[CW: The death of a parent is mentioned.]
I stood with my feet firmly planted on the small wooden platform twenty feet above the ring and the surrounding crowd. My sweaty, shaking hands gripped the railings beside me in an attempt to steady my trembling body. I looked down, but only with my eyes since I was too afraid to move my head. The ringmaster pranced to the center of the ring to introduce the next act, my act.
This time yesterday I was trudging home from the coal mine, covered head to toe in soot, and praying that my days working there were numbered. For the past year, that prayer had gone unanswered.
“Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention, please.” The ringmaster said. “At this time I’ll introduce you to our next death-defying act…with trepidation. Sadly, our tight rope walker sustained an injury during his last performance which put us in quite a bind. But as luck would have it, we were introduced to a young lad from right here in Connellsville this morning who is a self-taught tight rope walker and aspiring circus performer. You are about to witness his debut performance of this spectacular stunt.” There was an audible gasp and subsequent murmur from the crowd. “Following what I’m sure will be a thunderous round of applause, please remain silent to allow him the utmost level of concentration. Now, put your hands together for John Turner.” As predicted, there was an uproar of applause from the crowd which came to a sudden halt when the ringmaster shushed them.
I could feel the weight of thousands of eyes on me, waiting with anticipation. Besides the occasional ruckus from the menagerie tent, the atmosphere was so thick with silence you could slice through it with a horsewhip. I was vaguely aware of the ringmaster announcing my name and the fact that I should be doing something. My body was frozen, paralyzed by fear. My mind, on the other hand, was racing.
Circuses stopped in Connellsville, Pennsylvania regularly to draw in the local coal mining population. It was practically the only form of entertainment in these parts. I would never forget the first time my parents took me to the circus. I was eight years old and I was completely enamored by how extraordinary it was. It felt as though I had been transported to another planet full of exotic animals and magnificent performers.
Ever since that night, I’d been dreaming of running away with the circus. This isn’t what I had in mind though…I’m not cut out for this, I thought. Of course, I fantasized about becoming a famous performer. Yet in reality, I was simply hoping to obtain a manual labor position with a circus like my enviable cousin William. But one year ago the trajectory of my life changed like a weather vane shifting with the wind. My father left to fight in the Spanish-American War and never came home again, leaving behind my mother and seven children, of which I’m the oldest. My mother decided that, at thirteen years old, I had received an adequate education and it was time for me to replace my father as the man of the family. When tragedy strikes, Father Time doesn’t put the universe on hold to give us a chance to cope with our trials. When the fog of my father’s death lifted I found myself deep in a coal mine battering my grief, with one deliberate swing of the pickaxe at a time.
A baby wailing in the crowd snapped my mind from the coal mine back to the big top and the task before me. If I close my eyes I can just imagine that I’m back home balancing on the railroad tracks or walking along my makeshift tight rope in the barn. I had only attempted my homemade tight rope twice. It stretched the width of the barn from one hayloft to the other. On the first attempt, I fell and landed squarely on the straw bales stacked on the ground below. I wasn’t quite as lucky on the second attempt and ended up with a broken leg to show for it. Ok, maybe I shouldn’t close my eyes.
The ringmaster suddenly cleared his throat and announced my name again while trying to conceal his frustration. I glanced down one last time before I took the first tentative step onto the tight rope. The last thing I saw was my cousin William standing near a large wooden wagon along the side of the ring. He gave me a knowing head nod and it was just enough to make me think perhaps I could pull this off.
I considered the long balancing pole leaning against the railing next to me. I never used a balancing pole at home but…maybe I should have. I grabbed the pole with my sweaty palms and shifted my gaze to the wire stretching away from me. Like sunlight kissing a rain puddle, the wire glistened in the radiance of the state-of-the-art electric spotlights positioned around the big top. I took a deep breath like I do when Mama has a loaf of homemade bread baking in the oven. I slid my right foot out onto the wire and rotated the balancing pole into a horizontal position, holding it close to my abdomen. My left foot stretched and landed in front of my right foot in a swift yet calculated movement. Wobbling slightly, I paused to get my bearings. If Papa was here he would say, “Johnny, it’s so quiet in here you could hear a mouse fart.” I chuckled aloud and almost lost my concentration. Another deep breath. Right foot, stretch, and settle. Inhale, exhale. Left foot, extend, and touch down. I eased into a rhythm and suddenly I was a quarter of the way across the tight rope. I’m doing this. I’m actually doing—
The trumpeting of an elephant blasted abruptly from the menagerie tent. I nearly lost my footing. I bent forward at the waist trying to achieve a lower center of gravity. My body jerked from side to side, wrestling with the balancing pole and doing everything in my power to remain upright. The crowd below erupted with more gasps and a few shrieks. That’s not helping, I thought with gritted teeth. By nothing short of a miracle I recovered my balance.
By the time I reached the halfway point along the tight rope, my confidence was growing. But apparently, at that moment I should’ve remembered one of Papa’s other catchphrases, “Don’t celebrate too early. Just because your horse is in first place doesn’t mean he’s going to finish that way.” Because that was the moment when I felt a tingling sensation inside my nose. Damned if I didn’t have to sneeze. It must be all the sawdust in here. It always gets to me in the barn—
The gust of air flew out of my nose like a runaway freight train, there was no stopping it. I lost my grip on the balancing pole and it fell by the wayside. My knees buckled and I collapsed clumsily onto the wire, then tipped sideways and went overboard like a drunken sailor. One minute I was standing tall and proud living out a daydream I had no business dabbling in. Now, in the blink of an eye, or the sneeze of a nose rather, I was tumbling twenty feet to the ground and my presumable death.
I was surrounded by a cacophony of sounds — people screaming and animals protesting the sudden chaos. My body was trapped in an uncontrollable tumbling tailspin. Various sights zipped through my topsy-turvy field of vision: frantic crowd, defiant elephant, glaring spotlight, canvas ceiling, sawdust-covered ground.
Fleeting, panic-stricken thoughts competed for attention in my mind. Am I going to die? Oh my God…I’m going to die. What will Mama do without me? How could I be so stupid? Will I see Papa again?
I was rapidly approaching the ground, unable to brace for impact when I was briefly enveloped in something soft before colliding with something solid. I entered a void where all light and sound dissipated.
After an indiscernible amount of time, I was roused by the soft material shifting around me. As it tickled my skin I gradually regained my sense of hearing, albeit muffled at first. Someone was shouting frantically, “Johnny! Johnny, can you hear me?” Suddenly a pair of hands made contact with my body and jerked me out of the abyss by my armpits. My head lolled from side to side as I wheezed and coughed, spewing sawdust from my mouth. I attempted to rub the sawdust out of my desiccated eyes to identify the savior standing before me.
“William? Is…is that you, William?” I said, just barely making out my cousin’s face through my blurred vision.
The ringmaster suddenly stepped between us and said, “Give the crowd a bow, you idiot. And I want to talk to both of you after the show.” He stepped aside and William steadied me for a second to make sure I could stand on my own.
Standing inside the large wooden wagon full of sawdust I gave a defeated bow. William had resourcefully pushed the wagon across the ring to catch me just in the nick of time. The crowd went wild, exploding from their seats into a boisterous standing ovation. I collapsed into the wagon once again with a plume of sawdust rising around me. William wheeled me out of the big top waving at the cheering crowd with a grin on his face, relishing in his own moment of fame.
When the ringmaster found us after the show had ended we were waiting to be scolded like a dog with its tail between its legs.
“I’m so sorry sir. I never should have tried to—” I said.
William interrupted me by saying, “Sir, I apologize for leading you to believe that Johnny had more experience. I’ll accept whatever punishment—”
“Shut up, both of you. That act was brilliant. First, you had the crowd on the edge of their seats, then they thought they witnessed your death…they loved it. Suspense, danger, bravery. And William…an animal caretaker…a nobody…rushing in to save him with a wagon…just brilliant. It stole the show.” The ringmaster said vehemently. William and I, now speechless, exchanged glances. “So, you two knuckleheads are going to repeat that act, in the exact same way, at every show from now on. Johnny, we’ll pretend that you’re a local resident from whatever town we’re in on the given day. Understood?” William and I nodded earnestly in unison.
Show after show, town after town, I lived this lie and survived the same near-death fall countless times. Ironically, after walking half the length of the tight rope so many times I had actually become a very skilled performer yet I was forced to stay incognito. I got my wish to run away with the circus and it was simultaneously everything I had hoped it would be and nothing I had hoped it would be. My name will never adorn a circus poster as a star performer but I’ve learned that my impact on the audience is beyond measure: I exemplify the ability of an average human to climb out of the darkest chasms of life and rise, victorious over adversity.