STRANGELY enough it was one of Dan Shepherd's stray lambs who was responsible for his daughter Jennie going away with the circus. Though Dan no longer ran the rooming house which Jennie, laughing, called his "one-man social agency,” he still took people in and there were always strangers staying with Jennie and her dad. This one was Lily. Why she came was unimportant. Dan seldom asked questions of the people he befriended. That they were in trouble was enough for him. Lily had been with them only about three days.
She was a tall woman, heavy-boned, with a dull raw face, a mop of wiry hair and a grin that showed broken teeth. She met Jennie in the hall one day and said, "Hey, kid, you ever been to the circus?”
"No,” Jennie said, and waited.
"I gotta boy friend who works with the show—see? An he’s comin’ ta town . . . inna bouta coupla weeks . . . how’d ya like to go to see the show . . . for nuthin’? I can get in for nuthin’. He gives me free passes.”
She was eager, excited, bubbling over with the news, the importance of being able to get in to see the shows free.
"Any show at all. Any of ’em. You wait and see. Just say the word and I’ll take you. Oh, they got a bunch of freaks and shows and rides. Boy, do I ever like those rides! Would you like to go kid?"
Jennie said it would be nice and went on sweeping the floor.
"You got no boy friend, eh kid?”
Jennie shook her head, no.
"Well, gotta go. See you later.” And she was gone.
It was a week later when Jennie heard the door open and footsteps running down the hall. When she looked up a man stood in the kitchen doorway. He was tall and thin and stooped as if his lean length tired him. He looked as if he were propped up by a wall. His face was long and thin also and held a foolish look which said he was perpetually astonished. His smile was a grimace over bare gums. He spoke in a heavy gutteral accent.
“Comerightdownrightawaywe needagirl thestronggirlquit and comerightaway.”
He ran the words together. Jennie couldn’t make out what he was saying. Maybe he was someone Dan had sent over for a meal.
He was gesticulating with long arms, looking over his shoulders, giving the impression of great necessity for hurry. His clothes were dark, rumpled and decayed looking. Between his hurried explanations, his anxious pleadings, Jennie understood that someone had quit her job at the circus. This, then, was Lily’s friend, the one who could get free passes. Lily, it seemed, had told him Jennie wanted a summer job. If she would just come for an hour, two hours, they would pay her three dollars.
Three dollars! A circus!
It was 1932. Three dollars was a lot of money, as much as Jennie earned in two weeks of baby-sitting, doing dishes, or running errands. Sometimes it took longer . . . three or four weeks ... to earn that much. She had two dollars saved . . . two dollars toward her goal of thirty-three dollars, the amount she needed for schoolbooks. She could ask Dan but he was always so broke, so worried. Maybe she should go.
The scarecrow who was Lily’s friend stood waving his arms and urging her to hurry. Three dollars. While Jennie hesitated he took her arm, led her to the hall, his excitement mounting, affecting her.
“Hurry, please hurry!”
THE circus was a cacophony of sound and noise and tinny music that got into the stomach and the blood and made your head giddy with excitement. The people crowded in a solid mass, moving slowly, swarming and moving and swirling, like a great muddy river that has nowhere to flow.
It was hot and the ground underfoot was bumpy with little hills and hollows.
Jennie stumbled and walked on with the scarecrow. They came to a tent and he pointed. She went in and saw a sea of faces, all looking toward an enclosure hemmed in by canvas walls, about waist-high. In the centre was a mat, a common floor mat, and the scarecrow motioned Jennie to lie down on it. She looked around. The faces were looking at her. The barker was shouting hoarsely, “Helena Clayburn, the strongest girl in the world . . . performs feats of strength that no man can do . . . amazing, terrifying, unbelievable . . . hurry, hurry, hurry!”
A bald giant wearing a leopard skin placed a heavy rock on Jennie’s chest.
“Hold yer bret, kid,” he whispered. “Jist hold yer bret.”
Jennie took a deep breath. There was no way to back out now. She was carried along, unresisting, letting this thing happen. She filled her lungs to bursting and the sledge hammer came down again and again on the rock, smashing it to bits. It was over in a minute and surprisingly she found it didn’t hurt. She scarcely felt it. Then the people were filing out, murmuring, staring, gaping, their eyes burning holes in her, filling her with a peculiar shame.
Then Jennie was hustled out to a bally stand and the barker called and shouted about the strongest girl in the world. Jennie heard the words curiously, as if they were about someone else.
“She breaks rocks on her chest. She holds up a sixteen-hundred-pound horse ...” the barker screamed and cajoled and shouted. “Hurry, hurry, hurry! And get your tickets ... see the strongest girl in the world. It’s only a dime, ten cents. Hurry!”
It was awful standing out on the bally stand with crowds of people out in front. A calliope somewhere ground out the same tune over and over. Jennie didn’t like the circus but she didn’t know what to do. She stood there.
They gave her a bathing suit and a bright orange kimono and all day she stood there. The hundreds of eyes stared at her as she stood, miserable, the day going by like a dream. Please, God, she prayed, don’t let any of the kids from school come out here. And the people stared, the heat, the dust enveloped her, the rocks weighed her down and were broken by the giant in the leopard skin, and the man in the purple shirt with white buttons screamed into a megaphone.
Then she saw one of them—a boy from her room at school. He stared as if his eyes would pop out and then he winked as if he and Jennie had a secret and everything was as nice as it could be.
Jennie didn’t look at the people anymore. A man called Pete said she would have to put some make-up on.
“But I don’t use make-up. I haven’t any,” she said.
“Get some on,” he said and his voice was an odd guffaw. “You look as pale as a ghost.”
The carnival people laughed when she stole away at lunchtime to ride the merry-go-round . . . because she didn't understand their language and when the man who looked like a ferret and ran a milk-bottle game spoke to her, she felt waves of embarrassment and didn’t know why.
“Have you got the time?” Jennie asked politely.
And he laughed an amused laugh and said, “I’ve got time baby if you’ve got the price.”
This is what he said and Jennie sat down to think about it quietly and try to unravel the meaning.
I’ve got the time. That must mean he does know the time. If I have the price. That means ... I must pay . . . she gave up with a shrug. It was crazy. It meant nothing . . . nothing at all.
For two more days as Helena Clayburn, the strongest girl in the world . . . she would have nine dollars. Only twenty-two dollars to earn . . . for books. She felt the three dollars in the pocket of her jeans and nodded. It was a lot of money. Nine dollars if she stayed two more days.
They were going away, they said. If Jennie went with them it would only be for five weeks. For then they would be returning to Winnipeg. She would be sure to get home again . . . only five weeks and she would get eighteen dollars a week. It was a lot of money. In strange cities it would not be so bad. There would be money for books and even a new dress . . . and some shoes. Dan never noticed about girls and what they needed . . . and Jennie didn't like to trouble Dan. It might even he fun ... an adventure, in a way. And it was, sort of, show business.
When Jennie told Dan, he was worried. He didn’t want her to go. He tried to persuade her not to go but he would not tell her she could not go. That was the way Dan was. We had to make our own decisions, he said.
“I have to go,” Jennie said. “I need the money for books and I’ll only be gone five weeks. Nobody will know me.”
Books and clothes and nice things to go back to school with and not be looked at because your clothes were raggy old hand-me-downs that didn’t fit. Not to be wondered at because you had no money for lunch and sometimes no lunch at all. To go to a party maybe and have a nice dress . . . books and a class ring, not pretending any more that you had forgotten your books. All the things she didn’t tell Dan. I have to go. I have to go. I want the money for books.
But Jennie knew too that she was ready for the magic life. And here it was . . . the magic of the circus. Anything. Anything at all could happen!
DAN HAD stood at the railway station with tears in his eyes. There were crowds and noise and the hissing of steam and people running and voices calling and the tremendous excitement and stir of the carnival getting under way. The carnival people milled about and Dan looked at them with his gentle smile.
He didn’t speak, just stood there. When it was time to go he put his hands on Jennie’s shoulders and said in a choked voice,
“I trust you.”
Jennie had an instant’s insight into the Victorianism of the scene on the busy platform among the oddly assorted carnival people and she wanted to laugh . . . and to cry.
“Of course you trust me . . . silly. There’s nothing to worry about.”
A large, loud-voiced woman in a gaudy costume came up and smacked Dan heartily on the back. He coughed.
“Ah!” she bellowed, “don’t worry about the kid. We’ll take care of her!” Dan smiled at the woman gratefully, his eyes misting up again.
It was all odd and unreal, like a dream, and Jennie thought, it is happening to someone else. Then the train was moving and her nose was pressed to the window and she saw Dan, no longer looking strong and dramatic as he did when he preached to the roomers but bent and lost and, somehow, frail. There was the click of the wheels and doors opening and slamming shut at the end of the car and people walking up and down the aisle.
Jennie had two dollars in her pocket when the circus train whistled out of the city carrying her away with it as Helena Clayburn. Pete, the night watchman, a short man in a brown suit with a flashlight in his hand, opened the curtain over her bunk on the train and looked in. He had a kind, craggy face, like Dan’s.
“Excuse me, kid. Don’t be scared now,” he said.
Pete sat down on the edge of the bunk and looked at Jennie. He sighed.
“Another damn fool kid, leaving home, wants to be with the circus.” Jennie tried to tell him she didn’t, not really, but the words stuck in her throat. He was right... in a way.
“Come on kid, what d’yuh want to join a damn crummy outfit like this for, hey?”
“I don’t understand. It’s a job.”
“A job! Is this the best you can do, huh?”
“Yes, it is. I need a job. I couldn’t get anything ...”
He was looking at her kindly again. “Kid, stay away from the guys. Keep to yourself, eh?”
He left but looked back again and said, “Take care of yourself.”
Crummy outfit. Stay away from the men. Take care of myself. Oh, he’s nice. He’s real nice, a real nice man. I’ll tell Dan about him. Jennie looked out of the window. The moon was shining and all around the rail tracks wound out and away from the train. The train stood in the yards and the noise of loading was dying away. The train began to grunt and move slowly, shunting back and forth, to sigh, cough, hum. Jennie went to sleep with the words, “crummy outfit, stay away, crummy outfit” sounding in her ears, with the click of the wheels. Crummy outfit, crummy outfit, crummy outfit.
The carnival was set up in the next town, looking exactly as it had before.
There was the monkey circus, with its platform running around all sides of the topless tent. There were the hamburger and hot-dog stands, called juice joints, the rows of games, called concessions, where tanned blond women in slacks and canvas aprons held balls in their hands and called out, “Come on in.” The fortune teller’s tent where Madame Rosalee in her gypsy costume sat in front of a crystal ball. There was the skeleton of the ferris wheel rising high up in the air, the music of the merry-go-round, starting already, though it wasn’t noon yet.
The penny arcade had a mournful song that always started the day . . , O My Pretty Quadroon . . . with a heart that was broken too soon . . . My heart, like the strings on my banjo . . . is broke for my pretty quadroon . . . O My Pretty Quadroon ...”
The gaudy banners were going up, being hoisted by men in dirty dungarees, bare backs, soiled panama hats jammed on their heads. Their gloved hands hauled the ropes and wires, their mouths shouted instructions and they swore and sweated and laughed. The panda bears and dolls and rings and watches were taken out of velvet cases and displayed. The hard-eyed operators called out husky greetings.
Being away from home made Jennie feel better for now she was among strangers—the people who came to the carnival—they didn’t know her and wouldn’t know her if they saw her again. And she was an adventurer . . . in a different ... a magic life.
JENNIE walked over to the cookhouse for breakfast. Beside her sat a wizened little woman, a dwarf. She wore a stylish dress of some bright shining material. Around her wrinkled neck she had draped several pairs of beads. Her round black eyes peered out from a wrinkled face. The forehead was high, with a pronounced bulge at each temple. The hair was frizzed and thin and grew with an astonishing upward slant from her large head. The nose was large, almost grotesque, and the mouth was a bitter line. She was laughing and talking without pause. No one seemed to pay any attention to her.
Her name, she told Jennie, was Cuddles. She had been “in show business” for more than twenty years. She confided, looking coy, that it was her love of being “with it” that had kept her from getting married long ago.
“Lots of times I have been on the verge, dearie,” she said, “but long ago I knew I was dedicated to my work. Oh!” she looked down at Jennie’s hands. “You stir your tea in the pot too. I knew you were a lady as soon as I saw you.”
She lowered her voice. “They’re not all ladies around here, I can tell you. I always say you can tell a real lady by the way she stirs her tea!”
The dwarf’s job with the carnival was to sit in the Big Top all day. She did nothing but read or knitted, just sitting quietly, her little black eyes roaming over the crowd, looking with casual boredom or scorn. Sometimes she paraded grandly on the bally stand, like a prima donna greeting an audience. She smirked, drew her bright fringed shawl round her misshapen shoulders and with slow feline grace sauntered across the platform. Hips swaying, shoulders lifted, she would smile at the staring faces. On high heels her twisted feet and legs would mince down the bally stand steps. She would look back before disappearing inside the tent and wave a beringed hand to “the public.”
The cookhouse was hot and damp, with the smell of rain-soaked earth, the feel of steam, the odors of cooking. It smelled of animals, of onions frying, of coffee and human sweat. Only occasionally the clean smell of damp earth rose from underfoot.
When Jennie asked the fat greasy man in the tall cook’s hat how much her breakfast, which was tea and toast, came to, he looked at her without smiling and said, “Two dollars.”
She reached into her jeans pocket and took out her only two dollars. His fat dirty hand closed on the money and she turned and left, panicky. What will I do? That’s all I had. Two dollars, just for tea and toast? How will I live? And the books? Three dollars a day!
Soon Jennie learned that this kind of thing was part of learning the ropes, and a necessary step toward being accepted. If she said nothing and let them continue to overcharge her, she wouldn’t belong. She would belong with the yokels, the marks, the public. But if she passed the test by hollering and fighting and demanding her rights, she would become one of them. She would be “with it,” a carnie. She would become one of their own and eligible for the unwritten rights and protection that went with being “with it.”
It was a full week before Jennie did anything about it. She lived on meal tickets, an advance on her pay. Then in the best imitation she could muster of the carnies’ belligerent attitudes, she scowled at the cook and barked at him, “Gimme back my money!”
When he didn’t move at once, Jennie shouted again, louder, and thumped her fist on the counter.
“Gimme back my money or I’ll wreck the joint!” It was the traditional carnie threat.
The cook bellowed with laughter. All of the carnies in the cookhouse roared with laughter. They shouted congratulations and advice and encouragement.
“Pipe the kid,” they said. “Yeah, she’s gettin’ hep . . . that’s the stuff kid ...” and their laughter rumbled under the canvas roof of the cookhouse. Jennie had won the first round. She belonged. They approved. And their approval was sweet.
IT WASN’T the pink tights and spangles of Jennie’s child dream of the circus. There was no excitement, no footlights, no crowds to applaud. There were no elephants, no band dressed in bright costumes. There was just the dusty haze over a village of tents, glare and noise.
There was grease and heat and dust and dun-colored tents with little flags hung around the doorways. Dan sure would weep if he saw this place, Jennie thought. There was no kindness, no gentleness or love here. But they paid little attention to her. They weren’t like the kids at school. It’s not bad, Dan. Not bad at all. It’s kind of exciting even.
Jennie slept that night on the ground, with a blanket around her. There was no place to wash, no place to dress or undress and the faces round her looked too alien. She was afraid to speak to them or ask questions. They might answer in the strange jargon of the man she had asked for the time. I’ve got the time baby if you’ve got the price.
She wrote a letter to Dan and told him of the strange sights, the strange people, the strange language. She told him about Cuddles and added, “It’s a good thing she isn’t where you are Dan, or you would add her to your collection.” and she laughed a little, thinking of Dan and how he collected people and listened to their troubles and helped them. She missed Dan.
She didn’t tell him her two dollars was gone, that she was dirty and tired and homesick. She didn’t tell him of the dust, the dust that clung to your skin and ground into your clothes and hair and the dirt that made your face grey and leathery and old. She didn’t write of standing on the bally platform, like the circus freaks, while the sea of curious faces stared with open mouths.
Every day is like a new page, she wrote. It is as if there is a great excitement and I don’t know what will happen. It might be something wonderful and it’s so good to be alive. She didn’t mention the pointing fingers, the looks, the winks, smiles ... or the hot sun beating down and the rush of feet, the waves of hot dusty people rushing toward her on the platform.
Their feet raised a cloud of dust that grew and grew around her head and settled on her body, her hair, gritted in her teeth. Their eyes stared, wondering. Their ears listened.
Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!
They crowded close, bodies touching, faces upturned, smiling animal smiles. They looked at the banners, hanging limp in the dust and the hot sun and peered over each other’s heads to see into the dark interior of the tent. There was mystery here and excitement and unknown things and a man in a black shirt with pearl buttons who would turn his hand and keep half their change between his fingers.
In the morning the penny arcade played its melancholy air . . . O My Pretty Quadroon . . . the sound twanged and jerked and hung over the shining morning air. The penny arcade played this song every morning rain or shine of every single day the carnival was open and Sundays when it was not open. You’d think the show people would get tired of that song, hearing it so often like that, but somehow they they never seemed to, Jennie thought.
The freak show was the first to open, being a big attraction and the one most likely to attract the stragglers who always hung around, even early in the morning. Jennie could see the pinheads wandering about, not knowing where to go exactly, because they were imbeciles and had to be led to their corner in the pit. The dwarf who ate fire and who got drunk most every day would be shaving in back of the freak tent and the fat lady complaining because someone had stolen her pink bloomers, the ones that were pinned outside the tent to show people how large she was. She weighed four hundred pounds but was billed at five hundred. Her tiny voice was an oddity, coming out of that heavy gross face.
The show people began to move about around ten or eleven o’clock in the morning, crossing and recrossing the lot; to the cookhouse for breakfast; to the office tent to check on the day’s change and get round wheels of tickets; to the front of their show tents where they hoisted banners, tightened guy ropes. They looked around to feel what kind of a day it would be ... a day to get “off the nut,” which meant selling lots of tickets and making a profit, enough to pay their concession, or a washout.
They appeared all of a sudden in the morning, as if the strains of Pretty Quadroon brought them all out of their little hidden places. They slept in small tents called dressing tents, or in the back of the show tents, or curled up in boxes or wooden compartments, which may be part of an illusion, like the box which housed the Bodyless Girl. A few slept in trailers or little box houses on flat cars but these were the lucky ones. And still fewer slept in hotels such as the boss and his wife and the top ride men and a few girls from the girlie show. Jennie never went into the girlie show.
As they filled the cookhouse, talking, laughing, griping, or joking, they all seemed to have one thing in common and it was this: they were all together in the business of getting money out of a gullible public. The knowledge seemed to hold them together, weld them, give them an assurance, a swaggering self-confidence that set them apart. They were never fools or suckers or dudes. They wouldn’t get taken, not they. They were shrewd, clever, hugging their knowledge and their toughness to them as a loved thing. The men had a bravado look about them and a crass knowing appearance as if they knew all there was to know and found it revolting and amusing and bitter. The women had bright hard faces, their eyes outlined in black paint, their eyebrows thin, arched, giving them a questing owl-look. Their mouths were red as blood, matching their nails, and their hair ran to blond, blond-red and red.
Their voices were like no other voices in the world, with a peculiar raucous quality,somewhat like a parrot, and like parrots they called out phrases that had little meaning to anyone but themselves. There was a satisfaction, a unity in saying the words, “How’s scoff” . . . “gimme a stackadry” . . . “two in the water for three” . . . “back up you finkies” . . . this was how they talked and ordered breakfast. They called money jits, deemers, kuters, fin, sawbuck; their language had an underworld flavor. When breakfast came they ate it, elbows on the counter, faces drooping with weariness, eyes blank and lustreless. They prided themselves that they stuck together against the yokels. Yokels were dudes or suckers or marks and their function was to be taken. And these were the boys who could do it.
WHEN THE yokels came they walked down the centre of the carnival lot, slowly, around in a circle, looking at the banners, the barkers, pausing to stare curiously at the dancing girls or freaks or animals led out to back up the barkers’ claims that this was The Greatest Show On Earth.
There was a mystery here and excitement for the yokels, and the sleek dark men in the black shirts with white pearl buttons sat in the high boxes and said, “Count your change, madam.” Their voices drawled it, urging the woman to make sure she was not cheated and they counted it out in the palm of their hands. The women smiled at them and they at the women and when the women turned away, clutching their tickets, the men in the black shirts with pearl buttons had their change clinging between their fingers.
Of these, one was young and dark and very beautiful and the muscles rippled in his back. He was like a lion or a panther, all lithe grace and tanned skin and blue eyes shining with secret mirth. His name was Mac and he was one of those who sold tickets. He was pleased with it, glad of it, and of all the men with black shirts and turning palms, none was so glad as he, for to get the better of someone meant that you could not be hurt.
Jennie cut a hole in the canvas tent to watch him so he wouldn’t know that she watched and she admired his strength and the strong hard arms, the muscled shoulders. He sang in the thin morning air as he brought the heavy hammer down on the big iron spikes.
It was child’s play for him, work that tired out the men on the lot till they were grey with fatigue and glistening with sweat. He didn’t speak much, just smiled because his smile answered for him. It was the smile of a child, shy, asking to be liked. It made him look like a little boy. There were women who knew about the smile and found it treacherous. Jennie didn’t think he was treacherous. She only knew that he was beautiful and when he smiled she felt sorry for him. This must be how Dan must feel when he brings home someone who needs help.
He hated his name, his real name, he told Jennie and asked her to call him Mac.
“Mac,” she said softly and smiled at him and listened to her heart and felt little tremors over her skin and thought, “I must be in love.”
He wore the black shirt with pearl buttons that was almost a uniform of the carnival and a hat, pulled low on his dark forehead. Only the incredible eyes, blue, fringed with sooty lashes, looked out from under the brim and smiled and teased and offered. When he asked Jennie to go for a walk she consented and they walked away from the lot, down a leafy street, till they came to a park.
“Let’s sit down for a while,” he said. And Jennie sat down, carefully arranging her skirt to cover her legs, and smiled at him. He was very handsome. His teeth in the red lips and the tanned skin were white and even and strong.
He put the strong hard arms on Jennie’s shoulders and she shivered. He muttered something in her ear which she did not understand. She smiled at him again.
Jennie felt the dream in her ... of the magic life . . . and love and wonder. Was this love? This swift brutality, this bruising of arms and crushing of mouth? What did he want? He was strange, strange. He was very beautiful and his strength was a call to her. But she did not like the seeking, the urgency, the smile in his eyes.
“Why? why?” He was baffled, persistent, reaching out for Jennie’s arm.
She looked at him. He looked dark and ugly and she wanted to run. He called after her. She ran, crying, running swiftly over the hard earth, through the shadows of the great trees. She was afraid of him.
He caught up with her, panting and calling her name. “You’re just a kid, aren’t you?” he said.
Jennie didn’t answer and looked at the ground, longing to be away, anywhere as long as it was away, away from the rippling muscles in the shoulder through the thin shirt, the strong brown arms, the red mouth and the eyes that laughed. She squirmed out of his grasp.
“How old are you?” he demanded. “How old?”
She looked at him through tears and in misery and fright, said, “I’m sixteen.”
He took her arm. “Come on,” he said, “I’m taking you home.”
It was nice walking home to the lot, with no kissing, no arms, no roughness. He talked about the town, about his home town, his family.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I didn’t know you ...” And he teased. “I bet you don’t even know where babies come from.”
Roughly he drew her to him, tilted her face, kissed her.
“You mustn’t do that,” Jennie told him, as if she was talking to a child.
“Aw ... I didn’t mean any harm,” he said. “After all, you’re with it . . . say ...” he looked hard at her . . . “you’re hep . . . aren’t you? I mean, you know ...”
Jennie wanted to cry again. The strange words, the crazy actions, the roughness, the kiss. Why couldn’t he just talk to her? She liked him if he would just talk to her.
He stopped her on the path and tilted her chin again. “Did you know what I said . . . back there . . . what it meant?”
Her eyes filled with tears. She knew it was something urgent and ugly and cruel. She hated its savagery, its sound.
“Of course I do,” she said, turning her head so he would not see that she did not.
He laughed shortly. “By God, I don’t think you do. By God!” And he threw back his head and laughed loud and strong. “I’m sorry kid.” He exploded with laughter, rocked with it.
THAT NIGHT Jennie stole out of her tent and danced, naked on the grass. There was a moon that brightened the dark sky fitfully. All the lot was asleep and she peered out into the dark to see if she was alone. This is how prehistoric woman must have felt. God, it was good to escape clothes, to escape bodily. She ran at top speed through the night, down a long length of grassy slope and fell, laughing, to the ground. She took deep breaths of the green dampness and felt giddy and drunk and excitingly happy. She smiled and looked around her with delight. My eyes are glittering. I bet they are shining in the dark—like an animal’s.
She danced, alone there in the night, until she was tired and then she lay down again and laughed softly and patted the earth and hugged it and felt sad that the beautiful moment couldn’t endure forever. I have found it. The magic life. She felt one with the wind and the night and she rose on tiptoe and said aloud, “Thank you, God.” Then she went back, reluctantly, to her tent and crawled into her blankets and slept.
It was not long before the word got around the lot that they had a green kid on their hands. Jennie was warned by the boss not to leave the lot without permission, to stay away from the carnies and to “keep your nose clean.”
The big raw-boned woman who had slapped Dan on the back ordered Jennie to play cribbage with her.
“Ever play cards, kid?” she demanded.
She was huge, as big as a man, with a man’s voice and a man’s stride. She was wearing a nurse’s uniform and called out the grind in the freak show.
“Come on kid.”
And Jennie sat down and tried to play cards though she had never played and didn’t like it. But when she wanted to leave, the woman stopped her, cursing.
“Skunked you that time, kid!” she would roar and slap her great thigh with her man’s hand.
“Come on kid, we’ll have another game.” And Jennie would stay.
In the daytime there were screams and squeals heard from inside the giant caterpillar, from the whip, which tore around at neck-breaking speed, lifted stomachs and twisted limbs and tore breath away and made the riders scream with fear and delight.
And the money tinkled into the tin trays.
“Hurry, hurry, hurry! You haven’t seen the freak show yet—or the dancing girls! The daredevil who risks his neck twice a day diving from a ninety-foot ladder . . . hurry! . . . hurry! . . . hurry!”
“In this tent, ladies and gentlemen, you will see what is undoubtedly one of the greatest wonders of the world . .. or of our age, or for that matter of any age known to man . . . this little lady, ladies and gentlemen, has been taught to shake and shiver every muscle in her entire body, since childhood ...”
A boy poured a pail of water in a barrel, disturbing the two halves of orange that floated there.
“Not now, you fool!”
“But I thought . . . you told me . . . to keep the barrel filled with water.”
“Hurry, hurry! hurry! Ice cold orangeade folks . . . cooling drinks folks . . . fresh pure orange juice folks, freshly squeezed from California oranges folks, only a dime, ten cents, the tenth part of a dollar . . . step right up and get your orange juice! Four? Thank you sir! . . . five? Yes madam, coming right up . . . Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!”
All around Jennie everybody was screaming to hurry, hurry and cash in, hurry and eat, hurry and see, hurry and win a watch, hurry, hurry, hurry. And the smiling, barking men in the canvas aprons with the hats tilted back on their sweating heads pressed a toe on a pedal, touched a lever with a finger, handed out baseballs, hoops, guns. The money clinked and jingled in their pockets and in the canvas aprons and on their counters. The money clinked on the little wooden shelves and the tin trays of the cages where the ticket takers sat.
The calliope screamed and the ferris wheel went madly around and around, its lights blazing, its music wailing and the money tinkling, falling, clinking in the little tin trays.
The wooden horses raced round and round in answer to the call, “hurry, hurry, hurry.” They chased each other round and round, never catching up and the old man with the paunch stomach and the tired face stood picking his teeth and dozing by the organ in the centre of the carousel.
Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!
TEAR-DOWN night the darkness was filled with the high keening cry of the train, moving slowly with agonizing creaks on a rusty track. It was like a gigantic animal, grunting in the darkness, complaining of the load, anxious to be gone.
There was tremendous activity. The whole lot seethed with moving men, running men, shouting men, swearing men. Women carried bundles of costumes, a canary in a cage, a lap dog, a radio or luggage. A truck got stuck in a mud hole and the searchlights played on it while men sweated and strained and shouted with the effort of loosening the mired wheels.
Jennie walked amid the noise and confusion in the dark; her pack on her back, a suitcase in one hand and a flashlight in the other. She spoke briefly to some workers. She called out a “Hello” or a “Hi” or waved the flashlight in answer to a greeting.
“Hiya kid!” they called. “Take it easy, kid. You’ll last longer,” they called and their coarse laughter followed her as she walked on, her feet stepping lightly on the dark grass, stepping carefully so as not to trip over a cable or fallen tent poles or the great eight-foot stakes.
“Got a lift? Hey kid, got a lift?” they called and when she shouted “No” they called, “Hurry up, throw it up here,” and strong hands would seize her bedroll and the heavy suitcase and throw them on top of the truck. It was against the rules they said but what the boss didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. She would ride to the train, perched high on top of the loaded truck, seeing the lights of the ferris wheel, the lights of the games and the shows and rides blink out and the whole vast life that was the carnival, die again.
Only the cookhouse was still intact and it was crowded with the carnival folk, drinking hot coffee, eating a snack and talking about the town, the take, the tough breaks.
“Ended up on the nut in this sheep town,” they said. “Thought we were gonna have a damn hey rube when George took that farmer. Was he mad!” The speaker, a stocky freckled redhead, wiped his chin with a freckled hand and roared with laughter.
Jennie had protested once, at the talk. “It was mean,” she had offered. “He was an old man.”
Great gusts and roars of laughter. “Pipe the kid . . . mean she says!” And they threw back their heads and laughed. The laughter chuckled in their throats, warm with the coffee, and gurgled up from their stomachs, encased in hand-made shirts, held in by hand-tooled leather belts with buckles carrying their initials. They pounded the counter and hollered, “Joe, Joe, where’s my coffee? . . . stacka dry” . . . they called . . . “stacka butter Joe.” They piled pancakes on their plates and crowned them with fried eggs and poured thick brown syrup over the whole and dug into them, elbows on the counter, mouths dripping and laughing, eyes hard and watchful and full of laughter.
Mitzy, who ran the crown-and-anchor board, came in amid cries and greetings.
“Hi Mitz! How’s Red?” they called, and the questions evoked more coarse laughter and jokes Jennie didn’t understand. Mitzy ignored them. Her face was thin, severe, topped by bright hair, as bright as brass in the sun. Her eyebrows soared in perfect moon discs over small eyes. Her eyes were slitted and angry and watchful. A bright green scarf was knotted at her neck and tucked into her blouse. Her hands, white, shining with rings and red nails that were long, claw-like, patted her hair, smoothed her lipstick and she eyed her face critically in a small mirror.
Her voice, when she spoke, had the gravelly sound of all of them, as if they had yelled themselves hoarse.
“Gimme two in the water for three,” she told Joe the cook and when he said, smiling, “Comin’ up,” she rasped out, “Make it snappy Joe.” Her thin lips quirked into a small smile; the eyes were amused. She made Jennie uneasy.
“Kid,” she said, looking at Jennie with those hard angry eyes, those pale blue eyes with yellow lights, “you know Monty has a crush on you.”
When Jennie did not answer, she said, “You could take him to the cleaners.” There was something gentle in her face. Jennie couldn’t decide what it was.
Jennie smiled, drank her coffee, looked around her. Monty had not spoken to her. He was big, quiet. He ran the rides. When she saw him he looked sadly at her through thick glasses and smiled. His eyes seemed to pop out of his face because of the glasses. Jennie thought he was terribly old. Mac was different.
“He might even marry you,” Mitzy was saying. Jennie hadn’t heard her but she turned, startled, at this and said, “But . . . but I don’t want to marry him.”
“You could take him kid. He’s nuts about you.”
Jennie didn’t know how to reply. They’re kind of funny Dan, these people. They’re not like us. Only Mac.
“That wouldn’t be right,” she murmured, not knowing how to express what she felt about all of it.
Mitzy grunted. “Huh,” she said and began to eat her boiled eggs. She didn’t speak again.
TEAR-DOWN nights were the best of all for then all the raucous screaming noises of the carnival had died away. The calliope was silenced, its hysterical throat silenced, the engine of its car steaming in the dark, the painted sides with the gold letters gleaming dully in the dim light.
The merry-go-round was a skeleton, the horses standing lonely and quiet on their wooden platform. The roof was gone from their gay noisy house. The great organ that ground out the tinkling brashy tunes was quiet. The steel skeleton of the ferris wheel rose up into the air. Hammers pounded on iron, on wood; ropes came unfastened and lay, like great snakes, coiled on the damp summer earth.
The fronts of the games were closed down and the lights showed behind the canvas. All the activity behind the canvas was shrouded, hidden from sight. Only the voices, talking, laughing, calling, meant there was someone there, counting money, packing stock, tearing down counters and wheels and carefully packing the “gimmick” which meant the game would always make money and the farmer would lose his savings.
The banners with their poor painted faces and bodies of freaks, the double-bodied baby, the pinheads from Africa, monsters, snakes, the fat lady, the thin man, the India-rubber man ... all of them were somewhere, mysteriously gone, vanished, never seen, except on the platform in the bright hot sun when the barker waved his megaphone and his cane and shouted, “Hurry, Hurry, Hurry!”
Inside the tents the grass grew, trampled from the feet, but lifting again as the tents were moved and the moon shone down. The dwarf staggered by. He had been drinking again. Cuddles minced by, smiling at some secret knowledge.
Jennie thought the carnival was like a great beast, vast, sprawling, noisy, gutted with light and color and screaming, lying down, settling itself to sleep for a while, so it could rise again, with more screaming and calling and devouring.
It is not quite . . . not quite . . . the magic life after all, Dan. It’s strange and cruel too, Dan. But it’s exciting and l belong. And there’s Mac, Dan. I wonder if you’d like Mac. I have to go. I have to follow. I want to be loved Dan. I want to be happy. I think Mac loves me Dan. I think I love him too.
The trucks moved out in a line. The men swore and ran and shouted. The cookhouse, last to go, was folding.
“No more scoff!” the cry went up.
“No more scoff!” And Joe, the cook, removed his great spotted dirty apron and his tall cook’s hat.
“Back out you finkies,” he told them and they stirred, moved, stood up and looked out at the lot. . . empty now and dark and swirling with papers and sighs and a vast empty loneliness that was clean and quiet and began to smell like spring.
The train kept up its high keening call, like a prolonged nervous whistle on a high note. Taxis came and cars and trucks. On top of a truck Jennie was swept out in the melee of trucks and cars and great stacks of canvas and crates and cages, swept along with them to the keening train, the train where the gypsies had been camping. The streets were clearing. The crowds of people, dark dots, crawling beneath the lamps of the street, moved slowly. They had to go home. The carnival was over. The noise was stilled. Their pockets were lighter. They would return to houses and children and lights and gardens and work in the morning. The smell of potato chips and vinegar and popcorn was strong and drowned out the night smells, the smell of rain and clouds and grass. The cars honked and snaked their way through the traffic. A monkey screamed. A woman laughed. And far away, the calliope started up its hysterical screaming on the way to the train, like a wail from someone mad.
The boss walked in long strides everywhere on the lot, pointing with his cane, gesturing with it, poking a man in the ribs or the chest, giving orders in quiet, cold tones. He was a big man, with a lumbering gait and eyes as cold and blue as agates. His clothes were expensive, made of the best cloth by the best tailors. His soft felt hats cost twice the weekly salary of the tear-down men he ordered about. They took orders from him with a kind of eager servility. He was successful. He had money. He was their vision of wealth. He was a god and could do no wrong. He was smart, too.
A few stragglers still hung around the lot, gaping curiously at the circus people, staring when they caught a glimpse of the fat lady or the thin man or one of the freaks. They stared curiously too at Jennie and sometimes the men and boys whistled and called “Hey, babe!” Then Mac would be there and look at them with his incredible blue eyes going cold and hard. He’s good to me, Dan. He takes care of me too.
IN THE train Jennie watched the dark countryside pass by, listened to the rumble of the train and wondered about the next town. What would it be like. What will I see? Oh Dan, Dan. I am so alive, Dan. So alive, I can hardly bear it.
The gypsies went by the train window. They had been camped in the empty train while it stood on the track. When the gypsies had been in the train it was very dirty and had to be cleaned up before the carnival people could use it. Jennie carried a curtain to put over the day coach seats which she made up into a bed. She carried a light mattress to fix up her bed, strong soap and cloths and disinfectant to wash the train seat and window sills. The windows were covered with grime, the plush seats stuffed with dust and the floors littered with dust and refuse.
The windows washed and dried, the wood of the seats scrubbed with soap and cold water, Jennie made her bed with sheets she had washed by hand and dried behind the tent in the hot sun, with a small pillow, two warm blankets. It made a snug retreat when the curtains were drawn.
She looked out the window at the gypsies and wondered about them. They were beautiful with their proud graceful carriage, their full skirts, their bright-colored kerchiefs and beads. They live a magic life. I wish I could follow them and speak with them, go with them, hear their music, hear the melody of their Romany tongue. Sit with them around a campfire. Jennie could hear them from a distance now, singing and laughing and playing music. They never mingled with the carnival people. It was rumored they stole but the police were never called. No one could ever prove the gypsies stole. The gypsies smiled broadly, showing their white teeth in their brown faces. Their eyes were laughing, glinting darkly with merriment.
No, the carnival wasn’t just the magic life Jennie was looking for. Nor were the gypsies. They were part of it, but not all. Mac. Mac. She watched for Mac, for his dark head, his smile, the strong hands and arms. She would recognize them in all the crowd of carnival men.
When she saw him, she waited. And he came up to her and smiled into her eyes and took her hand and squeezed it. Would the magic life begin with Mac? Oh Mac, Mac, do you know how I feel?
She looked at him gravely, like a slim child in the moonlight. For a moment Mac frowned and looked at her. Her eyes were luminous with innocence and their eagerness for love. He hesitated. But only for a moment.
I got her eating right out of my hand, he thought. And he took her by the arm and led her away.
And Jennie went, listening, waiting, and hoping, for the magic of life.