He felt his chest and back crack by the brute force.
The orangutan had his head turned with its eyes focused. Nigel froze as the pupils of the animal’s eyes vacillated. The pain was instant and substantial. He thought his forearms would surely break. He was in a sandwiched position from which he could not escape.
“EHHYY!” Dr. Baas emerged from his caravan rapidly heading towards the boy. His face was filled with rage. Just when Nigel expected the Doctor to lash out physically, he disappeared behind the orangutan’s caravan.
Nigel was not breathing nor could he make a sound. He had no leverage because the animal had lifted him a foot off the ground like a rag doll.
Suddenly, he heard a snap from inside the trailer. Was that a whip or a gunshot? Just like that, he was released and found himself on his posterior looking up at the window. The ape’s face appeared again, its lips curled back, showing all of its teeth, and appearing to laugh.
Nigel fell back onto his elbow, his canvas bag of produce lay next to him. Under the caravan, he saw the doctor’s feet hit the ground. The door slammed, as he was full stride coming around. Nigel cringed.
The doctor’s feet skidded to a stop as his hand grabbed the Nigel’s shirt collar elevating him a foot into the air and slamming back down.
“Do you want to die?” He stared into Nigel’s eyes.
“Nah,nah nah…No!” Nigel protested.
“ That is not a man in ape suit. That is an ape. He is only as friendly as what he wants from you. If you get killed. You will be dead. But I will be gone too.”
“I’m sorry.” Nigel plead.
“I don’t care for sorry. That is your lesson for today. Off with you. Go to work.”
Nigel took the lesson in. His whole body was shaking from the release of adrenalin. He felt his knees weaken as he walked away. He started to cry, but wiped the tears as he passed a couple of the work hands. His arms hurt and his shoulder blades could still fell the impression of weight from those powerful ape arms.
Shame and embarrassment. His conscience knew who to blame. He had made a huge mistake.
Back in the routine, Nigel was discovering that there was a rhythm to how the work a day world was, even at the fairgrounds.
The sun broke for the first time in weeks as the morning light and dew gave another vision of this world. Everything seemed extra alive. Even the animals seemed happier. There really was a beauty to this strange mobile society. The entire day seemed to buzz by as there was lots of work to do. Nigel’s main task this day was garbage duty.
After the matinee, he got busy cleaning the Big Top bleachers and under them. He relieved his first day, in the tent crates behind the third ring with a bit of nostalgia. He was losing his framework of being an outsider and feeling his sense of belonging with this troupe. Perhaps being crushed by an orangutan was the baptism of the circus. At day’s end, he avoided Dr. Baas thinking it best to let a day go by before he tried to re-engage.
He swung by the old man’s caravan to get payment but, he was not out front. A flickering glow, from a lantern, cast its light against the window drape. He knocked on the door. As the drape was pulled to one side, he saw the old man’s face through the louvered glass.
The door creaked open. “What are you waiting for? Come in.”
This was an odd request. One of the things Nigel had learned rapidly was that carnie’s do not let anyone in their caravans. He stepped up the single stair and ducked in.
Another world was revealed here. His assumption was, it would be mess and filth. The old man, himself, wore clean clothing but, beaten down by the years. His brown cigarettes had stained his silver mustache yellow with nicotine and, the man always smelled of body odor.
His domicile, however, was pristine. It was clean, organized, and tidy. Even the coffee pot sat washed and polished upon a single white tea towel, air drying from a recent wash. It seemed rather like the environment of an old English grandmother, not this surly crusty fellow. He noticed a neatly organized wooden rack with dozens of maps folded over in layers to prevent wrinkling. As he looked around, he forgot about his host.
“What are looking for? Have you never been in a caravan?” He quipped.
“Actually, no. No, I haven’t. This is quite comfortable.” Nigel replied.
“Well, what did you expect? I’d live like the orangutan? I heard he almost killed you this morning.”
Nigel lowered his head. “It was my fault”.
“Well, you’re damned right it was. What you better learn is, that you don’t go poking your head into anybody’s privacy around here. That’s the only currency you have in a carnival, your privacy. Stick your head into anyone’s business around here and you’ll think that monkey was a nursemaid.”
“Well sir, I just…” Something caught Nigel’s eye and stopped him cold. It was a color worn photograph of a man standing atop a tank in the sands of, what appeared to be, Africa. There were a number of soldiers and seven brown skinned servants with fez style hats, posing at the base of the tank.
“That was me.” The retort came from the old man sharply.
“Sir I’m sorry. I just realized I have been here a week and I don’t know what to call you properly. I am embarrassed…I don’t know your name?”
The old man smirked. “That’s because I never told it to you. It makes no matter here. I call you, boy.”
“Well, sir, my name is Nigel. Nigel Clarke”.
Now, feigning interest in this conversation as if it was very important, the old man leaned in. “Would you prefer I call you Nigel…or Mr. Clark?”
“Umm Nig...Nigel would be fine?” He extended his hand for a proper shake “And I shall call you?”
“You may call me. Major. If you must.” And, with that, he dropped five one-pound coins into Nigel’s hand.
“If I may ask, after tomorrow’s show, where are we going?”
“Well, yes, if I can work, you need me. I am working a lot. I’d like to go?”
The Major scratched his head. “I don’t really need another mouth to feed and you have nowhere to sleep. I assume you have parents?”
Eagerly, Nigel pressed. “My father’s dead and my mother lives here, but I already told her I was going. Just for the summer. But I told her.”
“I don’t need a constable showing up looking for you. How old are you?”
“I am sixteen.” Nigel announced.
The Major sneered, “Hmmmm. You’ll never work harder for less.”
That evening Nigel rummaged through the storage shed without ever looking up at the rafters. He retrieved a duffel containing his father’s old army gear. Covered with dust and stinking of mildew, he drug it from under the workbench. Spiders and bugs crawled from it as he unpacked gear which included a canteen, reams of documents, wool pants and a couple of moth- eaten army issue work shirts. There was a pair of well-worn boots about two sizes too large. He decided the canteen was suitable for a man’s adventure as well as the shirts and boots.
Retreating to his room, he packed. He stuffed the bag with several shirts and undergarments including, all of his socks. The bag was only about one quarter full. Yet, it had everything he needed for survival.
He arose at five-thirty the next morning. His stomach was riddled with butterflies. As he hit the bottom stair, he saw his mother waiting to say goodbye. She handed him a canvas bag. He examined its contents. In the bottom was a box of saltine crackers, a few apples, several cans of sardines, some chunks of cheese, carrots and two rolls of toilet paper. She handed him a tin enameled cup with a toothbrush and a half tube of toothpaste.
“Don’t forget to come home.” Her voice trembled. She cradled his face one last time as he wiped a tear from her cheek.
“Oh Wait”. She darted into the back room. After some rustling she re-emerged with her hands clasped together like a clamshell.
She opened them to reveal a very, thin, gold, wedding ring and a pocket knife. These were the only things she cherished nearly as much as Nigel.
He knew what they were and who they belonged to. It was an inheritance he felt moved him towards being a man. No more words.
He looked about the room as if to take it all in and say goodbye to every object that represented his life until this moment. He slung his duffel over one shoulder and grabbed the canvas shopping bag. Awkwardly, he collided with the door jamb as he squeezed his parcels through the gap.
As he walked away, for what he anticipated would be an eternity, he felt, strangely, a boy and a man at the same time. As a soul leaves one life and picks up another, there were certainly adornments which fell like a molting, revealing a rawness underneath. The cold mist blew into his face washing away what he had been only the day before. A new Nigel would need to emerge.
The days ahead brought a whole new education. It took a full day for the entire crew from the carnival to break down everything and pack it. Seeing the entire troupe working towards this goal an unusual camaraderie revealed itself.
He was constantly in the way. He was yelled at in languages he didn’t understand. Under pressure people revert to their core language. Attitude amplifies clarity that overcomes proper diction. “Move” and “Idiot” are seemingly universal concepts which translate fast. There was a lot of lifting and pointing.
Nigel came to the realization that there was a pecking order. There were teams of people who had specific responsibilities. Clowns at the circus were not just clowns. These men were the swarthiest and strongest of the workforces. They were work hands who had become clowns and not the inverse. The midget’s came in handy, fitting into spaces to untie some things and properly pack crates. The strong man, who spoke some Slavic language should pull tent spikes out of the ground in a single motion with a pick ax as a pry bar.
All of these people were carnival movers. Even the acrobats were essential as they climbed tent poles and unharnessed the elaborate rigging. Everyone had a specific and well-practiced role, except for Nigel.
He was handed a shovel by the fortune teller. “Follow me” was the command.