After the very last performance, Blaze Stevens took Miss Dorrie for a spin inside the Globe of Death, an act strictly forbidden by management. Miss Dorrie’s blond curls fanned out from the bottom of her helmet and spilled up and down as Blaze’s bike circled the steel sphere. Dorrie couldn’t tell if they were upside down or rightside up and clung to Blaze like he was the edge of a cliff. Miss Dorrie’s dobermans watched through the open squares of a cage, their sleek heads bobbing back and forth like Dorrie and Blaze were a very exciting tennis match.
Whispers and Jellyroll swept the same pile of confetti back and forth and thought about finding some place to dry out for a while now that the circus was over. Sunny Florida sounded nice. But because neither said this out loud, they headed back to the trailer instead to take off makeup and have a nip and their good idea vanished like confetti.
Bruno, Pancho and Pee-Wee found themselves in the considerably buoyed spirits of out-of-work circus performers who already managed to book themselves through the next year with a reputable if vague entertainment agency Pee-Wee found online. It wasn’t clear what their jobs would be exactly, and it might lean heavier towards birthday parties for very wealthy children than any of them cared to think about, but it meant their party, at least, wasn’t over yet.
When small children asked why the circus was closing, their parents blamed greedy owners who in turned blamed disinterested parents, PETA and, ultimately, the elephants. The elephants cost too much to move around the country, they said, plus they complained loudly when mistreated, unlike the clowns. No one ever thought to sit the elephants down and explain the alternative. If given the choice between performing tricks to the dull roar of a crowd and one surprisingly loud slide whistle or being trapped in a dank, second-rate zoo cell, they would have no doubt waved off their self-appointed soldiers, those sad-looking women waving protest signs on the periphery of circus parking lots. Those women, now filled with free time, might have volunteered to bottle-feed kittens at a local animal shelter, a clear win-win.
But no one asked the elephants, certainly not Peaches or Cream, the beloved albino pachyderms best known for their rouged cheeks and teal headdresses in the ten-tail march. As soon as Peaches got her walking papers, she enlisted Cream to scour the internet for a new place to call home. No dank zoo cell for them. Peaches couldn’t read, but she had a good eye for potential and jumped on a foreclosed summer camp on 40-acres in upstate New York. There was plenty of room for everyone, even though the cabins were crumbling and the mess hall had to be completely rebuilt. This is work an elephant is born for. The Flying Fortunado brothers were instrumental in securing supplies from town and overseeing construction. The clowns were surprisingly skilled with regular sized hammers. I wouldn’t say the chimpanzees did much besides bruise all the apples from the food trailer in their endless quest to juggle, but what else is new.
At first no one knew what to do with the lions and tigers. They paced and growled inside cramped cages while handler Burt wrung his hands and paced outside. There was hushed talk of selling them to an exotic animal dealer in Los Angeles who offered to fly out the same day and pay cash. Burt was feeding the lions questionable scraps of London broil through a veil of tears when the idea came to him. What if the circus didn’t have to die? What if the circus didn’t have to go anywhere at all? What if they could make the children come to them, summer after summer?
Miss Dorrie and her dogs became the camp welcoming committee. After the first summer, Dorrie traded dobermans for poodles dyed the soft pink of freshly spun cotton candy. There were fewer maulings this way, live and learn. The children arrived in caravans of SUVs and minivans from late June through mid-August, not even crying when it was time for their parents to leave. They learned the lost art of flying trapeze and riding unicycles. The same children who always got in trouble at school inevitably gravitated to Whisper and Jellyroll’s mess hall table with its whoopee cushion soundtrack. The chimpanzees taught a well-attended juggling class, though not very well. Burt carefully selected the bravest girls and boys to join his team of lion and tiger tamers, who were the highlight of every performance.
The end of every camp session culminated in a show under the big top, which was raised by the elephants in early summer and disassembled before the first leaf had fallen. Parents brought grandparents and aunts and uncles and often very young siblings to see what their children had been up to that summer. They discovered tight-rope walkers and knife-throwers they never knew they had and thought that might not look bad on a college application one day. The too-young siblings grabbed fistfuls of buttered popcorn while taking in the elephants and slide whistle, completely unaware that anything had changed.
KRISTEN RYBANDT has written for The Fix and AfterParty Magazine and been featured in Corvus Review and The Donut Factory. She lives in southeastern Pennsylvania with her husband, daughters and cats, but sadly, no juggling chimpanzees.