It doesn't take much to lose your job as a clown. I know that now.
For the record, I take full responsibility for what happened. We were stationed in Utah at the time, with its too-blue sky and overripe air. We'd been there four days when I decided to switch up my routine. Our ringmaster, Horatio Longbottom, advised against it, said it wasn't worth fixing something that wasn't broken. But when you give your best slapstick—rubber chickens and cream pies and squirting flowers—and all you get are a few lousy sympathy chuckles, I'd say that qualifies as broken. So that's why I did what I did with the novelty ten-inch sausage.
"Obscene," the circusgoers later called it. "Vile." Who knew Mormons could be so sensitive?
Horatio couldn't fire me—we were still in Salt Lake City where there were no clowns, where jokes were scarce and disapproval was high—so he temporarily demoted me to light technician instead.
The next day I was under the big top, pretending to know how to operate the Klieg lights, when Horatio announced himself. Pulling back the curtain, he walked inside and was followed by a svelte young man with long limbs and an undercut. The guy kept his head down, finding more interest in the pinwheel floor pattern than his surroundings. My eyes stayed on him the whole time. I felt the urge to drop my light and shine it in his face to get a better look.
Horatio gestured to me. "And this is Ruben," he said offhandedly, as though I were the stilt walker or the contortionist or the bearded lady, someone unimportant.
The guy offered me his hand. "Leo," he said.
I shook it longer than normal, said, "No, I'm an Aquarius."
Horatio belly laughed, but firmly reminded me I wouldn't be wearing my squishy red nose or size 16 shoes anytime soon.
Leo, however, didn't even crack a smile.
"Since we don't have a clown at the moment, he'll be joining our troupe," Horatio explained, clapping Leo on the shoulder. Then he returned to the entrance and shouted, "I'm counting on you, Ruben. Make sure you treat him right and show him the ropes." The curtain flapped behind him as he stepped into the Utah morning.
The heat and dust swirled around us as the tent grew still. Up close, Leo looked younger. When he walked in, I'd figured he was about my age, twenty, but here he was, baby-faced and speckled with acne. Certainly not old enough to have graduated clown college. But there was something else there. Something in the watery blue of his eyes that drew me in, that threatened to drown me if I looked long enough.
"So," I said, tilting my Klieg light up and down as a distraction.
"So," he parroted.
"Are you supposed to be my replacement? The new clown?"
"Clown? No," he said.
We let the words fester in the silence between us.
Then he said, "I think Mister Horatio meant show me the ropes literally, by the way." And maybe I looked confused, because Leo added, "I'm a tightrope walker."
"Oh." Because what else was there to say? I grabbed the Kleig light and beckoned. "Okay. Follow me."
We trekked past the lion tamer cracking his whip and the sword swallower sliding the blade down his esophagus and the fire breather exhaling a stream of flame, until we reached the ladder the led to the high wire, forty feet up. We'd had a tightrope walker a few seasons before, a first-of-May who quit the day after she fell from the high wire into the embrace of the safety net below. And despite its disuse, the net was laid out now, just in case anyone got any crazy ideas after a night of drinking.
"All right, man," I urged. "Let's see what you got."
He shrugged, grabbed one of the ladder rungs, inched his way to the top. He moved gracefully, all muscle and bone, a man on a mission. It wasn't difficult to imagine him falling from the tightrope with the same elegance. In fact, I almost wanted him to fall so he would quit too, and my heart would stop pounding. I hit the switch on the Klieg light to see him better. A ring of light lanced the morning shadows, put Leo in clear focus.
By the time he reached the platform, he had amassed a few spectators. The sword swallower and the human cannonball watched with rapt attention. The strongman sidled up to me and asked who that was up there. I kept Leo's name to myself like a precious secret I couldn't afford to share.
Silence blanketed the big top. We watched him take his first step, then another. He kept his arms out, his fingers splayed. Under the glare of the spotlight, we could see everything: his blinking, the careful crisscrossing of his feet, the way the rope never gave an inch.
We waited for something that never came. We kept waiting until he was all the way across the tightrope and receiving a standing ovation.
While the troupe below prepared to introduce themselves, I tracked Leo's descent with my light. Halfway down the ladder he stopped and looked at us, blue eyes squinting in the brightness. There was something almost like a smile on his face. And I had a feeling that maybe being a light technician instead of a clown wasn't such bad news after all.
His initial tightrope act had been a resounding success, the audience watching with bated breath and exploding with applause when he crossed the rope. Not once did he give the illusion of being in danger. The entire troupe celebrated the following morning with champagne and funnel cakes. Leo himself, the guest of honor, didn't join us.
Later, I caught him practicing his tightrope act in the shadowy tent.
We stayed in Utah for two weeks, and because Horatio didn't want to risk me relapsing, I remained on light technician duty. But the thing is, I started to enjoy it, the time alone with Leo, trailing him with my spotlight. There was something magical about watching him, the control he had over his body, the way he never faltered or lost his balance. I couldn't explain why I enjoyed watching him so much.
Or, rather, I didn't want to explain it. Not to myself, and certainly not to Leo.
One day, while we were stationed in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Horatio called me into his trailer. The windows were open and the electric fan doused us with cold air. Calliope music poured from his CD player. He motioned to the small bean bag across from his seat. "Please, won't you sit down?"
"Am I in trouble?" I asked. The bean bag swallowed me up when I eased into it. It felt like an omen.
Horatio wiped a pool of sweat from his forehead with his sleeve, fanned himself with his top hat, inspected his mustache in his vanity mirror. "Quite the opposite. Though I would like to talk to you about your job."
We exchanged glances in the mirror.
"Yes," he said. "See, Leo's been a great addition to the troupe. A total godsend to our ticket sales. But that stuff, it's all action, all adrenaline. Tightrope walking, lion taming, chainsaw juggling. Right?"
"Right?" I said, unable to stop the lilt from creeping into my voice.
"People get bored if that's the only thing we've got to offer. See, what we're really missing is comedy. Something funny. A clown."
Like a map unfurling in my mind, I shifted in the bean bag and saw the rest of my life in the circus reveal itself: the banana cream pies colliding with my face, the untied shoelaces that culminated in falling and ripping my pants, the mis-juggled bowling pins that hit my shoulders and shins and left bruises. All of it familiar. But when I searched the roads and highways of my future as a clown, I saw no routes or detours that led to Leo.
"What do you say, Ruben? We can find any old shmuck to work the lights. But you—you're special. You're our clown."
The fan blasted my arms with cool air, but I'd never felt so hot in my life. In that moment, I imagined what Leo must've felt on the tightrope: the dangerous balancing act, the way you always had to steel yourself so as not to fall and lose everything. That's what I was feeling in my heart.
With great effort, I peeled myself from the bean bag and looked not at Horatio, but at his doppelgänger in the mirror.
"I'm afraid I can't accept that," I told him. "I've really taken a liking to the lighting job."
He made no attempt to conceal his frown. "But you didn't go to college for lighting. You went to be a clown."
There are so many things I would tell Horatio now, if only I could. I'd tell him that there wasn't anything funny about life, not when you really thought about it. How one person can make you forget who you are and what you went to college for. I'd try to explain about the roads and the highways, the way that you can see them ahead of you or on a map and still miss every sign to take an exit.
But back then the best thing I could think to tell him was "I'm sorry."
It took me a month to ask Leo out to breakfast. Because our circus shows were always at night, the troupe was usually free in the mornings to do as we pleased. Leo inevitably spent his free time walking the tightrope, as though he weren't scheduled to do the same thing that night. I spent mine tracking him with my light, intimate as a photographer capturing a subject.
One morning, as he was walking to the tightrope ladder, I propped my light, tripod stand and all, in front of the rungs. I'd learned from his reluctance to touch the lion tamer's whip and the strongman's sledgehammer that Leo hated handling other people's things.
He looked from the tripod stand back to me, his blue eyes begging for an answer.
"You never take a day off from this thing," I told him, pointing to the high wire. "Day in and day out, you're always walking that tightrope."
"I enjoy it," he said, voice quieter than normal.
"I know, but I bet you'd probably enjoy some breakfast too. And I know I'd at least like a day off from following you around with that light all morning."
He bit his lip, glanced at the tightrope above, back down at the tripod stand, and sighed.
After thirty minutes of walking, we sat across from each other at a table in the local diner, watching the passing cars through the glass window. Leo shifted uncomfortably in the vinyl booth. In the restaurant's harsh overhead lighting, I could see the makings of blond peach fuzz on his lip and the triangle of acne on his left cheek. His eyes were the color of the sky.
The waitress, a woman with a hairstyle from the '50s, took our order. Leo, modest to a fault, chose the least expensive dish and stuck with his complimentary glass of water.
"So," I said, pushing the saltshaker closer to the pepper. That's usually how our conversations began.
"So," he parroted.
"What do you want to talk about?"
He shrugged. That was also a staple of our conversations. And it occurred to me then how little I actually knew about him, despite our time together. I ran through the list of facts I had: His eye color, his role in the troupe, his first name. I took a drink of water when I realized the list stopped there.
"You know what's crazy," I said, and took another gulp. "I don't even know your last name."
Leo swiped a packet of artificial sugar, flipped to the ingredients side, brought it up to his face. "McAllister."
Feeling bold, I added, "Or your age."
He flipped the packet around, read the brand name, put it back, looked out the window.
"Punch Buggy," he said, pointing to a red Volkswagen.
I suppressed a frown, then decided on another inquiry. "What do you think about Courtney? You know, the fire breather?"
It was a targeted question. Courtney was the strongman's girlfriend, well-proportioned and with hair like flame. It was no surprise that the other men in the troupe, jealous and alone, badmouthed the strongman every chance they got.
"She's nice," Leo said noncommittally. His eyes were closed now.
"And beautiful too," I goaded.
"I guess so."
I picked up the same packet of sugar Leo had, just to hold something. "You ever had a girlfriend who looked like that?"
"Never had a girlfriend."
"What about," I said, very quietly, "anybody else?"
He grabbed his napkin, crumpled it, then made a grunting noise that suggested the end of the conversation.
I was losing him, so I decided to pull out the big guns: "Why the tightrope?"
Suddenly he opened his eyes. They'd never looked so blue before.
"I mean, with a name like yours, I would've guessed lion tamer."
He scoffed. "Lions? You ever seen The Wizard of Oz?"
"If I only had a brain," I sang.
"Wrong character. I'm talking about the cowardly lion."
"Come on. You're up there on that rope seven nights a week, and you're trying to tell me you don't have any courage?"
He thought about it for a minute. "That's different. The trick is not to look down. That's all," he said. "And besides, I've been walking a fine line my whole life. It doesn't scare me anymore."
"What does scare you, then?" I asked.
He said nothing.
And even now I don't know why I did what I did. Maybe because he said nothing, or because I couldn't stand not knowing the truth about him, or maybe because I couldn't stand feeling helpless about that. I'll probably never know why I leaned across the table and pressed my lips against Leo's.
He tensed immediately, flinched, pulled away. When I opened my eyes, he was looking at me as though seeing me for the first time. He shook his head, opened his mouth, remained silent. Then he got up and the bell on the front door jangled and I watched him through the window as he made the thirty-minute walk back to the fairground, just as the waitress returned with our food.
The idea came to me halfway through my chocolate chip pancakes. I've never been one for face-to-face confrontation, so when I fished my phone out of my pocket, I decided to leave him an apology through social media. Now that I had his last name, I could find him.
It wasn't until I typed "Leo McAllister" into Google that I discovered something else. A jumble of words greeted me, made my blood run cold. I read them slowly, checking multiple sites. Each one confirmed the same thing. One post, from a Mrs. Henrietta McAllister, said it all: "My sixteen-year-old son, Leo McAllister, is missing. If you have any information, please contact me or my husband."
I remembered that we'd picked Leo up in Utah, the Mormon epicenter, the place where my sausage-in-the-mouth joke had cost me my clown job. I wondered what type of people his parents were, why he would run away.
I took a long time staring at Henrietta's phone number while my pancakes grew cold.
A week later, stationed under the blistering Arizona sun, Leo decided to switch up his routine. Horatio offered the same speech he gave me so long ago, about letting things be and not trying to fix what isn't broken, but Leo was just as headstrong. And so it came to pass that he, for the first time since joining our troupe, would be performing his tightrope act without the safety net below him.
This I heard from the sword swallower. I'd never got around to apologizing to Leo, either in person or online, and we hadn't spoken since the incident at the diner.
Horatio marketed Leo's no-net act like a dog and pony show, selling its danger to the uninitiated. Of course, we knew that there was nothing to worry about, but the circusgoers packed the audience just the same.
After the lion tamer's meek performance, I dimmed the lights and Horatio boomed into his megaphone.
"This is the reason you all came! Now it's time for The Amazing Leo to dazzle you with his death-defying tightrope act. Are you ready?"
The roar of the audience filled the big top as Leo ascended the ladder. I kept my light on him the whole time. The tent grew still as night when he reached the top. On Horatio's command, two troupe members removed the net from below the tightrope.
Leo took his first step. Then another. He was halfway across the tightrope when I heard the big top curtain part and the sound of footsteps on dirt.
"Leonard!" shouted a voice that I knew, even without looking, belonged to Mrs. Henrietta McAllister. I wanted to turn, but I willed myself to keep the light trained on Leo.
And for the first time, I watched him lose his concentration up there. With one foot below him and one perched in midair, he wobbled on the rope, the narrow thread between him and the netless ground.
"Leonard, please," Mr. McAllister pleaded.
The rope teetered. Leo's arms flailed.
"Leonard, we love you," Mrs. McAllister said.
Leo looked down.
"We didn't mean what we said. Please come back."
Then it happened. And even with the McAllisters and the audience and everything all at once, I did what Horatio was paying me to do: I followed Leo with the light the whole way.