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Connoisseur of the Freak

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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.

“What’s that?”

“Chuck everything and join a traveling show and travel around and see the world.”

“I wouldn’t advise it,” the carnival man said.

“Why not?”

“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.”

“What’s that?”

“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.”

“Oddness how?”

“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?”

“Fifteen.”

“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.

“What’s that?”

“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

1940 ~ Packard Touring Limousines

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Tchaikovsky, A Biography ~ A Capsule Book Review

Tchaikovsky ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The great Russian composer Peter (“Petyr”) Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in 1840 and died in 1893. He was a complex man who experienced many setbacks in his life, but one who, despite his fragile psyche, managed to write some of the great symphonic masterpieces of Russian music and of the nineteenth century, including six symphonies, three ballets, several operas, four serenades for orchestra, chamber music, songs, and (still) wildly popular concertos for piano and orchestra and violin and orchestra. His music is, today, still very accessible and popular and is performed and played wherever music is appreciated. Tchaikovsky never falls “out of favor” or becomes “passé,” as some composers do. (Writer-physician Anton Chekhov said during Tchaikovsky’s life that Tolstoy occupied the first place in Russian art while Tchaikovsky occupied the second place and Chekhov himself occupied the ninety-eighth.)

Tchaikovsky was born into a large and loving family (four brothers and one sister), in an isolated region of Russian where his father was a civil servant. His mother was rather cold to her children, but Tchaikovsky idolized her. Her death at age forty from cholera was a terrible blow from which he never fully recovered.

Tchaikovsky was morbidly sensitive with the soul of an artist, tending to be withdrawn and introspective. He was a homosexual who openly engaged in homosexual activity from the time he was a young student. (His turbulent inner life played a large part in the music he composed.) While not hiding his sexuality, or denying it, he always believed that it wasn’t “right.” After he became famous and successful, he lived in fear that he would be “exposed” and his career ruined or irreparably damaged. In his efforts to appear “normal,” he entered into a disastrous marriage with an unstable (possibly insane) woman named Antonina Milyukova. It turned out to be the biggest mistake of his life. He only lived with Antonina for two or three months, but she spent the rest of his life antagonizing and threatening him. He referred to her as a “demon” and “spawn of hell.” He could only assuage her, temporarily, by giving her money. She was a bitch on wheels.

About the same time as Tchaikovsky’s disastrous marriage to Antonina, another woman entered his life. Her name was Nadezhda von Meck. She was a wealthy widow, whose deceased husband had made a fortune in railroads. She had an almost obsessive admiration for Tchaikovsky and his music. She idealized him as the perfect artist, the perfect musician, the perfect man. She became his patron, which means she partly subsidized (supported) him while he composed. Madame von Meck was as eccentric in her way as Tchaikovsky was in his. The one condition of her financial support was that the two of them never meet in person. They corresponded for fourteen years, thousands of letters, and were both in the same place at the same time on many occasions, but they never met. Many of the letters they wrote to each other still exist.

Unlike many composers, Tchaikovsky achieved astounding success and popularity during his lifetime. His fame spread from his native Russia to Europe and the United States. Despite his never-ending personal struggles, his output of orchestral masterworks is extraordinary.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky died unexpectedly in St. Petersburg in 1893 at the age of fifty-three. The official account of his death, and the one that was accepted for a century, was that he drank “unboiled water” and died of cholera during an epidemic. However, more than a hundred years after his death, new information came to light which strongly suggests that he deliberately ingested poison to kill himself.

Tchaikovsky, A Biography, by Anthony Holden, is an informative and engaging chronicle of the life and times of Russia’s greatest composer. It’s a long and exhaustively detailed biography, but never too long or too ponderously wordy. If Tchaikovsky’s music “speaks” to you, as it does to me, reading this book and understanding the life of this great man adds a new dimension to enjoyment of his music.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

1880s ~ Best Man Up Top

1912 ~ Let’s Have Lunch in Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal in New York City in 1954

Rodolpho Valentino (1895-1926)

The House He Lived In

The House He Lived In ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Sid Bone was small for his age. He was the boy in school with the funny clothes: the pants too big and the sweater too small, the shoe with the flapping sole and the holes in his socks. His classmates never invited him to any of their parties because he wasn’t the party type and, anyway, he had a funny smell.

Sid Bone would never grow to manhood. When he was twelve, his liquor-addled mother gave him sleeping pills to make him unconscious and then she wrapped an electrical cord around his neck and strangled him. She just couldn’t take care of a twelve-year-old boy anymore, she said. It cost too much money to feed him and just having a kid underfoot all the time wore on her nerves. Without him, she’d be able to get her life in order, get off the booze, find a decent man. Then, later on, when everything was jake, she’d have another baby and they’d all be happy. Maybe the new one would be a girl who would take care of her in her old age.

After she sobered up a little, she was sorry for what she had done to Sid Bone. She would never have had the courage to do it if she hadn’t been drunk. She sat in her easy chair and blubbered and wailed for a while. Since there was no one to hear her, she let loose with some anguished screams. After she had cried herself out, she gave a little laugh, peed in her pants because she couldn’t get up, and reached for the bottle again.

After a day and a night spent in the chair, drinking and feeling bad about her terrible life, she made herself get up and go into the bathroom and clean up, wash her face, comb the mats out of her hair and put on some clean clothes. She was going to have to call the police. They would send someone out. She needed to make herself look decent and presentable.

She had the story straight in her head. She worked out all the details. Her boy, Sid Bone, had met with a bad accident. She had been sick, sleeping in the other room; she didn’t hear a sound and she wasn’t even sure what happened. When she found him lying on the bed, unconscious, she tried to revive him, but, of course, it was too late. He must have done himself in because the kids at school laughed at him. There could be no other explanation.

For a while, several days at least, Sid Bone didn’t realize he was dead. He woke up in the morning and sleepily went to school as he always did. He thought it was a little funny that his mother wasn’t in any of her usual places, on her bed or sitting at the kitchen table, but he didn’t mind her not being there; he could manage fine on his own without her.

At school, he sat at his desk all day long, as he always did, doing what he was supposed to do: listen to teacher talk, copy problems off the blackboard, read this or that book, get up for recess or lunch. Then when school ended, he walked home as he always did. The next thing he knew, he was getting out of bed in the morning to start his day all over again. He had no recollection of anything in between.

On the fourth day, Sid Bone knew something was different; something had changed. Somebody new was sitting at the desk he had occupied all year. When he went to the front of the room and tried to ask teacher about it, she didn’t seem to see him but instead looked right through him. He turned around and faced the room at large, thirty-two of his classmates, and screamed Hey! in his loudest voice, but nobody looked up or turned their heads in his direction. It was if he no longer existed.

Not knowing what else to do, he went upstairs to the nurse’s office. Miss Faulk should be able to look at him, touch his head and tell what was wrong. She was better than any doctor.

Miss Faulk wasn’t in her office, though. The only person there was a woman he had never seen before, sitting at Miss Faulk’s desk, writing. When he paused in the doorway, she looked up at him and motioned for him to come into the room. He was a little relieved to know that somebody was seeing him, even if it was somebody he didn’t know.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” the woman said, standing up and coming around to the front of the desk. He saw that she was quite short and her face was crisscrossed with tiny lines like a road map.

“You have?” he asked, genuinely surprised. “Do you know me?”

“Well, I know of you. I’m Miss Munsendorfer. I used to be a teacher here a long time ago.”

“In horse-and-buggy days?”

“Not quite that long ago. We had cars then.”

“I was looking for Miss Faulk.”

“She’s not here right now, but I am here.”

“I wanted to see if Miss Faulk could take my temperature or something and see if I might be sick.”

“I think I can tell you you’re not sick.”

“How do you know?”

“You’ll never be sick again.”

“How do you know?”

“You don’t need to come to school anymore, either.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know how best to explain it to you, so I’ll just show you.”

She took him by the hand. Before he knew it, they were outside on the playground and then they were walking down the hill away from the school. Then, in the beat of a heart and the blink of an eye, they were in the church on Windsor Avenue.

“What are we doing here?” Sid Bone asked.

“You’ll see,” Miss Munsendorfer said. “Just be patient.”

The church was full of people, a funeral in progress. There was a closed casket at the front of the church draped in yellow-and-white flowers. All the people in the church looked solemn. Some of them dabbed at their eyes. An old man, a minister, was standing at the pulpit talking about evil in the world and how the only way to accept it is to recognize it as part of God’s plan. The words coming from the minister’s mouth sounded funny as if they were being spoken underwater.

Just when Sid Bone was looking out over the sea of faces in the church, picking out the ones he knew, Miss Munsendorfer touched his hand again and they were outside, moving away from the church and, once again, before he knew what was happening, they were in a different place: they were standing on the street where he lived.

The street was there, of course, but the falling-down house that he lived in with his mother was gone, as if by magic. In its place was bare dirt; even the junk and debris in the yard were gone.

Sid Bone was beginning to catch on. He wasn’t especially surprised the house was gone; he would have been more surprised if it had still been there.

Miss Munsendorfer again took him by the hand and, again, in the beat of a heart and the blink of an eye, they were standing in the hallway of the women’s penitentiary two hundred miles away.

“What is this place?” Sid Bone said. “I don’t like it here.”

Miss Munsendorfer pointed into one of the cells. When Sid Bone turned his head and looked, he saw his mother in the cell, sitting on the bed. She looked a human wreck: dejected, wretched, forlorn. He turned away before he started to cry.

Miss Munsendorfer again took by the hand, standing in that hallway of the women’s penitentiary, and in a flash they were back in the nurse’s office at school. Miss Faulk still wasn’t there.

Sid Bone found himself overpoweringly sleepy. He lay down on the nurse’s cot they kept in the corner for the suddenly ill and Miss Munsendorfer covered him over with an army blanket, tucking him in the way a mother would, with all but the kiss goodnight.

“Are you an angel?” Sid Bone asked her.

“No, I’m not an angel. I’m only here to help you.”

“Okay.”

“But you don’t need my help any more. You can do the rest on your own.”

She patted him on his shoulder and then she was gone.

When he awoke, he was in a place he had never been before. There were flowers and birds and lots of trees; animals of all kinds, but even the lions and bears wouldn’t hurt you because they were tame and gentle; you could walk right up to them and tug at their fur and they would only look at you. There were also people, some of whom he remembered or thought he remembered, but they left him alone whenever he wanted to be left alone. Most surprising of all, it never rained or got dark until you were ready.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp    

1935 Ford Tudor Sedan

Yes Sir, Admiral Sir!