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Belly Breathing


August and miserably hot. Unbearable, sweltering heat. The air's too thick to breathe, never mind prance around in a ratty wig and face paint. I'm pacing my trailer, shirtless, in rainbow suspenders and hoop pants, thinking how there's nothing funny about polyester in sweltering jungle heat.

All week the temperature's been brutal: ninety or worse, humidity like you wouldn't believe. Today's no better, but it's a travel day, thank God, except we're not moving. Rocky has the whole caravan squeezed into a shady rest stop just inside Connecticut. I can't pull any air into my trailer. I'm pacing, dripping sweat, thinking about how I'm wasting my life, honking my nose and making balloon animals for barely more than minimum wage.

Technically it's my day off, but I'm in makeup because we've got a mall promo up the road. No way to call in sick, though I am genuinely nauseous because I can't get any air. I'm no good in this kind of heat.

All month we've been touring New England, setting up Wednesdays around midnight, tearing down Mondays before dawn. Doing all these dinky little towns named after Native Americans, places I've never heard of. Not our standard route, Rocky admits. And for once he's not lying, because I checked with Lester, our egg-headed strongman, and Lester tells me it's true. We're skipping all of last year's dead spots, doing the money towns, those sweet honey pots thick with baby boomers and lots of small churches.

Lester is a former CPA, and his assessment isn't at all reassuring. His roughed-out figures (using conservative estimates) show Rocky's Circle Circus to be hurting, and hurting bad. According to Lester, Rocky's cash flow is running slower than a dying man's morphine drip.

So I'm smoking dope and pacing, worrying about my future. I've got a bad case of the jitters, though I'm not seriously concerned because logic dictates you don't fire your last clown, no matter how bad the numbers get. Nevertheless, I keep waiting for something bad to happen, for the other big floppy shoe to drop: for my ex-wife's lawyers to track me down, or the state police to haul all our asses off to jail, or for one of the tigers to throw a hissy fit and rip open my jugular.

All summer our two big cats, God bless 'em, have endured the jungle heat, which genetically at least they're used to, though most of the other animals look like they need a priest. The only really good news is that the climate is helping the gate, pulling people out of their hot little houses. The snack bar is setting records; between shows, Rocky has us all taking turns running for ice.

I'm doing eight performances a day—five with the tigers, three with the Martinez brothers (a pair of convicted felons with moustaches the size of coat hangers, and not really brothers—merely second cousins who share an unnatural interest in playing with fire). Between shows I'm getting a lousy thirty-minute break, during which I'm supposed to eat, shit, repaint my face, and then make balloon animals for anything under four feet. Except it's too hot to move. And the last thing I need in this heat is an ex-felon juggling a flaming torch past my ear. But when Rocky says work, we work.

I've got my trailer's porthole-sized window wedged open, but the place is still like a pizza oven. I'm studying the pinkish stain my wig left on my pillowcase, when the boss man himself starts pounding on my door, crashing his fists like thunder, making the walls shake. In a voice deeper than God's, he reminds me that we've got a two-hour promo in a mall parking lot two miles up the road. "Quick gig. No elephants, no torches, no Martinez Brothers. Just you and the tigers showing your teeth."

Twenty minutes later, we're moving again. We circle back to the interstate, clog the middle lane, all our trailers and trucks tailgating one another. I don't have a valid driver's license, so the kid who works the Dunk Tank is my designated driver. I'm rocking side to side while wrestling with my racquet-sized shoes, wishing I'd taken a dump in the woods when I had the chance, when through the front window I observe Rocky's truck veering toward an exit.

"Hey! Follow him," I shout to the kid. "Follow the tigers."

But the dumb jerk's up there with his Sony headphones capping his ears, oblivious to the real world. So with one shoe on I lurch forward and bang on the glass. He's numb, and despite his forty-dollar investment I can hear the crappy music leaking out of his head.

I kick the wall between us. I thump and bang until I get his attention, then I give him the thumbs right. He blinks and nods, his mouth spreading into a jack-o'-lantern grin that would scare the Madonna.

I know a fuck-you grin when I see one, so I squash my rubber nose up against the glass. "Eyes on the road, asshole!"

He jerks us into the exit lane. I watch until I can read the lettering on the back of Rocky's truck, then I sit on the floor and straighten my laces. I need to look sharp. Today, it's just the boss man, the tigers, and me.

It's a laugh shot, really. A swindle aimed at the helpless parents of spoiled youngsters. Entice the little ones with the clown and pull in the whole family is the scheme. So with Simba and Rambo posing on their platforms, I hand out yellow tickets through the bars, free passes good for brats twelve and under. I give 'em away by the handfuls, because they're worthless and the sooner I get done, the better. I slip extras to the pretty moms and the pathetically old, keeping my white-gloved hands well out of reach of the teenagers.

On a dare, or a whim, a maladjusted teen will snatch your gloves and run off like a spooked monkey. Sometimes they go for the wig, pulling at a thread not meant to be pulled. The worst of them, the truly angry kids, will turn the worthless passes into ammunition. So I avoid as many teenagers as I can, handing them nothing, because spit balls and other paper projectiles are a hazard when working with tigers. The older kids think it's all a game, like I'm a cartoon, like the tigers don't have real teeth.

Last month in Schenectady, before this miserable heat swept in, Simba caught a paper glider dead-center in her good eye. Poor baby nearly ripped my arm off.

My wound stretched shoulder to elbow, though it wasn't as painful as it later looked or should have been. Once I got past the shock of it, I hammed it up, high-stepping as I ran around the cage, all the while applying pressure, squeezing like a son of a bitch to stop the hemorrhage. Once I got Simba calmed down, I gave her a wet kiss right on the snout. She's half-blind, the poor thing, but she knows my smell. Then I crumbled the paper glider and put it in my mouth.

The Schenectady crowd went gaga. The fools thought it was just part of the show. They hooted and hollered, loving every minute.

Backstage, Rocky's wife, Ruthie, stitched the wound with a needle and thread. "This will definitely scar," she said, shaking her head at me.

"Sew, baby, sew," I said, smearing white-face on the bloody towel she'd fixed into a tourniquet.

She worked with such precision and skill that I wanted to watch every movement, but I simply couldn't. Instead, I bit down against the pain and admired the heart-shaped sweat stain on Ruthie's blouse. I was about ready to faint when Rocky stuck his head in to remind me, of all things, that I'm only a few weeks away from complete health benefits.

Ruthie told him to shut up. "Something this deep requires a surgeon."

Rocky and I grinned at one another, but we got caught.

"I'm talking Frankenstein scar," Ruthie said. "Are either one of you registering that?"

Rocky rubbed his arm in the exact spot where Simba had cut mine to the bone.

"Hey, as long as it's not the face," I said, which is my basic philosophy on life.

"Hold still," Ruthie said, making me wince.

Though she's no beauty queen, on a chilly night with a beer buzz and a hard-on, I could definitely go for Ruthie. She's headstrong, with a brain between her ears, and generally that's a hands-down no-boner for me, because I'm hypo-allergic to educated women. But if Rocky weren't around, say, if he had a massive coronary, I'd definitely take aim at getting Ruthie's cute ballerina torso butt-naked and belly-down. And I'd wager she wouldn't put up too much of a struggle.

Our stop in Providence is poorly planned. We've had no TV time, only a couple of radio spots and a small chintzy ad in the Sunday paper. The mob in the mall parking lot is substandard. Barely enough people to fill a school bus, and most of them are teenagers. But I whoop it up just the same, hopping around in the heat like I've been huffing polyurethane.

When all the tickets are disbursed, I wobble my knees like I'm so shocked and disappointed to be out of tickets that I'm going to drop dead between the tigers. Then I fall into a reverse-flip one-handed handstand, balancing on my good arm, holding my position until the crowd breaks into mild unenthusiastic applause.

Once I've got them smiling, I scuffle with the tigers, wink at the babes, twist a couple of dozen balloon animals for the kiddies, and occasionally squirt my flower through the bars at some teenager. From time to time, I turn a few heads by throwing my voice deep into the crowd. "Bravo," I say. And: "This guy's good!" And: "I'm taking the whole family to see this clown!"

At first no one knows it's me, then some punk catches on.

"It's the clown talking," he says. "Watch his throat."

What this pimply mallrat doesn't know, of course, is that ventriloquism comes from the Latin, meaning, literally, to speak from the belly. Everybody always thinks it's done in the throat, but the belly is where the air comes from. The trick is pushing the right amount of air past your vocal cords, using your stomach muscles to squeeze up the little puffs and whispers. For a while, I fake like the tigers are talking, first Rambo, who's got a metastasized cancer running all through him, then Simba, who's clawing her ass like she's spawning fleas again. I project two or three taunts at a couple of tall black kids, one of them a wiry scarecrow palming a basketball; the other, a beefy giant wearing his hat backwards. The kid with the ball strikes a Statue of Liberty pose and shoots me a look like he personally wants to bite my head off. I counter by tickling Simba's throat. When she stretches her mouth, I pinch her fangs while pumping a scratchy growl up from my stomach. She roars and I roar, and Rambo, not to be outdone, throws in a pathetic little growl of his own. The whole front row retreats a step and a couple of brats in strollers scream like it's the Apocalypse.

Afterwards, minus my nose and wig, I smoke a pin-joint of primo Hawaiian in my trailer. The dope is courtesy of Lester, a sample of the batch he's trying to sell. I blow a stream of smoke at the window and watch the crowd scatter. My makeup pinches every pore, and my armpits are itching. (Heat rash? Fleas?) But all I want to do now is get high and forget I'm a clown.

When the tarpaulin drops on the tiger's cage, the last few stragglers slink away. Yellow tickets are scattered everywhere; they cover the asphalt like water lilies dead from the heat. A few yards in front of me, a couple of chic moms with strollers linger, gabbing to one another and sucking up the sun.

One holds a cigarette scissored between her long fingers. I check her out. She's sharp—a Scandinavian blonde with hair cropped like a Nazi helmet. She's wearing a yellow tank top several sizes too small, stone-washed cut-offs, rope sandals. A real looker. I remember her coming up to the cage and putting her hand out, her inch-long fingernails, pink as cotton candy, reaching toward me like claws. (I handed her a stack of passes so thick that had they been U.S. currency, she could have retired.)

I crouch close to the window, touch my nose to the glass, make a little clicking sound in my throat, and immediately sense a stiffness forming somewhere down in my floppy pants. I think about rapping the glass and inviting both ladies in.

Cigar, anyone?

Slouching beside Blondie, another mother, wild red hair tucked and tied off with a white ribbon, produces a thick stack of photos from her straw handbag. She's cute, too, with a broad European nose and a jaw line that suggests at least one Neanderthal shanghaied some Homo sapiens bride. Red looks delicious in her striped running shorts and V-necked T-shirt. But she's yesterday's coffee compared with Blondie, who is absolutely drop-dead bury-me-with-a-hard-on gorgeous. Heart-shaped ass. Bullet breasts. Big doll eyes. She's a full-lipped, animated talker. Even her teeth are sexy. Richly tanned arms and legs, slender and smooth.

She's tall, nervous, and thin. While she gabs she pinches her hips, lifts her chin, squares her shoulders, shakes her hair. Did I mention her long nails remind me of cotton candy?

Rocky used to have a cotton candy machine, an ancient monster with a crank-up awning. Some nights Lester and I would get that monster spinning, and we'd whip up a batch—we'd go crazy mixing colors. The bearings were bad and the thing made a racket, so we couldn't run it long. We'd pull the spun sugar out with our bare hands and feed ourselves like monkeys.

I could eat Blondie's hair like that—a sweet cottony handful at a time, taking pause to lick between my fingers.

Her teeth glint in the sun as the sweet smoke develops into a nice warm buzz. I put the joint to my lips, but it's dead. I fish out a cigarette, the last in the pack. It's slightly bent but smokable. I light up and practice my French inhale while I watch Blondie steer her stroller toward the mall, her ass doing a cha-cha. A real high-stepper.

When she stops to let a Porsche back out of a space, I watch the driver give her an assessing look, then peel out, tires screeching. She starts again, unfazed: a two-handed push to get going, then settles into a one-handed rumba rhythm ain't-I-adorable glide. I mock-punch the lump in my pants, saying "Down, Simba. Down, Boy!"

Let me tell you how it is: Once in a blue moon, pig-faced Priscilla, who can ride a pony one-handed through a fiery hoop, will visit my trailer and we'll play hide the weenie until one of us gets bored or tired, but other than that, clown life ain't no bed of concubines. Tugging at my waistband, I shout at my dick to please remember that it and I are sworn to a sacred oath. Forget Rocky's rules on fraternizing, I'm talking my face is painted on an egg shell hanging in the Clown Hall of Fame. I'm fully registered, and that makes blacklisting me easier than filling pie tins with whipped cream. I peel off my costume and put everything on hangers. I scrub up real good, then squeeze into jeans and a fishnet sweater, no shirt. I grab my wallet and tuck it into a side pocket where it makes a little square. From my dressing table, I take out this flip phone with a dead battery and shove it into my back pocket. Then I go outside to find Rocky. He's up front, checking the tarpaulin around the tiger cage, pulling on knots. The back of his shirt is soaked with sweat.

It's hot. Rocky is chewing an unlit cigar. He is short and heavyset. He works smoothly, like a prizefighter rehearsing in slow motion. His bald head is too small for his neck and chest, and he reminds me a little of Curly from the original Three Stooges, only sunburnt and a little less round. When he glimpses me out of the corner of his eye, he works his cigar and looks across the lot. Free passes are littered everywhere.

Rocky squints at the sun and says, "Do me a favor, okay?"

"What's that, boss?"

"Don't alienate the customers, okay? Not before they've become customers, okay? And don't make the little kids cry. It's not on our program."

"Gotcha, boss."

Behind the tarpaulin, the tigers are padding back and forth, antsy in the heat. Rocky wipes his hands on the front of his shirt as he comes over. The shirt has a picture of Simba and Rambo with their heads together beneath the words Circle Circus, Inc. Simba is showing teeth, but Rambo, who's dying, looks bored.

Rocky slides a hand over his scalp like he's smoothing hair. He looks me up and down. "You quitting today?"

It's our little joke, because I'm the third clown in eighteen months. And because I've never worked with animals before.

"Yeah, I'm running off to join civilization."

He snorts. "That's funny," he says. He squints toward the mall. The cars in between appear to be wavering in the unbearable heat. After a three count, he wags his head. "Something you need in there?"

"Running in for smokes. If that's alright?"

He checks the glitzy watch strapped upside down to his fat wrist. "Don't be long. We're out of here in twenty."

I crank up the wattage on my smile. I imagine screwing his wife while he's dangling from a meat hook. "Yes, sir. Twenty minutes. Gotcha, chief."

He taps his watch. "Twenty means twenty." He gives me a stern look.

"No problem," I say, shuffling a few steps toward the mall, making a point to stomp on the littered tickets like I'm stepping stones across a swamp. One adheres to my sneaker and travels with me a few steps until I shake it off. A dozen car-widths away, Rocky shouts, "Hey, clown, how's that paper cut?"

I don't turn, so he can't see me smile. "You want to see the scar."

"What scar? My wife sews as straight a line as anybody."

When I turn to see if he's smiling, he's bent over, scooping up tickets faster than a migrant worker harvesting potatoes.

The mall's AC feels good on my face. It feels wonderful for about three seconds. Then I'm suddenly chilled to the bone. Frigid air is coming at me from six directions. I rub my hands together as I walk. The mall's center is an oasis—all ferns and dark glimmering wood in a sunken area with a pool-sized fountain surrounded by stone benches. Blondie is sitting on one, legs crossed, rocking her stroller. I circle round to get a better angle. She's got her chin propped on a hand supported by an elbow supported by a knee. She taps her foot, mechanically, like someone upstairs is working her strings. She drums her long fingernails against her cheek, starring at the slippery tiles. I can't figure if she's talking to herself, or to the baby.

I ride the escalator to the second level and get a sniper's view. Down in the middle of the little oasis, it's just her and the kid, who is slumped left, passed out cold. I think about what a woman who looks like that says when she talks to herself. If I looked like that I'd speak only to the mirror and snub everything else. I'd be like that queen in Snow White who was all in a tizzy when the mirror said she wasn't top banana.

I start to get hard looking down at Blondie's leg jerking and twitching like it's on a string. She doesn't look like she's going any place fast, so I duck into CVS to get cigarettes.

While I'm in line, standing behind a blue-haired woman cradling enough deodorant to slick down a football team, I try on sunglasses. There's a tiny mirror mounted on the carousel display. I look at myself at angles and think: a young Jerry Lewis with a John Lennon haircut. I like what I see, so I wear the glasses up to the register. When the teenage clerk looks at me, I snap off the tag and hand it to her. She shows me her braces, then seals her mouth with a professional cashier's smile. I get a pack of Marlboros, too. I tell her I don't need a bag. She hands me my change with the receipt, her eyes already focused on the next poor soul.

At the railing, I think it's the sunglasses playing tricks with the light, but no, Blondie is on the move, all right. With renewed vigor, she's steering a collision course for JCPenney. Fifty feet up, I stroll in the same direction, sliding the pack of Marlboros along the railing, while watching Blondie's butt bounce past a pushcart of sports memorabilia. I'm figuring Okay, JCPenney, anchor store, must have a second level. When she disappears beneath a banner that reads, "Wacky Wednesday is Discount Madness," I pick up my pace.

I find the store's entrance and cut though Ladies' wear, admiring the tight sweaters on the headless mannequins along the way. I ride the escalator down, walking a few steps ahead of the glide until I spot her; then I backpedal upward until I get my bearings. She's in Housewares, admiring a tire-sized skillet.

I stand in Jewelry, behind a young couple holding hands, but I don't take my eyes off Blondie. When she starts toward the exit, I follow. I'm less than ten feet behind her when a woman in a polka-dot dress crosses my path and takes up a position there. She's a sales clerk, with a name plate centered between her breasts that reads: Dotty. As I sidestep, Dotty asks if I'd like to open a JCPenney account.

"New customers receive an additional ten percent off all purchases for thirty days."

"Not today, Dotty," I say, brushing past her.

Twenty feet ahead, Blondie punches the button for the elevator. I stand directly behind her, admiring her bottom half.

"Pardon me," I say, "I'm doing a survey for the Monks of Mercy. By any chance, are you an unwed mother?"

She tosses her hair like she's doing a shampoo commercial, blinks.

"No, I'm not," she says. "Why?"

I look at the kid, a dirty-faced blob, sleeping and sucking air. I smile at the gold band on Blondie's ring finger. "Separated or divorced?"

She nods no, looks at the child. When she looks at me again, her eyes flicker.

I touch my chin, puckering like I'm a wizard pondering a spell. "A widow, perhaps?"

Her eyes narrow as she takes a step back. Her sweet mouth curls up and breaks into a dubious smile. "Who are you?" she says.

One other time, at the grand opening of a mall outside Georgia, I screwed a woman in her car in broad daylight. We were parked beside a dumpster near the customer pickup of a toy store. The woman, a chrome blonde with the hard body of an athlete, not your typical weak-kneed Georgian peach, believed I was a security guard. She actually believed her car was illegally parked in a handicapped zone.

I lean closer. "Mall security, ma'am."

But it's no use—I can't keep a straight face. I'm too high or too nervous. For a few hazy seconds, I get lost in her liquid eyes. Then I start rambling: "We've just been alerted that a battalion of terrorists are converging on the premises. They're armed with exploding babies and are apparently hell-bent on ruining a perfectly good shopping day." I nod at the kid who's dripping drool onto a pale blue shirt that reads Grandpa's Pride & Joy. "I'm afraid I'll have to check the little tyke's diaper, ma'am, just to be safe."

"Wait a second," she says, poking my arm with a pink fingernail. "You were that clown. I recognize the voice."

Which is preposterous, really, because one voice is not the other.

"Clown, ma'am?" My left leg trembles, going crazy as I take out the flip phone and snap it open like I'm Kirk signaling the Enterprise. "What clown is that, ma'am?"

"The one outside, before. In the cage. You gave me all those tickets." She tosses her hair again. Her smile bubbles and collapses. "Is this a gag?" she says.

I smile, not missing a beat. "Not so loud," I say. "And please! Don't look directly at the camera." Hitching a thumb over my shoulder, I drop my voice to a cool whisper. "Not yet, anyway. Freddie isn't quite ready for us."

She looks past me. "Freddie?" she says. Her face does a series of lifts and folds. "Oh my God," she says.

I mouth into the flip phone. "Tight zoom, Fred. This is our girl. Get ready for a take."

Then, tight-lipped, nostrils flared, I imitate electrical popping sounds and a crackly voice that answers, "Roger on that. Over."

Blondie stares at the flip phone. "I knew it," she says.

She looks down at her sleeping baby, smiles, touches her mouth, looks off. Her shoulders shudder and shake. One knee buckles slightly and she puts a hand on my chest. Steadying herself, she gives me half a smile, delicious and pink. "You scared me," she says, but her eyes, all wet and shining, say something else.

"Don't be nervous," I say. "Turn and smile." I loop an arm around her shoulder, pulling her in, nudging her left. We stand hip to hip. She's beaming. People stop to stare.

"I can't see," she says, squinting.

"You're not supposed to. Look straight ahead." I clamp the dead phone under my chin, cramping my neck. "Ready, Fred?"

Constricting my throat, I squeeze out more static. In a voice that sounds like it's underwater, I reply, "Ready when you are."

More bewildered shoppers gather round, stirring like wasps at a picnic. "They're filming a commercial," someone says. There's a chorus of oohs and ahhs. So I take off my glasses, grin at the crowd. "This will only take a moment, folks." I give Blondie a squeeze, aligning my fingers with her ribs. I place my other hand beneath her chin, steering her gaze to a spot no one else can see. "Right there," I say. "Big smile."

A few people squeeze behind us, mugging for the camera that isn't there.

"What channel will this be on?" somebody says.

Blondie repeats the question into my ear, her tone very much like a shy starlet on the set of her first major film. Her sweet voice vibrates all though me, until she adds, "You know, so I can tell my husband."

This revelation doesn't impact as much as it should because I'm watching two men in Catholic school blazers, both carrying walkie-talkies, racing down the escalator.

"All times," I say. "It's a multichannel package."

Blondie moves her mouth as if to ask something new, but I cut her off. I press a finger to her lips.

"Okay, people," I say. "Gather 'round, folks. Let's get this right the first time. Together, on three. Circle Circus is coming to Providence!" Their dumb looks are encouraging. "Everybody ready? All together..."

As I count off, I smooth my hand up and over Blondie's ribs and give her boob a careful squeeze. Maybe she notices, maybe she doesn't. If she's so freaking happy, why isn't she home baking cookies and knitting a Christmas scarf? Why is she lollygagging at the mall, posing for fake commercials with every clown she meets? On three, everyone shouts so loud we rouse the baby. The little creature's face tightens, then expands as he unleashes a scream like a wounded monkey. Blondie pulls away and scoops the brat up, cooing and cuddling. She looks at me as if for help, then lifts its little hand and flaps a wave for the faraway camera. I grin at the security guards, one a tall Stan Laurel type, the other a square-headed buffoon with a build like Hercules. I kiss the baby on the forehead, then, tilting in farther, give Mamma a hard kiss right on the mouth. I try slipping my tongue in but she jerks away, her face suddenly pink as her fingernails. Her eyes roll, then narrow, and for half a second she looks like she's deliberating the quality of the air, deciding if it's safe to breathe. Her nostrils flare. One shoulder dips as her legs start to go.

"Somebody, please, take my baby."

She sways; both knees buckle. Some fat lady with a bad wig grabs the kid just as Blondie teeters into the arms of Hercules.

As I'm backing away, Blondie unleashes a series of short piercing screeches that could pass for B-movie scream-queen impressions, as a chorus of beefy male voices shout in my direction. I get my elbows rocking and start speed-walking like my pants are on fire. Because it's all about an exit now, all about finding a door. I push through one, then another. The heat hits me like a wall. At the far end of the lot, littered tickets are everywhere, but the landscape has changed dramatically—no truck, no trailer. Rocky's packed up and gone.

Behind me, it's all business, all footsteps and voices, a regular stampede of crazies. And just like that time in Schenectady when Simba went a little nuts, I'm center stage, all eyes upon me, and my only concern is getting out alive.