It was the amusement park’s last summer—a developer had bought up the one hundred acres of river front property—and, Jim had a plan.  As we passed the freak show tents, an attraction that had been forbidden to us for years, he announced, “I’m going in! I have my own money.”

      “No, you’re not,” our father said, and continued walking. He was a big man and his madras shirt was stained down the middle of his back with a badger’s stripe of sweat.  Jim turned to our mother as though for a translation, but she just shook her head.

      “But it’s my money from my paper route,” Jim said.  “I should get to spend it any way I want.”

      “Even if it was free, no kid of mine will ever see it,” my father said.

      This was news to me.  Most of the forbidden things had to do with money, which was tight in our house. At the amusement park, we were allowed only three rides. I’d never gotten used to watching the other kids enjoy themselves, and so the park’s closing came as a relief.  

      “That’s not fair,” Jim said.

        Our father whirled around.  My breath caught under my ribs.  We were treading a narrow, crumbling path along the Palisades cliffs.  One misstep and we would all tumble through the treetops into the Hudson.  Our father took a step toward Jim, but our mother angled Jackie’s stroller between them. “Shhh,” she said, jiggling the handle as though to sooth our little sister, but as usual Jackie was asleep.  The week before she’d slept through Jim’s beating, even though she was the cause of it.  The boy next door had pissed on her during a neighborhood game of tag.

      White trash hillbilly rednecks my mother hissed as she bathed Jackie and put her to bed.  Later when Jim sauntered into the house, our father surprised him with a left hook. “Protect your sister,” he said as Jim fell against the kitchen table, clueless, as it turned out.

      The other families were gawking now.  Passing by with their Coca-Cola coolers, they didn’t even try to hide their interest in my brother who was wiping his tears with the back of his wrist.  We had turned ourselves into a sideshow.  My parents noticed the gawkers and continued walking. 

      “For Christ’s sake,” Jim said.  “We never get to do anything fun.” 

      Our father bore down on Jim so fast he had no time to duck.  His head jerked sideways as a hand struck his ear.  “What do you mean, you don’t get to do anything fun?” he said.  “You’re at an amusement park, you idiot.”

      They stared at each other like passengers on a runaway train.  And then, as usual, our mother restored order.  “Shall we eat the nice lunch I packed for everyone?”  We moved as one toward the picnic grounds.  My brother’s ear was scarlet; it pulsed as though it had a heart of its own.  It was just the kind of weird phenomenon that interested him, but I didn’t dare mention it.

      “I bet it’s all fake anyway,” I said, consolingly.  “Like those X-ray glasses you sent away for.  Remember?”

      He punched my arm, and I cried out.  Our father only had to glare at us over his shoulder like a bull eyeing the matador to make us behave. We took our place with the families, eating in the hot sun.  My cream cheese and olive sandwich tasted funny, so I left it to the flies.  Ordinarily, I would have been scolded for wasting food, but no one was talking to anyone, except for Jackie.  “Why he has no arm?” she repeated over and over again, pointing to the carnie at the next table.  Jim locked eyes with me, and we snickered.  I offered him my last cookie.  “That’s okay,” he said, understanding the gesture.

      After lunch, we headed back into the sour-smelling crowd.  We each had one more ride coming, though no one seemed in the mood.  We passed the freak show tents again, and I gaped at the posters.  The Bearded Lady.  Tattoo Tess.  Stump Boy.  When I turned to see how Jim was dealing with his disappointment, he wasn’t there.  One minute he was walking next to me, and the next minute he was gone. That was what I’d told my parents, the park manager, and the police who held us until the rides stopped and the lights blinked off.  Jackie claimed she saw Jim leap from the path into the treetops, but she had been fast asleep, and they’d never found a body.

      I like to imagine that he slipped inside the tent at last, where he was discovered like a movie star at a lunch counter.  There was something grotesque about my brother with his hawkish nose, his pigeon chest, and his mouth full of braces.  I imagine him traveling around the country, performing for curious boys.  I imagine him happy.

Janis' fiction has appeared in Exquisite Corpse, The Saint Ann's Review, Front Porch Journal, Literary Mama, and Storyglossia.  One of her stories was a finalist in Glimmer Train's Fiction Open contest.  Another story was chosen as one
of the best online stories of 2008 by the Million Writers Award.  She's an adjunct professor at Montclair State University
where she teaches  composition and literature.


This story came to life while I was avoiding writing a novel that was going nowhere.  My character, a neglected wife, told her husband that she felt like the invisible woman in a freak show.  Her comment prompted an afternoon of research to find out whether there was such a thing as an invisible woman.

Once I started to investigate freak shows, however, I could not stop.  The idea of the deformed and diseased entertaining families in amusement parks was both repulsive and fascinating.  What was life like for these so-called freaks of nature, I wondered?  Were they victims of exploitation?  Or, was it possible that they had better lives than many of the people who paid to see them?  Though I dont name it, I set the story at the Palisades Amusement Park in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, which closed in 1971.  With its crowds, House of  Mirrors, and fun houses, the park always seemed like a place that could swallow you whole.



Copyright 2009