Nancy Stohlman is the author of ”Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities,” ”The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories,” the flash novels ”The Monster Opera” and ”Searching for Suzi,” and three anthologies of flash fiction including ”Fast Forward: The Mix Tape.” She is the creator and curator of The Fbomb Flash Fiction Reading Series, the creator of FlashNano in November, and her work has been published in the W.W. Norton anthology “New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction” and will be included in the 2019 “Best Small Fictions.” She lives in Denver and teaches at the University of Colorado Boulder. Find out more at www.nancystohlman.com.
The following is an excerpt from “Madame Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit
2019 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Literary Fiction
The Dressing Room
I was staring in the mirror at my reflection when the manager came in and told me I was fired. You’re fired, he said. You just don’t look enough like Grace Slick anymore, he said. People are starting to get suspicious and they pay good money to see Grace Slick. Be out of the dressing room by the end of the day.
I had hoped his crush on me would override this reaction, but it did not.
I looked at my reflection after he left. What are we going to do now? I asked.
We could always go back to Illinois? she suggested.
I suppose we have no choice, I said. And then I broke the mirror and kept a piece, so I could take her with me.
The Man from the Future
I was in the bathroom unsuccessfully killing myself when the man from the future arrived. He must have noticed my hesitation, the colorful array of pills, the way I could not meet my reflection in the mirror.
Looks like I got here just in time, he said, stepping out of the shower.
How did you get into my shower? I asked, aware now that I was wearing no panties.
He held out an aerosol can. Instant Fame! it said in cursive script. He put it on the counter. By the way your future self says hello and don’t open another credit card.
Are you having a difficult time getting famous? Do you tell yourself each year that this will be the year? Are your friends getting famous and you’re not? Do you wish there was a shortcut?
Well now there is! Instant Fame will do in minutes what used to take years, even decades. With just 1 squirt you will feel the effects—1-3 sprays for local fame, 5-7 for national fame and 8+ sprays for international fame. Don’t wait another minute while someone else stands in your spotlight! Take charge of your future now!
My Mother Was a Circus Clown
When she kissed me goodnight she left smudges of white paint on my cheeks. When I tried to ask her a question she was inside a box—a wall left, right, above, oh my! When I came home from school she was painting pink eyebrows on her forehead. When I tried to hug her she squirted me with a rubber flower or knocked herself unconscious with a rubber sledgehammer or blew confetti out of a trumpet.
It’s because her parents never let her see live music when she was growing up, my father explained. It was against their religion or something. She vowed to become a clown if they didn’t let her see Elvis when he came through town back in ‘76.
My mother nodded, miming a tear sliding down her cheek with her gloved hand.
Hey, your mom’s a clown a kid said to me on the school bus. She was at my little brother’s day care. Does she take that makeup off at home?
Or does she still wear it because she’s so ugly?
And then everyone laughed.
When I came home from school my mother was holding a pack of cigarettes and grinning. She held the pack out to me as if encouraging me to take one.
I’m nine, I said. She waited. When I didn’t say anything else, she squeezed and a thin stream of water came shooting out of the end of the pack and hit my shirt.
She bent over laughing without any sound.
Once I came home from school and my mother was standing in the middle of the living room crying. On the stereo a man was sermonizing:
“And if you play those records backwards, Satan will be speaking to you directly. Some of these so-called performers drink blood during performances.” And then he played a record backwards and a very frightening garble came out of the speakers.
Tears carved through my mother’s clown makeup.
“Are you willing to say no to Satan and his way into our lives via this music?”
Not knowing what else to do, I stood next to my mother and started crying too.
She put a big rubber hand on my shoulder and held it there, for comfort.
Once I found a stash of photographs hidden behind the toilet. Clown wigs but no panties. Clown makeup with bare breasts. Multiple clowns doing things with body parts I’d never even imagined before. I wanted to ask my father about it but I didn’t dare.
My Father is Trying to Set a World Record
Why yogurt? I ask.
Because nobody’s tried it with yogurt before he says, taking a few warm up breaths.
But I don’t get it.
It’s about having goals, he says. That’s the problem—your mother never taught you the importance of having a real goal.
My Father is Trying to Set the Record for Days Spent Petting a Shark
The trick, he says, is to just lightly move the fingers. The shark has the frozen, unimpressed expression of all sharks.
Are you going to come home for dinner?
I can’t stop now, he says. It’s only been nine hours. I pet him in different places so he doesn’t get a rash. Also I switch hands so my skin doesn’t over prune.
Okay, I say. Well I better go.
Don’t tell your mother! he shouts as I walk away.
From the Guinness Book of World Records
Longest tongue: 10.1 centimeters
Longest sword swallowed: 58 cm (22.8 inches)
Stretchiest skin: 15 centimeters from body
Farthest arrow shot using feet: 6.09 meters/20 feet
Most apples held in one’s own mouth and cut by chainsaw in one minute: 8
Longest time survived trapped underground: 69 days
Most spoons balanced on face: 31
Longest duration of 3 contortionists in a box: 6 min 13.52 seconds
Longest kiss: 58 hours, 35 minutes and 58 seconds
Most people inside of a soap bubble: 214
The World’s Longest Fingernails
The world record for the longest fingernails, at 28 ft. 2 inches, was finally set in 2008 after 29 years of growth. One year later the fingernails were all broken in a car accident.
My Clown Mother Has Joined a Cult
And the cult leader says she isn’t allowed to talk to any of us, so she’s taken to wearing her silent mime costume almost exclusively now, little black stretchy skullcap, black diamond triangles above and below her whitened eyes, sad tear forever falling.
There is one exception: She’s allowed to talk to us if we’re interested in also joining the cult. So now every time we want to talk to her we have to pretend that we might join the cult. She convinced me to go to one of their meetings—everyone was really nice and offered me lemon bars. I was surprised to see a few other clowns there as well, though none that I recognized.
The cult leader has a day job as a ballroom dance instructor—he teaches cha-cha, foxtrot, rumba, east coast swing. Sometimes the phone rings late at night and a slurry voice asks for my mother, asks if she was planning on coming to her dance lesson. But we all know what that really means.
My Father Is Trying to Become the Only Living Man With Stigmata
We’re at the riverboat casino when it happens. My father bends over and grabs for me as if he’s been shot, wipes little bloody handprints on my shoulders. Clear out! the security guards yell as they half carry my father past the poker machines, the black jack tables, the old ladies on the new Batman slots—cover your eyes—you’re not old enough to be in the gaming area—up to our hotel room where my father lies sweating on the bed.
It worked! he says once everyone leaves, slowly opening his hands and showing me his palms. It’s the stigmata. Two round wounds shimmer with blood but do not drip.
Soon all the maids are knocking at the door, peeking over my shoulder and making the sign of the cross.
Don’t tell your mother, he adds as I pull the door shut.
Newspaper Clipping Found in my Father’s Things
Wanted: Sideshow Performer. Do you suffer unexplained rashes? Does hair grow all over your body? Are you covered with fish scales? Tattoos? Are you lacking pigmentation? Are you missing vital organs or limbs? Do your knees bend backwards? Do you have the stigmata of Christ? Do you like to travel?
We pay a weekly stipend plus room, board, costuming, and all traveling expenses and best of all you will be in show biz! Exposed to millions across the country and maybe even the world!
Call Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities Now! Auditions taking place soon so don’t delay!
— Buy “Madame Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities” at www.nancystohlman.com.
— Interview with “Madame Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities author Nancy Stohlman.