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Short Stories by Peter Dabbene




 “The best thing about the circus, I can tell you after twenty years workin’ as a roustabout, clown, and now as an elephant handler, it’s the women. It’s like a world showcase. You got your Chinese women – the acrobats and contortionists – I don’t need to say anything more about them. You got your Russian and Brazilian women as showgirls. In the aerial acts you got your Italian and South American women. And if you want American women… you head for the business office.”

The four men huddled around the low fire drum laughed at this, rocking back and forth on rickety folding chairs that tenuously supported their increasingly drunk bodies. All four were employed by the Satine Big Top Circus, and they all recognized the crudely stated but indisputable truth of Oliver Russell’s words. 

“Now see,” Ollie continued, his gruff voice fighting against the amorous calls of summer crickets.  “The trick is that with such a multicultural cast of ladies to choose from, there’s lots of different approaches to take, lots of different and exciting possible combinations.” The other three men listened in rapt attention, eager for the sordid descriptions that might come next, though they knew most of it would be the product of Ollie’s overabundant imagination rather than actual experience. Any similarities to real events were inadvertent, tricks of memory that inserted actual details from Ollie’s youth into his raconteur fantasies. At sixty-two, Ollie was the oldest member of the circus, and his leathery, wrinkled, and bulbous body had as much in common with his pachydermal charges as with the other, mostly younger members of the circus.

 Ollie laid out the steps, one-two-three, for bedding women of various nationalities. The Brazilian women were the easiest, he concluded, taking another swig of his beer, and the Chinese the toughest to crack – “but worth the effort.”

 “I prefer to keep business and pleasure separate,” said Steve. “I’ve got a woman in every state, though.” He said it without bragging, simply as a statement of fact. Steve, or “HC,” as everyone called him, was the latest in an ongoing chain of individual Human Cannonballs. The Cannonball position suffered from high turnover, with many ex-Cannonballs citing “burnout,” much to the amusement of the other workers. Frieda, the co-owner, day-to-day business manager, and backup ringmaster, kept a string of replacements at the ready, usually arranged through her connections with the state prison in her home state of Florida. Paroled convicts had few enough options that being shot from a cannon for money seemed a reasonable career opportunity. She favored ex-cons with little education and no immediate family, to reduce the likelihood of a lawsuit when something inevitably went wrong. Still, despite the danger involved, there were certain advantages to being the Human Cannonball. There was something undeniably phallic about the huge cannon that launched the Cannonball on his way several times a week, and that often translated into a sudden, undeniable facility with the opposite sex.

            “The secret is to never tell them you’re a clown,” said Pags, wistfully.

            “What’s wrong with clowns?” Ollie had heard the explanation before, but offered the setup anyway. Pags was a “happy clown,” and a generally happy guy in real life, but he still liked to complain every once in a while. It was understandable to anyone who’d ever fought off an obnoxious and aggressive ten-year old with one hand while reassuring a terrified five-year old with the other. 

            “What’s wrong with clowns is that any other job in the circus carries at least a little mystique about it. Even if you’re just a ‘talker,’ women usually think that’s kinda cool and edgy. But clowns?  The second they hear the word, they revert to childhood and they’re either asking you to ‘be funny’ or they’re scared shitless because they’ve always been afraid of clowns.” He smiled, despite himself. “One girl once asked me if I was a serial killer.”

            They all laughed again. Pags didn’t talk much on the job, but during off-time he could be as humorous with words as he was with pantomime and pratfall during the show.

            “The guy who’s got the job the ladies love,” continued Pags, “is Roberto here.” He draped his arm around the shoulders of the fourth member of the late-night parlari, to his right. “An acrobat in the circus? That’s got sexy written all over it.” He playfully slipped his hand down to Roberto’s knee.

            “Aerialist,” corrected Roberto, wishing the focus hadn’t found its way to him. He knew what was coming next.

            “Aerialist, fine. Don’t try to change the subject. So what about it, sexy?”

            “I do okay,” Roberto said with a coy smile, looking at the ground.

            “And that, my friends, is all we’re likely to get out of our high-flying friend. The man is a romantic and a gentleman. He’s okay in the ‘kiss’ department, it’s the ‘tell’ he needs some work on.”

            “Everybody knows Eva’s got a thing for you, Roberto. It’s painfully obvious. Give the girl the attention she deserves.”

            “Or maybe I will,” Steve half-joked. Eva was, along with Roberto, a member of the Satine Aerial Troupe, the collective name for the circus’s rotating cast of aerial performers. She was attractive and exotic, not so much because of her ethnicity (Argentinian) or the color of her skin (an appealing tone of burnished bronze), but more simply because she spent much of the day dressed in a skin-tight leotard.

            Roberto nodded his head dutifully, waiting for the moment to pass – he would not discuss Eva with them, not like this. He was entertained by these men and would call them his friends, but he was never completely comfortable during these casual drinking sessions – even less so when things got personal. The sessions served their purpose, however, in getting him out of his trailer and giving him something to do between performances.

“ I gotta pee. Be right back.” Pags stood and eyed his goal, a row of porta-potties in the distance, then began to stagger his way toward it, gaining speed as he went. The other three men watched for a minute, until it was clear that Pags was not yet “falling down drunk.” Cheated of that particular entertainment, they turned back to the fire.                 

            Ollie was the first to notice the extra shadow.

            “Frieda! What are you doin’ here so late? It’s gotta be 11 o’clock!”

            Frieda Cardinale checked her watch. “11:30, actually.”

            “Burning the almost-midnight oil?” Roberto asked.

            “Trying to figure out a way to keep this circus going,” Frieda replied. Everyone quieted instantly, their smiles draining to match Frieda’s decidedly sober mood. Normally, her natural ebullience energized any room she entered. Now, still dressed in what the circus folk called her “serious business” outfit – the blue pinstriped suit and matching high heeled shoes – it was obvious something was troubling her.

            “That bad?” asked Ollie.

            “Yeah, that bad,” Frieda admitted quietly. She looked around. “I thought I heard Pags over here?”

“Visiting the head,” Steve replied. “Why, what’s up?”

 Frieda looked at each of the men in turn, debating whether to go on. “We’re letting Pags go,” she finally said, her eyes pleading for forgiveness. She paused to let it sink in, and watched as her employees’ reactions turned from shock to disbelief to anger. They were all preparing to defend Pags, mustering their arguments – she knew it. She’d learned to read faces and expressions well, especially the exaggerated reactions of people who lived the circus life. So much of their lives took place in larger-than-life performances that they, more than any other profession, wore their hearts squarely on their sleeves.

Firing Pags was bad enough, she didn’t need any more guilt about it right now. She waited until someone – Ollie, predictably – opened his mouth to speak, and then, acknowledging that further explanation would be needed, she talked over him.

“Don’t make this any tougher than it is. You know I wouldn’t be doing it if there was any other choice.” Emotion crept into her voice as she spoke, but she quickly straightened and said curtly, “Please send him over to my office when he gets back.”    





“The circus is dying,” Frieda said, in a calm, cool manner that indicated she was quite sure of her conclusion. “And not just this circus, either. All of them, all the old big tops. They’re dying slowly, but dying just the same.”

Pags had been given his walking papers, which he had accepted with his usual polite fatalism. Frieda was about to close up the office and call it a long, difficult day when Ollie and Roberto decided to make it that much longer, and that much more difficult.

Now she sat across the desk from them, unsure whether she would be playing the role of boss, friend, enemy, fellow circuser, or all four at once.

Ollie leaned closer, staring Frieda in the eyes, and said, “Dying?”

            “I’m afraid so,” she replied.

            “It can’t be that bad. Pags has been on the show for what, five years? And he’s got ten years of experience before that. You can’t let him go.”

            “I don’t want to let him go. I have to.”

            “Who says?”

“The numbers,” she said, holding up an annotated ledger pad. “Numbers don’t lie. They don’t disguise the truth, either, no matter how much it hurts. We’re a relic from the past. The smallest towns, the ones desperate for entertainment, are always happy to see us, but they can’t support the cost of bringing the show to town financially. Just not enough people, not enough spending, to justify the visit.

“You know what this is?” Frieda held up an official-looking piece of paper. “It’s a local ordinance against exotic animals that our advance guys found out about a couple of days ago. It only passed just last week. Same old story – a bunch of activists go door to door getting signatures on a petition and bring it to the local mayor, or council, or whatever. It’s played up as good for the community, something to prevent your crazy neighbor from keeping a lion in his backyard. It also forces us to cross another town –” She turned the ordinance back toward her, scanned the letterhead, then flipped it back to face Ollie and Roberto. “Randolph, Idaho – off our list, and look for a replacement. That means last-minute schedule changes, additional marketing costs… This is just not an easy business to be in, boys.”   

            Ollie sighed and leaned back in his chair, taking in the news. Roberto decided to keep up the questioning. If they left the room now, Pags was as good as out. At the very least, Roberto thought, a few minutes’ stalling might give Ollie enough time to shake off the effects of the alcohol and think of something else.

            Roberto folded his hands under his chin, his index fingers resting in the depression below his lips. “Pags is the lead clown. If you get rid of him, who steps into that role?”

            “Dave Yacelic.”

            “Dave? Dave’s a great guy and all, but he’s only been doing this a couple of years. Don’t forget about the safety issues involved. Pags is also the main safety man for the animal acts, and Heyton won’t be happy about going into the tiger cage with an inexperienced guy watching his back.”

            “Roberto, we all love Pags. But a clown with his experience just costs too much. Dave has been right alongside him these last couple of years, he knows the job. He’ll be good at it. I’m giving Pags a severance package, guys. What more do you want? That’s all I can do, and it’s much more than any other circus would do. Clowns don’t get severance.”

            “Have you asked Pags about taking a pay cut?” Roberto didn’t look back to see Ollie’s reaction to this statement. He didn’t think it would be good. Pay cuts for one, pay cuts for all was the way it often went in these situations. And though Roberto thought that might be okay, he knew he couldn’t, and shouldn’t, speak for the others. He trusted Frieda not to take advantage of his mistake.

            She avoided the issue entirely. “I made a few calls on his behalf and got him an audition with Circus of the Sun. I can’t guarantee he’ll get the job, but if he does, he’ll make twice what he’s making now.”

            Roberto stood up. He’d come with the best intentions. He knew Frieda must be in a tough spot, and he was determined to be businesslike and not use guilt, powerful a motivator as it might be, to make his arguments for him. But now he realized that he was defeated from the time he first entered the office. Ollie was silent, having apparently accepted their friend’s fate.

“You don’t take this job for the money, Frieda.” It sounded like a good closing line. Roberto walked to the door of the trailer, noticed he was alone, and turned back to Ollie, tapping him on the shoulder to wake him up. “Let’s go,” Roberto said, and Ollie hustled to follow.

            “Ollie,” Frieda said, stopping him in his tracks. She’d planned to wait and let him absorb Pags’ departure before hitting him with more bad news, but she couldn’t keep it to herself for another day. Maybe it was better to have it all at once anyway. “Ollie, we may have to sell one of the elephants. I just wanted to let you know.”

            Ollie half-nodded, not looking back, and closed the door behind him.

Alone in her office, Frieda Cardinale buried her face in her arms.

Outside, as they made their way back to their trailers, Ollie turned toward Roberto. “Maybe she’s right, Roberto. Maybe the circus is dying, and we just haven’t wanted to see it.” They moved along a few meters in silence, then Ollie added, “They might sell one of the elephants.”

“Which one?” Roberto asked quietly. There were three left in the act – Edna, Martha, and Edie, the baby. Gordon, a bull, had been sold last year when he started resisting Ollie’s commands and occasionally getting violent. Ollie had been glad to see Gordon go, but the three females were all sweethearts.

“She didn’t say. It won’t be Edie, though. I’m sure I could ask them to save either Edna or Martha, but… Jesus, it would be like choosing between your kids.”             




The next day was an off day, which was just as well, because between head-busting hangovers and the news about Pags, no one felt much like performing. Still, most of the hundred and twenty performers, crew, and staff of the Satine Big Top hung around the lot to bid farewell to their comrade. Even Alec LeMond, the standoffish French-Canadian high-wire artist, and Heyton Heinrich, who preferred the company of his tigers to people, were visible for the occasion.

 Frieda had called in a favor to get the Circus of the Sun audition for Pags, and went in debt for another to schedule the audition for tomorrow afternoon. Her goal was to get Pags out of town quickly and minimize the damage to the crew’s morale – a brief, sharp pain instead of a long, festering one.

Pags said his goodbyes in plain clothes and packed for the ride to Montreal. There was an element of Pagliacci, the opera character from whom he’d taken his name, in his demeanor. Dave Y. launched an impromptu tribute by commandeering the P.A. system and playing the Liberace version of ‘Send in the Clowns.” All agreed that it was a wiser choice than the other song Dave often whistled around the lot, “Tears of a Clown” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

Richard Nectar (always Richard, not Rich or Rick), the circus’s ringmaster, presented Pags with a large herald ad signed by the Satine Big Top’s entire crew, their messages of support squeezed into the margins and empty spaces. Richard’s face seemed unnaturally bare without the handlebar mustache he spirit-gummed to his upper lip for performances and official photos. Then again, maybe it was a fitting change; today everyone was off routine. Everyone, that is, except Roberto.

After saying goodbye to Pags privately, Roberto did what he always did when he felt depressed: the very same thing he did when elated, or nervous, or anything else. He trained.

Vasily, the Ukrainian-born catcher for Roberto’s flying act, was still in his first year with the Satine, eager to please, and could be counted on to practice any time Roberto wanted. The other flyers in the act liked to joke that Vasily was the catcher who would drop everything to practice. Far from dropping everything, Vasily had proven himself capable of catching any trick Roberto could throw, even during the strenuous drills Roberto sometimes conducted over and above their regular work with the other flyers. Roberto tried not to abuse the privilege Vasily’s dedication had offered, but when he felt the need to fly, nothing else would suffice.

Roberto caught Vasily’s gaze across the sea of well-wishers and nodded toward the big top, indicating his request. Vasily looked anxious, as he hadn’t yet personally said goodbye to Pags. Being one of the newer kids on the block (at the Satine, and to American circuses in general), Vasily was concerned about unintentionally breaching American circus protocol. But his primary loyalty, without ever having been so commanded, went to Roberto, to the exclusion of all else.

Roberto DaSilva was a semi-star in the world of circus performers, a man who regularly attempted and completed difficult tricks like the triple somersault. Yet he had not answered the standard offers from larger circuses to join them for more money and greater fame.

When pressed on the reason for his reluctance, Roberto usually responded by simply saying he liked the smaller size and more intimate feel of the Satine Big Top. It was big enough, he said – it had the same standard aerial rigging as Ringling Brothers and Circus of the Sun, but on the ground there was only one ring instead of Ringling’s famous three, and the Satine featured only small acts, not the intricate, heavily choreographed and densely populated scenarios of Circus of the Sun. These differences appealed to him. He had grown up in a small town in Uruguay, raised in a circus family that achieved a moderate level of success. He had never felt the desire to launch himself into the American circus celebrity stratosphere, and his arrival at the Satine had been due not to a search for larger audiences, but rather upon its promise to securing the necessary equipment and personnel for Roberto to do any stunt, and a blank slate to attempt them whenever he wished.   

“Let’s try the triple,” Roberto called across the chasm to his partner. After warming up with a few simple passes, he was ready, and wanted to move to the harder throws before he tired. He craved those few moments of solace, found somewhere in mid-air between the bar and Vasily’s taped wrists. “Listo!” yelled Roberto – “ready” in Italian, the traditional call by the trapeze artist for the catcher to start his swing.

Vasily answered, “Ready,” followed by the first “Hep,” Roberto’s signal to leave the platform.

Holding the bar tightly at his waist, Roberto leaned into it, then jumped and immediately straightened his legs to avoid smacking them on the platform during the drop down. He gained momentum by swinging his body forward. At the height of his arc, he tightened his abdominal muscles and drew his body horizontal – the “push-out,” a difficult maneuver that increased the inherent energy of the swing. He threw his weight into the backswing, and listened for the call of his partner.

Near the top of Roberto’s second swing came the call, flawlessly timed. “Hep!”

At the command, Roberto heaved his weight up into the air and grabbed his knees, tucking himself into a ball. He spun three times, then opened up with time to spare before Vasily’s arms suddenly appeared in his field of vision. There was a jolt as Vasily seized Roberto’s wrists.

Roberto swung, his body now an extension of Vasily’s. On the return swing, he popped himself back onto the bar he had just abandoned and rode it back to the platform, wearing a wide smile as he did.

The goal of any aerial performer doing a catch trick was to time his release so that both he and the catcher were at the end of their arcs, in that split-second when forward swing became backward swing. At that point, the flyer no longer had any forward motion, and, done correctly, the aerialist could simply drop into the waiting hands of the catcher. This rarely happened because of the extreme difficulty of the timing involved, to say nothing of the difficulty of merely doing the somersaults in the first place. But Roberto and Vasily’s triple was nearly flawless, a work of beauty that was the result of hundreds of hours of working together thirty feet up. The triple had become almost an afterthought, a warm-up for what was to come.

“Double cutaway, one and a half twists,” Roberto called out. Vasily was once again seated atop the catch bar with his back to Roberto. Vasily signaled OK with his left hand and began building his swing up, pulling his legs back under him, then throwing them forward, like a child on a playground set.

If Vasily was slightly child-like in disposition and behavior, Roberto more closely resembled a child physically. He was a man, thirty-two years old, and had a man’s face and musculature, but he was small – just over five feet and weighing no more than a hundred and ten pounds. His slight build would be a handicap in many careers, but for a flyer it was ideal.

Again, Roberto fell easily into Vasily’s grip. “Perfect,” Roberto cheered as he landed upon the platform. “Try the four.”

“Okay,” said Vasily in his thick accent. “Tell me when you are ready.”

Roberto looked across at the empty airspace he would soon occupy. He closed his eyes and pictured himself performing the four rotations. For most of the trapeze’s history the quadruple somersault was thought impossible, but in 1982 a Mexican named Miguel Vasquez finally did it. Later came Arturo Padilla, and still later the Flying Cranes. Now there were at least four flyers around the world who could perform the quad consistently.

Roberto took a deep breath and called, “Ready.”

Vasily locked his legs into position and began to swing.

Roberto repeated the starting sequence from the other tricks, this time reaching even higher with his swing and his release. He unfolded into four perfect somersaults while moving at nearly seventy-five miles an hour, and for two seconds he achieved a brief sort of transcendence. His wrists slapped hard against Vasily’s and shook him back to reality. His fingers clenched around Vasily’s wrists, matching Vasily’s vice-grip on him.

“No problem,” Vasily smiled down at him. It was the easiest time they’d had with the quad yet.

Roberto returned to his bar and up to the platform. When he reached the top, he bent to his haunches and sat still. His mind was racing.

Vasily turned around on the catch bar. “Everything okay?” he asked.

Roberto did not respond. Instead, he thought about his age, and his brother, and the goal they had set for themselves many, many years ago.




Richard Nectar stood by the “back door,” the performers’ entrance to the big top, as everyone filed in after him from the 7 p.m. show’s exit parade. He was cheering in a loud voice, saying things like, “Great show, people! Well done!”

Responsibility for this sort of cheerleading fell somewhere between the lines of Richard’s job description, but he did it well. For the younger performers in particular, it was often just the thing to send them off to their beds with a feeling of pride and accomplishment, a required currency in keeping the performers motivated and subsidizing the lack of actual dollars available for salaries. 

Dave Y., the last clown in the parade, had barely waved his last goodbye to the crowd when the final scattered bits of applause died away, replaced by the thunderous sounds of ticketholders descending the high school-style bleachers in a mad rush to get to their cars. Ollie, who had led his elephants out of the big top and into their pen early in the parade, returned to help with the other animals. He watched the stands empty, calling the crowd “Cinderellas,” since they all seemed determined to be home before midnight. He compared them to a rampaging herd of elephants, unfavorably.

“Ya looked good up there today, boys,” he said to Roberto and Vasily, taking a horse by its bridle. “Pulled that triple like it was nothing.”

“Yes, today it felt very good, very easy, for me,” Vasily replied, smiling.

Roberto thanked Ollie for his praise, but took Vasily aside, out of earshot of the rest of the performers, and said seriously, “We must start doing the quad every night.”

Vasily’s surprise was obvious. “Roberto, to do in practice is one thing, but at a show, with the crowd present… We have never done this. Is it not too great a risk? What will happen if we miss?”

Vasily had a point. Most circus patrons didn’t know the difference between a triple, a quad, or anything else. They either liked the trapeze and would enjoy it no matter what, or they didn’t, and would not be impressed regardless of the spectacular tricks and combinations that were performed. But Roberto felt something compelling him to do the quad, something he had never felt before and that he could not ignore.

“We must live with the risk.” Roberto turned away and headed for his trailer to change. “He turned back to Vasily. “Meet me for dinner in fifteen minutes.”

Vasily stared after his partner, who had also become his friend, and tried to decide what was different about him.




As he entered his trailer, the only home he’d known for the last five years, Roberto realized that he needed to talk with his brother. He showered and changed his clothes in record time, then found his rarely used cell phone buried under a pile of books and videos about famous circus performers. On top was a biography of Philippe Petit, the high-wire artist who walked across the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974.

Though Roberto hadn’t called his brother in months, he knew the number from memory. It was one of only two numbers he ever dialed. The other was the home of his ex-wife and daughter.

“Kate? Hi, it’s Roberto. How are you? Good. And the baby? Good. You should come to visit sometime. No, we won’t be in your area for the rest of the tour. You could all stay with me. There’s not a lot of room, but I don’t mind crying babies. Yes. Ahh, that’s right. I forgot. I suppose he’s working pretty hard, huh? How does he like it? Good. Kate, I only have a few minutes – is Orlando around? Thank you. It was nice speaking with you. I’ll call again soon. Kiss the baby for me.

“Orlando! Hello, sorry to bother you, I know you must be tired. Yes, Kate told me you’ve been working a lot of hours. Still, at least you have your home and family to go back to every night. That’s what you wanted, right? I know, I know. I… I don’t really know why I’m calling, exactly. It’s just that… the new guy, Vasily – well, he’s not so new anymore, I guess I should stop calling him ‘the new guy’ – he’s gotten good. Very good. No, ha ha, not as good as you. Anyway, we’ve been doing the quad in practice, getting it almost every time now, and I think we might add it to the show. Thanks. Orlando, I’ve been thinking about the five. Well, no, I’m not sure. We haven’t even tried it in practice yet. But I felt like… I should let you know. I don’t know… get your permission or something. You know, since we talked about it so much, doing it together. I didn’t know if you’d mind.

“What? Oh, well, that’s great, thank you. That means a lot to me. I hoped you wouldn’t mind, but I didn’t know how you felt about it anymore. Yes, I know. Sure. You’re a different man, now you have a family. I understand. Is that the baby I hear in the background? How old is he now? Wow, he must be getting big. We’ll have to teach him how to tumble the next time I see you. Huh? Oh, no, that’s okay. No, that’s the only reason I called. I mean, that and to say hello. No, no, I understand, you’re a daddy now. I’m just glad you don’t mind about my going for the five. Okay. Okay. All right. Bye.  





“Roberto, my friend. We have been working together for almost one year. You must tell me something.” 

Roberto turned from the food line to face Vasily, whose tray was loaded down with a full plate of mashed potatoes, and another plate with green beans and several slices of meatloaf. Roberto quickly analyzed the tray’s contents and nodded his approval. “Glad to see you’re keeping your strength up. I don’t want you dropping me.” Vasily laughed a little, embarrassed. “What do you want to know?” Roberto mumbled, leaning over to take an apple.

“Why is it you are still here?” Vasily asked. Now Roberto was embarrassed. “What I mean is, you are so good, the best flyer ever I have seen. Why is it you stay with such a small circus? I know you have been injured many times, but even injured you are good enough to do triple somersaults, no problem.”

Roberto was silent as he filled the rest of his tray – water, a banana, nothing too heavy. He watched his diet anyway, but with the quad on the daily agenda from now on, he needed to be as light as possible while still keeping his strength. He pulled a napkin from one of the dispensers, rested his tray on the cookhouse wagon’s bar/shelf and decided it was time to level with Vasily. Perhaps he’d held back from confiding in him during the last year in the vain, unspoken hope that Orlando would change his mind and return. Until now, Roberto had treated his Ukrainian partner as a hired hand, giving him information only on a need to know basis. But between a flyer and a catcher, there must be absolute trust; there can be no secrets.

“You know, Vasily, my brother used to say the same things.” Vasily chewed his food silently, concentrating on Roberto’s responses.

“Orlando wanted to move to a bigger circus. Wanted it badly. But a catcher, you see… there’s not much he can do to add excitement to the act. He waits and he catches. The people watch only the flyer –”

“It is right to be this way. Your task is harder.”

Roberto ignored the compliment, and walked, tray in hand, toward the dining tent. Vasily followed, and Roberto continued talking as they went. “People watch the flyer, and some people say I’m not flamboyant enough for the bigger circuses. They say I’m not enough of a showman for the demands of modern audiences.”

“Is this true?”

Roberto laughed. “Probably, yeah.”

“You do not like the spotlight?”

“It’s not that, really. It’s just so…over the top.” They entered the dining tent and sat at the first open table.

“Over the big top?” Vasily looked puzzled. He still attended tutoring sessions with a few of the other foreign-born circus performers; mastering American idioms was the final hurdle many of them had yet to overcome.

“Umm…overblown,” Roberto rephrased.

“Ah,” Vasily thought for a moment, “So the big top tent has been inflated too much. It will soon burst?”

Roberto laughed again. Speaking a different language, Vasily had arrived at a similar, if slightly more confused, theory on the future of the circus.

“I mean… I don’t feel like the circus should exaggerate what the performers do. The acts speak for themselves. The audience shouldn’t even care about the number of sharp objects the jugglers juggle, or the number of tigers inside the cage at once. I wish –” 

 “What do you wish?”

“Ah, never mind.” Saying it aloud would only make him feel naïve. He wished the audience would love the circus simply for itself, and for what it represented: the hours of practice, the sacrifices of body and soul, the roving lifestyle that was so different from everything they knew.

Roberto wished they felt that way, but of course they didn’t. For him, the circus was a place to explore personal limits; for everyone else, it was primarily a show. He struggled to find the words to express himself to his partner, hesitating because of Vasily’s weak English and his own uncertainty about what he actually wanted to say. “People see all these incredible stunts on TV and in movies, they don’t understand what’s real and what isn’t. So, they’re never easily satisfied. Before, the challenge would be from within. Now, there is constant pressure to live up to the audience’s expectations, and exceed them. If you give people three somersaults, they want four, and if you give them four, they won’t be happy ‘til you give them five.”

“Five,” Vasily muttered, distracted. “It has never been done. Everyone says it is impossible. Do you think we will one day do the quintuple somersault, Roberto?”

“Yes, Vasily. I think we will. I think that someday, we will have to.”





“Hey Roberto, how’s it going?” Frieda Cardinale was beaming, as she had been the entire morning. Tonight was a takedown, the last show at this location. A takedown was typically one of the most stressful times at a circus, this one especially since the next stand was four hours away, with a performance scheduled for tomorrow night. Everything that could be packed up would be packed up this afternoon, so the circus could roll into town at night and still get some rest. Three hours to take everything down, then five hours in the early morning light to set it all up again. Tomorrow afternoon there would be publicity commitments to fulfill, the parade down Main Street to supervise, and many other problems that did not get easier to solve with experience.

“It’s going good.” Roberto eyed her carefully. “You’re awfully cheerful today.”

On another day, Frieda’s response would likely have been, “Aren’t I always?” or something in that vein. But today she was too happy to waste time with pointless repartee.

“My daughter is coming for a week.” Frieda was a divorcee of five years, still on good terms with her former husband, who was also the silent partner and co-owner of the Satine Big Top Circus. He now worked as an accountant for an importing business based in Texas, where he lived with their thirteen year old daughter.

“Cynthia? That’s great! I thought she wasn’t going to come this summer?”

“Typical teen stuff, I guess. She’s cutting the umbilical cord, one snip at a time. She’s been spending most of the summer with her friend Kim and her family; they have a house on the beach. But I guilted her into coming here for a week. Mom’s prerogative.”

“I can’t imagine any kid not jumping at the chance to travel with the circus.” Roberto caught himself wondering what his own daughter, also thirteen years old, thought about the circus these days.

“As my daughter would say, ‘Been there, done that.’ She’s been traveling with the circus during summers probably since she can remember. The circus just isn’t exciting to her anymore. She probably agreed to come just so she could see you and Ollie and Eva and the others.”

“And her mom.”

“Yes, and her mom.” Frieda rolled her eyes and pouted in a pretty good imitation of a world-weary thirteen year old.

“So when is she coming?”

“She’s flying out to her Aunt and Uncle’s in Portland for a few days, then she’ll join us in Walla Walla. Which is next Friday.” Frieda hesitated, then said, “What about Christina? Will she be coming to visit at all? I’m sure Cynthia would love to see her again. They had so much fun together that last time. It’s been… what?”

“Three years.”

“Three years. That long?”

“Her mother, ah, she doesn’t want her in this kind of environment.”

“And what kind of environment is that?” Frieda asked, not sure if she should be offended.

“I don’t know. Uncontrolled, maybe.”

“She’s still living in Alberta, then?”

“Yeah. Small town living, and conveniently, far out of the way for any touring circus.”

“That’s a shame.”

“Well, I’ll be glad to see Cynthia again, anyway.” Now it was Roberto who hesitated. “Is business any better?”

“The cuts will help a little, but you can only cut costs so much. We need to bring in revenue, too.”

“So you are going to sell one of Ollie’s elephants?”

Frieda grimaced, turning her head to one side. “They’re not Ollie’s elephants. They belong to the circus, of which I am co-owner. Ollie is an employee who takes care of them.”

Roberto regretted his phrasing immediately. “Sorry. I just wanted to know if the sale was going through, and which one it was going to be, so I could prepare him.”

I’m sorry, Roberto. It’s hard… more than hard – to see everything slowly coming apart. Ollie is more than an employee, you know that. But so was Pags. I can’t make exceptions; everyone’s got to make sacrifices.”


“Edna. We’ve got a buyer and we’ve arranged for pickup in Boise. I’ll tell Ollie later.”

“Um… there’s something else I wanted to tell you about.” 

Frieda misread his serious demeanor. “Fire away. You know, for a flyer, you’re quite a downer.” She smiled unconvincingly.

“This is good news.”

Frieda brightened. “I could use some of that.”

“Vasily and I are going to begin performing the quadruple somersault during the show. “

“That’s great!” Roberto could tell she was genuinely happy for them, but that perhaps secretly she’d been hoping to hear something a bit more miraculous, that Roberto had arranged emergency financing from an angel investor, or that he could guarantee sellouts for the remainder of the tour.

“I thought maybe this could help to sell tickets. Maybe you could change the advertisements and publicity?”

Frieda looked at him and said, “That’s really sweet, Roberto. I’ll definitely play it up in the interviews – we’ve got a couple of local papers and a radio station tomorrow. But I’m afraid there’s no money for changing the advertisements.”

“I understand,” Roberto said. “We’re going to start doing the quad at the Pullman show, is that okay?”

“That’s wonderful, Roberto. Thank you.”

She watched him walk away, and felt the oppressive weight of the big top itself on her shoulders. How like children they are, these people of mine, she thought. But they are my people; we are part of the same extended family. And even while our own children grow and move away from the circus, we stay, and fall in love with it that much more. 






Eva Borges was determined to find Roberto DaSilva and find out what the hell was going on in his head. She’d given him time, lots of it, plenty of it, to get past his injuries and the loss of his brother to what Roberto disparagingly referred to as the “real” world. Roberto said he needed to focus, and she had backed away, given him time to recover. Now, he and Vasily had developed a real chemistry, and it seemed that the turmoil in Roberto’s life had subsided enough to allow him to focus on her, and their own less showcased chemistry. Instead, she had been told – from Vasily, no less – that he and Roberto would be training even more in order to perform the quad at every show.    

There have been many changes lately, she thought – a large-scale reduction in crew, of which Pags was only the most recent casualty. Maybe that was affecting Roberto? Either way, she had to hear it from Roberto’s mouth, and find out whether she was wasting her time waiting for him. Eva was 28, and her girlhood had vanished into the spotlights. As a young gymnast, she’d been a little too tall and not quite good enough to make a go of it, but as a circus performer she found a measure of success. Now, as a woman, she wondered if there might not be a different, more satisfying life outside the circus. Orlando had left, and he never even called anyone anymore, just passed along the occasional hello through Roberto. It was obvious that he did not miss the circus.

In the meantime, she had taken on the duties of one of recently discharged showgirls. Showgirls didn’t cost much, but Frieda was cutting to the bone, and since the role required no real skills other than looking good and maybe riding an elephant, she had offered the job to Eva as a fill-in, in addition to her regular duties as a flyer.

Eva knew she could have taken it as an insult – Frieda would never have asked Roberto or Vasily to fill in for a clown, or even a roustabout – but she decided to look past any unintentional slight of her aerobatic abilities. She would simply bank the extra money while waiting for the right time to leave.  

“Ollie, have you seen Roberto?”

Ollie turned to find the source of the voice. He was bathing Martha and Edie, and water and soap suds covered every inch of the elephant pen, including Ollie himself. He squinted to keep the suds from falling into his eyes. It was a few seconds before he recognized Eva’s face.

“Hi Eva,” He tossed the sponge into the tub of soapy water, where it landed with a loud slap. He approached her, walking carefully as he wiped the soap from his face with his soaked and ill-fitting white t-shirt. His eyes inadvertently drifted over to his left, briefly, as he opened them.

“Roberto? Um, he was here before…”

He was trying to cover for Roberto, as usual.

“Look, it’s nothing bad. Did he ask you to point me in the wrong direction? Ollie, I need to see him.”

Ollie’s empathy was his undoing. It was also the reason he was more successful working with animals than with people. He turned to his left again with his eyes leading the way, intentionally this time. “He went over that way. I think he was looking for Vasily.”

“How long ago?”

“Half hour, maybe.”

She looked around, frustrated. “He’s probably up in the rafters by now. No point wasting time. I’ll talk to him later, after practice.”

Ollie nodded, relieved at having successfully removed himself from the line of fire.

“Oh my God! Ollie!” she cried.

“What? What?” Ollie circled, patted himself down, unsure of what was going on.

“The elephants! There are only two! Did they..?”

“They sold Edna. I said goodbye to her last night. They led her out after everyone was asleep. Even me. They offered to let me be the one to take her out to the travel trailer, but I couldn’t do it.” Doubt crossed his face. “Do you think I should have? Maybe she was looking for me. She’s probably scared as hell.” As he turned away, Eva saw fresh tears running down his cheeks. “God damn it,” he said, embarrassed, or maybe just frustrated, and went back to Martha and Edie.





“Again,” said Roberto. Three times he and Vasily had attempted the quadruple, and three times they had done it. Four times seemed appropriate.

 Roberto felt like a machine, wound up and ready to spring on command. Suddenly, everything seemed… easy. He wasn’t thinking about the tricks, he was just doing them and enjoying it.

Once again he landed on the platform. Once again he climbed one of the two ladders that led up to the riser. Once again he leaped into the air, swung back to gain speed, and waited for his partner’s call.



“Incredible!” Vasily exclaimed. He had barely released Roberto to the net when he hoisted himself up to the seated position and began shaking his head in disbelief. He turned around and crouched down on the catch bar, pushing forward and back to keep it going. “I do not know what you are doing, my friend, but keep it up!” he called down. “I am not having to move to catch you!”

The catcher’s job was often a thankless one. In theory, he had little to do, simply stick out his hands and grab the wrists of the flyer. This was easier said than done, however. The flyer could come in at an angle too long or short, too high or too low, as fast as a runaway rocket, or as slow and clumsy as a wounded bird. Which, it did not matter – the catcher’s job was to catch, anything and everything. A catcher could be knocked right off his perch if struck the wrong way, but Roberto was taking the danger completely out of the equation, and Vasily was able to relax and appreciate his partner’s skill and grace. 

Vasily stared as Roberto climbed up to the platform, as eager now as he had been for the first catch of the day, over half an hour ago. The fates had been kind to Vasily Kachenko. A man without an aerial troupe of his own was often a man without a job, subject to the mercies or fill-in needs of those groups with permanent contracts. A year ago, he had been thankful simply to find a job doing what he loved. Now, he realized that perhaps he had been even luckier than he first thought.  

“Vasily, do you want to try the five?”

Now it was Vasily’s turn to lower his head, tune out his surroundings, and visualize the catch. He and Roberto had studied the timing modifications – extra height was required to pull off the extra somersault. For a moment, something like panic flushed through his system. He continued swinging, raising the crest of his arc with each return. Then, he began noting the place where he would call for Roberto to release as he passed it, returned, and passed it again. Using landmarks was unreliable – the ground, the net, everything passed his eyes as a blur. And during the show it would be dark, so that even colors would be difficult to discern. Vasily would rely on his internal timing, tuned to the millisecond, to judge the correct moment. Hopefully, he would get it right. The rest was up to Roberto.

The five. Many flyers had tried it and failed. Some would simply laugh if the possibility of success were even suggested. Certainly, they would admit, the same had been said about the triple, and the quadruple. But there were limits to what the human body could do. The timing for the quintuple somersault left almost no margin for error, and even if the timing was perfect, there was still the task of tucking and spinning five times in just over two seconds.

Roberto left the riser and swung higher than ever before. For a moment it seemed like he might sail right up through the PVC fabric roof. But he didn’t. As he swung down, his body first aligned as an extension of the trapeze cables, then dragged slightly behind as he steeled for the release. For the five, you had to be not just a flyer, but a thrower of your own body. He flung himself from the bar and immediately twisted his body into a tuck. The world became a rolling vista before him, as if he were traveling the length of the globe with every rotation. For a split-second, he saw Vasily coming toward him and he uncurled, stretching himself out for Vasily’s capture. Contact came, too fast and too hard.

Roberto fell, almost in disbelief. He knew he had no right to be surprised – this was the quintuple somersault, after all. But he’d felt so good, and it had been so long since a throw had failed, that it seemed surreal to be falling to the net below.

Failure. The word formed in his brain as he unconsciously righted himself to strike the net without breaking his neck.

After landing, he pulled himself to the side of the net, which was strung up like a huge hammock, except tighter. He grabbed the edge with both hands and leaned forward, flipping down to the ground. Vasily peered down from above, checking to see if Roberto had landed safely. Many aerialists used a web-sitter, a spotter whose job was to help hold the net taut upon impact, lessening the chance of a bad landing. For most of the Satine Aerial Troupe, it was a welcome precaution, but both Roberto and Vasily preferred to work without one if possible.

Roberto gave Vasily the OK sign, and headed toward the ladder for another try.

“Roberto!” Vasily called suddenly. Roberto stopped and looked up. Vasily motioned toward the main entrance of the tent, where Eva and the rest of the Satine Aerial Troupe had arrived.

“That’s it for today,” Roberto yelled up. The newcomers greeted him one by one as they stretched out and climbed the ladders to their respective positions. Eva was the last to say hello.

“Are you not joining us again?” she asked.

“I am finished for now. Vasily is ready for you.” Vasily caught double duty as the catcher for Roberto’s showcase, and as one of two catchers for the regular show. Roberto also participated in the regular show, but the tricks were simple enough that he could do them half asleep. The Satine Aerial Troupe specialized in synchronized aerial artistry, which, while beautiful to behold, offered little challenge to a flyer with Roberto’s experience. His toughest task was to keep it simple. It was the responsibility of the other flyers to follow his lead and match his movements, so that the entire show became little more, to Roberto, than an extended warm up with a skilled mimic copying him on the other side of the trapeze.

Even so, Roberto usually stuck around and participated in the troupe’s rehearsals. Eva knew he was no prima donna – it had to be the quad. The prospect of doing it every night was changing him. Was it the pressure of the magnified spotlight? Or maybe something else.

Eva looked into the face of her friend, a friend she had sometimes thought could be much more, and did not recognize what she saw.

“I need to talk to you,” she whispered, continuing toward the ladder. Her chemistry with Roberto was obvious to anyone who looked, but still, there was no sense advertising it.

“I’m going to see Ollie. I can meet you there in an hour if you like.”

Roberto’s response, dispassionate and distant, told Eva all she needed to know. Still, she’d wanted to hear the words from his mouth, and now she had. She wondered if he even realized he’d made up his mind.





Ollie was sitting with his elephants, commiserating as they mourned their separation from Edna. The elephants’ trunks snaked around Ollie’s shoulders and massaged his bald head as he sat on an empty water tub between them with his head down, a vulnerable position no elephant handler would recommend. But Ollie was more than an elephant handler, much more; the title was meaningless to him. He fulfilled his duties, but especially now, with Edna gone, he was retreating into a private world – the elephants’ world, a world of familiarity and quiet respect.

Roberto approached slowly, reluctant to intrude upon that world.

“Hey Ollie?”

Ollie pushed Edie’s trunk away from his face and stood to meet Roberto.

“If you’re gonna ask me how I’m doing, the answer is ‘lousy.’ Everybody keeps asking me how I’m doing. How the hell do they think I’m doing?”

“I’m sorry.”

Ollie relaxed a little and said, “Yeah. Thanks.” Roberto followed him over to one of the tents, where Ollie began speaking without looking at him. “You remember what Frieda was sayin’ about the circus dying? Well, I been thinking. Maybe she’s right.”

“It’s just a bad time, Ollie.” Roberto’s reaction was tempered but visceral, a self-defense mechanism designed to assure himself as much as Ollie.

Ollie ignored him. “The problem is, nobody knows what the circus is anymore. What it means. Look at us, we don’t even know anymore. We got rid of the sideshows because people said we were taking advantage of the freaks in it. ‘Okay,’ we said, ‘We’ll get rid of the sideshows’ – never mind now ya got hundreds of freaks workin’ as custodians or secretaries when they’d be much happier here. Anyway, no more freaks. Then the animal rights people get on us, say we’re abusin’ the animals and we got no right to make ‘em part of the show. Even if we keep the animals, they’re damned expensive to maintain. So now we got no freaks, and hardly any animals.  So what do you get? You get shit like ‘Jim Rose’s Circus Sideshow,’ that’s what. ‘Extreme’ freaks, people who pierce themselves with pins and hang weights from their dicks in the name of showmanship.

            “And, you get Circus of the Sun, the other end of the spectrum. The first multi-national circus corporation, runnin’ a circus with no animals, no ringmaster, and no calliope music. It’s an aberration – a high-end piece of the circus sliced off the body and served up for any yuppie who can afford it.”

            Ollie halted his diatribe, noticing a presence nearby. It was Deng Bai-tou, the ten year old brother of one of the female acrobats, squatting on his heels and holding his head sideways looking up at Ollie. The Chinese performers all seemed to regard Ollie highly. The Elephant Man, they called him. Ollie knew they meant it as a term of respect, so he accepted it, despite the association with the unpleasant-looking historical figure.

Deng Bai-tou spoke English surprisingly well, learned mainly by doing what he was doing now: watching and listening to other people talk. Unfortunately, he often interrupted with his own interjections.

“Frieda says that Circus of the Sun is ‘chichi,’ he announced proudly. His small round face was impassive as he blinked a few times and added, “I do not know what she means by this. In Mandarin, xie xie means thank you. Does she mean we should thank Circus of the Sun for bringing the circus to people?”

Roberto answered brusquely, before Ollie had a chance. “No, that’s not what she means. Go find your sister. She said they might have an opening for you tonight.”

 The boy’s face lit up and he sped off in search of opportunity. He and his older sister had run away to join an acrobat troupe, and their father, cash-strapped and prone to drink, had not tried very hard to stop them. When the troupe’s leader decided to strike out to America in search of bigger opportunities, the two children came along, smuggled inside carry-on luggage bags, their small arms and legs folded up for hours during the plane flight. Roberto always laughed when the kids told of emerging from their bags mid-flight to stretch and use the restroom, then returning to their companions’ seats and being zipped up for the remainder of the flight. Deng Bai-tou hadn’t fit into the choreography the group had created for its main act; thus, he was ever at the ready, waiting to be summoned as an alternate for one of the other performers.

“You shouldn’t tease him like that,” Ollie chastised.

“He’ll just practice alongside them. Eventually, they’ll have to find a place for him. Besides, it’s not doing him any good sitting here listening to you bitch about the circus.” Roberto added a smile in an effort to downplay the harshness of his words.

 Ollie would not be distracted. He continued almost where he had left off. “People have lost their imagination. They don’t want fantasy or exaggeration in their lives, they want reality. If it’s not real, they don’t like it. It’s true with the freaks, and it’s true with everything else. People don’t take to getting’ fooled these days. They don’t go with it, they take offense, like someone’s tryin’ to put one over on ‘em. They still love some things – tarot cards, fortune tellers. But try adding some extra hair to the bearded lady’s beard, or creating a ‘real live unicorn’ by pasting a piece of sculpted bone onto a Shetland Pony, and they’ll run ya outta town.”

Roberto smiled. Ollie sat down, leaning against one of the tent stakes, and looked up at his friend.

“What people want is you.”   


            “You. The tigers, the elephants – people like ‘em, but they can see ‘em in a zoo anytime. The average person has no idea how much training it takes to get those animals to do tricks. But you, you’re a person. They can relate to you, even if they’ve never done anything athletic in their lives. You’re real. That stuff you do up there, they can’t do it. None of their friends can do it. That’s all people want to see, in the end – someone being better than they are. Someone… overcoming his humanity. Overcoming their humanity.”

            “That all sounds good, Ollie, but if that’s what people want to see, then why aren’t they coming to see it?”

            “They’re bored. They sit and watch this stuff alla time on TV. It doesn’t mean anything to ‘em anymore. Even when they see something real, they don’t completely buy it. These days, you gotta knock ‘em over the head and make ‘em watch. Make ‘em impressed. Make ’em realize that it’s real.”

Roberto was silent for a while, then asked, “Have you ever thought about what you’ll do when you retire?”

“I don’t ever plan on retiring, so that gets me out of that little problem. I’ll be taking care of these two till I die.” He nodded toward the elephants.

Roberto started to speak, but stopped. What if the circus closed down? he wanted to ask. What if no one needed an elephant handler?

“Can you keep a secret?” he finally asked.

“A real secret? Or a circus secret?”

Roberto laughed. In circus life, secrets had a way of not staying secret very long. Roberto briefly considered that fact within the deeper context of Ollie’s real-versus-imagined, circus-versus-outside world comments a moment ago. Was having no secrets a good thing or a bad thing? Was having secrets the same as having privacy? Was having no secrets the same as honesty? He stopped himself. “A real secret,” he said.

“Sure, I’ll keep my mouth shut. But only for you.”

“It involves Eva, too. She’s thinking of leaving the show.”

“Hm,” Ollie grunted. “I won’t say anything. She lookin’ to go to Cirque du Soul-less?”

“No. She’s thinking of leaving the circus altogether.”

“Seems like that’s contagious.” It was a barbed reference to Roberto’s brother. Many members of the Satine Big Top saw the outside world as a rival that seduced performers away with promises of less rigorous work schedules and a stable, stationary home life. That the promises were true only made it tougher to resist. It also made it difficult for Roberto to say what came next.

“The reason I asked that question – what you’d do outside the circus – is that she wants me to go with her.”

Ollie whistled, long and low. “And do what?”

“I don’t know exactly. I guess, if I wanted to, I could hook up with the same outfit my brother’s with, managing concessions at events. But I don’t really want to. The only place I want to be is here.”

“That makes two of us.” There was no joy in the realization.

“I’ve tried not to get too deeply involved with her,” Roberto said. “That would only make it worse, right? But even though this feels like the right decision, there’s something in the back of my mind that makes me wonder.”

Ollie sighed. “I hope you’re not counting on any wise words from the old man here. I talk a good game, but that’s about it. I don’t touch the serious stuff. But,” he said, “I will say this: stick with your gut and don’t look back. Otherwise, you’ll always wonder what might’ve been, and you’ll spend your life doubting every decision you ever make.”

 Roberto folded his arms and nodded his head slightly. He decided not to tell Ollie about the other feelings he had, the ones that felt like they were pushing him along an unknown course. He wondered: even if he wanted to leave, could he?

A couple of jugglers – an American and a Pakistani – were setting themselves up to practice in an open area nearby. Ollie returned to his elephants, and Roberto started toward the jugglers to see what hazardous items they were working with today.

He watched for only a few minutes before a hand reached around his waist and squeezed lightly.

“Hey you,” Eva purred, before catching herself and quickly withdrawing her arm. It’s over, she thought. Get used to the idea.

“Hi,” Roberto said. Eva turned and moved away, only briefly glancing back over her shoulder at him. No further prompting was needed; they both knew they had to talk.

Roberto followed her back to where he and Ollie had spoken, the only semi-private area in the vicinity. The tent walls heard many stories at the Satine Big Top Circus.

“Have you heard about Pags?”

Roberto perked up. “No, how is he?”

“He didn’t get the job at Circus of the Sun. Word is, he might just do something else and get out of the clown business entirely.”

“That’s too bad,” Roberto said. He meant it. Pags was a good clown.

 “Have you given my proposal any more thought?” Eva asked. Roberto decided to take the word proposal in its casual sense only, avoiding the obvious marital implications.

“I have. I’ve decided to stay.” Roberto kept talking, hoping to explain himself well enough that there would be no anger, no pleas, and no arguments. “I’m just not ready to go. Not yet.” That was all he could say. As simple as it was, it was the truth.

He expected her to bring up some of the points she’d made during their previous discussions and expand on them: there were trapeze schools where he could teach; maybe they could start a new one together. There were aerial groups that worked permanently at resorts; they could join one and live the high life for a while. But all she said was, “I understand.” Then she kissed him softly on the cheek and walked away.

Roberto wished it hadn’t been so easy.





The evening’s performance in Pullman started well enough.

Roberto stood waiting in the wings, anxious for Heyton to begin his tiger act. When he was done, a charivari, or “whirlwind of clowns,” would strike. Then the aerialists would perform, concluding their act with Roberto’s first public performance of the quad. There was an underlying sense of anticipation surrounding the evening’s performance; the remaining performers and crew had banded together nicely in the wake of all the recent tumult, and they fully expected this show to be the first of a new, smaller but successful era.

What they got instead was tragedy.

Roberto watched as Heyton strode confidently into the tiger cage, clad in a loose white shirt and blue-gray leggings. His boots were high and shiny black, and a red sash was tied around his waist. He looked like a pirate, minus the eye patch and hat. It was pretty much what the audience, if asked, would have described a tiger tamer to look like. His bleached blond hair fell to the base of his neck; inside the world of the Satine Big Top, this was considered the most unusual aspect of his appearance.

 He bowed to the audience several times, moving as he did to give equal face time to all sides of the modest Friday night crowd. Roberto wondered if the local media had given any coverage at all to his performance of the quad tonight – none of the interview requests Frieda warned him might be coming had materialized.

The tigers were released one at a time from their smaller cages and funneled into the huge main cage. The animals obediently took their places on their respective pedestals, which were elevated so the big cats sat at twice Heyton’s height. “All the better, to get the audience interested,” Heyton said, whenever asked about it. “The audience needs to sense an element of danger.”

Heyton led the tigers through the usual opening routine, keeping no more than two of the six hundred pound Bengals at ground level with him at once. He snapped the whip against the ground occasionally, more to keep the cats’ attention focused in his direction than as a form of discipline.  The tigers switched from one platform to another on command.

Heyton had explained to Roberto what he considered the secret of handling dangerous animals: “There is always one who is grumpy; the key is to pick out who’s not in the mood for tricks and avoid using him whenever possible.” Thus, the thrilling finale, when Heyton would place his head between the gaping jaws of a lone tiger in the cage, was actually not very risky (comparatively speaking) because it would be performed using the animal with the gentlest temperament. “I could fall asleep in there,” Heyton often said.

The bulk of the performance worked much the same way, picking, for example, the tiger who liked to jump through a hoop to do that trick, and not the tiger who only liked to walk on his hind legs. Heyton picked them out and guided them through the routines without incident. Each tiger in turn finished his showcase and promptly returned to his pedestal.

The tough part, the time of greatest danger, was when Heyton had to get all the tigers involved at once. After the warm-up tricks, he would finish with the group by coaxing them into all rolling over at the same time, or, if things were going well, into the shape of a pyramid.

That time had arrived, and Heyton cracked the whip a couple of times to get the tigers down. He called them by name, the goal being, if possible, to have only one or two in motion at a time. They each lay on the ground, belly down, their paws neatly spaced apart, facing him. They looked, for all their seemingly willing obedience, as if they might spring from their positions at the slightest provocation.

  Slowly, Felix, the last holdout, arrived at his place at the end of the lineup. He roared a couple of times. To Roberto this seemed unusual; the tigers were normally as docile as housecats, and Heyton avoided provoking them to roar for the crowd. If they roared, they roared; the show might be more exciting for it, but more important was the warning to watch that cat and not get too close. 

With a couple of additional cracks of the whip kicking up dirt, the tigers rolled over, first one way, then the other. Heyton felt a responsibility as a presenter to “give the rubes their money’s worth.” Normally, this impulse was tempered by the sound, practical experience of handling and presenting tigers for eight years, but not tonight. 

Roberto would later theorize that Heyton had forced the issue for the audience’s sake. Maybe doing the pyramid, especially with a couple of unruly cats, would impress the people enough that they’d come back again tomorrow, or at least tell their friends to come and see the show. Maybe Heyton was trying to live up to the excitement of Roberto’s quad. Or maybe he was simply distracted tonight and was going through the motions without picking up on the cats’ subtle behavioral clues. Roberto’s theories would remain relegated to the world of idle speculation, as there would be no confirmation or denial forthcoming from Heyton himself.

Heyton summoned the cats to a sitting position in preparation for the pyramid. His body was slightly turned to one side to keep a close eye on Felix. In a split-second, everything happened. One of the tigers on the far end was lying down, stubborn or just uninterested. With his back partially turned, Heyton saw the motion from the corner of his eye. He whirled, breaking his own rule of no sudden movements. One or two jittery cats was a tractable problem, but when the presenter himself was on edge, it became a very dangerous situation.

Heyton saw that the tiger was not a danger, merely having sprawled across the dirt floor, and quickly he looked to the right to check on Felix. Felix was not happy, but had not moved. The problem was in front of Heyton. Tom, one of the better cats temperament-wise, did not appreciate all the sudden, erratic motion before him. He rose, shuffled his feet to reach Heyton, and reached out with his paw.

The claws, though somewhat dulled for the safety of the act, had their natural effect. Tom clamped onto the right side of Heyton’s neck with one paw, the other falling less dangerously onto his left shoulder. Tom instinctively pushed the irritant – Heyton – away, and in the process caught his claw on the corded neck muscles near Heyton’s jugular vein. As the animal’s massive strength heaved Heyton’s body toward the far side of the cage, skin opened up and blood began shooting everywhere.

Dave Y. jumped into action outside the tiger cage, waving for more help as he grabbed a prod stick and entered the cage. Several roustabouts and clowns followed him in, working to get Heyton onto a stretcher and back to the dressing room, while others tried frantically to get the tigers back into their cages without further incident.

The house lights went dark. Time passed in confusion. The low murmurs of the crowd grew louder. Roberto and Vasily looked for some indication as to whether they should continue the show, but found none. Back in the dressing rooms, it seemed everyone was running somewhere except the two of them.

Then, finally, at some unseen signal, the spotlight appeared, followed closely by a clown in a police uniform, and another wearing a black mask and holding a large sack with a dollar sign on it. Someone, probably Frieda, had made the call – the show must go on. The crowd quieted and occupied itself with the antics of the two clowns’ slapstick routine, as the robber outsmarted the police officer again and again, unconcerned with the fact that he was only delaying the inevitable service of justice, and that ultimately, in proper circus fashion, he would get his due and be led off to jail.

Roberto and Vasily found ­Eva and the other aerialists and went to their places, shaken and unsure of themselves in the darkness. Roberto checked the net and rigging, fulfilling his responsibility as unofficial leader of the troupe. Everything was satisfactory; their equipment had been set up during the intermission, before the distractions the tiger act had wrought.

Before they climbed the ladder, Roberto affirmed Vasily’s unspoken question.

“We will still do the quad,” he said.

The routine went smoothly, and when it was time to attempt the quad, Roberto closed his eyes and shut out all the distractions. He flew fearlessly, and was caught. The crowd, aroused by Richard Nectar’s exhortations, stood and clapped for more than a minute. Roberto dropped from Vasily’s grasp and did a backflip on the way down into the net. The quad had been successful. But somehow, it didn’t feel like enough.  






“I’m just glad she missed last night,” Frieda was saying to the Carlsons, the married couple who managed and performed the dog act. Frieda’s daughter Cynthia had called from the airport half an hour ago, to confirm that she’d found the driver her mother had sent. She was due to arrive any minute, and Frieda was wringing her hands in equal amounts anticipation and anxiety.

The Carlsons had a baby, only a few months old, and becoming parents had created a new bond with their employer.

“Yeah, Heyton’s…” Frank Carlson struggled for the right word – “incident… would have been a terrible thing for her to see.”  

“Especially on her first night here,” added Trudy. “She might never come back,” she joked grimly.

Frieda let it go with a weak smile, but Trudy had hit the mark without even realizing it. While happy to see her daughter, for Frieda this was more like an audition. She felt an urgent need to make sure that Cynthia had fun; if she didn’t, their occasional visits might become even more infrequent.

“Looks like she’s here,” Frank said. Frieda followed his eyes to one of the “normal,” unmodified circus cars, which had arrived trailing a cloud of dust. Despite the horrible accident with the tigers, the circus had, like clockwork, picked up and moved everything seventy miles southwest to Walla Walla. The grounds, located on the outskirts of town, were mostly dirt with a few patches of grass here and there.

Cynthia stepped out of the car, looking as out of place as a Hollywood starlet in a labor camp. She was wearing cheap pink sunglasses and tight, revealing, mall-bought clothes characterized by muted colors, stylized patterns and prominent brand names. It was a marked contrast to the Carlsons and the other circus performers in their solid, bold-colored, and slightly garish outfits.

“We’ll leave you alone. We can say hello later, with everyone else.” Trudy tugged Frank by the arm and they retreated to their trailer.

Frieda watched them go, then took a deep breath and turned her attention to her ingenuous offspring. Cynthia seemed to have grown so much; but then, she always seemed to have grown so much.

Frieda walked to her daughter, and Cynthia walked to her. The budding fashionista removed her sunglasses, and Frieda saw that though the eyes were older and a little more complicated, inside was still the same sweet girl she’d held close those first few minutes after birth, clutched tight so that nothing would ever separate them. That separation had come, much sooner than Frieda ever could have expected.  

“How’s my beautiful girl?”

“Good, mom. How are you?”

“I’m doing okay. Boy, don’t you look all done up! We’ve got a lot to catch up on. You hungry? Let’s get some lunch.”

As they walked, Frieda explained what had occurred the night before. Several times they were stopped by workers, some of whom recognized Cynthia and wanted to say hello, others who just wanted an update on Heyton’s status. Some, like Roberto, wanted both.

“Frieda!” he called from the doorway of his trailer as he saw them go by. They stopped and he ran over, clad in white t-shirt and jogging pants. He saw Frieda lean over and whisper into Cynthia’s ear, checking to see if she recognized the circus’s star aerialist out of uniform.

She did, without her mother’s cue. “Roberto!”

They hugged politely. Cynthia was now taller than Roberto. It wouldn’t have bothered him except that with the clothes and the make-up she seemed to have been contaminated by the outside world, the outside world that cared little whether Roberto could perform a quadruple somersault, but cared much about things like height. Still, she seemed genuinely glad to see him, and he accompanied her and her mother until they reached the food car.

“I’ll leave you two to talk a while. I’ll see you around, Cynthia. You’re here a week, right?”

Cynthia looked up at her mother curiously, indicating that while Frieda had decided upon a week’s stay, Cynthia was not yet so committed. Roberto moved to defuse a potentially volatile discussion, and added, “Doesn’t matter, Cynthia. I’ll see you later.” He turned to Frieda and asked, “Any news on Heyton?”

“About the same, critical. Any updates I’ll let you know. I might just announce ‘em over the speakers, since everybody’s been asking.”

“Well, Heyton was a good guy.” He paused, realized his error, and corrected himself: “Is a good guy.”

“I want to get up on the real trapeze this time, Roberto,” Cynthia said. He and Eva had entertained Cynthia during her last few visits by letting her use a drastically shortened version. It had been good for a few hours’ diversion, though by the end of her last visit she seemed to be losing interest.

“We’ll see what your mom says,” he said.

Frieda changed the subject. “Did you know Roberto’s now doing a quadruple somersault during the show? Hardly anyone’s ever done that.”

“Wow,” Cynthia said.

Roberto couldn’t decide if she was sincerely excited, or if she was just being polite, or if he had just missed some well-concealed sarcasm. Thirteen year old girls were often impossible to read.




Roberto returned to his trailer, intending to follow the ritual he’d developed over the years: every time Cynthia Cardinale came to visit, he thought of his own daughter and called her. Most of the time the result was a rambling message left on a machine, probably later intercepted by her mother and regurgitated as a heavily edited afterthought. When he did manage to get through to Christina, the conversation often choked on the rush of his emotions, bottlenecked by the limited carrying capabilities of a phone frequency.

He picked up the cell phone, and stopped.

Should he call her? Was it even worth it? He was already resigned to the inevitable result. Even if it wasn’t fully evident yet, loneliness would almost certainly prove the theme for the coming years. He saw it in Frieda Cardinale, in the growing distance between her and her daughter; how despite their love for each other, Frieda was destined to one day be described as “my wacky mom who works at a circus.” It would happen despite Frieda’s intensive efforts to forestall such a fate, and that fact only discouraged Roberto’s own aspirations for avoiding the same outcome with Christina.   

His daughter would not want to leave her home to come see him. He’d mentioned the idea the last time he spoke to her personally, just before the summer, and had never heard anything more about it. She was building her own life, and he was not a part of it. Even if she did express an interest in visiting, her mother would probably find some way to discourage it. Christina called faithfully on major holidays, and she might even call him when a heated argument over rules or curfew drove her to explore the missing piece of the parental puzzle. But it was simply impossible to sustain a relationship with a thirteen year old from a distance. Maybe when she was eighteen, or twenty-two and graduating college, they would have a reunion of sorts – or a reconciliation. Who could say whether she would be resentful of him at that point, for being away so long, for not quitting the circus and taking a job closer to Alberta? He’d toyed with the idea, but even if he did move closer, wouldn’t her mother just move them again?

One day Christina would grow curious. She would track him down in person and ask him many, many questions. But no matter how well it went, and no matter how many questions were answered, they would be more like friends than family. There was no way to make up for the time he’d lost, or the time he had yet to lose.

Maybe he was being too pessimistic; maybe he could still persuade her to come. It was a long shot, but maybe her mother would book both of them on a flight to Seattle, and all the connections would be timed perfectly. They’d get here in time for the show, and they would both sit in the stands to see him do the quadruple somersault. Maybe he could still…

“Roberto?” a muffled voice called. A knock followed at the door, and his eyes refocused on the framed picture on the wall of him and Christina and her mother, when they had all been together. “Show’s about to start.”

It sounded like Alec, but he couldn’t be certain. It didn’t matter anyway. He turned the cell phone off, turned out the lights, and locked the door behind him.






Setup at the Satine Big Top’s latest stand was well underway. The menagerie cages and cookhouse wagons were the first to arrive, and soon after, the dining tents were erected and opened for use.  The sledge gang was driving the last stakes for the other tents – the big top, menagerie, and dressing tents, plus the concession tents, where during the show they would hawk hot food and souvenirs, cotton candy and popcorn. Later, the poles for the tents would be raised, the rigging set up, and finally, the grandstands and bleachers constructed.

Roberto wandered amid the activity in search of Frieda. He found her tugging at tent lines, testing their strength. He was desperate and determined. He saw no need to beat around the bush.

“Frieda, I want to divide the aerial show into two parts. Move the standard parts of the show to the first half, just before the intermission. Vasily and I will participate as usual. We’ll leave the rigging and net up – without the tiger act, everyone else should be able to do their acts without the extra room – and we’ll finish up the show with an attempt at the five.”

Frieda was speechless. The five? She knew Roberto had discussed it with his brother years ago, but to actually try the quintuple somersault? It would be a risky act to feature anytime; putting the attempt at the end of the show was exceedingly bold. What if Roberto missed it? What kind of impression would that leave the departing audience? Sure, Nectar could talk it up, get them excited about the attempt itself rather than the completion of the trick, but there was a big difference between polite, “nice try” applause, and the kind of applause that brought the house down and kept people coming back.

“There’s no reason not to. It’s a risk, but we have to take it. I’ve seen the attendance lately, Frieda. We’ll get a quick boost from curiosity-seekers attracted by all the news reports about Heyton being attacked, but that will fade. We have to do something to keep their interest, something to make this show unforgettable.”

Frieda still said nothing, listening attentively. She knew Roberto was right, but she was taken aback by the newfound urgency in his voice and in his actions. With the sale of Edna, and now the elimination of the tiger-taming act, and nothing to replace them but more demands on the physically and creatively exhausted clowns, the Satine Big Top was literally in danger of becoming a glorified dog and pony show.

“Who’s the finale now?” Roberto asked rhetorically. “Alec. It’s a great act, but the high-wire’s no show-stopper. We haven’t had a show-stopper in a long time. This could be it.”

Desperate times, desperate measures, Frieda thought. Roberto had some good points. Maybe it was time to be bold, to live up to the history of the circus, as well as the expectations of the audience, by pushing harder than they ever had. If the Satine Big Top Circus was going to die, she decided, it shouldn’t be a slow, lingering death. Let’s go out in a blaze of glory.

“Do it. Set it up with the guys, however you want it, just make sure everyone knows the new order and their cues. Anyone gives you trouble, send ‘em to me. Tell Jackie to change the notices for the next town. Have them say that Roberto DaSilva will attempt the impossible quintuple somersault. And Roberto?”


“Good luck.”





Roberto waited in the wings for the Satine Aerial Troupe’s cue. He felt nervous; it was an uncommon sensation for him. Tracing the reasons for his anxiety, he thought of his exchange with Frieda yesterday. It had gone better than he might have hoped; but then, all of his points and requests were sensible. Still, even after gaining Frieda’s approval, he felt there was more, too much more, that had been left unsaid. There was something driving him to attempt the quintuple somersault later tonight, something beyond the simple desire to provide a rousing finale, something even beyond the personal pride that an achievement like the five would bring. There was definitely something else, but it lingered hidden in a far corner of his brain where he could not get at it.

            Roberto followed his cue and ran out in the dark near the end of the cop and robber routine to check the net. He did not give the usual thumbs-up to Tony, the act’s designated web-sitter, but instead went over to him personally. He cupped his hand to Tony’s ear and reminded him that his services as web-sitter would not be required for the finale.

            Tony nodded. Some aerialists found it difficult to concentrate with all the excess apparatus of safety lines and web-sitters; Roberto simply wanted the act to be as small, intimate, and personal an affair as possible. He had explained Tony’s removal from the finale as a matter of maximizing the drama – there would be no one else in the audience’s view except Roberto and Vasily, even in the dim ambient light around the net. But again, there was more to Roberto’s motivation than mere showmanship, even if he was only dimly aware of that fact.

            Roberto mock-saluted Tony goodbye and made his way up the ladder, with the rest of the troupe following after. The act got underway and Roberto fulfilled his role’s responsibilities. Everything went smoothly, though his mind was not on the simple maneuvers he executed with the group. The audience was moved to applause, which quickly faded as the announcement of intermission was made.

During the intermission, Roberto paced restlessly around the backstage area.

“Roberto, take it easy, you’ll wear yourself out. You’re gonna need all that energy later.” It was Ollie, whose elephants had made their appearance during the first half of the show and were now retired to their pen.

Roberto was about to respond, when another voice came from behind – Steve, the Human Cannonball, who would be performing in the big second half. He felt Steve’s big hands fall onto his shoulders and give them a brisk massage, followed by a reassuring slap on the back. “Go get ‘em out there, Roberto.”

Roberto had pictured himself spending the intermission immersed in his own thoughts, or going over the details with Vasily one last time. Instead, he received an onslaught of well-wishers, one after another. Their faces glowed with excitement; they, if not the audience, understood that history could well be made here tonight, before their eyes.

He saw Eva, eyeing him from a distance as if uncertain whether to approach. Upon making eye contact, she came over, smiling tightly. She offered a few bland words of encouragement and moved to leave. Then she turned, put her hands on Roberto’s arms, and kissed him.

Deng Bai-tou appeared with his sister in tow, followed by Dave Y. and the Carlsons. The stream of bodies subsided only a minute or two before the second half began. Roberto felt himself being moved along with a momentum not entirely his own.

He watched from the entrance as Steve was sent careening across the big top, crossing under the trapeze as he flew.  It occurred to Roberto for the first time how much he, as an aerialist, and the various Human Cannonballs had in common – those few fleeting seconds of motion, high above the transfixed crowd. 

He stood and watched the juggling clowns and unicyclists, and Alec’s high-wire act, the second appearance of Trudy’s Trained Toy Poodles, and the Texas Cowboy Clowns, a new act consisting of comedy hijinks and an array of lasso tricks. He inched closer to the ring as he watched.

Finally, it was time. Vasily slapped him on the back lightly and said, “You are ready?”

“Yes,” Roberto replied, “I’m ready.”

It was still dark as Vasily ran to the ladder on the far side of the net, and Roberto arrived at the near side.

Roberto reached out, feeling his way, and twisted the cable knobs counterclockwise, loosening them until he felt the net sag a few inches. He loosened the next one similarly, and the net dropped even lower. Then he ran to the other side and did the same.

From the beginning, he had designed the act with the intention of hiding the net from the view of crew and audience. The division of the aerial act into two parts, the performance of only the quintuple somersault in the second act, with no lengthy warm-up or other delay, and a few very important, personally directed changes in the lighting cues – were all arranged so that he could do this. 

 “Everything is okay?” Vasily whispered. Roberto could detect his outline in the dark a few feet away, but nothing else.

“Everything’s fine. Just double-checking.”

Roberto traced the outer edge of the net back to his ladder, took a deep breath, and began to climb.

Richard Nectar’s voice came from everywhere as Roberto rose above the crowd, step by step.

“Ladies and gentlemen! You are about to witness one of the most daring aerial acrobatics ever performed by man! Roberto DaSilva will attempt the impossible, the unbelievable, the never before accomplished anywhere in the world – quintuple somersault!”

            The spotlights converged on Roberto, up on the platform. The trapeze working area was well-lit, as it had to be, but below it was a black abyss. Inside that abyss hid a net, tied too loosely to cushion a fall.  

            The opening routine had whetted the audience’s appetite. Once, they might have been satiated with the graceful switches and flips performed in the first session. But this was a modern audience – they expected more, craved it like gluttons, and Roberto was going to give it to them, just the way they wanted it.

            After the attempt, the house lights would come up, revealing the net flat on the ground. Only then would the audience realize the magnitude of what they had witnessed.

Vasily was in position, having settled backwards on the catch bar as Richard made the announcement. A spotlight shone a thin blue-white beam at Roberto, but he shied away from it and looked instead into the ocean of black that surrounded him. The stands began to slowly light with the luminescence of cheaply-made circus toys and trinkets. More and more appeared, and the crowd whirled its glowing noisemakers overhead, faster and faster, building to a frenzy. The toys’ blurred lines shouted a single, high-pitched, irresistible command, prodding him on like an ancient gladiator.

The stands were full – it was a packed house. Had they come to see him succeed, or had they come to see him fail? Maybe it didn’t matter. Either way, they would have their spectacle; either way, they would not leave disappointed.

Poised above the crowd, Roberto felt like a god, or a sacrifice.

The atmosphere was different tonight, rife with charged energy. Even so, after a few minutes the arms spinning noisemakers began to tire; the lights disappeared one by one, and except for a few moths trapped in the spotlight’s seductive beam, the arena grew still.

When the crowd quieted completely, the drum roll began.

Roberto breathed deeply. He knew that if he could complete the quintuple somersault successfully, the circus would surely be saved. People would come from all around, with sellouts every night. The circus would grow in size and scope, and they would hire back Pags. They would track Edna down and repurchase her, and Ollie would never be separated from his charges again. And there was more…

Roberto stepped up onto the riser and took the bar. He heard Vasily’s call and dropped off the edge, stiffening his body, narrowly avoiding scraping his back on the platform as he swung out. He began arching his body, forward and backward, pushing with his momentum to gain height and velocity as quickly as possible.

The audience was incidental now.

When he spun the first somersault, he would cast off the problems of the circus, sending them spiraling to their deaths below. With the second, his family demons would die. The third and fourth were for Ollie and Pags, and the fifth – the fifth was for himself. The fifth rotation would cast off all of the self-doubt that had ever plagued him, kill all of the loneliness he had ever felt.

 Roberto heard Vasily yell “Hep!” and he released, rushing out into the blue light like a guided missile. He tucked, and the world fell away. His movements came in slow motion – other aerialists had described the sensation to him, but he had never experienced it until now. Everything was relaxed, and a flow of images flashed through his mind. 

Everything had led to this moment. He had to succeed, for Ollie and for Pags; for Heyton; for Eva; for Deng Bai-tou; for Frieda and Cynthia; for Orlando, and for Christina. For all the people who ever wanted to run away and join the circus, and for all the people who ever wanted to fly.

He closed his eyes, and reached out before him.


Publication details:
Dabbene, Peter. (2009). "Flight." peterdabbene.com (accessed ).

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