The Haunted Circus

by Stanley Jenkins


This sincerity--so horrible to me--so dangerous--so moving in like old coffee spilled on a table full of valuable books and papers--so heavy and viscous--so without consequence--I could not even admit it to myself--at least, not without staging it in three acts and historically accurate costumes.

I had this problem even as a child. I distinctly remember once calling my entire family together, declaring that I had said a bad word--though no one was there to hear it except Jesus--and inviting them to watch as I washed my own mouth out with the pink deodorant soap from the bath tub--and then after doing so, taking a bow.

Now, I know I was playing the fool and all but winking (I'm quite sure I didn't know how at the time or most probably would have)--but at the same time I was seriously disturbed by my own actions. I honestly did not want to talk ugly--you know, there really are so many lovely words to say--and yet, I could not seem to make myself stop. There are deeper currents in our acts, our routines.

In any case, I was an incurable liar as a child. I would lie about anything. Even things I didn't have to lie about. I would tell my mother that the reason my pants were ripped was because I had slipped and fallen on the sidewalk running home, when actually I had ripped them playing football at lunch hour.

But sometimes my lies verged on the creative--I went extra-curricular. I told my Sunday School teacher once that my mother was incontinent and had to wear diapers all the time and if she ever smelled something funny around her the whole family would appreciate it if she would just pretend not to notice.

I don't think my mother ever understood why Ms. Henderson always looked so understandingly at her. And God knows what smells Ms. Henderson was imagining she was smelling because, whenever we met her, along with compassion, she always had a strained look on her face like she was trying to remember to breathe through her mouth.

Did I take particular delight in these things? Well, yes, I did. Even now, I find myself chuckling. Of course, I understand that there was something cruel in this--but perhaps the alternative was worse.


Tommy was not talented. Tommy was not smart. He was smaller than me and he was my twin brother. And yet in him, I seemed to see the whole of me. When he was gone. When he was suddenly not there. We. They. Went on. Almost as if he had never been there from the beginning. Tommy. You took away my tree of life. Like a question forever and imperatively asked--with the verb swallowed.

I have always been the favored son. Fast? I could run like nobody's business in my new PF Fliers. Talented? I wore a bowler I improbably found in an attic closet in my Grandmother's house and learned to walk like Charlie Chaplin. I was the wonder of the neighborhood--famous among seven and seventy year olds.

I could do no wrong. It was not my fault. They never found his body. Sucked off somewhere into the swamp by the lake or into some underground stream to find its way to sea. Gone.

How do you repent of a crime never committed? How do you respond to a question never asked?

My routines got louder.


There is a tree that is really a wall and on one side is a thin, chain-smoking and mocking clergy-man holding two stone tablets, with wicked nicotine stains on his fingers and a hair lip. Let's call him, John Calvin. (You will appreciate that, my Lutheran friend.) He is sneering. He is mocking. Oh--he knows me well. And on the other side of the wall is.....what? My God, that's a huge, beautiful, smiling-like-an-idiot-hydrocephalic-looking Buddha. And he is growing. He is growing until he dwarfs everything, including the tree-wall, itself. Smile, Buddha, smile! Jesus Christ! He's getting so fat there's hardly room for the rest of us! We might get swallowed. Might get drowned. It's all a big fat illusion. A funny bubble. Maya giggle. It's all a great joke. It's all a sorrowful-joyous laugh. Rejoice. Smile. There is something obscene in that smile--to be so irrevocably not here--not present and accounted for. Jumping Jack Flash, it's a gas, gas, gas....


But what's this? I'm climbing the tree-wall. Trying to go AWOL. I'm scaling incredible heights. I'm outta here, mister. Find my way to something solid and yet not petrifying.

"I know who you are!" Rev. Calvin Deformed Lip is shouting, like he thinks he's in the Wizard of Oz, "I know where you live....." and he's got my trousers in his teeth and he's making weird animal noises and snapping menacingly at my quite exposed buttocks as I scramble like holy hell up the side of the ever growing tree-wall--You'll never take Toto while I'm alive!--and he's laughing--just like some evil Daddy who knows you will never measure up and never never walk this earth in shoes he did not make for you with his own callused hands--and surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life.... Stone tablets.

And the house comes down and kills the wrong witch.


It got so I could hardly believe it was true. We never mentioned Tommy. Was it to spare my feelings? We moved to a different state. Without so much water. A more cut and dry land. A place without whispers or natural growth trees. Pre-fab track house. All but double wide--all but wheels to keep moving in this America.

When they want to see if you have a cancer in your body they pump you full of a dye to see the invisible. Loud. Garish. My costumes. My routines. My X-ray screams.


Hey you. You came back, did you? I thought you might. Watch it! You want that nurse to see you? Jesus! What do you think this is? Some kind of cakewalk? You gotta be careful around here. It's circus time. Circus come to town.

Did you get the information I wanted?

Yeah, well....keep working on it. It's important.

It's gotta mean something. Everything means something. That's the problem. People talk about there being no meaning in life--and moaning about it and shit. Don't buy it. There's too much meaning. That's the real problem. Everything signifies. Everything.

Alright. Leave me alone now, would you? I've got stuff to do.

Leave it! That's my tape recorder. That's my instrument. I'm going to talk and talk until this fucking smile burnt on my face heals--either that or decides to become permanent--and then I'm not going to say another Goddamn thing for the rest of my life. I've had it with words. Silence is where it's at, man. Silence.

You think that's funny? Boy, you don't know nothing about humor. Silence is a privilege that very few achieve--are given--gifted--whatever. Silence. It's for the few.

Only the best clowns get to be quiet. Everybody else--they're just going to talk themselves to death. Me? I'm shooting for the moon. Silence.

Silence. Man. Silence.


Well, as you were, no doubt, made to understand at the time, I was, from the beginning, a good preacher. Not a great preacher. But, then again, not merely serviceable either. If nothing else, I have always been a performer.

What was truly remarkable, however, was the response. My God! Those people positively egged me on. Laughter rang on Sunday mornings. It welled in eyes. It rose and fell like high seas, licking at the stained glass windows, foaming at the pulpit, refreshing and saturating the crystal light shows on the wall attendant upon morning's reflection upon my big silver cross. We were having fun--me and those truly fun-loving upstate farm and factory people of God.

Oh I tried to be serious--I tried to keep it in hand--but it was like trying to keep a yellow balloon underwater. We were a little out of control. I'm telling you my friend--it was them--they drew it out of me--they conjured it and nurtured it--and no matter what came forth, they wanted more.

And what was most disconcerting, they got it. When I wasn't looking, strange things began to happen. They began to happen outside and apart from my artfulness. Yes, I'll admit--that was there too. I courted particular effects in pacing and posture and earnestness. But what was added to my antics was far and away more than I had bargained for.

On the first Sunday in Lent three lilies sprouted in the baptismal font just as I was proclaiming the Assurance of Pardon.

On the twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time a duck waddled down the west aisle in perfect step to "Onward Christian Soldiers".

On Pentecost the speakers began to murmur with static during the Pastoral Prayer and then gave way to Johnny Cash singing, "Ring of Fire".

On Easter Sunday the wine from the pitcher poured out into the chalice during Communion for a full half-hour and was never exhausted until the cup overflowed suddenly and splashed all over the white table cloth making us all very hungry.

And on Christmas Eve we sat transfixed at midnight as a beautiful spider descended slowly from the chandelier on chains of liquid air.

And, my friend, we laughed. And we laughed. And we laughed.

And was I happy? I most certainly was not. In fact, with each day, I was growing more and more piqued--P.O.ed-- peevish. Our circus is haunted, my friend. There is someone else behind all this laughing--and I guess, I would have to admit, at that point in my life--I wasn't so certain I wanted to share the bill.

Which is not to say, of course, that I wasn't in all reality experiencing a deepening of a profound and joyous faith--yea, even a sense of a larger communion with the God I served and who so generously provided for me. These things are complicated--and the world would be a whole lot better off if we would just not get our pants in a bunch and learn to live with the contradictions. My friend, as I have already opined to you, not a few times, the one true blasphemy is reduction--though, of course, even this has it's charms.

In any case, I fumed and fussed--took everything personal. I sulked and pouted--and still they laughed. Seems they couldn't get enough of laughing. It's not that the sheer gratuity of our God's presence--its rippling graciousness--wasn't liberatingly funny anymore. It's not that it was no longer an occasion for the forever-newly-found freedom of this Holy Hilarity--indeed, I was perhaps closer to the reality of authenticity--sheer gratitude--then I had ever been before--it was my damnable contrariness.

That's right--I just couldn't take the overt fitness of it all. Some people are called to the ministry of being backwards. When all are up, they are down--and when all are outside they are inside. At a certain point true laughter can only be expressed in tears.


There is a statute that is really a tree. It stands on the landing of a great stone staircase. Don't look back. It's face does not face front. Hands out stretched--and face looking over shoulder. I have crawled on hands and knees--bloody now from the rocks and gravel and broken glass. Around and around the great staircase. Thirty three times. Only now do I dare ascend the steps. Only now my body raw enough to transmit my need.

Throw myself at the feet of the stone. Wait for stone to bleed. Wait for Lot's daughter to come home--lithe, willowy--grass in a stream--like Ophelia's hair.

Mother Mary not looking. Mother Mary not looking at me. She's looking back at whatever was but is no more.

Pick myself up and go home. Statue not looking. Just pick up my pallet and walk on home--no one even notices--past the hundred thousand eunuch priests of Isis, beating tambourines and chanting hymns. Just walk on home.

Hard as hell being a cripple with no lameness. With no affliction. With no need.

Blood from a stone.

Sink like a stone.


"Is that you, Louis?"

It's Mama.

"Yeah it's me."

I'm back in high school. I'm back where I was before I am where I am. In our new home. In a new state.

"What are you doing home, baby?"

Already she's bustling her way in. Mama doesn't move but bustle. "Oh my God! You're sick! You're burning up!"

"I'm just tired, Mama."

"Oh baby, come here tell Mama all about it."

She's coming in for the swoop.

"Really, it's nothing. I just want to lie down for a little bit."

"Tell Mama all about it."

She's embracing me. Swallowing me. Concern on her face now like a greedy mouth.

"No. Really."

"Oh my Baby--oh my Baby--Oh my Baby" She's rocking me now. Cradle me. Mama protect me. Mama imprison me. Mama.

"Let me go!"

It is not kind. I am screeching. Like Crows. Like black wings of fire and chariot of cawing. Raven feed my Elijah in the wilderness.

Violent shove.

"Get the fuck off me!"

Her face. Her face does not change. Her face accepts. Her face understands and pities. Her face. Fuck her face.

"Mama, I'm sorry...."

"Baby don't you worry about a thing. Your Daddy and me are so proud of you. Gonna be a minister one day. We're just so proud."

Daddy got eyes like Tommy--and Tommy never existed. Made him up. Never had a twin at all. That's right. Made it all up. Never killed my brother by accident. Never was an accident.

Crows. Crows. Coming in. All directions.


The call from the hospital came in the afternoon. I did not want to go. She was 97, was currently in coronary arrest, though originally she had been hospitalized two days prior for falling and breaking her hip--and this, itself--(not yet even taking into account the fact that she was now having a heart-attack)--was complicated by the incontinence, the cataracts, the diabetes, the kidney trouble, the several opportunistic infections and the cancer which had only recently been diagnosed and was most likely inoperable.

Among other factors contributing to my reluctance to go were: (1.) the second floor apartment with an uncommonly steep staircase to which one day she would have to return in her present 97-year-old, broken-hipped, hobbled, condition, if she, in fact, survived the current seizing of her heart--and (2.) the daughter, who lived with her and was, herself, languishing in her latter seventies, never married--(not altogether happy about that)--never lived apart from her mother--and was now facing an empty home and wondering--amidst the olfactory confusion of dusty tubes and boxes of odoriferous ointments, lineaments and suppositories stacked in their forlorn bathroom--if she'd wasted her life--and who had (3.) a dentured aunt for whom she also felt responsible, who lived in the downstairs apartment and had lost her husband a year earlier, at about the same time as the diabetes got her leg--and was not yet, herself (the aunt), well-reconciled to her present reality--and so was able to find much needed relief from her bouts of loud grief and rage concerning her recently departed husband--(who, (4.) it seems, had secretly stashed away several thousands of dollars of unexplained income, leaving too many unanswerable questions and suppositions)--and so, like I said, was able (the aunt) to find much relief in criticizing her niece and tormenting her about a life wasted in fear and caution and never once having known a man.

It was, on the whole, a fairly routine visit.

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