“What’s it take to join the circus?” my father asked.
A gang of workers were putting up a tent,
Big hammers ringing on the pegs in rhythm.
“I’m thinking that I’d like to join up with you guys.”
This was ’45 or there about I’d guess
When the circus used to come to town each year.
My father was just a boy then, eight or nine.
Their train would rumble past his house on Guilford Road.
“Well, to join the circus,” one offered, “you gotta be brave.”
He leaned on his hammer, mopped his brow with his shirt.
“Are you brave, Kid?” he asked, appraising my father,
Who, conscious of the chuckling men, answered, “I’m brave.”
“Enough to stick your head up in an elephant’s mouth?”
The workers gathered, happy for a break.
“I ain’t afraid,” he said, a bit less certain.
“Well, come on then—I know just the elephant!”
The animal was penned up in a tent nearby.
Pulling back the flap, the man said, “You’re sure?”
“I’m sure,” my father said, not sure at all,
Not when he saw it stamp its mud-splattered feet.
Held by his knees, my father was raised up to its mouth,
And he did it—stuck his head inside—
To the delight of all the roaring men.
Then eyes shut tight, pulled free, his bravery made clear.
Whatever my father felt inside that creature’s mouth
I’ll never know. I’ve looked at elephants
Chewing grass or slack-jawed in repose
And wondered: Is it hot in there? Do they have teeth?
“My eyes were closed,” my father says, “I can’t remember.”
I try to place myself within that tent.
“You weren’t even thought of then!” he laughs.
“I was a different person. So much has happened since.”
He thinks they told him that he should come back when he was older,
That he was Grade A circus material,
And gave him passes to the show that night,
Which must have been at least a little disappointing.
How does a kid go back to St. Cyril’s after that?
Desks of unworldly children blotting ink,
A sister with her yardstick in the aisle,
The wide blackboard that seemed to bar the way to fun.
Within a few brief days, the tents were all brought down,
And then the neighborhood was taken back
By normal people and their normal tasks;
No snake-skinned man walked to the corner store for smokes.
One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do
Was to let go of my belief—long held—
That I was set apart for something special,
Blessed by distinction like a high-wire trapeze artist.
And, to be honest, I’m not sure I have let go:
The illustrated woman haunts my nights
With promises of some lost and unclaimed life.
I have to will myself to go to work each day.
But sometime in his twenties, my father married my mother.
He sold his red hot rod convertible,
And then acquired a mortgage and raised five boys.
For thirty some odd years, he worked for the school district.
Today my father lives just blocks from Guilford Road.
No tent has gone up in the field for decades.
The tracks for the train aren’t even there these days.
And he hardly can remember that elephant at all.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 4, on page 41
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com