Mark Pearce is a Pushcart Prize nominee with stories published in literary journals, magazines, and anthologies and plays produced on the New York stage. His first published story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and was selected as Granfalloon magazine’s “Story of the Year.”
At the back of the tent stood a short, three-legged wooden stool. On the stool sat a midget; his age was indeterminate, the misty middle-age between forty and fifty-five. Thin wisps of hair lay flat across a balding scalp. The feature which had earned him his job was a lack of arms. He had hands, but they were connected directly to his shoulders.
That was it; a midget with no arms, sitting on a three-legged stool at the back of a tent.
Stanley had never seen a malformed human. He had not even known that such a thing could happen. The poster had promised SEALO: THE SEAL BOY and had depicted the smiling head of a boy with a seal’s body. The boy in the poster was balancing a beach ball on his nose while clapping his flippers. Nothing in the accumulated experience of Stanley’s full seven years had prepared him for such a wonder. He had been determined to witness the miracle firsthand.
Mrs. Gates had stopped Stanley’s group of second graders by the main ticket booth while she bought tokens for the Big Top. From where he had stood, Stanley had been able to see through a crack in the flap of Sealo’s tent. A crowd of adults had stood pointing and laughing at something on the other side of a waist high curtain. Stanley had imagined the seal boy entertaining them with all kind of astounding tricks.
He had carefully counted his money. After allowing for the mandatory cotton candy and soda, he knew he would have just enough left to visit the sideshow after the performance in the Big Top was over. He had scurried with the other children into the main tent, determined to return after the show.
The clowns and lions and high wire acts were thrilling, but they had paled before the wonder of what Stanley knew awaited him along the fairway. All through the circus he had kept envisioning the Seal Boy who would dance and do flips and balance balls and no telling what other amazing feats.
The fairway had felt strangely different after the circus was over. Bloated on junk food, their taste for diversion temporarily sated, the circus goers had headed for their cars and homes. As Mrs. Gates corralled the children into lines at the restrooms, Stanley had slipped away, determined to see the seal boy.
There were no lines or crowds milling about the sideshow tents. Even the barkers had ceased to hurl their spiels. The man at Sealo’s booth had acted as if it were an imposition to have to sell a ticket to the boy who didn’t know the time for wonders was over.
And now there he stood, peering over the curtain that reached to his chin, looking at the midget with no arms. He felt no horror, just embarrassment — for himself and for the man.
Sealo did not smile. “Go down to the end of the curtain,” he said, pointing with one of his armless hands.
Stanley looked to where Sealo was indicating. He hesitated, not certain what was expected of him. He walked to the end of the curtain.
“Push the pole aside,” said Sealo. “Come here.”
Stanley hesitated. The curtain connected to an end pole which was pressed against the side of the tent. When Stanley pushed against it, he found it difficult to budge, being heavily weighted at the bottom. It was obvious no one was intended to come around the end.
Stanley pressed hard against the pole, tilting it just enough to give him room to squeeze past. He slipped through and let the pole slide back into place.
“Come here,” repeated Sealo, beckoning with one of his hands.
Stanley approached. Even on the stool, the performer was not quite as tall as the boy.
“What’s your name?” said the midget.
Sealo twisted his body and pulled a pad and pencil from his shirt pocket. He began to write on the pad, his body contorting to the effort. Uncertain as to whether Stanley was old enough to read, he spoke the words as he wrote:
“To Stanley,” he said. “Always stay just the way you are. Sealo.”
He peeled the sheet off the pad and handed it to Stanley, then offered him a hand to shake. Stanley tried to be gentle; he wondered if it hurt Sealo where the hand connected to the shoulder.
Stanley left the same way he had come. As he went, he took a final glance over his shoulder at the midget on the stool.
The sunlight of the fairway made him squint after the dimness of the sideshow tent. The grounds were all but abandoned now; dust comingled with bits of garbage in wisps of wind.
Stanley rejoined the children in his group and was herded onto a bus. He spoke little on the long ride home. He thought about the quiet, gentle man who made his living by charging people to view his deformity. And he thought about the people who paid.
There are friends you know for life, and there are friends you meet for a moment and never see again. Stanley would never forget Sealo; sometimes in his adult years, he would think back and wonder what had become of the diminutive performer.
And sometimes, late at night, after a long day of shows, Sealo would remember the boy.
Originally published in Down in the Dirt magazine.
A blind man sat alone on a park bench. He wore dark glasses and had a white cane and a cup at his side. He was a regular fixture in the park, like the muggers and the squirrels. People would occasionally drop money into his cup. Sometimes they took money out. It was all the same to him.
A woman approached. She was in her mid-thirties and fairly plain. She carried a sack lunch.
“Is anyone sitting here?” she asked.
The blind man felt around on the seat beside him. “No.”
The woman sat. After an awkward pause, she spoke: “Nice weather we’re having.”
The blind man held his hand out to his side, palm up, feeling for rain. “Apparently.”
“Do you come here often?”
The man turned his head to the left and to the right; he leaned forward and turned left and right again, then sat back in his original position. “It’s hard to tell.”
There was another long pause. “You’re not very talkative, are you?” said the woman.
“Not very.” She started to speak, but he cut her off. “And don’t ask if I’ve read any good books lately.”
“You don’t have to be so touchy.”
“Look, lady,” he said, “why don’t you sit someplace else? It would be difficult for me to find another bench.”
“I could tell you didn’t want to be alone,” said the woman cheerfully. “That’s why I came over.” She smiled pleasantly and opened her sack. “I’m on my lunch break. I work at Haammerlick and Bruester–you know, the attorneys? I’m just a secretary, but I hope to learn the business someday. Anyway, I usually eat my lunch alone in the office because I can’t afford to go out like the others. I just sit and stare out the window and watch the world go by while I eat my sandwich.” She pulled a carefully wrapped sandwich from her sack. “Would you like some?’
She held it out. He leaned toward it, sniffed a few times, then shook his head No.
“I made it myself,” she tempted.
“So I guessed.”
The woman cheerily began eating. “Anyway, like I was saying, I decided that today was such a beautiful day, there’s no sense eating at the office, so I just packed up my lunch and headed for the park.”
“It’s not safe in this park, lady. Lots of dope fiends and crack addicts. They’d kill you for a bite of your sandwich.”
“I’m safe here with you.”
“Don’t count on it.”
The woman smiled and looked around. “I like to come sit in the park. It takes your mind off things. You can just sit and daydream and nobody bothers you.”
“That hasn’t been my experience.”
“Do you think I’m overweight?” she said.
The question startled him. He lifted his fingers tentatively in her direction, then lowered his hand back into his lap. “I hesitate to find out.”
“I joined this exercise group one time,” she said. “On the first day, they told us to wear loose fitting clothes to class. If I’d had any loose fitting clothes, I wouldn’t have had to be there! And exercise videos are worthless. I’ve sat and watched those things for hours. I even bought a treadmill once. I got the kind that was electric, so I could leave it running, day and night, even while I was at work–”
“Isn’t it time for you to be back at work now?”
“Oh, no. They never care when I come back.” She looked wistfully at the falling leaves. “I was supposed to attend college, but I had to go to work to help out my family. I’ve thought about buying a pet. With a dog or a cat, you never have to be alone. You’ve got something that loves you and can’t get away. Do you have any pets?”
“I have a bird. I don’t consider him a pet so much as a potential meal.”
“You should get married.”
“How do you know I’m not?”
“No ring.” She took a bite of her sandwich. “Are you Jewish?”
“Only on my parents’ side.”
“I have to marry a Catholic.”
“That’s a relief.”
“I don’t think my family would approve if I married a man who was sort of Jewish.” She looked at him sideways. “I don’t suppose you’d consider converting?”
“Would your family disapprove?”
The man fiddled with the button on his shirt sleeve. “I don’t think I have much family.”
“I know I do,” said the woman, wrinkling her nose. “Cousins, uncles, brothers, aunts. Around Christmas we have a full house.” She turned to him. “You don’t celebrate Christmas much, do you?”
“Not every year.”
“I love Christmas. The lights, the presents. It’s a shame you don’t get Christmas. What do Jews get?”
She took another bite of her sandwich. “I think it’s best not to be bitter in life, don’t you?”
“I haven’t given it much thought.”
“Boy, I sure have. That’s all I ever think about, how it’s best not to be bitter in life. You can’t just go around feeling bitter about all the things you ought to, or you wouldn’t have time for anything else.”
The man spoke quietly. “What are you bitter about?”
“Oh, lots of things. Like you being Jewish and I have to marry a Catholic. Like everybody else gets to go out for lunch, and I have to sit in the office and eat these lousy sandwiches.” Her eyes teared up and she began to lose control. “Like I was supposed to go to college, and instead I had to stay home and help out my parents, who are Catholic anyway, and how am I supposed to find a husband if everyone I meet is either married or Jewish?” She stopped abruptly; she reached into her bag an pulled out a tissue. She silently packed her trash into her sack. “It was very nice meeting you,” she said softly. “I’ll leave you alone now.” She wadded up the sack and prepared to go.
The man spoke quietly, tentatively. “Will you be back tomorrow?”
The woman felt a catch in her throat.: “I could be.”
“I’ll be here.”
“Maybe we could talk again,” she said.
“That would be nice.” He rubbed his Adam’s apple. “You know … I don’t see why I couldn’t marry a Catholic.”
The woman sat very still. She could not quite allow herself to believe what she had heard.
“Are you asking me to marry you?” she asked.
“It was only a matter of time before you asked me,” he said. “This is a preemptive proposal.”
She looked at him a long time. “You wouldn’t mind being married by a priest?”
He pointed to his dark glasses. “How would I know?”
The woman smiled, a relaxed, tender smile, and took his hand. She leaned back contentedly.
“All right,” she said, “but Christmas we’ll have to spend with my folks.”
The two of them sat quietly, hand in hand, as the shadows of the afternoon lengthened into night.
Originally published in Down in the Dirt magazine.