Posted on 2012-08-03
The sun was high in the sky when the caravan of vehicles rumbled through the town of Meryton, Kansas: a long, snaking line of dirty trucks with tentpoles piled high, rolling animal cages, a couple of rickety Model Ts with gear lashed every which way onto them, jalopies of all sorts with equipment sticking out the windows, and even one fancy silver Airstream trailer. It was a scorching summer's day, not a cloud in the sky, just like the endless days before it and the long parade of identical days that would follow it. Or so it seemed to Lydia Bennet, age 17, who was stuffed into one of the Model Ts between her sister Lizzy and her sister Kitty, with Mary squished in on Kitty's other side. It was a good thing that they were slim and athletic, or else they would never have fit. Jane got to sit in front with their parents because she was all grown up, 24 years old, and Lydia was irked she had to sit in back like a child. Ha.
As the convoy passed down the extra-wide Main Street, women in faded calico cotton dresses stepped out of their front doors fanning themselves to take a gander, and kids with bare feet and dirty faces gave chase, shouting "The circus is here! The circus is here!" They were expected, since they'd sent posters on ahead a few days ago.
The troupe's barker, Bill Lucas, more fingers than teeth, took advantage of the commotion by sticking his head out the window of his truck and calling, "Come one, come all! Step right up, folks! Seven p.m. tomorrow! Come and see the Big Top!"
The caravan finally ground to a halt in a wide, dusty field on the edge of town just past an abandoned auto repair shop. Lydia and her sisters piled out of the Model T to stretch after the long ride. Lydia kicked at a tuft of dried-up grass and looked around. It was flat, flat, flat. In every direction she turned away from town, there were dust devils and dead-looking wheat and cornfields stretching off to the horizon, broken up only by the occasional silo.
"Cripes. This place looks just like the last town we were at. Did we just drive around in a big circle or something?"
"Aw, quit yer bellyaching, Lydia," said Lizzy. "At least some folks are still living here. Remember that ghost town a few weeks back where we didn't even set up? Everybody's off to Californ-I-A or somewhere."
Mrs. Bennet came around the car, big straw hat flopping in the breeze. "C'mon, girls, no more lollygagging. Time we got going, get the wires and nets ready."
Lydia sighed. Another day, another dollar. Why couldn't her life be more exciting?
By 5 p.m. the next day, the Big Top was up, and the trapezes were rigged and checked. The carnival that traveled with the circus was up and ready to go, too: the little Ferris wheel was spinning, the ring toss all set, the cotton candy swirling, and the fried dough puffing out the sweet, greasy smell that attracted kids like bees to honey. The funhouse was in place with its wavy mirrors and spiraling disks on the Walk of Wonders, and the Forest of Freaks was ready, too. Lydia was surprised to see a few new attractions, as well. Some newcomers must have arrived during the set-up.
For an early supper, the entire troupe gathered at the picnic tables by the Bennet family trailer. After they'd eaten up Mrs. Bennet's pork and beans from the big cast iron pot and gobbled up the cornbread, Mr. Bennet called them all into the Big Top for their pre-performance meeting. All the players were wearing their civilian clothes, since it was still too early for their clown suits, leotards, and leopard-skin loincloths. Lydia was wearing a cloche hat and one of the long-sleeved, high-collared dresses her mother always made her wear to keep her out of trouble with the townies. At least the dress was cut on the bias so it clung a little, and it had a nice stripe that was perfectly matched on the seams. She scanned the crowd in search of the new faces she hoped would somehow, some way, relieve her boredom.
And then there he was.
"Oh, my stars and garters," she gasped.
He was beautiful. Even from clear across the big sawdust-strewn tent, she could see his chest muscles playing under his white shirt. His lean acrobat's frame, the marceled wave of his slicked-back dark hair, his pencil-thin mustache--they all shouted trouble, and she surely couldn't resist that. Before she even knew what she was doing, she found herself squeezing through the crowd toward him.
"Well, folks," said Mr. Bennet, "we're here to say hello to a few new friends before we get ready for the show. As you'll recall, back in Salina we said goodbye to the Goulding Brothers. We couldn't find another juggling act to replace them, but we've got something real special for you instead. Let me introduce the Marvelous Maguire Brothers acrobats. Give 'em a warm welcome, folks!"
Lydia's man was standing with a group of four or five young fellows, she noticed. They all raised their hands and waved as the rest of the troupe whistled and clapped. As she got closer, Lydia admired the gents' biceps while their arms moved back and forth.
Mr. Bennet continued, "They've got a nifty bicycle act and a human pyramid you won't believe. Well, I won't keep you all much longer, but let's have a little prayer before we go our separate ways."
By this time, Lydia had reached her target.
"Dear Lord in Heaven, please keep us all safe tonight."
"Howdy, stranger," Lydia whispered loudly. "I'm Lydia."
"Howdy yourself. George is the name." He looked her up and down out of the corner of his eye. He gave her a little closed-lipped Clark Gable smile, showing off his dimples, but it didn't reach his eyes. She could see he wasn't interested.
"Please, Lord, let the nets hold better than they did in Hays."
Well, she was no goody-two-shoes tightrope walker, no sir. She edged a little closer and tried again. "So, you all really brothers?" They sure didn't look it.
"Lord, please don't let the cannon misfire again. Our human cannonball can't take many more second-degree burns."
"Naw, course not. Sister, don't take this the wrong way, but I like my girls with a little more oomph, if you catch my drift." He cupped his hands in front of his chest as if he were holding a couple of cantaloupes.
"Heavenly Father, we pray you'll watch over Strongman Stew's bum knee."
"More oomph, huh, Mister? I'll give you some oomph, all right!" Lydia kneed him in the groin, and then spun on her heel as she stalked back to her sisters, pushing people out of the way as she went. George lay prone in the sawdust, his chums kneeling down around him to make sure he was all right.
"Lord, thank you for yet another dry day, which is good for business but maybe not so much for the kind folks here in, uh, Meryton. And thank you, too, for all the gifts and talents you've bestowed on all of us here in our little family. Amen."
Lizzy grabbed Lydia's arm. "What in heck was that all about, Lyddie?"
Lydia shook her off. "Oh, nothing. That dumb cluck said I didn't have enough oomph for him, so I gave him a little oomph right where it counts."
Lizzy laughed, Mary looked disapproving, and Kitty giggled until it made her cough. Jane said, "Now, Lyddie! Try to make nice, all right? Who knows how long they'll be with us."
As they all turned to file out of the Big Top on their way to the family trailer, they heard a deep voice call out, "Lizzy!" It was Darcy, the tall, dark, and handsome Master of Ceremonies and lion tamer, who had some kind of love-hate thing going on with Lizzy. Lydia couldn't be bothered to figure that one out. Just on principle, though, she thought Lizzy should try harder with him, since he owned a shiny silver 1936 Airstream Clipper and all. It didn't get any better than that. "Can I talk to you for a minute? It's about that fella." He nodded his head in the general direction of George, who was now staggering out of the tent, assisted by his buddies.
"Sure thing. You girls want to go on ahead?" Lizzy said to her sisters. The others went on, but Lydia stayed to listen, hoping for a worthwhile tidbit or two.
"What's up, Darcy?"
"I know that chump. He's bad news." He looked incredibly earnest and sincere, as usual.
"Why should I take your word for it?" Lizzy challenged, her hand on one hip.
"Really, I mean it. You know my pop was headmaster at the Pemberley School of Lion-Taming, right?" he asked, brushing aside the dark curl that always fell across his forehead no matter how much Brylcreem he put in his hair.
Lizzy nodded. Everybody knew that. That's why he was circus aristocracy, always so high and mighty.
"George, that's his name, his father was the head lion groomer, cleaning and feeding them and all that."
"And?" Lizzy tapped her foot impatiently. Lydia was getting bored, too. She snapped her gum.
"Well, after both our dads died, George asked me for his pop's job, but I couldn't give it to him. The lions just didn't like him, and they wouldn't do what he said. He didn't really want it, anyway, and he was always a lot better at that aerialist stuff anyhow. So he asked me for some money instead, and I gave him a couple hundred bucks." Lydia whistled. That was a lot of scratch. This must have been before the Crash, when the School had gone under. "Last I heard he'd blown it all on dames and cards and was out riding the rails somewhere."
Lizzy started hassling Darcy about his story, like she didn't totally believe it, and so Lydia slipped away, leaving them arguing in her wake. The more she heard about this George guy, the yummier and more interesting he sounded. Well, she had a plan. First she'd show him a thing or two, and then she would make him hers.
The Big Top was buzzing with excitement. Folks had come from Meryton and all the little towns and farms around it to see the show. The field next to the tent was chock full of rusty old Ford pickup trucks and even a big, round sedan here and there. A few plumes of dust were still approaching in the distance as latecomers raced down the bumpy roads in a fruitless attempt to arrive before the festivities started.
Four of the Bennet girls stood nervously in the staging area, wearing their sparkly pink costumes--short tulle skirts with bare legs for a better grip on the ankles, ballet flats, tight short-sleeved tops and white wraps on their forearms, their hair pulled back into buns held up with sparkly pins. While they waited, they all jiggled their arms and shook their legs, trying to stay loose, and Mary prayed. They were the first act after Darcy greeted the crowd.
Then they heard the magic words. "And without further ado, folks, here they are! The beautiful, the brave, the incredible, Bennet Sisters on the flying trapeze!" Darcy cried.
The sisters, faces made up with exaggerated, big eyes and red lips, pranced out past him and scampered up the ladders to the two ends of the trapeze rig. His arms pointing toward them to attract the audience's attention, he stood in his tails and top hat watching them in open admiration as they swooped, spun, and somehow, miraculously, caught each other as they flew through the air with the greatest of ease.
But Lydia wasn't up there. Down on the ground, she peeked around the curtain to watch them, still in her yellow silk dressing gown. My, they were putting on a good show tonight.
Just then, who should come walking up to her, standing close and peering over her shoulder, but George, wearing his tight red costume. He and his pals were up next.
"Well, Miss Lydia, I hear you're one of the Bennet sisters, but I notice you're not up there with them."
"You don't miss a thing, do you, cowboy?"
"Ha, ha. So... how come you aren't part of this sister act?"
"Oh, I have my own act. You'll see." And she walked away, hips swaying. She left the tent altogether, the oohs and aahs of the crowd echoing in her ears, and headed over to the Forest of Freaks. But she sneaked back in to watch the Maguire Brothers after she heard Darcy announce them.
After the clowns had screeched out of the tent in their little cars, horns honking, after Darcy had flicked his whip one final time to get the big cats through the ring of fire, and after the human cannonball had flown safely into the net on the other side of the Big Top for the grand finale, it was time to wrap things up.
Darcy boomed, "And that's all for this evening, Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls! We hope you had a wonderful time. And don't forget, the show goes on outside! Stop by the rides, the tests of skill! Dee-licious food and beverage! And our fantastic side show-- come and see Annushka the Bearded Lady! Sergei the Strong Man! Wee Waldo the World's Smallest Sword Swallower! Angus the Human Pincushion! And don't forget the one and only, the incomparable, Lydia the Tattooed Lady! Right this way, folks!" He bowed and started directing the audience members outside as they trickled, chattering excitedly, toward the door.
He doffed his top hat and dipped his head to one of the women who looked up at him shyly on the way out, "Thank you ma'am, thank you. Glad you enjoyed the show."
George was loitering near the exit when he heard Lydia's name. "REA-lly...?" he asked nobody in particular, his eyebrows raised. He turned and skedaddled out into the crowd.
Sure enough, right there at the entrance to the Forest of Freaks, was old Bill Lucas, the barker, calling out, "Step right up! Come one, come all! See the amazing Lydia, Queen of Tattoo!" A banner with Lydia's name and picture hung over the doorway. How had he missed that before? George followed Bill into the tent.
"Well, I'll be hornswoggled," George murmured, his face all lit up with delight as he walked into the dark and saw Lydia just stepping into the spotlight. He moved as close to the stage as he could get.
Lydia's hair was piled up high on her head, sparkling with pins and feathers, and she was still wearing her yellow silk dressing gown. It had black dragons embroidered on it, he noticed now. The Benny Goodman Orchestra started playing "Sing Sing Sing" in the background, the drumbeat hard and fast. Moving in half-time, Lydia moved her shoulders back and forth saucily and then, locking glittering eyes with George, threw off the gown to reveal...
The most incredible panorama of ink he'd ever seen, stretching from her neck to her wrists, over her flat, strong stomach and all the way down to her ankles, interrupted only by enough fabric to keep her decent. No wonder she'd been wearing long sleeves and thick stockings. Man, oh man. She saw him lick his lips once. And then again.
It was the most intense 5 minutes and 23 seconds of his life. She swung the ships on her hips, pointed to the Eiffel Tower bursting out from between her cans, and twisted and turned her arm so that, gosh darn it, Buffalo Bill was throwing his lasso. During the drum solo, she rolled her stomach, and it really did look like those oars were rowing George Washington's boat across the Delaware. How did she make the American flag on her upper back flutter in the breeze?
As the last notes of the song faded out, the barker shouted, "Let's hear it for Lydia, the Queen of Tattoo!"
Lydia stood with her arms and legs outstretched, smiling triumphantly at the crowd, which was hooting and hollering. She looked straight at him, gave him a wink, and pointed toward the back of the room with her chin.
George picked his jaw up off the sawdust-covered floor and followed her backstage, where she was putting her yellow dressing gown back on.
George gave her his million-dollar smile. "I'm sorry, dollface. How was I supposed to know? You were all covered up. You sure do got oomph to spare! Give a fella some sugar?" He leaned in close. He smelled like sweat, Brilliantine, and menthol snoose. Heavenly.
"What, you want yourself a private show?" She pushed her hand flat against his chest and pretended to resist.
"How old are you, honey?"
"I'm 18," she lied.
"Well, in that case, sure, a private look-see might be just what the doctor ordered. You got some special ink you don't show the general public?"
"What do you think, handsome? Course I do."
"How'd you get so many tattoos if you're only 18, then?"
"Oh, you know, I ran away from home a couple of years ago when I was, uh, 16. That's what started it."
"Well, I got a few myself. I was in the Navy."
"Tattoos? A clean-cut boy like you? Well, kiss my foot and call me shorty." That was surprising. And smokin' hot.
He chuckled. "I might, at that."
Lydia paused and looked him over one last time. Tall and lean, but with some muscle on him in all the right places. She'd seen his act--he had flexible joints, powerful thighs and strong hands. And, yes, those Clark Gable dimples. All right, then. "You got any rubbers on you, George?" She was nothing if not direct.
"Course I do," he grinned, echoing her words, "Like I said, I was in the Navy."
Lydia woke up when the miniscule rectangular window of her tiny room in the trailer slammed shut. She heard what sounded to be an old pickup truck starting up and bouncing off down the rutted road. She sat up on her hard bunk, disoriented, squinting against the glare from the strewn-around sequins and satin in the morning light. George was gone, along with her wallet.
"Aw, horse pucky!" cussed Lydia. "A contortionist! I shoulda known. They're always trouble." She wondered whether his chums could manage their act a man down, or whether it was curtains without him.
Well, anyway, today the troupe was packing up and heading to the next town, Hutchinson, was it? Maybe Hutchinson would be better. She could find herself a new fella there, maybe a magician this time. Or a fire-eater. That might be fun. Just imagine the mischief they could get up to together. Later in the summer the troupe was heading back to Topeka. Maybe she'd jump ship, head for Kansas City. It was a straight line from there to the bright lights of St. Louis. Hmmm....The World's Fair was long gone, but she'd heard that folks in St. Louis still had a taste for the unusual.
She stretched, watching the picture of Nijinsky on her bicep do a little jig, and started packing with a happy smile on her face.
Link to video of "Lydia the Tattooed Lady:"
This is from the 1939 Marx Brothers movie "At the Circus." Music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Yip Harburg.
For more on the Airstream trailer, see http://heyokapatriots.wordpress.com/2010/06/30/airstream-an-american-icon-2/
Link to "Sing Sing Sing" by the Benny Goodman Orchestra