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The Tragic Circus

Laugh, clown, laugh

Seated inside a latrine green Impala (vintage), stilled by the sight and sound of heavy rain, an aged, leathery dwarf drew in all the nicotine he could from his Chesterfield (‘Blow some my way’).

  His wicked cough carried through the deluge.

  I think you might have a spot on your lung, a doctor informed him recently. He shrugged it off. 

  Doc didn’t bill him. 

  He blew another smoke ring. Que sera, sera…

  Doris Day. 

  Suzy fucking Creamcheese… 

  ‘I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin!’

  Hot damn.

  Tote that barge, lift that bale, he growled at a workman in a phlegm choked voice that would have done Tom Waits proud. We got a show to put on tonight. 

  I nearly broke my ankle just now.

  I didn’t see nothing.

  Of course you didn’t see nothing, it’s raining so hard you can’t hardly see your hand in front of your face.

  Don’t exaggerate.

  Exaggerate nothing. Look around you.

  I can’t, it’s raining too hard, said the dwarf.

  The workman glared at him through icy sheets of rain.

  There would be no joy in Mudville tonight.

  Ok, ok, take five, said the dwarf. The last thing he needed was this guy’s glass ankle on their high premium coverage. 

  That would be the straw to break the camel’s back…the last nail in the coffin…we’re flying by the seats of our pants here…we’d be up — 

  It happened so fast. Just like that. Snap.

  The bareback rider, a tattooed diabetic nicknamed Samoan Sam, was first on the scene, thrown in his haste from his horse, a buttermilk mare (Peg) who saw daylight in the dark and went for it. 

  A lame trapeze artist (childhood polio, Christian Science upbringing) came tumbling out of a caravan, waving his arms around in windmills like a madman, doing flips and somersaults in the muck. 

  A procession of clowns poured out of a tiny vehicle, seeking to spread a little sunshine. Reeking and grumpy, they only made matters worse, quarrelling amongst themselves and stamping about cracking bad jokes. (‘Who was that lady I saw you with last night?’ ‘That was no lady, that was my wife!’)

  A mangy, asthmatic old lion groaned. A moth-eaten ape, a depressive in a King Kong costume lost in his role, banged a tin cup against the bars of his rusty cage. The elephant handler, a genuine mahout from Rajasthan, shared a sugary cup of tea with his favourite pachyderm, Abu.  

  Make way, make way, the dwarf said, a pint-sized Moses parting the Red Sea, arriving on runty legs, he couldn’t move swiftly but wouldn’t have even if he could, it wasn’t his manner, nil admirari, that, and he didn’t want to chance his ciggy going out in the downpour.

  You don’t want to see this, Digby, said the Bearded Lady, more Looney Tunes witch than Hermaphrodite Lincoln, stepping into his path whilst the others made a mess, Keystone Kops style, of clearing the stunned bareback rider to the side. 

  I’ve seen things no man should see, said the dwarf eyeballing her knee, let me through. A midget held out an umbrella for him. 

  A shaft of bone poked through torn flesh. 

  The dwarf examined the semiconscious workman, yelled to the Bearded Lady to call the hospital, quick, he’ll never swing a sledgehammer again, poor soul, or lucky sod if you think about it, work a necessary evil, Adam’s curse, the Protestant idea of fun. He cradled him in his arms, an absurdist Pietà. 

  Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. 20, 30 odd years in the circus, every variety of misfortune, depravity, and wretchedness known to man seen and experienced — he could write a book, No Laughing Matter: Life and Death Under the Big Top, shift a few copies, but all he could do when the show was over and the manure man came shuffling in behind the last elephant was kick back, have a smoke, crack open the beer, maybe catch a Randolph Scott western on the Late Show. 

  Sometimes, when the imp was on his shoulder, whispering sweet filth in his ear, he’d nix the movie and go get himself a whore. Who says money can’t buy you love? Whip out the jack and you were sure to track down someone willing to overlook your shortcomings, or desperate enough. 

  Was it too much to ask, a little cuddle, a pat on the head, a gin-soaked lullaby?  

  He’d count the hours till the next dump. They were all the same, fast food in Bangor as flavourless as fast food in Terilingua, trailer parks in Spokane as dispiriting as trailer parks in Tallahassee.

  Roll up! Roll up!

  The circus is in town! 

  He could see it now, like a scene in a Fellini film or a Cecil B. De Mille spectacle, hoary old clichés out to here, sawdust and tinsel.

  The roar of the crowd, the smell of the greasepaint, the John Phillip Sousa tunes picked out on the Rudy Wurlitzer, the shrieks, shouts and cheers, the stale popcorn, the sticky cotton candy, the chewing gum underfoot, the stench of sweat mingled with the sickly odour of dime store scent.

  The grinning, leering, village idiot faces that looked as if they’d come off cathedral gargoyles, in-bred hick town Quasimodoes each and every gobbing one. 

  Yeah, yeah, run away and join the circus. What a laugh…more like Run away from home where nobody loves you because you’re a goddamned dwarf to join the circus

  La freak, some silky young thing slumming with her swain let slip late last summer, killing him to the quick.

  La freak.

  She was talking about me.


  Had to be meI was the only one there

  La freak.

  Join the circus my ass

  They even had a college for it now, Clown College. In Florida, the Everglades no doubt, light relief from the real estate scams. 

  What a racket…what a —

  A siren. The rain was letting up, the workman, gurgling, gibbering (he could make out ‘shade’), was going to be saved, maybe… 

  The one-eyed, one-armed lion tamer (Linus) tapped him on the shoulder, bringing him around.  

  The show must…go on, he exclaimed, bossing the air. 

  The show must go on.

  He almost believed it.

  The strongman, who had been weakened from a reoccurring bout of Addisons Disease, carefully lifted the injured workman onto a makeshift stretcher with the help of the scrofulous ringmaster. 

  They collapsed in the mud.

The End

Julian George’s writing has appeared in Perfect Sound Forever, Postbox, New World Writing, Slag Glass City, McSweeney’s, Panoplyzine, Ambit, The Journal of Music, Film Comment, Cineaste and The London Magazine. He’s been in the wine trade, translated at the UN, flogged junk at an auction house and worked as a carer.

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