the museum of americana

a literary review

Houdini’s Heirs: A Sideshow Romance — Excerpt from a Novel-in-progress by Marc Nieson

 

Hurry, hurry, hurry. That’s right, step it on up. You and you and yes, you too, missus. Gather round, one and all. Mesdames et messieurs, senors y senoras. Young and old, small and tall. Just when you thought there was nothing left to believe in. Just when you were sure there wasn’t nothing left to disbelieve in. Well, let me just say that I stand here before you today to testify that it ain’t necessarily so. No, my friends, the world is still a place that can capture and amaze.

But why take my word for it? Like they say, it’s seeing that’s believing. And right behind me here, beyond this mere curtain lies a threshold to thrills beyond the pale of everyday. A chamber of stark wonders, a peephole into the deepest corners of your imaginations. Sights that’ll take the color right out of your skin and the sense from your minds.  Freaks and geeks, the grand and grotesque, miracles of the flesh guaranteed to leave Mother Nature herself gasping in sudden doubt and delight.

Plus, if you’re one to believe what they’re preaching in the papers these days, this may well be your last chance to witness these wonders LIVE at this here boardwalk. That big wrecking ball’s coming, so they say . . . But today is your lucky day cause you’re here and we’re still here, and for the humble price of but two bits you can see it all with your own two eyes. That’s just one bit per eye, mind you. A mere pittance for a peek? A bargain, right?  So that’s right, step on up, step right this way.

~

And so maybe you do step up, thinking Who is this guy kidding? Dressed in sequins and talking like that in this day-and-age? What is he, some kind of throwback?  Some snakeoil salesman? You glance beyond the boardwalk, back toward your waiting beach blanket then back again at this old barker. His face, all wind-worn and wise, his puffed nose infused with years of drink. And look, there’s some midget beside him now, playing an accordion, their backdrop of colored banners selling the rest — Siamese Twins and a REAL Hermaphrodite, Spider Girl and The Human Scar, Dr. Volcano, Chutney the Pinhead. Again you scan the shoreline. Beach umbrellas and overstuffed garbage cans, kids digging in the sand. Coney Island in summer. Overhead the sun sparkles and you pull out your cell phone to confirm the date, then check the time. Awwwhat-the-Hell, you think, and scrounge your pockets for loose change. You hand the coins to the showgirl parked beside the entrance, her cleavage tatoo’d with flames. She smiles at you demurely, and parts the curtain’s fold.

Once inside, it takes a moment to adjust to the sudden dark. That’s what you notice first, just before the smell overtakes you—one you recognize but can’t quite name. Your head’s thinking animals and straw? Wet canvas?  The faint remnants of gunpowder? Thinking there ought to be some striped Big Top overhead with tent poles and guy wires, cotton candy and clowns. But no, says your body, it’s cramped in here, a whole line of you shuffling forward like lemmings. And that stench, more factory than circus. Metal shavings maybe, or old vats of lye? Whatever it is has long gone south. That smell of neglect. And for the first time you’re thinking maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.

But by now you sense the space opening, a pattern of bleachers glimpsed up ahead. The strains of that accordion again, rising. You’re finding a seat, elbow-to-elbow with strangers, smelling them now, too. Their sweat and suntan lotions. Their collective breath baited for entertainment, salty with cynicism. Meanwhile, across from you spans a small raised stage of scuffed plywood. A thick crimson curtain conceals whatever lurks behind. A single spotlight trained from overhead, tied off to remnants of old plumbing. The ceiling, tin.

Some old sweatshop or factory, you think. A place where people labored without end. Or maybe a gutted rooming house, its handful of windows frosted over so that a cool dampness pervades, in August no less. Mold, that’s what this smell must be. That and whatever concoction of chemicals they’re using to keep the decay at bay. And for the moment you feel satisfied with that explanation, settling into your seat, your doubts allayed.  Always trying to figure things out, you are. Always trying to stay on your toes. To know where you stand, and what’s coming next. Still, everything appears almost too shabby here, too perfect, like props hand-picked out of central casting.

And just like that, as if on cue, the old barker from the boardwalk struts out on stage. His sequin coat, now replaced by short black tails and a top hat.

“Welcome, welcome,” he says, squinting into the light. “You’ll excuse me if I had to raise my voice with you before out on the boardwalk, but sometimes it’s necessary to call out from the din to catch one’s attention. It’s a busy world out there these days. Very noisy.  Very competitive.”

And here he pauses to smile, if a bit uncomfortably. He removes his hat and runs a finger round its brim.

“But as you can see, we all wear many hats around here. Each of us helps share the load in a sideshow.”

“Yeah, all of us but Juggler.”

The catcall catches him off-guard, coming from somewhere in the wings. He glances off-stage, then flashes a half-smile to the audience.

“Right, well, there’s much I could tell you, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that people these days don’t want to be told, they’d rather be shown. So, without further ado, I’d like to start our show for you now, something a little different from our sideshow’s usual circle of acts, but something I’m sure you’ll all enjoy and enthrall to . . .”

He makes a wide sweep with his arm that takes in the stage, its curtain, and the whole audience so that you glance around, too. And that’s when you first notice it behind you, perched astride the bleachers’ top row. A hulking old TV camera, blinking ON AIR.

A sudden crackle splits the air, then from over loudspeakers comes that familiar tone of Station Identification . . . Coming to you live from our studios and broadcast across the nation . . . welcome to our final episode of . . .

This voice, too, feels oddly out-of-place. Its tenor faint and far too scratchy to be digital, more like some vintage radio announcer’s. Like something from your grandparents’ age, maybe. Then the houselights cut and lo-and-behold the curtains start parting and a faint red glow spills from behind, bathing the stage by degrees. That dull, hi-tech red of night goggles and surveillance, and again it takes your eyes several moments to re-adjust. By then the stage is fully exposed, empty save for a large glass case suspended in mid-air. Hanging from thin cables, one at each corner, and hovering six odd feet above center stage. Some huge fish tank, you think, since it’s half-filled with water. Or more like one of those boxes magicians might use for sawing women in half, because now you see there’s someone floating face up inside.  Yes, clearly it’s the silhouette of a woman’s figure within the tank, if half-obscured by the mist of her breath. And then, you hear it rising. Her amplified heartbeat.

Oh My God! This is that show, you realize. That floating red girl on TV. For thirteen weeks she’s been suspended there in her tank, deprived of all senses and contact, as if sleeping. As if in coma. And that’s how they’d advertised it too, nothing but a black screen slowly blushing to red, along with some faint whisper . . . the closest to death you’ll ever come . . . and so thousands of us duly tuned in. Perched before our flat screens and less-than-flat stomachs, ever hungry for what they might risk airing this time. More first-hand forensics and plunging necklines? The same old swallowed insects or last-minute courtroom verdicts? Or maybe they’d really push the envelope this season. Get really real. Say, a show on terrorist cell surveillance? Or live-action amputations? Or maybe a pay-per-view execution, simulcast from Texas?

But no, none of that happened here. All you got on screen was this lone floating girl. The camera barely ever moving, her heart’s pulse steady and endless. Not much to look at at all, you’d think. A sure flop, this “Dreamland”, certain to fold right after the pilot’s final credits. The proverbial dead shark. And yet, as was quickly learned, this show had very little to do with watching, it was more about listening.

Because somehow, this floating red girl had the uncanny capacity to talk to each and every viewer. Or again, whisper might be the better word, since that’s what it felt like, as if she were leaning in close to you, as if you were being tucked into bed as a child. Her spare voice in your ear, all pillow-soft and consoling, laying aside your deepest worries for the night. And in whatever accent or dialect, whatever octave of solace you needed hear.

Impossible, you say. Some new sideshow hoax cooked up to separate you from your purse’s green. And yet. Each week we tuned in by the thousands, the hundreds of thousands. Each and every week the numbers rising, the ratings.

Not that any of that mattered. Her voice, that’s all you wanted to return to. Or her ear, maybe. For the truth is, the line between who was speaking and who was listening got all blurred on this show, and in the end you weren’t even sure any actual words had been spoken. Like maybe you were exchanging thoughts with her, instead. Touching in an entirely new, though remembered way. The truth is, at the end of each broadcast no one remembered a thing. You sat there, quietly listening to your heart, and swearing you could hear the beating of those beside you, too — on the couch, the bleachers, the block.

Amazing, really. Her show so simple and sedate, yet so real, so alive. And only live, it seemed, for those clever ones who tried to record or download the transmission found it didn’t take. All you got was static. The exchange, it appeared, had to occur in real time — if mediated by a screen — right then, right there, then gone.

So don’t presume this was some cheap reality program where you got to spy on some handful of the unfortunate or celebrated among us. Nor some cathartic call-in show, with its overstuffed Naugahydes upon which the populace could whine and cry and air out all its regretted little underthings, because the floating girl asks that you listen to her as well. She has needs of her own, too.  Not that she’s said as much, but clearly she’s in search of someone — almost as if she’s sifting among her millions of viewers trying to locate that one particular soul. And week after week, you find yourself wanting to help her, wanting her to find and whisper to that certain someone, too. You find yourself wanting this for her more than anything, especially now, since this is the last episode and something, something has to resolve.

Listen, there it is again. That heartbeat of hers, steady as rain. Pulsing into you like some drug, some dull yet gathering current. Each of our pulses, marking time together.  And then, that voice of hers . . .

Hello?  Hello? Are you out there?

Her whispered refrain, washing over you again like some returning wave, some sweeping beam of light from the end of a jetty . . .

Are you out there?

I know you can hear me . . .

 

~  ~  ~

niesonMarc Nieson is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and NYU Film School.  His background includes children’s theatre, cattle chores, and a season with a one-ring circus.  His prose has earned two Pushcart Prize nominations, the Literal Latte Fiction Award, and Raymond Carver Short Story Award.  Recent fictions appear in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53),  Conjunctions, and Hawk & Handsaw.  Excerpts from his memoir Schoolhouse  have received a notable listing in Best American Essays 2012 and been published in Prairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland (Ice Cube Press), Literary Review, Iowa Review, Green Mountains  Review, and Chautauqua. His award-winning feature-length screenplays include Speed of Life, The Dream Catcher, and Bottomland.  He serves  on the faculty of Chatham University in Pittsburgh, and is working on this novel, Houdini’s Heirs.