Drew Hetzel: Fascinating Interests

Fall '10 TOC

      “Hold it right there in the light where I can see it,” Clarisse insisted, eyeing his Monstrosity, “and stop moving around.” He obeyed. It was their thing. Ordinarily, he would never have let her have her way.
      It wasn’t like they did the high-wire act or anything, but in the circus you had to have friends. Always some dangerous uncertainty, chaotic unpredictability, fiery eruptions about to erupt. Everyone was off somewhere sometime.
      At least between Clarisse’s interest in The Monstrosity and his interest in her interest, they had a level of mutual interest that felt like trust, and gave them an upper hand, because nobody else had trust or real interest. The Sword Swallower figured they were lovers. He was wrong.
      “I never get a good look at it. Wait! God, it’s so floppity. I mean it just hangs there like that,” Clarisse said cocking her head to the side, pensive.
      “Okay, can I put it away now?”
      “Just a little longer, I won’t break it.”
      “Time’s up.”
      “Oh… it’s so… unique.”
      “Lots of things are unique; you just don’t notice them.”
      “Don’t be so smug.”
“I’m smug? I’m smug? That’s refreshing.”
      He carefully held it in his hand and began to put it back in.
      “Can I touch it again?”
      “Because it’s so foreign to me, that’s all. I don’t mind”
      “Why the hell would you mind?”
      “That’s not what I mean. Here I just want to pet it.”
      “It’s not a pet.”
      “I didn’t say it was a pet, I said I wanted to pet it, pet it.”
      “We have to get back.”
      “Like he’s ever going to be ready on time.”
      He put it away and tucked it in, pushing it flat so that it was less noticeable. It seemed to him to have changed lately, and this gave him some concern, but that was what it did, it had always changed like it had a mind of its own. It was the bane and blessing of his life to carry The Monstrosity. He had never understood why everyone was so interested in it. Such a simple thing. Before the circus it was just a play-toy, something to scare the girls, or even his buddies when they got drunk enough. Now it was all he had, and secretly, that was the reason he didn’t want her to touch it. He believed it was somehow fragile now, even though it got caught in the towel rack just last week and nothing had happened to it. Nonetheless, he didn’t want to take any chances, so nobody got to touch it anymore. What if it got infected? Had to be cut off? He’d be clean out of a job. The sheer girth of the thing and it still had creases and folds, little places for things to grow on it and in it. He cleaned it every night with an alcohol wipe, and applied calamine lotion so it wouldn’t dry out from the alcohol. He’d kept this routine for the past seven years, never once missing a day, even when Clarisse demanded to stay the night. No, he told himself, it would have to remain sterile, as sterile as possible until he had something better to bring in the money, and that was about as likely as the clowns going corporate.
      Clarisse. He thought he loved her, but things were never so easy to figure out in the circus. He wondered if she fancied him just for his Talent, and wasn’t sure if he fancied her for her third nipple, or her other Talent, the Talent she showed to customers. It looked just like a little piggie’s tail; it sickened and fascinated him, but mostly it fascinated him. The customers got to touch it as part of the show. Kids loved to pull it down, and watch it spring back up into its curlicue. It stuck out of a little hole she cut in her hot pink suede pants, which was lined with hot pink fur. She used to paint her tail hot pink too, but the paint caused some sort of reaction and made it too sore and the kids couldn’t pull on it anymore so she got a lower “entrance-rate”, so she stopped painting it. The entrance-rate was the new manager’s way of “systematizing” everything. He said it would make it fair for everyone. The Sword Swallower said it was socialism, but the new manager explained that it was “everyone’s Talent for themselves,” because he knew that nobody was going to argue that their Talent wasn’t the best Talent, and nobody really knew what socialism was anyhow.
      Every time Clarisse saw The Monstrosity, she felt strangely pacified. It was as if the size and the audacity of the thing was enough to make her feel that everything in the world was okay. “If there’s room for The Monstrosity, there must be room for everyone,” she said to him once. He just smiled, and adjusted himself. He knew that she meant well, but it made him feel like a freak, and even though he was a freak he didn’t want to hear her say he was a freak or even imply that he was a freak. If he said he was a freak that was one thing, but he didn’t want to hear anyone else call him a freak, especially not Clarisse.
      There are some people who actually want to be in the circus, but it’s always the ones who learned some trick, like the guy who’d snort the end of a chain up his nose, and cough the same end out of his mouth, then slide it back and forth with both hands to show that it was not a trick, but it was a trick, even though it was going all the way through, ALL the way through. Sure it was shocking, and there was a lot of mucus, and he made puking sounds, but it was just a trick, not the real deal—“Sick Tricks”, everyone called them. The Sick Tricks could leave any time and get a real job. The freaks had to stay and be on display or go into seclusion. There was rumor of some sort of retirement home for all the circus freaks in France, but nobody in Barney’s Circus had ever been to France. It was supposed to be in Leon, or Lausanne, or somewhere. Everyone knew the French didn’t give a damn about freaks, as long as they weren’t Algerians, according to Philippe, and he had a handle-bar mustache and spoke with a “true French accent” or so he said, but since nobody had ever been to France, and hardly anyone even had a driver’s license in Barney’s, nobody had a clue if he was full of it or not, so everyone played along, which is what everyone does in the circus, which is why every kid wants to join.

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