George C. Chesbro

The Fear In Yesterday's Rings

Chapter One

Memories, some truly happy and others merely wearing the false grimaces of tired clowns, tumbled like acrobats in my mind as I stared at the old, crumbling circus posters laid out on the hospital gurney in a curtained-off cubicle at the rear of the emergency room in the Bellevue Medical Center. The posters' original garish colors had all faded to mud shades of brown, yellow, and green, but considering the fact that they were more than twenty years old, they were reasonably well preserved as a result of having been sealed in the plastic bag draped over one steel rail of the gurney. I doubted there were many posters of their vintage left in existence outside of a few art museums with specialized collections.

All of the posters advertised the Statler Brothers Circus. The largest was dominated by an illustration of a rather diminutive fellow riding triumphantly between roaring columns of fire on the back of a trumpeting elephant. Ringing this central illustration were smaller pictures, framed in ovals, featuring other performers and freaks, including a giant, a 'crocodile man' with green, scaly skin, and a 'snake woman' who was depicted unconcernedly chucking the chin of a monstrous, nasty-looking snake that was coiled around her body-which was only slightly less buxom in reality than it had been in the artist's fevered imagination.

The giant's name was Hugo Fasolt, and some years before he had died saving my life, using his great tree trunk of a body to absorb a hail of bullets meant for me. The 'crocodile man' was now a real estate mogul and the best poker player I'd ever met, and the 'snake woman' was someone I'd once loved. The elephant's name was Mabel, and she was one of the few African elephants ever to be successfully domesticated, if that was the word, and coaxed into circus performing; even on her best days, Mabel could be considerably more cranky and dangerously unpredictable than her mellower Asian cousins.

The little guy on top of the elephant, a star performer the poster identified in bold, black lettering as Mongo the Magnificent, was me.

'That's you, Mongo, right?'

I turned toward the intern who had spoken, a midnight-skinned Haitian by the name of Jacques Lauture, who also happened to be the third baseman on Frederickson and Frederickson's championship softball team. I grinned and nodded somewhat shamefacedly. 'Right. It's none other than yours truly, in his callow youth.'

'Damn,' Jacques said, shaking his head as he stared at the poster, obviously impressed. 'Did you really ride an elephant, jump through rings of fire, and all that?'

'Jumping through rings of fire was the easy part; riding that damn elephant was something else again. In fact, I was the only person who could ride her. Her name's Mabel, and she's African. See the big ears? Most of the elephants you see in circuses are Asian. African elephants are bigger and meaner, and they don't take kindly to either captivity or people. She was a baby and sick when we got her; my boss had taken her off the hands of a sleazeball carnival owner who'd been mistreating her. For some reason, she took a shine to me.'

'Wild,' Jacques said, still shaking his head. 'Everybody knows you used to be in the circus, but I never realized you rode elephants and did all that other stuff. Jesus, you were a star from the looks of this poster. I always figured. .' His voice trailed off as he stepped closer to the gurney. He placed his index finger on the face of the crocodile man and shrugged. 'You know what I mean,' he finished weakly.

'You thought I worked as a freak?'

'No offense, Mongo,' Jacques said quickly, looking at me strangely.

'No offense taken, Jacques. It would be a natural assumption. Sideshows used to be known as 'dwarf heaven.''

'Hey, I'd never call anybody a freak.'

'As a matter of fact, the people in the sideshows prefer to be called freaks; it's what they call themselves, and they don't consider the term derogatory. They think of themselves as business people, entrepreneurs exploiting the only assets they have. Some of them are pretty shrewd. The last I heard, that guy with the green skin and scales you just had your finger on was married to a former Miss Georgia and owned a string of upscale motels across the South. He's worth millions.'

Jacques grunted softly. 'How'd you manage to, uh, get where you got?'

'On top of Mabel, in the center of the poster?' I paused and laughed at the memories, which were beginning to lose some of their sharp edges under the gentle buffing of Jacques's open, honest curiosity and naive awe. I felt a twinge of nostalgia and found myself more willing than usual to talk about my circus days.

'Garth and I grew up on a farm in Nebraska,' I continued somewhat distantly as I gently stroked one of the fragile posters with the back of my hand and smiled grimly. 'Nebraska's a whole different planet, my friend, and I was the resident alien. In your small farming communities in the Midwest, ninety percent of the social activity and talk centers on high school sports, especially football and basketball. Garth was a star in both sports. I desperately wanted to belong, to be able to compete at something, but it's hard to find a football or basketball team that has much use for a sixty-eight-pound dwarf. So I had to find something else to do.

'I'd always had excellent coordination and above-average upper-body strength. I'm an achondroplastic dwarf, and those skills sometimes go with the territory. I'd been doing somersaults and cartwheels just about from the time I could walk. I was a pretty good gymnast even in elementary school-I'd taught myself by watching sports programs on television. Hell, tumbling was something I could do better than anyone else in school, and I worked at it every chance I got.

'Anyway, our high school had a gymnastics team-of sorts; it worked out on prehistoric equipment in a storage area next to the boiler room, since the gym was always being used by the basketball team.' I paused to execute the obligatory self-deprecating mock bow, continued, 'Well, yours truly made the varsity team when I was in seventh grade, and by the time I graduated from high school our team was nationally ranked. People came from all over to see our meets-actually, to see me, if I may dispense with false modesty. I was a three-time High School All- American, and our team won the high school nationals when I was a senior. It damn well should have gotten me a scholarship to a school with a world-class gymnastics program, but it didn't. Representatives from all the schools with top gymnastics programs came to see me, admitted I did things no other high school student could do, but then said they didn't think I'd be able to compete successfully at a college level. Of course, that was bullshit. What they really meant was that they were afraid people would laugh at them if they had a dwarf on their team; to them I was a freak, and they were afraid their meets would be seen as freak shows if I was on the team. Well, the fact that I'd been born a dwarf in the first place tended to make me feel just a bit disgruntled from the time when I first realized I was different from other kids, and now the fact that all of my athletic accomplishments were being written off and I was being denied a scholarship because I was a dwarf really pissed me off.

'Big brother Garth had graduated two years ahead of me. He was in an excellent college, and I knew it was costing my parents a pot of money to send him there. Now my folks wanted me to go on to school. There was never any mention of money, but I knew they'd have to take a heavy mortgage on the old homestead to do it. I didn't want that, especially since I was still plenty pissed about being the best high school gymnast in the country and being denied a scholarship.

'That summer the Statler Brothers Circus rolled into Peru County, Nebraska, for the first time. It gave me a perverse notion. I hung out there from dawn to dusk for days in a row, checking out their aerialists and gymnasts. I'd never been on a trapeze, swing pole or teeterboard, but I knew that I could control my body in the air. They had routines, glitzy costumes, and acting flair, and they were all good, of course, but I judged that my basic acrobatic skills were as good as or better than those of the people I saw earning their livings under that circus tent. That's where I wanted to work-but if I wanted a job with the circus, I was damn well going to have to find a dramatic way to show whoever owned or managed that circus that I had the goods, and I didn't have a lot of time to do it. The circus was leaving town the next day.

'I went home and took one of my father's old straight razors. I sharpened it up, then lashed it to the end of a

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