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Chapter 4 - A Tough Act to Follow



The orangutan made eye contact with him. He saw into him for just a flash and turned his attention to the professor as if to say, “Did you see that?” The professor shot back a look that communicated, ”I remember you kid. You almost blew my act.”

The rest of the show was no matter to Nigel. There were moments with show girls and skimpy clothing that certainly offered titillation to a young man of his age yet, nothing in his life had quite affected him as the influence the Professor’s obvious magic and talents could provide.

Imagine the gift of harnessing this talent.

Nigel walked home as the drizzle started. With mud and manure caked on his boots, he relived the moments of the day in his head. He was almost run over from behind as he wandered from the path onto the road. The squeaky beep of a horn made him nearly trip into a hedge.

When he arrived home his mother was stretched out on the couch, tired and full of gin. He passed her saying nothing and went upstairs. He kicked off his boots and lay on the bed. His clothes smelled of livestock. He drifted off with dreams in his eyes before they were closed.

Nigel spent his Sunday doing chores around the house. Although he had been expelled he decided not to mention it. They never spoke much. His Mother had worked full-time at the local hospital and part time at the pub to make ends meet since his Father’s death. In between, she filled her time with television and gin. He learned fully what a broken heart looked like and was afraid that every time she looked at Nigel she saw the remains of her husband. He saw it in the mirror often himself.

Monday came. The daylight started out grey and drizzly like every other gloomy June morning and Nigel rose after a difficult sleep. He felt determined as he left the house. He passed his classmates they walked toward school and he walked the opposite direction. He could tell by the look in their eyes they knew he was expelled. Word gets around. He felt defiant and rejected as he headed towards the carnival grounds.

He walked right past the gate and it seemed less glamorous in the early morning light. It was not a performance day despite the fact that the rides and food tents would be open later that day. The circus only had one more weekend to perform before they packed up and headed to the next town. Everything was under repair and maintenance. Apparently, several crowds over the weekend takes its toll and everyone was industriously cleaning and working.

Nigel started to recognize faces. All the worker bees were performers. They all looked so different in their farmer-like work clothes. They were picking up garbage, scrubbing horses, washing tents and feeding livestock. The beer garden was now more of a military cooking mess hall. Pots of steaming soup and stew were at one end with piled boxes of saltines.

As Nigel walked through the grounds he imagined going through a time warp. This was a place transformed. Faces he felt he knew yet in other ways completely foreign. He thought of a comic book he had read filled with zombies. It was the same landscape but, in the light of day, the people looked so dead. This was not shiny at all. It was depressing.[2]

He recognized a man approaching. The ringmaster walked at a good clip while pushing a wheelbarrow filled with three feed bags. He now seemed even taller, if that were possible? He was wearing overalls and boots, his biceps bulged from the short-sleeved shirt.

Nigel cleared his throat and spoke, “Excuse me, I’m looking for the Professor?”

The Ringmaster didn’t stop or look up as he replied, “Well den boy your betta seen yoself a moving towards a universitee. Der ain no profeeso’s dun near here. Ya fool.”

Nigel, keeping pace with the Ringmaster, asked, “No sir, the orangutan man? The man in the suit with the orangutan…hat...?”

“Ahh. Docta Boss, you d’go see him in da way-back,” he replied.

“Dr. Boss”, he thought it must be a nickname, “A doctor and the boss? Interesting.”

Nigel found his way back to the corner of the property. He found the orangutan cage on wheels and wedged between two small caravans. An old flatbed truck was parked on the far side of the cage shielding it from the edge of the roped-off farm field turned fairgrounds.

The first caravan, on the left, was run down and had old slats of wood crating blocking out the windows with bars affixed over the outside holding the wood in place.

The second, had two temporary stairs painted bright green and a plaque reading, “Dr. Jonas Baas”. He placed a foot upon the first green step causing it to rock towards him and hitting him in the shin.

A voice came from behind the window shade, “What ore you doe-ing der?”

Nigel flummoxed for a moment, “Oh...um sorry I knocked over your step and hit my shin. I’m sorry”.

A shuffling issued from inside the caravan as the door opened. The Professor stuck his head and shoulders out, “You may not see the animal. I am working, you must go away.”

Nigel was half expecting some rejection, but hadn’t anticipated his wishes being so easily exposed as he asked, “Well, sir…if you please it’s more than seeing the orangutan.”

The Professor offered a stern look, “He’s not tame. He’s violent as all hell. Now off, boy.”

Nigel interrupted. “But Sir. Dr. Boss…”

The Professor replied sharply ”Not Boss… Baas…like sheep.”.

Nigel pressed. “Yes, sir, I’m sorry. I want to learn how you trained him. I want to know how you did that?”

The Professor shook his head. “First, I am guessing you don’t have an orangutan. Second, you need to have it from birth. You have to train it for years, and years, just to be near people.”

Nigel dug in hard, now, and said, “I would do anything and give anything to know those secrets. It was…you were amazing!”

Dr. Baas, lowering his tone, stepped out of the caravan and onto the mud. “Who are you?””

Nigel backed up expecting an eye-to-eye confrontation. Yet, when the Doctor hit the ground he was no more than five-feet three in height. Nigel might, actually, have been looking down at him. It was jarring seeing this man, with so much authority, being so much shorter that Nigel. He caught himself almost verbalizing the observation. His eyes widened as he re-evaluated his sudden lack of intimidation.

“I just thought you were incredible and I wondered if the gift you had, could be obtained. I would want to study that, as a tradesman. Like an apprentice electrician, or a carpenter.”

“You think this is like cutting Wood? Or twisting in a lightbulb?” He replied.

Nigel begged. “No, no, no. I am sure it takes months, years to understand this. Can I just watch you for a week? The circus leaves after next weekend. Just one week? Please. I’ll do anything.”

The Professor sized him up. “Twenty pounds. Come back tomorrow with twenty pounds and I’ll give you a week. But you don’t touch him.”

Nigel shrunk. The doctor was now, somehow, taller. Looking at his own feet he replied, “I surely do not…” He looked up long enough to see the spite in the Doctors eyes. Refusing to fold under that glare, he boldly said, “I’ll be back with 20 pounds.”

As he walked away head down, he was completely unaware that he had wandered onto the path of the ringmaster and his wheelbarrow. This near collision caused the Ringmaster to swerve spilling his load of fresh animal dung. “Dammit boy- ya fool.”

Nigel attempted to apologize. The Ringmaster was having none of it. He reached out and grabbed Nigel by the shirt collar. The man pulled him wide to the right with his massive arms. He was about to come back the other direction with the intention of throwing him, handily, into the feces.

“Stop that, there!” A tough commanding voice, crackled, “What a ya doing there with that boy?” The Old Man from the ticket booth stood, his wool cap cocked to one side and a thin brown cigar in his mouth. He scolded, “Let him be!”. The Ringmaster released Nigel’s collar as he regained his balance.

The old man looked at Nigel sternly, “What are you waitin’ for?” Nigel made a move to break into a run but, the old man collared him and said, “No, Laddy, you spill crap, you clean it up.”[3]

Confused, he looked at the mess he had caused. His eyes darted between the Ringmaster and the Old Man who sternly said, “Pick it up”.

Nigel was puzzled. “I don’t have a shovel?”


[3] People with only one small skill will always end up shoveling shit.

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