BY LARRY BROWN
Copyright is held by the author. This story first appeared in The New Quarterly and Larry’s story collection Talk (Oberon Press).
HIS FATHER arrives home carrying a large paper bag and a newspaper. He takes off his cap and places it on the shelf by the door, brim out. From the bag he pulls a leopard skin and a long dark wig. He holds the leopard skin out before him, turning it around. The skin has one arm hole, two leg holes, a zipper.
He puts the skin in the washbowl and sets the egg timer. The timer never times an egg, actually. While the skin soaks in Cheer his father opens the newspaper on the kitchen table and stands bent over it, hands cupped at his back. He looks through the box scores. His favourite players, it seems, don’t play anymore.
The egg timer dings. His father scrubs the leopard skin with a brush, working in small, and even smaller, circles. Veins press up in his arms. The soap bubbles dissolve and he rinses the skin, water dripping to the floor. He steps over the water, the boy steps over it, then his father pegs the skin inside out on the clothesline and sails it into the sunshine. The boy smells warm bright summer green. In the yard sits the push mower, the wheels hidden in the grass.
His father as a t-bone steak. The rubbery suit fits snugly over his head, and as he moves it hisses and squeaks.
His father parading on the red carpet laid outside Bixdale’s Meats. Streamers wave and tangle. Children take to poking the rubbery suit. They pokepokepoke when their mothers don’t stop them and, at first, his father only smiles. Soon he is letting go with whinnies, poke or no poke, and winking as he offers mothers a special coupon for hamburger meat.
His father is taller than Bixdale by a head. Bixdale fills a wide, stained apron. A fire escape climbs a wall in the alley where the two men are, the bottom part of it dangling. Out at the sidewalk, at the corner of the store, brick scrapes the boy’s cheek. His father keeps tugging at where the rubbery suit pinches. Bixdale doesn’t return his smile. And when Bixdale pokes, it is nothing like the other pokes.
The rubbery suit leaves a ring around his father’s face.
Five fifteen Friday afternoon his father puts on his cap and the boy opens the door and they start for the Strand Theatre downtown. His father carries the suitcase with the faded Honolulu travel sticker. Packed inside the suitcase are the clean leopard skin and the wig, the leopard spots touched up with black paint, along with a towel and washcloth and bar of soap, a bathing cap to improve the fit of the wig, and a package of Spearmint Juicy Fruit Gum. The metal plates on his father’s heels sound against the sidewalk. The boy always hopes for sparks.
They pass Dutchie’s Drugs. Dressed in his collared white top Dutchie leans at the doorway, the usual half-smoked unlit cigar clenched in his teeth. According to the boy’s father, the woman that lives with Dutchie above his store is his housekeeper. The boy’s father and Dutchie nod in the general direction of one another.
The boy claims the front row in the Strand Theatre and plants himself in the middle seat. He smacks his box of McIntosh Toffee on the armrest, picks out a good piece. With where he sits he is ahead of everyone but more importantly tonight he is ahead of everyone with what he knows.
The lights dim. A flattened popcorn box wings for the curtain. The boy digs deeper into his seat. Whistling goes off behind him, then a crack of laughter that is too loud too close. They are not boys back there. They are not men yet either. They are the palaver in between. That is as close to swearing as his father ever comes, palaver. When he says the word, and he says it only at home, he says it in a quiet rush. He doesn’t apologize.
A circle of light strikes the curtain. The curtain flinches where the light hits, the boy believes he sees this, just as he believes he hears the curtain give a mump! Over his head hangs the dusty trail of the circle.
Drums roar. Drums chase. Wild animals shriek.
The circle of light shinnies up to a top corner of the curtain. The boy cranes his neck. All at once his father swings into view, the circle of light meeting him, catching him. He is long and serious in the leopard skin, one shoulder bare and his arms and legs wrapped around the rope, his jaw firm, and as he swings across the stage, the light nearly losing him, he leans backs from the rope and with the dark wig dancing behind him bellows a jungle call. The call squashes the drums and animals, it storms the theatre. A rolling, echoing call.
His father has disappeared. The circle of light rests on the curtain. It waits.
A scratchy popping noise becomes the drums and animals again. A jungle call is bellowed. Then his father swings back the other way, and at the middle of the curtain, straight in front of the boy, the floating boy, he releases a hand from the rope and throws out his arm and on command the curtain begins to open, the movie screen flickering inside, and cooly he continues riding the rope and the circle of light, up and off. Away.
More people enter the lobby from the theatre.
Up in the skinny fake tree, his father chews his gum. He stares out the slit in the wig, a trim of bathing cap showing. Perched above him in the tree is a stuffed monkey.
Finally his father reaches down and holds out the ads for coming attractions. He gives the leopard skin a tug. The tree groans.
A few people take an ad from the boy’s father. One woman who does is familiar. The boy isn’t sure why. Then he recognizes the man she is with. Smiling lightly, Dutchie watches her while she reads the ad to him. No cigar or collared top, but a powder blue ascot. Dutchie and his young housekeeper pass through the doors and into the rollercoastering light of the marquee.
The boy chews his gum. He stays ready with an extra bundle of ads. Up in the tree his father beats his chest with one slow fist then the other. His jungle call comes out short and bumpy now. The lobby is emptying. But his father keeps calling.
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