I’d be utterly miserable if I were in the circus. I’d mope, I’d whine, I’d rail against the injustice of it all — because there are few circuses I would join willingly — and I’d end up taking it out on the other surely miserable creatures in my strange new circus family. This wouldn’t be helpful for me or fair to them, so then I’d feel guilty and feel more miserable but at that point, with all of us having to perform four shows a day, it might not matter.
Nevertheless, everyone would hear about it. That includes the new-in-town, understandably wary poodle trainer; the entire clown corps; the husband and wife acrobat team who works overtime every week knowing full well they absolutely should not do that given their line of work; the bendy girl; the other bendy girl who you pay extra to see (after dark, adults only); and Hugo, the old, old, old, old, old man who does all the costumes, including the tiny hats for the monkeys and my previously worn petticoat and velvet vest.
I’d fling myself into the shabby trailer Hugo uses for his workshop. “Hugo!” I’d cry. “It’s happening!”
Hugo has those wire spectacles with the thick, convex magnifying lenses that make his eyes so big he looks like a cartoon. He doesn’t look up from his sequins because it takes him a long time to move any part of his body. Besides, he’s heard this before.
“What’s the trouble, dear?”
I lie down on the floor for maximum effect. “Hugo, I’m not meant for this life. This classic vaudevillian, 1930s, Follies Bergère-style traveling circus life, I’m just not meant for it.”
“Sounds like you need a biscuit,” Hugo says.
I perk up but don’t show it and then moan again. “No, even a biscuit won’t help … I’m dying.”
“All right,” Hugo says, pulling out a spool of pink thread from a drawer. “I don’t think I have any left, anyway.”
Wait, what?! Hugo’s refreshments are legendary. No one knows where he gets the shiny blue tins of shortbread cookies, but he always seems to have them on hand when you really need one. And the tea he gives you on bad days is made with the same rationed teabags and powdered milk we all get from the circus commissary, but Hugo makes it taste creamier and gets his water hotter, somehow. No one can figure it out.
“Well, maybe it would help to have a bite of a biscuit. If you still have some.” I cough a couple times. “And … I think the sawdust is sticking in my throat. Do you have any, um, tea or anything?
Hugo smiles and gets up. He makes his creaky way over to the hot plate to boil water in a kettle as old as he is. “Yes, you ought to have tea right away. We can’t have you suffocating on sawdust; you go on at 6:30. And I think I do have a few biscuits left somewhere.”
I try to peek at which shelf he reaches into for the cookies but he looks back at me faster than I thought he was physically able to, so I squeeze my eyes shut and roll around like I’ve got a stomach ache even though I don’t. I hear the tin open and the rustle of crinkled cookie papers.
Hugo is bent over pretty far already so it’s easy for him to hand me a biscuit. “Sit up, darling. You don’t want to choke.”
“This circus is going to kill me,” I say, half the cookie in my mouth already. “Maybe today’s the day.”
The tea kettle boils and I get my mug of tea. It’s hot and creamy and tastes like my former life. Hugo, who dresses like Geppetto and smokes exactly two cigarillos every day, sits in his chair and I sit cross-legged on the trailer floor. I’ll have to have the Bearded Lady beat the dust from my skirts before my act. By the way, I’m with the lions on Thursdays and Fridays; Sunday through Tuesday I sell candy and peanuts and tell jokes, and on Wednesdays — my favorite day — I get to ride Trinket. (Trinket is our elephant.)
“Have you ever seen a performance of Cirque du Soliel?” Hugo asks me.
I shake my head. “No, actually. Are they any good?”
“No,” Hugo says. “They’re not real circus people, anyway. Oh, they’ll do some tricks. A few of them are double-jointed like Ricky. But their hearts just aren’t in it. There’s too much money in the thing, no doubt about it. You get too much money in a touring group like that, people don’t need each other. They go off after work and spend their money doing all kinds of who knows what. Here, it’s different. We don’t have much, but we get by. We help each other. And we have a good show.”
Puffs of smoke curl up into the costumes Hugo stores on hangers above his head. My vest and skirts came from that old stock. The cigarillo smell will never come out. I look over at Hugo, who has always been so kind to me. I hear Trinket bellow from across the grounds; it’s bath time.
This isn’t that bad, I think to myself. If I were in the circus, I guess I’d want it to be like this.