The Perch Act

I was naked and still dripping bath water when my boss fired me from the Sells Floto circus.

* * * * *

Luke and I were in the practice tent, using a mirror to check our opening form. See, after I raise my hands above my head, Luke uses them as a base to lift himself up from behind me—to the audience it looks like he’s on an invisible elevator. But then he pivots his torso so it’s perpendicular, then he swings his hips up quick so they’re over his head. With his arms fully extended, energy zipping through us, he uncurls his legs from the jackknife position he’s in and locks into a beautiful hand stand. His pale feet hover over us a second like seagulls.

That day Luke was favoring his right side and I told him so. He adjusted, then refolded his waist, rounded his shoulders—the pendulum of his legs swung out once above my head—until his feet and nose were both pointing straight ahead. That’s called the Cat’s Cradle. Only, during the last few shows he’d been sagging, toes pointing down toward the ring curb, so that’s what we were checking when Trinka, the gaffer, the boss man, the Pole with the Mole, stormed in.

“Money,” Trinka chuffed. “Tomorrow,” and he flung something white near my feet.

I wobbled, causing Luke to do the same, and the next thing I knew we were coming down. I threw Luke left, asked if he was alright, heard him say he was, and grabbed the litter at my feet: invoices, for our new banners. I anticipated some cost in moving from the kid shows to the ring—new gear, greasing the advance men, that sort of thing—but I didn’t count on paying for advertising. Still, Trinka was known among the troupers as a decent man, so I figured probably everybody paid for their own paper. “Raise your legs higher, Lucas, you look a mess up there.” The rounded esses of Trinka’s accent and the sound of his receding steps softened the barb.

“What’s eating him?” Luke was standing, patting dust off his legs.

“Search me. He’s right though. Let’s try that again.”

The rest of that night was unremarkable. The process of setting up a new site is the same no matter where we go. We were just outside St. Louis, near what they’re calling the Dust Bowl, so, more hatless and haggard townies than usual were wandering through camp asking for jobs. None of them interrupted our dinner. Luke and I ate our fish and succotash in silence, both of us listening to the roars and whinnies of the ring stock being unloaded. Both of us looking forward to bed.

* * * * *

When I came out the next morning, our papers were waiting for an autograph outside our tent. Scarlet and dusty words blazed across the top:

*PASTOR & COLLICKS*

The names were complete pocky, of course, a scheme thought up by Trinka to sell us as the celestial twins come down to Earth. The men performing a perch act underneath the words only slightly resembled Luke and me. It was our second set: the one where I balance one leg of a chair on my head as Luke sits in it, juggling.

We warmed up, then moved on to a few run-throughs of the show. Afterward, I heated up some water and settled into the washtub. Luke had gone to get some food and eventually came in carrying a cooked chicken. Wasn’t long before he was stripped and in the tub with me saying something coy about saving water. I guess we were careless that day, our good fortune clouding our judgment. And that was the second precarious position Trinka stormed in on. No knock. No shout. Just Trinka’s mole punctuating a sneer.

“I expect you out by noon.” His voice was flat.

Forgetting myself, I stood up and ruined any chance of furnishing another explanation. Trinka turned his gaze. “Let us stay,” I said, “and I promise you we’ll make you a very rich man.”

“Out!” he yelled over his shoulder, “both of you.” And he was gone.


This story was written for yeah write’s Focus on Fiction series. Click the badge above to see other submissions.

Another story with these characters is here.

And just so I can find them again:
The video I watched to describe the act accurately.
The circus slang guide I used.
The book notes I read that sparked the idea.

Temporary (Permanent)

(photo credit to Robert Couse-Baker via flickr)

I’d just been down the street helping Justin. He was (shirtless) that kid in the neighborhood who was nice to everyone, so I offered to help him fix his bike.

He asked me to (stop staring at him) grab the little oil can from the garage. It was unusual to find him alone, so I asked him what he’d done with his fan club. He joked that they were all marooned on an island together—that’s why he needed to oil his bike chains: he was preparing to save them from doom.

As I pedaled the upside down Schwinn with my hands, Justin leaned over me clicking the bottom of the oil can. I felt his knee lightly on my back. His (armpit hair, bicep) proximity made me uncomfortable. Side-stepping, I made some excuse about getting home, to which he replied cluelessly “Snag you later then.” I walked up the incline of my driveway shivering,  confused.

Inside the house, my brother was in our bedroom. Mom was working at the kitchen table and Dad was snoring on the couch. So my parents’ room was the only option for me to calm down and avoid having to tell someone (my secret) what was wrong. I wasn’t sure I could. I laid on my Dad’s side of the bed and closed my eyes. Whenever a breeze from the open window hit me, I took a deep breath until the shivering stopped.

A few weeks later, I was in our cramped garage watching my mom sand a dilapidated hoosier cupboard. Flecks of sawdust shone brightly in her dark curly hair. She stopped sanding for a moment to stand back and look at her work, so I took the opportunity to ask if she’d give me a perm. She questioned why and I said I wanted to (fix myself) try something different for my first year of junior high. She agreed to do it—more questions churning behind the words—and then looked back at the hoosier.

I watched her work a little longer, trying to figure out why she’d bought the old stained thing. I knew in a few months it would hold a prime location in her antique booth. Customers would comment on how stately and charming it was, but I just couldn’t see how.

My favorite tv show at the time was Head of the Class, about a bunch of high school misfits and their dedicated teacher. I had a crush on (Alan) Simone, the shy girl with the long red hair. Simone had a thing for the curly-headed and brainy kid Alan. Lying on my parents’ bed before, I had concocted a plan to look more like Alan and maybe find myself a Simone to take to the first dance of the school year. I saved money to buy a sweater with a dynamic pattern. I asked for wingtips and learned how to buff them. The perm was the last step.

On the Saturday before school started, I was sitting at the kitchen table with medium-sized pink curlers in my hair—Mom apologized for the color; they were her only set— when my brother walked in.

“What’s going on?”

“Nathan wanted something different this year.”

“A perm?” My brother sat down, a smirk across his face.

The chemicals’ smell hit my nose before I felt them dribble down my scalp. I started to panic. I asked my mom what would happen if I didn’t (change) like it.

“I never did understand why they called it a permanent,” she said, “when it’s only temporary.”

permanent200

Vanity

Rosalyn sits at her vanity. She is staring into the mirror with the intensity of someone who relies on her looks for a living. Her slip shimmers in the bright light. As she raises a slender brush to her cheek, she decides she will ask Harvey tonight. She will do it like she does most things—coolly, as though speaking of the weather. A lifetime of rude comments from men has taught her not to let things rile her.

Harvey enters Roz’s trailer as he does every evening before a performance. He feels lucky to have this time with his friend every night. She doesn’t even allow Lucas, her husband, in the trailer pre-show. Harvey is the only one because the flicker of his accent tickles her.

“Will you grab the red one from the back of the bathroom door, doll? I’m almost ready,” she says. She wants an answer to check for emotion in his words—guilt, lust, melancholy— but he only nods his response. She feels disappointed.

The tiny bathroom is stuffy from a recent shower. He opens a window and releases the moths of humidity. He lets the fresh air cool him before he takes Rosalyn’s charmeuse gown over to an ironing board. “I’ve never heard of anyone besides you leaving frocks in the bathroom during their shower. Don’t you know humidity isn’t good for silk?” Harvey looks up in time to see Roz’s lips purse, her standard response to criticism.

“I do it as a courtesy,” Rosalyn’s eyes hold steady on her work in the mirror. “The steam relaxes the wrinkles. . .that means less work for you.”

Harvey takes a folded bed sheet from a trunk. He lays it on the ironing board and slips the bodice of the gown between layers. The iron protests with a sudden churrrr when he begins to press. He watches Rosalyn—the mirror allows him to see both sides of her—then his eyes wander around the crowded room. Large feathers and boas hang from shelves and hooks like bunting, camera flashes of jewelry ask for attention from every flat surface, and three garment racks stuffed with dresses stand in one corner like an audience queueing up. He looks for anything of Lucas’s and then regrets spotting the lonely fedora placed neatly on a dresser. She continues the delicate process of gluing individual hairs to her cheek.

Rosalyn’s status as the most famous bearded lady is not based on a sham: Rosalyn has a glorious beard. But it is blonde and its length is hard to determine from the back of the theater. Every evening she adds darker strands to it, for contrast, she says, but Harvey knows the added fullness pads her paycheck.

He finishes his ironing and walks the gown over to her. After a few primps in the mirror, she stills herself so he can ease it over her head. As he does so, she stands.

“I wish you’d dress before making yourself up. I’m always frightened we’ll ruin your face.” He bends down to pull the gown away from the corner of the bench.

“I’d rather run the risk of lipstick on the inside of my gown than getting glue on the outside.” She winks, a circle of kohl contracting. “Speaking of running risks, Lucas said the funniest thing the other night.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. He said he’s in love with you. He’d like to know what I want to do about it.”

Harvey looks down, smooths out a rumple near her foot.

So it’s true, she thinks. And mutual.

The Creeper of the Family Tree (revised)

Sums it up pretty well.
Sums it up pretty well.

A few times a week, especially when I’m feeling groggy, I’ll jog up and down the stairwells of my office building. Each time I hit the bottom landing I’ll turn down into the little-used basement and lay on the floor for my jack knifes, squats, and pushups. I like that it’s cool and quiet down there, but mostly I want to spare my co-workers the mental image of me huffing and puffing while doing lunges.

The drawback to exercising in the basement is that it’s within earshot of the back door of the building. Many people take their cellphones to the bottom of those steps to make a call, or they’ll pause there to finish conversations with co-workers before going back up to work. As a result, I find myself overhearing a lot of strangers’ conversations without their knowledge. A few of them have actually screamed when I’ve emerged from the basement and crossed between them mid-conversation. Since mine is not the only company in the building, these people don’t know me as anyone other than that weird guy that’s running away from whatever suspicious thing he’s got going on in the basement.

In other words, I’m the inadvertent office creeper.

Me, after a workout
Me, during a workout

And sometimes, I must admit, I feel like a creeper when I’m researching my family: shining lights into dark corners, uncovering tawdry secrets, sniffing out facts about strangers to whom I happen to be related.

For instance, early on in my research I found the names and whereabouts of two relatives that had fallen away from the family. Exhilarated by my discovery, I immediately reached out to them on Facebook, but my enthusiasm was not reciprocated. They politely asked me not to contact them again. I was crushed. It hadn’t occurred to me that they wouldn’t be equally enthusiastic, nor had it occurred to me that they’d associate me with the grudge they held against our common relative. I didn’t understand their immediate dismissal at first. I’m not to blame for what happened to them, I thought, and the past is past.

But it’s not.

Let’s face it: families are messy. There’s a lot of baggage there, and genealogists like me make a hobby out of rifling through it like the NSA at security checks. My relatives’ rejection helped me to understand that my research and my feelings of connection to familial strangers could be construed as intrusive and stalkerish.

Their rejection also reminded me that our past is directly tied to our present. For some people, like my two relatives, the consequences of past events can be so raw for so long that an enthusiastic Facebook message might make the pain of an entire childhood resurface. I realize that now.

Then it occurred to me that if researching my living family members can stir up bad feelings, maybe it’s ticking off my dead ones, too. What if my research is just bringing up long-forgotten resentments and shame in the afterlife? What if they’re sitting together in an all-white hotel conference room right now throwing fast food wrappers at my image on the afterlife’s version of a television?

Most of my ancestors sought and successfully led quiet lives. They were solid, modest Midwesterners living as best they could in the capsules of their time. Maybe they weren’t the kind to like attention. I wonder if they find my stories about them ostentatious. I wonder if they’d rather not be researched by me at all. My devout Baptist and Methodist relatives probably wouldn’t agree with my life as a gay man. If they were living, they might have ignored me, disowned me, or sent me off to a ‘conversion therapy’ camp.

Obviously, I hope not. I hope they see my creeping as interest in their lives. I hope they appreciate that I’m trying  to understand and learn from them. I hope they recognize that their lives are inspiring me to be grateful for every moment of my own quiet and solid Midwestern life.

(I pulled this from my archives and submitted it to two very gentle editors for their feedback and guidance in yeah write‘s Silver Lounge. Thank you, Christine of trudging through fog and Rowan from textwall, for helping me see this post in a different light. Click here to read the previous version.)

 

Game Ends

He taught me how to read people’s eyes.

It wasn’t until our third date that I realized our intentions were different. This revelation hurt my feelings at first, but then I realized I could learn about flirting from him. Plus, I’d have a good excuse to be here studying the clientele. On our fifth night, he said “You’ll have a date by the end of the night, but not with me.”

His name was Greg. We were people-watching at Game Ends, a bar across town that has a patio out back stuffed with hydrangeas and wrought iron furniture. We’d end up here every time we got together. He was studying Behavioral Science and liked to put his knowledge to good use. Gay bars were his favorite venue.

“I don’t want to date you.”

“I know you don’t. Not anymore.”

I blushed. The truth was I had been interested. Greg had this endearing habit of jutting out his jaw after taking swigs from his drink. He tempered his confidence with quickly served self-deprecating jokes—the kind that let you know he didn’t take himself too seriously, not the kind that made you feel bad for him.

“The one wearing the Tigers cap up there just met my eyes then looked down at his feet. I think he’s my ride home tonight.” Greg raised his Zima to me. I clinked it, then searched the crowded space.

I found Tigers Cap talking to another guy wearing a backwards cap underneath ‘The Promenade’ sign at the top of the stairs. Despite the big-ass sign the owners put up a few years ago, everyone still called the complicated boardwalk around the patio ‘the Escher.’ It connected the back doors of all the businesses on this small city block making a sort of outdoor mall. The different heights of the doors required a network of ramps that seemed more and more impossible the higher you climbed.

Tigers Cap and his friend looked over at me. I waved for them to come down without Greg seeing me. I had a sudden urge to surprise him and knew he wouldn’t mind skipping a few steps in his process.

“He’s walking this way. What are you going to do?”

“I just have to sit here talking to you until I catch him looking again. Then I have to swing on the hope that he likes a guy with a gap in his teeth.”

“You’re not worried he’ll think we’re together?”

“Nope. He’s been here before; he knows we don’t leave the bar together.”

“Had your eye on him for a while now, huh? What if he hadn’t seen us before?”

“He’d be wondering. Or he might know to check our feet to see if they were pointing toward each other.” Greg was right; our feet were akimbo.

“I’m thinking most people wouldn’t know to check foot direction. Is that how you knew I’m not interested?”

“Nah. Your pupils don’t dilate when you see me anymore, and you blink less when you talk to me.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“Don’t be. We’d never work anyway. We’re too much alike.”

“No, we’re not. You’re into grunge, and football, and the direction of guys’ feet. I’m into techno, and boy bands, and the definition of guys’ abs.”

“No, not like that. I mean we both notice things. There’s no way we’d get through a conversation without picking apart each other’s body language. We’d analyze the fun right out of being together.”

“Girl, I wasn’t like that till I met you,” I said in my best RuPaul voice.

“I seem to recall your opening line to me.” He threw his left shoulder back and narrowed his eyes, “‘I like a man who checks out the scene before he pounces.’ You hadn’t been out here for more than a minute before you started chatting me up.”

“I don’t say things like that.” I deadpanned, and then cracked. I was still laughing when Tigers Cap and his friend arrived at our table.

“Hi, fellas. Care to sit down?” Greg said with no surprise in his voice at all. He pulled out a heavy chair.

“Hey, what are you two laughing at?”

“Greg here was doing a really bad impression. I’m Andy, by the way,” and I reached over to shake hands. I noticed the friend’s feet were pointing straight at me. I winked at Greg, just as he was reprising his imitation.