We had a lot in common, Lola and me. We joined the 10-in-1 the same year, when we were both still kids, but the management seemed to neither notice nor mind. We each got paid $150 a week, better than almost anybody else in the company. At least four times what she’d make working in a clerical pool, Lola had said. We both liked rock candy. And, like the pressure cooker I’d seen at the World’s Fair, we both had a steam release. Lola had laughed when I’d told her, but it was true: just the way that salesman’s thumb pressed the regulator weight on a nozzle next to the lid handle, we’d each found a way to let out some of what made us different so that we wouldn’t blow up. Neither of us slept much.
The Parkes-Maximus American Circus and Museum of Wonders wasn’t such a bad place. I got three squares and a bed from March to November and I made enough money to hold me over on the off-season. There were rules for Parkes-Maximus employees, mostly about fraternization between the equestriennes and ballet girls with the likes of us. But the born curiosities kept to themselves, like the wolf-man and the half-lady. The management treated them pretty well cause they’d be hard to replace. The made curiosities kept with the made. The novelty acts kept to themselves. And, the gaffed acts, why those were just cons. They might fool the audience, but none of the rest of us would play a hand of cards with ‘em. There were folks in the circus who were jerks and folks who were decent enough, just like any job anywhere. And then there was Lola. She was so kind; it was hard to reconcile her sweet face with the illustrated rest of her.
Lola wore a floor-length silk robe in spring and a velvet robe in fall. Underneath she wore a green satin bathing costume that ended about four inches above her knees. Among all ten attractions in the tent, Lola was the one that seemed to most amaze. More than the blind young snake-charmer, more than the bearded lady, more than the two pygmies from a far pagan land. Even more than what I could show ‘em. Once she untied her robe, the tent fell silent. If across her shoulders was tattooed the Last Supper, folks would see the eyes of Christ regarding them with tender mercy. If down one arm was a soldier erecting our nation’s flag, why any man who’d ever served would see himself and his fallen friends. Housewives saw themselves and their own in the Madonna and child. Little boys saw themselves in Tom Mix on her thigh. Lola’s body showed people the truth about themselves. Every inked inch of her a wonder.
On my platform, I’d hold a bare bulb in my hands and folks’d watch it incandesce at my touch. I’d roll up my sleeves to show there was no wire or trick to it. The bulb would grow brighter the more I pressed, casting the rest of the tent in shadows and nobody but Lola and me in the light.
I’d kissed her once. It was the day she’d turned nineteen. Her silk robe had slipped off one decorated shoulder and I couldn’t help myself. When I kissed a collection of dark stars, the black outline of a crescent moon appeared on her shoulder.
Nobody got too wise to Lola’s abilities. We weren’t in any one city longer than a week, and Lola traveled with a proper tattooing machine, sort of an adaptation of Edison’s electric pen. There was a reservoir for ink, and a tubular handle with a little gauge and a reciprocal needle. On Sunday nights, when the show was dark, we could hear the hum of the electromotor as Lola passed it across her skin, transforming old portraits into new. What I knew was that there was no ink in it at all. All Lola needed was to be touched and her illustrations would tell the story. It was impossible for her to lie.
Back on my cot, electrons danced between my fingertips. As I thought about Lola, the camp lights would ebb and glow. I could even make her whirring needle stop if I put my mind to it.
One Sunday, I went to see if she needed help. I could be the one at least to pass the empty needle across the apostles on her back. Lola handed me the armature. She was quiet, just swinging one dear decorated foot to the needle-whirr and eating rock candy. Quiet was fine. I knew her and she knew me. After a while, other faces appeared and other flowers grew and other flags waved on Lola. And, when I looked down at her lovely leg, I saw a face I knew. The blind Indian was drawn above her ankle just as clear and true as a photograph. As she flexed her little foot, he raised his reed and the illustrated basket opened. Instead of a cobra uncurling to the imaginary music, a flurry of hearts and stars emerged. They drifted up the curve of her calf and under her robe where I could not see. Then Lola’s own silhouette, which I’d recognize in any form, arose from the basket, each fine finger curled and coaxing the drawn Indian. The real Lola was blushing. That much I could still see, her rosy hue cast across every story she wore.
The sparks flew from my fingertips radiant green. My hair stood on end and even my woolen socks pulled away from my feet. The nearest town was almost mile out from the field where our tents were staked. And still, all those regular people in their regular homes had their lights go out that night. All those folks, awake in the deepest dark and quiet, not sure what was going to happen next.
Listen to Written on the Skin on The Story Coterie podcast.