The ape’s head snapped around, a bright orange tuft on its head blowing in the breeze. Around his muzzle, Edgar was pure silver. He was a mature boy, for sure. His eyes tired. His gaze was not one of trust or interest yet.
Edgar, slowly, lumbered to the other side of the cage toward the carrot and took it without drama or intent, just curiosity. It was as if he had not seen a carrot before. He returned to his seated position across the cage and examined the carrot. He smelled it. He rubbed it on his muzzle. Then he held it in one hand and, taking his index finger, dug a fingernail into it and dragged it across the fruit. He smelled the finger. Tasted it. Then, he looked up at Nigel. The animal’s pupils seemed to dilate and he reared back.
Instantly, Nigel knew what was coming and could do nothing about it. He got his arm out of the cage and took one step back as the carrot came flying through the bars and struck him squarely between his glasses.
Nigel scrambled to adjust his glasses.
Dr. Baas had not moved. His short stature leaned against the caravan with an amazing smirk on his face, “Try again”.
Nigel’s head was ringing a bit. Carrots were hard. He looked about and found the projectile on the ground and repeated the process. The orangutan again took the carrot and returned to his resting place, this time taking no real interest or examination at all.
Nigel was ready this time. The orangutan whipped his arm about and threw the carrot. Nigel deftly ducked, like a pugilist, as the vegetable flew over his head, lost in the weeds. Nigel popped up and taunted the ape.
His glee was short lived as the ape charged him, grabbing the bars with hands and feet. It screamed a howl that could be carried through the fog. Rage filled the ape’s eyes as one arm reached through the bars trying to grasp Nigel to no avail. He stayed just inches from the orangutan’s maximum reach. Nigel postured his bodied standing with confidence and looked over at Dr. Baas.
“Ya, you are going to be stupendous at this….Lesson over!”
The Doctor stood up and retreated, with the remaining carrots, into his caravan.
Nigel made a snarling growl at Edgar who mimicked the face back. He walked off thinking how proud he had stood his ground, but wondering if he would be invited back for lesson two.
The week passed almost exactly as his first week on the job. Lots of different tasks assigned by the Major. Nigel cleaned. He washed and fed the animals. He walked horses and started to work himself into the culture by attempting to make friends with people. It was ironic that a place, which was so engaging and entertaining to the public, was far less happy and entertaining as the persona the carnival portrayed.
Evenings came as the midway and its rides lit up the carousel, the giant turning swings and the small rollercoaster. All lit with a glow which, at night, gave them allure. In the daylight, they were simply, gigantic greasy piles of junk.
Troupe suppers were taken early in the afternoon in the beer garden when the Carnival was still closed. The food was mediocre at best. Lots of soups, stews and bread. The circus people had to buy beer, the Roma got it for free, which meant some of the Roma drank a lot.
Nigel began to watch the guests as they would come through the gate. They all bought an admission ticket from the Major and a ticket for the freak show. All the other tickets for rides and food were sold by the Romani from their own booth. Everyone paid cash for beer. It was the only thing you could get without an actual ticket. It made no sense to have people stop at all these booths to but, what did he know? “There must be a reason?” he thought.
Nigel watched as people entered, bought their tickets from the Major then, immediately, headed for the beer garden without fail. It was pub time in the late afternoon, so it made sense. It was the English way. The children would be tugging and tailing parents in the garden to go on rides which were at the far end of the layout and past the food and game tents. Eventually, the begging would win out when, after a couple of pints, they’d submit to their children’s whining and head off to rides, food and games.
Every day Nigel would head off, at about three-thirty, for his orangutan training session with Dr. Baas. Each day they would exercise the same ritual and get the same result. Edgar was only aggravated by Nigel. Some days, he wouldn’t even take the carrot. Every day it seemed, Dr. Baas had a new angle on what must be wrong with Nigel and why he was so unlikeable. If nothing, the orangutan was draining him out of any self-confidence he had left.
Friday came and the circus would start at seven p.m.. The entire town would be waiting at the gate at four p.m.. Nigel had been so busy, he was running late and missed his appointment with Dr. Baas, but it was payday for him and he was still committed to his mission.
Finally, at three forty-five, he ran to the Major, who was heading, in full stride, toward the ticket booth. In a quick exchange, the Major reached into his pocket and gave Nigel his wages. As Nigel attempted to apologize for his lack of promptness, the Major seemed unaffected by the moment and continued on to his way to work.
Nigel made it to Dr. Baas’ caravan and knocked on the door. The door opened, Dr. Baas stood extracting a pool cue from a bundle of about 30 of them.
“Too late!” he snapped. Extending his hand, Nigel produced the twenty pounds for the next week’s training. Seeing the money, the Doctor grasped for it and retreated inside, slamming the door.
Nigel was dejected, but glad he had been able to slide in under the wire with the payment. A voice came from inside the caravan.
“Don’t forget the bananas.”
“Ugh!” He thought. He had forgotten to take out the money for the produce.
Now that would come out of Nigel’s own pocket. “Dammit.” He thought.
Nigel was upgraded that night, by the Major, to ticket taker at the circus. This was a worthy promotion, he thought. Other performers were cleaning up horse and elephant manure, as he simply stood by the open tent door and, cheerfully, greeted all the people who showed up with smiles.
Most of the adults smelled of beer and garlic from the sausages. The children arrived wide-eyed and hyperactive from cotton candy and sugar coated caramel popcorn. It was interesting how many kinds of people there were in the world. In mass, they looked like a sea but, when he greeted them one at a time, Nigel couldn’t help but notice how each had odd characteristics and uniqueness.
Everyone was exactly the same and precisely different at the same time. They all conveyed the same emotion though, anticipation for what they had waited all year, or their whole lives, to see.
At the end of the performance, the circus acts paraded out down through the midway as always and out the back of the venue. The people followed like sheep.
Now, more aware of the audience than ever, Nigel noticed upon exit they all had transformed. The anticipation had turned to a new emotion. They chatted amongst themselves recalling and describing scenes to each other as if their accompanying family and friends had not even been in the tent. They had been changed and were happy to share the knowledge of their experience, knowing full well everyone in proximity had the exact same experience. They spoke as if they, individually, had witnessed something that no one else present had.
It struck Nigel that even though people can be together all seeing the same thing, people still feel alone. They are consumed by their own existence, even in the face of profound evidence, that they are just one in a mass all experiencing the same thing. They all made the story about themselves.
The moments of contemplation were brief. There was elephant poop that needed to be picked up. Garbage and food waited under the bleachers to be retrieved. The rings of the circus needed to be racked to clean circular lines for tomorrow’s matinee. Oh, and there would be an early morning trip to find where town was and, hopefully, a market, with bananas and carrots.
The weekend went as expected with no surprises. Lots of cleaning and tending during the day, helping the Romans, scooping up the occasional vomit from the rides, emptying garbage and answering stupid questions from drunk patrons.
Spending more time around the Romans, Nigel observed their demeanor with the customers was not much better than their demeanor with the circus troupe. They seemed nonplused towards outsiders in general.
Give me your money, take a ticket. Give me your ticket, take a ride. Give me your ticket, have a sausage. They never smiled.
One afternoon, he decided he was going to crack the Roman code. He chose as his target, the young girl he had failed with so miserably the week before. As he scanned the midway, he glanced at the cotton candy and taffy tent where she usually worked. She wasn’t there. Upon further looking he spotted her at the beverage tent. He walked toward her and was about ten feet from the table when their eyes met for a moment.
“Gypsy Girl! Hand me a bottle!”.
The booming voice came directly from behind Nigel.
The man stepped around Nigel, knocking him aside a bit. Nigel had come to know him as the “Gypsy King”, from the clowns. It was not a name anyone had the courage to call this man to his face, but Nigel had learned he was the man in charge of the Romans.
He was always dressed in a black button up shirt. He rivaled the size of the strongman but, actually, was leaner through the waist and broader through the shoulders. He had a mane of black hair pulled into a tail that was wrapped with a thin leather cord. His forearms were intensely large and one had a tattoo of a symbol. It had circles with two thick intersecting lines. Definitely, it was not a cross like Nigel had seen in church. The man looked like Bluto from Popeye cartoons.
He was adorned with a thick gold chain, and a massive gold ring with the same symbol from his arm. He wore a heavy tool belt which held an arsenal of screwdrivers, wrenches, and a two foot iron crow bar which hung down to his right knee. He was the scariest person Nigel had ever seen and he was now closer to him than ever before.
The girl reached down and pulled out a bottle of cola and handed it to him. He holstered the bottle into his belt and held his hand out again. She produced another bottle. He took it and opened it with his teeth spitting the cap on the ground.
He looked at Nigel with a dead stare as a prompt. Nigel did not know, at first, what to do, but with a simple eye movement from Bluto, he knew. Nigel knelt down and picked up the bottle cap and put it in his pocket. The man smiled to himself, having properly humiliated Nigel. He turned and began to walk off.
To regain what was left of his masculinity, Nigel stepped forward. The girls eyes brightened and her brows raised. He interpreted this as empathy and thought being clever might bring her in. She was so beautiful.
“Hey there. Gypsy girl, how about a bottle?”(*24)
Her face turned in disgust. “What?”
“Oh, crap.” He thought.
“What did you call me?” She raised her voice.
Before he could answer, he felt a massive paw on his shoulder spinning him around. Yes, he was face to face with the Gypsy King. Nigel tilted his head up and looked into the giant’s eyes.
24) Never appropriate the vernacular of an audience or culture without expressed permission. If you do there will be a price.