Chapter I. Calliope
Circus Day, June 8th, 1910. Byblos, N.Y.
Blood spits back and Cobbin falls. Once-steady disciples glare, then vanish.
Jack tosses the blade in a barrel and turns to his charges. The nut-brown Gretchen bawling, but fair Eugenia staring, wide-eyed and silent. He pulls them out of the alley and into the crowd.
The parade’s passing and the throng disperses as the piping calliope brings up the rear. Jack pushes the girls in the opposite direction.
“Go on home!
They stand frozen, still bawling and staring.
“Hold her hand, ’Genia, an’ git back to Meeker Street. An’ don’ tell ’em what ya saw. Tell Trim. Go!
He gives them a shove.
“All right, Jack. We’ll go.” Always so cool, even now. “Good-bye, Jack.”
They move slowly, both looking back at him. He nods his head to prod them, then runs after the parade.
Soon he regains the crowd—but keeps moving. Faster. He passes the calliope at the bridge spanning the canal, then keeps on, deeper into the swarm. Ahead at the depot he sees him—damned Dolan at a call box. Can they have sent word already? The flatfoot scans the crowd. Their eyes meet, Jack drops back, then makes a move to cross the street. He’s behind the steam organ now, using it as cover. A streetcar marooned in the crowd blocks his way. Time is running out. The calliope slows, Jack sees a panel with a knob. He twists it, lifts the hatch, and dives in beside the boiler—then recoils from the unexpected jumble of pipes, his forearm seared and smelling of burnt cotton and hair. He draws in his limbs and huddles in a corner. As the pain becomes all-consuming, he surrenders to Sweet Oblivion, servatrix and sole dependable friend of the vagabond urchin.
Sleep now, Brave Jack, sleep while you can, for your trials have only just begun!
Beefy Dolan searches the circus lot for the scrawny hustler he’s been trying to put away since he arrived in town as an even scrawnier seven-year-old. He’s been brought in for every petty offense on the books, from number running to brawling and burglary, but nothing sticks. The boy has friends, damn them, and that maddens Officer Dolan almost as much as the boy himself. For seven long years Jack Tigue has gotten off easy. But not today. Not with another boy bleeding to death in an alley just off Hudson Street.
The crowd numbers in the hundreds, they surround the ticket wagons, while sideshow talkers peddle the Thin Man and the Tattooed Lady, and the microcephalics they refer to as the Lost Tribe of the Aztecs—twenty prodigies of nature in all! Freaks from every continent! Just ten cents, yes, just one thin dime! Then one of the spielers beckons the men, sotto voce…. Gather round, gentlemen, don’t want the women to hear…. How’d you like a peek at Selena, the sultriest snake charmer this side of the Nile, a true Mohammedan houri… in nothing but her native garb?
And I need hardly tell you, in her part of the world, the sweltering tropics… Just two bits more and see for yourself!
The candy butchers sing their wares—peanuts and taffy and a “lemonade” which curiously never quenches. And there, just over the lot-line—just far enough for the management to pretend disinterest—the grifters operate their flat joints—the gaff wheel, the shell game, and the three-card monte—while their shills circulate among the suckers and make winning sound a cinch.
Dolan summons the owner, a portly man named Polk, from his wagon office.
“Looking for a boy. Think he followed your parade in.”
“Look away, Officer! Look away! By all means, look away….”
Polk turns, but Dolan grabs his arm.
“Wanna make sure youse ain’t hidin’ him. Take anyone on today?”
“Surely you jest! A fugitive among the ranks of a first-class show like this? Heaven forfend! Rest assured, if the rapscallion shows himself here, he’ll be turned in pronto. You have the word of Larson Elijah Polk.”
“Well, make sure you do. Name’s Jack Tigue. Took a razor to another boy.”
“The Demon Barber of Byblos! Well, have no fear, he’ll get no quarter here. No, sir! Never hire an Irishman. That’s my watchword.”
Dolan’s fat face flashes red. He spits in the dust before resuming his search of the still-growing mob outside the ticket windows. Polk starts up the steps to his office, but a thin man wearing cheaters and a green visor stops him.
“Sheriff’s wife is demanding more tickets.”
“How many’d he get already?”
“Well, give her a half-dozen more.”
“She wants thirty.”
Must be an election coming up. Give her some of the leftover stubs from last season—we’ll stop the do-nothings at the gate and be out of town before the old boodler hears about it. Let him buy his votes with flat beer like everyone else.”
He again starts up the steps, but a man in spattered overalls comes from behind and tugs on his sleeve.
“There’s a boy in the steam fiddle, Mr. Polk. Must’ve ridden in with us.”
“Well, get two bits out of him for the ride and toss him out.”
“Might be dead.”
“Dead? Then take him round to the sideshow. Call him the Human Opossum. Then bury him under the stable before we break tonight.”
“Not dead.” The show doctor, a mail-order veterinarian and hawker of patent medicines who’s been using the name Hisley since an Indiana police chief swore out a warrant the year before, interrupts them. “I dressed the burn. Blood wasn’t his.”
“Blood?” Polk asks.
“Lots of it. But like I say, not his.”
“Well, well. The Demon Barber himself. Just met a copper looking for him. Lead the way, Pete,” Polk says to the man in overalls.
They circle the crowd and come upon a still-unconscious Jack lying on the ground behind the calliope just as the organist starts a new tune.
“Tell her to knock it off, Pete. Then fetch a pail of water.”
The din ceases and Polk nudges the boy with his foot, but Jack lies still.
Pete returns and his employer takes the bucket and splashes it over the boy. Jack jerks awake and jumps to his feet.
“Listen, son,” Polk addresses him, “there’s a flatfoot here looking for a boy who plies a razor. I don’t suppose that would be you.”
“Wha’f it is?” Jack challenges him.
“Look, boy, I’m just trying to help. See, if I had a copper looking for me, I’d lose myself in that crowd. Give him your shirt, Pete. He can’t go about advertising his work like that.”
Pete unbuttons the straps of his overalls and pulls off the soiled rag, then tosses it to Jack. Jack grabs it, but loses his balance making the switch.
Polk takes his arm. “Steady, boy. Now, you see that crowd in front of the ticket wagons? You just wade into that and meet me on the far side of the lot. We’ll take care of you, won’t we, Pete?”
Still dazed, Jack starts off. Soon he’s enveloped by the crowd.
“Quick, Pete. I’ll get the ticket wagons, you tell the spielers and the butchers.”
“Tell ’em what?”
“To cut cake! Cut cake like they’ve never done before! Once that flatfoot sees the boy, all hell will break loose.”
Though his terminology may be obscure, it will come as no surprise to those with even the briefest acquaintance of Larson E. Polk that he is proposing to exploit young Jack’s predicament. In the lingo of the circus, to “cut cake” is to shortchange, an art which these ticket-sellers and concessionaires practice as a normal part of business. A constant chorus of ballyhoo fills the purposely congested area before the ticket wagons—pitchmen spiel, butchers hawk, and sideshow acts distract. The ticket lines move fast, with the unwary buyer more often than not looking back over his shoulder at the small stages that flank the sideshow’s entrance, where a man is swallowing a sword and a swaying charmer of serpents displaying her asp. He hears the change properly counted, then slips it into his pocket with nary a glance. Tomorrow he’ll wonder, but not wanting to think himself a sucker, he’ll more likely invent a memory of spending it than pursue a complaint. Next year, he’ll vow to be more vigilant. But another pair of oscillating hips from another ethnographic display will once again make him a liar.
Dolan catches sight of Jack and yells his name. “Stop him!” he commands the crowd. “He killed a boy!”
A teamster recognizes Jack and puts out a huge hand to grab him, but a cigar-store owner with whom the boy has a business relationship offers an escape between his legs. Jack makes for the sideshow tent and tries to slide under the canvas. A spieler jumps down from his perch and stops him. He picks Jack up and shoves him back into the crowd.
Realizing now that safety lies elsewhere, Jack breaks for the far side of the lot. He races round the menagerie tent and alongside that holding the draft horses. A group of colored roustabouts is dozing in the sun, while another set sits atop trunks playing cards. One of these watches Jack approach, then sticks out a leg and lifts up the edge of the canvas. Accepting the invitation, the fugitive dives in.
The canvas comes down and a horse rears—its left front hoof just missing Jack’s head. He slides into a pile of straw and manure and tries to catch his breath. Dolan’s outside questioning the colored men. They send him off toward the wardrobe tent.
Then, once more, Sweet Oblivion takes Brave Jack to her side….
“Here.” The accommodating roustabout nudges Jack awake and offers him a plate of pork and beans in the filtered light of the stable. “Go on.”
Jack does as directed.
“Boy’s hungry,” the largest of the canvasmen observes, then shares a laugh with his fellows.
“Why they after ya?” a third man asks.
“Oh, let ’im eat,” his benefactor says.
When he’s finished, Jack hands back the plate, then turns to his interrogator. “Cut a bastard.”
“Where you headed now?”
Again Jack shrugs. “Can you get me on the train?”
“Get you on the circus train? Mr. Polk don’ fancy takin’ on riders.”
“I got money.”
“Does you?” the big man asks, grinning.
Jack makes a search of his pockets, then jumps up. “Give it back, ya damn nig—”
The giant, still grinning, picks Jack up with a single hand clasping his throat. “Wus’ that? Speak up, boy.”
“Leave him be, Jenks. What you expect him to do, kiss ya for takin’ his money?”
“What you say, boy,” Jenks asks. “You give a nigger a kiss?”
Jack wrenches himself free and falls to the floor. The canvasmen, all but the man holding the plate, leave the tent laughing.
“We’ll get you outta here.”
“With them knowin’ ’bout me?”
“Don’t worry ’bout them, they got no love for badges—just watch what you say. We’ll be breakin’ down this canvas soon and then I can get you on a wagon. What’s your name?”
“Jack. Jack Tigue.”
“Well, Jack Tigue, I’m Septimus.”
Brave Jack looks at the offered hand for a moment, then takes it warily.
“You lie back down and keep outta sight—an’ don’t worry. It ain’t catchin’.”
A band strikes up and Jack wakes. It’s the eight o’clock show. Under fading light men are leading draft horses out of the stable.
“You there, Jack Tigue?”
Septimus is holding up the edge of the sidewall.
“Come on over.”
Jack joins him and looks out at the men systematically disassembling the menagerie even as the show itself is just getting under way in the big top beside it. Septimus points to a nearby wagon.
“That there’s the dinin’ canvas, all folded up. It’ll be first on the train, and once you’re aboard, no one will see you. Jump in an’ get down under the canvas, but make sure it lies flat. You just stay there ’til mornin’. Looks to be a clear night and there’s no sleepin’ in the bunk car nohow. In the mornin’, I’ll come get you.”
Jack does as he’s told, wedging himself beside, and then under, the thick folds of canvas. Not long after, a team is hitched to the wagon and it’s driven off the lot and into the rail yards. There the shouts of men are unintelligible over the clamor of wagons, chains, and steam engines, but like every boy his age, Jack is intimate with the drill being performed by the circus men. No doubt a crowd of onlookers is watching now.
The wagon lurches forward, then up an incline—the ramp onto a rail car. Then it’s pulled forward, from car to car, each juncture punctuated by two small jolts. Finally it stops and Jack hears the razorbacks gibe one another with mock insults as they tie down the load. When they move down the line, their voices fade, but the din of activity continues for hours.
Jack dozes, but is woken by a powerful clank. A steam engine is attaching itself to the line of cars. Soon the train heads out of Byblos… to where he neither knows nor cares.
Jack eases himself out from under the canvas and gazes at the clear sky. He doesn’t remember ever seeing so many stars. If he were of a poetic bent, he might consider how easy it would be to lose himself in the grand display. Jack, alas, is not of a poetic bent. Nevertheless, for the first time since his fateful meeting with Cobbin that afternoon, he breathes easy, his customary self-assurance restored. But surely there’s something more to it, for so free does Jack feel at this moment an unfamiliar sense of optimism comes over him, a vague feeling of possibility.
Regrettably, the rapture is cut short by a prosaic intrusion—a body has swung over the side of the wagon and lands atop his….
“Who the hell’s that?” a voice asks.
“Who the hell are you, Jack Tigue?”
“Dat’s ’ar runaway.” Jack recognizes the voice of Jenks, the giant, who’s just flung himself aboard the far side of the same wagon. “Din’t we tell you about him, Deacon? That there’s the Deacon, Jack Tigue. You be careful with him, he likes his meat raw.
” The big man laughs, just as he does at the end of almost every utterance.
The Deacon moves off Jack, up the stack of canvas.
“What you runnin’ away from?” he asks.
“Cut someone,” Brave Jack answers.
“What you cut him with?”
“Razor!” Jenks laughs. “You sure you ain’t black, Jack Tigue?”
“Why’d you cut him?” the Deacon asks.
Cautious Jack is silent.
“Don’t you know why you cut him, Jack Tigue?” the giant taunts.
“Called me a nigger-lover.”
“Called you a nigger-lover? Well, then, that boy needed cuttin’, sure ’nough. No sin in that, hey, Deacon?”
“Is you?” the Deacon asks.
“Nit.” Jack feels inclined to accentuate the assertion by spitting disdainfully, but there seems little point since it would be unseen by the others and likely to land on himself.
“Then why’d he call you that?”
“Thinks Gretchen’s one.”
“Gretchen your girl?”
“Nit. Sister… sorta.”
“But not actual sister?”
“Wus’ it matter?”
“Don’t matter to me. She colored?”
“Maybe high yeller?”
“I knew a white boy liked the high yeller,” Jenks interjects. “Knew his sister better. Musta run in the family.”
“She ain’t no kind of nigger,” Jack says, “…jus’ dark some.”
“Jus’ dark some?” Jenks mocks. “Next time I get shooed out of a saloon, I’ll be sure to tell ’em, I ain’t no nigger, jus’ dark some!”
“Her folks colored?” the Deacon continues. And when Jack doesn’t answer, “You know her folks?”
“Ma’s white. Pa’s dead.”
“Couldn’t he ’a been colored?”
“Cuban? Ain’t they colored?” the Deacon asks.
“No, they ain’t colored,” Jenks explains. “Jus’ dark some!”
Now the Deacon laughs along with him.
“Don’ you worry none, Jack Tigue,” the big man tells him. “We won’ tell no one about you bein’ a jus’-dark-some-lover. Will we, Deacon?”
“No, yer secret’s safe. You plannin’ on stayin’ with the show?”
“What have ya.”
“Don’ know, Jack Tigue,” Jenks tells him. “You don’ look big enough to be much use poundin’ stakes.”
“Maybe you kin sign up with us freaks,” the Deacon suggests. “Kin you swallow a sword? One we got is leavin’.”
“Ain’t tried. You a freak?”
“I sure is.”
“Deacon here’s the Man-eatin’ Wildman ’a Fiji!
“Whar’s Fiji?” Jack asks.
“It’s a islan’ someplace. Never seen it,” the Deacon confesses. “I’s from Washin’tin. Washin’tin, D.C.”
“I’s from Washin’tin, too!” Jenks tells them. “What part you from?”
“You don’ know it.”
“How kin you say I don’ know it if you don’ tell?”
“I’s from Cabbage Alley.”
“I knowed Cabbage Alley! Jus’ off ’a Del’ware Av’nue. But ain’t no one know it now.”
“Whattaya mean, ain’t no one know it?”
“It’s gone! Smashed ta bits when dey made da new train depot. ’Course, it weren’t much to begin wid.”
“No, don’ suppose it was. Where you from, Jack Tigue? Byblos?”
“Whattaya mean, guess so? Don’ ya know whar ya from?” Jenks asks.
“That whar your folks are?”
“Dead?” the Deacon asks.
“An’ yer pa?”
“Don’ remember him. Been on my own from when I was five.”
“Five? How’d you do fer work?” Jenks asks.
“Sellin’ papers an’ such. Runnin’ numbers.”
“Youse a gambler, is you? That whar you get yer seven dollars?”
“Nit. Suckers make da bets, I jus’ take their money.”
“You right about dat. Dis sucker done lost your seven dollars bettin’!”
“Divine justice!” the Deacon tells them. “Don’ you know it’s a sin to gamble, Jack Tigue? Even if you is playin’ suckers?”
“Don’ know nothin’ ’bout sinnin’.”
“Well, den, you come to da right place,” Jenks tells him. “I ain’ never seen such sinnin’ as wid da circus.”
“What you mean, Jenks? Nothin’ but decent women in this show!”
“I’s talkin’ ’bout all the lyin’ an’ cheatin’, the shortchangin’, an’ takin’ water from the seal tank an’ callin’ it lem’nade. An’ wors’ of all, the women is too
Even Jack laughs with them now, but more out of calculation than camaraderie.
The train slows, then takes a switch and crosses several other tracks.
“We in Gloversville?” Jenks asks.
“No, mus’ be Fonda. We switch lines here. Better get some sleep, Jack Tigue. They’ll be gettin’ us up ’fore long.
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
To be continued…
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
I do hope you’ve enjoyed this scrumptious sample. Those unable to resist a further helping will be happy to learn that
The Circensiad is on sale and awaiting their pleasure.