Monkeys and Circus
We drive along the shore on winding Riverside Drive and cross the bridge; moonlight glows like a face on the waves, shimmering. Dad squeezes into a parking spot in the county fairgrounds brimming with cars. I crack open my door; I smell fishy water, but also roasting peanuts, and cotton candy. “Hop out, monkeys! It’s circus time!”
In the distance, a mild wind blows, slightly rustles the huge yellow circus tent with white stripes. The flaps of the entrance blaze as red and bright as the roses in Mom’s garden.
Aleta bounds out the door, jack rabbiting across the parking lot. “Stop!” Mom yells. Aleta, halts, peers over her shoulder, a quick glance, walks a few steps. She holds out her hand. Mom quickly grasps it, and they walk hand-in-hand to the ticket booth. As they walk, Mom is saying something to her in a low voice, but I can only make out a couple words, “behave,” and “young lady,” while Aleta nods. Dad and I bring up the rear; the muscles in his face less tense. He even grins when I inhale the striking aroma of buttered popcorn and rub my stomach.
At the ticket booth, a streetlight buzzes, and hundreds of insects circle, swarm around its globe with a light as dull as an old flashlight. Dads pays for the tickets, and hands one to each of us. Aleta squeals with the red paper ticket clenched in her tiny palm. Mom smiles, fleshy, rosy gums gleaming. I grab her hand and we enter the tent through two wide flaps pulled back, and I smell the sawdust on the ground, and I feel like I have to sneeze, my eyes squint, and my nose is itchy and I barely manage to fight off the sneeze. We hand a clown, with painted black tears on his cheeks, the tickets, and find our seats, about seven rows back from the circus ring, close to the aisle, a quick run to the bathroom, especially handy for my infamous tiny bladder.
The circus ring is empty until a girl close to my age in a shiny and sunrise red sequined dress rides stands up on the back of a white pony, trotting in a circle. A woman, perhaps her mother, watches her closely, at times growling commands, with a whip her hands.
“I’m hungry. Daddy,” Aleta says. She makes her eye widen, pleading. “Can I have some popcorn? Cotton candy?”
Dad turns to Mom, who nods, and she says, “Marco and me will wait here. We’ll save our seats.”
Aleta and Dad make their way to the exit; a large white arrow with Concessions in bold red letters points the way. Mom and I sit there quietly for a moment, with me looking down. My new shoes that Mom made me wear today pinch my toes. I want to kick them off and throw them in the garbage. I look up, Mom’s large brown eyes soften, and she says, “Marco, you look bored. I guess you can run and join them.” I give her a quick hug, and then dart for the door.
Outside the exit, a lion roars in the distance, and I smell popcorn, and poop, something like what I smell from the farms on the way to my Grandmother’s house in Iowa. I hold my nose and walk among the crowd until I see them. They are at a blue concession cart, standing at a window under a yellow awning. I walk quickly over to them. Dad hands me some popcorn, and a soft drink. Aleta is chewing on pink cotton candy dangling from her bony fingers. It’s as if she has pulled a pink, nightmare cloud out of the sky, untangling the sticky mess, then jabbing the strands into her mouth. I want to gag!
Dad pays a man wearing a bow tie with tiny red glowing lights, and we head back. All around us are voices, children, some running past screaming, and parents talking, and unfortunately some too loudly. Dad shakes his head, walking gingerly, holding a cardboard carry out tray with four pops, the carbonation sizzling, bubbling. Weaving his way through the crowd, we follow like obedient goslings, the circus music; a crazy hurdy-gurdy swirl in the air.
Back in our seats, Aleta quickly polishes off her cotton candy and start munching, too loudly, on hot buttered popcorn, while Mom sips on a drink, and Dad tears into a hot dog. I stare into my pop, brown and sweet, foamy on top, sizzling. I want to savior the sight, before I take a swig. “There he goes again,” Aleta says. “Take a drink, already!”
Mom hands me some roasted peanuts in a small bag, and I take one, the saltiness makes me instantly thirsty. I take a long drink, the sweetness sweeping over my tongue, and tiny ice chips knock against the back of my teeth, setting them on edge with coldness. Aleta rolls her eyes, as if to say he can’t even drink right. Then, the spotlight showers down in a long beam, white and thick, it almost looks solid as it lands on that girl on a pony, standing on its back, holding the reins with one hand. I have to catch my breath at the sight, the flash of her red sequined dress, shimmering under the lights, making me rub my eyes. The announcer says her name, but I don’t hear much, I can’t take my eyes off her, how confidently she rides, how comfortable, unafraid, despite the fast pace. At one point, she does a back flip, and the audience claps with approval. Now she stands on one leg and waves before riding off to the side, jumping down, a gleaming angel, walking out of the spotlight into the darkness, same as mine.
“Look who’s in love. Again!” Aleta says in clipped, snide tones.
I want to elbow her, and easily could, she is right next to me but I breathe in through my nose, and out of my mouth. “PU, your breath stinks. You better start using mouth wash, buster.” She grabs her nose, and her already squinty eyes disappear as she smirks.
The lights flicker. Everyone stops talking. “And now, we are proud to present, “theeeeeee,” a deep, thunderous drum beat pours out of the speakers filling the circus tent, “theeee elephants!” and five elephants enter the spotlight, slowly walking, circling the circus ring. The largest one walks out in front, a towering massive creature, with huge toenails, skin more wrinkly than my abuelo’s. I clap at how they walk together in a line, trunks holding onto tails.
A large man, their trainer, with a long metal prod, hooked sharply walks beside the elephants, occasionally tapping the side of one, with the flat of the prod. Then, the elephants separate, and the trainer using voice commands guides the elephants. Whimsical music from a circus movie splashes over my ears as the tiniest elephant; a baby really, walks in the spotlight with funny strands of hair standing on end on its head and the audience oohs and ahhs and laughs. When the baby stands on hind legs, like a dog, the audience claps, my parents clap, and Aleta naturally claps loudest of all. Some woman behind us says, “Ah, how cute!”
A clown scoots on stage with a bucket of water sloshing over the side with every step, drawing laughter from the crowd. He leaves it in the center of the rings and stand there waiting. The trainer barks out a command, and taps the side of an elephants with the prod. The elephant’s eye blinks and glare down on the trainer. The elephant walks over to the bucket, with the trainer shouting commands, repeatedly like a machine gun until the elephant places it trunk in the bucket of water. As it drinks, the music buzzes faster and faster until the clown picks up the bucket, and turns its aside to show the audience that it is empty. The clown does a horselaugh, and the trainer makes a quick hard sound and the elephant blasts the clown in the face with water. The audience rumbles with laughter. The clown’s white make-up washes away revealing young rosy skin. The clown takes a bow, and the trainer waves his hands downward, as if he wants the elephant to take a bow, but the elephant does not budge. The trainer knocks the side of the elephant with the prod making a loud thud, and the elephant rears and turns toward the trainer, towering over him, casting the trainer in his shadow.
Under his breath, the trainer curses, and lashes out at the elephant with the prod, the sound of the repeated strikes leaves everyone in the audience silent. Aleta climbs onto Mom’s lap and starts crying, shoveing her faces into Mom’s shoulder. Dad’s hand combs though his hair, large wrinkled knuckles, running in and out of his curls.
The lights flicker, and several men come on stage. One takes the prod from the trainer, whose eyes looked crazed, wild. They lead the elephants away. “That’s terrible. Cruel. There is no need for that,” Mom says. She taps Dad on the shoulder, and stands up. “Let’s go.”
As we make our way to the exit, a lion roars, and I want to stay but it’s no use. Other families head for the exit as well but most just remain seated their faces blank, as if nothing had happened.
Out in the humid night air, I welt, slide down in the back seat. Aleta sits on Mom’s lap, still whimpering, while Dad backs out, and peels off. Through the darkness, we roar, Dad speeding, as if he cannot get home soon enough. Crossing the bridge, the lights flashing down the river, Aleta says, “Why? Why, Mommy, why did that man beat that elephant?”
“Because, that’s all. Just because he could,” Mom answers.
“Because the elephant didn’t do what the man wanted,” Dad adds.
“Why didn’t the elephant do what he wanted it to do?” Aleta asked.
“Little girl, I don’t know,” Dad says.
Then, I jump in. “I know. It had enough. It didn’t want to perform anymore. It had had enough. Enough!”
Aleta turns and stares at me in the back seat. I am sitting up straight. She nods. Mom nods too.
“I don’t think we’ll be going back,” Dad says. “I’ve had enough too.”
Winding our way back along Riverside Drive, the drive seems faster than going and I curl over the back seat, still warm from a hot day. I run my lower teeth over my upper lip, a nervous habit. Repeatedly, I feel my teeth rough over my lip, over the skin above my lips, and I just want to sleep, forget. I am afraid of nightmares, afraid of what people do.
One blow echoes in my head, and I don’t know when it will end.
Mario Duarte: “I am a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. My poems and short stories have appeared in Abstract Elephant, American Writers Review, Bilingual/Borderless, Digging Through the Fat, Lunch Ticket, Pank, Sky Island Journal, Storyscape, 2River Review, Write Launch and Typishly. New work is forthcoming in Plainsongs.”