COME ONE, COME ALL, TO BRUNO’S MAGICAL TRAVELLING CIRCUS! FINAL SHOW—FOREVER! by Delaney Nolan


PRESENTING: RINGLEADER BRUNO AND HIS SEXY SIDEKICK, TRIXIE MINX!
You tell me you are ending the circus. I’m not listening. I’m thinking about the taste of vodka and mouthwash, how they mingle. You say something like,
     —Expenses. Overhead. Long-term rate adjustments including inflation.
     And I am thinking, Gilgamesh, you son of a bitch. I don’t know who Gilgamesh is, exactly—I think he had something to do with the Bible. Maybe that part with the towers. But it’s the name, Gilgamesh, it makes me think of some great scaly monster with no teeth, something dirty with a shriveled penis—that’s what Gilgamesh means to me. Something with its scales ripped off, the puckered flesh showing through. You’re still talking about the insurance company, and I don’t care. You say,
     —We’ll have to tell the crew tomorrow. I don’t know how we’re going to explain it to everyone.
     And I can’t imagine who this everyone is. I take another swig of vodka and it is a good clean burning, shooting straight through my stomach to the soles of my feet to the earth and out through the earth into black empty freezing space and it keeps on, keeps on, until it circles back and hits me in the top of my head again, pop. Then I say,
     —Let’s not tell them anything. Let’s just pack this shit up and take off overnight, leave the tent and the trailers and that smell behind. We’re not obliged.
     You, Gilgamesh, you give me that lizard face. And you put your hand on my thigh. And I am about to vomit. You begin to explain to me, in that slow and patient way that I can’t stand, the things that are impossible for us. What we cannot do. I’m still not listening, the room is circling around me in a menacing way, and I keep thinking Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh, what about the acrobats? You have seen them, folding in on themselves, the way that they collapse in their glittering canary skin, their solemn faces and strung muscles shaking; they are proof the body is a bulky and unnecessary thing, do you understand? And what about the elephant, her patience, her heavy, jeweled foot poised carefully above the earth? The fierce gold hot-gutted lion? And the tightrope-walker burning against the floodlights, wire digging into tender flesh, the Chinese tumblers leaping over their tin bicycles, the clown’s dusty laughter, the purple calliope’s wha-wha-whoop, and your other secret self, ringleader in black hat: you would have them taken apart?
     No, no, we have to leave them behind, frozen carefully in place, we cannot be the hand that dismembers them.
     Or fuck it, toss the RVs, burn the tent down, go screaming into the dark and blast it wide open, but do not simply let them go, Gilgamesh, you bastard, you charlatan. I will not be the one to write their slow death. I will remember it another way: tent still standing, tent aflame, the spotlights gone wild, illuminating everything at once, so hot and bright and alive with heat that it makes you blind.
     
     
     
CAPTAIN CATAPULT, TIGHTROPE WALKER, DEFIES DEATH ONE HUNDRED FEET ABOVE THE EARTH!
But Dad when you got home you said it was OKAY, EVERYTHING IS OKAY SON GET DOWN OFF THE COUCH and that was you lying. It was a new thing and I didn’t realize it was this new thing until much later, and I could look back and see: yes, that was a lie. Really when you came home it was the first step towards this rotten trailer park here in Thibodaux, it is like when you stepped in the living room that day we started moving towards Thibodaux very very slowly like one of those icebergs on the TV and we didn’t even realize we were moving until years had gone by and suddenly we were miles from where we started in the middle of a freezing sea.
     So when you came home and told me to get off the couch I got off the couch and then I ran up and stuck my hands in your pockets looking for candy peanuts and you told me to GET AWAY, GODDAMMIT, CAN’T YOU LEAVE ME ALONE FOR ONE MINUTE and you’d never said that word to me before, G-O-D-D-A-M-M-I-T and I didn’t know what to do with it so I took the word in my lap and I sat down on the floor near the trailer door and listened to the end of the day outside. I could hear all of it from right there (the whinnies of the horses being led to their stalls (the women who rode them laughing/screeching (the clowns who did not make me laugh hacking smoke (the smoke-drinker/fire-eater passed close to the door)))) and he was my favorite. I launched out the door and ran after the fire-eater who caught me under the armpits and swung me up onto his shoulders and made like he was going to drop me, but he didn’t drop me. He said HOW IS THE LITTLE TIGHT-ROPE WALKER TODAY and I told him that I was getting better and I walked the whole way around the edge of the trailer roof without falling off even once and he said it was GREAT. He swayed from side to side like a jet fighter and up ahead the I saw one of the elephants stop mid-stride to poop and I started laughing and the fire-eater told me to stop even though he was laughing and then I heard ADAM and I turned around and there you were, Dad, watching me with that gutted look, which is a face I know well now, like there is a hook inside you and I am pulling the string. It is the face that wakes me up because it is the face you will make when you make a misstep, when you finally miss that wire and go plunging down down to where there is no safety net because we are too bold, too death-defying, too stupendous for a caution like that. You called me over with that gut-hooked face and you looked at the fire-eater for a long time, and that was the last time I ever saw him, Dad, I never got to say goodbye to my friend, though I looked for him the next day as we suddenly packed up the trailer and all our things, out I went looking for him, but he was nowhere, so I thought I’d reach him simply by darting through the crowd, yelling those words you used to sing with the troupe at the end of every show, yelling at the top of my lungs
GOOD BYE!
GOOD BYE!
GOOD BYE!
     
     
     
BARNABY, GREAT MAN-APE OF CHICAGO, ASTOUNDS THE CROWD WITH FEATS OF WONDER!
We found him in Little Rock, both arms in slings like a cartoon, moldy dress jacket over his big dark shoulders. His face was half-fur. Looked up like he didn’t recognize us.
     “Are you going to come with us?” I asked him, aiming for gentle.
He stood up, slow, and then out of his pocket he pulled and pressed into my hand a pile of subway tickets. He had never been good at the concept. I spread my fingers and let them flutter away; he only watched.
     Officer Hall and I walked on either side of him, Hall with the giant net over his shoulder, our yellow-gloved hands resting on his massive back. I watched our feet: boot, boot, paw, paw, boot, boot. I always expected Barnaby’s steps to shatter the pavement but they never did, not that I ever saw.
     We walked him to the van, and from the van to the airplane, and from the airplane to the cell. He wasn’t ready for the trial, but how could you be? He looked absurd and I bet he did it on purpose. That paisley suit. The bowtie. He was making fun of us; now, looking back, I’m absolutely sure of it.
     There was a lot of debate on whether he should even get a lawyer. Eventually, the answer was yes. Even animals deserve a defense.
     Two weeks. That’s all it took, ultimately, not that we should have been really shocked. And after that: one day for the jury to deliberate. After that it’s step-by-step, procession, we know how it goes.
     Word is, Barnaby, is you didn’t even realize that baby was human. When you picked it up and shook it like that, bashed it like that, you thought you were just like any other patron in the grocery store, walking the aisles and thumping melons. Looking for the most tender cantaloupe in the Winn-Dixie. I do believe—I really do—that it was a mistake anyone could make. The problem is being half-blind, with hands you don’t hardly understand.
     They invited me to watch you in the chair. I didn’t know it was a thing you could get an invitation to. But the district attorney gave me a call while I was in my office, fishing a crumb from my coffee. I declined. I couldn’t get rid of the image of your hair burning while your bowtie spun; the picture was too grotesque for me to push from my mind.
     You’ll be dead by now. I wasn’t looking at the clock the moment it happened. I told myself I would, you see. I wanted to look, in myself, for some kind of drop, some stomach lurch during the moment when you died, Barnaby, poor creature, darling. But that’s just it. I was reading the news. I was biting a hangnail. I was picking a seed from my clean, straight teeth. And I didn’t feel a thing.
     
     
     
WITNESS FEROCIOUS, MAN-EATING LIONS, TAMED BY THE GREAT ZEEMBO! COURAGE—OR MADNESS?!
I was a huntress. This is a thing I know for sure. I stalked things that moved careful aware of me, every muscle of mine was on fire, I was strung tight, I was hot hiss-swept through while I moved one slow paw ahead for every step.
     It was a thing like patient patient patient and then there was running. This is kind of like the patient patient patient that I know about, now, from when The Man used to have me hold my teeth open and would put his head where I could tear it apart, soft fleshy sad dough. But that was a different kind of patient patient patient because it never led to the running. That was only a kind of waiting that was there with the hunger. The hunger was always there, too. The hunger is still there, even now, in this new place, this new big cage.
     It’s not that I remember a time before, not exactly. I can’t say I remember the hunting time. But it’s a thing like memory. It’s a bone-singing. It’s a steeple within myself that points to a very old place, an acre overgrown, a place I could smell sometimes in the dust of the Bright Circle, when I was pacing and there were only the big lights and The Man had not taken out his whip yet. I know there was not the huge wash of noise; when I was a huntress it was quiet. That is one more thing on the list of things I miss which I have never met: quiet. Here there is always some noise.
     So I was glad for the light and dust and heat of the Bright Circle because it reminded me of this before-memory time, but I hated the Bright Circle and I am glad I’m gone from there. Most of all I hated the whip. I hated the whip, and the hurting, which is a thing I was never supposed to know. I was not built for hurt. So I hated when I could not be so patient patient patient anymore so I moved and then I would hear the crack and a burning in my neck from where I was struck and he would say I was bad. That I can’t forget, how the word came to ring in me like a bell struck wrong: bad.
     And here there are many other moving things I want to eat that are always making loud sad sounds but there is no whip, no huge wash of noise. There are new Men who feed me red raw meat and other Men who stand and stare and click but never yell or throw things at me, and that’s good. But I miss the dust. And I miss that bright light sometimes, I miss that too.
They say I am beautiful. They say I am golden. But I know the truth. When the Men hide their eyes and sharpen their teeth, I know they have become cramped and misshapen like me, taken away from the running. It isn’t their fault. It isn’t my fault either. I do not have words for the thing I am trying to tell you. The closest is this: we are all bad animals.
     
     
     
AND DON’T MISS: ELLA AND LOUISE, THOSE BUXOM BEAUTIES, TANTALIZE WITH TRICKS ON BEASTS FROM A FOREIGN LAND!
In August, you let all the horses go, even the ones we painted gold. You should have seen it the way I saw it: the animals remembering their wildness, streaking for the woods, hard muscled bodies showing through where the paint had chipped away. And you, standing at the gate, illuminated by the falling sun and watching them pass over into shadow where the cypress blocked the light. I loved you so much just then. I stood at the window, drinking water from a mason jar, and watched our livelihood take off on four black hooves.
     When you came in I wrapped you in that old woven blanket. We sat on the back porch swing, though we can’t move it too much anymore– me with the arthritis, and you, forgetting your own legs. Hours later, you went back to the fence and saw all the horses gone, and you began to cry, confused, sorry. I took your hands and kissed you on both your bad eyes. This is what it is: a constant forgiving.
     Mostly I was sorry we would lose the routine. Even after all these years we would rise on the first Sunday of every month and dig the paint out of the toolshed. With slow hands we coated them: a blue neck, drawing the brush along the animal’s spine, its ribs, the solid trunk of its body. Another was all pink, even his ears; others we decorated piebald with candy-colored patches. We didn’t dye the manes or tails anymore, we only painted. Watching that unbroken plane of color, the rich pigment dripping down the hard black fur, so pure I wanted to drink it, I would remember how it was. I would think of you circling the Ferris wheel with its string of lights, both of us in those hideous little dresses, and you waving at the admiring crowd, going up-down-up as you bounced along on the prancing horse. You did tricks, rode backwards, catapulted from one saddle to another. You amazed the audience. I fell for you every week.
But that was years ago. Now our bodies betray us, and I haven’t climbed onto a saddle in decades. We go for walks. We swing on the porch. I organize your medication and put it all in a white plastic box with many small compartments labeled with the days of the week, and I bring it to you with a glass of cold clean water. You take the pills without complaining, one at a time. It takes a long while. While we wait, I tell you stories about the carnival, about Bruno, about the two of us. About people you don’t remember.
     I tell you about one time, under the stands. I found you down there, drunk and giggling, limbs akimbo, lying on your back and looking up the audience’s skirts. I crawled down there with you and you put a finger to my lips to hush me. You pointed out the ugliest underwear you could find.
     All night up to the very end of the show, we lay like that, down in the dust, next to one another. We reached up towards the tent’s ceiling, up to the floodlights. Up to the vast, cool dark beyond, the one that we could not see, with half our bodies lifted above the earth. Undone, weightless. Rising.
     
     
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Delaney Nolan’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Arts & Letters PRIME, Gargoyle, Housefire, Grist, Metazen, Monkeybicycle, Post Road, Wigleaf, and elsewhere, and has been a finalist for numerous awards. She lives in Louisiana where she spends all of her foodstamps on tangerines. More of her work can be found at delaneynolan.tumblr.com.