THE BEARDED LADY SAYS GOODNIGHT
Benjamin Percy

The Bearded Lady is dead.

I know this to be true because I pressed my finger to her wrist, and then her neck, and found no pulse. I even touched her eyeball. Nothing. I was the one who called the police, who answered their questions, who showed them the pale body in the tub and listened to them laugh when they hoisted her up, naked and streaming ribbons of water. That was the saddest thing I have ever done. I watched the hole dug in the ground. I watched the pine casket lowered, the first shovel of dirt slap its lid.

She was my sweetheart.

 

It’s complicated. First there’s her sensitive disposition. Doesn’t matter if her biceps were round as cannonballs. Forget her mean squint, her aggressive smoking of cigarettes. Don’t let any of that business fool you.

She wasn’t all beard.

Notice instead the pink dress hanging in the closet, the silk panties I take with me to bed, the daisies woven in her hair, and the baby powder perfume that lingers long after she’s gone. What else? We had good pillow talk, and sometimes she hugged me so tight, so close, her heartbeat seemed to take over mine.

That was the Bearded Lady I loved.

She was my sweetheart, but our love was not without complications. If I am certain of anything in this world, it is this: bearded women are a dangerous and unpredictable lot.

My girl, she had a right hook like a curl of lightning, but it was just as common you’d taste her tears as feel the sharp snap of her knuckles. It all depended. Look at her funny and she might fall to pieces, or else put on a headlock until the capillaries in your eyeballs burst.

Unpredictable.

 

When the carnival came to Deschutes County, I went to ride the roller coaster, to eat some fried dough and wieners and cotton candy, to try my hand at the ring toss and maybe win a goldfish or a stuffed bear—but I discovered love instead.

George—a friend, a dude with spectacularly buck teeth—he was there, too. We are a regular pair of nobodies who work as horsemen for the Lazy H outfit. Our stallion, Oregon’s Organ, is a golden Buckskin, durably built with gentle temperament and much breeding potential. At this time he had produced only two get, though both were of color. He was, he is, the pride of Lazy H and will one day be a legend. Already we have shipped his fluids as far as Texas.

Most of our days are spent grooming, forking straw, breeding quarter horses, herding and branding and castrating cattle, and various other ranchero what-have-yous. The work we do is respectable, pretty much, though sometimes we work with the Mexicans—cleaning stalls, for example. We don’t complain. The pay is enough to fill my fridge with Budweiser, to swell my belly with good restaurant food. Most of our nights disappear into playing pool, downing beers at this tavern called Wounded Soldier, where occasionally we ride the mechanical bull.

George’s teeth are so bad he can barely manage his lips around them. It
is a constant and visible struggle. The way his upper lip quivers, it appears he is perpetually preparing to whistle. Sometimes his teeth slip out, and when they do, he pulls his lip down like a window shade, tugging with his fingers.

By twilight we rode the roller coaster four times and the two of us were dizzy from all the loops and dips. We gorged ourselves on wieners. We visited the beer garden. We threw baseballs and made this girl in a striped bikini fall in a tank. George bought ten balls and dunked her every time but once. He said he liked the way she looked at him, just before he threw the ball. She had the flattest belly I have ever seen.

Everything glowed like Christmas. Everybody’s boots made dust get in your nose. It was my birthday. We thought about taking a spin on the Ferris wheel but decided that would be queer. I bought myself a nice cotton candy. Then we went to the sideshow.

 

You can read The Bearded Lady Says Goodnight in its entirety in issue 3 of Swink.

Benjamin Percy is the author of The Language of Elk. Raised in the high desert of central Oregon, he currently lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he teaches writing at Marquette University. His stories appear in The Paris Review, The Best American Short Stories, the Chicago
Tribune, Amazing Stories, The Greensboro Review
, and many other places. His honors include the Pushcart Prize and the Nelson Algren Award.

 

© 2007 Swink, Inc.