Professor Lightning nodded. "Now, then," he said. "We'll get right to work on ... Charley, my boy, what did you say?"
Charley licked his lips. "I said no," he said.
Professor Lightning waited a long minute. "You mean you don't believe me," he said at last. "You think I'm some sort of a crackpot."
"Not at all," Charley said politely. "I guess if you say you can do this ... well, I see all the animals, and everything, and I guess you can do it. That's O.K."
"But you're doubtful," Professor Lightning said.
Charley shook his head. "No," he said. "You can do it, all right. I guess I'm sure of that, professor."
"Then," the professor said, in a tenser voice, "you think it might be dangerous. You think you might be hurt, or that things might not work out right, or--"
"Gee," Charley said, "I never thought of anything like that, professor. I know you wouldn't want to hurt me."
"I certainly wouldn't," Professor Lightning said. "I want to help you. I want to make you normal. Like everybody else."
"Sure," Charley said uncomfortably.
"Then you'll do it," Professor Lightning said. "I knew you would, Charley. It's a great opportunity. And I offered it to you because you--"
"Gee, I know," Charley said, feeling more uncomfortable than ever. "And don't think I don't appreciate it. But look at it my way, professor." He paused. "Suppose I had two arms--just like everybody else, the way you tell me. What would happen to me?"
"Happen?" Professor Lightning blinked. "Why, Charley ... why, you could do anything you liked. Anything. You'd have the same opportunities as anybody else. You could be ... well, my boy, you could be anything."
"Could I?" Charley said. "Excuse me for talking about this, professor, but I've had a lot of time to think about it. And it's all sort of new to you. I mean, you weren't born the way I was, and so you just don't understand it."
Professor Lightning said: "But, my boy--"
"No." Charley said. "Let me explain this. Because it's important." He cleared his throat, sat down on the ground and fumbled for a cigarette. He found one in his shirt pocket, carried it to his lips with his right foot, and lit a match with his left. When he was smoking easily, he went on.
"Professor, do you know how old I am?" he said. "I'm forty-two years old. Maybe I don't look it, but that's how old I am. Now, I've spent all my life learning to do one thing, and I do a pretty good job of it. Anyhow, good enough to get me a spot with Wrout's show, and probably with anybody else I wanted to work for."
"But your arms--?" the professor said.
"That's what I mean," Charley said. "I don't have any arms. I never had any. Maybe I miss 'em, a little--but everything I do is based on the fact that I don't have 'em. Now, professor, do you know what I am?"
Professor Lightning frowned. "What you are?" he said.
"I'm an Armless Wonder," Charley said. "That's a pretty good thing to be. In a carny, they look up to an Armless Wonder--he's a freak, a born freak, and that's as high as you can go, in a carny. I get a good salary--I send enough to my mother and my sister, in Chicago, for them to live on. And I have what I need myself. I've got a job, professor, and standing, and respect." He paused. "Now, suppose I had arms. I'd have to start from scratch, all over again. I'd have to start from the bottom up, just learning the basic elements of any job I signed on for. I'd be a forty-two-year-old man doing the work of an eighteen-year-old. And not making much money. And not having much standing, or respect."
Charley took the cigarette out of his mouth with his right foot, held it for a second and put it back.
"I'd be normal," he said. "I'd be just like everybody else, professor. And what do I want anything like that for?"
Professor Lightning tried everything, but it wasn't any good. "Fame," he said, and Charley pointed out, calmly and reasonably, that the kind of fame he'd get from being an experimental subject was just like being a freak, all over again--except that it would wear off, and then, he asked, where would he be? Professor Lightning talked about Man's Duty to Science, and Charley countered with Science's Duty to Man. Professor Lightning tried friendship, and argument, and even force--but nothing worked. Incredible as it seemed to the professor, Charley was content to remain a freak, an Armless Wonder. More, he seemed to be proud and happy about it.
It was too bad that the professor didn't think of the one argument that might have worked. In the long run, it wouldn't have made any difference, perhaps--but it would have cleared matters up, right there and then. Because the one workable argument had a good chance of succeeding.
But, then, Professor Lightning really didn't understand carny. He never thought of the one good argument, and after a while he gave up, and went away.
Of course, that was several days later. Professor Lightning told Charley that he was leaving for New York, and Charley said: "What? In the middle of the season?" Then he told Wrout, and Wrout screamed and ranted and swore that Professor Lightning would never work in carny again. "I'll have you blacklisted!" he roared.
And Professor Lightning shrugged and smiled and went away to pack. He took all his notebooks, and all the cages with little animals in them, and he didn't seem at all disturbed. "I'll find another subject," he told Charley, when he left. "When they find out what I've got, in New York, they'll provide me with subjects by the hundred. I did want to help you ..."
"Thanks," Charley said honestly.
"... But that's the way things are, I suppose," Professor Lightning said. "Maybe some day you'll realize."
Charley shook his head. "I'm afraid not, professor," he said, and Professor Lightning shook Charley's foot, and left, and Charley went back to work in the freak show, and for a while he didn't even think about Professor Lightning. Then, of course, the news began to show up in the Chicago American, which Charley got two or three days late because his mother sent it to him by mail.
At first Charley didn't realize that Dr. Edmund Charles Schinsake was Professor Lightning, but then the American ran his picture; that was the day Professor Lightning was awarded a medal by the AMA, and Charley felt pleased and happy for the old man. It looked as it he'd got what he wanted.
Charley, of course, didn't think much about the professor's "limb regeneration"; he didn't need it, he thought, and he didn't want it, and that was that.
And then, one night, he was dropped from the bally, and he asked Dave Lungs about it, and Dave said: "Well, we want the biggest draw we can get, out there before the show," and put Erma, the Fish Girl, out in his place. And Charley started to wonder about that, and after a few days had gone by he found himself talking about it, to Ed Baylis, over in the cooktent while they were having lunch.
Baylis was a little man of sixty or so, with a wrinkled face like a walnut and a powerful set of lungs; he was Wrout's outside talker for the girlie show. "Because I'm old," he said, grinning. "I don't have trouble with the girls. And if I got to take one off the bally or out of the show there's no personal stuff that would make it tough, see what I mean?"
"That's what I'm worried about," Charley said.
"What?" Ed asked. He speared a group of string beans with his fork and conveyed them to his mouth. Charley, using his right foot, did the same.
"The bally," Charley said. "The way things are, Dave took me off, and I'm worrying about it."
"Maybe some kind of a change," Ed said.
Charley shook his head. "He said ... he said he wanted the biggest draw out there. Now, you know I'm a big draw, Ed. I always have been."
"Sure," Ed said. He chewed another mouthful and swallowed. "Still, people want a change now and then. Doesn't have to mean anything."
"Maybe not," Charley said uncomfortably. But he wasn't convinced.
The season drew to a close, and Charley went off to the Florida Keys, where he spent a month living with some friends before holing up with his mother and sister for the winter. He was offered a job in New York, at a year-round flea museum in Times Square, but after some thought he decided against it. He'd never had to work winters, and he wasn't going to start.
After all, he was still doing well, wasn't he? He told himself emphatically that he was. He was an Armless Wonder, a born freak, the top of the carny ladder, with a good job wherever he cared to look for one.
He had to tell himself that quite a few times before he began to believe it.
Spring came, and then summer, and Charley kissed his mother and his sister good-by and joined Wrout's Carnival Shows in Summit, Idaho, three days before their opening. He didn't notice much change from previous years, but it took an effort not to notice some things.
Not like the new man who'd taken Professor Lightning's place--a tall thin youngster who had an Electric Chair act. Or like the periodic quarrels between Ned and Ed; it seemed they'd met a girl over the winter season, and disagreed about her. Ed thought she was perfectly wonderful; Ned couldn't see her for beans.
No, things like that were a part of carny; you got used to them, as the show rolled along year after year, and paid no more attention to them than a housewife pays to rather uninteresting back-fence gossip.
It was something else that had changed, something important.
His contract, for instance. It was made out for the same pay as he'd been getting, but the option periods were shortened up; suddenly, Charley was living from season to season, with almost no assurance of continuous, steady work. Old man Wrout had looked a little less than happy when he'd given Charley the contract; he'd almost seemed ashamed, and he hadn't really looked Charley in the eye once. But when Charley asked what was wrong, he got no answer.
Or none that meant anything. "It's just the way things are," Wrout muttered. "Don't make no difference, kid."
But it did make a difference. Charley wasn't out in the bally any more, either; he was backstage among the second-rate acts, the tattooed man and the fire-eater and the rest, while Erma and Ned and Ed and the top-liners took their bows out before the crowd, pulling them in, and got the gasps and the applause.
The crowds in front of his own platform, inside during the show, were smaller, too. At first Charley thought that was due to the bally itself, but as the season began and wore on, the crowds continued to shrink beyond all expectation. Counting as he worked, combing his hair with one foot, drawing little sketches for the customers ("Take one home for only one extra dime, a treasured souvenir especially personalized for you by Charley de Milo")--counting the house, he discovered one evening that he was the smallest draw in the tent. The tattooed man did better than Charley de Milo, which was enough of a disgrace; the rest were so far ahead that Charley didn't even want to think about it.
His first idea was that somebody was out to get him. He could feel the muscles of his shoulders and back bunching up when he tried thinking what to do about the sabotage that had struck him; but an Armless Wonder has one very real disadvantage. He can comb his own hair and brush his own teeth; he can feed himself and--with proper clothing--dress himself; he can open doors and shut windows and turn the pages of books. But he can't engage in a free-for-all fight, not without long and careful training in that style of battle known as savate, or boxing with the feet. Charley had never learned savate; he had never needed it.
For the first time since he could remember, he felt helpless. He wasn't normal; he couldn't do what any normal man could do. He wanted to find the man who was sabotaging his show, and beat him into a confession, and throw him off the lot-- And he couldn't.
The muscles of his back pulled and pulled at him. He clenched his jaw. Then Dave Lungs came over to his platform and he forced himself to relax, sweating. There were four or five people behind Dave, ordinary marks with soft, soft faces and round eyes. While Dave talked Charley went through his act; perhaps ten other marks were scattered in the tent, standing at other platforms, watching other acts even without Dave there to guide them and talk them up.
And when he was through Dave sold exactly one of the sketches Charley had done. One. An old man bought it, a chubby little Santa Claus of a man with eyes that twinkled and a belly that undoubtedly shook like a jelly bowl when it was freed from its expensive orlon confines. Dave went off to the next platform, where Erma stood, and the marks followed him, and more drifted over. Erma had ten customers, Charley noticed, and he grabbed a handkerchief from the platform floor and wiped his damp face with one foot.
Something's wrong, he thought stupidly, and he must have said it aloud because, at his feet, a high, thin old voice said: "What was that, son? Did you say something?"
"Nothing at all," Charley mumbled, and looked down. The Santa Claus man was staring up at him. "Show's over," Charley said, more curtly than he meant. He took a deep breath and set his feet more firmly on the platform, but it didn't do any good. He was like a coiled spring, waiting for release.
"I don't expect any show," Santa Claus said. "Really I don't. But I did want to talk to you for a few minutes, if you don't mind."
"I'm not in a talking mood," Charley said. "Sorry." He was ashamed of the words as soon as he brought them out; that was no way to treat any stranger, not even a mark. But it was a long second before he could say anything else. Santa Claus stood watching him patiently, holding Charley's sketch by one corner in his left hand.
"I'm sorry," Charley said at last. "It ... must be the heat. I'm kind of on edge."
"Of course," Santa Claus said. "I understand. Really I do."
There was a little silence. Dave and the crowd trailed away from Erma and headed for Senor Alcala, the fire-eater at the end of the row. Charley barely heard Dave's spiel; he licked his lips and said: "You wanted to talk to me."
"Now," Santa Claus said, "I don't want you to be ashamed of anything. There's nothing personal in this, really there isn't. But I do want to help if I can, help anyone who needs help."
"I don't need help," Charley said. "I'm sorry." He tried to keep his voice gentle. The old man obviously meant well; there was no sense in hurting him.
"It's your ... infirmity," Santa Claus said. "Boy, have they been keeping the news from you?"
"News?" Charley said, with a sudden sick feeling.
"In New York," Santa Claus said. "There's a doctor there--a man who can help people like you. He has a new technique. I was reading in the papers just the other day--there was a man injured in a railroad accident, who lost one arm and one leg. This doctor used him as his first subject."
"He said he'd find another one," Charley put in without thinking.
"It doesn't matter," Charley said. "You were going to suggest that I go and see this doctor. Is that right?"
"Well," Santa Claus said, seeming oddly embarrassed, "it can't hurt, you know. And it might help. Really it might. And then ... then you might not have to ... have to be the way you are, and do what you do."
Charley took a long breath. "I'll think about it," he said, in the very politest tone he could manage.
"I only want to help," Santa Claus said.
"I'm sure you do," Charley said. "And thanks."
"If there's anything I can do--"
Charley smiled down. "That's all right," he said. "Thanks. But I guess you'd better join the rest--if you want to see the show at all."
Santa Claus said: "Oh. Of course." He turned and found the group just leaving Senor Alcala's platform, and scurried off to catch up with them. Charley stared at his retreating back, fighting to stay calm.
That was the way marks were, of course, and there wasn't anything to be done about it. It was always "the way you have to be," and "the things you have to do." It never seemed to enter their heads that pity was unnecessary baggage where a born freak was concerned, any more than it had entered Professor Lightning's head. A born freak, Charley reflected, had a pretty good life of it, all told; why, even marriage wasn't out of the question. Charley knew of some very happy ones.
But the marks pitied you, Charley thought. And maybe it wasn't especially smart to tell them anything different; pity, as much as anything else, keep them coming. Pity, and a kind of vicarious victory. When Charley threaded a needle, he was telling all the marks: "It doesn't matter what kind of accident happens to you--you can overcome it. You can go on and do anything. It's all what you make it--everything, every bad turn life hands you can be made into something better. If I can do it, you can do it."
That was what the marks felt, Charley thought. It was wrong-headed, it was stupid, and it could be a simple nuisance--but it brought in the dough. Why argue with it? Why try to change it?
Charley nearly grinned. The crowd of marks moved on down the other side of the tent, and Charley watched them. Ned and Ed drew the biggest crowd, an attentive, almost rapt crew who could be suckered into buying anything the Siamese twins wanted to sell them. Dave milked them for all they were worth, and Charley nodded quietly to himself. Dave was a good carny man.
He worked for the good of the show. Or--did he?
Dave had taken him off the bally. Did Dave have some reason to hate him? Could Dave be out to get him?
Charley couldn't think why, but it was a lead, the only one he had. And if Dave did turn out to be behind everything that was happening, Charley knew exactly what he was going to do.
He couldn't beat Dave himself.
But he had friends-- * * * * *
After the show, that night, Charley went hunting for Ed Baylis. Ed had been around Wrout's a long time, and if anything were going on Ed would know about it. Charley went down to the girlie tent, and found Ed just clearing up. All over the midway, the lights were going out, and the Mars Race game gave one final roar and came to a halt. The last customers were leaving.
Ed looked up when he came over. Charley didn't ease into the subject; he couldn't. "Something's wrong," he said at once. "I'm off the bally, and the crowds are going down. I don't like it, Ed."
Baylis shrugged. "Who would?" he said.
"But--something's wrong," Charley said. "Ed, you know what's happening. You get the word. Let me in on it."
"I don't know anything about this," Ed said at once. But his face was still, his eyes shuttered in the darkness.
Charley kept after him. They went behind the girlie tent, talking softly. Overhead a rocket burned by, but neither man looked up.
At last Ed sighed. "Just forget about it," he said. "Just do your job. That's all that matters. You don't want to know anything else."
"Why don't I?" Charley said. "Sure I do. And it's no good telling me to do my job. The way things are running, Ed, I'm not going to have a job very long."
"There's nothing you can do about it," Ed said. "Believe me. You don't want to know because knowing wouldn't do you any good. And you wouldn't believe me if I told you."