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Two-Faced Polly

"The bright red lipstick on her triangle lips drew my eyes right to her mouth."

Published onApr 10, 2024
Two-Faced Polly

Photo by Otavio:

Polly Smithton had two faces. Or maybe she had one face that was split down the middle. It was hard to know, really. But she was called Polly Two-Face, so there’s that anyway. Polly had a real wide forehead, with two widow’s peaks. One of her eyes was blue, and it was way far over on the right side of her face. The other eye was brown, and it was equally far over on the left side of her face. She said she could see where she was going, but those eyes sure as heck weren’t facing the same direction. Her nose was super wide like someone squashed the middle with a soccer ball, and there was one nostril next to each eye, but a bit lower than the eye. And her upper lip peaked in the middle so her lips made a big triangle. Half her teeth were on the left side of the peak, and half on the right, no teeth in the middle, and a hole in the roof of her mouth which you couldn’t see unless she showed it to you special.

Now I know that all that sounds kind of bad, but she was a real nice girl, with a great figure and a friendly disposition. I met her when she was 16, in 1935 or so, when we were in Oklahoma. I was an animal trainer back then working with the big cats and traveling with the Franklin Brothers Bodacious Circus, ‘til I lost my right arm above the elbow to one of the dang beasts, right in the middle of my act in Texas somewhere. Since then, I just took care of feeding the animals, cleaning their cages, and moving them from here to there, in and out of the rings for the acts and all.

We picked Polly up about halfway through the tour that year. She walked into the back “yard”, the dirt lot where the business of the circus took place way off behind the big tent. She strolled past the animal cages where I was working early one afternoon just before showtime, looking from left to right, left to right like she was reading a newspaper or something. I wondered if she was lost, so I shouted to her, “Hey, Girlie! Watcha looking for?”

When she finally turned to focus on me, I got a good look at her. She was dressed in a bleached-out smock that hung like a gunny sack on her, dirty cotton shoes without laces, her big toe sticking out of one of ‘em, and long brown hair tied at the back of her neck with a string. There was a big straw hat dangling by the strings she held in her hand. The bright red lipstick on her triangle lips drew my eyes right to her mouth.

“I’m looking for the boss man. That you?” She had a breathy voice; the words came out with a lot of air around them.

“No such luck! I’m just a one-armed cat rustler. What you want with him?” I was trying to decide which of her eyes to look at when I talked to her. I couldn’t figure it out, so I just looked at the squashed part of her face where most of her nose should have been, but wasn’t.

“I was thinking he might hire me. Do you think he would?”

“Depends. You got any skills?” I knew one of the aerialists had scurried off at the last town, but this girly didn’t look like she flew trapeze. They were usually pretty fancy fillies.

“I don’t do nothing really, but I think I’m interesting to look at. Doesn’t this circus have a sideshow for freaks like me?”

“Well, yeah, sure we do. Go see Billy Franklin, he’s the Boss. He’s at the back of the yard near the costume wagon. Can’t miss him.” Of course, that was the first thing I thought of when I saw her, but I didn’t want to insult her, so instead I just asked her ‘what does she do’. But now I was thinking maybe it wouldn’t have been an insult. For a young thing, she acted pretty sure of herself and seemed ok with how she looked.

So, anyway, that’s how I met Polly, and of course, Billy Franklin saw dollar signs in his own eyes when he looked at Polly’s crazy-looking ones, and signed her up on the spot.

Our sideshow already had a cheerful fat lady with a grumpy dwarf husband (“The World’s Oddest Couple”), a brother and sister pair of “pinheads,” really sweet kids with tiny heads that came to a point, who danced together and giggled but were not smart at all, a tattooed strong man, and an elastic lady who could stretch her cheeks and neck skin down to her chest.

We also had some pickled punks in jars of formaldehyde, including a calf with six legs floating in a bottle who stared out with its big brown eyes, a tiny coffin with a mummified newborn baby, a few shrunken heads with the hair still attached, and even some relics from saints. The bones from my bitten-off hand were on show with a sign saying they were from Saint Boniface of Rome, and a lot of gibberish in Latin. People would kneel and make the sign of the cross over them. It made me feel all warm inside when I saw that, like these people were worshiping me, even though of course I knew it was a fake.

But the main attraction in the Fanciful Freaks and Exceptional Oddities show was The Bodacious Circus’s half-and-half act, who we called The Lady’s Man. Most half-and-halfs were grifts, but JoJo was for real and was the one everyone came to see, and the one the talker hawked when he was drawing the towners in. He would stand on the stage just to the right of the entrance to the grounds, projecting his voice out to the crowd and grabbing everyone’s attention.

“Come hither and see the amazing and marvelous oddities of nature we have herein! Our JoJo is half man and half woman! On the top he has beautiful breasts you must behold with your own eyes, and soft smooth skin any woman would envy. But below the waist, you will see parts worthy of any racehorse. Men will be green with envy and women will blush from head to toe, but be unable to avert their eyes from the sight! JoJo has fathered children and also given birth! Come on in! Only 20 cents admission, worth every penny!”

Every hair on JoJo was bright carrot-colored. He exposed all of it in the show, thrilling both the ladies and the gents. JoJo had quite a few flings with members of the troup and even some of the audience over the years. He lived up to his nickname for sure, and he strutted around the grounds like he owned the place. To my knowledge, though, JoJo had never birthed a baby, so that part was just an exaggeration.

I guess since I was the first to meet Polly, she kind of took to me and would come to my tent for a drink at night after the show when she was done with her second job collecting costumes and hanging them in the wardrobe car. Though she shared a trailer with two of the bally broads, there were times instead when she stayed with me, though of course I never touched her in an improper way. That’s when we would talk and I would get her to tell me her story. I think I knew her better than anyone else in the circus.

Polly said matter-of-factly,” When I was born my mother screamed, a nurse passed out and got a concussion when her head hit the floor, and the doctor puked.” This is what she said her father told her, but he wasn’t actually in the room.

Polly couldn’t drink from a baby bottle because of a big hole that connected the roof of her mouth to her nose. Anything Polly swallowed just came outta her nose. Her mother refused to even try to nurse her because she couldn’t stand to look at her face. She was in the hospital for a month ‘til they could find a doctor to try to fix things enough so she could suck and take away the tube to her stomach they were using. Then her father came to take her home. Her mother had gone back to their house to get some clothes and Polly’s sister, and then left town. Her father was good to her but he didn’t let her ever leave the house. He said he was afraid people would try to kill her. Then her father up and fell off a roof and died when she was six so Children’s Protection came to pick her up. They took her to an orphanage at the other end of the state. And that is where she lived until the day she turned 16. Then the nuns gave her three dollars, her bible and rosary, a floppy hat to cover her face so she wouldn’t scare people, and sent her on her way.

“As luck would have it” as she liked to say whenever she told this story, the first thing she laid those crazy eyes on as she walked into town from the orphanage was the Downtown Wagon from our circus advertising the show and selling tickets for that night.


Soon’s Billy saw her, I guess he cottoned he had something special. He brought her to the wardrobe car and told the wardrobe boss to fix her up. When she walked on the bally stage her first night in the free show used to attract the audience to come in, the hair on the brown-eye side was dyed black and wavy, and the hair on the blue-eye side was cut short in a bob and dyed platinum. She had mascara and eye shadow matching the hair on each eye. She wore a tight, slinky red sequined thing that showed off her body, which was really something for a teenage girl, and of course that red lipstick.

Whoeee, was she a hit. One woman fainted dead away. A guy ran out of the tent so fast he tripped on a tent peg and had to go to the medical tent to get his face cleaned up. But most of the men just stared. Couldn’t take their eyes off her, and I couldn’t blame them. Neither could I.

It didn’t take long for everyone to see trouble coming. JoJo had always been the main attraction at the sideshow ever since he joined four years ago. But after he saw how the audience loved Polly, Billy Franklin had the black and white newsprint heralds we handed out in town show a picture of her in her slinky dress and a veil over her face and the headline “Come See the Two-Faced Lady!” JoJo was angry that he had been replaced as the lead act, and he made it known he was peeved.

One of JoJo’s jobs was to get all the sideshow acts into the tent on time and be sure everyone was dressed and ready. And not too drunk to go on stage, a particular problem for Grumpy the Dwarf. JoJo would tell the hawker the order of the acts and push them out on stage when they were called. A few of them really needed this; they weren’t all that bright, especially the pinheads who sometimes didn’t have any clothes on over their diapers when they came to the tent. Anyway, some days he just didn’t call Polly to the tent, or never told the hawker to introduce her and the show would end without her ever appearing. People who came just for her because of the heralds got really mad and made a fuss. Then Billy had to come and calm them down and sometimes give them their money back. JoJo would lie and say he couldn’t find her when he was getting the acts ready. Then Billy would take it out on Polly.

What happened next is kinda my fault because I gave Polly the idea of how to get back at JoJo.

Polly worked with the wardrobe crew so she had access to JoJo’s complicated costume. In the show he would use it to tease his audience, first tearing off the right side on the top to show a big brown nipple, then dancing around and removing a panel to show his ass, then back and forth until he had removed bits and pieces one at a time to eventually reveal him in all his red-haired glory. The audience loved the slow reveal.

One evening not long after Polly had replaced JoJo on the heralds, he started his performance. When he went to expose the right breast, he found the flap had been sewn closed. One by one he found that all the flaps were sealed. He had sweat streaming down his face and he was red and angry. He finally tore the thing apart with his hands, spun once around to show off his body, and stormed off the stage. The wardrobe folks said it must have been done by the woman who came from the laundry in town that day to pick up all the costumes for cleaning. They said she probably thought she was repairing it. Well, that’s the way things happen on the circuit. Never a dull moment. Polly and JoJo seemed to call it even after that and once in a while they would even sit together at a meal or I’d see them chatting outside the sideshow tent.

The circus moved from town to town that season as usual, through Oklahoma and Texas and on up into Kansas. When winter set in we went on the home run to our winter quarters down near Galveston and hunkered there for about four months. Most of the performers stayed to keep up practice in the ring barn, the permanent ring with a roof we kept at the quarters so people wouldn’t get rusty. If they had one, anyone with a family would go home for a bit to visit. I had to stay for the animals, but I had nowhere else to go anyway, so that was fine with me. My parents were dead and gone and my sisters had their own lives. Things slowed down during the winter and there was a lot of time to visit and talk. Friendships were made and alliances built. While tents were being repaired, and costumes designed and sewed, there was flirting and romance and flings and gossip.

We’d been back on the circuit for about a month when I noticed Polly’s slinky show dress was way too tight across her chest and middle. I had my suspicions, but she didn’t say anything to me until I finally asked her flat out.

“Are you expecting?”

“Could be. Never been, so not really sure how it's supposed to feel.”

“You get your monthlies?” I had grown up with sisters so I knew about this stuff, and I wasn’t shy of asking.

“Not since we left Texas,” she said.

“Who’s the father?” I asked.

“No one. I didn’t do nothin’ with anyone,” she protested.

“So how did you get pregnant, then?”

“It has to be like Mary did. Like the nuns taught us. ‘Maculate concession’,” she said sounding a bit offended.

I didn’t have any churching, save for that one time I went to a revival meeting when we were on tour. That preacher was a heck of a showman. Our show talkers could take a few lessons from that guy. He had people hootin’ and hollerin’ and throwing money at him. But I had a pretty good idea that Polly’s “maculate concession” was not the reason for her condition.

She went on performing in the sideshow, wearing bigger and bigger dresses. But they had to reprint the heralds and put JoJo back as the main attraction. While Polly was certainly something to look at she had lost the sexy with that big stomach, and sexy was a big part of her appeal to the men who came to see her. JoJo was pleased to be getting top billing again and I was scared what would happen after Polly’s baby came and she got her figure back and topped the roster over him again in the show. He could be awfully mean sometimes.

It just happened we were playing in the same town where we had picked up Polly when she first joined the troup that she went into labor the morning of the show. She went to the medical tent and the medic said she had better go to a hospital. He said there was too much blood and he didn’t want her bleeding out on his watch. He said Billy would kill him if she died on site. It made for terrible press if that kind of thing happened.

I offered to take her to town to the hospital. I borrowed one of the ticket wagons and drove as fast as I could. Polly was miserable, screaming every few minutes as the pains came, and she was bleeding all over the blanket I put under her to protect the seat. When we got to the hospital, well, just a clinic, really, I helped her out of the wagon, but she just crumpled when she got to the entrance. Two men came out and quick put her on a stretcher and ran with her into the building. I went in to find someone to talk to, but there was no one. I found a desk but no one was at it. I took a piece of paper from the desk and using my left hand, I wrote Polly’s name and the name of the circus. I hoped it would be readable. I’d never really learned to write with the one hand I had left. I waited around for a while, but saw no one, so I left because I had to get back for the show.

We had to pull a John Robinson that day, shortening the show because we had an extra-long jump to the tomorrow town. We were pulling up stakes and packing things in by sunset. Everything was ready to go a couple hours later. I went and asked Billy what he wanted to do about Polly. Should someone stay and wait for her to get out of the hospital? How would she find us otherwise?

He said we had no choice but to head on out. He hoped she would figure out how to get to us once she got out of the hospital, if she survived the birth. The medic apparently told him he wasn’t too hopeful. She had lost a lot of blood even before she had left for the hospital. And even if she did survive, and even if the baby lived, it would probably be a while before she could work again anyway. He surely wasn’t happy, but he was pretty dismissive, I thought, considering he’d made so much money off her.


It was two years before we came back to that town where we had left Polly to have her baby. No one had ever heard from her in all that time, or even heard anything about her. JoJo never once mentioned her after she left, though the others would talk about her sometimes.

Once we were set up for the day’s show, I went into town to see if I could find out anything. The town was bigger than the last time we were there. I found the outdoor market where there were all kinds of shops, with people selling vegetables and blankets and Indian things, and that is where I found Polly. She was sitting on a blanket with that big old floppy hat, the strings tied under her neck. She had a sign that said “Know your past, Learn your future” and underneath it “I can see your past with one eye, and where you are going with the other.” She had props around her, like a crystal ball and tarot cards and such.

I looked at her trying to decide if I should go talk to her. I didn’t feel shy; it’s just that I felt guilty. Like we had been careless with her and forgotten her somewhere. As if she was meaningless to us after she couldn’t up the take from the show. Like she didn’t exist once she was no longer one of us. But now I could see she had moved on. She probably didn’t think about us either.

There was a line of people waiting to talk to her. I watched as one woman sat in front of Polly and she threw a black cloth over her head and the woman’s. After a while the woman left, and another person sat down.

I got in line myself. Polly had never stopped existing for me. I had to talk to her before I left again. When it was my turn, I sat down. Polly didn’t look up, just like with the other customers. She threw the cloth over us both, and we were in the dark, just shadowy light coming through. Polly took off her hat and put it beside her. It was then that she looked up, but only one side of her face was toward me. She still had black hair on the brown eye side, and it was long and reached below her shoulders.

She looked at me with that brown eye. “Circus back in town?” she asked. I nodded. “So you want me to tell your past, or your future, or both?”

“Tell my future.”

She turned her head so now she was looking at me with just the blue eye, blond curls falling over her forehead. “Every day will be the same. It will go on that way until you die. You will never lose your regrets. What you could have done, should have done. It will haunt you forever.”

I nodded. I believed her. She could see the future out of that blue eye. I know just what she would see out of the brown eye, too. I didn’t need to ask. I handed her fifty cents and moved to leave. She put a hand on my knee. “Wait here.”

She put on her hat, then left me under the black cloth, sitting on the ground. A few minutes later I heard her approach. She pulled off the cloth and she stood in the sunshine, her face totally exposed. In her arms was a beautiful little boy with a mop of bright red hair, two blue eyes in the right place, and a sweet smile.

She said, “Tell JoJo his son sends his regards.”


Sherri Bale is a retired geneticist and part-time personal trainer. She writes flash fiction, memoir, short stories, and is working on a historical fiction novel set in Alaska in 2019.

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