Posted on | February 3, 2010 | No Comments
NOT LONG AGO, A FREAK NAMED
Grady Stiles sucked on a Seagram’s 7 and Coke, fired up a Pall Mall, and stared at the moist image of actress Sherilyn Fenn and her genetically fine boobies on the TV screen. This was in his trailer home near Tampa, Florida, in a town called Gibson-ton. Grady was in his favorite easy chair, knocking back his drink. Who knows what he was thinking. Fifty-five years old, a lifelong veteran of the freak-show circuit, he’s the Lobster Boy, a stump of a man born morosely deformed: fingers fused but split in two, curving clawlike; lower legs not really legs but flippers.
“I am married, with two normal children and two like me,” he would tell the marks who came into his sideshow tent. “It’s existed in my family for 152 years. It’s in the genes. My great-grandfather, my great-aunt, and my father were like this.”
Well into that 152nd year, sitting there in a T-shirt and underpants, the Lobster Boy lit another Pall Mall. His skin was yellow. His eyes were yellow. His liver was sponge. His fingernails were long and sharp. He rolled his head. Someone had come into his place.
“Get the fuck out of my house,” he snarled. “Don’t you ever come around here again.”
According to the cops, the visitor was Christopher Wyant, a seventeen-year-old skeezball from up the street. He had a .32 in his hand and $1,500 in his possession, the amount he had been paid for what he did next. Wyant allegedly shot Grady three times in the back of the head. Grady slumped forward. He was quite blown away. In fact, he was dead.
Wyant made his escape. The police arrived. They questioned Grady’s family:
his wife Mary Teresa, who was a normal; his lobster daughter Cathy Berry; Cathy’s husband Tyrill Berry, a normal; Grady’s lobster son, Grady III; and Harry Glenn Newman, Mary Teresa’s son from her marriage to a sideshow dwarf.
The stepson, young Glenn Newman, an eighteen-year-old with an IQ in the upper seventies, insisted he knew nothing. But after flunking a polygraph test he came clean. His father was abusing the family, he said, and yes, it was he who had hired the killer. His mom, Grady’s wife, had supplied the money. The police arrested the trio and charged them with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder, to which they all pleaded not guilty. When mother and son go to trial later this year they will claim battered-wife and battered-child syndrome. They will claim that Grady was an abusive monster who was out to kill them if they didn’t kill him first.
In such a sordid fashion did Grady Stiles meet his end. And thus was the apotheosis of the Lobster Boy achieved. For he had been no ordinary freak. He had been the last of them to parade across this country, his freakishness up on a platform, on display. And now he was gone, leaving his audience to ponder his life and his death, and what it might mean, if anything, for all those left behind.
THE AREA AROUND GIBSONTON IS JUST
as shitty as the rest of central Florida. Out on U.S. 41 is the Bullfrog Lounge, and the big North American Salt Company plant, and the massive stacks of the Tampa Electric Company power station. The place has got some drifting odors. There are drive-through package stores, with Pintos driving through them, and tan cinder-block porno parlors, all beat on by way too much heat.
Gibsonton—Gibtown as it’s known—is where the nation’s carnival workers live during their winters off. They first came in 1924, for the snook fishing in the Alafia River. Soon after, special zoning laws were passed to allow them to keep their trucks and animals on their property. Today, most everyone lives in mobile homes of no recognizable color. The hub for many of them is the Showtown USA lounge. Or the Show-men’s Club. It’s got a big bar too.
As a journalistic story, Gibsonton has always been a chestnut. Reporters love swooping down from their Manhattan headquarters to scribble lines on the anachronistic oddballs living there. With the death of the Lobster Boy, however, the old story got a fresh angle. Love and life among the freaks was out; killing was in. And a perfect ‘90s killing at that, with allegations of hit kids and physical abuse. “There was claws for alarm,” wrote one inspired reporter.
Like the rest of the pack, I arrived in town one hot day and talked to as many people in the business as I could. The first thing I learned was that there has never been a more prodigious alcoholic than Grady Stiles. He was a gallon-a-day man, or better. Besides his boozing, though, most people claimed not to have really known him. That, or they suggested that maybe he was none of my business.
I got in my car and swung south on 41, thinking of a picture I’d seen of the Lobster Boy taken at the age of ten or so. His hair was dark, shiny, and slicked back; he was wearing shorts and a nice white shirt; he was chubby. And he was smiling. I thought immediately of lovable Spanky from Our Gang. But, of course, Spanky had never held up his hands to reveal strange, otherworldly claws; nor from beneath his dimpled knees did ffippers ever curl. I wondered about fate, and physical beauty, and the intersection of one with the other. Then, turning left onto Symmes, I drove under a seamless blue sky, with funnel clouds and light hail expected, to the trailer where the Lobster Boy had spent many an off-season Florida day.
THERE WERE A LOT OF OTHER TRAILERS
around it. His was the tidy one. Inside I saw his daughter, Cathy Berry, vacuuming, the empty legs of her stonewashed jeans trailing behind her. I called out. Cathy’s husband• Tyrill led me past two wheelchairs into the trailer. It was extremely warm in there. Two floor fans pushed the air some. There was a bullet hole in the ceiling.
Cathy got up on a chair. She was heavyset, with dark hair parted in the middle and a quick, brooding glower. Her brother, Grady III, age seventeen, sat across from her. Her daughter Misty, three, was rolling around on the floor. Both Cathy and Grady III had the lobster deformity, Grady less so, with fewer fused fingers. But not even Cathy had it like Misty. Misty was missing most of her right arm; her left hand was a single digit; her legs were little waving paddles. She was crying.
“She’s a bit skittish around strangers,” Cathy said to me. “Come on, come on, it’s okay,” she said to Misty. “Look, it’s okay.”
Misty settled down. I noticed then that she had a face like a doll’s. It was as round as her father’s but soft and surrounded by light, spilling curls. Tyrill gathered her up to his shoulder while Cathy and Grady began telling me what they knew of their father and his monstrous cruelty.
After a while I said, “It’s hard to see the human in him.”
Cathy said, “It’s hard because he’s not what I would call a human person.”
WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT IT, IT IS A WONDER
that any of us are born intact. It’s a miracle every time. So many things can go wrong, leaving you a Siamese twin, or destined to weigh a ton. A midget, a dwarf, a giant. A human skeleton or a bearded woman. You could be born armless, legless, limbless. A pinhead. Three-limbed or five-limbed. A monorchid. A hermaphrodite. With three eyes. Or four breasts. The catalogue is infinite.
One hundred fifty-two years ago, the Stiles family strolled along the way everyone else strolled along, and held a fork the way everyone else held a fork. Then strangeness visited. The strangeness took the form of deformed hands on a newborn baby—cleft-hand syndrome—and of a new, transmittable gene. In the future, the gene would maybe strike one baby and not another. It worked randomly, but it always moved forward.
Grady Stiles II was born in Pittsburgh in 1937. He was the fourth generation of Stileses to have the syndrome. At the age of six he began working with his father in the carnival business. They were known as the Lobster Family. Unlike his father, Grady grew flippers instead of lower legs. His arms were urmaturally strong. Between shows he would swing down the midway on his hands and knees—”moving like a frog,” a bearded lady told me—and bite the marks. The marks would think it was a dog until they turned around and saw little Grady, split hands waving in the air, laughing at them. He was around six years old at the time. What kind of kid would do this? Was he reacting to an unkind public, which stared at him and snickered at him and treated him like a dog? Or was he born a bad seed?
In the beginning, the Lobster Family traveled with the Lorow Bros. multifreak 10-in-1 show. In the mid-50s, however, father and son quit the 10-in-i and went independent with a single-O, working for no one but themselves. They were both big boozers. Grady’s father dropped out of the business in 1961, but Grady kept on going.
“I can’t wait to get back to work,” he once said. “I don’t know if you can understand that. I really enjoy being out there. I really do.” He also said, “The way I am, that’s the way the good Lord wanted me, that’s the way it is, and I love it.” And, on another occasion, “It would have broken my heart to be normal.”
“He loved working to the public,” Cathy told me more recently. “He loved the conditions. He loved the way it was.”
On the other hand, how was anyone to really know? How would Grady himself even know?
ONE THING IS CERTAIN, HOWEVER: GRADY
loved getting married. He married Mary Teresa in 1959, had Cathy and Donna.
Their first few years together seem to have been uneventful. “He started to change in 1963,” Mary Teresa wrote in a document prepared for her defense. “He started drinking a lot. He would stay out drinking and playing cards all night. Sometimes for days.” Then, in 1973, he lured a sideshow dwarf named Harry Glenn Newman into his employ, away from the great freak-show entrepreneur Ward Hall. Shortly thereafter, Grady threw Mary Teresa out; she went off with Newman, leaving Grady with the kids. Grady married a woman named Barbara. He divorced and remarried her maybe five times. In 1989 he left her for good. Then, in a final romantic swirl, he remarried Mary Teresa.
Every season from March until November, Grady and family (whichever family it was) hopscotched the country, jumping from the beat towns of Berea, Ohio, and Bangor, Maine, to the great carnival-loving communities of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and
Birmingham, Alabama. They’d pull into town and raise the huge yellow-and-white Lobster Boy tent. They’d erect Grady’s platform and place his cushion on it. They’d stretch out forty-foot–long banners on which were several colorful, eye-catching representations: of a young man underwater catching fish with his hands; of a doctor, a swaddled baby, and a screaming mother. To the more cynical marks, one of the banners called out: $10,000 REWARD IF NOT REAL AND ALIVE!
The family did well. When he wasn’t drunk, Grady was clever. He knew how to grease the lot man’s palm to get a good position, not by the kiddie rides, where his business would die, but back next to a major or a spectacular, a Tilt-A-Whirl or a Flying Bobsled. Rarely did he let Cathy and little Grady go out on the midway; and when he did, he made them wear leather gloves. He knew the marks would not pay to see what they’d already seen for free.
After awhile, $50,000 gross was an average year; $80,000-plus a good one. Grady had other attractions in addition to his own. He had a gorilla illusion, a snake illusion, a freak animal exhibit, and a 10-in-i. But of them all, it was always the Lobster Boy show, at a buck a pop, that drew the biggest crowds and raked in the most dough.
“He was powerful,” the dwarf Harry Glenn Newman told me one evening.
“Why?” I asked him. “The source of his power—what was it?”
Newman, fifty, several years retired from carny life, was stretched out on the floor inside the Stileses’ trailer, cradled by a pillow, oxygen flowing through a clear plastic tube into his nose. He lit another cigarette. “I don’t know,” he said.
“But oh my, he was powerful. I used to hate to sit next to him. To see a human form like that—powerful!”
HARRY GLENN NEWMAN KEPT ON TALKING, and I kept on listening. He was an open, charming man. “I did fire, ate fire,” he said, with considerable pride. “I used to make fire come out of my nose like a torch, and people lit cigarettes off it. Only one in the business that could do it.
“Colored women,” he went on, “they want to come up and touch you. They believe it’s good luck to touch a small person. They say, ‘Drop your pants.’ They
want to see your body. Colored people. They can drive you crazy.
“Yup, I knew Lionel the Lion-Faced Boy, and Bill Durks, the Two-Faced Man, real well. Used to make me sick to have to sit down and eat with him.
“Do I miss the sideshow life?” he continued. “Only when the spring comes in. I get those itchy feet. I’m all ready to go. See, I’ve done this since I was twelve years old. I can’t ever get it out of my system.”
FREAKS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN FULL OF SiGnificance to the nonfreaks around them. In antiquity they were regarded as holy, either on the dark side or the light side. They were a sign from the gods, either worshiped or killed. This lasted until the seventeenth century, when freaks became, in theory, the whimsical products of Nature personified. Dwarves, for one, were upgraded in religious classification from mirabilia monstrum to mirabilia hominum. It was also around this time that freaks were first put on exhibit—in courts, in houses of the rich, and at fairs. As lusus naturae, they were an entirely legitimate source of entertainment and, of course, awe.
It is less clear what they are now. Objects of sympathy and scientific scrutiny, they don’t seem to be legitimate sources of midway amusement. Somehow, though, who they are still seems to be mixed up in who we are, and vice versa.
“Some of the marks paid to see our dad,” little Grady once said, “and then they spit on him.”
For the audience, a visit to the freak show has always held the potential for psychic confrontation. It could be mind-expanding. Or it could freak you out.
I STOPPED BY MELVIN BURKHART’S TRAILER.
Mel, eighty-seven, is an anatomical wonder and human blockhead, now semiretired, but still pretty active.
“Hey, watch this!” Mel said while I was sitting there.
He jumped up, grabbed a hammer, and banged a six-inch spike into his nose until it disappeared.
This was good, frightening stuff, but only of the kind now being popularized by such impresarios as Jim Rose on the Lollapalooza tour. It’s a skill, more or less; in other cases, gaffed or bought. Anyone can get tattoos or be taught to swallow swords. In a way, Mel wasn’t a freak like Grady was a freak. No one stared when Mel entered a Wendy’s. I moved on.
I had a brief talk with Percilla the Monkey Girl, who retired from the business ten years ago and shaved off her beard. “Sideshow people are beautiful,” she said. “All the freaks today are out on the highway in their cars killing people.
“Now,” she said, “you take it from there.” I went to see Jeanie Tomaini, age seventyseven. Jeanie owns Giant’s Camp restaurant and bait shop where the Alafia River opens up into Hillsborough Bay. She and her late husband Al used to work the circuit as the World’s Strangest Married Couple. Al was a giant, eight foot four; Jeanie has no legs and is two foot six. The day I saw her, she was demure and perched on a stool, smiling.
“I was adopted Out of an orphanage by a woman who thought I’d be a good proposition,” she said. “Her husband was a circus man. She took me and put me to work. I was with her until I got married to Al.
“I loved it,” she continued. “Oh, we traveled all the time! We met different people! Sure, the public wanted to gawk— that’s what they came for. But I didn’t mind. If you resent being there, you’re in a heap of trouble.
“I don’t know. I guess we felt we were where we belonged. We had a place in life.”
FOR OVER FIFTY YEARS, STARTING AROUND
1900, this country was filled with freaks who had found a place in life and a calling. There weren’t a lot of do-gooders to harass them, no public dole. Freak shows were everywhere. You went to a carnival and you were assured of seeing them in the Odditorium, the Congress of Human Wonders, or the Museum of Nature’s Mistakes.
All the greats were out. Jo-Jo the Dog-faced Boy. The hermaphrodite JosephJosephine. Sealo the Seal Boy. The pinhead Schlitze, so tender and mild. The Monkey Girl Percilla and her Alligator Boy husband Emmitt. Johnny Eck, the most famous half-man of all time and an accomplished band leader as well. Frank Lentini, the three-legged man. (“Could kick the shit out of you with that third leg, too,” a carny told me.) Grace McDaniels, the Mule-Faced Woman. And one of the biggest sideshow draws in history, Betty Lou Williams, with two legs and an arm—the vestiges of a twin sister—growing out of her stomach.
Now most of them are dead or retired. They live on only as a kind of cultural memory, vaguely familiar from appearances in books both learned (Leslie Fiedler’s Freaks:
Myths and Images of the Secret Self) and sentimental (Frederick Drimmer’s Very Special People); in mesmerizing photographs by Diane Arbus and Randy Levenson; and in the terrifying 1932 movie Freaks, directed by Tod Browning.
That movie, especially, is the great repository and explicator of the freak world. Its moving images of actual freaks are the stuff of troubled nights. And, of course, it’s been an acid trip on acetate for several generations of longhairs and hipsters up to and beyond the Ramones, who reprised the film’s final horrific wedding-feast chant:
We accept you
One of us.
IN THEY WOULD FILE, A CONTINUOUS
stream, sixty marks, seventy marks, a great big group, out of the sunlight, into the tent, yellow and white, through the shadows, around and up the side.
There on the platform, sitting at an angle on his little white cushion, was the Lobster Boy. Real and alive. In black satin shorts and nothing else.
His hands he did not hide. His flippers dangled for all to see. His head was big and bald. And his naked chest, it was built like a barrel.
The Lobster Boy got a Pall Mall red going. He had a Lipton Ice Tea beside him, as well as a glass of Seagram’s 7 and Coke, a double. He smoked the shit out of his smokes and drank the shit out of his drinks. Sometimes he would fall over and have to be righted. Sometimes he would pee himself. Sometimes he would do worse things. But mostly he made it through.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, I am the Lobster Boy.. . . This condition is not caused by any diseases or drugs. . . . My family is the only one in the world known to medical science with this condition….”
After finishing, he just hung there, smoking up a storm, awaiting questions or comments. Some people stepped back just as some other people, hicks and yahoos, stepped forward.
“Those are gloves!”
“I bet you had plastic surgery to look like that, so you could make money off us!”
“If your daughter was born like that, your wife and you shoulda killed it a long time ago!”
The Lobster Boy sucked on his Lipton Ice Tea and scanned the marks. Nothing touched him. The words of the public left him umnoved. His eyes were icy, icy blue.
After a few minutes, though, he was ready to clear them out of there, to make room for more. So he bolted off his pillow and jumped across the stage. The marks fell back, swatting at the air. A girl shrieked. People ran. The Lobster Boy had emptied his tent.
“WAS GRADY DIFFERENT FROM THE REST?’
I asked Ward Hall. “Was he one of them?” A humorous man blessed with a wonderfully mobile face, Ward Hall is the last of the sideshow entrepreneurs, a man who has been in the business for nearly fifty years. His current show features lots of wax figures of departed star freaks; he has even considered not going out this spring.
To my question he gave a rude snort.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people who worked for me,” he said, “joined because they wanted to be in… show business!”
In Ward’s world, I rather quickly learned, sideshow freaks were not freaks but entertainers. Their lives were not their only performance. They had to do something else: juggle with their stumps if armless, for instance.
“Everybody had to do something to entertain,” Ward told me. “Without entertainment, you don’t have a show. You only have an exhibit.”
“And what about Grady?” I asked.
Ward shrugged. “Well, with Grady it wasn’t a case of Hey, what can I do to get into show business? He was born in the business.” He was just—the Lobster Boy.
I GOT ON 41 AND DROVE to the Showmen’s Club, where carnival historian George Sanders gave me a tour of the Museum of the Carnival. George spoke with some exasperation about how when people visit the museum they mostly want to know about the freaks—”the very special people,” to use his term—when the carnival is much more than them. I asked if he had anything of Grady’s. He sighed, opened a display case, and let me grip the Lobster Boy’s personal shot glass from the Showmen’s Club. It had a nice feel to it. The glass tapered toward the base. No matter how much booze flowed through Grady, the shot glass could never slip through his hands.
Besides this, I came to know several other things about the Lobster Boy’s hands. Primarily, of course, that they made him what he was on the circuit. Also, that they made a fine and handy weapon.
“Two fingers on each, so two nails, and he kept those nails very sharp. Razor sharp. He used a nail file. Or else he’d run ‘em down the side of his platform.”
“You know how you’d sting somebody with a towel? He could flip his fingers, and
they would land and snap, raising a welt on the skin.”
“He’d zip off the wheelchair, be on his claws, and scoot along the ground. He’d hit you behind your knees. You’d buckle. He’d put his long finger—it’s like an Alaskan king-crab claw—under your chin; people’d say they thought they were gonna die.”
“Zip” is, in fact, how fast he moved, leg stumps hitting the ground double-time. “He wasn’t a quadriplegic,” his family told me. “He was a quadruped.” “He could run like hell,” one carny said. “He’d run on all fours and it’d sound like a herd of wild elephants.”
A lot of times, though, especially when he was drinking hard, he’d be unable to move at all. During those times, he’d go two or three days without eating. He would lie in bed faceup. He saw things.
“Help me, help me,” he screamed. “Get it off me.” He did not see lobsters. He saw great big bugs. Snakes. Bats. He saw demons.
ONE DAY, WARD HALL TOOK ME OUT TO
his winter quarters, to a lot strewn with trucks, trailers, and stuff.
“Say hello to Little Pete,” he said to me. A dwarf ambled over. He was old and wore a hearing aid. He tipped his head.
“Hello, Little Pete,” I said, not offering him my hand.
“Hello,” he said, and walked away.
I looked at him go. Guilt is part of what I felt for having engaged him so cavalierly:
Hello, Little Pete. But what else could I do? If anything, it did not occur to me.
“In general,” Ward was saying, “human oddities are the most well-adjusted people you will ever meet. They don’t have hangups, they don’t get depressed. And many of them even have the attitude that God has treated us better than he has treated you, because he has made us different so we can be in demand. There are exceptions, however.”
I thought of Grady’s long family history. For the Stileses the thought of the lobster syndrome must have existed all the time, circulating through both forebrain and depths. What terrors did a first act of sexual intercourse hold? With what dread did a Stiles anticipate the birth of a new family member?
“Let me ask you something,” Ward Hall said to me. “What is strange? What is st range?”
GRADY: ‘WHERE’S MY GODDAMN DRINK!’
Wife Barbara, according to a witness: “It’s coming, you sonofabitch.”
Barbara: “You’d better get your hands off me, you sonofabitch.”
Grady: “Well, I’ll kill you, you—”
Barbara: “You’d better watch out and not go to sleep tonight.”
Grady laughed. Barbara cried.
In Connecticut one season, Grady began jumping on Barbara and ripping the rings off her fingers. He flushed them down the trailer toilet. He forced Barbara to find them by sifting through the contents of the holding tank.
“If we smelled anything on the midway,” one witness recalled, “we’d say, ‘Oh, Barbara must be looking for her jewelry again.”
In September 1978, in Pennsylvania, Grady’s daughter Donna got pissed off at her dad and ran away from home with an eighteen-year-old boy named Jack Layne. Grady told her he would kill him. One day she called her dad and told him Jack had gotten her pregnant (a lie) and that she wanted to marry him (the truth).
“Okay,” Grady said with a fatherly sigh. “You better come home so we can make arrangements.”
When Jack and Donna arrived at Grady’s place, they noticed that Grady’s wheelchair was missing from the porch. Donna walked up the street to look for it. Jack strolled inside the trailer with Grady. Without warning, Grady produced a gun. His hands may have been deformed but he still had two fingers, and that was all it took to pull a trigger.
Outside, Donna was halfway around the block when the shooting started. She ran back home, arriving just as Jack stumbled off the porch, falling to the ground, coughing, blood dribbling out of his mouth. Donna knelt beside him. Jack said, “He shot me.” Donna looked up. Her father was framed in a window, looking out at her. Smiling.
“Why did you do this?” she cried.
“Because I told you I would,” he said.
Arrested and tried, Grady was convicted of third-degree murder and given fifteen years’ probation. The state apparently didn’t have the facilities to care for a man like him. Moreover, from the presentence report, it is clear that he’d suckered the state: It viewed him as a “good family person” and “a very loving parent,” who knew of no other way except murder to keep his daughter from marrying a man he did not like. The assistant district attorney called it the toughest sentencing case he had ever had. So tough, in fact, that he made no recommendation whatsoever. Later, Grady would brag that he had gotten away with murder.
KNOWING THAT THIS HAD HAPPENED WAS
too much for me. Was Grady so evil at the core that he’d never seen himself for what he was? Had the outward freak never glimpsed the awful truth: that he was by far a bigger freak inside?
I dialed up the only person I thought might know—Monsignor Robert McCarthy, the so-called Carny Priest. I’d read about Father Mac and his traveling carnival ministering. I’d also read his special camy prayer:
Oh, magic of the midway.
Earning dollars in the dust.
It’s a wonder world we work in
As in our God we trust.
I asked him, “Did Grady ever seek spiritual advice?”
The monsignor chuckled. “No no no, never. Nothing like that.”
“No counsel, no nothing like that?”
“Oh no no no no, never.”
I shuddered. Just who was the Lobster Boy?
“He had a terrific sense of humor,” the cleric went on. “A nice personality, a good memory for people. He was good.” We exchanged a few more pleasantries. Then I realized what had happened. The Lobster Boy had snookered Father Mac just as he had snookered the authorities in Pennsylvania. Both thought he was fundamentally good. Somehow church and state had been blinded—probably by the sympathy that naturally accrues to people such as him.
I hung up on the father and got away from the phone, feeling terrifically sorry for the Lobster Boy’s family. The sense of doom that surrounded them must have been immense.
HE BEGAN WOOING MARY TERESA BACK
again in 1988 with presents and rib-eye dinners. He bought her a new trailer, since the toilet in the old one was now broken. He told her he had stopped drinking. He did not abuse her. He didn’t holler. He held her hand in his. In return, she forgot the abuse of their first marriage; forgot it, or denied it, or allowed herself to believe, in a way that is achingly familiar to many women, that he was in fact a changed man. She was filled with hope. “When I first seen him again, I knew that I still loved him.” It struck her much the same way it had thirty years earlier, when it didn’t matter that she was born a normal and he was not. “I loved him so much.” To her, he was not a freak. He was Grady, a man like other men, a man who had a job, who had a fondness for cards (500 rummy mostly), who made love, who wanted a family. And now he wanted them back. They were remarried on December 29, 1989. “I was so happy,” Mary has recalled. “That lasted for about two weeks.”
HE PULLED HER HAIR. HE PUNCHED HER.
He bit her breasts. He head-butted her.
He carried a blackjack and tried to put it in her vagina.
“He took his thumb and pushed it in my throat, just under my jawbone. It felt like he was pushing it through.
“I told him one night I wanted a divorce. What a mistake. I thought it was bad before—well, that was nothing. He grabbed a pillow and put it over my face. I thought that he was going to smother me. I couldn’t breathe.
“One night I went to bed. I pretended to be asleep. He kept saying, real low, ‘I should kill you. You’re no fucking good. You are a tramp. You left your husband for a bigger dick….’ He pulled me over on my back. Got on top of me. He was very strong. He held me down. Dug his knees into my legs. Hit me in the mouth with his head. He made my mouth bleed.
“Grady said that he could kill me and get away with it. He said that he did it before. And that he could do it again.”
In fact, Grady made this threat more than once. He made it all the time. It was his constant refrain: “I killed once and got away with it. I can do it again.”
ON THE SUBJECT OF GRADY’S DEATH THE
people of the carnival are pretty much of one mind.
“I can’t say a single bad thing about the man.”
“She came back to him, she could have left him.”
“A man, no legs, no arms—how’s he gonna beat the hell out of a woman your size?”
“He’s a creature of God. An odd creature of God, but nevertheless.’’
“You have to step back, look at the entire picture, and say to yourself, ‘How did this happen and why?’”
LURCHING AT THE MARKS WAS NOT THE
only way Grady could clear a tent. Occasionally he would expose himself. I have thought about this. It must have been a truly frightening moment: the monster revealing his little monster; the marks suddenly faced with the agent of progenitive urge, raw, flapping, in equal measure manhood and freakhood. Implicit in this, there was, I can see, an immediate threat of some kind of transformation.
With his penis out, Grady was no longer the passive vessel in which his marks could mix their fears and anxieties. Instead he was threatening to let them have it: have back everything that was inside him, everything that had filled him for his entire life, and all that had come to him, unbidden, through a family history 152 years long. In fact, at the time of his death, that’s what the coroner should have marked down: that the deceased was 152 years old, as old as the moment the family’s genetic material firstwent askew.
His murder is not a blessing, I suppose; but it’s not nearly so regrettable as its corollary: With him gone, the freak show is over. No longer will there be a home for people like Jeanie Tomaini; no longer the chant One of us. Nor will we, the marks, ever again get to see freaks like them and learn from what we saw.
I got the perspicacious social critic Leslie Fiedler on the phone and told him about the end of the freak show.
“God,” he said, and paused. “I’m stunned. You’ll have to call me back.”
“When we limit human responses by taking one away, we suffer. We’re maimed and crippled in a psychological sense. We will break out in neuroses and psychoses. We will retreat into our deep dreams.” And begin living out our nightmares.
Little Grady and Cathy have no plans to take their father’s place on the midway.
“I have no desire to take it,” Cathy said late one afternoon. “He lived it. He died it. It was his.”