Some of the stories in Sideshow are really violent; some are sexually explicit; some are both. I will confess, prude that I am, that I do not gravitate to sex and violence in my reading tastes. This is a beautifully written and disturbing book but it’s not my taste. Still, prudery aside, it can be easier to write about a “freak,” about someone who belongs in a sideshow, if you give her incestuous desires or an extensive knife collection. The freaks who interest me more are the less obtrusive ones. Like the chameleon of this story.
Shattered by his wife’s departure, Arnold spends weekends in bus depots, striking up conversations with strangers. He’s got five depots in a regular rotation—from home base in Memphis to St. Louis, Little Rock, Jackson, and then Memphis again. Having caught the bus in Memphis, and remembering vividly the plastic chairs bolted together, the cigarette smoke, the bay of five or six buses, I loved this story all the more for my being able to conjure the spot. The sorry, lonely location comes as a surprise—when you first arrive it doesn’t feel as disconnected as it is. Like so many bus stations, it is not a long walk from downtown, but just far enough to discourage you from wandering, lest your bus come early. So there you are, stuck, five blocks from anything you might want to do, wondering if it’s worth complaining that the JuicyFruit gum you just bought is stuck in the vending machine.
What’s so poignant in “The Chameleon” is the dramatization of intense loneliness and fear: Arnold has developed a system worthy of a Beckett protagonist. He carries a duffel bag full of props to make starting the conversation easier—campaign buttons, a “solid black mourner’s tie,” and an arm sling, “which he always wore for meeting elderly women.”
A great short story makes its own world and leaves us wanting more even as we are satisfied. This one does just that. We only get a few of Arnold’s rules (no talking to couples, no talking to anyone who is reading or writing), but they’re enough to evoke a whole world of rules designed—futilely, pathetically—to guard against future hurt.