When my sister and I would go the Carnival Circus, we couldn’t tell our Dad, of course. “No jobs,” is what my Uncle Kevin used to say, whenever you’d ask him why we only had a few restaurants in town, and why we had to drive to Olderville to get groceries since the Piggly Wiggly shut down, and why the amusement park that would open just before Lent and close down in time for the Fall semester was lost to rust and vandalism and a sea of litter and weeds. The place was restricted – you couldn’t just waltz in, or you’d get the deputy called on you and get your name in the local paper, which was a big deal in a town of only 2900 people (they stopped lowering the number on the sign so people wouldn’t get depressed, after Molly Ames had jumped off Croger Creek Bridge early one morning).
The only sure way in without neighbors or someone on the highway seeing you was down by Croger Creek. You slipped under the overpass, made your way down through the brush, making a lot of noise and taking your time so the moccasins wouldn’t get you, and then you walked along the creek bed until you got to the broken part of fence, and you scrambled up the bank and into the back lot of Carnival Circus. The other way was to go at night, of course, but no one did that – at least not anyone Sarah and I knew of. We were only in the middle grades though, so maybe the older kids went at night, but probably not. The place wasn’t so much scary as it had a feeling of a woods after a fire – sickly and devastated in a way that made your heart ache. The dark wouldn’t take that feeling away, it would just make it something you took home and into your own dreams when you slept.
Sarah always took the lead. She was a year older than me, but she acted like she was already grown up sometimes. I knew she wasn’t. Girls just did that. They got kicked around as girls, so they tried to make themselves feel they had a handle on the world right from the start. But Sarah and I were friends, which I suppose a lot of brothers and sisters weren’t, so I went right along with it, and even started calling her “big sis” sometimes when no one else was around to hear. She was taller than me by a foot, it seemed like, and she was pretty, even if she did wear jeans all the time and never skirts or dresses like a lot of the other girls did in our town. It’s probably because our Dad never made us go to Sunday School. Mom used to sing in the choir – Sarah remembers it, but I was too young when she died – and he just didn’t have the heart to go back and hear her voice missing from the chorus of others every week. Everybody understood, and people brought us more leftovers than we could eat, on late Sunday afternoons – enough for the whole week – pretty much as long as I can remember before we moved, and even with there being no jobs. Small towns were like that.
I always wanted to climb up on the “scary-go-round” as I called it, because the horses all looked like they were screaming, and yet they couldn’t run away. Sarah indulged me, and would climb up beside me on one of the white unicorns and we would ride into the brush and across the tracks, then along the creek, and finally all the way to Olderville before deciding to turn back, because Dad was probably home (it was off and on, but he had one of the last jobs cleaning up the old plant back then – for “environmental purposes”) and we knew he’d be expecting us, even if it was just leftovers for supper.
Sarah, on the other hand, always liked staring up at the big loop on the roller-coaster. She used to stand and look up at the very top, and I could tell she’d imagine herself flying. When the birds flew overhead, she’d follow them with her gaze, until she was her own bird, soaring through the loop and racing up toward the clouds. Sarah always said she wasn’t staying in town any longer than she had to, and I guess that was true since she took off as soon as she was old enough to drop out. She broke my heart, even though she was my sister and not a girlfriend – funny how you could get your heart broken worse by someone who would kick your ass if you f*cked up, than someone that made that same heart pound just looking at her hair. But Sarah soared – she always did – so it was no surprise when she went to California, though I never expected her to marry an engineer and have kids of her own like that. We usually see each other every year just before Lent, as a reminder, and we talk about Carnival Circus, both the good things and the bad.
It was on a Monday afternoon at 3 that we first met Manky. There are scary clowns, even if you’re not scared of clowns, and Manky was kind of scary. You know how some clowns always have smiles and bright eyes painted on so they’re grinning at you, even if they aren’t really. A clown could be as cold as ice, and that smile would still be there, and their eyes always seemed to be opened as widely as they could be, like the way you looked when a tire blew out and your Dad was suddenly swerving along the road trying to regain control. Dad never could afford decent tires, or maybe he just didn’t bother with it after Mom died. I try not to think about it, now.
Manky had just the opposite from those clowns, though. What he had was a painted on snarl, and narrow eyes outlined in heavy black, with a jester’s hat that looked like stiff ram’s horns split at the top and curling down to his ears. The first time we saw him, Sarah yelped a little, and stood in front of me. It’s the only time I heard her make that sound. But then she apologized, and I stepped out from behind her, and we asked him what he was doing there. Something about Manky seemed OK, because despite the way he looked, he was smiling, and it was a real smile, not the impatient, bored, almost deeply ashamed look you got from some clowns. It wasn’t contempt, it was genuine mirth, and so even alone with him in a deserted circus lot, we didn’t run away. In fact, to show I was at least old enough that I didn’t need my sister protecting me, I reached out and shook his hand.
Manky seemed all but familiar, and yet he could have been anyone, even my music teacher Mr. Stavez. In fact, I thought it was him, until he talked. Mr. Stavez was always serious and abrupt and a little whiney, but Manky was nothing like that. He had the clown voice, but it was heavier and richer than a lot of clowns. It wasn’t his “real” voice, and yet it was. You got the impression that he wasn’t faking with you, at least in all the times we met him there. There were a lot of unemployed men in town with nothing to do. Most drank, a lot of them worked on old cars or got into trouble, and some grew gardens, many of them fished, and the ones that didn’t find other work eventually put their houses up for sale, even if no one was buying, and eventually either went on welfare or drifted away, with or without their families. Manky was probably someone who just didn’t want to drink and didn’t see the point in tuning up an old Chevelle, like our next door neighbor Rick, who also yelled at his dog a lot, when the dog would just lie there patiently waiting for the man he used to know as his friend. Rick finally had the deputy out to the house when his wife reported him for hitting her more than a couple of times, and after that day we never saw him again.
We started going to the circus a lot more often then, most afternoons that we didn’t have homework, and sometimes on weekends if Dad didn’t take us up to see great grandmother at the home in Olderville. Manky wasn’t there all the time, but that was part of the attraction – we always wondered if we’d get our clown. Sunday we still went to Church, but not Sunday School, and then we stayed home after that to keep Dad company. It was his saddest day out of all the days of the week, and we always pretended that we’d rather be there, playing Scrabble on the dining room table and watching the game or the afternoon movie than out running around. In a small town, kids get out more – people feel safer, and there’s just less direct supervision, even if you’re just as well taken care of. In a small town, you took care of each other. Sarah and I took care of Dad that way, though it never healed the part of him that was broken over Mom. We knew it never could.
Manky rode the carousel with us, and even made funny sound effects with his voice, like it was screeching into motion, and then going so fast you thought you’d fly off. Sometimes he’d make it sound like it was whirring out of control, and he’d mimic a wild “conductor” as he called it – never a “carnival attendant” – crying out that the “controls were malfunctioning” and the danger we felt was the good kind of danger where you laugh and hope for disaster, instead of wishing it wasn’t happening.
He used to stand with us and look up at the roller-coaster and the sky, and he got Sarah running around the gravel, got us all running, with our arms out and making eagle noises. We soared then, and we looped through the old girders and up over the top of the park, into the clouds, and beyond. Sometimes, looking down, we could see our whole world, not just the little town, and it was big and bright, and there was always more, far more than a closed plant and new leftovers on Sunday. You felt like you could soar to Heaven, and your Mom would be there, or she was an eagle too, and she met you in the sky and you knew that everything would be all right, even if it wasn’t. We felt we were so much more than who we had been.
I know how Sarah felt, because we talk about it every February, and we laugh about those times, even if sometimes laughter is a costume and makeup over the top of sadness. And that’s how we recognized who it was, I think, who Manky was and why he was there with us at the Carnival Circus, even though it was closed and I don’t think they really ever had clowns in the first place. It was that, and the feeling that we were always safe. You never really have that feeling except in a family that loves you. Without that, for those that never had it, you wander in your mind always looking for your carousel of unicorns, always wondering when you will finally take off into the sky and feel some triumph over the gravity of childhood.
It wasn’t until we had to go through Dad’s things, and decide what was sentimental and what would get donated to the town’s charitable fund, which still took care of a lot of the older families that stayed, that we found the hat, and a little box of makeups folded into it. When you go through a man’s things you’ll find many items that are a mystery to you, and some that you approach with discretion and honor, and others you hold to your chest and cry because of what it meant to him, and what it means to love a man who has given his life to someone so vulnerably and truly. You never really know a man’s life, not all of it, until you see what he keeps in secret. And it’s like they say you don’t know what a parent has borne for you, and how much they have wept in the quiet of their mind, until you know how much laughter they shared even when it hurt to laugh.
Sarah and I were talking about it last February, and it’s getting that time again, how Manky used to sometimes look at us from a distance, as we made our way across the lot, and he seemed to be taking a deep breath, like actors and clowns do sometimes when they’re about to go on. But we never felt a truer performance, and never the slightest hint of anything un-genuine about Manky. It was as though when you put on a mask and a different costume you’re suddenly allowed to be the thing you hope, the intention that lies in the chest at the bottom of your gut, and even sorrow can’t triumph over a thing like that. You ride unicorns, you soar as eagles, and you laugh and run and for a while, when you wish it, you’re a clown – but you’re also living an authentic life.