A few chapters back, I was going on about tent meetings, portable revival church salvation shows. And they’re an easy target to make fun of, and maybe I did. But they also just might be the most advanced that American spiritual experience gets. You don’t see people leaping around and falling out under the grip of the Holy Spirit at Harvard Divinity School or St. Marks. It compares to most church the way Lifetime Channel compares to reality TV shows. The Fear Of The Lord Factor
But there was another kind of itinerant tent show about the land in those days. And again, I have no idea if it still exists or has gone the way of the chatuaqua and wild west shows. And if the humble services under canvas where my daddy aspired to babble Godly nonsense and people swooned dead away in rapture were the highest form of our national religious experience, then that other type was the anti-tent, the lowest experience of ways of the flesh. I’m talking about the hoochie-coochie show.
And coming right up on another one of those damned foreshadowing things. The more I write at this thing, the more those omen moments kind of gnaw at me. Why don’t they come with some sort of manufacturer’s warning? Maybe a special deja-prevue that tells you to watch well and understand, because these are things can get stuck to your shoes and drag around behind your life like a length of toilet tissue? But I guess that would defeat Free Will or the Prime Directive or some such time warp principle. When I look back, though, sometimes I want to just jump back there and yell, “Look at that, Cammy May! You better get a load of this mess before it gets a load of you!”
One of the closest it came to happening was when we snuck into the hoochie-cooch to see what the fuss was all about. And did we ever find out. These shows didn’t tour independently. I don’t think that would have worked at all. That would have been sheer 180 proof sin and probably the Ladies Auxiliary or PTA or somebody would have put them to the torch and ridden the hussies and procurers out of town in a coat of pitch and chicken pluckings. There were kind of a symbiotic parasite that moved with the carnies or fairs or whatever rolling shows moved around the blue highways in the day. Not the big official State and County affairs, but little circuses that would show up with little erector set roller coasters and bumper cars and midways and maybe some animal acts or even a trapeze or big ball that motorcycles could zip around inside for whatever reason a body would want to fire up a powerful motorbike, then drive it around inside a cage.
Sometimes they would hook up with local affairs and have small-time livestock judging or pony races or pie eating contests with some proceeds going to buy the school a new motor for their broke-down bus or put a roof on the Methodist sanctuary or recruit idiot boys into the Army or Marines. Or even a beauty contest.
Which you’ve probably figured out is what brought me to the one that time: some sort of runway contest in three age brackets to shill hair products, as best I recall. Otherwise there is no way in the world we’d have been there. For one thing, those events were seen as generally wicked, or at least intolerably tacky, with temptations like gambling, spun sugar on a stick, and the coochie tent I already mentioned. For another thing, they cost money, which was one worldly distraction we managed to generally avoid. But beauty shows were something else again, and the transportation and funding all worked itself out as usual. That time Flora Lee and I were both entered, and we both won $20 savings bonds, hers for a second place in the high school age bracket, mine for a first in the sub-jailbait division. So we were more feted and cherished than usual and our supervision got fairly lax.
And just as they say the devil is always waiting to strike in times of reduced vigilance, the light, heady air of the carnival provided an opening for the tireless machinations of our own personal Servant of Iniquity, my brother, Powell. We were wandering around gawking at the zippy little track cars and tilted whirls, the various unhealthy goodies being hawked by lean and hungry inbred carnie workers, the balloons and plush animals and brash girl band music, and pitiful little fireworks displays. Pow’s usual band of creeps weren’t around, so he was fairly human and we girls preferred walking with him to being alone in the tawdry midway. We longed to go into the fun house and the chamber of horrors but didn’t have the price of admission. We’d handed over the bonds to Mama (who would cash them in immediately for less than face value) and were typically empty-pocketed. Selah had a few dollars she got for her birthday but wasn’t about to spring for any treats for the rest of us. Flora Lee was scoping out anything in trousers and didn’t much care where we went as long as she was being artlessly admired and lusted after. Bethany wasn’t with us, so we had a good chance of pulling something off without getting tattled on by Little Ms. Snitchbritches.
We ended up heading into the sideshow, a sort of sub-midway where things were still in tents with admission price, but some of the stuff was out front to tease people into wanting to get inside and see more. Flora was using the same principle in her general demeanor and partially unbuttoned blouse. Again, I have no idea if there are still sideshows anymore, or any shows for them to be side of. But they were something to behold, I’m telling you. We trundled along being barked at by these waxen little men, all trying to cozen us in with displays of bizarro mundo. We could see the minor freaks on display and hear hints of even freakier freaks concealed inside moldy tents. Step right up. See the jackelope, the alligator boy, the mer-wolves, the morphadite twins, the illustrated miracle of birth, the two peckered billy-goat, the freshly-fucked fox, the dancing beer keg, the singing bass, the bearded baby, the tallest midget, the fattest skeleton, the instant cures. The midway sloped down from the genuinely curious to the dubiously dark to the slightly off-color to the downright nasty.
There were little peepshow viewers on display in an open tent, tending towards scientific discourses limited to the reproduction process and freaks not so much of nature, but pulchritude. Selah, at an age where her virginity was starting to bang around and shout about itself, was captivated by a kiosk selling tacky pamphlets of dirty love by comic characters. We could observe blurry-printed covers of unlikely copulation between Lois and Clark, Maggie and Jiggs, Homer and Marge, Dagwood and Blondie, Beavis and Butthead, Siegfried and Roy, Sears and Roebuck, Kneedeep and Dneiper. With hints at even more titillating titles in store. And if the alley of minor league sinfulness was a slippery slope, we had come to the nadir: a large red tent that was obviously and shamelessly the hoochie coochie show. The barker had a megaphone, the first time I knew anybody had them other than cheerleaders, and sat on a tall director’s chair. Behind him, the opening of the tent draped in rosy, labial folds where we saw occasional glimpses of the legs, rumps, skirts and beckoning fingers of what were obviously Painted Women. I was fascinated, Selah was appalled almost into flight, Flora Lee quivered at the sight like a shooting dog, Pow was magnetized. His electrification was something you could feel, and we all ended up looking at him. And what we could see was that this boy would find a way to thrust himself into that tent or explode into flames.
He led us back up the sideshow with a dire purpose. We followed him meekly, which we were normally too experienced in the Ways of Pow to do. Mostly we were curious to see what he would do. I could easily envision some Roadrunner scenario, with Pow trying increasingly desperate coyote tricks to get inside, meeting with catastrophic setbacks. The boy was jumped up, is how my GrandDaddy would have put it. He had a foot in the stirrup and his ass on the ground and was loaded for bear. We slipped out between two tents and started moving along the back end of the tents and trailers and bolt-up shacks, stumbling over guylines and refuse. We could hear the music from the coochie tent and it was Gomorrah Rock, lowdown striptease beats from bygone days, a strumpet call to panting swains with straining pants. Pow moved toward the rear of the tent like he had a hook sunk in his wiener and it was being reeled in by Papa Hemingway on speed. I realized later that he’d taken advantage of our company, hiding among girls like a wolf among sheep in order to avoid attention from the roughnecks and rowdies of the carnival. We had a pretty clear shot to slip in under the edges of the tent and find out that most powerful of male mysteries: What Is Inside.
Once inside, luckily coming in behind a low set of bleachers, it was obvious that being with girls wouldn’t cover Pow any longer. We were the only females in the place except for the Painted Women frolicking on the stage in a shambling display of pasty flesh. And Pow, who looked young for seventeen, would have been chucked out, too. We hunkered down in the primal darkness and took in the show. My initial impression was shock, but by the time we left, it had turned to sadness. I couldn’t have told you why, but it was just this sad, dingy spectacle.
The men would howl and rut like animals, coming to a peak when one of the women–these doughy white women with smears of lurid red at various places on their sagging anatomies–would come on stage and start taking their clothes off. Some shuffled around mechanically, baring themselves as if they were in their own bath, looking past the furor they caused by showing a bloated nipple or sagging ass or depilated pussy like botched surgery. Some would joke with the men, generally taunting them. This drove the collection of farmers and clerks and college boys into a frenzy. They would surge toward the stage, but stop at some invisible fourth wall, though they could have easily spilled onto the low platform and gang-ravaged these tired old whores. I expected them to. It was like seeing a buffalo stampede or piranha frenzy stop on an imaginary dime. They stood outside the barriers, hunching and shouting and bumping around. They waved liquor containers and gripped themselves. They shouted horrible things at the women. The most horrible things were beyond my understanding at the time, but that didn’t matter. I understood them completely. Even though I didn’t at that time really have much of a picture of what the consummation of all that lust would look like or play out. I figured they would tear the women to pieces and gobble them down like wolverines.
The women who smirked made me sadder than the ones who’d tuned it out, for some reason. If they had that much gumption, why didn’t they leave? Or kick some of these clodhoppers in the teeth, shut their filthy gobs for them? The catcall that stuck in my mind, for some reason, was from a chunky old dairy farmer in a crimped Resistol, with tufts of while hair sticking out the chest of his overalls. He stalked to the edge of the stage, pushed laughing men aside and scrunched down to stare at the sex of one of the Painted. He pointed his finger at the scene of the crime and howled, “Look at that thing, there, boys? You reckon I could milk it?” I don’t know why that one hit me more than other, viler commentary, but I can still see that old fuck pointing and howling about milking her. I wanted to cry, wanted somebody to shoot him down dead.
About that moment, we got busted. Or at least discovered. I just looked up and there was a Painted Woman standing there, wearing a ratty robe and some old boa, foundation make-up practically flaking off her, her mouth wet and red as a gaping vagina, her eyes like two holes peed in a snowbank. I tensed up and Flora and Selah turned to see her and also gripped up. I had to tug at Pow’s sleeve to get him to wake up and realize it was crisis time. She loomed over us, squatting there and peering between two risers, big and blowsy and forbidding. I’m just guessing Pow lost his stiffy on the spot. But maybe not. Maybe he sprayed his briefs.
She leaned down and looked close at us and said, not at all unkindly, “What in the whole wide world are you kids doing here?” Well, what else would we be doing. We were watching. Just not making a zombie armegeddon out of it like the paying customers. She said, “You all better come with me. Keep quiet. Come on.” And she led us out to a sort of side door flap Pow had missed. She pulled it open and kicked her head over sideways and Pow was outside in a red hot second, with Selah right behind him. She lowered the flap a second and I thought she’d trapped me and Flora Lee. Maybe this is how they got these bloated hags in the first place, kidnapping little girls and cooking them into gingerbread sluts. She looked at the ribbon badges from the contest on our trembling bosoms and checked us out very closely. Then she smiled–not becoming–and patted Flora’s shoulder. She said, “Don’t come around this shit, honey. Not at your age.” Then, and I swear I’m not making this up, she looked right at me and said, “Maybe in a couple of years you can come back and say hi.”
Maybe a few readers (if there are any out there in cyberland) raised eyebrows when I said that the anti-tent was the basest altar of Flesh, but I stand by it and I’ve seen a lot of wicked carnality in action since, believe you me. Often been part of that action. But there is nothing you’re going to see in Vegas or Tokyo or even Tijuana or Bangkok that approaches the sheer submersion of that coochie show. Anywhere else, as least the looks or form of the Flesh involved has at least some ogle value. What I saw that night was pure, unadulterated worship of meat at its basal level of brutish appetite and degradation. The women themselves were ugly, their actions graceless and dispirited, their reception a lunge of jaws and fangs. I’ve asked myself at times why men elsewhere have at least some veil over their most reductive appetites, at least in public. Are rednecks really that much worse than men in the places I named? Is the country more bestial than the city? Is there something special about that presentation, licensing the worst expressions of grasping lust? I haven’t come up with any answers. If that was the only thing playing in the theaters of wickedness, then I could come to accept the way “holy” people downgrade the flesh in favor of spirit. But one thing I did realize at some point; it probably did me good to see the very worst of it at a young age. As I moved into the ways of wantonness myself, I never had any illusions over how far the path could lead.