Richard Schmitt is the author of The Aerialist, a novel (Harcourt 2001). He has published fiction and nonfiction in many places. His story “Leaving Venice, Florida” won 1st Prize in The Mississippi Review short story contest, and was anthologized in New Stories of the South: The Year’s Best 1999. His essay “Sometimes a Romantic Notion” appears in The Best American Essays 2013.
Living Among Strangers
Dump trucks rattle up where the asphalt ends. Men in boots go afoot into the woods carrying tripods and tool boxes. They shove wooden stakes into the sand and tie ribbons around trees. Yellow steel-jawed contraptions mouth longleaf pines and tear them roots-and-all from the earth. Palmetto bushes are bulldozed into piles and burned. Frightened displaced critters, snakes and rodents, their burrows crushed, their lives upended, scoot down tire-tread ruts into this upscale neighborhood south of Sarasota. Kids ravage the building site, finding tiger skulls, elephant tusks, bear claws. They run through the streets screaming “Dinosaur bones!”
“No,” I tell them. “No prehistoric land carnivores lived in Florida. I know, children, I was a school teacher.” They take a step back. “Seawater,” I say, “sharks and crustaceans lived here before us.”
Dewy mornings I don my Nikes and powerwalk the wide looping streets quiet before the sun clears the trees and starts the Spanish-tile rooftops steaming. I stride unstained sidewalks, skip over crisp-edged curbstones. Fat SUVs roll by, men in suits, moms seeing kids off to school. “Morning” everyone says. “Good morning, Mrs. Beamons!” I wave and say it back as if I know these people. As if I care.
Some of us in the neighborhood are retired or semi-retired. This is not one of those golf-cart villages of infirm northerners. My children want me in a place like that, my daughters in concert like musketeers, or stooges. They say: We want you happy Mom, cared for, with like-minded people. “Likeminded.” What does that even mean? I have no intention of going anywhere. I do not play shuffleboard or bridge. I am not elderly. I am recently widowed. Twenty-five years I taught school up north so I know a thing or two.
I walk to the gatehouse and turn back. The gateman says, “Morning, Mrs. Beamon.” I can’t tell if he leaves the "s" off on purpose, like a rude student, or if he’s just an ignoramus. I suspect the latter. A pudgy man wearing polo shirt and beige shorts, he waves us in and out. He’s a gateman without a gate, not even one of those up-and-down bars to raise and lower with some authority—he has none. He has a walkie-talkie with no one on the receiving end. He has a phone—anything suspicious he calls the police. That’s his non-function. There has never been anything suspicious. Until now.
Now the construction comes to an end, the men in boots abandon the woods, park their contraptions and leave. Police tape off the site. An unmarked car shows up, detectives wearing rubber gloves. The coroner arrives, then a university specialist, a news team.
I’m not nosy. I do not meddle, snoop, or pry. I own a stately sedan with a tag that reads: MYOB. But I watch the news. I follow world events. I know where the bombs regularly go off. And naturally I monitor the action if it occurs in my own neighborhood. Twenty-five years in middle school you acquire an instinct for intrigue, an ear for chronicle, you acclimatize inquisitiveness. I move in on the news truck. The reporter, newsperson they say now, a big-blonde-designer-suit-painted-face fresh out of UF journalism school stares at the camera. I don’t want to be called Granny and be told to shove off, step aside, go home, so I wait until they’re done then sidle up to the cameraman as he loads his stuff. “Big story?”
“Big is right,” he says. “Big dead body.”
The nightly news shows a clip. Miss Makeup standing on our street talking to the camera. I’m behind the police tape with the neighborhood kids, grandma in pink warm-ups and jogging shoes. Gawd! I look like Richard Simmons. My flyaway hair is thinning. The report says human remains in a box, not unusual nowadays, but these are huge remains apparently, and the box is an old train car, a boxcar with giant bones inside, the whole thing buried forty years or more. The bones of a woman, they say. A huge woman, a giantess, legs like tree trunks, gorilla fingers, ribcage big as a diving bell. Miss Makeup acts inspired: “And who might she be? How did she get here? What will happen now? That’s what folks here in Bahia Vista Estates want to know—Angela Fairchild, WFLA NEWS.”
My neighbors are upset. The older people sigh and shake their blue and bald heads. The couples with kids are upwardly mobile, strident, determined. They want answers. The police won’t let them near the boxcar site. The men talk night raid. They’ll go with flashlights down the street to climb the new chain-link fence with the No Trespassing sign. It’s their neighborhood damnit, and a darn nice one, they have a right to know. But their wives say no, let the authorities handle it, stay home where you belong.
But it’s too late for that. These people left their homes in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan. They packed their past and moved to sunny Florida. People like me and my husband who traded leftover lives for a quarter acre of sand and a kidney-shaped pool. We weren’t here six months when my husband, pulling the plastic bag full of trash from the dustbin, fell dead of a heart attack. He hated it here anyway. The heat, the bugs, the sand. “Can’t even grow a tomato in the yard,” he used to say. I shipped him back up north. Our girls are scattered all over: New England, California, New York. As soon as their father died they started in on me to sell the house and move to assisted living. They say “come stay with us Mom.” After raising three kids and god-all-too-many students I’m going to live in a house with grandchildren? I don’t think so.
After the news story appears the neighborhood expansion stalls. Whoever or whatever is in that boxcar has become a political issue. The contractors say bulldoze the giantess out of there. The coroner says that’s not an option, it’s a human body. The university guy says it’s an archeological find. Some feminists show up and say, "It is not an it—She’s a woman!" The Jewish league is concerned, they heard bones, boxcar—can’t be too careful.
Three days after the discovery I’m out early before the sun while the sprinklers hiss and I come upon a low-slung van parked on the road where the asphalt ends. A man in jeans, hooded sweatshirt, and a pair of black engineer boots like I haven’t seen since I was a teenager in the fifties is pressed to the fence surrounding the construction site. I make an about-face in the middle of the road; he hears me and turns. He’s slight and unkempt, about my age but lean and fit. I wonder how he’s passed the gatehouse since he’s clearly not a resident or construction worker, twenty-five years in school you get an eye for this sort of thing; he’s in the hallway without a pass. “Morning,” he says. “You’re out and about early.”
“The news moves,” he says. He walks over and slaps the van, and I see it’s loaded with bundles of the Sarasota Herald Tribune. “Pretty old for a paper boy, ain’t I?”
I smile and walk on. He laughs and leans against the van. “Have a nice day.” He shows no sign of being in a hurry.
After that I see him on and off if I am striding the streets early. He drops bundles of newspapers on corners before dawn for the paperboys then reconnoiters the fence at the end of the road. He’s personable, and in spite of a large dead body and recent police presence I feel safe in this neighborhood, or at least left-alone in dull routine. This man is a break in the monotony; he’s jovial and chatty. Besides, no one else is out this early. “So what are you doing down here?” he says to me one day.
“I live here.”
“You don’t live here.”
“You are telling me I don’t live in this neighborhood? Are you crazy?”
“I’m a sixty-year-old paperboy. Course I’m crazy.” He laughs. I walk on.
Next day he says: “It’s a winter job. I’m on the road when the good weather comes. I run concessions: snow cones, popcorn, cotton candy—like that. I build the stands, contract ‘em out. Show dates, fairs, a few tent shows—not many around anymore.”
In time I come to understand he’s one of the old Sarasota residents. He was born here at a time when train cars ran right down the middle of Main Street.
“I lived here,” he says. “This was my neighborhood once,” he says. “Ours,” he calls it. “Before y’all came. I know who lives here for real,” he says. “I know what’s buried here.”
“What?” I say.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“I was a school teacher,” I say.
“I’ll show ya,” he says.
“We can’t get in there.”
“Not here, we gotta drive.”
I walk on. “Not far,” he calls after me. I turn and give him my disappointed look, as if I expect more from him. He points vaguely off toward the tree line. “Couple miles.”
“No thank you. I mind my own business.”
The truth is I enjoy him. I find myself disappointed on days he isn’t here. He’s different from the neighborhood people, not an SUV driver, not a dad in suit or a retiree in golf clothes. Besides, I do want to hear the story. So the next day I say, “I have a car.”
“Drive your car then, I’ll show you where.”
We shake hands. Meet at the gate. James Calo, 60-year-old paper boy in his newspaper van, which I suspect he lives in, and Mrs. Lillian Beamons in my Buick Regal. Not sure why I go. As I said, I mind my own affairs. I don’t go to neighborhood-watch meetings or keep track of sexual predators or join retirees for afternoon drinks and pinochle. My daughters say I’m antisocial, that I’d benefit from communal living with other “seniors”—the living dead if you ask me. There’s an old man who wants to walk with me in the mornings, but he can’t keep up. I’m not going to wait for him. I’m not involved with daytime television; I don’t care what Oprah says. I take afternoons naps, read in the evenings, retire early, and fend off my children’s phone calls and pleas to sell the house.
We pass through the gate in tandem. The pudgy guy waves. We drive a few blocks on a winding new road and turn into the shopping plaza where I buy my groceries and proceed around the Arby’s Roast Beef and the Wal-Mart and come out on an alleyway obviously there before the plaza was built, then a dirt road through a stand of pines and palmettos, and finally into a rutted lane under a rusty metal arch sign that reads Circus City Trailer Park.
We bump down the lane leaving a wake of dust. The trailers are not the set-up-on-blocks type; these are mobile, pulled behind trucks. Random aerial apparatus hangs here and there, chrome bicycles, a trampoline covered with a tarp. This is a retirement village for people pushed out by the affluent sprawl of Sarasota. It’s not the only one, but you have to know where to look. Where the pines and palmettos have not been bulldozed, the snakes and rodents and retired troupers live in peace. My guide was correct; we haven’t traveled more than a couple miles in a straight line from the neighborhood. But you can’t go in a straight line, because they’ve built circuitous streets and shopping centers all over the place. We pull up to a trailer. The name Hubert Faughpaw is carved into a wooden sign. An old man in a wheelchair is sitting in the shade of a carport. We climb out and Mr. Calo points at the old man and says: “That’s him, Mr. Hube Faughpaw, the one and only.”
“It would be polite to introduce us,” I say in a low voice.
“Don’t worry, he’s stone deaf. A bit out of it, too.” He taps his index finger against his head. “Gotta be near a hundred.” He goes down on one knee in front of the old man. “Mr. Hube,” he yells. “It’s Jimmy Calo. Your old trainmaster.” There is no reaction from the old man. “Mr. Hube was never much for talking,” Jimmy says. “Have a seat.” He points to a folding lawn chair but I remain standing. A Mexican woman comes to the screened trailer door, looks at us, and goes away. I hear her knocking about inside. Jimmy squats on his heels and blurts out, “They’ve found Mildred, Mr. Hube. They’ve gone and dug her up!”
The Mexican woman comes out of the trailer and shuffles down the wheelchair ramp carrying glasses of ice tea. “We hear on the news,” she says. “He ain’t said nothing.”
Jimmy stands and takes a tea and hands me one. “Nothing to say I guess. Nothing we can do.” The old man takes a deep breath and murmurs something. “What’s that Mr. Hube?” Jimmy yells. “It’s me, your old trainmaster, Jimmy Calo!”
The old man is drooling. He lifts one finger. “Millie,” he says.
“That’s it Mr. Hube. Old Millie. They found her, all right. What kinda shit storm is that gonna bring?” The old man says nothing. He seems aware but not necessarily lucid. White foam gathers at the corners of his mouth. We stand sipping tea. The Mexican woman sits in the lawn chair. Jimmy says, “Mr. Hube, did we ever know her last name? What was Millie’s last name?” The old man blinks rapidly, seems to point one runny eye at Jimmy. “What’s that, Mr. Hube?”
“Arkansas,” the old man says.
“Arkansas! That’s her name?” Jimmy turns to me and chuckles. “Old guy’s a gas, ain’t he? That’s probably where they found her, out in the boonies, probably never knew her name. Mr. Hube took her in as child—I wasn’t there then—a huge child. Sideshow stuff. It was common enough back then—we’re talking way back, hicks out in the sticks where they—you know, cohabitate or whatever.”
“Are you talking about inbreeding?”
“Folks come clutching wretched deformed offspring when the circus came to town. Alligator-skin kids, Siamese twins, kids with flippers and fins, and the fatties.” But Jimmy says Mildred was more than fat. She was big boned and tall. Even as a kid she must have weighed three or four hundred pounds. Before he has a chance to tell the whole story, the Mexican woman recounts in rapid English/Spanish a crisis having to do with her sister and the border police and she can’t take care of Mr. Hube much longer because she has to travel to Mexico ASAP. I can’t follow the whole story. It is clear circus people do not dump their old folks at assisted living. Jimmy says he’ll see what he can do and starts edging toward the cars. “Time to go.” We wave goodbye to Mr. Hube, who sits like stone.
When I turn in at the gate, Jimmy doesn’t stop. He doesn’t like the neighborhood after daylight. The Neighborhood Watch signs have eyeballs, the people glare at him—possibly he is a burglar or one of those pedophiles they fear. Someone who doesn’t belong here. He honks and drives off, leaving me to wonder what I’d just seen and heard and what exactly is buried across the street from my house. Inside I find phone messages from my daughters. The hysterical one in Boston: “Mom! We heard someone was murdered!” The stoic one in New York. “What in hell’s going on down there?” The sunny one in California doesn’t follow Florida news. People in California don’t care about anyone outside their golden state—although she is most sincere in her invitation to “Come live with us!” But she also has the greatest number of rug rats, and her husband is a stoner who drives me nuts. No, I’m happy where I am, thank you. I don’t call back.
Curiosity gets the best of me—besides I have nothing to do—so I drive to the Ringling Museum in town. Ringling bought out most of their competition between 1929 and 1960, including the Hubert Faughpaw show. The museum is understaffed; no one knows anything about a fat lady on the old Faughpaw show. I find a binder of show programs with a foldout page dedicated to the sideshow and one grainy photograph of a fat lady, nothing but a girl, billed as Shirley Temple’s BIG sister. She had ringlets and a short baby-doll dress so you could see the rolls of her white legs ballooned like gigantic sausage links. Where did they get patent-leather shoes that size? According to the caption, “the fat lady” performed some sort of Good-Ship-Lollipop dance with a midget accordion player.
The next day, out walking early, Jimmy waits for me by the fence. He says the picture was surely Mildred when she first came on the show. “Before my time,” he says. By the time Jimmy joined the show as a train porter, just a teenager then, Millie was already too big to make it from the train to some of the show lots. He says Mr. Hube had the carpenter’s build a stout buckboard, a bunch of the porters helped her settle into the thing, and she was hauled over to the lot by a pair of mules. But as the years went by, Millie grew so big she couldn’t leave the train. Couldn’t move much at all, Jimmy says. Mr. Hube outfitted a boxcar for her: a ramp, and a huge bed of hay bales set into a frame of split logs. Part of Jimmy’s job was to lug in the masses of food she consumed and cart off the tubs of her waste. She basically had to be fed like an animal, cases of cabbages, whole roasted hogs, haunches of horse meat, wild turkeys, 55-gallon drums of water.
Women from the wardrobe department came once a week to bathe her and change the bedding. “Git up here, boy,” they’d say to Jimmy. “Haul up on that limb there.”
It took all he had to lift one of her arms so they could scrub under it, then the other, the legs he hoisted onto his shoulders, staggering under the weight while they scrubbed and kneaded mounds of flesh then rinsed and sprinkled her all over with talcum powder. “It weren’t like looking at a naked woman,” he says.
Breasts were indistinguishable from rolls of slug-colored hills and valleys, creases like canyons tinged red where the talcum wore thin. Jimmy says she seemed in pain sometimes, or just plain miserable, but never complained about anything except cowboy novels. She was illiterate and liked to be read to, and Mr. Hube said that was part of the job. On the train runs or on one-night stands when it was impossible for Millie to make it to the lot, the porters took turns reading to her. She favored trashy romances and lesbian pulp paperbacks which were around then. She hated cowboy novels.
Jimmy worked on the show nineteen years, bumped up from porter to trainman, and finally trainmaster. The trainmaster was as important as they come on a traveling show. The train was over a mile long, and his job was to see that nothing went wrong with it. If they couldn’t get to the lots, they couldn’t set up and play, which meant no money. Jimmy spent most of his time working with Mr. Hube, or arguing with railroad employees, or lecturing his crews. It took seventy men to operate, load, unload, and care for the train, and all of them were his responsibility. He didn’t have time to pay attention to Millie. Still, as she got older and larger, she became part of his job because she became part of the train. Once—this he says he witnessed with his own eyes, on a rail scale that checks the weight of boxcars—he calculated that Millie weighed close to 2,000 pounds. “I swear to God,” he says. “I done the math myself.” Jimmy kept that information to himself, afraid if Hube found out, he’d advertise it, raise a banner or something: World’s Heaviest Woman! Too big to leave a Boxcar!
They did come to see Millie even after she couldn’t leave the train, mostly kids poking around the railroad yards. If the train was parked in an urban area, Jimmy would order the boxcar doors rolled back and town punks paid a nickel or a dime to climb the ramp and gawk at Millie sprawled across her hay-bale bed. Sounds brutal, but Millie was the only person, animal, or thing on that show that didn’t function to full capacity. There were no hangers-on or slackers; everyone made the show go or Mr. Hube put them out. Except Millie. He kept her all her life, even if her world was what could be seen through boxcar doors. There were chances to be rid of her. Other show owners offered to buy Millie. Hube always refused. “Some church ladies showed up one time, wanted to take Millie to a home, said she needed treatment. Mr. Hube didn’t run ‘em off. He put it to Millie, I seen it myself, he tried to reason with her but she threw a conniption fit, she weren’t going nowhere. Mr. Hube throwed up his hands—Mr. Hube never throwed up his hands. ‘Fine, fine,’ he said. ‘Whatever. Let’s get out of here.’ We rolled in the night. Mr. Hube perverted the route so the church ladies couldn’t find us.”
Show routes traditionally follow warm weather, playing northern cities in summer and dropping south in the winter. Cold didn’t bother Millie, she was well insulated, but in the summers she suffered mightily from the heat. Jimmy ordered her car constantly lined with 400-pound ice blocks. That’s where unforeseen disaster struck. One night on a mountainous run through West Virginia, the train rocking hard through tunnels and around tight turns, a few cars derailed. This wasn’t unusual, show trains were designated to little used tertiary rails. It wasn’t a bad derailing, none of the cars overturned, but they had to unload and jack a few cars back onto the tracks. Millie’s car didn’t derail, so there was no reason for anyone to look in there, to check on her. Jimmy was busy all night and when they rolled he slept. They woke him in Wheeling. They were stopped, unloading in progress. Two porters pounded on his door. “We got a problem,” they said.
It was Millie. Jimmy hurried down to her car. They had little motor scooters to zip up and down alongside the train. She was dead when he got there, covered with blocks of melting ice. It was clear what happened. At the derailing the ice blocks, which were tied down and covered with canvas, broke loose, toppled over, pinning Millie to the bed and killing her. They weren’t sure how. Hypothermia or asphyxiation probably, or maybe she was crushed on impact, which they hoped was the case since it would have been most merciful. Millie had been on the show longer than anyone, she was such a force, sheer size alone, her presence both extraordinary and taken for granted—she was as much a part of the show as Mr. Hube himself. Jimmy says he doesn’t recall telling him that day, or what he said. I press him on this. “How can you not remember?”
“I just don’t. I ‘member finding her, then standing in the car looking at her with Mr. Hube. I musta sent someone to get him.”
“What was his reaction?”
“In the car? Oh he was pulling his hair out—he had hair then. He kept stomping up and down and saying goddamn, goddamn—cuz see, there was no way to get her outta there.”
When an elephant or horse died they were hacked up where they fell and fed to the cats, but Millie was well-liked on the show, beloved even, no one was willing to hack her apart. These were resourceful men, but they were in the middle of a season, they had towns to play, there was a route, a schedule. The choices were few. They decided to pack the car with more ice, close it up, and move on. The order came from Mr. Hube, but Jimmy was the one buying tons of ice that summer, every town having it delivered and packed into Millie’s car by the porters. The whole thing made for a very uncomfortable season. Mr. Hube was frantic someone would find out he had a fat lady on ice. And what would happen then? Who knew the rules about such a thing?
No one found out. That November they rolled into winter quarters in Sarasota with a very cool Millie still on the show. “She’d lost a little weight,” Jimmy says. He thinks this is funny and says it more than once.
The sun is up, the tile roofs steaming, SUVs rolling, kids waiting at bus stops. The newspapers are on the lawns. Through the chain link fence I see the mound of dirt and the plastic tarp covering the hole where they found her. “I gotta get on,” Jimmy says.
“Whoa, wait. What exactly transpired in winter quarters?”
“What’d you do with her?”
“Well, winter quarters.” He throws his arms out in an expansive gesture, sneering at the streets and houses. “We’re standing in it!”
The Faughpaw property, where this neighborhood sits now, was 1,800 acres with rail access. The entire train rolled inside and the gate locked. Winter quarters was, as Jimmy says, their place. Remote, private, where they relaxed free of the public they relied on and reviled. It was the only time they were truly alone, and they knew whatever had to be done with Millie had to be done there—here. What’s clear now, listening to Jimmy, is that Mr. Hubert Faughpaw was a decisive man. He was absolute in his orders, and he wasn’t questioned or known to second guess a decision. But with Millie he was vexed. She’d been with him all her life, fed and cared for. He would not, or could not, cut this woman up. They talked about expanding the boxcar doors with a torch, build a wider ramp, have the elephants pull her out. But then what? What mortuary could handle such a thing? What cemetery would give up a half-dozen adjoining burial plots? Who would pay for it? And what about the months spent on ice?
“Bury the car,” Jimmy says. “That’s what Mr. Hube said. I remember the day he said it. I was shitfaced—we was all shitfaced in winter quarters—and I couldn’t get a handle on what he was telling me. The whole car? I kept saying? The whole car? That’s what Mr. Hube said. ‘Get the men digging, the car is where she lived, let her stay there.’”
In retrospect it seems fitting. This was circus ground after all, owned by the Faughpaw family since the turn of the century. Jimmy ordered Millie’s car detached and pushed to the end of the rail spur where the car-stop was removed and the ties dug out from under the rails. The hole was dug precisely at the end of the line. They had a crude diesel-powered digger then; still he says the hole took two days to dig. They dug it with a gradual incline at the rail end so the car could be eased into the hole. The bull hands harnessed the elephants, and they walked alongside the hole pulling the car in. The steel wheels sunk deep into the sand, and there it sat with a 2,000 pound woman in it. “There weren’t no formal ceremony,” Jimmy says. “Mr. Hube come out and watched the hole filled with dirt and packed down and later we built a tool shed on top of it.”
That’s the story newspeople are looking for. No one will tell them. I don’t know how many around here know this story anymore, a few for sure, those that dug that day and watched Millie put to final rest. Final until now.
The controversy dies down. The reporters find other stories to interest the public. The contractors find people to sue. The neighbors lament property values. The curator of the Ringling Museum offers to take Millie as an exhibit but only if someone pays for excavation. The mayor of Sarasota whines and complains. He is trying to attract money people to his expanding county and stimulate the local economy. He is overheard muttering, “Goddamn circus freaks.”
One morning, after my walk, after Jimmy has gone back out on the road, after the right people are paid off apparently, two cement-mixer trucks roll up and fill the boxcar hole, Millie and all, with concrete and when it’s dry it's covered over with dirt and the police ribbon taken down and the construction resumes and the neighborhood goes back to normal. Sort of. Curving black asphalt streets are laid down and nursery palms stabbed in along the sidewalks. Lots are laid out, houses built—McMansions I hear them called—fertilized lawns and manicured bushes. Fresh-faced couples come from the snow states to buy and call this home. No marker or memorial is raised, nobody can say for sure then exactly where Millie might be.
I know where she is. She is in a place where new neighbors meet old. Mornings after walking I drive over to check on Mr. Hube. The Mexican woman is gone and I make sure he eats and has clean clothes and bedding. I push him up and down the wheelchair ramp. As company he doesn’t rival Jimmy, that’s for sure. Not a talker, he spends most of his time in deep nod. But Jimmy will be back in the fall, and I’ll keep Mr. Hube until then.
My children get their wish. I sell the house. Recession or no, this neighborhood is still sought-after—not by me. I have no wish to live atop a cemetery, within sight of a burial vault, walking the streets with ghosts.
I sell the house furniture and all to a couple from Chicago. They are thrilled. My husband, a believer in large life insurance policies, always said he’d die before me, and so it is. I take a few clothes and my Buick and move into Mr. Hube’s trailer. I buy a cell phone and monitor my calls. I have no address, no bills, no worries. I get Social Security checks at a P.O. Box. No one save Jimmy knows where I am. The weather goes hot, the trailer park quiet and steamy. In the mornings I walk the dirt road among the pines and palmettos and await the return of my sixty-year-old paperboy.
Turns out the house sold just in time. Prices fall after the neighborhood expansion is finished, and strange things start to happen. Sinkholes drop out of brand new streets, houses settle badly, cracks open in walls overnight, ceilings droop, mysterious molds appear. Some say they smell popcorn in their basements, hear a brass band at night. There are rumors, things under the surface, things man-made and not, things grown over and known by none who live on macadam drives with cracking swimming pools and Jacuzzi tubs listing on sinking cedar decks. In backyards, rusted rail ends break through the surface, reaching like tentacles, snapped off and dangerous, old pointed tent poles notched and tied with cables, iron wagon rims, wooden stakes topped with steel rings, coils of rope cocooned in spider webbing and the sucked dry shells of the fed upon, the remains of a galvanized tool shed—all the past packed and preserved underground in the sand and limestone as if some disaster descended onto this place rendering life fragmented and frozen in a moment. But that’s not what happened here. Those who once owned this place were driven out by a hoard descending from the north like a tidal wave of time and money pushing them to land as yet unwanted—that will change too.
So they left one of their own. It’s not that they forgot Millie when the Faughpaw show closed. There was simply no way to take her. So Millie lives with the new people now, among townies from up north, among strangers She keeps her eye on them. She is the gawker now. Grinning from her refuge, a bloodless skull with teeth like flagstones, ringlets a mile long, a bile system holding the whole world. Step right up, folks. Walk among the displaced critters and ghosts, follow the waves underfoot, the ground unnaturally soft here, hard beyond reason there, grass dying in yellow clumps, unexplained bald spots, circular depressions like astrological signposts. Just who is stranger here? The alligator boy with scales for skin, the flipper and fin kids, the inside-out man with gut-sacked organs gurgling and farting on the outside of his body, the Siamese twins, the androgynous dwarf, the albino mongoloid—this is their neighborhood.
“ 'Living Among Strangers' sprung from local lore I heard while living in Sarasota in a neighborhood built on the old Ringling winter quarters. Of a place that once was a metropolis of exotica for half a century, only a tiny ‘circus city’ trailer park remains today. What is there instead is a thousand acres of cheaply constructed Florida ranch houses thrown up and sold in a matter of months. As the house I lived in settled and cracked, I found it impossible not to imagine and speculate about what had gone on before, about the past usurped, about what lay beneath us. The fat lady in the boxcar is, of course, made up, but I’d heard a story somewhere along the line of what a big mess it is when an elephant happens to die in a boxcar on a train run between towns. This is uncommon but it does happen. Suffice to say a chainsaw is involved. I did not want to go that route but the seeds were sown. ”