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Bread and Circuses

bread and circuses


Estimated reading time — 15 minutes

WHEN THE CIRCUS CAME, everything changed.

Small towns rebuilt themselves into boisterous cities overnight. Weary farmers and their wives glowed with renewed vigor. Life was transformed from a series of dull scenes into the greatest show on earth.

George, Hal, Peter, and Ronnie came to watch it on April 29, 1903.

They pooled their week’s wages: four quarters. A dollar could have bought bread for the next four months, but our heroes wanted circuses. Specifically the one put on by R.I. Lacerta, Italian peddler turned American showman. He wasn’t Barnum or Bailey. He never ventured beyond the rural Midwest. Yet the red and gold tents blazing in the noonday sun outshone those of his rivals.

“Over there,” said George, pointing. “The ticket line.”

At first the two laborers, the preacher’s son and the laundress humbly awaited their turn at the end. However, George soon muscled them into the middle. People protested, but one look at his square jaw and bulging forearms shut them up.

Hal frowned, as thin and wiry as his idol was burly. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“Want a good seat, don’t you?” said Peter. Average build, average abilities.

“Yeah.” Ronnie didn’t say much. A short and homely girl didn’t deserve to.

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“Come on.” George looked around, then pushed and shoved them to the front.

At the end of the line, the air had been fit to breathe. Up near the ticketmaster, the mixed stench of manure, straw, sweat, animal and human fodder made several folks clamp handkerchiefs over their mouths and noses so hard they could barely breathe. So did Hal, but not the others. They were used to hard work and its odors.

“The circus! The circus! The circus in town! Enter the great carnival of R.I. Lacerta.”

Talker Joe had been with the outfit for thirty years. His voice rang above the shouts and chatter of the marks. He’d once been one of them, as credulous as he was common, but his mentor had blessed him with knowledge that made him a king.

“Signs and wonders. Marvels. Freaks. You’ve never seen the like, so step right up.”

He spoke true. City folk had seen the like: lions, tigers, bearded ladies and two-headed men. Specimens in jars lined up on shelves, like at the grocer’s. Acrobats. Clowns. And, as always, the ringmaster. Smoke and mirrors for a paying crowd, but this crowd had never been to a circus before.

“Stay together,” yelled George once the four were inside its perimeter. “Join arms.”

They formed a chain, but two links broke off right away.

Ronnie visited the fortune teller’s booth. Peter snuck a peek inside the peep show tent. Hal followed the leader until he stepped in a fresh pile of dung.

“Fire and brimstone!”

“Ha. What would your father say to that?”

“That I ruined my best pair of boots. Then he’d make me beg forgiveness.”

George smiled and leaned against a signpost. Why waste time when they could head for the Big Top? The afternoon extravaganza was about to start. He directed Hal to a straw heap, where the poor lad found even more filth.

“Confound it. Consarn it. Unholy perdition!”

Two churchgoers passed by and scowled as the reverend’s son made his oaths.

Peter and Ronnie caught up to George and Hal, suddenly wrinkling their noses.

“You a preacher or a farmhand, Hal?” joked Peter.

“Hush.” Hal would have said worse, but he was in enough trouble with God.

George smirked and turned to Ronnie. “What did the fortune teller say?”

“Nothing.”

“You can tell us.”

She beamed. “That I’d soon be the prettiest girl in the world.”

“A bride on her wedding day.” Peter waited for her to grin wider. Then he did. “Dream on. You’re plain as a tin pail. Any man would rather marry one of those.”

Ronnie turned as scarlet as her hands after a load of laundry. She bit her lip.

Hal finished scouring his boots as best he could with the straw, then noticed her.

“What’s wrong?”

“She can’t take a joke, that’s what. Know what I saw?”

“I think we can guess, Saint Peter.”

Peter told them in detail. Ronnie’s face flushed even redder.

“Well, lads? You up for it? There’s a big, busty gal in there, calls herself – Tender? Nah. Almost. She’ll let us look and even touch. For an extra bit, she’ll hold us too.”

“What?! Don’t you dare think of it. It’s swift damnation.”

“Shut up, Hal.” George considered, then shook his head. “This way. Showtime.”

Of course! Why go to a circus only to miss its main attraction? They hurried off toward the grandest tent, its center mast towering sixty feet. In comparison, the town’s tallest bridge was thirty feet over a muddy river. The friends jostled their way through anyone and everyone, laughing, cheering, mad with joy.

“Come one, come all,” cried Talker Joe. “One ring. Four acts. Countless miracles.”

Miracles? That’s what he said and kept on saying. Yet who witnessed those here?

Men, women and children swarmed underneath the Big Top. Ever buzzing, they bumbled into the bleachers and flew up the planks, fighting for the best spots. Feet and fingers were stomped on, hats squashed, ruffles ruffled, pride stung. When the chaos resembled order, concessionaires appeared and sold their wares.

“Peanuts! Popcorn! Hot dogs and chicken legs! Beer and soda! Peanuts! Popcorn!”

It was all free. How could this Lacerta fellow afford to be so generous?

No one knew. No one cared. All that mattered was the show, and it had to go on.

A baritone voice resounded, bouncing off the tent walls:

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls – I present the wonders of the world.”

Everyone heard it crystal-clear, but where was it coming from? No one was using a megaphone. There weren’t any of those newfangled loudspeakers either.

Most puzzling of all? Joe was nowhere to be seen, and the center ring was empty.

“First up are exotic creatures from the four corners of the earth and beyond.”

An elephant’s call made the spectators clap their hands over their ears. Once they saw it, they wanted to hide their eyes as well. This was no ordinary pachyderm.

Its ears were twice the size of its face, veined with cracks filled with dried blood. The whites of its eyes were also rimmed with red. It jerked its head from side to side, tusks swinging wide, but they didn’t gorge the tamer who led it on a thick rope leash. Its tusks were like a deer’s antlers, branching off at ten ivory points. One would have thought the handler would be torn to ribbons, but the man was wise enough to give them a wide berth. And then the terrible trunk. . .

“How does it eat?” asked George.

“How does it breathe?” wondered Ronnie.

“If my honker were like that, I’d do myself in,” said Peter.

Indeed. The creature’s trunk was coiled like a spring.

It let out another anguished trumpet, and the trainer yanked hard on its lead.

“Hold,” the disembodied voice warned. “Gently. Stampy’s here to entertain us.”

The beast strode forward another few paces, allowing everyone to see its claws.

“That’s no elephant,” Hal whispered. “That’s a fiend from the bowels of Hell.”

The trainer led it into the center ring, opened a waiting bag, and raised his hand.

“Up, boy.”

Stampy reared on his hind legs as horses do, his coiled trunk pointing skyward.

“Good. Turn.”

He rotated in one direction, then the other. The trainer reached into the bag and brought out a yellow ball. With a quick toss, it landed on Stampy’s trunk.

“Balance.”

A much tougher feat than it would have been if his trunk had been normal. Yet he persevered, and the people cheered. “Turn. Balance. That’s it. Other way. Turn.”

Everyone was so distracted that they were barely paying attention when the tamer lifted another object from his bag: large, wrinkled, remarkably lifelike. “Head.”

That got folks to stare. He laid it down in the dirt beneath the elephant’s feet.

“One. Two. Three.”

CRUNCH!

An explosion of gore mixed with brightly-colored confetti splattered the trainer. It rained down upon the man, seamlessly blending in with his red suit.

The audience gagged and choked on whatever food they’d been eating.

“Aha!” cried Stampy’s handler, raising his hands. “A dummy. Rubber face, horse’s hair, and the blood, bones and brain of a bovine. I sure fooled you, didn’t I?”

Stunned silence.

“Of course I did. Well, boy? Good job. You want some peanuts?”

The trainer stepped down from the stand, took his bag, and backed up twelve feet. The animal unfurled his trunk coil by coil and sucked the offering from his hand. People sprang to their feet in a standing ovation, cheering despite themselves. They ignored their horror and the mess although it remained in plain sight.

As the throng continued to yell, the elephant thrashed his head and flapped his ears again. The handler took his leash and tugged tenderly, leading Stampy away.

“Wasn’t that amazing?” said the disembodied voice from earlier.

“Awful is more like it,” grumbled Ronnie.

Peter, sitting next to her, jabbed her in the ribs with an elbow. “The head was fake.”

“I threw up in my mouth.” She glared at him and set the rest of her popcorn aside.

“Poor Stampy,” said George. “I’d take a shotgun and put him out of his misery.”

Next came a tigress named Gita with reversed stripes, making all “ooh” and “ah.” So beautiful was this feline that her talent seemed crude: catching raw steaks. A female handler threw them like flying discs, and the cat clenched them in her jaws. The marbled meat disappeared between them, squelching and crunching as it did.

“More eating.” Hal swallowed hard. “I think I’m going to be sick.”

“You too?” Peter snorted, relishing the hot flesh of a chicken leg between his teeth.

The trainer turned and held up a hand for silence. Then she took her suit jacket off.

Beneath it was alabaster skin, smooth as Venus’, shining all over with grease.

Peter’s eyes widened. He crossed his legs like a lady, though he was none.

Ronnie hid her eyes behind her palms. This was obscene and absurd.

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Even more so was what the woman said next, kneeling down: “Half, girl. Half.”

Gita stepped over with soft paw-pads, lowered herself and unhinged her jaw.

Only snakes could do that. So everyone thought until they saw Gita lean forward and swallow the head, arms and torso of her trainer’s slick body. With a motherly motion, like a house cat carrying a kitten, Gita picked her up and brought her over to the audience. The trainer’s legs moved not one bit as the tigress climbed up and down the bleachers, letting everyone see. When she’d finished showing herself off, she returned to the center ring, unlatched her jaw again, and regurgitated the lass.

Drenched in sweat and saliva as well as grease, she wiped herself off with a towel that a nearby assistant threw her and put her suit jacket back on. More silence.

Gita roared. The startled throng followed suit.

“I can’t believe it,” said Ronnie, trembling all over. “Why didn’t the tiger eat her?”

George shrugged. “I wouldn’t if I’d just been stuffed full of steak.” He took a bite of a hot dog smeared with mustard, then a swig of beer from a paper cup.

The concessionaires resumed selling as Gita and her companion left.

“Pretzels! Chocolates! Cotton candy! Ice cream! Licorice sticks, five for a penny!”

One more creature was on the docket – a yipping canine called Cerby. Like Stampy, he hated crowds and the ruckus they made. Unlike the deformed elephant, he was neither large nor strong. He was just annoying, but he terrified Hal.

“Cerby? That’s Cerberus, Hades’ hound! We’d better get out of here.”

“And miss the rest?” Peter said. “No. I’m getting my quarter’s worth.”

“Damn you.” Not a very Christian thing to say, but Hal was fed up. “George?”

“A three-headed dog. There’s no way I’ll miss it.”

“Ronnie?”

Part of her wanted to go with Hal, but a bigger part agreed with Peter. She didn’t slave all week at a washtub to spend weekends doing the same thing. Her invalid mother and younger sisters needed her, but their demands were endless. Besides, where else could she get free food, drinks, and dandy entertainment? This wasn’t Chicago, two hours and a world away. This was central Illinois. Home bitter home.

“I’m staying. That head may have been – ugh – but I want to see the freaks.”

“You’re kidding. Something’s wrong with this circus. One guess what it is.”

Peter sighed. “Hal, old pal. I hate to tell you, but God’s not real. That means the Devil isn’t real. Lacerta’s trying to give us a good scare along with the fun. The elephant? A freak of nature, but natural. So are the tiger and the dog. I’ve heard stories of animals with more than one head, though that coiled trunk was a sight. Stampy didn’t smash anyone’s noggin either. Relax and enjoy yourself.”

One might as well have told Harold Cole to sprout wings, but he wouldn’t abandon his friends to this sinister show. He’d convince them to leave right afterward.

Cerby performed all the standard dog tricks with some twists. He could fetch nine tennis balls at a time, three in each mouth. At the command “Juggle,” he spat them out and caught them in rhythm while teetering on his hind legs. Music from a hidden calliope blared, which made him whimper, but he didn’t miss one ball.

“Finally, a decent act,” said Ronnie.

“Play dead,” said Cerby’s handler. The dog did, letting his three tongues loll.

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“Play alive.”

Cerby got back up. First he did an impression of the trainer himself, barking orders. Then he turned to the customers and mimicked their astonished cries. When they laughed, so did he. When they gasped, his heads glanced at one another in silent alarm. When three people started fighting over their share of refreshments, Cerby argued with himself, his strident yips and yaps matching theirs. They stood up.

“Go to hell, you mangy mutt!” one of them yelled.

Cerby growled, long and low. Each of his heads grew ten times its size upon each of his necks, which elongated to the length of a giraffe’s. Teeth bared, they stared hard at the three hecklers. No one dared move or breathe. Even time stood still.

“Easy, boy,” said the sweaty-faced dog tamer, pulling on Cerby’s lead. “Down.”

His necks retracted. His heads shrank. When he was back to normal, all cheered.

“Golly gee,” murmured Hal. His face was the color of wallpaper paste.

“God damn.” George gulped down the last of his beer and called for another from a passing food seller. “I can’t say how they did it, but it was a mighty good trick.”

Peter sulked. He’d wanted to see one of those huge heads bite someone else’s off.

Cerby and his handler left center ring, the latter mopping his brow with a hanky.

Ronnie scooted closer to Hal. Maybe some of his tall tales were true.

The ringing baritone announced the next part of the show. “Fabulous freaks!”

First up: a contortionist named Bendy Wendy. Every one of her major joints had a double. She bent herself double and did a crabwalk across the center ring, forwards and backwards. Then she rolled onto her stomach, lifted her legs all the way up, stretched them, and lay her feet down on the opposite side of her head.

Ronnie stuffed her fist in her mouth. “Oh, Lord.”

Wendy stretched her legs out further so they resembled arms, but her actual arms were bent all the way back behind her body as if they were legs. Her hands, curled into gripping talons, held fast to the dirt. Then she reached forward and pulled her feet toward her, so that her face peered out between them. “Hello,” she said.

No one said anything. No one could. Shreds of chicken fell out of Peter’s mouth.

She pivoted a quarter turn by “walking” her feet with her hands while she swiveled her body around to the proper position, then pushed herself up, flipped her legs overhead, and stood. Wild applause. As a finale, she rotated her head 180 degrees.

Screams and screams and screams – at least from Ronnie.

Hal held her close and stood her up. “That’s it. We’re going home.”

“NO!” Ronnie couldn’t believe herself. “I’ll calm down. I swear.”

Wendy turned her head around. “Sorry. I don’t mean to frighten, but enlighten.”

No answer. George heard a trickle of piss behind him. He scooted over.

“Would you like to see Mr. President? He’ll give you some good laughs.”

Calls of assent. Peter tossed his chicken bone aside. Hal and Ronnie sat back down.

Instead of a Theodore Roosevelt impersonator, “Mr. President” was a caricature of three heads of state. Standing seven feet tall in a stovepipe hat and fake beard, he resembled Lincoln, though he also wore a powdered wig like Washington. In his hands he carried a long scroll labeled “Declaration of Dependence” and a large quill pen. As he marched to the center ring, an unseen band played “Hail to the Chief.”

“Wait a minute,” said George. “Where’s his face? His beard’s attached to his coat.”

He was right. Under the stovepipe hat was black cloth, the beard, and nothing else.

Mr. President turned around. A dwarf’s face popped out where his rear would be.

The audience whooped.

“When in the human events of course, four seven and score years ago. . .”

Mr. President grinned. “Good day, citizens of this great and terrible – I mean terrific Republic. I’m your Chief-in-Command, your State of Head, your Father Founding. I’m here to tell you how witless – er, wonderful I am. You’ll listen to me if you know what’s good for you. If you don’t, well, have some more cotton candy.” Chuckles.

“Do you wonder how I got into the White House? Through the front door.”

Lighter chuckles.

“Seriously, folks. It’s not easy being President. You’ve got fools wanting you to do this, that and the other when none of their options appeal. Good thing I’m my own fool. I write my own speeches, too.” He proceeded to recite ten dirty limericks, one after the other, then picked up a megaphone. “Want to hear a secret?”

“YES!”

The dwarf raised his instrument. “Roosevelt’s a fink, but do you know what I am?”

“WHAT?”

The top of “Mr. President” opened up to reveal another dwarf’s big, hairy buttocks.

Ronnie hid her eyes again as he mooned everybody. They gaped, then howled.

“For shame,” she told George, Hal and Peter. “There are children here.”

True, but the precious little tykes around them weren’t hiding their eyes at all.

“Good news,” cried Mr. President. “We’re having the election early. VOTE FOR ME. Tell me your name. Choose me in ’03 and take back America. Tell me your name!”

Several people did. The dwarf on the bottom wrote them down on his long scroll.

“Don’t fall for it,” said Hal. “That Declaration of Dependence? Five bucks it’s real.”

“Too bad you’ll never have five dollars,” said Peter. “Not on a God-hawker’s pay.”

“Don’t you go maligning my future profession – ”

“Fancy words. I need a full belly.” Peter called out his name, then for more snacks.

Hal shook his head. He’s always been a lost cause.

“Nice work, Pete,” said George. “He’ll give Teddy Bear a real run for his money.”

“Think so?” Peter bumped fists with George, making Hal glower with envy. “You know what? Dwarfs may count as circus freaks, but those two were really clowns.”

“Like you.”

Peter punched Hal hard in the shoulder. The taller, skinnier lad did not flinch.

“You’re right, though,” said Ronnie. “Who’s next? Maybe some Siamese twins?”

The entrances to the Big Top flapped closed, though there was no sudden breeze.

“What in tarnation?” asked George.

The torches illuminating the tent snuffed themselves out. All fell dark and silent.

“Behold the incredible power of lightning, drawn from the sky and channeled directly into the human form. Behold the transformation of a poor earthbound soul into a transdimensional deity. I sing the body electric, or rather, Electra!”

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When the ringmaster’s voice faded, two blue-white eyes revealed themselves.

A nose. A mouth. A stretch of teeth. Then glowing glyphs across a naked frame.

Like Bendy Wendy, this girl knew how to contort, though not to such an extreme. As she performed cartwheels, twirls, and a serpentine shimmy around the center ring, Electra gazed at the spellbound throng. Her eerie smile never left her face.

“It’s just paint,” Hal murmured in Ronnie’s ear. “Paint that somehow glows in the dark. She’s not electrified. She would be dead already. Don’t pay attention to her.”

Ronnie paid as much attention as her heart desired. Oh, to be a goddess!

When the calliope music ended (where was the darn thing?), Electra bowed, then disintegrated in a reverse flash of forked lightning. An ungrounding, so to speak.

The Big Top torches reignited. Electra was gone. Everyone else remained.

They sat there like statues for ten seconds, then scrambled up from the bleachers.

Talker Joe rushed forward, megaphone blaring. “Do calm yourselves, ladies and gents. A trick of the light. Prestidigitation. Nothing more. The clowns are next.”

That wasn’t enough to keep our four protagonists from running out of the tent along with most of the spectators. They’d seen enough. Especially Harold Cole.

“Satan’s circus. I never thought I’d see the day.” He hocked and spat on the ground.

“Call it what you will,” said Peter. “I liked it. Especially Mr. President.”

“He was funny,” said George, “but I won’t go until I get a hold of that one gal.”

“From the peep show? No, you won’t. You’ll go home and get a good night’s sleep.”

“So I can wake up and haul crates? Day after day, year after year, until I wear out? Naw. I’ll make hay while the sun shines and even after dark. I’m joining this rig.”

“You’re joking.” When George shook his head, Hal cried, “You’ll lose your soul!”

“You may have one, but I don’t. I’m muscle, blood, bone and crud. And spunk.”

“Ronnie?”

The laundress looked up at the heavens, gaze fixed on a distance beyond Earth.

“You all right?”

“I want to be where she is,” Ronnie said. Her voice was flat and blank, like the sky.

“You won’t. You’ll be down in the lake of endless fire if you join this retinue.”

Ronnie looked at Hal, expression vacant, eyes scarred white. She’d gone blind.

“RONNIE!”

“I can’t see. I want to see everything. I can’t hear. I want to hear everything.”

George and Peter didn’t see or hear her. They had already departed.

“Damn them,” mumbled Hal. “Damn them both. They deserve it.”

He grabbed the hand of his dearest friend and sprinted toward the ticket booth. Toward freedom and safety. Toward home. He’d ask her to be his wife, blind or not.

“Would you like a refund?” asked the ticketmaster. The ringmaster. The same.

“Your kind don’t give ‘em.” Hal spat again. Then he found he couldn’t move.

“Remember your grammar and manners. I’m R.I. Lacerta, master of this circus. You are Harold Amos Cole, son of a Baptist minister and future husband of Miss Lewis. That is, if you both agree to my terms. If not, you may go, but your friends will be bound to my service with extra burdens. No power for Peter. No Tenet for George. No comfort for the one you wish to wed, whether now or in the afterlife.”

“That’s what you think, you fiend. Who’s Tenet? That big-breasted harlot from the peep show?” Lacerta nodded. “Forget George. Let his bed be ice-cold. As for Peter, I never liked him. Unhand me in the name of Jesus Christ, who makes thee tremble.”

Lacerta didn’t tremble.

“I said, unhand me in the name of Jesus!”

“Your faith is lacking. Not even a tenth of your father’s. If he were here – ”

“If he were here, he’d send you back from whence you came.”

“Alas, no. That’s not how it works. I have to agree to the bargain. As do you.”

“What can a man give in exchange for his soul? You can’t have hers or mine.”

“Tell me,” said Ronnie. “Tell me. . .your terms.”

“I need a new Electra,” Lacerta said. “The girls I pick don’t last long, but if you wish, you’ll last forever in return for devoted servitude. You shall visit the stars and the spaces between the stars. You’ll behold eternity. You really will be a goddess.”

“Wait. She can hear you but no one else? Why?” shouted Hal.

“So ignorant. So uncouth. I am speaking mind-to-mind, not mouth-to-ears.”

“Yesss,” Ronnie hissed. “E-lec-tri-fy me.” The word was molasses on her tongue.

“No.” Hal bunched his hands into fists, digging his nails into his palms. “Depart.”

“With Veronica in my grasp? You don’t love her or anyone as well as you think.”

“Fine. I’ll hear you out, but that’s it.”

He heard him out. He took his time and her hand. He signed on the dotted line.
_________

Cole’s Country Circus was the grandest spectacle Chicago had ever seen.

No other had an elephant with tusks like ivory trees. No other had a tigress who swallowed bare-skinned ladies whole and spit them out alive. No other boasted acrobats who performed without a net, a tightrope or trapezes. No other had a circus freak who transcended the physical form that made her such, phasing in and out of her electrified state with the greatest of ease, reappearing every time.

Not all was fun and games under the Big Top.

By day George Halter performed as the only strongman in all of existence who could lift a bull pachyderm. By night he slaved as a roustabout: hauling canvas, tying ropes, driving stakes into the ground, bearing the brunt of an overseer’s lash. His only relief was his committed concubine, the tender girl who held him tight.

Peter Morris was a clown for now and always. He honked his nose, dropped his pants on cue, tripped over his own two feet, and got hit in the face with pies. Pies full of whipped cream on top, excrement on the bottom. No one pitied him much.

Ronnie? No longer did she take in washing or have anyone deem her homely again. She became Mrs. Veronica Cole, but everyone called her Electra as they ought.

Her family was well cared for by the estate of R.I. Lacerta, who had retired.

And his successor? His newly-minted apprentice?

Hal now had everything the world offered. All for the price of bread and circuses.

Credit : Tenet

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