Originally published in Word Riot.
Giddy children jostle in the aisles, craning to see clowns cartwheel in the ring. I inhale the familiar smells of sawdust, beer, and sweaty humanity, the ammonia stink of the animals. I savor the chill air, the feeling of anticipation. How many years has it been? More than I can count. The music starts up, then a drum roll, my cue, and I'm under the spotlights, alive with the importance of the moment. I launch into my opening patter, promising untold marvels, the greatest show on earth. “And now,” I conclude, “all the way from Marseilles, France, in a performance that's dazzled the crowned heads of Europe…” I pause and gesture dramatically toward the cavernous ceiling of the big top. All eyes turn upward, as spotlights climb to illuminate the tightrope. “Artiste par excellence, tightrope talent like you just won't believe, our very own Simone.”
Simone, tightrope walker
The roaring crowd is far below. I balance, resplendent in my favorite costume, magenta with lavender sequins, fuschia ostrich plumes quivering on my heavy headdress. The sounds recede as I concentrate on my feet. One step, another, another, and then another, my arms stretched out, ballerina style, for grace and equilibrium. I waver, half on purpose. The audience gasps. I turn, neatly reversing direction. There is a ripple of applause. They want suspense, they want danger. They want to imagine a life more precarious than their own, where one misstep could mean death, or at least a spectacular fall. I wonder how much longer I can do this, when the slightest of hangovers or mildest case of the flu could leave me tumbling through space. Each night I concentrate. Don't even think of the net. The crowd. The callouses on my feet. One step. Another.
Helmut, lion tamer
I stride into the cage and stand erect, my custom-tailored jacket impeccable, my high black boots polished and shining. I crack my whip as they release the leopards, one by one: Natasha. Sybilla. Romy. Sigrid. Romy rotates her head and growls. I snap the whip again and she pulls back. My bitches. I put them through their paces night after night, make them greet me with raised right paws, circle the cage in a synchronized running crouch, roll over, kneel at my bidding. It's like sex, the tug of wills, the intricate choreography, the dance of love and hate. It's the danger that gives it an edge, the sense of power that floods me with satisfaction.
Mario, trapeze artist
The loudspeakers crackle as the old-fashioned strains begin: “He flies through the air with the greatest of ease. The daring young man on the flying trapeze.” Caught up in the jaunty tempo, the audience laughs and sways and sings along. My muscles ripple as I climb up the long ladder, rung after rung, in surefooted, easy strides. On the platform at the top, I look down at a distant sea of expectant, upturned faces, and across to the other platform at Natalia, so far away, luminous in pale, rosy pink. I make a courteous bow, and she curtsies back, acknowledging the crowd with a graceful wave. Natalia. My love. My heart swells with joy. Gripping the bar of the trapeze, I push off, legs swinging, back and forth, back and forth again, higher, higher, higher, gaining momentum. I twirl as the crowd claps, grip the bar again, swing backwards to hook the bar with my knees. Swing forward. Backward. Forward again. Backward, higher. Forward. And then I’m flying, weightless, reaching for her with outstretched hands.
Mom said goodbye and good riddance, when I run off to the circus. Mostly it's been a gas. Sure it's work, but after the show we sit around on crates, eating hot dogs and drinking hooch. We travel from town to town, see the world, you know. There's acrobats and giants and dwarves, all kinds of freaks, leopards and lions and even a bear, women with tattoos and tits you wouldn't believe. I hose and feed the elephants—bulls, we call them, and shovel shit all day, a lot of shit. Biggest turds you ever seen. Maybe I'll work with the cats when I been here a while longer.
Stan, circus barker
“Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, step right up. You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll gasp in sheer astonishment. You'll see things tonight you've never seen before and never even imagined. This may be your last chance to see extinct freaks and oddities from all over the globe. Step right up.” I take off my hat, mop the sweat off my forehead with a damp handkerchief and gulp from a bottle of water. It's hot out here. Always ten degrees hotter than inside the big tent. I hardly know what I'm saying any more, but the cadences are always the same. The hook that pulls them in to gawk at those sad creatures, silent and still in their exhibits. After the big show starts, it's mostly men stepping out for a beer—throwing popcorn and thrusting plastic cups of beer through the bars like they're at the zoo. Hooting and cracking jokes about the Fat Lady Estelle, whose rolls of fat are dripping with sweat tonight; Bertha, the Bearded Lady; George, the Friendly Giant, Carlo and Ricardo, Midget Twins from the Andes; and Tanya, Tattooed Mermaid from Borneo. It's a living. They know that too. What are you gonna do, you look like these folks?
George, The Gentleman Giant, sideshow freak
They called it growing pains when I was a boy, but they've lasted my whole life. Most of us don't live past 40, and sometimes I think it will be a mercy. Towering above them all, I see things they don't. Bald spots, dandruff, fraying collars. The secret selves inside their jeering exteriors. Times they've felt out of place: too tall, too short, too fat, too skinny, too hairy, too bald. “How's the weather up there?” I'm paid to smile, not to answer. A gentleman. Bertha knows what I mean.
Bertha the Bearded Lady, sideshow freak
They file past, sniggering, nudging each other with their elbows, eyes wide. “Fuck, do you see that, she's got a motherfuckin' beard!” “How'd you like to roll over in bed and see that in the morning, huh?” “Ah, it's all fake.” The push-up bra is too tight. It's hard to breathe. My breasts spill out of my sequined bodice, proof that I'm a woman. Stan makes a tidy income on the side for private viewings after the show. Drunken men emboldened by their friends come in to pinch and grope me, pull on my beard. They jostle each other, call me “it,” never look me in the eye. I can smell their nervous sweat and the whiskey on their breaths. A man sidles in alone, furtively. He takes out his wallet and hands a folded twenty to Stan, who discreetly disappears. Breathing hard, the sallow-faced man grabs my beard and tugs with one hand, slides the other up my skirt, fumbling with the crotch of my nylon underwear, and jams his finger inside me.
I've been doing this long enough so I know most of us are not really funny. Take me. Every night I smear white greasepaint on my face, put on my bulbous red nose, outline my eyes with black circles, paint a red, down-turned grimace around my mouth and large blue tears on my cheeks. I waddle into the ring in oversized shoes, plaid pants five sizes too big that fall down when my suspenders fail. I'm the butt of the jokes, the one who's always trailing behind, who stumbles and falls when he tries to catch up, who gets kicked in the ass when he does. The children howl because they understand humiliation: the shame of oversized hand-me-down clothes, and the cruelty of adults who squeeze their cheeks a little too hard, who tickle them a little too long. Hilarious when it's someone else who plops on his fanny, rubs his eyes and boo-hoos. But the kids all know: when it's you, it ain't so funny.
Manuel, fire eater
A man eating fire. Not something you see every day. Not something any of them could do. There are always some who aren't watching. They've seen it before, or they think it's a trick, not really fire, or they're slurping cold snow cones, cramming pink and blue cotton candy in their mouths. They should try this, just once. They should see the blisters on my tongue, inside my cheeks. The first drum roll sounds. The children watch wide-eyed. The drumbeats drop to a hushed thrumming, then gradually become louder, pulsing, pounding. I light the torch, and hear the whumpf as it flares. Arch my back and raise my chin high, eyes trained on the ceiling of the tent. Open wide. Eleven years on the circuit, and I'm still nervous every time.
The steam calliope wheezes, playing “Entrance of the Gladiators” for the grand finale. Spotlights converge on me as I raise my arms and bow and turn in the center of the ring. My horses are already galloping around the perimeter, gradually gaining speed, bespangled acrobats doing handstands on their backs. Nimble ballerinas in rainbow costumes balance precariously on one leg, then kneel on the rosin-backed horses, waving at the crowd. The elephants are lined up, braying and lowering their trunks so that girls decked in feathers and sequins can scamper up them as they enter the ring. Clowns tumble and cavort in the sawdust, bow and extend oversized flowers to people in the front rows. Soon enough the last of the audience will file out, the lights will dim, workers will scoop up excrement and trash, abandoned popcorn boxes, crumpled programs. Someone will flip the switch for the generator with a loud thunk. Lights out. We'll be on our own again.
Jacqueline Doyle lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her award-winning flash chapbook The Missing Girl was published last fall by Black Lawrence Press, and she has recent flash fiction in matchbook, Wigleaf, Post Road, Hotel Amerika, and New Flash Fiction Review. Find her online at www.jacquelinedoyle.com and on twitter @doylejacq.