The Last

Hanspeter Schneider
Donald Lamar and I skipped school and went over to the southside to the circus one day. It wasn't Ringling's, that's for sure. The whole place was hot and dusty and smelled of sawdust and horseshit and was perched in a tiny lot under the local television station's antenna.

Donald was fat and funny and could draw great cartoons. Several were of Mrs. Williams, our 6th grade teacher. She had wens, a mustache, and a terrible temper.

I used to sit towards the back of her room and read comic books. One time I got so engrossed that when she crept up behind me I didn't notice and none of my classmates the rats warned me. Mrs. Williams grabbed me by my hair, pulled my head back and screamed in my face, "What are you doing?" Since I had my head twisted back and was at that moment staring into her blazing eyes and counting the hairs on her little furry mustache, I couldn't exactly tell her what I was doing so I said nothing.

Anyway, Donald Lamar and I played hooky from Mrs. Williams' class one day and were going down the sideshow lane at the circus. Hardly anyone was there. The fat man was lolling back on his huge chair asleep and the rubber man was dozing until we passed him and his eyes opened and he stared straight at me and swallowed his nose. By my troth! ... his lower lip was so rubbery and huge that it came up damn near to his eye-lids and he used all of it to cover his nose. Donald and I lit out for the rides.

I wanted to go on something called "The Comet" but he held back so I went alone. It was a ride that went round and round at a 45-degree angle with a center ring that went in the other direction. Since it was a weekday, there wasn't anyone there, so the guy that handled "The Comet" cranked it up and kept me on it for about a half-an-hour.

I got puke-ier and puke-ier and it didn't do any good for me to shut my eyes because it just got worse. Since I was only eleven I wasn't about to shout to the guy to let me off, I had to pretend I was loving it. Every time I came down from the top and started back up I'd see Donald standing there and I would wave and smile but after the 200th time it seemed like I couldn't get my arm up and my eyes felt like they were rolling around in my head and my stomach was up around my nose.

After a year or so it stopped and I staggered off and ever since then I have been a little leery of things that go around. Even if I spin myself around in a circle that feeling comes back. It's like losing your virginity, except for me it was the virginity of never being sickened by carney rides but now I can't stand any of them.

§     §     §

The Last Sideshow is outrageous, simply outrageous. The introduction is just so-so but the shots are gorgeous: 125 black-and-white photographs, some of them taking up a whole oversized page.

We are in Gibsonton, Florida, zipcode 33534, the trailer park where old carney folk go to retire. The Fat Man I saw snoozing under the television antenna is there. His name is Bruce Snowden. He is shirtless and Schneider must have convinced him to drop his pants and shorts because they are there around his ankles but you can't see anything outside of his serious face and his two chins and his elephantine legs and his big belly (and big belly-button) because, well, he's the Fat Man. When I saw him long ago, at least he kept his pants on.

In 1985, our forebear The Fessenden Review put a picture on the cover of an old guy pounding a nail up his nose with a hammer. He's here. His name is Melvin Burkhardt. Only in this book, he's featured with a lady friend doing the pounding. It's a huge nail. He calls himself "The Human Blockhead" and his doctor once told him, "Quit or your brain will get scrambled." He never did.

Norbert Terhune (Dwarf and Fire Eater) appears on the cover of The Last Sideshow. He's in retirement so he has a hearing-aid (regular size). We get a shot of him setting his mouth on fire.

The sideshow promoter and production manager is named Chris Christ. I once knew a guy named Cris Cross. The Half Lady gets around in a wheelchair because, well, she's only half there.

She tells us, "My mother said 'You're the prettiest little baby I ever saw.' This made me feel really good. It still makes me feel really good." Ward Hall, promoter, says, "Until you've sat up all night with the Fatman in a hospital emergency room, you can't be a sideshow expert."

Judy Tomaini is shown holding a pistol up to her cheek. She reports, "When your father is an 8' 4" giant and your mother is 2ft. 6 inches with no legs, some outsiders must think you have a really weird home life."

There's a picture of Christine who describes herself as "Model" holding a two-headed calf and, towards the end of the book, there's a photo of her clothed in a black shift waltzing with the Fat Man who is, once again, buck naked.

Burkhardt the Human Blockhead reports, "I like women. Billie Burke, a hermaphrodite, gave me a picture of herself and signed, 'To Melvin with very best wishes, a friend and not another blonde in your life.'"

--- L. W. Milam
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