The Half-and-HalfBuy this book
Buy other books by Daniel P. Mannix
By Daniel P. Mannix
Even though she was very attractive, I never could really fall in love with Frances-Francine because I didn't know if she was a man or woman. Finally I asked her and she told me frankly, "I don't know myself, Slim." As she did a strip in the blow-off of our sideshow top, it should have been easy to tell, but it wasn't that simple. The sideshow-or Ten-in-One as it was called because it featured ten acts under one top or tent-had an added attraction at the far end, separated from the rest of the pit by a canvas sidewall. This attraction was known as the "blow-off" because it was the climax of the whole show and there was an extra charge to see it. So important was the blow-off that the other acts-fire-eater, sword-swallower, human pincushion, freaks, etc.-were little more than inducements to bring the tip (crowd) into the top where the inside talker could persuade them to pay a handsome sum to enter the blow-off and see the star attraction completely nude "and I'll give you a dollar for every stitch of clothing you can find on her."
A half-and-half is a hermaphrodite ("half man and half woman"). As a hermaphrodite is always a big attraction, lots of girls try to make up as a half-and-half with grease paint and flesh-colored adhesive tape and faked parts but they never look like the real thing. Frances-Francine was lucky. She was born that way.
I remember well the night Frances-Francine and her family arrived. It was our last show in that town and we were tearing down preparing to move to the next lot, a long jump of two hundred sixty-five miles. I was helping Krinko (who owned our show) and Mountmorency (who introduced the acts) take down the sidewalls. The whole carny was melting away in the moonlight. Only the bones of the rides were left and half of the ferris wheel was gone. I could see the men crawling over the web of spokes like lanky spiders. Every now and then a slice of the wheel would suddenly shake and be lower down.
I looked up. A car was driving slowly past the carny, its lights bright yellow in the dark street, then another car came down a side street and joined it. Another car came up and another until there were six. All of a sudden there came a honking and roaring, and a beautiful brand new coupe came tearing out of a side street towing a shiny aluminum trailer. I was sliding an armful of poles into the trunk and if I hadn't been quick enough to jump on the tailgate they'd have been scraping me off the coupe's bumper.
"What the hell's the idea?" I shouted when I got my breath back. "What are you trying to do, you son of a bitch, kill somebody?"
The door of the car was flung open and a little man leaped out like a mad rat. He had a tiny black mustache, carried a little cane and looked like the figure on a wedding cake. He rushed at me and stuck his face right up against my shirt.
"What the hell did you call me?" he shouted, clenching his little fists and straining himself up as high as he could. "I don't take that from nobody, see? I don't care how big you are."
I am six-foot-three and had joined the carny as sword-swallower. Being so tall, I could swallow a sword eight inches long which gave me a position of some importance in carnival acts.
"Who the hell are you?" I asked wonderingly, looking down at the furious little animal.
Someone was getting out of the coupe. It was a tall figure, wrapped in a cloak. By the light of the lantern hanging from our truck's side, I could see the face. It was the face of a very good looking young boy. But when the stranger spoke it sounded like a girl, only very deep and soft.
"Don't hit him!" she called to me. "Everybody hits him and his bones break very easily. He's just come out of the hospital and his jaw's only wired in place."
"For someone whose jaw's only wired in place, he seems to be using it pretty freely," I said.
"You can't talk to me like that!" screamed the little man. He was so mad he was shaking. "The guy that broke my jaw was bigger than you! But once I got my teeth into him, they had to pour mange cure up my nose to make me let go!"
Krinko said placatingly, "Slim, this is our new act, the half-and-half."
I had heard of half-and-halfs before. The income from such a blow-off as that would carry the whole show. "Paul's her manager," Krinko added. "We don't argue with him."
A big sigh of relief went up from the pack of relatives. They all hurried over to Paul to shake hands and congratulate him. Frances-Francine moved closer to me.
"I'm sorry about the way Paul behaved to you," she said softly. "Please don't hit him in the face until his jaw heals." She pulled some bills out of her pocket and handed me ten dollars as if she were used to passing out money.
"No thanks, I may not be able to earn it," I said, turning back to my few belongings which I was getting ready to load in the car.
She smiled, "Don't say that! Perhaps you like music? I have a phonograph and some beautiful albums of records in my trailer. Why don't you come over some time and I'll play them for you?"
"Sorry, but I've got a girl with the Follies Show."
Frances-Francine dropped her hand and turned away. "Of course you want to be with your girl," she said in a flat voice. "It must be nice to be a girl. I wish I were a girl. I'd even rather be a girl than a man. Then Paul and I could get married."
Frances-Francine's group of relatives kept to themselves and fitted easily into the carnival. We seldom spoke to them so they lived in a little world of their own. But one evening Julie, my girl from the Follies Show, and I were walking where the newcomers had parked their car in the ring behind the carny where a whole crop of little living-tents had sprung up, almost like an Indian village. There were some trailers with smoke coming out of the chimneys and a couple of them had parrots hanging in cages; one even had a monkey on a long string. Some girls were hanging out wash to dry on the tent ropes as though they were clotheslines. When we passed the living top of an elderly woman, to our surprise she called us in for tea. She was a wheezy, fat old person and seemed glad to see us, mainly because she needed an audience to listen to her many troubles. She turned out to be Frances-Francine's mother.
"I just been tellin' Frances she ought never a joined this outfit," the old woman began. "She's the only color Krinko's got in his sideshow. My other girls make more sellin' pictures of her than they take in at the outside ticket box. And I got a notion she's kickin' back to Krinko with some of her dough cause she feels sorry for him. That old Chinaman or whatever he is is cheatin' her outa every last cent she makes and every time I see him I'm gonna tell him so right to his face."
"Have one of these cookies," she continued, passing me the dish. "You know, we ain't the type that you'd find on a carny lot. I wouldn't have done it if it hadn't been I gotta look after Frances. Mr. Hodgkiss, that's my husband, he had a real fine business back where we come from. He was makin' forty-five and fifty dollars a week-sometimes." She drew herself up and waited until I was stricken with awe. "Naturally we had a position in the town where we come from but when Frances got to be a young girl and we found she was different from other kids, we didn't say nothing about it, thinking she might outgrow it and besides it's nasty to talk about such things. We was always very delicate-minded. She was a queer little thing and the other girls at school found out about her and wouldn't have nothin' to do with her. They used to chase her down the street and giggle at her and many's the time I'd come out and run 'em off with my broom. Then Frances would cry and cry and I'd yell at her, 'Now there ain't no use crying so you might as well shet up!' Then maybe she'd try to ask me something and I'd shet her up real quick, 'Don't talk to me about nasty things, miss,' I'd tell her, 'Cause I ain't goin' to stand fer it.'"
"It must have been hard on poor Frances," said Julie sympathetically.
"Well, Frances wasn't what I'd call a natural child," admitted the mother. "She was always runnin' off by herself and she kept pretty much alone. She never had much real affection for her family and you'll notice she's like that now. She thinks more of that man Paul than her own flesh and blood. You know," she sunk her voice, "a lot of this bunch that goes around with us ain't nothing but cousins and yet she'll give them the money just like she does her own father and mother, it ain't right and it ain't fair. Me, I'm her own mother and look at this rag I gotta wear." She spread it out. "Ain't that terrible? That man and them cousins of hers spend all my money."
"How did you happen to go on the road?" I asked.
"Well," said Mrs. Hodgkiss, picking a raisin off a cookie and mumbling her words as she tongued the delicacy, "When she got to be twelve years old she had so much trouble at that time we had to call in a doctor. I hated to spend the money, and I told her and told her my other girls never had no trouble. But finally, I broke down. 'All right!' I yelled at her, 'It's worth five dollars jest to have you stop moaning and groaning all day and night cause my nerves ain't very strong.' So we called the doctor."
"It must have been hard on Frances," Julie suggested.
"Well, like I was sayin', this doctor came," the old lady continued. "And he brought another one and he brought another and here he was, not knowin' what to make of it with the neighbors talkin' and all. Finally they took Frances and me east to a clinic, payin' all our expenses. I seen New York and Philadelphia while the doctors were showing off Frances at the clinics. Well, naturally I didn't want to go home after all that and one day I met a man who was in show business who could dislocate any part of his body. Then doctors used to hire him to go to hospitals and show the students just where the different dislocations was. He told me I ought to start exhibiting Frances in sideshows. So here we are. I feel like it was kinda my duty to let people see her, because she's genuine medical curiosity and no grift. And after all I done fer her, here she is, cheatin' me outa every cent she can!"
"That ain't fair to Frances!" protested Julie. "It's just that she's so tender-hearted."
"She's tender-hearted fer bums," shrilled the old woman. "I ain't got no use for bums," she went on, raising her voice as footsteps went by the side of the top. "Especially bums that come and sponge on families where they ain't wanted and cheat an old woman out of her daughter's earnings."
A thin, weasel-faced woman appeared in the doorway, her face twitching with spite.
"Would you be so kind as to maybe favor me with the information as to whether them remarks was addressed to me, Mrs. Hodgkiss?" asked this newcomer, her voice cracking with barely controlled fury.
"If the shoe fits, put it on they say, ma'am!" shrieked Mrs. Hodgkiss, brandishing the cookie box.
"Oh indeed?" The thin lips twitched with rage. "Well, let me tell you it's lucky for poor Frances that she's got one friend to look out for her with you running after every man you see and cheating the poor girl out of every cent she makes!"
"Well, I'm legal-married which is more than can be said for you," howled Mrs. Hodgkiss, quivering with fury. "Maybe I ain't always done what I should, but I'm a real woman with passion, which you ain't, you scrawny old buzzard sucking out of a gin bottle all day."
"I ain't no body robber!" shouted the other. "I don't live on dead bodies. I ain't sold my own daughter's body before she was dead to a hospital to be cut up and put in jars, which is straight against the teachings of the church and you'll go to hell and I'll be glad of it! Hell! Hell! Hell!" she screamed.
"Don't tell me about the teachings of the church," bellowed Mrs. Hodgkiss. "I've given more money to the church than you have in your whole lousy life. It's you that'll go to hell for drinking."
"Let's get out of this," said Julie to me. "I can't stand it. My head is hurting."
As we left the tent, we passed other members of the family hurrying to the battle with furious faces. The door of Frances' trailer was open and her man was leaning back in his chair to listen, a newspaper in his hand. He was in his shirt sleeves. Frances was sitting on the bed playing cards. Without glancing up, she said wearily, "Oh please close the door, dear. They've started again." Her man watched the fight for a minute with a half-curious, half-contemptuous look on his face, and then obeyed her.
My own act conflicted with the special attraction blow-off, so it was some time before I was able to see Frances' "act," but one evening when we had a small crowd I sneaked in. Her act was simple enough. First, she walked back and forth fully clad in evening clothes and then did a simple striptease. It was plain that Frances-Francine was a woman but she had an enlarged clitoris that resembled a penis. She had no breasts but was able to build up her left breast with silicone so it resembled a normal woman's breast. She had the enlarged buttocks of a woman but walked like a man with no sway of the hips.
Everything went smoothly for a couple of months until we had to play a city which looked mean and tough. There were no parks, no wide streets, no trees, nothing but block after block of little houses, all exactly alike, and at regular intervals giant factories that occupied an entire city block. I felt much better when I caught the familiar flash of canvas. The carny had been pitched in a vacant lot surrounded by a ring of cars and trailers. I recognized the cars of the half-and-half's family and then the gray and green pyramid of the sideshow tent. I felt I'd come home.
Surprisingly, there were no carnies visible. Instead, there were advance skirmishers from the town everywhere. They were all young men followed by convoys of scampering little boys. They were obviously examining the set-up with an eye for attack. It was plain they considered the carnival an enemy force that had moved into their midst, one that they were duty-bound to defeat.
Then a stone struck a tent. Julie, who was with me, shivered a little. Another stone came, and then a shower of them. I saw a crowd of boys slashing the sidewalls with their pocket knives. The stone shower got heavier.
Suddenly, from somewhere far down the line came a long cry, "Hey, Ru-u-be!" Instantly, shouts and screams sprang up like the crackle of artillery. I heard Krinko shout to me, "Get a stake, son, get a stake!" but I was too bewildered to look for one.
It was almost dark outside, the evening having deepened rapidly. I could see our canvasmen charging the crowd, which was breaking and scattering in all directions. Some of the townies were throwing stones, rushing forward a few steps and snapping the stones out with a vigor learned on many a sandlot. I saw the head of one of the canvasmen suddenly jerk back and he ducked around, shielding his face with his shoulders and clapping his hands to his temples. He walked back towards the tents, cursing and swaying his body with pain.
Suddenly Bronco, the cowboy with our show, burst out of top cracking a long whip. The reports sounded like the rapid fire from a machine gun. He rushed at the crowd and the section he attacked began to run in earnest. I picked up a board from an old packing case and followed him. Just then, the street lamps on the edges of the lot all came on together. The whole scene was suddenly lit up and filigreed with long, twisting shadows. "Hey Rube!" came the yell again...the carny war cry. More canvasmen came pouring out of the space between the tents. I saw Krinko and Mountmorency with them, both carrying stakes. Then the whole line of carnies which had been forming around the tents swept forward and the fight was on.
The rush was so sudden the town people were not prepared to meet it. We were on top of the first line before any of the townies could turn and run. People were knocked down as we passed over them. I saw a man and a girl running hand-in-hand. The girl tripped and fell and the man, still running, tried to jerk her to her feet. Then the crowd swept around them and I could hear the girl screaming. A terrified little boy rushed by me, blood pouring from a cut on his forehead. Just behind him came a fat, bewhiskered man running in stark terror. He overtook the boy and ran him down, apparently without seeing him. The child fell on his face and lay there shrieking in terror. One of the canvasmen pulled him up and gave him a spank towards the rest of the crowd.
The wailing scream of a siren swept up above the tumult and a red police car rushed across the lot, plowing through the retreating crowd so recklessly it seemed a miracle no one was killed. Its siren was instantly answered from the other side and I could see a second red car whirl to a stop. From both cars blue-coated men leaped, carrying night sticks. Several of the policemen walked back and forth on the flanks of the retreating mob, hurrying them off the lot while their comrades followed a few steps in the rear, brandishing their sticks suggestively. The carnies stopped at once and stood as a back wall to the police, watching the townies retreat.
Krinko came swiftly up to me. "Drop that stick, kid," he said briefly. I threw it away and then noticed that, with the advent of the police, all the stakes and clubs among the carnies had mysteriously disappeared.
Paul, Frances-Francine's boyfriend, came to meet us shaking with rage and terror.
"This is a hell of an outfit!" he shouted, addressing Krinko directly and the rest of us by suggestion. "We ain't going to stand for it no longer. We're going to leave this show flat tonight, right now. We don't have to put up with nothing like this."
His shrill voice, pitched with indignation, went on and on. We listened dully, too tired to comment. Mountmorency came slowly along the stake line. His natty clothes were hanging in rags. I knew the talker would probably have preferred having a broken arm to having his wardrobe ruined. He stopped to listen to the daintily dressed little man.
"We all know it's been Frances who's been keeping this show running," Mountmorency said at last, during a break in Paul's querulous invective. "How do you think the old man is going to swing things if she's gone? Are you going to let the show close after all the work he's put into it? Give him a week to run an ad in the "Billboard" for a new freak for the blow-off."
"I ain't a'goin to starve for that old devil!" shouted the little man. "I know Frances has been kickin' back some of the dough to him. I ain't a'goin to permit that. We ain't gonna support him. I got to live, ain't I?"
The rest of the half-and-half's family assembled, coming out of their tops and cars like rabbits after a rain to listen to the distant thunder. They gathered around silently.
"You ain't got no right to blow tonight," said Mountmorency quietly. "You oughta give the old man a couple weeks notice."
The door of Frances' trailer opened and she came out, hurriedly throwing a cloak around her.
"What's the matter, Paul?" she asked her man.
"I told them we're pulling out tonight and he's trying to give me some talk. Trying to get fresh with me!" shouted Paul.
"We'll give them another week," said the girl, putting out her hand as if to touch her lover's shoulder but hesitating at the last moment as though afraid. "Then we'll go. We can't leave them flat."
He shrugged away from her furiously. "We'll go now, I say!" he shrilled. "You can't order me around. You can't tell me what to do. I know you've been giving that old man money. You've been cheating me, and I ain't going to stand for it."
Frances hung her head.
"Sure you have," screeched her lover, seeing his advantage. "I don't have to hang around you, you damned freak. I know lots of women who'd give me more than you do. I know half-and-halfs at other carneys who'd be glad to take me up any time. Don't think you can cheat me and get away with it." Then, seeing Frances was completely crushed, he turned triumphantly to Mountmorency. "And don't try to give me no orders," he shrilled, stepping closer to the shallow-faced talker as proud and sure of himself as a bantam cock. "I got influence with a lot of carnival owners. I'll have you banned off the lots if you stand up to me!" He shook his cane threateningly.
Suddenly, Mountmorency hit him. The little man went down but instantly sprang up again. He drooped his cane and squared up to the talker. Mountmorency hit him again, full in the face, and this time Paul went down and stayed there. He lifted himself on one side and stared at the talker while spitting blood out of a split lip. Mountmorency turned to Frances.
"Now you say something and you'll be spitting blood just like he is," he told her. She said nothing and he turned away.
"And that's that," said Bronco, who stood beside me with his whip in his hand. "The old man'll have to start looking for a new freak."
Krinko was standing a few feet away and must have heard the cowboy, but he gave no sign. He suddenly looked very old and tired. He ran his hand through his few wisps of hair and turned back towards the top. Although during the Hey Rube he had kept up with the best of the canvasmen, I noticed he limped heavily as he dragged himself towards the back-flap. The talker did not raise his head and the old concessionaire stumped by; Krinko did not speak.
The city was very quiet and the street lights still burned. Occasionally a red radio car would make a turn around the lot like a dangerous red bug that was both a protection and a menace. While Bronco and I were bagging the canvas strips, Frances came up to Krinko. He and Mountmorency had been standing together watching us work.
"We're leaving, Krinko," said the half-and-half without preamble.
The old showman lifted tired eyes to her. "Why you do that, Frances?" he asked mournfully. "Look, I don't talk to you like you was a damned fool. I tell you truth. You lose money with me. Sure. But this next week we got good spot. That week we play Italian Fair. That's good money, huh Mountmorency?"
"Sure it is," said Mountmorency, staring moodily at the ground.
"You hear that? Now everything go O.K. You stay and everyone good friends."
"No," said Frances steadily. "He hit Paul. He didn't have to do that. Maybe Paul shouldn't have said all the things he did, but Mountmorency hadn't any call to hit him right in the face like that."
Krinko turned to the talker. "What the hell, you didn't know what you was doing, huh? You thought you was still in the clem, eh?" Krinko laughed and slapped the talker on the back with forced heartiness.
"I know Mountmorency was worked up over the Hey Rube," said Frances before the talker could answer. "And if he'd have hit me like he said he was going to, I would have understood it and not said anything. But he had no right to hit Paul. We're going to go."
Krinko studied the ground for a long time. Then he looked straight at her.
"Go!" he said quietly. "Go and Goddamn you!"
The half-and-half turned away. "He shouldn't have hit Paul," she said and walked off. It was a statement made without apparent emotion.
We watched while the half-and-half's troupe struck their tops and loaded them on their flimsy jalopies. Last to go was Paul, supported by two of Frances-Francine's numerous relations, although it seemed to me he could have walked easily by himself.
"Well, that's the end of the Ten-in-One," said Bronco, turning away to spit. "Too bad. It was a good show-while it lasted."
"I'll be damned if I can understand what Frances-Francine ever saw in that guy," I remarked as the last of the jalopies vanished from the lot.
Julie stood by my side looking after them. "Why she loves him, Slim," she said as though it were the most natural thing in the world. "A woman will do anything for a person she loves."