. She felt a rush of wild sensations, of memory, weakness, shortness of breath, and of peace. A woman in a polka dot dress seated behind her, too paralyzed by fear to flee, took all the lion’s weight. Opulence threw her backward. She sailed across the seats from the force of the blow. Her shoes, cream, brown buckles at the toe, stayed behind on the ground. Now Bernardo was screaming. He ran his hands through his hair. The rush of people out of the tent, into the crowd outside, had alerted a few carnival hands and Big Jim as well that something was not right.
When Big Jim and the hands came running in they saw the lion, straddling the woman’s limp body, his belly expanding with deep breaths. Opulence stared down at her, breathing in as if trying to discern her essence. She had been knocked unconscious, so she did not scream. Then the beast backed up. He drew away from the woman. He walked slowly down the row of seats, back to the ring, where he finally hopped onto his barrel.
Connie struggled to focus; through her eyes everything seemed to swirl. Trying to find a still point within the tent, she looked down at the center ring, where Big Jim stood, a trail of dirt hovering along the path he had marched coming in. Big Jim leaned his head back to get a better angle with his one eye. He was taking in the circumstances of the situation. There had been a crowd; another was forming outside the tent. Where there was a crowd there was no hiding it. If the woman died there’d be trouble. He sent a hand out to find a doctor, and two more to find something that would work like a stretcher to lay the woman on. He told Bernardo to quit hollering and get those goddamn animals out of here. Big Jim ran up to the woman. He felt for a pulse and found one. She was sprawled across two rows, her head on a top one, her feet on the seat below; she was limp, bruised, but there was no blood that could be seen. He took out his flask and waved it beneath the woman’s nose; then he poured a drop between her parted lips.
The hands hurried across the fairgrounds. Outside of Bethesda’s trailer, they spotted the tall wooden sign painted with her name, a crystal ball, and a blue and white swirl of sky and clouds. Bethesda heard them outside, pulling out the spikes to let loose the chords that tied it to the ground. By the time she stepped out to holler at them, they were running off with the sign, back to the tent and the woman. She could see the townies streaming in one direction. She walked toward it.
The same hands who kept back the men from the stage at the cooch show were keeping the onlookers back, outside of the tent. Inside, Bernardo and his lions were gone; the ring was empty, but other carnis had gathered, hands over their mouths, their eyes blinking nervously as they looked to one another, wondering how long work might dry up this time. Delilah stood next to the sword swallower; two of his swords were still in sheaths hanging against his thighs, and they grazed Delilah’s ear. The fire-eater kept his arm around the tightrope walker, who, having just climbed down from the ropes, wore her sparkling one-piece costume and tights. Bethesda walked through the crowd of townies. They were lifting onto their toes, craning their necks to try to get a look inside. They were shaking their heads, clucking their tongues, whispering inevitability to one another. She went inside, stood beside the others.
They had lowered the woman onto the unpainted side of her sign. A man cried above her, wringing his big hands together. He was tall and broad-shouldered, but at that moment, he looked frail and small. I thought she was right behind me, he said. I thought I had her by the hand, he said. And then he said both things again.
Bethesda slipped away and went into the back yard. As Connie watched her, the dizziness abated, and she followed on Bethesda’s heels, so close she could see the fine hairs on Bethesda’s neck; but Bethesda did not acknowledge her, did not stop or turn around to address her. Bernardo lay on the grass at the foot of Opulence’s cage, his fingers poking through the gaps in the bars, stroking a patch of the animal’s belly. He was talking in a low, sad voice, like a lover asking his beloved for forgiveness. Bernardo lifted his gaze to Bethesda.
“I don’t know what got into him,” he said. “He’s always the gentler of the two.”
“Maybe it’s the heat, Bernardo.”
He ran his fingers across the lion’s hair. Opulence lay there, looking exhausted, motionless but for his rib cage expanding and contracting. A few flies settled upon his warm pelt.
“Why don’t you go have a drink,” Bethesda said. “Throw some cool water on your face.”
Bernardo rose. He wiped the grass blades and dirt from the sleeves of his shirt and from his knees. He ran his hand down his face, which was covered with sweat.
“That’s not a bad idea,” he said.
When he was gone, Bethesda knelt before Opulence. She turned her head left, then right, trying to take in the beast from different angles. She breathed heavily. She lifted her hand and unhinged the lock. She opened the door to the cage. She smelled musk and saw fine flecks of dust on the animal’s coat. She crawled into the cage. The ground was damp and wet with sweat and urine. She was ready to lie down beside Opulence, when Bernardo’s voice called out.
“Are you out of your mind!” yelled Bernardo.
Bethesda’s body stilled. She reversed, crawling backward, and came out of the cage. Bernardo was soaked from the water he’d splashed on himself. When she looked up at Bernardo, she had the stunned, drowsy look of someone just shaken awake from sleep. Bernardo lifted her off all fours into standing position. He slammed and locked the cage door as she hung her head and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.
“It’s like a madhouse around here lately,” Bernardo said.
Bethesda whispered, “I’m sorry Bernardo. The heat must be getting to every one of us.”
She looked up and saw the sun slanting over Connie, dropping over her like a golden chiffon scarf.
“Did you see anything?” he asked Bethesda.
“No,” she said, “I saw nothing.”
“Do you see anything now?”
“No,” she said, “I see nothing.”
Her eyes were set on Connie, and she wanted what she had always wanted—for her to go away.
Inside the main tent, the woman and the weeping man were gone. The woman had opened her eyes, but she was in bad shape. Big Jim had walked with the man and slipped a fold of bills into his palm, telling him, a little something for your troubles. He told him to leave his name at the gate, and he and his family were welcomed, on the house, the next time the carnival came into town. When the man was gone he turned and told the carnis to get back to work. Bernardo and his lions would not be able to perform for the rest of their stay; he’d have to wait until they moved on. They’d have to hope word did not travel there before them.
A lady’s hatpin, crowned at its tip with a single pearl, stuck into her wedding gown, held a photograph in place. Connie bent, slid out the pin, and lifted the picture. In the black and white image it was her, and it was Jacob. One look at him brought back to her all of him. Her thoughts swirled; the world around her went fluid, as if she were again in the tent, or on the carousel, watching it all drip past her and reappear, drip and reappear. She remembered the day the photograph had been taken. They had driven to the woods near a river for a picnic. She had even convinced Patti to give her some eggs and mayonnaise. She made deviled eggs, sprinkling the burnt-orange paprika on top before wrapping them in wax paper. For the promise of a new pack of guitar strings, Patti allowed Connie to take what was left of the turkey from the night before. Connie cut it into strips, laid it onto white bread smeared with mayonnaise and mustard and wrapped them, too, in paper. She liked to feed him. She liked to take care of him.
In the photograph, they sit beside each other on seat cushions pulled out of the old Ford and placed on the banks of the river. She wore a hat with a flower sewn onto the flap, just above her eyes. Her dress came to her ankles. She wore Sunday shoes with straps across the tops of her feet. A little glare in her eyes so she is squinting, but Jacob is wide-eyed. He consumes the picture’s frame; both arms wrapped around Connie, he consumes her with his big smile, broad shoulders and hands. His right arm wraps around her right side, the hand lifts up to her ear, out of which he is pulling a dark-colored poppy. The magician. Jacob the Great. Simple, he had said, refusing to take a sensational stage name. Simple and true, he said.
Connie sat in the warm dirt without rolling out her blanket. She stared at the photograph. She let the picture tell her things; things that had been inside her all along. She simply forgot where she had placed them. He turned sunflowers into honeybees. Once, in his hand, a stone turned to a spoon, the spoon to dust. He brushed his hands together. He wiped them on the leg of his trousers. They’re all made of the same stuff, he had said. There’s no secret, he said. Only understanding. He could make things with wings appear out of light—small birds, moths, wasps when he was angry.
At the edge of the photo’s frame, a long dark shadow cast itself alongside them. There was someone. Someone had stood behind the square black box and snapped the shutter. The flash popped and sizzled violently. And whoever had been behind the box would have been in possession of the photograph, and who else could have left it here but Bethesda. Patti’s guitar struck a single chord from out beyond in the darkness. Tombstones is my pillow, she sang, cold grounds is my bed.
In the morning, outside of Bethesda’s trailer, Connie found Big Jim, and he was angry. He paced at the foot of the stairs, his pointed boots kicking up dust as he shuffled. Sweat poured down around the patch over his eye, but still he wore his coat. He mumbled. Then he took the two stairs and pounded on the door. He told Bethesda to get her lazy ass out here, to open the fucking door, to sing for her supper. The door did not open, and Big Jim cursed and spit to the ground. Bethesda jumped when Connie appeared in her trailer; she had thought if she saw an image of him, Connie would piece together just enough to go away. Bethesda blinked, and her gray eyes were bloodshot. Her cheeks were white as bone. She was dressed in her silk robe, and the trailer smelled of smoke and liquor. She sat on the lounge. A hatbox rested on her lap. She made a move to cover the box, but she paused, shook her head. She told Connie she was exhausting; she told her never would she have imagined someone so plain could be so relentless. In that box were postcards, letters, and several photographs. She reached in and pulled out a random card. It had a painting of a yellow hibiscus on its front side. She turned it over.
“This one says, ‘I can’t quit you or it. I’m all broken. You are my fire. But maybe what I need is not to burn anymore.’”
She dropped the card into the hatbox and pulled out another. It was a small sheet of paper, and she unfolded it slowly. She tried to smooth out the creases against her knee before reading.
“And this one,” she began, “it says, ‘I’m not fit to be called a man. She came last night, holding a stack of ladies’ magazines, the pages with pictures of dresses she liked folded over to mark the place. And instead of telling her, I told her which dresses I thought the prettiest.’”
Bethesda lifted a small scrap of paper torn from a circus poster out of the box. She tilted her head to make out the sloppy, crammed penmanship.
“This just says, ‘She tells me, ‘house.’ A house that don’t move. Flowers planted. Meals on a kitchen table. If I didn’t want you I’d want that.’ ”
She held her clenched hand over the hatbox, and then she unfurled it. The scrap of paper floated down, fell upon the other items. She took up the lid and fixed it over the top.
“Every one of those is from Jacob,” Bethesda said.
Big Jim’s voice came from the side window. He was yelling that he would kick her to the curb if she didn’t open her door today. He was asking who she thought she was, Mrs. Roosevelt? Taking a day off like a high-society bitch. He was mumbling that all he had on his hands was fuck-ups and freaks, and the whole damn ship was gonna sink if they all didn’t shape up. Bethesda turned and knelt on the purple lounge and threw up the window.
“Listen you ugly beast,” she said to Big Jim, “if you don’t leave me alone, I’ll tear your other eye out. Tell those goddamn hicks there’s no future to be told. The future is dead.”
She slammed the window shut. She collapsed onto the velvet. The white curtain fluttered back over the window. Big Jim kicked an empty bottle of beer and walked off. Her robe had slipped open, and a stretch of skin along her smooth thigh was exposed. Connie thought something in that thigh wanted to show her something, the way the photograph had shown her things. Bethesda adjusted her robe. Her chest caved with each breath she took. She lit a cigarette. She dropped her head back against the lounge and let out the smoke. Bethesda coughed once. The cough seemed to pave the way for others, and she heaved air in deep barks. From the pail on the counter, Connie poured her a ladle of water. She drank it down to the last drop.
“Last night when you left the photograph,” Connie started, “had you seen my wedding dress before?”
“I didn’t leave you any picture.”
“You must have.”
“I must of nothing. Take your picture and take your gown and get away from me. I been patient with you until now.”
Connie held up the photo.
“You know who this is.”
Bethesda didn’t look at the photograph. She scratched at the inside of her leg until red streaks surfaced.
“Do you?” Bethesda asked.
Connie nodded. She pointed to the shadow.
“And that’s you.”
“I’ve told what you need to know,” Bethesda said. “Now you can go on to where you belong.”
“I belong here.”
“You belong in the ground.”
She dropped her cigarette into an empty rum bottle and kicked her legs out, stood, and walked past Connie. Bethesda twisted the cap on a fresh bottle of whiskey and drank from it. She tucked the bottle under her arm and took up a pack of cards. She slid out the top card from the pack and turned it, slammed it picture side up onto the red tablecloth. The image swirled and moved. It heaved and shifted and showed the tornadoes of Connie’s dreams.
“Here.” Bethesda said. “Tornadoes touched down and one took you.”
She flipped and brought down another card just as heavily. In the image, Jacob wears a top hat and a dress suit, and Bethesda, standing beside him, wears Connie’s wedding gown. Bethesda pointed to Jacob.
“He’d decided it was better to burn than to be safe. He just hadn’t told you yet. You forget the most important part—your dress was yellowing before the twisters touched down.”
The night fell over Connie; Bethesda watched her and saw the memory drain through her like a tub of water, from top to bottom. Satisfied, Bethesda dropped the cards and drank from the bottle. She nodded. The red in her eyes turned to water, and her hand shook as she tried to light another cigarette. She ran the flat of her palm across her cheek and wiped away the water.
Bethesda’s naked thighs had rested on his bed; the blue sheets were twisted under her. Her breasts shifted to the sides of her chest, because she was reclined. She leapt up when Connie walked in. Jacob stood in nothing but his pants, the zipper still undone; the zipper flashed its metal teeth as Connie remembered it. Bethesda had grabbed her dress and run naked out of the trailer. He hadn’t even let Connie deliver her angry words, cry, throw a bit of furniture, before he stuck the needle into his arm. Then there was nothing she could say to him that he would hear. The wind had thrown open the door and slammed it shut all at once. She turned. When she turned back around he was on the floor. It had been filled with blood. She could see it now, a glass tube encasing the liquid red and blue of his insides. The needle protruded from his arm, and she pulled it out of his flesh.
Her screams had brought Big Jim and Bernardo to the trailer, but soon they were lost to the screams outside, as a townie spotted one of the tall, brown funnels cutting a path across the field, sucking up the lake itself as it rushed toward them. She had begged the two men to help her carry Jacob to the caravan of assembling trailers and jalopies. They said there wasn’t time. They said he had really done it this time. They said it as they ran out the door, out onto the fairgrounds, trying to salvage equipment and animals as they rushed toward the line of trucks and trailers and sped away.
Then there was only the sound of stillness. The wheezing, faint breath crawling out of Jacob’s mouth. She lifted him under his arms and dragged him to the door. His heels scraped across the floor. She lugged him out of his trailer; thump, thump, went his feet against each stair on the way down. The grounds were empty. Red and white striped popcorn boxes floated in the air like birds. The sword swallower’s canvas sign drifted by. Her hat flew off her head and her hair twisted and wrapped around her body in every direction. She pulled Jacob to the dining tent and laid him atop a table. There was no shelter, nowhere for them to hide. There were only canvas tents, tethered to the ground with spikes that would prove as insignificant as toothpicks to a twister. She looked up and saw a wild funnel spinning madly, madly heaving and bending and winding toward them. She looked to Jacob. His chest, still bare from his time with Bethesda, lifted, fell, rose and fell again, but his eyes were closed. When she raised the lids, all she saw was white.
The merry-go-round began to list, groaning as it teetered first left, then right. Then it flew into the air with the ease of a child’s toy. The candy-colored cars snapped from the wheel and disappeared into the cloud of water and dust that had overtaken the sky. And then the twister leapt. It seemed for a moment it had vanished. It reappeared, dropped down, close enough so it seemed she could touch it. Then, nothingness.
“So then I’m with him,” Connie said.
And she turned to light.
Bethesda had been certain he would come to her, she said.
And the light dimmed.
But she had not seen him since Arkansas, she said, when he was still alive. Connie had not known what she was, and if this remained unchanged, she wouldn’t know she was near him, and Bethesda would have all things as she had always wanted them, but she did not tell Connie this. She did not mention the lion. Bethesda shook her head. Her body went limp and she dropped all her weight to the floor. She tucked the bottle between her thighs.
“I really am,” she said in a voice like a whisper, “I really am the devil’s daughter.”
Connie ignored her laments. It was all stringing together so quickly; she couldn’t pause or risk distraction. She was beginning to understand, and she wanted to understand it all. She felt pain, pain like an ice pick slammed into her chest, as she had upon seeing Bethesda’s naked body lounging on his bed; the bed that Connie walked over and made for him every morning. Bethesda had been comfortable on it, relaxed. She seemed at home. Connie stared down at her now. She looked as torn and undone as an old rag doll, and it gave Connie pause. A hood of darkness seemed to draw over Bethesda. She was alive, and Connie did not envy her for it.
The voices of men outside the trailer grew close; then the sound of heavy boots coming up the stairs. A great whack rang through the air. The trailer shook. Teacups rattled in the cupboard. Connie and Bethesda looked to one another, then to the door. The door flew open. It ripped from its hinges and sailed into the room, landing on the chaise lounge. A gust of heat and dust blew in. The hands lowered the log they had rammed against the door and stepped away. Below the stairs, Big Jim stood, framed in the square of the doorway. The air was white with sunlight, and he squinted his one eye against it.
“Now your goddamn door is open,” he said.
He spit. A thick, gray stream of mucus sailed from his lips and flopped onto the dust.
“Now,” he said. “Tell these fine people what’s in store for them.”