Circus

Fiction

As soon as I saw him leaning up against the tent’s support wires, his shoulders hunched to keep the rain out of his collar, I knew he’d be the photograph that would make the cover that month. I had ducked out of the tent during the trapeze show because my camera couldn’t catch the Kravitz sisters at the speed they flew across the ring. The day was dissolving and I wanted to try to capture the red and gold striped tent as the fog slinked onto the muddy circus grounds.

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When I noticed Jimmy, he was smoking a limp, hand-rolled cigarette. He held it tight up to his lips as he sucked what was left of it into his small chest. His other hand clenched a fistful of tired paper flowers. He wore an old bowler hat and a tuxedo that was a throwback to the vaudeville style, with tattered black tails and a slice of red silk peeking out of his breast pocket. He shifted his weight from side to side, making loud sucking noises as he lifted his feet from the mud. The thick white paint on his face was beginning to run down the lines in his cheeks.

He took a last drag before he tossed the remains of his cigarette into a puddle and lifted a flap, slipping back into the tent to a surge of applause.

When I was young, my father would take me to the circus at my mother’s insistence that we spend quality father-son time together. I would hold his hand so tightly that I left little purple moons in his palms where I had dug my fingernails. He told me how the clowns lived for hundreds of years in tunnels under the earth until their teeth rotted out of their heads. I would wake up in the middle of the night for weeks after, haunted by laughing clowns grabbing at my ankles. But as I watched Jimmy through the camera lens, I felt foolish that I ever believed those stories. He looked small and exposed trying to shelter himself from the rain.

He didn’t see me as I moved out from under the canopy, crouching to get a better angle and widening the aperture to let in the dying light. I moved closer and lifted the camera up to my face. I looked through the lens and saw him stiffen as he became aware that I was standing there, although he didn’t acknowledge my presence. I quickly focused the lens so I could capture his sad face before he moved away. I’m not sure whether he knew I was taking his picture but slowly his shoulders inched back up to a hunch again, long enough for me to snap the photograph. He took a last drag before he tossed the remains of his cigarette into a puddle and lifted a flap, slipping back into the tent to a surge of applause.

—Good Luck! I heard a voice holler as I left the circus grounds that evening. When I turned around I was surprised to see him standing there with his hands wedged in his pockets, smiling.

—Sorry?

—The pictures, hope they turn out right. He waved his hand around his head to indicate the weather and then held it out to shake mine. —Name’s Jimmy.

The photograph did make the cover that month. He was so small that he barely stood taller than the spike holding the tent’s support wires in the mud. He looked vaguely in the direction of the camera with empty eyes, his hand lifting the cigarette toward his mouth as if he were signalling to the sprawling wasteland of caravans, hay bails and dung piles beyond him.

Not long after the photograph was published, I was promoted and sent to work out of the magazine’s head office in Toronto. I packed my things and drove the hour and a half around to the north side of the lake and into the city. I began shooting different kinds of projects after that, galas for charities and staged cultural events downtown. Once in a while I would get a feature somewhere exotic like the deserts in the Middle East or the mountains in South America. I read in the newspaper that the circus had continued travelling west out to the prairies before it headed south into the United States for the winter.

I sent a letter to Jimmy courtesy of the chief of police in a small town outside of Winnipeg that I knew they would be passing through, as that was the only way to get in touch with a travelling circus at the time. I told the chief it was urgent, although it wasn’t, so that the letter would be delivered. My phone rang a few weeks later.

—We got a couple copies of the magazine, he told me, even though I hadn’t asked.

—What did you think? I hadn’t expected they would have got a hold of it so quickly.

—Thomasina really liked it.

—Who?

—She rides the elephants.

His voice began to crackle through the phone line. I pressed the receiver tighter to my ear when the connection started to fade.

We spoke a few more times throughout the winter and into the spring, when the circus was set to come back to play for a few nights on some farmland northwest of the city. I wouldn’t be there to visit with them, I told him one Sunday afternoon.

I was scheduled to shoot an assignment overseas. I didn’t hear from him after that.


Two years later, I received a photo in the mail from Jimmy. It was a portrait of a woman named Natasha, who had been one of the ying trapeze sisters, holding an unnamed baby. I flipped the photograph over. The beautiful woman I married this summer was scrawled on the back. Natasha held the baby close in her pale arms, her faded copper curls spilling over her shoulders. Natasha wasn’t as small as he was but she certainly was a very small woman. Her round nose looked like a tulip bulb planted in the middle of her face. The picture had been snapped either just before or after she had smiled fully and the result was a slightly stunned expression. The baby was red-faced and happy and looked as though he was barely the size of half a loaf of bread.

It wasn’t long after that the magazine decided to publish a retrospective of photographs and the shot of Jimmy had been selected for it. They sent out newly developed prints to the photographers who had taken them. When I got mine in the mail, I repackaged it to send to Jimmy and Natasha thinking they might like it. I thought maybe they could hang it in their caravan or post it by the dressing trailers. I thought maybe he’d want it. I looked up their touring schedule and mailed it.

A few months later I got it back with return to sender stamped across the front of the envelope.


My kitchen doubled as a developing room. One afternoon, I was printing contact sheets when the phone rang.

It had been almost four years since I heard his voice, but I knew it was Jimmy. He was outside a highway diner along the I-90 somewhere in the midwest and thought he’d give me a call. His voice, barely audible, sounded like static scratching through the phone line. Once a year, he explained between bouts of deep dry coughing, he only got sick once a year.

—How is Natasha?

—Wonderful, he replied. How about you? There anyone? —Oh no, you know I don’t have time for that.

—Busy, busy, he chuckled into the phone.

—How’s the little guy?

—Great, Jimmy replied. —He’s just like me, I think you’d like him. He started to laugh, which quickly turned to coughing.

I read that the circus had come through Toronto the summer following our last phone call in the newspaper one morning.

I remembered the photograph I sent him that was returned in the mail. I had it packed in a box somewhere. I told him how I had mailed it and that it was sent back to me.

—Do you want me to try to send it again?

He paused for a moment.

—You remember, I said, filling the unexpected silence.

But he knew exactly.

—Why would I want that? He replied earnestly, as if he thought my asking was an oversight, an odd question I hadn’t thought through before asking.

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—I thought, I started, but was interrupted by the loud sound of a horn through the phone line.

—I have to get going, he said tiredly.

After we got off the phone, I went looking for the photograph and when I found it amongst a number of old prints, I hung it up over the old orange couch I had squeezed into the living space between the kitchen and the bathroom. It was the only thing I hung on the walls of that apartment the three years I lived in it.

I read that the circus had come through Toronto the summer following our last phone call in the newspaper one morning. It was then transferring permanently down to the tour circuit in the southern United States. Waning popularity and the rise of film theatres were quickly devouring what market there was left for the circus, claimed the article.


When I moved a couple years later, I couldn’t find the photograph of Jimmy anywhere after I unpacked. I even went back and asked the old man who had moved into my apartment if I had somehow left it hanging on the wall. It was not there.

She was a beautiful girl who must have known, as she kept it muzzled behind a pair of oversized glasses, her hair pulled tight behind her neck.

I considered digging up the old negative and reprinting it. I gave up looking for it though when I had dug through two large boxes of unsorted film. In the bottom of the second box, however, I did find two prints that I had taken somewhere off the Karakoram highway just after I had been promoted to Toronto all those years ago.

I had taken them just as the sun was coming up over a wind-broken valley in the east. Two farmers, a father and son, were guiding several goats across a shallow stream. The father held a long, hand-carved staff loosely with two fingers, pointing in the direction of where they were walking, while the son balanced himself on a sharp outcrop of rock, ready to jump to the next to avoid getting his feet wet. I snapped it as they made their way further into the valley, their backs to the camera. In the second photograph, I had caught up to them and asked if they would pose for me. Both were smiling at the camera with glassy eyes, the father’s toothless grin spread across half of the frame.

I put a couple of nails in the wall above the couch and hung them there instead.

I called the operator to ask for the circus listings in the southern United States, but when she told me she only had about half of the twenty or so travelling circuses listed, I told her to never mind and hung up the phone.

The phone rang. On the other end was an intern at the magazine who was looking to write an article on my work. I agreed to meet her at a café on Bloor Street that had a sunny patio that ran along its exterior.

The morning we decided to meet it was raining, so I ordered a coffee and took a table against the window inside.

I watched her arrive, clutching an oversized book bag, frazzled that she was late. She apologized profusely as she unpacked her tape recorder and tore the shrink wrap off a new notebook. She was a beautiful girl who must have known, as she kept it muzzled behind a pair of oversized glasses, her hair pulled tight behind her neck. She regained herself and almost immediately began her line of questions. When she wasn’t writing her notebook she chewed the end of her pen, pushing her lower lip against her teeth with the cap. She was very attentive, nodding faithfully at my answers, always conscious of keeping my eyes. She pushed her sleeves up her forearms and crossed them on the table, leaning toward me. Her confidence was disarming and I felt my face grow hot as I leaned in closer to her.

She removed her glasses and asked me what my favourite was of all the photographs I had ever taken.

—Jimmy, I answered.

—Is that the little clown? She responded immediately.

I smiled, surprised she understood what I meant. I asked her how she knew that was his name.

—I figured because it’s so well known, she shrugged, happily scribbling in her notebook.

Once she had got through her list of questions, she promised to send me a copy of the article and reached across the table to shake my hand. Her fingers were so slender I feared I’d crush them, but she slipped her hand back into her jacket pocket so quickly, tucking her chair in with the other, that I didn’t manage to harm her. I wondered for a moment what she might smell like.

—Wait, I said as she went to leave.

She pulled the tie out of her hair and a shock of red curls unfolded across her shoulders as she turned to face me. She cradled her book bag in her arms like a child.

—So, you’ll give me a call when it goes to print? I stood there awkwardly for what felt like forever.

—Yeah, sure, she said after a moment. Her smile was tight as she raised her eyebrows quickly and then turned to leave.

I watched her smooth her shirt over her hips as she pushed open the door of the café and walked up the street in the same direction in which she had come. She held a section of newspaper over her head to shelter herself from the rain as she skipped over puddles on the sidewalk. She moved further away and up the street until she met a man who was holding an umbrella. She wrapped her arms around him, kissed his mouth and then pressed her cheek into his chest.

I watched them as they stood there for a long time, both of their faces hidden by his umbrella, not letting go.


Anthony De Sa read this piece in manuscript, helping develop it for TOK.
View Marnie Van Dyk’s author profile.
TopArt by Gilbert Li and Lauren Wickware