Flight of the Spumonis – Chapters 1 – 2

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Swaddled in a crimson-sequined cape on his father’s orders despite the early-June heat, Marco Spolini slouched against a pole just inside the artists’ entrance. The red-white-and-blue-striped canvas tunnel kept the circus’ performers out of view as they approached the ring and out of reach of the occasional rowdy element. Marco’s barrel-chested father Ricardo and taller, slimmer uncle Antonio flanked him. The Flying Spumonis had just finished their trapeze act culminated by Marco’s impeccable triple somersault. Now, they waited for their cue to join the concluding parade—with or without Marco’s stepmother Olga. Once again, she had vanished.

Marco noted the matinee audience’s rhythmic applause accompanying the spirited march composed by Lalit Singh, leader of Berryman’s Bodacious Big Top Band and the circus world’s only Julliard-trained Calliaphone player. The applause grew louder as Vartanian’s Elephants launched the parade’s first circuit of the big top. Half-a-dozen clowns accompanied them led by the two-hundred-sixty-pound St. Louis Slim atop a giraffe-high unicycle.

Ricardo made a fist with his right hand and tapped it repeatedly with his left to display his agitation at Olga’s absence. Marco remained indifferent. Olga was not his blood. He stared ahead without particular focus. His face indicated the fatigue of suddenly decreased adrenalin overlaid with thirteen-year-old boredom.

An unexpected gasp rose from the crowd.

Marco peered out across the sawdust ring to see Slim wobbling on his unicycle like a sycamore caught in a gale. Slim’s flailing arms struggled to restore his equilibrium then collapsed. As did Slim, who plummeted face-down-splat onto a fresh-dropped elephant patty.

Fifteen hundred throats that had roared approval following Marco’s triple constricted in unison. Their sudden plunge into silence evoked a boat filled with partygoers sucked without warning beneath the surface of nearby Oneida Lake.

Ricardo, anticipating his son’s goodhearted but pointless response, clutched Marco’s right arm.

Marco, his adrenalin soaring, broke free. He slipped out of his cape and sprinted across the ring where Vartanian’s Elephants milled about in empathetic confusion. Deftly eluding the massive hindquarters of Jewel and Lenore, he approached the fallen clown and knelt alongside Gretchen and Gudron Bucholtz, the diminutive twin contortionists. Slim remained motionless. His hand-sewn costume—pink Little Susie Sassy dress with four-foot bow and short skirt revealing purple bloomers of titanic proportion—now seemed less amusing than grotesque. Having no other remedy in mind, Marco whispered a Hail Mary in gratitude that Slim had not suffered a fatal bludgeoning beneath the massive feet of Vartanian’s cows. Following that, he adlibbed a lengthy prayer to Jesus. President Carter was always praying although he wasn’t a Catholic and Governor Reagan liked talking about God although he wasn’t a Catholic either, so it seemed the appropriate thing to do. Then Marco glanced to his left. Armen Vartanian had apparently restored order in his particular sphere of influence. The elephants, joined trunk to tail, exited the big top in their usual stately fashion. Their restored equanimity made Marco tremble.

Antonio nudged Marco aside. His long blonde hair threatened to come undone. His makeup, almost dissolved by sweat, exposed the scar that slashed diagonally across his left cheek. Exhibiting a calm that Marco found startling, Antonio coordinated the rolling of Slim onto his back. Then, demonstrating considerable strength of both body and purpose, he hoisted Slim into a sitting position. Antonio’s heroic deed revealed Slim’s meticulously rendered makeup smeared with elephant dung. “Mother of God!” he moaned. With a conspicuous measure of disgust, he released the clown’s inert body. It collapsed onto the sawdust.

Marco, as bewildered as upset, stared at his uncle.

Doc, Slim’s long-time clown partner, joined the group. His left hand clutched an oversized medical bag. Hot pink and marked by a huge red cross that glittered under the big top’s lights, it held a variety of outsized props—a lime-green stethoscope, foot-long lemon-yellow tongue depressor, salami-sized violet thermometer and blood pressure monitor that lit up a brilliant magenta. He cast the bag aside and placed his fingertips against Slim’s neck. “Everyone but Antonio out of here!” he commanded.

The Bucholtz Twins retreated.

Marco remained in place.

Doc placed his right hand over his left and pressed rhythmically against Slim’s chest. “Now!” he instructed Marco.

Head bowed, Marco returned to the artists’ entry.

Ricardo held out Marco’s abandoned cape. “I’d say you, Uncle Antonio and the Frauleins Bucholtz made up a damn impressive rescue party.” He clapped Marco on the back. “Someone said the house doctor’s in the john with a case of the runs. Until he gets here, leave it to Doc.”

Marco looked out at the big top. Half the crowd had left. The remainder gawked and murmured as the surviving clowns and tee-shirted ushers urged them towards the exits. Returning his attention to the motionless Slim, Marco shuddered. A sniffle followed. A man, Marco reasoned, could let out a little sniffle now and then.

Ricardo grabbed Marco’s wrist. “So where the hell did your mother go?”

Marco yanked his arm away. “Stepmother,” he returned.

Across the ring, Doc slumped over the fallen Slim, shook his head.

Ricardo pulled Marco close. Given their negligible physical resemblance, they created an unlikely family portrait. The smooth-cheeked son favored his late mother Luisa, a slender, raven-haired, dark complexioned flyer of considerable skill. “Jesus Christ, kid, what can I say?”

Marco lifted his eyes to the big top’s canvas roof. Questions plagued him. Had Slim’s soul abandoned its mortal flesh and ascended to heaven? Did he now sit at Jesus’ right hand? Such questions seemed only natural, although Marco had received little religious education from Luisa and none from Ricardo. It was the devout Antonio who dragged Marco to Mass whenever he could and mentored his nephew according to the reportage of the weekly National Catholic Register. But Antonio’s theology often left Marco bewildered. Just how did a cracker and wine become Christ’s body and blood? And why would Jesus want to be eaten and drunk in the first place?

Ricardo nodded in the direction of the supine Slim. “I’ve seen worse. Like when your uncle and I were in California.”

Marco again pulled away.

Ricardo shrugged. “What do you want me to say, kid? Life is tough. So you have to be tough. The stuff your uncle and me learned in the school of hard knocks…”

Marco crossed his arms over his chest and scowled. He’d heard those stories ever since he could remember. Worse, of what adventures could he boast? Born into the big top, he’d been confined by a straitjacket of rules and regulations stipulated by his father, Olga and Doc—the circus’ senior artist and union representative. Then there was the big top’s owner Chester Berryman. Each determined to be the boss of him. So while the circus thrilled audiences, Marco experienced every day, every town and every show as another link in a chain of endless constraints.

Ricardo cleared his throat. The matinee had dried him out. Slim’s awkward finale made things worse. He spun Marco towards the back door—a canvas flap leading to the artists’ gathering area and on to the cookhouse. It doubled as a staging point in rainy weather. Beyond stretched the living quarters, an expanse of asphalt where the artists parked their trailers. “Nothing we can do here,” Ricardo said. Slim lay beyond their assistance. At some convenient moment, Chester Berryman would offer a few words of consolation and a prayer for those who thought it mattered. Tears would flow. Then the circus would head for the next town.

Marco squinted in the late-afternoon sunshine. He took a deep breath to clear his nostrils of the mustiness generated by the audience now dispersed to seek its own solace, as well as the collective flatulence produced by Tanaka’s Prancing Ponies, Igor’s Bears and Vartanian’s Elephants. That’s the smell of money, Chester Berryman was fond of saying.

Ricardo, fatigued by the effort required of a man entering middle age and shaken by an unanticipated encounter with mortality, dropped onto a gray metal folding chair to ponder the fragility of life. Movement at the back door caught his eye. Four roustabouts with red faces, veins bulging in their necks, bore Slim’s earthly remains on a canvas stretcher. Ricardo forced himself to his feet.

Marco made the sign of the cross. Whether or not Slim was a Catholic, he had no idea.

As Slim’s body passed, Ricardo collapsed back onto the chair. Exhibiting the skills of a practiced magician, he made a bottle of Old Bushmills appear from beneath his cape. Consistent with being a loving and considerate—if necessarily stern—father, he extended his arm.

Marco shook his head. On his recent thirteenth birthday, he sipped from a similar bottle proffered by Ricardo and encountered one of adulthood’s significant mysteries. While the whiskey tasted foul, the lightheadedness he experienced seemed oddly pleasant. A second sip added to his strange but blissful state. After which he threw up.

Ricardo’s eyebrows ascended in disbelief. “Kid, you’re not a kid anymore. In some ways, anyway.” He smiled. “You think people don’t see that bone you carry for Desiree Chan?”

Marco blushed.

“No big deal,” said Ricardo. “When I was your age…”

Marco turned away. His father never stopped holding over him his teen-age journeys of discovery in the real world.

“Anyway, sometimes a man really needs a drink,” said Ricardo. “Erin go bragh!”

Marco sighed. “Slim didn’t even have a wet sponge to cushion his fall.”

“You remember that bit, huh?” Ricardo craned his head back. The whiskey rushed down his throat.

Olga had emerged from the big top. Her eyes were red. Mascara slalomed down her cheeks.

Marco stared. He couldn’t remember ever seeing her cry.

“Where the hell were you for the finale?” Ricardo barked.

“Olga went pee.”

“And for Slim…”

Olga looked at Marco then clutched both hands to her heart.

Ricardo took another drink.

“Like my father, you are,” said Olga. “And brothers. And uncles.” She held up her thumb and index finger. Half an inch separated them. “This close my family comes to Moscow State Circus…”

“And then that little episode in Kiev put the kibosh on everything.”

“Kibosh? What this means?”

“It’s a word I used to hear when I was a kid. It means…”

Antonio appeared at the back door. He raised his cape against the sun then marched towards them with an air of pious solemnity.

Olga placed the back of her hand against her forehead and began to sway, aping the late, lamented Slim’s last ride.

Ricardo remained seated.

Antonio lunged and caught her around the waist.

“Russians,” Ricardo whispered to Marco. “Always with the drama.”

Olga’s narrowed eyes expressed fury diluted by a total immersion in grief.

“I get it,” said Ricardo. “Slim and all. Your heart bleeds. You’re a mother. Not a biological mother, but still. And you’ve suffered. Jesus, you’ve suffered.”

“No gentleman you are,” she said. “Same is for your son.”

“Oh, he’s my son now. Well damn right about that. And for the record, I figured Antonio’d be the better catcher on this one.” He held out the bottle of Old Bushmills.

Olga shot Ricardo a withering look. “Is not vodka. Besides, I have headache.”

Antonio offered his arm.

Olga flipped her blonde hair, almost as long as Antonio’s, and strode off unaccompanied.

Ricardo shrugged at Antonio and turned back to Marco. “Been a hell of a day, kid.” He raised the bottle and again bathed his parched throat.

“It’s not fair,” said Marco. “Slim, I mean.”

Ricardo spat. “Fair? Look, kid, you want to be a man? Cut the crap about fair. Those rose-colored glasses Doc and Slim wore in their act? In real life, all they do is blind you to the next sucker punch.”

* * *

Marco matched Ricardo stride for stride across the asphalt lot surrounding the long-abandoned textile mill where the circus held its three-day run in Utica. Once upona time, men and women made good wages within its soot-blackened, prison-like brick walls. Alas, American tastes turned from cotton and wool to silk and nylon. Machinery grew outmoded. The industry retreated south then fled to foreign shores. Not that Utica was only textiles. General Electric made it the radio capital of the world. Once upon a time. Yet despite the city’s economy decay, enterprising Americans found ways to earn a buck. Hence some Oneida County citizens assigned to Utica an unfortunate sobriquet that spread across the nation—Sin City of the East.

They approached the family’s thirty-one-foot Airstream Land Yacht. The rounded body suggested a long-ago image of technology’s future. Hot spots of sunlight danced on its silver metallic skin. Ricardo, clutching the bottle of Old Bushmills to his chest, dropped a step behind in a state of silent contemplation. This proved prescient. A steam iron rocketed out the door. Ricardo swayed leftward, his reflexes defying his considerable consumption of spirits. The wayward iron missed his head by inches and dented the metal body below the bathroom window of the Bucholtz Twins’ neighboring trailer.

Marco drew on past experience and retreated half-a-dozen steps. This modest act expressed his wish to be recognized as an observer claiming a position of diplomatic neutrality.

Ricardo, who had assumed the prone position, raised his chest off the asphalt. Beneath him the green whiskey bottle lay shattered. He looked up at his wife standing in the doorway and sighed. Following Luisa’s death, he’d sponsored Olga, who’d been granted refugee status, then married her. A boy needed a mother. More important, The Flying Spumonis needed the sex appeal of a striking woman to remain a marketable attraction. From the audience’s perspective, Olga’s slender figure and flowing blonde hair gave women and girls someone to identify with—if only as a fantasy self-image. Men found yet another reason to bring their families back the next season. From the vantage point of those who came in closer contact, Olga’s high Slavic cheekbones and gray eyes attested to the Asiatic origins of her Kazakh grandmother. They also hinted at the contradictory image of a boy with a propensity for mischief and worse.

Risking the assumption that all flight paths now were clear, Ricardo rose to one knee. The chest of his white Spandex costume displayed a large brown stain resembling a Rorschach test. His Irish aroused as well as spilled, he stood, pointed down at his feet and discharged his grievance. “I had half a bottle left, you bitch!”

Marco shuddered. Husbands and wives in the circus were supposed to love each other like they did in the real world. Even if one of them was a second wife who sought a marriage of convenience to live and work in America, they at least could act as if love played some role in holding them together.

Olga summoned Marco into the trailer.

Seeking a measure of peace, Marco complied. He reasoned that following a brief but dramatic demonstration of her dissatisfaction with his father, with him and with life in general, Olga would exhaust herself. Calm would prevail—for a while, at least. According to Doc, Olga’s tantrums were only natural. She possessed the mercurial temperament of a true artist. And unlike his real mother, she wasn’t even Italian.

Olga shoved Marco into the Airstream’s cramped bedroom—not that the trailer wasn’t a palace compared to the hovels in which she had lived in testimony to the glorious economic accomplishments of Communism. Marco sat on the bed. She returned to the living area.

Ricardo staggered towards the door.

Olga slammed it against his nose.

Marco went to the window. He saw his father, bloodied and more than a little bowed, seated in a daze on the warm asphalt. He stared as the Bucholtz Twins, holding hands, emerged from around the back of their trailer. Endeavoring to provide succor, they embraced Ricardo within a tangle of arms and legs. Marco’s thoughts drifted to Desiree Chan then segued to a not-unfamiliar fantasy involving Gretchen and Gudron. And Desiree.

From the kitchen window, Olga hurled a string of Russian expletives—ever-popular nouns and adjectives reinforced by timeless idioms.

Marco watched as Gretchen—or perhaps Gudron—shook a dainty yet impressive fist at Olga. His father once remarked that the two could only be distinguished when undressed. And then, barely. How his father knew that he had no idea.

The Spolinis’ door swung open. A clock radio shot out. It missed its intended target—that being Ricardo, Gretchen, Gudron or any combination thereof. The considerable force of propulsion generated by the small-framed but furious Olga left another dent in the side of the Bucholtz’ trailer along with a small pile of debris suggesting the dot beneath an exclamation point.

Fearing that someone might get hurt, Marco bolted back into the living area that doubled as his bedroom. It also sheltered O’Doul, his father’s canary. It was Marco’s task to feed and water O’Doul as well as clean his cage. Moreover, Ricardo continually instructed Marco that O’Doul was to remain caged no matter what. The way Olga leaves the door to the trailer open all the time…

Olga thrust out her arms. Her hands pushed against Marco’s shoulders. Her unexpected strength rocked him back on his heels.

“But… Mom!” he pled. Uttering the appellation upon which Olga insisted represented a calculated gesture of subservience that might enable him to enter her good graces if for only a few minutes.

“What you think you understand? You are still boy. Not a whisker you have.”

A hand rapped against the doorway’s metal frame.

Olga dropped her arms and spun around.

“You leave this outside?” asked Doc. His right hand held aloft Olga’s errant steam iron. The remains of his red, white and blue makeup cascaded down his cheeks in rivulets resembling the moisture streaking the open can of Schaefer beer in his left.

“Always Olga think you do not drink.”

Doc grimaced. “Not in a long time. A long time.”

Olga dropped the iron into the kitchen sink.

“My point is,” said Doc, “someone could’ve tripped. Hurt himself. Or herself. Whatever. Not to mention there’s the remains of what probably was a clock radio out there. Seems like the thing tried to force its way into the Twins’ trailer.”

Olga made a face at Marco, looked past Doc and flashed Ricardo, Gretchen and Gudron the durnoy glaz—the evil eye.

“Another little misunderstanding?” Doc asked.

Marco nodded.

“For herself Olga can speak,” said Olga.

Doc studied the beer can gripped in his hand then looked up. “Bad time for a misunderstanding. Slim, I mean. Upsetting to say the least. We were close, Slim and me. Went way back.”

Marco felt tears welling up.

Doc drained the beer and tossed the empty can into the sink. It clanked against the steam iron, bounced back and landed on the linoleum floor. He tousled Marco’s thick black hair.

Marco grimaced.

Olga’s gray eyes grew tundra cold. She raised a hand to Doc’s shoulder and turned him to the window. “Did you see them? Did you?”

“Them who?” asked Doc.

Marco thought Olga’s striking cheekbones seemed to shape shift. He remembered the picture books Luisa used to read to him and the witch who plagued Snow White.

“That bitch, Gretchen,” Olga hissed. “And bitch sister. You see them with Ricardo? You see them whispering in his ears? With tongues?”

Doc shook his head. “Honestly, Olga. You can’t tell that from here.”

“You don’t think they save for him best handstands and splits?”

Doc stepped back. With considered deliberation, he opened the refrigerator and extracted a bottle of Guinness. After emptying half, he held it to his face for a three-count then lowered it. His left cheek looked like a two-year-old’s finger painting. “All I know… and you’re getting this from a veteran of the war in the Pacific who saw his share of action… is someone could get hurt being downrange of an airborne appliance.”

Olga released a projectile of spittle. It made a plinking sound as it struck the beer can Doc had emptied.

Doc shook his head. “Look, Olga. You’re a professional. You know how it’s supposed to be. I mean us being one big happy family.”

Olga snorted. “They have hair under arms.” She shook her head. “About Germans, Olga can tell you.”

Marco recognized an opportunity. He placed his arm around Olga’s shoulder, although more to restrain than comfort her.

She shook free. “Is blonde, the hair. From grandstand, audience can not see but is there.”

Doc shook his head. “What the situation calls for, Olga, is a little separation. We… you… let things cool down. I’ll talk to Ricardo. Maybe have him stay with me tonight. As far as Marco goes… Antonio’s the calm one. Marco can spend the night with him.”

Marco startled. Why were adults always making decisions for him? Why didn’t anyone ever ask, What do you think? Would that be okay with you?

“Just one night away from home, son,” Doc said. “Two at the outside. Until everything goes back to normal.”

* * *

Marco followed Doc through the dimly lit living quarters as the artists settled down for another night in yet another town. A rolled-up white towel under Marco’s arm contained his pajamas and a toothbrush. “Honestly, I shouldn’t be bothering Uncle Antonio,” he said. “If I can’t stay at home, I can stay with someone else.”

Doc sipped from a can of Bud Light. “Son, your folks need a night apart, and so do you.” He turned his head and belched. “Someday you’ll understand these things.”

“I understand things. I’m almost as old as my dad when he and Uncle Antonio left Chicago.”

Doc nodded. “He tells some stories, your dad. Pity about your Grandma Noonan. I bet you wish you’d known her.”

Marco knew the story well. Grandmother Noonan—his father assumed the name Spolini as an adult—died long before Marco was born. When Ricardo—Dicky then—was fifteen, a terrible illness left her blind, deaf and bedridden. And Jesus, not all there upstairs. She with no husband and the rest of the Noonan family far away in New York City from where she’d headed west to seek a new life as not much more than a girl. The parish took her into a charity home it ran so she could live out her remaining days in peace. Dicky faced the orphanage. Maybe that kind of thing appealed to Antonio—then Tony—what with priests and nuns and mass at six each morning. Not Dicky Noonan. He wasn’t about to be confined like some bank robber doing time in Joliet.

Doc held his beer out to Marco.

Marco shook his head.

Antonio, wearing gym shorts and a White Sox tee shirt, opened the door of his Argosy 28, a somewhat smaller version of Ricardo’s Airstream.

Doc shambled up into the doorway, turned and beckoned.

Marco followed dutifully and stopped.

Ricardo sat sandwiched between stacks of books and magazines on the mustard-colored couch at the trailer’s tow end. He winked.

Doc shot Ricardo a reproving glance. “Marco’s staying here tonight like we agreed. All things considered, you should spend the night with me.”

“I’m staying with the twins,” said Ricardo. He shrugged. “It was just a harmless little fling, that’s all. No reason for Olga to get so pissy.”

Antonio squeezed Marco’s shoulders.

Marco gritted his teeth.

Ricardo leaned forward like a jockey driving his mount to the wire. “Honestly, Doc. You ever work trio with those little Dresden dolls?”

Doc arched an eyebrow. “That’s not the point.”

Ricardo smiled. “The towners out there… They come to see the elephant. Stuff they can’t see anywhere else. And hell, that’s what we give them. But no way they can even begin to imagine Gretchen and Gudron’s most impressive skills.”

Doc gestured towards Marco. “You’ve got a son here, you know.”

“The positions,” Ricardo went on. “The variations. And after, they make you bacon and eggs and goddam better coffee than you ever get at home.”

Doc motioned Antonio to remove Marco to his bedroom.

Marco resisted with a strength and agility that caught his uncle off guard.

Antonio loosened his grip. “I think you should head out now,” he said to Ricardo. He nodded at Doc. “Marco and me, we’ll be fine.”

Doc drained the remains of his beer.

Ricardo made no effort to get up. “And what the hell is that?”

Doc tossed the can onto the narrow counter space between the kitchen sink and the stove’s four small burners. “What the hell does it look like?”

Antonio whisked the can into the garbage.

“Anyway,” said Doc, “Antonio’s right. After two shows, we can all use some rest.” He took one step towards the door then spun around as if performing his famed “Where’s My Patient?” bit and pointed at Ricardo. Unable to find words, he dropped his hand.

Ricardo stood and coaxed Marco towards him as if he were reeling in a fish that, no matter how exhausted, might still attempt one last struggle for freedom. “Listen kid, here’s the skinny. I was unfaithful. No secret there. As for tonight, not that I don’t appreciate Doc’s offer, but I’ll just be more comfortable with the twins. But that doesn’t mean it’s the end for Olga and me… and you. That our family’s splitting up. It doesn’t mean that at all.”

Marco wiped his nose with his wrist.

Ricardo grasped Marco’s left forearm. “What I’m saying is, I probably wouldn’t have done it at all, twins or no, if…”

Antonio stepped forward.

Ricardo blocked his advance. “If Olga wasn’t screwing around behind my back.”

2

Marco slipped out from beneath Antonio’s arm and tiptoed to the bathroom. He’d thought he’d be sleeping on the couch, but Antonio insisted that he had no other place for all his books and magazines. Besides, Marco would spend a more restful night in a real bed. There was plenty of room for two. A flyer, said Uncle Antonio, had to take care of his body. Marco acknowledged that his uncle’s bed was more comfortable than the couch. Still, he’d slept poorly. First, Uncle Antonio fussed over him for a good hour before ordering lights out. He told him endless stories about Jesus while rubbing his shoulders and smoothing his hair. Then, after Uncle Antonio slipped into bed—he had reading to do—he kept whispering to Marco like they were kids at a sleepover. Just like he always did, Uncle Antonio went on about how much he loved him. That he’d always protect him because when all was said and done, his father and Olga had engaged in a marriage of convenience. When Marco whispered that he knew that, Uncle Antonio pulled him close and held him as if he were a small child made anxious by nightmares.

A trio of light taps sounded on the trailer door. Marco flushed, went into the kitchen and parted the curtains above the sink.

“Ach, good morning,” sang Gretchen Bucholtz.

Marco opened the door.

Gretchen, loosely wrapped in a pink bathrobe and wearing matching slippers, stepped up. “Your eyelashes. Ach! Every woman in this circus is jealous.”

Marco blinked. He had no idea why women commented on his eyelashes. Gretchen’s certainly were beautiful. Her whole face was beautiful even without makeup. His eyes dropped to her breasts. They were smaller than those of the women in the magazines Doc occasionally slipped him and even Desiree Chan’s. Still, he couldn’t help being fascinated with them.

Gretchen ignored Marco’s wandering attentions. “I hope you do not mind my taking this initiative,” she said. Clipped Teutonic overtones highlighted her English. “It is, you see, my duty.” Given the somewhat awkward situation with Ricardo, Gretchen felt compelled to acknowledge her responsibility, she being the elder twin by twenty-three minutes. “I can, perhaps, have a word?”

Antonio, wearing only gym shorts, burst out of the bedroom.

“Would you be so kind as to leave Marco and me alone?” Gretchen asked.

Antonio’s left arm embraced Marco.

Marco sought to wriggle free.

Antonio strengthened his grip.

“Well then,” said Gretchen. She pinched Marco’s cheek. “My dear, dear boy. What you have heard about your father and I… and Gudron… What is it they say George Washington said? I cannot tell a lie. So yes, okay, it is true. We three have had what might be termed how the song says… a thing going on.”

Antonio placed his hands over Marco’s ears.

Marco shook his head. A man needed to hear things for himself, figure things out, confront the world no matter how confusing. His father and uncle had done that. Was he no less a man?

“Your father…” Gretchen continued. She rested her hand on her left breast. “Your father was greatly wounded… ”

Antonio balled his fists. “Must you drag Olga into this?”

“…by your stepmother in that she betrayed your father with another man.”

Marco bit his lip.

“Ach! I know this wounds you so.” She reached out the same hand and patted Marco’s cheek where she’d left a small pink spot. “But we must bear the truth no matter how unpleasant, no?”

Marco felt the warmth of Gretchen’s hand envelope his cheek. He nodded.

Gretchen withdrew her hand. “This also you must know. I… and Gudron… merely provided a measure of comfort to your father in the time of his bewilderment and sorrow.” She offered a contrite smile. “You should be proud of the strength and grace and surprising maneuverability of which your father is capable.”

Marco looked down at Gretchen’s feet then slowly up imagining what she looked like undressed. His breath caught. Was he really to believe that his own father had sex not just with Gretchen and Gudron individually but with the two of them together? However that worked? And that they thought he was good at it?

Gretchen placed her hand on Marco’s chest.

His heart began to pound.

Flaunting the smirk of a mischievous pixie, she peered into his eyes.

Marco thought Gretchen’s eyes seemed as blue as those of the skies that covered not only Utica that morning but also all of Oneida County and perhaps the entire state of New York.

Gretchen continued her explanation. There was nothing spiritual in the relationship between his father, Gudron and herself. The matter reflected only physical appetite. “I am sure this you understand, no?”

Antonio grabbed Gretchen’s wrist. “Damn it, stop. He’s just a kid.”

Marco stared at Antonio in disbelief. How could his uncle, his own flesh and blood—even if they looked nothing alike what with Antonio’s pale skin and hair almost as blonde as that of Gretchen and Gudron or even Olga for that matter—deny that Marco was grown up now? That he was ready to take his place in the adult world?

The corners of Gretchen’s mouth rose. “You are hurting me!”

Antonio slapped Gretchen’s left cheek.

Gretchen attempted to slap Antonio back but succeeded only in grazing his shoulder. “Bastard! This would all be unnecessary if only you had left Olga alone.”

* * *

Heat crinkled the air above the baking asphalt as Marco approached the family trailer. Like a dog restrained by a taut leash, he came to a sudden halt.

Gudron Bucholtz, wearing skimpy white shorts that bared the lower curves of her backside and a matching tank top exposing her midsection, clutched Olga’s hand.

Marco thought he heard the word absolution.

Olga pushed Gudron away and strode towards the trailer door. Overwhelmed by fury, she stumbled and fell on the step. Her face contorted with pain. Her cheeks purpled with rage, she rose and whirled towards her tormenter. Her scarlet silk robe parted to expose a bloodied knee.

“You are in Ordnung?” asked Gudron. “You are okay? I wish only to explain the very much quite logical rationale for the involvement with Ricardo of Gretchen and I.”

“Okay?” Olga shot back. “Olga feels like hell. That is how okay Olga is!”

Marco, believing that a man had to fulfill certain duties even if they were distasteful, placed his hand on Olga’s elbow to help her back into the Airstream.

Olga shook him off and held her gaze on Gudron. “You see how you feel when Ricardo betrays you. You see what is like living with Ricardo. The way he passes out at kitchen table before bedtime. The way he disappears for week every winter as if he has secret dacha on lake in taiga. And woman!”

Marco wished he could shrink to the size of a beetle even if that would condemn him to a lifetime of gathering tiny balls of animal dung.

Olga stared at Marco with menacing eyes. “And you! You will be cert… devil. Just like father.”

Gudron placed her right hand over her heart. “Your feelings, Olga. They are hurt? Or perhaps your knee…”

“Feelings? Knee? What bothers Olga is much worse, blonde German cunt.”

* * *

Marco stood on the pedestal thirty feet above the ring alongside Antonio, Olga and Desiree Chan. Although Desiree had been born into the knife-throwing Chans, her father had given his approval for her to apprentice as an aerialist, a role for which she exhibited considerable zeal and a measure of talent. Marco noted Antonio’s frown. His uncle had hoped to attend Sunday-morning Mass, but his father had nixed that. “Your dad,” Antonio confided, “has another of those hairs up his ass.”

Marco understood the necessity of practice. The trapeze allowed no margin for error. But ever since the circus had embarked on its route across the United States and Canada east of the Rockies—Chester Berryman saw no profit in trekking to the West with its vast distances between marketable cities—practice had become drudgery. And here it was only early June. Performances were another thing. They indulged Marco in lights and music, cheers and applause. Matinees and evening shows—Berryman’s Big Top played two-a-days whenever possible—offered the unmatched freedom of defying gravity. Flying also offered Marco a sense of power. Everyone knew that Marco Spolini was the star of The Flying Spumonis. Above the ring all attention focused on him. Sadly, the act lasted no longer than the time Marco might spend enjoying an ice-cream cone on those rare occasions when Olga allowed him one. Practice on the other hand meant work. Not that Marco minded work. He loved flying. He wanted to be the greatest flyer of all time. He really did. What turned his stomach into knots was just thinking about his father’s constant criticism. You’re still a kid, kid. Jewish boys… You know what they say when they turn thirteen? Today I am a man. Bullshit. Maybe you think you’re good, but that’s because you don’t know any better. But I know. I know.

At least Uncle Antonio acknowledged that at thirteen, Marco stood at the brink of manhood. Still, he insisted that Marco had only partly emerged from childhood. One foot in, one foot out if you get what I mean. Why, his uncle asked continually, would Marco want to abandon that childhood? You become an adult, you’re an adult forever. There’s no going back. Be a kid as long as you can. Honestly, Marco, that’s how I’ll always think of you.

Marco appreciated Uncle Antonio’s efforts to smooth things over with his father. Antonio was, in fact, the only one who could calm Ricardo. You’re right, Dicky. He’s still a kid. And you know what’s best. You’re the head of the family. But maybe ease up just a little, huh? We were kids, too. Remember? As often as not, his father cooled down. Eventually. Still, he always offered the same response. You bet your ass I remember, Tony. That’s why Marco’s gonna do things no other flyer’s ever done before. Ever! Then Ricardo would turn and point at him like a district attorney in a TV show accusing a defendant of some terrible crime. A triple? You’ve got that down, kid. Good for you. Only that was a big deal thirty years ago. Today? The Flying Spumonis are what they call a commodity. That’s business talk. The thing is, people don’t pay good money to see commodities. They want brand names.

Taking a meal in the cookhouse or lifting weights outside his trailer, Antonio would try his best to comfort Marco. Your dad loves you. Don’t ever think he doesn’t. It’s just that Dicky and me, growing up the way we did, we went through tough times.

Marco tried to dismiss those words but never could. Not completely. His father and uncle had come to the circus as adults—their decisions and no one else’s. Before that, they’d gone places and done things about which he could only dream. No one offered him a choice about being an artist. He’d been born into the big top. His life had been plotted and planned long before he drew his first breath.

Still, he was expected to show gratitude morning, noon and night—not only to his father and uncle but also to Olga. How unfair was that? As far as flying went, Olga had talent. But it was fading. She was old. Thirty-four. And wasn’t that about the age Jesus was when he was crucified and ascended to heaven? Like his father, Uncle Antonio was six years older. By his own admission, he was slowing down. You’re our future, Antonio would tell Marco to raise his spirits. Look, you hit forty, there’s not much left. Even your dad, and he’s in great shape, can’t be a catcher forever. Weeks before following the evening show in Providence—it could have been Hartford—Uncle Antonio confided, I’ve been thinking about what comes next. But don’t mention it to your father. Not that I’d ask you to lie. Lying, that’s a sin of commission. But come on. I can’t be part of The Flying Spumonis forever, can I? Even your time will come.

Ricardo yanked Marco from his thoughts. Hanging like a human pendulum above the far end of the rigging, his legs fastened around the cables supporting the catch trap, he called out, “Let’s get to work. Pronto.” He motioned to Antonio.

Antonio leaped from the pedestal, traveled forward and back and forward. He tucked his body, somersaulted once then again and extended his arms towards Ricardo.

They swung together, each grasping the other’s wrists.

“I have to make a confession,” Antonio said. His voice carried throughout the otherwise silent big top.

“I’m not your priest,” said Ricardo.

“But it involves you.”

Olga placed her hands over Marco’s ears.

Marco pulled them off.

“About you and Olga?” Ricardo bellowed, heedless of his wife, son and the Chan girl who would fill in for Olga as needed. “Old news.”

Marco watched in puzzlement as Ricardo and Antonio continued scribing a long arc locked together.

“Or maybe,” Ricardo projected like an actor playing to the back row, “you’re also fucking the Bucholtz Twins? Okay by me.”

Antonio took a beat pause as if the two Spolini brothers were grizzled actors rehearsing a scene from a play. “Olga’s pregnant.”

Ricardo opened his hands and jerked his arms away.

Only as Antonio plummeted into the safety net did his uncle’s words become clear to Marco.

Olga nudged Marco aside and followed Antonio into the net.

“She’ll have an abortion, you know,” Ricardo called down.

Marco felt dizzy the way he had when he’d sipped his father’s liquor.

Antonio, lying in the net, peered upward as if on the brink of sending aloft a prayer. “That’s a sin. A mortal sin.”

“It won’t be the first time,” Ricardo shouted. He motioned to Marco. “Sorry you had to hear all that kid, but you want to be a man? Then get ready to live in a man’s world. Which means, we still have business to do, and I mean now. I want four… four somersaults nice and clean.”

Marco stared down at Antonio and Olga, towels draping their shoulders, as they took seats in the first row of the wooden grandstand. He turned to Desiree Chan, who held her right hand over her mouth. He would find no comfort there. Not now, at least.

“Let’s get to it, kid,” Ricardo yelled. “Soap opera’s over.”

Marco checked his wrist wraps then tightened his grip on the steel fly bar. “Listo,” he called to signal he was ready. They’d started working on the quadruple over the winter. No one had ever performed one or even, to their knowledge, achieved one in practice. He wasn’t sure he could do it let alone be the first. Ricardo insisted that he could. And if he knew what was best for the family, he would. Placing fear of failure aside, Marco hurtled off the platform, soared upward and assumed a horizontal position parallel to the safety net below. After a brief moment of inertia, he traveled backwards to increase his momentum and ultimately his altitude. Again Marco reached a moment of stasis. Then he traveled forward. Although unaware of Einstein’s theory of relativity, he sensed time slow, as it always seemed to above the ring, until it practically dawdled. Although hurtling towards his father, he experienced an acute awareness of every one of the muscles in his hands, wrists, arms, stomach, hips, back and legs. He reached his apogee well above Ricardo. A shift in momentum carried him forward. He flexed his back, released the fly bar, tucked his knees to his chest and held them with his hands. Flinging himself at the moment of truth, he somersaulted backwards one, two, three, four times. His hands reached for his father’s wrists. A gap of no more than a foot separated them. He plunged into the net.

Ricardo wriggled his arms. “Again!”

Marco tumbled from the net and sat on the edge of the ring.

Ricardo motioned for Desiree Chan to leap down from the platform then followed. He stood in front of Marco, his hands on his hips. “That Mexican kid Vazquez, the one working with his brother. You think you have an excuse because he’s a couple years older?” He raised his hands then brought his palms to within an inch of each other. “From what I hear, he’s this close. And if he’s the first, the Vazquez Brothers are gonna get a shitload of publicity and all the money that goes with it. Get this straight, kid. You’re the first to do something special or you’re page seventeen in the local newspaper. Get my drift?”

Marco looked down at his feet.

Ricardo grasped him under the chin and forced his head up. Marco couldn’t count the times he’d heard the lecture that followed. Ricardo sweated blood to make The Flying Spumonis a star attraction, if not in a circus quite up to the Ringling operation, which sooner rather than later, if he kept cracking the whip, would make the Spumonis an offer. Ricardo had big ambitions and the will to achieve them. You got from the world what you were willing to take. By pushing Marco to his limits, Ricardo—and Marco—would take The Flying Spumonis to new heights. You rise or you fall. That was the ironclad rule of life. Descent to the family’s origins—to Ricardo’s origins—was not an option.

Antonio stepped forward. “Dicky, Marco’s beat.”

“Ungrateful,” Olga called from her seat. “What does boy know about suffering and heroism? What does boy know about art?”

“I am tired,” said Marco. “And it’s almost lunchtime.”

Ricardo reddened. “You eat when I tell you. Besides, the schoolteacher left a week ago. What the hell else do you think you have to do?” He motioned Olga and Desiree Chan to come close. “I want everyone to hear this.”

Marco raised a bottle of water to his lips.

Ricardo knocked it away.

“Dicky,” Antonio called softly. Staying calm, he found, worked better than getting steamed, although when the situation called for it, he could get plenty steamed himself.

Ricardo tapped Marco’s chest. “You can be as good as any flyer in the business. I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t so.”

“Tomorrow,” Marco said. He looked towards the big top’s main entrance. “Out there people get weekends off. Holidays, too.”

Ricardo rolled his eyes. “With that attitude, you wouldn’t last a day out there. More to the point, what do people out there do on their days off? They come here. They come to see us. They come to see you. And they’ll keep coming as long as we give them what they want. And what they want is something new. That quadruple you just attempted? You came damn close. Damn close.”

Marco fought off tears. “I’ll do better tomorrow. Honest.”

Ricardo took a step back. He was not the kind of father to abuse his son. Of course, neither would he shirk his responsibilities. “Let me tell you something, kid. You don’t know how good you have it. Figure it as a gift from God, you being born into The Flying Spumonis.”

Marco rolled his eyes.

Ricardo raised a fist then dropped his hand. How could he hit his son? His own father never struck him. Of course, he’d never known his father. Honest to God, he loved Marco. And because he loved Marco, he would drill into Marco’s head all of life’s most important lessons until they took. “Just you remember this, kid. Your Grandpa DiGiorgio put me through the ringer when I married your mother.”

Olga scowled at Ricardo. “Where is respect for Olga?” She turned to Marco. “You think this is old fairytale Hansel and Gretel? You think Olga is evil stepmother?”

Marco had an opinion on that. Following Luisa’s fatal accident seven off-seasons earlier, he filled a scrapbook with newspaper clippings, pages from circus programs and publicity photos. Olga snatched from him his treasury of mementoes. Clinging to his mother’s memory, she insisted, undermined her authority. Ricardo returned it. Olga protested. Who is mother now? Advancing her newfound role, she forced Marco to endure her endless stories about growing up in the aftermath of the Great Patriotic War and the terrible fear inspired by Stalin. What was he supposed to do? Apologize for being born in America? Hadn’t Americans fought in Vietnam when he was small? And what about World War Two? For that matter, weren’t Americans being held hostage in Iran right now? Olga’s stories only served to point out how undeserving he was and how entitled she was to find fault with everything he did. He hated her stories. Yet he envied them. “More like the Wicked Witch of the West,” Marco said sotto voce.

Olga glowered.

Antonio pulled Marco close.

“I didn’t ask to be born into the circus,” Marco said to Ricardo. “And it’s not my fault you and Grandpa DiGiorgio didn’t like each other.”

Ricardo settled on the sawdust and shook his head. “Kid, no one asks to be born. But you’re born, okay? And the way it works is, the family you get is the family you get.” He looked at Antonio. “That’s why your Uncle Antonio and me got the hell out of Chicago.” He shook his head. “Kid, you just don’t know.”

Marco knew very well. Not long after their fifteenth birthdays, Ricardo and Antonio fled the South Side. They hitched rides and hopped freights. Once, they barely evaded the police after a misunderstanding involving Antonio at a church in Iowa. They enlisted in the Army and served in a tank outfit in West Germany. They returned to the States broke and hit the road again. Ultimately, they found their way to the circus, which was no easy task for gauchos—people not born into the circus life.

“Get this into your noggin, kid. Your Uncle Antonio and me… We fought for everything we have. And you know what? That was the best thing that ever could have happened to us. So what about you?”

* * *

Marco walked towards the cookhouse alongside Desiree Chan. Despite the warm weather, he wore a baggy, dark-blue sweatshirt with WHITE SOX across the chest. Antonio had given him the sweatshirt at the start of the baseball season. He would need at least a year to grow into it. He looked at Desiree out of the corner of his eye as if she might be nothing more than a desert mirage. Away from the rigging, she rarely paid him attention. Like his father, she thought of him as a kid. Still, when Ricardo reluctantly let everyone go, she announced with dramatic flair that she was about to starve to death and Marco could accompany her to lunch if he wanted. Marco welcomed the opportunity although having little appetite given his father’s latest tirade not to mention Olga’s new condition and his uncle’s responsibility for it.

“Your dad gets angry a lot,” Desiree said.

Marco shrugged. “It’s not like I wasn’t trying.”

“I mean, a quadruple. Wow. Even a double’s way harder than throwing an axe or a machete without killing my little brother. The brat’s gonna take over the act, you know.”

Marco saw an opportunity. “You’ve got talent, Desiree. I mean, not just with knives and stuff but with flying. And we might need you. That’s what my dad says.”

“Flying’s great. I love it. But learning after you’ve become a woman? That’s hard.”

“But you’re only thirteen like me.”

“And three-quarters! And I had my period way over a year ago.”

Marco noted Desiree’s delicately muscled arms and slim, smooth legs as long as his own. He snuck a glance at her breasts, of which she seemed particularly proud. As far as her period went, he knew that was when a girl became a woman. He often heard Olga complain about her periods. He was, however, a little short on the details. But at least he knew that Desiree had breasts. And hips. “My Uncle Antonio,” he said, steering the conversation to more familiar territory, “learned how to fly when he was past twenty.”

Desiree twirled a strand of long, black hair around her finger. “No offense or anything, but don’t you think your uncle’s a little… creepy? And it’s not just about your stepmom.”

“My dad says Uncle Antonio’s sensitive. Probably because of all the stuff they went through as kids. And how he’s always talking about the Church. Also, he takes college classes winters and by mail. He says he’s almost ready to graduate.”

Desiree withdrew her finger. Her hair collapsed into place. She eyed Marco’s sweatshirt. “At least he buys you stuff. But don’t you think it’s weird the way he doesn’t even look like your dad? I mean, not even close?”

“My dad says fraternal twins usually look very different.”

Desiree took Marco by the arm.

Marco swallowed.

She steered him to the side of the cookhouse out of sight of the other artists and the roustabouts who set up and tore down the big top, maintained the rigging, worked the lights and moved equipment. They sat on a large wooden crate. Their shoulders touched.

Marco smelled Desiree’s breath. He wasn’t sure if it was sweet, but he liked it.

“Don’t tell anyone I ever asked,” she said. “My dad would kill me. But do you ever think about what it would be like living outside the circus?”

“What about you?”

“I asked you first.”

Marco let his heels tap softly against the side of the crate. “My dad thinks the circus is all there is.” He raised his eyes and watched a red-tailed hawk glide on a thermal overhead. “He probably thinks being anywhere else is like falling off the edge of the earth.”

“But if you could live out there.”

“Los Angeles, I guess.”

“California?”

Marco nodded.

“Me, too. I’d be an actress. They’d give me all those exotic parts. Like Princess Leia in Star Wars. Only that’d kill my dad faster than a knife in the heart.” She placed her hand on Marco’s. “Do you know anyone in L.A.?”

“My Grandpa DiGiorgio.” Marco closed his eyes. A familiar memory revealed itself like a reel of Super 8 film. He was standing in the living room of his grandparents’ winter home in Florida after his grandmother’s funeral. He was six. Aunts, uncles, cousins and friends had come to the house, filled with huge plants and circus posters. They ate and drank and made a big commotion with lots of crying and dramatic speeches. A woman he didn’t know—squat, gray and dressed all in black—fainted. In the middle of it all, Grandpa DiGiorgio, wearing a dark suit tight in the shoulders, took him aside and placed a hand on his neck. “I gotta tell you something, Marco, and you don’t tell no one.” Marco crossed his heart. “Florida… I can’t stay here,” he said in his accented English. “Too hot. The air, so thick. And ghosts. Too many ghosts. I’m gonna go to California. I have friends in Los Angeles. Pasadena is what. Next to Los Angeles. Practically the same thing. Anyway, there are these people, they’re making a movie about a circus. They’ll pay me to help them so they don’t get nothing wrong.” He took both of Marco’s hands. “A boy like you… You can be a great artist. Not like your father.” He shook his head. “If it wasn’t for my Luisa, your mama…” Marco remembered Grandpa DiGiorgio squeezing his hands then pulling him closer and kissing him on the forehead. “You listen to me, Marco. Anytime you want, you come to California. To Pasadena. This friend, he’s gonna sell me this little house. It’s got a garden. I’m gonna grow tomatoes. Orange trees right in the front yard. And the house, it’s got two bedrooms. If your father, he don’t treat you good, you come stay with your grandpa.”

Marco opened his eyes. The hawk was gone.

Look for

FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS

This spring at

Amazon.com and bn.com