NEXT THING FOUR PINHEADS in nightgowns come prancing out. Aren’t they adorable. A round for Pip, Zip, Dip, & Nip. Curtsey left, sashay right, yes, now pull back the curtains with your teeth…
So. Pale Jesse was late. Round noon he nearly dislodged another rib trying to hold in a sneeze. Sundown he still hadn’t found the bug in the code he was working on. And the stray dog he followed on the way. Being a full moon, he was curious. Anyway what he thought he was looking for was a run-down theater building or maybe a school auditorium, but what it turned out to be, actually, was a big tent, which made sense. White with red stripes. Aie, a giant pepper-tent, briefly lapsing into the leprechaun-on-helium character he used to do. There was one candy-colored stripe bleeding light, seemed to saying, hey, dummy, in here. He found a slit and went through sideways and took a seat in the back. No one really noticed, and the stage was still dark.
Spotlight: Man-Boy in penguin-sized tux.
Freee. Ah dah. My dear. My dove.
My-one-of-two-true-loves you’ll always beee
But see. Madame. My dove.
I may have rushed to my first kneeeeeeeeeee
O-kay. Monsieur Dinosaur was pleasantly surprised by his leading man’s decision to carry the last E, limited lung capacity and all. Not in key, surely, but what length. The audience didn’t quite know how they were supposed to react, but sooner they figured out it was okay to laugh, sooner Monsieur could relax. He couldn’t stare at the people right beside him, so he focused instead on a cluster of three further down the row. Chief Slack-jaw & Miss Blushing Hair had gotten there early, together, and the hairy Casper guy came late, solo.
Enter a Woman-Child on a miniature pony and a Tall Blonde swinging in on trapeze. The small one gets off and joins Hans, her husband to be.
Hans says to Frieda:
Aint Cleo the most beautiful big woman you ever did see?
If that’s how you really feel, tell her, not me!
Out of nowhere a cowboy hat flies into view. Hans jigs over and puts it on.
Oh my Cleee-oh. Darlin Cleee-oh
How’d you get so beaut-y-ful
Can a woman, so tall and pretty
Ever love, a Freak like me?
Oh sure why not Cleo implies with a cool hair toss and backbend called the Waxing Moon.
For days Pale Jesse had been getting this itch in the back of his throat a mouthful of thumbtacks couldn’t scratch. It happened, periodically, but when he was home or within walking distance of home at the Holiday Royale Hometel—a few dusty blocks from NYC, Eiffel Tower, The Pyramids, Bally’s, and Rome—at least then he could bury his face in a pillow and cough his fucking brains out until the esophagus went numb, sort of. But that wasn’t an option in a packed circus tent a full hour’s steps from the Hometel. Here even the seats don’t have pillows. All he could do was send polite and ineffectual eh-ehs into his bicep every few seconds, fully expecting either the Indian fellow who smelled of potpourri or the Redhead who in the hair-&-freckles department resembled the girl Jesse hightailed it out west away from, any second, to turn to him and say, Hey, Mister, everything okay? Pale Jesse did not want that, to be clear.
Meanwhile M. Dino was hopeful this next part would elicit something more pronounced than forehead scratching and eyebrow raising from the flustered crowd. Then again, seeing as how only the people in the show, only the Freaks, had ever seen any of this or heard any of the songs before, Monsieur really had no way of knowing how this particular part would play with this particular group here tonight.
Frieda pulls a stack of dollar bills out of her babydoll gown and starts flinging them into the crowd. Hit it boys.
Hey, Hanzy, baby she wants your money
Say Hey, Hanzy, baby they think you funny
Now you know all I wants whats best for you
But you cant be happy with dem playin you
Now come now honey got me beggin you
All dey wanna do is make a fool of you
The beat slows, lights dim, Frieda raises her chin…
And you, yeah you, baby we got your number
Say what, say who, aint afraid to put you under
The edges of the stage are dark, save for pairs upon pairs of glowing dots, twinkling.
Was that a clap? The sound took a second to ripple back, and it wasn’t a wave, exactly, but there were several distinct and hollow kerplunks. Standing accompanied another round of overlapping kerplunks that did feel more like a wave, coasting on its momentum all the way to the last row. Jesse leaned back, clapping and discreetly turning his head, sensing a possible golden hacking opportunity, when he got distracted by the sight of a massive spiked tail hanging out of the back of some guy’s suit down at the end of the row. Jesse kept his mouth shut for the time being.
Find Hans on one knee offering Frieda his … Cleo swoops down and hoists him into the air, reciting:
You could spend your whole life
Toy in a little girl’s hand
Or you could come with me just one night
And I’ll make you a Man!
Away they swing. Frieda limps off, defeated. Nip-Pip-Dip-Zip, close it, don’t forget the title cards…
THE : MUSICAL FREAKS
No, Nip, you switch with Dip, Zip, you’re at the end, and Pip, you and your colon just stay put…
FREAKS : THE MUSICAL
EARLIER THAT DAY MONSIEUR DINOSAUR WAS GIVEN AN ULTIMATUM…
Look, Dino, you know how much respect I have for you and everything you’ve done for us. It’s obvious you’ve put tons of your heart and soul and your self into our program and into the Subjects. No doubt it’s because of you we’ve been able to achieve the level of realism and humanity we’ve achieved. Shit, I didn’t even know that was possible in this medium. You came along and held a mirror up to each and every one of our faces, you were the mirror, really. I mean just having you around has done so much. You made me see how we’re just like them. It’s been hugely inspiring for me, life affirming even. I know it sounds cliché, but you’ve proved that even a money guy like myself can bring good into this world by doing something as simple as making people more aware. That’s precisely what I was thinking when this half-boy half-reptile one-hundred-percent human being walked into this office we’re in now, that ridiculous tail tucked between your legs, just begging and begging and begging me for a job. Said you’d been all over Hollywood and couldn’t even get into the building, did a stint on the Walk of Fame, but you wanted something meaningful. People need to be aware of this person, I thought to myself. Any job, sir, anything. Please, call me Caesar, I said, not even mentioning it, the tail, knowing immediately I was going to say yes but wanting to take my sweet time doing it because I sensed somehow this was an important moment for both of us. You were crying by the time you left, remember that? And look at us now, you, Showrunner on one of cable TV’s top ten highest rated reality half hours, and me, only Executive of Reality Programming I know with six of those bad boys on his desk. How far we’ve come, you and I, together, and so imagine how it must’ve felt when I get this text message of all things saying my creative rock, my partner, is calling everybody in the goddamn company register, asking them to help out on some Glee knock-off or something, and on top of that, poaching Subjects from our pool of Potentials, some of whom are currently under contract, as are you. No, no, not my Dino, you’re all out of your freaking heads, this is his dream job. After all, he’s one of them. So here we are, me being the last person east of the G.C. to find out, and you, not even denying it, choosing instead to plead ignorance. I thought it was okay if I pursued other interests. Really? Talk about twisting the blade. But hey, look, Brutus, if I’ve learned anything after twenty years in this dog-fuck-dog-in-the-ass business it’s that grudges and art don’t jive. All I’m saying is why don’t you call off your Midget Idol or whatever and we can get back to making something real together. Otherwise you’re done here.
A midget resembling James Dean looks through the window of a performer’s trailer. He’s working a switchblade. Cleo and Hercules the Strongman are in bed, talking.
I’ll marry him
I’ll bury him
Hercules squeals and disappears under the sheets. The stage goes dark. Pairs of glowing dots, more this time, close in from both sides.
FIVE YEARS AGO PALE JESSE ARRIVED IN THE DESERT…
Las Vegas was a mirage, anybody who’d been longer than a weekend could see that. As could anyone sober. But it was also the perfect place to be alone and live alone and not know anyone and keep it that way without feeling guilty about it. Who would he meet … drunken bridesmaid, cocktail waitress, oil tycoon, his grandparents? This type of thinking was pathetic and egotistical and just another way for Jesse to reinforce the belief that he didn’t need to find a new group to be part of, ever, to convince himself that what he really wanted was to embody the Lone Wolf Computer Programmer persona he’d dreamt up for himself on the way here—the kind of guy who shaves monthly, eats jerky, and literally barricades himself inside a hotel room every day writing code for hot new mobile apps, only going out at night so he can briefly inhabit the people and things he sees on movie screens, afterwards going through the motions of searching for possible new packs to join but only noticing the sorriest examples of human life on display along the Strip, ones drooling in front of the slots or at any number of shiny surfaces slicking back their hair or waving a bible on the street corner damning it goddamn all from an crooked arm with a syringe hanging out, taking the existence of these drones and sleezebags and hypocrites as proof positive he’s better off alone—instead of, who knows, actually getting over his mild anxieties and saying more than one word (Thanks) to the dimpled ticket-taker girl or going out on even the fattest of limbs and attending the Bell Jar Book Club, something he read about on a flyer with so many staples in it he thought Hellraiser was peaking through the wood, rows and rows of tiny silver hurdles over a faded picture of people sitting in a circle trapped under one of those elevated glass domes used to display and keep moist cake. Every time Pale Jesse saw the flyer for B.J.B.C. he knew the odds of him actually going had diminished, until one day after the sun had set and he’d removed the chair from its regular position under the door handle and ventured out to confirm the time & location once more, he found it replaced by a glossy white-bordered advert on heavy card stock for Freaks: The Musical, apparently a Singing & Dancing adaptation of the classic 1930s film, a favorite of his, a (Possibly) One Night Only Event, something he told himself he could not miss, no matter what, even if the show happened to fall on the ONE night Jesse had plans. Which it did.
The one regular plan Pale Jesse made for himself and never missed was every 29/30 days driving west until the neon and glass and mirrored facade of the city gradually went back to sand and imploded, taking the sun down with it in a flurry of carrot-colored ash, clearing the way for the bottomless topless tan & diamond sea, calm in every direction, absolutely shimmering under the full moon. At which point Pale Jesse would do something he thought was going to make him feel mighty silly the first time but turned out to be the one thing he had in this solitary new life that gave him an opportunity to be heard by others. Presumably heard. As loud as he could, Pale Jesse, Lone Wolf, Maker of Mobile Apps, howled and howled and barked and howled at the Earth’s not so far off night light, and soon enough his guttural cries were returned 360 by a chorus of owwwl-owwwl-owwwwwls from lonely white dots he could point out but never quite put a face to, which was probably for the best, seeing as whatever was behind those dots may very well have eaten him alive.
Jesse hadn’t always been like this. His skin had pigment once. His former partner, Maggie, despite her soapy complexion, loved being outside, always reading, and so Jesse was always there to keep her company and day-dream. She was the sweet girl from Ireland he met the day he arrived in Austin, Texas, and stayed with until the day he left. She was the girl with freckles who approached him in a loud bar and didn’t mind that he immediately called her strawberry milkshake. No like if the strawberries were floating on top of the vanilla. She was the one who got him a Guinness to be cute, but was hesitant, very much so, at first, to start something new because she too had only just arrived and definitely had not planned on jumping straight into a serious relationship with the first guy she met at some bar, a basement bar with blacklights of all things, a guy who said up front he didn’t have much experience, uh, committing, but was totally ready to now, he knew, with her, and would work tirelessly to prove it.
Thus the hammock Maggie found hanging in her backyard one day after work, an inscribed copy of Mrs. Dalloway swaying in it. I won’t ever let the rocks keep you down. Shortly thereafter and for no reason in particular he surprised her with one of those big floppy straw hats he said would save her cookies & cream complexion from melting away in the intense Texas heat. He packed her a lunch the first time she stayed over and put a napkin in the bag with a drawing of one stick figure made entirely of dots and another balancing a heart-shaped bubble over its head, thinking about a pair of lips + horseshoe, whatever the hell that meant. Truth is he tried so hard for a such long time but didn’t even realize he was trying because he was only doing things he wanted to do. It was fun, a challenge, with little rewards all along the way—always having someone to go to the movies with, for example—and he knew soon she would have to see how unwavering and mature and truly ready for this he was, not stopping at any point to consider what that meant to him or even think about whether she was the one he should be trying so hard without realizing to be unwavering and mature for. All he knew was it was working. Slowly. But yeah.
After eight months they had sex. He was her second. Minutes later they said I love you. He met her sister and they went camping under the stars with her college friends and her parents even flew over for a week. Her ex-boyfriend (#1) knew all about this Jesse character and was jealous in a completely non-threatening sort of way. Still though, despite what a positive impression Jesse’d made on everyone who mattered to her, there remained a visible coolness in Maggie’s gaze, a tendency to be the first to look away, always. She demanded historical data proving he was capable of being in this for the long haul. To make up for evidence he could never provide Jesse worked doubly hard in the talking department, again without realizing, assuring her that he loved her now and would love her tomorrow and would remain in love with her til the end, saying what he had to say and hammering it into her psyche with repetition that would not be denied.
He talked about the garden cottage they would have once the ivy reached the roof, he let her name Tubby, the pup they’d adopt as soon as time and energy allowed, and for their 2nd Anniversary he gave her a calendar with all sorts of future relational milestones and train trips across Eastern Europe penciled in—in ink—all to demonstrate his unwavering and mature outlook on their long loving life together. Jesse was positively relentless in countering every hint of doubt Maggie expressed over his not being open enough or his sexual baggage not fitting neatly in the overhead by doubling down again on assurances upon reassurances of limitless love and never-have-I-ever-felt-anything-like-this befores. There can be no precedent, my love, for we are special, and what we have, unique.
Until finally one day he looked deep into her Hershey brown eyes and saw it was gone, the cool membrane of weariness and reserve and self-doubt finally penetrated and washed away by warm milky tears. Half joy, half melted bone. Fully revealed and infinite were her eyes and gone was the relationship vertigo and steadier only than her heart was her head. So steady and so unwavering in fact Jesse felt he could see directly into her soul for the first time. In her he saw himself. Insinuated. Braided through her very essence. Immediately he had to leave.
Okay quickly we have Hans, Cleo, and Herc laughing like drunken fools at one end of a large dinner table, Frieda stone faced sad at the other. All sorts of wild, giddy, and booze-soaked characters in between. Goodness. Pinheads. Beard Lady. Conjoined Twin Girls. Who called Mr. Sword Swallower? Clown! Dragon Breath. Midget James Dean. Contortionist. Turtle Girl. One eclectic bunch of…
Gooble-Gobble. It’s a feast! Gooble-Gobble. All the Freaks.
Gooble-Gobble. Take a drink. Gooble-Gobble. Speech! Speech!
To Hans and his lovely wife Cleo, may she soon be one of—
Under the table Cleo pours something skull-labeled into a champagne bottle.
Enough, enough. Here my little hunchkin, let’s drink!
All the Freaks jump on the table and dance! Twins doin Eye Scissors. Underwater Scuba by the Pins. Everybody, Walk like Egyptians. Now we’re all Gone Surfin, Surfin all the way. Cleo kisses Hercules! Frieda leaves, disgusted. Hans goes red. Cleo can’t stop laughin, and all the Freaks are still dancin. Midget James Dean lifts a big chalice of wine. Enough! Let’s make her one of us…
Tonight we share the loving cup, the loving cup how about a table beat we accept her, we accept her drink, drink gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble more drool please one of us, one of us Hercules! we accept her, we accept her louder louder gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble more, more one of us, one of us Cleo, all yours…
Cleo takes the cup and stares at its contents…
YOU! DIRTY! SLIMY! ROTTEN—
She throws the drink in Midget James Dean’s face.
FREAKS! FREAKS! FREAKS OUT!
Did somebody say…
Monsieur Dinosaur hadn’t expected a group of people up front to start dancing along with the Freaks, and now that they were he wondered how the ending might go over. Oh well. Not to mention his tail, never shy about letting him know he was pandering, was alive with pent-up agitation. One of the main reasons he wanted so badly to tell this story in the first place was that by the time the original Freaks movie got released in 1932 the studio had already cut & burned half an hour of footage from the climax and spliced on a more hopeful conclusion. The resulting version—the only version ever seen by the public—painted the Freaks as sympathetic figures and excused the audience from having to watch them exact brutal revenge on the non-Freak characters plotting against one of their own. In Monsieur’s opinion this executive decision completely undermined the whole point of the story, meant to show the transcendent power of a small but united force, the ability of a pack to challenge and take down an established hierarchy, opposed to the studio’s feel-good cut, which only feed into society’s collective pity for anyone who didn’t find their place in the Master Herd. These people tonight wouldn’t be getting off so easily, but tail didn’t know that, and when M. Dino stood up to join the rest of the audience in applauding the dancing Freaks, his bottom half seized its opportunity to take hold of Monsieur’s folding chair, lifting it high off the ground. His half-hearted clap was an attempt to calm tail, tell tail to be patient, bloody justice would soon be served, but it was no use, the metal chair was already flailing out of control behind him. Monsieur knew of only one way to avoid a show-stealing meltdown, so he closed his eyes and pictured himself diving into the Grey Lake. Water thick like wet cement and warm like oatmeal. He swam down as far as he could and when he came up for air the top had gotten too thick to break through. He floated on his back just below the surface, the features of his face molded in raised stone atop the hardened lake, an empty hole appearing where his mouth would be. A harsh cough or choking sound, followed by thick black water spewing from the mouth hole. Tail relaxed and let go of the chair. The vacant man continued robotically slapping his hands together.
All night Pale Jesse had been keeping at least one eye on the tailed guy, but until now neither him or It had done anything remarkable. It hadn’t so much as twitched, and the guy had spent the majority of his time spectating the spectators. He was the last person to stand during the big dance number, not getting off his pointed butt until the whole place was practically jumping out of their seats with excitement, many people mimicking the moves they saw on stage. But just as PJ was about to pronounce the appendage little more than a benign waste of flesh and fitting extension of the uncharismatic man it was attached to, it displayed its first outward signs of life, possibly even intent. Tail wrapped itself around a chair and began swinging it behind the back row, inches from clobbering upside the head any number of clueless disco-dancing patrons. Jesse made up his mind to yell Duck, but before he could, the guy calmly closed his eyes, somehow getting the tail to drop its weapon and go limp, mostly.
The eyes that reappeared on the man’s face were not the passive kind Pale Jesse had last seen. These eyes were the eyes of a wild bird—glossy black with a ring of gold—owl eyes. They scanned and picked apart their surroundings as if having been teleported in suddenly from a familiar tree perch. The black marbles shrunk down to pinpricks in a pool of gold and both eyes converged from opposite directions on the same tiny man riding off stage on tall blonde’s back. Pale Jesse could see the tail gently spasming like something does while dreaming, and at the same time the owl blacks forced out the gold and the man’s back stiffened, wiggling his backside a little, tilting his chin, and slowly looking down…
What the crazy eyes saw on the floor that caused them to bug entirely was a dry rotted fireman’s hose of seaweed-colored flesh, long and triangular, stacked with fins, the hardened tip flapping every few seconds like a sad fish on land. Fluid starting leaking out the bottom of the guy’s pants and pooling on the floor. The tail was alive now, splashing around. Everyone around him was clapping and dancing and none the wiser, looking only at the stage where four skinny figures with minuscule heads moonwalked the curtains closed. Tail seemed content for the time being rolling in the puddle, trying to get saturated. At first the man kept right on clapping like someone upset with their hands, also blinking shut the bulging bird eyes, trying to anyway, repeatedly, looking down, shaking his head, looking down again. Every time the urine-soaked tail was still there staring up at him. As soon as the applause started to die down he stepped over the toppled chair, shuffling along the narrow alley behind the back row, leaving a damp trail in his wake. He lurched for the exit, feet all tangled up in a windless sock of skin, escaping unnoticed save by the bearded ghost in the back row.
FIRST THING I SEE IN THE MORNING
5 of 5 – Apr 17, 2010 – laurapalmer
Usually I fall asleep near my phone and reach for it as soon as I wake up. Sad but true. What-2-Wear is pretty much the first thing I check after messages. I know some people complain that it doesn’t show percentages and degrees and all that, but that’s what I like about it. So simple.
1 of 5 – Feb 10, 2011 – nicrage
$2 for an app I use MAYBE once a day. Seems like a total rip-off to me. There are plenty of free weather apps that give actual data so I have no idea how you suckered so many people into buying this one.
5 of 5 – May 5, 2011 – lovecoaster
I use it every day!
3 of 5 – Jun 1, 2012 – pikesonej
How can I tell W-2-W I don’t wear hats? My ears are huge so hats make me look like pancakes. Otherwise not bad.
PRETTY USELESS IN LA
2 of 5 – Dec 15, 2012 – sethoc
Jeans-and-tee again, what a surprise, sunglasses, no way, shorts, un-un, only tourists wear those.
4 of 5 – Oct 13, 2013 – karenono
I love the app but was wondering if you ever thought about adding a friend feature. What-U-Wear or something like that? You could pick an outfit and share it with your friends on the app. If I knew what they were wearing then it might help me decide.
MANY MOONS AGO IN EASTERN FRANCE A PECULIAR BABY WAS BORN…
Enfant avec queue, the nurses called him, endearingly, most of them having seen their share of naissances irrégulières, odd births, before. It so happened this small clinic had over time developed a reputation for its willingness to help troubled mothers, those with drug addictions or psychological disorders or a family history of deformity. It was a small private facility that charged its patients only what they could pay, apparently endowed by a wealthy landowner nobody quite knew. Caroline, la mère de l’enfant avec queue, as she called herself, proudly, was none of the above. She worked there. She was a nurse. The father of her child was a Swiss man visiting Lac Gris on holiday, baby Martin having been conceived in Grey Lake not long after sunrise in icy water that had in a recent life painted the Alps white. Caroline was out for a swim after working the graveyard shift when a buoyant man whose name she never thought to ask glided to her through the morning fog and embraced her. She wrapped her arms around his neck, their bodies got warm in the middle, and he became stiff. She helped him inside her and watched his Adam’s apple bob and the veins in his neck swell and his jaw go increasingly slack, until he reached the last satisfied breath and exhaled hard into her cheek. He said sorry he had to go get back to the cabin where his wife and young daughter would soon be waking. She pushed down on his shoulders, lifting off and pecking him on the forehead. The she disappeared under the water, reemerging far enough away that only the broad outline of a figure swimming was visible. She couldn’t be sure but it looked like there was something thin and pointed sticking up from his back. A few months later one of the other nurses did a blood test and confirmed what Caroline knew to be well on its way. Bonjour Martin.
Bébé queue, friends and neighbors and mémé called him, sweetly, it being undeniable how overjoyed and proud Caroline was to have played such an instrumental role in the bringing of this lovely and radiant person into the world. She neither overstated nor downplayed baby Martin’s le petit appendice, which was now about as thick as a power line, with smooth bumps, long enough to go twice around her wrist. It should be said now and forever that amputation was never a consideration for Caroline, as she viewed la queue no differently than she saw her child’s arms or legs, and it’s presence, in the opinion of her colleagues, presented no risk to Martin’s health. Honestly, it didn’t even matter that the alternative to keeping it—which as far as Caroline was concerned would’ve been a slap in the face of whatever greater power may or may not have watched over them—could’ve actually had a negative impact on baby Martin’s radiance and psychic well-being. It was plain enough to anyone who witnessed her reverence for that child that the question of keeping it had no business coming up, ever.
Queue-boy!, other little kids called him, excitedly, when Caroline took him to play in the park. If anybody was skeptical it was other parents, worried one of their kids would fly off the swings and somehow come down on the sharp spade at the end of Martin’s tail, impaling themselves, but Caroline assured everyone with total understanding that her child was harmless, and his behavior seemed to back her up. Most of the time the boy’s tail was just following along, cutting a path through tall grass or digging serpentine trenches in the sand, but sometimes, usually when Martin was singing one of the many songs he made up, it would rise up and tap him on the shoulder, and if he looked it would quickly go to the other side, amusing the other kids very much, but if he ignored it and went on talking, it would tickle his back until he couldn’t help from bursting into a hysterical fit of laughter, which got everyone, including the parents, to laugh, except for Caroline, who wasn’t sure what to make of the tail’s odd social behavior, exactly.
When the time came Caroline didn’t shy away from asking Martin how he felt about sa queue. He said he really liked having it, even if the heavy appendage made it hard for him to sleep sometimes. He was sure it meant he was le dernier dinosaure. Was father a dinosaur, did he have one too? Caroline told him he very well may have, that she had met him swimming in Lac Gris, or maybe he had been a sea serpent, she wasn’t sure, never having seen him on land. That explanation more than satisfied young Martin and inspired him to come up with a new song, Papa Crocodile. In the end Caroline decided against formally warning Martin that kids might eventually tease or even get mad at him for having a tail, hoping, unrealistically perhaps, that his effervescence and lack of self-awareness would overshadow any orneriness the adolescent spirit might muster. She winded up being wrong about that, but not in a way she could’ve predicted.
L’une avec la queue, older boys and girls whispered, gossiping about their strange classmate. You know, the one with the tail, thinks he’s a dinosaur. That’s right, and his daddy’s Nessie! But they rarely mocked him directly, and if it hadn’t been a tail it might well’ve been glasses or a lack of soccer abilities that gave a certain group of kids reason to pick no matter what. Caroline noticed a change in Martin’s behavior around the start of Junior High—staying in his room, not singing—which was perfectly normal for a boy his age, almost a teen, the reality being that a lot of really radiant and bright kids had their share of dark adolescent periods, certainly. Caroline knew from the women she met at work that a single mother maintaining open dialogue with her teenage boy was about as common as vin bleu. Then again, their bond was special, she felt, and it was her motherly and earthly duty to help him find his way in a world she knew firsthand could be mind-numbingly lonely and shallow to everyone from time to time. This amounted to her trying to pack as much emotional punch as she could into the three-word volleys she was allotted daily. Hang in there. It will pass. Pasta’s good. Things like that.
Complicating matters further were difficulties Martin was having with the tail itself. By now it was two times as long as his mother was tall, a whole array of sharp summits and bladed alleys, a texture like weather-beaten algae, very similar in color to the more stagnant parts of Lac Gris. Its weight was more than enough to tip over unsecured tables and chairs when he wasn’t careful. Martin had come to realize the tail was not like his other limbs—would not submit to his will, that is. He could not, for instance, get it to check the temperature of hot bathwater before getting in. More so it betrayed what he was feeling inside. If he was nervous its callused tip would tap-tap-tap on the floor, or if he sensed the teacher about to ask a question he didn’t know the answer to it would move in a blur like a snake’s rattle, but silent, warning her to back the hell off, and when he saw a pretty girl in the hall he couldn’t for the life of himself prevent it from going straight up over his head and knocking down ceiling panels and causing all sorts of overt embarrassment, to which the tail would respond by retreating and coiling itself into a series of hypnotic loops. Having to wear his heart on his butt annoyed Martin, but again, it was just something to get used to, more fodder for songs written and sung quietly into the pillow. It was after Caroline noticed Martin had begun locking the door to his bedroom that the tail’s behavior seemed less in sync with her child’s outward emotions. She was unable to get her less-than-chatty teen male to confirm, but her theory was that the tail had begun reacting perhaps on a more id level.
The blood on Caroline’s smock was still wet from a touch-and-go but ultimately joyous birth when the headmaster called to say Martin was okay, nobody had been hurt, everything was fine, only her son didn’t know who he was at the moment and they were holding him in the nurse’s office because as one might imagine he was having some trouble adjusting to his, you know, appearance. Dites-moi ce que je suis, s’il vous plaît? You are Martin Durant, your mother will be here very soon. No, what am I?
Martin’s history teacher Sabine said it happened not long into his oral presentation on Louis XIV, le Roi-Soleil. I called his name and he went right up and first thing he said was, L’état, c’est moi, a few kids laughed. I am the state! He said it again, loud, but smiling, and we all clapped. He had everyone’s attention right off, but that was when it started acting weird, the tail. First it knocked a book off my desk, okay, then it twirled over his head like a lasso, which made the kids laugh, but I knew he wasn’t doing it on purpose, because he’s usually very serious in class. It sounds strange but it was kind of acting like a spoiled child not getting attention. Martin was trying to talk about King Louis going to the theater with his mom, but the tail kept scratching the board. It happened really fast after that. He said sorry and turned around to stop the noise and my whole desk flipped in air, it was a huge crash, everyone yelling and getting up on their seats. Then Martin just collapsed.
Dr. Jensen referred to the 24 hours Martin spent not knowing who he was after waking up in the nurse’s office as a fugue state, fugue dissociative, a temporary loss of memories, personal history, individual traits, essentially all the things that make someone feel like themselves. It was the psychiatrist’s best guess that Martin’s fear of the tail lashing out at his classmates caused his mind and body to briefly shut down, a sort of defensive reset, and when he regained consciousness not only did he not remember what had happened in the classroom, but he also couldn’t remember anything about himself that came before it. Persona tabula rasa. Most people who experience a psychogenic fugue, a rare condition to begin with, find themselves disoriented, distressed, and highly agitated, but on the other hand they don’t usually have such a, well, they don’t usually have an extreme physical abnormality, in Martin’s case a tail, to contend with. It would be like waking up in a unfamiliar place, no idea who you are, but at the same time having a very real understanding that humans, one of which you ostensibly are, do not have car-length tubes of spiked skin coming out of their rear ends, yet you do. We’re certainly lucky this happened in a place where Martin was unable to hurt himself or disappear somewhere.
Un homme avec une queue, Martin called himself, with gusto, the day he became a man, officially, the day he told Caroline he was moving to the US. There’s something I need to tell you. Okay. Caroline recognized a nervous and over rehearsed tone in her son’s speech right away. For the past few years Martin’s body had been filling out around his tail, which seemed finally to be done growing. For one thing he was almost two meters tall and broad-shouldered like a swimmer, with impeccable posture on account of always having his lower back taught. He had the thighs of a tour biker, also thanks to the squatting with his grand appendice. But it was his skin, particularly the skin on his face, that was most striking because it had changed so little. Martin never got one pimple, whitehead, blackhead, or blemish of any kind his entire life. His skin at 18 was as smooth and flawless as it was at one day. It was startling to see such even and clear complexion on someone with a man’s body. No lines, no pockets, not a millimeter of wasted flesh, cream paint poured over pure snow, was the only way Caroline could describe it. This was the first time in eight years she had seen sweat on her son’s satin forehead, and the tiny droplets only added to the angelic effect.
I want you to understand my leaving has nothing to do with wanting to leave you. I’m not some lost kid running away to run away. I’m not running. I know where I’m going and I know what I’m going to do. I’m not normal, this, this is not normal. I know you did everything you could to give me a normal childhood, normal as it could be, everyone deserves that, but it’s over, and I’m so thankful I have such a big fat reminder that I’m never going to be normal, and there’s no reason to spend any more time trying, because being normal isn’t what I want, anyway. I want to be special. I want to use everything I was born with, mind and body, to show people how much of an eternal waste of time being normal really is. I’m moving to Hollywood and I’m going to use my big asset to break down the door and I’m going to show everyone how much better it is to be a Freak.
D’accord. D’accord. Relax. The man with a tail found himself crouching in a dark alley not far from where the tent was set up. Maybe he was part of the show and they didn’t need him tonight. Maybe he was an alternate, what’s it called? Une doublure. Maybe he was just there supporting his Freak friends. Why the fancy suit? He must be begging for a job, a part, a biscuit, anything. Désespérée, affamé, fauché? Wallet?
He reached for his back pocket and felt it, it-it, patchy like dry skin but with a slickness. He squeezed it and his stomach turned. Putain putain une putain reptile queue j’ai putain queue!
Calmer. Identification said Martin Durant. There was also a handwritten note with VERY IMPORTANT on the front. Anglais? It said:
Hi Martin, it’s Caroline, ta mére. You must be very confused. It’s okay, you’re in America. You know English, see. You have a tail. Always have. It’s okay. Do not harm it, it’s very important to you. You’re not crazy, just sometimes you get worked up and forget who you are for a little while. Stay safe and don’t go far. It will pass. Always does.
Behind a dumpster Martin watched as a terrible storm raged inside the peppermint tent. It looked like the lights inside were short-circuiting and sounded like blown speakers at max volume and the whole place was flapping from extreme artificial winds of some kind. Intermittent waves of electricity exposed rigid and exaggerated figures inside. Four long bodies with dots for heads. A loud snapping sound.
The only light is a slow motion strobe. Pinheads appear / gone / reappear. Curtains closed / halfway open / open.
Pale Jesse took in what he could with each flash of light. A caravan traveling at night. A storm. Lightning—
Wagon overturned / Live horses bucking / Confetti raining down / Clown and Hercules crashing through / Cleo scurrying toward a cardboard forest / Herc strangling Clown / A tree toppling—
Dark. All Pale Jesse could see were glowing dots popping up two-by-two where the stage had been, twinkling like stars, blinks possibly, too many to count. One group converged on the center of the stage where Herc and Clown were last seen. The other went to the corner, cardboard forest.
Twinkle, twinkle, little star
How I wonder what you are
The strobe starts again—faster—staccato—the Freaks in two groups…
Up above the world so high
Like a diamond in the sky
1: Midget James Dean with his switchblade over Hercules’ lower half, the strongman’s upper body trapped under a wagon, still very alive, struggling…
Twinkle, twinkle, little star
How I wonder what you are
2: Hans and company closing in on Cleo, her legs pinned under a fallen tree.
The strobe had gotten so bright and so fast Pale Jesse could only watch through spread fingers—
The world so high / Something shiny coming down / Like a diamond in / The bloody mouths of Freaks / Twinkle, twinkle / Herc screaming, clutching his groin / Little star / Cleo pawing at the ground / How I wonder / Pulling herself away / What you are / Her legs detached, left behind.
Light’s out. Pale Jesse was confused. Could that be it. The Freaks were no better than those who conspired against them, possibly worse. Was that the point? He felt more alone than ever. It was dark and utterly quiet. He looked up and located the pale glowing circle through the tent. Perfectly round and full. Fuck it—
Owwwwwwl … Owwwwwwl … Owwwwwwl
Owwwwwwl … Owwwwwwl … Owwwwwwl
The tailed man had been watching the dark tent for over a minute when the howling started. A single cry at first that he assumed must be part of the show, until there were so many more. And more. A whole chorus of long shrill moans. His tail perked up, pointing to the sky, hello moon. Why not—
He kept on howling as he approached the tent. It howled back. His tail was completely off the ground, dancing in the moonlight with all the weight of a ribbon. He took gentle strides, his neck craning to the sky, chin returning to the chest, elongating again, tail swimming through kicked up dust. He paused, his face already inside, tail right behind, fully prepared to release his most soulful cry yet, and the lights came on.