He was called the Egghead in the circus. My father took me to him holding my hand in the circus’s freakshow, knowing that if he did not hold on I would run. Clowns did not frighten me, and I was fond of lions and tigers and elephants, and the carnies taking tickets seemed like friendly villagers from a fairy tale. But there was something about the bearded lady that unnerved my five-year-old mind, a distinct, innate sensitivity to the flip-flopped reality under the dirty crimson tent of the gallery of the weird. The bearded lady was stationed at the entrance, her two hundred pounds of flesh gathered in rolls beneath an ill-used sequined dress. She winked at me as we approached and let out a bawdy guffaw.
I tried to run, but my father held me fast. “Now, now,” he said. “It’s only a show, you little monkey.”
“Did you call him monkey?” the bearded lady asked. Her voice had been coarsened by years of circus smoke. She sped up the process by producing a cigarette and screwing it into a thin black holder. She smoked and leered like a nightmare portrait of FDR. “We have room for more monkeys in the back!”
My father laughed and ushered me inside. “Hear that?” he said. “Monkeys in the back.”
“I don’t want to-” I started. My father hushed me fast. We entered the gallery and the cages of its subnormal features.
I hid my face behind my hands as the geek bit the head off a chicken. There was a beautiful woman with a face like my mother, long brown hair and gray eyes, with the body of a snake and vestigial hands drooping from her sides. I didn’t scream because I was afraid all the bars were for show and they would come for me if they knew my father didn’t care. For all I knew if I screamed my father would just laugh and toss me away. So I stayed silent, even when the snake woman asked me my name.
The Egghead was what my father wanted to see. He had some fascination with the man. He was near the end of the gallery, dressed up like a Victorian gentleman, his cage decorated with a grandfather clock and persian carpet, and a bookshelf stuffed with books. The shape of that bookshelf disturbed me. It had been cobbled together from old boards, likely whatever they had lying around the grounds, painted with a single blue coat of paint that didn’t match the fraudulent decor or the crimson tent. The books looked like phone books turned with their pages out. As a child that was strikingly surreal; I knew, even then, how books were meant to sit on a shelf; I knew, too, that men and women didn’t live in cages but that somehow offended me less than the dirtied white pages hung over the planks.
Without looking at us the Egghead adjusted his large round glasses, set too close for his wide little eyes, and removed his top hat. He set it on a table beside his elbow. His smooth bald head rose to a point, a naked acrocephaly for me and my father to ogle. My father laughed.
That laugh remains my ugliest memory.