“The electric chair is made of oak and was constructed by Corrections Department personnel in 1998. It was installed at Florida State Prison in Starke earlier this year , replacing the chair constructed in 1923. It should be noted that the only aspect of the current electric chair that is new is the wooden structure of the chair itself. The apparatus that administers the electric current to the condemned prisoner is the same that has been used in recent years. It is regularly tested to ensure proper functioning.” from Wikimedia Commons. Photo credit: Florida Department of Corrections/Doug Smith
The worst part of execution duty was cleaning up the shit on the chair afterward, all the guards agreed. They used to be able to force the condemned man to wear a diaper, but some liberal judges declared doing so was a violation of privacy. So now, the indignity of gingerly removing a freshly “cooked” body from Old Sparky was made all the worse by cleaning up warm shit afterward. And it was always warm.
As they waited in the adjacent cell, two of the veteran guards recalled the execution of Ned Blundy, the man the press dubbed “The Vampire Killer” because he drained his victims of their blood. Blundy was so evil there were crowds outside the prison gates with frying pans.
The guards readied themselves. Executions were always hard, but the execution they were about to carry out was an anomaly of the first order. The crimes committed by Grady Smiles rivaled Blundy’s. Smiles was being executed for the murder of his wife but he was suspected of killing many more.
It wasn’t just his horrible crimes that made this execution front page news, though: It was the criminal himself. The execution of Grady Smiles would be remembered for as long as those who carried it out would live.
The guards walked in formation to Grady’s cell. He was there, sitting on his bed, just like all the others. He’d been crying but had stopped. Warden Ball stepped into the cell and read the death order. “Grady Smiles, you have been condemned by a jury of your peers for the murder of Kathy Lacey. You have been sentenced to be executed by a judge in good standing in this state. Please rise.”
Grady waddled from his cot toward the cell’s exit. The guards planned to carry him if need be, but Grady it was obvious had resigned himself to die. He turned the last corner and entered the execution chamber.
Using the extraordinary upper body strength he’d developed over the years to accommodate for his disability, Grady climbed into Old Sparky by himself. Only the arm straps were used, of course, and they required a few extra holes to accommodate his form. The guards observed that the monster before them could have easily squirmed out before the switch was thrown. He didn’t though: Grady wanted to die. Grady Smiles, courtesy of the state of Florida, got his wish just a few seconds later.
Karen woke Jerry. “You were screaming again, dear.” Jerry thanked his wife and tried to go back to sleep, though he could not. After so many years of the same nightmare, Jerry knew the only thing to do was stay awake until morning.
Jerry believed in monsters, for he met one once. The monster’s story, and the proximity Jerry felt to the monster, haunted him as he slept. Jerry’s night terrors never failed to feature the monster’s claws clamoring for his throat. Until he knew for certain the monster was dead and buried, Jerry firmly believed he would meet his end via those horrible claws.
Jerry met the monster only once. It was on a Saturday, the last night of the county fair. Jerry’s father had dropped him off at the Fair’s entrance, telling him he could walk back to the farm afterward or perhaps hitch a ride if he could find one.
Before Jerry’s older brother Dean died in Korea, his parents would never grant such a request. Now that Dean was gone, the pain was so ever-present and inescapable, they couldn’t muster enough to be concerned much anymore. Lately, Jerry found Dean’s death more tolerable when he played his own mental game: In his head, Jerry named everyone he met. It was simple, really: A classmate he crushed on was named Beauty in his head, a teacher he despised was Assmouth, etc. Jerry found solace in never telling anyone his game.
The Fair was something farm families anticipated all year. Jerry screamed with rapture on the midway rides, ate ice cream from the dairy barn, and finished off blueberry pie from the Methodist tent.
It was in the “Up and Coming” barn that Jerry first saw television. No one Jerry knew actually owned one, but Jerry had heard about it. He approached a growing crowd around what appeared to be a small gray box perched on a display table. He gazed in wonder at the ghostly, moving figure within the model. The program was “Texaco Star Theater,” and Jerry laughed out loud when a middle-aged man named Milton Berle appeared onscreen dressed like Little Bo Peep. Jerry wished his father would buy one but knew there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of that happening. TVs, as some people called them, were a luxury no farm family could ever hope to afford. Besides, Jerry’s family had a radio and, as his mother constantly reminded him, a radio was entertaining enough for any family.
After viewing the wonder that was television, Jerry decided to try The Spook House. He loved the stories in EC Comics and figured the Spook House would be worth it. It was not, though. Plastic skulls and fat carnies wearing Tor Johnson masks were not frightening for a nine-year-old farm boy.
As Jerry rounded the last corner of the Spook House, he grew afraid. Not from the Spook House, but from the older boy in wait. He was looking for victims, like a spider spinning its net.
Jerry recognized his bully as a townie. He was wearing cords, a bomber jacket, and a duck’s ass haircut. Jerry stared at him momentarily, knowing exactly why the townie was hiding behind the last corner. Jerry was told to ignore bullies and tried to do so. It didn’t work, of course. The hood was upon him in seconds. He held Jerry to the floor, his cackles joining the sound effects of the attraction. As he winced in pain, Jerry again wished Dean were there. In his mind, Jerry named the bully The Jerk. Jerry reassured himself The Jerk would never have touched him if Dean were still around.
Jerry pleaded with The Jerk to let him go. The Jerk held Jerry’s arm behind his back until he got what they wanted: Jerry’s tears. When he finally had enough fun with him and readied himself for his next victim, The Jerk threatened to beat Jerry even harder if he told anyone about his little game. Jerry left shaken, pretending it never happened.
As he wandered the Midway, Jerry thought of Dean again. It had been three months since the horrible day two uniformed men came to their farmhouse with a telegram announcing Dean’s death.
As he was thinking, some commotion diverted his attention. A crowd of teenagers was gathering under an enormous banner reading “See The World Famous Sights & Wonders Show” Under the banner were smaller, hand-painted freak show signs advertising each act. The signs embellished freaks weird enough to spark enough curiosity for fairgoers to fork over their hard-earned cash. With a warbly microphone, a carnival barker in an ill-fitting suit and string tie enticed the crowd. “Come in and see, friends! The World Famous Sights & Wonders Show! See the mechanical man! The snake lady! See Chief Iron Tongue! See The Human Lobster!”
Jerry had heard about these shows before. Dean told him they were all fake. That wasn’t a reason to skip them though, Dean advised: Part of the fun was figuring out how they did it. And sometimes the shows included the parts of women only married men ever saw. That last piece of advice was enough for Jerry to spend his final quarter to buy a ticket.
Jerry looked around and saw he was at least five years younger than everyone else in line. The rest of the audience were high schoolers, with some college students from town mixed in. The teens towered above Jerry, as he’d not yet sprouted, and was short for his age. The only adult in the crowd was a creepy man about 5’ 6” with very bad acne, a crew cut, and a button reading “Impeach Earl Warren!” Jewrry played his mind game again, dubbing him “Bad Acne.” Bad Acne began whispering to the crowd as they moved toward the entrance. He leaned down to Jerry and said, “You should get your ticket to the show! It’s the real deal!”
Jerry wished Dean were there. He would have joined the crowd alongside Jerry. Last Spring, one week after they found out Dean was dead, the Principal of Anderson High School called an assembly. Jerry sat on stage with his parents next to a picture of Dean in his uniform. The Principal called Dean an American hero who died fighting for freedom.
Jerry knew the real story, though. He’d heard it when the two men told his parents how Dean died. The truth wasn’t glorious, at all: Dean was killed because he got drunk at the company PX, took his jeep around a corner, and smashed into a telephone pole. He lingered for a few days before giving up the ghost.
Everyone in and around Anderson knew about Dean. His parents never corrected anyone when they called Dean a hero, so neither did Jerry. Living the lie was easier than the truth. Jerry filed into the tent with the rest of the rubes. The smell was vile, as vile as the pig farms Jerry could smell when the wind shifted. Inside the main arena, there were two stages, one marked “Stage I” on the left side of the tent and one marked “Stage II” on the right. The stages were separated by a large, filthy brown curtain. Jerry intermingled with the older kids near the entrance until the barker entered and welcomed them “Ladies and Gentlemen! Welcome to the Greatest Sights and Wonders Show! You are about to see some of the strangest sights known to man or woman, child or beast! Our show begins at Stage II!” The curtain separating the two stages was lifted, and the crowd gathered on the left side of the large tent. Before Jerry was a stage, bare except for a single chair and an alarm clock.
The lights dimmed and someone offstage played a snare drum and high hat. The barker spoke from behind the stage. “Our first act, ladies and gentlemen, the Mechanical Man!” The barker went into a story about finding a meteorite in the fields of Kansas. The meteorite popped open and The Mechanical Man was born from it, etc. It was a rip-off, obviously, as everyone was already familiar with Superman’s origins.
The Mechanical Man walked out from behind a curtain on Stage II. He turned out to be about 5’9”, wearing a marching band conductor’s uniform. Nothing was special about him, except his face. It was grease-painted with a color resembling the mercury Jerry played with in science class.
Standing downstage, The Mechanical Man said nothing, just pretending that his joints were stiff. The barker went into his spiel. “Ladies and Gentlemen! I have a proposition for all of you! The management has been trying to make the Mechanical Man’s lips move. If any one of you can make him smile within the next minute, we will award you $100!”
A stagehand set the alarm clock for one minute. Jerry recognized him as Bad Acne, the same man with the “Impeach Earl Warren” button and unfortunate craters on his face. With the promise of easy money, the audience of teenagers went wild. The boys started doing armpit farts and shouting dirty words, the girls rolled their eyes. Laughter is infectious, so the crowd began laughing at itself. The Mechanical Man just stood there, unaffected. His lips never moved. The alarm clock rang. Bad Acne came out again to turn it off and, as he did, nodded to the Mechanical Man.
The Mechanical Man bowed to the crowd, turned, and exited through the curtain. Jerry overheard two teens whispering to each other. They had figured out why The Mechanical Man’s lips never moved despite the hilarity before him: The Mechanical Man was probably deaf, and working as a freak was the only job he could get. The giveaway, one of them explained, was the stagehand: The Mechanical Man needed the stagehand to tell him the minute had passed because he couldn’t hear the alarm ring.
The barker began a new cadence. “Prepare yourselves, friends, for our next act! Approximately 30 years ago, a sacred union was made between a King Cobra and an Amazon Woman. Their offspring, ladies and gentlemen is….The Reptile Lady!” Jerry knew enough about anatomy to know this wasn’t possible.
The crowd approached Stage I through the filthy curtain. A snare and high hat again signaled the act was about to commence. From a spotlight pinned on the right side of the stage, . a woman in a bikini smoking a cigarette stepped out.
Her breasts, enormous, nearly fell out of her suit. This may have been purposeful, as it distracted the teens from the lit cigarette The Reptile Lady wedged in the gap her missing front tooth created. The crowd was fascinated.
Without a word, The Reptile Lady pointed downstage. The spotlight followed her finger to a six-foot pine box with chicken wire windows cut into the sides. The barker continued his hustle, listing all the species of snake that were slithering in the box before the audience. “Asps, ladies, and gentlemen! Cobras! Rattlers!”
The Reptile Lady opened the crate and, smiling, lay down among the serpents. After a few long seconds, the barker encouraged the crowd to come closer to the pine box. They peered in. The woman lay motionless, her cigarette burning, as snakes slithered across her body. A few of the smaller ones even went in and out of her bikini!
While the rest of the audience stared in wonder from the top, Jerry’s vantage point allowed him to peer into the box through the chicken wire slates. The “asps” and “cobras” were identical to the garter and bull snakes he’d pocketed from cornfields for years. Perhaps the town kids didn’t know it, but Jerry knew The Reptile Lady was in no danger whatsoever. Not that it mattered: Dean was right about the fun of figuring out the ruse.
Eventually, she withdrew from the pine box and retreated behind the curtain.
The barker ushered the crowd’s return to Stage II: “Ladies and Gentlemen! You’ve seen the Reptile Lady defy death with lethal venomous snakes! Please now adjourn to our other stage for something even more terrifying, even more treacherous!”
Back at Stage I, the barker began, “Ladies and gentlemen, I was once traveling in the western United States when I came across a man with skills so incredible I hand to bring them to you, right here in Indiana! Ladies and gentlemen, Chief Iron Tongue!”
A man clad in head feathers and a leather tunic with red lipstick stripes on his cheeks walked out from behind the curtains. He stood at center stage, silent with his arms folded before him. Bad Acne appeared again, dragging the blacksmith’s anvil with a chain, and visibly straining under its weight.
Gently placing the anvil before Chief Iron Tongue, Bad Acne clasped the end of the chain with a grappling hook. Then he took a small flashlight from his pocket and stood directly behind Chief Iron Tongue.
The house lights went dark as a single blue pin spot illuminated The Chief. Bad Acne reached over The Chief’s shoulder with the flashlight and pointed it under the Chief’s chin. The Chief opened his mouth and extended his tongue.
The flashlight’s glow illuminated a hole in the Chief’s tongue big enough to drop a nickel right through. The house lights returned as Bad Acne behind the Chief stepped away.
His tongue still wagging and his arms still folded in front of him, The Chief bent at the waist. The stagehands came forward and hooked the contraption through the hole in his tongue, making it hang. The barker reminded that silence was needed for The Chief to prepare himself.
Jerry watched in fascination, fully expecting to see the man before him rip his tongue from his mouth. Gasps emitted from the audience as The Chief closed his eyes and jerked with all his might. The anvil was lifted and, for a few silent seconds, floated at his waist.
The crowd stood transfixed. The Chief then swayed his head back and forth, making the anvil swing in circles. At first, the circles were barely noticeable but then became larger. Finally, The Chief swung the anvil over the heads of the audience! It was glorious.
Eventually, he stopped winging the anvil was brought it to a stop. As it rested, the stagehands came forward to remove the hook from the Chief’s tongue. The crowd roared approval with screams and applause.
The barker began again, directing attention to the other stage. As the crowd left, Jerry poked his head between the separating curtains. Bad Acne removed the “anvil” with one hand. He just picked it up and carried it like a comic book. That was the trick, Jerry determined. The anvil wasn’t made from forged steel: It was something light, maybe balsa wood.
Jerry’s attention returned to the barker at the other stage. “Ladies and Gentlemen! Prepare yourselves for our grand finale! I was once sport fishing on the coast of southern Florida. I’d netted the world’s largest lobster, or what I thought was the world’s largest lobster. In fact, in my net, I’d found a half-boy/half-lobster. Ladies and Gentlemen…The Lobster Boy!”
The curtain parted. Jerry half-expected to see a man in a lobster suit walk out. He was wrong. “Lobster Boy” was, in fact, a severely disabled man about 45 years old. He was barely three and a half feet tall. At first, Jerry thought he was a dwarf, but then saw he simply had no arms or legs. Lobster’s fingers are toes were fused together to form claw-like extremities. Lobster propelled himself forward with nothing but his upper body strength. Unlike the other acts, this was no trick. Lobster Boy was an authentic circus freak.
Unlike the other acts, too, Lobster didn’t need the barker to sell him. Instead, he spoke directly to the crowd while waddling about the stage. Jerry’s skin crawled. Then Lobster Boy waddled to the edge of the stage, right before Jerry’s eyes. Jerry noted he smelled like the distillery he passed on Saturdays, reeking of cheap booze.
The act of watching Lobster Boy simply propel himself across the stage would have been worth his money, but apparently, there was more to his act: Lobster Biy used his claws to retrieve a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. The “show” included watching him maneuver his cigarettes out of his shirt pocket. The audience was amazed at the man’s dexterity, especially Jerry.
As he smoked, Lobster Boy looked down and noticed Jerry’s fascination. Jerry guessed Lobster rarely saw children as young as he was in the audience. Lobster broke the fourth wall, gently asking Jerry his name and grade.
When Jerry told him, Lobster offered a kind smile. It occurred to Jerry that Lobster’s questions were the first he’d heard from an adult that didn’t involve his brother since Dean died. Jerry felt a strange kinship with the freak before him.
An instant, sharp pain in the back of Jerry’s neck interrupted their exchange. Jerry turned and saw a familiar figure: The townie who had tormented him in the Spook House was in the audience, and he was dead set on making Jerry as miserable there as he made him before. He had slapped Jerry’s neck with his sweaty hand, and it hurt as badly as Jerry’s arm hurt when the bully was pinning him. Jerry rubbed his neck and turned his attention back to the stage. Ignore bullies, he’d been told. He tried.
It didn’t work, of course. The bully slapped his neck again, this time harder. Jerry turned toward him. The townie was standing before him, a sick grin on his face. Jerry knew the townie wouldn’t stop until Jerry cried. And crying in front of the audience would only make it worse.
Jerry heard a voice from the stage. “Leave that boy alone, young punk!” the voice commanded. Jerry joined the crowd in looking back at the stage.
The words had come from Lobster Boy, who had been watching. Jerry’s bully was surprised at first and almost followed the circus freak’s order. Then it appeared the bully realized he had nothing to fear. “Fuck you, freak,” the bully replied. He slapped Jerry’s neck a third time in defiance.
Lobster’s face reddened, changing his effect almost instantly. Seeing his face, many in the audience thought this was part of the act, that perhaps Jerry and the bully were plants in cahoots with the barker and Bad Acne.
As soon as he spoke, though, everyone knew this was no act at all. “Who the hell are you?” Lobster Boy shouted at him. The freak became belligerent, swearing left and right. “Don’t ignore me, you dumb, motherfucking cunt! I’ll beat your fuckin’ ass! I’ve got a cock that would tear you new assholes! You’ll be my bitch, just like my bitches in stir!” Lobster Boy removed his cigarette out of his mouth with one claw and pointed at the bully as he spoke, angrier with every word.
The crowd murmured in collective discomfort. Jerry had seen fights before but had never heard language like this. He wanted his tormenter to get his comeuppance but never imagined anything like this.
The barker came on the PA system and thanked everyone for coming, hoping to end the scene. He must have known his efforts would be fruitless, though. No one was going away with such a show right before them.
Lobster’s challenges grew more descriptive. “I’ll give this audience a show they’ll never forget, you little cocksucker. Do you see the calluses on my claws? I got them from killing punks like you! I’ll put my claws right around your puny neck and take the life right out of you until you’re dead. C’mon! Let’s see what you got.”
The townie gave as good as he got, telling Lobster he would beat him up right there in front of the audience if he weren’t a cripple. The house lights went down, and the barker’s voice returned over the PA system.
“Friends, our show has concluded. Please show yourselves out the main entrance.” The flaps of the tent opened to the carnival lights. Having nothing else to do, the crowd, including Jerry and his bully, returned to the Midway. Jerry was able to distance himself from the townie in the commotion. He hitched a ride home on a flatbed Ford and immediately went to bed.
The next morning at breakfast, Jerry’s father read the lead story in the Anderson Courier News: BODY OF LOCAL TEEN FOUND NEAR FAIRGROUNDS.
The body of local boy Robert “Bobby” Meister, 17, of Anderson, Indiana, was found this morning near the outskirts of the county fairgrounds. Police have announced that Meister was strangled to death but have no leads at this point. Please contact the Anderson PD if you have any information about the death of Robert “Bobby” Meister.
The article included the high school photo of Jerry’s bully. In it, Robert appeared clean-cut, with a button-down shirt and neatly combed hair. If you didn’t know him, thought Jerry, the picture would make you think he was a nice kid. One who most certainly didn’t deserve to die at the hands of a circus freak.
The evening, for the first time since his death, Dean was absent from Jerry’s dreams. Jerry’s nightmares were solely consumed by the images featured in the only authentic act of the World Famous Sights & Wonders Show.
Jerry would never tell anyone about the incident at the Fair. Over time, his parents’ grief from Dean’s death would subside and they were able to enjoy Jerry again. When he was 17, Jerry fell in love with a sophomore named Karen. They married after graduation. Jerry got a job at the EV microphone factory and Karen worked part-time as a hostess. They had two daughters. The nightmares subsided.
In 1978, they returned. In August of that year, Jerry and Karen dropped off Cathy, their second daughter at FSU. On the return trip, they stopped at a greasy spoon for breakfast. When Ksren excused herself to use the ladies’ room, Jerry glanced at a stack of local papers. The Tampa Bay Times included a story detailing a string of murders by strangulation within the area.
The story reported all of the victims were teenage boys and died of strangulation. Strangely, the report noted, no fingerprints were ever found at any of the crime scenes. The murders had left the local cops clueless as to the perpetrator, and they had asked the FBI to assist them.
Reading the article, Jerry knew all too well who murdered the teenage boys. He called the local FBI office and reported what he’d seen all those years ago at the Fair. Due to his tip, Jerry’s monster was caught. The freak’s real name turned out to be Grady Smiles, and the combined horrific nature of his crimes and physical malformation made him front-page news all over the country.
Reporters were quick to inform the public. Smiles suffered from a rare genetic anomaly called “ectrodactyly,” which fused his fingers and toes together. Grady was the fifth, and last, in his line to inherit it. As if to accommodate for his disability, Smiles had grown near super-human upper body strength and flexibility and toured with The Sights & Wonders Roadshow.
Smiles freely admitted his crimes to the judge. At his murder trials, he showed no remorse whatsoever. He pointed out that his disability kept him from being imprisoned: The state could not handcuff him like the other prisoners, and he could squeeze through the bars of any prison easily. Grady told the judge he wanted to die and, if not sentenced to death, would kill again. The state obliged him and sent him to the electric chair. Smiles, the murdering monster freak, died sitting on Old Sparky in 1993. Jerry, reading the news, slept soundly.
Dr. John D. Van Dyke is an academic and failed rock star. His articles have appeared in Skeptic, Reader’s Digest, and Michigan History. Dr. Van Dyke lives in Southwest Michigan with his wife and son.
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