We return to Moose and her friends, who have taken shelter from a summer thunderstorm at the fairgrounds in the most story-like possible place: the old fashioned sideshow that’s always been more or less off limits ….
We stood there, in the dry circle. Steam began to rise off Pounce’s new hat, and it slowly returned to its original sort-of cowboy shape. All around, it was still spooky dark and the wind was blowing hard, but in the middle of the sideshow it was lamplit and mostly still, as if electricity had never been invented. I say “mostly still” because there was a little breeze going, enough to flap the banners over the tents where the exhibits are and make them even more spooky. (Or are they performers? Maybe it’s easier if you think of them as performers.)
Have you ever been to a sideshow? It’s actually a bunch of little shows, each one in its own tent or booth, all in a row or in a circle. Each one has a painted canvas banner hanging over the door advertising what’s inside.
Artistic people like Murphy, and anyone who likes folk art, will tell you that really good sideshow banners can be kitsch masterpieces. And even I think they’re sort of cool. But of course they’re one of the things that make the sideshow a ripoff: people who’ve actually bought a ticket will tell you that the stuff inside the tent is never as colorful or interesting as it looks on the banner. But as long as I didn’t have to go inside and look, I didn’t mind treating it like another crazy art exhibit for Murphy to go nuts for. Nina joined him because of the local history thing (apparently her grandfather remembers some of these same performers from when he was a boy) and Mr. Spit, of course, loves anything weird.
At this sideshow we had The Two Headed Calf (obviously), and also The Five Legged Horse, which I bet really didn’t run in horse races as shown on the banner. And The Giant Fly, which was supposed to weigh 27 pounds. (If true, gross.) Plus the Pincushion Boy, and the Intelligent Ape who would play chess with anybody for 10 dollars, which Lee was sure would be a person in a suit. The Buffalo Man and Spidora the Spider Woman, and The Wild Child, raised by wolves. And right in the center, the famous Frozen Cave Girl, who’d been in the sideshow at the fair for more than a hundred years, if you trust Nina’s grandfather, and the stories his grandmother used to tell him.
Then, somewhere behind the banners, music started to play, thin, crackly music, like the kind on a thick old record playing on one of those windup Victrolas with the big horns. A waltz, I thought, Strauss. The perfect creepy music for a creepy sideshow lit by lanterns when it’s dark and stormy in the middle of the day.
Then a lady stepped out of the shadows between the tents, a tall lady with white skin and hair, wearing a top hat and a tailcoat and a long black skirt that stretched out behind her like she was part snake. And there was a man with her, dressed in work clothes like a carnival roustabout, a man with red skin and little horns and what looked like a tail.
I know. Corny. But it didn’t seem corny at the time.