A short story
by Nancy Stebbins
Hey you, boy! Hey, boy! Hey, misfit! A loose memory taunts you, jittering at the edge of your consciousness. It’s there the moment you wake up on the cold ground, the back of your head wedged between the juggler’s shoulder blades. At least you hope they’re shoulder blades. All around is absolute darkness, as if the circus tent has swallowed the night sky whole, and no one—anywhere—can see the moon. Or Betelgeuse. Or jugglers.
Great glittering balls of hail rained down in the middle of the night, battering the metal railway cars. That’s why everyone, from the acrobats to the lowly roustabout, is sleeping on the ground under the big top, packed together like cigars in the clown’s metal tin. (Warning: Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes it’s an explosive device.)
There’s snoring in all directions. Someone nose-whistles in their sleep.
The juggler’s name is Erdly. He’s the only one in the show who calls you by name. The others call you “college boy” or “temp,” but that’s okay because this job at the Cirque Psychologique is the best gig you’ve ever had. It makes you, even you, feel sane. Feel sane you even. Sane even feel you.
Once you asked if Erdly was his first or last name, and he said he didn’t know. “Names don’t matter here,” he said. “We have different ways of thinking about ourselves.”
Your legs are fetus-folded to your chest. Two knees rest against yours. They’re prickly like steel wool, and you hope they don’t belong to Loose Leonard the Jungian Contortionist. You don’t like to touch Loose Leonard even if he does sing falsetto like Prince or an angel.
Erdly doesn’t juggle balls or bowling pins, or even chain saws, like a normal juggler. His specialty is superegos, egos, and ids. The ids are weightless, and so slippery they shoot out of your hands if you hold them too tight. “Flippin’ ids,” he’ll say, but you can tell he likes them by the way he honks their little noses.
You don’t mind the ids, either. They’re cute, like daisies with faces, wearing baby Nike tennis shoes. It’s the superegos that bother you. They’re small as kiwis, but unbelievably heavy, like that dark matter that weighs a million pounds per teaspoon.
“Where do these come from?” you ask.
“Organ donors.” Erdly says the ids come from children and cartoonists. Superegos come from those people who live in towers, watching for forest fires.
Erdly is practicing his contact moves. “Normal people like you,” he says, shifting a blue bouquet of egos to his right hand. Lately, instead of saying your name, Erdly calls you by your initial. He’ll say, “J, can you spot me?”
Or maybe he says, “B, can you spot me?”
One of your tasks, when the train pulls into a new town, is to unload the steamer trunks. They are heavy. You are strong. When no one watches, you lift the lids and peek inside. It seems that you could build a woman out of all the bits and pieces in those trunks: feathers, sequins, gold lamé, netting. Sometimes there are whips.
“Be careful opening those things,” Erdly warns. It’s the day before the hail storm. “You spill emotional baggage on yourself, it never comes off.” His satin shirt is unbuttoned halfway to his navel. On his chest is a line of tattoos—women’s names—each crossed out like a mistake. The line continues as far down as you can see.
Earlier in the day, you spy Loose Leonard. He’s bent over backwards, his hands walking forward between his legs. The day is hot and clear. It’s hard to imagine that ice will fall from the sky tonight. “I had a dream,” he calls. Loose Leonard always wants to tell you his dreams, but you don’t like to hear them. They’re dark and gloomy, their essence like black clouds that continue to hover above your head.
You open Anita’s trunk and crawl inside, wallowing in it, hoping her emotional baggage clings to you. Erdly says, “Don’t fall for her.” He offers to set you up with Noni the Needy or Zola, whose body image shifts like a fun house mirror. “A nice neurotic gal,” he says. “That’s what you want. Someone dependable.”
Anita is The Woman Who Cannot Be Insulted.
“How can she stand all those insults?” you ask.
Erdly says, “One day she’ll explode like those stupid clown cigars. I’ve seen it happen.” He tosses a bunch of ids up in a cascade. “It ain’t pretty.”
That night, the insults from the crowd are vicious—name-calling in Latin, Shakespearean insults. You’re worried about Anita, even though her eyes, behind the red plastic circles of her glasses, remain dry. After her act, you follow her to her trailer. She goes inside and closes the door. A terrible yelping begins. You peek through the window. Anita is snapping at her bare feet with a leather whip, alternately laughing and crying. It’s as if she’s two people who can no longer live in the same body.
Later, before the hail starts, you tell Erdly, “I’m so confused. I love her. I’m frightened of her.”
He unbuttons his shirt all the way, takes it off and throws it at you. “Look at this, boy.” He points to a row of five names tattooed down near his navel:
Anita. Anita. Anita. Anita. Anita.
“Hey, boy,” he says, “maybe you can stay on. I’ll teach you juggling.” He tosses you an ego. “Careful,” he says. “They’re more delicate than they look.”
Now, in the dark, the pine-tinged scent of the Erdly’s cologne mingles with the smell of dirt and hay, and the salt-musky odor of unwashed bodies. You reach back and feel the diamond-patterned embroidery of his satin shirt. Yes, definitely shoulder blades. Definitely Erdly.
You remember how he’s been calling you “boy,” and know that it’s your name you’re forgetting. You hug the blue ego to your chest like a hot water bottle, smiling, feeling less sane than ever. “Normal now, am I?” you whisper to the sleeping juggler.
You wonder what Loose Leonard is dreaming about.
Copyright © 2011 Nancy Stebbins
Image adapted from Juggler/Malabarista © Pablo Sánchez
"This story originated more than a year ago from an unlikely prompt: 'write about garbage,' which started me thinking about a woman who could not be insulted, no matter how much (verbal) garbage was thrown at her, and how that quality would be so rare that the woman could have her own sideshow act. Other questions followed: What insecurities would she have? Who might fall for her? And what would a psychological circus be like? It sat for a long time, and then I pulled it out in June and rewrote it from in second person from the roustabout’s perspective."
Nancy Stebbins is in her last semester at the Pacific University MFA program. Her stories have been or will soon be published in SmokeLong Quarterly, decomP, St. Ann’s Review, and The Los Angeles Review. She lives in College Station, Texas, with her husband and their many (four) teenage children. She is a psychiatrist.