I never really knew who my daddy was when I was little.
I grew up kept apart from most of the other kids in my small-town life in Idaho. My mama always said she would have liked me to be a better mixer, but what she didn't seem to know was that that wasn't really all my fault. She never seemed to care about what people thought of her, a single mom with a daughter to raise; she cared so little sometimes I thought she didn't even know that the other mamas in the town, the ones who weren't like her, didn't want me mixing with their kids out of school. Thought the stain of not knowing who my daddy was – and maybe Mama didn't know either, I caught them whispering that a few times though I knew it wasn't true – would ruin the morals of their precious children, that I was too wild even when I was tiny (and I wasn't), that I'd be a bad influence on all of them and they'd end up running away to join the circus or the carnival or whatever unholy temptation was put in their path that season.
I'd smiled at that, later. If only they knew.
I can remember caring about what the other kids thought sometimes, less often about what their parents thought. Less often than they thought I maybe should have cared. I tried to be good for my mama because that's what she wanted, not for anyone else. I didn't give a damn for anyone else.
So, I grew up in an old-morality small town without a daddy, and that was my life. It didn't seem to make much difference to me in other ways. I went to school, played with the other kids sometimes when I was there and we knew their parents wouldn't see us – and honestly, yeah, I might have been a little of a bad influence, but it all depends on your angle of 'bad' really, doesn't it? - and came home to Mama. Usually. I did more of the things she didn't like as I started getting older. I tried not to, even then, except for me a little teenage rebellion turned out to be the start of a life I hadn't planned on having. Hadn't known I had the option of it at the time, to be fair.
All my plans were so unformed, so wild in those days.
Mama was never much of a personality. I loved her, but she was colourless. Except for the days she dodged my questions about my daddy and why I didn't have one, and the day I took fuel from the neighbourhood taunts and accused her of not knowing who he'd been. Those times, I swear I could see the colour rise in her face as she shut the box of answers with a snap.
I'll give her this though, she never lied to me. She just didn't tell me. And in retrospect I can maybe see why she didn't. She knew I'd have left town just as fast as the new farmhand who got caught with the pastor's daughter if I'd had somewhere to go, love or not. She was the only one who wanted me there, and I stayed for her and because I had nowhere else to run to at the time.
She did her best to teach me, to make sure I knew right from wrong and was a good girl, that I went to church on Sundays down at the little brown pinewood chapel near the edge of town, that I kept my room clean and neat and all the little things like that.
I was a pretty good kid, all told. It wasn't until later that I really cut loose, no matter the feeling that I always had that I wanted to run and dance and charm everyone in my path – and I was a charming kid, I was told, which is why I was known as such a bad influence – everyone at school wanted to be my friend and their moms didn't want them to be. So we were kept apart as best their parents could manage it, which was any time outside school hours. School was tough that way, because it got me a reputation as a troublemaker that I didn't really deserve at the time, right from when I really started to grow up.
Nobody told Mama because, hell, people hardly ever spoke to Mama. She must have been pretty lonely. I wondered sometimes. Those days I tried to be specially good for her.
I thought about my daddy all the time, though. I mightn't have known who he was but I always wanted to. So many little things around that Mama wouldn't explain, hints from people in town who clearly knew but would never tell me... the old lady teacher at my Sunday school once yelled at me when I was misbehaving in class that I was “too much like” my father – and she never mentioned him again, even when I asked, pleaded, cajoled and nagged at her week after week until she gave me detention. I knew she knew, and I knew after the third week that she would never tell me.
In a way I think my daddy's identity shaped my whole life even before I met him. I knew enough about my mother to know what it meant that they put around rumours of her not knowing who he was.
I didn't really know her at first, growing up with her as a child - well, you don't, do you? Your parents are often just background to whatever you want to do as a kid, running around outside as much as possible, getting into trouble, you don't even think about them until it's time to get told off for something if you get caught.
She was just there, really - always trying to teach me not to do the things I wanted, stuff she thought was wrong for a girl to do and stuff that was too much for someone my age. As I grew older I realised that maybe she'd had a point about certain things, but I didn't want to admit that to her. I never really did.
As I was trying to say, I knew her better later on than I did as a little one. She brought work in when I was a kid, the usual kind of thing to keep us alive - sewing and laundry and all the little things that women who didn't want to or couldn't go out to work did back then. She spent a lot of time in the house when I was a kid, which was when I didn't, but when I was ten years old she took up a waitressing job, and in a strange way that seemed to let us spend more time with each other when I was at home. She wasn't always working when I was in, as she'd been when I was younger, so she had time to sit and talk to me.
She still avoided the questions about my father, so eventually I learned not to ask them. I watched instead, skirting the boundaries of direct questions.
That's another thing my childhood taught me - if you want an answer someone doesn't want to give you, get as much of the little details out of indirect questioning as you can. Go around the edges. Don't let them know just what you're asking for. It'll get you more of an answer than you'll otherwise find.
Where was I? Off on another line again - I do that a lot.
Anyway, my mother wasn't always the strait-laced clean-living lady she wanted me to be. I barely got a hint of it from her, but from the people who'd known her before I was born, well, they gave me plenty. Not enough - not enough to identify my daddy - but plenty of details about my mother. She hadn't always been as empty and quiet as she was for me. They said she'd lost a lot of the shine that she'd had as a girl. It wasn't 'til long years later I learned the reasons for that and all her avoidance.
She was sick a lot more often after she started waitressing. Her boss didn't let up on her, though - she had to go in unless she was so sick she was dropping plates and sneezing on customers, and it wasn't that kind of sick. I never really knew at the time what it was; just that she hurt inside, did a lot of coughing and spent most of her time in bed when she wasn't working. I had to fend for myself a good many months on end as a teenager - it's lucky I'd been just patient enough to get her to teach me some things, or I'd have been sunk, not knowing how to wash or cook or anything else. But I knew. She'd made sure of that.
I even ended up cooking for her, some of the time, when she was feeling so awful she couldn't get out of bed. She would never let me bring the doctor. I thought at the time it was okay, because yeah, she was ill for weeks at a time, but she always got better in the end, or got better enough that she could manage her usual routines without complaining. I figured she was well again, the first time that happened. I stuck by her when she was sick - how could I do anything else, since I was all she had? - but being a teenager, I didn't even think to hang around her just as much when she didn't seem sick. I didn't see the need. But then, I didn't know I wouldn't have her for most of the rest of my life.
Most of the other kids had both parents around all the time - the ones that didn't were few and far between. Most of our parents had been born during or after the war, so it was pretty common to have a grandparent or two or three missing, even 'way back in the middle of nowhere like we were, or even like me to have none at all that I knew of - more on that later - but most kids at least had two parents. My mother caught hell from the town for being an only.
Sometimes I'm surprised she was even allowed to set foot in the church, let alone enroll me in Sunday school, but she did and I went, and people didn't say a thing about that. I wonder sometimes if they dared not talk about it - our preacher was pretty outspoken for a religious man.
What I was saying was, most kids had both parents around, so their moms didn't go out to work, but mine had to, so when she was sick she was really sick, and I had to do all I could manage to help her.
I'm glad that I did help her. I think it meant I kept her for a lot longer than I'd have had her otherwise.
I was fourteen years old the winter she started coughing up blood and had to leave her job to stay in bed all the time. We had some savings, but not much, and I eked them out as best I could to feed the two of us and pay our rent over the season. I knew, though, that she wouldn't last much longer. I think I knew that even getting the doctor out wouldn't help by then.
I started making plans because I had to. It wasn't being heartless to wonder how I'd survive when she was gone, and it helped me deal with knowing she would be gone soon. It would've been a lot harder if I hadn't been thinking on other things most every chance I got.
I loved her a lot, even if we didn't always see eye to eye, but I couldn't afford to fall apart, or I might have followed her straight to the grave myself – I'd have ended up with no way to earn money and no place to live, and that's a dangerous situation for a girl my age, even in a small town like mine.
It didn't take much thinking to come up with the idea of finding my daddy, not since I'd been dwelling on who he was my whole life, and I knew Mama knew, even if she wouldn't tell me for years. I say "for years" because she did, eventually, on her deathbed, tell me a bit about him. When she knew she was dying and I'd have nobody else, she told me his name and where to find her diary, and told me it would tell me what I needed to know if I wanted to find him. She begged me not to go to him, told me the church would take care of me if I only asked.
Pastor might've told her they would, but I didn't believe it. I couldn't believe it. I'd been much too bad a girl too often for them to voluntarily take me in and let me live my life the way I wanted, I knew that much. I didn't want to think about what'd happen to me if I became a ward of the church.
Mama was naive sometimes, and I always thought religion was one of the things she was naive about. Not that I ever knew where I got my street smarts, not until I found out my daddy was a carnie and ran away to find him. I was never as much like her as she'd wanted me to be, even when I tried to be a good girl. I found out later just how much like him I really am - I got it all from his side, that's for sure.
I was never going to fit in in small-town life, not as a kid and not as a grown-up. I just wasn't made for it. The pastor called me a devil more than once, but he never kicked me out of Sunday school. I always thought that was because he was hoping he could save me. I don't need to be saved. I saved myself in the end, yelling all the way.
Life isn't fair, and I learned that lesson way too early on.
My mama died not long after my fifteenth birthday. I came home from school one dark January evening to find her cold in her bed, her handkerchief covered in blood where she'd coughed up half her lungs, her eyes closed and her body slumped. I laid her out as gently as I could, hands folded over her chest, picked up the handkerchief in some toilet paper and threw it into the trash can, and slipped out to go find the pastor and tell him she'd gone.
We hadn't much saved, but it was enough to get her a decent burial. It wasn't enough to pay the rent on top of that, but as for food, I got by for those weeks mostly on the casseroles and pies our neighbours brought by - out of pity, I reckon, since they'd never done much in the way of friendship while she was alive and I doubt they'd have done much for me afterwards. I wasn't the gentlest kid, as I'm sure you've figured out by now.
I read my mama's diary cover to cover the day after the funeral. I knew she'd meant me to, or she'd never have told me where she'd left it.
It was there I learned most of what I knew about my daddy before I met him.
The diary mentioned that he was a carnie - a showmaster, in fact. He'd never been back to our town since the night of my conception, even though she'd written to him to tell him I existed. He had dark hair and eyes just like me, and she'd written in her diary just after my birth that she was sure I'd grow up to look like him. She put down the name of his carnival outfit, and their usual routes, as far as she knew them. I wondered when I read it if she'd meant me to read it eventually, because in parts like that it really didn't read like it'd been written for her eyes only. I figured she'd done that in case anything happened to her - she always made sure things were fixed up for that kind of situation, it was the way she thought. Always looking ahead just in case, ever since I was born. I got the feeling sometimes she hadn't been like that until she wound up with child, but I only ever knew her that way.
I stayed in town for just long enough to see her buried, then I took what was left in the pantry, what money we had left, folded a blanket over my shoulder and headed out west. I left behind most of what was in the house with a note to the landlady to cover the two weeks' rent I hadn't had enough to pay.
I say to people who ask sometimes that I left home with nothing, but it's not quite true. I was never that brave - or that stupid. Leaving home in winter without even a blanket? I didn't have that much of a death wish, grieving or not.
I didn't own much, but what I could take, I packed up and took. The only material memory I have of my mama is that diary I told you about. Not everything in it was about my daddy, and what wasn't helped me know her better, even if she wasn't around anymore.
I hitched my way out, in the end. Caught a trucker at the tiny diner that was the only stop for miles off the highway, and talked him into giving me a ride as far as he was going in the same direction as the carnival. I didn't know where it'd be at any given time, but I knew from Mama's diary where I'd be able to find out, so I knew where to go to begin with.
I made sure to take a knife with me, just in case something happened. The second trucker wasn't as decent as the first, and tried it on with me the very first day. He lived to regret it. I didn't hurt him too badly, but I didn't stick with him either. If there's one thing my rough-and-tumble childhood and the build my daddy gave me had done for me it was giving me the tools to defend myself when I needed to. I got out of there as close to somewhere with people as I could figure out, sliced his arm open with my knife and ran screaming the whole way to town.
No rest for the wicked, not on this trip. It wasn't the easiest thing I'd ever done, but it might not have been the hardest either. I'm not even twenty yet; plenty of time to find that one out.
It took a while to find my daddy. People knew his name, but I didn't tell them why I was trying to find him, which might've helped and might've hindered, but I didn't want to seem vulnerable to strangers. I never met him before, after all, and while Mama said he was a good man, he had left her to bring me up alone and have no contact with me my whole life, and she did tend to be a bit of an innocent. I didn't necessarily trust what she'd told me to be the flat-out truth. Oh, the truth as she saw it, that I never doubted. (Mama hated lying, and tried to teach me never to do it, but it came naturally.) But everyone's truth is coloured by who they are, right?
It took me a week to catch up with him, once I'd found where the carnival was headed next. I waited overnight before I tried talking to him - nerves, I guess, and to be expected - I hate admitting it, but who wouldn't be nervous on asking for shelter and such from a daddy they'd never met when they knew hardly a certain thing about him?
I didn't know what I'd do if he rejected me there and then. Didn't have anywhere to go - maybe I'd ask for a job in there, but to do what, I didn't know. I was pretty good at lying, but I didn't know if that'd come in handy. Never been to a carnival before in my life - where I grew up was so off the beaten track that they barely came, and I think Daddy's was one of the rare exceptions. In fifteen years I only knew of one that had been to my town, and that was the fall I was sick in bed with influenza for weeks, so I'd missed it.
I slept outside the carnival that night, knowing they weren't leaving for another few days, and I went around the place the next morning to ask where I could find him. It didn't take long, this time.
I can't say that he was overjoyed to meet me at first. He'd known my mama, after all, so he'd expected me to be just like her, innocent and shy and unsure of myself. I wiped that impression from his mind within the first fifteen minutes. I might be my mama's daughter, but as it turned out - and I'm sure you can guess this from everything I've told you so far - I'm much more like my daddy than either of us ever knew. Mama would have called that a bad thing. Everyone else always did. But not at the carnival.
I knew pretty quickly this was somewhere I could fit in, but where the whole idea of fitting in was different from what I'd grown up knowing. I told him everything I could think to tell him that I thought he'd want to know. Of course, the first thing I had to do was explain myself - who I was and why I'd turned up in his setup looking for him. It took a bit to disabuse him of the notion that I was trying to get child support out of him. I was fifteen and had a lot of pride - that was never going to happen. If I got money out of my father it would be for something I'd done to earn it. That was the first thing we really straightened out. I didn't know the ways of the carnival, but I've always been a quick study.
And, well, now. Here I am. I'm no trapeze artist, no dancer or clown or high-wire walker, but if I can do anything well it's sliding around the truth. People hear what they want to hear, and a young girl in the middle of a carnival atmosphere? Daddy and I worked out between us pretty quickly what I could do to earn my keep, and he - and I - found out fast that working a crowd is the perfect place for me.
After all - pretty young lady, remember? I was brought up as right as my mama could make me, even if I didn't turn out that way in the end. People look at my face and assume I'm honest. I don't have to tell them I'm not - I don't think they'd believe me if I did. But I like it that way.
I'm settled in where I am, and now you know the whole story, or as much of it as I want you to know. I sing about it sometimes. Occasionally I even tell the truth. Of course, nobody can sift truth from lies when I tell them a story, and half of them don't even think I'm singing my own tale.
People hear what they want to hear, right?
So what do you believe about me?