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A One Ring Circus

Circus Barlay

“You’re not joking, are you? Please don’t be joking.”

“Not at all. They put up the tent yesterday afternoon. There are animals in a corral by the lake. I think I saw goats. There’s a show tomorrow at 2.”

“Can we go can we please can we please I REALLY want to go can we go please?! PLEASE?”

My enthusiasm for this event was far out of scale to the actual event itself, but I had wanted for years to go to one of these small town traveling circuses that ply the country towns of Austria as the weather gets better. It’s not that I am a great aficionado of the circus, or acrobatics, or prestidigitation, but there’s something weirdly out of time and magical about the idea of a single ring traveling circus. Events had transpired to keep us from attending in the past, but this time, the circus tent was across the meadow from us. It was a five minute walk to the trailers and temporary animal pens and the big yellow and red tent with the ticket trailer out in front, a length of plastic white picket fence preventing over eager locals from crashing the gate.

At 1:15, there was no line. The box office was not open yet. A woman in a white house coat peeked out from an awning and said that yes, they’d be open soon and yes, there were tickets and yes, we should come back, so we went to have coffee on the patio, lakeside, while I continued to act ridiculous. “Are they open NOW? What if there are no seats left?! What if we can’t see?!”

“More likely that we’re the only ones there. Audience of two.”

That did not happen. We paid too much for the best seats — ring side — and entered the tent, which was dark blue and painted with white stars on the inside. There were five rows of seats, maybe seven. The place was about half full, 75 people, if that. All the other adults in attendance had small children with them. The woman we’d seen earlier was spinning cotton candy, selling soda and popcorn. It was too hot inside, stuffy, and the lights were too bright. I vibrated at about the same frequency as dozens of of six to twelve year old kids and when the lights went down, little ones scrambled into the empty ringside seats, followed by their chaperones. The little guy next to me put his hand on my leg as he leaned forward on to the edge of the ring.

Doves

I want to say that the acts were hokey, but truthfully, I was delighted by everything, by the trained doves and the fire eating and the guy who balanced a dinner party’s worth of chairs on his face and the family of acrobats who lifted their little boy into the air — he can’t have been more than four — and the clown who picked my husband out of the crowd for attention not once, but twice. The husband indulged with perfect good nature, and the little crowd laughed and applauded and the kids squealed and I could not have been more amused and enchanted.

It was not very good, but I didn’t care. I could see the braiding pulling away from the seams on the showy jackets. I could see the mirrors inside the magic boxes that held a rabbit or a dove. I could see that the acrobat was injured, maybe he’d hurt his hand before and between stunts he disappeared and returned with that hand wrapped in white tape. When the guys throwing the rings missed and caught the younger woman just alongside her cheekbone, I could see the annoyance on her face, and then, see her refocus on the task at hand. The ringmaster looked serious and a little bored. The sound was muddy and my German rusty, so I could not understand everything, but it was not necessary, the circus doesn’t require a phrase book.

During the intermission, the circus matriarch returned her white house coat over her sequined velvet and started up the cotton candy machine again. I looked inside the truck trailers to see bags of hay and a sign with the circus name spelled out in light bulbs, not deployed for these weekend day time shows. Then we shuffled back into the hot tent and watched more balancing and more magic and, oddly, rope tricks with Cotton Eyed Joe playing too loud as the sound track as though we had been lifted from this Alpine folly to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

I believed all of it.

I had wanted very much to talk to the circus family, to find out where they were from and where they were going next and had they always been of the circus and was that one guy actually an Olympic hopeful once and I was burning with questions. But when the house lights came up and we filed out, the ringmaster had shed his jacket with the rope braided trim and was now in work gloves and overalls, pulling stakes from the ground the moment the last person left the tent. I did not want to interrupt, it was clear there was work to be done and they were on a tight schedule, they wanted to pack up and get out.

When drove past the little gravel parking lot the next day, there was nothing there at all.

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4 Responses to “A One Ring Circus”

  1. I have been lucky enough to see both the Big John Strong Circus and Circus Vargas.

    Big John’s seems to have folded when John himself passed on in 1992 but Circus Vargas is still going strong, albeit under different management.

    there’s something about being under a top instead if in some arena that adds to the magic.

  2. Kathryn says:

    It sounds like a hard, unglamorous life for them, like they were going through the motions. If they knew how you and the children were enjoying it perhaps they could have shown a little more enthusiasm.Wonderful description of your experience. Loved it!

    • Pam Mandel says:

      I didn’t feel like they were phoning it it. I felt like it was hard, and they were tired. The kids were DELIGHTED, no question, as was I (probably for different reasons) but also, I have a tendency to look a little too closely. I’m going to go out on a limb and say the little guy next to me leaning forward into the ring in excitement did not catch the look of annoyance or lack of excitement or many other things.

  3. I’ve been lucky enough to see quite a few big top circuses as a child and I have great memories of them. Now as an adult, like you, I look too closely. I wish I could have regain that childhood innocence one more time.

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