The Fiction

The Show That Smells

An excerpt.

From the Christmas, 2007, issue 

(No. 19)

Art by Ian Phillips
Ian Phillips

Jimmie Rodgers.

Jimmie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers.

Jimmie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers.

Jimmie Rodgers in a Mirror Maze.

Jimmie poses like he’s shooting publicity. Blazer buttoned, blazer unbuttoned—he tries it both ways. Plumps his pocket puff. Picks lint from lapels.

“You’re fine,” he says.

“You look fine,” he says.

“Everything’s going to—” He coughs. “Everything’s going to be—” Coughs up crap. Splat. On spats.

Jimmie Rodgers.

Carrie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers.

Carrie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers. Carrie Rodgers.

Jimmie Rodgers. Carrie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers. Carrie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers. Carrie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers.

Jimmie Rodgers and Carrie Rodgers in a Mirror Maze.

Carrie Rodgers winds her way through the maze.

Jimmie’s in a dead end. Doubled up.

“Darling, no.” She sinks down beside him. His sleeve’s sopping. Sputum. It will dry stiffer than starch.

“The carnival is killing you,” she says. “You have to leave.” Sputum smells like socks. From her purse she pulls a bottle.

He sticks the neck up his nose. Chanel No. 5.

“Never,” he says.

“Look at yourself,” Carrie says.

“I’m fine.” Jimmie sniffs Chanel No. 5. He spits. Sputum smells like Saks.

“You’re thin. You’re pale.” So is she. She’s supposed to be. Her suit is Chanel. Spring show. “You should go back to the sanitarium.”

“So they can what—slice me up? ” he says. “Stick me with needles? Shut me in a room to rot? ” He pours perfume on his sleeve. Don’t pour perfume on fabric. “I’m Jimmie Rodgers! The carnival singer! Who would I be if I stopped singing? ” He hacks. “Nobody. Nothing.”

“A carnival is not a cure!” she says. “Chanel No. 5 is not a cure!”

Jimmie Rodgers.

Carrie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers.

Carrie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers. Carrie Rodgers.

Jimmie Rodgers. Carrie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers. Carrie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers. Carrie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers.

Jimmie Rodgers and Carrie Rodgers and me in a Mirror Maze.

“Jumping Jehoshaphat!” Jimmie jumps.

“Where did you come from? ” Carrie says.

“Paris,” I say.

“The mirrors!” Carrie says.

“You’re not there!” Jimmie says.

“I’m a vampire,” I say. “I write for Vampire Vogue magazine, the style bible of the fashionable fiend.”

“There’s Vogue for vampires? ” she says.

“We wear clothes,” I say. “We’re not werewolves.”

“Stay away, devil,” Jimmie says, “or I swear I’ll—” Cough.

“I haven’t come to kill you,” I say. “I’ve come to write about you.” In mirrors, I look like nothing. I look like lamé. “A carnival, a singing star, his lady—why would Elsa Schiaparelli summon me to such a place? ”

The Elsa Schiaparelli? ” Carrie asks.

“The Vogue Vampire,” I say. “The Dracula of Dressmaking.”

“But she’s famous!” she says.

“Famously fiendish!” I say. “Fashion is her feint. A demon who dresses well-heeled women around the world. She makes them look beautiful. She makes them smell beautiful. Then she eats them.”

Jimmie Rodgers.

Carrie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers.

Carrie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers. Carrie Rodgers.

Jimmie Rodgers. Carrie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers. Carrie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers. Carrie Rodgers. Jimmie Rod-gers. Carrie Rodgers.

Jimmie Rodgers and Carrie Rodgers and Elsa Schiaparelli and me in a Mirror Maze. Elsa Lanchester plays Elsa Schiaparelli. There’s a resemblance.

“Am I late? ” Schiaparelli says.

“Fashionably.” I kiss her hand. “You smell divine.”

“I am divine.” She fans herself. “The latest fragrance from Maison de Schiaparelli. I call it Shocking!, as in freak shows—shocking and amazing!

Jimmie and Carrie act scared.

“How do I look? ” Schiaparelli’s dress is orange, yellow, and pink. Mostly pink. Sleeves sparkle. Sequins are celluloid. “I cut it from sideshow banners. ‘Valentines,’ freaks call them. Isn’t that quaint?

“I learned this from my new assistant, Mr. Renfield. He’s a geek. He beheads rats. By biting them.” Scuttling along the corridor behind her—Lon Chaney. White skin, white eyes. Hair? Detergent would be jealous. Blood crusted on his chin. Rat fur stuck to his teeth. Looks like decay.

“He has a way with accessories.” Schiaparelli points to his suit. It’s white. Was white. Bib of blood. Blackflies embellish it. Fruit flies flit. Living lint.

“And it’s not only him. The Fortune Teller’s turban! The Witch Doctor’s skull stick! The Ubangi’s lip plate! The Snake Lady—her anaconda is a boa! The Alligator Man—what a purse he would make!

“Freak fashion. Geek chic. It inspired my new haute couture collection for humans—the Carnival Collection! Soon Schiaparelli clients will dress like the Half-Man Half-Woman and the Mule-faced Lady. Ostrich girls in ostrich plumes. Lobster ladies in lobster gowns.

“It’s like I always say: ‘Clothes make the inhuman.’”

“Women won’t wear freak clothes,” Carrie says.

“Women wear what I tell them to wear,” Schiaparelli says.

“When all the world’s well-dressed women are dressed and perfumed like freaks,” Schiaparelli says, “I will make them freaks—in a carnival—a vampire carnival—a carnival of fashion and death!” She changes. Fangs flower. Pupils as pink paillettes. “And freaks are only part of the fun!

“Humans will be rides.

“Humans will be games.

“Humans will be snacks.”

Schiaparelli’s face is a special effect.

“What would a carnival be without a tent show? ” Schiaparelli says. “Jimmie Rodgers, the Midway Minstrel, America’s Carnival Crooner—I want you to sing at the carnival to end all carnivals.”

“Why would I? ” Jimmie says.

“You’re ill, Mr. Rodgers,” Schiaparelli says. “Ill with tuberculosis. I know this, I have heard your record—T.B. Blues. Catchy. But I am stronger than T.B. I will drain you of blood. Without blood, the disease will die. I will feed you my blood. And you will live forever—singing!”

“Go to hell,” Jimmie says.

“Mr. Rodgers,” Schiaparelli says, “you will sing for me whether you want to or not. You will sing for your supper—and you’ll be supper!

“Renfield! See that he’s comfortably imprisoned.” She points a pink fingernail. A pink dinner ring. Dazzles. Pink, pink, pink! “And bring Mrs. Rodgers, as well. She’s comely, yes? She will star in my sideshow.”

“I’d rather die!” Carrie says.

“You don’t say,” Schiaparelli says. “Then I shall put you on the midway. Slit you open. Twist your intestines into animal shapes. When you rot, you’ll give off gas, your insides will inflate. Abracadabra!—animal balloons!

“I shall drag the midway with you. Do you know what that means? I will stick a meat hook in you, then lug your bleeding, barely breathing body through the sawdust to the wild animal show. The animals will go wild when they smell you coming. The audience will go wild when they smell you, too.

“I shall put you in the animal show. Do you like animals, madame? Lions, tigers, hyenas—and you! They will snap your neck, then eat your meat, your bones, your brain. Carrie carrion. You’ll be dinner, then droppings. Do you know what carnies call an animal show? ‘The Show that Smells!’”

“A sensational name,” I say.

Jimmie Rodgers.

Carrie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers.

Carrie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers. Cornered.

Lon Chaney closes in. Nosferatu fingernails.

“Stay away, you fiend,” Jimmie says, “or I swear I’ll—” A cough cuts him off. “I’ll—” He has a fit. Falls to the floor.

“Leave him alone!” Carrie’s pink with panic. Perfume floats from her throat, wrists, soft spots in her elbows. Where blood abounds. It rises from Jimmie. A screen of scent. Screen or scream?

“Aaarrrggghhhh!“ Chaney says. “Chanel No. 5!” Worse than wolfsbane. Gruesomer than garlic. Chaney clutches his throat like he’s strangling himself. All vampires act like silent stars.

Cowering, cringing, crying—Chaney acts like an actress.

“You’re afraid of perfume? ” Carrie lords the bottle over him. She drips a drop onto him. It burns like battery acid. Blended with bleach. Skin smokes. Seared hair. Seared skin. Seared seersucker. Stinks. Chaney No. 5.

“It’s been blessed!” I say. Anointed perfume. Holy eau de toilette.

“Chanel sanctifies her scents!” Schiaparelli says. “She thinks she can protect her clients from me! She can’t! No one can!”

“We’ll see about that!” Carrie splashes Chaney. An ounce costs. He screeches in close-up. He’s a master at makeup. His forehead flames. His forehead was frog skin. His nose—mortician’s wax. It drips down his lips. His jaw drops. Off. The things he does with gutta percha! He hurls himself at a mirror. Smashes through. Splinters stick him. He bleeds, borrowed blood. It’s brown syrup. Brown looks red in black and white.

“Chanel can’t keep you alive forever!” Schiaparelli floats up off of floorboards. André Perugia designed her shoes.

“Your perfume will fade!” she says, suspended like a chandelier. A chandelier in a Mirror Maze? It’s overkill!

“Your perfume will die! Your perfume will sell out or be discontinued!” Sequins! She shines chandelierically, the maze shot through with thirteen shades of white light. “Mark my words, madame—the moment you find yourself without Chanel No. 5—”

She makes herself into mist. Vampires, like perfumes, vaporize.

“I will have you on the cover of Vampire Vogue,” I say to Carrie. “Circulation will soar. Madame Schiaparelli always sells magazines—her fans are fans forever—undead couture clients never die!”

I vanish. It’s done with mirrors.