Dignity cannot be assumed; some people struggle mightily to achieve it, only to find it elusive at best. The characters living on society’s margins but fighting that good fight inhabit the tense but tender stories told by Kerry Neville, in Remember to Forget Me, published in October 2017 by Braddock Avenue Books. This excerpt, from the story “Lionman,” enters the world of a circus freak who reconciles himself to the confines of his world even as he sees a chance for human connection. That the character is based on an actual performer in the Coney Island freak show from the early 20th century diminishes the story not one hair. It is also based on the man who invented the baby incubator, which was first used at the freak show because hospitals didn’t believe incubators would work.
WHEN THE PARK emptied of the teeming crowds and fell quiet except for the odd roadster trundling down Surf Avenue, or the muted trumpets of Little Hip, the elephant, or the pickled laughter of other freaks staggering by (as much as it was possible to stagger with no legs or four), the Lionman stood at the window of the Baby Incubators, a mock farmhouse with timber beams and a gabled roof, better suited for Yorkshire than Brooklyn. Anchored at the peak, a stone stork hovered over a nest of cherubs, its beak pointed as if at a trough of herring. Inside the building, there was a row of premature infants in the incubators, boys pinned with blue ribbons, girls with pink. The heated boxes more peanut roasters than scientific wonders. Sometimes a nurse, the hefty one, eased an infant’s arm from the swaddling and slipped her diamond ring over the tiny fingers, then hand, making an impromptu Tiffany bangle. Women tugged off their own rings, held them between their fingers, estimating the impossible measurement.
He pressed against the Baby Incubators window, hair tickling his face like a woman’s lips might, though this was an approximate feeling as even prostitutes, granting a fuck, refused such intimacies. They did allow him, for fifty cents, to palm their pocked cheeks and trace the fine down from their temples to jaws. Afterward, he stood at the sink, washing the tacky residue of face paint from his hands, and stared into the dim, spidered mirror, trying to see past his given lot. Dark eyes visible, but the planes of his face? A self obscured beneath hair, fur, coat, pelt? Time moving forward and through
him, evidenced by the occasional silver strands plucked from his forehead and chin, but otherwise the same. He could only, always, look away.
Years before, the Lionman traveled in Baron Von Hausmann’s circus across the continent. The baron was a tall, rickety man, his imperial mustache an autocratic punctuation. He locked the Lionman inside a small, rusty cage once home to a screeching monkey that served tea to a filthy doll; it died after drinking from a bucket of green paint. The Lionman, still a boy, was ordered to leap and growl at the bars, at little girls in particular, though they often giggled at his exaggerated, high-pitched ferocity. By evening, invariably tired and hungry, he slumped to the ground. The baron whacked the bars with his cane, jabbing his ribs, startling him awake.
Once, he woke to a woman’s gloved finger stroking the long hair on his cheek. An exquisite tenderness, filled with pity and yearning. He shivered, mesmerized in sensation. She perched beside his cage, her black taffeta skirt collapsed around her in gleaming folds—a crow waiting clear-eyed on the tip of a branch. A toque cantilevered on top of a loose coil of hair. He held her steady blue eyes with his, waiting for her scream, for the chicken bone thrown from a pocket. This was what people did—shouted and threw scraps of food. In the countryside anyway, when the tents were set up in muddy fields ripe with horse shit. In the city, less food and more coins were tossed through the bars.
The woman was close, her shallow inhalations and exhalations audible, and then so quick it might never have happened at all, her face was against the rusty bars, her fingertips were beneath his chin, and lips were on his.
“Mein liebes Kind,” she said, a whispered, sorrowful secret. An iron flake, a rusty petal, stuck to her creamy cheek; he imagined her whole face in bloom, tipped to the sun. Reach through the bars and brush it away? Disastrous. The baron had beaten him for less.
Her hand rustled in her dress and reappeared, bills pinched between her fingers. She flicked them angrily, and they scattered on the straw-covered ground. Had the strange yoking of sympathy and desire cost her too much? She rose, her back dismissing him. No matter. He had her money. Paper easier to hide than coins in the slit seam of his thin mattress. He lurched and snarled as she disappeared into the crowd.