What’s a circus when you can’t trust the clown?
January 20, 2014
I have always loved the circus. And a long time ago, more years than I care to remember, I spent a week on the road with the Carson & Barnes circus as it toured the small towns of Texas. These are my recollections. Part Five.
They see him.
They don’t believe him.
He sucks on fire and chews on flame.
“He’s go it,” Andy says.
“Heart burn. Andy says.
If not, he’s missing a great opportunity.
John Williams, the human volcano, sips a little burning gasoline, spouts a little fire, then quickly changes shirts and becomes Krinko, the elephant skin boy. The very lovely Miss Electra, Harry Nelson’s wife, seats herself in the electric chair, is plugged in, then calmly proceeds to light up a neon bulb with her fingertips, toes, and tongue. Moments after leaving the chair, she becomes the very lovely Serpentina, the snake charmer with a boa named George.
Onstage, in the far corner, the magician is standing before a wooden crate. He says solemnly, “This cabinet was used by the ancient Orientals. They would put a prisoner of war inside, and every day for eleven days they would insert a word or a dagger. It was called the death of a thousand cuts.
“Now the incredible rubber skin girl will wrap her body around these eleven blades. She can’t even get life insurance because of the job she has.
“If you want to see exactly how she does it, just leave a fifty-cent donation with the young lady at the gate and come right on stage for a look at her amazing feat.”
The circus has a great talent for making your money vanish, a half dollar at a time, and nobody complains or seems to mind.
Inside the blue tent, it is not nearly as crowded as D. R. Miller would like for it to be. Too many of the three thousand seats have no one in them. But it about what he expects.
The season is ending.
The circus is on the road home.
And D. R. Miller is simply looking for a place to pick up a few dollars and spend the night. Hard to bed down a herd of elephants, lions, tigers, and monkeys in a tourist court parking lot.
On the bandstand, William L. Reynolds, the director of music, raises his trumpet to begin the overture. He has a master’s degree in performance, taught music for a dozen years, played with a symphony, got tired of the brow-beating politics, and, one day, just walked away from it all.
His first love was the baritone.
But D. R. wanted him to switch to trumpet.
Reynolds recalls, “If he had told me he needed an E flat kazoo, I would have played it.”
Reynolds glances upward at Jeanne, his wife. She’s part of the aerial ballet, a social worker with a degree in psychology, who, at the age of thirty-four, wanted to fly in the circus.
She surprised even herelf.
Jeanne Reynolds is afraid of heights.
The circus is presented as only a circus can present itself. There’s “grace and beauty in motion with aerial artistry,” but for the final show in Georgetown, neither trapeze team ascends for any “mighty md-air mastery.”
They are keeping their matchless melange out of sight.
One group refuses to fly. The tent’s on a slope, the catcher says, and it has destroyed his timing. He should know. He didn’t make a single catching during the afternoon show. A man can lose his job if he’s not better than that.
The other group is grounded.
The trapeze artists carried their family squabble into the air with them, and the husband slugged his wife thirty feet up as she sailed toward his loving arms.
So the trapeze dangles for naugt.
And that’s a shame.
Reuben Caballaro is only one of a handful of performers in history o ever master the triple somersault on the flying trapeze.
He’s eleven years old.
The elephants close the show, all nineteen of them, filling up five rings, dancing and balancing and racing around the tent, stomping the mud within a couple of feet fo the wide-eyed, breath-held few who paid an extra for the preferred seats.
D. R. Miller, standing in the shadows, shakes his head. “It’s probably the only chance thee kids in town will ever have to watch nineteen elephants al performing at the same time. There will never be another one like it. Too damned expensive. If anybody else is ever crazy enough to produce an elephant display like that, it would cost him close to a million dollars, maybe two.”
D. R. Miller turns, clamps his head down firmly and walks slowly out into the night. His have been hard years, but he doesn’t complain. He wouldn’t have missed them for the world.
He saunters past Charles the Clown, a character who looks a little like a hobo, a little like Dopey from Snow White, and wears the expression of a sad-faced basset hound.
Miller doesn’t even bother to look his way.
He likes Charlie al right.
He just hates clowns.
Back in the old days, when Miller and his daddy came out to Kansas with their dog and pony show, they hired a clown whose wife played organ and whose children performing a few balancing acts.
The Millers ran into three straight weeks of a hard rain.
And their bankroll was all washed away
Couldn’t stop the rain.
Couldn’t play god.
Miller’s daddy sat down with the clown and told him: “If you work a few weeks at half salary, I’ll pay everything I owe you when I get back on my feet.”
The clown’s smile ran down his face.
It was painted on after all.
“If you don’t have all the money right now,” the clown said, “then I’m gone.”
D. R. Miller has held a grudge against clowns ever since.
Clowns brought laughter.
But Charlie didn’t.
Charlie was gone.
And the Millers weren’t laughing.
Neither one could have painted on a grin even if he tried.