We were sitting in the back of my brother Mac’s pick-up. He had a camper top, so in a circus way, it was homey. You couldn’t stand all the way up, but there were two lawn chairs and he’d built a loft above the cab that fit a thin mattress. I hadn’t asked yet where I would sleep because I hadn’t told him yet that I was staying.
He repeated, “So good to see you,” and we sat there, him blissed out from a long day’s work, me just listening to the rain on the topper, hoping for change I couldn’t see the shape of yet.
Mac was the ring crew chief. The year he came for Christmas, we teased him that his job was shoveling elephant shit. That didn’t seem to bother him. He’d changed. “Work changes you,” was something he said now. He was very direct in a way that none of the other men in my life were.
“Shouldn’t you be getting back on the road?”
The road. Back to... what? I didn’t want to be home any more. Not with the husband and the pregnant cat and the truth that we were never going to get out of the city.
I fingered the seat of the lawn chair. “I was thinking I would stay here. I could sleep on the floor,” I said, hoping he would insist on giving me the mattress.
“Sister, I ran away from home to join the circus.”
“Right. I admire that.”
“You are home. I don’t want home here.”
“That’s not very nice.”
Mac looked at his watch. “You’re cramping my style.” When I didn’t move, he said, “I’ve got a juggler coming.”
“I didn’t know you had a girlfriend.”
“It’s just a juggler.”
“But you need me to get out?”
I needed a plan C. I grabbed my purse. There was one of those Totes umbrellas in there. I dug it out and ducked to exit through the flimsy door.
Mac and the tent crew had transformed an outlet mall parking lot into a wonderland illuminated by strings of lights in the circus trademark orange. I walked by the now-closed souvenir booths trying to imagine being a child again, wanting this stuff—light-up yo-yos with the circus logo, beanie hats with the circus logo, stuffed clowns, stuffed acrobats.
Then I saw him arcing up against the horizon. The thin fuzz on his back caught the light and I thought, ‘What a magnificent beast.’
I walked over to the elephant enclosure. It was no more than a garden railing. The elephant could have stepped right over it.
“Stop right there.” I saw the shovel first, then the man who looked like he intended split my skull with it. “Who the hell are you?”
“I’m Mac’s sister. Mac. The ring crew chief.”
“He should have told you not to come back here. I thought you were a PETA.”
“I’m not anything. I’m just walking around.”
I told him I was thinking about joining the circus. He said something derogatory, that it wasn’t a Pilates class, you don’t get to stop working when the hour is up.
I said, “I know that,” but I didn’t. Not then.
He eyed me up and down. “Go get two cups of coffee and I’ll let you sit in my Airstream.”
In the cook tent, the cook handed me two coffees in Styrofoam cups. “Shouldn’t you use re-usables?” The cook told me that if he knew me, he would have given me a ceramic cup, but he was not interested in losing a cup to every blond who said she was somebody’s sister.
I was a blond at the circus, which was something. I wasn’t a juggler, but I wasn’t waiting around for a cat to drop babies either, knowing I would never have that privilege. I wasn’t stacking yoga after Pilates so at least I would not get home before noon, pull out a Lunchables because, goddam it, I am not going to turn on the stove to cook for one person.
The Airstream was nice inside. You felt squeezed in tight. Joe, that was his name, made me sit with my back to the window so he could watch the elephant pen and still talk to me. He put Bailey’s in his coffee and offered me some.
“I don’t drink and drive.”
He said, “You’re not driving anywhere in this rain,” which was true, but I didn’t know it yet.
The window was cracked a little bit, so I could hear the elephant rooting around in his food dish, smell his musk. When the elephant brushed against the side of the trailer, the whole thing shook and my coffee spilled.
“He wants attention,” Joe said.
I could tell he wanted to be alone with his elephant so I went back to the cook tent and asked for decaf.
“Never heard of it,” the cook said.
I sat for an hour, maybe two. The rain stopped. Through the plastic sheeting, I saw Mac walk by with his juggler and he saw me.
“Got to cut this off,” I heard him tell her as he turned into the cook tent.
“You been in here all night?”
“No. I talked to Joe for a while. Joe with the elephant.”
Mac sat down across from me. “That elephant is going to close this circus. We can’t get insurance.”
“It doesn’t seem like a dangerous animal. It’s really attached to him as far as I can tell.”
“It’s not the elephant. It’s the PETAs. They throw blood on people.”
“That’s how they protest fur, not circus acts.”
“They set fires. That’s what the boss said the insurance company was afraid of.”
“So why don’t you get rid of the elephant?”
“That’s what the boss wants to do. But Joe says no, and the performers are lined up behind Joe. Me you can replace. But the acrobats and the trapeze artists? They’re from Russia, and it’s not just about money for them. We can’t replace them. They say the elephant’s family. And I know what they mean. People tell a lot of stories around here, but this one’s true: We were playing in a school. I said it was stupid from the get-go. But there was an ice storm predicted, way late in April, and the school groups were all saying they had to get their money back. It was going to bankrupt us.
“So the boss, he’s on the phone with the superintendent. Super says he can’t take the risk running buses, but he doesn’t want to have all those kids mad at him either.
“The superintendent says, ‘Why don’t you bring the circus to us?’ I told the boss no, but he didn’t listen.
“So we go to the school. It was noon when we got there, the ice had mostly melted. We go in through the back door to the stage, clowns first, then everybody in tights and then there’s a girl riding Simba—”
“The elephant’s name is Simba? That’s the lion in The Lion King.”
“Do you want to hear the story?”
“She’s up on Simba wearing a head piece with blue ostrich plumes. The sun is sparkling off her sequins and I’m thinking, ‘This is why I love the circus. The impossibility of it.’ She’s up there, and when they get to the stage door, she’s got to duck her head so her headpiece doesn’t catch.”
“It’s not that big of an elephant.”
“Big enough, I’ll tell you, big enough. So they go in and I start down the stairs. There’s a green room in the basement and I’ve got to get props to the balancing act. I can hear the kids in the audience cheering. Simba does this thing, where he pokes his trunk out, just a tease, and when the audience realizes it’s the elephant, the kids go crazy.
“So I’m going down the stairs and I hear them cheering, and then there’s kind of a crack and the ceiling explodes. Wood and pipes, everything is breaking. There’s a swirl of dust, but I see that blue ostrich plume. The girl is coming through the ceiling. I can’t get down there fast enough. She’s upside down. The first trick in the act, the elephant’s got her in his mouth hanging upside down by one knee.
“They are coming through and I don’t know how this could be possible, but I see the girl’s eye, through all the dust and the lumber raining down. She’s terrified. And then Simba. Feet. Knees. All of him. Somehow he lands upright.
“And you know why the performers won’t let us let him go?”
“He didn’t bite down.”
I look at my brother and see he belongs in this cook tent, how the dirt on the chairs is the same gray as the dirt under his nails.
I say, “I want to stay.”
“You can’t stay if you don’t have a job.”
“I’ll watch for PETAs.”
“I thought you donated to PETA.”
“Don’t tell anybody.”