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"Circus: Spotlight on the Ring"—Broadsided March 1, 2007
Story by Christine Byl & Art by Ira Joel Haber
Note: The Broadsided version of "Circus: Spotlight on the Ring" was excerpted from a longer story. Below is the piece in its entirity.
1. Spotlight on the Ring
Late afternoon outside the lion tamer's show, a man in a Caterpillar baseball hat shoves his son's chest with a closed hand. The boy is eight, red-faced, crying, his shoelaces untied and his hands up in front of his face. No one looks twice. The father shouts but organ music drowns out his words. Then a clown passes by, wide, baggy pants, too-big shiny shoes. He sees the man hit his son and then shake him by the shoulders. The clown drops his head and plows towards them, parting the crowd. He shoves his arm through the father's so they are stitched together by crooked elbows. The clown stumbles about, dancing with the father in tow, circling a fountain, a hot dog vendor. Amid the grind of the Ferris wheel and children's shouts and a whistle that blows when a beanbag finds its target, the clown mouths a soundless song. His painted eyes wide, curved upward red lips.
The boy watches them, dried tears on his cheeks like a stiff mask. His father in a green shirt and the dotted clown, whirling about. He watches his father's face, first angry, then slack, then laughing as if to willingly turn from his own shame. The clown and the man dance back towards the boy. People have gathered around now. Is that your dad, a pigtailed girl asks him and he nods. Then a plane passes by, close overhead, and everyone looks up. It trails a silver banner: "Happy Birthday Maxine!" The boy is struck by the clouds in the sky, their fast changing shapes—now apple, now elephant, now old-fashioned ship. When he looks back to the ground, the clown waltzes alone in the middle of the circled crowd, his legs stomping in then out, pretending to pluck a bird from the air, then releasing it. Dad, calls the boy, but his father is nowhere he can see.
2. A Volunteer from the Audience
People everywhere, pressing up against you, closer than anyone gets except for lovers, or family, or children when they play. And you—here, amidst it all, all the sticky histories, the inner workings of little worlds. Rules, written and unwritten: Don't look me in the eye. All riders must be taller than this line. Find a penny, pick it up. These days, it's a nickel though, at least, maybe a quarter. What's there to spend it on? Cotton candy barely sweet on the tongue before it's rancid; a rubber monkey that jounces at the end of a string; a strip of photos from the booth, black and white.
What can you do with the violence of strangers? The sadness of lives other than your own? There's a feeling in the air, it's got a presence all its own. Like the nothing-echo of a dead line after a hang-up call, or the moment, home from a trip, when you see your life spread out in front of you, the same books, the mail stacked up, the neighbor's gray laundry hanging from her balcony. Outside the window, small birds rest in flocks along the telephone wire strung across the flat sky. It seems like nothing could happen, or anything at all.
3. The Fortune Teller's Gaze
See the backseat of the Chevy on the way home: the boy, red-faced, crying. Caterpillar hat on the seat and the father driving too fast. How about that clown, son, he says, fiddles with the radio. Is that your dad? The boy stretches out on the backseat, turns his face into the crack where the seatbelts slip. What a day, says the father, his wrists hung loose over the steering wheel. What a day, kid; he says it again. See the headlights pass through the car windows, the press of danger on-coming quick and then gone? The boy closes his eyes, the hotdog taste in his mouth. He whispers into his hand. Happy Birthday Maxine! And what's this?—here's the shining plane, swooped down low, the wings brushing the tops of the trees, a great wind kicked up in its wake. The boy grabs hold of the wing, climbs on. It's difficult, but he hangs on tight and then—higher than the cars on the highway, higher than the V-ed birds winging their way north, higher than he's ever been, until he's enveloped by clouds: castle, ship, starfish, gone.
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