“Lord, he better be a praying man,” Juanita said, her mouth full of popcorn. Gladys had to agree. The man in question was in a metal enclosure bossing around about seven Bengal tigers. He was short, but well built like Gladys’ first boyfriend Joe, with well defined chest and arm muscles visible even under the red satin shirt. Better teeth than Joe though.
“Oh look at that. That tiger doesn’t wanna get down with the others,” Juanita pointed, redirecting Gladys’ attention. Most of the animals were now in a row on the ground but one was still perched up on his metal stool, not budging. He didn’t move til the man cracked his whip in the air and the tiger reluctantly got down to join the line. Watching the spectacle made Gladys feel a little guilty. The tigers shouldn’t have to do all this, should they? She glanced at the empty metal cages, waiting to receive the animals again after their act. She’d had about the same reaction when her son Billy got three goldfish. They just swam around all day, trapped, and anxious for food. It was pitiful, the way they slurped up their own poop strings or a pebble from the tank bottom before spitting it right back out, just to pass the time.
“I guess it’s sad they can’t be out in the wild,” she remarked.
“If they never knew it, how can they miss it?” Juanita countered, shoveling in another mouthful of popcorn. She loved to eat, even when things were tense, a trait which Gladys never understood. She still remembered how Juanita got a jumbo popcorn during the recent theatre film about the passion of the Christ. It was infuriating, but more strange, how Juanita had sat there, tears rolling down her cheeks as the man of sorrow got whipped and beaten, her little sighs punctuated at regular intervals by another greasy mouthful.
“I guess you’re right. If they weren’t raised that way, they won’t miss it,” Gladys agreed, though secretly, she wasn’t convinced. Maybe it was true. But wasn’t there something built in the tigers’ very bones that ached for the wide open Sahara?
“Lord, can you believe this?” Juanita asked as the tigers all stood on their back paws as if ready to do a minuet.
“I mean,” she continued, “It’s one thing to see it on T.V. But we have it all right here in front of us. It’s awesome. Just awesome.”
“Sure,” Gladys agreed. She glanced down at the dried grass beneath the bleachers. It had been another hot summer in Georgia. This field where they’d placed the tent was done for. Despite it being the middle of September, the air was hot to the point of suffocating—too strong a force for the large industrial scale fan set up by the nearest tent flap where two men sat glumly in metal folding chairs.
“Gosh, I don’t feel nothing from that fan,” Juanita complained, waving her face with her free hand. She must have read Gladys’ mind.
“Maybe it’s on purpose,” Gladys heard herself saying out loud. She pointed to two vendors carrying metal squares on their heads. One case held the chilled scoops of cherry snow cones. The other had water and tall Cokes.
“I don’t think they’d do that. It’s just too big a tent to cool down,” Juanita disagreed, right before grabbing Gladys’s arm. “Oh, look there. Something serious is about to happen.”
Juanita was now pointing back to the enclosure where two men in black pants and T-shirts were setting up a double hoop they promptly set on fire. The man in the red shirt cracked his whip again and two tigers climbed up and poised before simultaneously jumping through the hoops in opposite directions as children clapped and parents whistled.
“Go to Jesus, that beats all,” Juanita said, actually setting down her popcorn to applaud.
“Yes,” Gladys agreed. But she wasn’t feeling it. The red satin of the man’s shirt looked so cheap, the type of thing they made plush Valentine’s Day teddy bears out of, stuffing the aisle full up of them every year for stupid desperate teenage boys and men. He had too many bracelets and too many gold necklaces, so that even the cross pendant looked excessive, just one more piece of bric-a-brac. Eventually the tigers, one by one, went back into their cages, which were lined up together like train box cars—save for one tiger who was now prancing after some hunk of food on a stick.
“What is that? Meat? An apple?” a woman with frizzy hair and an orange halter top sitting above them asked.
“No telling,” Juanita decided, “But whatever it is, he wants it bad.”
And the tiger did, leaping up to snatch the food from the stick after he’d done a quick twirl in a circle to earn it. Then he too headed back to his cage.
“See,” Juanita said as the cages were rolled off, “That’s a good life. An afternoon show and one evening one, a few tricks, applause, a treat. And then they’re done. Most people don’t have it that good.”
Next, the ringmaster, a bald man in a top hat, told all the children to wave their light sticks and add to the big top magic.
“Eight dollars down the drain,” a woman sitting in front of them complained as her gap-toothed daughter wildly waved hers, “no magic about it that I can see.”
After the light show came the acrobatics.
“Oh, they’ve got more girls up there this year than last,” Juanita breathed, continuing her running commentary. The girls, announced as sisters from Guatemala, had on bright sequined leotards with a big burst of feathers right on their butts. Clive would have liked that, Gladys thought. Her husband was always interested in even a half decent backside. He’d never admitted such a thing but by now she knew him too well and at what times his gaze lingered just a little too long.
“They kind of look like harlot parakeets,” Gladys observed.
“Gladys,” Juanita hissed. “They’re professionals. Listen to you. They’ve got to move freely. Things can’t be restricted.”
“I’m just saying,” Gladys said, “that if Courtney came home in that you’d string her up.”
It was a well placed arrow. Juanita’s daughter Courtney was fourteen and lately she’d been acting up. Last week she’d even bought a black and hot pink speckled bra at Victoria’s Secret which Juanita found in a heap of laundry in Courtney’s room. Juanita had let her shop there but stressed pastels repeatedly, so the apparel and discussion which ensued had all but put Courtney’s name on the prayer list in permanent ink.
“Well if Courtney was in the circus, I wouldn’t mind her wearing it,” Juanita said, taking an extra loud bite of popcorn to emphasize her point and show she was offended.
Gladys supposed she shouldn’t have thrown out the Courtney remark. These days Juanita had no end to sassing and eye rolling. She was glad her own two kids were grown. Susie cut hair and when she was not at work, scrapbooked. Her house was in shambles but Gladys had to admit the scrapbooks were nice. Her daughter just couldn’t seem to ever throw things out, just like her father. Susie had even taped her first baby’s umbilical cord stump into a book, which almost made Gladys gag the first time she saw it. But other than that, Gladys had nothing to complain about. Tommy worked maintenance at the local community college. He’d just married a girl from Bristol at a nice little white church near the race track up there and they were renting a house outside Johnson City. It had been good raising the two of them, but she didn’t miss it. Gladys knew that mothers weren’t supposed to say that out loud, so she never had. But looking around now at the parents holding their crying babies, and toddlers screeching at zebras dancing—well, it made her tired all over again. A little boy two rows down and a few feet to the left of them was crying non-stop and Gladys noticed that he had two orange band-aids taped to his chubby thigh. It had started her judging. Bringing that poor boy here on the same day he had his shots, subjecting him to nurses and clowns in twenty-four hours. It wasn’t right.
During the intermission, the vendors returned, bringing out trays of cotton candy, which tottered like pink clouds in motion. As they made their rounds, parents and children lined up to ride one of the two camels around the ring.
“You havin’ a good time?” Juanita asked.
“Oh sure,” Gladys said. She was going along with it like she always did when Juanita had a good idea.
“Oh did I tell you that Judy Parson’s nephew got caught with meth? Again?” Juanita asked. Judy was in their women’s Bible study at church.
“No. That’s too bad.”
“Yes. That family of hers can’t seem to straighten themselves out.”
“Hopefully they will.”
“But once you’re on meth, I don’t know that you can get off it. Not without a miracle,” Juanita said. “Oh,” she changed subjects, “I got the van reserved from Pastor Elbert. For the ‘Running the Distance’ conference in Atlanta. I heard some singers the Gaither Brothers discovered will be doing the worship. They were so good Dolly signed them up at Pigeon Forge for a month long stint.”
“I haven’t signed up for that yet.”
“What? The deadline is in just a week.”
“I know. I got busy.”
“You better hurry,” Juanita warned her, “I heard tickets were going like hot-cakes.” Gladys nodded. The last time they’d gone to a conference with ladies from church, Juanita had made them all gather in her hotel room and told them they ought to go back to their respective rooms and pray over them, on account of all the sin that went on there. Gladys thought that was too much. She could tell some of the other ladies did too. Who cared who’d done what, so long as they properly disinfected things and changed the sheets? But no one wanted to offend Juanita. Everyone at church knew Gladys and Juanita were best friends. But why? Was it because they were both good Christian women seeking to serve the Lord and do right by their families and community? Or because Juanita was bossy and she a pushover?
“Thanks again for inviting me this afternoon and getting us the tickets,” Gladys heard herself saying.
“Well, I knew you’d like this circus,” Juanita said. “It was so good last year I just had to see it again myself.”
“I appreciate it,” Gladys said, shifting slightly to the left. Her tailbone was getting tired of the metal bleachers. Juanita often got them tickets to things, for the enrichment, and to meet non-Christians. Juanita had read a book years ago about getting out of the salt shaker, but it seemed silly to Gladys. Watching a miniature monkey riding on the back of a miniature horse and then asking out loud to the couple next to them, “How do ya’ll think they got them to learn that?” was not witnessing.
“I think I need a bathroom break,” Gladys said, standing up. She had to get out and get some fresh air.
“Well you better hurry back. Intermission is almost over.”
“Oh and Gladys,” Juanita said as Gladys slung her purse over her arm, “it’s just port-o-potties out there. Do you have tissue in case they are out of paper?”
“I think so.”
“Don’t forget to … hover.” Juanita hissed the word so loud it was comical.
“Will do,” Gladys said. She went out of the nearest flap and off to the left, where she stood breathing in some cooler air. The cars in the lot were all shimmering. Across the road was a tree farm. She wondered how many gallons of water they had to use, when the weather was like this.
“It’s not that remote control. It’s the grey one,” a voice nearby said. “Don’t you remember how I showed you to record a show? It’s not that hard.”
Gladys turned to look. It was the ringmaster, on his cell phone, a cigarette in one hand, phone in the other. His top hat was at his feet and he sounded irritated with whoever was at the other end of the line, the same way Clive sometimes was with her when she was having trouble with the DVD player. Gladys inhaled, breathing in the smell of the smoke. She wasn’t sure of the brand, but it was a good one. She went back inside, just as one of the men all in black stepped out and motioned to the ringmaster.
“Glad you made it back in time,” Juanita said, as Gladys took her seat.
They then suffered through the clowns and their falling apart car. Gladys had to admit to herself she was impressed with the woman in white who stood on her head while juggling three white balls. Unexpectedly, the elephants, their dance set to some ethereal sounding music, charmed her. She liked the way one held onto the other’s tail with its nose. Sadly, the elephants weren’t there for long before being whisked back out of the tent. Gladys sighed.
“What a show,” Juanita breathed out loud. Unlike Gladys, she didn’t seem to notice the way the red stars were fading off the yellow wooden background or the fact that the expensive seats were all empty. Neither did she notice the slight rip in the bodice back of the ringmaster assistant’s flouncy pink dress. Gladys could fix that, and quickly. She’d done alterations for years now. Her mother taught her how to sew when she was only eight and she’d picked it right up. Last year they’d gotten a new air conditioning unit on her sewing money alone. Clive bragged about it all the time to folks before she shushed him. He’d even found an old beat up Singer machine at the J and J flea market and found a way to wire it to their mailbox so that customers could find their driveway easier. Half the bridesmaids in the county looked a decent second fiddle thanks to her. Finally, after a metal ball of death with motorcyclists and a human cannonball, the show was over. It was pitiful, the way the ringmaster was begging folks to tell their friends about the show that evening.
“I think,” Juanita said as they straggled out of the tent to the car, “That they’ve topped even themselves. Last year there were only two motorcycles in that metal ball. This year there were three.”
“God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost.”
“That’s right!” Juanita agreed, missing the irony. Juanita had never met irony, and if she had, she would have tried to give it a tract and a breath mint.
“I wanted to see a lion!” a boy in a striped shirt and too tight shorts wailed, stopping in front of them so abruptly they almost tripped over him. The shorts were probably hand-me-downs.
“Jackson, move out of those ladies’ way,” his mother said, yanking at his hand. “I’m sorry there wasn’t a lion. But you can’t expect everything in life. You just take what you can get and be glad about it.”
“Maybe next time,” Gladys told the boy.
“He just got his hopes up because he saw a cartoon where a man sticks his head into a lion’s mouth,” the mother said.
“This was stupid!” the boy yelled, kicking a dirty patch of the field, raising a small dust ball.
“Shut your mouth and be grateful I even bother to take you places,” his mother said, grabbing his hand and marching him to the car.
“Goodness,” Juanita said, “He ought to get a paddling.”
Gladys said nothing. Clive approved of spanking too, but she never had.
“You know,” Juanita said as they groaned their way into the sauna of Gladys’ blue Honda, “we should raise some money at Sunday school and get a way to bring some under-privileged kids out here next year.”
Gladys wasn’t sure what good that would do. Show them the man popping out of the cannon in order to show them that there wasn’t anything they couldn’t do with hard work and a fancy spandex outfit? Juanita always had a charity or some new brochures to hand out, things about malaria nets and toothbrushes and peanut butter jars. Her heart was in the right place, but it did get wearying on people’s pocket books. Sometimes she bossed people into action. It was like she couldn’t wait for the Holy Spirit or something. Once she made folks sign a paper that they would be in church one Sunday for pastor’s day “unless forced not to by circumstances beyond my control.” Totally overboard.
“I guess we will be here awhile,” Gladys said, her hands on the steering wheel. The parking had also been set up in the field, in rows, with bored teenagers in orange vests guiding cars to spaces. Now there was a traffic jam as everyone lined up in their respective rows, anxious to get out at the single entrance.
“The circus magic is over,” Juanita agreed, as one Buick honked at a mini-van from which a child in the backseat threw out a cotton candy stick.
“People need to be patient and wait their turn,” Gladys said, glancing at her gas gauge. She needed some more soon.
“Phew it’s hot,” Juanita remarked, fanning herself with a brochure for cosmetics she’d taken out of her purse. “What is that?” she then asked, taking a break from fanning to lean over and pick up something off the floor of the car.
“A taco wrapper maybe?” Gladys said after glancing over.
“Clive had my car the other day while his was getting tuned and he was getting his tires rotated. He probably got lunch out.”
“He should respect your driving space,” Juanita decided, crumpling the paper, but not before a few stale shards of cheddar cheese fell out.
“He doesn’t think like that, but it’s okay.”
“By the way,” Juanita pointed to the decal in the corner, “I noticed on the way here that you’re a month overdue for an oil change.”
“Yes, but I’m not at the mileage point.”
“I don’t think that matters, Gladys. You don’t want stuff just sitting around in there. It turns to gunk.”
“I don’t have time,” Gladys said, inching the car a little bit forward.
“Oh my,” Juanita pointed to the right, where some cars were forsaking their respective lines to make a breakneck zig-zag over the rutted field to an opening right near the gate that no one happened to be patrolling. There was just enough space to slide through.
“That ain’t Christian,” Juanita decided. “They obviously don’t know that the first shall be last and etc. etc. That verse.”
Gladys glanced over as two more cars joined the pack. She felt angry at the cheaters too. Why weren’t they patiently waiting? Where were their manners? But she felt annoyed with herself too, all of a sudden. Always so dutiful. Lined up like a bunch of cows and sheep. It had been that way since kindergarten. She had memorized her multiplication tables and her vacation bible verses. She wanted the gold star so bad. But why? It was just a piece of foil. It didn’t mean anything, did it?
“Hold on,” Gladys told Juanita, as she put the car in reverse, jerked back, then stepped on the gas.
“What are you doing?” Juanita shrieked as the Honda began to bump across the grass.
“I’ve got a squash casserole I need to get in the oven. You know Miriam’s recipe. That one with the cracker and butter topping,” she said. It wasn’t much of an opening there by the gate where cars were slipping out, but if she angled things just right, she’d make it.
“Slow down!” Juanita hollered.
“But they’re putting up a cone!” Juanita yelled, and she was right. A man had just set up an orange can to try and stop the lawless trickle. But by now Gladys’ mind was made up. She swerved to try and get to the left of the cone but as she did, there came a terrible scraping sound on the right side of the car.
“We hit the fence! Stop!” Juanita screamed.
“It’s still standing,” Gladys said, too scared and excited now to take her foot of the gas. She could see the man who’d set up the cone in her rearview and he had a disgusted look on his face as he swatted his hand in the air: good riddance.
“You’ve gone plain nuts,” Juanita said, locking her door like that would do something.
“I’m just getting us home at a decent hour,” Gladys said, waving cheerfully at the cop down by the highway directing traffic. If he’d seen what she’d done, he didn’t seem to care. The ten minutes back to Juanita’s house, Juanita was silent. Gladys knew she was upset but she was ready for some quiet so she said nothing as well. When they finally pulled into Juanita’s driveway, Juanita just about jumped out of the car.
“Gladys, will you just look at this scrape!”
Gladys got out and came around the other side to look. It did look pretty bad. There was no doubt the fence had been painted white. The dent and deep groove of paint ran across the back door all the way to the front.
“I was on the bleeding side too!” Juanita said, readjusting her purse. “Maybe you should have thought about that first.”
“I did.” The answer came out before she even could help it.
“Why … you …”
“I knew you’d be okay.”
“You didn’t know that.”
“I knew there might be a bump,” Gladys said, “But look at you. Wearing nice shoes and kingdom ready.”
“Gladys, I have to say that this isn’t like you. To be like this.”
“I’m sorry, I really am,” Gladys said. She got back into the car and rolled down the window.
“Oh and Juanita, I don’t think I’ll make it to Women’s Bible Study tonight.” It was ten weeks on joy, but they’d already done three she wasn’t up for more quite yet.
“Okay. We’ll pray for you of course,” Juanita said. Gladys had always thought pray was a funny word for gossip but she only nodded.
“Much obliged. Oh and Juanita, I’m sorry but I forgot those Bosque pears I had for you. They’re still sitting on my counter in a plastic sack. I’ll drop them off tomorrow.”
“Alright,” Juanita said. She opened her mouth but then, miraculously, shut it before anything else came out. Gladys took the opportunity to wave one last time and back out of the drive before starting for home. The squash casserole did need defrosting. Clive would eventually notice the car’s side and she’d say it had all been an accident, that she really thought there was room to turn that sharp, but had misjudged it, like a poor dirty camel with red tassels trying to dance his way through the needle’s eye. First, she needed to stop at the gas station for a package of pink coconut snowballs. She’d saved her money by not snacking at the circus so she deserved it. She only indulged a few times a year so it wasn’t that bad. And maybe she’d pick up a pack of cigarettes. Juanita had a T-shirt from an Orlando walk through the Bible conference that said all of heaven was a non-smoking section, but Gladys had never had the heart (or balls?) to tell her that she didn’t believe in hell. Contrary to the aquamarine shirt’s proclamation, she hoped there was just a tiny corner in God’s kingdom where she could light up and inhale deeply like the ringmaster had done outside the tent—just one last quick break before show time resumed and she went back down on her knees to praise the slaughtered lamb.
Photo by Matt Chan