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 CAROLINE PRINCE

Triana

There's a knock at my trailer door, so I reach from my bed to pull the curtains back a bit and I wince. It's full dark outside, but the flood lights are still on, and Leo stands on my step. He's bald, and I can tell he wants to make a good impression, because he's rubbing his head to make it shine.

"Flora," he calls. "Hey? Flora."

I'm afraid to answer. I don't like taking men into my bed anymore. They remind me that I'm getting old. My hips get too sore, too easily. My nipples don't get as hard as they should.

"Flora?" he calls again.

Leo was my lover until two months ago. The last thing he said in my bed was, "Flora, do you have to go to the bathroom four times a night? I hear your bones cracking in my sleep, and it wakes me up, you know?"

He might as well be calling this through my door. That's why I can't sleep with him anymore. But he still wants me, which is good. At least I'm not too old to be wanted, even if it is by a fat, bald Jew who calls freaks for a living. He even asked me to marry him not too long ago. We were standing by the Galaxy-Grinder. He thought he could con me with the idea of a wedding, but I pretended I didn't hear him.

I drop the curtain. "This isn't going to go on forever, Flora," Leo calls, knocking again.

I can still see his shape through the curtains because they are made of a blue crinoline material, the stiff netty kind like in petticoats and prom dresses. He looks toward my window. He must know I'm watching. When I don't answer, he stretches out an arm and raps my window, once. Then he spits on the ground and walks away.

My toes are cold, my shoulders. It's early October here in Alabama, and it's supposed to still be warm. I look out the window again, but the midway is empty and clouds of intoxicated moths swarm the flood lights' glow. Where do they go when it's totally dark? What do they have?

Everything's the same. I turn from the window to sleep.

When I wake, Georgette is rattling my doorknob, and I pull my eyes open with my fingers. These fucking trailer doors are so flimsy that I see flashes of blue sky and red clay dirt every time she pulls back on the door. "Wait a minute," I call, my voice skipping. "Wait." I'm tired of waking up in trailers. There doesn't seem to be enough between me and the outside world.

"I got a surprise," Georgette calls. I can imagine her expression out there. Wide, muddy eyes. Radish-bright cheeks. Three or four years ago, right before she and I met up, Georgette was caught in a blizzard in Idaho, camping out in a deserted construction site. She got some frost bite, so her toes and fingers tend to ache, and her cheeks are always a soft blood red. She's beautiful, though, even with her hair cut like a boy's.

"Give me a fucking minute," I answer, sagging back into my pillow. I look around me. My little patch of linoleum is cracked and worn. There's a bunch of wilted violets in a Jif jar on the floor. The same. "Flora, get up," she calls again. "We're in Triana, remember? I'm from Triana."

I touch my eyes again, then unbend out of bed and walk to the full length mirror I got on sale at a Wal-Mart three weeks ago. It took me a long time to find it, walking through all those aisles, all those people. It's warped, with a green cast to it, and I look like I'm under the ocean in it.

"I'm not dressed," I say. I know Georgette hears me, we go through this every morning. "I'll be out in a minute." She doesn't answer. She's sitting on my step, waiting.

The sun shines blue through my curtains, and I guess it's about nine. I have one pair of clean underwear, but I'm saving them for our next stop, so I put on cut-offs and tie my flannel shirt at the waist. I look good. Forty-nine isn't really that old. I push my collar wider and unfasten my top button so my locket shows. Georgette gave it to me for my birthday last year, and it has my initials carved on the back, but I don't have any pictures in it yet. I'm still considering.

When I open the door, I knock Georgette in the back. "Hey, Flora," she says, jumping up. She looks like she has fever, the way her cheeks burn. "I got a surprise." She grabs my hand and begins to walk. "It can wait until I get some coffee," I say. "Let's go to the mess tent."

"That's where we're headed," Georgette answers. "That's fine with me." She walks ahead of me, so I let go of her hand. "I'm not looking forward to the crowd tonight," she chatters as she ushers me along. "I might know some of these people, since I'm from around here, and they know I'm not really a freak."

Georgette is the Bearded Lady. I was for a while myself, until I found her. I was glad to let her take over, because I was sick of it, sick of hair all over my face for every show. Now, I pluck my chin, my knuckles, and my breasts before I go to sleep. I have different pairs of tweezers for different parts of my body.

"I'm no freak," Georgette laughs again.

The cool sky is piled with egg-white clouds. "I don't want to talk work right now," I say. This impulse is sudden, and I don't understand it. "We're somewhere fresh. Let's leave it for a while." The breeze pushes Georgette's hair around and for a moment, I am jealous. Her colors-her eyes, her hair, her skin-are separate and distinct. Her edges are still defined. She snaps.

"Sure, OK, Flora. Fine," she says, but her voice is flattened. I hurt her feelings. And it is strange not talking about work. We walk past the freak tent, which is almost up, and Leo sits on a stool in the sun, holding a sheet of paper and moving his lips, probably working a new routine. He smiles as we pass, and he nods, but he fingers the paper to make it rattle and immediately begins to announce behind us.

"You'll see Giant Rats from Viet Nam. You'll see Giant Rats from Viet Nam." He says it again and again, emphasizing "Giant" first, and then "Rats," and then "You'll." The phrase turns into a question. Then I can't hear him anymore. Georgette and I head for the mess tent, and I don't feel right. "Leo's losing his touch," I say, "he's getting cautious on us."

"Bitch some more, can you?" Georgette laughs, putting a hand on my shoulder. She seems happy, so I feel a little better. She affects me like that.

When I step into the food tent, the smell of freshly baked cake hits me. Yellow pound cake. Across from me, the Snake Charmer sits at a table with a pile of little cakes in front of her. I forget the Snake Charmer's name, Ava, maybe, or Anna. I remember when she was hired, though. That was a long time ago. I remarked to Leo on how she looked like Buck Owens, from "Hee Haw." Her face has something of the chipmunk.

"Where did she get all those pound cakes?" I ask Georgette, flipping a finger at the Snake Charmer, but Georgette isn't listening. Her hands are pressed hard against her cheeks as she looks around. A chicken bobs in, brushing against my ankle, stopping to peck at crumbs in the straw. Cakes and chickens-nothing's going the way it usually does.

"All right, here comes the surprise," Georgette says, waving her hand, but I don't want to look. I want to watch the chicken. One of its legs is shorter than the other, so I push it with my foot to see if it can walk a straight line.

"See? Didn't I tell you she looks like in those old movies?" Georgette says. She's talking about me. "When she's wearing make-up, she looks even better." A pony-tailed girl walks toward us, from the side, nodding her head and chewing on a doughnut.

"Hey, yeah," the girl answers, stopping next to Georgette. "All she needs is a cigarette." I size the girl up. She's bony. Her cheeks are sharp, and they point to her eyes, which are green. She throws the doughnut down. "Hi," she says to me, resting her hands on her belly.

"Hi?" I ask. This girl's not one of us, I can tell. That makes me nervous.

"Don't mind Flora, Angie," Georgette says, nudging my shoulder. "She's my best friend. You know, the one who got me my job here." That's true, but I don't think of it as any big deal. I found Georgette a few years ago in Indiana, at the Slow Down truck stop. The man she was hitching with dumped her there because she told him she hated the Hoosiers. She was fifteen then. My life needed a fresh kick and Georgette was it. "Flora, this is my surprise," Georgette says. "Angie's an old friend of mine from home. From here, I mean," she corrects.

"Hot dog," I say. Georgette pats my arm, Angie watches my teeth, and I feel like a dangerous pet.

I like intimidating people, but it takes energy, so after a moment I pluck Georgette's stiff fingers from my arm and head for the coffee table. I sniff the carton of milk sitting beside the pot. Everything is a little off in this joint, including the milk, but I splash a bit into my coffee anyway and take a sip. It has a tang I almost like.

"You're Angie," I say. "We got that straight. But how do you know Georgette again?" I walk to a table and sit down.

"Well, we met at Triana elementary school, known each other for years," Angie says as she follows me. Georgette stays behind in a crouch. She pokes the chicken, feinting at it, like a boxer. "But I don't know, we really didn't like each other much until we started writing," Angie continues. Her accent is Southern, but not in a graceful way. Her upper teeth protrude when she says her Rs.

"We hated each other," Georgette calls, still playing with the chicken.

"Yeah, that's right. But a year ago, Georgette's mother asked the Sunday school to start writing Georgette for her. She didn't have the strength anymore, she said. I was the only one who ever really wrote."

"She's the only one," Georgette repeats.

I examine Angie. Her eyes don't cut like I thought they would, but there's something about her lips that I don't like. They're too fat. They don't match her face.

"Well," I say, "what do you two write about?"

"Oh, I don't know." Angie picks her teeth nervously. "How everyone is doing, her family, the football team. Whether or not she should come home."

Georgette walks over. She has one hand pressed against her cheek, and she's got the chicken tucked under her other arm. The bird thrashes its feet a bit, and ruffles its wings, but then it settles down.

"I can't ever go home, though, that's just my talk," Georgette says. Her tone is indifferent. She swings the chicken's body so its scaly legs dangle. I look the chicken in the eye, and it seems happy as Georgette strokes its head. "Hey!" the Snake Charmer shouts across the tent, standing up. "Hey! That's my chicken." She has one little pound cake left in front of her, and I wish she would give it to me.

Georgette looks surprised. She sets the chicken down, very gently. It looks naked for a minute, abandoned, and it clucks at Georgette's feet. But then it goes back to pecking the straw. The Snake Charmer sits again and studies her plate. "Well," Angie says brightly, pulling on her shirt. "Can we go to your trailer and talk?"

I don't really have anything to do this early in the day. I usually help Leo set up his animal pens and his freak jars, but that gets tiresome. Besides, I don't feel like leaving Georgette and Angie alone. "Great," I say. Too late, I realize I've missed something important. But I don't know what it is.

~~~~~

We settle into my trailer. I sit on the bed, and Angie takes the lawn chair, while Georgette folds into a corner. Angie must think I'm the moon, the way she looks at me.

"Is it exciting?" she asks, frowning. "The carnival life? Do you get paid, or do you just get to live here for free?"

"You get paid," Georgette says. "And working the freak tent is exciting." She lies down and props her feet on Angie's chair. Her shoulder is against one wall, her head against another, so I can't see her face.

"Sounds pretty good," Angie says. "But I hate getting stared at, don't you?"

For the first time I notice Angie's pants. They're polyester grandma pants, shapeless and elasticized. I wouldn't want to get caught in a fire wearing them.

"I'm not too good in the booths," Georgette explains. "And I don't like the rides. People make a lot of trouble on the rides. You're the one cleans up when they spit and spill their drinks, too. Flora's the fortune teller." She lifts my Jif jar into the air, sloshing the gray water inside. "So that's out. But the freak tent is easy. And when people stare," Georgette continues, "they're just trying to get their money's worth."

"But what is it really like?" Angie asks again. Her fingers twitch like mine do when I want to hit someone. Her interest pounds me down, and I cover my eyes.

"Georgette is great," I say. "She's pitiful, she's beautiful. But you, Angie-what are you?"

Angie takes her ponytail into her mouth and Georgette looks surprised. I'm surprised I've said anything, too, but I've been out of sorts. And Angie seems to have two levels about her.

"What?" Angie says.

"Why are you here?" I ask, pausing a moment between each word. There's a sharp twist in my throat, and it catches me off guard. But Angie is silent. She sucks on her waxy ponytail, chews the edges of her hair. "Hurry, Angie," I say. "Answer me." I'm tired because she's making me push.

Georgette hugs her knees and watches us, fiddling a three-penny nail between her fingers. She keeps nails in her pocket, for when she's nervous.

I think I know why Angie's here. "Are you here to convince Georgette to leave?" I ask. I almost hope I'm right. "Georgette, do you want to quit us?" I turn to look at her, squinting. My trailer is a one room job, and the walls are a gloomy, plastic black walnut. Except for the spot of blue at my window, everything is dark.

Georgette takes us in for a moment, and then answers.

"Not in a million years would I want to quit," she says. She has a certain look now, suspicious-like. I've seen it before. First, when I approached her at the truck stop, and again a year ago, when a mark jumped onstage and grabbed her chin, pulled her beard. Georgette cracked both his little fingers.

"You're pretty interested in how things work around here," Georgette says to Angie, her eyes narrowing. "I thought you came here to see me. You wrote in your letter that you wanted to see me." Georgette's voice is harsh, and I'm glad of it.

"Wait," Angie says, spitting hair out of her mouth. "Can I just explain? Wait a minute, OK?"

I look out the window. Two young men, stripped to the waist and bald, walk by holding hands. I've never seen them before. They look happy, dressed like twins, and I have the urge to yell at them.

"Explain," Georgette says, and I look back.

"Well, OK," Angie starts. "OK. I'm in trouble. And only you can help." Her accent thickens, and I see she's close to crying. I can relax, now. I try for the proper distance.

"So don't interrupt me," Angie asks. "I've got to get this all out at once. I've got to have confidence." She stands and steps to my mirror, tucking her blouse under her chin and pulling her granny pants down. She frames her belly with her hands.

I look, wondering what the hell she wants to show us, but I don't see anything. Georgette sits Indian-style on the floor, staring up at Angie with her cheeks in her hands. She screws her eyes and shakes her head.

"I'm pregnant," Angie says. "Can't you tell?" She leans back, and I do see a slight swell.

"So what?" I say. Angie's nostrils flare, and I can look right up her nose. "Why bother us with it?"

"Look, look," Angie says, shaking her head. She pulls the skin on her stomach tight and leans back again, farther this time. Georgette and I move forward and stare. Nothing. A twisted blue vein stripes by Angie's belly button. Nothing more.

"Don't tell me you can't see it." Angie steps from one foot to the other. "You can see its little face poking right through my skin." I look at Georgette, but she's not laughing. In fact, her mouth has dropped and she looks scared.

"Can't you see it?" Angie says. "It's a monster baby. I'm giving birth to a monster."

"How?" Georgette asks. "What happened? Who did it?"

"Trey Carter," Angie says. "I knew you'd believe me, Georgette." Georgette gingerly lays a finger on Angie's gut and Angie calms a bit.

"Trey and I went to Birmingham, to the zoo," she says. "I wasn't having much fun. They don't have candied apples, and I was cramping. I thought I was starting my period."

"Trey Carter?" Georgette says. Angie sits in the lawn chair again, and it creaks. I hope the frayed bottom doesn't give.

"No, he's a lot better than he used to be," Angie says. "Anyhow, I wanted to see some monkeys and Trey wanted flamingos." Georgette flips her nail up to her face. She slowly pushes it up her nose as Angie talks, but never takes her eyes off Angie. Leo taught her this trick.

"Well, needless to say, we went to the monkey house," Angie continues. "Trey wouldn't come in, so I went without him." Angie looks towards me, but not at me. Her gaze goes past my shoulder. Her fingers twine in her lap.

"And there he was," she says. "Cosmo, the gorilla. I'd heard about how huge he was, but never imagined I could get so close. He was sitting in a big glass box, holding a baby doll. He was right up to the glass, leaning his forehead on it. He looked kind of like my daddy."

"Her daddy is dead," Georgette tells me. Now she has the nail all the way up her nose. "He had skin cancer."

"Yeah, he had these deep, brown eyes, like my daddy," says Angie, "and his face was shaped the same."

"Your daddy did kind of look like a gorilla," Georgette says.

"Well, so I walked over, and I felt real funny," Angie continues. "I mean, here's this sad looking gorilla, that looks like my daddy, cradling a baby doll and staring at me. So I smiled and put my hand to the glass. I was almost touching him," Angie says. "We stayed that way for a long time. A whole minute, maybe. Looking each other right in the eye. Then he sighed. My daddy used to sigh all the time."

I don't want to interrupt, but I've got to say this. "Angie, everybody sighs. Even dogs sigh." My legs ache from sitting still too long. A blue haze of sunlight touches my knees.

"But Daddy was always looking at me, just like this gorilla was doing, and sighing. Then he would say, 'Angie, sweetheart, great things are going to happen to you.'"

"Your daddy was in love with you," Georgette says. "The way he held your hand, and called you 'sweetheart.' He just wanted in your pants." She offers this earnestly, so I assume it's true.

"Shut up!" Angie barks. "You're jealous because your dad was a drunk. Let me finish."

"Hey, all right," Georgette says. She stares down her nose at the nail, but then she notices I'm watching, so she slowly pulls it out. Like a hundred times before.

Angie begins again. "So, I'm mesmerized. It's like my daddy is trying to communicate with me, and he's holding a baby doll. Suddenly I understand. This gorilla wants me to know I'm pregnant. Daddy wants me to know."

Angie has that rapturous look I've seen before, on preachers and children. Sometimes my marks look at me that way, if I come close about their hopes, or their husbands, in the fortune telling booth.

"It was just a horny gorilla," Georgette says.

"You weren't there. You don't know," Angie answers sharply. "It was beautiful. I was even happy about being pregnant."

I'm tired. It must be around eleven by now, and Leo should be looking for me. "So go on," I say. "Why is your baby a monster?"

"Trey came in." Angie's voice escalates and her green eyes lighten. "He snuck up behind me and lifted my shirt right up so my tits showed. He bit me on the ear, too, hard. So I yelled. I didn't know who it was."

I'm amazed. The small, sharp girl I met in the food tent seems to be three times larger than me now. I feel comforted by the smallness of my room. She's contained, at least.

"The gorilla thought Trey was attacking me. He went crazy, jumping up and down. He opened his mouth and I heard a tiny, tiny squeal. Then he ran right for us, trying to get at Trey. His head smacked hard against the glass, and he got confused for a second. But then he tried it again. Smack! All this time, Trey and I are just standing there, scared to death to move. My shirt's still up, even. And the gorilla does it again. Smack! But he can't even break the glass."

Angie's hands are tight by her side, and her body leans forward. The only thing that moves is her mouth. I think she's going to burst.

"And all this time, he's screaming. But we can't hear him, because of the glass." Tears begin to smoothly roll from Angie's eyes, but her voice is still solid. "So he picks up the baby doll and bites her face. He sinks his huge long fangs right into her plastic face. He rips at her arms, tries to pull her off his teeth. But the baby's face is stuck."

I see Georgette's eyes are big as plates. I know how she feels. I must look like dust.

"I finally ran out," Angie says. "The last I saw of that gorilla, he was screaming, and he had a baby stuck to his teeth."

Angie's story is over. A dog barks outside my window, and it sounds like it is choking. I look at Georgette. She is flattened, shadowed and gray. I can't make out her hands.

"So your baby is going to look like a gorilla?" I exhale.

"That's right," Angie says. Her tone is dry, her arms have relaxed. "It's marked for life, see? When I look at my stomach real close, I can see his little teeth popping out of my skin." She traces a careful finger around her belly button.

"It's not too bad. I'll still love him," Angie says. "In fact, I think it means he's special. This all happened for a reason. But that's why I'm here to see you." She turns and looks at me. "He could work in the freak tent, if you put in a good word for him. I'll stay, too. I can make costumes, or fry up burgers. But my baby needs somewhere to go."

I'm exhausted by Angie's tale and by her hysteria. I have no idea what to say. None of our freaks are real. And I don't even know if Angie's really pregnant. Georgette puts her arms around her friend, and looks at me.

This is all here for me to fix.

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