DAVID LEO RICE
“The circus is in town! The circus is in town!”
Everyone was shouting this on the first day of the summer of 1993, so loudly it took us awhile to realize we were shouting it too.
My friend Corey Inch and I – I don’t call him my best friend, as he was my only, and is no longer – were the first children to join the grown-ups streaming in line behind a jester in green tights with bells on his cap. He must’ve come clanking in along Bridge St. specifically to round us up.
We fell in with the procession, leaving behind the video store where we’d spent all our time since school let out on June 26th, handling movies like dormant rattlesnakes, praying some of their power would rub off without killing us. We were nine now, so we’d seen a lot – it was the summer Twin Peaks came out on video – but the jester with our whole town behind him was something else.
The procession kept growing as we crossed the square with the shuttered cinema on one side, the diner with its taped-over windows across from it. Grown-ups emerged from the auto body shop and the payday advance store and the shell of the Dunkin’ Donuts that had technically closed more than a year earlier. They streamed out of clinics and offices, parks and restaurants, and now other children were joining in, streaming out of the candy store and the ice cream parlor, making so much noise it sounded like a disaster was underway.
All of us – even Mayor Dodd, even our teachers, even our parents – followed the jester up Bridge St., through the outskirts and the dead zone after the outskirts and under the interstate underpass, past the abandoned motel, toward the swampy meadow where the circus was setting up.
I can still hear the dark, negative sucking as all human warmth and energy left our town. It sounded to me, as we all streamed toward the circus, like our town was popping.
As we emerged onto the soggy land on the other side of the underpass, we saw generators and tents and trucks parked everywhere. Giants, midgets, men with tattooed faces and women with wispy beards were milling around, pounding in stakes, stringing up canopies, leading lions and apes and a tremendous elephant from a series of trailers into a series of cages.
Corey and I hesitated as the procession streamed around us. I looked at him, trying to hear what he was thinking, and was disturbed to find I couldn’t. It was like we’d entered a forcefield that was shooting waves of static through the mind we’ve shared since we were little.
“Corey …” I whispered.
He sounded exasperated, so I didn’t reply. But as the crowd forced its way past us, I was afraid we’d be trampled if we stayed put.
“C’mon,” I finally said.
The mime and the lion-tamers went about their business as we crossed over the rest of the way. They observed our arrival without extending themselves to welcome us or making any effort to hold us back. As far as they were concerned, I thought, the two of us were the same as everyone else.
We began to wander freely after the jester merged into the general crush of people, his bells inaudible among them. As we inhaled, we grew dizzy on the breath of the animals, the exhaust of the trailers, the sweat and perfume of the men and women and those whose gender we could not determine. It was all bleeding together, clouding our shared mind and making us reel.
We wandered in this state among the people of our town, watching as they scarfed caramel apples and cotton candy, giant slushies and sno-cones and sodas, as we would have too, if we’d had any money. They whooped and skipped along. Some parents held hands with their children, but we could tell they were losing track of their roles, meeting each other on some level where they were all free to do as they pleased.
A woman sang in a foreign language on a stage under the Ferris wheel while a midget cranked a box that produced a scrappy tune, and there were grills covered in steaming meat and tents with big, smelly men out front, their nipples hanging out of their tanktops. We considered everything, soaking in the atmosphere, trying to quiet our longing to return to the video store and our slow, steady process of becoming great directors by handling the tapes and praying.
Now it seemed all that would have to be put on hold. But the circus too is fodder for movies, we thought, or I thought and hoped Corey was thinking too. Here, for now, is where we’re meant to be. All we have to do is soak it up. When the time is right, we’ll be released, better off than we were before.
It had become late afternoon, the sky rich and heavy.
“Yeah, we’re summering here this year,” we heard a man on stilts lean down to tell an elderly couple. They looked deliriously happy to be talking to him. “We winter down in Florida and come up this way once it gets warm. Depending on how things go, we could stay till October. Or take off as soon as August, go as far up as Nova Scotia. It all depends on …”
We left before we learned what it depended on, wandering over to a bench at the edge of the grounds, beside a row of puddles too deep for anything to park in. Sitting down, we closed our eyes and tried to see this meadow as it’d been before today, the cold, dim swamp we’d always heard lay on the edge of town, just before the highway, which led, depending on whom you asked, either to no-man’s-land or to the land of opportunity. But the lights of the games and the rides and the clatter of the singing midgets refused to fade, and we found we could not daydream our way beyond it.
So we got to our feet and fished a tub of fries from a metal trashcan and went to explore the rides – the Viking Ship, the teacups, the Tower of Terror, Cleopatra’s Dream, and the light-studded Ferris wheel.
The crew was still plugging wires into generators, testing seatbelts on straw dummies, and screwing together the pieces that must have been detached during their long trip here from Florida, wherever that was. Our image of the outside world was, at best, an inkblot, so all we could picture was the flotilla of trucks drifting off the highway and under the underpass, coming to a stop in the meadow where the puddles got too deep to drive through.
We tossed our fries and sat down on another bench, and would’ve sunk back into daydreaming had a sweaty man in a tanktop not taken a seat beside us. He was the kind of man who looked both fat and strong at the same time, a gold chain around his neck, its pendant lost in chest hair. He belched, yawned, and looked us over.
“You kids from here?”
I froze, but Corey, always the bolder one, nodded definitively. A little defiantly too, I thought. Like being from here gave him some class.
The man lit a cigarette and blew smoke in our faces. “Thought so. But you’re not like the others.” He gestured at the crowd of frolicking, yipping children and their parents. “I can tell. How old are you boys? About eighteen?”
I laughed. Corey nodded, sitting up straight.
Then he was silent a long time and a quiet terror passed through me at the thought that he was serious. Like, wherever he was from, this was how eighteen-year-olds looked. Or, scarier, that inside the circus there was a disconnect between how people felt and how they appeared, so we really did look eighteen now, the way our grandparents, before they died, used to say they still felt twenty. Or, scarier still, that time had passed here without us knowing it, and now our whole childhoods and adolescences were gone, and here we were, two guys on the verge of their twenties without having accomplished anything or even having had much fun.
“Since you’re not out there dicking off, I take it you two are thoughtful.” He finished what he’d been smoking and lit another. “Meant for bigger things.”
I looked over at Corey, trying to gauge how he felt so we could present a unified front.
“Here.” The man handed us each lit cigarettes, forcing our attention back onto him. We felt the filters burn our lips and gagged a little and fought to keep from gagging more. He didn’t laugh this time, just watched us smoke, impersonating eighteen-year-olds as best we could.
“Name’s Ghoulardi, after the kids’ show. Popular before your time. I’m the king of this little circus. It’s not much but, as they say, it’s mine.” He paused, shifting gears. “You two wanna help out? Bag trash, sweep sawdust, stock condiments? I pay room and board.”
I only noticed how dark it’d gotten when I again tried to read Corey’s expression and found I could barely see his face.
“Let me tell you the truth about towns,” Ghoulardi went on, filling our silence. “They’re all the same. You guys don’t know that because you’ve only lived here and you’ve had a helluva lot of thoughts here, but take it from me. I’ve seen enough to know.” He looked out at the crowd and sighed. “We show up somewhere, draw you out, bring you together, let you feel like more than yourselves for a while. Like you’re special. Like the buck stops here. But it doesn’t. The buck just keeps moving on. That’s the truth about towns.”
As he got up to leave, the terror of being stranded here, alone and with no money and nothing to do, chilled us. The other children swarmed in the background, whooping, their mouths full of candy, and our old houses seemed impossibly distant, lost on the far side of a glacier that only grew colder the more we thought about it.
“Okay,” we said, almost in unison, despite the static in our shared mind. “We’re in.”
Ghoulardi smiled, putting a hand on each of our heads. When he took them away, he rubbed his palms together, lit another cigarette, and said, “Great. You start tomorrow. And one other thing … I’m gonna dress you as clowns. Paint your faces. I don’t employ civilians here. Kills the mood.”
We left the bench a few minutes after he did. Now the circus was lit by paper lanterns on strings hanging across the walkways and a few spotlights on high poles. Everything looked orange, like we were inside a jack-o-lantern, and the faces of the other children and the grown-ups were shadowed and strange.
Unsure whether to rush through the night or draw it out as long as possible, we continued to wander, picking cotton candy from trashcans, visiting the Porta-potties, and watching teenagers kiss behind the generators and scream as the Viking Ship knifed them up and down.
The vendors at the candy apple and the dart-gun and the beer stands stared past us, straining to discern the young women of our town, including Mrs. Redding, the English teacher we both had a crush on.
Eventually, everyone processed into the central pavilion, but we stayed outside. We could already tell that our position here was peripheral; what bound the others to this circus didn’t bind us. We could hear the oohs and aahs behind the canvas flaps, and imagined flying trapezes, rings of fire, the elephant rearing up on its back legs to juggle with its snout. We knew our parents were in there, along with the parents of all the other children, transfixed, determined to believe that Monday would never come.
We stared so long the barker outside snarled at us and shook his coin pail, so we wandered to the edge of the meadow, where the circus’ ring of light ended, and hid behind a pickup truck.
When the show let out, we watched the crowd drift by, laughing, yawning, swigging beer from plastic cups. They passed us and disappeared in the direction of the underpass and the motel beyond it. Since it was too dark to see, I imagined the whole horde of them seeping into the motel like a school of fish into a reef.
When they were gone, we went back toward the center of the circus, where the mime and the strongman and the bearded lady danced while one midget cranked the music box and another bowed a saw. Ghoulardi sat on a stool, smoking and, I’m pretty sure, crying a little.
It got late. It was already normal-late, like 10pm, but soon it was scary-late, like 2am. A time we’d never seen before, when, we’d always assumed, the teenagers and grown-ups went out on the town, watching the pornography hidden behind the Cult section in the video store basement, and drinking vodka, and doing heroin in the park.
When we couldn’t keep our eyes open any longer, we returned to the pickup truck we’d hidden behind earlier and curled up in the back, bedding down amidst a pile of shovels and duct tape.
We woke up on cots in a trailer with thick bodies in hammocks above us, dripping sweat into our mouths. Navy blue sheets were hung over the windows, blocking out the sunlight, and a dog looked us over when we stirred.
We got carefully out of our cots, which were marked ‘New Clown 1’ and ‘New Clown 2,’ and went to the doorway to look out at the circus in daylight, squinting through something caked around our eyes.
“Morning,” said Ghoulardi, appearing from behind a curtain to hand us each paper cups so hot we dropped them, scalding our toes. He laughed and motioned for refills. These we took more carefully, forcing back tears as the skin on our feet puckered. We sipped from the top of the black liquid, richer and sweeter than anything we’d ever tasted, and watched as the lanky mime rehearsed in the shadow of the yawning elephant.
When we were done, Ghoulardi took out a barber’s mirror and held it up so we could see the makeup job he must’ve done on us in our sleep, after moving us to the cots: our faces were bone-white except for red circles on our cheeks and chins.
“Here,” he said, handing us each red foam noses.
We put them on while he found us floppy shoes and baggy pants with suspenders. They were far too big, meant as they were for eighteen-year-olds, but it went without saying that they’d make us more endearing until we grew into them. As we practiced walking, our motions turning clownish by default, he took our old clothes and shoes and said he’d put them where they belonged. We understood that we’d never see them again.
Now it was time to work. He showed us how to muck out the elephant’s slop bucket and refill the water pail so its trainer could focus on bigger issues, and then he showed us how to make sure the concession stands had enough paper cups and napkins and that the hand-sanitizer in the Porta-potties never ran out and the trashcans didn’t overflow. He said we could take a lunch break at noon, then it would be time to refill the ketchup, mustard, and relish before the dinner rush, which could start as early as four.
We worked all day, not talking much, trying not to think much either. All around us, we saw a mix of people we knew and people we didn’t. They were blurring together, growing less and less distinct. By dusk, we barely recognized Mayor Dodd as he passed by nuzzling a large stuffed pony he must’ve won in a shooting gallery, his face sunburned and streaked with sweat.
Somewhere in all this, we knew, our parents were making the rounds with their friends, taking in the sights, probably thinking back on when they were younger and what the world had seemed like then, before they’d had us. Perhaps they were remembering this meadow and the circuses that used to stop here, similar to this one, but, in some way they surely understood better than we did, not the same.
We put ketchup, mustard, and relish bottles on the counters of all the concession stands and emptied the trash into huge bags as the lanterns came on and the familiar lights of the rides started flashing, and everywhere long lines started to form.
After we finished the evening’s chores, Ghoulardi filled our hands with tokens and gave us the night off, saying not to get used to it, that for us the circus was real life, not the recess from life that other people paid to pretend it was.
“Still,” he said, “I like to ease people into things. Don’t mean to burn you clowns out the first night.”
So we took our night off seriously. We rationed our tokens, sharing a burger and a chocolate shake and a caramel apple, its flesh as soft and brown as its coating. We played the darts game twice, winning nothing, and we rode the teacups and a green, snake-shaped rollercoaster that chugged up its tracks very gently, designed, as it was, for children even younger than we were.
After we got off, we were standing on the damp grass catching our breath, our hands on our thighs, when a jingling startled us. We’d been planning to go back to our trailer, saving the rest of our tokens, but it was impossible to ignore the sound, and then the sight, of the jester dancing by, hopping on one foot and leaning way over to that side, then switching, back and forth like a wind-up toy.
Powerless to resist, Corey and I followed him away from the rides and the food and the game stalls, across a dark, swampy patch of meadowland toward a distant glowing sign that read ADULTS ONLY, same as the sign on the door at the back of the Cult section in the video store basement.
By the time we reached the funhouse, the jester had vanished. Whether he’d gone inside or into the deeper dark beyond we couldn’t tell. All we knew was that, having come this far, we couldn’t turn back. So we took out the last of our tokens, put them in a bowl outside the door, and shouldered it open. It creaked on its hinges and admitted us, and there was no bouncer or guard to stand in our way.
So there we were, creeping along the slanting floors, through the hall of mirrors. The air got thick, like it was full of grease, and a strobe came on overhead, making us feel like we were spinning. Maybe we were. We closed our eyes until a crowd of people caught up with us, pushing eagerly into the dark.
“This is where the brave show their true faces,” I whispered to Corey, as we made our way down a hall of rotating floorboards, toward a doorway painted like a giant, slavering mouth. The jaws opened with a whoosh when we got close, and I pictured us diving down the throat of some ancient beast.
The thing on the other side looked like a giant skin heap, a body with no center, no heart, and no brain. The crowd behind us immediately mixed itself in. It took a while to see what it really was: grown-ups, completely naked except for bull and cow masks over their heads, crawling around on the floor, making wide circles, nudging each other’s butts with their horns.
In the center stood Ghoulardi, done up in white and pink face paint. He wore a white wedding dress with a giant foam erection attached to his waist on a harness, and he was making loud grunts, laughs, and groans through a bullhorn, his head tipped way back, his free arm swinging in the air like he was orchestrating the climax of a movie we were years away from being allowed to see.
We were frozen where we stood and I thought, somewhere in here is Mrs. Redding, naked as we’ve only ever imagined she could be. Time sped up, whipping past us like wind in a blizzard, and I was on the verge of passing out when Ghoulardi shrieked, “Now!!!”
The grown-ups squished together, rubbing and squeezing each other’s behinds with no space in between, making weird, low noises through their masks. Their horns were locked, their backs arched, their bodies indistinguishable. They seemed like they couldn’t stop now even if they tried.
We made a run for it, tripping over them in our clown shoes as we went. The only thing that mattered was that we got out, back home if possible, out of this circus, which we didn’t like anymore.
As we ran, trembling and confused, I panicked and looked back. Trying not to stare at the grown-ups, I locked eyes with Ghoulardi. He looked straight into me, his gaze sad and clear through his makeup. Then he looked abruptly away and I knew he was giving us our last chance to flee.
So we flew through the doorway on the far side, which was painted to resemble an anus. It whooshed open and spit us out into a throbbing, blue-tinted chamber where the air smelled of perfume and more naked grown-ups sat on benches, toweling themselves off and drinking from plastic cups. They glanced at us but didn’t say anything.
For a moment, the feeling of danger abated and I thought we’d made it to safety, but then a moan from the other room electrified us again and we were back on our feet, shoving desperately toward the EXIT sign, forcing it open with all our combined might.
We fell through and landed on our faces in the gas-soaked woodchips outside.
“No time to rest,” Corey murmured, so, despite the pain, we got to our hands and knees and then to our feet, facing the dark, assuming our town must be somewhere in that unlit distance.
We hobbled as fast as we could away from the lights and the noise, until, just as we were passing the last row of generators, a pair of hands grabbed the backs of our necks and pulled us off our feet, carrying us like puppies into the backseat of a parked car.
When we were settled, Ghoulardi got in front and turned on the interior lights, staring at us through his melting makeup. He was as out of breath as we were, his foam erection bunched in the seat beside him, the straps of his wedding dress down around his shoulders.
“You guys live here now. Get it? There’s no point trying to run because there’s nowhere to run to.” He sighed and took a swig from a flask that hung from a chain around his neck. He didn’t offer us any and we couldn’t find the courage to ask.
He looked like he was about to cry. “I was hoping to have this talk later. Years later, maybe. But you guys had to go in there, so … I guess that means you think you’re ready.” He tipped out the last drops and let the flask fall.
“Do you know what entropy is? It means wearing out. It’s what’s happening. It happened to your town, and it’ll happen to this circus. We’re like a giant animal that’s returned to its birthplace to die. I’m from here too, you know. This town. Same as you guys. I didn’t want to tell you yet. I’m not a well man, but I made it back. I had to. You’ll never know how much that took. Remember when I said all towns were the same? Well, it’s true and not true. They’re all the same except to the people from them. I knew guys like you. I was the same way. Still am, if I’m honest. Only difference is I got out and made something of myself. But so what? One day I’ll be gone, and when that day comes, I want my body to end up here. Not out there. I’m not saying that day’s coming soon, but it’s coming. And I need you to be ready. None of the other clowns, not the strongman, not the mime, not the trapeze artists … none of them know what it means to be from here. So I’m leaving the keys to you.”
He took out the car keys and jingled them, staring at us to see if we understood. We tried to seem like we did, afraid the night would only get worse if he saw that we didn’t. He smiled, clearly relieved, and said, “Now let’s get you to your trailer. It’s back to work tomorrow. No more nights off for you clowns.”
Sunday came and went. When Monday arrived, no one left the circus. Not one child or grown-up. Every morning that week, they streamed forth from the motel across the street, desperate for the abandon of that first weekend to go on and on and on.
And, in a sense, it did. This was the beginning of the long haul, the years that passed in the meadow. Soon, even the idea that the circus could leave – that it was a fundamentally mobile enterprise, with a population made up of visitors rather than citizens – was forgotten.
Our parents were lost among the ranks of wandering grown-ups, many of whom still wore their bull- and cow-masks, their hair and beards growing long underneath. Whenever the masks came off, they seemed like strangers, gaunt, creepy, skulking around, spending less and less money once they realized they had no way of earning more, except by gambling or stealing from one another.
We’d see our parents and teachers occasionally and they’d mumble, “You okay?” and we’d nod, and they’d pass on.
As we went about our business, endlessly refilling the napkins and the ketchup and the mustard and the relish, we dreamed of the town. We pictured it sighing, in loneliness or relief, now that it was empty. Surely, we thought, it must be turning strange, becoming whatever towns become when they’re no longer anyone’s home. Sometimes, as we daubed off our makeup at night, we imagined that a new population had made its way in, settling the old houses like explorers who’d come across the ruins of a lost civilization.
As time passed on this new scale, the grown-ups began to die. They were buried in the swampiest parts of the meadow, where the trucks couldn’t park. We stood on planks, watching as bloated bodies were lowered into pits the strongman had dug in the night, our heads bowed, mumbling along to the liturgy sung by the bearded lady.
Our parents must have been somewhere among them, but they were so changed by then we couldn’t tell. This was surely for the best, as no good could have come from seeing them in that state, their faces wracked with guilt at the turn their lives had taken, the ease with which the homes they’d worked so hard to build had slipped away, and the relief that must have brought them.
And Mayor Dodd – I remember when he died, and was dragged into a place of honor in the center of the marsh, on a wooden pallet that was tipped vertical until he slipped off and bobbed, refusing to sink, even when the strongman weighted him down with a tire. Corey and I left the funeral at Ghoulardi’s command, along with the other bystanders, while the strongman kept working, doing whatever it took to make sure the body sank under and stayed.
When all the grown-ups were buried, a new cohort took their places. This included Corey and me and the others who’d been children when the circus arrived. And all along, of course, people had been breeding in the funhouse, so babies came, and were cared for, welcomed into our order, brought up in a world made solely of circus.
We were in our thirties now, and then our forties, doing the same things we’d done for well over twenty years, instead of the other, equally repetitive things we would have done in our thirties and forties had we stayed in the town, or moved to another, or even to the city. Our clown costumes, once so loose, were tight now, ripping around our bellies and thighs so they hung off us in ribbons.
New shipments of frozen fries and burger patties and candy came in once a month, on a truck that stopped at the edge of the property. Ghoulardi said all we had to do was sign the invoice.
Eventually, it stopped delivering meat. Now it brought only popcorn and Junior Mints and Sour Patch Kids, so we took to calling it the candy truck.
As the rides and games wore out and eventually shut down, the graveyard became the main attraction. We’d go out there whenever we had a free moment, eating a tub of stale popcorn or sharing a beer if we could find one in the back of a freezer, watching other people do the same. We all fought to keep our balance on the planks over the muck, scanning it for skulls like carp in a fishpond.
Strolling the graveyard in the lengthening periods between chores, Corey and I discussed the town, especially the video store, the dream of making movies. We kept our voices down, unsure if the topic had become taboo.
Now movies, like circuses, seemed superfluous. We felt nothing but longing for our boring, slow life in the town, the grind of school and home and Friday nights and Sunday nights and summers and winters, and on and on, the grind we’d dreamed of escaping, and that we had escaped, and now dreamed only of somehow escaping back into.
One day in what I’d guess was our mid-forties, when Ghoulardi must’ve been close to eighty – it was amazing he’d made it this long, withering steadily without yet giving out – he lurched over to where we were sitting and pointed toward his car with his cane. We nodded and followed him, getting in the back seat where our meetings were always held.
“Look, guys,” he said, wheezing. “You know what I’m about to say.”
We looked at each other, then at him. “That you’re ready to die and for us to take over?” Corey hadn’t lost his boldness over the years.
Ghoulardi nodded, devolving into a coughing fit. Then he reached into his pocket and found the keys and held them out to us. Corey looked away, so I took them, smiling as reassuringly as I could.
“You are Ghoulardi now,” was the last thing I heard him say, to both of us or just to me.
As I remember it, he died almost immediately thereafter. We followed the jester onto the planks and watched as the strongman shoved him under, our heads bowed, the sky gray above us, the mime miming tears.
When the burial was complete, everyone looked at us. Clearly, Ghoulardi had told them the deal. I fingered the keys in my pocket, wondering if there’d be mutiny, violence. “We’re going for a drive,” Corey announced, before I could reach any decision of my own.
“C’mon,” he whispered, nudging me in the ribs.
So we got in Ghoulardi’s car. I put the keys in the ignition and drove us, very slowly, across the meadow.
I wasn’t sure we’d make it out; part of me thought a forcefield would intercede, or the strongman would appear in front of us, threatening to flip the car. But before long I was driving us under the underpass, past the motel, and up Bridge St. It was my first time behind the wheel of a car, but the road was so straight all I had to do was tap the gas with my clown shoe. And, of course, there was no traffic.
We drove in silence through the dead zone and the outskirts and into downtown, past the video store, the Twin Peaks poster peeling off the glass in the front window, past the ice cream parlor and the shell of the old Dunkin’ Donuts and the place that sold secondhand children’s clothes, their roofs sagging, covered in guano and black leaves.
It felt like a sunken town, like one of those towns flooded to make a reservoir. Rats and pigeons roamed the streets and trash blew into the old interiors wherever doors were open or missing. I tried to remember how different it had looked before we all left, but found I couldn’t focus on this thought while continuing to drive.
At Corey’s direction, I chugged us up the hill we used to live on and parked on the street between our two houses. I wanted to stay in the car and look at them from here, just long enough to refresh our memories, but Corey undid his seatbelt and got out. I watched him go, then got out too, locked the car for some reason, and walked over to where he stood.
Now we were side by side, staring at Corey’s old house, our backs to mine. It seemed truly haunted, frigid with inhumanity, a house no longer capable of being a home.
Our shared mind, if there had ever been such a thing, was silent.
“C’mon,” I said, when it felt like we were on the cusp of standing there too long. I jingled the keys, at first subtly and then loudly, desperately, like a charm I prayed would work.
I remembered Ghoulardi telling us about entropy and shivered with the fear that it was coming for us now, stronger than ever. It felt like a reversion was imminent, like we’d lose everything that made us who we were if we stood here any longer.
But Corey wouldn’t budge. I could feel myself losing him even before he spoke. “No,” he said. “This is where we belong. I don’t know how you could forget that. No one’s making me leave here ever again.”
He patted me on the shoulder like there was something he knew that would take me years and years to learn. Then he walked off, bending to pry the key from under the Welcome mat, and he let himself in, back into his old house.
In the days since, I’ve often wondered which I’d prefer: the notion of him losing his mind amidst true, utter aloneness in there, or that of him falling into a fellowship of revenants and outcasts wandering the streets, living a sham version of small town life, or even something close to the real thing, looking back on his years in the circus as a period of youthful indiscretion he was glad to be done with.
I can see neither possibility very clearly. All I can see is him vanishing through that doorway, not turning to regard me, simply letting the dark and the cold swallow him up. In my memory, the door blew shut on its own, sealing him in, though in reality he must have turned to close it.
By then I was back in the car, drifting down the hill in the direction we had always walked to school in the mornings. I drove that way now, past the school, its main hall like a caving-in waxworks, and onward, through the black bowl of the central square. I paid it my respects and moved on, toward the pulsing lights of the circus in the distance, the Ferris wheel looming over everything though it was half-sunk in the mud.
By the time I made it back, the jester, the mime, the midgets, the bearded lady, the strongman – everyone who could – had left, taking the trucks with them. I noticed, too, that the elephant had died. With no one to haul it out and bury it in the muck, it lay in its cage like a beached whale.
Now, everyone who might have called me Ghoulardi was gone. I was alone with the dead-eyed children, weaned entirely on candy and soda, immune to whatever charm the circus had had. Some were already the children of the children born here, conceived on the same sticky funhouse floor as their parents.
They scared me. I didn’t like being among them, defenseless against their staring and their hot, sickly breath, their long tongues grained with sugar. So, after a long night locked in my trailer, wondering if I had it in me to drive back to town and find Corey, I reached a decision.
In the morning, I rolled out of my cot, put on my clown nose and makeup for the last time, took the key to the elephant cage from Ghoulardi’s old office, and traipsed across the grounds. I luxuriated in the walking as I went, stretching my legs as much as I could.
When I got to the cage, I unlocked it, slipped in, reached through the bars to re-lock it, then threw the key, and the car keys with it, as far as I could, watching them land in a puddle by the candy stand.
Then I sat down in the musky woodchips, in front of the carcass, to plan my routine. I’ll do it every night, I decided. For whomever shows up.
At the end, I’ll reach my hands out for candy. And if they don’t oblige, I’ll simply die here, like the elephant, like Ghoulardi before me …
“But the thing you guys don’t know,” I hear myself say, to the sparse crowd assembled before me at dusk, “is that there was a town. Not that far from here. Just up Bridge St., actually. I’m from there. There was a whole world outside this one. It only sounds like a joke when I say it now.”
The crowd roars with laughter. I watch them slug soda and tip Sour Patch Kids down their throats, choking as they laugh, wiping their eyes and noses on their sleeves.
I have to admit, it sounds pretty funny. I wish Corey could see me now, commanding an audience.
“And in this town,” I go on, emboldened, “there was me, and there was Corey, and we went to school, which was a room where they wasted our time, but the great thing was we were free to daydream. They couldn’t keep us from that. So Corey and me daydreamed about movies, which were basically daydreams made into black boxes. We had a shared mind in those days, we were completely on the same page, and in our shared mind we shared the dream that, one day, we’d make the greatest movie of all time, so great it’d remove the need for anyone else to ever dream again, because … because …”
I lose my train of thought as the laughter drowns me out. I’m dizzy and confused until something hits me in the face. I look down and see a Sour Patch Kid lying in the woodchips, red and oblong. Grinning at the children, I do a pratfall and, lying on the ground, begin to nibble the candy.
More follows, at first just a few pieces, then a steady barrage, raining over me, more than I can get in my mouth. Candy lands in my hair, my ears, my eyes.
I come up to my hands and knees, chewing as fast as I can, and crawl toward the bars, mouth open. Here I begin to nibble straight from the children’s hands, laughing as they laugh. I feel their fingers on my tongue, between my teeth, stuffing sugar down my throat. All I want, I think, is for this to go on and on and on. For the notion of the town to remain as powerful as it is right now.
And I want to stay crouched like this, I think, flaring my nostrils to breathe, with the source of sweetness inexhaustible and well within reach, the laughter warm and enveloping, the crowd riveted on Corey and me, both of us speaking through my mouth now, united and indivisible and forever young …
A heavy silence pulls me out of myself. I look up. The children have stopped laughing. They’re standing on the other side of the bars, licking their lips. Some put their hands to the metal and I can tell that, in a few seconds, if I don’t go on entertaining them, they’ll start shaking the cage. I picture myself and the dead elephant in a pile, woodchips covering us both, the bars digging into my back.
Carefully, I get to my feet and force myself to focus on dredging up more to say. I close my eyes and try to picture the town, to remember what it looked like, what it actually contained beyond the video store basement.
“And one day,” I go on, “one day, our dream came true. Corey and me, well, you see … ”
The laughter drowns me out again and the flood of candy returns. Soon I’m back on my knees, my face at the bars, telling the story of how our dream came true, how we made our movie and how great it was, the greatest ever, how we lived full lives in the world and only came back here at the end to die, and right now, deep inside the laughter, I feel like I have it in me to believe what I’m saying, and there’s nothing but joy in the knowledge that everyone who could’ve said otherwise is gone.