A winner in the 77th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition in December 2008
The first surprise was when she asked me to carry her across the threshold the way young newlyweds do.
I’d thought she knew. My apparent body-builder’s physique is some sort of genetic trompe d’oeil. Even in my prime I had fake barbells made, a set that looked twice as heavy as they really were. With recent new materials, I now have a set that are even lighter – and I need them.
In those early years, I admit to some histrionics in straining and heaving to do a “200 pound” bench press. Since my back problems began, it’s no fake. Even with balloons it would hurt.
That was her surprise.
Mine came next morning. She got up ahead of me to shower. By the time I padded into the bathroom she was standing in front of the mirror shaving.
Shaving! I knew the bearded lady’s facial fuzz wasn’t fake – I’d grown fond of its feel when we made love, maybe the way women like a scratchy male cheek. I’d thought it was a lifetime’s accumulation. Once clipped and shaved, I’d assumed, it would re-grow very slowly, if at all.
My surprise. Twenty-four hours after shaving, Carol has what we used to call five o’clock shadow. Not as heavy or dark as mine, but she uses makeup now; never used to.
There would have been no surprises had we come from anywhere except from a troupe like ours. Carny folk, a close circle of friends, don’t pry into each other’s idiosyncrasies. You don’t ask Tiny Tim if his parents were midgets too. Or Deep Throat if he was born without an Adam’s apple. Or Hot Lips what he rinses his mouth with before flame-eating. Or Magic Max whether he learned patter or sleight-of-hand first.
And if someone drops out of the troupe, as we have, the outfit hires a replacement who is immediately accepted without a lot of prying.
Polite people don’t ask personal questions. Or shouldn’t. Carnival folk don’t.
Surprise: The outside world is not so polite.
Getting married, after 25 years in that traveling entourage, was hardly an impulsive decision. We’d been more than good friends for several years, and everyone knew it. We’d have married earlier if the owners had bought us a real house trailer. Instead, I spent nights with her regularly, but we’d have had no privacy living together full-time in one of our dinky little trailers.
So we waited for the right opportunity, the right town, as we made the circuit. Carol had trained as a librarian, so we wanted a town big enough to have a decent library. I’m a pretty good chef; I could make a living at a hash joint, but wanted a real restaurant. And of course, we would need a house in our price range.
Suddenly, all the pieces fell into place, and here we are. Carol works five days a week as an assistant librarian; I’m sous-chef in a French restaurant that’s surprisingly authentic for an out-of-the-way town.
Nonetheless, we’re still adjusting. Like fudging when asked, “What did you do before you came here?”
Each of us, when asked the first time, told the truth – and were cut dead. Not again. We began saying vaguely, “Oh, I worked in several towns,” naming a few of the places the carnival had played.
Small-town people, we concluded, are small-minded. Quick to make judgments. Wary of one another. Maybe not exactly stand-offish but certainly status-conscious. Wanting to make sure a newcomer is going to fit in with their little circle of friends. Thinking carny people are weirdos.
Another surprise: Although small, the house is too big. Seems we rattle around like bees in a box. Sounds crazy, but we’re going to sell, and buy a trailer. There are some comfortable models nowadays, all the amenities without surplus space. Used ones at good prices, too.
There’s a trailer park on the edge of town. Carol has a library pal who lives out there, one of the few who knows where we came from and doesn’t care. They had us to dinner, and we liked the place. Neighbors we met over cocktails under their trailer awning made us feel welcome without checking our credentials first.
Maybe it isn’t just carny people who are accepting. Maybe it’s trailer people, too.
Anyway, that’s the plan. With a bonus. Now and then we’ll hitch the trailer to the pickup, and go spend a few nights at the carnival, visiting old friends.
Surprise! We’ll say.