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.

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.

13. The Book That Disappointed Me Most

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Two young people get roped into a battle between their guardians that they don’t understand. They end up working at the same circus together and are tasked with saving it from obscurity.

————–SPOILERS AHOY AHOY——————

Read the first few chapters of the book and you will see the charming way in which Erin Morganstern writes. Image driven and ornamental, the premise lures you into this magical realm where anything at all can happen. I loved the idea of true magicians playing their magic off as illusion in order to keep the peace. But after those initial chapters, the book and the style gets very frustrating to read. As I told my friend recently: for a book with so much detail, it sure does use a lot of smoke and mirrors for plot.

For 200 pages, the book flirts with the resolution of the love affair, the competition between Celia and Marco, and the outcome of the circus and all of the people who work there. I have to say that every single revelation was disappointing to me and I blame the style for it. The plot points are built up to a frenzy, so much so that the outcomes are destined to be disappointments.

First off, the love affair. I get it. They are room-shaking-during-orgasm-in-love. I got it in their first scene. All the pulling and pushing and pining became ridiculous and I just wanted something to happen already. The actual resolution is not satisfying at all. I was expecting them to concoct some scheme where students become teachers and the possibilities are endless. What? They transfer themselves into the bonfire. That’s it? The metaphors of eternal burning love are abundant there, and very cliché.

The resolution of the competition was the most disappointing to me. It was the conflict set up in the very first chapter. When I read that it all depended on one of them dying, I wanted to scream. One of them was going to die first anyway. What does that have to do with the years of training they had to endure when they were younger to become magicians in the real sense of the word? It made absolutely no sense. I think the book and the author is way smarter than that. The world she imagined definitely was smarter than that.

The outcome of the circus was just lazy to me. They just gave it to some schmuck off the street for no apparent reason (it seemed to me that the first chapter about Bailey and Poppet was inserted after the fact to tie up those strings). Why? Why not give it to other circus workers? What reason at all was there to give a circus they have been fighting all of their life to maintain to some guy in a vision? And what was up with the Poppet/Widget story line anyway? They were born at the inception of the circus, then suddenly they had some act with kittens that was never explained. Then they’re being trained by Celia to see into the future? What?

And why was this book written non-sequentially? I can’t for the life of me figure out what it added to the story besides confusion. And why were most of the characters stock personas? The contortionist contorted. The illusionists were vague. The soothsayers were confused. The bad guys were bad. The character in this novel that had the most personality was the circus.

Ok. I need to breathe. I should say that my disappointment is fueled by the fact that I loved this story at the beginning. Loved it. It inspired me to try writing in the same vein – image fueled and wondrous. There are some lovely and beautiful things happening in this novel. I just wish the sum amounted to more than its parts.