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Death of the Circus


Jimmy Clarke

It was the fall of '47.   Life was fresh, unscarred, when the lights of the circus first drew her near, and she was young.  Brilliant lights radiating excitement, illuminating the Bronx skyline, exchanging the shadows of her spirit with brightness. And so she went, guided by the glow of the Ferris wheel, closer and closer, and when the aroma of cotton candy had finally engulfed her, she surrendered her will, and watched as total harmony erupted before her eyes.

"Ladi-eees and Gentle-men!" bellowed the Ringmaster, his dominant voice crystal clear, every word captured within the thick  canvas tent. "Welcome to the Grrr-eatest show on Earth."

Suddenly elephants appeared, demanding attention, their strength and majesty tamed by diamond jewelry sparkling on regal foreheads, trunks and tails intertwined, creating an unbroken circle of energy. 

Clowns and jesters, some with streams of colored cloth, others with hoops, dancing, cart wheeling, arms waving wildly in all directions, mimicking the freedom of children catching fireflies on a warm summer dusk.

Lastly, there were courageous young men, cursing Newton,  swinging boldly beyond the boundaries of life, catching each other with arms of total trust, high above the ground. The crowd applauded wildly, shaking their heads in approval as they clapped.  Wide-eyed youngsters sat frozen in place, cones in hand, ice cream dripping unnoticed down their fingers, mouths hung open in awe. And her heart smiled.

That night before leaving she sat alone, surrounded by empty seats sprinkled with popcorn, staring at the gently swaying trapeze swing above, knowing somehow, what she felt was love.

So off it was, the next day, clothed in a wedding gown of life anew, hustling past her motherís frown, silk woven dowry bag of hope in  hand, running towards the light on feet that longed to feel the softness  of the sawdust-covered ground under the big top... forever.

With a cheek still moist from a fatherís kiss of luck, a caravan of multi-colored circus trucks carried her away. A spectrum of hues,  which rolled down the highway, swallowing up the horizon and embracing the sunset. Covered in exhaust smoke, old cans followed closely behind rear bumpers, dancing wildly on strings of joy. Left behind, her past stood alone watching as hundreds of tires wrote farewell notes in the sky using clouds of highway dust. Face in the wind, her eyes focused on the distant towns ahead, she smiled. And she was happy.

Time seemed a passing friend, turning months to years while molding fulfillment from blocks of raw dreams, but she longed for even more. Day after day, smiles of acceptance greeted her everywhere as she occupied herself, broom in hand around the circus; but the need for something she could call her own grew stronger. Soon the lurking void surfaced, bringing with it the courage to ask for more.

"Come right in, young lady," the circus manager's voice, as always, was filled with sincerity. As she began revealing the secret desires of her heart, he sat and listened quietly, the only interruption sounds of his heavy wooden chair legs scooting towards her. Very close now, sitting eye to eye, his knees almost touching hers, placing his hands firmly on her shoulders, he finally spoke. 

"Let me tell you a little story," he said very slowly, in the kind of gentle reassuring voice that was always a prelude to extremely profound advice. "Two years ago a wonderful young lady who gave up everything to be here, blessed this circus. She filled everyone's heart with a joy we had never known.

When the strongman felt weak, she nursed him back to health with chicken soup and friendship. When the clown was depressed, she sat with him for hours dispensing compassion, until he smiled. That girl was you," he said.  "We all love you and whatever it is that you want, we are all here to help you get it."  

Journeys of a thousand miles start with just one step, she thought as she watched the manager open the office door, stretch his arm out, palm up, into the middle of life, saying, "Your dreams are waiting."

The ascent seemed easy at first, reaching upward one hand at a time gripping a peg, knee bending as her foot searches for a place to support her trembling body. Again and again going through the motions until she climbs high enough to sense real danger. Hesitating now, her rhythm and concentration broken, unable to move and frozen in place, she gazes down at the ground. 

"No, donít look down!" shouts the high wire trainer from the safety of the ground, "Dammit girl! CONCENTRATE!" 

For a few seconds she presses her face against the pole, the coolness of the metal penetrating warm skin, helping her to compose, driving her almost past the fear, to the threshold of commitment. 

Again the voice below shouts, the words cutting through her apprehension quickly, like a sharp knife. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph, girl, donít give up. You're almost there,  CONCENTRATE!" The dominance of the voice first angers then comforts her; with her will reinforced she looks up again and continues her climb. The small trapeze stand at the top of the pole is almost within her reach, and beckoning. 

Finally the moment of conception materializes.  Standing on the narrow platform high above the ground she gazes down at the smiling trainer and suddenly realizes their souls have mated.  She smiles back with a mixed expression of pride and fulfillment.

Every day she coupled her sweat and courage with the guidance and training of the circus staff and nine months later her efforts bore fruit. The 1950 high wire act championships drew competing circuses from all over the country. When it was over she held a trophy close to her breast, and she was proud.

Later that evening a big surprise party was arranged in her honor. Entering her room, cheering friends appeared from the silent darkness as if magically signalled by the click of the light switch.

Older women, women who themselves had won trophies in their younger days, cooed over her prize while offering advice gained from experience on cleaning and polishing her precious new possession. The clown was so happy for her, he asked permission to hold the little bronze and marble figure and began to make funny faces at the small statue, as if to make it smile. 

The manager, who months before had so encouraged her dreams, was filled with pride and offered a toast. Last but not least, the trainer approached her. He represented months and months of aggravation, countless hours of shouting demands. But now, looking down at the fruits of their labor, his face expressed a soft peacefulness that was hard for her to ignore. She smiled, knowing the trophy was not only hers alone.

The circus had been good to her. It had taken her in, loved her and given her a chance to grow beyond her wildest dreams. After gently placing the trophy in the circus display case, she stepped back and reminisced. She thought about the day the lights first appeared three years before, the leap of faith into circus life, the good times, the bad times.  

As she stared her own reflection appeared, smiling back at her from the glass of the display case. And she was content.

For over a decade more she continued to delight and amaze the crowds in hundreds of small towns across the nation, filling the display case with more trophies almost every year. People buying tickets would go out of their way to visit the trophy display, even if the time spent admiring the collection meant sacrificing a front row seat two tents away at the big top. 

The whole circus was proud of her. She had found her purpose in life and in doing so had made an enormous impact on others.

Life wasnít always a bowl of cherries though; every day was full of new challenges. The trainerís temper still flared up on occasion as he strived for perfection in her performances. Nightly hordes of well wishers came to view the trophies, unintentionally rattling the display case and causing them to vibrate and shift, some falling inside the glass. A few needed more attention than others and each night she sat patiently exhausted, gluing them back whole. 

Sometimes life with the circus seemed to drain all her energy, but she always bounced back with the help of her friends. The clown somehow knew when she needed to laugh, the strongman helped her feel secure and protected and the managerís presence constantly reminded her of her purpose in life. She was getting older but she had her trophies, she had the circus, and she felt blessed.

It had been over fifty years since the brilliant lights had first touched her soul. Her competition days far behind her, she now spent almost all her time helping and teaching others. Many of her young students had themselves won trophies, guided to victory by her unselfish devotion. She had truly become the matriarch of all the circus. Some of her old friends had left the circus over the years. She thought about them often, and she missed them.

The gradual interest in amusement parks and movie theaters had slowed the circus schedule considerably over the years, and performances became far and few between. The slower pace was a sad but welcome relief to all who remained and long lazy days were spent reminiscing. 

"Did you see todayís paper?" the manager asked, his tone designed to pique her interest.

"No, why?" she replied, watching him turn the front page in her direction.

"Another one of your students has won a trophy!" he exclaimed in delight, shaking the paper as evidence of his statement. "The form could be slightly better," growled the old trainer, as he strained to see the image from his chair beside her. 

"For Christís sake, give her a break will ya?" said the strongman, his muscles tightening, while speaking up in her defense.  Sensing trouble, the clown blurted out something very funny and everyone laughed uncontrollably as the tension evaporated instantly. 

"Iím sorry," the trainer said, "everyone knows there wouldnít be any trophies at all without you, I donít know why you put up with me sometimes." 

"Because I love you," she replied. Looking at all of them now, she repeated, "Because I love you all." And times were good.

Then there came a day. A day everyone knew would come, a day no one ever spoke of. Death had come for the circus, and it was gone. Only empty spots in the soft dirt where the tents once stood remained. The circus had been losing money for years. Bank loans and donations had kept the show going, but its time had finally come. Only she was left, standing alone on the soft ground. And she grieved.

At night she lays restless in an empty bed, her mind traveling back, her thoughts once again becoming one with the Bronx skyline. Swept up in the memories, she wonders if it is better to have loved and lost, or to never have loved at all. The answer becomes clear as the reflection of far-off headlights streaming through her window bounce off the trophy case and suddenly produce seven shadows on her bedroom wall.

Author's Note:  My mother is strong, and many love her.... she will survive. My dad's strength, humor, and yes, even his stubbornness, has been truly missed by my six siblings and myself since his passing. With love, Jimmy.... the third trophy

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