Kelly’s Circus

by Zeenat Khan

lit06RINI felt worn out when she woke up to the Sunday morning’s glaring sun. The howling of her neighbour’s two dogs made it difficult to stay in bed. This is only the beginning of summer. Last night was very hot and she stayed up until 2:00am playing solitaire.
At 37, Rini was still single, and hadn’t found anyone to settle down with. She thought about a tranquil family life with two kids. Now she was constantly worried that her biological clock was ticking and she would never know what real happiness was.
She looked at her digital clock radio on the nightstand. It was almost 10:00am. She would have to get up, make coffee, and then walk to the local Farmer’s Market to get her week’s worth of vegetables.
She rolled out of her bed and looked at herself in the mirror and brushed her hair. She picked up the pale blue cotton Kashmiri shawl from the edge of her bed and wrapped herself in it. She loved the feel of this shawl, when it’s wrapped around her. It felt like a piece from the nostalgic past — comforting.
lit07Rini opened her pantry and reached for the new dark roast decaf Turkish organic coffee called the Fool’s House American that she got at Peets Coffee & Tea. She threw in two whole wheat waffles into the toaster and sat on the bar stool and yawned, and waited for the coffee to brew. She fingered through last Sunday paper’s Style section.
She heard the toaster pop up; she hurried to finish breakfast and got dressed to walk to the Farmer’s Market. If she didn’t get there by 11:00am, all the fresh picks would be gone. As she neared the fairground where the Farmer’s Market met every Sunday from early May to mid-November, she realised the place was covered with lines of trailer park cars, in place of small white tents that the vendors erect to set up their stalls.
Rini then remembered that yesterday, on her way back from work, she saw the caravan on the interstate highway when she had to slow down because they were easing into the ramp as she was. She was on her cell phone, too distracted to notice the red RV in front of her that led the entourage where it said in bold yellow letters Kelly’s Circus.
As she approached the fairground, she saw a totally chaotic scene. She spotted her neighbour Holly Mason on the opposite side of the sidewalk crossing at the intersection and coming towards her. Holly asked, ‘What’s going on?’
‘Oh, looks like the circus is in town,’ said Rini.
‘Oh, my! The circus! I haven’t seen one since I was a little girl. I used to love going to circus with Uncle Matt,’ said Holly.
‘Not your Barnum Bailey style, but for a small town, this is something,’ said Rini. Holly looked enthralled when Rini said this particular one was a travelling circus.
‘Okay, I got to be going and finish my daily walk, and might bring Monty and Bella to the afternoon show,’ said Holly and walked towards the hospital.
Rini wondered why Holly was walking in that direction for there was no walking trail on that side. She strolled around the fairground for a few minutes and watched the circus troupe setting up for the show. The heavy red and yellow striped tent had already been erected, and everyone was busy putting the place together for the 2:00pm show.
Disappointed, Rini started to walk back home. She loved walking around this area. Large oak trees surrounded the entire neighbourhood. Next to the fairground there was the Montgomery General Hospital. The tree shaded fairground kept the hospital out of one’s view. On the other side, behind the high hedges, were rows of doctors’ offices.
Rini wanted to see the circus again. In some ways, she felt that she was still a kid, like Peter Pan. Peter Pan had Neverland where he was the king. Growing up Rini always had her circus adventure.
Like little children she liked the clowns, and the acrobats. She vividly recalled, when she was eight years old, she went to her first Ringling Bros. And Barnum and Bailey show in Norfolk with her cousins on a perfect summer night, with a million stars in a night sky.
When Rini came home, she couldn’t settle on doing anything and thought about her circus characters. After an hour, she resolved that even if she didn’t watch the show, she wanted to go and see that place again. Without kids on toe it would seem odd if she actually went to see the circus. One thing she avoided nowadays — people looking at her in a funny way.
When she approached the fairground for the second time, the matinee show was already underway. She could hear the ringmaster speaking into the microphone and the circus live band playing Rolling Thunder to a perfectly choreographed music. She was under the impression that these days the circus only played electronic music.
Rini started to walk in the direction where she saw the big cats when the circus helpers were unloading the van this morning. She saw a few parents with their children rushing in to get to the ticket booth around the corner. The sign said the tickets are selling for $17 for adults and $8 for children.
She heard the announcer inside the tent describing the first act that was about to take place, and could easily see herself there waiting in anticipation for the ringmaster to give his signal.
All the screaming kids inside the sturdy tent made her well up a little. She suddenly felt this emptiness inside her that needed to be filled.
She saw the lion cage was kept at the very end of the fairground. There were two big cats and two pups that were kept in very small cages. When Rini approached, they all glared at her.
The smallest cub got very excited. It stood up on its claws as if to ask Rini to get her out of there. The cub had faded black and yellow stripes over its body. Startled, Rini took two steps backward, and the smaller cub just looked at her with two large watery eyes, while clutching at the metal cage.
‘Ma›am, are you looking for the ticket booth?’ Rini heard a woman’s voice.
Rini was shaken by the voice and looked behind at the direction of the approaching figure. She wouldn’t exactly call her a typical woman. She was about twenty-six with beady eyes, and cheesy dark blonde hair that was tied at the back with a yellow crunchy. She was holding a loveable baby girl with plump pink cheeks and curly red hair.
‘Hi. I am Rini. I was just admiring the animals. What’s your name?’
‘I am Jamie. This is my daughter Roxy,’ said Jamie.
Jamie was wearing a striped clown pant, a pink t-shirt and white Converse and blue ankle socks.
‘Are you not performing this afternoon?’ asked Rini.
‘No, I am out for the season. I was expelled from the show a month ago,’ said Jamie.
‘How come?’ questioned Rini.
‘Well, it happens when a clown is not able to get a big laugh out of the audience. Sometimes you just cannot get into the act, you know what I mean? Since Roxy was born, it is hard to make fun of myself,’ said Jamie.
‘Sorry to hear this,’ said Rini.
‘Oh, don’t be. I am happy that I don’t have to be a clown for this town or any other town this summer. That way I get to spend time with my daughter. She misses me when I am doing the show. I am happy to shed my coloured wigs so that I can colour my own hair.’
Rini noticed Jamie had done an awful dye job.
Jamie continued, ‘Roxy gets very scared when she sees the blue wig. One time she cried for an hour when she saw my whiteface of a circus clown.’
‘How old were you when you joined the circus?’ Rini asked.
‘Actually I was born in the circus wagon. My mother was a hoop dancer. She jumped recklessly through burning hoops. She got tired of doing that, and later wrote gags for the clowns to perform. She is retired now, and went to live with her sister in Indiana,’ answered Jamie.
‘Where is your dad?’ Rini asked.
‘My dad Charlie died four years ago. He was an acrobat first. He spent ten years as an apprentice in London, learning to do stunts, and how to tie him in knots. He did it for five years and he didn’t like it no more. Then he took up clowning,’ Jamie replied.
‘What kind of a clown was he?’ asked Rini.
‘He was very funny, and much cleverer than the other clowns. He wanted the title Master Clown, he never got it though. He was very sad towards the end. My mom would try to make him laugh and he would get mad.’
‘Why?’ Rini wondered out loud.
‘I don’t know really.’ He used to say, ‘I am making kids laugh every day, and at the end of the day I just want some peace and quiet. I just want to be by myself. He used to scream and said leave me hell alone,’ said Jamie.
‘It is rather sad!’ said Rini.
‘We all thought that he just became a sad clown. After a couple of years, one day he just died before the evening show. He had a massive heart attack, that’s what the doctors told us when he was taken to the hospital in Cedar Rapids. We later took him to Montana, and buried him there,’ Jamie finished in one breath.
‘Why was he buried in Montana?’ asked Rini.
‘That is where my dad was born, and he sometimes talked about going to see his mother; I mean visit her grave. So my mom figured he would be happy lying right next to her,’ said Jamie.
By that time they came near Jamie’s trailer.
‘I have to feed Roxy now. It was nice meeting you,’ said Jamie.
‘Oh, I am not in a rush. I am enjoying your life story. You see, I really loved circus from when I was little and read a lot of circus stories,’ Rini confided.
‘Which story was your favourite?’ Jamie asked.
Rini was relieved that Jamie didn›t ask her why she was not buying a ticket and watching the show or whether she has kids.
‘I loved Sandy’s Circus, Lito and the Clown, and Bella the Juggler.’
‘You didn’t like Clown Town? That’s my favourite,’ Jamie said with a smile.
‘It is an all-time classic. Isn’t it?’ asked Rini.
‘It sure is,’ Jamie said with a grin.
‘If you got no place to go then you are welcome to stay and keep me company. Just give me a minute. I have to get Roxy her rice cereal. She is teething now, and wouldn’t eat anything else,’ said Jamie and went inside her trailer.
Rini looked in the direction of the trailer. She saw the cramped quarter of that tiny space. There were some open cardboard boxes, and clothes were overflowing out of them. There were about four blue and green plastic crates filled with shoes, some ABC colouring books, and crayons. A few unwashed plastic cups and dishes were strewn all around.
There was a full-size mattress with blue and green stripes without any cover on the floor. There were no other furniture except one dark brown vinyl stool, and a small wooden chair. She didn’t want to crane her neck to see beyond that in case she was taken for a snoop.
In front of the parked trailer, Jamie had set up a little sitting area. There was a small off white metal low table, two plastic chairs and a very old vinyl baby high chair with animal prints.
On the small table there were two small plants on plain terra-cotta containers. One plant was about to flower. She could see tiny yellow buds were coming out. Next to the table, there was a small dark orange plastic sprinkler.
Jamie stepped out of the trailer with a neon green plastic cereal cup in one hand and settled Roxy on the high chair and began to feed her.
When done Jamie picked up a small stuffed giraffe that was lying on the ground and gave it to the baby to play with.
‘Do you want a cup of coffee?’ asked Jamie.
‘No thank you.’ Rini declined.
‘Can you watch Roxy for me for a minute then? I will just make me a cup. It won’t take long. Instant Folgers, and that is what we drink around here,’ said Jamie.
Rini tried to get Roxy’s attention by making goofy faces at her and Roxy started laughing.
‘See, she likes you. Other than the circus family she doesn’t get any other visitor.’ Jamie said coming from behind.
‘How many are there in the family?’ Rini asked.
‘Forty-five,’ replied Jamie.
‘This is Roxy and your trailer?’ asked Rini for she was curious.
‘Yes and my husband Jules also is here with us. He does dangerous stunts. He should be done just about now,’ informed Jamie looking at her oversized plastic watch with a white band.
‘What kind of stunts does he do?’ asked Rini.
‘He does fire eating and breathing, knife throwing, and sword swallowing,’ Jamie said in a nonchalant voice.
‘That really sounds dangerous,’ said startled Rini.
‘Jules has been doing it for quite some time now. He is also a female lion tamer,’ volunteered Jamie.
‘Did you meet Jules here at the circus?’ asked Rini.
‘Yes, but the year he joined the circus, I was sent away with my sister Rosa to live with my dad›s sister in Toledo, so that we could have some kind of normal upbringing. Our parents wanted us to have the same experiences like the regular kids. We also wanted to go to school, and have friends and stuff, hanging out, going to the mall — have some fun,’ said an exasperated Jamie.
‘How was that for you? Rini probed.
‘Plain awful,’ Jamie replied
‘Why?’ asked Rini.
‘Kids at school called us freaks when they found out that we came from a circus family. They laughed at us for my dad was a clown,’ blurted out teary-eyed Jamie.
‘That wasn’t nice,’ Rini said trying to sound sympathetic.
‘No it wasn’t. That summer Rosa and I came back and joined the show full time,’ said Jamie.
‘Is Rosa a clown also?’ asked Rini.
‘No, she is a juggler, and she wears a baby doll costume during her show. She is only sixteen, and the audience loves her. She is a redhead just like Roxy here. When Roxy is a little older, I am going to give up clowning and do something else. Clowning around is not always fun as I found out,’ said Jamie looking a little tensed.
‘What do you have in mind?’ Rini wanted to know.
‘I want to do acrobatics,’ Jamie replied.
‘That’s nice. You were telling me about you and Jules,’ reminded Rini.
‘Oh, sure. I didn’t mean to get off the subject. It’s been two years that I have seen a regular person,’ said Jamie sounding a little jumpy.
‘You look pretty regular to me,’ Rini replied laughing.
‘You know what I mean!’ Jamie said looking a little self-conscious, ‘I guess. Anyway, when Jules joined Kelly’s, he was 23. At fifteen, he ran away from home in upstate New York to San Francisco, and joined a different circus. He started out as a clown also. That year I was about seventeen and we were performing in Union City, California and Jules came to our show just to check it out. After the show, Jules and the ringmaster Reggie talked, and by the end of that season, he joined Kelly’s,’ said Jamie.
‘Did you two hit it off right away?’ inquired Rini.
‘Oh, no, I didn’t stand a chance against the star trapeze, Marla. Jules thought she was the most exquisite creature he has ever seen. He flirted with her constantly. He even fell in love with her; he used to say from behind the mask he loved her. He thought he found his goddess,’ said Jamie with a sigh.
‘What happened then?’ said Rini.
‘One day while flying through the air she slipped and fell, and broke her neck. That was the end of her circus life. Her brother came to get her after she was released from the hospital and I don’t know where she is now,’ Jamie answered.
‘Wow! That is a real sad story, but maybe not for you, though,’ said Rini chuckling.
‘Well, I didn’t want someone to break her neck to get Jules to notice me, you know what I mean? I was right in front of him, but he never saw me. I was like a consolation prize or something,’ said Jamie sounding a little sad.
‘When Roxy grows up, is she going to perform also?’ asked Rini.
‘Yes, of course. This is the only life that we know of. Besides, Jules have big dreams of becoming the Master of Ceremonies,’ Jamie said grinning.
‘What exactly will he do?’ Rini asked sounding a little excited.
‘He will present all the performers, speak to the audience. He will keep the show moving. I get psyched just thinking about it,’ Jamie replied in a child-like voice.
‘Sounds like it,’ said Rini to please Jamie.
Rini looked at her watch and it was almost quarter to three and she remembered that she had to get her vegetables. She thought of going to the Roots Market to get her vegetables. That was the only place that sold organic veggies that were overpriced. Rini wondered what the circus family eats.
‘So do you guys eat together?’ Rini asked.
‘No, we make our own food in our trailers. We have hotplates; we grill burgers, and hot dogs, and stir fry ready cut vegetables mostly. I want to take Roxy to MacDonald’s when she is done teething. The kid needs her introduction to happy meal,’ Jamie retorted in a blasé kind of tone.
Again Rini felt that tinge in her heart at the mention of MacDonald’s. She cannot stand going there because MacDonald is always swarmed with kids.
Last time when she was there while having coffee; she kept on staring at a cute baby. The baby’s mother caught her making funny faces and she got up and sat at another table outside her peripheral vision. After that Rini stopped going there.
‘Hey, is there anything for me to eat? I am starving.’ The voice was so loud from behind that Rini almost jumped up from the plastic chair she was sitting on.
‘Jules, look we have got company. This is Rini. She lives in this neighbourhood. It turns out that she loves circus. She came by to see the animals and we got into talking and it feels kind of nice,’ told Jamie.
‘Hi. I hope Jamie hasn’t tired you. She loves to talk and talk, and sometimes I can’t take it anymore. As a clown, she is not allowed to talk during long rehearsals, and most definitely not during performances. I have to suffer because of it. If I didn’t have stunts to perform, then I would have gone crazy by now, from Jamie’s yakking… ’ Jules stopped in mid-sentence when Jamie looked at Jules with reproach.
Rini pretended not to hear the Jamie part, and said, ‘Stunts sure look easy.’
‘Oh yeah? Then you should come to my show, check it out for yourself. I can get you a pass if you like. You can come as my guest. We are here until Monday afternoon. The matinee will be our last show here. Then we are off to Richmond, and then to South Carolina. We are like travelling salespeople,’ said Jules while looking at the direction of Jamie.
Rini noticed that Jamie became very quiet all of a sudden. This was when she noticed Jamie up close. Her nose was flat and looked bigger because of her narrow forehead. To make it worse, she had bangs, and from an angle it seemed she had no forehead. Her teeth were crooked.
Now Jamie was pulling on a hangnail clearly looking annoyed. Rini figured Jules talking to her and offering her to come to the show perhaps made Jamie feel edgy.
She wasn’t thinking that Jules was flirting with me, does she, Rini tried to put the thought out of her mind and asked, ‘Is this your stuntman outfit for all shows that you are wearing?’
Jamie answered before Jules could get a word in, ‘This is his daytime outfit, and for the evening shows, he has costumes that he designs himself.’
Rini looked at Jules in his matinee show stuntman clothing — a white t-shirt with a logo that said ‘I do my own stunts’, black lycra tights and white leather soft shoes. His head is a gorgeous brown mop, all curly and soft, his thick broad shoulders strong from doing stunts. Rini tried to picture the beautiful acrobat Marla with the broken neck, while she noticed gold chains on his exposed hairy chest.
Suddenly Jamie got up and went inside the trailer without saying anything. Rini immediately stood up and looked at Jules and told him, ‘Please tell Jamie goodbye for me. I had a splendid time talking to her. I need to go to the market, I should have been there an hour ago,’ said Rini and started walking.
‘Are you sure you don’t want to wait a few more minutes? Jamie is probably making me a hot dog or something. She will be right out,’ pleaded Jules.
‘I really can’t wait any longer. It was really nice meeting you all. Good luck with your stunts,’ smiled Rini politely.
‘Are you coming to see my show before we head south?’ asked Jules.
‘Perhaps,’ Rini said half smiling.
While Rini took very fast steps out of that area, she heard uproar followed by claps and screaming kids that almost deafened her ears.
Next Monday after work, Rini drove around the fairground just to check out if the circus caravan was still there. It was 7:00pm as she rolled her car window down. There was no sign of the circus party. The fairground was totally deserted. Only things remained were about two dozens of Hefty SteelSak trash bags piled up together, and three blue and white portable toilets that were waiting to be picked up.

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