Cindy Dodge, Ae­ri­al­ist, Fall

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - Jenny Boully

My fa­ther was a man who would point to spec­ta­cles and say, They just want your money. My mother was a woman who didn’t even like to pay a dol­lar to go to the drive-in the­ater; my fa­ther, when he did con­vince my mother to go, would fill a whole gro­cery store brown pa­per bag with pop­corn so we wouldn’t have to buy theirs. I would never even think to ask my par­ents if we could go to the cir­cus. I knew, even at eight, that the cir­cus en­tailed what my fa­ther ab­horred: crowds and spec­ta­cle and the giv­ing away of his money just so he could fight with crowds. My mother never wanted to pay for spec­ta­cles: you couldn’t take a spec­ta­cle home, spec­ta­cles could not give you any­thing ma­te­rial in re­turn, spec­ta­cles did not quell hunger or clothe or house you.

But this was the sum­mer of spec­ta­cles. In the work­ing-class neigh­bor­hood where I lived, the grass in the lawns of the bun­ga­lows shook and sparkled with the ex­cite­ment of it. The scorch­ing, ci­cada-churn­ing air vi­brated with a bright­ness when the cir­cus com­mer­cials came on, and I would stand there, in our lit­tle liv­ing room, en­tranced by the daz­zle and fan­fare of it all. Then, upon re­al­iz­ing I would never go, I would be­come crest­fallen, then with­drawn. The Liv­ing Uni­corn was the mar­vel of the cir­cus that sum­mer, and my sis­ter and I pined for both the cir­cus and a sight of The Liv­ing Uni­corn; how­ever, we knew the ob­sta­cles we faced in our par­ents’ dis­avowal of such short-lived plea­sures and won­der and did not feel safe enough to ask. We would never go to the cir­cus.

Starla, how­ever, had gone to the cir­cus, and she had the sou­venirs to prove it. She had seen The Liv­ing Uni­corn. So my sis­ter and I mar­veled at Starla’s keep­sakes: the light-up tiger head, the sparkling ba­ton glit­ter tube with pink tin­sel on the ends, and the pro­gram that con­tained a pull­out poster of The Liv­ing Uni­corn.

Ear­lier that year, Starla and her fam­ily ap­peared at the green house in the cul-de-sac, a house that was let to renters who never stayed very long.

Starla’s mother let her wear makeup, and I could not. Starla wore a bra, and I did not yet need one. Starla had real brand-name clothes, and I

had flea-mar­ket knock­offs. Starla had all the boys, and I had none. Starla was pop­u­lar, and I was not.

Starla had gone to the cir­cus, and I had not.

At the flea mar­ket, where we used to go on week­ends, her mother told us that she had over­heard some boys talking about a “cute chick.” One boy said, Who? Her? He was point­ing to me. The other boy said, Oh, no, not her. She’s ugly. The boy had meant Starla, and Starla’s mother wanted me to know that the cute chick was her daugh­ter and not me. Never me. I was only eight, and my friend’s mother made it her duty to make sure that I knew I was ugly. That ugly lived deep in me, a black spot in my core. When I looked at my­self in mir­rors, my eyes saw the in­deli­ble smudge and bruise of it.

A star was born and her name was Starla. How could I ever hope to com­pete with a name like that, and she was al­lowed to have a hair­cut that started short at her left ear and slanted longer to­ward her right ear with a rat tail here and there. It was the year of Madonna and lace gloves and “Lucky Star,” and there was Starla in the glit­ter and wow and pop and metal­lic con­fetti of all of that. She even had the ear­rings to match.

Oh, no, not her. She’s ugly. I kept hear­ing that.

Starla had a cat. It was white—a tiny baby. One day, their pit bull Daisy took that kit­ten by its neck and shook out all that was left of it. There was noth­ing left of it so her step­fa­ther took a gun and shot the lit­tle kit­ten in its cot­ton skull. There was nowhere to bury it, so no one buried it.

I had wanted that cat, soft and white, and when I spent a night in that house, I se­cretly let it smell my worn socks at night so that in the morn­ing it might like me more.

Starla started her pe­riod. Her mother didn’t believe her. But she showed us the red stain on her bed. It was just a lit­tle nick of blood as if noth­ing was even hurt.

But she in­sisted.

My sis­ter, who had al­ready started her pe­riod, said that there should be more.

Starla couldn’t stay the night with us un­til there was sub­stan­tial ev­i­dence that she had com­pleted her chores. Look at the car­pet, she told her step­fa­ther. She told him that the way the car­pet looked, with its un­walked-on ver­ti­cal bars, meant that it’d been vac­u­umed, so could she please go and stay the night with us now?

Her step­fa­ther al­ways came in late. He was a news­pa­per­man, al­ways there when the morn­ing edi­tion be­gan its run.

Starla said The Liv­ing Uni­corn was real; she said it was beau­ti­ful; she said that its fur glit­tered with stars. The very air of her words was a new and sparkling kind of cot­ton candy.

That was when Starla still lived on our street; that was back when I was eight and go­ing on nine. Starla moved soon af­ter that. We tried to stay friends, but then I didn’t see Starla for a very long time.

One day, my sis­ter had gone out shopping—she was older and could drive—and she saw Starla at the mall. Starla had given my sis­ter her phone num­ber. She was liv­ing with her grandpa, the same grandpa that her half brother had lived with. We went to see her. I was thir­teen then and had dyed my hair pitch black. I didn’t want the sun. I was a dark thing that brooded on po­etry and wanted to die, and still, no boys ever did like me.

When we saw her, she said to me, You’re so pretty now. But she must have read me, my re­luc­tance to believe her.

She told us that she was liv­ing with her grandpa, be­cause when she told her mother that her step­fa­ther had been touch­ing her, her mother didn’t believe her and told her to leave.

The phone rang. It was a boy call­ing for her, but it was the boy that her grandpa didn’t like, so she told him that he couldn’t call any­more.

It had con­tin­ued, the thing that had started for her: the con­stant need for boys to need her. I saw the slow, sad drop of the phone, the re­luc­tance to en­tirely let go.

Her step­fa­ther had shot the cat in its lit­tle cot­ton skull. On the bed was just a lit­tle nick of stain as if noth­ing was even hurt.

But she in­sisted.

The Rin­gling Bros. and Bar­num & Bai­ley Cir­cus, “The Great­est Show on Earth,” in­sists that their Liv­ing Uni­corn was real, and I sup­pose it could have been con­sid­ered real if one re­al­izes that many me­dieval im­ages of uni­corns por­tray beasts that are con­sid­er­ably more caprine than equine. Cir­cus go­ers in 1985, per­haps ex­pect­ing a beast that looked more like a horse or the im­ages in Lisa Frank stick­ers and ac­ces­sories, were dis­ap­pointed by The Liv­ing Uni­corn: they were dis­ap­pointed be­cause The Liv­ing Uni­corn re­sem­bled a goat and not the sleek horse of their dreams.

The Liv­ing Uni­corn had pre­vi­ously been em­ployed in one of those me­dieval-themed restau­rants where patrons feast on tur­key legs while watch­ing a joust. At the time, The Liv­ing Uni­corn was named Lancelot. He would, along with three other uni­corns, be rented to the cir­cus and there­after ac­quired the trade­marked name of The Liv­ing Uni­corn.

The Liv­ing Uni­corn’s leg­end be­gins, like most le­gends and cre­ation myths, in the mid­dle. Sup­pos­edly, he just ap­peared. His past did not come with him. He just ap­peared in that most myth­i­cal of set­tings: Hous­ton, Texas. In the sum­mer of 1984, Rin­gling Bros. and Bar­num & Bai­ley Cir­cus had a show in Hous­ton, and the uni­corn hap­pened to dis­cover the cir­cus. In that most un­likely of set­tings, in the ab­sence of a myth­i­cal for­est, The Liv­ing Uni­corn ar­rived, merely wan­der­ing the Hous­ton sprawlscape in his shim­mery satin sheen of creamy curlicue mo­hair.

The Liv­ing Uni­corn feeds on rose petals. His fur is frothy with milk and stars. He is the clean­est goat in the world, and all who meet him con­cur that the cer­tain musky goat aroma is ab­sent. He is a goat, un­doubt­edly, but if one were to try to pull off that cer­tain uni­corn prop, that golden sin­gu­lar horn from atop its head, one would find that it re­mains at­tached, stead­fast, never to come off—the very sword in the stone. That was the cu­ri­ous thing about The Liv­ing Uni­corn: its golden horn was ac­tu­ally grow­ing and liv­ing.

The golden horn wasn’t some­thing that was merely fused on. An­i­mal cru­elty groups needed to know just how the horn was stuck on, be­cause how the horn was at­tached would de­ter­mine whether the an­i­mal was mis­treated; and if the an­i­mal were mis­treated, then the show could not go on. The ASPCA guessed that a hole had been bored into the skull and that a bull­horn was in­serted, but three sep­a­rate vets, dur­ing the 1985 New York show, had ex­am­ined The Liv­ing Uni­corn, along with his

three “un­der­stud­ies,” and pro­claimed that they were goats with liv­ing horns and that they could not see any signs of abuse or trauma. So the show went on.

The Liv­ing Uni­corn was the cre­ation of Oberon Zell-raven­heart, the self-pro­claimed wiz­ard and co­founder of the Church of All Worlds, who had be­come con­vinced that uni­corns were once real. His re­search re­vealed that uni­corns, as de­picted in me­dieval ta­pes­tries and paint­ings, were all white, male goats. He set about find­ing a method to make his own uni­corns, a method that in­volved anes­the­sia, surgery, and groom­ing. Ap­par­ently, Oberon Zell-raven­heart had a mo­hair goat farm specif­i­cally for the pur­pose of pro­duc­ing uni­corns. The surgery, when suc­cess­ful, would also re­sult in a tem­per­a­ment change in the goat due to changes in the brain caused by its al­tered skull. Oberon Zell-raven­heart be­lieves his cre­ations were, in­deed, real uni­corns. He claims that the an­i­mals them­selves knew them­selves to be uni­corns and that un­like the goat-stock from which they were made, the uni­corns, as a re­sult of the uni­corn-mak­ing process, were “amaz­ingly charis­matic” and also sported an “ex­alted physique.” Not all surg­eries were suc­cess­ful, but enough uni­corns were made that he was able to tour the an­i­mals at re­nais­sance fairs and then of­fi­cially rent four of them to the Rin­gling Bros. and Bar­num & Bai­ley Cir­cus from 1985 to 1989. It’s un­clear whether the Rin­gling Bros. and Bar­num & Bai­ley Cir­cus em­ployed all of the uni­corns in their shows, ro­tated them in and out, or kept them as back­ups, but it’s clear that Lancelot was the star—he was The Liv­ing Uni­corn.

The last uni­corn died in 2005 at the age of seven­teen. Oberon Zel­lRaven­heart does not have Lancelot’s skull, but he does have the skull of Lancelot’s half-brother Be­di­vere.

The web­site Sideshow World, which in­ter­viewed Oberon Zell-raven­heart in 2007, dubs him as “ARTIST, AU­THOR, TEACHER, CREATER OF LIV­ING UNI­CORNS, WIZ­ARD, SHOWMAN.” At the con­clu­sion of the in­ter­view, Oberon Zell-raven­heart talks about his then-cur­rent project of writ­ing a mas­sive book on myth­i­cal beasts, set­ting up a wiz­ardry school, writ­ing an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, and breed­ing a “Phoenix/ Fire­bird.” Oberon Zell-raven­heart was born in 1942 and earned a BA in psy­chol­ogy, a PHD in di­vin­ity, and a teach­ing cer­tifi­cate. He is a self­pro­claimed wiz­ard; early ad­vo­cate of deep ecol­ogy; claims to have in­de­pen­dently ar­tic­u­lated the Gaia the­sis; was influential in the polyamory move­ment; sculpted; co-founded “the Eco­soph­i­cal Re­search As­so­ci­a­tion in 1977, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that ex­plores the truth be­hind myths”; founded

the Church of All Worlds; cre­ated and edited the neo-pa­gan magazine, Green Egg; is the founder and cur­rent head­mas­ter of the Grey School of Wiz­ardry; and is an ac­tive speaker and teacher.

In other words, he is a maker of spec­ta­cles, a spec­ta­cle him­self, a man who hopes and dreams and lives within that dream.

This es­say was sup­posed to be solely about The Liv­ing Uni­corn, but I failed in that I could not think about The Liv­ing Uni­corn with­out think­ing about Starla. Try as I might, how­ever, I could forge no real the­matic or metaphor­i­cal link be­tween fak­ery and Starla. The story of The Liv­ing Uni­corn is merely a story about fantasy and the spec­ta­cle and the sale of that fantasy. That is what we must want from the cir­cus, af­ter all. The story about Starla is merely the story about a child­hood friend whose life ap­peared to have been bet­ter than mine un­til I dis­cov­ered oth­er­wise.

I was re­search­ing The Liv­ing Uni­corn, try­ing to as­cer­tain the year and man­ner of his death, when I came across this en­try in an in­dex of cir­cus ar­ti­cles: “Cindy Dodge, ae­ri­al­ist, fall.”

At first, it was the en­try it­self that wouldn’t leave me: Cindy Dodge, ae­ri­al­ist, fall. Then it was the trapeze, then it was fall­ing to one’s death, then it was Cindy.

Cindy Dodge was an ae­ri­al­ist who per­formed from the dirt up. That is, she was not born into the cir­cus and there­fore was not what they call “cir­cus roy­alty.” She was not born cast on the golden nets and sparkles of sashes and see-here calls. She was a girl who mar­veled, who hoped and dreamed, who felt the strong tug of the trapeze strings.

She was a sunny blonde from California who first au­di­tioned as a show­girl, and then later, af­ter she was in the cir­cus, be­gan train­ing on the fly­ing trapeze. Cindy Dodge per­formed with Rin­gling Bros. and Bar­num & Bai­ley Cir­cus from 1982 un­til her death in 1984. I have to as­sume her start date, be­cause I do not have much to go on. An ebay seller has a pho­to­graph of her taken in 1982. A blog en­try, writ­ten by some­one who knew her in the cir­cus, says that she joined the cir­cus two years be­fore her death. The Liv­ing Uni­corn joined the cir­cus in the sum­mer of 1984 but did not be­gin tour­ing with the cir­cus un­til 1985. Cindy and The Liv­ing Uni­corn had most likely known each other, but they missed per­form­ing to­gether by merely one sea­son.

Cindy Dodge missed the end of the 1984 sea­son by merely one per­for­mance. The cir­cus was per­form­ing three shows on the last day of the sea­son in Long Is­land. In be­tween the sec­ond and last shows, Cindy was prac­tic­ing her act, some­thing that a lot of the cir­cus per­form­ers did be­tween shows. She was at a height of nine­teen feet, which was less than the twenty feet that would have re­quired the use of a safety net.

The trapeze in­struc­tor gives me in­struc­tions on what I will do when I’m air­borne, but it’s hap­pen­ing too fast. I have never been one to keep or­ders in or­der, es­pe­cially when those or­ders per­tain to my body and how I must move my body. I was never good at sports or dance or even know­ing my left from my right. You’re go­ing to push your legs through your arms; you’re go­ing to then hang up­side down, she said. I don’t think I can, I said.

I don’t think I can: it has been a mantra that cir­cles me, re­lent­less in its ur­gency, a mad bird div­ing and spi­ral­ing to its end. I don’t think I can. My list of re­grets. My guilts. My fail­ures. My mo­ments of self-sab­o­tage. The ugly girl with the stain of it try­ing to con­quer her dreams.

Cindy Dodge, un­like me, was a girl who could, who thought she could, who eas­ily pushed her legs through her arms and hung up­side down. Cindy Dodge was a girl who had a dream and who tried and had made it, but she was, nonethe­less, a girl who died within that dream. She was a girl who had made it her life’s dream and her way of mak­ing a liv­ing by learn­ing how to make it to the top and how to fall.

I have heard that the cir­cus is time­less, of its abil­ity to trans­port one to a mes­mer­iz­ing place out­side of place, to pin down the moment un­til the moment is the only moment. Per­haps it is ow­ing to my lack of cir­cus go­ing, al­though I do not think that is the sole cause, but there is noth­ing in this world, spec­tac­u­lar or oth­er­wise, that is ca­pa­ble of stop­ping time for me. If any­thing, I have in­vented ways of ac­cel­er­at­ing its rushed path—my chil­dren, for one. I know that for them, time is oc­cur­ring as slowly as it ever will, while for me it in­creases with hor­rific in­ten­sity. Each week, I am star­tled by how the days—se­ri­ous and as­tute trapeze fly­ers, con­tort­ing them­selves and per­form­ing tricks that I can’t un­tan­gle—sweep past.

My fear of heights is nau­se­at­ing, pin­prick in­duc­ing, ver­tig­i­nous; it jolts me into panic and shock. My older sis­ter likes to re­mem­ber how she once chased me and then pro­duced a knife; when I saw the knife, she

says I froze. I do not re­mem­ber it that way, but she in­sists that I froze in fear. In­stead, I re­mem­ber want­ing a way out, try­ing to find that way out.

Cindy Dodge had a dream and had lived, how­ever briefly, within that dream. She had been the great­est of the great. De­spite not be­ing cir­cus roy­alty, she de­fied the odds and made it to the pre­mier cir­cus by way of au­di­tion. It was a dream that de­manded that one not freeze, that one con­tin­u­ously see a way out. A trapeze artist, like a chess master, has to be able to see sev­eral moves into the fu­ture. How­ever, un­like a chess player, the trapeze artist must con­tin­u­ously act: there is no pause, no minute clock to tick­tock down the think­ing sec­onds. A bad sec­ond, a sec­ond thought, a fail­ure to ac­cu­rately and firmly grasp could mean a fall.

I have had bad sec­onds. I have had sec­ond thoughts. I have had falls. I have failed to see sev­eral moves into the fu­ture. I have not been able to grasp. I have lived my life to its staunch and strict mid­point and have met it with fear. It is a brick wall at the end of the road. I have tried to see the way out. I have had ways out but failed to get there.

I am a bit older than I was yes­ter­day; there is white in my hair. I have ar­rived at thirty-nine not as a shiny and bril­liant star, but rather as a re­al­iza­tion that what was once pos­si­ble no longer is.

I have al­ways been afraid of heights. I have had bad sec­onds. I have had sec­ond thoughts. I have had falls. I have thought about, but have not had, the self-worth or con­fi­dence or brav­ery or skill or what­ever it takes to scale the brick wall. I am be­gin­ning to re­al­ize that it might have noth­ing to do with how hard I try or how bad I want it: it has to do with who I am and the fact that there is a wall.

I have tried to find Starla. I have been want­ing to tell her about fears of mine, about how my sis­ter and I, too, once walked that dark walk down that hall­way to tell a par­ent a se­cret in­volv­ing touch. My fa­ther nod­ded and said that cer­tain man would never come over again, and that cer­tain man never did come over again, but our fear was never some­thing that was held and shook out. It closed up around us like a brick wall. My sis­ter and I lived within that dark hall­way, afraid all of our lives, afraid over and over again—afraid of the trep­i­da­tion to ask, the trep­i­da­tion to tell, the trep­i­da­tion to act at all.

When I freeze, I’m re­ally look­ing for a way out.

I have searched for her on the in­ter­net, on so­cial me­dia. I have var­ied her name. I have en­tered merely the small­est bits of in­for­ma­tion and then the city we grew up in. I have en­tered the names of her half brother and half sis­ter. I have put in the names of her mother and step­fa­ther. I have asked old el­e­men­tary-school friends if they know any­thing about her. She had once been blazing and bright. I need to know if life thought enough to sweep her up and de­liver her some­where.

Cindy Dodge was twenty-three when she fell from her glo­ri­ous height. When I read the ar­ti­cles on her fall and coma and death, I kept think­ing that she had been some­one’s daugh­ter. I imag­ined that her fa­ther and mother had a ter­ri­ble ache when mak­ing the de­ci­sion to take her off life sup­port. She had once been a lit­tle girl. On the blog I found, her mother com­mented how her daugh­ter loved to sing and dance and per­form as a child, and how she couldn’t believe it had been three decades since that ir­rev­o­ca­ble fall.

I do not know what drives some­one to want to risk life for art, but I have of­ten felt that I have given my life to art. It is a life that has, I feel, fallen short, and my re­la­tion­ship to my art is, for the most part, one-sided. That is, I give so much more than I feel I am given; that is, I feel that I would like to give more, but my life has not found me a way out of its toils and en­cum­brances. But I have seen oth­ers soar to great heights: I have seen them write spec­tac­u­lar books, I have lived within their amaze­ment and awe, I have seen the glory of their prizes. And I go on. And no mat­ter what it is I do, I re­main the oh-no-not-her-she’s-ugly girl. Never the one shining bright; al­ways the one to make the bright one brighter by way of my dull­ness.

With a ré­sumé bulked with so many al­most-but-not-quites, be­ing not good enough is a lot in life that I have grown ac­cus­tomed to, but one that nev­er­the­less pains me. To have trained for the cir­cus your whole life and not make it. To be com­pe­tent nonethe­less at the tricks of the trade but not wor­thy of the big top. For spec­ta­cle to ex­ist, af­ter all, some­one has to fail. That is, dan­ger must be more than ab­strac­tion. Some­one has to fall.

Or, should I re­al­ize that the spec­ta­cle is the fall?

To dis­ap­pear, to burn out, to re­main tucked away and hid­den within that dust cloud.

Would you have done so any­how, if you knew that it would mean an un­timely and tragic death?

My chil­dren of­ten ask me if we can go to the cir­cus, and I prom­ise them that, yes, if the cir­cus comes to town, I will take them. I tell them that their own mother has never gone and has al­ways wanted to go to the cir­cus, so, yes, the cir­cus. The cir­cus—not­with­stand­ing the fact that it re­mains, for me, solely some­thing to be seen—has an enor­mous grip on me. De­spite my en­thu­si­asm, how­ever, I am feel­ing much like my par­ents these days: just as there was for them, there is now for me the in­abil­ity to pay, the re­luc­tance to, and the thought that the money is best spent on things that will help us sur­vive.

I wish I could give my chil­dren spec­ta­cle; I wish I could give, how­ever kitschy or com­mer­cial, the won­ders and mar­vels of the world. I wish them to grow up un­scathed, happy that they gave them­selves to what­ever they found them­selves in love with. And I hope they suc­ceed and are good at it. I wish them a life full of self-love, self-worth, and con­fi­dence. I want to spare them the pain of the al­most, of the sec­ond thought and its sub­se­quent fall.

In trapeze class, I was told to think of an imag­i­nary hole into which I would fall. When the line per­son said hop, that would sig­nal when I should go into that hole. I was called a flyer: it was my sig­nal to start climb­ing to the top.

The climb to the top is twenty-three feet up. To climb the lad­der to the top is in it­self an al­most im­pos­si­ble feat.

The first swing out is the worst, but it is not as bad as the let­ting go. That is, there’s a point be­fore the hop when you let go of the world as you know it. You have ten toes perched off the edge of the fly­ing trapeze board. You straighten your­self stiff and lean your hips out. You have your left hand clutched tight around a metal lat­tice. You clench the trapeze pole with the other. The board per­son tells me to let go and grab the pole with my left hand. I can’t. I can’t do this, I say. You can, she says. So I did. And there I was, lean­ing out into the void, on the precipice of my fall. And then the line per­son said hop. So I did. The first swing is the worst but not as bad as the let­ting go.

I did not think I could climb such a tall lad­der, over two sto­ries high. It helps if you just fo­cus on one thing, I was told. So I fo­cused on the il­lu­sory na­ture of it all. I could do this only if I could do it as if in a dream.

For me, there was no rush or thrill or brav­ery about it: I ap­proached fly­ing trapeze class the same way I ap­proached giv­ing birth. That is, as a joy­ous event that I had been plan­ning and wait­ing for, but an event that nonethe­less would be painful, ter­ri­fy­ing, anx­i­ety-rid­den, and hard-won. I counted down the min­utes to the end of class. When it was my turn to climb to the plat­form again, I scaled the lad­der as if my life de­pended on it. This was not some­thing I was born to do; this was not some­thing I would ever be good at. I was and, de­spite my many turns on the fly­ing trapeze, would al­ways re­main afraid.

The show went on de­spite Cindy’s fall. The last show of the sea­son was on De­cem­ber 2, 1984, at the Nas­sau Coli­seum in East Meadow, New York. Ap­par­ently, Cindy did not like her per­for­mance and wanted to right it; ap­par­ently, that is why she was prac­tic­ing be­tween shows. Wit­nesses say she ap­peared to have lost her grip, and that is why she plunged nine­teen feet, land­ing her head on one of the metal cir­cus rings. First, there was the crit­i­cal con­di­tion. Then there was some re­spon­sive­ness and there­fore hope. Then the buildup of fluid on the brain sent her into a coma. The pres­sure had to be re­lieved with surgery. She did not re­gain con­scious­ness af­ter the fall. She went into a deeper coma. Scans showed a flat line. Scans showed a flat line again. A de­ci­sion had been made to take her off her res­pi­ra­tor. Her or­gans had been har­vested. Her par­ents were at her bed­side. Her par­ents had taken their time in mak­ing that de­ci­sion. Cindy was only twenty-three, and she had suf­fered a great fall. She died on a Mon­day night, De­cem­ber 10, 1984.

I do not know why I wanted a go at the fly­ing trapeze: I al­ready knew I would fall.

That is how I once thought this es­say would end, but up there, swing­ing at a ter­ri­fy­ing height, fac­ing not so much the ter­ror of fall­ing and heights but the worst that the world has re­cently given me, the safety lines did not ex­ist nor did the safety net. Safety be­came an ab­strac­tion. Time also stopped. My past and fu­ture also be­came ab­strac­tions; I could only see the one sore spot. Time, in­deed, does stop in that—if you are, like me, ter­ri­fied—you be­gin to believe that the ter­ror will never end. I went into this think­ing that I would fall. I have al­ways been the weak­ling, the un­der­ling, the one who could not throw far or hold on. I did

not know that fall­ing would be what I re­ally wanted. I craved the ground and its base­ness, the shame and ob­scu­rity of it. I did not have it in me to con­quer any­thing. I wished to be hid­den, the black star, to fiz­zle out, to sim­ply dis­ap­pear and fade from it all.

Ap­par­ently, the trapeze is tra­di­tion­ally the last act of a cir­cus; I wouldn’t know, I’ve never been.

But I have been in a room that I made into brick walls. I have let the water run in the shower un­til the world was noth­ing at all, un­til the voices of my chil­dren could not even call. I have clung to the means to an end and thought that, rather than be­ing im­per­fect and un­able, it would be bet­ter to not even be at all. I could only see the one sore spot. But I could not face that swing be­cause I could not let go, I could not do what I needed to do when the line per­son said hop. I failed even to fall. I did not have it in me to con­quer any­thing, but I wished sin­cerely to be hid­den, the black star, to fiz­zle out, to sim­ply dis­ap­pear and fade from it all.

The Rin­gling Bros. and Bar­num & Bai­ley Cir­cus pro­claims that it is The Great­est Show on Earth, and I have thought about that procla­ma­tion and its ve­rac­ity. It is a procla­ma­tion that rings dif­fer­ently for me, some­one who has never gone to the cir­cus, than other jin­gles or slo­gans. Mostly, I put no faith in any­thing; I do not believe that any com­mer­cial prod­uct can save me. Mostly, I pro­fess what my fa­ther taught me: that is, I rec­og­nize fully that any­one sell­ing any­thing only wants my money. I put much thought into whether or not this cir­cus in­deed could be The Great­est Show on Earth. It is a sweep­ing judg­ment, full of surety and amaze­ment. Surely, if you go, you aren’t merely buy­ing spec­ta­cle. Surely, if you go, you must be buy­ing the great­est won­ders that your eyes can be­hold.

“May All Your Days Be Cir­cus Days” is an­other one of Rin­gling Bros. and Bar­num & Bai­ley Cir­cus’s slo­gans. It is the last mes­sage, the take­away of one’s time at the cir­cus. It is a wish, a puff of dan­de­lion, as ephemeral as a show it­self. The life span of this wish is but a small wisp. It is the very stuff of magic and child­hood: it is full of fal­sity, im­prac­ti­cal­ity, and it is, af­ter all, an im­pos­si­ble at­tain­ment. But like “The Great­est Show on Earth,” I have spent much time think­ing about what “May All Your Days Be Cir­cus Days” might mean. Al­though I never did go to the cir­cus, I hunted down a copy of the pro­gram from 1985, the one that Starla had at­tended, the year in which The Liv­ing Uni­corn had per­formed. At the end of this pro­gram is that haunt­ing wish that all of our days might be cir­cus days; it is a wish ac­com­pa­nied by a pho­to­graph of The Liv­ing Uni­corn

him­self, sport­ing a col­lar of white and pink rosettes. To the side are two child ac­ro­bats with the blon­d­est-of-blonde hair and bluest-of-blue eyes, a re­minder to my child self that I am not bright and beau­ti­ful, but bor­ing and brown. The golden horn of the uni­corn daz­zles, its fur shim­mers, and the se­quins and gems on the child ac­ro­bats’ cloth­ing sparkle. They are all—child­hood, won­der, en­chant­ment, grandeur, and awe—cast in a rosy glow. To me, it is a melan­choly set­ting, a most nos­tal­gic scene: chil­dren, 1985, The Liv­ing Uni­corn, an out­dated sen­ti­ment. For me, this page in the pro­gram, ap­pro­pri­ately at the end, con­veys only end­ings: that we all die, that we never stop grow­ing older, that dreams are some­thing stuffed into child­hood and aban­doned there, that all liv­ing passes into the dis­junc­tive land of the cu­rio, me­mento, ar­ti­fact.

“May All Your Days Be Cir­cus Days”: I have at­tempted to cap­ture and pin down ex­actly what this phrase is meant to con­vey. I think it could mean one of two things: It could mean that all our days should be full of won­der and awe, that is, we should be per­cep­tive spec­ta­tors and en­joy a show that is, at its core, meant to in­still mag­nif­i­cence. Or, it could mean that all our days should be full of per­form­ing, that is, we should live as the play­ers in the great­est show, be the spec­ta­cle that wows and awes.

But I have lately come upon a third mean­ing, one that I ac­qui­esce to, one that un­set­tles and does not glow. It may be fa­tal­is­tic, but it is, for me, one that most fully solves the ques­tion: for those who fail de­spite how hard they try, the mes­sage must mean “may all of your days be full of things that you just can’t quite grasp, that send you to your in­evitable fall.”

Ad­den­dum: Last sum­mer, my daugh­ter, see­ing my cir­cus re­search all about the house, asked if we could go to the cir­cus. Yes, I said. Next time the cir­cus comes to town, we will def­i­nitely go. I told her that I had yet to go to the cir­cus, and I would love it if we could share that to­gether. The cir­cus was com­ing to town next June. But then, Rin­gling Bros. and Bar­num & Bai­ley Cir­cus an­nounced that they were pulling down the big top for good in May. They claimed that with­out ele­phants, their ticket sales had dropped. Ap­par­ently, an­i­mal rights groups de­manded that the cir­cus re­move ele­phants from their show. With­out the ele­phants, it seemed, the show could not go on. Of course, it sad­dened me to know that I would never see this show, but I felt com­forted in know­ing that the ele­phants and other an­i­mals would en­joy the free­doms of re­tire­ment. The an­nounce­ment helped me see the bright pin­point of so much of life: that spec­ta­cle is cru­elty and cru­elty is spec­ta­cle.

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