Looking back on my youth is a strange and depressing rush of hospitals and doctor’s offices. Even my bedroom, with what little time I spent there, was a bare, clinical space, with untextured white walls broken up only by the odd poster and my calendar that I kept long after its year had passed. It was weather-themed; each new month brought new storms and natural disasters, lightning bolts and tornadoes and the like. But on the first of November, I turned the page to find something different. The photograph showed a black lake, pieces of ice strewn around, and up above there were these magical green trails etched into the sky. This gorgeous respite from the storms of the previous months had a powerful effect on me, and by the time the month was over and I had to turn the page to see yet another bolt of lightning I felt a kind of sadness, a longing for it to be November forever, if only just to see those northern lights.
Every year after, I received a new calendar, and I liked most of them well enough. There was one with a different picture of a golden retriever each month. That was quite nice. I also received a few more weather-themed ones; I even received one that was specifically themed around the northern lights, but I guess seeing that kind of beauty every month must’ve cheapened it or something. None of them ever came close to my first.
November became a sort of lucky month for me after that. I’d wait, suffering through the other photos, just waiting to see those pretty lights. By the time the first of the month came around, I would be so excited that I felt nothing could go wrong. Even when I was in the hospital, I knew that at least on those thirty days, the world would go my way. And it was during one of those Novembers, sometime in the middle after a particularly good checkup, that my parents took me to the circus.
There was typically one festival per season in my town. It wasn’t usually anything too special, just something to get people out and about, and except for that the fairgrounds were rather desolate, the type of place in which teenagers would occasionally be caught causing trouble but was otherwise ignored. But on this chilled day in late autumn, the fairgrounds came alive. It seemed as though everyone in my little town was pushing their way into a tent the color of ketchup and mustard that had not been there the day before.
By the time we worked our way inside, there weren’t many seats left, so we sat huddled towards the back, looking out over a sea of people all anxiously waiting for the show to start. Even my parents, who all too often seemed stuck in a perpetual melancholy were visibly elated. Then the houselights, little more than strings of bulbs clinging to the seams of the tent, began to dim, and a cascade of blue lights illuminated the elevated wooden ring that served as a stage. All the people in the audience were lost in that moment, as though they’d turned into a single, roaring entity. From where I was, they appeared to be little more than a loud and pulsating foreground, a sort of extension of the stage, and my parents and I were the only ones left – that is, until a grinning, short, comically overweight man waddled out from behind a red curtain positioned right up against one side of the stage. He wore an ostentatious purple tailcoat and white slacks, and save for a set of bushy eyebrows and a handlebar mustache that spanned the length of his face, he was completely hairless. In one hand, he held a curved cane, and in the other, a black top hat adorned with a peacock feather. A microphone attached somewhere above slowly lowered before him, and as he prepared to speak, he placed the hat on his head, adding at least a foot to his height and freeing up his hand to dramatically grab the microphone.
“Prepare yourselves,” he said in a booming voice, effectively taming the audience. “You are in for an evening of laughter, excitement, and nail-biting terror. Ladies and gentlemen, I envy you, seeing our show for the first time. Having the opportunity to witness this magic with fresh eyes . . .” He trailed off for a moment, looking into the audience with a nostalgic smile. “I’ll be your friendly, charming host, Buster Hornsby.”
The audience became loud only for a moment before he resumed his speech. “Would you like to meet some of my friends? I know they’d just love to meet you.”
Again, the audience roared. “I’m sorry, I’m feeling a bit hard of hearing this evening, could you say that one more time?”
The audience roared even louder, and this time, even his voice couldn’t silence them. “Excellent, I’m happy to hear that. Now it’s my pleasure to introduce the Buster Hornsby and Friends Traveling Circus!”
The curtain drew back to reveal a collection of strange and talented individuals, running and jumping onto the stage. They juggled, they rode unicycles, they accomplished ludicrous acrobatic feats, and loud, upbeat music blared through the tent. At this, the audience erupted into a jovial madness, making more noise than I thought my small town was capable of. Without saying a word, my father lifted me onto his shoulders, no longer concerned if it was safe, if my supposedly brittle bones could handle it.
The rest of the show managed to be equally thrilling, and to this day I could recount every second of it. The show had an energy to it, a sort of electricity, and I felt it in my body and my soul long after Mr. Hornsby delivered his final words. But the night did end; we all filtered out into the cold evening, wordlessly mourning our impending return to our empty lives, and by the morning the tent had gone, taking any trace that the show had ever happened with it. That was the first circus I ever saw.
I didn’t see another for many years. Time passed. I outgrew my youthful maladies. I got a job. I got married. I left my small town for a distant block of suburbia. And in that time, during yet another November, my wife went into labor.
I was in a meeting when I heard, and I hurried to the hospital as soon as I got the call. She was watching the soaps when her water broke. We were a little bit earlier than expected, and although her face softened somewhat at my presence, I could tell from the moment I walked in that she was in a panic.
“Thank God you’re here,” she said. “I can’t believe we’re doing this.”
“Of course I’m here,” I said. “How are you feeling?”
“Not too bad, worst is yet to come.” She paused for a moment, and lines of agony crisscrossed her forehead. When she went to resume talking, her voice came out as a hoarse whisper. “I’m scared.”
I planted a kiss on her cheek. “I know, baby, I know. But it won’t be long. And at the end of it, we’ll have our boy. We’ll have our beautiful baby boy.”
She grabbed my hand, squeezing with every ounce of strength she could muster. “Listen, I need you to do something.”
“Sure, what’s wrong?”
“When my water broke, I panicked. I didn’t know what to do. I grabbed my bag and called Judy as fast as I could, but we were both in such a hurry that I think we might’ve left the front door open. I know you want to be by my side, and that’s great and I love you for it, but I need you to go home and make sure everything is alright.”
I hesitated a second, though I couldn’t tell you exactly what was going through my head or how I was feeling. “Yeah, no worries.”
“And then you’ll come right back here, okay? It’s not a big deal, it won’t take you long. You won’t miss anything.”
“It’s fine. I’m alright. I’ll be back in a second, you won’t even know I’m gone.”
She let out a peculiar chuckle, a noise from deep within her that conveyed a sense of wisdom, perhaps with a hint of weariness, and she released her grip on my hand. As I went to leave the room, she called out after me. “I love you.”
I turned and smiled, giving her a friendly wink, and made my way through the hallways of the hospital. When I emerged from the lobby doors, I began tugging at my tie, struggling to catch my breath. It was one of those brisk days with a dry bite to the air, like the kind we used to get back home. I guess I’d become accustomed to the air of the suburbs, all stale with its slight hints of smog and backyard barbecue. As I fumbled around for the car keys in my jacket pocket I felt an imposing sense of dread descend upon me, an ominous aura that had no discernible source and seemingly no tangible cause. I shook my head to try and clear the feeling, but to no avail, so I unlocked my car and drove away.
I was granted a brief moment of relief as I saw the hospital disappearing in the rear view mirror, and when I entered the highway my mind felt brand new, like I’d just woken up. But this peace was once again lost as I approached my exit, feeling inexplicably nauseated by the prospect of winding my way through the neighborhoods. I’d never much cared for our house, or any suburban house for that matter. My wife was the one who picked it out. She turned house-hunting into a passion, throwing around terms like “open floor plan” and “mid-century modern,” fawning over differences so minute I couldn’t even notice them. The neighborhoods made me especially uncomfortable. They were just colonies of identical houses, stifling and surreal, and when viewed from above, as in a seat on an airplane, they took on a more sinister quality, looking like some kind of cancerous blight emanating from the city center. When I was a boy, I wanted nothing more than to escape, to turn on my back on my hospital rooms and my hopeless hometown, but never would I have suspected that my new life could crush my soul even more thoroughly.
Before today, I’d never given much thought to my situation. For all its faults, life had always been very good at distracting me from my pain, and these distractions grew more and more profound with age. So I guess it’s a bit of a paradox how my first instance of true clarity occurred at a time when life was at its most hectic. In any case, driving along those twisted roads, I felt enlightened. It was as though, for the very first time, I could feel my own unhappiness. My resignation to a suburban life had turned to contempt, to a deep dissatisfaction with all my choices and the choices of those around me. The emptiness inside had been filled with a harsh and indiscriminate hatred towards everything and nothing.
I saw the ugly houses surrounding me on either side and gripped my steering wheel harder and harder until they stopped coming. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to what I was seeing and I realized I’d reached the large shopping mall at the center of my neighborhood. There was nothing particularly remarkable about it, it was just an ordinary mall, and on most days I didn’t give it a second glance. But today I couldn’t help but pull in and take a look, as in the parking lot sat a large circus tent.
It was nearly identical to the one I recalled from my youth, only it was dark and empty inside, populated only by a crew of burly men dressed in black hauling equipment this way and that. I hadn’t known about any circus, though my route home from work didn’t take me by the mall so I guess that made sense. Yet there were no signs, no indication of any sort that there ever was a show at all, as though the scene existed only to be seen by me at that particular moment.
I got out of my car in a dreamlike state and walked through the parking lot, meandering through the shell of the tent. It felt so much bigger without any stage or seats. I called out, though I don’t remember exactly what I said, just to see if it would echo, but as soon as the sound escaped my lips it was swallowed by the vast space surrounding it. The workers conducted their business around me, like my presence was something ordinary, or at the very least expected.
Eventually, I exited the tent, walking out the opposite side from where I came in, and before me sat a small circle of trucks and trailers. Here, too, crew members went about their business, determined to operate as silent and efficient automata. I wandered, stumbling and weaving between them, still in some sort of trance, looking for any sign of life that might wake me from this unearthly nightmare. And then, seemingly emerging from nothing, I found what I was looking for.
Standing out from a backdrop of uniformity was an RV, an old Winnebago with cardboard taped over a broken window and the door hanging ajar. A man leaned against the side of the vehicle, hands nestled in his pockets. He appeared rather normal from afar, in the sense that he was of average height and build, wore a faded button-up shirt and jeans, and had a neatly combed swath of hair on his head. But as I got nearer, I saw that his face was covered in a jarring mosaic of clown makeup, wiped and smeared across the lines and contours of his complexion as though, try as he might, he was unable to remove it from his skin.
He straightened somewhat as he saw me approaching, though there was a lethargy to his movements, and I got the sense that he had been waiting for me, perhaps reluctantly, but waiting all the same. I kept walking towards him, trying to remain unperturbed by his gaze.
“Well?” he said, regarding me with what seemed to be a mixture of curiosity and impatience.
I stopped abruptly maybe ten paces in front of him, trying to find something to say. I wasn’t even sure if I’d heard him at first; I feared I might’ve imagined it. And I had the curious feeling that I was out of words, and a greater force was preventing me from responding.
He nodded at the open door. “Are you coming or not?”
For a moment I was dying and my life flashed before my eyes. I saw hospital rooms and doctor’s offices. I saw Buster Hornsby and the splendor of my first circus. I saw the small town of my youth and the suburbs of adulthood. I saw my parents and my wife and my son who might be born at any minute. And I saw those pretty November lights, shining high above that icy lake and making me feel like everything would be okay.
I still didn’t say anything. I don’t think my words existed at that moment. I resumed walking, and I felt his stare following my movements. I didn’t break stride until I reached the door of the RV, at which point I offered him a small nod. Then I climbed in. A faint smile crossed his face as he lazily hoisted himself into the RV.
“Let’s go,” he said, and shut the door behind him.
This piece has already been published in Sandpiper: A Journal of Literature and Art (https://www.sandpipermag.com/1-prose-adam-dorsheimer.html)