“Roadside Freak Show” by Richard Leis

The thing crafted from fabric and plaster,
more pile of dirt and wet cardboard
than realistic human skeleton, lies
under glass in a white cinderblock
coffin elevated over the concrete floor
in the last of three corrugated steel sheds
at the roadside attraction. Travelers pay
for gas and then two dollars to enter
through metal doors in the back to follow
monster steps through the first two sheds
cluttered with Americana under decades of dust
behind placards that won’t quite be believed:

rusty scales for weighing cattle or gold, tractors,
farm trucks, early Buicks and Rolls-Royces,
including one possibly owned by Hitler, Adolf
mannequin in the back seat just in case,
torture diorama with mannequins
in painted expressions of terrible ecstasies
posed on racks and under whip, wood carvings of Indians,
guns, fossils, Ma Bell telephones and Edison’s
phonograph, old books and paintings and an obsession
with Italy, France, China, and Native America,
everything of questionable authenticity, artists
unknown, a collection of crap without expertise,
maybe garbage from an earlier time dug up, brushed off,
proudly displayed without context or coherency,
or maybe artwork by mid-century local artists
without escape from small backward hometowns
even when the new highways of the New Deal and the Public Works
Administration laced together privilege across the nation,
or maybe just the still-beating heart of hatred.
All fake fuckery to fool nuclear white American
families fooling themselves.

In the third, The Thing. “What is it? It’s a wonder.”
It’s the reason for yellow billboards up and down
I-10, the reason why they led you here, the reason
why you stopped even though you had enough gas to get
to Tucson, Arizona or into New Mexico.
The kids want ice-cream. Want to take the tour.
Want to be scared. You want to scar them. To remind them.

For a three-dollar bill, I would tell you about skeletons
in closets and how we were buried for coming out:

I love you but I don’t condone your lifestyle
love the sinner not the sin
not under my roof
we’ll have to agree to disagree

They tolerated too much, so that even after marriage equality
they voted against acceptance, against change,
or for change as long as everyone else
changed to their way of thinking.

They killed us.

I’m a crafted thing rigid with sticks
or roadkill bones, a hoax, I didn’t matter,
papier-mâché face, empty dead eyes, an expression
of surprise, a rainbow flag folded in my mummy fingers
from the pole behind our Stonewall
that used to stand tall enough
to keep it out of reach of our parents’
zombie America where it waved until hate
resurrected them into teeth and claws.

I’m a crafted thing, another of
Homer Tate’s Hoozie Goozies,
one among his macabre abominations
appropriated from whatever he had lying around.

I’m the roadside freak show, not meant to be
believed that I ever existed at all. I scare
your children, keep them safe
in closets. Here among all these queer
what I remember most about being collected
is how difficult it was to be exhibited


Richard Leis is a writer in Tucson, Arizona where he earned an undergraduate degree in English and Creative Writing from the University of Arizona. He is also the Downlink Lead for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) team at the University of Arizona. He might like to live on Mars someday. https://richardleis.com