Son of a Circus
My father loves children. Everybody knows that,
even the Elephant Man, and
Helga the Armless Wonder. He loves their sticky smell, their laughter and limitless
potential. One night after too many beers, the Great Zambini said that my
father must have been a nursemaid in a past life, or perhaps a pediatrician. In
this life however, the one we currently inhabit, he is Binky the Clown.
Binky loves the circus too, but not as he does
the boys and girls who come
to see him here, to cheer his name and laugh at his foolish antics. And he loves
his little car. It hurts his back something fierce, but still, he lives for the
applause of the crowd as he climbs impossibly forth three times a day from
within the car’s cramped interior. That car is my father’s five minutes.
He tried one time to be Binky the Rodeo Clown.
He enjoyed the
self-importance that came with rescuing the cowboys from bulls and runaway
broncos, yet he soon gave it up. There were too few children at the rodeo. The
best Binky could hope for were teenagers, no longer innocent or pure. No, the
circus is where my father belongs.
I don’t see him much.
Not unless he’s in the
ring, juggling soccer balls while on a unicycle, or driving that car of which
he’s so proud. At those times, that man is no longer my father; he is Binky the
Clown, and oh how the children laugh.
Most Sundays we have dinner
pronto pups and deep-fried cheese curds washed down with stale keg beer. We play
pinochle for a quarter and talk about the coming week’s performance. I never
stay. Soon after his fourth Budweiser, my father reaches behind the couch, pulls
out a quart of Knob Creek, and pours himself two fingers. That’s my cue to
I prefer sleeping with the
Grimbaldi Twins in
their rusty Winnebago, or beneath the Fat Lady’s sagging Airstream. And when
the nights grow hot, I go to the big top, where my father earns our keep. Lying
there in the exact middle of the center ring, the glittering mechanisms of the
trapeze artists dangling over my head, I breathe deeply the sweet smells of camel
shit and clean sawdust, and listen to the echoes of the laughing children.
Sometime after midnight, the Barker rolls in from
town in his ‘54
Studebaker, a fat prostitute riding shotgun. The sound of the peanut shells
beneath his whitewalls is like the crunch of small bones. I watch the shadows
on the canvas fade, one spotlight at a time, until finally I can sleep.
Each spring the circus moves on, a caravan of
tired helium balloons dragging
about the countryside – Memphis, Lansing, unavoidable Poughkeepsie. We load up
our gaily-colored tents, our grumpy tigers and pretentious llamas, and hit the
road, huge piles of elephant dung and seagull fodder marking the moment of our annual
passing. And sometimes, there is other evidence of our passing: small moldering
gifts, the leavings of a circus clown.
They found the first body of this year’s
season two weeks after we left
St. Louis: little Timmy Martin, buried in a landfill. Then came five-year-old
Rebecca Forsythe, stuffed in among restaurant leavings in a Montreal dumpster.
Her neck was crushed. After that was Bobby Swift, floating in the Ohio River
with the last glare of Dayton’s July 4th fireworks celebration twinkling
upon his sightless eyes. Melissa Hudson marked the end of our tour, gone
missing from her parents’ Labor Day picnic in Atlanta. They’re still searching
We winter over in Fort Lauderdale, and sometimes
Mobile, hibernating among
the snowbirds. This is when I love my father most, in the quiet interval
between October and March, when the smell of greasepaint fades away and his
size 24 shoes grow dusty in the closet.
And when spring comes, I find myself once again
with the Great Zambini, hunched
over his small black and white TV after each night’s finale. We watch the
evening news and listen for reports of missing children, wondering if the loss
of a few young circus goers outweighs the happiness Binky provides to the rest.
After fifteen years of watching, I think I finally
know the answer, and reach
beneath the Great Zambini’s couch. I lift his Korean War issued Colt .45 to my
lap, quietly checking that it’s loaded. The old magician is too busy staring at
Katie Couric to even notice.
“See you tomorrow,
Zam,” I say, and take a long walk around the park to Binky’s
trailer. He’s usually home by midnight.
in sunny Tucson, where his wife makes him watch Poltergeist while insisting clowns
not scary. You can find his work scattered about the Internet, at Foundling Review,
Inkspill, Yellow Mama, Bartleby Snopes, and a few other places,
proving that a blind squirrel does occasionally find a nut. When not telling
lies, he makes a few bucks cobbling together boring articles for technical