by Mary Marca
Spotlights swirl, trumpets
blare, and elephants march in circles then rear on their hind legs at the Ringing
Brother Circus. Pretty girls in flashing costumes sit on the elephants’ necks
and wave to the crowd. Little dogs jump through hoops, over each other, and
into bins, while the children laugh and clap and point. Lions in cages roar at
the trainer, swipe at him with curved claws that long to slash his flesh. Silly
clowns with grotesque painted faces run and tumble, throw things, squirt
the audience and each other, then blow up balloons, and pull a
thousand scarves out of one pocket to blow their noses.
Tom, the owner, the Ringmaster, in his brown monk’s robe, with his painted bald head sparkling in the lights, rings the bell and introduces the acts. The smells are animals and sawdust and sweat and the heat of bodies squeezed together under a canvas tent. Peanuts come in paper packages, and candy floss sticks to teeth and cheeks and fingers and hair. And grubby men in smelly clothes with dirty fingernails move the cages and elephant stands, but don’t smile at the people who clap and cheer.
Sally is high above the crowd, and the band, so far down, sounds tinny as she dances across the high wire. The spotlight blinds her to up-turned faces. She plays to invisible children far below, their hungry eyes reflecting fragments of light bouncing off her sequined costume.
She remembers staring up, with open mouth, at nine and ten, and twelve, before she ran away to find the thrill of the high wire. And Greg, who took her in—to the act and his bed—and taught her all the tricks until she was as good as him and a full partner in the act, but no longer fit his bed. And the friendship grew after. Greg, who walks on his hands behind her, as she juggles in a waitress costume, a tray with dishes, clowning for the crowd. But her slipper twists and she drops a cup which falls, falls, and bounces on the net below. She knows Tom, the owner, the monk, the brother who rings the bell, will yell at her tonight. She needs to replace her slippers but spent all her money on food.
Her friends are hungry. They come to Sally for food she buys and cooks: large batches of pasta, or gumbo, or pancakes. She loves that they flock to her for nourishment. Greg, who fights loneliness and fear, as he struggles to keep walking in a job for the young, would drink his dinner if she didn’t cook for him. Carl the young replacement for Jim—who slipped and almost fell. Carl, who lifts Sally high above the crowd. She feeds him to keep his muscles strong and firm. Carl, with a wife and kids somewhere in the Midwest, is lonely for his family, so he seeks out Fluffy, the Elephant girl of short costume and long legs, who gives, hoping he will stay, but he won’t. Sally teases Carl about his appetites, and he grins and eats it up.
And Alfie, the so-sad Fat Man. Poor Alfie, always hungry, can’t get the cook to give him enough of the greasy, slimy, mushy goo they serve at lunch and dinner. And he is only allowed one dozen pancakes at breakfast. Sometimes he comes over after, and Sally cooks him sausage and bacon and eggs, and makes a dozen more pancakes. Poor Alfie. He rolls in her door, rocking the trailer but can’t squeeze behind the booth so has to sit on a tiny stool. His needs are simple—food and love. His little blue eyes smile out at her from folds of flesh as Sally strokes his cheek, and he is grateful.
They want to work the wire without a net. Sally doesn’t, but Greg looks at her with his tired eyes and tells her she hasn’t fallen in years, and she can do it. She finally agrees, and he kisses her cheek, calls her a trouper. But she remembers the last time with no net, and the gray of Jim’s face as he grabbed the wire when he slipped. Only his huge arms kept him from tumbling down, down to the sawdust below, to blood and pain—or maybe to nothing at all. He pulled himself up, their eyes met, and she knew it was over. She watched his muscled, trembling limbs as he moved to the ropes and carefully slid to the ground, out of the act, out of her bed, and out of their lives.
Greg’s arms are tense when he lifts Sally, and after each show he seeks the warmth of his bottle. Afterwards, people flock to the sideshows; Alfie smiles again. He struts his bulk, and rolls his fat, and the crowd moans and laughs, and so does he. He might get a bonus. Sally feeds them all a super meal to celebrate. And for a while everything seems great.
The Ringing Brother wants them to pump up the act. Sally must juggle more in the finale, but she worries about her slippers. Greg and Carl tell her she can buy others, she hasn’t fallen in years, and she can do it. And Greg’s eyes tell her of his need. He must play out the time he has left.
So they rehearse and
rehearse, and it’s hard. They pile on the fancy, funny things, and Sally’s shoulders
ache, and her slippers slide, so she ties them tighter. She must get new ones,
for real this time, when they get paid, after Saturday’s show.
Saturday comes and all is well. They strut and clown and play, and the audience gasps and laughs. Sally plays queen and the men her slaves. She smiles as she juggles and ignores the long emptiness between her and the ground. The crowd cheers and applauds, and they stand at the grand finale.
Sally puts one foot on Greg’s bike and the other on Carl’s. The men work the pedals to keep steady, but Sally’s shoulders bear the burden of the act. They slump ever so lightly and her muscles tremble. She drips sweat as she keeps the delicate balance. When she asks Greg and Carl for help, they say, “Wait 'til the spotlight goes out.”
Her head waves back and forth, and she knows she can’t hold it much longer, but they say “Hold on. When the light goes out.” And she tries, but she rocks, and the slippers she wouldn’t replace, the slippers she has tied so tight to last one more night, those slippers, they twist and so does she.
Each of the pieces balanced so carefully on top of Sally shift and separate and begin to float. A long sigh echoes up through the empty hole from the crowd below as Sally’s arms reach out to the birds in the floating cage. And then she’s flying.
Softly, slowly, she circles Greg and Carl as they watch her, clinging to their bikes, amazed at her new-found skill. Her slippers forgotten, she feels so light, so free, and she knows this is her destiny.
Then the spotlight goes out.
* * * * *
Born in England, Mary Marca taught writing at California State University, Northridge for twenty years. Now retired, she is excited with all the extra time for her own writing. She has had stories published Literary Yard, Ariel Chart, and Writing in a Woman's Voice, amongst others.