Freaks I Have Known ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in Thunderdome Magazine.)
Grandma and Grandpa owned a black Mercury with red-and-white upholstery. When it was just the two of them, they didn’t care how much squirreling around I did in the back seat. I didn’t get on their nerves the way I did with some people. I could open the window all the way and stick out my head, foot or arm; lie on my back and touch the ceiling with my toes; scrunch up on the little shelf behind the back seat for an eye-to-eye view with the people in the car behind. No matter what I did, Grandma never turned around to tell me to sit up straight with my feet on the floor and stop acting like a big baby.
Grandma loved out-of-town shopping trips. She was always looking for a certain item that she hadn’t been able find in the stores closer to home. She didn’t drive, so Grandpa had to drive her on her little trips. He had had two heart attacks and didn’t work anymore, so he was happy most of the time to get out of the house. When he was at home, he said, the time went by too slow and he thought too much about the things he couldn’t do anymore, like fixing the roof if it sprang a leak or mowing the lawn in hundred-degree heat.
On a rainy afternoon in March, we were in the “big” town, on our way to the produce market where they sold all kinds of things that Grandma couldn’t find anyplace else. I always liked going to the big town because, as small as it was, it seemed big compared to the tiny place where we lived. They had more than one drug store, a couple of department stores, a movie theatre, a huge supermarket, and a couple of dime stores that sold all kinds of things that kids love, like car models that you put together yourself and comic books.
We were on the main thoroughfare of the town (churches and big houses where the well-to-do people lived) going toward the shopping district. I was bunched up on the seat in the back with a stopwatch somebody had given me, timing myself to see how long I could hold my breath. Grandpa was probably driving faster than the speed limit, which he was known to do. Without much warning, he stopped short, squealing the tires. He swore, as usual, and I fell off the seat onto the floor.
The street was blocked by cars and people. Police officers were standing on the fringes of the crowd doing nothing but managing somehow to look official. It appeared to be a wreck, so Grandpa turned off onto a side street, thinking to go around the block and bypass the commotion to get to where we wanted to go. Grandma wasn’t content to just go on by without seeing what was going on, though; she made Grandpa find a place to park the car and then the three of us got out and walked back in the rain to where the wreck (or whatever it was) was blocking the street. Grandma would have an interesting story to tell her sister-in-law on the phone after dinner.
It wasn’t a wreck but a sinkhole as big as ten buses that had opened up in the street, taking with it not only the pavement but the sidewalk and a large part of somebody’s front yard. The crowd had opened up just enough at that moment that we were able to stand on the edge of the hole and look down in it. The police had put a plastic mesh fence around the hole to make sure nobody fell in, but the fence seemed as insubstantial as a whisper; one good gust of wind and it might blow away.
The hole was twelve or fifteen feet deep. On the bottom were jagged chunks of pavement and sidewalk intermixed with clumps of earth turning to mud in the rain. The one thing, though, that made the scene tragic and frightening (for me, anyway) was a car nose-first in the hole, canted in the mud at about a forty-five-degree angle. I looked closely to see if there was anybody stuck inside the car waiting to be rescued but, to my disappointment, there was no one.
Grandpa was off somewhere smoking a cigar and chatting with a young police officer. From where Grandma and I stood off to the side on a little rise, I could see not only down into the hole but also all the people who were standing around the hole. Most of them were just gawkers and nosy bodies who had no business being there but, of course, that’s all we were, too.
Grandma said she wished she had her camera because nobody would ever believe the hole was that big without some proof. I laughed and turned to her to make a remark, when I spotted a man come through the crowd to the edge of the hole. He was an unremarkable man like so many others, but with one difference: he had an enormous built-up shoe on one foot (a sole about ten inches thick) while his other shoe was just an ordinary shoe like Grandpa wore. I asked Grandma why the man wore such an odd shoe on one foot only, and she said he was “afflicted.” She also told me not to look at him because I would make him feel uncomfortable and would make him think I hadn’t been brought up right.
Now, I had been collecting freaks (only in my head, of course), ever since I was in kindergarten. When I was five years old I saw a dead baby in his coffin. Not long after that we saw an albino woman whose hair was the same color as her skin, which was no color at all. My mother knew an old woman with an artificial nose that she wore when she got dressed up; when she was at home she didn’t bother to wear the artificial nose but instead wore a wad of cotton where her nose should have been. In our school was a teacher who must have weighed six or seven hundred pounds; she drove around town in a car that canted several degrees to the left. A girl my age in school had six toes on each foot and a couple of extra ribs. Another girl had freckles only on the left side of her face and none on the right side, as if an invisible line had been drawn. A midget woman named Bitta prowled the streets of our town; she wore little girls’ dresses and had a tick-tock walk. She went to all the funerals, whether she knew the deceased or not. Whenever we saw her we waved and she waved back as if we knew her and she knew us. I hoped to be able to talk to her one day and ask her what it’s like to never be any taller than a three-year-old child.
On seeing the man with the huge shoe, I had another freak to add to my collection. You never know where they’re going to turn up. That’s the way life is sometimes: you think you’ve seen it all and then you see something you never could have imagined. Someday, when I’d had enough of my parents and going to school, I’d run away and join a circus with a freak show. I wouldn’t be one of the freaks, of course, but I’d be kind to them and they would be my friends. I would understand them in a way that nobody else could.
By the time I got to high school, Grandpa had died and Grandma was discreetly scouting around for a new husband. She had had a succession of boyfriends, most of whom had turned out to be unacceptable for one reason or another.
Grandma invited us to dinner one Sunday to meet her latest attachment, a man named Milton Millard. If he liked us and we liked him, she was probably going to marry him. When we walked into Grandma’s house and Milton Millard stood up from the couch and walked toward us with his great clumping shoe, I knew right away who he was.
When I had a chance to speak to Milton Millard alone, I asked him if he remembered the sinkhole on the main street in the big town during that year ten years earlier when I was only seven. He said that, yes, he remembered it because he had never seen anything like it before, or since. I told him I was there and had seen him. It was the shoe, he said. You probably remember the shoe as much as you remember the sinkhole. I shook my head and laughed as if the shoe was something I had never noticed before.
The next day I asked Grandma if she remembered the sinkhole and she said she did. When I told her that Milton Millard was at the sinkhole that day and I remembered seeing him, she nodded her head because she remembered seeing him, too.
“I believe it was some kind of sign,” she said. “It’s raining and a hole opens up in the earth and a man with an affliction whom I might marry is standing at the edge of the hole looking down into it. It can’t be a good sign.”
“I’m not sure if I believe in signs,” I said.
Grandma decided not to marry Milton Millard. She was quick to point out, though, that her decision had nothing to do with his enormous shoe.
Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp