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Saturday, May 26, 2012

We Later Saw Her Running the Tilt-A-Whirl

My father stressed the need for mental alertness.

“Patti," he'd say, "you gotta be alert. 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. Oh, he tried. 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.”


mybabyjohn/Delores said...

rassin frassin cheaters.....

joeh said...

Very much in the style of Jean SHepard "The Christmas Story" my favorite story teller.

Loved it!

My mom always called all my siblings names to get to one. The last called was always the one she wanted.
"Jim Joe Chris" meant Chris was in trouble!

Cranky Old MAn

R. Jacob said...

I agree with Kevin. The goal is always see her top fall off.

vanilla said...

Daddy never knows enough but what you have to learn it for yourself.

I, too, was cautioned about carnies. I, too, learned the hard way.

savannah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
esbboston said...

Ah, now I wanna grow up and be a carnie, I hope I'm not too late. I have been an Ernie most of my life, it'd just be a E to Ca switcheroo. If you and aLL your friends could send me $10 each, I could get the legal process started, hire me a lawyer, the worst/best carnies of aLL.

Joanne said...

I vaguely remember this stuff. Since I have a pretty vivid memory the carnivals must have been pretty dull around us. I remember my dad almost being sick in one of those swinging wire cage ferris wheel type rides. MY DAD. I couldn't believe it.

TexWisGirl said...

ha ha.

PattiKen said...

This is wonderful. You are such a good writer. And the title is absolutely perfect.

P.S. I love your father.

jenny_o said...

So, Patti, Karen, Kevin, Bowzer, Pearl, I'd say Ape-Woman was pretty valuable to her employers, what with being able to run the Tilt-A-Whirl in her spare time, eh :)

("over-taxed" two piece bathing suit indeed, that is a superb description for many people's regular clothing these days)

Indigo Roth said...

Hey Pearl! I was frequently mistaken for the dog (Jingo) as a kid. Dinner time was often disappointing. I love this tale. If I'm good and sit quietly, will you read it to me again, please? Roth

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

So that's how they did it! For a lot of people, "She was a fake" would be the whole story. You pull so much more out of scenes, situations, and personalities. Great observing, great storytelling.

Ms Sparrow said...

Sadly, I would confuse the names of my cat, Barney with my son, Mark. This is a really sad, sad thing for a mother to do!

terlee said...

So, not only could the Ape Woman get all hairy, and almost drop the top, but she could also run the Tilt-A-Whirl??!! Wow, there's some talent.

Snorted my coffee again with this post. Really, I've just got to learn to set the cup down before I start reading.

savannah said...

(had to re-post my comment because i'd left out part of it...)

never had the "carnie" experience, but i do know about never being remembered. i was an only, so no one even had to bother with my name, sugar! and the MITM was the third of four (older bro, older sis, him, younger sis) so he was always, "lil boy." so, as a result, in our home, the coconut krewe, knew which one was being summoned because it was always by GIVEN, MIDDLE AND LAST NAME! xoxoxox

Twisted Scottish Bastard said...

Dads always know best.

That's why he said "Ask Mumma"

ThreeOldKeys said...

My daughter once declared that all carnies ... and people who work the rides at amusement parks ... are named Bob.

That was over 15 years ago and it's still part of the family vocabulary. Its meaning has expanded, and we recognize The Bobs in many situations.

Husband pretends not to know how funny his family is and rarely participates in our nonsense.

Recently in a bigbox store he was scratching his head at the gadget selection. Finally he said "I'm gonna hafta go find a Bob."

Daughter and I live for those moments.

And yeah, you'd have to know him to be impressed.

It's so hot and humid today I need an ice cold beer ... I'll drink to everyone who's been "took" by rassin' frassin' Bobs.

Eva Gallant said...

This definitely brought back memories! Those freak shows always let you down--except for your brother!

Vagabonde said...

Did you really go to a show like this? Well, I never heard of anything like it in Paris when I was growing up – you were lucky to live in Minneapolis instead of the old country. Great story. Thanks for coming to my blog a while back, I appreciate your comment.

kj said...

Suspense to the very end! And I'm still scratchingy head: that projector projected hair? :-)


Symdaddy said...

The 'law' once through a blanket over me and quoted extracts from the Decency Laws to me. The blanket had a distinctive damp, mothbally aroma I noticed as I quoted a few back.
But Constable Laura Markovitz demanded the return of her handcuffs and left before I had the opportunity to test any of them.

The Jules said...

Ah, the miracle of evolution is truly a wonder to behold.

From bathing dresses to micro-bikinis in just a hundred and fifty years.


NellieVaughn said...

My father calls me Juliet. That's my sister's name. Juliet, he says, you are 24 now, it's time you get married. I am not Juliet and I am not 24, dad. Are you sure, he asks. Nope, not Juliet. How about your age, he asks. I think you should know. Bah. When I was little, he told me I should join the circus as their monkey because I had extremely hairy arms and legs.

the walking man said...

Who ever you are...yeah we got that a lot too. I think almost is pretty good for a ten & nine year old pair being cheated out of their last half buck.

Simply Suthern said...

Ahh, the carnival. I saw Zambora or her twin sister change. No cops just the video quality of a cartoon flip machine.

I named all my kids with A's so I tend to run down the list as well.

Dawn @Lighten Up! said...

"over-taxed two-piece bathing suit "
This phrase made my day.
And R Jacobs? You crack me the H. up.

Diane said...

You should have waited. Then followed the policeman and his blanket to the next tent.
Where he was the star attraction in the 'Men From Mars' exotic dancing company.
Yummm . . .

Dr. Kathy McCoy said...

Love your writing, Pearl! No one can tell a story the way you can. You're absolutely the best!

Carol said...

The question remains, did you enjoy the show? Even if it's phony, if you enjoyed yourself it's worth the nickel.

Susan in the Boonies said...

Dang it!!! And just when things were getting good, too!

Your Dad was the Albert Einstein of ??? Wisconsin??? Minnesota??? Wherever.