I was in the circus back then. I was in a traveling show and I saw what was left of the world before they built it back up. That was the summer when God fell off his high horse and Fox News Network took over the world. They called it globalization, but they were just goons riding a nuclear threat. They didn’t know entertainment.
Anyway, I put on a nice song and dance for the acid rain generation. I went all around the country in a hot air balloon powered by political pundits. When Fox took over, they sold MSNBC correspondents for ten dollars a pop and our ringleader, Mr. Teedlefritz, got in on the pre-sale–he knew somebody’s uncle. Well, he rigged those pundits up to the hot air balloon, said some words about trickle-down theory, and they lit right up. I heard Cirque du Soleil had some high powered executives greasing their wheels, but we could never be sure. Everybody had different ways to travel.
My trouble began like a Reader’s Digest joke: There was a circus performer, an old theologian, and a scruffy expatriate drinking jagerbombs in a sports bar. It was the kind of place with gladiator spears and Glen Beck memorabilia on the wall.
I was watching Comedy Central’s roast of TBS–a terribly barbaric practice, but very funny, indeed–when the expatriate struck up conversation with the theologian. I caught the argument half way through, when they started hollering.
“He’s in chronic pain, man,” the ancient theologian was standing, hands clasped, as if in prayer. “Constant pain, I tell you. When that horse slipped on that banana peel, he fell down hard and shook the Earth right rotten, I tell you. Right rotten!” He sat down, a single tear slipping off his chin’s whiskers. “And the world–it ain’t been right since.”
The expat shook his head, scratched at the stubble on his chin. “It don’t sit right with me.” He shook his head some more. “It just don’t seem right for God to sit back and let the world go to hell.”
The fire got hotter. I could feel the flames scorching me through the monitor.
“I just don’t think it’s proper of him, that’s all. Where I come from, man’s got to do his job. Why does God get a break, anyhow?” The expat kept on shaking his head.
“No, please, you must understand. Someone must understand.” The theologian spun around, his monk-like robes dancing, and pointed at me. “You sir, you’ve got to understand it, don’t you?”
Now, I’ve never been one to cause trouble. I believe that if you dance on a banana peel, you’re bound to get roasted. But I was a couple jagerbombs in, and I guess I was looking for some conversation. In any case, I couldn’t see the harm in tossing in my two cents.
“What do you want, asshole?” I gave him my best stink eye and grunted a bit.
“I want to save this man’s soul,” the theologian said.
“What do I got to do with it?”
“Well, sir, you seem like a God fearing man.”
A sitcom screamed, toasted.
“I’m only afraid of silence,” I responded. A circus man likes to hear applause, a little laughter, the red velvet curtains rising and falling with the beat of his heart.
“Well, that’s all he’s given us since the fall, ain’t that the truth?” The expat spat a gob of mucus onto the bar floor and shook his head again. He tugged on the collar of his brown leather jacket and growled.
“Blasphemy! He speaks in the little miracles of life: the rain that falls from the heavens and the birds that fly!” The theologian was standing again, raising his arms up to his heaven.
“Listen,” I answered, “all I see is acid rain, and the only flying power in this world is politics. I don’t know what God’s got to do with any of that.” I shook my head like the expat.
“No!” Tears stream-lined down the old man’s face, dripping from his white whiskers. “These things, they are temporary. He’ll fix ‘em right on up, I tell you. Once His pain is gone.”
And then the expat, he got really angry. Lost his cool. He stopped shaking his head and started pummeling the theologian, splattering blood all over the place. Grabbed him by the robe, hitting him with fist, spit, and theory.
“He’s in pain? He’s in pain? I’m in pain! And it’s always constant and he ain’t doing nothing about it! Nothing, you hear? It’s up to us, now!” Screaming and punching, and the flames kept rising up and up and up.
He kept on going until the theologian’s brains were spilled out and dangling off the bar stool like spiraling computer cables off a mahogany office desk.
I guess the theologian dying and the expatriate shaking his head got to me. It wasn’t the first time I saw a man’s innards bloody up a bar stool. Certainly wasn’t the last, either. Those were the days of bloody bar stools. In the end, all the talk and all the blood was just a Reader’s Digest joke. The kind of thing you’d read on the toilet.
Now, I don’t know about wars or politics. I was a circus man back then and I always will be. I’m at the whim of my audience, and when the red velvet curtain lifts I feel a pressure in my heart. A pressure to prove I’m worth a damn in this life and the next. But I realized: that’s a kind of pain–the kind that makes people laugh and breaks God’s silence. Without that pain I sure as hell wouldn’t have been up on that stage. But the funny thing was, when the curtains fell and I was left in a cloud of dust and darkness, that pain didn’t leave. It balled up under my ribcage, like I fell off the stage or maybe just off a horse. God, He was right there with me, right there inside of me, suffering the same disappointment. The finale never turns out quite right, does it? And God help me, it hurt so bad every time.
I guess that’s why I decided to leave the circus. To fix it. The loneliness and the pain. God and myself. I wanted to get away from bars with gladiator spears and Glen Beck memorabilia on the walls. I wanted to get away from Mr. Teedlefritz and expatriates who thought they knew the answers, but didn’t, really. But it wasn’t that easy to disappear, even back then. A man’s got to work to find himself. A man’s got to fight the odds. He’s got to get himself a friend to rely on, a girl to love, and villain to fight. And I got all of those in spades. That’s the story. That’s what I did the summer God fell off his high horse and Fox Network took over the world–in the age of bloody bar stools. I went off and had myself an adventure. And that is the story I’m going to tell.
I met Mr. Teedlefritz about the time God fell — right before Fox began running the show. I was down on my luck. A joint venture company that manufactured scissors had gone under, my partner having laundered all the money away. Left it in his suit pockets–the whole company’s worth. I went to the launderers to get it back, but everybody being so concerned with the environment, the money was biodegradable. Disintegrated somewhere in the rinse cycle. Left me washed out to dry. That’s one thing I’ll say about Fox. They knew how to make money. The kind that didn’t get liquidated into nothing.
Anyway, my partner felt so rotten about the thing, he went and jumped off a cliff. With him dead, the money gone, and the world run by hooligans, I had to perform my act in karaoke bars and on street corners, just to keep from starving. It was at the intersection of Backwater Lane and Hollywood Avenue that Mr. Teedlefritz picked me up. Said he liked me. Told me there was a place in this world for me, and the intersection of Backwater and Hollywood wasn’t it. Mostly just waved cash under my nose and let me get a whiff. It smelled good.
Mr. Teedlefritz was an excellent entertainer. He didn’t need graphics or green screens. All he needed was a stage, a meal, an audience– maybe a little gin to get going. He had a special condition. Some might say it was a power–that he got bitten by a radioactive insect, or sent to Earth by some doomed alien race. But I think he was just a man who missed the boat on evolution. He had this over-active metabolism. Now, that doesn’t mean it was fast, or anything. Sometimes it was fast, sometimes it was slow. It changed every second. At any one moment, he would go from obese to rib and bones. Right before your eyes. Audiences loved it. One man’s sorrow is another man’s chuckle. But Mr. Teedlefritz never complained. He built a career, and an empire, on his weight. And it was a might heavy foundation, when his metabolism was in the right kind of mood.
The circus was the only place left with a little joy, in those days. We had the Blueberry Twins, the Upside-Down-Mustache Men, Mrs. Mister, the Globbing Tomato, mongooses, and three-headed sloths–to name a few. Mr. Teedlefritz was our ring leader and our manager. There was very little that Mr. Teedlefritz didn’t manage, and even less that he didn’t know. Organized the whole gang with and iron grip. It was despotism at its fattest and thinnest. But I didn’t mind, at first. It was nice having a boss.
I did a lot of things, but my specialty was scissors. Could cut through just about anything, while making a joke or two. Give me two dull and rusty blades, and I’ll craft a dainty snowflake out of a sheet of iron. It’s not strength, or anything. I just understand physics like most men can’t.
My first day on the grounds I was practicing my act by the mongoose pen when I met Salomé. She was your classic femme fatale. Strutted around in tight black dresses. Painted her lips red. Talked in this husky, breathless kind of way. Flipped her long dark hair over her face when she smiled. Trouble.
“Well, what are you supposed to be, big boy?” I was practicing with my scissors and some antique fifth century chain mail. “Knight in shining armor, or something?” The Upside Down Mustache Men were singing a little ditty off in the corner.
Daddy loves me
Puts me to bed
I see Daddy’s stomach
“No, ma’am.” She picked up my scissors and stroked the blades, lingering on the tips. “You like playing with knives?” I asked her.
“How bout fire?”
“I’ll play with any old thing.” She looked right up at me with these big black eyes. “Long as it’s dangerous.”
“Those blades ain’t dangerous unless I’m holding them.”
“You’re not afraid of me?”
“You look like the kind of woman could hurt a man real bad.”
“In his heart. Not for real, lady.” I laughed, feeling big and powerful. “Bet you couldn’t even touch me. Less I let you.”
She smiled, red lips wide and just a little parted. “Would you let me?”
“I suppose any man would, with hips like those.”
“Oh, you like them do you?” She looked down, like she’d never seen them before. “Guess they’re pretty nice. But, it’s not so much what they look like as what they can do.”
“And what could they do?”
She laughed. “You wanna find out?” She winked and snapped the scissors apart into two blades. “I could show you.”
“Show away, darling.”
She feigned glancing around. Licked her lips. Innocently peered at me. “Here? Now?”
“If that’s what those pretty nice hips of yours desire.”
She clutched those blades on up to her face, kind of mulling the proposition over. I thought I was doing fine. Two hours in the circus and a beautiful woman was going to show me what her hips could do. Fine indeed. She smiled with this spark in her eyes and said, “Well I can’t see the harm in it.” I braced myself for just about anything. Anything but what happened.
She pulled her arms back, each hand clasping a sharp blade that could cut through chain mail armor. I hesitated, and suddenly those arms shot at me. Stabbed me in the gut. Blood spurted everywhere. I went to grab her arms, but she stabbed me in the neck. Pulled my throat right out. Kept stabbing and pulling until I was on my knees, trying to hold my organs in. Her whole face was covered in blood, like she bathed in that rouge lipstick of hers. I fell to the ground. I tried to holler for help, but my throat was gone and I couldn’t breathe. She bent over me and started stroking my head. Leaned over so all I could see was the black folds of her dress. Whispered in my ear, “I can break more than hearts, darling.”
It all went black. Black, white and red. I didn’t see any bright light, but I saw a dazzling array of banana peels. That’s all I really remember. Then this tugging sensation. Not on my body. I didn’t have a body. Just on me. I heard the sound of ripping, like paper. Then I was lying on the ground next to the mongoose pen and Salomé was singing. Some old timey jingle about carpet cleaners. Shook her hips like I had never seen, and the blood was all gone. Right back inside me, like it never left.
When she saw my eyes open she stopped. Bent over me and bit her lower lip, that twinkle in her eyes still flickering like candle light. “Like what you see, huh?”
Now, I had just died and been brought back to life. As far as I knew, my throat was still lying in the dust somewhere. I was in no condition to tell this woman if I liked her hips or not, so I just stared up at her trying to look mean and put together. She laughed at me.
“You should see my act from the other side sometime. It’s less humiliating when it ain’t your blood spilt.” She stood up and made like she was about to walk away, but stopped short. “Maybe we could work together sometime.” Her eyes shot to the blades, stacked up next to my head all neat, not a spot of blood on them. “I like your scissors.” Then she left. After a while I ventured to sit up and think it all over. She really was something special. And most definitely something to be avoided.
We did work together, though. Became Mr. Teedlefritz’s best act. Men were always clamoring to be brought back to life by Salomé. But in her old act, she would kill them herself. It was disturbing to watch, so I’m told. She was blood lustful, if anyone ever was. So we set up a new act with me as the murderer. I would use my physics to cut through men. I could slice through breast, lung, and heart. Right in half. Then she would dance, seductively swing to a trombone tune played by giant poodle. Meanwhile, I’m cracking jokes for the women. Salomé never was popular with them.
When the man stood back up again, body back the way God intended, the audience would go wild. Just wild for us. It was the perfect circus act. Drama. Humor. Sex. And a bit with a dog. People came from miles away to see it wherever we went. Came to be that Mr. Teedlefritz had the MSNBC correspondents post this picture of us on the hot air balloon.
Life in the circus was real fine. My stomach was never empty and there was always something to do. No matter how rotten the Earth got shaken, the circus never changed. The mongooses were always causing mischief and The Up-Side-Down Mustache Men were always writing new jingles.
Then there was Salomé. She was something else. No matter how many posters of the two of us Mr. Teedlefritz plastered onto the balloons, she never quite warmed up to me. She was either teasing me or hollering. And whenever she got mad, she’d go ahead and decapitate me or something horrendous out of spite. I must have died some twenty times that summer, in total. I’d threaten to ring her neck, but I never did. I let her kill me, or at least that’s what I told anyone who dared ask.
I got comfortable. Settled into the circus way of life. I was happy, really. At least, I felt happy. But even in the circus, we couldn’t ignore the changes. Suddenly, we had government producers telling us that some acts were too mature for our audience. They made Salomé and I shorten our bit and lessen the blood. Little things that amounted to a big nuisance. Mr. Teedlefritz had somebody in Fox, but whoever he was could only do so much. Still, we avoided the taxes. The money was more important to Mr. Teedlefritz than the quality of the acts. That’s why he didn’t want me to go. I made him money, and it would be a mighty hassle to take down the hot air balloon posters.
To talk to Mr. Teedlefritz, you had to make an appointment with the MSNBC correspondents, but they were morons. Argumentative and abrupt. It became strategy to wait till they fell asleep, or the news came on, and then sneak by them into Mr. Teedlefritz’s tent. But, some important politician was caught in a scandal that day and the correspondents were all hyped up. When I went to make my quiet entrance, two coked up ugly suckers saw me right away.
“Hey, mister. Where are you off to?” This big greasy one in yellow suspenders and red balloon pants jabbed a finger at me.
“Do you have an appointment, sir?” A littler one with pimples and glasses flashed fake dentures.
“Ah, yessir.” I coughed a little. “I do, in fact, have an appointment.”
“Oh fantastic.” The little one reached into his jeans back pocket and brought out this appointment book that was bigger than the Bible.
“Name,” The big one asked.
“Ahh, well,” I tried to glance into the book, but they were so concerned with security, it was written in code.
“You, know, it’s odd, but I don’t have anyone listed for this time of day,” The little one picked at a his face. “Give us a moment. We’ve been reorganizing to make our appointment process more efficient.” Blood and puss squirted out of a pimple.
“Yessir,” the big one continued, while the little one went and grabbed a shovel. “We now keep three different appointment books.”
“In three languages! For your security.” The little one smiled up at me, then abruptly started digging.
“One, Gangle here keeps in his back pocket.” Gangle smiled proudly while the big one kept on talking. “The other, we bury.”
I cleared my throat. “Sounds right efficient. You put all the appointments in all the books?”
“Oh, no sir.” The little one chuckled a bit. “That would be an enormous waste of time. Instead, we update one of them, and when someone like yourself comes, we check all three.”
The big one nodded, proud of the system. “It’s been a real success. We’re transforming the appointment process.”
Now, I was in no place to be waiting for them to dig up an appointment that didn’t exist. So I said, “Fellows, how bout you boys keep digging and I just go see Mr. Teedlefritz?”
Gangle stopped digging. “That is impossible,” he said.
“Not really.” I laughed as pleasantly as I could muster. “See, it’s very possible for me to step into Mr. Teedlefritz’s tent and you boys just continue onward.”
“Now sir, I assure you that we will find the book,” the big one said. “It’s somewhere down there. Can’t quite remember where, but it’s down there and we’ll find it and see your appointment, at which time you will be free to enter.”
“Well, that sounds mighty fine, I guess.” I stood looking awkward, when an idea popped into my head. “Where’s that third book you boys were talking about?” I asked.
Those two correspondents just kind of stood there thinking it over.
“Didn’t I give it to you?” Gangle tapped the big one with his shovel.
“Now, don’t you go and throw around falsified accusations.”
“I didn’t accuse you of anything!”
“There was an implied accusation!”
“I did not lose the third appointment book!”
“I didn’t say you did!”
“But you implied it!”
“If the world was built on implications, there would be no international transparency and everybody would be dropping nukes all over the place.”
“Not if there was a complete eradication of nuclear capabilities.”
“A complete eradication is damned near impossible! The way around the end of the world is a controlled reduction of arms, in which we stop the spread!”
“You can’t stop the spread!”
“You can’t eradicate all the nukes!
While they talked over nuclear policy, I shuffled my feet on into Mr. Teedlefritz’s tent. Let them work out how to step around the end of the world. I just wanted to give my notice and be off. Find some meaning in it all. Find the source of the pain. Maybe burn a couple banana peels.
Mr. Teedlefritz’s tent was opulent. When he had the MSNBC corespondents decorate, he told them to make it opulent. And they did. Went to craft stores and garage sales and bought everything that looked expensive. Threw jeweled red boas over antiquated Roman statues. Fox didn’t believe in nationalizing relics. History belongs in the hands of the people. Picassos mostly just ended up decorating bathrooms, but it was democracy. Mr. Teedlefritz had a few Picassos himself–some Ancient Egyptian golden artifacts and other assorted priceless items. He always wanted a gladiator spear or two, but the sports bars bought those up fast.
Anyway, it always made me uncomfortable. There was too much gold and too many silk draperies. He had stained glass windows from 16th century French churches propped up against the sides of his tent. It never made much sense to me. I’m simple that way.
When I walked in, Mr. Teedlefritz was crunching numbers under the yellow light of his crystal chandeliers. He wore one of his glittering gold track suits. One size fits all kind of deal. He was sitting in this throne, hunched over a mahogany wood desk. Using a quill pen that probably belonged to a king, or someone, to write on gold leafed paper. Typing into all kinds of high powered calculators and such. Lots of cords spiraling down to the socket. He was thin and smiling.
“Buck!” That’s my name. “How good of you to visit. Wasn’t expecting you.”
“To be honest, I didn’t have an appointment, sir.”
“Aw that’s just fine.” He winked. “Those correspondents throw a hell of a hassle about those damn appointments.”
We laughed about that for a while.
“Well, Buck, what can I do you for?” He put the quill pen down.
“I was wondering if I could speak to you. About my time here.”
“Well of course!” He gestured to a throne on the other side of his desk. “Sit on down, boy. Tell me what you’re thinking.”
I sat. Licked my lips. I felt a bit nervous. Mr. Teedlefritz had been nothing but nice to me. I didn’t want to offend him.
“Well, sir, I’ve been thinking about my life here.” I shuffled a bit in my throne and Mr. Teedlefritz raised his eyebrows. “It’s been a great ride, sir. A real great experience. Me and Sal have had some great moments on that stage, and I do appreciate everything you–and the troop, here–have done for me.”
Mr. Teedlefritz took some candies out of his pocket and popped him in his mouth. Nodded at me, looking curious. I rubbed my hands together.
“But, I’ve had an epiphany.”
“An epiphany?” His eyebrows got a bit higher and his stomach expanded. The gold track suit whined under the pressure.
“Yessir.” The skin on his face puffed and where there was one chin, there now protruded three. “I saw a man killed in the name of God in a bar today.”
“Well, Buck, men are killed in bars all the time these days. Ain’t nothing special about that!” He slicked back his brown hair with now sausage fingers, arm fat jiggling with the motion. He shuffled and everything shook like jello, getting bigger and bigger, like someone was filling him with air.
“I know it, sir, but this was different. There was this guy who just wanted the pain to go. I mean, both men wanted the pain to go, but they had different ways of easing it. One man seemed like he was running. He was a foreigner. The other was praying to his God. He was so certain that the pain would leave.” I trailed off.
Mr. Teedlefritz sat bloated and fat. His black eyes were little holes at the end of caves through his puffy face, but they peered out at me intensely. “So an expatriate and a theologian are in pain. We’re all in pain, Buck. It’s no reason to leave.”
I started a bit. “How did you know I was planning on leaving?”
He smiled that big old reassuring smile and locked his hands together. “Oh, Buck. It’s my business to know. When you’re in pain, I’m in pain.” He leaned over the desk onto his elbow, flipping his hands open. The candy was wearing off, and his sausage fingers started shrinking as they gestured at me.
“That’s just it, sir.” I felt emotional for some strange reason. “Everybody’s in pain, you know? Nobody’s happy. But not one son of a bitch is doing anything about it. I just–I just want to know why.”
“Why what?” The smile mutated into a scowl and he snatched his thinning hands back to his breast, over his heart like he was pledging.
“Why God slipped on a stupid banana peel and why we’re being censored by some creeps at Fox! Why it hurts, even when I’m happy. Why everybody’s hurting. There must be a reason.”
“These are hard times, Buck.” He looked down sadly, his chins shrinking. “But, these days will pass. The human spirit won’t be run down because a summer was spent in Hell. It ain’t that bad. A man’s mind can make a Heaven of Hell, anyway.”
“And a Hell of Heaven.”
He sat with his mouth open, thin face oval and dark in the crystal chandelier’s dim light. He was mulling it all over, I guess.
“There’s nothing for you out there, Buck. I brought you here. Gave you employment. Food. Security. Is this how you repay me? Leave at my critical hour?”
“No sir! I don’t mean to sound unappreciative. I’m grateful. But I feel like there’s nothing more for me here, and there’s nothing more for me to give.”
“Your act!” He stood up and threw his hands into the air. “Your act is what you should be giving to repay me.”
“When I found you, you were washed up. Dying on a street corner cutting pennies for nickels!” He grunted, disgusted. “You owe me everything, boy. Don’t forget that!”
I sat in silence, not sure what to do. I was set on leaving, but it was all very awkward. Mr. Teedlefritz sat down and made himself comfortable again.
“You’re still planning to go, ain’t you?”
“I don’t mean to disrespect you, but–”
“But you’re fucking me over, anyway.”
“If you see it that way, sir.”
We sat in some more silence. He took a little air horn out of his pocket and blew four times. A whole gang of MSNBC corespondents rushed in around me.
“I’m sorry to do this Buck.” He stood up. “But way I see it, you owe me, and these days there’s no law for me to turn to. A man’s got to make his own law. Make his own way. Every man for himself. And what kind of man would I be, if I let you leave without paying me?”
“Paying you?” For the first time, I was feeling a little worried.
“Yessir. Paying me what’s owed.”
“What do I owe you?”
“Your life!” He waved his hand at the corespondents and two of them grasped my arms. “I’m sure sorry to do this, Buck, but you’ve left me no choice.”
I struggled a big, but I was no match for those political pundits. “I’ll run away!” I screamed while they dragged me out. Mr. Teedlefritz motioned for them to stop. Walked over and put his face real close to mine. I could see every wrinkle of the man. Every intention and intensity. Pores the size of canons, filled with darkness.
“Now, Buck,” he said gently, but still stern. “That would be a real mistake. You know, no matter where you go on Fox’s green Earth,” he smiled, “I would find you.” With that, I was dragged back to my tent and tied to the bed. A circus, indeed.
*Picture curtesy of Picasso