The Best American Short Stories 2010
Edited by Richard Russo
Paperback, 448 pages
List Price: $15
The following is an excerpt from a short story by Brendan Matthews, part of the Best Short Stories of 2010 anthology.
He wasn't even a good lion tamer, not before you showed up. He had always looked the part, with his whip and his chair and his spangled pants, but honestly, watching him in the cage with those lions was like watching a man stagger blindfolded across a four-lane highway. One night in Glens Falls, the chair slipped from his hand, and the cats swatted it around the cage like a chew toy. In Council Bluffs, a claw snapped his patent-leather bandolier like an old shoestring. And in Granite City, a lion caught the whip between its jaws and yanked him around the ring like a fish on a line. It was a minor miracle every time he stepped out of the cage — bruised and bleeding, but still intact. He didn't seem to care that the clapping was never the thunderous peal you'd expect when a man emerges from a cage full of beasts, and he didn't care that it petered out before half a minute was up. He'd just stand there with his arms raised, like some avatar of victory, and he'd beam that ivory smile and shake his blond mane. You'd think the lions had just elected him King of the Serengeti.
Looking at the scars and the shredded outfits with their missing sequins and webs of crooked stitching, I'd wonder why the guy was doing this to himself. You told me once that his father was a lion tamer, and that these things run in the family. I don't know. My old man was no clown, but maybe that skips a generation.
The first time I saw you, I was alone behind the big top, adjusting the mix in the confetti buckets. Most of the others were still in bed, nursing hangovers or aching limbs, asking themselves for the ten thousandth time what it was going to take to get moving today. Me, I was up early because no one else would be.
Right away I knew you were no first-of-May, no circus rookie. Five-foot-nothing, barefoot in a leotard, you strutted like you owned not just the big top but the fairgrounds it stood on, like the rest of us better get your say-so before we turned a single somersault.
"You the new girl on the flying trapeze?" I said, although I knew without asking: You smelled like chalk dust and hairspray.
"You the old clown?" you said, eyeing my tattered plaid pants and my flop-collared shirt, my white face and painted-on smile. I danced a little jig, letting my head loll from side to side, and ended with a pratfall — straight down on my keister.
"The one and only." Immediately I wished I hadn't said that.
Still, you smiled. It wasn't a toothy, whole-face-blooming-into-a-laugh sort of smile, but it was a smile. Then without another word you made tracks for the big top.
That confetti wasn't going to mix itself, but how could I take my eyes off you, with your legs like cables of braided silk? It wasn't just that you were beautiful; there are a lot of pretty ladies in the circus, tattooed and otherwise. It was that strut. I followed you into the tent, ad by the time my eyes adjusted to the light filtering through the canvas you were already halfway up the ladder to the highwire. Whoa-ho, I said to myself, a double threat: the tightrope and the trapeze. The wire and the swing.
The roustabouts had started to hoist the net into place, cursing at the lines and jabbering about this broad who shows up out of nowhere and puts them to work right in the middle of a union-mandated coffee break. They were ornery that morning, still grousing about the case of Jonah's luck they'd had with the blow-off in Sandusky — the skies had opened, the canvas became cement-heavy, and the fists of soaked rope that gripped the tent pegs couldn't be pulled apart. Two days later they were still looking for someone to piss on, and a greenhorn tumbler was just the ticket.
"Hey down there," you said, your voice knifing through the morning haze. "I don't want the net!"
They kept hoisting the lines, because it's one thing to perform without a net, but no one practices without one — unless you want your first mistake to be your last. So this time you shouted, "Gentlemen!" and that stopped them in their tracks, because no one ever called them gentlemen. "I said no net!"
The net flopped to the floor, kicking up a fog of sawdust. One of them called you a crazy bitch, but I swear the words were tinged with respect, and even a little awe.
You were at the top of the ladder, and although you could have stepped lightly onto the tightrope, testing its thickness and tension, you raised your arms above your head and cartwheeled to the middle of the wire. I heard one of the razorbacks gasp. Another mumbled something that might have been a curse but could have been a prayer.
And me? My heart burst like a child's balloon. Right then and there I knew I loved you.
I made it a habit to run into you on the midway whenever I scrounged for breakfast. There was always plenty of lukewarm coffee in the pie car, but tracking down a meal that didn't come with a side of day-old funnel cakes was a challenge.
In those early days I wasn't shy about giving advice: Watch out for the sword swallowers and the fire eaters, I told you, because they're only interested in one thing. And steer clear of the midget couple, Tom and Tina Thumb. They had each cheated — him with the fat lady, her with the dog-faced boy — but they were as perfectly matched as salt and pepper shakers, and neither could call it quits. But here's something I don't remember, though I've squeezed my brain like a soggy dishrag: Did you ever ask me about him? Did I ever volunteer anything that made you think, why not?
You didn't say much about yourself, and what little you told me didn't add up. Once you said you had been born into the circus, and another time that you'd run away and joined up when you were a little girl. You said your parents were your first audience, and then later that they had never seen you perform. But the one thing you didn't waver on was this: You had never worked with a net.
"It wouldn't count," you said one morning as we set up our breakfast on the counter of the ringtoss booth: bananas looted from dozing monkeys, apples left out for the Arabian stallions, honey from the trailer of the freak show's Bee Man. "It just wouldn't, if you knew you could fall and get right back up like nothing had happened."
"What if you're trying something new?" I said. "You know, in practice."
You smirked. "You either know what you're doing, or you don't."
I tried to tell you I knew exactly what you were talking about — that we were like two sides of the same coin, even if it was engraved on one side with some mythic diva and on the flipside with the dull, muddy squiggle of a horse's ass. Still, I knew that when I went out there every night, the only options were mass murder or a public hanging. Either I killed, or I bombed. I don't think you got it, though — then or ever — because in your eyes you were risking the long fall from the top of the tent, and I was just another groundling hoofing it around the center ring. Come to think of it, I don't think you ever really appreciated what the rest of us did. We were just the scenery: the human cannonballs with their nightly blowups; the elephant riders preening like royalty while their pachyderms did the heavy lifting; and the clowns, sweating and grinding for every laugh, our stomachs in knots for fear that this might be the night when nobody laughs and we stand out there naked, wilting under the glare of a thousand cut-the-crap stares. Or maybe that's just me.
Looking back, I don't know what I was expecting — okay, I do, but I was smart enough to understand that it wasn't going to happen without a bop on the head, a bad case of amnesia, and a tropical island where no one could remind you who you really were.
Then came that first night: your big debut.
I should have known something was up when the lion tamer strode out of the cage in better shape than usual. No stitches required. The applause from the local gillies wasn't exactly hearty, but it seemed a little more genuine. Then, as the lights cut out on him, a single spotlight lasered the ringmaster, who directed the crowd's attention to the upper-most reaches of the tent, where you were frozen in place, the trapeze in your hands. "Ladies and gentlemen! I present to you the aerialist, who dances on the highwire and works magic on the trapeze. The flying girl, the acrobat of the air. Thrill to her breathtaking feats! Gape in amazement as she flirts with death, because folks — hold on to your hats — there's nothing between her and the ground but the force of gravity! That's right; she does it all without a net!" I'd swear the sides of the tent snapped like a ship's sail as the crowd, in one gasp, sucked the oxygen out of the big top.
You soared. Head over heels — once, twice, a third time — a hundred feet above the floor. There wasn't a sound among the yokels who packed the bleachers, their necks craned upward, their eyes following the klieg lights. Every time your body snapped open like a switchblade, your sequined leotard burst into a thousand tiny flashbulbs. When you came out of a rotation, arms extended, there wasn't a single heart beating. You twirled and floated, riding on the fear and wonder of the crowd, and when you finally came to rest on the platform, they absolutely exploded.
The applause lasted for hours, or so it seemed, but eventually the audience grew peckish for some new treat. While their eyes were drawn to a family of Chinese acrobats, I waited near the bottom of the ladder to congratulate you — and if the opportunity arose, to pour my heart into your hands. I counted down the dwindling number of rungs (yes, the view was exquisite, and from the tips of my size twenty-four shoes to the top of my busted stovepipe hat I wanted you), but before your feet touched the floor, the lion tamer had you in his arms. He crushed you up against his chest — I'll admit it, the guy was ripped — and you buried your hands in his thick pile of hair. Then you kissed him.
You had never mentioned this over breakfast.
Excerpted from My Last Attempt to Explain to You What Happened with the Lion Tamer by Brendan Matthews. Copyright 2010 by Brendan Matthews. Reprinted by permission of Brendan Matthews.