Ours was the only circus to cut through the American South before, during, and after the Civil War—kill, kill, kill. Directions there were mostly misrepresented. And time, that uncouth bastard, oozed over the landscape before coming to an atmospheric rest.
Between our afternoon and evening performances, the wind sometimes called out to us under the sweetness of the big tent. Sorry, I mean the sweatiness. If only life in Dixie didn’t have it all to do with the dimness of death.
One night in Greenville, Tennessee, our resident alligator woman spring-fed me supper, presumably in order to watch me come of age. I learned how to put my hands directly into the bitterness of the pie. She was a messiah without morals. Her DNA was part and parceled out by way of an impending doom.
“It’s manly to make money,” she said, tonguing all seventy of her teeth. I was too young and agreed to scratch around the privacy of her scales. Negotiation helps men and women alike.
My job the next day was to ride the trick mule and ring the camels around what was left of an audience already spent out by the elephants and clowns. I think I wore a turban to fake myself all into the part. Regardless, I looked one way and jockeyed in the other. Mine was a plebeian complex in the making.
The problem began when the town’s tailor noticed that I wasn’t much of a salesman. Dressed in homespun, the young man stood at full height and pushed his nutty brown hair back and forth on his head. He then jumped out from the people and screamed, “This is not how the world should work. There’s to be no irony in the hymns we hear.”
He went on the sort of discourse about hues and pigmentation that would one day get him the presidency. It was so long-winded that the bushiness of his eyebrows grew moreover. What has been said about people from Tennessee is true: they are too emotional.
“Nobody wants to argue with a preacher,” I finally interrupted. My coolness contrasted against his heat. He had a do or die disposition, but I was an expert in how to enrich the broth. Because we both lacked assistants who would’ve known how to properly diffuse the situation, we soon vied in offering ourselves at the finest of exchange rates.
Under the code duello, the power of our fighting glossed over our impotence.
He first tried knitting my nasal bones together into a scarf, the fool. His chunked stance was too rigid, however, and my feet were dancing firmly on the right path. I was on the quick-quick move. Ducking down low enough to grasp the root of the issue, I jiggled his white fat with my fists. Let me tell you, his armpits were marked by the stink of the beast.
An advocate of total war, he slapped me in the face, twice, and whispered, “Blood is miraculous.”
I passed through being strangled and said in my low, liquidy voice, “My apologies, sir, but I can’t speak proper English when I have a headache.”
I did my best to work through his enslaving grip. No frontal attack could get overturned. We kneed one another around and together burbled in that way until too much blood was being lost. Pain is good. If you’re a man and don’t know this, you’re probably not a man.
When it was finally over, our bodies were reduced and broken down between us. The alligator woman crawled through what was left and said, “Just because we’re all standing on sacred ground doesn’t mean we’re living in a sacred state.”
It was at this point that I began to regard her as an nth-rate theorist. Sure, I thought, go ahead and try to pull our party out of the hole. But deep in my heart, at least, I was already on my way back home to Haiti. Down there, my mother had once taught me that lightness and darkness are just ideas, and pretty stupid ones at that. I missed the ocean.
According to the way the ringmaster told it, there was something fundamental about the circus’s departure later that afternoon. For one thing, I guess the world around Greenville was getting smaller. And for another, on our way out of town, the alligator woman stole the sign that read, “Andrew Johnson-Tailor.”
Before she could gift it to me good, the circus animals went ahead of themselves and got bunched aslant too far down the road. It was a mean situation for us two-leggers. The burning question was how to go on living a little longer. Most people didn’t know what I knew: freaks find certain versions to be a lot more than others.
D. Seth Horton’s work has appeared in around forty publications, including the Michigan Quarterly Review and Glimmer Train. Two of his stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His latest book was an anthology, Road to Nowhere and Other New Stories from the Southwest, which was published by the University of New Mexico Press in 2018. He currently teaches creative writing and American literature at the University of Virginia.