- a small tall tale of circus folk -
The Ringmaster summed it up best.
“Mark my words Tiresias,” he said to me,mysteriously appearing by my side. “You and Big George, as soon as you both cash it in and retire, you’re gonna change.” He’s the only one in the whole circus who ever called me by my full name—mostly everyone else called me “Reesey.” “Greasy Reesey,” some of the younger trapeze artists used to say long ago, on account of my Italian roots (though there isn’t a drop of Italian blood in my whole family—I mentioned my “Italian” heritage years ago, while landing the job. To add a dash of flair, elegance, something like that).
“You’ll see,” the Ringmaster continued, “Big Top folk, they’re a breed unto themselves; they need to be around their own kind. The will to perform’s in the blood—putting yourself in the spotlight. I tell you, once the makeup’s off your face and your boots are free of dirt and sawdust, you’ll sit down with a carriage clock in one hand and Medicare card in the other, and you’re gonna ache to get back in the cannon and be fired out into that big beautiful net that’s been catching you for forty years. Only now, the net ain’t gonna be there—or the cannon, and you know what’ll happen next? Your feet will start to itch, your blood’ll thin out, and you’re gonna come crawling back to Bupkin’s Traveling Circus of Wonder, asking for your job back. But you’ll have changed, because you’ll be a bystander then, away from circus folk, and you won’t be able to come back ‘cause you won’t fit in no more. Then you’ll go home with your tail between your legs, and look forward to nothing but long walks on cold days and reruns of I Love Lucy and Show of Shows. But I got news, Tiresias, Sid Caesar ain’t the big noise no more. He’s silent, just like that cannon will be without you, a bona fide circus dwarf to come blasting out of it. Still…”
The Ringmaster I called Stanley, though no one else did. I don’t believe anyone else knew his real name, not even his kids. Stan was famous for three things: Out of thin air he would miraculously appear by your side whenever he wanted to talk—no one ever saw him coming. Secondly, he wore a waistcoat that had a penchant for changing color. One moment it would be ruby red; the next time you saw Stanley it might be emerald green. He told me he had one embroidered in French silk and sent at the foot of each year from a small Parisian boutique, by the side of the Seine. Finally, more often than not, Stan finished his discussions with “Still…” usually accompanied with a scratch in the nether-regions. Then off he’d go, and you’d be left wondering if there was more conversation to come—usually there never was. Except this time: After he walked off I turned to go my way, and out of the corner of my eye I noticed Stanley stop in his tracks and look back to me. He then came over, reached into his waistcoat pocket and stuck twogold circus tickets in my hand: open-ended, front row, best seats in the house. “One for each of you,” he said quietly, before adding, “Gonna miss you, Tiresias. And Big George.” I’ll bet my retirement savings that I saw a tear trickle down his left cheek and ferret a trail through his makeup, to his curly waxed moustache.
So here I was. Big George too, forewarned and soon-to-be retired. Me, pushing my mid-sixties with a paunch and thinning gray hair, and forty years experience as a circus dwarf that made quite a lucrative living from being kicked in the pants and blasted out of a cannon eight times weekly (twice on Saturdays). And seven-foot-tall George, the last India rubber man from a long line of large familial India rubber men, stretching back seven known generations to roots somewhere in eastern Ukraine (he’s never been back).
It was Big George’s idea not to retire in that town—the one to the north, where ALL retired bona fide circus performers choose to see out their autumn years.
“I don’t want to be around circus folk anymore. They remind me that I lack dignity,” George muttered, as he stretched on his mat in the warm-up room and rubbed his aging muscles with ointment. It was his second-to-last performance, and I could see that thirty-five years of contorting his body into unnatural shapes had taken its emotional toll.
“When I first got started in this business,” he said, “I could see through the stares and surprised gasps that the audience knew there was a real person before them, making them laugh, giving them a chuckle. No one worked harder than me, to give’em a good rib-tickle. When I sat on my chest every night and dangled my legs over my head, I’d look for some kids in the first few rows. I’d find a couple with the biggest look of “WOW!” and I’d give ‘em a wink, just to let ‘em know they were special—a private gem of a moment between them and me, and I knew we’d all of us go home knowing something magical had happened. Now, I look out for those “WOW!” kids, and I’m hard-pressed to see ’em. Last few times, I gave that big smile, and their faces didn’t light up one iota. No recognition at all.” George rolled his mat under his arm, leaned down to me and whispered, “Kind of glad retirement’s here. There ain’t much reverence coming to me through the audience now; if I can’t conjure a sparkle in a kid’s eye, then all I am is an oddity. A freak.” He rested his hand softly on my shoulder, as he passed. “And we’re not freaks, are we Tiresius?” he said, as he left to offer himself up for the show.
The next morning I watched the sun rise up as I raked out the animal cages and broke up the hay bales. It was George’s turn on the roster, but after knowing each other well over a quarter-century we covered each other’s schedules without complaining or keeping tally. Last two years or so we didn’t even have to ask; we instinctively knew when each other needed time off. Knowing us to be close friends, Stanley the Ringmaster would often have George and I work the ticket booth together. I’d be out front taking the money, and then I’d call Big George who’d dash out from behind the booth, stand next to me and stick the tickets quickly into the customers’ hands. Mouths wide open, they’d gaze at our difference in height, and there’d be a pregnant pause before George would playfully pat me on the head and fire up a joke about us being long-lost brothers. Usually, the awkward moment melted away. Other times, it stayed.
As the sun rose up, painting a pale orange sky over the Big Top, I closed the door on the last animal cage. As it clinked shut, I made the decision: wherever Big George went, I’d go too. By intuition, I knew he felt the same way. And if his feelings of lacking dignity were magnified through being around circus folk, then we’d make tracks to a place where the thrill of the Big Top wouldn’t surround us in the everyday. Once a year when it passed through would be okay to stomach. We could always take a vacation.
Crawling into the cannon and anticipating the BANG! on my final performance made me quiver, inside. My mentor, a famous Lithuanian circus dwarf called Victor always said, “Close your eyes Tiresius, let the net find you. Don’t open them until you feel the second bounce.” So I didn’t. Not once in forty years—until the last night, when I felt I wanted to see the faces as I flew, keep the memory of the audience as a frozen memento, to cherish. While flying through the air, reaching the high point before I began to fall, I looked for a sprinkling of Big George’s “WOW!” kids, but instead of a few faces I saw hundreds, thousands. Every set of eyes that ever saw me fly I felt that night, their gaze holding me, willing me not to fall, eager for me to stay suspended above them. But I didn’t return the gaze for long; instead, I happily let the net find me. And after the second bounce I crawled to the edge of the net, bowed three times and walked out of the big top and away from the applause. Where I expected to sense regret, I felt only peace: I knew my work was done.
A few days after our final performance, Bupkin’s Big Top was taken down and the circus traveled on to the next locale in search of willing punters. It was then that Big George drove us about half a day south, stopping at the first average-sized town we came across.
“Anytown, U.S.A. is where I want to be, away from circus folk who talk ‘bout nothing but circus folk,” he said eagerly.
“We’re not going to fit in like a hand in a glove, wherever we go,” I replied, “except, of course, that town, the circus retirees’ town up north. You’re over seven feet tall and I’m not even pushing three feet. When we walk down the street together, people will stare. They might get twitchy.”
“They’ll gawp if we walk separately, too.”
I pondered for a while, but finally okayed Big George to stop at an office and talk with a realtor. A realtor who’s Great Aunt Jess, we soon learned, had once worked weekends at Coney Island in a sideshow attraction, playing the Bearded Lady. When the realtor’s eyes sparkled as she shared her family history, I could see by the look on Big George’s face that he wasn’t impressed.
“Interesting,” is all he offered back, in a low, gruff voice.
But she did her job well, and offered me a cushion.
“We have another Little Person in our town,” she said looking over to me, trying to rebound from George’s glum response. Then she glanced at Big George, and emitted a nervous pause. “He’s a tailor,” she finally said, looking back in my direction. “Made three of my father’s suits. He makes silk ties, too, and sells them via catalogue. Calls his business Sow’s Ear—do you have a cold?”
“Oh,” I said, hoping an accompanying smile might lighten the mood. I waited for her to continue her conversation, and I looked to Big George, who looked back at me, as I looked at her and realized I hadn’t answered her question. “No,” I said, fumbling to pull my fake rubber nose out of my jacket pocket. I put it on the table before her. I shouldn’t have done that. “One of the tools of my trade—ex-trade, that is. Used the same one for forty years. Every day. Helps build a platform for laughs, you understand.”
She didn’t look as if she did.
“Trouble is, it’s left a permanent red mark,” I said, pointing to one nostril. “Doesn’t hurt, or anything.” I hesitated, then reached and put the nose back in my pocket, giving it a squeeze before letting it go. “I carry it around everywhere, just for… It’s a part of me.”
“I see.” She looked down, anxiously muddling some papers on her desk.
Big George tediously shuffled his feet, and knocked his knees together. Any excitement about stopping in this town seemed to have left him.
I’d decided that as soon as she said it, I wouldn’t correct her. Little People. Little Person. With Political Correctness well out of its infancy, you’d think they’d come up with a better title than that. Obvious title, really. Too obvious—no thought, or creativity behind it. I’d been quite happy with the label Dwarf. Not like a word defines a person. Shouldn’t. Even had Dwarf on my tax return. Had for forty years. And the deed to my caravan. But I suppose Little Person will do, for most.
But not me. I’m a Dwarf.
Or rather, Ex-Circus Dwarf.
George stood up.
She stood up. “Thank you for coming in,” she said.
I stood up.
“I’ll check inventory,” she offered. “I just know I have something for both of you.”
She looked at Big George, then to me, her eyes constantly shifting back and forth, focusing a couple of feet above my head but a good foot below George’s. She then decided to follow protocol, and shake hands. Her right hand was up to waist-level before she thought better of it and lowered it again, trying to place it in a skirt pocket she forgot she didn’t have. Then she put it behind her back, and finally decided to place it in her other hand and start twiddling her thumbs. In her awkwardness, she epitomized grace. I was quite impressed.
“Thanks for considering Anytown as your future home,” she said, as we pushed our chairs in. “We have coffee for pensioners here in the office, every Thursday—and a variety of donuts, too…”
“Anytown?” I asked.
“It’s our town’s name. Anytown. Any town. One of the mayors put it to the vote eons ago, and the people liked it. They had a quorum.”
Big George’s countenance changed, as a beaming smile spread slowly over his face.
“Did it have another name before that?” I asked.
“Yes.” she said, offering little else but a slight look of embarrassment.
It didn’t seem right asking what it was.
* * *
So I consented to the move, and Big George got his way. And that’s really where it started—about two months ago. The realtor called George, excited as Jiminy Cricket, saying she’d found a single-level with modern conveniences and vaulted ceilings, all within a short walk to a market, bus stop and numerous local amenities.
Big George pounced on it. “I’ll pay cash,” he said. “How much is it? Doesn’t matter. I’ll pay cash. Cash is king.”
For me she found a “quaint end unit that boasts natural sunlight,” overlooking the town’s soon-to-be municipal golf course. The outside looked just like the dozen or so units next to it, all dark brown paint and cream trim, with a single bedroom upstairs and standard living area and kitchen downstairs. I’d hoped for a unique design, or at least a hint of original thought, but her smile never faded as she walked me through, and by the time she put the lockbox back on the front door, I decided it was all I really needed.
“It’ll be nice when they finish the last nine holes and put all the trees in,” she said, as I hoisted myself back up into the passenger seat of her Expedition. “The mud will dry by the Spring. We get a lot of squirrels here. Will you be paying cash also?”
I moved in the same time as Big George.
“I’ll come over in a few days,” he said, “when we both get ourselves straight.”
Though George had sold his, I brought my caravan with me because I couldn’t face parting with an old friend I’d spent so many cozy evenings in when it was cold and wet outside. The inside had tapestry-covered seats and velvet curtains, and the outside chrome was still as shiny as the day I bought it, just a few years after I got started at Bupkin’s. Saved up every penny, and paid for it out of my pocket.
“Look after her, and she’ll look after you,” the salesman had said. He was a friend of Stanley the Ringmaster. Stan looked after us all—felt it was his duty, him being the mouthpiece and circus front man. He never let any untoward characters try and sell us circus folk anything we didn’t want. He’d shoo them away, or even threaten to set the tigers on them. Not that we had tigers. But they weren’t to know that. We had an African elephant, a lion, two giraffes, a walrus and a chimp with the left leg missing below the knee—years back, we used to have an ostrich, but she suspiciously disappeared in a storm one night, after the show (nobody really missed her). The chimp’s name was Charles. Or Charlie. He answered to either. I liked Charlie. We all liked Charlie. Old and arthritic, he died in his sleep a few years ago, so we all decided to have a whip-round and find the best taxidermist money could buy. Real black pearls for eyes, and the best stuffing. No sawdust. We put him in a glass case, sitting on a piece of ebony we had shipped in from Sri Lanka. It had a solid gold plaque on the front, which read “Charlie The Chimp.” We put it to the vote, and decided on “Charlie” and not “Charles”—only Angus the Strong Man was unhappy with the decision, but even he changed his mind afterwards (he’d also suggested having Charlie’s missing half leg replaced, but we voted that one down, too). We put the glass case by the opening of the big tent, so the people from each town would be able to pass by and pay their respects. Most were appreciative. Some even cried.
I parked the caravan in the garage next to the space for the washer/dryer (I decided to buy a Frigidaire™. It’s a sensible brand). Even though I’d gotten everything in place, I slept the first few nights in the caravan—too much space outside of it. Hard for a person my age to make the adjustment, just like that. Deep down in my bones, I had a faint, gnawing feeling that I was a stranger, an alien to my surroundings, though perhaps the looks from neighbors, and the attitude from the kids across the road, had also unsettled me. When I’d shared my age with one of the girls on the street, she said I was selfish wanting to stay a child, and that I should do some growing and become an adult. Watching from behind the window, her father finally came out, offered me a faint smile and shooed his daughter away. Accustomed to curious looks, I usually had the luxury of knowing the circus would soon be leaving town, and that I mightn’t see those people again. Now, I wouldn’t be moving on; I’d have to deal with staying in one place, and the daily looks that came with it.
Finally, I forced myself to sleep upstairs. Didn’t get a wink for several nights. The whole house creaked in the small hours at the same time, about three-ish.
“Don’t worry,” the realtor said when I called her, “a newer structure’s bound to shift a little. It’s to be expected.”
I thought older houses usually creaked, but I didn’t want to take issue.
On the fourth night after little sleep, I got up early and looked in the mirror. Then I noticed it.
I’d grown—height-wise, I mean.
Two inches, at least. Got to be. To make sure, I went out later and got one of those Lightning McQueen kiddy-height charts, because they don’t make height charts for dwarfs. I put it up by the side of the mirror, in the bedroom.
There. Thirty-seven inches. Used to be 2 feet 10 1/2” in my stocking feet.
I started to tremble; a knot began to grow in my stomach. I took a deep breath, and went down stairs. I’ll do something, I thought, I’ll feel better if I do something. I got the ladder out and fitted some light bulbs—the energy-saving ones where the insides are shaped like curly fries. Then I hooked up the T.V. and got the microwave out of the box. The toaster was easy, but the sliding patio door squeaked. I went upstairs, and checked my height again. Took my socks off, stood against the chart and used a ruler to mark. Three feet 4 1/4”. The legs of my jeans had moved away from my ankles. I closed the curtains and went downstairs, sliding down on the banister. I closed my eyes and almost felt I could smell the Big Top and hear the roar of the audience. I thought about calling Big George, but decided to walk around, instead.
My denim jacket was tight—I struggled to put it on, and felt for my fake nose. It wasn’t in my right pocket. Or the left pocket. I always keep it in my right pocket, except when I’m using it. So I searched the house, upstairs and down. Then the garage, and the caravan. Then under the caravan. Then the grass outside at the front, and the muddy yard at the back. I went through everything again—including the loft, which I’d never been in. And again. I didn’t find it. It was gone.
By this time it was dark, so I went to bed. I hoped for a better day tomorrow; I wished things would be back to normal.
I woke as twilight squeezed its way through the partially-closed blinds, and felt my feet against the board at the bottom of the bed. It was a kid’s bed: half size. Not easy in this town to find a kiddy bed without cartoon characters on the headboard. I thought at one point I’d have to order out of state. Or start a love affair with WALL∙E.
I pulled myself up, thinking I’d slipped down. I hadn’t. I stumbled out of bed for the light. The carpet had a new smell. All the carpet did, throughout the house. Everything had a new smell. The grass out front smelt new. I’d never changed the carpet in my caravan. Hadn’t had to. Quality, you see. This carpet was spongy. My toes sank into it, and I left trails.
I turned on the light, and picked up the ruler.
I went downstairs, hoping my nose would miraculously appear. It didn’t.
I’ll call Big George. No. Yes. No, I’ll wait. I mean, yes, I’ll wait, then call him. No. I’m going to go around. But not without my nose. I’d be naked without it. He’ll laugh when he sees me. I’ll get another nose. Another nose—not like it’s before time. Forty years with the same nose.
I went into my caravan and rummaged through the bottom drawer, next to the stove. There it was: Snoz’s number, on an old business card with brown tattered edges. Stanley the Ringmaster had given it to me in my very first week with Bupkin’s.
“This is the only number you’ll need.” Stanley had said excitedly, pulling the card from the pocket of his sapphire blue waistcoat—I remember, as clear as day—“When it comes to fake noses, he’s the authority,” Stan added. “Call him now. Tell him I sent you. He’ll know. Tell “Snoz For Life” I sent you. But remember, a good nose costs money. Don’t skimp on the important things, Tiresias. If you’re smart, you’ll never have to buy another.”
It was odd calling after forty years. I felt hollow.
“Snoz For Life,” the voice on the other end said.
I told him who I was, and he remembered me instantly.
“How’s the Ringmaster?” he asked.
I told him I lost my nose.
There was silence.
I told him I was retired. I said I wanted to replace it.
“You can’t replace it,” he said.
I knew I couldn’t. I didn’t really want to replace it, I just wanted a replacement.
“Same size?” he asked. He told me not to lose this one, and that I was lucky to get a second. He was right.
“I’ll ship it out, Extra-Special Delivery.”
Less than ten minutes, and there was a knock on the door. I opened: no one, except a package on the doorstep. The label read “Snoz For Life (Don’t lose it).” I picked it up, opened the package and put the nose on. It was a perfect fit. And comfy. I took it off and put it in my pocket, squeezing it twice. I’d secretly called the other one “Cyril”—I’d known its name before I took it out of the box. This one, I thought about for a while. “Boris,” I finally said under my breath. “Boris fits.”
I went upstairs to the mirror. The ruler was waiting. I didn’t really have to measure, I could see for myself. I was off the end of the Shrek chart. It went to 60 inches. I figured I was at least a foot over that, probably more. The bottoms of my jeans were now close to my knees and the waist dug in, so finding some string from one of the drawers in the kitchen, I made a makeshift belt so I could undo the top, lower the zip a little and breathe easier.
I felt better, but my stomach was still in knots. Being twice as tall now as I’d been for over sixty years, also made me a little dizzy. In a way I sensed that the house around me was pushing me away, forcing me to look for another home. I tried to sit back in the caravan for a while, but for the first time ever it felt small and uncomfortable: I was now its betrayer; for years it had cared for me and now I’d outgrown it.
Before leaving to see Big George (wasn’t like him not to come round, when he said he would), I looked through the curtains to make sure my neighbors weren’t outside—I didn’t want to deal right now with kids, startled looks, or tricky questions. Walking down the street felt different. The trees weren’t as tall, and some of the paving slabs in the sidewalk shifted slightly, as I walked on them. I went to The Gap to buy some clothes, but people were still staring as I left wearing the new ones. Then I realized: I was still wearing Boris, so I took him off and put him in my pocket. The staring stopped, and for a while I felt like I couldn’t breathe.
I decided to go for a coffee. Waiting in line, I could now see the top of the counter. It was dark, shiny and had coffee rings. I reached out, hesitantly touching it with the tips of my fingers. The surface was smooth, except for some spilled sugar. It surprised me; I was used to a world of rough edges and undersides, where the bottom side of counters and tables were unfinished, coarse to the touch and eye, and well out of sight for the average person.
Holding my coffee, I still felt the counter’s strange smoothness on my fingers. My mind turned back to lowering myself nightly into the cannon, where for an instant I grasped the rim until my knuckles were white. Then I released, and slid slowly down into position, my hands tingling as if still holding on. The sense in my hands helped my heart beat a little faster as I closed my eyes and waited for the Bang! Now, the smoothness on my fingertips only helped the knots grow bigger in my stomach.
When I got to Big George’s, there was a note on the front window:
Tiresias, I’m in the hospital.
Ward Seven, private room at the end.
Bring some grapes – George.
George liked grapes. Grapes and feta cheese. Back in our circus days, he’d have me around for dinner, which would always consist of soup—feta based—and ravioli. Grapes were for desert. He used to tell me that a diet based around feta cheese promoted long life, and kept the joints supple. He once said that when he was in short supply of ointment, he’d rub feta cheese into his joints. “Works wonders,” he said. “Try some.”
When I got to Big George’s hospital room, he was sat up. His feet were sticking out of the end of the bed, and resting on a stool. “What’s the matter, George?” I asked.
“Never been in hospital before. Don’t like the smell. Or the bedside manner.”
He looked me up and down, studying me, with an expression on his face which implied he’d trodden in something.
“I’ve grown, George.”
“Yep. It’s noticeable.”
George wasn’t one to get too excited.
“What’s the matter?” I asked again.
“Did you bring grapes?”
I handed him the bag. He popped them into his mouth one by one, spitting the pips into his bedpan. “I’m stiff, Tiresias. My muscles have seized up and I can’t move. Never had this before.”
I didn’t know what to say. “I don’t know what to say, George. Did you try ointment?”
“How about feta cheese?”
“Sat in a bath full of it. For two whole days.”
“When did this start?”
He scowled, and told me about getting slight twinges in his gonads the day after he moved in. Then he bent down to pick up a box of clothes, and his back went out. He managed to get to the phone and order all the feta he could get his hands on. Paid the delivery guy extra to fill the bath with it—and make up a few sandwiches—but after two days, he only felt worse. Finally, he called the hospital.
George shot me a stern look. “I want out, Tiresias.” he said, as he nervously began to flick his bottom lip. “This wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t come down here. You should have never talked me into making the move.”
I sat in the chair next to his bed, head down with my hands under my knees. I knew Big George well enough to know that he wasn’t really pointing any fingers. Rather, any accusations on his part only hid frustrations he knew to be of his own doing. I breathed deeply several times. “Let’s give it a little while,” I finally offered, my eyes looking at the floor. “A couple of weeks. We’ll both feel…better.”
A doctor came in and looked at George’s chart. “So you worked in a circus as an India rubber man?” he said with a sarcastic tone. “Rather unfortunate, your… predicament.” He then sneered at me over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses. “You must be his contact. Tiresius. Says here you were also employed at the Big Top. And what was it that you did?”
The doctor finally decided that if things didn’t improve for George by the week’s end, he could go home. “Can’t really justify you using the bed, if you’re not going to bother to get better.”
I visited every day, checking my height in the mirror each morning before going to the store and buying more grapes. “Red ones, not green,” George systematically quipped, at the end of each visit. “The pips don’t seem to get stuck between my teeth as easily.”
I was still growing. Not as rapidly, but nonetheless. I had to stand back from the mirror, to get all of me in.
The end of the week came, and Big George was no better. I suggested that he come back home with me, where I’d be able to lend a helping hand. I stuck him on the sofa downstairs by the window, and he seemed fairly content looking out at the progress of the golf course.
“Tenth hole’s mostly finished now,” he said, as I came in from the market a few days later. “They’ve only got to pour sand into the bunkers—guess they’ll fill them all together, at the end. I would.”
George didn’t mention it when I wore Boris around the house. I appreciated it. He also didn’t refer to my growing. I was probably equal in height with him, now.
“Maybe you should try to stand up, George,” I offered, one morning after breakfast. “See if you can… straighten out, a bit.”
He looked me in the eye, a somber expression growing on his face. “Later,” is all he said, before he turned to fix his gaze back on the eighteenth fairway.
I knew it wasn’t personal; he probably didn’t want to stand next to me and find I was taller. I understood—I didn’t want that either. So I didn’t mention it again. And I didn’t offer any help, unless he asked for it.
Better part of three weeks, and they’d almost finished the back nine. “The sand truck arrived this morning,” George mentioned, while we both sat down to a T.V. lunch. He had the slightest twinkle in his eye. “They’ll be scooping it in tomorrow, no doubt.”
I could see he was excited.
I didn’t bother looking in the mirror any more. I had to bend to get under the door. I still slept upstairs, but on the floor; it was really quite comfortable. I’d taken to wearing Boris through the night now—think he helped keep my nasal passages clear, and probably prevented snoring.
The next morning I came down, and Big George was still asleep, on the couch. He’d managed to roll himself up into a fetal position a few days ago; the only time I saw him move now was when he rolled himself across the floor like a human beach ball, to get to the bathroom.
I tiptoed beside him and pulled the curtains open, in time to see the last sand truck driving away. They must have started early. The greens looked magnificent.
George woke up startled, and glanced out of the window. “I missed it,” he said turning to me, his eyes beginning to water. “The final piece of the puzzle,” he added, with a look of disbelief.
I waited for him to gain a little composure. “Maybe when we’re both… When we’re back to our old selves, we can get out there and play a round,” I offered.
“Not interested in playing a round,” George replied tersely. “Can’t stand the game.”
I sat down opposite, in silence.
After blowing his nose and scratching himself liberally for some time, he finally looked up and spoke. “Right then,” he said, “I think we’re done. Time to go.”
“Time to go?”
“Up north. North. To that town. That town up north, for circus retirees. It’s where we belong. Be among our own sort, up there.”
“You want to move up north to that town?”
“It’s time, Tiresias. We both know that. Besides, you said to wait a couple of weeks. It’s been three, and I don’t feel better. And you, you don’t look… your old self. Maybe up there, things will… straighten out.”
“George, I…” I tried to protest. After a while, the words I had lined up seemed to lack meaning; the knots festering in my stomach appearing to ease a little with George’s suggestion. So I sat, quietly, and contemplated. After a good half hour’s silence, I got up and called the realtor. George reached to the curtains, pulled them together and sat in the darkness.
So Big George got his way, again. Two days afterwards, I bundled him into my caravan, hitched it to the back of a taxi and we drove up north. The realtor was sad to see us go. Genuinely, I think.
“I’m always unhappy to see people leave Anytown,” she said anxiously, trying not to stare at my height. She now spoke more so to my chest. It was probably Boris that had bothered her—I’d been wearing him since I went to bed, the night before.
“Your homes should sell quickly,” she added. “I’ve got some potential clients lined up, already. Either property should fit them like a glove.”
I lifted my hand to shake hers.
“Hope you both feel… better,” she said, turning away, not offering her hand, her short quick steps making a hasty retreat.
* * *
That town up north became our town. I was comfortable walking the streets wearing Boris—my stomach no longer had knots, and I felt like I belonged. Sometimes I’d bump into Boris’ relations, worn by other retirees. They’d tip their hats and we’d knowingly smile at each other, in passing.
A few weeks, and Big George began to straighten out. We’d taken to evening strolls with each other around the town, and though he kept things short, he’d become quite open to chatting and starting up conversations with other circus retirees. He wasn’t as agile as he’d once been, but it wasn’t long before he was slowly bending over backwards and touching his heels. He decided to cook me dinner at his house on alternate Mondays and Thursdays. No feta-based soup anymore, but quiche: spinach quiche—with feta and anchovies. “Something new,” he said. I was happy for the change.
Stanley the Ringmaster popped up out of nowhere about a month after we arrived, to goggle at me, I think, more so than anything else. By then I’d started to shrink. Down to five feet, even. He still looked bemused, though, when he first saw me as I waved from the doorway of my caravan. As he entered and sat, he looked me up and down, slowly rolling one end of his waxed moustache between his thumb and forefinger. “Told you Tiresias, didn’t I?” is all he initially said.
We spent a few evenings reminiscing about the Big Top, the applause that had warmed us, and the faces we wouldn’t forget. And we marveled how both our minds, now crowded with past times, still clung to youth and dreams. Big George came around on the last night, and though somewhat begrudgingly he spoke of circus memories, I knew him too well to doubt that the stories he shared held a fondness he wouldn’t be willing to trade.
“You’ll both fit in here just fine,” Stanley quipped, after getting bored of looking and deciding to leave. “Amongst your own, now,” he added. He then leaned in to me, almost whispering: “Never thought I’d say it, but I’m thinking of retiring, myself. Maybe next summer, can’t go on forever. Wouldn’t want to. Still…” He then reached into the pocket of his amber-yellow waistcoat, and placed two gold circus tickets into my hand: open ended, front row, best seats in the house. “Come back, come see us. Any time. You and Big George; we miss you. There’ll always be a place for you at Bupkin’s; you’ll always fit in.”
I waved as Stanley started out on his journey back to the Big Top, and reached into my jacket pocket for Boris. I cupped him in my hand and gave him two quick squeezes. And at that moment, my heart began to melt. Because, ever so slightly, I was sure—just for an instant, the slightest instant—he squeezed me back.