"ONE OF US"
There are plenty of tales told and retold on the campfires of the old
carnivals and traveling shows, but to my biased ears, the most romantic has to
be the story of Norma Lesley. It was first told to me by Klaus, a geezerly
memorabilia dealer who I met back in the 1980's when I was momentarily flush
enough to drop some bucks on sideshow related memorabilia, a particular
obsession of mine. Klaus ran a used bookstore and collectibles shop just
outside the Loop on Clark Street, and I made a point of visiting his place
every time I came into the city. The old man, who himself had been a talker
for several small shows back in the fifties, loved to gas about his days on
the road - and he always had a hand-me-down story or two, sometimes connected
to the object he was trying to sell me, sometimes not.
Klaus knew my preference for promo materials pertaining to circus fat ladies, in particular, and he had one I'd never seen before from the Great Depression: a pitch card for a little-remembered performer who went by the moniker of Betty Bulge. Betty was a part of the Ten-in-One for Callahan Bros. Combined Shows in the mid-thirties, one of the largest and loveliest of the era's fat ladies. The card Klaus offered was a wedding shot, featuring a photograph of Betty in a massive wedding dress, her husband and the rest of her wedding party dwarfed by her vastness. Soon as I saw the card, I knew I had to own it.
"Fascinating story behind this little lady," Klaus told me in his smoker's voice, leaning over the glass counter of his dimly lit store, tapping the plastic sleeve covering the near mint card. A lit Camel was between two fingers, and, collector that I am, I immediately began getting nervous about the thought of a hot ash dropping onto the as-yet-unsold collectible. "Wasn't always this abundant, you know. Unlike a lot o' professional fat ladies, she wasn't big all her life. Norma grew into her role as an adult."
"Norma," I repeated, looking around the curio-crowded room for a place to sit. I found a stool and planted myself on it as Klaus grabbed a chair on the other side of the counter. There was no one else in the shop, and I could see the man was revving himself up for a story. He took a deep drag on his cigarette, and as he stubbed it out, I could hear the El rattling the streets a couple blocks away.
"Norma Lesley," he explained. "You din't think that she was born with the name Betty Bulge, did ya?"
"Of course not," I answered, perhaps a bit defensively. "Dolly Dimple's real name was Celeste Geyer, after all."
"Betty Bulge was born Norma and sang under that name for several years," Klaus explained. "She had a good reason for droppin' it, though. Same reason she wound up singin' at a ten-in-one tent."
Was back in the middle thirties, he began, outside Joliet in an area of the countryside that today is made up of nuthin' but goddamn tract houses. First time anyone at Callahan Bros. saw Norma, she was lying in a ditch by the side of the road, looking pretty mussed and dusty, none too far from where the traveling show had set up its tents. Her nylons were torn at the seams; her high-heels had been dropped and lost in the weeds. Her snug black dress, which hugged her curvy body, was dirty and disheveled; the bottom hem had ridden up her legs to show both the tops of her stockings and a flash of plump thigh bulging over 'em. She was near to unconscious when Earl and Wallace came upon her, highlighted in the light of what turned to be a burning Studebaker Dictator.
The two who came upon her could not have been more different. Wallace Cambry, the tall one, was young and muscular with a perpetually befuddled look on his mug; Earl, who was half-dressed in his ringmaster's uniform, was half his height but more than twice as smart. He oversaw the ten-in-one-show as the Midget Master of Ceremonies, where Wallace performed as a strong man, and as the ironically named Big Earl also starred as one of the show's genuine human oddities.
"Some frail, eh, boss?" Wallace said, looking down at the prone woman's body. Even knocked out in a ditch, Norma Lesley looked fetching: her long and curly blond hair framed her dimply face, so she looked like a model in a magazine ad.
"A little too frail for me," Earl answered. "Let's get her over to yer ma's." He stood back to let the strongman gingerly lift the still-dazed woman from the ground then heave her over his right shoulder. As he did, Norma drifted in and out of consciousness. The last thing she'd seen, she'd later say, before she was blown into the ditch, were the lights of the traveling show. The sight had brought memories of her childhood to the surface: the image of a pudgy young girl with powdered sugar on her face being roughly pulled away from a carnival concession stand by a large matronly hand, a smiling sideshow fat lady poster in the background. As fat women went, even the poster image wasn't that large, though to a young Norma she looked absolutely enormous.
She came out of her stupor, looking down the back of Wallace's striped shirt, focusing her eyes on the sight of Earl toddling behind them. He looked, she thought, like a walking living doll, and this amused her. She slipped back into unconsciousness just as Wallace brought her onto the circus' back yard - to a beat-up silver trailer that Lady Lili Cambry called her traveling home. There, Lili, a matronly middle-aged woman in theatrical gypsy garb, was sitting on the steps and puffing on a cigarette. She was leaning back casually, but her eyes betrayed her interest as Wallace carried Norma into view.
"Why didn't you tell us we'd be finding a Jill?" Earl asked, as Wallace carried his burden into the trailer. Without responding, she followed her strong man son into the tiny trailer, and then instructed him to place her on one of two cots. Turning to see the midget standing in the doorway, she shooed him out and gestured for Wallace to follow.
"Fire on the car's almost burned out," she said, ignoring his question. "You two better go take a look-see." Though irritated, Earl knew better than to argue with Lili - she truly had a knack for seeing things - so he grumpily led Wallace back to the road. Lili watched the two from the doorway, standing with her back to the inside to allow Norma the chance to rouse herself. On the cot, the waking Norma slowly sat on her elbows and took in her surroundings. The blanket beneath her was worn but clean; the trailer was old but well kept. On the wall was a poster for Lady Lili, Palmist. "Your Hands Foretell All!" it told her.
"I'm in a trailer, a circus wagon!" she weakly whispered to herself. She looked to the side of the cot and saw a tray on a stool with a platter of food: somebody's dinner, she thought, and, though she shouldn't have felt it for all that she'd just been through, her stomach started reminding her that she hadn't eaten dinner yet. The plate's fare was humble - three tube steaks in buns, a large dollop of beans - but in that moment it looked better than anything she'd eaten in any of the fanciest Chi-town supper clubs.
"You hungry?" Lili asked, bringing a warm face cloth over to the cot. "That was for Wallace, but he can get himself fresh fixin's at the cookhouse. Dig in."
Still a little shaky, Norma gingerly reached for the plate, but as she did, she darted a quick glance toward the open trailer door. "No one knows you're here!" Lili told her reassuringly. "Wallace and Earl are on their way back to the car, but I think you know there ain't no one there capable of followin' you."
Which was true. Up on the road, the two circus folk were examining a large male body lying face down on the dirt road. A large piece of windshield could be seen protruding out of his back.
"Hope that ain't her feller," Wallace said.
"Don't think so," Earl decided, indicating an open switchblade grasped in the dead man's right hand. "Either that - or the guy had a pretty hard way of breakin' things off." He squatted down to pry the knife from the corpse's hand, and then snapped it shut. He thought about the woman back at Lili's trailer. "She knew you were comin'," he told the dead body. Just two days ago, he remembered, she'd talked Toddy the Tall Man into letting her son stay with him the rest of the season.
"Car's still burnin'. Better move the body closer to it," he ordered. "Might buy our new guest a little more time!"
"Where am I?" their "new guest" was asking, as she glanced out a window at a wheeled "Tastee Treats" cart being wearily pushed through the dirt by a guy in baggie pants and a striped shirt. A faint whiff of popcorn mingled with livestock came through the open window. One moment she felt famished; the next she was too jumpy to eat.
"Back yard o' Callahan Bros.' Shows," Lili told her. "S'where the performers live." She handed Norma a chipped cup filled with a drink that smelled like it'd been brewing all afternoon. "Better have a cuppa tea," she added. "It'll take away the spins . . . help yer appetite."
As she tentatively took her first sip, Norma cocked her head toward the poster. "You a mitt reader?" she asked. In the back of her head, she could hear her mother's voice from that day at the big top. "Carnie folk," the voice said. "They're not to be trusted."
In answer to her question, Lili grabbed her free hand and examined it. Panicked, Norma backed away from the palm reader, nearly spilling her tea as she did. "What the hell you doin'?" she demanded.
"Yer hand," Lili answered cryptically. "It's way too small!" She pulled the plate off the table and set it on Norma's soft lap. "You lost blood," she continued. "You need to take it easy. Get some food in you."
The tea's warmth was already spreading through her belly, and, with it, her hunger grew stronger. Silently handing the cup back to Lili, she grabbed her first tube steak and took a healthy bite. It tasted even better than it looked. But even a tasty red-hot wasn't enough to keep her from asking Lili, "What's yer angle here?"
"You came here on the run," the fortuneteller said. "Doesn't matter from what or who. You're here because you're meant to be here."
"'Meant to be here,'" Norma dubiously repeated, after swallowing the last of her first sandwich; she quickly went for the second one after licking mustard off the tips of her fingers. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Just some 'carnie' hokum," Lili replied, turning to get the teapot. "Best just ignore me! Have another tube steak before it gets cold!" Through the trailer window, she could see the silhouettes of her son Wallace and Earl returning from the car wreck. Though she couldn't hear their words, she knew the tenor of their conversation.
"Need to talk with Mister Callahan about pullin' up stakes a day early," Earl was saying. Though his stride was so much shorter than Wallace's, he still managed to keep ahead of him. "Gonna be more goons followin' our friend back there!"
"So what's it to us?" Wallace asked.
"Dunno," Earl admitted. "But Lili sent us out to get her, and I've learned not to ignore yer ma's advice over the years . . ."
"Mister Callahan ain't gonna like it," Wallace warned.
"Think I do?" Earl whispered, as they approached the trailer. Inside, Lili was refilling Norma's tin cup.
"We can hide you until we get out of the county," Lili was telling her. "You wanna stay any longer, you'll need to pitch in. Figure like yers, you could probably be a kootch dancer." She gave the blond a long once-over, nodded to herself and added, just as a knock came on the door, "You've been on-stage before, of course . . ."
"Of course," Norma answered, lifting her third tube steak to her full lips. A few short hours ago, she'd been striding off-stage at Louis T's Hot Spot. Wearing a form-hugging shoulder-less dress that showed off every curve of her generous figure, she brushed past a weedy looking man in a wool suit and pop bottle eyeglasses, ignoring the look of hopeless devotion on his thin face. He followed her in her hip-swaying wake to her dressing room.
"Wot you lookin' at, Specs?" she asked.
"Just the most gorgeous singer in all o' Chicawga!" Specs answered, pulling a stick of gum out of his vest pocket and offering it to her.
"I'm supposed to listen to a half-blind chump like you?" she sneered, after taking the proffered stick. "When I've got a big man like Louis Tee whisperin' sweet nuthin's in my ear?" They were getting close to Norma's dressing room, where they both knew Louis was waiting, so Specs lowered his voice.
"Louis ain't a forever kinda guy," he whispered. "You don't believe me, ask his last girlfriend . . . If you can find her . . ."
"You're sweet to worry, Specs," she said, softening a smidge, as she popped the chewing gum into her mouth. "But I can handle myself . . ." Sitting in the dressing room, she could see, her burly lover was reaching into a large heart-shaped box of candy on her dressing table. Though he regularly bought her candy as a present, he never liked to see her actually eating any.
Louis Tenebrae was a name in the Windy City, but it wasn't the kind of name that got streets or buildings named after it. In the papers, he was usually described as a club owner, but to those in the know, he had his stubby fingers in dirtier arenas. He and Norma had been an item for two years now, something of a record, considering his previous history with women. Norma knew this, but she remained confident of her ability to keep him on the line. As she swayed into the dressing room, she playfully slapped his hand away from the candy box.
"You wash yer hands, Lou?" she teased, sidling onto Louis' lap - a precarious move at best - and contemplating the box's empty rays with a slight moue of irritation.
"Need ta talk wit' cha, Norma," the club owner answered. He had a bullfrog's voice that sounded wholly appropriate coming from his wide, round face. The smell of stale cigar lingered in his dinner jacket; to Norma, it was the scent of male authority.
"What you want, pappy?"
"Wanna vary the lineup a bit," Louis said. "Put Olivia on for a few nights."
This was unexpected. She turned away from the tempting heart-shaped box and gave Louis a hard look. "Ain't I still pullin' 'em in?" she asked.
"That ain't the point," Louis answered, reaching around her to plunk a chocolate from its paper tray. "Can't be showin' 'em the same thing every night! Even if they have been seein' a whole lot more of you lately!" Out in the hallway, a younger, thinner bleached blond had appeared to view the proceedings.
"What are you sayin', Louis?" Norma demanded, even as she knew she shouldn't ask.
"I'm sayin' that you can't let that dress out forever," Louis stated. "Don't look good for a man o' my stature bein' seen with anyone who ain't a total looker!" He abruptly rose from the chair, forcing Norma off his lap, while Specs watched on in concern. "Mebbe if you stuck to chewin' gum instead of eatin' all them chocolate truffles," Louis lectured, "we wouldn't be talkin' here!" He headed for the dressing room doorway, grabbing the waist of blond Olivia when he got there, and left the singer to her partially eaten box of Fannie May's. Though she knew she probably shouldn't, she nervously grabbed two chocolates and popped them both in her mouth.
Remembering this moment back in Lili's trailer, Norma now knew that Specs' warning had been on the money. Staring down at her now-empty plate, she felt a sinking sense of despair. "Damn you, Louis!" she told the otherwise empty room. "What am I gonna do now?" She sure could do with a few of those chocolates right about now, she thought.
Two trailers down at the cookhouse, Lili was gathering two plates worth of leftovers. At a nearby picnic table, some of the sideshow regulars watched a frustrated Earl attempt to grill her.
"Fess up, Lil!" he demanded, as the fortuneteller handed him a tin plate loaded with biscuits and gravy. "Who is that skirt?"
"Doesn't matter who she is," Lili answered, as she ladled out a second plate, "but who she's gonna be!"
"Now you're gettin' all cryptic," Earl groused. "Who's she gonna be?"
"Betty, I think," she told Earl as she took away his plate. "Betty Bulge!" She pushed through the flaps of the cookhouse tent and headed back toward her trailer. "And keep away from the trailer 'til I tell you otherwise!" she added.
When she got back to Norma, she found the woman critically examining her face in a small handheld mirror, frowning at a chin line that she hadn't noticed before. She'd changed from her battered dress into a robe that both showed off her deep cleavage and the slight curve of her upper belly - along with as her plump calves - and had wiped both the dirt and war paint from her face. The end results looked innocently cherubic, though as she soon as she opened her mouth, the effect lessened. Scowling at the first overflowing plate, she looked up at Lili and groused, "What d'ya think I am, sister? I can't eat all this!"
"Finish what you can, dear," Lili answered, holding back the second plate until she knew Norma would ask for it. "Need to get yer strength up."
"It does smell scrumptious," Norma thought, and she quickly dug into the creamy sausage gravy. It'd been ages since she'd had a plate of biscuits and gravy - and it was only a matter of minutes before she finished the first plate. She didn't say a word when Lili handed her the second helping, just continued to enjoy eating it. When she finally got down to lapping the last of the gravy off her plate, Lili finally spoke.
"We'll be breakin' camp tonight," she said. "I'm thinkin' that news won't bother you!"
"Got that right, sister," Norma agreed, wiping the last bit of gravy off her face with the back of her hand. Her chin line appeared just a little deeper, but perhaps it was just the trailer light.
"Lie back and rest some," Lili told her. "Won't be striking out for a couple hours yet. Have another cuppa herb tea; it'll help you sleep."
Norma took Lili's advice and quickly conked out. When she woke up again, she found the fortuneteller depositing two full baskets of food by the cot.
"Be up front drivin' for a pace," Lili told the waking Norma. "We've got a good jump ahead of us, so here's a little somethin' to tide you over." Stepping away from the cot, she quickly returned with two more baskets.
"Sure you've got enough there?" Norma asked, only half facetiously. As she sat back up in the cot, she could feel her appetite waking up, too.
"Mebbe not," Lili told her. "But it's all that was left in the cookhouse!" She left the trailer and heaved herself up into the driver's seat of the battered old jalopy pulling it. Before she could get moving, Earl had hopped into the passenger seat.
"Wanna talk t'ya, Lil," he began, "about yer little guest in back. "You ain't steered me wrong before, but Mister Callahan's already askin' about the Dona."
"Good to know the man's keepin' an eye on things," Lili said sardonically. "It's his name on top of the posters, after all."
"Hardy-har," Earl responded. Dudley Callahan's non-involvement in the day-to-day workings of the show that bore his name and that of an imaginary brother was a running joke among the regulars. "You ain't steered me wrong before. But wot's the deal with you feedin' her St. Louis portions?"
Lili smiled and gestured to Earl to hold the steering wheel as she pulled out a Winston and lit it.
"Girl's not the only one in this show with history," she said. "She needs a place to hide - pretty soon she'll be able to hide in plain sight!"
"As usual, Lil, you make no sense," the midget groused.
"Gimme another week," the fortuneteller said, flicking an ash out the window as they passed the husk of the still-smoking Studebaker. "Think you'll be pleasantly surprised by what we've got here!"
Back in the jouncing trailer, meanwhile, Norma was already rummaging through her first basket. As she bit into her first sandwich, she thought back to nights at Louis T's club, when he first started wining and dining her. She was twenty-five pounds thinner back then, but the signs of her future lushness could be seen in the way she'd single-mindedly devoured her dinner. Louis had clearly noticed, and when she'd finished with her plate of New York Strip, he'd gestured over to Olivia the cigarette girl to grab a pack of gum.
"No seconds for my new songbird!" he said, tossing the pack over to her side of the table. "Have a stick o' gum if ya start to feel hungry."
"Screw you, Louis!" Norma answered back in the present, as she took her first deep bite of her late-night meal. She wouldn't stop eating until long after they landed in Indiana.