This nov­el­ist once had eight legs. (Re­ally.)

Elle (Canada) - - News - By Emma Hooper

MY FIRST JOB WASN’T IN A

sticky-hot restau­rant kitchen wash­ing dishes or out in the beau­ti­ful and terrifying woods plant­ing trees or be­hind a counter blip­ping bar codes like most of my high-school friends. It was in the shadow and shel­ter of a hot and close vinyl tent at a sum­mer fes­ti­val—in a freak show. My first job was be­ing a freak. “Who did this to you?” a woman asked, wor­ry­ing the top of her minidough­nuts bag.

“No one,” I replied. “I was born this way. I don’t mind.”

“But it’s hor­ri­ble,” she said. “Isn’t it...? I mean, at least a bit hor­ri­ble, and sad for you? Isn’t it?” She avoided eye con­tact, in­stead flick­ing her glance back and forth be­tween my skinny 15-year-old body­guard and my furry black foot­ball-size ab­domen. “Not so hor­ri­ble,” I said. Ev­ery sum­mer, from the time I was 14 un­til I moved away from Ed­mon­ton to Eng­land 10 years later, I worked a sum­mer job as the freak in a real, live freak show. Over the years, I was the Man-Eat­ing Plant, the Alien in a Jar, the Mer­maid in a Bot­tle, the Head­less Body, the Body­less Head and, that first year, Spi­dora the Spi­der Lady: half­woman, half-spi­der.

School, and pub­lic places in gen­eral, had al­ways been pretty hard for me. In Grade 1, I used to hide in a stor­age cup­board so that I could eat my lunch alone and not get lost or tram­pled or, worse, no­ticed by the hordes of other kids. Even­tu­ally the teacher no­ticed crumbs among the spare pen­cils and told my par­ents. My par­ents asked me if it was true. I said it was. They asked me why. “Be­cause it’s scary out there,” I replied. So my par­ents put me in drama lessons.

A few years later, a ma­gi­cian named Ron Pear­son asked the drama depart­ment if they had any stu­dents look­ing for jobs. He was both a bril­liant il­lu­sion­ist and kinder than a TV dad; his own kids went to the school, so he knew it was a good one. Sure, said the school, there’s at least one....

Un­for­tu­nately for both Ron and the pun­ters who paid to see me in his “Ghostwriter Theater” tent, I’m not ac­tu­ally 50-per­cent spi­der. As far as I know, I’m 0-per­cent spi­der. The show was based on a clever and an­cient il­lu­sion, the se­cret to which I’ve sworn (and am con­tracted) to never re­veal. The money-mak­ing for­mula was just as an­cient. Out­side the tent was a caller, of­ten the then teenage ma­gi­cian Billy Kidd, who would use a bull­horn to shout at passersby “THIS IS THE MOST TERRIFYING THING YOU WILL EVER LAY EYES UPON!” or “SHE WILL h

CHANGE YOUR LIFE!” or “IT WON’T BE EASY, BUT IT WILL BE WORTH IT. SEE WHAT THEY DON’T WANT YOU TO SEE!” un­til some­one stopped and paid a dol­lar. The passerby would then be led into the tent, and, once inside, he or she would see, straight ahead and a bit above on a large web, my spotty teenage head at­tached to a small black spi­der ab­domen with eight long black legs ex­tend­ing from it. You could see over and un­der and around and be­hind the web, and there was no hu­man body— just my hu­man face and the rest of my spi­der self.

It wasn’t that I was es­pe­cially un­happy with my body. Not any more than usual, any­way. Grow­ing up is dif­fi­cult for ev­ery­one. Awk­ward things keep hap­pen­ing, one after the other, to this flesh that is meant to be your own, meant to be you. I would look at the gen­tle roll of my stom­ach or the wrin­kle lines on my hands or the light hairs on my breasts and think “Is this nor­mal? Is this? Is this?” Women in mag­a­zines had none of th­ese things. And, of course, you can’t just ask your friends and risk re­veal­ing to the dan­ger­ous wild-west world of school that, ac­tu­ally, you are weird. You are a freak.

A whole lot of peo­ple be­lieved it. “Are you real?” they would ask. “Yes,” I would an­swer. “But are you re­ally real?” they would ask.

“Yes, re­ally,” I would an­swer. “Born this way.” “Re­ally?” “Re­ally.” A whole lot of peo­ple wanted to be­lieve it. “I don’t mind,” they would say. “Thanks.” “I don’t find you dis­gust­ing.” “Thanks. You nei­ther.” All in all, there were four of us run­ning the show at any given time: one freak, one body­guard (al­ways wear­ing a lab coat), one caller and one money taker. It was the four of us ver­sus the world of pun­ters, who would be­come pro­gres­sively drunker as the evenings pulled in. “What time do you get off?” “I never get off.” “I could just jump over this rope, you know.” “But you won’t.” Some­times I would sing. Once you’re the Spi­der Lady, al­ready a con­firmed aber­ra­tion, singing in pub­lic isn’t so scary. I got the kids to sing along to “Itsy Bitsy Spi­der” and the adults to “I Want to Hold Your Hand[s].” There was another Spi­der Lady, on another shift, who would get peo­ple to buy dough­nuts for her. The mini-dough­nut van was just a cou­ple stalls from us, so she would say “Go get me a snack!” and I would ask “Sing with me?” and peo­ple would— they al­ways would.

The crowds were gen­er­ally nice—gen­er­ally happy and laugh­ing and friendly. But even when they weren’t—even when it was 10:45 p.m., 15 min­utes to shift’s end, and a group of loud and drunk young men were con­vinced they couldn’t leave un­til they got to touch you or find out how things worked or both—even then it was never scary. Not re­ally. We had our lit­tle fam­ily, and we watched out for one another. We stood up for one another. The bouncer-doc­tor, scrawny in a too-big lab coat, would say “Hey, guys, leave her alone,” and I’d say “Okay, guys, lis­ten to the doc­tor” and they would. Just like that. It was never scary.

After all, what’s the worst that could hap­pen? They’d find out I was nor­mal. Me, the doc­tor, the caller, the money taker, the rowdy lads them­selves—all of us, all along, just nor­mal. “But...don’t you get bored?” “No, not at all.” “But...what do you do up there all day?”

“I look at the freaks. What do you do?” ■

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