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The Caboose

by Marjorie Salzwedel

part 1 of 2

The aged ringmaster sat with his eyes closed in the parlor car of the circus train. The vast prairie land rolled by outside like a movie nobody was watching. He had tried several times to look through the layers of grit on the windowpanes to see the landscape outside, but with his tired eyes it was not possible to distinguish much.

In his mind’s eye he vaguely remembered what those fields between the towns and cities looked like. He could hardly recall what his life was like before he joined the circus. Jack wondered if his whole life had been a sideshow.

The popular circus celebrity no longer bothered to keep track of time. What happened every day seemed to be part of a script. He thought about that every time their show was ready to start in their big top alongside some county fair. He came alive when the circus manager stepped up to him and gave him his cue. Jack would start the show as the circus barker outside the big tent introducing the performers one by one.

The words went around in his head:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, children of all ages, step right up, hurry and get your ticket to see what you have never seen before. Step right up and see the fabulous Ivanovich family — world famous on the triple-trap trapeze. We have the incredible cycle-riding chimpanzees, and the beautiful doll-like Marietta, only two feet tall. Hurry, hurry, step right up, folks, the show, wonder of wonders, is about to begin. We have lions and tigers and a new baby elephant born several months ago, and...”

Dennis and Clarence were always cutting him short as they appeared by his side. The two clowns had bright red Raggedy Andy hairdos matching their scarlet rosy cheeks, and their widened ruby red lips always glistened under the spotlight. Their young faces were whiter than snow. Their eyes encircled by enormous black ovals searched for reactions from those in the crowd that encouraged more antics. Their bulbous red noses beeped when they pinched one another’s in wild glee as they giggled, tittered and strutted with their long-strides surprising the children as the clowns stepped sassily in front of them.

The circus scene repeated itself a thousand times as Jack thought about it sitting on the train. Its script stayed like a banner in Jack’s thoughts.

He was a tired man and he wanted to think of something else. He listened to the click-click-click-click, click-click-click-click sound of the wheels rolling along the seemingly endless track beneath him. He felt almost hypnotized as he stared at the large face of his pocket watch. Except for the dark and the daylight, one part of a twenty-four hour cycle on the train seemed pretty much like any other.

As he sat there, the adolescent clowns in their rehearsal costumes somersaulted down the aisle amusing themselves. They stopped by Jack’s seat.

“The administration has raised prices again on all items, each by a nickel at the snack counter.” Clarence giggled. “What do you think of that?”

Jack was sick of hearing about the price of eggs and potato chips. How many times had he told them he didn’t care about such matters, and not to bother him with trivia. Jack was weary thinking about a lot of things. He didn’t even know where the train was going anymore and didn’t care.

The other older circus people were like that too. They had been on the train for so long that they never spoke about what their lives were like before they had come on board or what would become of them in the future. It was enough to be caught up in rehearsing, performing and enduring the monotony of riding the train.

“Get along now. I’m trying to get some shut-eye.” The ringmaster didn’t want to think of the clowns. He thought they were a nuisance.

Clarence and Dennis continued their buffoonery, tumbling into each other and wisecracking in the aisle. This always irritated their fellow passengers who snapped back at them to be quiet for a change. The circus performers were sometimes weary of one another’s company and sought escape by pretending to be asleep. Sometimes out of boredom, the clowns would gossip to get attention they craved and resort to telling hurtful lies just for the fun of it.

Jack thought about how only the conductor was serious about things and kept a close watch on Dennis and Clarence, and when they went beyond what could be tolerated, he had to reprimand them. Jack didn’t pay any attention to their pranks.

Others talked endlessly about how one of their pranks was playing tricks on the strongman who was eight-feet tall. They would hide the strongman’s gigantic shirts so he had to take a long time looking for them.

One day the clowns thought it would be a good joke for both of them to see if they fit into one of the strong man’s dress shirts so that they would look like a two-headed freak. When they buttoned it, the seam split on the side. When the pranksters took the shirt to the company’s seamstress, Doris, to mend, the busy woman snatched the shirt from them and threw spools of thread as they stepped from the door of her compartment.

The clowns told Jack they were jealous of the strongman because everybody liked and trusted him and would listen to his long stories as he carried large boxes too heavy for others to lift.

“Nobody likes us, Jack,” they complained.

They always got the same answer. “Give up playing tricks and telling lies” was Jack’s reply.

The conductor warned the clowns that he might have to put them off the train if they kept hiding the weight-lifter’s shirts.

When Clarence and Dennis first came on board, whenever that was, Jack had overheard someone saying that when the clowns started harassing the magician and the snake charmer, they never got upset. Hearing that, Jack agreed that the best policy was to ignore the adolescents.

It did not turn out so well when the clowns teased Miranda, the fortune teller, about her frizzy dry hair which she continually singed with the curling iron. She spent an hour sometimes washing and rolling her long black hair into ringlets.

Jack did not think it was right that Miranda told the two adolescents that she put a hex on them. He thought of saying something to her, but he knew she didn’t like to be criticized. He was glad to see that the conductor always appeared whenever there was conflict and told her that she must inform Clarence and Dennis that it was not in her power to put a hex on them. They both left and Jack went back to sleep in his chair in the parlor car.

Now she didn’t like being told what to do and retaliated by announcing to the clowns that the conductor was withholding information about the next destination, and that the circus train was headed for disaster. As the young pranksters bent their ears close to her, the self-proclaimed seer whispered that she got her information from her crystal ball, the celebrated one made from Czechoslovakian crystal she kept in her compartment. Looking at their widened frightened eyes, she smirked and screamed at them.

“To be safe, you would have to stay in the caboose,” The clowns, who were both superstitious and afraid of the dark, trembled as her eyes narrowed to slits, and her blue lips formed a tiny circle distorting her face.

The clowns remembered, as all of them did, what the conductor had told them when each of them got on the train that there was an end of the line and the day would come that they would all have to get off and not be able to get on again. The passengers tried not to think of this, but at night when they slept, these words of the conductor sifted through their dreams.

Jack didn’t pay any attention to Miranda as she began to brag how she could control the clowns’ behavior. Nor did he care that she went to the caboose and instructed Clarence and Dennis that the two of them should set up extra chairs and invite everyone there so they could all congregate and feel safe. He thought it was silly when the two adolescents hurried through the cars telling the forty other circus performers and workers that Miranda said a disaster could happen at any time, and that the caboose was a safety zone.

When the conductor heard what the clowns were saying, he went to them and told them that this was not true. The caboose was just a caboose, no safer than anywhere else on the train, and certainly as the last car, it was the most vulnerable.

The conductor grieved that it was easy to feel safe in the caboose with its thick soft blue carpeting and its oak wainscoting lining the walls. He made an announcement that there was no such thing as a hex made on the clowns or on anyone else, and that the caboose was not a particularly safe place to be on the train.

Even so, the unicyclist and the sword swallower were the first to come, followed by the six members of the Ivanovich family.

Then Jack’s wife, Ida, brought in a chair and sat down. She was the pretty blonde-haired lady who could ride a horse standing on its back. A few of the others resented her beauty and intelligence.

“How long had she been on this train, anyway?” Jack asked the conductor one day. The conductor told him that she had been there two stations ahead of him.

“And when was it Ida and I got married? he asked the conductor, totally perplexed.

The conductor knew that answer, too. “It was five hundred towns back, when you both went to that chapel in one of the small villages.” How many times when Jack felt tired of it all, had Ida taken him in her arms, reminding him that his life was much more than riding on the train and remembering his script when he performed.

Jack had been thinking that through the years of life on the train, the train had become a world of its own, and now because the clowns had created an unauthorized safety zone out of the caboose, the last car of the train had become a strange gathering place.

“If only we could be more like the conductor and remember the larger timetables of our lives,” Jack said to Ida on a day that stood out from all the rest as they sat together in the parlor car. “All this traveling, and it seems like that’s all there is. Sometimes I can’t remember other things.”

“It’s all right,” Ida whispered, consoling him. “Everybody feels like that on the train.”

Nobody except the conductor thought much about what their lives meant year after year until that moment when the brakes of the train screeched for a full half minute without a letup. After the sound of a loud whoosh of air was expelled out from under the sliding wheels, the passengers all clutched the tops of the seats in front of them as they were thrust forward. They were startled by the bewildering silence: the train had stopped.

With Ida beside him, Jack turned from her and looked through the grime of the window and could not make out anything on the other side of the glass. Finally, through a little cleared circle the size of a quarter at the side of the lower pane, he rubbed it clear and peered out at the vastness of the prairie. There was no town and no landmarks on the horizon. He took Ida’s hand and held it, and they waited for the conductor to tell them what to do.

It took twenty-five minutes for the conductor to hurry through the twenty circus cars. He went through the animal cages in front, behind the engine, and then all the circus performers’ compartments, and at last, the caboose. With his authority from the railroad, the conductor repeated the same announcement to everyone on the train that it was time to get off. He told the animal handlers that they would have to get the roustabouts to roll the animal cages down off the flatbed cars and drive the trucks away from the tracks. Railroad personnel would remove the circus people’s baggage and transfer it to trucks.

“All passengers must get off immediately.”

Jack and Ida and all the others got off and gathered in the middle of a road that crossed the tracks they had been traveling on. The conductor stood in the center of this odd road and explained, “The railroad has given me instructions that we are to walk along these abandoned railroad tracks and along the old road that goes along beside it. Follow me.”

Everybody was used to the conductor telling them what to do, but nobody understood why there was no town where they were. They watched the haulers move the animal cages away from the tracks, hitching them up for transport. One by one all of the eight cages were rolled off the flatbed cars from behind the engine. Only the chatter of the monkeys was heard. The lions and elephants were quiet.

The circus folks had paraded down main roads many times in such a formation as they were now, but here there were no spectators. They were in the middle of nowhere.

The great empty expanse of the horizon amazed them. Jack observed that Ida, beside him, looked more beautiful than he had ever seen her.

The circus folks, somehow shocked into silence, moved closer to the conductor. Every few minutes some of them turned and looked back at the train they left behind.

The conductor, facing them and walking backward, kept repeating instructions with his voice resounding from the microphone. “Keep following me.”

Jack, with Ida at his side, walked next to the conductor. They glanced back and were glad that the people were all coming along and had put their trust in the authority of the railroad.

Speaking often into the hand-held microphone, the conductor kept repeating his instructions for the sake of the few stragglers who were not keeping up. “Keep moving along. Move forward,” he shouted.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2007 by Marjorie Salzwedel

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