Published: April 22, 2008
Updated: April 23, 2008
Captain Noah looked out the trailer window and watched the men stacking sections of the tent frame on the flat bed. It was too early to get a reading on the weather, but if today was going to be anything like yesterday, there would be an onshore wind, gray, cold and threatening – without ever getting to be fair or foul. Probably a good day to hoist anchor and get the hell out of Wichita.
Anything to get out of Wichita! They would be heading Northeast today, heading for Topeka. Maybe things would take a turn for the better there. He hoped so. There was always a rainbow just out of reach – around the bend in the road, and If he could get to a new place, a place where no one knew him, he was sure his luck would change and life would be worth living again. “Too late to turn back now” – he switched the light on over the tiny sink in the trailer and looked down at his elaborately decorated body and wondered whatever possessed him to take up life as a tattooed man.
His body was nearly hairless but he had to shave it every day. Underarms. Genitalia – and every other day his beard. No hair grew on his head and as he shaved his underarms the single light bulb in the ceiling illuminated a three-masted schooner with all sails set and a sun sinking on the horizon. All on the top of his head. The ship was the Annette. It was a vacation ship, a frigate he sailed on as a boy in New England. When he closed his eyes he could still see that ship in his mind and remember his dream of sailing somewhere he had never been before. That was when the dream began – when he was a boy and wanted to see the world. He lathered his underarms and put a new blade in his razor, he wanted to get the shaving out of the way before the men hitched up the trailer and Braddock’s Circus train shoved off.
He was 57 years old now, and a freak traveling with Braddock’s Circus. He took consolation in the thought that he was not a born freak. Zippo, the black skinned boy with his tiny doll-sized head, and Ajax the Legless Wonder. Magli and her troupe of midgets, some less than three feet tall – the Ubangi girls with lips two feet in diameter. Nanette, the bear girl; they were the real freaks. He was nothing like that at all. He was a man, a perfectly normal man. If it wasn’t for the tattoos that covered his body from head to foot he could walk away from this freak show and start a new life somewhere in another town. A place where nobody knew him.
Captain Noah, the tattooed man, shared the trailer with Zippo and Ajax the Legless Wonder. Zippo was 6’ 6”, weighed 230 pounds, and although he was almost as old as Captain Noah, he had the intelligence of an infant. His head came to a point just above his eyes and on that point he sported a tuft of red hair. He was a problem when he smoked his pipe, Ajax and Captain Noah had to watch him like a hawk. He could not make the simplest decision for himself, and while Captain Noah was normally as gentle as a lamb with him, Ajax treated him like an animal. With a free hand he would swat him with a rolled up magazine for no other reason than to show him who was boss.
That’s exactly what he did when the trailer suddenly jolted and the hitching crew connected it to the rear end of the tent truck. “Sit down, you big oaf. We’re movin’ out. You’re gonna fall down and break somethin’.”
Captain Noah quickly finished shaving and turned out the light over the sink. “I’ll be glad to get out of this town.” He turned to Ajax, “Take it easy on him Ajax, he don’t know what he’s doin’.”
“Zippo hungry.” He pointed to his mouth and rubbed his stomach.
Ajax propped himself up on his bed between two pillows. “Y’can’t eat now – we’re movin’ out. You’ll spill food all over the trailer.” As if to punctuate his point, he threw a magazine at Zippo catching him behind the ear. There was no love lost between Zippo and Ajax.
Braddock’s Circus had a bad reputation. “Too many freaks,” most people said, “not enough acrobats.” Acrobats are kinder to each other than freaks are. The freaks bore a simmering dislike for so-called normal people and it spilled over into their feelings toward each other. Even though Captain Noah considered himself to be an ordinary man – one you might bump into on any street in America, he had grown to dislike his fellow workers, the sawdust, the lights, and even the audience that came to stare at them.
They performed under the big tent as clowns but they were on display before the big show began. They sat and wandered about in a circular enclosure inside a small tent next to the big top, (they called it the “pit”) and for a dollar a head people would come to gawk at them. The freaks hated it. Insulting questions would be thrown at them from the crowd – the kinds of questions that cannot be answered civilly. “Kin y’go to the bathroom widdout no legs?” “How d’ya get up and down the stairs?” “Kin y’fuck?” “Kin y’shit?”
“That’s all they think of, these people, fucking and shitting,” Ajax would boil over with rage and shout back at them. He would reach a point where he couldn’t take it any longer. When he did, Zippo would pick him up and carry him back to the trailer. Ajax would cool down in time and come back to the “Pit” on his own, walking on his hands. But the scars never went away – freaks are never happy. Even Zippo, who didn’t know any better, had moments of melancholy. “Zippo never grow up – poor Zippo.” None of them shared Captain Noah’s dream of finding success in another town. For them the next town would be no better or worse than the one they left, they had seen town after town come and go. There was no reason to think that Topeka would be any better than Wichita.
The trailer lurched, heaved and gained speed as Braddock’s Circus moved out of Wichita. The three men wedged themselves into their own personal corners, Ajax in his tiny bed, Zippo between the sink and the small refrigerator, (just out of Ajax’s reach) and Captain Noah sat in the bolted down chair by the window. They would stay in these positions until the caravan made its first rest stop. They learned from experience that walking around the trailer as it bounced along behind the tent truck was dangerous.
It was difficult to be heard inside the trailer. Every sound was amplified and echoed and it sounded to the Captain as though he was inside a kettledrum rolling downhill. He looked at his roommates in turn – Zippo seemed to have shut himself down to a semi-conscious state. At the first rest stop he would become animated and hungry. He would walk up and down the caravan looking for something to eat. Ajax was slumped down in his wrinkled bed, only his head could be seen above the tangled blanket. But his eyes remained wary, they darted from Zippo to the Captain and back again as though looking for reassurance that all would be well.
In spite of the noise, Captain Noah found himself drifting off to sleep. He found himself dreaming of Topeka, a city he had never seen. The buildings were white and tall – the streets were wide and all the traffic lights were green. The sky was a watery blue and sprinkled with feathery clouds so thin the sun shone through. It seemed for a moment to Captain Noah that he had found his El Dorado at last.
Then the trailer lurched to the side of the road and stopped.
Zippo was on his feet in a flash. He ran to the door, and his heavy footsteps made the trailer tremble. “Time for break. Take walk now.” He had one hand on the knob when Ajax threw his pillow at him.
“Just a Goddamn minute Zippo! You gonna leave me here? Come over here! Come over here right now, y’hear me.” Zippo caught in the act of trying to get away by himself, hung his head and lumbered over to Ajax. Ajax raised his hands like a small child and Zippo lifted him out of bed and carried him to the door. As they stood in the open door, Ajax turned to the Captain. “C’mon Captain ... rest stop,” he said. The Captain had no idea of the time, and when he looked outside it still seemed as dark as when they started. But he was grateful for the rest stop anyway, being cooped up with Zippo and Ajax, and listening to their bickering made every trip seem longer than it was. They were like two children and it was always a relief to talk to some other freaks for a while.
They stood by the side of their trailer and waited for the others. Usually the freaks would pile out noisily, they would share food they had brought with them or play cards for a few minutes. Scuttlebutt was the big item ... who was getting it ... who wasn’t ... who owed who ... and so on.
Captain Noah, Ajax and Zippo had no way of knowing the caravan had stopped for a grade crossing somewhere a few miles outside Wichita where strings of freight cars may number a hundred or more. The caravan waited for the caboose to rumble by, ready to start their engines again – waiting for the crossing gates to creak open. They were ready to streak across the tracks bent on making up the lost time.
The line of circus trucks and trailers pulled rapidly away from Captain Noah and Ajax, cradled in the brawny arms of the brainless Zippo. They stood and watched their trailer bounce over the tracks, its open back door swinging wildly. For a moment it looked as though the driver would stop, but as soon as it reached the other side of the tracks it speeded up again and disappeared into the darkness.
“Come back!” Zippo’s plaintive comment was the first response. The others were too shocked to respond.
Finally, Ajax reached up and slapped Zippo across the face. “Well, y’dummy! See wat’cha got me into. I didn’t wanna leave the trailer. Did you Captain?”
“Well, we stopped. We all thought it was a rest stop. We always get out at a rest stop ...”
“Bullshit! You’re always on his side.” He looked up accusingly at Zippo. “Hold me straight, Goddamn it, y’got me tilted over to one side.”
“Look Ajax, he’s an idiot – he’s a pair of legs. Nobody’s against you. We’re in this together.”
Zippo tried to smile, first at Ajax, then at the Captain. “Be OK, Cap’n?” He asked.
“Be OK.” The Captain tried to put a positive spin on the situation but he sensed that freaks in the circus are one thing, while freaks walking through a small midwest town are another. He had no idea where they were. He tried to recall the towns on the map he looked at last night when he was trying to find out how far it was to Topeka. There were some small towns just outside Wichita and they must be near one of them. He could see a few buildings up the road and he started walking in that general direction. “Let’s go, men – we’re not gettin’ any closer to where we’re goin’ by standin’ around here.”
He recognized one of the buildings up ahead as a train station. There were a few lights burning along the covered platform, one of which illuminated a faded wooden sign saying “Nectar.” Captain turned to Ajax, nestled in Zippo’s arms. “At least we know where we are,” he smiled. “We’re in Nectar.”
Ajax wore an expression that flitted between irritation and anxiety; Zippo’s face wore no expression at all. Ajax and the Captain were well aware that if they were seen in a public place normal people would be frightened out of their wits. They were freaks, fish out of water, and were something to be seen and gaped at in a circus side show not on a public street in a one horse town like Nectar. Zippo didn’t care. He would be at home wherever he was – flood or fire, it was all the same to Zippo. He only knew he was hungry.
“They’ll kill us if they see us,” Ajax said, “you know how people can be.”
“You think Braddock will come back for us?”
“He won’t miss us ‘til tonight, not before they get to Topeka. He’ll start back maybe tomorra – maybe not. He might think we quit and walked off.”
“Well, we’re done for then,” the Captain said.
“If we are, I wanna go quiet like,” Ajax said. “It’s somethin’ I always hoped for.” Ajax looked up at Zippo. “I suppose you’re still hungry, Zippo.”
Zippo nodded his head, “Yeah, Yeah! Zippo hungry!”
“Tell y’what, Captain. Take us to the train station. Leave us there in the waitin’ room – somebody’s bound t’come in and see us there. Maybe they won’t panic – just maybe. Maybe they’ll go for the police and ... and ... maybe it won’t be so bad for us. Maybe it’ll all be for the best.”
“I’ll stay with you.”
“No y’won’t. You’re gonna move on. It’s a new town, Captain. Your always lookin’ for a new start in a new town, aint’cha?” They started walking toward the railroad station, and in the growing light the lights above the covered platform suddenly went out. “Y’can pull yer watch cap down, Captain. Pull it down low over yer ears. Roll y’sleeves down too.”
“I’ll be on my own?”
“On y’Goddamn own, Captain. Without nobody to hold y’back. Go on! Go on! Y’may never git the chance again.” He looked up again at Zippo, this time with a hint of affection. “Still hungry, Zippo?”