The Smell of Orange Blossoms
by Ron Van Sweringen
part 1 of 2
“Everything turns out for the best.” From the time Marcus Fuller was old enough to climb onto his chair at the dining room table, he remembered his mother saying that, usually after hearing of some unfortunate event.
When Aunt Agnes was swept out to sea by a hurricane in Florida, he remembered his mother saying it. No one else at the dinner table had said anything. Not Papa Fuller, Mr. or Mrs. Rathbottom, who boarded with them, or even his older brother Clive, who spent all of his spare time trying to trap squirrels in a wooden shipping crate with “Planters Peanuts” written on the side. Not even Nettie, his six-year-old sister, who knew everything there was to know in the world except how to tie her shoelaces so they stayed tied.
“We look like a Gypsy caravan,” mother said while folding the colorful Chinese parasol she always carried to protect her from the sun. Papa heaved a sigh, tying the last suitcase and the parrot cage on back of the Model T.
Aunt Agnes’s untimely demise permitted the Fuller family to move to Florida that summer in 1922, by way of an inheritance of her house in Orange Blossom, Florida. Nettie had volunteered to start the journey with Filbert, their green Amazon parrot, perched on a poop cloth over her shoulder. Marcus was content to sit with Bugger, their Cairn terrier, safely ensconced between his legs. Clive, on the other hand, had a garter snake wrapped around his arm when he waved goodbye to his girlfriend.
“Just pray it doesn’t rain,” Papa remarked as they started with a backfire down Garden Street and off toward the Brooklyn Bridge. The red brick tenements slid by on the shady street and Mr. McGuire’s watermelon wagon passed them at the corner of Fuller Avenue. The red-headed Irishman with his handlebar mustache gave them a thumbs-up. Everyone on Garden Street knew they were moving to the wilds of Florida.
For the first time, Marcus had a pang of sadness — or was it fright — about leaving. The idea of sunny Florida, with the ocean nearby and oranges growing in his own front yard sounded too good to be true. Now reality was taking over. They were actually leaving the only place he had known for all twelve years of his life. It was scary, and for a moment he thought he saw the same uncertainty in his brother Clive’s eyes. However, the small American flag that Papa mounted beside the rear window gave Marcus the sensation of discovering a new world, as that bright emblem fluttered in the Model T’s backdraft while crossing the Brooklyn Bridge.
On the third day of their trip, the Fuller family saw their first palm tree somewhere in South Carolina. Mother insisted that they all have their picture taken in front of it, despite the fact that it stood alone in the middle of a pasture. Papa warned that it might not be a good idea, but he was overruled when the Chinese Parasol came out to shade Mother from the noonday sun.
Nettie went first between the barbed wire fence held open by Marcus and Clive. Filbert fluttered in frustration as she bent over to climb through. A moment later he was airborne, flapping his clipped wings like crazy and heading straight for the lone palm tree.
“Come back, you little freak!” Nettie yelled, but to no avail. Filbert was as close to heaven as he had ever been, twenty feet up in the air hanging on a dried palm frond.
“Now what do we do?” Marcus asked, as everyone stood looking up at Filbert.
“We wait,” Mother replied, twirling her colorful umbrella. “When he gets thirsty, he’ll come to his senses. In the meantime, let’s take our picture.”
Everyone lined up and turned on their biggest smiles while Papa worked the camera. Mother instructed Clive to take the second picture when Papa was finished. Clive was about to click the shutter when Nettie gave out a yell. Everyone turned to look at her, and the sight was comical. A large gray glob of bird poop slid down the middle of her forehead toward the bridge of her nose.
Filbert had achieved his revenge for being called a freak. Father, ever the gentleman, removed Filbert’s gooey calling card with his handkerchief, just as the dropping threatened to slip off of Nettie’s nose onto her puckered lips.
An hour later, the heat, mosquitoes and sand fleas had gotten to everyone except lofty Filbert, still hanging upside down and squawking loudly. Even Mother gave up, snapping her umbrella shut and cursing under her breath.
They were about to abandon the parrot when the shock of their lives appeared on the horizon. Everyone was speechless, even the all-knowing Nettie. Marcus sensed they were in trouble when Bugger sat up on his hind legs and began begging with his paws as if praying.
A huge elephant head with swaying trunk appeared above the palmetto palms, the sight accompanied by what sounded like the deafening blast of an out-of-pitch trumpet.
“My word!” father exclaimed as a dark-skinned man sitting on the elephant’s head came into view. He was dressed in a glittering sequined outfit with white ostrich feathers in his red turban.
Suddenly Filbert took awkward flight from the palm tree, landing on the stranger’s shoulder.
“Traitor,” Nettie shouted, “I hope he eats you.”
“Elephants don’t eat parrots,” I replied, wondering what they did eat besides peanuts.
It might have been Marcus Fuller’s imagination, but he thought he could feel the ground tremble as the huge elephant lumbered through the palmettos toward them. Once in full view, the vision presented was breathtaking. A turquoise blue satin robe studded with shimmering jewels of rainbow colors flowed from the animal’s back. The robe was edged with white ostrich feathers that looked like fluffy snowballs. He waved his long trunk in the air and gave another trumpeting blast.
A gasp of surprise came from know-it-all Nettie, who had taken refuge behind mother. “Oh look!, he has painted toenails!” she giggled. Sure enough, the elephant’s toenails were painted bright cherry red and dusted with sparkling gold sequins.
Father was the only one with wits enough to speak when the exotic vision came to a halt before us. “Good day, sir,” he smiled, “and what a magnificent and unexpected sight you are. Please forgive my family for being somewhat dumbfounded.”
“What does ‘dumbfounded’ mean?” Nettie piped up before mother’s disciplining parasol quickly found its mark.
“It means, among other things, being at a loss for words,” the dark man on the elephant smiled while exposing the whitest teeth Marcus had ever seen on a human being. “But I am the one who is dumbfounded,” he continued in a strange musical accent, “to find you here in the middle of a cow pasture.”
“We stopped to have our picture taken under this palm tree,” mother injected. “We’re on our way to Florida.”
“Indeed, how exciting,” the stranger replied. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Punjab Raj Punjab, and this is my friend Mohab. We are both delighted to make your acquaintance.” As if by some secret signal, Mohab folded his front legs under him and lowered his great head and trunk, allowing Punjab to slide to the ground gracefully.
Father stepped forward to shake Punjab’s hand, and mother followed suit, twirling her parasol over her shoulder. “I must inquire,” father said, after introducing us one by one, “what such a magnificent creature as Mohab is doing here?”
“We are part of a small traveling circus,” Punjab replied. “That is, we were until last night when Marita, our bareback rider and Horaldo the Famous, our ringmaster and lion tamer, deserted us to join a larger circus. Without them, I’m afraid we are stranded here. It is a shame, too, for we have sold two hundred dollars’ worth of tickets for tomorrow night’s performance, which must now be canceled.”
“What an unkind turn of events,” father answered, shaking his head, “I wish there were something we could do to help you.”
“Perhaps there is something,” mother spoke up suddenly, taking everyone by surprise. “Everything always turns out for the best,” she smiled. “Florida can wait a few days. I have always had a secret desire to be a bareback rider in the circus.” The extended silence was broken only by Nettie’s uncontrollable squeal as she wet her pants.
The Morning Glory Traveling Circus was camped near the outskirts of Peachville, Georgia, on the banks of a wide coffee-colored river. A weathered sign at the edge of the water read, “No swimming, MAN-EATING SHARKS!” Papa made sure everyone read it out loud.
“Howdy!” a big voice greeted them from under a mop of curly red hair, bright blue eyes and a nose glowing like a red light bulb. “I’m Morning Glory Jones. You folks lost?”
Everyone stared at the tiny figure dressed in a polka-dot clown suit. She was less than three feet tall.
“Good day, ma’am,” father managed after clearing his throat. “We are the Fuller family and we have been directed here by Mr. Punjab Raj Punjab and his elephant Mohab.”
“Punjy sent you? Well, I’m happy to make your acquaintance, but he must have told you the circus is closing.”
“Actually, he did tell us, Mrs. Jones,” father responded, uncertainty in his voice, “but Mrs. Fuller has a proposition for you that might solve your dilemma.”
“Well, first off,” Morning Glory smiled, turning off the light bulb in her rubber nose, “it ain’t Mrs. Jones, it’s Miss. I was married once, but he was too big for his britches, so I canned him. Now what’s this proposition all about?”
At this point, Mrs. Fuller stepped forward and making a graceful curtsey under her Chinese parasol, did a quite amazing twirl standing on her toes. “I have a confession to make,” she said, looking at the stunned faces of her children. “When I was a girl, for all of one summer, I was a bareback rider in the circus. And I’ve always had the great desire to fly again.”
“If that ain’t a hoot,” Morning Glory howled, “but even if you could still ride, I ain’t got a ringmaster, so we’re still plumb out of luck.”
“Not necessarily,” father spoke up to our amazement. “I must say, I look rather well in a top hat and coat. And to be quite frank with you, Miss Jones, we could use a pittance to help us on our journey to Florida.”
“My better judgment tells me I’m off my rocker,” Morning Glory groaned, looking at them through squinting eyes, “but it’s worth a try. Yer hired, the lot of ya,” she laughed. “Now let’s get busy. If this crazy idea is gonna work, we’ve got a lot to do before tomorrow night, God help us.”
Mohab’s trumpet, like the sound of a rusty bucket, echoed behind them, as a green feather bag sailed down from the sky, landing squarely on Nettie’s head. “I knew you’d come back, you little freak,” she smiled.
There was huge excitement as the Fuller family unpacked some of their belongings from the Model T. Morning Glory had allotted them two trailers to live in, one being larger than the other and both painted in bright circus colors with wild animals and bird posters on the sides.
Here was a dream come true for Marcus, Nettie and Clive. Who would ever believe they had joined the circus and to top that off had a bareback rider for a mother and a ringmaster for a father? Gone was the uncertainty of moving to Florida. Ahead of them was the adventure of a lifetime.
When Morning Glory Jones removed her clown makeup, two things were apparent to everyone. Her face was covered with freckles, and it was a lot older than anyone had guessed. Being a midget had the advantage of putting her in a different world than that of ordinary folks, a world where small was equated with young.
And what Morning Glory lacked in size, she made up for in determination by not wasting any time in tackling the task ahead of her. As soon as their lunch of hot dogs, sauerkraut and root beer was finished, she led mother and Nettie into a trailer marked “Costumes.”
Half an hour and some strange noises later, the door flew open and Nettie bounced out dressed as a fairy queen in green leotards, two sizes too big. “Ta-DA!” she announced waving a bent wand toward the door.
Mother appeared a moment later standing in the threshold. No one said a word, for the sight of her was overwhelming as she gracefully descended the wooden steps, one fish-netted thigh after the other. Orange ostrich feathers and yellow sequins made her resemble an exploding tiger lily.
Clive turned to Marcus and gasped, “Do you think that’s really our mother under there?” Father stepped forward and kissed her extended hand.
“She’ll pass for a bareback rider,” Morning Glory winked at everyone. “Now let’s see if she can still remember how to ride the wind like one.”
Marcus and Clive were sent with Punjab to help the grips set up benches and folding chairs for the audience. Mother, fitted with a harness and safety line, began practice riding the back of a prancing white pony. Father had been hustled off for a fitting of his ringmaster costume, top hat, boots and all.
Nettie was given the task of collecting a bucket of water from the river to wash Mohab’s trunk, the tip of which had somehow become encrusted with pink cotton candy.
A large gray tomcat, unnoticed in his hiding place beneath one of the circus trailers, observed Nettie as she passed near him with Filbert ensconced on her shoulder. His yellow eyes followed the green parrot with hungry fascination and he moved after them, quietly unseen.
Copyright © 2013 by Ron Van Sweringen