Napoleon in Rags

by Zachary Ash

part 1 of 2


All I saw was black. His top hat, his coat-and-tails, his English riding boots, all black, all scruffy and old, yet still somehow elegant; and at his collar and cuff spilled a flourish of yellowing lace. Not exactly what you’d call funny. The first time I saw him, he stood in front of a tent, his back to me, still as a dead tree. And no floppy shoes; that was kind of a letdown. At first glance, he looked like nothing more than a shabby undertaker.

The tent — a big, patchwork thing with stripes, orange and green — stood crookedly at the end of a marshy field bright with puddles and hissing heat. It hummed with flies. On both sides of the field staggered a row of plywood booths and empty cages, bales of straw and rickety thrill rides, jugglers practicing tosses, barkers sucking on cigarettes, hands shoveling elephant dung. No rubes yet.

And on the field, like some kind of shrine, sat a calliope, all brass and steel and gold, locked in an extravagant box, its pipes hooting crazily into a New Hampshire sky. The morning was already hot.

“That’s him, our one and only,” said the fat man strolling beside me. An hour ago he had met me at the station in Manchester, welcoming me — a stranger — with wolfish delight. In the June sun his pointy red whiskers flamed. “Tell me, now,” said Mr. Blight, “isn’t he grand? Adds dash to the bedlam, a touch o’ class.”

I was at a loss. Everything I saw dazzled me with magnificent squalor, glutting my senses, my mind still numb from the ten-hour train ride from Baltimore. Even Blight’s exuberance struck me as off-kilter. A marching band paraded in the distance.

“Monty!” he called, his voice a stern lilt, as he toddled to the lean black figure. He snatched at a fly. “Be a gent. Step out of the shadows now and meet your new protégé.”

With unhurried grace the black figure turned. I flinched. What I saw, honestly, wasn’t what I expected; more monster than mad prankster. But he had style. His hair was white, long and stringy, swept back over his shoulders; his lips black; and his face a mask of pale silver, smoothly painted, grave and glittering in the early light. His blue eyes stared.

And slashing in diagonals down both cheeks were jags, three each, ragged and red, as if some clawed thing had scratched his face and drawn blood. He wore an ascot. Its ends rolled, jaunty and unclean, past a gold brooch, a red silk vest, and a shirt billowy and white like a pirate’s. He smelled faintly of roots.

Gallantly, he held out his hand. I reached and his hand, hid in a tattered glove, slid sideways — and so did he; his whole frame, upright and expressionless, tilted like a metronome all the way to the dirt. His ankles bent like licorice. Little by little, he lifted upwards, a metronome rising to a slow melody, coming to rest a moment, and then tilting the other way.

Again he leaned sideways flat as his shadow. And all the time he held his outstretched hand to me. Up, backwards, up once more; the melody ended. We shook. This was Monty’s first trick, his first lesson, and his first gift. Afterwards, each one came like a sucker-punch.

“Sweet dead Christ. Blight said he found fresh meat.” His voice was stony and flat. “Are we that down and out?”

He looked at me, looked away, and looked again, sneering. “The name’s Montgomery Shale. And don’t call me that. Ever. Just Monty. You,” he grumbled, “must be that damn college girl. Here for a lark?”

This got me mad. Stammering, but also remembering why I was there, I answered his surliness. No lark, I told him; I’m here for the season. The summer tour.

He threw a glance to Blight. Between them passed a look almost too quick to catch. Then he turned away, as if suddenly tired, and said softly, “Kid, you shoulda stayed in finishing school.” Before he stalked back to the shadows and the tent, he stopped to gaze past me to the wet lot. His eyes searched. And without another look my way, he tipped his hat. “Welcome to the mud show.”

* * *

The career center didn’t have much on clowns. I looked. Nothing in the job binders on the shelves, marked A-Z; nothing on the bulletin board papered with fliers warning of visits by Wall Street recruiters; nothing in the alumni listing. Go figure. Aubrey grads smash glass ceilings; they don’t go into debt for four years to wear a red nose and ride in a tiny car under the big top. Their loss.

Still, the career center that spring was where we all went to snag a swank summer job that would lead, we hoped, the next year to a swank career. It’s just my idea of swank was a bit off. I wanted to be a clown.

“Are you trying to be funny, Ms. Crow?”

The old maid in the cubicle fondled a stack of exquisite resumes. I had one jotted on notebook paper, in ballpoint, the edges fluttery with torn bits. Her eyes drifted past me.

“Not yet. I think I’ll wait for the floppy shoes.”

“This office, I’ll let you know, is no joke.” Now she was looking at me. Her face was tight with anger and contempt. “We match the best students with the best positions. Your sardonic tone is unwelcome.”

Sardonic. They really talk that way at Aubrey. Sardonic, gauche, intertextual — words like that you hear a lot there. Sawdust, greasepaint, awe — not so much. That’s one reason I wanted to be a clown: better lingo. Also the shoes; those big swim fins. With a pair like that, I think, you can just funny-walk your way from bad times. And let’s be honest. Clowns are freaks, so I had an edge. Who knows? Maybe even a calling.

* * *

On the road with the carnival that summer I bunked with Madame Zell, the fortune teller, but I lived with Monty. Day after day, I trailed him, listening, watching, learning. His moves in the sawdust ring and his words outside it I memorized. He had what I wanted, this painted phantom; he was a clown. And he had something more. In the end, when the cold months, came, I had to decide if this too was something I wanted.

Monty had two big acts. The first one I caught my first day with the show, when the carnival was camped in the cranberry bog outside Manchester, in the green and orange tent, the one Blight called the cathedral of clowns. This bluster hid the fact Monty was the show’s one clown; and the tent was dim and dusty as a skid row basement.

In this act Monty somersaults up a ladder, soft-shoes atop the swaying, unsupported rungs, and plays violin. The fireman’s ladder falls. And Monty keeps playing, with hypnotic gusto, a hovering specter, scratching into the shadows a swirl of mahogany notes. Always this serenade in the sky lulls the thin crowd into a trance. And as they stare blankly, he winds up his solo, tucks the violin under his arm, and climbs — with a bohemian’s indifference — down steps of air.

In the second act he flies.

* * *

I had pretty much given up. The career center was a bust. The want-ads? Zilch. And the letters I wrote to all the big-time outfits — Ringling Brothers, Cirque du Soleil, London Royal Circus — went nowhere. Then one night I was hanging out at a diner off campus — way off campus — by the junkyards, tracks, and flophouses, a part of town too grungy even for Aubrey’s Goth crowd. It was someplace I went a lot. That night I sat in a back booth lost for hours in an old Nero Wolfe paperback; in the morning I had a metaphysics final. At last, sometime past midnight, I swilled the last of my coffee and headed for the door. I froze.

Tacked to a wall by the door was something new; or rather something old. Anyway I hadn’t seen it before, which is kind of strange since this diner was like my own one-woman sorority, a cozy rat hole I’d rushed the first week my freshman year. For a time I stood there spellbound.

One of those gaudy and graceful handbills, dingy with age, the kind you don’t see much anymore; the words on the poster were a swirl of fine calligraphy, like a wedding invitation, and the illustrations — dragons, stilt-walkers, whips — were a jumble of pen-and-ink. It was beautiful. And it made a promise.

“Coming this summer!” it read. “Our long awaited jaunt through New England. Wonders and thrills.” And in block-letters curving across pale blue paper: “Baxter and Blight’s Old World Carnival.”

I jotted an address and left. That night I wrote the carnival; I told them everything. In the letter I said I was looking for escape. I said I was looking for marvels and danger, artistry and extravagance, a summer of calliopes and face paint and circus wagons, pageantry and polish, a chance to live for a time a vagabond’s life, with a band of splendid outcasts — misfits and gypsies and conjurors — and travel the roads day after day in search of nightmares and bliss. I said I was looking for magic.

Just after dawn, exhausted, I scribbled the address on an envelope, went outside and dropped it in a mailbox. Then I came home and slept through my final.

The next day there was a letter.

* * *

“I saw you fly.”

“Illusion.”

“No, it wasn’t. I saw you fly.”

I sank back in the armchair and sipped my coffee. Clowns know coffee; it’s a ritual of the road. So is keeping secrets.

“No guy wire, no mirrors, no harness. Don’t spin me like a rube, Monty.” I inhaled the leathery air of his trailer. “Tell me how.”

“Another time. We hit the road at sunrise.” He sat behind a small table in his kitchen nook staring into shadows. These late night chats of ours — silence and evasions, mostly, with an epic speech now and then — went by candlelight. Monty liked darkness.

“Give the carnies a hand, huh? I’m played out.”

So was I. The last three weeks took us from Manchester to this high-grass meadow, somewhere in the Green Mountains of Vermont, with more than a dozen shows in between, and a dozen long slogs on the road. Tomorrow was one more. I gazed out a window in Monty’s trailer, like a port hole in a steamship, and watched the well-practiced chaos.

Hands and roustabouts broke down the carnival. The rides, the tents, the booths, all of it they broke down and boxed up and loaded onto trucks. In twelve hours, three hundred miles down the Interstate, they’d put it all back up. Where, I didn’t yet know; but the work went on all night. And by now I knew in my skin the pulse of a carnival: setup, show, tear down. All summer long. But what went on out there held my attention only in passing; out there wasn’t the mystery.

“Carnies don’t interest me. They’re not why I’m here.”

I studied him. So pale he was, and out of his greasepaint and ghoul garb, slumped in a vinyl booth in his street clothes — jeans and a flannel shirt, wool socks — he looked strangely normal. One more illusion.

In the gaps between our words floated scraps of music splintery with static; somewhere in the shadows played a radio tuned low to some AM station. Oldies. In the gaps between our words I heard Dylan, wailing in muffled fury, a song of drifters and desolation, his voice, hurt by the static, raw, distant, lost. He sang for us.

“Carnies don’t fly.”

* * *

“A carnival?” said my roommate. I told her I’d found a summer job. “Like with midgets and freaks and roustabouts?”

“Yes,” I said happily. “Like with midgets and freaks and roustabouts. I’m going to be a clown.”

“A clown. You’re going to be a clown? Sarah, that’s asinine. And creepy.”

“I know.”

The letter, like a winning lottery ticket, sat next to Ellen’s econ books on the kitchen table in our studio. After reading it a dozen times I knew it by heart. I relished its antique language — “welcome to a guild of wanderers” — and its earthy tone — “grit and dreams” — and its hint of strangeness — “Monty, the jester of ages.” The words enthralled me. And the name too; it was signed by the carnival boss: Mr. Aloyious Blight.

“Like you know anything about carnivals.”

She had a point. In my letter to Baxter and Blight’s I’d embellished — okay, lied — about my spectacular knack for showmanship. In truth, what I had to offer them was little more than a 2.1 GPA in philosophy, a part-time job shelving books in the library, and a semester and a half as vice-president of the chess club. That and a role in Aubrey College’s production of The Tempest. I was Caliban.

“You were cut.”

She’s right. I was cut. On the last night of rehearsals, as I stared past the floodlights into the maw of empty seats I lost it, forgetting all my lines and cues, withering on stage in bile-gulping fear. Then I ran.

* * *

I had the hearse sparkling. Monty’s clown car. It gleamed with bubbles in the late June mugginess, parked on a gravel lot near the funhouse, the knife thrower’s tent, and some camels sleeping on straw. It was our fourth stop — or was it our fifth? — a dead mill town somewhere in Rhode Island. And I was a clown’s chore girl.

I let the rag fall when I saw Blight. Something about his baby steps and his wolf’s eyes. Lazily he smiled his way toward me. How many white suits does he own? I asked myself. How many yellow bow ties? His pink head was dry as scales on a lizard. I never saw Blight sweat; some say he never sleeps. Just smiles.

“How is my fine new addition?” he said. “Enchanted with our ways?”

“I’d be more enchanted, sir, if I could do more than clean. This isn’t why I’m here.”

“We do things slow. There’s time. Now, tell me, have you learned anything from Monty?”

“A few tricks. Some circus lore. He doesn’t want me here. I’m just that damn college girl.” I turned away from his eyes and looked at the wet car. There was a show later.

“Monty’s of the old school. We all are.” He turned his gaze to the clown’s tent. “Last time Monty took a chance on one like you, training her for the show, well, it was... less than sterling.”

“Last time?”

“Yes. Can’t recall the name of the young miss. But carnival life, it seems, wasn’t for her. I offered her a contract, but she would have none of it. Instead she went and took up with the suffragettes.”

“Suffragettes?”

“If I recall, she got herself tossed in jail. Boston, I believe. Monty left her. And we rolled on.” Blight’s gleeful intensity made me uneasy. Always so cheery.

“Mr. Blight, I’ve been wondering. Who’s Baxter?”

“No one.”

I waited for more. He just smiled. “A bit of skullduggery, it is. Alliteration sells tickets. You’ll learn all our tricks once you’re with us.”

“I don’t know. About staying. There’s school — I may go back. When summer ends.”

“Sarah, Sarah,” he said, his voice falling to a murmur. Then he leaned close as if he had a secret. “Don’t you know? In a carnival summer never ends.”

* * *


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2009 by Zachary Ash

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