Circuses used to get a parade when they pulled into town. Our parade was the transfer of the animals from the train to the truck.
We led with Roger, our 500lb Bengal tiger. His fur was matted, his eyes were bloodshot, and he was slumped down panting against the bars of his cage. A few of the kids in the small crowd of spectators asked what was wrong with him. Their parents told them not to worry, that he was just tired from his long trip. His real problem was that he belonged in a jungle.
Next were Rob and Rhonda, the last of our Indian elephants. Rob and Rhonda were both nearing 50 years old and showed every day of those 50 years and then some. Rhonda was blind in her left eye and had a habit of turning her head back and forth while she walked to try and keep everything in her limited field of vision. Some of the kids pointed at her and yelled at the others to look at the dancing elephant, but to the rest of us it looked like she had Parkinson’s disease. Rob gave the impression that he was baffled at how he could still be alive and wasn’t at all happy about it. He looked like someone who had been struck by lightning 14 times, like he was both dreading and hoping for the likely death of number 15.
Roger, Rob, and Rhonda were our headliners. By the time we got to our sickly looking llamas and Shetland ponies, the disappointed crowd had begun to disperse.
After supervising the transfer of the animals, I went back to inspect the train. From a layman’s perspective, the locomotive looked dated but functional. From there, the train was a hodgepodge of shipping containers, animal enclosures, and Amtrak passenger cars from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. As conductor and chief engineer, I wasn’t proud of The Crying Ghost per say, but I was proud of the fact that I had managed to keep her in some state of working order for as long as I had. She wasn’t pretty, but almost everything worked most of the time. The only problem I found this time was with Roger’s meat cooler. It wasn’t running as cold as it should and this, combined with his appearance, was enough to warrant a call to the local veterinarian. Roger’s death would rightfully enrage animal rights groups across the country and that would be the first and last national coverage we ever got, the final nail in our coffin. Even if we survived it, Roger was our biggest draw by far. A circus with one tiger is pitiful enough. A circus with no tigers is just a sleazy petting zoo.
After my walk through I went out to the parking lot and joined Leon Harvey the Fifth himself. Supposedly, naming all the firstborn males Leon was a way to maintain brand recognition and ego at the same time, but for the last few Leons, I suspect it was just cheaper than repainting the train. Like me, he was waiting for a lift from The Other Crying Ghost. We were usually the last two to go, along with whatever junk the others might have forgotten. While I inspected the train, Leon walked around the neighborhood putting up posters and striking up conversations with the locals. Leon was nearly impossible to dislike, and not just because of the aura of failure that surrounded him and the circus and circus people and animals in general. The charisma and magnetism of the ringmasters of days past still clung to him. Maybe the idea of being a ringmaster, of being surrounded by chaos and still somehow able to maintain the illusion of control, still held an antiquated sort of romantic appeal not only to others, but to Leon himself. More than simply a person, he was a part of an institution in which he truly believed and this insanity, the insanity of the true believer, drew people toward him.
“Mr. Scott,” said Leon, “I do believe our luck is beginning to turn. Breathe in that fresh autumn air, this is a prime time for the circus. Circus season. And I do believe this is still a circus town.”
My name isn’t Mr. Scott. Someone, maybe Leon, started calling me Scotty as a reference to the chief engineer on Star Trek and it stuck. I doubt anyone aside from Leon knows my real name, and the same is true of most of the others.
“I appreciate your optimism, but exactly how much would our luck need to turn in order to be in the black? I need axle grease, a vet, a new cooler for Roger.“
“What’s wrong with Roger?”
“And I need to eat. We all need to eat. And Roger is a wild animal, he isn’t supposed to spend days and weeks at a time rattling around on an ancient train.”
Leon slumped and exhaled deeply.
“I know we’ve been having difficulties lately - “
“We’ve been losing money for at least the last 10 years.”
“ - but this last stretch of shows will get us through the winter, and come spring, we already have shows lined up in the Southeast, they love us in the Southeast, and I almost forgot.”
Leon pulled an envelope from his pocket and handed it to me. There was $5000.00 inside.
“Your pay minus room and board for the last three months, and here.” He opened his wallet and fished out another $1000.00. “This should cover the initial fees for a veterinarian and a new cooler, axle grease and what have you.”
“Leon, where the hell did you get this money?”
Leon flashed a false look of injured pride.
“Well Mr. Scott, I may be a bit slow with the bookkeeping, but as I’ve been trying to impress upon you, we are a turning a small but consistent profit.”
“Well, there’s also the emergency fund, passed down from the Harvey’s of more remunerative times.”
“You’re lying to my face. Whatever shady business you’re trying to pull, don’t you realize that it’s already too late? That you’re basically flushing this money down the toilet? All you’re doing is delaying the inevitable.”
“Well of course I’m delaying the inevitable! Dying and losing are inevitable. I am delaying the inevitable and I plan to go on delaying the inevitable because we’re not through yet! Love and dreams, we give up on these things first and always too early, and flushing them down the toilet is what turns them, and life, into shit.”
The Other Crying Ghost pulled into the lot and honked at us as the Duggan brothers waved and flipped us off from the cab. Leon gazed off into the distance. He knew I wouldn’t continue this argument in front of the others. We all knew the reality of our situation on some level, except for maybe Leon. There was no point in rubbing it in.
“That was a beautiful speech Leon. But I still want to know where the hell the money came from.”
Leon sighed sadly for a second, then stretched and straightened himself as he let out an exaggerated yawn.
“It’s been a long and lonely road, for all of us. Once we get back to camp and eat and relax, I’ll tell you all about it in no uncertain terms.”
My left eye began to twitch.
Leon and I squeezed into the cab behind the Duggan brothers. We were all at least six feet tall and we were surrounded by the accumulated fast food wrappers and containers of the last nine months of the Duggan brothers’ diet. Dan and Dave Duggan were both smoking real cigarettes, Marlboro Reds, instead of the more usual roll-your-owns. There were also two relatively new, mostly eaten buckets of KFC between their feet. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who got paid.
“It looked like you two were having a deep conversation,” said Dave, “please don’t stop on our account.”
“What’s the matter, Leon? Scotty blowing smoke up your ass again?” asked Dan.
“We all know how Scotty loves blowing things.” said Dave.
“Leon and I were discussing firing one of you. Isn’t that right, Leon?”
Leon kept staring listlessly out the window.
“That’s right,” he replied a beat too late, “it’s bad for morale having two of you around.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” asked Dan.
“We only see you cocksuckers a few days out of every month.” said Dave.
“We’ve been with you for years and I don’t even know everybody’s name yet.” said Dan.
“That’s another reason we want one of you out. We’re afraid one of you might be mentally retarded. Maybe even both of you.”
“Which one?” asked Dan.
“Obviously you.” said Dave.
These conversations quickly grew tiresome for me. They were more Leon’s forte and he was seemingly preoccupied with the dull and nearly featureless landscape passing by outside his window.
“Didn’t you two idiots grow up around here?”
“We grew up in Latham you asshole. Two towns over.” said Dave.
“You think we grew up in some bleak field along the side of a highway?” asked Dan.
“Maybe.” said I.