When my wife dumped me, I quit my job at the box factory, left Cleveland, and wandered for a few months. I didn't like my wife that much anyway. And I hated Cleveland.
At one point I was traveling with this guy Disco Donny. He had metal plates in his head. I'd met him at a flophouse I stayed in one night. We started hitchhiking together. He was pushing fifty. I don't know why he called himself Disco Donny.
Donny and I would find a day's work here and there, and at the end of the day I'd get drunk. Donny said he couldn't drink, though. It reacted badly with the plates in his head.
One day we were in this little town in Kentucky. We stopped in at a soup kitchen. A small, toothless guy eating next to us said we could get work hotwalking racehorses at a nearby farm. I'd had a thing for horses since I was a kid, so right away I was interested. Donny frowned, though. He stared at the toothless guy like this was some sort of trap.
"What's it to you?" Donny asked the little guy. "You get a cut or somethin'?"
The toothless guy stopped gumming his food for a moment and said "Huh?" like he had no idea what Disco Donny was talking about. And I'm sure he didn't.
When Donny and I left the soup kitchen, I told him I really wanted to go work with the horses. Donny frowned. He had unnaturally bright blue eyes that got black when he tried to think too hard.
"Yeah, okay, Leon," he said after a while. "If you want to." For some reason, Donny always called me Leon even though I kept telling him it was Leo, no n.
We walked to the farm the toothless guy had told us about. When we got there, Donny said I ought to hang back and he'd go find whoever was in charge. I guess I was pretty scraggly looking, and Disco Donny had this image of himself as really presentable even though he was anything but.
While Donny went to try and get us jobs, I stood there looking into the field where dozens of thoroughbreds were grazing, their coats shining like new dimes. One of them, a chestnut colt with white stockings, looked over at me. I made a soft noise in my throat. The colt pinned his ears forward but didn't come any closer. Just looking at him was soothing, though. I grew up in the sticks of Ohio, and whenever things got weird I'd go down the road to McCarthy's farm and ride their draft horses. Now, just the smell of horses can calm me down if I'm feeling strange.
After a few minutes, Donny came back shaking his head. "Nah, kid, we're too late. We gotta show up at four a.m. The guy said try back tomorrow."
I guess I looked as dejected as I felt because Donny socked me playfully on the shoulder and told me to cheer the fuck up, we'd come back the next day. Even when he meant to go easy, Donny could really throw a punch, and so now my shoulder hurt on top of my other complaints, which, after four months' sleeping on benches, army cots, and boxes, were many. I looked over at the chestnut colt once more and then shrugged. I had a feeling we wouldn't make it back there the next day.
Donny and I walked out to the main road, heading back for town. I was dragging my feet and pretty soon Donny decided we ought to hitch a ride. We stopped walking and stuck our thumbs out.
A girl in a Buick convertible pulled over and right away I was suspicious. I'd never known a woman alone to pick up two scraggly males. But Donny just hopped right in. So I did too.
"Where you guys headed?" the girl asked us, and Donny told her we just wanted to go back to town.
This seemed to disappoint her, and at this point I noticed something was wrong with her face, like it didn't sit right on her bones. But she was wearing a short skirt and her legs were long and creamy so I stopped looking at her face and thought of how nice it would be if she suddenly veered off onto some dirt road and ordered me to go down on her. Donny could just sit there staring into space. He wouldn't mind.
Just as I thought this, Donny suddenly spoke up. "Look, a circus," he said loudly, pointing out a circus set up there by the side of the road. I looked over and sure enough, there were a bunch of striped tents, yellow and white but the yellow all faded. I could see a train of elephants marching along, making little clouds of dust rise up.
"Stop the car," Donny told the girl. She didn't seem to hear him, though. She just kept driving.
"Pull over NOW," Disco Donny shouted. The girl slammed on the brakes and her face started twitching as Disco Donny got out.
"Leon, come, we're going to the circus," he said to me. The girl's twitching face was making me more nervous than Donny was, so I got out and followed him.
It was midmorning now and the circus people seemed to be just waking up. A fat lady emerged from a trailer. She was so huge that the trailer creaked with relief when she stepped out. She stood there for a second, looking around, then started jogging in place, her flesh slapping itself in protest. Nearby, some inbred-looking redneck guys were setting up a table of food as a burly man led an elephant by.
"I love the circus," Donny said. I shrugged. I wasn't that big on the circus. But it was nice to see Donny enthused like this.
We wandered around for about twenty minutes until a guy in a cowboy hat asked if he could help us with something.
"We're looking for work," Donny told the guy.
"That so?" the guy said, looking me and Donny up and down.
As it happened, the circus had a high turnover and the guy in the cowboy hat was hard-up for help. He hired us as ticket takers for the day, installing us on two stools by the main entrance and telling us we'd better not do anything stupid. When the guy had left, Donny started waxing rhapsodic about the circus. How it was all that was left that reminded him of the good ol' days. I wasn't sure what good ol' days, since from what I'd heard of Donny's past, there were only brief moments of good between long streaks of rotten luck. But Donny was happy. "This is great," he kept saying, rocking back and forth on his stool as people started coming in and handing us their tickets.
At one point Donny got beer from somewhere. I made a comment since he'd told me he couldn't drink -- and I could have used a beer myself.
"Shut up, Leon," he said. So I did.
I don't know if it was the metal plates in his head or what, but a couple of beers did a number on Donny. He started rocking back and forth with increasing velocity, laughing this crazy, out-of-control laugh, showing teeth -- and he didn't have good teeth. People were repelled over handing their tickets to us and eventually the guy who'd hired us came and fired Donny.
Donny got so angry he started throwing things. Change out of his pockets. Empty popcorn containers from the ground. The stools we'd been sitting on. There was an off-duty cop nearby and he got involved, whipping out handcuffs and telling Donny he'd better calm down. When Donny failed to settle, a few circus guys and the cop got behind him and snapped the handcuffs on. I tried to tell the cop Donny was a nice guy, he just had metal plates in his head. The cop just sneered at me, though, so I walked away. I figured Disco Donny probably wouldn't even notice I wasn't around anymore.
When they'd hauled Donny off, the guy who'd hired us came up to me. He was a pear-shaped guy with gaps between his teeth and a nose like a potato.
"What you doin' hangin' out with that character, son?" he asked me. I shrugged. He seemed to think I was a kid, even though I'd just turned twenty-five. Before I'd married Mickie and we'd moved to Cleveland, I'd lived in the sticks all my life, and I guess it made me look young.
The guy, whose name was Petey, brought me into the trailer he lived in with Gus, the elephant trainer. Gus was a lanky redheaded guy who looked dumber than a stamp until you saw his eyes. Then you noticed there was something in there. Gus fried up some hamburgers, and him and Petey shot the shit, grumbling about the murky weather and whatnot. I didn't say much but I was glad to be fed. A little later, Petey told me I could sleep in a spare stall in the animals' tent. At first, when he led me into the place, I confused the smell of elephants for horses and got excited because, since that afternoon, I'd gotten it into my head I needed to work with horses. But Petey told me there weren't any horses around.
I'd slept in all sorts of places, including a barn, but I'd never shared housing with elephants before. Hearing them foraging was sort of soothing, though. I bedded down on some straw and started thinking about the girl who'd picked me and Donny up. I pictured my hands on her creamy legs, digging into the flesh as I made my way up the short denim skirt she'd had on. I thought about flipping her over and kneading her ass cheeks and maybe entering her like that, from behind. Then I remembered the way her face had twitched, her lip curling up so it almost touched her nose. That put a damper on things. So I thought of my wife, Mickie, for a minute. She was always bossy sexually. Like I had to just lie there, like a rag doll, and let her do stuff to me. Which was okay for a while. Then she became bossy over everything else too. It got to where she'd go out all night and come back drunk, with her clothes fucked up, and wouldn't tell me where she'd been. But she would still want me to take off my clothes and lie there and let her do stuff. And I'd be there on my back with her mouth on parts of me and all I could do was wonder where she'd been all night. But I hadn't made a huge fuss about it. I figured she'd outgrow all that. Then, of course, she dumped me. Thinking about it depressed the hell out of me and I fell asleep.
In the morning, Petey set me to work helping Gus clean up after the elephants. Gus didn't say much and was fairly nice to work for. We fed the elephants, then led them into an outdoor pen while we mucked crap out of their stalls. Afterward Gus had a training session with the elephants and Petey got me doing odd jobs. Petey was both the manager and the handyman of the circus. Every few days, when the circus moved to a new town, something invariably went wrong and Petey had to take care of it. We fixed the toilet in the acrobats' trailer. We helped the roadies take knots out of a big rope that some disgruntled worker had tied up out of spite. We drove into town to get meat for the lions.
By afternoon everyone was getting ready for showtime. There were people walking around in clown suits and leotards, Gus was putting saddles on the elephants, the dog trainer was schooling his dogs. Pretty soon the crowds started coming, mostly poor families -- kids in Kmart clothes, fleshy tired mothers, some of them with husbands in tow, blue-collar guys who wanted to be home watching the game. Nobody looked very happy. It seemed like coming to the circus was just something they were doing out of a sense of obligation, some vague historical recall of when circuses were the only entertainment there was. It was all sort of depressing, but in a nice way.
Once the show started up, Petey brought me in his trailer and offered me a beer. We sat there mostly silent, then he told me I could keep hanging around when the circus moved to the next town. I was pretty pleased.
Over the next few days I guess I made myself fairly useful. When we moved on into Lexington, one of the clowns got fired, so I was promoted. Being a clown had never been on my list of things to do, but a promotion is a promotion, so I went along with it.
The head clown, Remo, outfitted me with a costume: a nose, shoes, the whole bit. The first time I caught sight of myself in the mirror all kitted up like that, I just busted out laughing. I looked like some character out of a weird porno movie or a scary children's story. Like any minute I was gonna sprout an axe or a raging hard-on and go wreak clown havoc. Remo was standing right there and didn't understand why I was laughing so hard. To him there wasn't anything funny about being a clown.
Once I was outfitted, Remo and his wife, Fat Judy, showed me the basic routine: I had to ride in on an elephant, pretend to fall off, then do some somersaults. Remo and Fat Judy did most of the act. I was just there to thicken out the ranks.
The first night went fine. I rode in on Marty, the big Indian elephant. I fell off and did some somersaults. I went up into the audience and blew a horn and gave kids balloons. It beat working at the box factory.
Remo and Fat Judy gave me a tiny room of my own in their trailer, but I didn't get to spend much time there. When I wasn't working on new clown routines, I had to help out with the elephants. I didn't mind, though. The elephants reminded me of horses. They smelled different and didn't move a fraction as gracefully, but they were soothing all the same.
Things went along okay. Every two or three days we'd go to a new town. Sometimes there were circus groupies who'd linger after the show. They were the kind of girls who wanted to be rock band groupies, only no rock bands ever came through the dink towns we set up in, so these girls made do with the likes of us.
One night after the show, I hadn't even taken my clown outfit off when this Harley-looking chick came on to me. She was about four eleven, with tattoos and frizzy hair. She wasn't hideous. She came up and said, "Can I buy you a beer, dude?"
I didn't like being called "dude," so I said no and walked off.
I was passing by the lion tamer's trailer when I saw this girl I'd never seen before emerge. She was small, with dirty-blonde hair that hung in her face. The moment I laid eyes on her I started having visions of her thighs wrapped around my head. Of course, she didn't even notice me. She walked off toward where the roadies were taking down the main tent. And I just stood there, this guy in a clown costume, gawking at her and thinking lewd thoughts. But she was probably used to that.
The next day I pestered Remo and Fat Judy, asking them questions about the girl. They didn't know much but told me she was the lion tamer's daughter and she wasn't eighteen yet.
After that I started walking by the lion tamer's trailer about fifty times a day until finally, one night, Katie emerged. Her eyes were puffy and her hair was in nests like she'd been sleeping. All I could think was how I couldn't wait for her to be sleeping next to me.
I'd taken the clown costume off after the show and I was in jeans now. I walked over to where she was sitting in front of the trailer.
"Hi," I said.
"Who are you?" she said, squinting at me.
"The new clown."
"You wanna ride an elephant?"
She frowned but didn't say anything. She lit a cigarette.
"You're gonna hurt your little lungs," I said, staring at her chest.
"My lungs aren't that little," she said. "Where'd they find you, anyway?"
"When'd you start working here?"
"Last week. In Kentucky," I told her. She was upsetting me. I felt like she could see inside my head, how I'd already mentally undressed her. My big lungs pressing against her little lungs.
"So you want me to ride an elephant, huh?" she mused, blowing a smoke ring. The way she said it, I instantly pictured her naked on the elephant.
And she might as well have been. She got on wearing only her cutoffs and a halter top. I figured that, being around the circus, she must have known about the fungus on the elephant skin, how you have to wear long pants or put a saddle on the elephant lest their skin fungus get on you and cause rashes. But I didn't say anything until after she'd dismounted. Then I mentioned she'd have to carefully wash the insides of her thighs. She made her eyes big. "Oh, really?" she said.
"Yeah," I said. "I'll help you, if you want." It was a pretty lame thing to say but she just shrugged. "Okay," she said.
I brought her over to Remo and Fat Judy's trailer, praying they weren't in there.
I opened the door and saw they were gone, and breathed easier. Remo and Fat Judy were very private and I didn't know how they'd take to me bringing Katie into their trailer.
"It's weird in here," Katie said, looking at the knickknacks Judy had in a little display case nailed to the wall. Both Judy and Remo had spent their whole lives on the road. And they'd made their trailer look like a cluttered suburban house. The place was festooned with lacy curtains, doilies, fake flowers, and embroidered pillows that Judy worked on during the hours of travel. She'd never learned how to drive and just sat there embroidering as Remo drove their trailer from town to town, week after week, year after year.
"They're nice people," I said, feeling protective of my hosts.
"Yeah, they're fine. But it's still weird in here," Katie said.
I led her into the tiny bathroom and started running water in the sink. I soaped up a washcloth and tried to seem totally in control of the situation. "Pull your shorts down," I told her.
"You do it," she said.
This made me nervous as hell. I don't know if she noticed, though. Her face had no expression. Like she was totally in the habit of telling guys to pull her shorts down. Which freaked me out. Maybe I wouldn't pull her shorts down right. Maybe dozens of guys before me had pulled her shorts down really efficiently.
She reached for my hand and put it on the button of her shorts. She was totally in control of the situation. She was crucifying me.
My fingers fumbled with the button and she was just standing there, watching me. Eventually I got the button undone and tugged the shorts down. She had pointy little hipbones that jutted out, and a few stray pubic hairs were peeking out from her frayed white panties. I wanted to reach in and tidy them but I stopped myself.
I turned away from her and grabbed the washcloth. It was a flower motif washcloth. Fluffy and soft like everything else in the trailer. I got down on my knees and gently began rubbing the insides of Katie's thighs. She didn't move or make a sound. No matter how far up I let the washcloth go, Katie was impassive. I was melting and she was just watching. So I didn't make a single move. I washed the insides of her legs; then, using one of the pink hand towels, dried her off, pulled her shorts back up, and said, "There you go, girl."
She looked at me funny, then walked out of the trailer. Maybe she'd never talk to me again. But I figured now at least I had a chance. Maybe I'd kept her guessing and she wouldn't dump me as soon as we'd had sex. Of the nine women I'd slept with in my life, eight had dumped me after a few weeks. The only one who didn't was Mickie. And I married her. And then she dumped me.
I went into my tiny room. I put on a Townes Van Zandt tape Remo had loaned me and poured myself a shot of Jack. I lay down on my little mattress and listened to Townes's heartbroken voice tell stories. I stared at the ceiling. I felt like hitting my head against the wall. I heard Remo and Judy come in and I heard their Murphy bed creak in protest of Judy's weight as she sank down onto it. I drank another shot but it didn't do anything, so after a while I got up and went skulking by Katie and her dad's trailer.
The door was open and I could hear voices shouting. I got worried. I stood about twenty yards away, watching. After a minute, the father's girlfriend, a redhead I'd seen around, emerged. She was wearing a long slinky nightgown and she had a huge kitchen knife in her hand. She just stood there outside the trailer, holding the knife up like she was about to stab the air. I didn't know what to do. Then Katie's dad, Ben, popped his head out the trailer door. The girlfriend flipped around and jabbed Ben's face. Ben grabbed her wrists and got her to drop the knife, but she'd gouged him and he was bleeding. Ben stood perfectly still, just holding the girl's wrists and staring at her, as if willing her back to her senses. After a minute she just put her arms around his neck and rested her head on his shoulder. Then he picked her up and carried her back in the trailer. Right away I wanted to go pull Katie out of there, but I didn't know how wise that was. So I just stood there, rooted to my spot.
After a while the lights went off in the trailer and I walked over and picked up the knife the girlfriend had dropped. I wiped it off, then went back to sit in my spot. I planted the knife next to me in the earth and just kept staring at that trailer. When dawn finally came, I went and knocked on the door. I was going to demand to see Katie. I knocked and knocked, and finally Katie herself opened up.
"What?" she said, rubbing her eyes. She was wearing a long T-shirt and nothing else.
"Here's your dad's knife back," I said, offering the knife.
"Oh," she said, not even asking where I'd gotten it. Like this happened all the time.
"You wanna ride the elephant again?" I said then.
"What time is it?"
"Pushing six," I told her, glancing over at the sun coming up behind a hill.
"What are you, a guy that can tell time from looking at the sky?"
"Yeah, wanna make something of it?"
She laughed. She had lovely small teeth and a wide mouth.
"I don't think the elephants are awake yet, Leo," she said.
"They won't mind."
She said, "Okay," then disappeared back in the trailer. When she came out, she'd put her cutoffs and tank top on and grabbed a cup of coffee. She offered me a sip, which I took.
She lit a cigarette as we walked over to get Marty the elephant out from his stall. I made her wait outside since she was smoking.
Once we'd led Marty to the pen and I'd gotten Katie up on his back, I started asking her about the crazy redhead.
"Oh, that's my dad's girlfriend, Jody. She's a rich girl. Met my dad and dropped out of college. She's sort of neurotic," Katie said.
"You get along with her?" I asked.
"I get along with anybody."
"Sure," she said. She was swinging her legs back and forth at the elephant's sides now, but Marty seemed to like it. He had a particularly peaceful expression on his face. Like even a big old elephant could appreciate having this cute girl on top of him.
"I have a kid sister Alfie, but she stayed with my mom when my parents split up. So when Jody's not acting all crazy, it's almost like having a sister again. She does get nutty sometimes, though. I just keep away from her then. When she's nice she can be sweet as hell. I guess most crazy people are like that."
"Is she nuts nuts, like she's been in loony bins?"
"Nah, she's rich people nuts. You know, just neurotic. But she really is sweet."
"Oh." I shrugged.
I watched her ride the elephant.
When she'd had enough, she got down and walked toward me.
"I guess I forgot to put long pants on," she said, her face totally solemn.
"I guess you did," I said.
We walked the elephant back to his stall and then I brought Katie with me into Remo and Fat Judy's trailer. They were still sleeping so we tiptoed into the bathroom. I ran the water, knelt in front of Katie, and tugged her shorts down. When I looked up, she was pulling her halter top off.
"Do my whole body," she said.
"Wash my whole body," she said, then peeled her underpants off too.
"What's the matter, you scared of me?" she jibed.
I grabbed her shoulders and turned her so her back was to me as I soaped up the washcloth, and starting at the nape of her neck and going down, went over every inch of her. At one point I had her bent forward over the sink with her little ass poking out at me as I washed between her legs. I felt a shiver pass through her.
I dried her off and dressed her. She looked at me for a moment, then walked out.
I went into my room and just stood there, not knowing what to do. I didn't have to work for another few hours. I was exhausted but revved up. I pulled my fifth of Jack out from my bag and had a few shots. I thought about Katie on the elephant. I thought about Katie in the bathroom. I jerked off. I drank some more. I guess eventually I passed out. When I came to, Katie was in my bed.
"What are you doin'?" I asked her. I saw she had a T-shirt on but her shorts were in a pile on the floor. She started kissing my stomach, then letting her lips trail down, making a dewy path to my hard-on.
For some reason it pissed me off. Like she would have done all this without waking me up if she could have. I was totally incidental in the whole equation.
"Get offa me," I told her.
This just made her laugh, though.
"Katie, stop it. We've got to talk."
"What do you want to talk about?" she said, straddling me. This shut me up. I grabbed her hips and flipped her underneath me and dove inside her in this fierce way that scared the shit out of me.
After that, we got along okay.
When fall came the circus went farther south, through Louisiana over to Texas, then back east, into Georgia and down through Florida. The towns we traveled through started blurring together. I worked. I washed Katie's thighs. I fucked Katie. I loved Katie. I don't know if she loved me. There was a part of her I never seemed to reach. She was like this little savage; hadn't gone to school since ninth grade and had mostly raised herself since she'd left her ma and come to live with her father at the circus. I guess living like this had made her the way she was. Never having roots and whatnot. She didn't operate under the normal conventions of things. I seemed to be her boyfriend, but I wasn't sure. She never said the things women were supposed to say to men. As for her father, he didn't talk to me, but neither did he seem to mind about me and Katie. Besides, we never saw much of him anyway. Katie and I always slept in my little alcove in Remo and Fat Judy's trailer. They liked Katie and I guess they liked me.
One night, near Jacksonville, Florida, Katie and I were lying out behind the elephant pen. We'd had sex a bunch already and now we were both tired. Katie was lying on her back, smoking a cigarette.
"I wish they'd bring the horses back," she said.
"There used to be a horse guy. A trick rider. But he was a junkie and he got fired. He'd let me ride his horses, though."
"Did you fuck him too?" I asked, surprising myself. Up to that point I'd liked how we didn't talk about our past or make big promises for the future.
She looked at me for a minute and then smiled. "Sure," she said, flicking her cigarette toward the moon.
"You did?" I sat up and stared at her.
"How many people have you had sex with?"
"I'm kidding. I didn't fuck the horse guy. Don't be a jerk."
"You fucked that trapeze guy last year."
"How'd you know that?"
"Gus told me."
"Gus is just mad cause it wasn't him," she said, lighting another cigarette.
"You smoke too much. And you did."
"Fuck the trapeze guy."
"So, nothing," I said.
"What are you trying to prove?" she asked, propping up on her elbow.
"Nothing. Just don't do it with anybody else."
"Like I was going to?"
"How do I know?"
"You should just know," she said, putting her hand right over my heart.
That shut me up for a minute.
She was right. I should have known, but I was scared. She kept talking about how when she turned eighteen she was moving to New York City to take pictures. Lately she'd started using crazy Jody's camera and taking pictures of people's arms and legs. They were weird pictures but they were kind of beautiful, and I guess Katie had decided she had to move to the city and be around other people who took pictures. I started having the feeling I'd had with women in my past. Like I was losing her. So I'd started doing all this stuff to try and keep her interested. A few weeks earlier, in the middle of the night, I'd tied her hands behind her back, blindfolded her, put her in Gus's truck, and driven her to a nearby beach. I took her out of the truck, led her to the ocean, and pushed her ahead of me into the surf. When we were in up to our shoulders I started fucking her, with the ties and blindfold still on and the ocean crying in our ears. That got her attention.
Now, lying there, staring at her bare stomach, I got an idea.
"We're going to ride a horse," I told her.
"What are you talking about?" she said.
"When we pulled into town yesterday I saw a horse farm down the road. We're gonna go ride some horses now," I told her.
"We're just gonna go ride some strangers' horses?"
"Okay," she said, standing up and pulling her shorts out of her crotch.
It took us close to forty minutes to walk there, but it was a nice night with a wet velvet sky hanging low over our heads. We finally came to the horse farm, and right away I noticed a gray Percheron out in the field. He was a nice solid workhorse, the kind that wasn't likely to make much fuss over a stranger taking him for a midnight ride.
He put his ears forward when I walked up to him. I put my hand out, palm first, for him to sniff, and he licked it. I put my nose up to his neck and breathed in the smell of him. I felt my whole body relax.
I told Katie to go into the barn and find a bridle. She came back a few minutes later with a halter and lead rope in hand.
"It was dark as shit in there and the sheep started bleating, so I just grabbed this," she said, handing me the halter. She'd run to the barn and back and was panting a little now, her mouth slightly open, like a tired puppy. I kissed her, then I put the halter on the horse, led him over to the fence, and climbed on his back. I squeezed his sides and asked him to walk forward. It felt so good to be on a horse. All these knots in me started unraveling. And I felt like I could hold on to Katie like this, if she could see me, really see me like this.
Once I was sure the horse would take pretty much anything in stride, I steered him back over to the fence and told Katie to get on behind me. She wrapped her arms around my waist. I felt like we'd been sucked into another world. A place where I had power over things and situations.
The moon was hanging like a dinner plate as I asked the horse for a trot. We bounced along for a minute. Katie held on to me.
"Get him to gallop," she said in my ear.
Riding a strange horse bareback in the middle of the night was fool enough, never mind galloping. I knew that. But it didn't seem to matter. It didn't seem like anything could go wrong. So I asked the horse to canter and, a few strides in, to stretch into a gallop.
I didn't see the fence coming but the horse did. I suddenly felt him hit a spot and soar. He must have cleared the fence by two feet. I spun in slow motion through the air. I saw the night twinkling as I somersaulted and collided chin first with the ground.
Next thing I knew, Katie's face was in front of mine and she was saying my name over and over. I opened my eyes and the worry I could see creasing her brow made all the pain go away. For a minute, anyway. Then my chin was on fire and my foot throbbed like crazy. All the same, I made Katie go round up the horse and get him safely back in his field.
Once I could stand up I leaned on Katie and we hobbled out to the road. Katie was being sweet, but I had a sense I'd fucked something up. I'd tried to show her how I had power in the world but all I'd done was bust up my foot and endanger her own life.
After a long time, a car finally passed on the road. A tired old farmer gave us a ride to the nearest hospital.
My foot was badly broken and I couldn't work as a clown or do anything more than be a ticket taker. After a week, Remo and Fat Judy had to hire a new clown -- who moved into their trailer, displacing me. Remo felt bad about it but there was nothing he could do. I wouldn't be able to walk for at least two months.
Katie got her father to let me move in with them. When she told me this news, I just said, "Oh, cool." I was excited, though. I had the idea that sharing a domestic life would make her want to stay with me.
The first night, I cooked dinner for her and her dad and crazy Jody. I made meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Katie made chocolate pudding for dessert. By the time we all crowded around the tiny kitchen table, though, Ben and Jody had been drinking a lot and were fighting. Katie and I shoveled food down our throats as those two bickered. Jody was accusing Ben of flirting with one of the acrobats. Ben just kept shaking his head, saying, "You're crazy, girl."
Finally, after Ben had told Jody she was crazy for about the fifth time, she dumped her plate over his head and stormed out of the trailer. Ben just sat there with food dripping down his face and poured himself another drink.
Katie and I cleaned up the kitchen and neither of us said anything to Ben. I guess we both felt bad for him, but it's not like we'd made him pick such a lunatic for a girlfriend. We went back into Katie's room, and as soon as we'd shut her door she ripped my pants off and started blowing me, and somehow it seemed so damned twisted, her dad sitting there on the other side of the thin door, his girlfriend wandering around somewhere, and Katie going down on me with this fury, like all the emotional havoc she felt living in this environment was now getting taken out on my dick. Which wasn't so bad.
My foot was healing but not fast enough, and I was starting to go crazy being cooped up most of the time. Katie was out at all hours now, taking pictures of people's arms and legs. Every town we pulled into, she went looking for new arms and legs. In a way, it was worse than her having sex with other people.
Then one night Jody totally went off the deep end. Anytime she got it into her head that a woman had looked at Ben she'd get drunk and start playing with the kitchen utensils. Mostly the knives, but I'd also seen her threatening Ben with a fork. This particular night, Ben had gotten clawed by one of the lions and had to go to the hospital. When Jody and Katie went to pick him up, a nurse was sitting on the side of Ben's bed. Which sent Jody over the edge.
As soon as they got back to the trailer, Jody started having a fit, screaming at Ben, chasing him around, then pouring about half a fifth of Jack down her throat in one gulp. Nothing anyone said made a dent in her tantrum. At one point she was lying on the kitchen floor twitching and wailing like an epileptic infant. Eventually Ben called an ambulance. They sedated Jody and carted her off.
The trailer was wrecked. Ben was wrecked. Katie and I went into her room and just lay there, stiff as boards next to each other. Seeing something like that didn't exactly make you feel sexy.
The next day the circus moved on into the Palm Beach area, and two days into our stint there, Jody returned to us, escorted by her parents, a pair of very tall and hostile-looking people who, it turned out, were both psychiatrists. The father had no hair and a long face like Lurch from The Addams Family. The mother was long too. Not her face so much as her body. Really narrow and tense looking. They stood on each side of Jody, like parentheses. They'd walk with her from one end of the trailer to the other as Jody picked stuff up and threw it in a duffel bag. No one said anything. At first I'd actually tried engaging the father in conversation. I asked had he ever been to Florida before. He looked at me coldly and said, "Of course," then turned his back to me.
When Jody had gotten all her stuff, the mother said, "Is that everything, Jody?" and Jody shrugged.
Ben was nowhere to be found, so only Katie and I were there to say good-bye. Katie and Jody hugged each other, and I saw how tense Jody's body was when Katie put her arms around her. Like the parents' stiffness had suddenly infected Jody too.
And then they were off. Katie and I watched Jody get in the backseat of the white rental car. Neither of us said anything. I couldn't tell if Katie was sad or relieved. Probably both.
After about an hour Ben reappeared. He was pale as hell and acted weird the rest of the day. That night, at showtime, both Katie and I stood backstage watching him do his act. We were worried that Ben was so upset the lions would smell it on him and maim him. Katie's fingers dug into my arm as Ben put his head inside Koko, the biggest lion's, mouth. Ben got through the show okay, though, and afterward Katie was incredibly attentive to him.
In fact, all the next week Katie was so attentive to Ben she barely talked to me. Mostly I sat listening to Remo's Townes Van Zandt tape over and over: My days they are the highway kind / they only come to leave. Which about summed it up. I got pretty down and I started to really need to see some horses.
One night I had a few drinks. Maybe a few too many. I still couldn't walk on my foot and I didn't feel like dealing with anyone to borrow their car, so I got Marty the elephant out and rode him down the road, looking for a farm that had horses. I don't remember exactly what happened, but evidently I was riding Marty right in the middle of the road. A truck came barreling along and, swerving to avoid Marty, ran off the road. The driver wasn't killed but the truck exploded.
I ended up in jail overnight. When Katie and Ben, looking none too thrilled, came to bail me out, I knew I'd just driven the last nail in the coffin of what Katie and I had had. When we got back to her room I sat down on her little bed and started rubbing my foot that I'd ended up walking on during the whole ordeal. Katie had her back to me and was standing in front of the mirror, solemnly brushing her hair. I'd never seen her brush it before. Usually it just hung down her back in nests.
"Your hair looks good brushed," I said to her back. She just shrugged and kept brushing.
The circus was about to pack up and move on into North Carolina. I had to stay here in Charleston to appear in court. I told Katie I'd catch up with them in a few days.
"I think you might be in trouble, Leo," Katie said.
"I don't know if you're gonna be coming back to the circus."
"And that doesn't bother you?"
"It bothers me," she said, looking me in the eyes for the first time in weeks. "A lot of things bother me but that doesn't mean I can do much about it. I'm going to New York in two weeks anyway. So I won't be around."
"You're going to New York City? In two weeks?" I felt stabbed.
"I gotta get on with my life. I'm not a circus person."
"And I am?"
"I don't know what you are, Leo. I think you drink too much, though."
"Everybody drinks too much."
"I'm coming with you," I said.
"To New York?"
"No you're not."
"You're just not, Leo. You're not a city person."
"I thought you said you didn't know what I was."
"Well, I don't. But you're not a city person."
She was right. The only city I'd ever lived in was Cleveland and it had been too much. The thought of New York actually made me sick to my stomach. But how could she be so composed about it. It was like the first time I'd washed her off after the elephant ride. The way she'd just stood, utterly still, as I rubbed the soft skin of her inner thighs.
I sat there looking at her back. She just kept brushing her hair. I got up and hobbled into the bathroom. I ran some water and soaped up a washcloth. I went back into Katie's room. I came up behind her. I put one hand on her hip while I unfastened her jeans with the other. I looked at us reflected in the mirror, my hands pulling the jeans over her hips. She met my eyes in the mirror and for the first time I saw the impossible sadness that was buried under her veneer, and I wanted to fuck it out of her. I bent her forward and she planted her arms against the wall and stuck her beautiful ass in the air as I peeled off my pants and entered her. At one point she turned over to look at me and I saw things in her face I'd never seen before. A sort of kaleidoscope of emotions. And it wrecked me, to see her like this, to know I was losing her for good, to know more than anything that the reason I could see into her this way was that it was the last time we'd do this.
A few hours later, I stood there like a dolt, watching the caravan of all the circus trailers and vans pulling out of the camp. Katie was in her dad's trailer. Probably lying on her bed. I don't know. She didn't get up and peer out the window to get one last look at me.
I went to court and was remanded to rehab.
I arrived in a bus with a dozen other drunks. A nurse strip-searched me, then sent me up to a little room with plastic sheets on the bed. I guess they thought I'd shit myself when the DTs hit. I didn't, but I saw some pretty odd stuff. I didn't sleep for a few days and my blood pressure skyrocketed. I never thought I drank enough to merit anything like this, so I was pretty surprised.
On the fifth day they put me in a dormitory cabin with fourteen other guys and I had to start participating in the whole rigmarole. Up at six, make the bed, shower, breakfast, group therapy, one-on-one therapy, lunch, A.A. meeting, arts and crafts, and so on. They didn't leave you alone for five minutes.
The other guys were mostly older than me. Worn old men who smelled like bad dreams. I didn't really talk to anybody except in group therapy, where you got demerits if you didn't speak up.
One day I was sitting on the steps by the main building, just looking at the grass and trying not to think. A station wagon pulled in with three new rehab inmates. I saw that one of the guys was in a straitjacket and was apparently refusing to go inside. He started kicking at the counselors who were trying to bring him in to the nurse's station. When the guy turned around, I realized it was Disco Donny.
Donny didn't remember me but liked me all the same. I asked him where he'd been and he frowned at me, like I was out of line for asking. But maybe he just didn't remember.
When we got out of rehab, Donny and I started hitchhiking together again. I told him I thought we should go get jobs working with horses. He didn't care either way, so we made it down to Kentucky, and just outside of Versailles we found a farm that hired us as hotwalkers.
The barn was painted a bright blue-green that matched the grass of the rolling hills around it. That first morning of work I got stepped on, bitten, and kicked by a series of high-strung colts I had to cool down after their workouts. And it made me feel better than anything had in ages.
Donny and I met up at lunch break and compared notes.
"I like these horses," Donny said, his blue eyes turning black like he was thinking hard, trying to articulate something that just wasn't coming.
"Horses are soothing," I said. Then for some reason I started telling Donny about Katie. I didn't know if he was listening to me. He just kept staring out into the field where the yearlings were grazing. I told Donny how much I'd loved Katie. After a minute Donny looked up and shrugged.
"I had a girl," he said, "before they brought me up to that rehab place. Lisa. Beautiful girl. Worked as a whatdyacallit. Beauty person. We got along good and she let me move into her place. It was nice having a home and a woman and I tried to treat her good. But one day, I don't know. Something got into me and I went out and got a beer. After that I got another beer. Then a few more. I came back to Lisa's place and Lisa wasn't home yet and I needed some money. I looked around and there wasn't any money anywhere, so I started trying to think of what I could sell to get some money. The only thing Lisa had worth anything was these fish. These big tropical fish. Lisa was crazy for fish. So I get a plastic bag and I scoop two of the fish out and I go on over to the pet store to sell the fish. Those fish cost almost a hundred bucks a pop and I'm telling the guy he can give me twenty bucks for the fish, but he's not going for it. I try the other pet store but they don't even sell fish at that store. So finally I give up. I go home. Lisa's home and she's freaking out 'cause the first thing she does when she comes home from work is look at the fish. So then she sees me with the fish in the plastic bag. She grabs the bag out of my hand and then she starts screaming, 'cause I guess it killed the fish to be in that bag all afternoon. I feel awful. I feel worse than I ever felt, 'cause I liked Lisa. But after she was done screaming she just didn't say anything at all. She didn't tell me I had to move out, she just stopped talking to me. Two weeks I stuck around but Lisa wouldn't talk to me no more. She just took care of the one fish she had left. That and went to work at the beauty place. One night I got so upset about it I went drinking, and it was bad with the metal plates in my head. So I guess I went crazy and then I ended up at the rehab place," Donny said, shaking his head, then staring off at the horses in the field.
I made some sort of sympathetic noise.
"Nah," Donny said then, looking at me, "it's okay. I get along with horses better than women anyway."
"Yeah," I said, "I guess I do too."
Copyright © 1999 by Maggie Estep
Jody Ray, a young psychiatrist, conceals her own nymphomania -- and a penchant for stiletto boots -- behind a conservative navy work suit. After Jody meets Rob and moves into his apartment, life for this nice, normal Jewish boy from Chicago will never be the same. Even without the speed she shoots to get through medical school, Jody's sexual and emotional demands would have pushed poor Rob to the suicide attempt that eventually turns him into one of her patients. Like Rob, the other men she meets cannot help but be caught and destroyed in the vortex she creates. Some flee to the relative safety of Jody's old acquaintance, Katie Murphy. Though a foul-mouthed former sex-phone operator, this lion tamer's daughter has come through life hopeful and intact.
Soft Maniacs traces the interwoven lives of these two women as they struggle to make their way in an erratic world they can't quite get a grasp on. Through sharp, vigorous prose, underlaid with a piercing wit, Maggie Estep leads us on a roller coaster tour of the underbelly of their psyches, surprising and delighting us at every turn. At once frightening and hilarious, heartbreaking and hopeful, Soft Maniacs is an unforgettable exploration of how people find one another in an accelerated world.