"Try me," Charley said. "Go ahead." He scratched at one shin with the other foot.
"Well," Ed began, and then stopped. He shook his head. "Look, Charley, let me tell this my way. Something like this happened before. A long while back--before the Cold War started, let alone ended."
"Go ahead," Charley said. A drop of sweat ran slowly down his forehead. He tried to ignore it.
"Did I ever tell you I used to talk for a strong-man act?" Ed said. "Not a sideshow talker, nothing like that; this guy had an act of his own, full tent and flies. Gondo, his name was, and I can still see those flies: Eighth Wonder of the World up on top, red on blue, and just Gondo underneath, pure white with red outlining. Class, but flashy, if you see what I mean. You never saw the like, kid."
Charley shook his head. "O.K.," he said. "But what does this have to do with--"
"Well," Ed cut in, "that was years ago; I was a youngster, pretty well just setting out. And Gondo drew crowds--big crowds. Lifting a wagonload of people on his back--that was one of his tricks. I think Sandow himself used to do it, but he had nothing on Gondo; the guy had style. Class. And he was a draw; I was working for J. C. Hobart Shows then, and there was nothing on the lot to top him."
Ed paused, rubbing at his chin reflectively.
"Then the crowds started to fall off," he said. "Just like with you, Charley. And nobody knew why. Gondo was doing the same act--no change there. So the change had to be some place else."
"Same with me," Charley said.
"Sure," Ed said. "The same with you. Charley, do you follow the papers?"
"I guess so," Charley said. "One, anyway. My mother sends it to me from Chicago. She likes the--"
"Sure," Ed said. "Well, did you ever hear about a Dr. Schinsake? Edmund Charles Schinsake?"
Charley snorted in surprise. "Who do you think you are?" he said. "Santa Claus?"
"Nothing," Charley said. "It's just ... well, nothing. But sure, I know the guy. And so do you." He explained.
"Professor Lightning?" Ed said. "I never saw a picture. But it doesn't matter--except maybe it'll make the guy easier to see. Because this is it, Charley; I think you ought to go and see him."
There was a little silence.
"You, too?" Charley said. "You mean, so I can stop being a poor, poor cripple and stop making lots of money? Is that what you're talking about?"
"Listen, Charley," Ed said. "I--"
"Just give up," Charley cut in. "That's what you want me to do. Just give up and go to the good old doctor and ask him to give me some arms. Is that what you wanted to tell me about this Gondo of yours? How he just gave up and got a nice little white cottage some place and got a nice little low-paying job and lived unhappily ever after, because a carny isn't a healthy, well-adjusted life? Is that it, Ed?"
Ed Ribbed at his chin. "No, Charley," he said. "No, kid. Not at all. But I think you ought to--"
"Well, I won't," Charley said. "Look, Ed: I want you to get this straight. I don't care who's against me, or what they've got planned. I'm not going to give up. I'm going to find out what's going on, and I'm going to lick it. Have you got it?"
Ed sighed. "I've got it," he said. "But, Charley: there are some things you don't lick."
"I'll find out," Charley said. "Believe me, Ed. I'll find out."
But nobody else knew a thing--or, at least, nobody was willing to talk. Ned and Ed offered any help they could give--but said nothing that helped. Erma was puzzled, but ignorant; Senor Alcala knew nothing, and no one else was any better off, as far as Charley could discover.
After a week, Charley decided there was only one person for him to see. Ed Baylis had recommended him, and so had the little Santa Claus. Professor Lightning didn't look like much of a lead, but there was nothing else left. The audience was still dropping, little by little, and Charley knew perfectly well that something had to be done, and fast.
Getting a leave of absence was even easier than he'd expected it to be; and that was just one more proof of how far his standing with the show had dropped. People just didn't care; he wasn't a draw any more.
And his standing with the carny was all he had left. He had caught himself, lately, wondering if he would really be so badly off with two arms, like everybody else. The idea frightened him, but the way it kept coming back frightened him even more.
Leaving the carny lot, of course, he put on his sandals; outside the carnival, he had to wear shoes. They were laceless, of course, and made to be kicked off easily. Charley slipped into them and thought wryly of the professor and his "scientific Renaissance." The shoes were a new plastic, lightweight and long-lasting, but the dyeing problem hadn't quite been solved. Instead of a quiet, dull brown, they were a garish shade that almost approached olive drab.
Well, he thought, nothing's perfect. He shrugged into a harness and had his single suitcase attached to it; the harness and case were lightweight, too, and Charley headed for the station walking easily.
He climbed aboard the train and dropped his suitcase into the Automatic Porter, and then went to find a seat. The only one available was next to a middle-aged man chewing a cigar in a sour silence. Charley slipped into his seat without a word, and hoped the man would ignore him. He had a face like an overripe summer squash, and his big hands, clasped in his lap, were fat and white, covered with tiny freckles. Charley leaned back and closed his eyes.
A minute or so passed in silence.
Then a voice said: "Heading for New York?"
"That's right," Charley said tiredly. He opened his eyes. The middle-aged man was leaning toward him, smelling of his cheap cigar.
"Likewise," the man said. His voice was hoarse and unpleasant. "I thought you might be."
"That's right," Charley said. "Long trip." He hoped desperately that the man would leave him alone. He wasn't on display now; he wanted the time to think, to try and figure out what had been happening. He had to have some questions to ask Professor Lightning, and that meant that he had to have some sort of plan of action.
"Going to see that doctor," the middle-aged man said. "That right?"
"That's right," Charley said. Apparently Professor Lightning had become a nine-day wonder; anyone going to New York was presumed to be going to see him.
Then Charley corrected himself. Not anyone.
"Get the arms fixed, right?" the middle-aged man said.
"That's right," Charley said for the third time. Maybe the man would take the hint.
But he had no such luck. "That's a fine thing the doctor is doing," he said. "I mean, helping all these people. Don't have to be ... well, look, bud, don't take me personally."
"I don't mind," Charley said. "I'm used to it."
"Sure," the man said. "Hey, by the way. My name's Roquefort. Al Roquefort."
"Charley de Milo," Charley said.
"Glad to know you," the man said. "So while we're traveling companions, you might say ... might as well get to be friendly."
"Sure," Charley said tiredly. He looked round the car. A great many people seemed to be heading East. There were no other seats. Charley sighed and shrugged himself deeper into the upholstery.
"You know," Roquefort said suddenly, "I can't help thinking."
"Oh?" Charley said, fidgeting his feet.
"That's right," Roquefort said. "I mean, all these people. And Dr. Schinsake. I remember once, I went to a circus, or a sideshow."
"Carnival, probably," Charley put in, knowing exactly what was coming.
"Something like that," Roquefort said. "Anyhow, they had this sideshow, and there was a man there without any legs. Did all kinds of tricks--got along real good. But I can't help thinking now: he wouldn't have to get along that way any more. Because this doctor would fix him up."
"I guess so," Charley said wearily.
"Sure," Roquefort said. "It's a great thing, what he's doing. All these freak shows ... you understand, it's just a name for them--"
"I understand," Charley said. "Don't worry about it." He shifted his feet nervously. Shoes always felt a little uncomfortable, even lightweight sandals; he felt trapped in them. Now, if he had arms and hands ...
He choked the thought off before it got any further.
"All these shows," Roquefort said, "why, there isn't any need for them any more. I mean the people without legs, or arms, anyhow. See? Because this doctor--"
"I see," Charley said.
"Why, anybody works in a show like that, I mean without arms or legs--why, he's just crazy, that's all. When he can get help, I mean."
"Sure," Charley said uneasily. "Sure, he's just crazy."
Roquefort chomped on his cigar and looked solemn and well-informed. Charley shivered slightly, and wondered why.
"Just crazy." Was that what they thought, he wondered. Was that what they were thinking when they looked up at him?
He shivered again and slipped his shoes off quietly. Immediately, he felt a little better.
But not very much.
New York was a madhouse worse than any carnival Charley had ever seen. He made his way, harness and suitcase on his back, through the station crowds and out into the taxi ramp. A line of the new cabs stood there, and Charley managed to grab one inches ahead of a woman with a small, crying child in tow. He gestured to the driver with his head, and the door slid open. He stepped inside, released the catch that let his suitcase thump to the floor, and sat down with a sigh.
"Tough, hey?" the cabbie said. His glowing nameplate read David Peters Wells. He turned around, showing a face that had little in common with the official license photo, under his name. He was swarthy and short, with large yellowing teeth and tiny eyes. "Where to, Mac?" he said.
Charley licked his lips. "I really don't know," he said.
The cabbie blinked. "What?"
"I'm going to need some help," Charley said. "I want to find a Dr. Schinsake, but I don't know where he is. If you can drive me to a drugstore, where we can look him up in a phone book--"
"Dr. Schinsake?" the driver said. "That's the guy who grows things? I mean, arms and legs? Like that?"
"That's right," Charley said.
"O.K., buddy," the driver said. "Just hang on." The cab started with a cough and a roar, and shot out of the terminal like a bazooka shell. Over the noise of travel, the cabbie said: "Going to get yourself fixed up? No offense, Mac."
"No offense," Charley said. "I'm just going to talk to him."
"Oh," the cabbie said. "Sure." There was silence for a second. Then the cabbie turned around. The machine shot ahead, down a wide avenue filled with cars. Charley took a deep breath and forgot to let it go. "You know," the cabbie said, "I seen something funny the other day."
"Really?" Charley said, through clenched teeth.
The cabbie turned back casually, flicked the wheel to avoid an oncoming truck, and continued: "Funny, yeah. Went to the Flea Museum ... you know, the sideshow here, on Forty-second?"
"I know it," Charley said. He'd been offered winter work in the place several times, though he'd never accepted. Everyone in carny life knew of the place.
"And, anyhow, I went down the other day, and there was this guy ... he was like you, Mac, I mean no arms. You don't mind me talking about it?"
Apparently everybody thought he was sensitive on the subject, Charley reflected tiredly. "I don't mind," he said.
"Sure," the cabbie said. A red light showed ahead and the cab screeched to a halt. "Anyhow, there he was, like a freak, you know? Hell, Mac, I was mad. I mean mad. The guy wants me to pay money to see him; he don't want to go get cured. He's like lazy, Mac. Lazy. Wants to sit around and let me pay money I work hard for, like some kind of a stuffed exhibit he thinks he is." The light changed; the cab shuddered and moved on. "And this doctor right here in the same city. Now, what do you think of that?"
Charley shrugged. "I wouldn't know," he said cautiously. He took out a cigarette with his left foot, lit it with his right, and slid both feet back into his shoes. "Nearly there?" he asked.
"No offense, Mac," the cabbie said, sounding obscurely troubled. "We're there in a minute." He turned and stared narrowly at Charley. The cab shot blindly on. "Say, listen. That with the cigarette. You belong to some kind of sideshow? I mean, no offense--"
"No offense," Charley said. "That's right. I'm with a carnival."
"We'll, you're doing the right thing," the cabbie said, turning back to the road again. Amazingly, there was no obstruction before them. "I mean, a guy has to be honest. With this doctor around, you can't be a no-arms guy any more; it's not fair. Right?"
Charley licked his lips. The cab stopped.
"Here we are," the driver announced.
Charley indicated his grouch-bag, still heavy with dollar bills, hanging round his neck. With scrupulous care, the driver extracted one bill. "Keep the change," Charley said. "And thanks for the conversation."
He stepped out, hooking the suitcase to his harness as he did so. And there, in front of him, was a small white-faced stone building. The cab roared away behind him, and Charley started across the sidewalk.
Now, in New York, he had found out what he was going to ask Professor Lightning. And it was the one thing he hadn't thought possible.
One flight of stairs led straight up from the doorway, and Charley took it slowly. At the top was a great wooden door with a brass plate screwed to it, and on the brass plate a single name was incised: Dr. E. C. Schinsake. There was nothing else. Charley slipped the shoe off his right foot, and rang the bell.
A voice inside said: "Who's there? Who is it, please?"
"It's me, professor," Charley called. He slipped the sandal back on. "Charley de Milo. I came to see you."
"Charley--" There was a second of silence. "Charley de Milo?" Professor Lightning's grating voice said. "From the show?" Footsteps came across a room, and the door swung open. Professor Lightning stood inside, just as tall and white-haired as ever, and Charley blinked, looking at him, and past him at the room.
People didn't live in rooms like that, he thought. They were only for the movies, or maybe for millionaires, but not for people, real people that Charley himself knew to talk to.
The furniture--a couch, a few chairs and tables, a phonograph--was glitteringly new and expensive-looking. The walls were freshly painted in soft, bright colors, and pictures hung on them, strange-looking pictures Charley couldn't make sense out of. But they looked right, somehow, in that room.
On the floor there was a rug deeper and softer-looking than any Charley had ever seen. And, away to the right, two floor-length windows sparkled, hung with great drapes and shining in the daylight. There were flowers growing outside the sills, just visible above the window frames. Charley gulped and took a breath.