Jarret sputtered and spat out lukewarm water. “Quit it, I’m fine.”
Stepping back, Maggy set the bucket beside her, the rim dampening her stout hip. “You’re going to kill yourself if you keep trying this.”
Jarret sat up and ripped off his feathered wig. Draping an arm over his knee, he nursed the bump at the back of his head while his baggy sleeves of blue and yellow fluttered and his ruby pants billowed from the nighttime breeze sneaking through the big top’s flaps. The colors and sequins dulled in the lone lantern’s faint light, but the meaning behind the bright hues irked him all the same.
“What else am I supposed to do?” He pitched the wig at Maggy’s tiny feet. “I don’t want to end up wearing this all my life.”
“We are who we are.” Maggy shrugged and chucked bucket at him. “Your folks will be worried.”
“They’re always worried.”
“If you’d stop trying to break your neck they might not have a reason.”
Standing, Jarret collected the wig and bucket, and walked with Maggy whose thick blonde plaits bounced at his waist. Once they cleared the tanbark ring, he held open the back exit, the one the audience never saw coming. The fairground’s oil lanterns poured inside, their topaz glow dancing along the steel and wire. Gleams scampered up the narrow ladder and onto the spit of board as easily as any of the Nazzarenos. The fly bar from which he’d fallen hung among it all, empty and impotent without momentum or a proper acrobat at the reins.
Sighing, Jarret turned his back on the array and let the tent flap fall closed behind him.
With a wave, Maggy shuffled toward the stoutest wagon in the back lot. “I’ll see you in the morning?”
His arms burned at the reminder. “The juggling routine?”
She nodded, waved again, and then sped her trundle when her husband called in his high-pitched welcome. For a moment, Jarret envied her stature, one fitting her into a circus slot with ease. She wasn’t going to be a master of ceremony, or the beautiful Adrena riding Trent’s white stallions in silken sashes held on by will alone. Maggy would do her bit with the rest of her kin, tumbling, generating laughs, being the butt of jokes or, if he could manage it, being juggled like one of Barrington’s clubs.
The idea made him laugh, a sharper less amused sound than they’d want from the crowd.
Shaking his head and massaging already strained biceps, Jarret ambled to the sapphire and emerald striped wagon tucked near the perimeter, stopping to fill the bucket along the way.
“There you are!” Harriet rounded the campfire, a spitted chicken with skin browned and glistening in her hands. “Been making a nuisance of yourself?”
Her eyes glittered mischievously, and Jarret knew his mother would rather hear him say yes, that he’d been rolling in hay with one of the hawker’s daughters or nipping a drink from Trent’s stock then where he had been.
“You know me, Ma.”
Jarret set the bucket by the wagon’s steps and plopped onto the third tread. Harriet tossed him a rag from the belt of her dress and soaking the cloth, he started on the makeup clinging to his face like a second skin.
His mother sashayed to the folding table decked with her daffodil yellow tablecloth and hefted the carving knife. “Dinner! Bec, Oliver!”
Out under the stars, she carved the roast amid chipped plates, tin cups, and silverware arranged as if they dined in some hotel parlor rather than in the midst of rolling homes and stretched canvas. When the wagon door thudded open Jarret inched aside, making room for those heeding his mother’s call and dinner’s smoky aroma.
Bec tumbled over him instead, handspringing off his shoulders and landing with a forward flip. Dusting her hands on her loose slacks, she cocked him a knowing glance. “You’re late again.”
“And you’re still short.”
She stuck out her tongue.
At their mother’s beckon, Bec pirouetted into a pouring sequence with pitchers for water and wine.
Two larger feet thumped at the wagon’s entrance and Jarret cringed.
“You were doing it again.” Oliver’s soft-spoken tone didn’t include a question or even surprise. The resignation, however, slathered Jarret’s back.
Shrugging, Jarret made another swipe at the makeup on his left cheek.
Oliver sat beside him and lit his cigarette. White stained his left ear where he had missed a spot when washing up, although rough calluses couldn’t be missed on the fingers he brought to his lips.
“Why do you do it, boy?”
Jarret stared at the multicolored rag in his hands. “I want to be more than this.”
“We’ve been doing this for more than three generations.”
“I know and it works for you, for Ma, even Bec. I want—”
Jarret glared but his father exhaled a long line of blue tinged smoke while keeping his eye on Ma and Bec who tended the table.
Ringing out the rag, Jarret scrubbed his forehead. “This isn’t about a girl.”
“It’s always about a girl.” Oliver tapped the ash from his cigarette. “Did I ever tell you about how I met your mother?”
“At some circus?”
“She was in the audience.” His grin spread and his brown eyes wandered over Harriet in her calico dress before looking off into the past. “She was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen, still is. When she smiled at you, you felt like you could fly.”
Harriet looked up from the carving board, her beaming smile seeming to understand where Oliver’s thoughts had wandered. He chuckled then took, and held a second drag.
“That’s nice, Dad. But—”
“I almost left the troop for her.” An exhalation of smoke dashed the idea away. “Her parents didn’t approve. They wanted a steadier man. Had their sights set on this banker fellow, stiff as a brick he was. But your mother knew her own mind, always has. She’d packed up her things by the last night we were in town. I missed the finale helping hide her in your Grandparents’ wagon. She stayed there all night.”
He coughed in a way Jarret took to mean she hadn’t been alone and he shifted his attention back to scrubbing before his imagination supplied any images.
“She was up making breakfast at a table like this,” Oliver motioned at the dishes and roast, “happy as a blue bird in spring.”
“I know she likes this life, Dad, and you do too. But it’s not for me.”
Oliver pulled a drag from his cigarette so long Jarret thought the smoke might fill his too big shoes.
“You don’t listen do you boy?”
With a grunt of effort, Oliver rose from the step, the wood emitting a similar groan. From his seat, Jarret watched the trio milling around the table, perching on crates or barrels, their faces illuminated by the taper Harriet had lit. The rouge that had colored their cheeks during the show seemed to reappear, but their smiles didn’t need the white outline or the lipstick to grow wider. Bec made some joke, one she’d probably picked up from one of the roustabouts, and Harriet half-heartedly chastised her amid their laughter.
Her beaming smile faded a hair when she glanced his way. “It’s getting cold, Jarret.”
“I’m going to change first.”
Harriet nodded and shooed him to hurry.
Heaving off the step with a grunt, Jarret grimaced at how close he sounded to Oliver, and hung his head as he traipsed into the wagon.
He squeezed against the bunks, his and Bec’s stacked atop one another, and past the trunks where costumes waited for the fool to fill them. With brisk twitches, he unfastened his costume’s buttons and sloughed out of the flapping cloth and the booted feet attached at the bottom. Night air teased his bared chest and boxers, the thick carpet of the floor soft against his toes.
Shaking the outfit, he eyed it for stains or dirt, tears or damage from the performance or the fall, and gave it a quick sniff. Determining it could last another show before being washed, he folded the costume into the leather-strapped trunk stenciled with his Grandfather’s name.
The thud of the lid closing nearly obscured the tap at the window. He peered at the open pane nestled by the door leading to his parent’s room when a shadow moved outside.
Irene’s soprano danced through the wood and soaked into the planks like water on dried sand.
Jarret gulped, suddenly parched, and drifted over to the sill. Poking his head out, he met Irene’s green eyes as she stared up past the wagon’s wheel, her loosen locks of blonde usually so tightly pulled back framing her alabaster face. Her gaze widened, her cheeks flushing into roses, and he suddenly remembered his near nakedness.
“Just a second.”
Ducking back inside, he fumbled for the nearest garment, slinging his arms through the sleeves of a bright red jacket three times too large, the one Oliver wore for the fireman skit. He held the lapels closed and leaned out of the window again.
“What are you doing here?”
“Papa says if you are going break your neck you might as well try breaking it right.”
Irene glanced toward the front, where Jarret could hear Oliver, Harriet, and Bec chattering. Lifting up on to her toes, she balanced as easily as she did on the high wire and lowered her voice to an intimate whisper.
“Go to the trapeze tonight after supper. He’ll be there.”
“Will you?” Jarret gripped the sill, wishing he could seize back the question as easily.
Color bloomed on her cheeks once more, joining a slyer grin. “You’ll have to find out.”
As he stood stunned and mute, Irene’s smile brightened until she seemed to glow. Slinking from the wagon, she backpedaled with a wiggle of long, graceful fingers, the delicacy of the movement equal to her dashing stride when she spun toward the Nazzareno’s compound.
Jarret didn’t move until she’d vanished behind the intervening stables upwind from their own. Pivoting, he slumped against the sideboards cushioned by hung costumes, his thoughts dizzy.
Thumps on the steps turned his head. The door flung open and Bec squinted.
“No.” Jarret chuckled, but the laugh cracked midway. “Not yet.”
“Then come and eat.”
“I’ll be right there.”
Bec rolled her eyes and sprang away, the door slamming. When the echo died, Jarret tipped out of his recline and reached for the clothes he’d left on his lower bunk. The slacks and shirt felt snug against him after the loose costume, the slippers too small on his feet.
He imagined the Nazzareno’s costumes were far snugger and the image of Irene, dressed for a show, warmed him through the tips of his dark curls. He wondered for a moment if Guido Nazzareno would make him wear one of those plastered leotards if he showed up tonight.
Another round of laughter from outside seemed to mock the idea.
He’d seen Irene and her three brothers manage it, and being in a revealing outfit seemed the least of his worries. Swinging on the trapeze under the guidance of a master suddenly became a far more daunting prospect.
“You can’t sit at watch anymore.”
Determined if not fearless, Jarret opened the wagon’s door and found Oliver staring at him, understanding igniting his father’s dark gaze. When Oliver glanced away, he settling on Harriet who tittered on about some exploit the leaping troupe of dogs had managed with some bank safes.
“Could you imagine them doing that at real bank?”
“They’d be kicked out for sure,” said Bec around her gnaw on a chicken leg.
Oliver dragged on his cigarette. “Everyone’s got to find their place.”
Harriet’s hand slipped over his, and then their intertwined fingers disappeared from the tabletop. Jarret knew they’d still be holding fast, happy and satisfied in the home, in the life they’d chosen, the one their hard work, their love, and their risks had made.
Jarret jolted at his father’s voice. Shutting the door, he descended the steps, taking each as if it might be his last. In a similar quiet, he sat on the crate left open for him across the table from his father.
“What are you going to do?”
Jarret seized the large fork Harriet always set out for him, the only one out of the mismatched collection suitable for his massive hand. “I’m going to have dinner.”
Oliver exhaled a ring of smoke. “Good start.”
“Of course it is.” Harriet nudged the napkin she’d laid out and Jarret dutifully slung it over his knee. “The boy needs to keep up his strength if he’s going to be swinging all about.”
Jarret held the mouthful of chicken between his teeth, preventing himself from choking. “You know?”
“I’m not deaf or blind, Jarret.” Harriet tapped her finger on the end of her button nose. “I see everything, even better than Madame Zarina.”
“So you know what’s going to happen?”
Her grin grew broad but her mouth curved at the ends as if her lips were weighed by a sadder thought. “I know, no matter what goes on in that tent tonight, my boy’s going to fly.”