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.
It was into this town called Here that a stranger appeared out of nowhere. He appeared the way that all strangers do: in the manner of a black cat in the night. No marching band or billboard announced his arrival. He didn’t come bringing a phantasmagorical circus full of fairies and acrobats walking tightropes. He wasn’t Satan masquerading as a traveling salesman or a vampire hiding among thieves. There wasn’t anything special about him. He was just a Man with a Box on His Head.
No-one paid attention to him. Why should they? He wasn’t bothering anyone. The Naked Lounging Man — “Horace Whitely” to you — couldn’t care less if the Man with the Box on His Head had landed in the neighborhood. As far as Horace Whitely was concerned, being naked was very time consuming. He had his own problems to deal with, none of which involved locating his clothes or explaining why he’d lost them.
Yet the Man with the Box on His Head interested me. For days, I saw him out of the corner of my eye, loitering around long enough for the newness of his presence to wear off and shift into everyday flavors of ennui. The box never came off his head, but given that I’ve never seen my friend Norman Stone without his eyeglasses on or Old Lady Grassley without her dentures in, I can’t say this fact alone was very impressive. Yet the box made me … well, for lack of a better word, it made me curious.
That was the first symptom that something was wrong with me.
I started to wonder why he wore that box all day long. Was his face scarred? Was he hiding from the law? Maybe his head was actually shaped like that, in the manner of a hammerhead shark, and what I was seeing wasn’t a box but his actual head? There was a slit for his eyes, a single thin braid of hair hanging off one side, and the box appeared to be a hard carapace made out of chitin or wood, yet none of these details helped me resolve the mystery of how he came to be this way. They merely deepened it.
One day, when he was close enough to ask, I stammered out the words: “Why are you wearing a box on your head?” Immediately, I felt horrible for asking.
He didn’t reply, but looked through me, as if I was an echo of the sound of limousines running over pedestrians blocking their way.
Stricken, I stood without moving as he ignored me, rebuking me with his silence.
More days passed. He started blend into the scenery along with the cloned cows on the hillside, critters that seem perfectly normal even though they have hooves instead of hands and some of them have spots. We don’t look at them, scratching our puzzled heads and saying, “Huh?” We say: “That’s what a cow looks like.” So it was with the Man with the Box on His Head. It was just the way he was shaped.
Yet I kept on wondering why. Then I began scheming for ways to find out. To look inside. To see for myself. How could I make that happen? Was a head inside that box? That awful question wouldn’t leave my mind. Questions started multiplying faster than bacteria feasting on air, stuffing my head and leaking out my ears and dripping out my nose and when I saw him one day, loitering out in the expanse of scrub and sand we call the Plain, the words slid through the open slot that was my mouth and came out like a gob of spit:
“Is that your head?”
Still he didn’t reply, and so I limped away.
The curiosity began to nag at me, consuming my every thought. I didn’t understand this sense of needing — what? It was a dreadful thing, wanting answers for questions and not even knowing what I was hoping to discover. It was silly to think his head was really shaped like that. Of course the box was like a veil. Or a hat. Why wouldn’t he just take it off and show me his face? Was there a monster behind that mask?
His shapeless clothing had the look of secondhand garments plucked from a dumpster. Maybe he was a small-town version of the prisoner in Alexandre Dumas’ tale, “The Man in the Iron Mask.” In the story, that man had been the king’s twin. But that theory would only make sense if this town was a prison. Which it wasn’t. This town was Here, and here was a nice place. What if the Man with the Box on His Head had been part of a Frankenstein experiment, and they ran out of money when they came to the final bit of his anatomy? What if we all had started out like him, with soft bendable limbs and our head packed in boxes, and his mother didn’t bother fully unwrapping him because she liked him better without a face?
More days went by, days filled with obsessive ruminations and pathetic intrigues until finally I couldn’t stand it anymore, and when he appeared one day coming over the hill, my entire body vibrated with the need to know why his head was imprisoned in a box. “Who are you?” I asked, if beseeching an uncaring deity to free me from a curse.
He stopped walking and looked at me with two bird-bright eyes peering out from behind the wooden wall of his face.
My body stiffened in surprise. “Who are you?” I repeated, less confidently this time.
The eyes blinked at me. The head tilted. Then the Man with His Head in a Box replied.
“I’m the End of the World. Who are you?”
B.B. Young is the author of the serialized novel “The Peepshow,” which is published exclusively by TheBlot Magazine on Tuesdays and Thursdays and features images by artist Joel B. Feldman. Read Chapter 1, Part 1, The Boy with the Backpack, Chapter 1, Part 2, Anyone Can Call Themselves a Murderer and Chapter 2, Part 1, Here’s Good.