THE PEEPSHOW The Boy with the Backpack
Editor’s note: Welcome to “The Peepshow!” For centuries, the peepshow was a popular form of entertainment presented by traveling showmen. By looking through a small hole into a viewing box, spectators could contemplate magical, bizarre and unusual sights that filled them with wonder, laughter
and, sometimes, with fear. The showmen traveling with these boxes would provide patter to go with the pictures, spinning strange tales that sometimes told hard truths.
The Polaroid photographs appearing in this story are the work of American artist Joel B. Feldman. They are not digitally altered in any way. The story you are about to read is a work of fiction. “The Peepshow” posts on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
And for men only there was a peepshow. Its purpose was educational rather than pornographic … But out of the erotic dramas and dreams of long-dead times
had been culled a figure here, an episode there, a fugitive vision elsewhere, all of which in combination produced an effect that no ordinary man
in a series of days would forget, or, for that matter, care to remember too vividly.
Charles G. Finney, “The Circus of Dr. Lao,” 1935
It started with a lie. Only a little one, the kind that comes out like a hiccup and cant be swallowed once its out.
What was the lie? Does it matter? Of course not. Without lies, our world would collapse. Where I live, fake is the new real. Fake fur. Fake food. We dont have conversations. Our words come out in thought bubbles over our heads. “Im happy to bring homemade cookies to the meeting.” Theres nothing wrong. Everythings fine. Go ahead, do what you want. I dont care.
Lies. Lies. All lies.
What do kids want? They want to be left alone so adults wont ask questions. Every day, for as long as I can remember, Ive come home from school, dragging my backpack stuffed full of crumpled-up papers and meaningless books, and my mother with every hair shellacked in place and a bright smile painted on her face will ask:
How was your day, Johnny?
Where have you been?
Have you been a good boy?
The routine never changes. The sun always shines, the rain never falls, and the sky is always blue. Here, adults dont work for a living. Working is too much work. We have professions, the men in suits declare, the way that less-fortunate others might say, I have a cold with a languid wave of the hand and no real interest in curing its vague discomforts. The insult of a headache. A body unused to sleep. Guts that arent quite right. The limbs a tad too stiff. No matter. It all packages up nicely into a pressed suit. The uniform of the sick. Like a miasma of invisible germs, the professions hover invisibly around us until one day we wake up with one: Securities trader. Secretary of the Defense. Cultural Attaché. Atchoo!
We dont talk about money. We dont have to think about it. Mostly, grownups sit around, holding wine glasses by their stems and congratulating themselves for having the latest toys that just show up without warning, popping out another box that appeared out of nowhere bearing the label, MADE IN CHINA. We have come to accept that China makes many labels, but why are Chinese people obsessed with making them? We also cannot explain why we insist on collecting these things. We just do. It is a fact of life not to be questioned.
Have you noticed, lately, that there are two sides to everything, and theyre contradictory? You cant make sense of them. Keep your head down and your chin up. Suck it up and spit it out. Dont stick your nose where it doesnt belong and keep your nose to the grindstone. Well, which is it?
What if both sides are wrong? The system keeps us so afraid of making mistakes that we just stop trying in the first place. “Go with the flow,” we say. “Stick to the rules,” we agree. And when the flow stops, wholl notice? No chances to take. No risk of failure. Better to just stay frozen in place with a pleasant grin carving off the bottom of your face.
But Im not a good kid. Not anymore. I dont know what I am. But I think I might be a murderer.