It was a dusty, blow away town. The crowds here were larger than otherwise, since people here had nowhere else to be. Nowhere they wanted to be otherwise. Surely this was encouraged by the entrance fee, reduced to a scant two bits, cheaper, brother, than the run down movie “palace” on what passed as small town Main Street.
The movie house had worn carpets where the tents at the freak show were bare earth. It had dim lights where here there were full views. Couples would kiss there, in the balcony, if they were not interrupted by an usher serious about a morals policy. Here there was freedom. Still, there was less often kissing among the visitors, as the atmosphere was not as encouraging to amorousness amongst the patrons.
And they were patrons. They made all this possible.
The barker intoned as much when he spieled, “Friends, you make all this possible. Were it not for you these unfortunates would languish in poverty and obscurity. Shame, my friends. Shame. We expose the wonders of the natural world. A view of humanity and decency. We thank you for your kind patronage. And please, no screaming in the tents. This way to the attractions.”
Hard times. These small towns were the only thing keeping the show afloat. For now.
“Mr. Mayor,” said the barker as he tipped his hat to a little old man at the head of the line. He knew this man from his years in the trade. And he wasn’t the Mayor, just the oldest man in town. And a grump, as well. But everyone treated him as if he were the mayor, as an act of street magic. A psychic pay-off.
“Hmph,” answered the mayor, as he flitted his hand in the air, shooing the barker away. But the barker stood where he was and smiled as the mayor passed by and in. It is a service industry.
The old man came as a tradition. He had experienced a good night here, at a traveling carnival, so many years ago it was the last century. And he relived it, just a taste. A tantalizing remembrance faded through the years. When he was here it was as close, and as far, to or from the fact as he got. It was happiness and sorrow. Punishment and reward.
But it was best not to speak of it, for it was, at its heart, at that time, forbidden.
Inside a tent, people gathered before the stage. They were muted. There was an eagerness to proceed. The crowd stood hungry. Alert.
The curtains billowed.
“Ladies. Gentlemen. Fear-st your eyes at the sight. Incomparable. Are we not all in our heart alone? Do we not stand by ourselves in the wilderness looking for a trail? A clearing? A safe shelter? This girl was kept down in the cellar at the estate of her family and spoken of only in hushed tones. But here, at last, now…”
And the curtain parted. And she sat overlooking the crowd.
And there was an instinctual gasp, collective. As all viewed her in silence thereafter. It was even as if the mayor was impressed.
They looked at her. And she at them.
It was what they did. The onlookers looked on. But what would the spectacle do? It was the spirit of reciprocity. If they could look in, we could look out. For what is one to do when they are reduced to spectacle but to become a spectator? To look out from oneself. To assimilate.
They look at us. We look at them.
And we wonder.
The faces, the bodies. The hidden truths unspoken. Passions. Dreams. Lusts. Hope. Illusions. Disillusionment. Despair. Apathy. Silence. Depression.
Look out at them and read it in their faces and bodies. Worn in. Weared out. Lost. Each, in their way, lonely. Abandoned somewhere, sometime.
Time passed and no one said nothin’.
Then the curtains closed.
“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, I am always impressed by the maturity of our patrons. And we thank you from the bottom of our hearts. And if you will proceed to the next attraction I’m sure you will find something quite different, though who can say what one sees rather than another? A matter of perspective.”
The old man was bitter. All he saw! He saw! The mayor he was resolute. “Weren’t nothin’ wrong with that girl ‘ceptin’ the…”
But he got pushed aside by the crowd as they made for the exit, and on to the next social distraction, talking about how shocking it was. A release valve for the strain of the mainstream. There but for grace…
When he was a boy he saw a theatrical extravagance, or so it was billed. Two men presenting selections from the bard, but they were just making it up, talking gibberish. And while it got good word of mouth in the beginning, by the end the town came to tar and feather the charlatans, who escaped before the last show, leaving all the people in town alone in the hall with rotten produce, tar, and feathers. And no one would talk about what happened next. But the old man remembered. And he laughed.
But people today ain’t got the sense of yesterday.