Authors: Sean Ferrell
For Stephanie and Aidan
MAL RESEMBLED NOTHING else as much as a poorly gatheredâ¦
“THIS WAS SUPPOSED to be my night off,” I saidâ¦
FOR A VERY brief moment after Mal kicked me outâ¦
MICHAEL INTRODUCED ME to Hiko, a tall, slender, blind Japaneseâ¦
LIVING FOR MORE than a few days in a hotelâ¦
MY FIRST PUBLIC event organized by Michael was Hiko's showing.
DURING THE NEXT two weeks Hiko's apartment either blazed withâ¦
THE DAY AFTER our run on the bridge I wokeâ¦
TWO DAYS AFTER the shoot, with Mal's help, I triedâ¦
AT FIRST, WHEN I arrived at the Thomas' lobby, Iâ¦
I'D BEEN AT the hotel for a month, spending myâ¦
AS I HAD prayed for on the drive to theâ¦
AS SOON AS my plane landed I returned to Hiko'sâ¦
MAL RESEMBLED NOTHING
else as much as a poorly gatheredÂ scarecrow. Over six feet tall, with kinky reddish blond hair and three days of beard, he wore a cheap plaid dress shirt, very old jeans, and no shoes or socks. A scar above his right eye showed where a juggled machete had ended an errant toss. His long arms seemed to grow out of his unbuttoned sleeves. As he lifted the television antenna over his head, his dark eyes glowering at the poor reception on the screen and his high cheekbones casting a skeletal shadow across his face, I thought he might be losing a battle with something unseen by anyone else butÂ him.
I met Mal in Texas. He had a television in his trailer with a coat hanger duct-taped to the antenna. Two channels came in, both cloudy with static.
“Doesn't matter where you go anymore,” Mal said while readjusting the hanger, bending it into a diamond shape. “With cable and satellite, the free antenna stuff is getting harder to find. I don't care what they sayâdigital antennae or not, they're cutting back on the signal. It's a ploy to make us buy new televisions from the corporations.”
I didn't know what to say to that. I often didn't know what to say in response to Mal. He either left no option for debate or was spouting a conspiracy theory I couldn't comprehend.
Mal said, “You gonna take Tilly up on his offer?”
“I don't know.”
“You know, doing your act is one thing, but this is a stupid bet.”
I didn't know if it was stupid, but it was simple. Me and a lion in a cage together. If I did it, the circus would get a ton of cash. All for the enjoyment of a local oilman who thought my nail gun tricks were boring.
Mal said, “You know, pally, if you are gonna perform, make sure it's what you want, not what Tilly wants.”
“I know.” I thought I knew.
“You could just get your ass outta here. Go to New York or LA. Your act would fly there. Get on TV. Or movies.”
“Yeah, if only.” He chewed on a piece of ice, cracked it between his teeth. I watched him as he chewed. It looked like shards of glass.
I hadn't always been in the circus.
Early one morning, after a sandstorm had ripped through north Texas, I wandered into Mr. Tilly's circus. I wore a black suit and blood ran down my face. As I stumbled around, I left a meandering trail in the fine dust that covered the ground, the sparse weeds, and the narrow, hard-packed dirt that passed for a road. The tops of the circus tents and trucks and trailers all sat like stones poking through the dirt, and I teetered between them. When some of the carnies came up to me, I said, “I'm numb.”
This became my name.
I didn't know him yet, but Mal followed my tracks back out toward the highway. Everyone expected a car wreck, something new and fast wrapped around a telephone pole. There wasn't anything. My tracks just ended. Mal told me later that he was so freaked out to find nothing but a dead end, to see my footprints, perfectly formed and wandering east and west, come to a sudden, inexplicable end at the edge of the highway macadam, that he ran back to the circus with his heart in his throat.
My memory doesn't go back much further. It only barely has a grip on my wandering trip from the highway; beyond that, nothing.
Tilly didn't want a lawsuit, so he hired a doctor. One from a nearby town willing to drive out for a coupleÂ large bills and free tickets for his family. I had a bad cut across my scalp. My head was shaved to give me stitches. Tests
were run. Only one thing seemed wrong: I didn't feel pain. Heat, pressure, and cold came through, but no pain. The doctor said the only disease that fit the symptoms was congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis. I can't forget that word,
, even though I have no idea what it means.
The doctor said, “It could be congenital, but you don't fit all the symptoms. For instance, you perspire. That makes this appear more psychosomatic.” He faked a cough after the word
. Other than that I was fine. “If that word can be used for someone who feels no pain,” the doctor added. He tried to smile as I thanked him.
Everyone tried to smile at me as I waited to get over being “Numb” during my first weeks in Tilly's circus, but there was always a nervous hesitation. It was a simple sign that I didn't belong. I never got over it. No one knew who I was, and so they were less than interested in meeting me. Mr. Tilly gave me a job working with the roadies setting up and tearing down the circus tents. He felt bad for me. It was hard work, fast, and we never stayed anywhere long enough to do anything but the work. I hammered poles and tied off tent ropes. I mended holes in the impossibly old and weather-beaten canvas. I ate lunch in the shade of a truck or trailer and slept in one of the tents on a folding cot that was held together by duct tape and prayer. I hung around with Mal, who as a performer had a trailer, and tried to talk with Darla the Rubber Girl when I could.
I couldn't figure out what made Darla so appealing. When compared to images in magazines, Darla was a girl who might have been considered plain. Her hair was dirt brown and her eyes were a little too wide apart, but her smile and full lips drew most of the attention. That and her body's ability to contort itself into pretzel shapes. Strangely erotic pretzel shapes. Not that her act was what fascinated me. I was more interested in how she licked her lips when she was nervous or how she twisted her hair to let air get to her neck on hot days. Most of the roadies had a thing for her. She had the best of the ancient trailers, was always offered seats in the shade, and never got the dregs of the punch or powdered lemonade that was mixed up at the end of performances. Others spent their time backstage smoking or getting themselves mentally ready to stand on the stage and entertain the terminally bored. I spent my time watching Darla. If she was bothered by stares over the edges of coffee cups and awkward pauses in conversation, she was kind enough to not mention it.
One morning late in the fall, as we made our way south, we stopped outside a little town north of the Mexican border. Sandstorms and unpaid debts had been following us for weeks and made putting the show together nearly impossible. The wind whipped the tent flaps back and forth and the main tent looked like it was ready to lift off the ground.
Tilly ran around holding his filthy cowboy hat in place. He was trying to get us to unload the animals but
the crew was lethargic. We'd spent three weeks heading farther south, selling tickets to the few people who showed up, and barely made any money. There was hardly enough to buy food, let alone pay wages. Tilly ran the circus on force of will. He didn't want it to stop, so it didn't. I wondered if everyone there was like me, had just sort of wandered in and been given a job.
I had just tied off a tent rope and one of the flaps was blowing so hard that it cracked like a whip. As he ran by, Tilly shouted to me to nail the flap back. I grabbed a nail gun from the pickup, held the canvas in place, and tried to shoot a nail through. In order to get the nail to really stick into the poles I had to press hard into the gun as I pulled the trigger. When I pulled the gun away I couldn't move my hand. I'd nailed myself to the pole.
I was embarrassed. The others already teased me about not knowing how to tie decent knots. Now I was stuck to a pole. I pulled my hand hard, but the nail was deep in the wood. The skin was purple and getting darker. I pulled at it more but thought the flesh would tear before the nail came out, so I stopped. I was surprised by how much stretch there was in skin.
I shouted to a couple of the guys nearby. No one heard me. Finally Mr. Tilly came back and I waved him over. “What is it?” he said. His faded hat had a small gray feather in the band, and as he leaned over me a huge wind gust came up; the feather blew out, circled around between us, and then tore away. We watched it disap
pear and he swore under his breath. When he looked back at me he swore again. In the pink of my hand was a black dot.
He said, “Is that a nail?”
He looked at me and gave me the same sad smile the doctor had. “All right. We'll pry you loose.”
He got a hammer from the roadies' truck. When he came back several of the roadies followed him. Mal, who earned a double paycheck by working on setup as well as performing as a fire-eating machete juggler, came too.
“You okay?” he asked. Unlike the others, he showed a little concern.
I said I was. They worked at getting the nail out and by the time they succeeded the whole circus was watching. Everyone but the animals stared. I'd been less embarrassed when I wandered into the circus covered with blood.
The hole in my hand cleaned up fine. I had a bruise around it the size of a quarter, but the hole itself was barely there. Tilly helped me wash it out. He looked at me quickly as he poured hydrogen peroxide on it, saying, “Let me know if this hurts.” Then he shook his head as he remembered that it wouldn't. Not at all. As he closed up the mostly empty medical case he kept in his trailer he sat back and rested his head against the wall. Behind him was a black-and-white picture of a crowd of circus performers lined up. They all looked healthy and
strong, their leotards clean and the animals powerful. At the center was Mr. Tilly, his hat new, with a handful of bright feathers in the band. His grin was wide and bright. He was a young man.
Tilly looked up at me, circles beneath his eyes. His hat rested on a table that doubled for eating and a desk. Papers and dirty dishes were layered on it. His trailer smelled of smoke, and, as he looked at me sadly, he pulled out a pipe and started to pack it. In my head I heard what he would say next.
You gotta go. I can't have someone nailing himself to my tent poles.
I waited for him to say this. I stood there, looking at him and his pipe, the yellowing picture on the wall behind him, and the hat with missing feathers on the table.
Smoke began to fill the trailer. He said, “Son, have you ever thought of getting into show business?”
I had not. One week later I was up on a stage with Mal, Darla, and the other freaks.
Describing the performances is like trying to describe what the nails feel like in my hands. There was a presence, a pressure, but I was always aware that I was missing part of the experience. Other performers had a look in their eye, a sort of hunger or thrill. A few of them, like Darla, even looked afraid as they prepared to go out. I stopped being aware of the audience. Mal said more than once that even though I lacked showmanship, I didn't need it. What I did sold itself.
When I first arrived at the circus the lineup was Rose
and Sally, Mal, Darla, and The It. Fat lady, skinny lady, fire-eater, sexy contortions, and strength. That was how Tilly described it. When I joined the show, I took The It's place as the finale. Tilly said that I combined fear and power, and fear was the best closer possible.
“Nothing sells a show better than fear. Scare them at the beginning and they'll keep watching. Scare them at the end and they'll come back.”
The It was originally the main freak of the show. Tattoos wrapped around his eyes, great snakes that curled down his face toward his neck. From there they turned into tree branches and the branches grew along his shoulders and intertwined to form a trunk near his belly. The trunk disappeared into his waistband. When I first met him, he told me how much his tattoos hurt when he'd had them done. How many years it took. “I got so that I liked the pain,” he said. “But you wouldn't know about that.”
“If it hurt so much, why do it?” I asked.
With a sneer he said, “Because I'm an artist.”
After I replaced him as the finale he refused to talk to me. Mal told me that The It went to Tilly and yelled that “some freak” wasn't going to take his place.
“You're not gonna let him say stuff like that, are you?” Mal said.
“I don't think there's anything I can do,” I said. “Besides, I have to clean my hammer and nails off. The blood is caking on pretty thick.”
I didn't know that my last performance in Tilly's circus was going to be my last. After the show, Tilly approached me about a challenge from a rich eccentric who owned some nearby oil fields. He wanted to see me put my “talents” up against the circus lion. I said I'd think about it. I went back to my trailer and sat quietly, doctored my newest wounds. A breeze blew through the trailer, found its way through gaps around the windows, cracks in the glass, and past the bent aluminum door. The trailer whistled from all the holes. A stack of bowls sat on the floor by my feet, ready to catch dripping water if it rained.
I washed the holes in my hands and feet with soap and alcohol and hydrogen peroxide and covered them in white cotton gauze and medical tape to hold it in place. I went through more medical supplies in a day than the circus had previously used in a week, yet Tilly never complained, despite the cost. These new wounds would heal in a day or two. I rubbed lotion over my shoulders to keep the scars from the audience-thrown darts from tightening up and stepped out for some air.
I heard performers and crew members in the main tent. There was laughter and conversation. I could tell they'd heard about the challenge made by the oilman. They buzzed about how much money it would bring toÂ the circus. I stood outside the tent, listening to theirÂ excitement, my eyes on the misaligned stripes on the canvas, the result of a rushed repair job during a
performance when a strong wind had ripped a ten-foot tear.
The roadies came back with food. Everyone lined up for dinner. It smelled like Mexican, which I hate, so I just wandered between the trailers.
Clouds rolled in from the north, heavy and low to the ground. The air below was dark and sharp tongues of lightning leaped underneath. Thunder rolled across the red-and-tan prairie.
“It's gonna be a big one.” Darla leaned against the side of her trailer. Her blue sequined leotard hung from a coat hanger by the door, and in her door window hung a suncatcher. It was Garfield the cat, made from a wire frame and clear plastic, one of those children's toys you put the beads in and melt in the oven. Darla wore a bright red tube top and cutoff jeans. Somehow she made the rust on the side of her trailer seem as if it had been applied by an artist.