“What good is the warmth of summer without the cold of winter to give it sweetness?”
-John Steinbeck, “In Search of America”
It was one of those traveling carnivals that blew into towns at the burnt-out end of summer for a week or two and then moved on, taking the season with it–maybe to return next summer, or maybe just to disappear, as things do sometimes.
It was a hot, crowded, noisy midway, full of barkers and bells and hard-tin music and cheap games and cheap money. There were strongmen and tattooed women, dwarfs and tramps and cons, electric lights and painted stalls, and kootchie shows where the dancing girls showed more if you paid extra. There was a ferris wheel that creaked and rattled as it soared over the flat sheet metal roofs of the town, and a carousel with wooden horses, their painted manes flying and nostrils flaring.
There were booths where you could fire a rifle or a bow or a dart to win this thing or that thing—anything–and a high striker, where the barker challenged every skinny country boy as wispy as a cornstalk to hit the bell, and the dunk tank where a jeering clown grinned, Mephistopheles-like, and swore that you couldn’t hit the target to dunk him once in three shots.
(And he was right, you couldn’t—the spring that dropped the board hadn’t worked in more than six years, but he took your money all the same.)
There was a spookhouse, a mirror house, a funhouse, a clockwork museum, and a tent where belly dancers crawled like reptiles; there was calliope music, popcorn, cotton candy, beer, sweat, and want. More often than not the customers (“marks” the carnival folk called them) couldn’t really afford this cheap gambling–the town didn’t have work, or even the prospect of work. But what they did have was a carnival, so they spent money they didn’t have to win nothing, and they were happy enough.
It was a carnival like any other–except for one thing. In a tent much larger than the others–a massive tent in fact, the likes of which some ancient conqueror would have erected on the field of his latest victory–and sequestered at the edge of the fairground, as if the other attractions perhaps wanted to keep a distance from it, there was something extra, something special–something perhaps even grandiose, although few people would have used that word.
Any other traveling entertainment would have called a place like this a freak show, but a hand-painted sign over the tent flap bestowed on it a more dignified name:
“Dr. Cooger’s Museum of Human Oddities, Scientific Curiosities, Medical Marvels & Experiments of Nature.”
The tent was old, and the scenes painted onto its canvas were in much need of renewing, but they still injected life into the promises of the fantastical and lurid. Come one, come all to see: the Exotic Leopard Girl! The Fearsome Queen of Serpents, and her companion the Crocodile Man! The mysterious Missing Link! The Living Mummy! The Midwich Giant! The True Unicorn!
This grand edifice is where the boy lingered. He’d been there for hours already, and when the sun went down and the midway closed and the roustabouts herded the last marks away, he pretended not to notice them closing up, and he kept lingering.
This boy—but he was not a boy, really. He was 18 now, old enough to be called a man, old enough to go fight when the next war came. But inside he still felt like a boy: uncertain, untried, like a bottle no one had ever removed the cork from. Or perhaps he felt like those painted scenes on the tent, faded before their time, their promises of mystery and exoticism dulled by too much road dust and summer sun.
In the twilight hours after the carnival he stayed and watched that tent, as immovable as the pole under the big top. It was gonna be a cold night, and his jacket was thin, and his old jeans had holes–but still he didn’t stir. His vigil had something of a religious quality.
It’s feasible the boy would have stayed there all night if Griffin hadn’t found him—or that is to say, hadn’t let him know that he’d been found, as in truth Griffin had been aware of him all day. The older man cleared his throat, and the boy jumped a little but didn’t run—barely moved, in fact.
Griffin carried on him an old-fashioned clay pipe, and when he lit a match the boy saw him in full, a studious man with a gray beard, having the look of an old professor whose classroom walls were thick with the residue of his lectures. But there was a shabbiness about him too—like his tent, Griffin seemed in need of rejuvenation, his affect worn and threadbare, his spectacles loose-fitting, his watch fob touched by tarnish. And he couldn’t help but give away some roughneck trappings of the carnival, wearing work shoes beneath his rolled trouser legs, and sporting calloused palms and fingers from many years hauling his act from town to town.
With the match burning down, Griffin thrust the light at the vast square of canvas the boy had scrutinized all this time; the flame jolted the scene to life, and for an instant its colors looked almost new. The side of the tent displayed a gorgeous woman lounging on a rock in a remote sea, surrounded by sparkling sapphire waters and sea foam; nothing around suggested land except the white sails of a ship passing—distantly—on the horizon.
She wasn’t a fair-skinned beauty like the girls at the kootchie shows, who would have burnt lobster-red in 20 minutes under the yellow disc of tropical sun in that painted sky. She was tanned and lithesome, with dark hair hanging over much of her face and, alarmingly, glistering yellow eyes behind the flowing locks. From the waist down her body was that of a massive, scaly fish, with a powerful tail and graceful fins that would float like lilies in the water. The writing underneath read:
And below that, in the same script that adorned the sign out front:
“AS EXHIBITED IN MOST OF THE PRINCIPAL CITIES OF AMERICA, TO THE WONDER AND ASTONISHMENT OF THOUSANDS OF NATURALISTS AND OTHER SCIENTIFIC PERSONS, WHOSE PREVIOUS DOUBTS ABOUT THE EXISTENCE OF SUCH THINGS WERE ENTIRELY REMOVED!”
Griffin blew the match out, and the script disappeared. With the red glow of his pipe reflected in his spectacles, he said, “So, THAT’s what’s interested you so; I might have known.”
The boy looked embarrassed, as if he’d been caught in the midst of some peculiar sin, but Griffin’s said, “You’ve got nothing to explain yourself to the likes of me. After all, aren’t I the one who brought her here? Oh yes, I know very well why you might stare at that one–I’ve done it myself, more times than I can count.”
Pondering the darkened scene, clouds of smoke floating over his head like steam from the kettle of his rapidly working brain, Griffin regarded the boy closer. “You’ve no money,” he said after a while.
The boy stood up straighter. “I’m not a thief,” he said.
“Of course you’re not: I didn’t say you don’t have money because I think you’re here to steal, I say it because if you had you’d have come in by now. So you haven’t a penny to pay for anything—but you haven’t gone home either. That makes you a bit of a mystery–and mysteries are my business.”
To this the boy said nothing—what in the world could he say? But he let Griffin examine him up and down, and even circle him once, as if he were sizing up a prize pig. After apparently finding him suiting, the older man squared his shoulders and said:
“Well, why don’t you come inside and meet her?” The amazement on the boy’s face must have been evident, because Griffin was already saying, “Yes, really. Come on now, before it gets too late—or I change my mind.”
Although the boy had finished college and was deemed clever enough by everyone with any investment in the question, he did not possess what you might call an abstract mind. If you had proposed that this moment, just before old Griffin ushered him inside the mysterious tent and changed his life forever, was an inflection point in his so-far brief existence, a critical juncture at which his destiny split into two paths, one of them typical and the other unimaginable, he wouldn’t have known what to say.
But he FELT it all the same–his heart, his stomach, his loins, and his bones knew that something was happening, even if his brain and tongue couldn’t articulate it. All of us have moments like this, but only a few ever see them for what they really are.
Griffin lifted the flap of the tent, and the boy paused, as if unsure of his step—but Griffin only had to hold the door open for a second more before he went all the way inside and let the tent seal itself behind him. He felt like he’d been swallowed, and the story of Jonah and the lord’s whale flitted briefly into his mind.
“We don’t run the electric lights after hours,” the old man said. “Wait.” And he went about the interior, setting a match to the oil lamps, which flared tentatively to life. The lamplight did not decrease the boy’s anxiety; indeed, the half-and-half twilight world of lamplight might have made it even worse, as if the flames were the dark’s accomplice. On every side now, the boy saw…things. Sometimes gorgeous things; sometimes awful things; but most often things drawn from an unreal world where beauty and awfulness mingled until you couldn’t recognize either.
There were the bones of ancient beasts, reassembled and articulated to the imitation of life, taxidermied with old pelts and fake glass eyes, their ancient claws and fangs bared after thousands of years of dust; there were things in jars on shelves and in cabinets, pale things drifting in alcohol plasma, forever dreaming and circling, with peeled dead eyes staring but never seeing; there were things dissected lovingly into every discrete part, laid out and labeled under glass cases, and things preserved in ancient amber, or melted into the bones of the earth as fossils; great things and small, strange things—alien things.
Here was the body of an ancient savage, preserved in the sucking mud of the peat bog that killed him; and here was the sarcophagus of a high priest, still glistering with gold; here was a thing too great to be a bird, with a razor-lined beak and wings battered from the rifle fire of the prospectors who shot it down nearly 100 years ago. There were plants from the darkest depths of uncharted jungles that lived only on fresh blood, tangles of vines and teeth in steamy terrariums, and an aquarium of the rarest flowering plants from the bottom of the sea, allergic to light, so that guests could see them only by peering through the tinted sides of their specimen jars at where they floated, entirely ignorant of the world on land.
Here too were the things painted on the side of the tent, but not as they appeared out there, as living, breathing, man-sized, and vital: The Missing Link was the stuffed body of a strange, oversized monkey, a trophy from an expedition into the Sierra de Perijaa mountains; the Serpent Queen was the remains of a cobra with a misshapen, disquietingly humanlike face, while the Crocodile Man was in fact the dried husk of a mid-sized alligator with a blunted snout, rounded head, and vaguely mammalian forelimbs—freaks of nature, preserved by the most rudimentary ways.
There were too many things to see all at once—almost too many to count, a legion of shrunken heads, two-headed calves, fossilized footprints, totems and fetishes, amulets and idols, urns and grave markers, meteorites and philosopher’s stones, feathers, horns, fangs, tusks, masks, and other things that had no names, whose makers had died without passing on the words for them or the secrets of their creation.
The boy made a long pilgrimage to every nook and cranny of the massive tent. And then, after an infinitely long time, Griffin snapped a finger to his attention and said: “Well? What do you think?”
His hesitancy gone, the boy answered immediately: “They’re amazing,” he said.
“But…they’re all fakes.” He said this not with judgment, nor even with disappointment; almost he sounded pleased, as if he’d plumbed the depths of a great mystery and surfaced again with the answers in his grasp.
Griffin sat at his desk doing his ledgers for the day. With his pen still in hand and his eyes on the figures, he nodded and said, “Humbugs; frauds; cons; hokum, flim-flam, imposture—shams, cheats, hoaxes, counterfeits. Swindles, by all accounts. Oh, there’s one or two genuine articles mixed in here and there, I’ll wager; but hardly anyone can tell the difference. In fact, I’d bet the real ones look all the more fake than the fake ones.”
The boy got as close as he dared to the exhibits—not too close, as fake or not, their fearsome appearance in the semi-dark had not diminished—hoping to suss out the secret of their faux anatomied. “You own all this?” he said after some time.
“You’re Dr. Cooger?”
“Cooger is dead, to begin with. And it was ‘Mr. Cooger’–he never was a doctor that I knew of. He and I were partners, and he died seven years ago this very season. I am Mr. J. Griffin.”
The boy pulled a stool up to Griffin’s desk—a footstool, too low to sit on, but he sat all the same. “But it’s all really yours?”
“Certainly. Unlike most, I’m in no debt to the carnival owner, and I manage the attraction entirely myself. I am self-sufficient, with the exception that given my age and the tremendous size of the collection I cannot move it all myself, and rely on certain laborers for assistance when the time comes to pack up for another town. For which they’re all well paid.”
The boy nodded to show that he understood, but impatiently he pressed on: “But what I mean is, all of this—the humbug, you called it—when people get mad about being conned, it’s just you who has to answer to them–hundreds of people.”
“Hundreds every day. More than a thousand at the peak of the season–swindled, every last one of them.”
“All those people, fit to be tied at how you cheated them,” the boy said. “Only…they’re not, are they? Because you wouldn’t even be here if they were. They’d have run you out of town on a rail. But…nobody has.”
Griffin looked up from his books. “What’s your name?” he said.
“Good Old Testament name. Your father’s a churchgoing man?”
“He was. Before—”
The boy bit his tongue, but Griffin understood him. “Before the drinking, yes. And you?”
“That’s as well. What state is this?” The boy told him. “I’ve been to every state in the union—some of them before they were states,” Griffin said. “Do you know what America is? A godless country. Oh, we have churches aplenty–but no real gods. Nothing solid and visible, like that.” He gestured to one painted totem hanging from a peg. Then he prodded the boy with the toe of his worn shoe. “You don’t understand what it means, I suppose?”
“No,” the boy replied. “I was just going to ask—the mermaid?”
As if remembering, Griffin’s eyes lit up, and then he rose, taking one of the guttering glass lamps with him. “She’s the rarest of my collection, so I don’t keep her on general display; you’ve got to save something for the big finale, after all. Here, hold this.”
The boy held the lamp while Griffin came to a painted cabinet and, with a brass key worn around his neck, unlocked its doors. Its trim was painted red and gold, and on the doors scenes of a roiling green ocean and a rainbow of gorgeous tropical fish. Nothing could have prepared the boy for the sheer ugliness of what lay inside: Pinned to the wall and posed in a burlesque of human posture were a trio of gross simian countenances, the flesh of their mummified faces drawn so tight that the lips pulled away from bristling pointed teeth. Whoever preserved the bodies had inserted crude glass eyes into their sockets, so that they seemed to stare in death.
The bottom halves of the taxidermied bodies were scaled fish, the tails much smaller than the rest of their mass might suggest. They didn’t look like creatures that could come anywhere near the sea without floundering—the painted waves of the portable case were as close as such a rough beast would ever get. In all, they were only about two feet long, from crown to tail.
“Now these,” Griffin said, “Are what most places pass off as a Fiji Mermaid. And indeed, I was in the Fiji Islands when I bought the first one, although that’s mostly a coincidence. You can tell what they really are, I suppose? The top bit is nothing more than a monkey–a juvenile one, in fact–while the tails come by way of your everyday salmons. I had a larger one once, mostly composited of the bodies of an orangutan and a Japanese sea bass—suzuki they call them–but I lost it long ago. These little humbugs, though, you can find all over the world, and any halfway clever idiot can make one himself if he gets his hands on the materials.
“But,” said Griffin, and the boy could tell that this was a practiced inflection, the turning point in a speech he’d given countless times to the staring eyes of a million carnival marks since the days of who-knows-when, “you’re already telling yourself there must be more to this. Because why would I bother to keep such cheap souvenirs under lock and key, is that right?”
Trying not to betray his eagerness, the boy nodded.
“Well, you’re a sharp one, I can tell. What I’m about to show you only a lucky handful in any town ever see: It was my initial investment in the attraction, a specimen so great that old Cooger couldn’t turn it down. He offered a small fortune for it, but what I wanted was the partnership. Now he’s gone and all this is mine, and I’ve got this here to thank for it. But you want to see her, I suppose?
“I–yes,” the boy said.
Griffin regarded him with studying eyes. “And what do you imagine I’m about to show you?”
“I…I mean, I know you don’t really have a mermaid here in this tent–I’m not a sucker. But what I couldn’t figure out—the thing that kept me coming back here—is what you did have instead? What could you be showing people that they wouldn’t feel cheated?”
“And have you figured it out?”
The look on Griffin’s face made the boy worry that he might have said something to offend the older man. It wasn’t until Griffin came to take the lamp back from him and the light shone more fully on his face that he perceived what the real expression was: gratitude.
“So you’ve no money at all?” The boy’s heart picked up. He realized–very suddenly–that he might have been conned, that now that he’d come in and seen the attraction that Griffin could perhaps argue that he owed him the price of admission. Too afraid to speak, he shook his head. The old man grunted. “Hm. And what would you do with it if you did?”
Griffin came back with something in his outstretched palm. In the center of it, like holy manna, was a $100 bill. The boy had never seen anything like it in his life.
“If I gave this to you right now,” he continued, “what would you do? Maybe go out to the midway tomorrow and play every game? See every kind of painted wonder in every stall? Go into that tent where the girls dance, those sirens of the land, and maybe one of them will take an extra liking to you—they do sometimes, I’ve seen it happen.”
He folded the money once, with a hard crease in the center.
“You could go out and be young and play the young man’s game. Or…” And here he retracted his hand. “Say no to all that—and instead I’ll show you my biggest secret–the rarest of the rare. Either way it’s up to you. But you have to decide—now.”
The boy gaped; what could he say? What did it mean? Griffin’s face offered him no clues; he looked impassive, almost sphinx-like. “You mean, you’ll pay me $100 to go away?”
“Money to go away, or a great secret to stay–that’s your choice. Seems like you win either way, doesn’t it?” Griffin smiled, but it wasn’t a pleasant expression. The smile meant that he knew what the boy was thinking: That carnival games at all times LOOKED like you couldn’t lose, but all that really meant was that you couldn’t win. And that’s what this was: a carnival game. The boy didn’t know what the rules were or what the prize was, but he knew that the old man had picked him out as a mark all the same.