“Don’t stand there watching me. Follow me. Show me what you can do. Everybody let go. We can make a dance floor just like a circus.” ~ Britney Spears
A rope hangs down from the center pole, thick and luxurious, suspended halfway between the tent lining above and the patchy grass below. If he stretches up on his tiptoes he can almost reach its end, where a light bulb hangs bare, naked in the middle of the Big Top. But he doesn’t stretch up because he is distracted by the endless procession of boys moving furniture in under the gaping flap at the tent’s far end.
By calling it “furniture” he is granting it a gravitas it has never had before. The tables, chairs, and stools used to be brunette, but being out in the elements season after season, and year after year, has turned them dirty blonde. They are also scarred and pitted from the fair abuse of patrons at every site, even though they are scrubbed down each time before they get packed away in the trailer.
“He stares into the open space between pieces, toward the raised stage…”
The boys are both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, as they come and go, sweaty in the glow from outside, carrying it with them inside the shadowy edifice. They are the same in every town, the stragglers and hangers on, the groupies that can’t seem to help themselves. He is always surprised at the allure that the Big Top brings with it, but then again he has also been dragged underneath its spell somehow, in some way. He sees himself as different from them, though, as they carry in piece by piece and place them one by one onto the duct taped grass.
He stares into the open space between pieces, toward the raised stage and all its future glory. But for now it sits in repose, waiting for the adulation that comes with opening night, with the pomp and circumstance of the ancient organ’s creaks and groans and the laughter of a hundred children packed into the tent. He looks up again at the hanging rope and the exposed bulb like god’s finger pointing down, and he imagines a young child on his father’s shoulders slapping at the rope with wild abandon. It’s been done many times before, but he shakes his head nonetheless.
As the boys swagger out, one by one, they pass him and he hands them one envelope apiece. They do not thank him, and only two even look him in the eye as he pays them for their time. He knows they will probably spend it on cigarettes and beer, even though they are not old enough for either.
“And he knows that this opening night will be his last, that his time under the Big Top is coming to an end.”
But he also knows they don’t come from homes where this lack of credentials will matter. He knows because he too came from one of those homes, even though it was in another era, in another time when values were different, back when the tent and everything inside of it was new.
And he knows that this opening night will be his last, that his time under the Big Top is coming to an end. The fact that he doesn’t even recall the name of the town they have stopped at is telling, the stops all blending together into one dead end, at least for him now. He feels like the furniture that has finally settled into the grass, like he’s become faded decoration for something that used to matter.
The rope light transfixes his gaze once more as it blazes to life, along with its numerous brethren hanging at various lengths throughout the rest of the Big Top. The canvas of the tent’s ceiling ripples in the incoming breeze trying to force it down, to grind it into the dust, but it stays standing. He stays standing, the envelopes all gone, in the inverse fading twilight of tiny flames going up at one time, for his last time. The performers begin to slide into the tent to practice their antics, and he slips out the back, melting into a flap that no one else can ever find.
He walks to the corner of the expansive lot, sits down on the dirt and concrete, and closes his eyes. The show is about to begin.