r. Show stood at his easel, painting. In one hand, he held his ebony cigarette holder; in the other, his long-handled brush. An Arabian lamp burned on top of his trunk, and a half circle of citronella candles glowed on the ground at his feet like a theatre’s footlights.
For a long moment, he paused to scrutinize the canvas with careful eyes. He lifted his paintbrush—hesitated, lowered it—slowly raised his cigarette holder—lowered it also. Then, in a flash of inspiration, he confused the two and plunged his cigarette into a daub of yellow on his palette. The burning end sizzled and released an acrid smell. Dr. Show tossed the ruined butt on the ground, then snapped. A new one, already lit, appeared between his fingers. “Voila,” he murmured with a private smile. He was fitting it into his ebony holder when he heard scratching at the canvas wall behind him. “Enter,” he called over his shoulder. Unlike the other performers’ tents, which had zippered flaps for doors, Dr. Schoenberg’s had a pair of blood-red curtains, which hung suspended over the entrance on a wooden dowel. These curtains could be parted dramatically upon entering or exiting, but Webern didn’t bother opening them all the way when he sidled in.
“Hey, Dr. Show.” Webern glanced down at the candles. One hand slid over his hunchback shyly. He hadn’t expected to find the ringmaster lost in the passionate embrace of his art. “I saw the lights—hope I’m not interrupting you or anything.”
“No, no, on the contrary. I’ve slept poorly these past few nights, and my painting helps pass the time. What can I do for you?”
Dr. Schoenberg unfolded his director’s chair and gestured for Webern to sit down. Webern looked at the seat. The gash from Mars Boulder’s sword was painstakingly stitched shut, but he could still see it, raised like a scar.
“I just came up with a new idea for my act.” Webern climbed into the chair and ran his hand over the cover of the marbled notebook. “I figured if you weren’t too busy, maybe we could talk about it.”
“Let’s see it, then.”
Webern flipped the notebook open to the page he’d just finished and handed it to Dr. Schoenberg, who sat down on his cot to examine the pictures. Webern shifted in the director’s chair. His feet didn’t touch the ground, and it was hard to keep from kicking his legs.
“Hmm. Yes. This business with the sailor is hackneyed, of course, but the wind-up idea is rather inspired.” Schoenberg skimmed a finger across the page. “Is there a way to keep the key turning on your back? That would lend greatly to the verisimilitude.”
“Sure, probably, I’ll figure it out. Anyway, this got me thinking, maybe I can do a whole series of acts where I’m different toys.” Schoenberg started to flip back to earlier pages in the notebook: the clown with the mermaid, the ill-fated high wire act. “Don’t look at those, they’re not finished yet, they’re stupid.”
“They look quite spirited, to my eyes. This one in particular—”
“But Dr. Show, listen.” Webern grabbed the notebook back and shut it. “Listen. I can be a tin soldier, a marionette, a rag doll, one of those birds who dunks his head into a water glass. Or other stuff even—a suit of armour, a mannequin. I mean, there’s so much I never thought of before—and the sets can be simple, the whole thing’s so simple really—I can do a different one every week—”
“One thing at a time, my boy, one thing at a time!” Dr. Schoenberg laughed.
“Sorry, boss. It just gets so—I mean, I just have so many ideas.” Webern’s voice squeaked on the last word, and he coughed loudly, embarrassed. Sometimes his brain felt like a little German car, with clowns packed inside so tightly he couldn’t tell if he could ever get them all out. He thought of the crowd at the last show, the woman in the front row who kept checking her watch. “Sorry, Dr. Show.” He forced a smile. “I’m crazy, right?”
“Perhaps. I’m not the one to judge.” Dr. Show wiped the corners of his eyes. “Ah, I remember the days when it seemed that even the darkest of illusions would soon come within my grasp.” He got up and took a bottle of bourbon and two glasses out from behind his trunk. “Care for a nightcap?”
“Okay, sure. Why did you quit being a magician, anyway? I mean, you still know all the tricks and stuff.” The first time Webern met him, Dr. Show had unscrewed the top of a saltshaker and pulled out a white handkerchief with a handful of gold glitter inside. Webern had kept the handkerchief—it was tucked away in his suitcase now—and he still hadn’t blown his nose on it. Small and precious, it reminded him of the tiny envelopes he used to get under his pillow from the tooth fairy before his mother died. “I bet you were great at it.”
Schoenberg handed him a glass of bourbon and sat back down on his cot.
“You flatter me, Bernie. I was exemplary, perhaps, gifted, sharp, and subtle, but try as I might, I always fell just short of true greatness.” He gazed into his drink thoughtfully. “No, my real skill is in orchestrating the feats of others. I have an eye for talent, you know. And, I daresay, a flair for formal composition.”
He nodded at the canvas, and for the first time, Webern noticed what Dr. Show had been painting. It was a self-portrait. In it, Schoenberg cut a dashing figure. His cape blew out behind him, its satin lining rippling in the wind, and his glossy moustache reflected the light of an unseen moon. He stood against a background of rich, midnight blue, reaching out toward the viewer with one elegant hand. Above his outstretched fingers, a red rose bloomed out of the air. A mist obscured his feet, and all over the painting, the colours, dreamy clouds, bled into one another. Though the artist’s intent was not altogether clear, Webern had the impression that the ringmaster was supposed to be gazing down from the velvety realm of the night sky.
“Lovely, isn’t it,” Schoenberg observed. He sipped his bourbon. “I believe it’s one of my best. At first I thought I might add some constellations, but I concluded that would detract too much from the focus.” Webern nodded. Dr. Show was always working on his self-portraits, and it cracked Nepenthe up. He thought of their afternoon on the banks of Beer Can Creek, the quick rasp of the Lizard Girl’s hands like pumice stone on his back, and wondered how soon she would be awake.
“…most serendipitous,” Dr. Show was saying. “You were just the man I wanted to see.”
“That’s nice. What about?” Webern drank some more bourbon. It tasted different than usual—less like gasoline. It occurred to him that this was a bottle from Dr. Show’s private stash.
Schoenberg stirred his drink with one languid finger. “Do you think I’m—liked in our little company? Well respected, all that?”
“Sure, Dr. Show.”
“Yes. Hmm.” Schoenberg discovered a fleck of paint on his cuff and rubbed it away thoughtfully. “I thank you for the reassurance, Bernie. But, speaking quite confidentially, I must admit I’ve noticed a change in the manner of your fellow performers since Paradise Beach. Brunhilde has long made her displeasure known, but I fear her low spirits have begun to affect some of the others. The other day, I overheard Al, of all people, expressing his doubts that I even intend to plan a new itinerary. As you might imagine, upon hearing that I felt greatly—exasperated.”
Dr. Schoenberg pressed a forefinger to his temple and fell silent. Webern looked down at his notebook. The black and white blotches on its marbled cover made shapes like bad weather: tornadoes, mushroom clouds, a falling star.
“Greatly exasperated. You understand, I’m certain.”
“I’m sure that Al didn’t mean it the way it sounded.”
“No, no. I quite understand his concern. I need to regain my performers’ trust. That’s why I wished to speak with you—I think you may be able to lend some assistance.”
♦ ♦ ♦
“Do you know why I chose this town, Bernie, rather than any other?”
The Cadillac bounced down the lumpy dirt road. A discarded mattress lay in the ditch, along with a deflated inner tube and what looked like the sorry remains of an ancient Christmas tree. A skinny cat darted out from a patch of scrub pine, and Schoenberg braked to let it pass.
“Um—well, because—we were supposed to go to South Carolina…” Webern cranked down the passenger side window an inch. Dr. Schoenberg was still smoking energetically from his cigarette holder, and along with the two bourbons he’d had back at the tent, the thick cloud made Webern feel drowsy, almost hypnotized.
“Yes, that’s true. But do you know why I chose Lynchville in particular?”
“I didn’t know there was a more particular reason than that.” Webern stretched, then looked at his wrist. He wasn’t wearing a watch. “I hate to change the subject, Dr. Show, but do you think you could maybe tell me where we’re going? It’s getting kind of late, and I…”
“Truer words were never spoken, my boy. But though the eleventh hour has come and gone, you may find I still have a trick or two left up my sleeve.” Dr. Show touched the cigarette holder again to his lips. “Have you ever heard of a man named Kingsley Golden, by any chance?”
“It sounds familiar.” Webern smothered a yawn as the car rumbled over a set of train tracks. “Was he some kind of businessman or something?”
“Ah.” Dr. Schoenberg smiled ruefully. “How quickly they forget. When I was a boy, Kingsley Golden was a household name. The newsmen dubbed him King Midas, because his every enterprise prospered so gloriously. But alas, the fall of ’29 brought his empire to its knees. I had the luck of experiencing his greatest achievement some half-dozen years before it vanished for good.
“It may interest you that Kingsley Golden began his career as an inventor of mechanical toys.” The Cadillac breezed past a stop sign. “Golden possessed a peculiar sensitivity toward the workings of machinery. In his youth—or so I have read—he would steal away from his bed in the small hours to dissect his family’s clocks. Clocks, Bernie! The child was mad. And his obsession only grew more intense with age. As a young man, he rose rapidly in the ranks of the Knickknack Toy Company, but soon the small innovations that delighted his employers no longer interested him. He decided to go into business for himself, and thus Golden Toys was born.”
“Golden Toys?” Webern’s sleepiness evaporated. Again, he saw those dusty toystore shelves, the glossy hues of painted metal, the delicate machinery that buzzed and trembled like something alive. Alive, but miniature. Manmade. “You’re kidding. I used to play with them all the time when I was a kid. Wind-up toys, right? Like in my new act.”
“The company lives on to this day, manufacturing racecars and other forgettable trinkets of cheap metal and paint. But these sorry imitations cannot compare with the glories of Golden Toys in their heyday. I possessed only one myself, a pair of clockwork pool players who took their shots at the turn of a key. But there were dozens even more ingenious that I glimpsed in the windows of shops and the grubby paws of my less austere playmates. Meanwhile, Golden was earning a reputation as an exacting tyrant who ran his workers ragged.” Schoenberg exhaled a plume of smoke thoughtfully. “I must admit, he served as an inspiration for me in those days.”
“I’m still not exactly sure where you’re taking me, Dr. Show.”
“Patience, my boy, patience! All in good time.
“As his company prospered, Golden again longed for a new challenge, a project that could wholly consume his tireless genius. Before, he had absorbed himself in the delicate machinery of the miniature, but now his mind turned toward the monumental. Genius often takes this turn; I have seen it in myself. No great man wants to leave the world without some grand notice of his passing, some Colossus to stand long after, crying, ‘He did live!’ I presume our circus will survive me, and continue to bear my name. Likewise, Kingsley Golden began work on an enterprise that he then believed would last into the ages. But it was not to be.
“Goldenland, the world’s first wholly mechanical amusement park—I remember it well. Its doors first opened on June 1, 1920. Though I did not pay my visit there ’til three years later, I observed the advertisements with much interest. In fact, one picture, which I tore from the local newspaper, took a prominent space on my bedroom wall, alongside the portraits of great magicians and my own early artistic efforts. I’m glad to say I still have it now.”
Schoenberg allowed the car to crunch to a stop and reached into the inside pocket of his tuxedo jacket. Webern peered out the windshield. Purple-dark clouds clotted the sky—it was starting to drizzle. Schoenberg unfolded a brittle piece of newsprint, then smoothed it on the dashboard before he handed it to Webern.
In the dim light of the car, Webern could barely make out the faded lines and shadings that marked the yellowed page. Faintly, he glimpsed the stripes of a wrought-iron gate, and behind that, the curving spine of a roller coaster track. He brought the paper close to his eye. Thunder rolled in the distance. “I can’t believe you kept this all these years,” he said.
“Not so odd, really. Goldenland worked a curious enchantment on my youthful mind. When I left home at seventeen, it was the first stop on my journey. And this—”
He tapped the paper.
“—was my map.”
Webern stared down at the picture, at the small caption along the bottom. Lightning cracked across the sky, and, in the white flash, he could read the words written there: The Goldenland Amusement Park, Lynchville, West Virginia. A car door slammed. Webern looked up—“Hey, wait a min—”—but Dr. Show was already outside, disappearing into the night and the rain.
The amusement park, as it turned out, had not been torn down, altered, or indeed entered since its final closing. But years of exposure to the elements had taken a toll. Much to Webern’s surprise, Goldenland’s padlock crushed to rusty dust beneath Mars Boulder’s sword, and its wrought-iron gate swung open easily, though with an awful scream. Inside, the grounds looked dark and jungly, grown high with spindly weeds. A ticket booth loomed like an elephant’s gravestone. When Schoenberg strode inside, Webern, against his better judgement, found himself following just behind.
Flashes of lightning illuminated the sky, and the rain began to fall more heavily, but still Dr. Show continued on. His plan, he explained, hacking his blade through the grasses like a machete, was to take a relic from the park—a dancing automaton, perhaps, or maybe a mechanical car—and feature it in his circus. It was not theft, but an homage to the grand master Golden, whose work had inspired him since childhood. And now, Golden’s work would inspire others, bring new life to the show; even Brunhilde would have to admit that. Webern tried to listen, but it was difficult to concentrate. Raindrops rolled down his glasses, and brambles clawed his pant legs. Schoenberg pointed out attractions as they passed: the world’s largest cuckoo clock, a nightmare of doors and rotting shingles; miniature gondolas beached in stagnant water; a child-sized train frozen on a bend in the track; a clockwork Punch and Judy, motionless behind the ragged curtains of a long-deserted puppet theater. As Webern walked through the ruined park, the sights he had seen in Lynchville began to make more sense to him. How could the descendants of laid-off amusement park workers learn to love a circus, when their own palace of delights had so thoroughly betrayed them?
Schoenberg finally settled on a merry-go-round. It was a small one, with only four steeds—a unicorn, a rabbit, a squirrel, and an ostrich—and its base stood conveniently mounted on wheels. Schoenberg remembered it moving to different parts of the park throughout the day, and to see if it would still roll, he gave it a mighty shove. The wheels ground the gravel, and he jumped back in delight.
“Ah, this—this is what I came for,” Schoenberg cried. “Bernie, to the Cadillac! We must hitch this to the back somehow.”
Webern stared at the squirrel’s face, its orange tears of rust, the hollow where one glass eye was missing. For the first time, he allowed himself to wonder if Schoenberg really was crazy.
“Do you think this thing’s worth it, boss? It might not even work.”
“This is a mechanical marvel, my boy. A dab of grease, a cog or two, and it will run smoothly once more.” Schoenberg slapped the rabbit’s thigh. “Ah, and I thought I would never return. Perhaps one day, with the proceeds from our show, I could get this park up and running again. You should have seen the crowds back then—the vendors of balloons and cotton candy—the children—and I still nearly one myself. To think how the world spilled out for me, that day. All my life ahead… I thought I would possess it all, I truly did. Foolish, perhaps, but I had such ambition, with my deck of cards and my cage of doves. . . . I remember my hands in those days, so nimble, so deft. My mother called them a pianist’s hands, a pianist’s or a surgeon’s, but I knew better. She never understood. I had a magician’s hands.”
Something strange had come into Schoenberg’s voice, and Webern could feel it filling his own chest too. It was as though he and the ringmaster had disappeared into that faded newsprint picture, as though they might never come out. Nepenthe, lying in her kiddy pool, seemed very far away. Dr. Show cleared his throat, and Webern looked up sharply, blinking fast.
Dr. Show manoeuvred the Cadillac carefully between the ticket booths and concession stands, and they lashed the merry-go-round to its back bumper with the tightrope he kept in the trunk. But when they went to get back in the car, he stopped at the driver’s side door and lightly drummed the roof. A strange expression still lingered on his face, and he looked at Webern almost pleadingly, as though he expected his young accomplice to dissolve into nothing at any moment and was trying, through sheer willpower, to keep him from vanishing.
“Bernie,” he said. He spun his keys around one finger. “You are sixteen now. Wouldn’t you like to drive?”