Chapter 1—After Bean Hollow
Gravel Lot Dining, Warehouse Studio Dancing
It was Artland’s idea to eat outside in the gravel lot on the 44 x 32 inch dinette table they had used for non-performance dinners throughout the summer. For this first meal with Amanda Moskowitz, Artland needed something to take the pressure off. Something to talk about if words withered in the fever of her arrival. His mother and Seymour had reluctantly agreed to the arrangement, hoping that Artland might change his mind once they were all inside. But when Amanda arrived with a tight bunch of pink shell azaleas and a suspicious look on her seasoned-sixth-grader face, there was no turning back.
“Aren’t you going to take my coat?” she said to Artland, pulling off her turquoise shell, sweeping strands of strawberry hair off her shoulder as she pushed it into his chest. The jacket dropped awkwardly in Artland’s arms. He glanced up at his mother who was straining to hold a smile.
“We can hang it in the closet,” Berni offered. “You get a hanger for Amanda’s coat,” she said to her son, “and I’ll put these beautiful flowers in water. Did you see what Amanda brought us?” she asked Seymour who was rooted beneath the threshold of the kitchen, smothering the stubble on his heavy chin with a wide, sweaty hand.
“They’re from my auntie’s store,” Amanda declared.
“They’re lovely,” Berni said.
“Indeed,” Seymour confirmed.
“My auntie said they could brighten up even the dirtiest places.”
“Indeed,” Seymour repeated in a lower, more guttural tone, shooting a glance at Berni before turning to Artland. “I believe you’re meant to get the lady a hanger. For her…” he added, fluttering his hand out in a dismissive wave.
“But what if she needs it?” Artland asked. With sunken eyes shimmering: “We’re going to eat outside.”
Artland grabbed his worn gray fleece off the treble clef coat hook and gave Amanda’s jacket back to her. He didn’t know what led his mother to invite Amanda to dinner, or what drew Amanda and her mother into Lottie’s Fabrics—less than a week after his mother had returned to work—but that hardly mattered now as he stamped down the stairs to the gravel lot where the Chieftain motor home was parked, excited to have something to share with the first person who had ever visited him.
“You drove this around all summer?” Amanda asked once they got to street level, her temples tight and her forehead waving skeptical lines.
“Mostly my mom did,” he told her. “But Seymour did in the beginning, and he said I might be able to drive it someday too.”
“That’s seems unlikely,” Amanda answered, her face shifting from a crumple to a frown. “How does it even make turns?”
“I don’t know,” Artland shrugged. “Wanna see inside?”
Artland led Amanda up the stairs to the front door, freezing for a moment as he gripped the metal handle, unsure whether he was meant to hold the door open for his guest or trudge right in. But the space was tight and the pause only added to the awkwardness, so he stormed ahead, leading the way inside where he was arrested again by how dark and confined everything was. He had never noticed it before—the cobwebbed ceiling, the stained cabin seats, the sticky brown floor. Now that he was ushering his willful guest into the squat, narrow hall, the whole image zoomed out in his mind, imagining what it must have looked like as they approached: the Chieftain’s bulbous, oversized body parked in the shadowy corner of this barren gravel lot, pressed against the white-washed bricks of Seymour’s cavernous apartment building. Artland was swelling with nervous disgust—wondering why he had insisted on eating outside, fighting the urge to collapse on the floor in defeat—when he clutched a chunk of his thigh in the pinchers of his boney white hand and mustered the will to move forward, hoping the novelty of it all would cancel out the musty smell and dusty dark interior. There was enough to contend with inside, as he led Amanda past the pullout couch where he had spent so many nights holding his breath, straining to see her in his asphyxiated dreams, or rifling through his backpack of acquired objects to find the tightly folded wand of sheet music where he kept a strand of her golden red hair, extracted from the foot of the Steinway when she was still taking voice lessons from Seymour.
“There’s not really much to see,” Artland squawked, “but I can show you the rest if you want,” he said, guiding his curiously quiet guest past Seymour’s swivel chair and into the kitchenette, where a miniature sink and stove were pressed against the driver’s side wall; three plastic chairs and a small Formica table near the pantry on the opposite side. “This is where we eat when it’s raining outside or when we’re parked too close to the nosy nitwit people who won’t let Seymour hear himself think. And back there,” he said, pointing to the door in the back right of the Winnebago, glancing again at Amanda who appeared to be processing with interest. “That’s where the shower and tub are. Not too many mobile homes have tubs, I guess. And over there is the toilet and the washer machines.”
“What’s behind there?” Amanda asked, pointing straight back to the faux maple sliding doors at the farthest end of the Chieftain.
“That’s where my mom and Seymour sleep.” Artland slid the doors open and showed her the queen size bed, the small chest of drawers, and the compact wardrobe closet.
“They sleep in the same bed?”
“I… guess so.”
“That’s totally gross.”
“I guess so,” Artland answered, having never allowed himself to think too much about his mother’s sleeping arrangements. Flashbacks of his mother pressed beneath a man named Wolf, cackling in the woods of Lake Tahoe made him turn around in a sweaty chill. “I think we should go back outside now.”
“So tell us about sixth grade,” Berni said to Amanda once they were seated at the portable dinette table, a blue plastic tablecloth draped over the top, and a small bowl of lentil soup steaming before every place.
“It starts next week, but I met my teachers and the kids in my class at the summer picnic. It’s gonna be way harder than fifth grade. School won’t be the same without Lena.”
Artland looked up from his soup, his eyes pressing out of their sunken sockets.
“Lena’s my best friend, and she had to go back to the Philippines,” Amanda continued. “Her mother got sick and she had to go back and she doesn’t know if she’ll ever be able to live here again.” She cast her eyes down to her soup and began slurping it up, not seeming to notice how everyone––even Berni who had heard the story at Lottie’s store, and Seymour, who had never heard of this Lena person before––was watching her.
“Lovely evening,” said Seymour in an effort to break the silence. “Fine choice to eat under the stars, Artland, my boy.” Artland looked up at the sky, which was a darkening blue with streaks of violet and orange. Whether it was the smell of the air or Seymour’s mention of stars, Artland’s mind flashed again to Lake Tahoe, where under the stars he had watched his mother do things he still couldn’t name with a stranger he remembered more and more as an animal––Did she do the same things with Seymour in the back of the Chieftain? “I don’t see any stars,” he said, turning back to his soup.
“Right here at the table,” Seymour answered. “Two budding stars.”
“Do you always eat outside?” Amanda asked.
“First time,” admitted Seymour. “You’re our special guest. Guest of honor. Another star in the midst.”
“We ate on this table over the summer,” Artland clarified.
“We were the bell of the RV ball,” Seymour added before a large swallow of wine.
“Don’t mind him,” Berni suggested, standing from her seat and taking her son’s bowl.
“And how about a little more wine, my squirrel?” Seymour asked after Berni had cleared everyone’s place. “Not all of us are used to gravel lot dining. I believe I could use another warmer.”
Berni came back with a wide tray holding a plate of stuffed chicken breast, which Seymour had previously sliced, a smaller plate with sautéed asparagus, a bowl of candied yams with bleu cheese chunks for Artland, and a long, grainy baguette; there was a bottle of red wine tucked beneath her arm—the dexterity she had acquired while waitressing finally paying off. “I got it honey,” she said to Seymour. “Don’t bother getting up.”
“Artland, my boy, I believe you are the ‘honey’ your mother is trying to guilt.”
Artland just stared back in response, not sure what Seymour was saying, his mind still consumed by ill-sorted memories and the powerful presence of Amanda with whom he had yet to really speak. He wanted to ask her more about Lena, but didn’t know how to bring her up or what exactly to say. Instead he watched his mother make up a plate and set it down before his guest.
“So, Madame Amanda,” Seymour said, turning the plate that Berni had just placed down so the chicken––instead of the asparagus––was closest to her, “Is there a dance recital we might be privileged enough to see you in?”
“There will be,” she answered. “Over the summer I worked on all kinds of movements and positions. There are a lot of different ones and you just can’t master them all in a month.”
“I wouldn’t imagine so.”
“It’s not like singing where almost anyone can do it.”
“Oh, my dear,” Seymour said with a low smile, draining the bulk of his wine. “And what are your great dancing aspirations then?”
Amanda narrowed her eyes at her former teacher, lips and temples tightening in chorus. “I’m in ballet II now,” she said. “And my teacher says that I could dance in The Nutcracker someday.”
“The Nutcracker,” Berni repeated, nostalgia evident in her voice. “Such a beautiful ballet,” her mind on her own childhood flirtation with dance. “I saw it at the Pioneer Center in Reno when I was about your age.” She smiled at the sky, remembering how Frieda Green’s parents had taken her. “I used to listen to ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ in my room. It gives me chills to think about it.”
“You’re giving me a different sensation right now,” said Seymour. “Also a type of sickness. Would you pass the wine?”
“You know boys are in dance too,” Amanda said to Artland, arresting any response that Berni’s anger and embarrassment might have produced.
“I think this young man has all he can handle,” offered Seymour. “Some of us are still content to indulge the lesser art forms.”
“Just because he sings doesn’t mean he can’t dance too.”
“Sounds like someone’s singing a different tune,” Seymour said with an exaggerated smile, scratching the stubble beneath his sagging chin.
“Maybe I could sing the sugar plum song,” Artland said, anxious to alleviate some of the tension.
“I don’t believe there are words to this one my boy.”
“Well maybe we could make some up,” Berni offered. “Artland and I used to make up stories and songs,” she added to Amanda. “When he was younger.”
“I suppose we could now couldn’t we,” asserted Seymour, swirling the contents of his glass and dropping another sizable swallow into his mouth. “And why stop there? There are plenty of Tchaikovsky concertos and Bach fugues that would surely benefit from a catchy rhyme or two. Sprinkled over the orchestra, perhaps?” he added, fanning his wide fingers in the air.
“Well I’d like to hear ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’, and I think I still have a tape of it somewhere,” Berni said, shifting in her seat, unsure whether to commence her search right away or wait until the evening was over.
“A tape,” Seymour repeated, smoothing the center of his mustache as he gazed over at Berni. “How quaint. Once upon a time you mocked the compact discs I used to record your dear boy. Such wonderful irony,” he added, raising his hands in the air and knocking the table in the process.
“Mr. Bocliavelli?” Amanda asked.
“Yessss,” Seymour answered, dilated nostrils pulling all available air from the table.
“Are you drunk?”
“With life, my dear. Drunk with your remarkable presence.”
After the meal, Seymour directed the breakdown of the dinette set and led everyone upstairs for dessert. He had purchased a gallon of mint chocolate chip ice cream, which Berni had begun scooping into small glass bowls, mumbling obscenities under her breath until sounds from The Studio—Were they sounds from her own head?—made her stop, the ice cream scooper dropped to the counter, a ball of mint chip just starting to bleed out.
Seymour had sat down at the piano, let his hands rest on the keys for a few moments before he began the subtly ascending, soft bouncing notes that open Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” allowing muscle memory to draw out the higher register steps that tiptoe atop the rhythmic bounce. As he continued to play the soft, dreamy song with its descending flutter of notes sprinkled between playfully creeping tones and a celestial, story-like melody, Berni, Artland and Amanda were all drawn to The Studio to watch and listen to this unexpected performance that seemed to have instantly eradicated the tension that had been brewing—as if fairy dust had plunged down from the overhead lights. Only Seymour could trigger such a turn in the atmosphere, a shift in mood that affected them all.
Berni was the first to extend her leg and tap her toe to the floor, giving a slow turn that gave way to a wide smile of uninhibited relief. Artland could only watch at first, wide-eyed as Amanda joined in, her knees jetting in opposite directions, springing together as they propelled her off the floor, landing softly on the worn wood before she extended her leg to tap, spin and twirl along with Berni.
Seymour was punching out the rhythm and melody with such sudden and forceful joy that Artland couldn’t fight the urge to join in, humming along with the song, nodding and swaying until he too was compelled to jump. Before long, Seymour was standing at the bench like a heavier, darker version of Jerry Lee Lewis doing “Great Balls of Fire,” only this was “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” that was shaking their nerves and rattling their brains, and Seymour was banging out the loudest and most spirited rendition that any of them had ever heard—releasing a booming burst of laughter as he brought a new aggression to this dainty little song, prodding Artland to add more vocal flourishes and grinning with wide wonder at Berni and Amanda who had joined hands and were spinning together to the music. It only built from there.
It wasn’t long before Artland had circled together with his mother and Amanda, all of them spinning and twirling and jumping in a whirl of red, Artland sustaining his wordless verse which was rubbery and soaring but keeping complementary time with the tune that never seemed to end, projecting an ascending half-scale after every descending series of notes from the piano. Artland continued to harmonize even as Amanda and his mother spun away to leap and twirl in space, all of them still revolving in the orbit around Seymour who projected his own wave-like movements but never left the ground and never stopped the cycle of the song until the bang and the bell from the doorway startled them all and put an abrupt end to the evening.
It was Amanda’s mother. The street door had been left open. When no one responded to her countless stabs at the buzzer, she had let herself inside. The rage that had begun to rise while she was waiting had only swelled as she stomped her way upstairs, rapping futilely with the sixteenth note doorknocker, unable to penetrate the roar from inside until she flung open the apartment door, the handle slamming the side wall, startling the bell and stopping everyone inside.
“We haven’t even had dessert yet,” Amanda pleaded as her mother pulled her out of the apartment.
“Do you have any idea how long I was on the street waiting for you?”
Berni and Seymour were muted by the moment and the daze of their spontaneous recital. Artland watched as Amanda got pulled into the dark of the stairwell, the breeze from the closing door whipping his face; he caught a glimpse of Amanda’s goodbye wave just before the dust was jarred from the walls and he was alone again with his mother and mentor.
Chapter 2—Before Bean Hollow
Cliffy’s Rhomp Around; The Mortini Brothers’ Amazon Circus
In the Reno Gazette Journal, she was described as a modern day Mama Rose, dragging an eerily talented son from town to town, barely letting him out of the cupboard-like confines of a Winnebago. But Berni was not the fame-obsessed dominatrix she was made out to be. Just a red haired child-of-tragedy, reasonably prone to grave errors in judgment. The most grievous, she would argue, was not entirely her fault. She believed too blindly. Seymour had her spellbound––he was the sorcerer. When he disappeared, Berni understood what had taken place. Only by then, Artland––her son, her dream, her life––was already gone.
The first time her family was taken away, Berni was eighteen. Her parents, Roz and Cliffy Rhompman, had owned an animal supply store: Cliffy’s Rhomp Around—Servicing Every Attraction That Roars Through Reno! No one was serviced more often than The Mortini Brothers’ Amazon Circus, already a Reno favorite: scarlet-faced mandrills swinging beside acrobatics in the thickets of mangroves, bears cycling through wicket palms, lions and clowns mingling in emerald green brush. A spectacular melding of mysterious worlds! was how Agrifino Mortini described it in their promotional video, cheaply cast with plastic amber lighting and a cardboard forest backdrop. The slight and slick Mortini bellowed with oily enthusiasm about juggling dwarves and fire-eating clowns, raising the flesh of his rhetoric to promote The Amazing Adolescent! who wielded a custom made whip (“to establish personal space—we would never hurt our beloved animals!”) and controlled an exotic array of earthly creatures within the confines of a three-ring rain forest! Everyone in Reno had seen the advertisement. When the trailer of feed unhitched from a Mortini truck and spilled over the shoulder of Interstate 80, Cliffy was quick to restock what was lost, more than willing to forgo any payment for the chance to see The Amazing Adolescent! up close. Berni’s parents never dreamed they could sit in the Director’s seats—practically on the stage!
“You’re closing the store to watch a boy in tights play with tigers!” Berni’s arms assaulting the air as she banged her boots over the worn, wooden floor, her face welting and hot. “It doesn’t get more stupid!”
“When have you ever cared a red hair about what goes on here?” her mother barked from behind the counter, her own face flickering pale and pink. “If it’s such a goddamned shock to the system then you keep it open! We deserve this, Berni. I think you know that.”
What Berni knew was that her parents had never closed the store for her, not that she had done much to lure them away. But there were things. The ballet recital when she was in Junior High School was the one that got caught in her throat. It wasn’t their absence as much as the whispers of strangers. Frieda Green’s mother had pulled a few roses from her daughter’s bouquet to give to Berni after the recital. Shameful, Berni had heard someone say. And Frieda’s mom’s timid defense: We offered to take her. No need to judge.
“The seats are practically on the stage, Berni!” her mother pleaded with a final rap on the register, assuming her daughter’s latest fury had more to do with jealousy than neglect. “Mr. Mortini said there’s only space for two. He knows us. We might even meet The Amazing Adolescent!”
In their rush to the fairgrounds, Cliffy never saw the truck that careened into their car. Never heard the wail that came from his wife the instant before they were crushed inside their silver American sedan. The fact that it was a Mortini truck that hit them was an irony too cruel for Berni to take. Not consoled to learn that the driver, whose truck had overturned on impact and hammered a fire hydrant en route to the unforgiving ground, had flooded the streets with metal, glass and blood, and died a much slower, much more agonizing death.
Shocked and alone, left with a profitless animal supply store which she had spent the majority of her young life despising and avoiding, Berni was not only left to mourn the lives of her parents, but also the life she felt doomed to inherit.
A few days after the funeral, when rabbi Avi Joseph stepped delicately up to her parents’ home, Berni was watching from her bedroom window, her weepy eyes swollen and shaky, wondering what the hell this guy was doing coming to her house uninvited, asking who this phony thought he was in his yellow yarmulke and alligator boots. But when she let him in––reassured by the gray streaks in his wiry hair, as if each one were a strand of God’s wisdom––it did not take long before she let herself go, her emotions flooding out under the nodding, arm-patting gestures of their young rabbi: “They closed the store for that boy!” she wailed, her head butting against the flat padded shoulders of Avi Joseph’s coat.
The rabbi’s voice was gentle. Berni listened through her own gasps and tears as he spoke of strength and faith and sacrifice and remembrance; how letting go and holding on could happen at the very same time, and inside herself she would find an eternal spring of goodness and resiliency.
“The world awaits you, Bernice,” he whispered, breath of warm soy. “You may be an adult, but you are still so very young. Know that you are not alone. The synagogue is here for you. I am here for you.”
Berni could have believed that the hand on her leg was for reassurance and nothing else. And with rabbi Joseph, out of anyone Berni knew in the world, it could have been true—despite the claims she had made whenever her parents tried to lure her to synagogue. But she wasn’t wired to believe in that possibility. What she knew beyond anything was that she had to stand up. She had to stop weeping, and she had to kick this pervert out of her house.
“Out!” she yelled as her torrid fist popped the small bridge of Avi Joseph’s curiously un-Semitic nose. Blood splattered Berni’s wrist and poured over the rabbi’s chin. Gurgling apologies and denials, Avi Joseph stumbled out of the house.
Without bothering to clean up, Berni filled a few bags with clothes, grabbed the full bottle of Scotch from the liquor cabinet, and stormed to the door. She paused at the threshold long enough to rip the copper and glass mezuzah off its frame, tucking this last token into the outside compartment of her bag, daring to violate her mother’s decree that once the mezuzah is hung, it must stay with the house forever. But if she had to go, this symbol of faith and protection had to go too. In the clarity of violence, she had conceived of a plan. Besides Avi Joseph, she had leverage over one person: Agrifino Mortini, who would not be leaving the fairgrounds until something amicable or just had been settled. Even as liability questions lingered, Berni knew she could expedite the process.
“Take me with you or I make trouble for you forever!” she demanded of the sheepish looking Mortini who had been squirming since the accident happened. “You take on the debt of the store. You find a buyer for the house. And you guarantee me a trailer of my own, so I can finally get out of this sweltering shit factory!”
Much like her mother, Berni had become a full-figured woman before she was old enough to drive. She was broad-shouldered and bold-chinned, with high cheekbones, a strong nose, and lips which too many Reno transients had called voluptuous. She had pale, freckled skin, rust-red hair and as her mother used to point out, an abundant bust––mocked as early as sixth grade as “Berni Boobs.” But it was her slender legs that proved to be her most useful feature in the five years after her parents’ deaths. They were long and strong and remarkably flexible. “Especially for such a shapely girl,” Agrifino had noted after they had finally left Reno, slithering around his personal motor home, trying to determine how the newest addition to his crew might contribute to the Amazon circus.
Berni clenched her fear into the cold hole behind her chest. “Don’t you dare push me,” she said, edging even closer to the window. “I get the time I need. Then we’ll see how flexible I can become.”
In those initial weeks, Berni did her best to stay out of sight, fighting a swirl of unsettling emotions with an elixir of Scotch and cola—a mixture that would have sent her father into an indulgent rage: not only was someone polluting his prized drink, but that someone was his eighteen-year-old daughter. But as an emotionally afflicted woman forced into an alien environment, there weren’t many outlets to help her cope or forget. The only thing she could not drown out of her mind was The Amazing Adolescent!
As much as it terrified her, Berni was compelled to face this arrogant child. See if he knew that people put their lives on hold just to watch him. That households could be torn apart and ruined—crushed—just to catch a glimpse of him. Would he even care?
It wasn’t until she consumed the last of her father’s whiskey—hot nerves burning through her body—that Berni finally stumbled out of her trailer to track down the star of this traveling show. She was grateful that she was put on the outskirts of this Clearlake encampment where she could gather herself in the buffer between camper row, where all the help staff stayed, and the trailers reserved for directors, producers, trainers, stars, and at least one orphaned young adult who forced herself into this dreadful camp of circus freaks.
As she skirted the dark path that wound into the park, Berni heard the crackle of fire and the cackling snorts of primates, horses and humans. The lights all seemed to flicker and buzz with their cheap florescent glow. Growls and snarls were swarming around her. A cesspool stench was submerging her senses, infecting her perception.
Although she hadn’t planned to dress the part, Berni was grateful that she was in black—jeans, boots and a denim coat that she pulled over her chest, protecting herself against the foul breeze that rustled through the trees and chilled the sheen of sweat on her neck. “Where is this damn kid?” she asked herself as she squinted at the silver stars that were pasted on the trailer doors: Milfred the Magnificent, Vera Viper, The Flying Tucans, Pieter The Pickleman.
“What’s a pickle doing in the Amazon?” she scoffed, wiping her arm across her clammy brow. Fleeing an elicit affair with the Corned Beef, she could hear her father saying as she unsettled the gravel path, swallowing a burn of bile back into her chest.
Approaching each new trailer, she imagined what she might say to The Amazing Adolescent! How it might go down.
You killed my parents, she began this malignant game. You think you’re slicker-than-snake-snot, but you’re just a smarmy little punk who wouldn’t know a candle from a corkscrew. I hope you choke on all your roses! I hope the thorns dice up your throat!
You think I don’t know what?, extending her arms at this imagined affront. I’ve lived more in my life than you’ll live in a cluster-fuck of lives! she emphasized with a backhand slap to the air. I don’t care how many custom-made whips you have, or how many commercials you’ve been in, or how many parents you’ve killed you arrogant, ignorant, slime bag! Self-righteous cockroach! Good-for-nothing I’m-so-special look-at-me mister-pansy-pants life-destroying KID COCK!
Berni was barely looking at the trailers now, stopping only to punctuate an obscenity before continuing on her circuitous route around this makeshift dwelling. It wasn’t until she edged closer to a shadowy plot on the shoulder of the camp that her eyes regained their focus. The lamp had fizzled out and the hill was especially dark, but there was a lone trailer with its lights on. Squinting from the distant path, she could see it: The Amazing Adolescent! lit in blood red script inside a glittering silver star. Her face caught fire, blazing against the cool air, and her heart was punching the insides of her chest. As she steadied herself for a storm to the door, she heard voices approaching from the distance. Fearing some sort of violation—as if her intentions, still unclear to her, would be broadcast to the world—she ducked into the trees and crouched behind the weathered post that supported the burnt out light. Before she could blink, the figures were in front of her, coming toward her. It was Agrifino, walking with The Amazing Adolescent! Agrifino’s hand was on the crest of his back. The boy looked older than he appeared in the posters, but it was unmistakably him. Berni would know that tiny, rail thin body anywhere. She stabled herself for a fight.
“Here now, Abey,” Agrifino said, in a voice more gentle than Berni had ever heard from him before—the coddling never ends! “Here now, Abey,” he repeated. “Very big show tomorrow. We must have our rest.”
“I tame the tigers,” the boy replied in what struck Berni’s ear as a croak, raspy and frog-like, its awkwardness exacerbated by an inexplicable repetition: “I tame the tigers; I tame the tigers; I tame the tigers.” After each utterance, Agrifino assured him that he did indeed tame the tigers and that he was the best one in the world at it. “The tigers only listen to me,” Abey said in a new reply, same frog-like voice. “The tigers only listen to me. I tame the tigers.”
Berni could only stare as Agrifino led this man-child to his trailer, ushering him inside and then stepping back out, bolting the door with a long key—locking The Amazing Adolescent! inside! Still crouched in the trees, Berni watched Agrifino walk away, retreating toward the dark heart of the park. Her emotions churned in her chest, a volatile storm of sadness and rage.
When Agrifino was out of sight, Berni rose out of the cover of leaves and crept up to the trailer. She pressed her face against the small side window and saw The Amazing Adolescent! sitting on his bed, rocking back and forth in a motion that reminded her of the religious Jews she had seen at Frieda Green’s Bat Mitzvah, davening as they chanted in their bereaved, nasal voices. There was a steady, sleepy-sad peace to their prayer ritual that Abey was also able to conjure. A hypnosis that Berni fell into as she watched, the anxiety and the alcohol loosening their hold on her brain. She was utterly still—entranced—until the lamp outside Abey’s trailer flickered on, emitting a fluttering half-light that broke Berni out of her spell and sent her scrambling away from the window.
With a new heat in her face, she rushed down the short slope, holding her breath until she was back on the gravel path, feeling a strange surge of relief as she made it safely into neutral space. But the relief was quickly replaced by a grave new fear. What had she just seen? What did it all mean? She had never felt so vulnerable. Never known less about the way the world worked.
When she got back to her trailer, she pulled the blanket from her bed, draped it over her head and dropped to the floor, determined to stay out of sight forever.
It was a week after she had seen Abey—the tragedies of Reno fading at an iniquitous rate, an ephemeral moment in a tumultuous time—when Agrifino caught Berni slipping back into her trailer, her fist around the neck of a paper bag, nips of bourbon and two sleeves of salami inside.
“Most artists prepare their own food,” Agrifino said as he approached. “Or have special meals brought to them.”
Berni didn’t know how to respond. She was hardly an artist. Yet not a part of the design department or the ring crew either. She held an anomalous status, neither inside nor outside the circus. She had yet to unpack the bags that guarded the twin bed in her trailer. Only in the last few days had she placed her family’s mezuzah on the side table, spending hours staring at the colorful fragments of glass around the clear tube, running her finger over the copper wire frame, trying to trace a connection to some aspect of her past, some fragment of her identity. She felt no connection to anything here. But now Agrifino’s hand was tight around her arm, his long, manicured fingernails pressing into her skin, injecting something urgent into her veins. Her days as a drunken recluse were over, he let her know.
“I agreed to let you join us, not suck the life out of us,” he said, his grip unrelenting. “I’ve seen your assets,” he hissed, making no effort to hide the gawking of her breasts, “and they have a place on a side stage. But they cannot stand alone. Your legs are the answer.”
Although she would never abandon her right to resist and resent, she was anxious—desperate even—for a role that could keep her occupied. Inside she was petrified. Circus life scared her. The uncanny abilities of others scared her. Everything she had smelled and heard and seen had scared her. She was happy to have any assets at all.
Agrifino arranged for Berni to train with Rosella, a sexless and ageless contortionist whose body could coil and bend in such unnatural ways it had given squeamish spectators and a few tenderfoot performers vertigo. She had a wealth of talent and knowledge, but she was not keen about teaching Berni. Her first suggestion was that Berni starve herself for a week or two. “Too much girth,” she said, her voice smoky and slow, as if there were barely enough breath for the words, all extraneous air pressed out so she was nothing but muscle and wire. “All this weight,” she added, her arm slicing the air in a painfully slow arc. “Your body. It will never loosen up.”
Under different circumstances, Berni might have hit the spoony bitch—rabbi Joseph style—but somehow she knew that any attempt to strike this woman-child would end badly. Rosella was such an elusive figure. Berni wasn’t even sure she could hit her. There was no choice but to endure.
“Agrifino. He wants a backbender,” Rosella let her know. “Side stage. Show the fat of your chest. Obvious snake.”
When Rosella spoke, Berni strained to breathe. Strained to endure the hot wring of her own skin.
“We work on posturing. On balance,” Rosella continued, as if aware of how she threw off Berni’s equilibrium. “Stretch your hips. They take too much space. I would tape back your tits,” she added, sunken eyes lowered. “But that would defeat the purpose.”
“At least I have tits,” Berni responded on instinct, adding “flat little freak” as her eyes diverted to the exit, searching for an escape as her nails scratched anxious lines into her arm.
Rosella took her time to respond, the hint of a smile twitching beneath her bones. “You should look around,” she finally said, no rise to her voice. “Plenty of people like me. Not so many like you. Charity cases do not last long. Freak.”
Berni didn’t talk much after that. In the darkest corner of the rehearsal tent, with the unnerving sounds of jungle animals streaming incessantly into the air and boring into the recesses of her brain, she let Rosella take her through the bends that would eventually allow her to arch her head back and grab onto her own knees. Rosella held her at first—she would be blamed for any injuries, she let her know. Her overall aura would have been enough to diffuse any awkwardness from these intimate encounters, but Rosella had another attribute that was even more effective. Her body had a stench that repelled. Her breath was most pungent—it smelled like an infection, rotting and musty. It was a weapon she used to get Berni to do what she wanted. And it worked. The closer she leaned in, the farther Berni bent back.
As revolting as their sessions could be, Rosella knew what she was doing. She was a skillful teacher, despite her distaste for it. Within a month, Berni could bend back on her own: tits tilted to the arc of the big top, hands around her ankles. After her initial insults—verbal and olfactory—Rosella did not speak an unnecessary word. Berni hated her for it, but also held an admiration, which she could never really express. She worked hard to contrive an admissible contortionist routine, compelling because of her atypical build and provocative positions, but not eye-grabbing enough to make her stand out to an audience seeking a more freakish attraction. In this world, Berni was not freak enough.
It was the affliction of the ordinary that haunted her as she trained for her brief circus career. After an especially dispiriting session with Rosella, she stormed through the trailer park and skulked in the shadows of camper row, her muscles still quivering from the strain of an unrelenting back bend that Rosella had threatened to make last until morning, ceasing only when Berni’s arms gave out—Rosella never revealing whether Berni had done what was expected, whether the duration she had held before her collapse was adequate enough.
Feeling entirely inadequate, Berni cursed her parents as she shuffled along the gravel path, pushing toward the performance tents, damning the lot they had left her. She was fighting against the stench of elephant shit and popcorn, dreading a return to her trailer where she had once known a sense of safety, but now felt as confined and alone as she could ever remember. Anxiety and exhaustion were getting the better of her. Lower lip between her teeth, pinching off the threat of tears, Berni forced herself forward, advancing through the hollow chill in her chest until she was startled by a man in a feathered fedora, emerging from behind a wing of the big tent—a surge of blood washing into her face.
“Looking for company, sweetie?” he asked in a manner that seemed stolen from some old movie.
Berni did her best to turn her gasp into a scowl. “What do I look like?” she asked in quick defense, suddenly fearing how she might have looked, hoping her outside didn’t betray the vulnerability and pain she felt on the inside.
“You look like a million bucks,” the man answered back. “The whole quivering chin display. Sailor-swearing under your breath. I’m just wondering where I can find me some of that happiness. Tap into the pure joy radiating off your bright red head!”
“What the fuck?” Berni asked, her wits frozen for the moment.
“It’s something to behold,” the man continued, in a less affected voice. “The whole look,” he added with a quick sweep of his hand. “Simply divine.”
Berni ground her boot heels into the dirt as she gazed in exasperation and awe at this man who was an inch or two shorter than she was. Whether this was an attempt at flirtation or agitation she couldn’t be sure. Despite the shock of his initial presence, and the strangeness of his words, there was something disarming about him. Most likely his height.
“So when you’re not sucking off the joy of others,” Berni finally said, grateful that words had returned to her, “what the hell are you doing here? Some circus groupie or something?”
“Really, now, Bernice,” he said, his head slumping in mock disappointment. “Do I really strike you as the groupie type?”
“How do you know my name?”
“My dear,” he answered, hands springing open. “I’m part of the establishment, sweetie. Harvey Lubar? Botanist? The man responsible for the Amazon Circus?”
As Berni continued to take in this diminutive man, he began to look more and more familiar. “You’re the guy who sets up all the…”
“That’s me,” he answered with a quick smile. “Plant man by day, companion for the lonely by night.”
Berni smiled back, her tongue pressing into the slender gap between her teeth. “So,” she said, not sure what she intended to say. “Where’ve you been all my life?”
Harvey took off his hat and pressed it against his chest, revealing a shock of beautiful brown hair. “Chasing after your brother, I’m afraid.”
“I’m an only child.”
“Story of my life.”
Read Aaron’s interview about these chapters and The Voice of Artland Rising, his novel in progress.