This story first appeared on the Jersey Devil Press’s Brilliant Disguise blog. Copyright is held by the author.
WE ROLLED into town on a diamond-bright Thursday night. Now the Sunday sun was exploding over the Chiricahua Mountains in an end-of-the-world crash that churned the clouds in the Tucson sky. The carnies put out their smokes, tipped back their Buds to swallow the last drops, and wiped sweat off their heads. The straw boss shouted at us, “Off your ass and on your feet! The marks are coming.”
I saw rubes already parking their Dodges and unlocking the baby strollers in the parking lot. Moms looked dewy-faced and the Jakes tossed their shoulders back, ready to claim the prize. The skinny girls and daredevil boys were waltzing into the Midway looking to dance with the devil.
Tomorrow was the carnival’s last show, end of the run before the magic disappeared and the tumbleweed reclaimed the sandlot. We were striking the tents and moving on at midnight. Then we’d be as invisible as the spirit of Jesus on Monday morning.
Old Billy hobbled over, trouble in his rheumy eyes. Sickness and mortality can gimp around on two legs and earn a day’s wages, but the string eventually runs out.
Billy planted his boots in the sand, worked his gums and said, “Hoss, this is as far as I go.” The clowns didn’t drop their smiles as they rollicked toward the ring in the Big Top, the babes waited statue-like on the backs of the Percherons. I could hear the Fat Lady singing her last song for Billy.
Thirty or more seasons had come and gone for Billy in a succession of tent-pole forests and black-smoking trains whistling off into the darkness. Billy was the legend of the kid who ran away to the circus and never looked back. Maybe that was me too. From Topeka to Wichita, Albuquerque to Mesa, Billy had provided the voodoo that a generation of carnies believed in. And, shit, if I didn’t believe in Billy, what was left? Not the mess I left behind. Not Ma’s shack in the hollow, not the hardscrabble life in the Appalachians that wore folks down early.
After three years, my family was the carnival and Billy could’ve been my grandpa. Like any pack of kinfolk, circus life grew and shrank and warped here and there. Samantha the snake handler bore twins, two Little People got married, the knife-thrower from Slovakia fell under the wheels of a train one night when he got drunk. And through three seasons we went from fairground to field with our “Howdy-do, we’re here again, then we’re gone until next year.”
Now I had to squint hard and wonder, Is this all there is?
No encores and bows for Billy tonight, not with his lungs shot. Like an old dog or Indian squaw, he knew when his time was up. The carnie boss knew it too, doing his businesslike thing and firing Billy that afternoon. Nothing personal.
“Goodbye, kid,” Billy said, shaking my hand. “The train’s leavin’ without me. Doc said I got it bad. It’s time to cash in my chits.” He wiped away a spot of blood, smiling through a mouth with broken teeth in a face that needed ironing by God. “Kiss the sideshow ladies goodnight for me.”
He turned and stared with squinty eyeballs. “Get out now, kid. Don’t wait for the right cards to turn up. I waited, and I lost the bet.”
Then he shambled off into the darkness, hiding his mortality like the secret silver dollar he’d tucked in his boot. I waved my fingertips, saying, “So long, Billy.” And, quietly, “Give my regards to Saint Peter.”
Standing alone in the weeds whipped by the desert wind, I heard the yokels hooting inside the Big Top. Poor Billy wouldn’t see Myrna dancing on the high wire anymore or Lorenzo facing the lions. The clown car would have one passenger when Billy checked into the big Midway in the sky. Time I was moving on, too. Maybe back to the green hills of West Virginia to see if anything had changed.
The stars sparking in the east like broken cigarette lighters would dance the fandango over Billy’s bones as the carnival music ended. And I had to ask myself again, Is this all there is, or can there still be more?
Time to find my rucksack, pick up my pay and hit the road.