B. H. Fairchild reads

Frieda Pushnik

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“Little Frieda Pushnik, the Armless, Legless Girl Wonder,” who spent years as a touring attraction for Ripley’s Believe It or Not and Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey… —“Obituraries,” Los Angeles Times
These are the faces I love. Adrift with wonder, big-eyed as infants and famished for that strangeness in the world they haven’t known since early childhood, they are monsters of innocence who gladly shoulder the burden of the blessed, the unbroken, the beautiful, the lost. They should be walking on their lovely knees like pilgrims to that shrine in Guadalupe, where I failed to draw a crowd. I might even be their weird little saint, though God knows I’ve wanted everything they’ve wanted, and more, of course. When we toured Texas, west from San Antonio, those tiny cow towns flung like pearls from the broken necklace of the Rio Grande, I looked out on a near-infinity of rangeland and far blue mountains, avatars of emptiness, minor gods of that vast and impossibly pure nothing to whom I spoke my little stillborn, ritual prayer. I’m not on those posters they paste all over town, those silent orgies of secondary colors—jade, burnt orange, purple—each one a shrieking anthem to the exotic: Bengal tigers, ubiquitous as alley cats, raw with not inhuman but superhuman beauty, demonic spider monkeys, absurdly buxom dancers clad in gossamer, and spiritual gray elephants, trunks raised like arms to Allah. Franciscan murals of plentitude, brute vitality ripe with the fruit of eros, the faint blush of sin, and I am not there. Rather, my role is the unadvertised, secret, wholly unexpected thrill you find within. A discovery. Irresistible, like sex. So here I am. The crowd leaks in—halting, unsure, a bit like mourners at a funeral but without the grief. And there is always something damp, interior, and, well, sticky about them, cotton-candy souls that smear the bad air, funky, bleak. All, quite forgettable, except for three. A woman, middle-aged, plain and unwrinkled as her Salvation Army uniform, bland as oatmeal but with this heavy, leaden sorrow pulling at her eyelids and the corners of her mouth. Front row four times, weeping, weeping constantly, then looking up, lips moving in a silent prayer, I think, and blotting tears with a kind of practiced, automatic movement somehow suggesting that the sorrow is her own and I’m her mirror now, the little well of suffering from which she drinks. A minister once told me to embrace my sorrow. To hell with that, I said, embrace your own. And then there was that nice young woman, Arbus, who came and talked, talked brilliantly, took hours setting up the shot, then said, I’m very sorry, and just walked away. The way the sunlight plunges through the opening at the top around the center tent pole like a spotlight cutting through the smutty air, and it fell on him, the third, a boy of maybe sixteen, hardly grown, sitting in the fourth row, not too far but not too close, red hair flaring numinous, ears big as hands, gray eyes that nailed themselves to mine. My mother, I remember, looked at me that way. And a smile not quite a smile. He came twice. And that second time, just before I thanked the crowd, I’m so glad you could drop by, please tell your friends, his hand rose—floated, really—to his chest. It was a wave. The slightest, shyest wave good-bye, hello (and what’s the difference, anyway) as if he knew me, truly knew me, as if, someday, he might return. His eyes. His hair, as vivid as the turbans on those elephants. In the posters where I’m not. That day the crowd seemed to slither out, to ooze, I thought, like reptiles—sluggish, sleek, gut-hungry for the pleasures of the world, the prize, the magic number, the winning shot, the doll from the rifle booth, the girl he gives it to, the snow cone dripping, the popcorn dyed with all the colors of the rainbow, the rainbow, the sky it crowns, and whatever lies beyond, the One, perhaps, we’re told, enthroned there who in love or rage or spasm of inscrutable desire made that teeming, oozing, devouring throng borne now into the midway’s sunlight, that vanished and forever silent God to whom I say again my little prayer: let me be one of them.