Wednesday, March 30, 2011

THERE BE DRAGONS

The half-man, half-woman stood at the back of the stage. He or she, I wasn’t sure which, wore a full skirt and a shirt and tie. I thought I noticed a slight swell of breasts. A dozen or so people in front of the stage waited for something, but I didn’t know what. The men, coal miners most of them, wore overalls or blue jeans. They bent forward and hacked shards of blackened lungs into red bandanas to hide the blood. Their women, some holding children by the hand, wore pageboys and clean print dresses.

The carnival was in town and my sister Vonnie and I talked Grandma into letting us go. We each got a dollar to spend, plus we’d broken our piggy bank and split another dollar and thirty-two cents. Grandma was still hanging in the car window giving my brother Hursey instructions, and us too, as Grandpa pulled out of the driveway. This was the first time she’d let him look after us; he was sixteen, my sister Vonnie eleven, and I was nine. As soon as Grandpa dropped us off, Hursey took off with his best friend, Billy Johnson, making us promise to meet in an hour at the big beacon light that fanned over the town every night, beckoning people to come.

The barker called out to us: Try your luck right here. Bust three balloons and take your pick from that bottom shelf for just one thin dime. Everybody wins and nobody loses. Come on over here, Blondie, win that kewpie doll you been eyeing.

Flush with money and raring to spend it, Vonnie tried for the kewpie doll with the curl on its forehead, but after spending thirty cents and only winning a paddle-ball and two kazoos, she gave up.

We scuffed through the sweet smelling sawdust to the refreshment stand and bought hot dogs and orange pop, eating as we gawked up at the rusty old ferris wheel. We stopped at the carousel and Vonnie climbed on a prancing palomino while I mounted a wild black steed with flashing red eyes.

The music from the calliope trailed us down the midway as we hurried to the meeting place, but the guys weren’t even there. We walked to the end of the midway before Vonnie spotted them standing near a rickety stage, gaping up at hoochie-coochie girls. The women wore skimpy skirts and fishnet stockings with holes in them and sequined halters on top. They had painted their shoes with gilt, black streaks showing through the brush marks on their high heels. Puckering their lips and making kissy sounds, they gyrated to music that thrummed and thumped through the loudspeakers. One girl tapped to the front and did a routine to Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy, spreading a mouth smeared with red lipstick in the direction of the men, her tongue licking out around bad teeth.

Soon the barker shooed the girls into the tent behind the stage and started his pitch: You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. Come on inside where the real show is about to begin. It’s gonna be the best two bits you’re ever gonna spend. Yes sirree, you’ll be down on your knees thankin’ me. Last call, gentlemen, show’s gonna start in two minutes.

The men and boys swiveled their heads as they snaked hands into pockets to fish out a quarter. Seeing hoochie-coochie girls wasn’t anything I was interested in when I could see a real live alligator man and a two-headed chicken right down the midway. Hursey and Billy each bought a ticket, making me pinky swear I’d never tell, and I wouldn’t, because that would be the end of us ever going anywhere with him again. Hursey and Vonnie were always saying I was dumb, but I wasn’t that dumb.

Vonnie and I still had money to spend, so we bought cherry snow cones piled high with ice and drenched with sticky red syrup that dripped onto our patent leather shoes. We walked the length of the midway again, spending what was left of our money to buy tickets to the freak show that promised not only the alligator man and the two-headed chicken, but a half-man, half-woman pictured right next to the fat lady on the huge hand-painted posters hanging behind the stage.

Holding hands tight, we clambered down boards laid for a ramp into the tent. A huge woman lolled in a chair, her natural bulk made bigger by horsehair padding you could see a little of poking out of her sleeves. Sweat teared down her face, washing tracks through makeup that had been applied with a heavy hand. The two-headed chicken walking around in a cage and the scaly alligator man both looked real enough to me, but I didn’t know how to tell if the coal black figure stretched out in a coffin was a genuine petrified man.

A midget dressed in a clown suit ran around in the audience doing handstands. Sometimes he bent down and looked up the women’s dresses, honking a horn and covering his eyes every time he did it. One woman cussed at him and kicked him in the knee, but he laughed and pretended it didn’t hurt.

Never looking at anybody in the audience, the man-woman walked to the front of the stage. It kept its face turned toward the naked bulb that hung from a cord in the center of the tent as it lifted its skirt to expose a fingerling of pink flesh dangling from a furry nest. A flash, then the skirt dropped. When it spun around and walked away, a sign on its back declared I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR WHAT I AM. A few hoots and catcalls started up and died away.

Vonnie and I turned and ran back up the ramp as fast as we could, the boards bouncing under our feet. I tripped and fell, Vonnie still clutching my hand and dragging me along before I regained my footing. I hadn’t even felt the splinter pierce my knee, but when she pulled it out, bright red blood and cherry snow cone juice mingled on my white Easter shoes and anklets.

My face flushed every time I thought about what I’d seen, and I thought about it most of the time. To tell the truth, I worried myself sick about the particulars of that peculiar body. Was it called a he or a she? How did it sound when it talked? Would it have a husband or a wife? Would it be a mommy or a daddy? Which bathroom did it use?

I called the man-woman ‘it’ in my head. Although I knew in my heart that was wrong, I didn’t know what was right. Grandma might know, but I couldn’t ask her without telling on myself, and Vonnie refused to talk about it at all. Thinking about it made me uneasy, so I decided to put it out of my mind and, for the most part, that worked. An occasional image resurfaced, not of what I’d seen, but of something else, some disturbing thing I could not name.

Hursey gave the kewpie doll he won at the carnival to Vonnie so she wouldn’t tattle to Grandma about the hoochie-coochie girls, and he talked Billy into giving me a yoyo, for the same reason, I suspected. Hursey gave Grandma a green glass bowl and she served potato salad in it that night and from then on.

From my bed I watched the beacon wag an accusing finger across the dark heavens. I got on my knees and said now I lay me down to sleep I pray the Lord my soul to keep if I should die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.

I knew I had crossed some line that was invisible, and it was too late to turn back. A picture in my brother’s geography book showed a map of the world in ancient days. There were known countries and continents; the rest of the map had the words BEYOND THERE BE DRAGONS.

There was no warning sign, no caution light, no line drawn in the sand.

I had wandered into dragon territory.

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Drema Hall Berkheimer won First Place Nonfiction and First Honorable Mention Nonfiction in the 2010 WV Writers Conference Competition. She is published in WV South, The Beckley Register-Herald Divine Magazine. Plain Spoke, Flashquake, Brevity, Long Story Short, Persimmon Tree, Babel Fruit, Burnt Bridge, Southern Women’s Review, Muscadine Lines, and The Dead Mule, and has work forthcoming in River Poets Journal and others. She is writing a memoir, Running On a Red Dog Road, about growing up in post-Depression West Virginia, the child of a father who was killed in the coal mines, a Rosie the Riveter mother, and devout Pentecostal grandparents. She does readings for groups and has judged various literary competitions. She is affiliated with WV Writers, Salon Quatre, and The Writer’s Garret in Dallas. dremagirl@aol.com

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