The Carnival Girls: Sadie of the Sideshow

Gypsy, Vagabond, Wino, Harlot, Whore

Ruby Valentine was attractive in an impolite way. Even her name, whispered, hushed, was too stimulating in a town gagged by unemployment and shitty weather. Ruby was hot but poor. Loud but mysterious. Accessible and elusive in the way that only carny girls can be. She carried knock-off purses and wore her teeth as accessories. Dipping her dentures into a dim, empty smile was her way of looking classy, I suppose. After all, they were clean. They were expensive.

The nights the show was dark, she crossed the train tracks to Sticky Mo’s east side bar, wearing fat black rings, candy-colored combs in her dyed hair and those porcelain canines. Ruby called them her fangs. She was the only woman I knew who made partials seem sexy. The first time I met her was the first time I pulled thick stockings over my skinny girl legs and saw my father's body wheeled into the ground. I was six-years-old. Then, cradled in a dark crowd dampened by March rain, her fiery red locks were striking, and her cleavage vulgar. She would talk to the men, rub their forearms and twist the heel of her stilettos into the cracking soil. Even as a little girl it made sense to me why all the women grew their own rack of teeth around Ruby.

Gypsy, vagabond, wino, harlot, whore… This was how my father so eloquently described my sixty-year-old grandmother before I ever knew her. But she wasn’t the cause of his cancerous demons. After all, it was my mother who left my father for a man ten years younger, a d-bag with a greasy pony tail and a botched shamrock tattoo on his bicep. My father couldn’t bring himself to talk about my mother, so he spoke freely, bitterly about Grandma Ruby instead. She had become the gnarled, poisoned root of our family tree. A nasty-mouthed woman without Jesus or proper-breeding. My father had often said Ruby wasn’t good enough to be called my family. And I remembered this as the solemn stretch of cars paraded out of the cemetery in his honor. Ruby was two trucks ahead and my father was left behind in a cold, damp pit.

All the dirty words and whisperings only fueled my fascination with my grandmother. So much so that with the death of my father came a kind of excitement at the possibility of meeting her. “She’s not welcome, she’s not wanted, and she won’t come to the funeral,” my sister would say, tying my hair into taut, unforgiving braids. But I knew otherwise. Clutching Simone’s hand as we made our way down the church aisle – the wheels on our father’s casket squeaking beside us– I craned my neck for a glimpse of the sparkling carnival girl in the far back pew.

After the burial, I waited for Ruby’s arrival and stretched to the window sill as she parked her rusted pick-up outside our beat up house. I watched her suck the last of her cigarette, swing open the aching door and step onto the street. I ran to the safety of the nook behind my father’s worn recliner and peered out over the frayed arm. I watched as she handed a Tupperware bowl of potato salad to my father’s rumpled nurse –a stoic, bearded woman (of the non-carny kind). I listened as Ruby said, “If there’s anything I can do…” A month later, sitting in a bus stinking of Doritos and sweat, my grandmother regretted her words. Ruby’s plastic container was emptied of moldy remains, washed and returned containing a day’s food for two orphaned girls she barely knew.

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