“To be, or not to be--that is the question.
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms...”
Hamlet, Act III, Scene I
The rocket was on the way up, but Professor Lightning didn’t seem to care. Outside the cooktent Wrout flapped his arms and, on that signal, Seaman started up the big electric band, whooping it up with John Philip Sousa for openers, while all over the midway the lights snapped on, big whites and yellows, reds, greens, purples and dusky violets framing, in a titillating dimness, the front flap of the girlie tent. The outside talkers were busy outside the spectacle tents like Wicks’ Hell Drivers, Biggest Auto Show in Fifty States--outside the grind shows, the eats, the rides: “Here and now, for the fourth part of one single dollar bill, the most amazing...” “ ... Terrifying and strange beings from the farthest reaches of the Earth who will exhibit...” “ ... Dances learned at the Court of the Sultan, Ay-rab dances right here, right on the inside, for only--”
And the crowd, filing in, laughed and chattered and shrieked on swooping rides, the Great Crane, the Space Race, the Merry-Go-Round and the Horses, threw down money to win a kewpie doll, a Hawaiian lei, a real life-size imitation scale model of Luna in three real dimensions ... living it up on the first show, while the rocket climbed on and out, and bubbled excitement in the blood.
The rocket was up: the carnival was open. But Professor Lightning didn’t seem to care. He sat in the cooktent with his eyes hooded and hidden under the unshaded glow of a hundred-and-fifty-watt Forever bulb, while Charley de Milo fidgeted his feet, and listened, and tried to cut the old man off.
“Look, professor,” he said nervously, “why don’t we talk about it later? Table it, till after the show?” He scratched the side of his head with his left foot. “I got to go on in a couple of minutes,” he said. “I can hear the talker going now. I got to--”
“Forget the show,” Professor Lightning said. His voice was flatter and harsher, and his face more tense, than Charley ever remembered seeing it. “The show isn’t important.”
Charley blinked, trying to understand. “But, Professor--”
“Listen to me,” Professor Lightning said. “The world is at the beginning of a new cultural revolution. Since the Cold War melted, and freedom of inquiry and research began to live again on both sides of the old Iron Curtain, science has begun a new Renaissance. The cultural interflow has--”
“Please, professor,” Charley said miserably, rubbing his toes together. “There isn’t much time before I got to go on. And you ought to be inside the Science tent, too, because any minute--”
“If I am not in the tent,” Professor Lightning said calmly, “I will not appear in the show. It does not matter.”
“But they’ll fire you,” Charley said. He grabbed for a cigarette with his right foot and got it into his mouth. Striking a match with his left foot, he lit the cigarette and blew out a long, ragged plume of smoke. “If you’re not there on time,” he said in strained tones, “they’ll fire you. And what about me?”
Professor Lightning gestured with both big hands. It was the same movement he used every night, when he showed the crowd there were no wires or batteries secreted on his person. Charley half-expected him to grab hold of a couple of light bulbs and show them glowing in his fists. But the gesture was meant, this time, as an aid to relaxation. “Don’t worry,” Professor Lightning said, in a grating sort of caricature of a soothing tone. “If they fire me ... well, then, they save me the trouble of quitting. And as for you, my boy, a carnival job should be the furthest thing from your thoughts.”
“Well, it isn’t,” Charley said sourly. “And if you’ll excuse me, professor, I care how I get the money to eat, even if you don’t. I got a good job--”
“You won’t need your job,” Professor Lightning said, “if you’ll listen to me.”
Charley made up his mind. Much as he hated to be impolite, there were some things more important than social forms, he decided. He stood up. “After the show, professor,” he said with firmness, and went out of the cooktent, heading at a rapid dogtrot for the big tent at the other side of the midway. As he reached it he could see Dave Lungs, the outside talker, climb up on the front platform to begin his spiel.
“Marvels of the world!” Dave announced without preliminary. “Wonders of the natural universe! Surprises and startling sights for every member of the family!” By the time he had got that far, a crowd was beginning to collect in front of the platform. “For the fourth part of a single dollar bill--” Dave went on, but Charley didn’t have the time to listen; he was in the bally.
He lifted the backflap of the tent with one foot, and wriggled inside.
As he made his way to the cluster of people near the front flap, past the booths and stands, he felt an enormous sense of relief. He had made it--with all of fifty seconds to spare.
Ned and Ed stood next to him. “Where you been?” Ed said in a nasal whisper.
“I got held up,” Charley explained. “Professor Lightning, he was talking to me, and--”
“Later,” Ned said. His voice was lower and throatier than Ed’s; it was the only way Charley could tell them apart, but then, he thought, nobody ever had to tell them apart. They were, like all Siamese twins, always together. “We’re going on,” Ned said, and he and his twin moved forward.
Charley moved into place behind them, and came out blinking in the glare of the front platform.
“Siamese twins,” Dave was shouting. “A contemporary marvel of science, ladies and gentlemen--and here we have...”
Charley stepped forward as Ned and Ed stepped back into the shadows again.
“ ... Charley de Milo! Ladies and gentlemen, the world-wide fame of this brave and talented boy is stupendous! His feats of skill will amaze you! Watch him thread a needle! Watch him comb his hair! And all for one thin quarter, ladies and gentlemen, only the fourth part--”
The electronic band choked on Sousa, coughed and began again with Kabalevsky. Charley watched the audience below, staring up at him, hundreds of faces. He heard their gasp as he flexed his shoulders and turned. He grinned down, taking a second longer than usual, and then stepped back, still grinning.
“Charley de Milo, the Armless Wonder!” Dave said. “And many more sights inside, ladies and gentlemen, sights to amaze you, sights to chill your very blood, sights...”
One-thirty, and the last show over. The rocket had come down for the night; all over the midway lights were blinking off and silence was creeping, like a stain, over the ground. Professor Lightning was sitting on his bunk, in the small tent he shared with Erma the Fish Girl. Erma was out drinking with Dave Lungs and some of the others, and only the professor and Charley de Milo were in the room. Charley was sitting on Erma’s bunk, looking resigned.
“Well, if you still want to talk to me,” he said, “now’s your chance. O.K.?”
“I certainly want to talk to you,” Professor Lightning said firmly. “I want to tell you of the most important moment of your life.”
Charley tried to think of something to say to this, but there wasn’t anything. He shifted on the bunk, scratched at his nose with his left foot, and grinned spastically. “Sure,” he said at random. “And, by the way, I’m sorry about before, professor. But the show was going on, and--”
“The show,” Professor Lightning said, in tones of the utmost contempt. “Forget about the show--now, and tomorrow, and forever.”
“No words,” Professor Lightning said, raising a hand delicately. “Please. Allow me to tell you of my invention.”
Charley sighed and lay back on the bed. “Invention, professor?” he said. “You mean sort of a machine?”
For some reason, Professor Lightning looked irritated. “It’s not a machine,” he said flatly. Then he sighed and his tone changed. “Charley, my boy,” he said, “do you remember what I was telling you before? About how the world has entered a new Age of Science? How new inventions, new discoveries, are coming along every day?”
“Well, sure,” Charley said. “The papers talk about it every once in a while. You know, I see the papers, or the Chicago American, anyhow. My mother sends it to me. She likes the columns.”
“Why,” Professor Lightning went on, as if he hadn’t been listening at all, “right here in Wrout’s Carnival Shows, we have things that just didn’t exist ten or fifteen years ago. The electronic band. The Forever bulb.”
“That’s right,” Charley put in. “And look at Joe Wicks. Why, he can do tricks with all those new things they got on cars, tricks nobody ever did before or even thought about in the old days.”
“And more fundamental discoveries,” the professor said. “Chadwick’s Law of Dimensionality, Dvedkin and the Ontological Mean ... oh, I keep up with the literature. No matter what’s happened to me, I keep up with the literature.”
Charley sighed, very softly so as not to injure the professor’s feelings. But he did hope the old man wasn’t going to start on all those stories about his lost career again. Charley knew--everybody in the Wrout show did--that Professor Lightning had been a real professor once, at some college or other. Biology, or Biological Physics, or something else--he’d taught classes about it, and done research. And then there had been something about a girl, a student the professor had got himself involved with. Though it was pretty hard to imagine the professor, white-haired and thin the way he was now, chasing after a girl.
He’d been fired, or something, and he’d drifted for a while and then got himself an act and come with a Carnival. Charley knew the whole story. He didn’t want to hear it again.
But the professor said: “I’m as good as I ever was--better than I ever was, my boy. I’ve been keeping up, doing experiments. I’ve been quiet about it.”
Everybody, Charley thought, knew about Professor Lightning and his experiments. If they kept the old man happy, kept him contented and doing shows, why not? After all, the old guy didn’t drink or anything really serious; if he wanted to play around with test tubes and even Bunsen burners, people figured, why, let him.
But Professor Lightning thought nobody knew. Well, he had been a real professor once, which is to say a square. Some people never really adjusted to carny life--where everybody knows everything.
Charley figured maybe it was better to act surprised. “Really?” he said. “Experiments?”
Professor Lightning looked pleased, which satisfied Charley. “I’ve been on the track of something big,” he said. He seemed to be talking more to himself than to Charley. “Something new,” he said. “And at last ... at last, my boy, I’ve found it. I’ll be famous, Charley, famous--and so will you!”
“That’s nice,” Charley said politely. Then he blinked. “But what do you mean,” he added, “me?”
“I want you to help me,” the professor said. He leaned forward, and in the dim light of the tent’s single lamp, his eyes glittered. “I want you to come with me.”
“Come with you?” Charley said, and swallowed hard. He’d never thought, the way some did, that the old man was crazy. But it did look as if he’d slipped a couple of cogs for sure and for real. “Where?” Charley said.
“Washington,” the professor said instantly. “New York. London, Paris. Rome. The world, Charley. The world that’s going to do us homage.”
Charley shifted a little in the bed. “Look, professor,” he said, “I’ve got a job, right here in the carny. I couldn’t leave here. So suppose we just--”
“Your job?” the professor said. “Your job’s gone, my boy. Wait. Let me tell you what I’ve discovered. Let me tell you what has happened--happened to you, my boy. To you, and to me.”
Charley sat upright, slowly. “Well,” he said, “all right, professor.”
Professor Lightning beamed, and his eyes glittered brighter and brighter. “Limb regeneration,” he said, and his voice was as soft and quiet as if he’d been talking about the most beautiful woman in the world. “Limb regeneration.”
Charley waited a long minute before he admitted to himself that he didn’t have the faintest idea what the professor was talking about. “What?” he said at last.
Professor Lightning shook his head slightly. “Charley,” he said softly, “you’re an Armless Wonder. That’s right, isn’t it?”
“Sure it is, professor,” Charley said. “You know that. I was born that way. Made a pretty good thing out of it, too.”
“Well,” Professor Lightning said, “you don’t have to be one. Can you realize that?”
Charley nodded slowly. “Sure I don’t,” he said. “Only it’s pretty good money, you know? And there’s no sense in sitting around back home and feeling sorry for myself, is there? I mean, this way I can make money and have a job and--”
“No,” Professor Lightning said emphatically.
Charley blinked. “No?” he said.
Professor Lightning shook his head, meaningfully. “Charley, my boy,” he said, “I don’t mean that you should go home and mope. But think about this: suppose you had your arms? Suppose you had two arms, just like everybody else.”
“Why think about anything like that?” Charley said. “I mean, I am what I am. That’s the way things are. Right?”
“Wrong,” Professor Lightning said. “I can give you arms, Charley. I can make you normal. Just like everybody else.”
“Well,” Charley said. After a few seconds he said: “Gee.” Then he said: “You’re kidding me, professor.”
“I’m perfectly serious,” Professor Lightning said.
“Let me show you,” Professor Lightning said. He stood up and went to the flap of the tent. “Come with me,” he said, and Charley got up, dumbly, and followed him out into the cool darkness outside.
Later, Charley couldn’t remember all that Professor Lightning had showed him or told him. There were some strange-looking animals called salamanders; Professor Lightning had cut their tails off and they’d grown new tails. That, he said, happened in nature. But he had gone a step farther. He had isolated the particular factor that made such regrowth possible.
Charley remembered something about a molecular lattice, but it didn’t make any sense to him, and was only a puzzle. But the professor told him all about the technique, in a very earnest and scientific voice that was convincing to listen to, and showed him mice that he’d cut the tails off of, and the mice had brand-new tails, and even feet in one or two cases. There were a whole lot of small animals in cages, all together in back of the professor’s tent, and Charley looked at all of them. The professor had a flashlight, and everything was very clear and bright.
When the demonstration was over, Charley had no doubts at all. It was obvious to him that the professor could do just what he said he could do: grow limbs on things. Charley scratched his head with his left foot, nervously.
“That’s why I came to you,” the professor said. “I need a human being--just to show the scientific world that my technique works on human beings. And I’ve worked with you for a number of years now, Charley.”
“Five,” Charley said. “Five since you came with Wrout.”
“I like you,” the professor said. “I want to make you the first, the very first, person to be helped by my technique.”
Charley shifted his feet. “You mean you want to give me arms,” he said.
“That’s right,” the professor said.
“No,” Charley said.
Professor Lightning nodded. “Now, then,” he said. “We’ll get right to work on ... Charley, my boy, what did you say?”
Charley licked his lips. “I said no,” he said.
Professor Lightning waited a long minute. “You mean you don’t believe me,” he said at last. “You think I’m some sort of a crackpot.”
“Not at all,” Charley said politely. “I guess if you say you can do this ... well, I see all the animals, and everything, and I guess you can do it. That’s O.K.”
“But you’re doubtful,” Professor Lightning said.
Charley shook his head. “No,” he said. “You can do it, all right. I guess I’m sure of that, professor.”
“Then,” the professor said, in a tenser voice, “you think it might be dangerous. You think you might be hurt, or that things might not work out right, or--”
“Gee,” Charley said, “I never thought of anything like that, professor. I know you wouldn’t want to hurt me.”
“I certainly wouldn’t,” Professor Lightning said. “I want to help you. I want to make you normal. Like everybody else.”
“Sure,” Charley said uncomfortably.
“Then you’ll do it,” Professor Lightning said. “I knew you would, Charley. It’s a great opportunity. And I offered it to you because you--”
“Gee, I know,” Charley said, feeling more uncomfortable than ever. “And don’t think I don’t appreciate it. But look at it my way, professor.” He paused. “Suppose I had two arms--just like everybody else, the way you tell me. What would happen to me?”
“Happen?” Professor Lightning blinked. “Why, Charley ... why, you could do anything you liked. Anything. You’d have the same opportunities as anybody else. You could be ... well, my boy, you could be anything.”
“Could I?” Charley said. “Excuse me for talking about this, professor, but I’ve had a lot of time to think about it. And it’s all sort of new to you. I mean, you weren’t born the way I was, and so you just don’t understand it.”
Professor Lightning said: “But, my boy--”
“No.” Charley said. “Let me explain this. Because it’s important.” He cleared his throat, sat down on the ground and fumbled for a cigarette. He found one in his shirt pocket, carried it to his lips with his right foot, and lit a match with his left. When he was smoking easily, he went on.
“Professor, do you know how old I am?” he said. “I’m forty-two years old. Maybe I don’t look it, but that’s how old I am. Now, I’ve spent all my life learning to do one thing, and I do a pretty good job of it. Anyhow, good enough to get me a spot with Wrout’s show, and probably with anybody else I wanted to work for.”
“But your arms--?” the professor said.
“That’s what I mean,” Charley said. “I don’t have any arms. I never had any. Maybe I miss ‘em, a little--but everything I do is based on the fact that I don’t have ‘em. Now, professor, do you know what I am?”
Professor Lightning frowned. “What you are?” he said.
“I’m an Armless Wonder,” Charley said. “That’s a pretty good thing to be. In a carny, they look up to an Armless Wonder--he’s a freak, a born freak, and that’s as high as you can go, in a carny. I get a good salary--I send enough to my mother and my sister, in Chicago, for them to live on. And I have what I need myself. I’ve got a job, professor, and standing, and respect.” He paused. “Now, suppose I had arms. I’d have to start from scratch, all over again. I’d have to start from the bottom up, just learning the basic elements of any job I signed on for. I’d be a forty-two-year-old man doing the work of an eighteen-year-old. And not making much money. And not having much standing, or respect.”
Charley took the cigarette out of his mouth with his right foot, held it for a second and put it back.
“I’d be normal,” he said. “I’d be just like everybody else, professor. And what do I want anything like that for?”
Professor Lightning tried everything, but it wasn’t any good. “Fame,” he said, and Charley pointed out, calmly and reasonably, that the kind of fame he’d get from being an experimental subject was just like being a freak, all over again--except that it would wear off, and then, he asked, where would he be? Professor Lightning talked about Man’s Duty to Science, and Charley countered with Science’s Duty to Man. Professor Lightning tried friendship, and argument, and even force--but nothing worked. Incredible as it seemed to the professor, Charley was content to remain a freak, an Armless Wonder. More, he seemed to be proud and happy about it.
It was too bad that the professor didn’t think of the one argument that might have worked. In the long run, it wouldn’t have made any difference, perhaps--but it would have cleared matters up, right there and then. Because the one workable argument had a good chance of succeeding.
But, then, Professor Lightning really didn’t understand carny. He never thought of the one good argument, and after a while he gave up, and went away.
Of course, that was several days later. Professor Lightning told Charley that he was leaving for New York, and Charley said: “What? In the middle of the season?” Then he told Wrout, and Wrout screamed and ranted and swore that Professor Lightning would never work in carny again. “I’ll have you blacklisted!” he roared.
And Professor Lightning shrugged and smiled and went away to pack. He took all his notebooks, and all the cages with little animals in them, and he didn’t seem at all disturbed. “I’ll find another subject,” he told Charley, when he left. “When they find out what I’ve got, in New York, they’ll provide me with subjects by the hundred. I did want to help you...”
“Thanks,” Charley said honestly.
“ ... But that’s the way things are, I suppose,” Professor Lightning said. “Maybe some day you’ll realize.”
Charley shook his head. “I’m afraid not, professor,” he said, and Professor Lightning shook Charley’s foot, and left, and Charley went back to work in the freak show, and for a while he didn’t even think about Professor Lightning. Then, of course, the news began to show up in the Chicago American, which Charley got two or three days late because his mother sent it to him by mail.
At first Charley didn’t realize that Dr. Edmund Charles Schinsake was Professor Lightning, but then the American ran his picture; that was the day Professor Lightning was awarded a medal by the AMA, and Charley felt pleased and happy for the old man. It looked as it he’d got what he wanted.
Charley, of course, didn’t think much about the professor’s “limb regeneration”; he didn’t need it, he thought, and he didn’t want it, and that was that.
And then, one night, he was dropped from the bally, and he asked Dave Lungs about it, and Dave said: “Well, we want the biggest draw we can get, out there before the show,” and put Erma, the Fish Girl, out in his place. And Charley started to wonder about that, and after a few days had gone by he found himself talking about it, to Ed Baylis, over in the cooktent while they were having lunch.
Baylis was a little man of sixty or so, with a wrinkled face like a walnut and a powerful set of lungs; he was Wrout’s outside talker for the girlie show. “Because I’m old,” he said, grinning. “I don’t have trouble with the girls. And if I got to take one off the bally or out of the show there’s no personal stuff that would make it tough, see what I mean?”
“That’s what I’m worried about,” Charley said.
“What?” Ed asked. He speared a group of string beans with his fork and conveyed them to his mouth. Charley, using his right foot, did the same.
“The bally,” Charley said. “The way things are, Dave took me off, and I’m worrying about it.”
“Maybe some kind of a change,” Ed said.
Charley shook his head. “He said ... he said he wanted the biggest draw out there. Now, you know I’m a big draw, Ed. I always have been.”
“Sure,” Ed said. He chewed another mouthful and swallowed. “Still, people want a change now and then. Doesn’t have to mean anything.”
“Maybe not,” Charley said uncomfortably. But he wasn’t convinced.
The season drew to a close, and Charley went off to the Florida Keys, where he spent a month living with some friends before holing up with his mother and sister for the winter. He was offered a job in New York, at a year-round flea museum in Times Square, but after some thought he decided against it. He’d never had to work winters, and he wasn’t going to start.
After all, he was still doing well, wasn’t he? He told himself emphatically that he was. He was an Armless Wonder, a born freak, the top of the carny ladder, with a good job wherever he cared to look for one.
He had to tell himself that quite a few times before he began to believe it.
Spring came, and then summer, and Charley kissed his mother and his sister good-by and joined Wrout’s Carnival Shows in Summit, Idaho, three days before their opening. He didn’t notice much change from previous years, but it took an effort not to notice some things.
Not like the new man who’d taken Professor Lightning’s place--a tall thin youngster who had an Electric Chair act. Or like the periodic quarrels between Ned and Ed; it seemed they’d met a girl over the winter season, and disagreed about her. Ed thought she was perfectly wonderful; Ned couldn’t see her for beans.
No, things like that were a part of carny; you got used to them, as the show rolled along year after year, and paid no more attention to them than a housewife pays to rather uninteresting back-fence gossip.
It was something else that had changed, something important.
His contract, for instance. It was made out for the same pay as he’d been getting, but the option periods were shortened up; suddenly, Charley was living from season to season, with almost no assurance of continuous, steady work. Old man Wrout had looked a little less than happy when he’d given Charley the contract; he’d almost seemed ashamed, and he hadn’t really looked Charley in the eye once. But when Charley asked what was wrong, he got no answer.
Or none that meant anything. “It’s just the way things are,” Wrout muttered. “Don’t make no difference, kid.”
But it did make a difference. Charley wasn’t out in the bally any more, either; he was backstage among the second-rate acts, the tattooed man and the fire-eater and the rest, while Erma and Ned and Ed and the top-liners took their bows out before the crowd, pulling them in, and got the gasps and the applause.
The crowds in front of his own platform, inside during the show, were smaller, too. At first Charley thought that was due to the bally itself, but as the season began and wore on, the crowds continued to shrink beyond all expectation. Counting as he worked, combing his hair with one foot, drawing little sketches for the customers (“Take one home for only one extra dime, a treasured souvenir especially personalized for you by Charley de Milo”)--counting the house, he discovered one evening that he was the smallest draw in the tent. The tattooed man did better than Charley de Milo, which was enough of a disgrace; the rest were so far ahead that Charley didn’t even want to think about it.
His first idea was that somebody was out to get him. He could feel the muscles of his shoulders and back bunching up when he tried thinking what to do about the sabotage that had struck him; but an Armless Wonder has one very real disadvantage. He can comb his own hair and brush his own teeth; he can feed himself and--with proper clothing--dress himself; he can open doors and shut windows and turn the pages of books. But he can’t engage in a free-for-all fight, not without long and careful training in that style of battle known as savate, or boxing with the feet. Charley had never learned savate; he had never needed it.
For the first time since he could remember, he felt helpless. He wasn’t normal; he couldn’t do what any normal man could do. He wanted to find the man who was sabotaging his show, and beat him into a confession, and throw him off the lot--
And he couldn’t.
The muscles of his back pulled and pulled at him. He clenched his jaw. Then Dave Lungs came over to his platform and he forced himself to relax, sweating. There were four or five people behind Dave, ordinary marks with soft, soft faces and round eyes. While Dave talked Charley went through his act; perhaps ten other marks were scattered in the tent, standing at other platforms, watching other acts even without Dave there to guide them and talk them up.
And when he was through Dave sold exactly one of the sketches Charley had done. One. An old man bought it, a chubby little Santa Claus of a man with eyes that twinkled and a belly that undoubtedly shook like a jelly bowl when it was freed from its expensive orlon confines. Dave went off to the next platform, where Erma stood, and the marks followed him, and more drifted over. Erma had ten customers, Charley noticed, and he grabbed a handkerchief from the platform floor and wiped his damp face with one foot.
Something’s wrong, he thought stupidly, and he must have said it aloud because, at his feet, a high, thin old voice said: “What was that, son? Did you say something?”
“Nothing at all,” Charley mumbled, and looked down. The Santa Claus man was staring up at him. “Show’s over,” Charley said, more curtly than he meant. He took a deep breath and set his feet more firmly on the platform, but it didn’t do any good. He was like a coiled spring, waiting for release.
“I don’t expect any show,” Santa Claus said. “Really I don’t. But I did want to talk to you for a few minutes, if you don’t mind.”
“I’m not in a talking mood,” Charley said. “Sorry.” He was ashamed of the words as soon as he brought them out; that was no way to treat any stranger, not even a mark. But it was a long second before he could say anything else. Santa Claus stood watching him patiently, holding Charley’s sketch by one corner in his left hand.