Attack of the 50 Foot Wallflower
“Hey! You! In the dress. Wanna hear a joke?”
I was smoking in the shadow of the big top tent when the carny started to flirt with me. The wind changed directions, so my cigarette changed hands. Ma’d just about kill me if she knew I was smoking in my new sheath dress.
“Ah, come on,” the carny said. “One little joke won’t hurt ya.”
He was coiling rope with arms like stretched taffy. He sported a Boy Scout haircut and smiled uneven teeth beneath an uneven mustache. And here I’d hoped my new dress would attract a different sort of fella—my age maybe.
“Tell you what,” the carny said. “I’ll tell the joke. If you laugh, you gotta tell me where I can find you when I get off work tonight. If you don’t, then”—he placed a hand on his chest, like his heart might break—“I’ll leave you alone forever.”
I took another drag and blew the smoke upward. Daddy filled the western sky, faint as faded denim and tall as a mountain in a land ironed flat. He was eating popcorn in his bathrobe while the sun set near his knees. His eyes, the size of moons, were fixed on the eastern horizon. Ma always called this a “fair-weather day” because it meant there were no Shivers anywhere near these parts.
Still, if Daddy’s eyes moseyed south and landed on Pennybrooke before this carnival could begin—and me and Ma had to flee instead of sit through another audience hooting and
leering while she showed off half her bra—I wouldn’t have been too broken up about it.
“So a blind guy staggers into a woodworking shop,” the carny said, coiling a new rope. “Y’know, dark glasses, swinging his cane, bumping into things, the works. And he asks the owner for a job. The owner looks this guy up and down, and thinks, ‘No way am I giving a blind guy a job in a woodworking shop. We got power tools here.’?”
I smoked and listened. Well, half-listened anyway. Why couldn’t Ma take us to Paris? Or New York City? Carnies don’t flirt with you in New York City. Worst flirt you’d get in Paris is a mime, and they’d be charming about it—throw an invisible lasso around your waist and present you with an invisible ring or something. Besides, a big city like that has got a lot more people in it, so there’s less chance of getting killed in a Shiver.
The carny ignored my bored expression and continued his joke. “So the owner asks the blind guy how he’d be able to tell the difference between types of wood. And the blind guy just taps his nose, like he’s got this great sense of smell, right? So the owner decides to give him a test. See how good this guy’s sniffer really is.”
I took a final drag from my cigarette, let it drop in the dust, and ground it out with my pump.
“You ever think about how you’re gonna die?” I asked the carny.
“What’s that now?” He seemed taken aback, like he didn’t know I was able to ask my own questions. I was just there to listen and laugh at his joke like a doll with a pull string.
“How you’re gonna die,” I said again. “And when you think it’ll happen.”
The carny snorted and let the coiled rope flop off his shoulder. “Old and drunk and in bed,” he said, “hopefully with the right lady by my side.” His gaze dipped below the hem of my dress. “I don’t mind a little dough on ’em.”
I tried to think up a retort about how he should go to the bakery and choke on a loaf of bread, but I never was as quick with comebacks as Ma. Instead, I found Daddy’s eyes in the sky again.
“I’d say you got three weeks. A month tops.”
The carny saluted the clouds and blinked. Even though Daddy was as tall as a tornado, he was still invisible to the carny’s eyes. “That’s, uh, some pretty dark subject matter for a girl young as yourself.”
“You didn’t seem too worried about my age when you asked what I was doing later.”
The carny scoffed. I smiled too, at my own little joke.
Ma was a lightning rod for monsters. She said so herself. If this carny was going to travel in the same carnival the famous Loretta Lane was starring in, then a Shiver would catch up to him eventually. Only Ma and I would have plenty of time to escape when Daddy’s eyes wandered this way to warn us, like thunder before the lightning.
“Where’d you get your confidence, girlie?” the carny asked.
I wished I’d inherited enough of Ma’s good looks that it would be obvious, but I sighed and nodded to the billboard on the edge of the field. “Runs in the family.”
The billboard was painted with tall, screaming letters: COME ONE! COME ALL! FEAST YOUR EYES ON THE EMPEROR OF APES! GASP AT THE TOWERING BONES OF OOK, THE APE THAT NEARLY TOPPLED A SKYSCRAPER! JUST 50¢! And toward the bottom:
(STICK AROUND TILL EVENING TO SEE THE STUNNING LORETTA LANE IN HER ICONIC TORN DRESS!).
“Say,” the carny said. “You’re that Lane girl.”
I struck a match, lit another cigarette, and then shook out the flame. “Guess you better watch what you say around me then.”
The carny scratched the back of his neck and hauled up the coiled rope, tossing it into a wheelbarrow. “Nah. My uncle runs this carnival. They couldn’t fire me if they wanted to.”
I smirked. I could tell he was rattled.
He scooped up the last rope and started winding. “The boys say you stay cooped up in that motel room all day. Why don’t you get out? Live a little?”
I took in the dusty air, the tattered tents, the rusted carnival rides, the near-flat skyline. “You call this living?”
Without another word, I spun on my heel and headed back into town.
“Hey!” the carny called after me. “Don’t you wanna hear the end of the joke?”
• • •
Whenever we reached a new town, Ma always made us stop by the tourist center to watch the promotional film. She said it gave us culture.
“And here we have Pennybrooke. Ah. Peaceful Pennybrooke. Don’t let the harsh desert horizons fool you. For our city is a veritable oasis, rejuvenated by . . . shops . . . fine dining . . . roller skating . . . baseball . . . and even a lovely park where you can take that special someone for a stroll. Ha-ha. Hold on to that one, fella!”
They couldn’t fool me. Pennybrooke was just another in a
long list of cookie-cutter towns on this tour—Cherrywood, Merrycreek, Sunnydale, Happy Oak—each the spitting image of the last. I could walk these streets with my eyes closed and still tell you everything the town had to offer.
Exiting the carnival field, I passed the dull white walls of the church and then crossed the street, turning my head away from the gray brick of the high school. On Main Street, I passed the lackluster record shop with the sign that read NO RACE MUSIC and the drugstore with its display of Slinkies and Hula-Hoops, jawbreakers and lilac water, and a spinning rack of comics with Captain America socking the Gill-man right in his fish lips. I continued past the frying grease smell of the diner where the Coke was warm and never mixed right, and finally the sock hop hall with its chrome and neon lights and a jukebox that played “In the Still of the Night,” causing slick-haired boys to rub noses with girls in voluminous skirts.
A bunch of people were gathered in front of the appliance store, staring at a display of television sets that showed the evening news.
“This is Jimmy Jamboney reporting on Downingtown, Pennsylvania, where a goo—a goo out of space, ladies and gentlemen—is devouring citizens at an alarming rate and growing more expansive with every victim.”
The crowd of Pennybrookers covered their mouths. I rolled my eyes. They may have acted shocked now, but after the broadcast was finished, they’d return to their daily lives, buying the latest blenders and dishwashers and chocolate malteds, assured that a Shiver would never come to their town.
“This globular entity has encased a diner like a famished jellyfish,” the reporter continued, “slowly suffocating the citizens
within. Authorities cannot say where one of these molten meteors bearing the blob may crash next, but they are warning parents not to let their teens form groups, nor create gangs of any sort, for that is how they are most susceptible.”
The people on the corner mumbled to one another accordingly. “That’s what you get when your son’s in a gang,” one woman said.
I was just grateful Ma and I hadn’t been anywhere near that Shiver; otherwise, I might not have been able to chew bubble gum for a month.
I continued beyond Main Street, past the Penmark Roller Rink, which had a sign that read NO COLOREDS. I walked the sidewalks of the ranch-style houses with their big shiny windows and sharp, angled shadows pointing toward the motel.
If anyone looked at me as I passed down Main Street, I didn’t notice. In a couple weeks, Ma and I would be on to the next town, following the carnival on its six-month tour of the Southwest. Unless Daddy’s eyes flashed us a warning, that was.
Either way, Pennybrooke and all its inhabitants would soon be out of our lives. Easy as the click of a channel changer.
• • •
As I walked up the driveway of the motel, a woman nearly made a pan-cake of me with her Chrysler convertible. She slammed on the brakes, the bumper stopping inches from my knees. We glared at each other through the windshield
She was pretty and pregnant and wore cat’s-eye sunglasses, a taffeta dress, and a paisley scarf tied around her head. She scowled as I stepped around the car and then screeched down the road, leaving a foot of burnt rubber behind. I guess I’d be upset too if I looked like a watermelon stuffed in a sock.
I stormed up the motel steps. To think I almost died in a town like Pennybrooke. Ma had a lot of making up to do. I’d demand she replace each and every record I was forced to leave behind in the last town we fled, including “Rumble,” which was banned from the radio. While we were at it, she needed to take me back to the department store and replace this sheath dress with a sack. After that carny’s dough comment, my flesh felt like it was going to bust through the dress’s seams like a popped Pillsbury container.
And if Ma refused to meet my demands . . . well, then I’d ditch her. No more Ma. I’d get by somehow. And I’d never have to run from another Shiver so long as I lived.
I practically kicked down the motel room door.
“Ma, this town’s the bunk. And don’t tell me how much that carnival’s paying us, because it isn’t worth a nickel more than—” My breath left me when I saw the blood.
Wait. My heart started to calm itself. Not blood.
It was Ma’s nail polish, darkly spattered across the bed cover. The room held a tangy, woozy scent. I put a hand to my chest and pushed the door shut.
There was no answer. Other than the nail polish, everything about the room felt normal. Ma’s suitcase was on the floor. The dresses swayed in the closet under the flow of the AC. American Bandstand was on the television, with a hundred teens dancing to “At the Hop.”
I peeked under the bed, half expecting to see Ma’s dead eyes staring back. But there was nothing under there but an old crumpled Kleenex.
When I’d left that afternoon to stretch my legs, she had been smoking and ironing in her Maidenform bra, breathtaking even in curlers.
“Knock ’em dead, darling,” she’d said, spritzing her polka-dot dress.
I’d given her a look from the doorway.
“I’m just saying you could command armies in that dress is all,” she’d said.
I’d crossed my arms.
“Sorry,” she’d said. “I know it doesn’t mean much coming from your old ma.”
“No,” I said. “It doesn’t.”
And then I’d left.
I clicked off American Bandstand, and the music cut—the dancers swallowed in darkness. I searched for a note, and when I didn’t find one, collapsed on the bed, making the springs squeak. The faucet dripped and echoed.
Maybe it was a steak-at-the-Automat kind of night. Maybe Ma had heard me whine about these suburban towns one too many times and had to get away awhile. She just did it so quick, she spilled her nail polish and forgot to clean it up.
Yeah, I assured myself. That was what happened.
I wrapped myself up in Ma’s electric blanket and flicked the TV back on to distract myself. I tried to keep up her sunny kind of thinking through the Sunday-night feature—even after the network signed off for the night and the motel room filled with a cold beeeeeeeeeeeep.
Outside the window, Daddy stared at a cloud that looked just like an open pack of cigarettes.