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The Egress

July 12, 1865
Dear Mister Barnum,
It's time for the American Prometheus to head toward the egress. Yes, I know the sign pointing "this way to the egress" only leads to the exit. I've watched the museumgoers disappear through that doorway as they search for your latest wonder. I've decided to join them, except I won't feel cheated when the barred door prohibits my return.
Please accept this letter as my official resignation.
I suppose you're surprised to discover I can read and write. Don't know why I kept silent all these years. Never quite knew what to say. Haven't sought the limelight. I have a bad history with fire.
Before I forget, let me express my appreciation for rescuing us from the Arctic. If your expedition hadn't come along when it did, Vic and I would have been goners. Felt like we'd been wandering through the ice for decades. As a duo, we've always gotten ourselves into bad spots. Getting chased north of Helsinki was the worst. As we warmed ourselves under Hudson Bay blankets devouring your rations, Vic described our act. Traveling city to city, restaging the story of my creation and our early disagreements. A wolfish smile took over your face. "A most impressive humbug," you said. "We'll make a fortune together, I swear."
"You misunderstand," Vic explained. "It isn't a fake but a genuine hybrid."
I must confess it bothered me when you kept the "Prometheus" name for my solo shows. Dandy title and all, but that was Vic's role in our original production. Best straight man in the biz, old Vic. I don't know why we always fought. Still miss him even though I understand now why he enlisted. Should have joined him when I had the chance.
However, I remain grateful for the opportunities you provided. Like how the scientific committee you organized declared I was a man, my assembled parts notwithstanding. My mixed heritage always caused problems back in the old country. Not sure your doctors needed to do their poking and prodding in front of so crowded a theatre. Played along because I'm a professional and know somebody needs to pay the bills.
I tolerated posing before Matthew Brady the daguerreotype-man and allowed the Fowler brothers to read the bumps on my borrowed skull. After our meeting, Walt Whitman marveled, "I contain multitudes, but you're a true congress of Europe."
Don't get me wrong. I have found much happiness during these past six years. You have probably forgotten about Joice. Told me she played President Washington's nanny in one of your earliest schemes. Took great care of me when I arrived at the museum catatonic from my misadventures. She snuck down at night to coax me out of my deep slumber then made the introductions to all the hidden memories haunting this place. I immediately bonded with Myrtle the mermaid over our stitches and mummified parts. Promised to take her to Fiji one day.
I returned to the stage with some reluctance. Always ended with us getting run out of town whenever the locals figured I wasn't an ordinary actor. "No problem," you said. "This is America. It's different here." You convinced me of the important work I had to do.
Can't blame Vic for the times he stumbled into rehearsals smelling of cheap whiskey. Recast as the barker with a new name fit for the marquee. "Step up, step right up! Born of electricity: Doctor Victor Franklin's American Prometheus. See the colossus with your own eyes. Inspect those seams. Examine its gruesome physiognomy. You've heard what the experts say. Now decide for yourself whether it is man or beast!"
Small mercy getting fired. "We should never have come here, old friend. Better to have perished in the Arctic than live as fools in a land of the free." Could have chased after him, as I once did, but I stood there in silence and let him go.
Joice consoled me whenever I retreated to the attic, exhausted by the endless parade of gawkers and cigar smoke and sticky-fingered children scurrying past the rope. "Attention passes," she said. "They'll soon find a new wonder. Time is on our side."
Dwindling audiences came as a relief. I've much preferred working behind the scenes. After sweeping the galleries and hustling away the troublemakers, I'd sit at the back of the theatre and absorb the weekly scientific lecture or the latest temperance melodrama.
Once in the shadows, I came to love the museum and how it made people forget their troubles.
Suppose things changed the night Joice told me about the last time she died. Myrtle and I were trying to frighten each other by telling ghost stories. Joice interrupted us, saying we had it all wrong. "Neat trick, dying. Best way to escape from bondage or slip out of an unfair contract. It's how I've kept going all these years." Only you refused to let her go. Kept her body for your medical men to dissect. Charged people fifty cents to watch the autopsy, but wouldn't split the profits with your old partner. Even after she returned from the grave. "Some people never change."
My feet need to start moving again.
History swirls around me. I keep thinking about the late Mister Lincoln's words about "a new birth of freedom." I nod then remember what Joice said to me about how you never treated us right. I worry about this country withdrawing from the great cause to which Vic sacrificed his life.
I saved my pennies and secured a place beyond the Bowery. Ready again to face pitchforks and torches.
Before I departed, I wound up the perpetual motion machines one last time and gave Myrtle her salt-water bath. I'll miss how Otto the Mechanical Turk always beat me at chess and the ring of Joice's ghostly laugh.
I am leaving, Mister Barnum, because I'm still hopeful. I think the future belongs to monsters. To people like me.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, July 28th, 2017

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