The Prototypes of Shade Town
by Ljubo Popovich
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Proteus had to duck as he squeezed through the entrance of the fast-food restaurant TMC. To TMC employees, the giant was a familiar sight. When he rattled off a list of menu items at the counter with the absentminded drone of an habitué, the urgency in the room increased.
The nervous chatter of caffeinated employees and the omnipresent odor of fried chicken pervaded the family-friendly atmosphere. Tourists flocked to TMC to get their fast-food fix after too much gorging on the cotton candy and popcorn sold in the circus tents.
When Proteus finally noticed the man at the table in the back, his curiosity was piqued. The CEO of TMC, Quentin Snoodhoffer, rarely appeared on television. An attractive reporter was sitting next to him, and a nearby cameraman was training a lens on the CEO’s formidable presence, zooming out to fit him into frame.
Deliberately sitting nearby, Proteus tried to get a better look at the reporter and strained his ears to eavesdrop on the interview.
“What do you have to say about the recent lawsuit involving a patron discovering the severed head of a rat in one of her TMC chicken strips?” the reporter asked the CEO loudly.
Snoodhoffer replied calmly, “The case is still under investigation. It may turn out to be a publicity stunt. But even if the food was tainted, when you run tens of thousands of regulated, streamlined locations, there are bound to be one or two isolated instances of not even life-threatening contamination. In the meantime, I invite everyone to enjoy TMC’s reliably tasty chicken strips. How can you resist so many sauce combinations?” Snoodhoffer smiled, crinkling his face like used aluminum foil.
“How do you answer the rumors that your company’s shakes are made from reconstituted animal fat?” Using a wide-angle lens, the cameraman zoomed in on the CEO’s unperturbed expression.
“Hearsay; disproportionate rumors spread by our competitors. Why would they taste so good if it was true? Which reminds me, have you tried the new Triple-Chunk Choco-Volcano? It’s like a flavor eruption in your mouth.”
“Is it true you were forced to change the name of your chain from Too Much Chicken to TMC because what you serve can no longer be honestly labeled chicken?”
“I’m sensing an agenda here. Why don’t you enjoy a complimentary soft drink, Mary Clark? That is your name, isn’t it?” He waved a cashier over, who instantly produced a fizzing soda. “Do you have something against wholesome, distinctive, patriotic, convenient cuisine?”
Mary Clark Jenkins had what her boss called gumption. She’d burned more than a few bridges building a case for her Shade Town project. In the end, the people she worked for wanted her to get it out of her system. Someone was going to make a documentary about this place, she knew. It might as well be her.
Proteus eyed the CEO, whose bulk flowed over the plastic seat so that the chair disappeared beneath him from certain angles and he appeared to be hovering improbably.
“How do you explain all of the genetic disorders in close proximity to the location of TMC’s factory here in Shade Town?” Mary Clark continued.
“My dear, I’ll have you know that genetic irregularities are nothing to be ashamed of in this day and age. We can’t all be perfect. In regard to your accusatory implication, this is a small town and its residents are not adversely impacted by its industry. There is no evidence linking my corporate production facility to the perfectly natural hereditary differences inherent in this melting pot of Middle America. Many residents would say TMC is a boon to Shade Town, offering affordable meal choices for their workaday lives. Would you like some Queso Jalapeño Poppers to go with that drink? They’re guaranteed to put a pep in your step!”
The reporter hadn’t touched the drink. In fact, she’d scooted her chair away from it.
* * *
For generations, Shade Town had blossomed out of the fertilizer of urban myth and rural gossip. Foremost among the legendary townsfolk was Larner Rhodes, ringmaster of the infamous Cirque Macabre. Proteus had met Rhodes in college. No one else could have torn the giant away from his original calling: Pro Wrestling.
Back when Proteus was gearing up for a rise to stardom, few ordinary mortals could refrain from whimpering when he stepped into the ring: all seven-foot-five of him. The posters billed him as eight-feet-two, and it was easy to believe. He towered over his opponents, making most of them look like teenagers in Halloween costumes.
Larner followed hearsay like a bloodhound, and spent his family fortune traveling the world in search of the hidden grotesques scraping by under the radar of polite society. Not only did he give them a home and a salary, he gave them a purpose. Over time, tourists flocked to Shade Town to feed their inflamed imaginations with an overdose of the bizarre.
On the border of an untrustworthy thickness of trees, Larner sewed together tents from Oriental rugs. New tents popped up overnight like hypnagogic mushrooms and, around them, curious hordes gathered. Deformity became the norm, and the town took on a dreamlike ambiance. There was no better place to buy gypsy food and psychedelic memorabilia, lava lamps, hacky sacks and the like.
Most nights, Proteus stepped onto the stage in a tiger skin and lifted a whole row of spectators, tearing up the loose bleacher with an impromptu air. The muscles of his arms were as hideous as overinflated balloons; his face in that moment became nightmare-inducing, like the visage of Saturn from Goya’s famous painting. Mary Clark Jenkins sat in the third row, captivated and discreetly filming his transformation.
Sometimes Proteus gazed longingly into the crowd during his performance. There was something to be said about the average gawkers, rapt with awe and thrusting handfuls of popcorn into their mouths. Their lives possessed layers of complexity he would never know. His size alone excluded him from the majority of their mundane affairs. Luckily, the circus was a world unto itself.
When the reporter intercepted him on the way to his trailer, he submitted to an interview. Under the harsh glare of the cameraman’s spotlight, his emotions came alive. He considered his profession an art form, bragged about his prowess and made a showing of himself. Rather than deride or grill him, Mary Clark laughed at his jokes and complimented his physique. He found his chest and neck growing suddenly warm and his extremities tingled, perhaps from lack of blood flow.
Once the camera was off, he volunteered to walk her back to the hotel and, along the way, they talked about the undeniable charm of Shade Town.
It was the first of many meetings. Mary Clark found his perspective fascinating, steeped as it was in the circus mystique. The powerful attraction he felt toward her soon consumed his waking thoughts. But he had always maintained an aloof existence, as if all ordinary people were members of another species.
Mary Clark quickly became interested in him, he felt, in the man beneath the persona. At a certain point she stopped taking notes and just listened to what he had to say.
* * *
As visitors consumed attraction after attraction, like handfuls of candy corn, glutting on feats and miracles, and growing queasy on the magic and the repugnance of it all, they continued to Shade Town’s Weird Museum. A few years earlier, this warehouse had slid into a massive sinkhole along with the disturbing artifacts it contained. One morning, the whole acre of building was underground, and the whitewashed roof was flush with the loose soil. It had taken a dozen laborers hours to dig to the entrance. In the end, the tunnel was reinforced with concrete and the whole thing remained subterranean, taking on a darker atmosphere.
After wandering through tents for hours, Mary Clark followed a crowd to the entrance. Her cameraman pursued her like a disembodied eye.
She purchased a ticket for the guided tour. What ensued was a solid hour of browbeating the guide with environmentally conscious questions as her cameraman took close-ups.
One of the museum’s main draws was the Chamber of Horrors. This was a crowded, gaudy showroom chock-full of taxidermied animals. Mary Clark seethed with righteous indignation at the tasteless poses and unnatural juxtapositions. An otter wearing a pince-nez sat on the lap of a dog. The otter was wearing tiny trousers but the dog wasn’t. “Just sick,” she commented to her ambivalent cameraman. Just to peer upon their bleak morbidity made her flesh creep.
Not only were the arrangements downright lewd, but portions of the creatures were replaced with inanimate objects. An alligator, instead of eyes, possessed a pair of brightly colored ten-sided dice. Likewise, there was a cat with antlers and a fish with what looked like human teeth. An anteater with knives instead of foreclaws stood above a bar wearing an apron. Its rigid, extended tongue was a garter snake.
“Were these animals killed legally?” she asked, pointing to a stuffed pygmy elephant perched atop an ostrich egg.
“These specimens were acquired in Europe and transported to Shade Town,” the guide responded. “Through professional restoration, some of them have been preserved for more than half a century.”
Each time her questions were sidestepped, more fuel was added to the fire within her.
Mary Clark had been told she lacked subtlety in her reporting. She always seemed to be skating vehemently on extremely thin ice. Back in San Francisco, her boss hovered around her like a nervous wedding planner. He hadn’t known what to expect from her pet project, but knew any guidance he offered would simply reinforce her own convictions.
That night she patiently interviewed the carnival performers. One after another, they extolled the virtues of their lifestyles. Less than satisfied with the results, she became more determined than ever to uncover hidden truths.
“Why doesn’t your troupe travel the world like an ordinary circus?” she asked the snake-man.
“We ain’t a ordinary show, ma’am.” His forked tongue slithered out between each phrase. “Shade Town is special.”
“What makes it special?”
“Like the posters say, it’s the Weirdest Place on Earth. But it ain’t just the circus and the Museum. The woods is also pretty much haunted.”
“What do you mean, ‘haunted’?”
“I guess you haven’t heard the legend of Imago?”
“Imago? Give us a quick summary. Are you getting this, Hanif?”
The cameraman nodded in response.
“Shade Town was built on a Indian burial ground.”
“Please use the term ‘Indigenous American’.”
“They tell about their guardian god, Imago.”
“‘Imago’ is not an indigenous word, though. And please use the term ‘deity’.”
“You going to let me tell the story, lady?” The snake-man narrowed his blood-red, slit-pupiled eyes at her. “Imago looks like an albino monkey with a human face and long, sharp teeth. If you bring him a sacrifice, he lets you pass.”
“Is this story previously documented?”
“The tribe is long gone, but Imago lives in the woods to this very day. Since no one brings him sacrifices, he eats tourists and stray dogs.”
“You mean, people have gone missing?”
“Plenty. Imago ain’t a big fan of tourists, and the TMC headquarters neither, if you ask me.”
Mary Clark paused, staring into the distance with a far-off, abstract wonder.
“Should I keep filming?” Hanif asked.
The snake-man lounged with his withered legs coiled into a helix-like tail. Most of the trailers were a mess, and the performers weren’t self-conscious about them. The snake-man wore a necklace of shrunken heads and had arranged jars of pickling body parts on shelves. Mary Clark examined them suspiciously. “These are replicas?” she inquired.
“Are you done with the interview yet?” the snake-man asked, “I’m about to molt.”
“It’s getting late,” Hanif complained. The humidity was jungle-like. Hanif was always sweating, she noticed. The moisture crept into every pore and slicked every surface, contributing an oily layer to the town as a whole. Panting tourists filed in smelly, shuffling lines, kicking through accumulated litter as they ambled back to their cut-rate motel rooms.
Hanif found the whole trip unbearable and had begun hating Mary Clark the instant he accepted the assignment.
“We should check out the woods,” Mary Clark muttered on the way back.
“That doesn’t seem necessary...” Hanif said.
She glanced at the pamphlet from the hotel. It contained descriptions of the main acts, along with show times. It would have been easy to spend two weeks trying to fit it all in.
* * *
The TMC Corporate Facility was nestled well into the forest and funneled a column of smoke into the evening sky. There was only one paved road leading to the building and a constant stream of supply trucks trundled to and from it.
Mary Clark stopped at a guarded checkpoint within sight of the menacing factory. Flashing her press pass availed her nothing. The guard leaned out the window and, chewing on the greasy tip of his mustache, shook his head and made a motion with his finger like she should turn around and proceed in the opposite direction.
With Hanif snoring in the backseat, she grimaced and drove back to the seamy Holiday Inn. The grotesque inhabitants of the town and the close proximity of the factory did not sit well with her.
From the beginning, she and her cameraman had disagreed. Hanif warned her she was entering risky territory by going up against TMC. She responded by putting her foot down. “If no one takes the risk to expose corporate monsters, they just get more and more demonic. There’s no ceiling to the vaults of corporate evil.”
The bottom line was that she was determined to get it all on film, no matter the cost. Whenever an eye-catching local passed, Hanif quavered. She found herself wondering how such a squeamish person could become a professional cameraman.
Mary Clark had made her way into journalism after doing time as a secretary for magazines. There had been a time when the Editor in Chief had admired her spunk. Opportunities began to come her way. It wasn’t until she made it onto television that her true potential reared its head. As a newscaster, she hadn’t lasted long, not that it was what she wanted to do. The only part she enjoyed was standing in front of a live volcano in Hawaii, sweating her ass off. But even natural disasters got boring after a while.
Her career progressed from weather reports to house fires, from bank robberies to rape, and finally bloomed into murder and traffic death coverage. But she grew numb and finished each day feeling as if another scoop had been gouged out of her creative spirit. What she really wanted was to craft her own story. There was something demented lurking beneath the Weirdest Place on Earth, and she could sense it like a shape in the darkness.
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Ljubo Popovich