NOTE: “Desultores” was first published in Issue 2: Summer 2013 of the literary journal Free State Review. Visit Free State Review at www.freestaterevIew.com.
The Barnum and Bailey Circus is in town. It is West Palm Beach, Florida and Marcia Matherton is seated in the first row facing the center ring. A small boy and girl entranced by the spectacle sit on either side of her. In the center ring, six white horses gallop two abreast at speed in a tight circle. A woman in a pink tutu is balanced with a foot on each of the two lead horses. As they fly around the circle, the woman leaps back and forth from one horse to the other. Then standing on her hands on the outside horse, she reaches across the gap and grasps the surcingle of the inside animal. In one motion she arcs down between the laboring bodies and swings her legs just above the ground and just out of reach of the pounding hooves.
The clown slides through a flap in the great tent unremarked and shuffles along the row of spectators. His outfit is that of a ragged bowery bum of the 1950s. In both hands, like a ceremonial offering, he carries a large head of cabbage from which he plucks and eats small pieces. His face is a mural of sadness. A turned down mouth expressing little more than an arched black line is outlined in white grease paint. It rests in mock charcoal whiskers blacked in beneath a bulbous red nose. His head is crowned by a small round brimmed hat that allows a scraggly thicket of gray hair to escape around his ears. This mastery of sadness is not found in the frowning mouth, it lives in his eyes. They are black and appear to have pooled all the sadness of the world. He scuffles along the row of spectators and looks neither right nor left until he reaches Marcia Matherton. For a full two minutes he studies her face then tenderly pushes his cabbage forward in offering.
Marcia makes no move to turn from the clown or to receive his offering. She has never been unfaithful to her husband. Why this thought has come to her, she has no idea. But there it is. Married to Harry Matherton, he was everything she could possibly want. He had rescued her from an early pregnancy and delivered her from an isolated existence in the pine woods of north Florida. Both children were his, including the early one. Marcia touches the girl and consoles herself that she had been conceived in love.
Of course, there were times… when she danced at parties with men other than Harry and felt their bodies rubbing against her own; when Harry was away during the war and letters didn’t arrive for weeks she might have felt the need for a touch on the arm, a reassuring hand on her shoulder. But that was all… a moment of longing, then no further thought.
The horses thunder around their ring. The woman has flipped herself back onto the two lead horses. She is standing, flying with the horses, flexing in symmetry with their galloping rhythm. Her hands, in exuberant abandon are raised above her head. The clown’s eyes sadden. He draws the rejected cabbage back to his body and continues his way along the row of spectators, again looking neither right nor left.
The baby was three when Harry returned from Europe. In his absence, Marcia had delivered a beautiful little girl, worked at a downtown jewelry store to make ends meet, developed a cadre of friends and established herself in a routine that was consistent and satisfying. Then there was this man in the house, almost a stranger now, making demands on her body, her time, bending her settled life to his own hopes and his desires. He had plans for their future, plans conceived five thousand miles away, without her, and announced now with great enthusiasm.
There was no period of adjustment. Harry had met a man in the Army who told of great business opportunities in south Florida. They would move. Open a small store of their own, jewelry, handbags, tourist stuff. “The veteran money for capital,” he had said. “It’s a great opportunity.” Marcia could feel his hand on her back.
She listened and nodded. And what of the life I’ve built, she had thought. My friends, my job? Why should I be the one to change my life? The baby and I’ve gotten along fine here. Who are you, anyway to drop in and reorganize my life? Don’t you understand what I’ve done all these years? Don’t you care? Why doesn’t what I want count? She would tell him all these things in the morning.
“It sounds wonderful, Harry,” she had said at breakfast.
The clown has been standing at the far end of the big tent. The horses are facing each other in a circle in the center ring. The woman in the pink tutu touches each one on the head and at the pressure of her finger they drop to their knees. In the center of the circle, she does a tour jeté, raises her arms and the horses all stand and resume their canter around the ring. The clown is in front of Marcia again. The sadness is flooding from him and he offers his cabbage once more. What could he want? Marcia thinks. She has the presence not to move, not to reach out, but his eyes; not accusatory are soulful and Marcia feels that they are looking into her soul. The children are delighted. They know the clown has singled out their mother, they know he has offered the cabbage to no one else, and they know she is beautiful, beyond that, they know nothing.
Marcia did move. No arguments, no whining, she just picked up the baby and did what he wanted. It was as though the years of making her way while he was gone had never existed. The routine was his routine now, the rhythm of life… his rhythm, the future… his future. But I’ll be a partner, Marcia had thought. She saw herself making decisions about how they would design the store, what they would stock, how they would price their items, how they would change merchandise with changing times. Perhaps it won’t be so bad, she had thought.
And it had all worked out, the store, the business, the capital, except that Marcia was a partner in legal terms only. Harry reserved for himself all the business decision. “Marcia, you have no experience,” he had said. “You have a great personality,…be the clerk. Sell the little old ladies.” So she was a clerk, wasn’t she? No different than working for the owner of the jewelry store except that now she has to cook for this owner and he has bedroom privileges.
At the direction of the woman in the pink tutu, the white horses fly around their circle. In line by two’s they turn figure eights. I have ideas, Marcia thinks. That tacky shell jewelry has run its course. Those New York ladies want to go home with something better now, a nice handbag, a fine summer dress or blouse, and a good bathing suit that makes them look decent while they’re on the beach. Forget the teenagers, forget the beach trinkets, those conch-shell lamps and forget that damn shell jewelry, it’s the old ladies who have the money and they want quality. That’s where the future is.
The horses are outside the center ring and lined up facing the spectators. They are in front of Marcia and the children. The woman in the pink tutu is astride a middle horse. The clown has materialized in front of Marcia. Again he presents the cabbage but not before peeling off a small piece and placing it in his mouth. Marcia does not hesitate now; she reaches out, tears off a piece of the cabbage, slowly folds it into a small square and places it in her mouth. The woman in the pink tutu waves her arms once more and the horses all bow in unison at the applause of the crowd. The sad mouth of the clown doesn’t change, but Marcia notices a small glint of light brighten his eyes for just a moment.