The Haunted Circus

by Stanley Jenkins


"But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD...."
Jonah 1:3

"In the twelfth year of our exile, in the tenth month, on the fifth day of the month, someone who had escaped from Jerusalem came to me and said, 'The city has fallen.' Now the hand of the LORD had been upon me the evening before the fugitive came; but he had opened my mouth by the time the fugitive came to me in the morning; so my mouth was opened, and I was no longer unable to speak."
Ezekiel 33: 21-2

It began perhaps not so innocently. There were precedents, my friend--such precedents! But I cannot say the outcome was premeditated--nor anticipated. There are places--well surveyed, though on no map--where, what can only be described as fate, shares a berth with the immaculate conception of the moment. Spontaneity! God works both ends.

So bend over.

C'mon now, my reverend friend, don't pretend to be shocked, I know you're smiling. As you well know, there are entire instances in which we all might be found to admit that we are fucked from the get go. But they pass, my friend. Some things die hard--and other things, not at all--laughter, among them.

In any case, since you requested a full account of "my adventures", as you so aptly put it, I will not deny you. And since you ask, I'm doing just fine. The bandages have come off. The scarring is permanent, but then again, what of any value isn't? Do you remember our late night talks in seminary? I use to say then that when I made it to the other side I wanted gray hair and enough stripes to prove that I'd really lived. Well, I expect I got my wish.

***

Hey you. Come here a sec. I got something I want to ask you. Chill out. No one's looking. And besides this is the last place they would ever expect to find you.

Tell me, what does it mean when a secret is revealed? A fact divulged? A smoking gun produced? The crime confessed? And nothing at all whatsoever happens? The earth does not open to swallow you whole. The heavens do not rain fire. And stars do not fall like ripe figs.

Can you tell me what that means?

 

Listen to me. I have always played the clown in my life--and I know the reason why. And yet, I'm still playing the clown. I'm still here. Nothing has happened. These scars don't change a thing.

I think someone's coming. You'd better go. Just remember what I said. Just remember what I asked.

Watch your back.

***

I have always played the clown.

As you will remember, my training was in the Arts--(the Theater to be precise). Which is to say, like many, having no real talent in this area, I was trained in the ways of unfulfilled aspirations, artifice--the finer points of derision--and, oh yes, wit.

My father, who never spoke an articulate sentence of any but the most potent and sensible Americanese used to say, "Never trust a man who talks above an eighth-grade reading level" (the level at which all mass-marketing is aimed). Grasping immediately the good sense of this maxim, I listened and learned and quickly became mildly famous for, if not my Art, then certainly the afore-mentioned wit--(which seemed to amount to gleefully floating insinuating remarks at parties, dripping with allusions, that could be neither confidently understood nor safely unapplauded). Keep one foot in the obscure. It's amazing what the bon mot can do.

Ah, Art!

I expect what I was really famous for, all said and done, was my penchant for pointed and pointless contradictions--the badge of the true clown. It seems that the moment I established a pattern of recognizable behavior I was compelled to find a way to slip a whoopee cushion onto the seat of persona.

Tell me what you think. With my Lord Byron haircut, my imported cigarettes, my black turtlenecks, tastefully suggestive of Sartre and berets and yet always fashionable--and my designer-brand-look-alike blue jeans--three sizes too short in the leg--thus highlighting the wonderfully absurd intersection of black sock and blue-white hairy shin--could I have fooled anyone concerning the earnestness of my latter-day Oscar Wilde impersonation?

But then again--Mr. Wilde knew a thing or two about playing the clown as well. It's all in the presentation. Making one's theatricality so obvious--being ridiculous--done artfully, of course, my friend--can itself become a kind of brilliance, in which the wink of honesty becomes one more prop, pointing, sadly, not to the poignancy of our need for costumes, but to the artful presentation of the poignancy of our need for costumes.

You can't win. Make the machinations behind the magic obvious and you create a new magic. I think much present-day advertising proceeds, to much effect, on this principal.

Make no mistake--you've got to work hard for your honesty these days. There is no more inconsequentially sincere man than the clown.

 

The scars on my back, my arms, my hands--the faint discoloration on my cheeks--(which I am told will fade away in time--but now leaving the impression of a smile that is perhaps just beginning or still lingering--but nevertheless always in transit)--my marks bring me back again and again to the same place.

Did I love them? Did I hate them? I watched them. They watched me--messengers, who could only be fully experienced as pairs of blinking black eyes--doors to be opened or portals before which to stand aware of oneself at the moment of hesitation before opening. It was not that I saw an unusual number of crows--(and let's be clear, I have always seen crows)--but rather that I saw them.

Early on, they brought me to the great swampland between cities near which I lived as a child--not very far from where the great machines were parked and the as-of-yet unfinished great sculptures of raw concrete stood, which one day would become the exit and the entrance ramps to the new highway connecting the two cities across a swatch of land neither awake nor asleep--but redolent of many twilights.

And in the very center of one patch of this land, slightly elevated, and bordered on four sides by--a creek--an old barn, abandoned now and waiting only for the high-tide development to reach it--a line of thick underbrush--and a plain, open like a mouth, of brittle-in-the-fall meadow grass--and in the very center of this place was a tree. The tree. Gnarled. Dead. Hollow. Vertical driftwood. Center of whirling universes. Tree of life in the garden gone bad. And it was here that the crows lived. And I was drawn to them and they seemed to expect me.

 

Show to all and sundry that you are a fake--and know it--and fakery becomes something else. Was this the truth that led me to seminary? It was, at the very least, the perversity that made the idea of seminary to me, a woefully religious man, enchanting--more than palatable--seriously funny. In any case, as you will remember, I "did not go gently into that dark night"--but instead chose to make ironic and comic opera of my "conversion" (I, of course, had always been a believer). My friends who knew me before from cafes and readings and happenings--and above all the theater (where I was currently appearing in a particularly precious pantomime version of Ubu Roi)--were delighted, as well--though perhaps for different reasons. And for those who were more spiritually-minded, it came as no surprise, but indeed deeper confirmation that Art, itself, is a way of communing with God. Such knowing smiles. Such understanding. I was quite popular at parties.

But what was not clear--what was not made obvious to all and sundry--though you recognized it, my friend, like a sensible cat will prefer a stale puddle to a freshly-washed water dish because of the lingering perfume of dish-washing liquid--was the horrible (and let's face it, mundane), sincerity of it all. Something was indeed intruding upon my performance--above and beyond my own proclivities toward foolishness. I believe you saw that.

Did I love you for it? Did I resent you? It drew me to you. Rightfully or wrongfully, I saw a fellow traveler. In my own way, I trusted you.

 

So silent they would stand--blinking. What is a crow? I think that this one word covered a multiple of different birds. Sometimes they were huge, more raven than not. Other times they were smaller, oily-headed, mottled and shaggy--all wicked yellow beak--and still other times they were simply black birds of no real description. But always they were watching and blinking.

I did not want to come to the tree alone--it seemed to be full of whispering--and it woke up something in me that I compared to the tingling deep in the belly two seconds before jumping off the garage roof. Joy and dread. So I brought a friend.

Not yet a close friend. Friendship takes a long time--mysterious other--though he did have a sense of adventure--my strange doppelganger--did not want merely to play football, or ride bikes or build forts in someone's back yard--but wanted also to play ding dong ditch, and smash pumpkins late at night and light fires. In him I seemed to see the whole of me.

And we came upon the tree--and, I kid you not--he laughed. We quarreled. And he hated me. Oh it was an ancient struggle. Blood lusts from days gone by. I hated him.

And this tree. Not from around here either. Looking so sad. My one last hope. My one true self. My last best hope to slay giants and return home with the treasure. Jack of Diamonds.

And with a great suddenness and cruelty he began to kick at the tree--thud thud thud--violent ugly scourge with robes of purple--stupid shoes--and I was confused and struck--my beautiful tree--and then with a mighty push he tried to topple the tree-tower--and I told him to stop because it had once been living and it was hurting me and it was hurting--and then with a run for momentum he created a harsh, cracking, up-rooting--and the tree exhaled a great rotting and mildew--the air dusty and damp at the same time--and I begged him to stop again--tree of life standing in the garden guarded at the gates with fiery swords--and with one more push the dead tree snapped and was frozen in the perfect center of neither standing nor falling--trapped in time--as if lightening were to strike and remain. Stop.

And I too snapped and was frozen between neither rising nor falling--neither upright nor lost--and the crows screeched--and the moon ran red--and I was lost in something bigger than me--as if something had been released in me--and the veil was rent and the side pierced--and I was swallowed and I was and I was--so enraged I wanted to beat the shit out of my friend until real blood spattered his nose and face--and my fists hurt even the next day--and I was too tired to keep swinging--and maybe then, maybe then, could finally sleep.

But I could not find him. Could not find him.

Me and crows.

It is not finished.

Alone.

 

I did not tell you all in those late night talks. I told you much, but what really scared me I never divulged. I'm not altogether certain that I held-back for any other reason than I knew the words I had were not the right ones. You will, of course, understand this immediately. What happens to us, what we experience qua experience, in terms of expression, is sometimes a matter of cutting our losses--though we very often refuse to admit it.

We preachers will seize upon an image or a story and madly insist--not unlike a very contrary child--that it point exclusively to that which couldn't possibly be expressed in words, while all the while big, bad, juicy and quite unpredictable associations are being promulgated like bunnies in heat. One can't dictate where words will take us. (I heard you preach once, and I know you know what I am talking about).

And yet, we can hardly do otherwise. An ambiguous and poorly drawn map is better than no map at all. Still, it is kind of funny. One ends up in the most remarkable places with bad directions.

My reverend colleague, such monstrosities we create in attempting to articulate True things! Such faith! Such buffoonery. As the Apostle says in his first letter to the Corinthians, "We are fools for Christ's sake...."

It's scandalous.

 

All joking aside. Let me tell you now what I did not tell you then. My friend. I was playing the clown. I pushed him. We were seven years old. He fell and hit his head on a rock. The blood expanded in the water like an army of red locusts across a green field. And he died.

My brother. Swallowed. They never found the body.

And the crows came and perhaps bore him away like Elijah upon wings of black fire and a chariot of cawing. And they never found the body.

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