I grew up poor. Not extravagantly poor, not Calcutta poor or Biafran poor, just plain old American hand-to-mouth poor. My dad had a taste for beer and small-time gambling. He was in the war, and when he got back he worked construction, which meant he got laid off a lot. We always paid our rent and we had enough to eat, but we cut it close. My mom took me with her to the food shelf when dad was out of work, and there was never money for extras. Oh, sometimes mom would buy me a Clark bar or a comic book, but you'd have to be pretty dumb to ask my dad for anything. Like as not, you'd regret it.
That was why, when the circus came to town the week after my tenth birthday, I didn't say anything to anybody. Poor kids grow up scrappy, resourceful. So I waited for the right opportunity to present itself. My parents went to the VFW for pull-tabs and Polish sausage the second night the circus was in town. I waited twenty minutes, until I was sure they weren’t coming back. Then I jumped on my bike and pedaled as fast as I could, all the way into town.
The second I got there, I could see the circus was a broken-down, no-name act. I went over to where the people were lined up, and I sidled up next to a man and woman and their four children, pretending I didn't know them but also making out like I was with them. Easier said than done. While we waited, I noticed that large swatches of the big top's fabric were threadbare and whitened by the sun. The air was warm and heavy with the smell of popcorn and urine. I peeked into an uncovered trailer window and watched a fat man apply false eyelashes.
We moved up in the line. The man paid for his wife and children and I followed them into the tent, trying to look inconspicuous. No sooner had I taken my seat than the lights dimmed, there was an explosion, and the ringmaster burst in. Clowns rode tiny bicycles and fell comically. Tumblers jumped and flipped and spun across the dirt floor. Acrobats leapt from towering pedestals onto perilous rope swings. Bright spotlights blinded and distracted me at key moments. It was exciting stuff for a ten year old boy.
But I was really there to see the animals.
First there were the sad lumbering elephants, who entered single-file, each trunk grasping the tail ahead. They tiptoed through the ring, mounting colorful small pails and balancing on one foot. The long shafts of their tusks had been sawed away, leaving them with tiny, squared-off ivory remnants. Everyone clapped. Next came the chimps. They were supposed to be a brigade, riding in on miniature fire engines and wearing little red firemen's helmets and yellow jackets. A siren blared and red lights flashed. All but one was hustled away when the act finished; the lone straggler decided to climb the acrobat's pedestal. She settled in for the long haul, hurling turds at her handlers. The audience laughed and the handlers gave up. On went the show. Later, I would learn this chimp's name was Miss Iggy.
The horse act came in next. There were eight of them, bone white and resplendent, pulling a wagon. Each horse wore a plumed cap and gold-plated black rigging that raised their tails to unnatural angles. The wagon they pulled was filled with midget clowns who screamed and waved at the crowd.
The horses tore around and around the small ring while “Sabre Dance” blared over the loudspeakers and Miss Iggy, increasingly panicked, screeched and pivoted in circles. In a moment of sheer desperation, she finally jumped to the ground. But it was a hard fall, and her legs were hurt in some grievous way; they bent back behind her. Everyone applauded. I guess they thought it was part of the act.
Miss Iggy tried to flee to the gangway where all the acts entered the ring, dragging herself by her arms and sheer force of will. The horses started around the ring again, but this time they bore down on her. When she saw she couldn't beat them to the gangway, she summoned some final, primal instinct and jumped up on her crippled legs, grabbing onto one of the lead horse's tails. She sank her teeth into his flank. He ran a few more strides, Miss Iggy dangling from him like a simian wood tick. Then he stopped, reared back, and tried to shake her off.
The rest of the team kept running for a second or two. Then they all tumbled into each other, and for a moment all I could see was a whirlwind of legs and manes. The wagon rolled away and flipped several times, finally coming to rest halfway across the ring. The bloodied company of midget clowns crawled out. A few of them ripped off their wigs and white gloves to render first aid to the fallen.
Return toHome Page
Literary Fiction, Noir, Pulp Fiction, Short Stories