Piddles watched Maria Bianchi traverse the tight rope high above the ground, under the colorful tent, and his heart fluttered. He stood in the back, to the right of the entrance to the round show floor, big enough to allow elephants, cages, and giant, wheeled calliopes.
She appeared tiny, so high up on that silver wire, and her skin glowed with the spotlight tracking her movements. She was long and slender, and she tiptoed, gracefully, out into the center of the rope, holding a long, flexible pole for balance. There, she stopped and wobbled (more for dramatic effect than anything else, as a collective gasp rose from the men, women, and children below), and extended her right leg up, then out. She wobbled again, and Piddles’s heart skipped a beat. He did not fear for her, but admired her ease and agility. Every step she made was strategic, made to gradually build tension. Every wobble, every misstep would elicit gaps and squeals of delight until, at the climax of her act she would fall and the crowd would scream. She fell outward, to the side, and hooked her foot onto the wire, swinging under like a pendulum and back up right on her two, dainty little feet. The crowd roared with delight as she did long, elegant somersaults back to the platform and bowed.
She was a delight, the crown jewel of Benjamin Bower’s Family Circus, and Piddles loved her.
Piddles was, of course, not his real name. He was Fred O’Neil once, long ago, in some other life. Now his cohorts, friends and coworkers, called him Piddles and, as he was unable to speak to correct them, he allowed it. He was not deaf, but he had been mute for a long time. It was more by choice than disability. Somewhere along the course of his life he decided that nobody listened to anything he had to say, and he simply stopped. He didn’t know if he could talk if he tried, and, honestly, he had not inclination to try. His speech was in his movement, as Piddles the clown.
He was a Tramp, which seemed more important for him to distinguish than anybody else. He was not Pierrot or Grotesque, Auguste or Character, but Tramp. He wore battered clothes of a traveler with a faded red flower on his left lapel and bright yellow patches on his elbows and knees. His cheeks were rosy red, eyes white, and a large, round black frown stretched down his face beneath a large, bulbous rubber nose. He had forgotten what Fred’s face looked like; he woke every morning and applied his make-up and, at night, would climb back in his trailer, scrub his face and go right to bed. He did not have, nor need, a mirror. He knew the application by heart.
As a clown (really, the clown) of the Benjamin Bower’s Family Circus, his responsibility was to perform between acts, provide a smooth and enjoyable segue between the lion tamers and the dressage horses. He was the pallet cleanser, keeping the audience warm and enthused in order to give the next performers the best reactions possible. He considered his job the glue of the show, from beginning to end. Others, however, simply saw him as the clown, and treated him as such.
Maria and the Flying Bianchis finished their act and exited past him, through the large entrance. There were four of them, two brothers, Maria and her sister. The crowd cheered as the tumbled and pin wheeled out of sight. He smiled at her as she passed, which looked like a frown. She seemed not to notice and continued on, a thin sheath of sweat on her olive skin, her eyes wide and dilated from excitement. She jumped into the arms of Sven, the circus’ strong man, and he kissed her.
Piddles sighed, picked up his shoulders, and ran out into ring, illuminated by bright lights. He stumbled and fell, somersaulted and popped back up on his feet. The audience laughed. He played to the crowd as Sven prepared his act, dumbbells of various sizes, carried on a cart, drawn by four horses.
Piddles pulled a young girl out of the audience. She was visibly frightened by the sight of him, and he soothed her by kneeling, miming motions, brightening his eyes, opening his mouth wide in “oh” expressions, and blowing long, colorful balloons pulled from his jacket. He blew more, and the girl slowly went from fright to astonishment. He twisted them, entwined them together, and after moment of more ooh-and-aah faces, pulled up a multicolored elephant. He handed it to her. She smiled and took it, and ran back to her seat. He stood, ran, stumbled and fell, and barrel rolled out, just as Sven made his grand entrance on his horse drawn chariot.
Piddles brushed the dust and dirt off his jacket and jeans and reassumed his place, to the right of the entrance, just out of sight. He watched Sven. He seemed to be built of stone, tall and formidable, with a shaved head and a long handlebar mustache. He wore a black singlet that clung tight to his muscles. The weights he lifted, large black balls on iron bars, were not the one ton they professed, but they were still more than he, or anybody else, could easily lift.
His act was lifting, and lifting is what he did. Barbells and kettle bells, five of the three of the Bianchis (including Maria) balanced delicately in on hand. As his finale, he gripped two thick ropes, coiled them about his massive forearms and, with the crack of a whip from the ringmaster, two large, white horses attempted ran in opposite directions, linked together by those ropes, and by Sven. He strained, he sweat, veins popped out on his arms and legs. The horses grunted, neighed, and reared. Sven drew his hands together, a slow-motion clap, and dragged the horses back, back, back, until his large hands were fixed firmly together. The audience roared, the tamers calmed the horses, and Sven threw down the ropes and triumphantly raised his fists above his head, circling and soaking in the applause.
Sven stalked back, arms akimbo and past Piddles, “Follow that, clown.” His accent was thick and Austrian. He spat on the ground next to Piddles’s worn leather shoes. This was not an uncommon thing. He didn’t say this every day, but he did it enough for Piddles to not be a surprise, nor moved. He ignored him and, as he rounded the corner to the backstage, Piddles once again bounded out into the crowd, danced and tumbled, and threw buckets of confetti. The crowd stayed amused, warm, and ready for the final act, the human cannonball.
Piddles loved Maria, but Maria loved Sven. Who could blame her? As far as life in the circus went, politics and social status, he was near the top of the heap, seconding only to the Ringmaster, who, frankly, was only a puppet to Sven’s directions. Piddles, on the other hand, was the clown, and lingered near the bottom, level with the stable boy and the Bianchi who had fallen on his head from an extraordinary height, but lived (If you can call gurgling and shitting one’s pants living).People by and large gave Sven a wide berth by respect, and Piddles a wide birth out of disdain.
Piddles knew a secret, though, overheard through the cracks of the Ringmaster’s wooden trailer. He kept this secret deep down, his bargaining chip, it gave him a little strength and confidence. Sven was not Sven’s real name, just as Piddle was not Piddle’s. Overheard through that crack in the trailer wall, Piddles learned Sven’s real name, Jeffery. Jeffery Osborn, to be exact, which did not sound remotely Austrian, nor foreign at all. He did not know what would happen if such a secret got out, but Sven-Jeffery certainly went through a lot of trouble to keep his persona, strong man from foreign lands, plausible.
Maria’s trailer was three down from his. It was larger and nicer, streamlined silver aluminum with a small round porthole of a window. Steel steps with a guardrail led up to her door, adorned with changing seasonal decorations. If Piddles walked by as she opened her door, vanilla and lavender would waft out into the air. He would smell it, it would intoxicate him, and his heart would hurt. She did not notice him when she left, but would walk down to Sven’s trailer, which was extra wide, and extra tall. She walked as if she was on that tightrope, though she was on solid ground, with grace and beauty and elegance.
He would make balloon animals for her and leave them on the top of her stairs, leading to her trailer. He made elephants, like he did the girl, tigers, and monkeys. He did not do this every day, but on days he knew she was upset or sad. He may have been mute, but he had eyes, and he had ears, and he was largely unnoticed, which made for him knowing and understanding the pulse of the circus. He would not stay around to watch her reaction. He did not need that. He wanted only to brighten her day.
One day he watched her run from Sven’s trailer to hers, covering her face and crying. Others saw it as well, but did nothing. This, too, was not uncommon. This was a small community, who saw themselves as family, but there were secrets, and there were not so secret secrets. Maria’s faint bruises on her pretty face were one of those not so secret secrets.
Alarmed, Piddles ran home and rummaged through his trunk. He brought out a flower and several long, red rubber balloons. He blew, and he twisted, this way and that, until he produced a large red heart, with a flower strung in the middle, webbed by unblown balloons. He ran back to Maria’s trailer, placed it on her front doorstep, and retreated once again to his humble wooden shack.
The circus had two shows daily, and three on the weekend. It was an exhausting business, but Piddles loved it. He was not paid well, enough to eat and buy small trinkets he found at roadside attraction along their journeys. They traveled in a caravan of trailers and semis hauling tent parts, ticket booths, cotton candy machines, and assortments of animals (though they had stopped the elephants years ago, as transport was too costly, and animal’s rights activists too pesky). His trailer was pulled by a brown, beaten up Chevy, driven by the stable boy. They were as close to friends as Piddles allowed friends to be, as they traveled constantly together. The stable boy slept in the back of his truck on summer nights and in the cabin when it rained. He didn’t complain, and he worked hard.
“I know what you do when Maria’s down.” He said once, driving somewhere between Tulsa and Oklahoma City. He didn’t say much, as Piddles was not one for conversation, and his deep southern drawl startled him. “I seen you. You make your animals, your dogs and cats, and you put them on her door.”
They weren’t dogs or cats. Dogs and cats where for amateurs. Piddles sulked.
“I ain’t saying if that’s right or wrong, understand.” He continued, “But is sure as hell is dangerous. You flirtin’ with that girl is like trying to take a bone from a pit-bull. You’re liable to lose some fingers, if you’re lucky. Sven ain’t nobody I would fuck with, or anybody else, s’why he gets away with, well, you know.” He trailed off. Piddles did know. It made him sad. It made him angry. He nodded and tapped the stable boy’s temple. You’re right, he mimed, and you’re smart.
Seasons passed and they traveled. They would camp, they would eat, they would perform, they would take up stakes and travel some more. The Bianchis were fantastic, the crowds loved them night after night, and, sooner than later, they were pushed up, near the finale. Piddles remained quiet, observant, out of the way. He heard bellows of anger from the Ringmaster’s trailer, and an explosion of metal and wood as Sven burst out of it and stormed off to his own. People, wisely, gave him space. Sam, the circus dog, cowered under a truck. He was a walking thunderstorm, full of lighting and rage and twisting winds and God help anybody who stood in his way.
Piddles walked that night. It was summer, and nice. His make-up was on, as always, and it made his face sweat a bit, but he didn’t mind. It was no more or less sweat than he dealt with on a nightly basis, running and rolling and tumbling for the masses. They had camped by a pond and he strolled along the bank. Maria had camped next to the pond. “Waterfront property” is what she called it, with a laugh that was high and lilting.
He passed it, quietly, when it rocked, violently, to one side, than the other. He heard a scream, loud and long, filled with pain and distress. It became harsh and ragged, as if something, or someone, was choking it off, stopping it from escaping its owner’s throat. He heard doors open, feet climbing down steps, and ran to the front of the trailer.
They had all parked, nose to tail, side by side, leaving a long aisle down between trucks and campers. People were peering out windows and doors but, as the trailer rocked again, nobody moved to intervene. Piddles was alone, standing at the door, by the steps that he had put so many secret balloon animals on. It rocked again, something broke, a voice gurgled.
He straightened himself up and ran at the door. He pounded on the aluminum siding, and Maria’s Fourth of July flag fell to the ground. He opened his mouth but could not speak. He thought he remembered how, but he was not sure. He pushed air out in a long, guttural moan. Be banged again, kicked, and groaned louder, almost yelled.
The door banged open, throwing Piddles to the ground on his rump. It did not hurt him, falling was part of his act, but his red, bulbous nose bounced away under a trailer. Sven stood there, bigger than Old Testament God and twice as angry. His body blocked whatever light was in Maria’s camper which seemed askew, as if a lamp lay on a floor. His face was red, his chest heaved, he wore a white sleeveless tee and jeans. He marched down the stairs and his feet, one by one, did not simple step, but pounded into the iron grates like thunderclaps.
“Clown.” He said, and spat next to Piddles. His accent was slurred, almost slipping, he smelled of strong grain alcohol. He towered over the him; cast a shadow about him that threw him into darkness. Some people gawked, others shut their doors and windows. Piddles was alone.
“What do you think we should do, clown? You’re going where you’re not supposed to go. This is my business, she is my business.” He pointed a thick finger to the open doorway. Sobbing was drifting from it. He could smell vanilla and lavender over the harsh moonshine breaths of the man above him. It made Piddles’s heart hurt.
“You like her, you have the sweets for her, you and your balloon animals. Fucking clown.” Sven kicked him there, as Piddles sat sprawled on his butt. Piddles scampered back and tried to find footing. He turned to his stomach and pushed himself up as a boot placed itself firmly into his back. His breath was knocked from him as he was planted into the dirt. “Stay down, little clown!” Sven taunted and took his boot off of his back. Piddles coughed and raised again, only to have that boot slam into him, harder. Something cracked, pain shot through his spine and sides and all the way to his fingertips. He may have yelled, he didn’t know, but his throat was harsh.
He pushed himself up once again, to his hands and knees. He looked around; they were all out, the whole troupe. They were his audience. He was entertaining, somewhere between the Flying Bianchis and the Human Cannonball. He raised his face to Sven and groaned. A fist, as big and hard as a sledgehammer, connected with his jaw and he was once again on the ground. Stars sparkled before his eyes, the world wavered, and his face was warm. Absently, he realized he could feel a large gap between his teeth that he didn’t have before. He spat something to the ground. A mass of blood soaked into the earth.
“My business, clown.” Sven growled and walked back to Maria’s trailer, back to her sobbing, back to the rocking and the bruising, back to the vanilla and lilac. Piddles groaned, quiet at first, and again, louder. He groaned, and he pressed himself up, back to his knees. He forced himself to turn, bit by bit, to face Sven, and the cabin. Blood poured down over his large, black, round frown, over his patched jacket, into the dirt. He groaned again, louder, and what sounded like words. Sven turned to him.
“You just don’t know how to say no, do you clown? Hey! Bower! Looks like you’re going to have to find a new funny man!” Bower, down the aisle and peering out of his door, retreated inside to the sound of his voice. All others were entranced.
Sven reached into his back pocket and pulled out a jack knife. Once more he thudded down the stairs, unfolding the blade from it’s casing. “This is your fault, clown. It’s easier when everybody just stays quiet.” He raised his voice, a clear message to the audience.
He approached Piddles. Piddles moaned. He moved his lips and tongue and pushed air from his lungs. He made guttural noises, groaned vowels, sputtered consonants. Sven reached for him, grasped his hair in his hand, and pulled back his head, exposing his throat.
“Jah-Jah-Jahf!f” Piddles stuttered and spat. Sven stopped and eyed him.
“What did you say?”
“Jahf-rey! Jahfery! Jeff! Jeffery!”
Sven released him and stepped back. “Where did you hear that name?”
“Jahf-rey! Jeffrey!” Piddles croaked and pointed at Sven. “Jeffery!”
“Shut up!” Sven screamed and stepped back, again. He looked alarmed, frightened. He looked around at all the faces staring. He heard the name, whispered, from one mouth to the other like a wave. Jeffery, Jeffery, Jeffery. He seemed to shrink, almost. His mass, his height, it seemed to go away, as he retreated and listened to his name. His voice changed, even. He was no more that Austrian heavyweight, but some guy from the Midwest, just like the rest of them.
“Shut up!” he yelled again, and backed away down the trailers, “That’s not my name! My name is Sven! Sven!” He turned and ran, leaving Piddles on his knees. They heard his truck start, a hard revving, and saw his trailer heave his way and that before cables and chains snapped, leaving the trailer behind. Red tail lights fled into the darkness.
Jeff was gone.
Piddles healed, over time. He was no longer invisible to those around him, and he was greeted just like everyone else. His confrontation with Jeff did not bring him fortune, or fame, or a bigger trailer (the Ringmaster got Jeff’s old camper), but he wasn’t invisible, and that was okay. After two weeks heeling he was back to his routine, but without so many barrel rolls and somersaults. It hurt his ribs to try. The missing teeth did nothing but add to his Tramp costume, so thank God for small blessings. He still didn’t talk, didn’t feel the need to, but he was working, late at night, on one word, and one day he would say it, loud and clear, with no stutters, with no slurs, and with confidence.
“Mah-maaahrie, Mah-ria-ah.” He practiced, in a mirror that he bought, watching his lips, and a clean face that belonged to Fred O’Neil.