Born landlocked, the animal trainer had been plagued all his life by whale thoughts. It made no sense. He had never seen one, would never, still his dreams brimmed with the giants. He couldn’t swim, wouldn’t even tolerate a washrag on his face, but in dreams he glided alongside great pods of these beasts in silent slow motion. Or his nightmares—the crisp terror of coming across a dry one, dying or dead somewhere in his city. A heaving ribcage on the boulevard, a loose, meaty heart unearthed by a garbage plow.
The thing that bothered him most about whales: they are out there somewhere whether you see them or not, bobbing in the black depths. This knowledge wrecked him, somehow. If the animal trainer couldn’t conquer whales, elephants would have to do. Land leviathans, they had that same throb of gravity. Their big wet eyes, the dumb lumbering that hid their great minds.
Riding was his goal at first, then standing one-footed, supremely confident with his boot in a pool of loose skin.
“Nothing but a big, baggy horse,” he liked to say.
The thrill of looking down from their backs, the surprising speed he could muster in them. He taught his elephants to turn in all directions, to bow down and rear up. At first his commands came through a series of whistles and clicks, but soon his herd performed whole shows by rote.
Of course what looked like effortless collaboration came at the cost of brutality. It was about breaking them down, dismantling the thing that made them bigger than you. His father taught him that. An elephant can stop a show just by sitting. She can rear up and rip clean through a tent, trample children if she wants to. But a good trainer, if he has patience, will always, always prevail.
* * *
The papers nicknamed him the Mastodon Masochist. His first break was a 5,000-pound Indian called Romeo. The name was ironic—Romeo was known as an “ugly” in circus parlance, and thought to be untrainable. Called a waste of money by the Barnum expedition after he demonstrated his temperament early on, Romeo went rogue on a dock in Ceylon, crushed a captor’s skull underfoot.
The animal trainer spent his days correcting, forcing, anticipating every gesture of the huge beings he knew not to trust. Then at night, the show. The ticket count, the boss happy drunk or sad drunk, depending on the numbers. Tent energy. The Ringmaster warning about pickpockets, the pickpockets then noting which specific pockets, which trouser legs the audience members touched. That world of knives and fire. The concentration of the crowd, keeping acrobats aloft with their thoughts, or else wishing, waiting for sudden death. Nauseating band music. Clown after clown. The rest of the show such a bore for the animal trainer, hacks the lot of them. His mantra said aloud each night before taking his mark: “Get ready, motherfuckers.” He needed the attention, hated himself for needing it. A joke he told to hide the hurt: for a bigtopper, applause is like making love to a widow woman—you really can’t overdo it.
After the show he got his cut of the take. Sleep was impossible, the high from his act stronger than any speedy drug, so he made his way to Lulu’s. He got a deep discount on the girls there, though it didn’t matter much. That place was like playing the ponies—you always came out broke. It was worth it to him: that thought-stopping supernova of bought sex. The animal trainer had some celebrity because of his work in the circus, but the truth is, the elephants were a bonus—he would have made a name for himself at Lulu’s without them. His father taught him to do one thing well. Do it and keep doing it until you’re dead. Turns out the trainer could do two things. The girls called him Touch, and they were always happy when he turned up.
Then he was back on the streets of his neighborhood, a bad place to be at night, even for a man like him. Yawning to look casually brave, or else muttering and shaking change in his pockets to look crazy. Avoiding shadowy passersby, walking a wide berth around trouble that was not his, staggering home to wash whatever girl off his belly, hang his animal clothes on the line outside his window so the stink wouldn’t keep him awake.
He loved women but he couldn’t wait to get back to his elephants. After Romeo there was Jumbo and Cleopatra and Frankie and Jumbo II, Indians and Africans and swollen Indians with mutilated ears passed off as Africans: boatloads of the sickest, saddest lot of half-dead jungle uglies ever to heave onto American soil. The shape of them in the dark, unstabled, unchained but never leaving, waiting for him. Their bulk before the sun came up. The trainer’s ear against their sides, the wet heartbeats. The purl of slow blood in them.
Writing by Kimberly King Parsons has been published in New South, No Tokens, Black Warrior Review, Joyland, Bookforum, and elsewhere. She received the 2016 Indiana Review Fiction prize and one of her stories was selected for inclusion in the forthcoming anthology Best Small Fictions 2017. She lives with her partner and sons in Portland, OR. Find her at www.kimberlykingparsons.com