When I was twelve and my brother Milo was eight, the circus came to town. It was the summer after our mother died. Spring had evaporated and the days, no longer divided by the bells of school, stretched before me like cloudless desert sky. I floated, cut loose in the world.
I remember clearly how hot it was and how above-it-all I felt. Too old for the circus, I watched the parade of animals down our main street, faintly bored. The animal smell was so overpowering, I wondered how anyone could stand to eat the drippy sno-cones and shriveled up hot dogs sold along the parade route. It was 1976, and everything was draped in red-white-and-blue bunting. The Uncle Sam stilt-walker threw wooden coins into the crowd and the younger children jumped to catch them.
I picked a scab near my elbow, scratching at the edges to the point of tearing, fingering lightly the rough surface of it. I was covered with scabs and sores that summer. I wanted to toughen up, and I spent my free time involved in blood-letting stunts around the neighborhood.
I was about to turn away from the parade when I saw her. She stood, barefoot, on the back of a horse. The sun glinted off the asphalt and her auburn hair blazed. At regular intervals, she eased herself onto her hands, her bare legs languid in their approach of the sky. Her skirt fell around her thighs, exposing the ruffle of sea-foam petticoats. My heart lurched. The girls murmured appreciation. We boys ran along side for reasons we didn’t yet understand.
I followed the parade to the end of the route, where a man in breeches shooed away the other children. I stayed behind. I watched the girl dismount, her bare feet thumping on the dusty ground. She began to brush her horse, whispering to him in a low voice. He responded with soft snorts and whinnies. I figured she must be about eighteen. I wondered what someone had to do to get a horse and join the circus.
“ That’s a nice horse,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
She seemed not to have heard me.
“ How old is he?”
Up close the pink and fleshy make-up she wore showed, accumulated in the corners of her eyes, anchoring some emerald sequins there. Little plastic gemstones nestled in the waves of her hair.
“ I’ve had him since I was twelve,” she said. She bent over to clean his shoes and her skirt rocked like a bell from all the petticoats underneath.
“ I’m twelve,” I said, wishing immediately I hadn’t. Maybe I could have passed for fourteen.
The girl smiled a little, and I could see it was a secret smile, not meant for me. She led the horse to his shelter.
“ Can I feed him a carrot?”
She looked at me and smiled a more public, teasing smile. “I don’t think so. He’s mean, you know. See?” And she showed me her right hand, wiggling her middle finger. The tip of it was missing.
She hosed off her feet and jammed them, still wet, into a pair of boots. I looked down at my Chuck Taylors and wished they were dirtier.
“ You coming to the circus tonight?” she asked. I nodded. “Meet me at the horses after. I’ll show you everything. Hey, I’m Lily,” she said, sticking out her hand. “What’s your name?”
“ Stephen,” I croaked, and shook her hand, which was surprisingly hard. I felt the absence of her fingertip and found it oddly thrilling, like the moment you realize, when falling backwards and expecting to be caught, that you will not be caught.
“ Well, nice to meet you, Stephen. ‘Bye for now.”
She disappeared into a trailer that trembled when she slammed the door. The possibilities of “everything” made my jaw drop and I stood like a fool in front of the closed door until an older woman with a black beard elbowed me in the ribs and winked. “Catchin’ flies, honey?” I rushed home, that feeling of falling propelling me along.
At home, I stood on the roof of our carport, arms perpendicular to body, naked from the waist up, my bare feet warmed by the slate tiles. My eyes were closed, and the hot wind ruffled my hair. I was in the habit of leaping. So far that summer I had chipped my front tooth, smashed a molar, broken the second toe on my left foot and earned a neat row of stitches near my left shoulder.
I thrust out my nearly concave chest and leaned into a swan dive. I had piled a month’s worth of lawn clippings to break my fall, but that turned out to be not enough. What had seemed adequate cushioning on the ground felt entirely different at the bottom of a ten-foot drop. I might have been unconscious for a while. The phrase “wind knocked out of him” meant something to me for the first time. After a little while I stood, blood trickling down my chin. I cupped my hand over it and went inside to get ready for the circus.
All along the hallway to our bedroom hung the pictures my mother had kept in her hospital room, the school pictures where my hair is sticking up and Milo has a black eye, and snapshots my father had taken—things she’d missed, like pumpkin carving at Halloween and field trips to the zoo. Also hanging on the walls were our art projects from school that we’d made for her, cards and letters whose cheerfulness had been swallowed by the antiseptic stillness of the hospital. Their color faded week to week until I’d half expected to come in for a visit to find it had all faded away to nothing. They hung on though, clinging to the walls of our house after Mom died, dusty reminders decomposing before our eyes.
Milo kept making things for Mom after she died, though he would deny it when confronted. He had shelves of stuff—lumpish gray animals made of clay, cigar boxes smeared with gluey colored tissue paper, God’s Eyes stuck to the wall over his desk with push pins. A few of his best projects would have made our room and the hallway leading to it seem like a shrine, which might have been comforting. But the volume of Milo’s creations and the desperate way they were tacked, taped, or stapled to every surface in sight gave the place the feel of a crippled fortress, an ineffectual barricade against some incoming terror. I often took swipes at their fluttery edges as I walked down the hall, which, if he saw, would reduce him to incoherent whining and physical violence—directed at me, of course.
After I cleaned up and recovered from my stunt—it took two band-aids to cover the cut on my chin—I went over to the school to pick up Milo. He was in day camp, and every weekday during the summer I picked him up at 4 o’clock and stayed with him until Dad got home from work. Mostly he tagged along and watched my feats of daring. He was usually quiet so I didn’t mind having him around. The kids were corralled outside the school where they waited to be retrieved by their parents. They seemed restless and uneasy, as if waiting raised the possibility that they might not be picked up at all. Milo’s big cheeks were red and his hair was sweat-plastered into a neat cap on his head. He held a popsicle-stick house and a God’s Eye in one hand and his Scooby-Doo lunch box in the other. He saw me, lit up, and started running—an awkward half-waddle—toward me.
“ Hey, Bud,” I said. I patted his sweaty head. He was having trouble with all his stuff.
“ Milo, why do you always have more stuff than the other kids?”
He mumbled something I couldn’t hear.
“ What did you say?”
He ignored my question and executed a dip at the knees to get out from under my hand.
“ You know what tonight is, Bud, don’t you?”
Milo smiled and kicked at a pebble in his path.
“ Circus,” he said, in his low, quiet way.
For most of Milo’s early childhood, I’d thought there was something wrong with him because he didn’t talk much. He used to talk to Mom. He’d crawl up in her lap and talk close to her ear in this low murmur that only she could understand. She’d hug him tight and he’d smile, very satisfied. Dad and I were less patient with Milo’s quiet ways. We were always saying, “What? Speak up.” But Milo didn’t want to, I guess. Sometimes I made him repeat himself even when I’d heard him perfectly clearly, just because his quietness annoyed me so much.
I thought about explaining Lil to him, but what could I say that would make sense? I watched him waddle along, his lunch box banging against his leg. I would keep her to myself a little while longer, pondering her handstands and her white feet the way one might absentmindedly finger the slippery binding at the edge of a blanket.
I made Milo take a bath, and we ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I imagined seeing Lil after the circus and introducing her to my father and Milo. I knew we would all get along, and I imagined us eating dinner together that night and laughing. My father typically made us dinner when he came home from work—usually soup from a can and sandwiches. We didn’t talk much. I don’t know what Dad and Milo were thinking, but I was thinking about how the quality of our meals had gone downhill since Mom’s death. The quality of the objects in our lives had declined as well: the dishtowels became frayed and were not replaced; the kitchen table was speckled with crumbs from yesterday’s meals; I wondered, was I the only one who noticed? Though Milo and I were on our own much of the time, and though I noticed this decline in quality, I wasn’t independent enough to imagine how dishtowels were replaced and I never thought to wipe the crumbs off the table either.
I’m a little surprised that my father left us alone as much as he did, but he had no choice. He had to work, and as long as we did okay in school and no one complained about us, he left us alone. I’ve talked with other people since then and they express shock at the amount of freedom we had. Most kids did not spend most hours of the day without adult supervision, I’ve learned. Our father was so confident in his authority that he probably never doubted our obedience, even from afar. He didn’t mention my scrapes and bruises that summer. He must have assumed it was all normal boy stuff because he never seemed to wonder what else it could have meant.
Even when he was with us, our father was not entirely there. I know his mere presence comforted Milo, but for me it produced the opposite effect. To glance over at him sitting in his chair in the living room after supper, his magazine or newspaper on his lap, staring at the middle of the room, the center of nothing—it was the first time I’d felt alone in a room with other people. At twelve, the sensation was new and raw, and I found my father’s simultaneous presence and absence disquieting.
After we’d finished eating, Milo and I piled our dirty dishes in the sink, slammed the unlocked door behind us, and walked to the fairgrounds. Inside, the big tent smelled like a wet towel that had been left wadded in a corner to dry, with occasional warm bursts of popcorn and roasted peanuts. A few clowns mingled among the young children and their parents. Barkers strolled with bouquets of balloons and pink and blue cotton candy. The nonsense murmur of the crowd pressed around us, and late afternoon streams of rosy-golden light glowed through the tent, giving the air the weighty feeling of descending darkness. Some children were crying, but most were quiet, slumped against the shoulder of a parent or older sibling.
I sat Milo next to a nice-looking family. He was exhausted from his day at camp and would be up past his bed-time. I asked the young mother seated next to him if she would keep an eye on him while I went to the concessions stand to buy us some soda and licorice. Dad had left me money and a plan to meet up later. I figured I’d look for Lil along the way. I told Milo I’d be back in a minute, and from the way he was perched so carefully on the edge of his seat, I could tell he was waiting for me to come back before I’d even left. He didn’t complain or protest, and this made it easy for me to disregard his nervousness. I left him there without a backward glance.
I took the long way. I had to find her, though what my plans were once I’d found her I did not know. I thought about all the tricks Lil could teach me—how to ride a horse backwards, standing up, or on my hands; how to raise myself up effortlessly, with the horse’s powerful back beneath me, the crowd awed by my strength and daring. Milo and Dad would be there to watch and they would be proud. I wasn’t thinking clearly and it felt good.
When I turned the corner of the tent, I was so lost in my imaginings that I nearly ran into a thin dusty-looking man in a faded black t-shirt and jeans. “Hey, man,” he said. “Concessions are inside this year.” A silver chain hung from his belt and disappeared into his pocket.
“ Oh,” I said. “Do you know where Lil is?”
“ Lily? She’s here. What, you want to see her?” His eyes sparked—a quick flash.
“ She’s getting dressed—her make-up and everything. She don’t like people seeing her before she gets her make-up on. You know how women are.”
He took a good look at me and laughed.
“ Then again, maybe you don’t.” He was still chuckling as he turned to walk away.
I followed at a distance. We wove through the trailers and porta-pots and propane tanks. There were faint sounds of music and applause, along with the intermittent sounds of animals and barkers. Generators whirred to life, officially marking the descent of night. Strings of naked bulbs blinked on and we followed their strands through the maze of temporary shelter.
Dusty Man stopped at one of the trailers. I hid across the aisle and waited. He knocked on the door of the trailer and shouted, “Lily! Open up!”
The door opened and my girl—Lil—stood silhouetted in the doorway. She wore a short robe and her red hair was loose, tumbling down her back in curling waves. My body tingled at the sight of her. She seemed smaller out of costume, her back not so straight, her shoulders a little hunched over. The pale white of her legs and the V of her chest glowed. Dusty Man went inside and shut the door. I crept closer, frustrated to find that the windows of the trailer were too high for me to see through. I paced around and found an empty milk crate to stand on. I couldn’t hear over the noisy AC, but I could see: the man, looking at Lil fondly, talking to her; Lil smiling; Lil laughing, her hand covering her mouth. I was sure he was telling her about me, some dumb kid who wants to see her. The man held Lil’s upper arms. She closed her eyes as the man kissed her mouth. My face went hot, and I suddenly wished I was somewhere else, but I couldn’t move. The man reached for the tie of her robe. My legs wobbled. Lil gently intercepted his hands. The man snatched his hands away, turned his back, then whirled around, grabbed her and threw her on the sofa. He stood over her—a mere heap of flowered fabric on the couch. Now I could hear him. He was yelling things I’d never heard before.
“ God damn it, Lil. I shouldn’t have to ask for it—I shouldn’t have to beg. Why do you make me?”
My throat felt tight and burning, and cold sweat trickled down my sides. The man picked something up from the table and threw it across the room. Lil flinched. He rushed around the room, sweeping things off the table, kicking whatever lay in his path. “See what you make me do?” He picked her up by her arms and flung her against the wall. Then he drew back his hand and swatted her.
Before I could think what to do, he was gone. I watched his black shape disappear down the alley and then I ran to the open door. Lil was on the floor and I was afraid she was dead. I had never seen a person get hit before, not in real life. The way her head snapped, the force with which her body struck the wall—I thought for sure she was dead.
“ Are you okay?” I closed the door.
Lil looked up. Her face was full of freckles—that was the first thing I noticed—and she was trembling.
“ Oh,” she said. “It’s you.” She stood, a little wobbly. “How do I look?”
I hesitated. “Your eyes are puffy. And there’s a little cut, right there.” I reached out as if to touch the soft spot next to the corner of her mouth, but my hand stopped inches shy of her face.
“ What time is it?” She made her way to the couch and sat down. Her robe was open and I could see the matching bra and panties she wore. Everywhere I looked about the trailer I saw things I didn’t want to see: Lil half naked, crying on the couch; the destruction Dusty Man’s temper had caused. The locust hum from outside swelled in my ears along with the thrum and whoosh of my pulse. My heart boomed in my chest. I looked at my watch. “Eight-thirty,” I said, and I kept looking at my watch.
There was a knock at the door and Lil flinched. It was Dusty Man.
“ Lil, you’re gonna miss your cue.” He lowered his voice, “Darlin’, you all right? Answer me.”
“ I’m fine,” she said. “Just give me a few.”
We heard him move away from the door and she rose unsteadily from the couch. She grabbed a bag and started stuffing her things into it. Her robe was completely open by now and she stumbled around the room putting on whatever clothing she came upon first. “You’ll walk with me to the gate, I’ll get a cab. If you’re with me, he won’t do anything—” Here she dropped her bag and hit herself on the forehead with the flat of her hand, which I found more alarming than what I’d already seen. “Stupid!” she yelled at herself. She sat down again and cried. “I always make him mad. And now I’m late.”
“ You can stay with us.” I picked up her bag. She was now fully dressed. “My dad won’t mind.” I tried to employ a rational-sounding tone of voice, as if we were about to do a reasonable thing. I wanted one happy scene—dinner, breakfast, maybe some riding tricks in the backyard—before we put the beautiful Lil on a train out of our lives. People left, I knew that, but couldn’t we have just one happy time? I wanted people in our house laughing again, and I was sure Lil could help with that.
The crazy things is, we got all the way to the gate with her horse and bag. It wasn’t a long walk to my house and I figured we could tie her horse in the back yard.
“ Wait here,” I said. “I have to get my brother.”
She seemed to understand. She nodded and opened her mouth as if to speak but nothing came out.
I ran back to the tent to find my father talking to a security guard outside the main entrance. Milo leaned against Dad’s leg weeping, clutching fistfuls of his slacks. My father saw me and raised his eyebrows. When I was within arm’s reach, he pulled me to him and leaned over so he could deposit each word into the shell of my ear.
“ Stephen, do you know where they found your brother?”
His hand gripped my arm. Using the word “brother” instead of “Milo” was his way of letting me know I was in big trouble. I shook my head.
“ Under his seat. He thought you weren’t coming back.”
I talked fast—a friend in trouble who needed our help. Somehow I got him to follow me to the gate where to my utter gratification, Lil waited. I was starting to feel dizzy with joy, when Dusty Man emerged from the edge of darkness around the gate.
“ Dad, you have to save her.” I grabbed his arm with both hands and squeezed. I explained what I’d seen in the trailer, and for a moment I feared I would be punished for knowing things I should not.
My father’s face looked tight, as if ready to break open and unleash whatever emotions lurked behind his pressed-together lips. “Wait here,” he said, and I waited with a grim fury building in my chest. I was thinking Dusty Man would get it now, boy, would he get it good.
Dad walked over to Lil and Dusty Man, who were embracing. I could see Lil’s face over Dusty Man’s shoulder. It glowed with relief and happiness, as if she were greeting him after a long and uncertain absence. Glad didn’t really describe it. She looked grateful. I had imagined my father marching up to Dusty Man and socking him in the jaw, but that seemed wrong now.
My father apparently introduced himself because he and Dusty Man shook hands. My father talked to Lil. She nodded her head. He took her aside and talked to her some more. She nodded and cried. Then my father walked back to us. “Okay, boys, time to go home.”
I felt I’d been dismissed, that my father had declared the enormity of my concerns to be insignificant.
“ You’re just going to do nothing?” I said to him, waiting for the smack I felt I had earned. But my father said only, “Not now, Stephen.” My father, I could tell, had had enough of me and a lot of other things as well. He didn’t look well—less certain, less solid, and much older. I was sorry I’d gotten him involved. He hadn’t looked this bad on the day of my mother’s funeral, but, as I know now, that was only one day. He took up Milo’s hand and headed home.
I walked backwards watching Lil and Dusty Man walk arm in arm in the opposite direction, with Lil’s horse trailing behind. My heart thudded loudly in my chest, accentuating the hollowness there, and I hurried to catch up to Dad and Milo. A hot peevishness began to form inside me that would stay with me and grow through my adolescence. I grabbed my father’s hand and squeezed it as hard as I could. He squeezed back—a bone-numbing grip—and we held on to each other in that tense, rough way all the way home.
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