Published in Crannóg Literary Magazine, October 2009
THE SEVENTH VEIL
Everybody suspected that the carnival truck was up to something. Carnivals and sideshows were welcomed during the County Fair in October to keep the kids busy while their farmer-fathers exhibited prize hogs and their mothers competed in pie-baking contests. But the truck rolled into Jeromesville in July of 1938 – three months before the Fair. The worn-out sign on the side proclaimed:
TERPSICHORE – EDUCATION FOR ALL!
“What the hell is terpsy-core?” demanded Leo Atterholt. Nobody at the general store knew, and it wasn’t in the dictionary. The farmers asked the schoolteacher, who thought it had something to do with a Greek myth about Pyramus and Thisbe, but he wasn’t sure. The men went out grumbling.
The skinny man who drove the truck put up his tent single-handedly, and he kept to himself. The farmers were pretty sure that he had a wife (“Well, a woman, anyway,” said Clyde Bunyan) because he bought a bottle of Lydia Pinkham’s Compound at the store. But the lady, whoever or whatever she might be, was nowhere to be seen.
As dusk gathered, the skinny man put up another banner:
THE DANCE OF THE SEVEN VEILS
The Jeromesville women phoned each other to cluck and scold, and one of them rang the Sheriff’s office. You can’t let this sort of thing go on in the middle of a respectable God-fearing community. The Sheriff told them he was keeping an eye on it.
One by one, the Jeromesville men made vague announcements that they’d decided to go coon-hunting that night. My grandmother told my father, who was fifteen, that she’d wring his neck if he went anywhere near that tent, but while she was busy with the dinner dishes he dipped into the jar of egg money and took a handful of dimes and quarters. He met Red Allenbaugh by the creamery and they asked each other – Do we look big enough to be adults?
After dark my father and Red slunk into the terpsy-core tent, handing over their coins to the skinny man at the flap. The tent was full of farmers sitting on folding chairs, staring at a wooden platform that was half-lit by a dim spotlight. One corner of the platform was screened off by a well-worn curtain with oriental designs. The skinny man stepped behind the curtain, cranked the handle of an ancient Victrola, and intoned, “Presentin’ Miss Salami and the Dance of the Seven Veils.”
The nose of a fireplace bellows emerged from behind the curtain, and puff of smoky powder whooshed out over the wooden stage. The Victrola crackled as the needle slipped into the groove of a spinning phonograph record, and a scratchy snake-charmer’s tune filled the air. Through the back flap of the tent a quivering mass of fluttering scarves and pink flesh appeared. She began to dance, and her breasts, half-concealed in a satiny sash, undulated with the music. It was definitely not her first performance. She clomped around the platform in a decent rhythm, but she was no spring chicken. She moved in and out of the circle cast by the spotlight, and the spangles on her costume reflected a dim cascade of light-freckles across the farmers’ faces. She plucked a silky scarf from her generous cleavage and flung it into the air while the men held their collective breath.
The phonograph record stuck, dee-doop, dee-doop, dee-doop, and the skinny man moved the needle back to the beginning. The woman kept moving, and the men could hear the swish-swish of her stockings as her thighs rubbed together. When she paused to shimmy, another scarf dislodged and floated languidly to the floor. By God, Luther, somebody said, she ain’t got any underwear on.
Dee-doop, dee-doop, the phonograph record stuck again. This time the skinny man moved the needle past the scratch and further into the song. While the reedy orchestra piped and screeched, the woman shimmied and shook and performed a back-bend that launched several scarves into flight. The song crescendoed to a conclusion, and she skipped off the stage without taking a bow.
Is that it? Red hollered.
“Oh, no,” said the skinny man, appearing from behind the curtain. “That ain’t it a-tall. You boys want some more?”
Hell, yes! everybody roared.
The skinny man leaned forward over the edge of the stage. “Well, I’ll tell you now,” he confided, “Miss Salami don’t usually do this, but since you boys been such a good audience…”
Cheers and whistles drowned out the rest of his sentence. Whaddid he say? yelled somebody in the back.
“Since you boys been a good audience, and so en-thusi-astic…”
You got that right, brother! There were more cheers and whistles.
“Miss Salami’s gonna show you the whole works!”
Yeeeeooowww!!! Everybody stood up and cheered and slapped each other on the back.
“And it ain’t gonna cost you but another fifty cents!”
Awww!! The tent fell into a disappointed silence. But then somebody hollered, Oh, what the hell! Here’s mine! Two quarters sailed over the heads of the crowd and landed jingling on the wooden stage.
Okay! Me too! And me! A shower of silver coins cascaded onto the stage. The skinny man dropped to his knees, raked the coins into piles, and stuffed them into his pants-pockets. “That’s right, boys!” he shouted. “Y’all don’t want to go home disappointed, do ya?”
The men whistled and stomped. His pants bulging with egg-money coins, the skinny man shouted, “All right! Y’all sit down, now! You’re gonna see the dance that turned the crowned heads o’ Europe!”
Everyone crunched back into their folding chairs, and the skinny man stepped behind the curtain again. The Victrola crackled, the music blared, and the sides of the tent fell down with a loud canvassy flop.
The farmers jumped up to see a ring of uniformed deputies surrounding the tent. The music stopped, and the Sheriff’s voice cut through the silence. “All right, boys. That’s enough of this-here nonsense. Y’all go home, now.”
Now, just a minute! hollered Red.
“I said y’all go home! Anybody hangin’ around here one minute from now is gonna git locked up for Public Nuisance!”
One of the deputies switched on a high-powered flashlight that cut through the crowd like a hot knife through butter. The farmers turned and ducked and held their hands up to avoid the glare. Half-scared, half-excited, my father and Red were swept along with the crowd of men scurrying away from the tent and into the night. Looking back, they thought they saw the skinny man dividing handfuls of silver coins with the Sheriff, but nobody had the nerve to protest.
Copyright © Tom Sigafoos 2009