Freak Show || J L Higgs

1

 

by J L Hig


Freak Show Guest Freaks Out screamed the newspaper headline. Wilson shook his head. Whoever had tacked it to the cafeteria message board probably thought making the Daily’s front page was worth celebrating. Removing the scrap of paper, Wilson crumpled it up and tossed it into the custodial cart’s trash bag. 


 Normally, this end of the building was bustling with station personnel. But for a week it had been as empty as a mausoleum, except for the police. Now, their work completed, even they were gone. 


 Grasping the custodial cart’s well-worn handle with his thickly veined brown hands, white-haired, bearded, Wilson, pushed it down the corridor. Onboard, a mop, broom, dustpan, trash bags, and bottles of cleaning fluids wobbled to the moan of its wheels. 


 At the door to Studio A, he stopped. There, a foul odor was escaping the room cordoned off with yellow tape that read “Police Line –Do Not Cross.” As the station’s sole custodian, Wilson was responsible for keeping the station clean. But nothing in the past 40 years had prepared him for what was on the other side of the door. Pulling a bandanna from a pocket in his overalls, he covered his nose and mouth and tied its loose ends at the back of his head. Then he began pulling down the tape.


 Wilson had worked at the station since its beginning. Except for Roger, its current manager and chairman of the executive board, who’d started one month after him, no one else came close to being there as long. “Making a difference in our viewers’ lives” had been the station’s original slogan. Though only its custodian, Wilson had been proud to work some place dedicated to serving the needs of the local community.  


  Over the years, he’d watched ambitious Roger go from having a full head of blond hair to being bald, then wearing the cheap toupee he’d only recently abandoned. During that same period, the station’s reach expanded, its profits had increased, and its goals changed. Now its mantra was “we give the people what they want” and Roger often greeted the current staff by asking, “are we winning or losing?” 


 Inside Studio A, Wilson’s eyes scanned the room. There was blood everywhere. Splatters and coagulated pools filled the aisles and rows. Dried red-brown smears from the hands of those who’d attempted to flee marked the white walls. And closest to the stage, it had crusted and caked so deep in the light red fabric seats that they looked black. 


 Wilson’s stomach lurched, and caustic bile seared his throat. His eyes watered as he choked it back down. 


 “Damn. This is some seriously fucked up shit.”


 Wilson turned. It was Raphael, the summer kid with the short braids atop his head that pointed every which way. 


 “What you doin’ in here?” 


 “Man, it stinks in here,” said Raphael, covering his nose with a hand. Avoiding the dried blood, he approached Wilson via the main aisle, his eyes roaming the room.  


 Wilson frowned. Like most kids nowadays, this boy was too brash and talked too much. He even had a stud earring in one ear. Back in Wilson’s day, a black person kept his head down, minded his own business, and kept his thoughts to himself. You did whatever it took to get and keep steady employment and a paycheck you could depend on. 


 “What you doin’ here?” repeated Wilson


 “They sent me to give you a hand,” said Raphael, shaking his head at the residual evidence of the carnage. “Can you believe this shit?” 


 “Yeah, a bunch of innocent folks got hurt.”  


 Wilson frowned. From the moment he’d seen Raphael, he’d thought, this damn boy’s worthless. He knew HR management had hired him through some special summer program for black high school kids.  While that appeared nice on the surface, their true motivation was their insatiable need to reassure themselves they were good, decent people. It was obvious HR had no clue what to do with him and now, along with cleaning up the god-awful mess in Studio A, management wanted Wilson to babysit. 


 Sucking in air through the gap between his two front teeth, Wilson did a final assessment.


The blood-soaked seats close to the stage couldn’t be saved. Removing the handprints and splatters wouldn’t be too hard, but where the blood had pooled and dried, would require some serious scrubbing. Setting things right would be hard work and not even then, would what had happened be erased. 


 Turning to Raphael, Wilson said, “Go get us some mops, bleach, rubber gloves, and buckets filled with water.”


 “Are you serious? We’re gonna try to clean this up? Hell, it’d be easier to just burn the whole place down and start over.”  


*


At the other end of the building, an emergency meeting was taking place in the station’s boardroom. Seated around the oval-shaped mahogany table were Matt, from Accounting, Dan from Marketing, Susan, the Program Director, Steve, Head of Public Relations, Mia, in charge of booking guests, Whitney and Tim, Roger’s son and daughter, and of course, Roger. 


 Matt shifted in his chair, adjusted his horn-rimmed glasses, and cleared his throat. Avoiding eye contact with Roger, he said, “As you all know, the sponsors are in an uproar. I’ve looked at the numbers and if two or three of our major sponsors pull out, we’ll suffer a significant loss in revenue.”


 CRACK! Black ink seeped between Roger’s fingers from the pen he’d snapped in half.  He rose to his feet like a rhino about to charge.  


 “Fuck ‘em,” he said, his beady eyes glaring at them all. Snapping his fingers at Tim, he then pointed to the napkin beneath his son’s coffee. Tim immediately passed the napkin to his father, who began wiping his hands. “We’ve been number one in the ratings for three consecutive years.”  


 “But this could be bad,” said Dan, his black hair slicked straight back with gel. “Image is important.”


 “Bad! We’ve gone viral on social media.”  


 “Dad, the…”


 Roger silenced heavily bronzered Tim with a look. “The show’s supposed to be edgy. We’re in the entertainment business, not the morals business. When I decided to call it Freak Show, the sponsors we’d lined up threw a hissy fit. They said no one would want to appear on it or watch a show with that name. Well, they were wrong then and they’re wrong now. The shit we’re selling isn’t new. In fact, it’s become our national sport. People want it.”


 Frizzy, red-haired, Susan exchanged a look with pale, bleached blond princess, Whitney, who had no official role at the station. “They’re not asking for major changes. They’d just like us to tone it down a bit,” said Susan. 


 “It’s a little late for that,” said Steve, tossing his silver mane of hair and tugging at his monogrammed shirt cuffs. 


 Roger sneered. He’d always thought Steve was a priss. “You’re supposed to be Mr. Public Relations. What are we paying you for? Can’t you come up with a way to spin this? If you’d gotten to the fuckin' hospitals, and kept them from blabbing about treating the wounded, everyone would’ve thought it was a fake stunt.” 


 “There’s…”


 “It’s not a question of spin,” said Matt, looking at the faces around the table, but seeing no support. “The guy murdered people on our show… on live TV.”


 “Hey, when your number’s up, your number’s up,” said Tim with a shrug.


 “Don’t be an asshole, Timmy,” said Whitney, fingering her hair.


 “Come on,” said Tim. “What were those people doing in the audience, anyway?”


 “Some smart-ass kids used the internet to buy up all the studio tickets. Then they gave them to a bunch of organizations full of those liberals.”


 “How’s, Shannon?”


 “She’s still pretty shaken. We may need to replace her.” 


 Roger looked at Whitney—pretty, blond.  She’ll do, he thought. It wasn’t like he’d hired Shannon as host for her intellect. “Whitney can handle Shannon’s duties if need be,” he said.


 Placing his fists on the tabletop, Roger leaned forward and looked at each of them in turn. “No one cares who the host is. People don’t give two shits about anything that doesn’t directly affect them. That’s why we’re in the clear. Right, Dan? We didn’t kill anybody. We’re not responsible. How the hell could we have known the fuckin’ guy had a set of holstered Glock 19s strapped to his ankles?”


 Dan looked up from the notepad he’d been scribbling on. “Technically, you’re right from a criminal liability perspective. I’ll need to check with Legal about whether we may have any exposure to a civil suit.” 


 “Not gonna happen,” said Roger, shaking his head. “There’s a clause on the back of the tickets that says we can’t be held liable for anything that might happen during the show. Y’know what they say, buyer beware.” 


 “Well, I just want to go on record as saying I was against booking a guest with his ideological leanings upfront,” said Susan.


 “Hey, freedom of speech and all that shit. Who’s to say who’s right or wrong? Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.” 


 “So it’s my fault,” said Mia, who’d been sitting silently with her head bowed. 


 “Jesus Christ,” said Dan. “Let’s not get into that. We’ve got a few blacks, some Spanish-looking people, an Oriental, and that lesbian couple that was seated in the front row among the dead and wounded. It makes the station look bad.”


 “Asian, not Oriental.”


 “Yeah. Whatever.” 


 “You talking about those two hot babes with Star of David medallions?”


 “Yes, Tim.”


 “Wow. You sure they’re lesbians?” 


 Susan and Whitney looked at each other and sighed as they shook their heads.


 “Their sexual orientation is irrelevant,” shouted Matt. He took a moment to compose himself, then continued, “If we don’t do something, we’re going to lose sponsors. So, what are we going to do?”


 “Trust me. All this hullabaloo with our current sponsors is temporary. Given our ratings and all the free publicity we’re getting, there’s sure to be a slew of companies chomping at the bit to advertise with us.”. 


 “What if we offered to pay some of their medical costs?” 


 Dan shook his head. “That might be construed as us accepting some responsibility for what happened, Matt.”  


 “We’re not paying for anything,” said Roger. “If any of them don’t have insurance? Well, I don’t know what to tell ya.”  


 “I heard there’s an internet site where people can donate money to help the shooter pay for his defense?”


 “Really? Given the ratings boost he’s gotten us, maybe we should make a donation… anonymously, of course.”


 “I’m going to go check with Wilson to find out how long it’ll take him to clean things up,” said Roger.


 “Who’s Wilson?”


 “The old guy. You know... the black janitor.”


 “His name’s Wilson?”


“Yeah, his fuckin’ name’s Wilson,” said Roger, “and we’ve got a show to produce that’ll top this last one.”  


*


Hearing the studio door open, Wilson looked at it, expecting to see Raphael. Instead, there stood Roger.


 “How you doing, Wilson?” he asked, coming down the aisle.


 “Alright.”


 “So how long do you think it’ll take for you to clean this up? We need to be able to use Studio A ASAP.”


 “It’s hard to say. Those seats down front …”


 “Can you just rope them off or something?”


 “You serious? People were shot and killed in here. We can’t just rope off or cover them seats and act as if nothing happened.”


 “OK. Then what about removing them and putting some folding chairs in their place, temporarily? We can’t have an empty space down front during a broadcast. It’ll look terrible.”


 Wilson looked at the floor and shook his head. 


 The studio door opened once again. Raphael entered, cleaning items in hand, and looking surprised to see Roger.


 “Well,” said Roger, gesturing toward Raphael with his thumb. “We sent you this kid, so you’d have some help. I’m sure that with two of you, you’ll figure out how to clean this all up pretty quickly.”


 Roger turned and headed toward the door.  Wilson looked at Raphael, then followed. As Roger reached for the door, Wilson said, “Y’know what, Roger? You all made this damn mess. You can clean it up yourselves.”


 Stepping past Roger, he pushed open the door, then turned toward Raphael, and said, “C’mon kid.”


Image Credit: ©Unsplash


J L HIGGS' short stories explore the interplay between human emotions and actions from a black perspective. Since July 2016, he has had over 60 publications, been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and resides outside of Boston, Mass.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JL-Higgs-ArtistWriter-1433711619998262


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1Comments
  1. Mr. Higgs is a remarkably talented writer and artist. I think this is his best short story yet.

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