It was ten o' clock on a Saturday night in Chickamauga, and the boy had been in bed since eight, awake. When he felt sure his mother and father were asleep, he got up. He stood tall and stiff in the white square where moonlight caught the floor through the bedroom window, and out the window you could see the dim, sporadic lights of the carnival across town. The boy's name was Noah Smith. He came from good parents who gave him a good Christian name. But that night, when he rolled out of bed, his name wasn't Noah anymore, It was Herman Ludwig. And that night Herman Ludwig would go to the carnival.
He knelt at his dresser and opened the bottom drawer, pulled it out in its entirety. He withdrew, from the space beneath the bottom dresser drawer, a long box, silvery-green and dappled like a crappie. He set it on the dresser and opened it. Inside sat his fancy, flat-topped straw boater's hat, a shiny black ribbon tied around its top. Folded beneath the hat lay a silvergray suit, tailored to a slightly larger size than Herman's. He placed the hat off to the side on the dresser, unfolded the suit and held it out in front of him, as if to see what it would look like if worn by a man with no body, face, or hands.
The boy was tall for his age. Twelve years old, five foot eight with big feet. He put on the suit and hat. He opened a cigar box that sat in the same empty space where he'd kept the suit. And inside the cigar box: sugar packets. Lots of them. He grabbed a handful and stuffed them into his pocket.
Herman snuck out to the bathroom with the cigar box, which also contained a makeup kit he'd acquired in town the same day he got his suit, with the money he'd managed to save from allowance and cutting old Buster Haywood's grass. In the bathroom mirror he powdered his pink cheeks, then his entire face, except the circles around his eyes, because dark circles around the eyes made you look older; they made you look hardened, more like a man. He snuck back into the bedroom and put on the pair of shiny black wingtip shoes he'd wear to church the next morning. Standing in the pool of white moonlight on the floor, he slid open the window, and the dry, September air blew in. The carnival lights twinkled beyond the trees, beneath the moon that leaned behind soaring clouds that, to Herman, looked like ships of sweet, silver cotton candy. He eased through the window, hung there a moment, then laddered his way down the ivylaced lattices, then crossed through the backyard and into the cedar grove, then into the deeper woods, etching himself through thickets, careful and slow, so as not to put as much as a nick in his suit.
He made way to the edge of the woods, and through a web of trees he saw big tents billow, and the deep, twinkling lights of the Ferris wheel reel against the blueblack sky. Herman crossed into that wide expanse of land, the dark field on which the carnival sat. He passed between two candy-cane colored tents, and into the dusty corridors of the carnival.
Couples walked by. Teenagers. Drunks. Past the game booths and shooting galleries. And the rides––The Jitterbug, The Genie; The Moon Dance, The Mystic Dragon––hummed and squeaked and wheeled about, sitting squat and bulging like horrendous mechanical beasts of a future age. Herman stepped past a booth where a cotton candy machine spun its pink spidersilk. His shoes clopped. Honey-colored dust powdered his trousers. Exposed light bulbs hung from a network of wires. And in a dark place between two tents, a young man stood smoking a cigarette. He wore blue jeans and a denim jacket draped over a tight white tee shirt, oily hair combed back in a shiny black curve.
Herman said hello, speaking in a kind of mock bellow.
The young man turned and glared at Herman.
"Who are you?"
"How old are you?" Herman asked.
"Very nice. I'm nineteen," Herman said, and he immediately felt a sense of seniority and said: "Let me get one of them cigarettes. I could use a cigarette right about now."
"What's in it for me?"
"Good company," said Herman.
"That's right. What's your name?"
"Bobby Ray McIntyre."
"That's a hell of a name, Bobby Ray. My name's Herman Ludwig."
Bobby Ray pulled a soft pack of Pall Malls from his tee shirt pocket, shook one out and handed it to Herman. He flipped open a Zippo, struck it on his knee, and lit the cigarette pressed between Herman's lips.
"You ever been to a carnival before?" Herman asked.
"Went to the one come around last year."
"Well I'd sure like to go to that freak show. That's what I came for. The freak show." "Well," said Bobby Ray. "There is a kind of freak show, but probably ain't much for freaks. No midgets or three-titted women or nothing."
"I prefer two-titted women myself," said Herman.
"I wouldn't mind getting my hands on a two-titted woman tonight," said Bobby Ray. And he grinned, showing big, blackrimmed teeth the color of cookie dough.
"Sho-ree," said Herman. "Reckon where we can find some whisky around here?"
"I've got a little pintsized in my pocket, boy."
"Well," cried Herman. "I ain't no boy, son." Then he wiggled his toes and crunched his feet together, felt a hardness in his throat; felt a little sweat bead transpire at the top of his forehead, which he quickly dabbed away with his thumb so as not to let it roll down and streak his powdered cheeks. Bobby Ray yanked a small bottle of caramel colored liquid from his inner jacket pocket, unscrewed the cap, turned into the shadows and cocked his head backward, then he turned back around, his face all puckered.
"Here, take a drink," Bobby Ray said, and he handed over the bottle. Herman took it with one hand, and with the other he fumbled in his pocket for the sugar packets.
Well, he thought. How are you going to pull this off with that old boy just standing right there looking at you? You better go ahead and get it over with. Just drink it how you're supposed to. If you're going try and be a man, then you might as well do it.
Herman quit fumbling with the sugar packets, turned the bottle up, and drank. He thought of the sweet, softened whisky sugar, but the memory of it dissolved quicker than the sugar, and all he could taste was the gasoline burn, in his mouth, down his throat, and boiling in his belly. His eyes welled up, watered like fish-eyes.
Herman yelped, and mopped his mouth with the back of his hand.
"Damn, boy. Keep it down or you're gonna get people suspicious."
"Well hellfire, son. I'm old enough to drink, so who gives a damn?"
"Well, best not make a fool of yourself. There's two little two-titted ladies at three o' clock."
There were. A blond and a brunette, dollfaced and spectral in the honey-colored light, poised like ballerinas in front of the tilt-a-whirl. The blond wore a white and red polka dotted-dress, its bell stuffed with lacy, frilly black tufts that held her long, cotton-colored legs. Herman was partial to blonds.
"Look at that frilly thing," Bobby Ray said.
"Wonder what all you could find in there?"
The brunette had her hair piled up high and wore a yellow dress with a big bell like the blond's, but with white frills filling up hers.
"I say we bag them ladies and take them to the freak show," Herman said.
Bobby Ray eyed the brunette. "I'm thinking me and her are going to make our own freak show."
"Well that ain't a bad idea either, Bobby Ray. But I'm thinking that freak show yonder'll be a good start."
They approached, Bobby Ray leading.
"How was it, girls?" said Bobby Ray, kind of leaning as he stood, as if there was something to lean on. "The tilt-a-whirl. We was thinking about taking a ride. But if it ain't no fun, I reckon we'll just head on to the good stuff."
"The freak show," Herman corrected.
"We didn't ride the tilt-a-whirl," said the brunette.
"Well what do you like to do?"
"Nothing," she said.
"Well nothing doesn't sound like a whole lot of fun," said Bobby Ray. "Y'all too pretty to be out here doing nothing. Girls like you deserve a good time."
"You think we wanna have a good time with a rat like you?"
"Hell," he said. "You just teasing me aren't you? What's y'all's names?"
The blond and brunette looked at one another. The blond one managed a tight grin.
"My name's Bobbi Ann," said the blond. "And this is Lola."
"Bobbi Ann," he cried. "Bobby's my name. I'll be damned. I'm Bobby Ray and this here is, is––"
"Herman Ludwig's my name, missus."
Herman was very pleased that the blond's name was Bobbi, because that meant there was no way Bobby Ray would try and pair himself up with her. That would be like smooching your sister or something.
"Its real nice to meet y'all," Bobby Ray said. "We were just about to go to the freak show yonder, and if y'all ain't got no other company, come with. And like I said, you girls are too pretty to be hanging around here by yourselves."
"It ain't safe neither," said Herman. "To be hanging around by yourselves."
"I guess we could," Lola said, and she looked over to Bobbi Ann, and Bobbi Ann shrugged her shoulders. The four of them advanced down the bright dusty corridors, past the shooting gallery, and past a fat man swinging, like an axe, a sledgehammer on a grounded bell to test his strength. The air smelled like funnel cakes and cotton candy, and Herman insisted they stop at the sweet-stand and get some. They did, and Herman and Bobbi Ann shared a cone of cotton candy, a big pink cloud of it, then the four of them approached the freak show tent.
The tent sat built around a string of trailers painted with dancing skeletons and bluegreen mermaids. In the center of the main trailer, big block letters laid out in a circle spelled: HOUSE OF THE MYSTERIOUS, THE FANTASTIC, AND THE UNFORTUNATE. Painted in the center of the circle: a man in a tuxedo, a headless man with a top hat on. Where a head should have been: only dead space.
Beads of sweat materialized beneath the brim of Herman's hat. He took a napkin he got with the cotton candy cone and dabbed his forehead.
"You girls ready?" asked Bobby Ray.
The girls said they were ready, and Herman too. They each paid a dime to a dwarf in a candy-cane striped suit, and walked through a black silk curtain. They were inside a boxcar, and there were two boxcars connected to that by doors, all set up like a hallway to the main tent.
In the first boxcar skeletons stood along the walls wearing flattopped hats much akin to Herman's, and their powderwhite jaws chomped up and down, their bony joints were slung around by fishing line, hung up and jerked around by god knew who or what beyond the boxcar ceiling. In the second boxcar: big fish tanks bedded with coral, and plastic sandcastles containing models of men that were hideous and half-alligator and fishtailed; scaly women like mermaids, but not as beautiful as Herman had imagined a mermaid being, by seeing them in picture books. Lola and Bobbi Ann smiled brightly. Bobby Ray pulled out his bottle of whisky and offered it around. They drank there in the bluegreen glow of the aquariums, giggled and handed the bottle to Herman, and he took a pull from it. The whiskey fled and burned down his throat and in his belly. But this time his nerves eased and his head got light. He took another pull and smiled at the plastic half-alligator men, the waxy-looking mermaid women.
"You think things like this really exist?" Bobbi Ann asked Herman.
"They's right here, mama. They's staring at us right now."
"But I mean, real ones."
"Well," he told her. "I saw pictures of them in a book, but I don't know if that means they're real or not. I'd like to believe they are."
"I'd like to, too," she said. "I like to believe that god has bigger tricks up his sleeve."
This made Herman smile, and Bobbi Ann smiled back and hooked her arm through his. The four of them advanced into the main tent.
Rows of wooden folding chairs on a dirt floor. A little wooden stage, better suited for an irate street preacher than a freak show you had to pay a dime for. The four of them sat down. A few other folks did too, their arms folded, expressionless. The little auditorium-style tent was lit up dimly by an exposed light bulb hanging by a cord above the stage. The light bulb flickered and made a zinging noise, like a mosquito being zapped by a bug lamp. It dimmed till the filament was a crinkled, orange glowing caterpillar. The makeshift auditorium darkened, and Herman Ludwig grabbed Bobbi Ann's arm, very tightly, but to his relief she grabbed back, much tighter.
This is it, he thought. Tonight is going to be the night I truly become a man.
He grinned and looked over at Bobbi Ann, and then a red curtain that hung behind the stage was parted in the middle by two white-gloved hands.
The man walked out on the stage in a black tuxedo and derby hat, and when he stepped to the front you could see his face, wrapped in white cloth which was so taut you could make out the hard angle of his nose, the deep holes where the eyes should have been. He looked like The Invisible Man from the movies, and as the invisible man stood there, Herman Ludwig loosened his grip on Bobbi Ann, and all the heaviness, the fear, disintegrated. He became too comfortable and entranced to even manage a smile.
The invisible man spoke in a reverberating yet muffled tone, explaining to the crowd that he had been born a normal baby, but as time went on his body started to fade, year by year. By the time he was five his body was so translucent you could see his innards, crinkled and black through his waxpaper skin like he was some kind of human larvae. He said you could see his heart throb, hear it bump, and that after time the innards began to fade along with the flesh. He said his mother and father could not figure out what was wrong, and eventually they were so mortified and disgusted by him that they abandoned him to walk the earth alone. Then he became completely invisible.
A fat man called from the audience: "Why you have to wear that white cloth then?"
"I'm too ashamed," cried the invisible man. "And there was one part of my body that did not disappear, and I have too much decency to let it sit in the open."
"What part is that?" yelled the fat man.
"My god," Herman said.
This is not a man. He is more than a man, better. God really does have tricks up his sleeve. He didn't stop with Adam, he created something more than a man: a freak. And how wonderful and fantastic a freak is.
The show ended and the invisible man bade the audience farewell and disappeared through the dark slit in the curtain, and Herman, above everyone else, had felt he'd gotten his money's worth.
They went back out into the carnival lights. A good breeze blew, carrying the aroma of funnel cakes and cotton candy, the odor of boiled peanuts.
"Well that was a drag," said Bobby Ray.
"It was a thrill," shouted Herman.
"I got a car," Bobby Ray said. "Lets get out of here."
Lola smiled and Bobby Ray pulled her in closely. They deviated between two of the big tents and into the dark outskirts of the carnival, the field where people parked their cars. "You got a car, Herman?" Bobbi Ann asked.
"Well, my car is in the shop, of course. I always have to keep it in top-notch shape. Top-notch shape."
"What kind of car is it?"
"Well," he said. "It's a Ford truck. I'm a truck kind of guy. You can't get more muscle than that."
"I've got my own car," she said. "Come on."
She opened up the back of her Chevy Bel-Air and they got in.
"My father has one of these," Herman said.
"That's nice. Come here."
She pulled Herman in close and they fell. She kissed him hard, held him tight. Herman began to feel his nerves clicking, felt the hardness in his throat and the sweat at the rim of his forehead. He was no longer elated by the prospect of achieving true manhood, and when the bell of Bobbi Ann's dress scrunched up around her waist, and Herman saw what was held there in the frilly black tufts, his hands began to shake, and he stuck one in his pocket and fumbled with the sugar packets. He thought of the invisible man. He imagined him standing outside of the car window, staring, cloth unraveled from his head and a black brain exposed, perhaps a black heart bursting through his tuxedo jacket.
"Come on." Bobbi Ann said. "Come on."
Alright, he thought. You know what to do and you better get it done. Get that freak show out of your head and do what you have to do to become a man.
Herman sprung up on his knees between Bobbi Ann's splayed legs, and he yanked down his silvergray trousers. Then Bobbi Ann looked at what Herman had there, and she screamed.
She clawed her hand over her mouth like you might do in a movie theatre watching a horror flick, a silver scene from Invasion of The Body Snatchers flashing across the screen. Herman, now terrified himself, opened the car door, leapt out, and ran. Bobby Ray and Lola stood outside of his car, baffled by the screams, and watched Herman Ludwig race across the field hoisting up his trousers. Then Herman disappeared into the trees.
He ran through thickets and felt streams of sweat roll down his cheeks, carrying the pasty white powder. He found home. He climbed up the lattices and slid in through the space he'd left beneath the window.
Herman snuck into the bathroom and looked at his reflection in the mirror. There were streams of pink on his powderwhite face. He washed it off, snuck back into his room and took off the suit and pulled the bottomdrawer out of his dresser, stuffed the bunches of silvergray cloth into the empty space without even opening the box. He shoved the drawer back in, and was Herman Ludwig no more. He was Noah Smith.
And also, he was a freak.
It was one o' clock in the morning. He got into bed, hid himself under the covers and closed his eyes. He couldn't see anything except the face of the invisible man, and he couldn't hear anything but Bobbi Ann's screaming. After a while he fell asleep.
The next morning Noah stood in front of the bathroom mirror with his church clothes on. He smelled the breakfast that his mother cooked downstairs, the hissing salty bacon on the stove. He wore the same wingtip shoes he'd worn the night before, and there was a smudge of white powder at the top of his forehead. He hurried down the stairs.
His mother stood at the stove. His father read the paper. They looked older than they were. His father had a hard, bone-rigid face and graying, short-cropped hair. He looked like he had once been in the military yet he had not. His mother was pear-shaped and had a big brown beehive on top of her head. She put breakfast on the table and his father continued reading the paper. Noah sat and ate.
After breakfast they went to church. They sat stiffly in the front pew while layers of pipe organ blared. The priest, in a white robe and purple sash draped around his neck, stood at the altar, talked of scripture, and sang from The Hymnal with the whole congregation. Noah's parents always told him he was lucky he didn't have to go to a snakehandler church. Noah stood in the pew and imagined going to a church where you could handle a snake.
The congregation stood, reciting passages from the Book of Common Prayer.
We believe in one God, father the almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth.
Noah stood and thought about what kind of church a freak from a freak show would go to. He imagined the freaks would probably be handling a bunch of snakes.
God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made.
Noah gazed at the altar and saw the spectral apparition of the invisible man, the cloth-wrapped head enormous and translucent and looming across the sanctuary. The organ blared and the congregation filed out from the pews and lined up for communion. Noah knelt between his mother and father around the altar. They cupped their hands. The priest passed the other kneelers and came to Noah and placed a holy wafer in his hands. Noah ate. The priest, grayhaired with a face like worn leather and soft watery eyes, leaned down, eyelevel with the boy.
"My son," he said. "I can see in you, I can see that He is in you. I can see that He protects you and protects your soul and that your body and soul are already of a piece."
He looked at Noah's mother and father and smiled.
"This is a good boy," he said. "He is already on the right path. I know. The Lord tells me so. This is a miracle boy. One of God's most special children."
He stood tall and placed a palm on top of Noah's head.
"May He bless and keep you. May He bless and keep you." He let go of Noah's head, and continued on down the line.
After church they went into town and ate lunch at Nellie's on St. Martin Avenue, across the street from the railroad tracks. They sat at a table next to the window and ate, and Noah washed his roast beef and mashed potatoes down with several glasses of sweet tea, extra sugar. Across the road, a train rolled by, slow and steady. A boxcar. Its face read in big, loopy, circus-style lettering: CARNIVAL OF THE FANTASTIC. Noah's reflection sat still and faint on the windowpane and in back of it the train rolled by, then the invisible man's face was reflected.
But he did not feel scared. He did not feel any bead of sweat on the top of his forehead, nor did he feel a hardness in his throat. The priest had assured him his soul was safe.
"Such godlessness," his father said. He pointed at the train. "An unnatural spectacle. Spectacles of sin, that's all those carnivals are." He looked at Noah.
His mother nodded. Noah looked at her and imagined honeybees whirling around her hairdo.
They left Nellie's, walked down the sidewalk and into the Dime Store. The train rolled by. You could see the ass end of it on down the street, smoke from the engine drifting into the sky, a gray plume wavering amongst the clouds.
"Aunt Peggy's birthday's coming up," Noah's mother said.
"They's greeting cards in the back," said the father.
Noah's mother and father went to the back to get a card, and Noah walked up front to the candy aisle. He looked out the window, reached his hand into his pocket and fumbled at some sugar packets.
A miracle boy, Noah thought. That's what I am. Well, that's a sure nice word for it.
He felt a lightness and an easiness he had never felt before. Outside, the train rolled by, carrying the boxcars of the traveling carnival.
Noah snuck out of the candy aisle and to the front door. He opened it and ran.
He ran across St. Martin and down its shoulder and into the ditch. He ran alongside the train. It breezed by, and he saw a boxcar on down the tracks with its side-door open, and he waited for it, squatted and braced himself. The boxcar started to pass and he leapt toward the opening, hung on and pulled himself to. He crawled into the darkness, then got up, and poked his head out and looked across the daylight, down the road and toward the window of the Dime store.
This is it. This is where I'm going. I'm a miracle boy. One of god's most special children. I don't have to try and be a man anymore. I am not a man. I am more than a man.
And he felt around at the packets of sugar in his pocket, turned away from the light, into the boxcar, and retreated into the shadows. Then he lay on his back in the dark, not feeling anything but the rumbling of the train tracks beneath him, and he lay there smiling, wondering what his new name would be.
Brett Puryear is from Chattanooga, Tennessee. His stories and essays are published in Drunken Boat, The Southern Literature Festival Anthology, the chapbook Old Haunts from 23 WLVS Press, and Deep South Magazine, among others. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction at the University of Montana. He lives and writes in Missoula, Montana.