|See something for a nickel
See something for naught . . .
Such was what the poet Elizabeth Lesser said the barker sang repeatedly as she was taken by the hand down an alley by her father to see a brutish human freak show. Her father had removed her from the house, away from her older brother, who was dying in his room of "gravel" or what would now be a painful but very treatable blocked urethra due to kidney stones. As it was, none saw fit to call the physician on the night he lay writhing in the attic bedroom. Instead, her father brought young Elizabeth to a freak show, to take her mind off her brother's illness.
The experience left an indelible impression. It would be many years before she described the closeness of the foul alley walls, the barker's lilting refrain, See something for a nickel, See something for naught, as though merely going beyond the flap of canvas concealing the illegal show meant a revelation, never mind buying tickets for the more notorious displays. She described monkeys masturbating in their own filth, obese women winking at the drunken husbands, and strong men with barbells amidst malformed beasts of the field. But what burned most was her memory of viewing Edward Gray, the "Human Rhinoceros." Unlike "The Elephant Man" John Merrick, Gray was a hateful, hated man, consumed by his disease, sneering wrathfully towards any who sought to gaze upon his degradation. Many who saw Gray in his short 35-year lifetime reported the hue of malignancy that imbued his tent as he glared and cursed and sometimes even spat at onlookers. As his own middling poetry later revealed, Gray never forgave God, himself, or those that paid money to see his deformity. Similarly, Lesser felt the same toward herself and her father after returning from the freak show to find the brother dead of self-inflicted wounds. In his agonized delirium, he'd attempted to open the blocked kidney himself with a carving knife from the kitchen. The self-butchery was, of course, unsuccessful, and Lesser said she heard her mother wailing above the corpse before the front door was even open.
It wasn't until she served as a field hospital nurse during the First World War that Lesser revealed the events of that night, and even then it was only to explain the title of her war memoir, "Something For Naught." Naught was mostly what the entire Lesser family received from the war, as her other brother Richard served as an officer in the line during that time. Believing himself to be a chevalier of the old school, he signed his letters home, "The Lion Heart" as he took up the cross against the Hun. He revealed his lion-heart in combat, leading one ferocious trench raid after another, and he was thoroughly, deeply, and completely hated by the men serving beneath him. Had not those men been so swiftly slaughtered by the razor wire, the machine guns or the sucking mud craters, they might have mounted a mutiny or at the very least made sure their commander did not return from a-raiding. Fortunately for Richard, company turnover was such - a nearly 100% casualty rate within 2 months - that maintaining such plans was impossible.
Richard was eventually captured. Though treated fairly, he resented the taking of his boots, and informed the Germans that he was glad of his capture, that when he escaped he would make sure to quote unquote "fuck your cunting whore wives good and hard from the Rhine back to Brighton." Decent sorts, the Germans were galled by the Tommy's harsh reaction. They'd treated him well, and, really, weren't they all in this together? Paranoid that his wife was already behaving unfaithfully, one Bavarian took Richard's threat badly, and he broke the Lesser's face with an entrenching tool. Then, watching as the agonized Englishman rolled in the mud trying to breathe through the blood and gristle of his smashed nose, the German felt a twinge in his heart. Had the poor bastard really deserved such a punishment? No, the crime was immense, and he shot Richard Lesser three times in the chest, killing him. The Germans moved on, wanting to get away from the unnaturally ugly scene. For their part, the English company drank their rum ration at a joyous gulp when they realized the Lion-Heart hadn't returned from No Man's Land, singing as they did new lyrics to the melody of "Auld Lang Syne":
We're here because we're here
Because we're here, because we're here
We're here because we're here
Because we're here, because we're here.
Back home at the Lesser manor, the father Henry mourned and blamed the Irish. A-feared of losing his small County Antrim holdings and attendant rental incomes to the Easter uprising, the older Lesser took to cursing the Irish in his cups, raving to wife and servant alike if they would enjoy becoming, "stinking, bloody Irish buggers." The old man would dance an atrociously livid jig as he spouted his nonsense in a put-on brogue, and though the family thought him a crackpot, Henry Lesser mostly just enjoyed jigging when drunk. The drinking worsened after Henry sank the family fortune in a highly regrettable scheme to sell hats to the Tsar's Army. Even as the hats were being boxed for shipment and Finnish middlemen put on alert, Lenin arrived in St. Petersburg, the Tsar was deposed, and Henry was unable to raise anyone by cable or letter or threat to secure payment for the haberdashery. The Russian agents had other things on their minds, such as obtaining bread or a government, and the Lessers were ruined. "You are bad" screamed Henry at the mirror before he and his wife fled to the Antrim holdings, and the last of the Lesser's once mighty estates. His worst fears borne out, old Henry died stinking drunk a few years later and was buried in the bloody Irish sod. The mother lived on and became of champion of the new Irish Republic, though she was bereft of a proper burial in the green when, returning to England to deal with some nagging legal entanglements, her boat went down in the cold, black depths of the Irish Sea
Following the diminishment of her entire family to such tragic events, Elizabeth Lesser always felt that wherever she went, she was led by an uncaring hand through a carnival of bestial oddities while what was most important to her died alone, confused and suffering, very nearby. Why, in the latter years with her best poetry forever behind, Lesser made such a spectacle of herself with her flamboyant outfits and parade of lovers could also be explained by those early experiences. During that period she clearly scorned the side-show aspects of the press's attention, as well as her own self-indulgence, but if the nickel she earned was wooden she never let on. What was obvious, however, is that Elizabeth Lesser, acting as both audience and exhibit, never truly re-emerged from the alley of untouchables.
Tobias Seamon once contributed
B R A V E S O U L S R E C E I V E
Archive of Recent Activities
Area For Textual Encounter
Eyeshot's Stocking Ching-a-ling
Last Year Today