Copyright 2002 by Marc RobinsonWire
Life is on the wire. The rest is just waiting. -- Papa Wallenda.
"Try getting a medical plan. Try finding life insurance.
You can't in this line of work. You're a smart kid.
Get a degree in finance and make some real money."
This is where I can stop listening, I thought.
He always started different and ended up the same,
going on about my ear infections and dizzy spells:
"No room for that on the wire."
I had the feelings, and I knew what I knew,
but I didn't have the logic and the knowledge to win the argument.
Not that he would have heard. His mind was made up.
Kids have to listen. Adults only have to pretend.
But I was through. Pop ignored me, so I'd ignore him.
I waited -- he always ended with a question he expected me to answer.
I heard the inflection, and he stopped, and I said,
"I don't care. I know I can do it."
He said, "I don't want you walking on fences on the way to school any more.
I don't want you on the two-foot wire, either. Understand?"
I shrugged. I wasn't going to stop. He always said,
"Dreams come true in your muscles, not your head.
Every day you work, you get closer.
Dreams don't happen, you build them, the way you build a house."
So that was what I did. I imagined blowing out the candles on a birthday cake,
and the next day, I stopped walking on the two-foot wire
and started on the wire that was ten feet up.
Pop beat me, but I kept doing it, when I wasn't too sore
from the big red belt he laid across my ass.
Finally he said, "Suit yourself, but you're never going to be in the act."
Then he ignored me, like nothing was going on, until the season started.
I think he would have let me come, if my grades hadn't been so bad.
Instead he made me stay home.
"I'll run away and join a different circus," I said.
At least he didn't laugh. "They'll send you back," he said. "Everybody knows who you are.
Besides, you don't have to be in the act to be part of the family.
We need riggers and gofers. Forget about the wire."
They didn't say goodbye. That's how circus people are:
they just leave. See you later. No long farewells.
After they left I was all by myself. Sixteen years old and the only
human being on the forty-acre compound.
I was bored, especially after school let out. I spent my time practicing
on the wire, and making up the Math and English classes I'd failed, and painting the houses.
Mom got back for a week around the Fourth of July, and gave me
a pair of elkskin slippers that fit perfectly.
I wore them on the wire, and she watched while I walked.
"You are your father's son," she said. "You have his stubborn will.
I'm afraid I'm encouraging something hopeless."
I didn't know how lonely I was until she showed up.
Cooking for myself (or what passed for cooking), eating by myself,
watching television by myself.
Trying to find enough to keep busy. And all the time,
the silence and the empty rooms and the bare walls.
Wondering what everyone was doing. Going for days without
anyone to talk to. Now Mom was there, and she told me
about the couple from Russia and the argument they'd had with Pop,
and that they'd gone home, furious and exclaiming about the
"greatness of soul" in the Russian circus, about its "purity".
She thought they were simply homesick and unable to adjust.
She told me that my sister had decided to go back to college.
That my brother had a serious girlfriend. That Uncle Tim
was getting arthritis and thinking about quitting.
We spent the evenings sitting on the porch, sitting close
to the mosquito coils and listening to the sounds of the
palmetto scrub waving in the wind, and the cries of the
nighthawks, while we talked. Then she left.
I moved up to the thirty-foot wire. Pop had destroyed my small pole,
and I had to use the thirty-five pounders. They were too heavy for me,
so every day when I finished practicing I would hold one for longer periods of time,
strengthening myself so the pole would feel lighter on the wire.
When it did start feeling lighter, walking was less effort,
almost too easy. I stopped using the pole for the first ten minutes when I practiced.
I walked the five-eighths inch wire in my slippers, using only my hands for balance.
When they came home in winter, I hid the slippers at first.
But everybody acted like Pop. They all ignored me.
So I started wearing the slippers again, taunting them.
They didn't rise to the bait.
I worked harder in school and my grades were better,
and when the season got near he said I could come.
I didn't even have to wait until the end of the school year.
I was going to work as a rigger.
When you're a kid, no one asks what you do, or where you're from.
They ask how old you are, and what you want to be when you grow up.
The circus was different; kids were accepted as working members of the
family and the circus. But I was second-class. I knew that Pop meant
what he said. I was never going to be part of the act.
Everyone else agreed with him. Mom had given up
fighting for me. She was all alone, and she wasn't going to win.
My first memory was playing in the sand in the back yard,
under the wire, my parents and my uncles and aunts and the
other walkers practising. I listened to them talk. I watched the
way they tied their slippers. I saw how they held their poles,
and what the poles were made of. Later I watched my brother and
sister, first on the two-foot wire with small poles, then on the ten-foot wire.
Now they were in the act. If it hadn't been for my dizziness,
I would have been in the act too. I was the only one who couldn't
be part of the family business, the business we'd been in for
three generations. I hadn't had a dizzy spell in
six months, but Pop didn't care. His only response
whenever I said this was to ask whether I'd finished some job,
or to tell me to take care of some other job.
He ignored everything I said.
Rigging took about half my time.
Mom and Pop were busier than me, but Mom taught me
lessons so I would finish the school year.
We did two shows a day and drove from city to city at night.
Mom repaired costumes and cooked and all the rest of the things she had to do;
Pop had all the business and the books to take care of, and the publicity,
and dealing with the circus management and all the people who worked for us.
I didn't even have a chance to practice --
at home, the wires were in the back yard, but here they were in the tent.
I started hanging with the animal guys, finding out how they handled
the elephants and the bears. I liked the tigers best.
Soon I was skimping on my real chores and Pop was mad at me again.
There are things kids absorb from the air around them, things implied
in what their parents say. Certain bits of knowledge are there
from the beginning. I'd always known that there was a hierarchy in
our world, with the wire walkers and trapeze artists at the top.
The animal people were way down the scale. I didn't care about that.
I was already at the bottom. These people let me help.
They accepted me. They taught me their craft.
Al, the tiger guy, made it clear that even if I liked the cats, they didn't like me.
"You know what you are to them? Dinner." He threw a chunk of meat in Natasha's cage.
She was a big Siberian.
"That's how she'll treat you, if you give her the chance. See how strong she is?"
I was impressed. Her canines must have been four inches long.
"See this?" He showed me a claw that he wore on a cord around
his neck. "If she hooks your clothes with one claw,"
he said, "She's got you." He shook the claw, for emphasis.
"You know why?"
"Because every claw works by itself. She can push them out
and pull them in separately." He walked his fingers up my arm
to my shoulder. "That's what she'll do, and she'll pull you in.
She can get you with a paw through that slot and kill you.
One mistake and you're dead."
He went on like that for a while, saying that you
could never turn your back on a tiger.
This was more interesting than wire walking.
If you did everything right on the wire,
and none of you made any mistakes, you got
across to the other platform and took your bows.
Show over. If your training was good, you survived.
But you couldn't control the tigers that way.
They had wills, too. You had to dominate them.
You had to intimidate them, and fool them.
"Can I ride with you tonight?" I asked.
His eyebrows lifted. "Sure. Ask your parents first."
I knocked on the door of his trailer after the second show,
my sleeping bag under my arm.
There wasn't any answer, so I sat down and waited. I heard
noises inside, so I knocked a second time, but there still
wasn't any answer. I sat on the step and waited again.
Somebody bumped me with the door. I looked over my
shoulder and saw a girl, about college age.
I moved out of the way.
"Sorry," she said. She stepped down next to me.
"I didn't hurt you, did I?"
She said, "See you," to Al and walked off across the grass.
She was pretty, without being attractive. Her hair was spiky
and many-colored. She had a confident walk.
Al was standing in the door, wearing nothing but boxer
shorts. He was smoking a cigarette. "Come in," he said.
I stared at his legs. They were a mass of scar tissue,
covered with punctures, and uneven lumpy places that had been
sewn back together, and parallel slashes. The scars ran
from the middle of his thighs to his ankles.
He glanced down at his legs. "Oh, yeah," he said. "Sometimes I
forget about those."
I wanted to ask how they'd happened, but couldn't.
"I been hit a few times. Shows you what a tiger can do."
He turned around and showed me a big gouge in his shoulder blade.
Then he nodded in the direction of the girl, now almost
out of sight. "She thought they were interesting.
But they're all from mistakes. I'm not proud.
I'd get rid of them if I could. The thing about scar
tissue is, you can never touch your toes again.
Your skin would rip." He stood and smoked his cigarette.
He seemed to have forgotten me. I fidgeted.
"Come on in. What are you waiting for?" He held the door for me.
His trailer was built onto the front of the flatbed
where he hauled the cages. The smell was rank.
Big cats have a stink that gets into everything nearby,
and the trailer was permeated with the stench.
"You get used to it," he said. "Are you hungry?"
We ate whitebread peanut butter sandwiches and potato chips
and drank R.C. colas, sitting at the table. I wanted
to ask him more about the tigers, but he didn't seem
in a mood to talk. I was too intimated to speak.
Al was the coolest guy I'd ever known.
"Did you tell your parents you're riding with me?"
We'd finished our sandwiches. He was reaching for the
bottom of the bag, to get the last broken chips.
"If you're lying, you'll never ride with me again. What did they say?"
" 'Okay. Have fun.' "
"Hunh," he snorted. He crumpled the bag and threw
it onto an overflowing wastebasket. It fell off, onto
the floor. He ignored it. "We better go. Iowa's a
long way from here. Let me get my clothes on."
I woke up alone in the middle of the night, on the passenger
side of the cab. The engine was idling.
We were stopped by some diesel pumps, under the harsh light
of those fluorescent lamps they mount under the metal roofs
that keep you dry when you're pumping gas in the rain.
Traffic buzzed by a hundred yards away.
I rolled down the window and saw Al.
"Hey, you woke up," he said.
"If you need to take a leak, now's the time. This is going to run for a while."
He bought snacks at the counter while I went to the bathroom, then
we walked back to the truck, eating Slim Jims.
The tigers were all asleep in their cages. I watched them
while the pump ticked away. When it finally stopped I looked
at the total. Four hundred twenty-five dollars.
Al paid and helped me up into the cab. "Sorry, I don't
have a sleeper. You can go back in the trailer, but you'll
have to stay there. You can't get out while the truck is moving."
"No thanks. I'm not sleepy now."
I was used to semi trucks, mostly Macks and Freightliners,
but this was a Kenworth, so things looked a little different.
I'd been too excited to notice earlier.
We got started, slowly, the way you always do in the big rigs,
shifting all those gears. When we were out on the highway and
up to speed again, Al started talking about the cats.
"You have to know them by name. They know who they are, and you
always always have to get the name right, so you call the one
you want. You don't want to call the name of a tiger that's
in back of you instead of in front. She might eat you.
No mistakes. You gotta know them from the front and the back
and both sides. Hey, did you study the Romans in school? Did your
teacher tell you about what they called the Circus?"
"It was different."
"Right. Not like ours. You know how they let the lions eat the Christians?"
I nodded. He said, "Sometimes they put a lion and a tiger together
and let them fight it out. You know who usually won?"
"You know why?"
"Because they're bigger."
"That's not all. Tigers live alone. They hunt alone.
So they have to be smarter and tougher and faster. Lions hunt in groups.
They don't know what to do by themselves. They're afraid.
They're not as tough." He lit a cigarette. "I like tigers.
They're strong and they're smart. But they scare the shit out of me.
They don't love anybody or anything. All they want to do is
eat and sleep and roam around." He jerked his thumb over his shoulder.
"You put a cat in a cage, that's like putting a man in a straitjacket."
He thought for a minute. "But other than that, they've got a good life.
No one's going to kill them and grind up their bones to help some old
Chinese guy get a hard on." He flicked the cigarette ash out the window.
"Fucking Chinks. You can't bring tigers into the country because
they're hunting them to extinction. It's a good thing we can breed them."
He rolled up his window and turned the air conditioning on.
"So tell me about the high wire."
"You have to practice a lot."
"Are you scared?"
"Yes, but Pop says if you're not scared, you shouldn't be up there."
"Yeah. It's the same with tigers. Do you dream about the wire?"
"I used to dream about the tigers all the time. For a long time.
I used to almost shit my pants, when I'd go in the cage with them.
I'd dream about them and wake up screaming. You ever do that?"
"Good. You should have stuck to the high wire. Sounds like you were already used to it."
"You can't stick to it if your Dad won't let you do it in the first place."
We got to the little town in the middle of the night. It was
somewhere in Iowa -- Cedar Rapids, maybe. We found the fairgrounds
and he pulled the truck in and parked it. He slept in the trailer,
but I unrolled my sleeping bag on the ground in front of the truck.
The smell in the trailer was too strong. At least outside there was
some breeze, and the cab blocked some of the smell.
I kept helping the family with chores, especially the rigging.
And I had school lessons whenever Mom could spare the time.
But I spent my free time with Al, learning everything I could about the cats.
I learned that tigers like water;
that the Siberians could eat partly frozen meat, but the Bengals would
usually throw it up; I learned that all the cats were females, and they came
into heat every 28 days, most of them about the same time --
"Like girls in a college dorm," Al said, "Except a lot crankier,
and when they bite your head off, they do it for real";
and I learned that tigers would rather not be near each other,
which makes it hard to work them together.
Al made a tiger whisker into a ring for my finger, and used glue
to keep the weave from unravelling. I wore it on a leather thong
around my neck, so my parents wouldn't see. But my mother did,
one day when I was changing my shirt and she happened to walk by.
"What's this?" she asked. "I haven't seen it."
She stared at it for a long time, holding it in her palm.
"Maybe that's what you should do."
"It's my good luck charm. I always wear -- I'm going to wear it --
it's for luck." I couldn't say "on the wire".
The season ended not long after that. Al spent his winters
in Texas and we lived in Florida. So I didn't see any tigers
until the season started up again. The next circus we were in,
the lion tamer was a completely different kind of guy.
First off, he had lions. Also, he was an alcoholic, with a bad temper,
and he didn't like "kids" hanging around, although I'd been shaving
for several years by this time. I called Al on his cell phone and asked if I could travel with him.
He said "Fine by me". My uncle Tim drove me over a couple of weeks later,
when the two circuses were within a few hundred miles of each other.
I kept a notebook where I wrote down the things Al told me,
and the things I discovered for myself about the cats.
I watched them, especially during the act, and I talked to
Al and asked him questions afterward. I started practicing
with the whip, until I could knock the caps off beer bottles
without knocking the bottles over. The trick is, you take the
cap off first, then put it back on loosely.
You're practicing for accuracy, not for power.
You don't want to hit a tiger, you just want to
pop the whip close enough to get their attention.
Al didn't have any backup, so we bought a couple of fire extinguishers
and kept them next to the door of the cage during the act.
Tigers can't stand the freezing CO2 in their eyes and on their muzzles.
I would stand out of the way, but close enough to intervene
if Al needed help.
I thought it would be Natasha who'd jump him, because she was
the most aggressive, but it was Kali. You have to keep your eye
on every tiger, switching from one to the next to let them know
you're paying attention. But one night we were playing a little
arena in Minnesota and there was a power failure.
Al backed up against the bars of the cage and waited.
That was a mistake -- he shouldn't have backed up.
It showed fear.
The only light was from the exit signs, and a little bit of evening
through the roof vents. Everything was vague in the gloom.
I could see just enough to stumble my way to the cage
and find one of the extinguishers.
Kali jumped. Al used the whip, but his aim was off
because of the darkness. We saw later, looking at her ear,
that he must have hit her there. It would have made her mad.
She had his knee in her mouth and he was down
and she was shaking him before I could spray her.
God she was quick.
Al dropped the whip and punched her in the face, and that
slowed her down. Otherwise, she would have opened his chest --
she'd raised her paw. The punch surprised her and stopped her for a second,
and I caught her smack in the face with the cold foam.
She screamed and turned around.
I opened the cage and a couple of the clowns pulled him out.
I stood there, ready to pull the trigger again, until he was safe.
It seemed like it was all taking forever, but the ringmaster
told me later that from the time Kali grabbed Al's knee to
the time I closed the cage was less than two minutes.
The thing that worried me most was the time the cage door
was open. I was afraid they would all charge and get out.
All the others had risen to their feet and were watching Kali and me.
They knew what was up, and they were like, "Deal me in",
but they don't hunt the way lions do, they're solitary,
and they're afraid of each other,
and I think that's what saved us from a melee.
But you can never tell when they're going to jump.
They don't warn you; they just launch themselves,
and the next thing you know, you're lucky if you're not
lying there shredded, with an artery or two pumping your life
up into the air. As soon as the clowns had Al out, I stepped
back and slammed the door and dogged it.
I told the paramedics I was his son, and they let me
ride to the hospital with him, but I had to wait outside while
they did the surgery.
He can't walk yet. He'll need some reconstructive surgery,
and a lot of therapy, and he'll probably limp till the
day he dies. He'll never run again. The kneecap is
completely gone. They'll have to put an artificial one in,
and something to tie it in place; the ligaments are gone, too.
For the time being, he gets around with a crutch.
Of course he was out for the rest of the season. He hired a
trucker before he flew back to Texas. When the guy showed up
and got a look at the cats, he quit on the spot.
Didn't have the nerve for it. "I'm not feeding those things," he said.
"I'm not getting anywhere near them."
I threatened to have his license yanked for breach of contract --
probably an empty threat, but it was all I could think of.
He said "Fuck you," and left.
One of the clowns offered to drive. I rode along, and started living with Al.
He's quitting. The plan is for me and him to swap jobs.
He's going to train me, and then he'll be the handler
and do all the chores. I'm working on my long-haul license
so I can drive the truck if his knee isn't up to it.
I went in the cage for the first time yesterday. It was
just like he said, much scarier than the wire.
Those are big animals, and built to kill.
He didn't tell me until after I finished putting them through
their routine that the first time is alway safe; tigers will let
anyone put them through their act once. It's the second time when
it starts getting dangerous. Now I'm more afraid than before.
But Al will be right there watching, and backing me up.
I still haven't hit my full height, so I'm lifting weights
to make myself wider and thicker. I have to be in control of the cats,
and being small doesn't help.
I'm looking forward to this, as soon as I get the dreams under control.
I mean the night dreams, not the dreams of desire. I'm making a
career, but the closer I get, the worse my nightmares become.