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Excerpt from First of May

Kelsey Knoedler, 2010

        She quickly scampered through the deep black night to the back of the tent where she saw several small tents lit from within, shadows of busy performers gathering their belongings and preparing for their next jump. Scarlet took shelter under a large wagon with “Baraboo Brothers” painted loudly on the side. She saw a man with a painted face emerge from the tent directly behind the big top. He was wearing over-sized slacks with suspenders and no shirt and carrying a bucket. The tramp clown tossed the contents of the bucket across a patch of grass behind the tent.

        “Hey, Sparky, you better get your keister packed up here pretty quick. We’re about to demolish clown alley,” yelled a voice from inside the shadowy tent.

        “Yeah, I’ll be right back!”

        The clown walked nearer to Scarlet; she hid behind the giant wheels of the wagon. He slammed down his bucket and took out a cigar and matchbox from the giant pocket of his denim pants. The clown sat down on the overturned bucket, lit the cigar, breathed it in, and sighed, looking up at the stars. Slowly and softly, between puffs of the vanilla-scented cigar, the clown began to hum a sad tune. Scarlet thought she recognized it from a broken music box she had gotten rid of a few summers ago. And slowly and softly, as Scarlet leaned against the enormous wheel beneath the circus wagon, she began to drift off into a dreamless sleep.


        “Hey, you there! Is there someone there?” Scarlet started awake. The clown was standing right in front of her, looking down into her frightened blue eyes.

        “You shouldn’t be here, girly. The circus’s long been over. Go on home, now.”

        Scarlet crawled out from underneath the wagon and stretched her legs out. Her legs grew faster than the rest of her body, and her mother always said she’d shot up like sunflower. Sometimes they ached with growing, and after curling up under the circus wagon, she felt the same cramps just above her knees.

        “Why, you aren’t some little tot,” the clown smiled, “you’re nearly as tall as me! Twice as tall as Gilbert, but that’s another story. What’re you doing out here so late at night? It’s dangerous for you to be out here while we’re tryin’ to take things down and pack things up.”

        “I, I…” Scarlet stuttered until she could find her words; she hadn’t actually spoken since she’d said goodbye to her mother. “I had an argument with my father and I just couldn’t go home.” Scarlet thought about lying to the clown, but for some reason she trusted him enough to tell him the truth. It was something about his droopy brown eyes and the warm vanilla smell of the cigar.

        “Why would anyone argue with a pretty little thing like you? You couldn’t’a’ done anything wrong, now, could you? I used to have plenty o’ fights with my pappy when I was your age. Finally popped ‘im in the jaw real good one time. Knew he wouldn’t have me back under his roof again.” The clown wandered back over to the bucket and set his foot on it, resting his elbow on his knee. “I’d never raise a finger toward anyone I liked, mind you, but my daddy was somethin’ awful. I had to respect him for raisin’ us boys on his own all our lives, but enough was enough. I did a few odd jobs after that. Crashed in the sheds of some old pals around town, but the only thing I was good at was makin’ people laugh. So one day I saw an ad in the Daily Rocket lookin’ for someone who could do just that, and I hopped on a circus wagon, learned how to paint my face, and became a tramp. It’s not a bad way to make a living, but sometimes, ya know, sometimes you just miss havin’ somewheres to rest your soul.”

        “Hey, Sparky! Get yer body goin’ and pack up your junk! Train’s gonna leave without us!”

        “Yeah, I’m comin’! Sorry, little darlin’, but I gotta run. That’s how it is here on the road, always on the run. What did you say your name was?”

        “Oh, I didn’t. It’s Scarlet.”

        “Beautiful name. Well, Scarlet, you run on home now. I’m sure your daddy’s cooled off and is worried sick about where you been.” Scarlet doubted that. “Next time the circus comes around, you look out for old Sparky!”


        “I’m comin’, jeez. Bye, now, Scarlet.”

        Sparky picked up his bucket and hurried over to the clowns’ tent. Scarlet scanned the emptying circus lot. She’d made a decision when she was listening to Sparky ramble on about his father. Scarlet knew she couldn’t go home and that she couldn’t stay in Brookton. But she had nowhere else to run. And she wasn’t going to make the same mistake her mother did. Scarlet knew that she wouldn’t give up until she found her real father. And the only way to do that—the only way to get herself around the country without a penny to her name and only the clothes on her back—was to do as Sparky did and join the circus. She was sure they’d be able to find a job for her. And she’d read books about the circus. She knew the circus. She loved the circus. She would be the most loyal trouper the Baraboo Brothers had ever had.

        But the train was leaving soon, and she knew it was too late to find the man in charge tonight. And besides, if they found her on the train tomorrow, hundreds of miles from here, they’d have to keep her on. So Scarlet hurried down to the front of the train where all the cars were already packed but not yet closed up. She peeked into the first car. It was dark, but Scarlet could just make out the outline of several enormous pieces of metal equipment, a rolled up canvas, and a jumble of tables and chairs. It smelled like greasy fried clams and rotting eggs and was full of things that looked much too sharp and dangerous. So Scarlet moved on to the next car. Cages covered with heavy black cloths lined the perimeter and were stacked up to the top of the train car. The car smelled of animal droppings and damp hay, and Scarlet could hear squawking and maybe even a roar from deep within the animal car. She continued down the tracks.
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All Information Copywright by Chimes Publication, Saint Mary's College 2010