Piper celebrates Memorial Day

An excerpt from Piper Houdini: Nightmare on Esopus Island

Chapter 4: Sodom by the Sea

The Bobs / Tornado roller coaster with the Harum Scarum attraction inside its Amusement Department Store. – 1926

By the time Memorial Day weekend rolled around, the performers were ready to perform and the amusements were ready to amuse. There had been no word from Piper’s father and she feared the worst. The Bureau of Prohibition had shut down the Adonis Club and she had no idea where to look for him.

Two hours before the park opened its doors to another summer, Piper, Sal, and Henri joined the other hired hands for Sam’s annual welcoming speech, which he gave in the amphitheater at the end of the pier. Everyone was bustling with anticipation except Henri, whose vacant stare looked even more pathetic in his clown makeup.

“Your brother looks good,” Piper said to Sal.

“Johnny the Half-Boy helped with the details,” Sal said, adjusting the black knit hat he’d been wearing since the night of the Adonis Club massacre. “When it comes to makeup, we both know I’m no Helena Rubinstein!”

Piper tightened her lips so she wouldn’t smirk. “I wasn’t talking about his face paint. I mean, he looks…healthier. What are you feeding him?”

“Rabbit,” Sal said abruptly. “I figured something in the mammal family might make him less ripe.”

“Where are you getting the rabbits?”

“All over the place!” Sal said without meeting her eye. “When the Dutch settled here, they hunted rabbits all the time. Coney is Dutch for rabbit.”

“Hmm,” Piper mused. “Never seen any.”

A steamboat sounded its horn as it departed the pier to collect passengers from New York City. Standing upon an outdoor stage beneath a giant seashell canopy, Sam Gumpertz was greeted by cheers, whistles, clapping hands, clapping feet, and even the clapping flippers of the Seal Woman.

Sam extended his hand to the three distinctive landmarks that ascended high into Coney Island’s unblemished blue sky: The Wonder Wheel, the Thunderbolt, and the hundred-foot bejeweled structure that towered above a new roller coaster called the Bobs.

“Welcome to another summer at Dreamland. Or at least what’s left of it,” Sam announced, bowing to the small crowd. “Before we open the gates, I would like to say a few words to the returning faces and the new ones.”

He looked in Piper’s direction.

“It is my sincerest hope that this will be the greatest job of your life. But at times, it will also be the most difficult. There is no time off on weekends and customers are often rude. Whatever happens, you are here on this little island of joy for one reason: to sell fun and happiness. People will go home and have dreams about what they see here this summer.”

“More like nightmares,” Johnny said, grinning down at Piper from the massive shoulders of Jan the Giant.

Piper giggled.

“He likes you,” Sal said in her ear.

“Oh, come on,” Piper blushed. “It’s just a hero’s crush. He did save my life, you know.”

“It’s more than that,” Sal said. “I can see by the way he looks at you. You’ll see.”

“What’s the matter, Sal? Jealous?” Piper teased.

Koo-Koo the Bird Lady hushed them with a squawk.

“One final thing,” Sam said, continuing his welcome speech. “I’ve been waiting for this opportunity to introduce you to someone I expect you’ll be seeing a lot of.”

“Must be the new act,” Piper whispered.

Since the fire, Piper had been sharing a residence room with Rosita on the fourth floor of the museum, next to Sal and Henri. One sleepless night, she peered out her window and noticed Sam Gumpertz lingering beneath the lamppost with a mysterious companion. The man was dressed in an overcoat and a trilby hat. Its brim was pulled low so Piper couldn’t make out what he looked like.

Moments later, the two men disappeared through the front door of Sam’s office and Piper never saw them come back out. She wondered what all the secrecy had been about and why Sam hadn’t introduced the stranger to everyone. It made no sense.

“We have suffered some tragic losses this past year,” Sam continued. The Curiosities murmured in sad agreement. Piper saw Rosita wipe a tear from her eye.

The Samurai Sorcerer

“As you all know, I travel the world to find unique attractions for our show,” the showman continued. “So imagine my delight when this act appeared literally on my doorstep one night—straight from the Orient. My dear friends, please give a warm Dreamland welcome to Howaito Heddo, the Samurai Sorcerer!”

There was a smattering of polite applause as a tall man dressed in white robes ambled onto the stage and took his place beside Sam. His face and partly-shaven head were covered with white greasepaint. He glowered at the audience and stark red and black lines painted over the white intensified his expression.

“Creepy,” Piper said.

Kumadori,” Sal replied. “The dark red represents anger and the black represents fear.”

“Well, it works,” Piper said.

The Samurai Sorcerer took a slow bow. The rising sun gleamed off the part of his head that was shaved. The rest of his hair was long and tied into a small ponytail that folded into a knot over the shaven part. But the thing that struck Piper odd about Howaito’s hair was its bright orange color. She had never seen a Japanese person with red hair.

Sam placed three bricks on the floor. The Samurai Sorcerer’s posture was casual, disinterested even. He raised his hand and, with a sniff of disdain, broke them with a single blow.

There were a few oohs and ahhs from the audience. Most of the Curiosities, however, were either yawning or glancing at their pocket watches. They had seen martial arts acts before.

“That was the warm-up,” Sam said, laying down another pile of three bricks.

“Howaito, the middle brick,” he instructed.

Mustering a bit more enthusiasm, the Samurai Sorcerer brought his fist down on the pile with a shout. This time, only the second brick split. After a second or two for everyone to absorb what they had just witnessed, they all responded with a rousing applause.

Piper’s jaw dropped. “There’s got to be a trick to it,” she said.

“The dim mak,” Sal said with an equally stunned look on his face.

“Dim what?” Piper asked.

Dim mak,” Sal repeated. “The vibrating palm. Something that only a handful of martial artists have mastered. According to legend, they project energy beyond their fist that actually alters the state of matter. Some say the dim mak can cause instant or even delayed death with just a touch.”

The Bird-Lady screeched at them again. Piper and Sal ducked their heads and kept their mouths closed until Sam concluded his speech.

“I’m sure you’ll make our new friend’s stay with us a pleasant one,” he concluded, placing his hand on the Samurai Sorcerer’s shoulder. “In return, I expect he will draw repeat customers week after week, making all our lives a little more comfortable. Now go forth, be profitable, and most of all, have fun!”

The crowd cheered with renewed inspiration and scattered to their individual venues. Piper walked with Sal and Henri down the pier and along the empty boardwalk until they reached the Dreamland Circus Sideshow.

Piper wished Sal good luck as he and his brother disappeared inside the tent. Then she continued down the boardwalk where attendants were hustling to set up their concession stands.

Sam had told her that her official title would be “apprentice.” Piper knew that was just a highfalutin way of saying she had to help anyone who needed it. Her first job was to help put the prizes on the shelves. The big furry stuffed animals got the best spot because no one ever won them. By the time the gates opened and the patrons poured onto the boardwalk, all of the prizes were in their proper places.

A few hours later, the guy working the “Guess Your Weight” concession asked Piper to fill in for him while he took a lunch break. After a few disastrous attempts, Piper got the hang of it and surprised herself at how well she did guessing people’s weight.

The rest of the afternoon was spent frying up funnel cakes, pushing a popcorn wagon, spinning cotton candy, and selling more hot dogs than a hawker at Ebbet’s Field. For some reason, the food seemed to taste better on the boardwalk than it did anywhere else in the world.

Piper overheard a few kids saying that the Bobs was the “it” ride of the summer. The cars twisted and coiled above her like snakes in a bonfire and Piper laughed when she heard those same kids screaming in terror after waiting in line for three hours.

By day, Coney Island was the world’s most amazing amusement park. But once the sun set, the boardwalk’s eighty-foot-wide expanse became a veritable Sodom by the Sea. The merry sounds of Sweet Rosie O’Grady, Maggie Murphy’s Home, and Down Went McGinty echoed from the dancing establishments and concert halls that nuzzled one another along its wicked two-and-a-half miles.

The park didn’t close until eleven, but Piper’s shift ended after she served dinner. On her way back to the residence room, she stopped at the new Wild Animal Arena to see how Orlok was handling the noise.

Piper was glad that Colonel Ferari had given her permission to take the snow bat out of his cage whenever she liked. And Orlok always enjoyed her nighttime visits. Piper had been trying to teach him how to talk like Stoker, but so far the only thing that came out of his mouth was a cross between a squawk and a grunt.

She was successful, however, in teaching the young bat a new game. When the Colonel’s back was turned, Piper would make a motion as if she were cracking a whip. Orlok would fly to the animal trainer, snatch the whip from his belt, and fly away with it. Piper fell to the ground in hysterics every time the Colonel discovered it missing and chased her furry white friend around the arena.

After playing with Orlok, Piper scaled the stairs to her room and collapsed onto her bed. The walls of her apartment were thin, but she had grown accustomed to the music, the ballyhoo, and the clackety-clack of the rides, which had become a comforting ambient noise.

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