Gibbons swigged from his hipflask, driving one-handed as he followed the caravan of carny vehicles barreling along the interstate toward tonight’s show. As the booze burned through him, he bared his teeth, glaring in the rearview at the tarp-shrouded shape of the car hooked to his truck.
The damned car was supposed to make his fortune. He’d sunk every last penny into buying it. 1960 should’ve been his year. He should’ve been sunning himself down in Florida by now; instead he was barely eking a living, working the off-season circuit with this third-rate carny. What the hell went wrong?
He couldn’t understand it. He’d always prided himself as having, if not his fingers on the pulse of America, then his hand in her guts. People wanted to see this kind of thing, he’d been sure of it. Psycho had opened big; people had flocked to see it like the stars of Hitch’s next picture—but why settle for a movie when you could see the real thing? The Butcher of Plainfield, Eddie Gein’s car: a bona fide relic of Hitchcock’s Psycho killer. It burned Gibbons’s ass to see that fat, Limey prick hog the limelight that should’ve been his. Fucking movie. Apart from Janet Leigh’s tits, he couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.
Gibbons took another belt from his flask and then capped it. Best save some for later, give him some pep for The Show tonight. He glared in the rearview again. A corner of the tarp had peeled loose from the car and was flapping like a giant batwing. He considered pulling over, tying the tarp back down over the hood. The buckled grille glinted like rusted teeth, as if the car wanted to bite a chunk out of him. But he knew if he stopped, the carny wouldn’t wait for him.
Management was already looking for an excuse to shitcan him. At the last town they played, when the cops shut him down, before Gibbons could even pitch his tent, the operator had warned him he was on his last chance. He’d put on a brave face. “All publicity’s good publicity, right?” Wrong. Dead wrong. And if his luck didn’t change soon, if the car didn’t start showing a profit, Gibbons was out on his ass. The thought terrified him.
The Show was all he knew.
* * * *
He’d joined the carny as a kid, running away from home and a tyrannical mother who, the more he read about the Gein case, the more she reminded him of Eddie’s own hellfire-and-brimstone-spouting mother. The similarities ended there, Gibbons was relieved to know. Unlike Gein, Bonaparte “Bunny” Gibbons was no mama’s boy, far from it. And for all his kinks—just ask the gals in the cootch-tent—he’d never felt the urge to pay tribute to Ma by robbing graves and wearing the skins of the dead.
He was a natural carny. He served his apprenticeship hawking a mouse circus, before graduating—gravitating, you might say—to the freak show. He climbed quickly through the ranks. Wasn’t long before he was working up front of the tent, hustling the rubes with empty promises of the wonders and oddities to be jeered at inside. His goatee, top hat, cloak, and cane lent him the rakish appearance of a debauched Colonel Sanders. No carny alive could part a fool from his money like Bunny Gibbons.
The freak show was good to him. Those were happy days.
But after the war—first the Big One, then Korea—Gibbons sensed the freak show’s days were numbered. Too many husbands, fathers, and sons had returned from “Over There” missing arms, legs, and even faces. The freak show had come home to America, and suddenly no one wanted to pay admission to see it. Not a man to rest on his laurels, Gibbons ditched the freaks without a backward glance and started looking around for his next meal ticket.
And then, about the same time Eddie Gein was caught hanging some broad by a butcher’s hook in his woodshed, Ma kicked the bucket and left him a small inheritance. Gibbons couldn’t believe his luck; her timing was perfect. When the Gein story exploded across the press, splattering the front pages with grave-robbing and cannibalism and flayed-flesh women-suits, Hitchcock wasn’t the only guy who smelled a buck.
* * * *
Gein’s estate went to auction to pay for his trial; Gibbons moved quick and hit the road. Arriving in Plainfield, Wisconsin—that aptly-named hicktown in the asshole of nowhere—he checked into a motel under an a/k/a. Kept a low profile, dressed down, not his usual snazzy duds. The grieving families of Gein’s victims weren’t his worry, didn’t even enter his thoughts; no, he was afraid some other showman might have the same bright idea and beat him to the punch.
Because it was inspired: he was going to use Ma’s inheritance to buy Ed Gein’s house of horrors, open America’s greatest spookhouse. Disneyland from hell. The freak show wasn’t dead. Gibbons only had to see the rubberneckers at a road wreck, or the looky-loos at a suicide leap, to know it. People’s tastes don’t change, especially their prurient interests; they just become more refined.
Day before the auction, the Gein house burned to the ground. Electrical fault, the fire chief said. Funny, Gibbons thought, considering the place didn’t have electricity; he knew a torch-job when he saw one. Ignorant fucking hayseeds. There went his spookhouse, up in flames, along with Bunny’s dreams.
But the auction went ahead anyway, and he stuck around. There were still acres of farmland to sell; tools, junk farming equipment . . .
And Ed Gein’s car.
A beat-to-hell ’49 Ford sedan. When the auctioneers rolled her out, Gibbons thought that the car—splintered left headlamp, right side of the grille twisted up in a smirk—seemed to ape the fool’s grin and droopy eye of its owner. Maybe Ed had clipped a tombstone on one of his nighttime boneyard jaunts? Even if it wasn’t true, Gibbons could use that in his act. The old Ford had clearly ridden some road in its time. The body was dented, the running board buckled. The scab-maroon paint was spattered with rust. Inside, it smelled like a dead skunk. The leather seats were torn, spewing horsehair and busted springs like weeds. A real piece of shit clunker.
But Gibbons saw a chariot of glittering gold. This was it: what he’d been looking for. The big one. No matter what it cost—the whole of Ma’s inheritance, nearly a thousand clams—he had to have her.
As he made the winning bid, the whopping fee raised eyebrows and concerns among the Plainfield yokels. They had feared that a man like Bonaparte Gibbons would arrive to exploit their grief.
But he was just getting started.
* * * *
The carnival pitched tent on a hill above town, working fast to beat nightfall and be ready for the rubes. The bruised sky threatened rain. Gibbons prayed tonight wasn’t a washout. He started setting up his stall on the outskirts of The Show. No more midway for Bunny Gibbons. He’d been relegated next to the conveniences, where he’d be lucky if some schmo glanced his way as he went to take a leak, and the wafting smell from the latrines only reminded him of his career.
He unhooked the Ford from the back of his truck and began pitching the black, canvas tent over it. The tent was adorned with grisly illustrations of Gein’s house of horrors, drawn in the style of the lurid pulp magazines that Gein had loved. Weird Tales from the Crypt, or some happy horseshit. Spidery writing screamed:
The Butcher of Plainfield, Wisconsin!
Grave-robbing and murder!
The crimes that shocked the nation!
The Ed Gein Ghoul Car
that hauled the dead from their graves!
When the movie came out, Gibbons added a new sign:
The REAL ‘Psycho’ killer!
For all the good it did.
Bunny entered the tent and set up inside. He hung a few rubber bats and fake cobwebs from the ceiling. The inner walls of the tent were painted with tombstones and zombie-walking skeletons. He couldn’t claim credit for the charnel smell that choked the tent; that came free with the car, and no amount of air-freshener would shift it. He jammed a battered wax dummy into the driver’s seat. The dummy was dressed in Gein’s trademark plaid jacket and deer hunter’s cap, its face carved with a lopsided fool’s grin and one droopy eye, just like Ed’s. On the passenger seat, Gibbons placed a shovel and crowbar: Eddie’s grave-robbing tools. Strewn across the backseat—the side window was smeared with a bloody handprint—was a rubble of rubber bones and skulls from a novelty store.
Okay, so maybe it was a little half-assed. More Ed Wood than Al Hitchcock. But the real showstopper was in the trunk, where Gibbons had rigged a hidden speaker system, and a puppet skeleton on fishing wire. Toward the end of his spiel—he’d paint a vivid picture of Gein driving home from the cemetery, the Ghoul Car heaped with grisly keepsakes—he’d be interrupted by a strange scratching sound from inside the trunk . . . like fingernails clawing at the metalwork. Acting uneasy to shake up the crowd, Gibbons would approach the trunk hesitantly, mopping the sweat from his brow before he extended a trembling hand to open it—
And when the trunk clanged open, the skeleton would rear up, shrieking hellishly.
Folks just about shit themselves.
Forget about The Shower Scene. Hitch would’ve been green with envy . . .
So, where did it all go wrong? He still remembered opening night, the first time he’d shown off the car. The way the rubes had screamed when the skeleton popped out of the trunk, he thought he’d hit paydirt. Instead, his luck plain turned to shit.
Every gig the carny played, the cops and outraged parent groups shut him down, citing bullshit charges of public immorality. Like Gibbons was some kind of monster, not a trailblazing entrepreneur; the way they carried on you’d have thought Eddie himself had busted out of the nuthouse to roll up in town. We’ve got to protect the children, they’d say. What a crock! The kids were always first in line to pay their two-bits.
The other carnies didn’t care for the cops sniffing ‘round. There’s a lot of stuff that goes on behind-the-tents Johnny Law doesn’t know about, and they aimed to keep it that way. And, as any carny will tell you, shit luck is contagious.
Gibbons soon became a pariah. Just him and Ed’s car.
On the rare occasions he caught a break—got to show off the car without the cops busting his balls—the bad luck kept coming. The tent would collapse in the middle of his spiel. The trunk-lid would jam, or the hidden speakers refused to play. No one could stomach the car’s slaughterhouse stink; kids cried, pregnant women’s waters broke, fat guys puked up their beer and corndogs. One time the car’s handbrake unlocked, and the Ford rolled back over some poor schmuck’s foot; funny thing, the car hadn’t even been parked on a grade.
Even Gibbons, a stone-cold skeptic, started to think there was something hinky about the car. The way the doors would swing shut by themselves, catching his fingers if he didn’t move his hands quick enough; or how the horn would blare at night like a wolf howling at the moon, keeping Gibbons and the other carnies awake. Word began spreading that the car was cursed. Maybe, Gibbons thought. Or maybe it was Ma showing her disapproval of his investment from beyond the grave.
Gibbons told himself that was crazy thinking. No better than Eddie Gein himself. But how else to explain the night that the car radio—which the auctioneer had said was broken—hissed to life and played Shall We Gather at the River, the hymn that was playing at Ma’s funeral? It had raked up such unexpectedly painful memories of Ma in her casket, Bunny was shocked to find himself blubbering like a baby, weeping alone under his ghoulish carnival tent. He remembered Ma’s note that came with his inheritance: Spend it wisely, the terse note had said; I suspect you won’t.
A boy’s best friend is his mother, my ass.
* * * *
Night cloaked the carny, and the townsfolk came out. So did the rain, announcing a storm that swept across the hill. The walls of the tent billowed in the wind, as if the car was alive and breathing within. Rain needled Gibbons’s top hat as he paraded outside the tent, twirling his cane and barking to be heard above the rumble of thunder.
“Here it is, folks! The crime that shocked the nation! You read about it in Life magazine! You saw it in Psycho! Now see The Ed Gein Ghoul Car for yourself! The Mad Butcher of Plainfield’s chariot of death! Just twenty-five cents!” Nobody paid him any mind; few people even heard him above the storm.
Later that night, the carny operator came by Gibbons’s lonely, rain-sodden pitch and found him slumped in despair, not even bothering to hide his hipflask anymore.
“I’m sorry it’s come to this, Bonaparte,” the man told him. And then he scowled at the painted tent, at the illustration of Gein poking his head from a ransacked grave, and shook his head in disgust. “What the hell were you thinking, man?” He wandered away toward the colors and lights of The Show.
“People wanna see this kinda thing!” Gibbons shouted after him, but the man was gone.
Lurching to his feet, Gibbons staggered inside the tent, pulling the door-flap closed behind him. An oil-lantern, hanging on a hook, flickered dimly in the gloom. Glaring at the car, Gibbons guzzled the dregs of his hooch, and then hurled the empty flask at the driver’s side window, fracturing the glass and his own haggard reflection. Breathing heavily, choking back the tears, he sank to his knees. That’s it, he decided; he’d get rid of the damn thing. He should’ve done it months ago. Sell it to some sucker, or just dump it in a fucking swamp—
Lightning flashed suddenly and Gibbons started as he saw the silhouetted figures of a crowd gathered outside the tent.
He frowned at the car. The buckled grille grinned at him, the splintered left headlamp winking in the lantern-light. He poked his head gingerly outside the tent—expecting the cops, or a posse of outraged yokels ready to ride him out of town on a rail—blinking in surprise at the crowd that was gathered outside in the dark. They were wearing their finest Sunday clothes. Some of the men wore flowers in the breast pockets of their suits; the women wore fancy hats with veils. A little highfalutin for a third-rate carny, Gibbons thought, but he wasn’t complaining; he hadn’t worked a crowd this big in months. With a sweeping flourish of his top hat, he ushered the crowd inside the tent. They shuffled past him, whispering excitedly, their hushed voices rasping like dry autumn leaves.
Gibbons pulled down the lantern from where it was hanging. The shadow-cloaked crowd packed tightly around him, as if seeking warmth from the sputtering flame. It had grown cold in the tent, all of a sudden; Gibbons could see his breath frosting in front of him. Time to warm ‘em up!
He started his spiel the same way he always did: straight for the jugular, no fucking around. Between the news reports and the movie, everyone knew the story already; what they wanted was the details, to the last dripping drop.
“The missing woman was found hanging by her heels in the woodshed,” he gravely intoned, “butchered clean like a hog, her entrails filling the tub that was placed beneath the ragged stump of her neck. Her head was inside the house . . . with the others.”
The crowd was ghostly silent, holding its breath as Gibbons inventoried Gein’s house of horrors like a realtor from hell. The women’s heads mounted on the walls like withered trophies, all lovingly dolled up in lipstick and rouge. The Nazi-style skin-lampshades; the seats upholstered from flesh. The human organs and cutlets of meat chilling in the refrigerator. The noses and ears preserved in jars; the lady parts floating in formaldehyde like brown clumps of seaweed. Hanging in Gein’s closet was the crudely tailored suit of flesh, complete with leggings and sagging female breasts, which Eddie would wear like rotting lingerie, shambling around the derelict farmhouse in ghoulish emulation of his dear departed mother . . .
It was Bunny’s greatest performance; he was killing it, flinging blood ‘n’ guts at the speechless crowd like a zoo-house monkey slinging shit. He’d been right all along: people did want to see this kind of thing. He’d just needed the right crowd to get his mojo back. Now his luck would turn around, he could feel it. To hell with management. He’d find another carny someplace. Folks like these who appreciated his talents. But first, tonight, he’d celebrate; buy a fresh bottle of booze, maybe half an hour with Peggy from the cootch-tent—things were looking up at last.
“And here it is, folks . . .” he hissed in the quiet of the tent. “The very car that Gein was driving on his grave-robbing raids . . . piling it high with human remains to take home and decorate his house . . . or a fresh dead body to warm his bed.”
The crowd shuffled closer. Gibbons raised his lantern to give them a better view. In the flickering flame, the skeletons on the tent walls seemed to dance among the crowd: an unsettling effect Gibbons had never noticed before. The pressing bodies closed tightly around him. A few flies had skipped the cover charge, he noticed, buzzing above their heads.
Christ, it reeked something terrible in the tent tonight. Even Gibbons, by now quite used to the smell of the car, felt heady on the fetid fumes. The crowd wasn’t helping matters; didn’t anyone take a bath in this town? They jostled him back against the car.
“Take it easy, folks.” He forced a chuckle. “Everyone’ll get a look-see.”
The sound of scratching fingernails echoed suddenly from the trunk, startling Gibbons more than the crowd. The cue was early—damned car—but he went with it, like a pro. Didn’t want to spoil the showstopper. “What the heck is that?” He feigned surprise, hamming it up. “Excuse me, folks, I better go check . . .”
The crowd made no move to clear his path. Strange bunch; they seemed more interested in him than the car, surrounding him like he was the attraction. He clapped the arm of the man in front of him to gently steer him aside . . .
. . . and gave a little cry of disgust as his hand sank into rotting fabric and soft flesh. He looked about at the shadowy crowd, gagging at the sickly-sweet stench, suddenly filled with a terrible suspicion.
The room lurched around him like one of the carny rides. His legs turned to Slinkys. He staggered against the car, propping his hand on the tail to steady himself, and felt something clawing and thumping inside the trunk. He tried to remember if he’d even set up the speakers, but it was hard to think clearly while the thing thumped and clawed, and instead of throwing open the trunk for the showstopper, now he held the lid down, fighting to keep it closed.
Whatever was inside the trunk, it was important he didn’t see it. Everything else could be explained away. In the cold light of day, and with enough booze inside him, he’d find a rational explanation. Just as long as he didn’t see it.
And then the car radio hissed to life, Shall We Gather at the River crackling out, the voices of the choir horribly distorted, as if they were singing at the bottom of the river. He pictured Ma’s empty casket, and suddenly he didn’t need to see to know what was inside the trunk, thumping and clawing.
He looked pleadingly at the crowd.
“Th-that’s all now, folks,” he wheezed. “Show’s over . . .”
But the crowd loomed from the shadows toward him. In the guttering flame of the lantern, shaking wildly in his hand, he saw the lichen-green pallor of their faces, the withered hollows of their eyes, the lips rotted away to snarling grins. He lurched back in horror, his hand slipping from the trunk. The lock clicked open. The lid groaned up with a belch of foul air.
And as the rotten, writhing hag reached out, dragging him down into a maternal embrace, Bunny Gibbons gave a show-stopping scream.
© 2014 by Adam Howe.