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Terry Tierney / Fiction

Joining the Circus

Debby wants to join the circus. She tells me in a dreamy way, lying on her side facing me, her eyes closed and a wet trail of drool on the corner of her mouth. She looks angelic, but I know she's drunk, talking impossible futures like drunks always do.
"The strong man has huge tattoos," she says, "and a shiny bald head."
"Like a bowling ball," I smile, "with tiny round eyes and a round mouth." I point my thumb and fingers at her to show how I would grip his head and roll it for a strike, but I lose my balance and lurch sideways, nearly falling off the bed.
Debby laughs and props herself up on her elbow to fire a cigarette. "He says he can get me a job selling concessions or feeding the animals," she continues. "Just the tame ones I told him, but he says I wouldn't have to work if I didn't want to." She exhales through her nose and adds, "But I want to learn the trapeze. Or maybe ride the horses." She tosses back her hair like a shampoo model.
"You're pretty enough," I tell her, imagining her with pancake makeup under the bright lights. "But why do you want to leave Binghamton?"
At that, we both laugh until we end up coughing. Anyone who stays in Binghamton is either looney or drunk. Bad jobs and worse weather. Outside the rain is blowing and beating an irregular rhythm above our heads, accenting our conversation like it does everything here, and now that I think about it, I expected the rain to start when Debby and I made love no matter how drunk we were. The dampness gives us an excuse to cuddle closer.
As she drifts off to sleep, she says, "I'm glad I met you tonight, Curt. You're a real dreamer. Wanting to learn computers." She nuzzles my chest hair while I stroke her curls. "You're so tough looking."
"Thanks, but I'm not that tough," I reply as she starts to fall asleep, her breathing deep and regular. I remember how I caught her eye across the dance floor at Pearl's. She was slow dancing with her boyfriend, actually holding him up because he could hardly stand up by himself, and she gave me one of those pleading looks, as if to say, "Get me away from this loser." Then after the house band took a break I saw him stagger out the door with a couple of other drunks, and I waited until the music started again to ask her to dance.
Before long she said, "My boyfriend will kill us both if he comes back in here and sees me dancing with you." I laughed because he was probably passed out by then, but I could tell she was afraid of him. So I walked her out to my car and we ended up at my place.
Watching her sleep, I trace the line of her backbone with my hand. She quivers, as if she feels a mosquito, and then she starts to snore. She has a hard life. I can see it in the crow feet around her eyes, but she looks younger now when she's asleep. I smile at the thought of Debby with her wild, curly hair riding a white stallion as I lead him prancing around the ring. She looks great, standing up there on his bare back, and I can tell by her dark eyes that she thinks the same of me. I can hear the crowd cheering us on.
The next day I go down to the Park Diner where Debby works lunches on weekends, planning to ask her out to dinner. Just after she brings me a burger and onion rings her boyfriend swings into the dining room like he is looking for her. He's in about the same shape he was last night. When he sees her go into the kitchen he screams, "Debby, you whore, come back here!" He chases her into the back and I can hear him yelling at her. Everyone stops eating and stares at the stainless steel door. I stand up, thinking she's probably catching it because of me, but then she comes striding out of the kitchen with a tray of food like nothing happened. He stays in the back, still cussing but not as loudly. She sees me standing by my booth and walks over. "Sit down," she whispers.
"Can I help you?"
"You can help me by staying out of it."
Then she rushes away to deliver her orders and laughs for the benefit of the customers. Then she comes back to my booth. "My brother Daryl is back there," she confides. "He's the cook. He and the manager will make sure Mark never comes in here again."
"That's good," I whisper. "He has no right to talk to you like that."
"He doesn't know what he's saying. He's drunk," she explains, adding, "but I'm sick of it. This is the last time he will ever do this to me. My brother will see to that."
"I'm sorry I caused you trouble."
She looks at me, surprised. "It's not your fault," she says. "He wants me to marry him." I stare at her in disbelief and she says, "I have to go. I'll get fired if anything else happens."
"I was going to ask you out to dinner," I smile. "Some place nice like Morey's."
"Thanks, but I don't feel very hungry." She stands up and lowers her voice so I can barely hear her. "Call me later."
That night I pick her up at her brother's apartment where she rents a room, and we go back to my place with a couple of six packs. I repeat my desire to buy her dinner, but I figure she doesn't want to go out in public because of Mark. So I tell her I have been thinking about joining the circus, too. "Let's run away together," I suggest grandly. We both chuckle as I get up to retrieve a couple of beers from the kitchen.
"The circus left town already," she informs me when I get back. "The strong man gave me the address for their winter quarters. They go there in October after their tour."
"The bowling tour?" I say with a smile, but she doesn't seem to hear me.
"I have no desire to go to Florida. Besides, my brother and me are thinking about starting a catering business. He and Mark are great cooks, and I could serve for parties." At the mention of Mark, I start to say something, but she waves me off. "You could join us. You could do the books."
"And Mark wouldn't mind if I snuggled you in the back."
"None of that, now," she says seriously, sounding like we're already working together. "You said you wanted to learn computers."
I take a deep swallow. "Maybe I'll start computer school at night. I'm tired of driving a forklift. My old boss wanted to make me a timekeeper, but he quit and now the new foreman keeps all the records on his computer. That asshole hardly does any work, and you never see him lifting a hand to help us. The plant manager loves him."
"You're such a dreamer," she says, running her hands behind my ears and pulling my face down for a kiss. Just talking about the dairy made me tense.
"Where's Mark tonight?" I ask in a whisper, as if he might be listening.
"He's out drinking at Mother's Place. My brother is with him. They wanted me to go, but I don't like being with him when he's drinking. Serves him right," she says, staring at me. She drains her beer and adds, "The Devil's got him. He has a drinking problem but he doesn't believe it. Besides, he's on parole. He needs me. But I don't know why I put up with him."
I shake my head, swearing to myself that the Devil will never get me. We crack another round before falling asleep, but talking about Mark broke our mood. I lie there thinking that if I pressed her, she might change boyfriends. She really wants a boyfriend, not a date, and she can't be that loyal to Mark with the way he treats her. I'm her safety valve. And she would stick by me because I would treat her better.
The next day is Monday but I don't feel like going to work, so I go out for a walk, slogging through the dark rain. I end up at Mother's Place, looking for Debby. She told me she works there during the week but she must have the day off. I decide to stay for a few beers, even though it's early and the only other person in the bar is a one-legged man named Artie, who hits me up for a couple of rounds. He tells me how the beer drains into his missing leg. He can feel it flow. He can drink a gallon of beer without taking a piss.
After awhile he says I should come back tomorrow night because the waitress is a real looker. I know he's talking about Debby. "She's like a daughter to me," he says, "and she'll always give a guy a drink when nobody else cares if he lives or dies." I nod my head and glance toward the door. The place is so dim I wonder if I could recognize her if she walked into the bar right now, but I would know she was there. I can still feel the imprint of her shoulder leaning against my chest.
Tuesday after work I see her at Mother's Place. With the sun shining through the windows for a change, the bar looks even dirtier than usual. Most of the men sitting on the cracked stools are career drinkers with yellow skin and broken red veins on their faces. Thin hands grip the beer glasses like life ropes and sharp elbows lean on the bar for support. "You could work in a better place than this," I say to her.
She flips her hair and smiles, but then her smile fades into a grimace. "The manager at the Park Diner fired me and my brother. My uncle owns this place." I grin at the connection, in spite of her bad news, thinking how her uncle's place is Mother's Place. She looks away and adds, "No one can fire us here."
"Too bad about your brother. He was just trying to break it up."
"The manager is an asshole. He called in a complaint against Mark, and now the cops will pick him up." Her eyes dart around the dreary bar, checking the tables. "Daryl and I have been working here since high school, and we have a good dinner crowd, great fish and chips. Some day we'll fix it up like Pearl's."
"Then we could dance," I reply, but she doesn't seem to hear me.
She says, "Mark wouldn't dare come in here after me. There's people here who would kill him if he did." I look back up at the bar and I believe her. Artie takes particular interest in our conversation even though he can't hear us. She follows my line of sight and adds, "You should see him dance on one leg. He's a real dreamer."
That night at my apartment I decide to tell her I love her and she should forget about Mark. But she seems too distant and moody. As if reading my thoughts, she says, "Mark might have gotten out of county jail today. I don't want to be home if he comes looking for me, but I should have called him. I better call him tomorrow morning."
I nod my head and suppress a burp. She kept bringing me free beer at Mother's. "I wonder where the circus is playing tonight," I reply, wanting her to think about something other than Mark.
"Not Binghamton," she answers, yawning.
"I wonder if they have record keepers in the circus. I was good at math, one of the best in my class."
"I was never good at math," she says.
"I want a better life."
"I know you do." She turns away and curls up her legs the way she likes to sleep.
"I think I'll go computer school," I continue. "I'm tired of driving a forklift."
When she doesn't answer me, I tap her shoulder. "Debby, you awake?"
"Yeah, I'm listening. The new foreman keeps all the records on his computer."
"That's not what I said."
"Sorry, Curt, I'm really tired."
In the morning we oversleep and by the time I drop her off I'm late for work. The foreman meets me at the door, and he says he's giving me three days without pay and a written warning. I tell him to keep his warning, and I quit on the spot. It's the best thing I could have done. Now I can go to computer school like I had planned.
I drive back to Debby's and we bust a six pack in her brother's kitchen. When the rain stops and the afternoon turns out warmer than usual, we decide to celebrate my freedom at Chenango State Park. She looks great in a bathing suit, especially for a woman who drinks so much beer. Her secret is to avoid eating starchy foods. I keep thinking that Mark will show up and spoil our day, but she tells me there's no chance of that. He told her they decided to send him back up to state prison where he'll be finishing off his sentence for drunken driving.
That night Debby tells me she doesn't feel right about sleeping with me while Mark is stuck in jail. "But Debby, he's such a loser," I tell her.
"You don't understand," she says into her pillow, "I knew Mark before he was a drunk."
"He's worse than a drunk," I reply, raising my voice.
"He isn't drinking now. Things will be better when he gets out." She keeps facing away, like she's afraid to look at me.
Finally I say, "I need you, too."
Her voice drops to a whisper, further muffled by the pillow. "You're such a dreamer," she says, and then she takes a deep breath and passes out. I wonder if she's just pretending to sleep.
Pushing myself out of bed, I head back to the kitchen for a beer, and I try to stay calm. The more I think about her loyalty to Mark, the less surprised I am, since she seems to think better of him the farther he is away, when she's not dealing with his problems all the time. He's not just sleeping it off across town; he's on his way up to Auburn.
Maybe she's afraid that we will see too much of each other now that he's in jail and I quit my job. I'm no longer her safety valve. I'm much more of a risk, representing a different future. So, that's it, I think to myself. By admitting I'm a risk she's also admitting how much she cares for me.
I pop another beer by the light of my refrigerator and lean against the linoleum counter. I wonder why I care so much about her anyway, and I realize I care more than I thought I did. Maybe that's the effect she wanted. By telling me she won't sleep with me, she really hopes I will admit how much I love her. I know I've been taking her for granted. She's a good woman even if she drinks too much. I was stupid not to say it sooner.
I decide not to press her too hard and let time take its course, but a week or so later I figure I've given her time enough. I stop in to see her at Mother's, and she brings me a beer on the house like she does every night. I have already become one of the regulars, still celebrating my freedom from the dairy. Artie wants to join the circus with me and start our own sideshow. Late at night he shows off the stump of his leg for beers, especially the scar on the end that looks like a tied sausage, but he thinks we could make real money in the circus. He says I can sell the tickets because I'm good with numbers, as long as he gets to be the star of the show. I tell him how I'm going to start computer school, but I haven't done anything to enroll. I have plenty of time. While we discuss our plans, beer after beer, I watch Debby pass between tables. She avoids my eyes but she brings me a fresh draft when I need it, just like everyone else.
Finally I can't stand her distance any longer. I follow her back into the kitchen where she takes a deep drink out of a beer glass she keeps by the sink. When she puts it down, I whisper, "Debby, let's get out of Binghamton. Tonight."
She looks at me and says, "You know I can't," and she starts to walk away.
"Listen to me. I love you," I insist, leaning against the walk-in cooler.
"You're just drunk."
"I'm not that drunk. We can get away from here, start a new life."
"You're such a dreamer."
"We can get married. Join the circus, anything. Go to Florida."
"Please stop it, Curt. You're not supposed to be back here."
"You're sleeping with someone else, aren't you?"
Debby freezes and she looks at me like I'm going to hit her, and I realize I'm yelling. Her brother's face appears over her shoulder, shiny with oil from the deep fryer. He knows I can take him when I'm sober, so he doesn't stand too close. Suddenly I feel woozy and I grab the door handle of the cooler to steady myself. Debby watches me warily, her expression reminding me of that Saturday afternoon at the Park Diner. The way she looked at Mark. I stammer, "I'm sorry."
Her brother reaches out for me but she pushes his hand away. "I know you don't mean any harm," she says softly. "You're just drunk." She takes a tiny step backward.
"Don't be afraid of me. That's the worst," I plead, and I feel the tears running down my cheek. First I'm embarrassed for crying, and somehow I realize I'm not crying for her. I keep thinking about Mark and the way she looked at him. The way she looked at me.
Debby looks at her brother and says, "He's all right now," and they both leave me there slumping against the cooler like an empty keg.
In a few minutes I pick myself up and return to my table. Debby walks over and slides me a draft beer on her way to check on her other customers, just like nothing happened. My throat feels sore but I don't want the beer. Besides, my hands are shaking. I couldn't lift the glass if I wanted to.
"Mind if I take a sip?" Artie says. "My leg feels empty tonight." I nod okay. I didn't even notice him approach. He grabs the beer and whispers to me, "You look like the Devil's got you."
"You don't know what you're talking about," I reply.
He gives me a funny look. "I know a drunk when I see one," he says, raising his voice so the winos at the bar can hear him. I realize they are all watching me, and they must have heard me yelling at Debby in the kitchen. I should have left out the back door. He takes a swig from the beer glass and draws courage from his buddies. "You and me might be friends, but if you ever talk to Debby like that again, you'll regret it. You mark me now."
I swipe away the finger he's waving at me, and I grip the chair like I intend to stand up. He hops away to the safety of the bar, the beer sloshing out of his glass.
Just then Debby appears at my table. "I thought we might have to call the cops for a minute there," she smiles, as if she's giving me a compliment. When I don't reply quickly enough, she adds, "Don't be mad at me. I know you're just drunk."
"I know what I'm doing. What I did. I'm sorry."
"You look mad."
"I'm not mad at you," I assure her.
She glances down at my left hand, and I realize how tightly I'm still gripping the chair next to me, like I might pick it up and throw it. I let go and say, "I meant what I said."
"You said a lot of things."
"I said I love you."
She smiles and says, "You're such a dreamer."
"I want a better life."
"I know you do."
I try to stand up and she offers her arm to help. I lean on her more heavily than I intend, and we nearly fall over. She laughs and pats me on the hand. Now everyone in Mother's Place is watching us, not just the drunks at the bar.
I straighten up and release her arm, swaying back against the chair, but I manage to keep my balance. Our eyes meet briefly, reminding me of the look we shared across the dance floor at Pearl's, but oddly distant. "Be careful walking home," she says automatically, and then she adds with a smile, "Good luck in the circus." Her voice fades as I tune my ears to the rain falling heavily outside and pelting the filmy windows.
I feel like I should say something, thank her for helping me at least, but I'm afraid I'll break down again. So I just tap her shoulder lightly, avoiding her eyes, and I head for the door one step at a time, hoping the rain will sober me up. I only have few blocks to walk home but it seems far enough.