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Thursday, July 15, 2010 

Eleven year agao I had a block of four weeks in Novemember and wanted to write something about elephants. I sat down at my keyboard and started working, and when I looked up at the end of that month I had a circus novel that wasn't about elephants at all. The story was rough, written fast, and I never found time to revise or clean it up. I'd still like to write a circus novel, but a different one... Maybe in another ten years. In the meantime, there's Strawhouse. I found the manuscript on an old hard drive the other day and decided that I would add it to the blog, a chapter every week or ten days. Nothing special, just an entertainment.

Chapter One

North Carolina -- 1998

Willis started on the sidewalls at first light. Four hundred and twenty feet of canvas laid out in thirty foot strips nine feet wide in the old tobacco flue once red gone to rust brown across three score of summers beneath a fierce Carolina sun. The sidewalls weren't really cotton anymore. The circus hadn't traveled under a bigtop made of duck in over twenty years. The fabric was polyvinyl chloride over nylon. A better tent, almost certainly. It weighed less, and it didn't burn. But the soul was still canvas. The heart was still canvas. Willis thought of it as canvas – a circus trafficked in something richer than the literal truth.
The low sky was dark grey and in the fallow fields behind the farmhouse, long given up to chokeweed, kudzu, and wild roses the red clay was still stiff with heavy frost when Willis limped across the yard toward the sheds. The morning was cold, even for early March, even for Durham, Willis thought, lighting a cigarette and clutching a thermos of strong coffee. Maybe not as cold as it had been a month ago when he came up from Florida to kickstart the outfit for another season -- there was snow on the ground then -- but still more like winter than like early spring. The thermometer on the back porch was busted and the perky weather girl on the WRAL morning show out of Raleigh said that it was thirty-one degrees, cooler up around Hillborough or to the west near Statesville. Willis could feel it in his hips and the way that his legs ached when the days were cold enough for a real freeze. His war wounds. Not from the Army, he came out of Europe without a scratch, before that, from West Texas and the rodeo. A bum pelvis and ancient scars from the horns of a bull, steel pins patching his femur, they were an old man's souvenirs of a young man's days before he was nineteen. Down in Gainesville they almost never bothered him, but in Durham some years they ached right into April
Willis had been patching vinyl in winter quarters for so many years it was like second nature to him. For a few seasons in California when the show was bigger and traveled with a five mast Italian bale ring tent from Canobbio, he’d kept on a short crew during the down months to help with the mending. But that was a long time ago. Now almost anyone could do a hot air weld with a heat gun or a bonded butt patch with a silicon roller and contact cement. If he worked at it for a couple of hours every morning the bigtop was just a one man job.
A wide driveway skirted the lawn, and crocuses blossomed beside the cracked blacktop. The rolling stock was parked across from the house. Seven trucks covered with green all-weather tarpulins. They weren't big trucks, they were Ford deisels with heavy duty springs, Class IV hitches, and thirty foot cargo trailers, two bunkhouses, and a lowboy painted red and blue and logoed Cash and Robbins Combined Shows. The Fords were cheaper than fleet vehicles, and anybody could drive one. It wasn't like the sixteen semis Willis once owned in the west, but it was still a caravan. The elephants had their own truck and trailer, a Kenworth driven by Rooster Varrick the concessions manager. Add everybody else on the show and there might be sixteen rigs when they hit the road in another three weeks.
Beyond the machine shop Willis glanced into the open sided polebarn where the show rehearsed just before the new season. A regulation circus ring forty-two feet across crowded the middle of the floor and two twenty-five foot towers six feet wide hugged the ring curbs supporting a trapeze, web gear, and a lyra. The ring was old and in need of fresh paint. Maybe he'd get around to it tomorrow, Willis told himself. The better the place looked when the performers arrived the less they worried about getting paid. Willis hadn't missed a payroll in thirty years. But it wasn't always easy, especially early in the season. Most years the show had a line of credit to cover the shortfalls, but this time out the money was tighter. Two bad autumns back to back, and it was tough floating a loan. The Wachovia Bank finally ponied up a note for enough to see the show through rehearsals and the first few weeks after that, but there wasn't a lot of wiggle room. The billposters were already working, the booker already paid, the office girl in Florida taken acre of. Insurance had chewed up whatever else was left from cash on hand.

He'd seen tougher times, Willis reminded himself staring at the ring. Lots and lots of tough times through the years. The circus would be okay as long as it didn't rain too much. Besides, he had enough to worry about just filling the program. Mike Blake, the producing clown was coming back, along with Gus Rothman, and Andy Hayes. Violet Santos would work the high wire, the slack, and do a hula hoop act. The Dubon family was coming up from Mexico. They were acrobats, aerialists, and did a pretty good trampoline number. He'd hired a Russian couple named Primatov who did a perch pole act and web routine. And Jennette Graham had signed on with five minature horses in a liberty show and her six Jack Russell Terriers. So far that was twelve performers doing sixteen acts. Twenty-three people counting assorted children and maiden aunts.
But there were still no cats, and there was no one to work Dharma and Delhi the Cash & Robbins' elephants unless Jennette did it. For ten years Willis used Sal Grillo and his tigers to open every show, and to bring in the bulls at the end. There were better trainers, but there were no better friends than Sal. When Sal’s son Kurt phoned from Gib’town in February to say that his father had lost the Sibertians to a feline virus and they wouldn't be joined the circus it sounded like he was near tears. Finding a last minute replacement had Willis worried. He couldn't afford cats from Illinois even if they were available, and the Texas acts didn't have enough open time for the whole season. So now he was running an ad in a trade paper and making calls. If that didn't work he'd bite the bullet and go out as a dog and pony show. A circus didn't have to have cats. But he might pay for that at the box office. A circus didn't have to have anything but clowns and the cotton candy Willis liked to tell himself. He’d learned that through ups and downs. Truth was in more than fifty seasons Willis could remember exactly one catslanger who took his breath away. Clyde Beatty. He'd traveled with Beatty in the early '50's when the Cash and Swiftdeer Austin Ranch Rodeo did an after-show following each performance of the Beatty Circus. That was the cowboy and Indian act he'd dreamed up in Italy with Jay Swiftdeer during the war. They toured for seven years before Jay went back to Oklahoma and Willis turned the horse opery into a bigtop troupe. Cole Cash was born while the wild west show played a ballfield in Indiana. Diane came later on a circus lot in Louisville.
His children, a son long dead, and a daughter long gone.
Beyond the polebarn Willis pulled open the wide doors to the tobacco flue and turned on the lights. Dust sprinkled down from the rafters and the dry air smelled of nicotine and bright leaf. Blue clothespins marked the piles of sidewall that he'd already inspected and repaired and folded away. More than two-thirds he reckoned. Willis went to the work bench and crushed out his cigarette. The top was another story. The top was still on the spooler trailer waiting for the tent crew. It was too big to work alone, and too heavy to unfold. On the first warm day of rehearsals the crew could lay it out in the yard. Willis twisted the lid off his thermos and poured himself some oily coffee. In winter quarters the coffee always tasted like oil. He'd been saying that for twenty years. Willis put down his cup and reached for a heat gun. Starbucks. Now Starbucks made good coffee. There was a Starbucks near the Gainesville place and he'd grown quite fond of it. Willis plugged the gun into an extension cord and turned on the radio. The radio station played big band music. He'd been listening to the Glenn Miller Orchestra since he was a kid, and he still never got tired of it. Willis could feel the sweat beading on his forehead and across his shoulders beneath his overalls. Maybe it wasn't as cold as he'd thought? Jude Washington would be coming around before too long to look after the elephants, and Jude would know. Jude had to know so he could pretend to complain about something.
"You really got that colored fella as your number one man?" some of the old-timers used to ask forty years ago. They weren't really churlish about it, they were just surprised.
"Lucky to have him," Willis answered then. It was funny how things worked out. He’d lost a son and gone on circusing. He'd lost a daughter and gone on too. When he lost his Wife, it was harder. If he ever lost Jude, he'd have to give up the show. He couldn't do it alone. Other people had children. Jude had children. Jude had grandchildren. Jude’s daughter Sondra was a doctor up in Baltimore, and his son Michael was an Army Captain. They'd been show kids too, once upon a time. Pretty fair performers.
Jude was a better father than he had been. The truth was that he'd never much of a father at all. Willis knew that about himself. He'd lived with it for thirty years. Some days he had a hard time just remembering where Cole was even buried, Fresno or Bakersfield, Barstow or Merced? A sixteen year old boy driving a flatbad truck too fast on a wet road late at night trying to catch up with the rest of the caravan. The highway patrol said he died instantly. And the circus hadn't missed so much as a matinee. The show went on that day and the next and every other day. There was no time for grief. No time to even get mad. Plenty of people sent condolences. Elizabeth cried and carried on, and still she did her wire act. Only Diane tried to pretend they were like a real family. Broken. Four years later she was gone as well. Another fifteen year old girl lost to dope, to the streets of San Francisco. Sometimes Willis thought that the hardest day of his life wasn't the day that his boy died, or even his wife, it was the day that he saw his thirty-five year old daughter in handcuffs at her mother's funeral. The guards were polite. She was paroled shortly thereafter. That was five years ago. As much as he wanted to call her sometimes, on her birthday, for Christmas, he was afraid he would weep.
Willis worked his way down two thirty foot sections of sidewall on his hands and knees ignoring his aches and pain. It was hard to breath. The dust, maybe. He was careful with his hot air gun, softening but never melting the vinyl. Jude was late, or at least later than usual. The radio played In The Mood, but the only thing Willis was in the mood for was going back up to the house and sitting down. He wouldn't get much canvas done doing that, he figured. There was nothing pleasant about getting old. Especially not old and sick. He got dizzy when he stood up again, and his chest hurt when he tried to take a deep breath. Maybe it was the flu, he thought? He'd skipped his flu shot back in November, trusting to luck. The lines of elderly patients waiting for autumn inoculations at the doctor's office always depressed him. Why anybody ever retired was something he just couldn't understand. What exactly did they do with themselves when they came to Florida besides think about dying? Willis bent dwon to grab a corner of sidewall and fold it up, then stopped to catch his breath again. It felt like the flu. Whatever it was that was wrong with him. He was burning up, but he was freezing too. Shaking. Sure sign of a fever, he was smart enough to know that. Fevers came on fast sometimes. He'd felt fine when he got out of bed. Not now, not anymore, Willis thought. Now he was soaked in an icy sweat and his fingers and arms were tingling and numb. It was like tearing down the tent in a cold rain. He'd done that enough times.
California had been the death of them all, Willis thought when he allowed himself to consider such things. They'd had a nice show in the east. Twelve trucks opening every April in Jersey City across the river from New York, then moving up into New England before doubling back down into the mid-Atlantic states, rolling into the middle west and ending every fall at home in Carolina. The circus played the same route for ten years before ambition got the better of them. It was the 1960's and everything was changing. Small shows were opening and closing and big shows had given up the tents. Elizabeth thought he was out of his mind when Willis doubled the size of the circus and headed west. The first season they'd had their best year ever. The second season they'd barely stayed in the black. The third time out he'd lost his son. Nothing was easy or quick. It took four more years to actually go bankrupt. The Cash and Robbins Circus had fourteen elephants when they first arrived in LA. When he and Elizabeth finally went home they had a pony sweep, two suitcases, and a Chevy Nova. There were people who probably thought he'd never own a circus again. Eight months later Willis was pushing a small show through Ohio in a fifty by fifty pole tent with five performers and two pickups. He and Jude handled every job by themselves. Jude's wife Cassy sold the tickets and ran the pony ride, and Elizabeth went back up onto the high wire. He'd paid everybody back. All of them. The banks, the feed stores, the mechanics, the insurance companies. It took six years, but the show never missed a season.
Willis folded the sidewall and went to the work bench for a fresh can of contact cement. There were several quarts on a high shelf and needed a step ladder to reach tem. Willis was swaying as he pulled himself half way up the ladder then stopped to rub his left arm. He sighed. What was he going to do without a cat act? His head started spinning and he grabbed for a step. Now he really wanted was to sit down. I couldn't afford to be sick right now, he told himself. There's a world of work to be done. Willis felt his head clear and he started to lift his foot toward the next step just as a hammer slammed into his chest like a sixteen pound sledge against a steel tent stake. He started to fall. It's gonna hurt when I hit, but it can't hurt anymore than this, he thought as he toppled backwards to the concrete floor. Sometime later he heard a voice telling him to lay still.
"I went off the ladder," Willis tried to say.
"Shhh... Hush. Don't try no talkin' you old fool. The ambulance is on its way. I think you had a heart attack."
Of course. A heart attack. He knew that. A flu shot wouldn't have helped at all.
"Get Jenette to work the elephants. Got no cats..." Willis whispered as he started to slip away again. "Find my daughter. Call Diane. She's got to take the show out, Jude. Tell her that. She oughta find cats."
Then the pain was back and the world went grey.

Wow you should publish that! It is good so far. I could see the story in my mind as i read along. Keep up the good work!

..I'm looking forward to the next chapters..

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About me

  • I'm B.E.Trumble
  • From Everywhere, United States
  • Ben Trumble works in circus, carnival, and media relations
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