When Mrs Chen decided to get a divorce, she fretted for a couple of weeks on how best to tell her husband. She knew he would object and she also knew that he would throw things. He would be a rooster in an infinite dawn and she might have to escape to a hotel.
She had settled on I want a divorce, until she pictured him ranting and stropping around their apartment. Wanting sounded too much like a request, and requests could be denied, so after wavering a little, she refocused and found the right way to tell him.
Mrs Chen stood in the bathroom running a brush through her hair, when the sound of a slamming front door reverberated through the house. She drew a long breath before marching into the living room and stopping hands on hips.
‘We’re getting a divorce.’
He was already sitting on the sofa, arms folded, looking angry as normal. Sometimes his tirades about who had aggravated him that day in the store would go on long enough to make Mr Jipson in the apartment below bang the ceiling with a brush and shout something inaudible through the wood and plaster.
Mr Chen unfolded his arms and placed one hand on each thigh, then blinked. His small mouth opened and she saw the words catch in his Adam’s apple, but fail to come out. As he started to sob, she noticed the bunch of sunflowers sagging over the edge of the coffee table. Mrs Chen wondered briefly if they were for her, then decided she should say something else, though she had nothing prepared.
‘You’re a horrible husband. You hate the world. You never smile and even though
I’m your wife, I feel hated too. I’ve had enough, Bolo.’
She watched him stroke a hand through his fine black hair, and although not a smoker, he resembled someone in need of a cigarette. Mrs Chen tried to recall any recent conversation where her husband hadn’t sworn at her and there were none.
‘Are you going to say something?’
Mr Chen pulled the sunflowers into the centre of the coffee table and hovered a hand over their white fuzzy paper. ‘I had idea. We could turn store into flower shop. Nobody buy hardware anymore. I brought sunflower to show you and…’ he shunted the flowers towards her as though touching them might give him an electric shock, ‘…to give to you.’
Mrs Chen gave a long sigh and Mr Chen had already hung his head.
‘When was the last time you gave me flowers, Bolo?’
He shrugged his shoulders and said he didn’t know and raised his eyebrows.
‘Yes you do know. You just can’t be bothered thinking about it.’ She folded her arms.
In that moment his attitude left the room and Mr Chen took on the vulnerability of a new-born puppy. Mrs Chen was surprised that the conversation had even gotten this far without her husband swearing. He had broken the glass of their coffee table several times before and she was certain their floor would once again become sprinkled with tiny, silvery pieces.
‘Orchid! Orchid on wedding day!’ Mr Chen sounded like he had just won money on a quiz show.
‘And when was that?’
‘Thirty-one year,’ he said, with some confidence.
Just as she readied to scold, words spoken in mandarin filled the room like fireflies in darkness. They caught her off-guard for he hated his native tongue and never used it.
‘I need you, Kawai. Please, please forgive me. I’ll do whatever it takes.’
‘There’s too much to forgive and I wouldn’t even know where to begin, Bolo.’
‘It would be a mountain, Bolo. We’d have to arrange marriage counselling…and you’d have to get help for your temper – anger management. Things that cost thousands of dollars.’
He switched back to English, ‘I can do it, I get money.’
‘I get somewhere, I promise. Please just let me try.’
Mrs Chen gave a long and slow exhale that let out an unintentional whimper. ‘Let me think about it while I make some noodles. Noodles always help me think.’
As she went into the kitchen and began rattling around, all the times that Mr Chen had been angry swirled inside her head. He had once sworn at the television remote control, twenty-eight times in one evening; not because it wouldn’t work, but because there was nothing decent on the television. In the end, it turned out to be Mrs Chen’s fault, because she had recommended he watched television in the first place to help improve his English. Most things ended up being her fault.
While the water bubbled and she dropped two large handfuls of vermicelli into the dull silver saucepan, Mrs Chen considered what her husband might be like if he wasn’t angry or confrontational all the time. Things mightn’t be so bad after all. She thought about their dream of coming to America, opening their own store – how things had never really turned out the way they had wanted. Selling hardware was a tough market and the big chain stores had taken away a lot of their business to the point where each year was a struggle.
She came back into the living room. ‘I’m giving you thirty days, Bolo. If you can get the money for anger management, we’ll talk; otherwise we’re getting a divorce.’ Mr Chen nodded once, then twice.
After three days had passed, Mr Chen still hadn’t made any of the money that would save his marriage. He had scanned newspaper ads and asked around, but it wasn’t working and he started to think terrible thoughts about robbing banks or people on the street. As he mooched through the city sidewalks with his hands in his pockets, scuffing his shoes along the concrete, Mr Chen spotted a tatty, handwritten sign inside a liquor store window and bent closer to read it.
‘Cannon Engineer Wanted. No experience necessary. Apply Within.’
Mr Chen pushed open the door and entered to the sound of an electronic beep. He thought one of those might be useful in his own store, but knew he could probably never afford it. Everywhere he looked, there was liquor – even the glass counter had liquor displayed inside it. The man behind the counter had long hair, a beard, and wore a leather waistcoat. He sat reading a magazine. Mr Chen approached and realised that the magazine was actually a porn magazine. He found himself lost for words.
‘What’ll it be, chinaman?’
When Mr Chen didn’t answer, the man continued speaking.
‘Let me guess – gin?’
Mr Chen felt himself caught between an argument and needing a job. ‘You no call me chinaman! And you read dirty book! Sonbitch!’
The hell’s angel stood up from his stool and rolled up the magazine like he was rounding on a troublesome fly. He leaned on the counter and by the way he breathed, Mr Chen thought that some fire might come out of his nostrils.
‘What are you then? Japanese?’
‘Well what the hell you complainin’ about then? I just said “China” didn’t I?’
‘You call me chinaman, not very nice!’ Mr Chen’s bottom lip quivered and he pointed accusingly. ‘And you read dirty book.’
The hell’s angel took a moment, weighing up whether to keep or lose his temper perhaps. ‘You don’t like being called chinaman, huh?’
‘Alright then, what do I call you?’
‘You call me Mr Chen.’
He laughed. ‘Oh I get it, you a schoolteacher. I bet you confiscated some of these in your time?’
He opened the magazine and held a centrespread picture of a naked woman right in Mr Chen’s face. Mr Chen dropped his head and held a hand over his eyes, shielding himself from an imaginary sun. He pointed to the window. ‘I here about job.’
The hell’s angel looked at Mr Chen with suspicion. ‘You not a drinker?’
He rubbed a hand along one of his tattooed forearms. ‘It’s just that we normally take on drinkers for this kind of work.’
‘I need money.’
‘Well I suppose I could talk to the boss and we could maybe try you out. Could you start tomorrow?’
‘Yes. What the pay?’
‘Uh…two hundred a show…and we do maybe five shows a week sometimes. Some weeks only two, depends if there’s travelling.’ He pulled out a notebook and scribbled with a short yellow pencil. ‘Be at this address tomorrow morning, around eleven. Ask for Mr Granville.’
‘Okay.”’ Mr. Chen took the note and left. Outside he smiled and kissed the note, then headed home mumbling to himself, ‘two hundred dollar…two hundred dollar…’
The following morning it rained and Mr Chen was like a miniature, angry bull. He felt like cursing his way around the apartment, but knew it would only antagonise his wife – so kept himself as quiet as a little mouse.
He took a train across the city to the address that the hell’s angel had given him, and on arrival saw hordes of men erecting a huge, domed circus tent with poles and ropes everywhere. Its stripy canvas was mostly built at one side, but sagged at the other like a punctured ball. Out behind the massive tent, Mr Chen caught a glimpse of scattered caravans.
He approached the nearest person, a gruff, heavyset fellow with a dirty face and worn braces, and asked the whereabouts of Mr Granville.
‘Who wants to know?’
‘I’m here about job.’
The fellow looked Mr Chen up and down, then lifted his fat arm to point, ‘Go around back and knock on the trailer with the red door.’
It took Mr Chen a few minutes to find the trailer and he almost stopped to ask directions from a gentleman with a beard so long that its furry tip touched the ground, but eventually, after passing a giraffe wandering freely, he found the trailer nestled at the far side of the large group. It was almost twice as long as the others and had a satellite dish on the roof. Across the red door was a sign made up of metal letters, which had been tacked into a tidy arc.
Mr Chen knocked above the ‘M’ and almost immediately a gravelly voice shouted ‘come in’. As he opened the door, a waft of cigar smoke fell over his face like a tobaccoey shroud and Mr. Chen coughed. He saw that the ringmaster was a very short man, who defying logistics, sat on a very high stool smoking a thick brown cigar. To his right, on the wall, hung a coiled leather whip and to his left hung a dreamcatcher made from different coloured feathers.
‘What can I do for you, chinaman?’
‘You call me chinaman! How you like me call you tiny dwarf?!’
The ringmaster took out his cigar and squinted. ‘Well, saying as I am a dwarf, then you could call me one no problem. And saying as you are a chinaman – because I’ve seen plenty in my time – then I’ll call you a chinaman. Okay?’
Mr Chen didn’t reply.
‘Listen, this is the circus. Here we call a spade a spade, you know? If you don’t like it, then get the hell out.’ He put the cigar back in his tiny mouth and sucked.
Mr Chen widened his eyes with enthusiasm and tried to start over. ‘I here about job.
‘What’s your drinking like? Heavy?’
‘I no drink.’
The ringmaster squinted again. ‘You don’t drink? Why in the hell did he send-’
‘I hard worker! I need money!’
‘It’s just that we normally like to hire drinkers for this particular position, but you look like a good fit for what we need, so go on ahead inside the tent and talk to Julius, the one in the hat. He looks after the erm…cannon engineers. Just wait in the ring; he should be there, or around soon.’
Mr Chen left the trailer and walked back around front, this time unintentionally taking a different route and passing two women joined together from their hip to their armpit with a single pair of legs between them. When he looked in both sets of their eyes, he felt scared and hurried along.
The main opening to the tent had been decorated like a huge clown’s mouth and it made Mr Chen’s heart rhythm go up a notch just by looking at it. As he inched his way inside the giant red lips, he felt annoyed that a clown was eating him and cursed it under his breath.
Everything in the clown’s belly was in darkness except for the central ring – illuminated perfectly as though from a dream. Mr Chen shuffled across the sawdusted floor until he entered the light and sat down on the ring’s edge to wait for Julius.
It smelled like animals.
After a few minutes had passed, Mr Chen tried to focus on the money, rather than getting angry because he had to wait. This was the kind of thing his wife had pointed out and that he was already trying to change. He looked out into the middle of the ring and his eyes settled on something creeping along the floor – a tan-coloured crab, stepping slowly sideways like a prisoner trying to elude searchlights. Not long after Mr Chen laid eyes on the creature it stopped, as though that might render it invisible.
It was watching him, he knew that much. Mr Chen stood up and side-footed some sawdust towards it, but the crab didn’t move. He wanted to shout then, but the tent was quiet and he didn’t want to cause a scene. Unsure what to do next, Mr Chen began edging towards the crab. Each step he took made no difference and the crab just stood there. When he got to within three feet, the crab lazily swung up its big claws, as though it might quite like to attack, but was too tired.
‘I see you’ve met Carlton.’
Mr Chen glanced to his right where a man had quietly appeared from the darkness. He was heavyset, wore a hat and smiled as he walked into the ring. As the man kneeled beside the crab and held his hat against the sawdust, Mr Chen watched the crab side-step up onto the rim, then crawl inside. The man pulled the hat up quickly, turning it as he did so and placed it onto his head.
If the man had appeared a few minutes later, Mr Chen might well have squashed the crab with his foot, for it had begun to irritate him.
‘Hello, I’m Julius. Now, I’m guessing you’re here about one of the jobs?’
‘Yes, cannon engineer. I am Mr Chen.’
Julius looked Mr Chen up and down for a few seconds, as though deliberating a new suit. ‘How tall are you?’
‘How much do you weigh?’ Mr Chen shrugged.
Julius smiled. ‘I think you’ll be perfect. Come this way.’
As Mr Chen followed Julius out from the illuminated ring and into the dark recesses of the tent, a memory came to him from his childhood. Grandfather Chen had taken him to one of the mountain villages to see a show, which consisted of two crabs dancing upon a small wooden stage to music from a Chinese flute. Although he had enjoyed the show and asked his grandfather where he could get a dancing crab for himself, Mr Chen had thought nothing odd of it at the time. Now, after meeting Julius and his crab Carlton, it all seemed very peculiar to him indeed.
For a few moments, in the depths of this gigantic clown’s belly, Mr Chen lost Julius and could not see anything. Then suddenly, there was a sound of metal on metal and three spotlights hummed into action. Mr Chen found himself standing before a long white cannon with blue stars painted up the side. The only urge he had was to look inside the chamber, but it was too high above his head.
Julius patted the cannon. ‘Well this is it. There’ll be two shows this week and you get paid for each one.’
‘Four hundred dollar?’
‘Yes sir! Hopefully as word spreads, we can put on more shows.’
Mr Chen felt frightened that he might not be able to operate the cannon or fix it, or whatever he was expected to do.
‘Right follow me, let’s get you weighed.’
Julius flicked off the spotlights and left the tent through a hidden wall flap that came back into Mr Chen’s face like a secret slap. He scrambled in the dark, panicked a little, then was outside in the dust. As they walked, Mr Chen watched Julius continually swig from a hipflask and even though they had spent under two minutes crossing through the trailer yard,
Julius had taken out and put away the flask at least three times. Mr Chen eyed the back of
Julius’s hat for any sign of Carlton the crab, but there was not a claw in sight.
They paused by a trailer.
‘I’d invite you in, but I keep animals you see, and they wouldn’t like you. Just wait here.’
Mr Chen was annoyed and wanted to know why the animals wouldn’t like him, but Julius had already gone inside. When he came out with the oldest set of scales Mr Chen had ever seen in his life, Mr Chen was distracted.
‘Right,’ said Julius planting the scales into the dirt, ‘let’s get you weighed.’
He held out his hand the way someone asks a lady to dance without actually asking, and Mr Chen stepped onto them.
The needle didn’t move. Julius leaned in to take the reading and Mr Chen noticed it wasn’t even at zero – at least ten pounds out. Just as he wondered what to do now, Julius kicked the scales so hard that Mr Chen stumbled and fell to the ground.
Julius laughed. ‘And you say you’re not a drinker?’
It took all of his determination not to attack Julius right there and then. Instead he got back on the scales and this time the needle moved and Julius got a reading.
‘Okay. That’s it. Come back tomorrow at noon and we’ll run a practice. The tent won’t be finished until late tonight, so there’s nothing more we can do.’
‘Where I come to?’
‘Just come right into the tent, I’ll be around.’
Mr Chen nodded and gave a limp wave. Julius lifted his hat off, Carlton the crab opened and closed a claw, then the hat was on again and off Julius went, pulling out the hipflask from his pocket.
That evening, Mrs Chen was surprised when her husband announced over a bowl of chicken soup, that he had secured a well-paid job. Her eyebrows rose even higher as he explained how much he’d earn, and when he also mentioned the work was in a circus, she fought the urge to laugh, for a failing marriage was a serious business. She didn’t want to cling onto false hope, but to be fair to him, she had noticed a small change in her husband’s behaviour these past few days. He appeared calmer and had even apologised for not being able to work as much in the store and even seemed to mean it.
As they finished dinner in the living room, Mrs Chen watched her husband smile and lift away the plates, then make his way towards the kitchen. She felt content for once and as she stretched out her slippered feet and rested them on the coffee table, she found it funny observing him trying to balance everything – until he accidentally stubbed his foot against the door jamb and launched into a tirade of swearing that led to him dropping a plate and kicking it across the floor. Mrs Chen sighed, knowing that there was still work to do.
That following morning, Mr Chen worked a few hours at the store, then handed over to his wife and left for the circus. He caught a cab to the dilapidated outskirts of the city where the buildings sat barren and soulless and edged towards an expanse of trees. When he pulled up outside, the sky was vibrant blue and the day calm and warm. He passed through the entrance gate and there, loitering and smoking a cigarette, was a clown with a white face and a painted ruby grin. The clown watched Mr Chen walk through the gate and Mr Chen watched right back.
Mr Chen said hello and glanced at the clown. It wore wide-rimmed, bright-yellow trousers that hung off sparkling silver braces. Mr Chen could see the line where the bald cap with blue fuzzy hair blended into the man’s real skin. The clown said hello back and it sounded like a recording of the way Mr Chen had said it just ten seconds ago. Mr Chen had already passed and ignored the reply.
As he sauntered towards the circus canopy, he sensed someone close by and turned around to see the clown right behind him. The clown turned away and looked behind him, but there was no-one there.
Mr Chen started to walk again and could hear the clumping footsteps behind him so he stopped and spun around quickly this time. ‘What you want, clown?!’
The clown spun around and with his back to Mr Chen said, ‘What you want, clown?!’
Mr Chen was unsure how to proceed and felt an anger boiling inside. He moved his head slightly to the left. The clown mimicked him and did the same.
He sniffed. The clown sniffed.
Mr Chen pointed right in the clown’s face and raised his voice, ‘You sonbitch! What you want, huh?!’
The clown stabbed his finger in Mr Chen’s face and said the same thing back. At that point Mr Chen had had enough, so punched the clown as hard as he could.
This time the clown did something different. A trickle of blood ran down from his nose and blended with his painted red lips, then all at once, he dived on Mr Chen and they were rolling about in the dust.
‘Damn you, chinaman!’
As they scuffled, punching and grabbing, a horn somewhere on the clown’s person gave a honk-honk. Mr Chen tried to grab the clown’s wrist and out came a bunch of colourful flowers. Just as he swung another punch at the clown, he was pulled away.
‘Break it up here!’ said Julius, as two burly circus workers held Mr Chen and the clown apart. The clown’s fake hair sat lopsided and his makeup resembling a woman’s after weeping, while Mr Chen’s face was red like someone had tried to scratch his eyes out.
‘You sonbitch!’ shouted Mr Chen, kicking his leg out toward the clown.
‘Any more fighting and you’ll go see the ringmaster. Understood?’ Julius looked for a response and got two begrudged nods. ‘Chen, you come with me. Sully, you get back to the gate.’ Julius pulled out his hipflask and swigged from it as they passed through the huge mouth entrance. When they reached the cannon, Julius turned to Mr Chen, ‘I’m only saying this once, no fighting. Understand?’
Mr Chen mumbled something then replied that he understood.
‘Good. Now, let’s get you trained up. First show is tonight.’ Julius pointed to a metal wheel on the side of the cannon. ‘The cannon has a spring inside, taken from one of the NASA Space Shuttles, so you have to wind it back before every show. Like this.’ Julius turned the wheel a few times. ‘Now, it’s going to take a good five to ten minutes to set the spring. Then, we have to set a charge, for the explosion.’
‘Yes,’ he waved a dismissive hand, ‘we have a fancy explosion, when the cannon goes off. But that’s just for show; really, it’s all actually done with the spring inside.’
Julius pointed to a button. ‘This button will fire the cannon, very dangerous. Be careful around this. Once you have it all set, you’ll get dressed in the white suit that matches the cannon. Then you’ll wait by the door. When the ringmaster announces the cannon stunt, you come running in, the music will be playing. Do one lap of the ring, wave to the crowd, then come over here to the cannon. Got it?’
Julius slapped Mr Chen on the back. ‘Right. Let’s do one rehearsal. Go outside to the black trailer, that’s the cannon man’s trailer. Get changed and come back here.’
Mr Chen started to feel excited. He ran out of the circus tent and passed a cage filled with four gigantic lions that all lay sleeping in the afternoon sun. At the black trailer, he went on inside and there hanging from a hook on the ceiling was a white leather jumpsuit with blue stars all along one side. He saw matching white shoes on the floor, along with large goggles, a white helmet and some gloves.
As he dressed, he noticed a word inside the jumpsuit that he did not recognise.
He passed the sleeping lions again and as soon as he entered the giant clown mouth, Julius was waiting by the cannon and gave the thumbs up. Mr Chen gave his thumbs up in return and then the entire circus ring lit up and there was the ringmaster, holding a microphone.
‘And now…ladies, gentlemen and children…our special show of the night…The Human Cannonball!!!!!’
Music started playing and Mr Chen ran into the ring waving to the imaginary crowd. As he entered the ring he tripped and fell and landed flat into the sawdust. The music kept on playing, so he jumped up quickly and did one lap as instructed. When he reached the cannon, there was a ladder that hadn’t been there before. Mr Chen went straight to the side of the white starry tube and poised his hand over the firing button.
The music continued to play and Julius came over. ‘You have to climb inside. Er… I forgot to tell you…there’s two wires that need to be connected together before it can be fired, you’ll see them.’
Before Mr Chen could think about it or argue, Julius gave him a shove towards the ladder, so he climbed it and went to get inside the cannon headfirst, but Julius shouted, ‘Feet first!’
Once inside, Mr Chen began to search for the wires, when the music somehow morphed into a steady drumroll. He decided to shout for Julius.
‘I no see wire.’
There was no response, but instead an explosion, and suddenly he was flying through the air towards the tent roof, then falling towards the ground.
As he landed on wide netting at the other end of the tent, the music began to play again and his head was swirling. He tried to stand up but fell back into the net. When he eventually realised he should roll off the net and onto the floor, Julius was grabbing his hand to shake it and the ringmaster was patting him on the back. Some pretty woman he had never seen before, came up and kissed him on the cheek.
There were erratic claps from circus people and a few whistles too. Mr Chen wanted to be angry, but he couldn’t.
‘They’ll love you! You’re a star!’ said Julius.
Mr Chen ran out of the tent, still waving, but by the time he got outside, was shaking and vomited.
Julius followed him out. ‘You were brilliant! Everyone loved it! Imagine what it will be like with a crowd!’
‘You sonbitch! You say cannon engineer, you no say cannon man!’
‘What did you expect for two hundred bucks a show? You did good.’ Julius took out a wad of notes. ‘You’ll get paid straight after the first live show.’
Mr Chen felt like lashing out, but the money was reassuring and he couldn’t wait to flick through those twenties.
That night, when he did his first show in front of a live crowd, the experience was exhilarating. Mr Chen rolled off the safety net, removed his helmet and instead of running one victory lap around the arena, he did two. Even as he left the tent and exited through the clown’s mouth, the people continued clapping and whistling. He didn’t know what else to do, but pass back through the trailers and into the cannon engineer’s, where he sat down on a stool with his leg shaking uncontrollably.
The door opened and in bounced Julius with a smile on his face and excitement in his step. ‘You did brilliant!’ He took a wad of notes from his jacket pocket and handed Mr Chen his pay, then clasped his shoulder and laughed. ‘I’m just so excited!’
As Julius paced the room, Mr Chen sat blinking, his leg bouncing like a jackhammer against the floor. All of a sudden Julius kneeled and took off his hat. There, hovering above his head was the tiniest bird Mr Chen had ever seen – just larger than a bumblebee and its wings flitting a million miles a second. Julius held out his hand and the bird moved down above his shoulder, before following the line of his arm until it hovered an inch above his palm.
‘Meet Irene. She’s a Cuban Hummingbird – smallest bird in the world. Isn’t she pretty?’
Mr Chen looked at her colours, her little curved beak, and nodded.
‘She beats her wings eighty times a second and man, that’s how my heart feels right now!’
As Julius stood up again, Irene flitted around the room before coming to a hover just above his head. He placed the hat back on and made for the door.
‘You did good Chen. Head on home and I’ll see you for the next show.’
Mr Chen did seven shows over the course of three weeks and each time the crowd gave him such elation that it made him feel superhuman. As days rolled by, Sully the clown continued to impersonate him at every opportunity, which inevitably led to increased tensions between the two – but whenever he felt like punching the clown, Mr Chen thought of the crowds cheering him on, then the money, then saving his marriage.
One day on his way into the trailer to get ready for a show, Mr Chen saw Sully trip up over his large clown shoes and land face down in a puddle of muddy water. As he stood up cursing the universe, Mr Chen walked past with a smile across his lips and entered his trailer, where he sat laughing to himself for ten minutes.
Before long, Mr Chen was sitting in his trailer after each show, dissipating energy through his jackhammer leg, and people would come knock on the door or the wire-netted window. He didn’t know what they wanted, so didn’t answer; waiting instead for things to clear before heading home to his wife.
Mr Chen had one week left before his wife’s deadline. He stood up onto his stepping stool and took down a glass jar from the high shelf. As he sat and counted the money out onto the bed, he mumbled under his breath and realised that he would not have enough to pay for the marriage counselling and the anger management course.
As soon as he arrived at the circus, he went straight to the ringmaster’s trailer and knocked. He waited, then knocked again, before opening the door and marching right on in to find the ringmaster lying shirtless on a high table and a large woman with the build of a shot-putter giving him a massage.
‘I need more money.’
The ringmaster looked up. ‘How’d you get in here?’
‘I knock twice. You no answer!’
‘Well, can’t you see that I’m busy here?’
‘I need more money.’
‘You need more money? Well, we’ve got another couple of shows this week and you’ll get paid for them as normal.’
‘No good. I need one thousand dollar.’
The ringmaster squinted. ‘You got a drug problem?’
‘No, I just need more money.’
The ringmaster sat up and Mr Chen noticed for the first time that he had a hairy belly and resembled a little bear. ‘The only way you’re getting more money, is if I can charge more money for a ticket. And the only way I can charge more money for a ticket, is if there is something big and dangerous happening that night that I can advertise the hell out of. So, are you prepared to add some spice, a little danger?’
‘Whatever it take.’
The ringmaster rubbed his small chin with his small hand. ‘Alright let’s see. First, we’d have to take away the safety net. You’d have to land on something…and we’d need to add in a bit of danger. How about we put some lions into the ring? You can shoot out over their heads, the crowd will love it!’
Mr Chen seemed unsure.
‘We’ll drug them and feed them up before the show. You’ll be fine. It will be like being in the ring with a bunch of pussycats.’
‘Okay. You give me one thousand dollar, I do it.’
The ringmaster smiled. ‘We have a deal. Find Julius and send him in here. We need to get some posters printed.’
‘You want massage?’ said the large woman in a strange accent. ‘I do you next.’
Mr Chen didn’t want a massage and thought that even if he did, his wife might find out and be angry; but before he could reply, the woman continued her offer.
‘I do some extras for you? Okay?’ she raised her eyebrows up and down.
‘I go find Julius,’ replied Mr Chen, dropping his head and leaving quickly.
As the deadline approached, Mr Chen started to see colourful posters sprout up all over the city – on lampposts, in shop windows, stuck to the walls of rundown buildings. There was a huge picture of a lion with its mouth wide open and a little man flying through the air, narrowly avoiding its long teeth.
‘Amazing Chen & The Lion’s Den. One Night Only.’
He felt like a movie star and started to imagine riding in limousines and signing autographs for small children. He was looking forward to the show and decided to invite his wife along to see what he now did for a living. If things continued well, they’d be rich and could give up the store.
Mrs Chen asked him questions about it, this circus job, but all Mr Chen would say was, ‘You come and see yourself.’
So the big night finally came around. Mr Chen pulled up in a taxi with his wife and people were lined outside the gates in a long queue. Spotlights shone up into the evening sky from the top of the circus canopy and the smell of hotdogs blended with music coming from the big tent. Mr Chen stopped at the gates to kiss his wife on the cheek and people in the queue looked at him like he was a potential celebrity.
Mrs Chen went on inside to take her seat for the show, while her husband went to his trailer to get ready. She got a seat near the front and bought herself a giant pretzel.
As Mr Chen walked across the yard, a door opened and there was the ringmaster in his perfect red outfit, calling out for Sully the Clown. Mr Chen watched Sully stop by the door and the ringmaster hand him a plastic container. ‘Sully, feed one of these pills to each of the lions. You’ve got ten minutes before we’re on.’
‘Hey, no problem!’
Mr Chen wanted to ask some questions, but there was no time, so he headed into his trailer instead. As he pulled on the cannon outfit, he spied through the blinds at Sully, who approached the lions’ cage and began kicking the bars. The more he banged the cage, the more the animals roused and before long they were all pacing and growling at him.
‘Sonbitch!’ said Mr Chen to himself. When he bent down to tie one shoe, then the other, he cursed Sully under his breath and by the time he stood up again, Sully the clown was gone.
After the arena was filled with people, the lights went down and the music began. Suddenly a bright beam of light shot out across the ring and the ringmaster rode in on a chariot pulled by two white horses whose tall plumes of red and black feathers rose up from between their eyes and bounced around as they circled the floor. The crowd applauded his entrance and he smiled and waved as he lapped the ring. A rope came lowering down from the roof and dangled into the centre of the ring, but the ringmaster did not seem to notice it was there, nor appear to acknowledge it, before jumping backwards off the moving chariot and grabbing it in a well-rehearsed move. The crowd cheered and watched him rise up into the roof with a spotlight illuminating his small body and his bright red jacket with its winking gold buttons.
At that point, the ring lit up and in walked Sully the clown pushing a small, circular safety net on wheels. He took out a handkerchief to blow his nose and it miraculously turned into a bird and fluttered off up into the canopy. Acting surprised, he stumbled back and fell into a backward roll, before shooting up onto his feet and lighting a cigarette all in one motion. The crowd laughed and clapped.
Up above, the ringmaster swung on a series of ropes, before landing on a platform directly above the clown’s safety net. Just as he looked ready to jump, the clown, oblivious to anything going on above him, wheeled the safety net across the ring and started into a song and dance number. As he wheeled the safety net around the ring, the ringmaster swung to different platforms above, each time readying to jump, but being thwarted. Eventually, the ringmaster settled on a platform which was nowhere near the net and readied himself to jump. As he took poise and leapt into the air, the clown, in perfect timing, had started to wave goodbye and exit the ring. In what appeared a chance occurrence, the ringmaster landed on the moving net and the clown took on a wide mouth of surprise as the crowd roared.
Mrs Chen was halfway through her pretzel by now and each time a new act came into the ring, she sat forward in her seat to search for her husband. There was a dancing bear, followed by a blindfolded knife-thrower, then some amazing trapeze artists. After that, a line of penguins ran around the ring to toe-tapping music and people chuckled and applauded.
When the interval came, Mrs Chen remained in her seat and watched men in flat caps who smoked half-cigarettes quickly erect a wire fence around the ring
Before long, the announcer gave the two-minute call and people started filing back into their seats, loaded down with hotdogs and candy and fake Coca-Cola. The lights went down and there was excitement in the air as the crowd waited.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen! This is the moment you’ve all been waiting for…’
A spotlight came on and illuminated the giant white cannon with its blue stars.
‘The Amazing Chen will be shot out of this cannon, right before your very eyes. There will be no safety net. The only way Amazing Chen can save himself from certain death, is to catch this sliver of a rope! Such a small target, ladies and gentlemen!’
Another spotlight buzzed into action, firing a tunnel of light across the open space to a rope dangling in the centre of the ring.
‘And if that’s not dangerous enough, then just get a load of this!’
The entire ring lit up to reveal four lions pacing impatiently inside a circular wire fence. The crowd gasped again. One of the men in flat caps rattled a section of the fence and a lion took a charge towards him, swiping its huge paw and roaring. The hum of the crowd rose into a steady furore.
Mrs Chen found herself feeling nauseous, but a great deal excited at the same time. As the music reverberated through the tent and Mr Chen came running into the arena, everyone stood to their feet and began to cheer. He waved and did two circuits, before heading over to the cannon and climbing inside.
The lights went down, the drumroll began, and the air was thick with anticipation.
Mr Chen looked upward and braced himself for the launch, then wondered why he was not looking up into the roof as normal – instead, he could see midway up the rope in the centre of the arena.
He shot out across the arena to a collective gasp and the sound of a lion’s roar. Mr Chen flew through the air thirty feet lower than usual and saw the rope getting closer. As his trajectory started to fall, he also spotted the lions below him and reached out.
Before he knew it, the rope was in front of his face and he grabbed it tightly with both hands, then watched as it slid through his gloves and his body started downwards. When the rope ended, he dropped seven feet to the ground and hit the sawdusted floor.
‘Bolo!’ shouted his wife from the crowd.
He heard a growl and looked up, then the circus music began to play and the ringmaster rushed to the fence.
Just don’t move, Chen!’
Mr Chen sat on the ground and watched two lions circle him in their slow ritual. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the ringmaster scurrying up a ladder towards the roof of the tent and by now, all four lions were pacing with guttural growls. Mr Chen knew he was about to be eaten and got to his feet. Wide-eyed, all he could think of was Carlton the crab, so he lifted both hands up into the air and formed them into pinchers.
‘Get back you sonbitch!’ he snapped his pincher hands towards the lions. One of them, the closest one, flinched and took a step back. As he watched its eyes narrow and shoulders hunch down, he wished for Julius’s hat to appear and rescue him.
Suddenly the rope came down and hung in front of his face. Mr Chen seized it and began rising up out of the ring like some kind of Messiah as the lion charged and swiped its thick paw through the air. He looked into the crowd then and saw his wife having a panic attack, before his gaze found Sully the clown standing by the circus entrance with a real smile added beneath his painted one.
When the lights went out, Mr Chen found himself standing on top of a high podium, holding on tight, with the sound of applause filling the arena. Although his legs were shaking, he felt elated like someone who had cheated death itself.
‘You were brilliant, Chen!’ said the ringmaster. ‘Such a show! Listen to that!’
They waited there in the darkness and let the ovation seep into their skin.
‘Come on, follow me.’
The lights came back on and Mr Chen watched the ringmaster swing his tiny legs off the edge, then slide down a ladder like a miniature train chugging along a track. As Mr Chen followed him down, the crowd cheered and roared until he reached the ground and stood waving. Mr Chen paused on the ladder to look for the lions, but the ring was empty. He jumped down from the last rung and stood with the ringmaster, waving to the crowd and soaking it up. He could see his wife, tears in her eyes, standing in the throng clapping excitedly and in that moment he realised he wanted to kill Sully the clown.
Mr Chen ran for the exit, then kissed his hand and held it into the air as he passed through the giant clown’s mouth.
Outside, the night was damp. He stopped for a moment to catch his breath and the smell of roasting popcorn and hotdogs came to his nostrils. His heart thumped in strong pulses and he took a deep, slow breath, then another, and continued until he felt more settled.
When he eventually headed towards the trailers, he spotted Sully leaning up against the bear cage, swigging from a bottle.
Mr Chen approached him, hands locked in the shape of rigid pinchers and as Sully turned and smiled, Mr Chen grabbed hold of his white clown cheeks and squeezed as hard as he could. Sully’s eyes were wide and his silence soon gave way to a high-pitched wail. Still, Mr Chen squeezed and he imagined he was Carlton the crab, crushing his paralysed dinner in his claws before eating it.
When Mr Chen released his grip, he pointed a finger in Sully’s face. ‘You sonbitch!
You not drug lion! You interfere with cannon!’
Sully put both his fists up, but Mr Chen just lunged – punching and kicking and scratching – until he was out of breath and stood over a beaten clown lying motionless in the dust.
Mr Chen could see his own breath upon the still night air. He glanced upwards for an idea, a suggestion on what to do next but there amongst the stars, he only saw a prison and him lying soulless in a darkened cell.
It was then that Julius appeared with a smile on his face and came rushing over, pulling money from his pocket and stuffing it into Mr Chen’s hand. Before he could speak, he saw Sully on the ground and his grin disappeared.
‘What did you do?’
‘He sonbitch. He deserve it.’
Julius moved past Mr Chen and kneeled over Sully, tapping his clown face lightly, then harder. Sully didn’t move. Julius took out his hipflask, unscrewed the cap and wafted it under the clown’s red nose. When Sully groaned, Julius took a swig and watched him sit up with blood smeared across his face, then slump back to the ground unconscious.
Julius stood up. ‘Chen, you’re fired. I warned you about fighting. You’re lucky he’s still alive.’
Mr Chen took off his helmet and threw it to the ground, followed by the goggles and gloves. ‘You no fire me! I quit!’
‘That jumpsuit doesn’t belong to you either,’ said Julius.
As though his body were supercharged with electricity, Mr Chen hurriedly unzipped the white jumpsuit and stamped his way out of it into nothing but his blue underpants. He kicked it across the ground, before storming off.
It was then that he almost bumped into his wife emerging from the clown’s huge mouth with an astonished look on her face. She came towards him, looking incredulously at his lack of attire, but before she could speak, Mr Chen grabbed his wife like Tarzan does
Jane, and kissed her. As he released her, he put the money in her hand and said, ‘I did it, I save us.’
She smiled. ‘I always believed in you, Bolo – you were wonderful in there. It was so exciting.’
He blushed, then took her hand and started to lead her towards the exit.
‘Bolo, why are you in your underpants?’
‘I quit. Lion too dangerous.’
She nodded once, then twice; then together they walked away from the glow of the canopy spotlights, to where cars sat on the edge of night and the circus dwindled into quiet and somewhere nearby in the hills, an owl gave a hoot-to-hoo.
Loved Jamie Guiney’s short story? Read Kathryn Marie Halton’s Ever Decreasing Circles.