The ring master’s boys
Circus closed because the war was on but you wouldn’t know it, we was all so alive on the inside, cart-wheeling over the railway bridge and when the sleepers started shuddering under our feet we knowed it was the night trains coming, watched it sweep around the bend, horn blasting, lights flashing and us half blinded and jumping now! into the dark water below, bobbing up and down like candy apples, yelling out to each other ‘ You there Sugar, you there, Mule, you there Joey boy? ’ and later slipping and clawing our way up the mud bank, running back to the bunkhouse through the forest, coming out taller than the trees, we were high flyers, we’d beat that train, we was magnificent and hurry now, wet clothes over the guy ropes, snatching a look at Joey boy, naked as a horse and already seeing the map of our own lives and not knowing if it was good or half good or otherwise but laughing anyway and later much later when we saw smoke and heard the guns we told ourselves we’d beat the train, and when the trees in the forest caught alight and the burning turned the sky red, we said we jumped the bridge and later again when black soot fell and our faces looked like cooked apples and we were hopping around in the heat we told ourselves, no matter, everyone gets saved in the circus.
Watch yourself, the boy is told and the boy must not trip over baby on the floor, must not give lip when no lip is needed and when he’s sent to the big tent to help with the guy ropes, watch yourself his mother says, don’t go playing with the Lobster Boys and the boy thinks she doesn’t have to tell him that, he’s not going anywhere near those freak boys with their claw hands wanting to pinch at his thighs and he runs to the big top wondering how can you watch yourself if you are the one doing the watching of you watching yourself?
Where the trees stand at the back of the paddock is where he goes to try and figure things out. Like how to climb a tree in the dark and whether the tree is still a tree if no one can see it and watch yourself, he says as his head smacks against the branch. Watch me, he cries when he gets to the top, his palms sticky and sore. Watch me!
Wonder is the time when the boy turns bigger, strutting in front of the fun house mirror. Hair in places he never had before and watch yourself comes back when the Lobster Boys peer down at him from the loft and when their voices thicken with longing for what the boy does not know but clasping is involved that’s when the voice says, watch what you say and then another voice shoves that to the side, it’s his daddy’s voice, come out of the ground, all earthy and woodsy, saying. A watched man never plays, and the Lobster boys scuttle around with that thought and then leave him alone.
Why his daddy died, is why his mother tells him to watch himself. A step gone wrong on the wire, and the show of his life is over. The boy swivels his neck from side to side. He can watch from here, there, over and away. Each day he twists his neck further and further until the burn sets in and the swiveling makes him dizzy.
Walk too close behind the grown boy and his head suddenly turns 180 and looks straight at you. Sometimes his eyes hold the shadows of trees, other times they bore right through you. After the evening show, he’s the first to walk out of the tent, glass of beer in hand. He should really stay for the applause, he should really take off his bird suit but instead he sits on an upturned bucket in the dark thinking, Lordy, this boy is someone to watch.