I killed the Volkenstanders.There, the confession is on record, and I have nothing more to say on the subject. Now swear to never ever bring it up again!
Yes, I killed the Volkenstanders, even if it wasn’t in the strict Biblical sense. I was only five at the time, and my little hands couldn’t have fit around anyone’s neck. Let alone a whole family’s collective neck.
The Volkenstanders. Come on! You have to remember them. The Flying Volkenstanders, a troupe of aerial acrobats … trapeze artists. Renowned from Brownsville to El Paso for the six-and-a-half man pyramid, performed 100 feet in the air. They came after the Wallenda family, in case you’re asking, but were no less spectacular. And like the Wallendas, they never used a net. That was their downfall, so to speak.
Or I was.
For the sake of clarification, I did not kill every single member of the high wire family. But due to the Volkenstanders’ inability to reproduce like rabbits (or Wallendas) the circus community pronounced them deader than road-killed armadillo the morning of August 14th, 1964. That was the morning after my slip … and theirs.
Wait! Don’t think for a moment that I am coming clean after nearly forty years in an attempt to cleanse my conscience. I asked mom, God rest her soul, and dad, the bastard, for forgiveness before I went to bed that night. Repeatedly. With tears coursing down my cheeks. How else could I have fallen asleep? And I would have gladly gone to jail, or a juvenile detention home—hell, even permanent internment at summer camp—if someone, anyone, could have prevented me from going through adolescence.
Four life sentences, served consecutively, that’s all I was asking for. Even concurrently, I didn’t care. Better yet, four death sentences, for the murders of Lugar, Lonnie, Erika, and Fredrich Volkenstander. Pretty heady stuff, for a five-year-old, huh? But I deserved it, I assure you, as much as any infantile killer in the annals of crime.
But then, all killers are infantile, if you ask me.
It was the week after my fifth birthday, and circus tickets were a belated gift from my father. He was a good man, as far as bastards go, and didn’t mean to forget my birthday. Sure, some times he liked to pretend that I’d never been born, but then so did I.
“Don’t be an idiot,” he screamed at me, pulling his steel-toed clodhoppers over woolen gray socks. “Elephants are born and raised to be in the circus!”
I had merely commented that it seemed cruel to chain and shackle any living creature, let alone one that was fifty times bigger than us, and asked if the rumors were true about captive elephants going mad and crushing their trainers.
“If that had happened,” continued father, “do you think there’d still be elephants in the circus? I oughtta—“
He lowered his hand as soon as my mother entered the room. Mom was a looker, and that never changed. Whatever makes a beautiful woman go for a pot-bellied pig of a man like my dad, I’ll never know. Beauty calms the savage beast even more than music.
“Hey, little buddy,” shouted my father energetically, smiling while engaged in the impromptu act of giving me a noogie. “If we’re lucky tonight, we may get to see the maromeros. “
The maromeros. That’s what my father liked to call the acrobats. He always told everyone he was from Mexico, but he spoke few words in his “native” language. Unless you count the four-letter variety.
“The acrobats are fun,” said mama, “especially the aerialists. But there’s still nothing that tops the clowns. Did I ever tell the story about the first time my poppa took me to see the clowns?”
“We don’t have time for that,” shouted pop, a fleck of his lunchtime beans and rice (don’t ask me which one) hurtling and landing on the collar of mama’s spiffy blue dress. “The carpa is twenty miles from here, and if I miss the start, I’m asking for my money back!”
Mama’s stories were always very entertaining. When I got older, I wished she would have written down a few of them, maybe published them in a book. But pop never had the patience for them, and certainly never offered any encouragement. In a year that saw the Beatles invade America, Martin Luther King win a Nobel Peace Prize, and Arnold Palmer win a fourth Masters, you would have thought people would have been seeing more promise in one another.
It was also the year that China exploded its first A bomb, the Soviet Union started using spy satellites, Jimmy Hoffa got convicted for jury tampering, and a stampede killed three hundred spectators at a soccer game in Peru. I only mention the last item because I feel in my gut that I caused the stampede to happen. Or at least my doppelganger did. The kid in the newspaper photo fleeing the stadium gates certainly looked like my twin. He had that same twisted grin.
It was the expression I bore every time I rode the Ferris Wheel, or climbed the steps to one of those outdoor observation decks. Open stairways and open air terrified me, to the point where I felt like jumping. That would, after all, be the quickest way back to solid ground. My mama’s brother, Uncle Boozer, did take flight one blustery January night in New York City. The story that’s told says a broken heart sent him feet first off the roof of the Empire State Building. But, truth is, it was gambling debts that sent him off the roof of a one-story Walgreen’s. If he hadn’t landed on his head, he would have survived.
I was all grins when I first stepped foot inside the carpa. For a five-year-old, a circus tent might as well be the Taj Mahal. It’s a mystical, almost mythical kind of experience, sort of like stumbling upon the hanging gardens of Babylon. That first time … always the most memorable time, of course. But then, I would never have anything to compare it to.
It was also one of those rare occasions when poppa and I would actually agree on something.
Sure, the clowns were pretty cool, and out of respect to my mother I outwardly displayed more enthusiasm for the Mr. Slick and Smooth Guy imitators than I was truly feeling inside. Besides, they weren’t clowns in the technical sense, but rather what fans of the carpas affectionately referred to as pelado. Translated into English, these so-called clowns were underdogs, stock characters who performed sketches dealing with human foibles and scandals. Mama laughed at the way the pelado used their wits to survive.
Dad and I were there for one reason, and one reason only. We just had to see the famous six-and-a-half man pyramid, a high-wire masterpiece performed by four male Volkenstanders, two female Volkenstanders, and the official Flying Volkenstander mascot (hence the half-man): a professionally costumed and coiffured Chihuahua by the name of Blix.
“You should be a clown,” mama gushed as the final pelado finished taking his bows in ring number one. “It is so important in life for people to laugh at life.”
“And what kind of career would that be,” poppa retorted. “How can he ever support his old man on a pelado’s salary?”
I wasn’t truly listening to either one of my parents. The spotlight had just now vanished like a genie, only to reappear in ring three, where two towering telephone poles rose the whole way to the top of the roof, and a taut cable stretched from one pole to the other. The ringmaster was calling for the crowd’s attention—my attention! My tiny heart was thumping inside my chest, outdistancing the pace of the timpani’s mounting drumroll.
Ladies and gentlemen … presenting the masters of all maromeros, the high-flying kings and queens of the sky … the Flying Volkenstanders!
The applause was ear-shattering. I remember thinking “what must it feel like to be so well loved!” I wanted a piece of this pie in the sky, to wash it down with a tall glass of cold milk, and then eat some more.
Sweet things always have been a weakness of mine. Did I mention how much I like caramel corn? I was holding a jumbo cardboard carton of it, cradled between my legs so I could use my hands to clap, as the Flying Volkenstanders entered ring three and acknowledged their fans with a simultaneous wave of their hands.
No flash cameras, please! The admonishing voice from somewhere near the top of the tent roof could have been the ringmaster’s, but my five-year-old imagination likened it to God’s.
Complete and utter silence. This time, the words seemed to come from Fredrich Volkenstander, the patriarch of the acrobatic troupe, as he announced the feat that was mere moments away … the highlight of the evening, the famous six-and-a-half-man pyramid! Surely nothing could ever beat this, I thought, stuffing caramel corn into my mouth with rapid expectation. “Just wait till I tell Grandpa.”
My mom’s old man wasn’t around all that much, but I wished he had been. Granddad liked me, and he was the closest thing to a role model I would ever have.
You could have heard a penny drop from the hole in my pocket and fall into my sneaker, that’s how hushed the crowd was as Lugar and Lonnie Volkenstander stepped out onto the tightrope from one end, while Gunther and Greta Volkenstander (the latter being a real “bruiser” of a woman) stepped from the opposite platform. A sturdy horizontal pole with dual shoulder bars was then lifted above their heads, and the four performers became linked.
The acrobatic plot thickened then. Could you believe it! A bicycle was now placed upon the horizontal pole, ably guided there by Fredrich Volkenstander, who himself was guided by a balancing stick. And once he was completely balanced—on wheels!—in the middle of the emerging pyramid, scantily-clad Erika Volkenstander (in retrospect, probably the real reason why my dad liked the maromeros so much) walked gingerly to where her father was, and climbed atop his shoulders. How stupendous!
I felt like clapping, but restrained myself. I sensed dad shifting his weight in his seat, subconsciously moving his hips in sympathetic sync with Erika’s efforts to maintain her balance. Mom gasped, but quickly covered her mouth with an embroidered handkerchief. Silence can be tough under climactic duress.
Then just think how tough it was now. Every sundae needs a cherry on top, right? Well every six-and-a-half-man pyramid needs its half-a-man, too, and from out of a crocheted bag hanging tightly below Erika Volkenstander’s shimmering breasts came Blix the wonder dog. Or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Yes, Blix wasn’t moving (and when have you ever seen a Chihuahua stand still?). He wasn’t a real dog at all, but rather a costumed and coiffured shadow of his former self who owed his prolonged existence to a taxidermist.Swiftly and dexterously, Erika placed a tiny pedestal atop her head, then Blix “the pretend wonder dog” atop the pedestal, and just like that, history was made!
Boy was it ever.
Long-distance vertigo began to consume me. My heart was clamoring, not only in my ears, but my whole sinus cavity. I was breathing in short, shallow bursts. In my mind eye’s, that was me up there on the tight wire. That was me, teetering like a top on a string. That was me, suddenly looking for the quickest way back to solid ground. Inside my head I was shouting at myself, “Jump … Jump!”
Only it wasn’t inside my head.
I have no idea how many times I bellowed before poppa slapped his hand over my mouth. But three-thousand-and-four finger-pointing eyes were simultaneously focused on me, however briefly, before the chain reaction began.
I believe beautiful Erika started it. Her whole body shook when I screamed, and before she could realign her hips, Blix had fallen from its pedestal and tumbled into Fredrich’s lap. You would have thought that the senior Volkenstander would have been prepared for anything, but having a dog between his legs—albeit a stuffed dog—caused him to lose control of his bike and go careening, back and forth, from one end of the horizontal pole to the other.
Erika hung on, God bless her. And the anchors, Lugar, Lonnie, Gunther and Greta, almost pulled off the most amazing bit of counterbalancing ever accomplished 100 feet above the ground. But by now utter chaos had broken out in the Big Top. Panic was contagious. People could feel catastrophe brewing in their bones, and it takes an awful lot of skill to oppose such a collective doom-mongering.
Gunther and Greta were the only ones lucky enough to avoid falling. Actually, Gunther did fall, but Greta was able to catch the wire on her descent, and catch Gunther’s wrist during his. A rescue net was erected just in time to save them both. A rescue net erected over-top the broken bodies of the four Volkenstanders whom I had killed.
The lights over the big top shine no more. The show is over, the crowds are gone … the Flying Volkenstanders are dead.
That’s what the lead story on the front page of the daily newspaper said the following day. Hell, it could have been a perpetual headline, every day for forty years, the way I see it.
I would never become a clown. To be a “class clown” you need to be loud, even crass, and to accomplish either requires a voice. All through my grade school days I was unable to speak above a whisper. Teachers taking roll call would mark me absent, and my parents tired of visits from the local truant officer. In school plays, I was habitually cast in the demanding roles of “Tree,” “Sun,” or (my personal favorite) “Tumbleweed.” On Career Day, when counselors would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would mouth the words “inanimate object.” On playgrounds, kids would play their games of Marco Polo and Olly Olly Oxen Free sans me.
I yearned to redeem myself. I wanted to entertain. As a teenager I began to imitate Marcel Marceau. But mime wasn’t the only thing I dabbled in. Contortionism seemed like a natural extension of my deathly silent persona. It truly felt good bending over backwards for a semi-appreciative audience.
Poppa threatened to break my back when he first saw me perform. That’s why I left home when I was seventeen, and started living in the streets. If you ask me, that’s where some of the world’s most talented entertainers live. And trust me when I say that man can live on bread alone, as long as there’s an occasional dab of grape jelly to satisfy his sweet tooth. I survived on little more than jelly sandwiches for twenty odd years, honing then plying my craft for mere quarters and dimes. Until one day, it happened. You know … the “f” word.
Have you ever seen a mime/contortionist? Most people haven’t. Which explains why my cash bucket was starting to fill more rapidly. People must have been driving for miles around to see me perform, because new faces were in abundance. I felt proud. Even ecstatic.
That is, until I overheard an old geezer exclaim “Bring on the maromeros! I miss the maromeros! I miss the Volkenstanders!”
Was it my poppa’s haggard voice? I can’t say for sure. But hearing the name of my victims sparked something in my head. It was an uncontrollable urge. Put simply, I opened my mouth wide, and started screaming. After nearly fifteen years of abject silence, I began wailing like a banshee. And not just any old words. No, I began yelling obscenities that most people don’t know exist. In English, in Spanish, in freaking German. I was shouting in tongues … a full-blown, rip-snortin’ screaming rampage that lasted for at least fifteen minutes, echoing throughout the streets of Laredo and disturbing folks’ late suppers and family TV hours.
How did they react? Like I was a homicidal maniac, that’s how. All it took was for one good ol’ bubba in bib overalls to grab a pitchfork, and before you knew it half the town was chasing after me with more pitchforks. And tire irons. And cans of kerosene. It was like some kind of Frankenstein movie, and not even good enough to earn a grade of “B.”
Much to my dismay, they hounded me all the way to a tenement building, where my only recourse was to escape to the roof. I was pushed to the edge, step by step, by a rising tide of Laredo loons. Or a riptide, with more bargaining power than any police interrogation room. I certainly wasn’t going to jump, so … I confessed! To every crime against humanity I could think of! The assassination of Kennedy! The kidnapping of Patty Hearst! The Jonestown Massacre! Hell, I even accepted responsibility for the hole in the ozone layer.
And, last but not least, the murder of the Volkenstanders.
At least the judge was lenient. He was one of those ahead-of-his-times liberals who adored creative sentencing. “If you like to entertain, then that’s precisely what you will do,” he ordered with a half-smirk. “As a trapeze artist with the Mexican circus!”
Needless to say, I do a lot of traveling nowadays. My legs aren’t shackled, but I wear one of those ankle bracelets. And I’m a veritable poster-boy for fearlessness. That’s me, look, way up there, 100 feet in the air, in perfect balance, walking slow, one foot in front of the other, while hundreds, if not thousands, of mothers, fathers and their kids watch in advised silence. Kids probably like me.
Whatever you do, please don’t ask me to jump.
And never ever bring this up again.