The dog days of summer dragged heavily through the heart of Blackwell. The dusty air of the plains blew like a zephyr through this little, northern Oklahoma cowtown. On Sunday night, the 4-8-4 steam locomotive stopped on the tracks of the Blackwell Northern Gateway Railroad outside of city limits in the shadow of the Blackwell Zinc Company smelter. The engine billowed steam for sometime after stopping to rest its iron lungs. Just off the tracks laid a bald spot in the red clay soil of the Hennessey Shale near Riverside Park where dust devils and tumbleweeds frequently battled.
Herrod Hesiod Carlisle, owner and spiritual proprietor of Herrod’s Magical Carnarium Traveling Circus, stepped from the vestibuled car pulled behind the engine. He was watched by his performers as he inspected the site for a certain “consubstantial yet, asomatous disposition” of the land.
He had heard of this location in the outskirts of Blackwell where nearly 20 people lost their lives in the Great Plains tornado outbreak in ‘55 and determined it a “critical locality for the conformation and habitus of the bazaar unconfined by the hyperbole of past atmospheric anomaly.” He wiped his hands covered in red dust onto his cuff- and pleat-free khakis. He buttoned his single breasted coat and adjusted his grey, Harold Lloyd styled-round glasses that contrasted his side-part and coiff’d hair and re-entered his car.
Harrod would rarely be seen after this spectacle. To the knowledge of his crew and employees, he had no family and spoke little, if any, about his past, but there was a suspicion his father made quite a fortune during the Great War. This rumor was often whispered with some form of reverence since Herrod paid his performers unusually well. He worked especially hard to push his deemed “dog and pony show” out from under the mud-show family act of trapeze performers and tight-rope funambulists, The Frangelies, and into a viable and respectable circus.
From the pie-car pulled behind the rusty-edged Pioneer car with wrap-around 270 degree viewing, watched Anteros Hebridies Rampasasa. A solitary and rather demure man with an uncertain age about him, although he would claim, at times, to be anywhere from 17 to 47. Standing 4 foot 4 inches tall, he was often overlooked by the other performers as inconsequential, yet he was anything but that. Most of his time away from the circus was spent wandering, looking at the ground, avoiding eye contact save for the lightning. He had two occupations. One was that of the talker. He concocted a new persona under the visage of an ancient one from Egypt, or India. His thick, maple syrup tinged skin and slight features allowed him a certain air of mystery and credibility that attracted gullible and curious onlookers to his world, the sideshow. In general, he was the glue that held the sideshow together. He held, although, no counsel among his peers.
As roustabouts, razorbacks and riggers began unloading various tents and cages, Anteros meandered around the lot. Near the edge of the property was the traditional space saved for the sideshow. It was a furious beast of a money generator for the circus and, usually, the main draw in many established, albeit, podunk, agricultural towns with little experience with the strange and unfortunate peculiarities of man. Carlos Pineda was always first to the locations. Anteros loved to watch him sway his eyes back and forth in much consternation, wiping his forehead under his Montana sloped cowboy hat. He was always consumed with setting up the tents in just the right way. He was saddled with another loathsome, jealous individual named Marconi who did odd jobs around the circus and sometimes portrayed a sad clown. He walked with an odd gait that seemed to be half a stride too long. Several female performers said he was a little too familiar, at times. Marconi was also accused of being a thief and a saboteur of a few rides. These accusations were never proven. Anteros had a very strong disliking of him and never quite understood why Carlos allowed him to stay with the show.
Carlos Pineda was a gaucho and head layout man for the entire operation and decided where to put each and every tent. Carlos started as a younger man as part of the advance team and kid pusher due to his penchant to find the most ripe and eager to be entertained and amazed. He often times sought out the lot lice, as they are called. These locals would come out of curiosity as the locomotive blew its steam whistle late at night. These teenage boys in overalls and straw hats was just the collective Carlos needed. He would paper the house with these boys willing to sit through every act all week long and occupy seats giving the illusion of a packed house. He could get 15% of total attendance from these early onlookers ahead of the parade of splash boards and tableau wagons with their ornamental banners and fully costumed performers that cavalcaded and gamboled through the town to start the festivities. The March of the parade always drew the most astounded eyes and gaping mouths.
“I think I am going to put Brigid next to your tent this time, Anteros.” Carlos pointed his whole, calloused hand out in a general direction. Anteros simply nodded and smiled. Carlos did his best to keep Anteros happy as he was the instigator of individuals with foolish wallets. This tent placement put his tent right off the midway where he could watch the lights of the Whirlybird and Ferris Wheel where ride operator, Mitchell Montgomery played the newer songs like “There Goes My Baby” by The Drifters and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” by The Platters. The carnival go’ers delighted in the wonderful sounds and blinking lights of the midway. The rides were laid out and built in a giant V pattern funneling enthusiastic patrons to the mysterious sideshow. Grease joints serving hot dogs and various other carnival foods peppered the aisles.
A giant proscenium arch bridged over the entrance with 20 foot tall banners made of heavy fabrics and canvas hung from wooden posts and tightly drawn, hemp ropes. Each banner told the story of the amazing and beguiling exhibits located around the circular encampment just inside the archway. Several signs warned “Enter If You Dare”. Bradley the Rubberman, who created wondrous balloon animals, frequented outside the sideshow mentioning on several occasions the legal need for the warning signs to individuals with weaker tendencies and a propensity for fainting or the vapors were, by state law, not allowed to enter. This only drew the curious in quicker and the doubters in questioning.
Anteros knew each act exactly. The temperament, disposition and idiosyncrasy of the talent was the draw. He used different individuals throughout the season for the ballyhoo just outside of the arch. Although, not of blood relation, the Geek Twins looked strikingly similar with long brown hair, usually braided and with blue eyes. They tended to dress like arabic jinns or genies with their ample bosoms heaving from hand-made costumes so tightly tailored they could not have been tighter if they were poured into them. The two girls twisted and gyrated with snakes and serpents wrapped around their heads often times kissing them as the snakes hissed and flicked their tongues. The girls were exceptionally adept at bringing in men, understandably. Anteros would signal the girls to start their routine and as he quietly got into character. What understated, introversion he had, disappeared as he climbed atop the old wooden ladder behind that canvas, covered lectern.
One small Edison Light Bulb hung from a thick wire overhead heating up quickly to a fiery yellow. The audience was immediately drawn to light like eager moths. Anteros, clothed in mystical purple and green robes and topped by a bejeweled turbine of middle-eastern (New York) origin, closed his eyes tightly then thrusted his hands into the air with his eyes open to the cosmos. Behold, the astounding and astonishing, Oxyrhynchus.
“Ladies and gentlemen of all ages and worlds, be prepared your souls as ye are about to trespass on ground as sacred as it is profane.” The character of Oxyrhynchus delved heavily into the unknown and irreligious past of the site sprawled out before the audience gathering in front of him. The character Anteros created seemed to be in some type of trance. He spoke in a broken middle eastern accent, at least from what most people could surmise. Often he spoke in gibberish to elocute the sounds heard from people speaking in tongues. The more the bible burdened the land, the more the people bought into the character.
A calliope began to play a strange song that was a combination of the frivolities of children playing and the sadness of pending death. He swayed back and forth taken by the music.
“The most insidious and fantastical creatures man has ever attempted to forget lay before you.” Oxyrhynchus threw his right hand in the direction of the first banner hanging inside the compound. A line of lights around the intricately painted attraction by artist, Fred G. Johnson, came alive.
“Your first attraction is the Human Ostrich. He can swallow any object no matter how dangerous. Those with slight constitutions, beware!” He exclaimed acting as empathetic as one could. David Stevens, the Human Ostrich, could swallow and regurgitate anything including billiard balls and gasoline. He was a devout vegetarian, ironically.
“Next, you will find Jenne, the Fish Scaled Girl.” Lights abruptly lit up the banner for the young girl with unfortunate, dry skin disorder. Jenne was from somewhere in Oregon. She had extremely dry and scaly skin that was painted with a combination of dry powders and chalks. A very nice woman and painter.
“Feast your eyes upon, Popeye.” He motioned to the next banner. A dark-haired man standing with a rather nice double-breasted, broad shouldered blue suit was painted into the fabric. He was unpeculiar except for the ability to force his eyes several inches out of their sockets. It was an absolute crowd shocker. Barney Stiles hailed from Bixtown, New Jersey. He was a stoic individual in his performance, but could tell the most raunchy and audacious jokes.
“Doogle, the Dog Faced Boy will astound you with his entire body covered with hair. Even his tongue has hair.” Oxyrhynchus said. Doogle was Michael Doogle. He was born with an affliction called hypertrichosis where his entire body grew long, soft hair like a bearded collie. He was a good kid. He held odd jobs around Gibsonton, Florida where he held winter quarters. In truth, his tongue did not have hair.
“From Chamonix, France, welcome Adeline and Agathe Ariadne. Siamese twins that can read and beguile your mind.” Oxyrhynchus put a finger to his head and leered at the audience. Adeline and Agathe were not from France, but actually from Fresno, California. Tremendous performers who utilized plants in the audience to eavesdrop on conversation then deliver the information via a small transmitter in their ear. They could tell futures, guess fates, deliver predictions. Born Renee and Irene Williams, the twins were joined at the hips. They had the requisite amount of arms and legs and generally did well by themselves. Pretty girls with long auburn hair and an abundance of freckles, Renee and Irene dreamed of having children someday. On occasions when someone would bring a small baby, they would all but fall to pieces emotionally. Anteros, as Oxyrhynchus, would step-in and guide the audience to the next tent while the twins consoled each other.
“Lastly, and certainly not the least dangerous…” Oxyrhynchus paused for effect. “Brigid, the human lightning rod.” This was the act that was the most different and dangerous in the sideshow. Brigid Abigail Timarovic was born in Croatia in 1931 and immigrated to New York with her grandparents when she was 3. Her parents had died from an outbreak of influenza in 1935. She lived a rather meek existence until her grandfather, always a mechanical tinkerer and showman, bought two tickets to the New York World’s Fair in 1939.
She watched as a man stepped inside a metal arena and was inundated by bolts of electricity. He seemed to be unharmed by the magnificent forces of nature. The man talked for some time about the invention and Nicola Tesla who created the Wardenclyffe tower and how the electricity passed around the body with the skin being just enough to protect the experimenter. This Tesla Coil looked like silver inner tube that threw high voltage, with low amps, sparks of energy in all directions. He additionally shared information with her grandfather on how to build one using transistors and circuits. Her grandfather built a small unit capable of making sparks and standing his young, granddaughter’s hair on end like a scared cat. He spoke of often creating an attraction to amaze, yet educate those interested in the marvels of modern technology, but hindered by a lack of access to science.
“Watch as she harnesses the power of the gods and wraps herself in lightning.” The banner waved in the wind as Oxyrhynchus pointed to it. He had always stopped for a moment to admire her vulnerable beauty. The painting detailed her casual romance with electricity. Bolts snapped around her body, but she somehow was able to seduce it, make it dance. It was highly sexual and provocative. If he stared long enough the painting would smile at him. He would cast his eyes aside and refocus on his task.
“All of these attractions are yours for a mere 25 cents per victim. If you wish to tempt fate, please enter to my right.” And with that, the mysterious and inexorable Oxyrhynchus disappeared back into the night. Edison Light Bulb diminished.
Paying customers filed in line doling out their quarters and dollars, nervously chatting about the attractions that piqued their curiosity the most. A sad clown with an odd gait trampled in with the audience. Anteros took off his turbine and retired to his tent in the front. His tent was tolerably lonely with his meager belongings neatly packed in a leather, Shwayder Trunk with black straps to hold it together tightly. He changed out of his robes and put on a white shirt. It was the traditional Ivy look with straight point collar and a very thin, black tie. A tight, black vest and a black pork pie hat that festoon his head at an angle over his left eyebrow finished off the polished, grifter look of his second circus occupation, the master cardist.
He spoke the arbitrary explanation of how the universe works or some hazy explanation of how cards mysteriously transfer from one hand to the breast pocket of some unsuspecting rube. Never a heavy narrative, but clever. Having mastered the simple flourishes of the thumb fan or the riffle shuffle, Anteros went on to wow audiences with the one handed deck cut called the Charlier Pass and the Sybil Cut utilizing a standard mechanic’s grip holding the deck tightly, yet inconspicuously in the palm of his hand. He started practicing his chops flipping cards too and fro inducing them with some fantastical energy. For the remainder of the evening as each show continued, he showed various card tricks to the meandering and bedazzled crowd hoarding around the middle of the showcase deciding which attraction to visit next. Brigid, of lightning, was beginning her show.
Snaps of electricity lit her tent as ozone drifted into the spectator’s senses. She quickly ran onstage and introduced herself holding what looked like lightning rods in each hand. She hoisted the rods over her head and violently pushed them into a metal cage in the middle of the stage. She motioned to an assistant stage left to throw the switch. Dressed in a silver, insulated suit, her assistant pulled a large lever attached to several boxes of square D fuses. Electricity surged up the heavy wires, through the grounded, primary circuit control unit on the floor of the stage and into the metal cage. She had built this entire contraption herself. Her grandfather instilled in her the fascination of science
Anteros sat on an old tree stump remnant of the tornado outbreak all those years ago. He worked on the jumping gemini trick using a queen of hearts, two jokers and an ace of spades. The exact expression of this trick relied more upon the timing of the shuffling of the cards or what is know as the Elmsley Count. On certain occasions when the nightly draw was poor he would drop his pork pie hat on the ground and flourish the cards using just one hand tilting and positioning the cards steepled and spinning until the crowd couldn’t follow. He threw them from one hand through the air to the other perfectly. The crowd could only look on with amazement, throwing their spare change and folding money into the hat in appreciation. Some of the more doubting types, mostly aging men, found it to be juvenile, but Anteros knew this was due to their ignorance and unwillingness to be fooled. He took this as a challenge and actively pursued the cynics.
His best trick was called Hedburgs Peak. An impossible trick that worked with one card from the middle of the bicycle deck and one on top. With a little flourish and some twisting, Anteros could switch those cards back and forth from the middle to the top. Even the most jaded found this trick entertaining, walking away with a smile on their faces. A smiling spectator is a spending spectator. He loved working with the people in small crowd like this, close-up, intimately.
Anteros accidentally dropped the queen of hearts onto the dusty soil. The card landed face up with the queen smiling at him. Strange how it looked so much like Brigid. Those dark eyes with life of hardship behind them. She was holding a flower, perhaps an purple aster. Some decks of cards had the queen of hearts winking with her left eye. Anteros would think of little stories that they would have between them hoping someday she would walk with him when the workers assembled the circus. They could hold hands. She didn’t take much notice of him.
The card landed between his two wing-tipped shoes, sticking into the ground. He bent over to pick it up and noticed something strange. A sad looking clown wandered the grounds. He looked into several different tents until he hesitantly walked into Brigid’s attraction. Anteros knew this clown. It was Marconi. Anteros had never seen him walking around the sideshow during showtime. Curiously, he stood and walked toward the electric tent following Marconi. Astounded spectators ooh’d and aah’d as she rode the lightning. Anteros walked in behind a nervous acting clown.
Two rows of wooden benches were situated inside the tent with aisles on the sides and one big one down the middle. Brigid excited the audience using specially made rods that attracted the electricity making massive arches, fighting with the phenomenon drawing it closer and closer to the stunned onlookers. Even her assistant was scared of the events taking place so close to him, or so he pretended. Each and every aspect of the show was rehearsed, retried and repeated ad nauseum until it was perfectly safe.
Marconi approached the stage slowly mesmerized by tendrils of light fanning across the tent like August heat lightning. He stopped right at the edge. Wooden hand rails kept the audience at a distance, but Marconi ignored them and slipped underneath them. Brigid did not take notice. In a instant, Marconi lifted his left hand. He was holding a soda pop in a large, cardboard cup. Just as Brigid finally noticed him, he threw the liquid at the control box. Brigid tried to stop him, caught a wire with her foot and fell face first into the liquid. Power surged through primary circuit control box. Brigid lay on her exposed hands in the liquid with the electricity stabbing through her body. The water created a massive short in the system. Anteros jumped toward the stage shoving Marconi out of the way. The audience, thinking it was merely part of the act, continued to watch. Some patrons ushered themselves out of the tent.
Sparks singed his fingers as he tried to save her, the ill-equipped assistant tried to shut-down the contraption. Precious seconds went by before the equipment could be shut-down. By the time all had settled, Brigid lay mortally wounded by the very lightning she was captivating.
Anteros carried her from the stage to the red and white Cadillac Sentinel ambulance waiting at the entrance to the circus. Several people tried to help carry her, but Anteros refused. As they placed her into the ambulance, he held her hand. The sideshow closed for the week as the performers, part of a family of carnies, consoled each other. Anteros retired to his tent, alone.
Near dawn, Anteros sat on the edge of his cot wondering what he could have done to help her. He flipped several cards about his hands trying to edge his mind in the different memories. An intermittent breeze opened the tent flap just enough for him to see her banner still hanging. The morning light just clothing the fabric. She looked him again. Anteros bowed his head.
A shadow stood in the entrance of his tent. Herrod Hesiod Carlisle had made a rare appearance.
“A part of our family has passed, Anteros.” Herrod said sitting on the cot next to him. “This has been a mighty blow to our lives.”
“She was a true performer and everyone loved her.” Anteros agreed.
“But she was more than that to you, my friend.” Herrod placed his hand on his back. “I have noticed, at times, you watching her as she practiced.”
Anteros sat motionless.
“I understand about such things. I have had many dealings with the heart in my life. Almost all have turned out poorly.” Herrod took a heavy breath. The seemingly incoherent usage of superfluous words lent out to a more ordinary tongue.
“I can figure out why Marconi threw the water. What did she ever do to him? I don’t think she ever talked with him. Not once.” Anteros shook his head, wondering in vain.
“Marconi has been sent away. He had many issues with women, especially his mother.” Herrod stood and walked around the tent and leaned against the main pole in the center.
“His mother?” Anteros asked.
“She had abandoned him early on because he had, as you know, a different type of disposition. I allowed him to stay with the circus in the hopes that he would find some solace amongst people that were more like him, strange. You see, Anteros, Marconi is my son.” Herrod stated matter of factly. With that, he turned and walked from the tent.
Anteros returned to work the next night opening the sideshow in all its broken splendor. He spoke his exotic spiel as the magical Oxyrhynchus, disrobed and put on his cardist magician uniform and headed out into the clearing in the middle of the venue. He shuffled and flicked the cards gathering inquisitive eyes and ears. When a sufficient enough crowd had gathered Anteros began his act.
“I have something to show you.” Anteros began, “It is a simple trick really. All you have to do is watch and listen. It is played with eight cards. A king of diamonds, a queen of spades, a jack of hearts, a jack of spades, two eight of hearts, and the queen of diamonds. Oh, and a joker. I call this trick, Brigid, of lightning……..
Eric Petty: I had the fortunate demise of being the youngest in my family…by eight years. I was treated like everyone’s child and there is nothing quite like having four mothers and two fathers. I spent a lot of time alone with imaginary friends instead of with my family who constantly worried over me. Those imaginary friends kept my mind pretty busy and ushered my imagination into new and exciting directions. Fortunately, some of those childish things I did not give up. I am glad I can still dream today.