Crowd of Teeth, Chris Milam
Originally published in Thickjam (July 2014)
His greyish incisors ripped into the skinny neck of the farm chicken with the savagery of a famished vagrant. The headless torso landed with a soft thud in the dirt as blood leaked from the corners of the geek’s mouth and began to color the lifeless bird’s feathers in a crimson rouge.
He glanced at the onlookers and saw beards, sundresses, flannel shirts and rows of venomous teeth. He saw desire in their peckish eyes and contempt on their sun-cracked lips. They pumped fists and wailed at the spectacle of him. Women hugged their men and father’s patted their kids on the head. Some ate caramel apples and elephant ears while others inhaled corn dogs and nachos. They cheered, they feasted, they judged. The geek struggled with the beak but eventually got it down with a labored swallow. He took a sheepish bow and the townspeople pelted him with quarters as they begged for more. He gathered the loose coins and headed for his tent.
The man who ran the carnival, Fredrick Nyte, was like a father figure to the geek. Years ago, a fidgety and addicted family had left the child at a show in Nashville with a note clipped to his sleeve: “He fits in with your world, not ours. Good luck.” He named the boy Apollo and groomed him in the ways of carnival showmanship.
He entered the tent and observed Apollo through a mirror resting on a scuffed nightstand. Its reflection revealed a nose of twisted cartilage, a bowl of unwashed reddish-brown hair, ribs protruding through abused skin, and eyes the hue of wet cement.
“Great show, boy. The crowd was amped up. You did good, son.”
“I’ve got an idea. I want to shock the masses, flip the script, do something that this town has never seen before. A performance that will make us some serious fucking cash.”
“Apollo, can you shit on cue?”
“Here’s what I’m thinking, hear me out. Instead of biting the head off a chicken, which has been done by everybody from here to Cleveland, I want you to eat your own shit. Is that doable?”
“I’m confused, boss.”
“Goddammit, geek. Can. You. Eat. Your. Own. Shit. Look, I’ll throw in an extra couple of bucks and I’ll let you take the bearded lady from behind. I know you’re sweet on her.”
“Fine. I’ll do it.”
“Splendid. You might want to eat a bowl of chili or something to get primed. Showtime in two hours.”
Apollo walked into a ring of silence. Lights fixed atop wooden poles shone down on him, exposing his acne-scarred skin and his genetically deficient facial scruff. The crowd was ten deep but they only stared ahead. Waiting. Salivating.
The geek squatted above the dirt floor, lifted up the back of his white loincloth and freed his bowels. He brought a cupped hand to his mouth and probed the runny feces with his pale and squeamish tongue as a stream of foul brown juice slid down his jaw and found a home in his chest hair.
When he finally glanced at the customers he saw a priest with one hand holding a bible and the other rubbing his crotch. There was a woman with a bouffant nibbling on cotton candy with lavender-smeared lips. He heard a boy tell his father: “I love you, daddy, this was the best birthday ever.” A farmer, bathed in denim, shook hands with Mayor Tompkins, his calloused hands softened by the politician’s vote-snagging smile. He saw Mr. Nyte counting the metal box of cash.
Apollo puked RC cola and kidney beans for the next five minutes, a puddle of sacrifice that led a girl in a pink dress with a Mickey Mouse bracelet clasped to her wrist to fling her popcorn at him, telling the geek: “Dip them in some shit-butter, freak.”
Mr. Nyte caught up to him after the show.
“My God, man, it was like you were eating a chocolate ice cream waffle cone, it was so effortless. I’ve never been as proud of you as I am right now. You’re a fucking star, kid. You killed it tonight.”
The geek was proud of himself as well. The crowd loved him and maybe even respected him, he thought. He told himself not to shed those familiar tears. Again.
He moved to the sink in his tent and began to scrub his arms with a lather of soap and an old rag. He noticed the veins on the underside of his forearms were pulsating with electrified blood and his mind immediately latched on to a new idea for the show, something so bizarre that the townspeople and Mr. Nyte and maybe even his long-gone parents would have no choice but to accept him as one of them, a person of worth.
Apollo could work out the details of his new performance tomorrow. All he wanted at this precise moment was to retrieve his payment and the conductor of his heartbeat, the bearded lady.
Chris Milam lives in Hamilton, Ohio. His stories have appeared in Lost Balloon, Jellyfish Review, WhiskeyPaper, FlashBack Fiction, formercactus, Train Lit, Molotov Cocktail, Ghost Parachute, JMWW, and elsewhere. He was nominated for Best Small Fictions 2018. You can find him on Twitter @Blukris.