Connoisseur of the Freak ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
The farmer and the carnival man met by chance in the one tavern in town and began drinking together and talking. The carnival man bought a round and then the farmer bought the next one, until they lost count. Soon they were both quite drunk but they didn’t care.
The farmer had plenty of troubles and he liked to talk about them to anybody who would listen. He had experienced financial reverses on the farm and was going to have to sell out and take his wife and five children out West someplace where he could make a decent wage. I’m not gonna be no slave, though, he said.
“An honest working man don’t have much of a chance these days,” the carnival man said.
“Maybe I’ll do what you do,” the farmer said.
“Chuck everything and join a traveling show and travel around and see the world.”
“I wouldn’t advise it,” the carnival man said.
“Times is hard everywhere. Why, man, it’s 1934! Carny folk can just barely eke out a livin’, traveling around from one hick town to another, takin’ the nickels of dimes of country folk like you.”
“I ain’t proud,” the farmer said. “I don’t mind bein’ called a hick.”
“You’d do better to take the wife and kiddies someplace far off and try your hand at something other than farmin’. Maybe you could open a store or somethin’ or sell you some life insurance. Your old woman might could get a job curlin’ hair in a beauty parlor.”
“I don’t know,” the farmer said. “Farmin’ is all I know. Farmin’ was all my daddy knew and all his daddy knew.”
“Well, the Lord will provide,” the carnival man said.
“Tell me about the carnival,” the farmer said.
“There ain’t much to tell. We travel around all the time. It’s plenty of hard work. It ain’t comfortable livin’. My job is managin’ the freak pavilion.”
“Ain’t you ever heard of a freak show?”
“Sure I’ve heard of it but haven’t ever seen one.”
“Well, we have these human oddities that people pay good money to take a gander at.”
“They’re alive? The freaks are alive?”
“Certainly they’re alive! All except for the Siamese twin babies in a big jar of formaldehyde. They’re dead. Been dead a long time.”
“I sure would like to see that!”
“It’s real interestin’, if you’re a connoisseur of the freak.”
“Well, who isn’t?”
“Among the more interestin’ attractions we have are Octopus Girl, Alligator Boy, Midget Acrobats, Thousand-Pound Woman…”
“Does she really weigh a thousand pounds?”
“Every bit of it. We have a pair of live Siamese twin girls in addition to the dead boys in the bottle…
“Do they speak our language?”
“Certainly they do. They’re as American as you or I. We got an eight-foot-tall man with legs so skinny you don’t know how they hold him upright. We got Reptile Woman, Flipper Baby, Tattooed Woman, Bearded Lady, and we’re always lookin’ for new freaks to liven up the show.”
“You pay money to them freaks? A regular wage?”
“Course we do! You don’t expect them to work for nothin’, do you?”
“How does a person go about gettin’ a job in the freak show?”
“Well, first of all, you gotta be a freak. You know, like part alligator or with a monkey face or cloven hooves. That sort of thing. Do you know of anybody you could rightly call a freak?”
“No. I was just thinkin’.”
“You do know a freak, I can see it in your eyes.”
“No, I was thinkin’ of my little girl, Weeda. She ain’t exactly a freak but she’s got more than her share of oddness.”
“Well, for one thing, she ain’t right in the head. My other children all learned to read and write but Weeda never even went to school.”
“That don’t make a person a freak.”
“I know, but that’s not all. She’s got an enormous head and won’t no hair grow on it at all. The sisters of the church makes her cloth caps to wear on her head so people won’t know she ain’t got any hair.”
“Why can’t she grow no hair?”
“I don’t know. It’s just one more sign of whatever it is that’s wrong with her.”
“How old is she?”
“Can she talk?”
“She knows a few words, but she don’t talk none to speak of.”
“Have you took her to a doctor?”
“Certainly we’ve took her to a doctor. Don’t you think we would’ve tried to cure her if she could be cured?”
“Can she feed herself?” the carnival man asked. “Can she tend to her personal needs?”
“Sure, she can do them things.”
“If she’s thirsty, does she have sense enough to go to the well and get a drink of water without fallin’ in and drownin’ herself?”
“She’s not completely senseless, no. Just peculiar, as I said.”
“Sounds like a sad case,” the carnival man said. “She’ll be a burden to you and your old woman unto your dyin’ day.”
“I swear, she’s more like a bird than anything else,” the farmer said. “She’s got a sharp little nose exactly like the beak on a bird, little bird arms like the beginnin’ of wings, and when you look into those eyes of hers you’d swear you was seeing a bird’s eyes.”
“Tsk, tsk, tsk. Ain’t that a shame.”
“Could you take a look at her?” the farmer asked. “If you could take her into the freak show and pay her a decent wage, it sure would help us out.”
“Well, I don’t know how we might fit a little girl like that into the show, with times bein’ what they are.”
“If you could just see her, you might change your mind. It wouldn’t hurt to see her, now, would it?”
“No, I suppose not. Where is she?”
“She’s at home. Where do you think she is? You can follow me out and I’ll take you there. It’s ain’t but about eight miles.”
“Well, all right, then. I don’t have no place to be ‘til tomorrow. I guess it won’t hurt to take a look at the little girly-girl and see if she’s got freak potential.”
The carnival man followed along in his town car behind the farmer in his sputtering pickup truck over the miles of dusty country roads to the farmer’s homestead. The ride out sobered up the carnival man after his drinking, but it also made him vomit.
When the farmer pulled into his dooryard, with the carnival man right behind him in a cloud of dust, four children came running out of the house, one girl in her teens and three younger boys. They crowded around the farmer, plucking at his sleeves
“Who’s that man?” one of them asked.
“None of your business,” the farmer said.
The farmer took the carnival man into the house and introduced him to his porridge-faced wife, whose name was Hazel. She shook the carnival man’s hand and managed a tight smile but it was clear she didn’t like strangers in her house.
“Is that the girl you was talking about?” the carnival man asked the farmer.
“Oh, no!” the farmer said. “That’s Mary Beth. There ain’t nothing wrong with her. She’s my oldest. She’s been all the way through school and she’s engaged to marry a government agent in the spring.
“Where’s the girl in question?” the carnival man began.
“She’s probably out back with the chickens,” the farmer said. “Hazel! Go and get Weeda!”
The farmer took the carnival man into the parlor and seated him on the couch.
“I’d offer you something to drink, but we ain’t got anything except water,” the farmer said.
“It’s all right,” the carnival man said. “I’ve had enough to drink for one day, anyhow.”
After a while, Hazel brought Weeda into the parlor and stood her in the middle of the room like a display dummy.
“Well, what do you think?” the farmer asked the carnival man.
“She is very like a bird,” the carnival man said.
“Was I lyin’?”
“I’d like to see her walk a few steps and turn around and reach up as if she was pickin’ a apple off a tree.”
“Weeda!” the farmer said. “Did you hear the man?”
Hazel touched Weeda on the arm. She walked toward the front door until she came to the wall and then she turned around and walked back the other way.
“What did I tell you?” the farmer asked.
“Reach high above your head, honey, and pretend to pick a apple off a tree,” the carnival man said.
Weeda did as she was told and then looked at the carnival man with a little smile to see what he would tell her to do next.
“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with her hearin’,” the carnival man said.
Hazel turned on the radio and, after a few seconds of popping and crackling, a lively dance number came on, a piece called “Boot It,” played by Benny Moten and his Kansas City Orchestra.
When Weeda heard the music, her face lit up in a happy smile. She began moving her arms in time to the music and then her legs. Soon she was dancing all over the room in perfect time to the music, with everybody looking on. She turned one way and then the other, sashaying in and out, raising her arms, putting her hands on her hips and turning all the way around, jiggling her enormous head. The carnival man watched with fascination.
“See how she loves music?” Hazel said.
The song ended and Weeda stopped dancing and her smile faded. The carnival man clapped his hands.
“She certainly can dance,” he said. “Audiences will love her.”
“Think you can use her?” the farmer asked, delighted.
“I think she definitely has freak potential. I see all kinds of potential there. I think she’ll be a popular attraction in the show.”
“Did you hear that, Weeda?” Hazel said, clapping her hands.
“I’m thinkin’ something along the lines of a dancing chicken girl,” the carnival man said. “She won’t have to talk much if she don’t want to, but people in the audience will be tryin’ to get her to talk to them. No sir, she won’t have to talk, but she can squawk and peep just like a chicken, when called on to do so. And we’ll fix her up with her very own outfit, maybe covered all over with yellow feathers. How does that sound?”
“Oh, it sounds wonderful!” Hazel said.
“How much?” the farmer asked.
“How much what?”
“How much will you pay me for her?”
“Not so fast!” the carnival man said. “We’ve got some details to iron out. We’ll have to have a contract, givin’ us exclusive rights to her talents, and you and your wife will have to sign it.”
“We’ll sign it,” the farmer said. “Just say where.”
“And you have to understand it’s only a tryout at first. If she don’t work out, we’ll bring her back home, safe and sound.”
“Did you hear that?” Hazel asked, crying tears of joy. “Our little girl in show business!”
Hazel and the farmer’s children went out of the parlor, leaving the farmer and the carnival man alone.
“I want one thing understood,” the farmer said.
“Weeda’s a good girl from a good family. I won’t have her took advantage of.”
“You don’t have to worry about that,” the carnival man said. “I’ll be like a father to her, and there’s at least half-a-dozen women in the show to mother her. We’re like a big family.”
“She’s an innocent baby. Keep that in mind. She ain’t never even heard any swear words.”
“I understand that,” the carnival man said.
The mood between the farmer and the carnival man turned festive. The carnival man went out to his car to fetch a copy of the standard freak show contract and while he was at it he brought back into the house a large bottle of Virginia sour mash that he had been carrying in his back seat.
They drank heartily and swapped stories until late into the night. When the bottle of Virginia sour mash was finally empty, they went to sleep, side by side, on the floor of the parlor. They awoke to cockcrow and to the smell of cooking breakfast.
Hazel had been up before daylight. She packed Weeda’s suitcase and prepared her for the trip, dressing her in a sack-like dress that went almost to the floor and giving her a wide-brimmed, black straw hat with an eye-catching cluster of cherries. It was a happy day for all, though a little bit sad.
When the carnival man was ready to climb into his town car and begin his journey homeward, he shook hands with the farmer and the farmer’s old woman and thanked them for their hospitality. Weeda stood by the open door of the car and suffered hugs and slobbering kisses from her brothers and her sister.
“Have yourself a safe trip,” the farmer said. He was a little sad-eyed, saying goodbye not only to a daughter but also to a new-found friend.
Before Weeda got into the car, Hazel brought forth a large red hen and placed it in her arms. When Weeda saw the hen, her face lit up in the same happy smile she had when she danced. She cradled the hen like a newborn babe and got into the carnival man’s car and closed the door.
“As long as she’s got a chicken in her arms, she’ll never be unhappy,” Hazel said.
The farmer and his remaining children watched as the carnival man’s car picked up speed in a cloud of dust and disappeared from view around the turning in the road.
Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp