My father stressed the need for mental alertness.
“Patti, you gotta be alert," he'd say. "The world needs more lerts.”
My father, the man who rarely remembered our ages (“You're how old now? Really? Are you sure?”) also seemed to have trouble with our names. Patti (his sister), Karen (my sister), Kevin (my brother), or Bowzer (the dog): he’d run down the list until he got tired of it. “Patti – Karen – Kevin – Bowzer – whoever you are…”
I’m pretty sure he was kidding.
My father was full of advice, particularly where people who would take advantage of you was concerned.
“You gotta watch ‘em,” he would say. “Watch the carnies. They’re out to get ya.”
“Me?” I’d say.
My father would nod, sagely. “You, me, him” he’d say, blowing cigarette smoke toward the ceiling, “them. Everybody.”
He rarely steered me wrong, my father, but on the other hand, what did he know about modern carnivals? He was still upset over the two dollars he was separated from back in the 40s.
“Took my last nickel,” he’d say, hazel eyes burning. “My last nickel! Who does that to a kid?”
This was not a rhetorical question.
“I don’t know, Dad. Who?”
He pounds the kitchen table, the bitter taste of the loss of that nickel still in his mouth. “A carnie, that’s who!” He mashes his cigarette out in the State of Wisconsin ashtray, rises to inspect the inside of the refrigerator. “Rassin frassin cheaters,” he’d say, his voice muffled by leftovers.
So when the carnival came to town, my brother and I were first in line for permission.
“You wanna waste your money, you go right ahead,” Dad said. “How old are you two again?”
Ten, Dad. Ten and nine.
He frowned at us. “I guess that’s old enough to know which end is up,” he said. “Ask Mumma.”
Our parents were permissive, almost absent-minded folk, and that very weekend Kevin and I found ourselves in front of Zambora, The Ape Woman.
The outside of her tent is painted with progressively frightening pictures: From a Beautiful Woman to a Hairy Ape, we will Watch her Transform, Right before our Eyes! For fifty cents apiece, we will Experience Nature’s Terrifying Beauty! We will Behold the Horrible Power of Evolution!
“Horrible,” Kevin whispers.
“Terrifying,” I agree.
The inside of the tent is hot and wet, the floor a sodden mess of trampled grass, cups, cotton candy sticks and Midway ticket stubs. In a crowd made up almost entirely of men, we stand near the front so as not to miss a moment of spectacle.
A recording of what could only be termed “jungle sounds” comes over a tinny speaker and a rather plain woman in an over-taxed two-piece bathing suit takes the stage.
“Don’t you wish Mom was here?” Kevin whispers, grinning.
Zambora is speaking, strutting about the stage, and she seems angry. Who among us has the nerve, the verve (“the verve?” Kevin whispers, frowning), the guts to witness such a sight? Who do we think we are? Do we think we are better than she is? Have we come to mock her?! Behold the majestic powers of nature and tremble before her fearsome might!
The clicking sound (brrrrrrrrrrrr) of a film projector begins just moments before a deafening recording of tribal drums overpowers it. Zambora writhes with the agony of transformation, coming to a dead stop at the center of the stage. The wriggling she has done has caused the top of her swim suit to come fascinatingly close to losing its cargo. The projected image of hair appears on her body, short at first and growing longer. A cross between a skull and a monkey’s face is thrown, masklike, onto her face.
It is at this point that a man dressed as a policeman rushes into the tent, throws a blanket over Zambora and shouts things about decency and law.
We are hustled out of the tent by the barker, who makes a show of hanging a sign proclaiming "Shut Down by Order of Law" over the tent flap.
The crowd scatters, and Kevin and I find ourselves in front of the Two-Headed Snake Tent.
“Well,” Kevin says. “At least we almost got to see her top fall off.”
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