The Freak Show
by Julie Webb Kelley
"Wow, you should see this." Deloris said to her husband as he set his briefcase on the kitchen table, loosened his tie and glanced toward the kitchen, realizing again that he couldn’t smell supper cooking.
"Sit down and look at this, will ya?" Deloris had been sitting on the coffee table right in front of the television but, with the hope of convincing her husband to join her, she had turned up the volume and taken a seat on the couch. She patted the cushion beside her; a final gesture toward her husband.
The voices of the guests on Deloris’ favorite television talk show now reached every corner of her house. "Yes, it’s true," one of the voices said, "that the development of scientific teratology has come a long way in the last few centuries. We no longer subscribe to the theories that a pregnant woman’s imagination influences these anomalies or that these persons are a result of a progressive evolution from lower life forms."
"Nor do we view physically unusual persons as failed human beings who should be rejected by society," a female voice added.
"What are they talking about?" Deloris’ husband spat out.
"Freaks and weird-o’s . . ." Deloris’s voice faded as the voices on the show continued their discussion.
"Dr. Geoffrey," the host spoke just a bit louder than her guests, "please give us a definition of teratology that we can understand."
"Teratology limited itself to the study of birth defects in the 19th century as anatomists attempted to distinguish between physical anomaly and monstrosity, both of which are simply interruptions in the development of the fetus," the doctor explained.
The host sighed with a half-smile, an obvious attempt to insert a bit of patience into her voice, "Dr. Geoffrey . . . understanding. That’s what my viewers want and need. Knowledge. Physical anomalies and monstrosities? Doctor, please -- share something we can understand."
Deloris smiled as the host nodded in time with the clapping audience.
"I am sorry," the doctor said. Deloris watched the doctor move about in his seat as if he had just had a knife pushed into his backbone very slowly. "Well," he hesitated, ". . . birth defects. A physical deformity, like when people are born with clef lips or no fingers on one hand. Monstrosities are birth defects that are much more pronounced, like when twins are born connected to each other in some way. Simply, it’s the study of the abnormal human form."
"Deloris, could you turn that off, I‘ve had such a long day," Deloris’ husband shook his head.
"Hal, shhhhh. They’re going to show pictures of some of these weird-o’s."
"How do you know?"
"It was in the previews, of course, now please. I don’t want to miss it."
"It’s a commercial, Deloris, there‘s nothing to miss," Deloris’ husband dropped his head to his chest and sighed heavily. "Could you just turn it down at least?"
Deloris picked up the remote control from the coffee table and muted the television. Breathing deeply, she folded her hands in her lap over the remote control. "What?" She said as she turned to her husband.
He had taken off his glasses and was rubbing his eyes.
"Hal, I’m sorry. You had a hard day, hey?" She placed a hand on his leg and waited for an answer.
"There was the usual. Mrs. Patton came in at 8:30 on the dot complaining about her husband, her kids and their finances."
"He still hasn’t found a job?"
"She says he’s not looking. She buys him the newspaper every Sunday, just like she did yesterday. He reads through it, circles the ones he’s going to call on Monday and then won’t get out of bed on Monday morning. He hasn‘t been able to keep a steady job for almost . . . what? Ten years now?"
"You know, he hasn’t been to service for the last four Sundays . . . or has it been five Sundays now?"
"Well, he only comes to church when he’s working." He paused, staring at the coffee table in front of him. "She says he’s started drinking again and asked me to come by and talk with him."
Deloris could see the strain in his face as he continued. "Alcohol and laziness. Discouragement and hopelessness. How am I suppose to fight monsters like that, Deloris? How?"
"Again? You have to talk with him again, you’ve talked with him a lot the last few months." Deloris realized now that the commercial was over, she saw the guests speaking again but couldn’t read their muted lips. She fiddled with the remote control on her lap.
"Deloris, I’m his minister. I think there’s some unwritten rule somewhere that says there’s no limit to the number of times you talk with your parishioners about their messed-up lives." Deloris’ husband fell back against the couch and closed his eyes. Without opening them, he finished, "I just don’t get it, Deloris. What kind of man doesn’t provide for his family? I’ve talked to him and talked to him. How am I supposed to convince him to put his family ahead of alcohol? What can I say to change anything?"
Deloris immediately glanced back to the television, wondering what she was missing.
"And then," her husband returned his glasses to his face, "as soon as Mrs. Patton left, Elder Dean Jones knocked on my door."
"Dean Jones, what a surprise." Deloris didn’t take her eyes off the program.
"I couldn’t believe it, Deloris. I couldn’t have been more shocked if he had run a bulldozer over my head."
"What’s so strange about Elder Jones coming to your office?" Deloris asked, her gaze now steady on her husband.
"I knew something was up because there he was in my office on a Monday morning talking about the weather instead of at work." Hal stopped talking and looked around as if wondering what to say next.
"He’s having an affair." Deloris’ husband punctuated the words with a slight laugh. Then he sat up straighter on the couch. "An affair." He ran his fingers through his hair, "said he had to tell someone because he was going crazy with guilt."
"Who? Who is it?" Deloris squeaked.
"Dean. Dean Jones I’m talking about."
"Yes. Yes, I know. I mean, did he say who he was having an affair with?"
"No. He didn’t say too much about her, he mostly talked about himself. How guilty he felt. How bad he felt for sneaking around with her behind her husband’s back. How he didn’t think he should keep seeing her! And get this! He felt that his volunteer work here at the church was beginning to suffer." Deloris’ husband shook his head side to side. "His volunteer work was suffering? I couldn’t believe it. He said he wanted to confess it and get on with his life, but he didn‘t know if he could walk away or not. Deloris, the guy was telling me this like he was talking about staying up too late past his bedtime or something."
"Well, sin is sin," Deloris shrugged. "It’s all the same to God."
"Yes, but different sins carry different consequences. I mean, a secret affair with a women in our church for over a year now? That’s more freakish than . . ."
"A women in our church? How’d you know that? Did he tell you that?" Deloris saw the remote control in her hands shaking a bit. She immediately placed it on the table in front of her and buried her hands in her lap.
"No. I asked him. All he would say is that it is someone I know, so it has to be someone in the church. I don’t know anyone he works with. Oh, and get this. He says he really wants to break it off now--after a year of adultery with this woman--because he‘s realized that there’s something not right about her. I wanted to shake him, Deloris, shake him and say, ’Hello Dean. Wake up! Of course there’s nothing normal about a woman who would run around behind her husband’s back. Hello! There’s nothing normal about you sleeping with a married woman, either.’ What kind of people do this sort of thing?" Deloris’ husband laughed sharply, "what kind of people do we have in this church anyway?"
Deloris forced air into her lungs slowly. "He said he wanted to break it off, hey?"
"Did he tell the women yet?"
"I’m not sure, he was sort of weird about that part, too."
"Weird? What d’ya mean?"
"All he said was, he thought she’d know by the end of the day. I thought that was a pretty strange way to say it, ’I think she’ll know by the end of the day.’ Meaning, what? He’s going to tell her tonight? He doesn’t have a wife, he has no one left to confess to except God. I told him. I told him, Deloris. I said, ‘Go home and confess this to God, not to me.‘ This is all just too weird for me to think about. Dean Jones, of all people." He paused, "I told him that he should step down as an elder until he gets his life figured out."
Deloris nodded her agreement, "Yes, he should, um . . . step down. That’s right."
Deloris’ husband let his eyes drift back to the television. "Hey, here’s the pictures you wanted to see." He grabbed the remote control and turned up the volume. Immediately the voices of the talk show guests filled the house again.
Hard as she tried, Deloris realized she couldn’t take her eyes off of the image that filled the television screen. How strange this deformity looked. How unreal it seemed.
The female talk show guest was speaking, "Humans with birth defects this severe rarely survive these days, but, as you can see from this photo, Joseph Merrick lived to the age of 27 years. He died in 1890. At the time, many thought that he had elephantitis, but in the late 1900’s it was confirmed that he suffered from Proteus syndrome."
"Wow," Deloris’ husband commented, "could you imagine living like that? With a defect so huge? How would it effect your life? Your day-to-day activities? Most people would judge you as being a freak just by looking at you."
Deloris’ husband let a sharp sigh escape as he focused in on the next picture on the television. "Would you look at that one?" The words exploded from his being. "That poor little kid."
On the television screen Dr. Geoffrey was using a special pen light to outline the defects on the picture of the young child. "This child is two years old. She represents a more modern case of Proteus syndrome. The weight of the defect makes it impossible for her to hold her head up on her own . . ."
Deloris grabbed the remote and muted the set.
"What’s wrong? I thought you wanted to hear this?" Deloris’ husband asked.
"I’ve heard enough. What else about your day?"
"You know," he pointed to the silent box in front of them both, "That’s kinda like Dean Jones now. And . . . Phillip Patton."
Deloris turned her head slowly toward her husband. "Wha’da mean?"
"I mean, the deformities we all have in our lives."
"Sure. Some are small and some are huge, but we all have them. We’re all sinners. ‘All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.‘ We all need God to take our sins away, but, man," her husband paused in thought, "when we let those sins cling to us that way, it’s like . . . well, it’s like a monstrosity. It‘s just like that." He pointed to the television.
Deloris turned back to the program, and as the reality of the monstrosity in front of her filled her gaze, her head suddenly felt very, very heavy.