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I will never forget my first day at Kingston Brothers Circus to the Stars. Believe me, I have tried my hardest, but I recall it like it was yesterday. I wouldn't say I have the sharpest of memories; sometimes my thinking is a little muddy, I accept that. It's why I couldn't remember all they asked me on the witness stand in Denver (those dirty birds). But the nightmares that frequent my sleep seem determined to keep the details of that day fresh in my mind.
For most people, the first day of running away to join the circus is an exciting opportunity to reunite with the stale puke smell of old popcorn and start a new year with a clean pair of floppy shoes. I'd be lying if I said I didn't experience a slight amount of excitement that year, but what little bit I did enjoy was mostly trumped by fear of the Unknown. That's what the Ring-Master—a wasp thin, liver-lipped pinhead who only ever wore a sailor outfit, a wig made out of old carpet samples and what looked like bacon fat smeared all over his face, and who insisted we all call him General Raggedy Bones—called his special act.
"Laaaaaaadies, and Gennnnnnnnntlemen," he'd squawk through the traffic cone we all had to pretend was a megaphone. "Preeesenting... the Unknown!" then he'd fart, sing a national anthem (this month he'd picked Uganda's) flick back the tarp with one long, yellow finger claw and the show would begin. The audiences loved the Unknown, too. You could tell by the noises they made as they struggled to get loose from the ropes. Sometimes they left lemonade behind on the seats. General Raggedy Bones only ever let the Fat Lady drink it though. I never did like her.
I knew that while almost everyone attending that day would be happy to see each other alive after the long summer drought, I would be enduring the strange feeling of knowing that since the blight and its attendant locust plagues, the circus performers had been forced to eat most of our animals to survive. General Raggedy Bones had refused to close off the show's menagerie though. "A circus without performing animals is like a corpse without a kiss!" he'd said, blowing one at Giles the Living Zombie, who was eating broken glass from a mop bucket (not for part of his act, he's been trying to kill himself for years now).
General Raggedy Bones had made the roustabouts and most of the concession stand folks dress up as the animals they'd eaten. "A penance saved is a Jenny burned." He winked, with his third eye not joining in but staring at us, unsmiling. Connie the ticket-taker had to be the Orang-Utan, for instance. She put up a right stink when she had to dye her hair. "Orang-utans ain't even green!"
I wanted to be a tapeworm, but the Fat Lady said she already had four of them. Fucking women.
All that was left of the real animals was Polly the Uberhorse, with her extra limbs and regenerative ability, and Mr. Humperdink, the drunken seal that banged out notes on a xylophone. Mr. Humperdink was down to only two-and-a-bit flippers after General Raggedy Bones caught him banging out "S.O.S" in Morse one night, so now he mostly stuck to Liberace. I hear that after the events of that fateful day, he became a court stenographer and married some reality show bimbo. Good luck to him.
Plus the Unknown of course. Nobody dared try to take it on. The Fabulous Juniper Quintuplets got so hungry, what with their shared stomach I guess, that they each took a bite out of it anyway, even knowing how poisonous it could be during its time of the month. They don't get half as many punters watching their act now that they're only a duo. But still, I took to the circus as if it was my first day at a new school. Only I wasn't quite as afraid. The clowns would take care of that, later than night.
The clowns always do.
To make matters worse, I had only just moved to town a mere two weeks prior, leaving all of my friends behind and in hundreds of pieces. The guy who used to make the popcorn, who is now Bruinhilda, the Spectacular Dancing Bear of the Mysterious Gypsy Folk, tells me I got lucky. That usually General Raggedy Bones lets the hyenas eat all the people in the towns they visit, before burning it, shitting on the ashes and salting the earth. I confirmed this with Mike and Brad, who are now our hyenas. Bastards complained that their stomachs still hurt. I would have told them my stepfather was a stubborn fucker if they'd asked me first. He probably punched their gullets the whole way down. They said the General must have spared me for some reason. I told them I already had a boyfriend. Bruinhilda laughed at that, said he didn't do the boyfriend thing for that Reese Witherspoon cunt and her fucking Polish elephant last year, and that he sure wasn't doing it for me. That I was just another mark with a sweet mouth and a big cock. Sparkly Bitch. I told him I could see the zipper on his bear suit, and he went fishbelly white. The General hates zippers of all kinds. Even the clowns dare only use buttons on their sleeping bags. Not that they ever sleep. Leastways not at night.
Needless to say the ride to the Big Top that day was full of half-hearted optimism and feelings of homesickness and depression. Also some heat-stroke. We'd sold the covered wagon the week before to buy a new cotton candy machine, after some children died when we just served up paper towels dyed blue and pink. Still, I remember feeling determined not to get too down, assuring myself things would work out for the best. And if not, I still had my dick. Fuck Bruinhilda and the unicycle he rode in on.
As I walked into the tent for the first time, I was very nervous and thought about turning around and running home. Then I remembered laughter barking almost as loud as the machine's guns; spent cartridges falling onto big, floppy, day-glo shoes. Home is where you fake it.
It took some courage, but I managed to convince myself that I was going to be fine and that all of my worries were simply in my head. Madame Sousatzka told me it wasn't, that she foresaw sudden change (and a tall, dark stranger), but everyone knows she's been drinking furniture polish to stop the shakes, and anyway her crystal ball isn't really one. You can still see one of the holes, and the scuff marks from the ball polisher.
No, my biggest fear was getting beat up at lunch, or even beaten up for my lunch. Things were still uneasy, with the drought so recent and all. Polly the Uberhorse still only slept for an hour a night and whinnied with terror whenever Cook approached with his big ladle and cauldron of "special horse slops". I don't blame her. His lasagne is only passable, at best. Still, being shivved in broad daylight, in front of the punters? That's an occurrence that I had yet to witness happen to anyone on any of my other first days at the circus.
It wasn't long until I walked up to my new trailer, pushing aside the flypaper (long since stripped of flies—I narrowed my eyes at the Fat Lady again) and focusing on being optimistic. Before I walked into the largest tent, I took a second to assure myself that I was going to make a bunch of new friends that didn't have to dress up as firebrand-juggling centipedes or fruit bats that played the violin, and that the circus' new acts were going to be great. Then I picked my head up (don't know whose head it was, or why the clowns had left it lying there for me to find—but I sure as fuck wasn't going to go down into their trailer and question them, even with the sun high in the sky and a crucifix around my neck under my wife-beater) and marched into the first of the new tents.
It didn't take more than a second or two for my fears to be validated, because as I walked into the room, all of the punters in their seats started pointing at me, fighting against their restraints to do so, and laughing as if I was some kind of alien. I knew I wasn't (Morbo the Miraculous Monster-Man from Mars had that racket, and he was laid up in his trailer all week with what turned out to be smallpox he caught from a blanket given to him by some government agents in a hangar in Nevada); and the punters wouldn't have dared laugh at me if I'd been one of the clowns.
It was almost as if they had planned it all along, because the uproar of laughter could only be compared to what I saw at a surprise party we once threw for my grandpappy (which had, regrettably, turned into a Wake that same day). Nonetheless, I pressed forward with determination. Then I saw the tears pouring down their faces, the rictus grins that were gripping their pale mouths, and I knew, even before I felt the tap of long, thin finger claws on my shoulder and felt the General's fever-hot spittle fly onto my nape as he bellowed into his traffic cone.
"Cyanide, Hoss!" roared, "-causes muscular convulsions so strong they break bones! Look at the little one with the pigtails there... her elbows're practically pointing up to Sirius! Or maybe that's Betelgeuse. Can't tell so good in the daytime." He rubbed his third eye, an angry red under the greasy, matted filth of his carpet-sample wig, and then grinned at me again. "The clowns put it in the corn dog batter. Wasn't gonna let 'em, then I thought to myself; 'Self! Them clowns ain't had fun in so long you'd better let 'em do it to someone else before they do it to you'. Fuckin' greasepainted freaks. I only keep 'em on because of that Clown Car routine. That's some funny shit right there, Hoss. Twenny-eight clowns in one tiny-as-snail-shit car. Fuck me if I know how they do it."
I held myself together, even as a big red-headed kid broke free of his ropes and leaned over into the ring, vomiting a heaped black stream of intestines into the sawdust. Polly the Uberhorse whinnied softly and her eyes were wild behind her glasses. But then an even bigger kid, maybe nineteen or twenty, ran up behind me as I looked about for the exit (or at least a "caution, slippery floor" sign) and ripped the traffic cone right out of the General's hand. He proceeded to pull several brightly coloured silk handkerchiefs out of it, then a white rabbit, which he snapped his fingers at and turned into five crested fantail doves, wheeling around his head in confusion as he bowed theatrically towards the unsmiling Ring-Master, his fat, terrified face dripping with panic and desperation and vomit.
"Sorry, Hoss," General Raggedy Bones leered, "-auditions are on Fridays. 'Sides, we're phasing out that David Copperfield shit anyway. People these days want spectacle with their fried dough and complementary balloon animal. But I'm sure we could use you in the kitchens," pinhead's leer widened beneath the bacon-fat grease mask as he pinched the kid's fat shoulder. "-Yessiree, you'll go down a treat."
Three roustabouts appeared from nowhere and dragged the kid away to Cook's tent, with him screaming and pulling rabbits and doves and balloons and streamers out of his sleeves and pockets the whole way. One of the roustabouts grabbed the traffic cone the kid still had a deathgrip on and tossed it to me. I made to put it in my pants pocket, but the General pulled it out of my hands, waved his fingernails over one end and smiled broadly as what looked like whisky began leaking out of the tapered end. He began chugging its contents as he rifled through the kid's Ninja Turtles backpack with his other hand, pulling out and pocketing a handful of items.
(A box of ribbed condoms; a harmonica; a deck of playing cards with pornographic pictures on the back of each card (the guys involved in the anatomical mobius strips were me and Bruinhilda); a goldfish in a plastic bag full of water; and a large calibre handgun loaded with silver bullets).
Then he dropped the rest in the garbage. He finished drinking the whisky, threw the goldfish to Mr. Humperdink—
(The seal honked in thanks and began playing "The Entertainer" on the xylophone).
—and threw the gun at the wall, shattering it (and my feelings) into pieces.
"Dumbass kid," he sneered. "Ain't no killing what's never lived a single day from the get go." He looked over at me. "Show's over for tonight, Hoss—" and jerked a thumb-blade in the direction of the audience, which had by now finished throwing up blood and viscera and had stopped twitching. Mostly. "—muck out them bleachers. And put down some new sawdust; it'll never do to have guts in the ring. They distract the lions."
I could not believe how mean the pinheaded ring-master was being to me, when I had done nothing to him. The lions wouldn't care about blood tainting the sawdust; Doris and Bettina were in the lioness outfits this week, and everyone knew they were vegans.
I tried to ignore it, but panic began to fill my entire body and I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. The General stared at my tears as they burned hot paths down my cheeks, licking his liver-hued lips with a tongue the size of a chair-leg and the colour of an autopsied brain. I fell apart and ran out of the tent as fast as I could.
I had no idea where anything was, so I just took off and followed the gaily-coloured canvas hallways wherever they would take me. I ran past several performers rehearsing their acts: the word-swallowers eating their dictionaries (we'd tried to explain they were supposed to be SWORD-swallowers, but turned out they were deaf as well as dyslexic); Randall the Magnificent and his Performing Flea Troupe (Randall, pale from blood-loss, groaned at me for help, slumped in his corner with his tiny charges clinging to his arms and chest and swollen to the size of grapes, but he still hadn't paid me the $20 he owed me, so fuck him) and Tippi the chimpanzee, who nodded to me over his typewriter as he continued to churn out Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST—but it seemed like nobody else even noticed me, so I just kept running until I found myself facing the huge black tent with a large door flap that read "The Unknown" above a crudely painted gilded star with a staring eye in the centre that looked almost as bloodshot as the General's.
I burst through the door. The Unknown's little-person keeper was on a phone call as I tried to tell him what had happened, but I was so hysterical that he couldn’t understand me. He told the person he was talking to he would call them back and hung up the phone, then looked at the frayed end of the phone cord where he'd ripped it out of the wall in anger a few months ago. "Damn, I should really call someone to fix that."
He grabbed me a glass of water and told me everything would be fine. He tried to calm me down by having me take deep breaths. When that didn't calm me in the slightest, he had me re-breathe into a bag. That seemed to work, though the plastic clung to my mouth and nose and made me feel unpleasant and hot, and then dizzy. The last thing I heard as I blacked out was his high-pitched little voice croaking, "The Unknown will see you now."
I woke up in a cage that seemed infinitely large, the sawdust floor lined with itchy straw, flyers for our circus dating back two hundred years or more, and the gnawed bones of children. The Unknown was clinging to the ceiling of its cage, its gigantic turd-body providing the only light—sickly, grey phosphorescence. Large, pustulent sacs burst along its body, releasing butter-flavoured popcorn topping that its attendants—exquisitely beautiful Japanese Geisha wearing nothing but slick films of shiny clear oil and expressions of slack, frozen hilarity-collected in pewter pans to take to our concession stand.
The Unknown turned its rows of tiny black jellybean eyes on me, and let go of the ceiling just with its top half, lowering down to me.
I explained to the Unknown how mean these circus performers were, and slowly I regained some composure. After about ten minutes of watery eyes and sniffles, it managed to get me to stop crying, offering me a drink from one of its udders. The last time that I'd drunk from its teats I'd come back to myself days later naked and chained in a small cage with The General informing punters I was the only known captive-born host of the amazing Anaconda Cock Parasite, so I declined the Unknown's offer and realized that I might be overreacting a bit. It handed me a large piece of tissue (slick with clear oil and an Irezumi of flowers) and I wiped away the tears, thinking I had cried myself out. Unfortunately that wasn't the case. Even as I dried my last tear, the Unknown began to sing sweetly through dozens of its mouths. I turned to run, but it grabbed me by one leg and I screamed as I felt its ovipositor rip into my flesh and pump me full of foul black venom. I began to smell the overpowering vanilla scent of circus peanuts. My nose began to swell, then my feet.
General Raggedy Bones came out from behind one of the Unknown's huge, fleshy folds, a leer on his painfully thin face. Behind him, practically all my fellow performers had gathered. Some of them were feeding, or being fed on by, the Unknown. Bruinhilda waved at me, shyly, and when I waved back, I noticed my flesh was dead white. In an ecstasy of terror, I reached up to my swollen nose, and squeezed. It honked.
General Raggedy Bones' smile widened until the corners met at the back of his head. He handed me a rainbow wig and a pair of floppy shoes. I started bawling again when he told me I was going to be the best clown at his circus.
Credited to Gavin Pitts