Under the Big Top: My Season With the Circus - Part 13

Part 13

"Do you believe in ghosts?" Sean asked.

"Why? Don't you have battery power?" I said.

"Only when we hit a b.u.mp in the road and the cables under the sink stick in place."

"Sean, we have to get a new trailer," Jenny whined.

"But I like it in the dark," he cooed.

I made my way to the door.

It was late Friday night on the eve of September, less than a week later, when I walked into Ruby Tuesday's behind Atlantic City Raceway and happened onto Darryl from the props department and a few of his friends at the bar. Like almost everyone else, they were dreaming of escape. Our race down the coast, now well under way, was moving much faster than our ascent. After a few weeks on the Jersey sh.o.r.e and a brief stop on Chesapeake Bay we would be making a long autumn dash toward the Gulf of Mexico, followed by the gradual slide toward winter quarters in De Land. Darryl and his buddies, like many of the workers, needed money for the journey. I decided to ask them my "question of the day."

Beginning with my earliest days on the circus I would occasionally come up with a diverting question that I tried to ask everyone on the lot. Jimmy nicknamed these odd queries my "question of the day" and egged me on to come up with more. Some of the questions were amusing, such as "How many bathrobes do you have?" (Since performers wear bathrobes over their costumes, most have a large supply. Gloria Bale, the narrow winner, counted nine, all with carrot stains in the pockets.) Others were serious, like "What's the biggest insult on a circus lot?" (The clear winner: "carny," which performers find offensive because it likens them to game dealers on carnivals.) In Atlantic City the question of the day was "How much would you have to win at the casinos in order to leave the show for good?" I had intended this question to be lighthearted, but the answers were surprisingly revealing. Sheri, who along with her husband ran a lucrative corner of the concession wagon, said it would take fifty thousand dollars. "I consider what I make here in a year," she said, "and then how much I could make on investments. Anything over that and I would leave and raise my children at home." Gloria, who makes far less, said it would take her a million. "I love my job. Besides, a hundred thousand dollars doesn't buy what it used to." Many of the clowns said they would go for twenty thousand, while Jimmy James said he would go for a mere ten grand, a shocking testimony to the feeling he and many others have of being trapped in their own privation.

At the bar the answers came just as fast. One of Darryl's friends, the one I nicknamed Michael Jackson because of his long curly hair, said he would leave for ten thousand as well. "h.e.l.l, I'd buy me a ball of crack about the size of your beer mug and sell flakes of it for twenty dollars apiece. I'd probably make several million in a month." Darryl, for his part, was more circ.u.mspect. "If I won ten thousand dollars I'd send that on to my daughters. It would take a lot for me to leave this show. I've been here almost three years. I've had many opportunities to go."

Darryl, who for some reason didn't have a nickname, was a talker. I never saw him when he wasn't talking, laughing, slapping someone's back, or just plain rapping to himself. Trim and fit with a broad toothy smile, Darryl had a slightly receding hairline and a constantly varying daily sheen of stubble that never developed into a beard yet never completely disappeared. That is, until Atlantic City.

"Look out, ladies, here comes GQ Darryl," I said to him the first time I saw his new clean-shaven look.

"h.e.l.l, I'm way past that stage," he said. "My daughter's going to have a baby next week in Baltimore and I want to look my best."

"You're going to be a grandfather?"

"Shoot, man, what're you talking about? I've already got four..."

No-Nickname Darryl grew up on the streets of Chicago. By age fifteen he had dropped out of school and risen to second-in-command of a gang, the Black Disciples of Death. By age sixteen he had fathered his first child. By twenty he had two more. A year later he was in prison. "This man started making moves on my old lady," he said. "Finally I confronted him and he told me if I didn't watch out he was going to f.u.c.k me up. I decided to f.u.c.k him up first. That night I slit his throat. They gave me ten to twelve."

Out of prison a decade later, Darryl started wandering. He sold vacuum cleaners and magazines door-to-door. He hustled. He even worked at a carnival. He was living the underside of the American dream: a black man with a criminal record who was running from his family and living by his wits. One night he found himself at a homeless shelter in Miami when a "fat man with a van" pulled up to the door. "You guys want to join the circus?" he said. "Seven days a week. Three meals a day. Free ride to Birmingham."

"I wanted the free ride to Birmingham," Darryl said, "so I took him up on the offer. When I got here Ahmed said to me, 'You look healthy, come with me.' I thought he was offering me something special. That's how I ended up in props."

The workers, like the performers, have a strict hierarchy. Big top is at the bottom; they do the heavy lifting. Cookhouse is slightly higher; they get free food. Props is considered near the top; they get to wear bright red jumpsuits and work in the ring alongside the performers.

"Who do you think runs the show?" Darryl asked as he bought me another beer. "We do. What do people say about the circus?"

"Everyone I know says two things," I said. "First, 'Is that really her hair?' and second, 'Boy, those guys in the red suits work hard.'"

"d.a.m.n straight. Just the other day some guy came up to me and handed me thirty dollars and said, 'Without you guys there would be no show.' And he was right. Who else could they get to pull down that rigging? Who else would lift that tiger cage? That's solid iron, my friend. If we sit down, the show don't go on. Last year it happened. We sat down at 4:29 on a Tuesday afternoon. We wanted to get a draw, even though it was only the day after payday."

"And what happened?"

"They brought that money box out as fast as they could."

"So let me ask you something," I said. "Why do so many guys do those draws when it costs them so much money?"

"It hurts, man. It really does. But you have to. We have no choice."

"What do you mean you have no choice?"

"Crack, man. Don't you know?"

"You mean you'd rather be high today and broke tomorrow?"

"You need it, man. How else could you survive around here? Look, the circus is h.e.l.l. Sometimes it f.u.c.ks with your mind. You haven't spent a night in No. 63...." He laughed at the thought. "Sometimes you just need the escape."

"Escape from what?"

"This." He pointed to the skin on his arm. It was as black as the makeup on my clown face. His voice became suddenly sober. "You don't know what it's like to be black, man, Bruce. To come from the ghetto. To wake up every day and be oppressed. You don't know what it's like to hustle."

He indicated it was my time to buy a drink. When I agreed he said he was ready for a stiff one. My beer cost him $1.35. His rum and c.o.ke cost me $5.00.

"So is this show that bad?" I asked.

"No worse than anyplace else. There are only two qualifications for my job: be fit and be black. We have a nickname for this place. Where I come from CBCB stands for Cold-Blooded Caucasian b.a.s.t.a.r.ds."

I looked at him in shock.

"Man, you don't know nothing, do you? The name of the game is survival. I'll take whatever I can. If they're going to screw me, then I'm going to hustle them."

Gradually, as I continued to nurse my beer and Darryl started guzzling his stiff one, he told me the details of a racket he was running on the show. Working with several other people, Darryl regularly let in guests through the sidewall of the tent-an old practice dating back to the beginning of tented shows that always seems to find new pract.i.tioners on the show and new takers in every town. If one of the members of the group saw a family of six he would tell them the show wanted sixty dollars from them. He would let them in for thirty-five. After tipping the guards at the door, the racket made upward of a thousand dollars a week, Darryl said. Split several ways, that raised his salary of $150 a week to around $500.

"So this life is pretty good for you," I said.

"For now. But I'm going to turn forty in about ten days. I may not look it, but I feel it. When we get to Baltimore my family's coming to pick me up and take me to the hospital where my daughter is staying. They want me to come home. That's the way black mothers are. They want their people close."

"So why don't you go?"

"I'm not quite ready. I like this life. I like messing with women, having a drink, taking a reefer every now and then. My family's wanted me to come back for a long time. Back in Vineland my daddy came up to Ahmed, pulled out his wallet, and said, 'How much will it cost me? I want my son back.' Ahmed took a step back and looked at me. I said, 'Daddy, you have to understand. I don't want to come back.'"

We got up and left the bar. He didn't want to leave a tip. I left one for both of us.

"So why do you stay?" I said as we walked across the empty parking lot toward the tent. The day had been the hottest in a month. The night was still uncomfortably warm.

"Well, to be honest, I think I'm running from something," Darryl said. "Running from what, I don't know. Ever since my grandmomma died about five years ago, my mind's been f.u.c.ked up. Then my little brother died and it got worse. He had AIDS."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"He was a f.a.ggot," he said sadly. "I spent the last two months with him and was there when he died. Ever since then the world hasn't been the same. For a long time I had to get away. I went back to hustling. I'd go to a nice bar, like the one we were just in. I would meet some nice white man at the bar. We'd chat. I'd make him buy me a drink. I'd find out how much money he had. Then when we got outside in the parking lot I would jump him. 'This is a jack,' I would say. 'Don't make it a murder.'"

I paused on the blacktop and looked at Darryl. His eyes were yellow and clouded with smoke. His arms were shaking at his side. He was remembering his childhood. He was recalling his brother. He was recreating his hustle. For a moment neither of us moved. My mind froze still in the face of a story I was helping bring back to life. My eyes darted nervously from his face to the nearby tent and back to his hands. I couldn't help remembering that it was only a year earlier that Darryl had witnessed a murder during setup. Two men from props were setting the high wire when one of the men pulled a knife from his blue jeans and stabbed his colleague to death in the chest. Outraged, the rest of the crew, including Darryl, surged around the attacker and started beating him in frustration, eventually stabbing him in the eye with the weapon he had used to kill his colleague. The killer was left behind in jail. Word never leaked off the lot. The circle closed around itself.

Now face-to-face in the parking lot, Darryl and I eyed each other, each of us haunted by different fears. Across the street a young woman appeared with a dog. Darryl whistled in her direction. "Hey, babe, come on over here!" he cried. The woman ignored him. "I got a knife," he called to her. "Okay," I started to say. "Enough." But I didn't have to say it at all. He knew. Darryl put his hands over his eyes and wobbled on the pavement. For a second I thought he was going to fall over-or cry. He put his arm on my shoulder. I was no longer afraid.

"I'm getting too old for this," he said. "I've got to get a new life."

We started toward the tent. For a long time Darryl didn't say anything. Finally I broke the silence.

"You've been telling me for a long time you wanted me to remember you when I left," I said. "What do you want me to remember?"

"I want you to say that when you were in the circus you met this man named Darryl. He was a black man. And he was always jovial. No matter if you was in a bad mood, or if the world was on your shoulders, Darryl made you smile. When I sold magazines I used to love the grumps. They were the easiest people to sell because they were the easiest to cheer up. I like to make people smile. That's my thing. That's why I say to you every time I see you, 'Just let me hold something, even if it's just your hand!'"

"Yeah," I said. "What does that mean anyway?"

"It doesn't mean nothing. It just means we're in this together, brother. It means we're partners. It means that the circus is sometimes h.e.l.l and the only way to survive is to enjoy it."

He stuck out his hand about chest high. I stuck out mine in the same position, re-creating the mock dance we both had mastered in the course of the year. And in that moment before our palms locked, we both laughed out loud, and smiled.

Two days later Darryl's fifth grandchild was born.

The day after that he left the show and returned at last to his family.

Love on the Wire The penultimate act is the closest to heaven. Its actors are the nearest to G.o.d.

"Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, directing your attention to ring one...Circus producers John W. Pugh, E. Douglas Holwadel proudly present...three-time Golden Clown winner at the Circus Festival of Monte Carlo...the amazing...the daring...Angel Quiros!"

Dressed like a matador in purple knickers and saffron shirt, Angel Quiros springs out of his clogs at the edge of ring one and lands soft-footed on a diagonal wire that stretches halfway across the tent and halfway up to the summit. The crowd grows hushed. They barely applaud. Their fingers, by now, are totally coated in popcorn b.u.t.ter and Cracker Jack caramel. Their lips are equally adhesive with Coca-Cola syrup and cotton-candy residue. At this stage the elephants have come and gone. The Kristo family has followed in style with an exotic hand-balancing act. The smoke from that act still lingers in the sky as Angel slowly tiptoes through the fog toward his own private skysc.r.a.ping tower.

"For me, walking up is simple," Angel said when I asked him why he ascended the wire instead of one of the ladders on the supporting towers. "Frankly it's the easiest way to the top. It's certainly easier than climbing the ladder. That would surely kill me."

Ta-dum! Arriving at the platform on top of the tower, Angel lifts his arms like a triumphant bullfighter and-along with his wife, brother-in-law, and sister-waves his hands in introductory salute.

"From Spain...," Jimmy James exclaims, "the Quiros Troupe!"

With a spicy intro from the band and a cheery clapping of his hands, Angel pivots on the platform and, at last, confronts the wire. Made of tightly braided steel, it's thirty feet above the ground, thirty-five feet from end to end, and three-quarters of an inch around. In real life this type of wire is used to suspend elevators. In the circus it's used to dance.

"I remember the first time I ever stepped on a high wire," Angel said. His voice was still coated in Castilian elegance. His mannerisms were almost princely. "I was fourteen years old. We had been doing a low-wire act at my family's circus in Madrid, and my father asked us if we wanted to do the high wire. 'It's much higher,' he said, 'and more dangerous. You might be scared.' We decided to try it. It's more prestigious, and more-how do you say?-commercial. The first time I went up there, though, I was like 'Oooh, what am I doing here? Why am I doing this?' But we took our time. Sometimes we just went up, stayed an hour or so, and did nothing. Then we started to walk. Finally we began to run."

Running, dancing, even dueling on the wire quickly became the trademark of the Quiros family. While traditional wirewalkers emphasized grace and beauty-elegant tricks performed with balancing poles to the tune of flowing waltzes-the Quiros Troupe emphasized speed and bravado, or what they called alegra-dashing empty-handed across the wire, climbing on one another's backs, and generally behaving like raucous adolescents to the equally raucous, fast-paced rhythms of Spanish flamenco music. Angel's opening tricks reflect this bravura. First he darts back and forth on the wire with amazing velocity. Next he stops in the center of the span, catches a gold rope from his wife on the platform, and before anyone in the audience has a chance to realize what he's going to do, jumps rope with the speed of a championship boxer and the grace of a ballet star. Finally, after his sister rides a bicycle across the wire, Angel scampers to the middle of the wire with a shiny saber, thrusts it menacingly into the air, and then, holding the handle in his right hand and the tip in his left, jumps over the blade with a dramatic vertical leap. As always, he carries tension in his eyes, but the pressure is on his feet.

"My feet are my life," he said matter-of-factly. "When you walk on the wire, you can put your feet down straight on the cable, but when you run, the wire has to stretch diagonally from the inside ball of your foot to the outside of your heel. Plus, your toes always have to be pointing toward the ground. It's almost like you're a monkey: you have to grab the wire."

Beginning with his feet, which he protects in white athletic socks and black ballet slippers, Angel carefully builds his act. His legs are noticeably st.u.r.dy and strong ("just like a soccer player," he boasts), while his upper body is slender and trim ("all mush," his wife complains). "I'm not the kind of person who uses force," he said. "With me it's all timing. If you use your feet well but not your arms, you fall. If you use your arms right but not your feet, you slip." The balance is in the eyes. "When I run I look at the middle of the wire, never at my feet. If I look at my feet I'll never see what's coming. It's like when you're driving: you don't look at your hands. You always look straight ahead. Your body will follow your eyes."

Following in his family's tradition, Angel is fearless on the wire. He's bouncy, cheery, almost childlike in glee. As a child, though, Angel had little glee.

"I never had a chance to be a kid," he said. "My father was a very tough man. We had to get up at eight o'clock every morning and practice, practice, practice until two. Then we would eat, sleep, and come back again for another two hours of practice. At night we did two shows."

"And how long did that last?"

"Every day for five years. We could never go to the swimming pool or play soccer like other children. He wouldn't even let us go to the beach because we would need a nap when we got home. He didn't want us to be tired, because then we couldn't practice with the same strength."

"Why do you think he did it?" I asked.

"Because he didn't want us to be scared."

"Can you train someone not to be scared?"

"Sure. If the person is young enough you can slap him or scream at him and he'll do whatever you tell him. But if the person is older, like twenty or twenty-one, it won't matter. When you're young you do it because you have to, because you're more scared about what will happen to you if you disobey. That's why you do what he says, because you're frightened. Then you go ahead and do it-you cross the wire-and you think: Oh, I see. It's not that bad."

"And you never rebelled?"

"I never even cried. Once we decided we wanted to do it, we never changed our minds."

Mindful and even a bit headstrong, Angel and his brothers quickly rose to the pinnacle of their profession. Their act was like no other in the circus. They were invited to perform all over the globe-in Australia, Sweden, Italy, Switzerland, and ultimately the United States. They were, in many ways, on top of the world. Then came the unexpected collapse.

"It happened almost overnight," Angel said. "One day we were a family. The next day we were hardly speaking."

Sitting in his trailer surrounded by mirrors, Angel was much more somber at home than he was on the wire. His face was dark with a ten o'clock shadow (a circus day ends well after dark). His eyes were weary with the weight of a season that seemed as if it would never end. It was October by now. We were in northern Alabama. To lighten an otherwise unending autumn, the Quiroses had recently invited a Pentecostal priest from Denver to travel with them for several days and lead their rapidly expanding spiritual community in prayer. In addition to Sean, Jenny, Mari, and Little Pablo, several other people had converted to the Pentecostal movement, including another one of the Rodrguezes, one of the Estradas, and even the beloved p.o.o.per scooper from the elephant department, whom everyone called Pizza Man. And one of the Bale sisters, Bonnie, was considering converting and had begun attending the regular Bible study sessions in Mich.e.l.le and Angel's trailer.

Predictably, this type of ma.s.s conversion in such a small community triggered a certain amount of animosity. First there were problems with other families. When one teenage boy started attending the Quiroses' meetings, his parents lashed out at the group, accusing it of splintering the circus community and brainwashing gullible victims. Next there were problems with different sects. A rival Bible study group was so alarmed at the spread of the Pentecostal movement that its members started an active recruitment campaign of their own, including baptizing people in New York Harbor. Finally there were problems with the neighbors. People up and down the trailer line complained that they were being hara.s.sed by proselytizers during the day, then kept awake at night by chanting, clapping, and the unmistakable sound of worshippers speaking in tongues. "I heard that one of them speaks in Chinese," one neighbor said. "I hear they sacrifice chickens," added another.

None of this controversy came as much of a surprise to Mich.e.l.le and Angel. "It warns us in the Bible," Mich.e.l.le observed. "It says others are going to hate you because of your love for Jesus. It's part of the territory. That's what G.o.d wants." Still, there was another reason the two of them could tolerate the strife. To them it was nothing compared with the situation two years previously when they first declared their love for each other. Then the situation was much closer to home, as their families embarked on a yearlong battle to try to separate them. Only during the final week of our season did they feel comfortable enough-with the situation and with me-to tell me what had happened.

"After that night in Dallas when Angel came to my trailer and found G.o.d, I was very happy," Mich.e.l.le said. "In a way it was better that it happened after I became a Christian. That way we were able to find G.o.d together. Two days later I invited him to go to church with me. He said yes, but only if he could do it without anyone seeing him. No one did see him that day, but unfortunately his mother did see me on my way home from church and somehow figured out what had happened."

Within hours trouble erupted.

"After the wire act I heard people screaming backstage," Mich.e.l.le said. "I thought: Oh, my G.o.d. What's happening here? I heard his brother say to Angel, 'You went with them! You went to church. You are a liar!' His father started screaming as well. Then his brother got real upset and punched a hole in the wall. He broke his hand. From then on it only got worse. His family didn't speak to me anymore. They wanted nothing to do with me at all-"

"They thought she had brainwashed me," Angel said. "I said to them, 'You don't understand. It's not what you think.' But they didn't listen. I was upset. They were upset. It was a very difficult time."

"At that point I didn't know what to do," Mich.e.l.le said. "We had decided to get married at the end of the year. I was going to go to Europe with his family. Then after this happened I got really worried. I thought: What if I go over there with him and n.o.body ever talks to me? What if they totally ignore me? Finally I decided I shouldn't go at all. 'If you want to get married,' I told him, 'we can go on our own.'"

"But we already had a contract for Europe," Angel said. "My mother talked to me about the situation. I told her that I would go with the family for a year but that after that I was going to get married and go out with Mich.e.l.le."

For several months the plan seemed to be working. The Quiros Troupe was performing in Europe. Mich.e.l.le's family was working in the States. Mich.e.l.le and Angel were speaking by phone. Then Angel invited her to come visit the following April. That's when his parents again intervened.

"They told me she couldn't come," Angel said. "They tried to persuade me to forget about her. I told them, 'If you won't let her visit me you're even less likely to let us get married. If she doesn't come, then I have to leave. The day you least expect it, I'll be gone.'" He asked his mother to give him his pa.s.sport. She told him she had already hidden it.

"At that point everything was bad," Angel said. "I felt angry, like someone had betrayed me. So I told Mich.e.l.le, 'Buy me a ticket. I don't want to stay here anymore.' I went to the Spanish Consulate in Frankfurt, and they told me I needed two forms of identification to get a new pa.s.sport-my birth certificate and my driver's license. I had only my driver's license. My mother had hidden my birth certificate as well."

At that point Angel remembered he had a friend in the consulate in Washington, D.C. Angel called Mich.e.l.le. Mich.e.l.le called Washington. Washington called Frankfurt. Angel received his new pa.s.sport the day before his flight. The next day he left before dawn.

"I didn't have much luggage," he said, "only a bag with a pair of tennis shoes and a T-shirt. I left everything else behind. I didn't even leave a note. I'll tell you, you think everything at a time like that. Why am I doing this? Why am I hurting my parents? But I told Mich.e.l.le, 'Something inside me was saying, It's okay what you're doing. Don't worry. Don't stop...'"

"He was scheduled to arrive in Sarasota about seven o'clock," Mich.e.l.le remembered. "I drove myself to the airport, hoping that he was on the plane. Then I waited. And why is it that when you're waiting for somebody they're always at the end of the plane? All of these people were coming out, and I was saying, 'Come on...Come on...' When he came and I saw him I couldn't believe it. It was a miracle, really. I was in shock. I was too happy to cry."

"It felt very strange," Angel agreed. "What I had gone through was very difficult, but when you love somebody you love somebody. Other things don't matter. If it wasn't for my family she would have come to Europe with me. But things didn't work out like that, so I had to come to her. In my culture that's a very bad thing to do, but I decided to do it anyway."

Two days later Angel Quiros and Mich.e.l.le Ayala were married in the Sarasota United Pentecostal Church. That night they spent their honeymoon in a hotel by the beach. The following day they left for Reno, Nevada, where Mich.e.l.le's family was scheduled to perform on a show. Angel's family was not informed.

"I didn't speak to my parents for a year and a half," Angel said. "My sister, who was already living in America with Juan, called every week, so they knew I was alive. But I never talked to them directly. I had nothing to say to them. Finally, a couple of weeks ago we were in Sterling, Virginia, and Mari was talking to them on the phone in front of a Home Depot. I told her, 'I want to talk with Mother and Father.' She said she didn't think it was a good idea. I told her I thought it would be okay. I picked up the phone and my mother spoke first. 'We want you to know we love you,' she said. 'Everything is fine. We've forgiven you. It's all in the past.'"

Mich.e.l.le was holding her husband's hand. "That night he said, 'We're going to visit.'"

Angel nodded through his tears. "That's right," he said, "we're going home."