Big Top Eschatology

NB: This is one of my ongoing series of Circus stories, which started with Six Blind Men; the one right before this one is The Gentrification Ritual.

Working at the circus means that there’s a never-ending list of things to do; there’s never a moment where you can be done, in any true sense; the best you can do is prioritize your list and get the things done that mean the show won’t burn to the ground while you’re getting some sleep.

One other thing you can do is arrange things so that a task that feels like a nice evening stroll is available at the appropriate time.

A number of the younger circus people — I don’t mean to intentionally point a finger a the bally girls for everything that goes wrong at the circus; in this case it was two bally girls, the dj and a clown — had taken one of the utility cars to town; along the way, they’d had a flat, which they’d changed without help, and had reported what happened when they got back by writing it in the motor pool log.

So when Magda looked through the motor pool logs first thing this morning, she knew right away that the tire would need to be fixed. The only problem was… there was no tire; the donut spare was on the car, but the old tire was nowhere to be found.

Upon questioning, the four young people expressed surprise that we wanted it back; they’d seen enough tires abandoned on roadsides that they just assumed that they were a disposable thing.

So in the evening, Magda and Suneel and I were taking a walk toward town, looking for a tire sitting beside a turnout next to a big old tree.

“So,” said Magda, “The Circus is a, a leftover, from a time when bands of mystic clowns roamed the countryside, fighting evil mind-controlling ninjas?”

“No,” I said, “Not exactly…. I mean, sort of, but…”

Actually, that’s more or less exactly how Paulo, my mentor, had described it. At the time, I had put it all down to an active imagination, old age, and his obviously having done a lot of LSD at some point.

“You have to understand, I always understood it to be allegory, okay? Like, we tell this story about how the world works, and it lines up your thoughts in a certain way that makes sense of current events, but it doesn’t… you know, actually describe real things.”


“So it went like this: A long time ago, as the modern world was emerging from the middle ages, there was a group of people who sort of… took over. The story goes that they could just… make people do what they wanted, could… I don’t know, ensorcel them so that they… did what they were told.

“This was a family thing, you understand: The trait was passed down through the bloodline, and by the time the legend starts, the family was sort of… in charge, behind the scenes, in all the capitals of Europe.”

*Like the Rothschilds,* thought Suneel.

“Well, except that they weren’t doing anything tricky with money, they were just… you know, pulling strings, bending empires to their wills, that sort of thing.

“By all account, they weren’t all that terrible at it, right? According to one perspective, they were the ones who brought on the enlightenment, simply by telling everyone to behave smart…”

“But they forced them, right?” Magda had a handful of rocks, and was throwing them at whatever moved in the bushes beside the road. “Like, it’s not real enlightenment if you can’t choose…”

Suneel snorted. *Do you choose your children starving, or do you choose to do what you’re told? That’s the way it works, whether there’s magic involved or not.*

“Okay, but the Clowns put a stop to it, right?”

“Well, there was another family, with another gift, the gift for making people foolish, or at least clumsy and ungraceful, and they… well, they chose to put a stop to the first family…”

“The Ninjas,” said Magda, with the certainty of someone who’s figured out the story.

“Well, it’s popular to call them that now…”

Magda shrugged. “They have to have a name,” she said, “They can’t just be ‘the first gifted family, the one that controlled everybody with their thoughts.’ Especially if we’re calling the other ones Clowns.”

I shrugged. “Sure,” I said, “Ninjas works, though it’s important to remember that these aren’t the same as the Japanese shinobi…”

And just then I was distracted, because a car went past, and I had seen that car before — or another one like it — it was a tiny car, one of the new Minis, except that someone had raised the roof, comically, so that it was about twice as tall as a normal mini. It was painted in Circus colors; not our Circus, in particular, just… bright and circusy.

I’d seen that car arrive at the first Circus I worked at, shortly before it burned.

Some threshold between evening and night was reached, and the cicadas started.

Thom Peele chewed his eggs slowly and deliberately. If he’d ever done anything otherwise, I hadn’t seen it.

There was a time when every Circus in America had a Thom Peele: Tall, pale man in a top hat and tails with the power to seemingly ignore pain. His act had consisted primarily of standing still and pushing skewers through various parts of his body, staring around impassively while the audience gasped in sympathy.

The act, and the character, had been around for over a hundred years; some of the act was sleight of hand, some of it was training and the simple ability to not flinch while you pushed a skewer through your hand — I’m told that it gets easier after the first couple of hundred times.

Thom Peele had lost his currency with the death of the traditional freakshow; in the late 20th century, it had started to be seen as… uncouth, impolitic, to display people with disabilities for money; somehow a gaunt man with gigantism pushing needles through his flesh turned some corner from thrillingly shocking to upsettingly shocking.

So Thom Peele — all of the various Thom Peeles — had found other work.

It had been thirty years and more since the character had stopped being current; most of them were old men, now, and mostly had moved on from being in the circus, settling down somewhere.

The Thom Peele sitting across from me at breakfast, slowly and methodically eating his eggs, had neither grown old nor settled down. He’d become a bookkeeper; or rather, if I understood the story correctly, he’d been a bookkeeper with a circus long before the character and act of Thom Peele had become a sensation, and had simply gone back to his old role.

My understanding was that this Thom Peele was the original Thom Peele, the man the other characters were all based on, and there were stories… well. He had over a hundred years of reputation, with circus people. Or possibly he was the latest in a firm of Thom Peeles that had that long, sturdy reputation.

When circuses go bankrupt, it tends to be messy. Often it happens in the middle of a run: You’re stuck in some tiny ass town in the middle of nowhere, and the last show didn’t make enough to fund the next show, and you just close up and all the performers and roustabouts and freaks and geeks are just stuck; some have the money to get back to winter grounds, or to find their way to another show, but some do not.

It can get ugly.

If a show is having problems, people start getting the idea that they’re on a downward slope, and things start to slide that way: The shows get sloppy, the maintenance doesn’t get done, people are looking for other work or just hanging around, waiting for the end. Stuff goes missing as everybody starts taking their severance in the form of easily-pocketed portable gear.

If you’ve got troubles, and everybody knows it, but they’re not as bad as all that, the thing to do is to do an audit: Have the financial mercenaries in, have them go over the books and triage you into the terminal or the recovering ward. If you’re going to recover, there’s a big ceremony: The tall man in the top hat being sent on his way with a little parade.

If you’re terminal, he sneaks out in the night, and nobody mentions it, and the slide starts.

The only thing worse than having the tall man sneak away in the night is not to call him in the first place. It tends to make people believe you know the answer already.

So here sat Thom Peele, harbinger of the death of circuses, slowly chewing eggs across from me.

“There’s a clown keeping your books,” he said, “And a ninja sitting in the big chair.” He said it slowly, with that rusty-hinge voice of his.

I stopped eating and set my fork down.

“I’ve been told,” I said, “Though I haven’t been able to see it, myself.”

Thom Peele nodded his big head. That was the other thing about Thom Peele: he could, it was said, see through any glamour, pierce any illusion, whether done with mirrors or mysticism.

“Means nothing in itself, of course,” he said, “No reason why the books shouldn’t be intact, but it has the look of chaos.”

I nodded slowly. “Well,” I said, “I hope it’s not as chaotic as it looks, though I don’t hold my breath.”

And then I told him about Carmine, and the summer money, and Jack.

*You shouldn’t have called him.*

I sighed. Thom Peele freaked some people out, gave them the willies. Something about his shambling walk. Also, Suneel, who had had a hand in the state of the current books, but who was, at heart, not an accountant, took the idea of an audit personally, as though I didn’t have faith in him.

Never mind that Loomy had been the one who asked me to get an auditor.

I was lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, trying not to think about the last time I’d seen Thom Peele.

The first year I was in the Circus seemed like it made more, denser memories than subsequent years. There were entire decades where I don’t think I really formed any new memories whatsoever; but that first year…

I had been sixteen, and had dropped out of a shitty high school in… well, it’s not important. The important thing was that they’d announced that they were closing down the auto shop and doing away with the various shop classes; and they’d announced it the same week the circus was in town.

I had told old Paulo, the guy who was running the motor pool, a hard-luck story about domestic abuse and hinted-at dark things — it wasn’t true, my parents weren’t violent, they just sort of ignored me if I didn’t raise a fuss, which had led to a more or less fine relationship — and he’d agreed to take me on as his apprentice, without much in the way of fuss.

It was Paulo who taught me to be Circus, and that first year with him was… well, vivid.

It wasn’t the same show I was running now; the show where I hooked up with Paulo was bigger but poorer, the run-down, used-up husk of what used to be one of the big shows running the southwest circuit. The fleet of wagons they used was constantly in need of fix-ups and last-minute bodges to keep them running; Paulo had never been a seriously organized sort of mechanic, so the patch-up catch-as-catch-can style worked for him.

I didn’t realize, at the time, that the year I was with that show was more or less a textbook example of how a show flames out: The increasing license, the gradual quitting and moving on of everybody who seems to have any moral authority, the quiet abandonment of the little rituals and habits that keep a show working.

The night Thom Peele showed up, we were having a party, celebrating — I don’t know anymore, something. That show had always had a basketball court: A portable hoop, plus a section of ground laid out and tamped using the big dirt-tamping machines. As things got more and more…. Loose, as the show got closer and closer to its inevitable close, there were more people playing basketball, at any given moment; not organized games, mostly, just… hanging around, shooting hoops.

And talking shit.

Because when things are bad, in a show, the gossip mill gets bad and worse.

I remember watching that strange car pull up — an older version of it, some sort of Honda I think, but still modified with the high top and the garish paint — I remember missing my shot, watching that huge, shambling man climb out of the car, walk around and pull his case out of the trunk.

That week was the most raucous yet, people drunk all day, the shows utterly phoned in and nearly empty, and the lot a continuous frat party. I was drinking a lot, mostly because nobody seemed to care if I drank or not and it was a novelty; Paulo didn’t seem terribly worried, but that, I later discovered, was because I hadn’t yet learned to read his tics properly.

I was on the basketball court again when Thom Peele left, walked out of the management trailer with his big case in his hand and shambled over to his car, tossed the case in the trunk and climbed in and drove away without looking at anybody. I wasn’t shooting this time, just sitting there somewhere between drunk and hungover, watching the continuous basketball game. Someone, I remember, gave a long, low whistle when Thom Peele got in his car and left.

The next night, there was a fire in the big top; not a huge thing, nobody was injured, but it consumed a lot of the props used for the show. We never put on a show again; the show went into receivership, eventually people stopped getting paid, and everyone drifted away.

Paulo found a spot with a different show, another of the old, big ones, but this one still functional. He took me with him, and I learned, to my dismay, what discipline was.

For a long time, when I told the story of the end of my first show, I talked about that fire as being the last straw, the end of the show; but it wasn’t, not at all.

The end of the show was when Thom Peele packed up and left, without saying anything.

*Go to sleep, Suneel,* I thought.

“You shouldn’t have called him.”

Shorty took a deep hit on his joint and passed it on to Arvid, who very carefully took it from him and had a small puff before passing it to Lilly. We were sitting beside the Clown Alley entrance to the big-top, which, due to the hilliness of the lot we were set up on just now, had a good view of the entrance to the office trailer.

Thom Peele was in there, right now, working with Loomy to figure out whether we were dead or not.

“You know,” said Lilly, “The Death card, in Tarot, isn’t really about Death, it’s about change, major change.”

I was trying to remember whether Lilly, in any of her various Circus incarnations, had been a card reader. It seemed incredibly likely.

“That’s because Death changes everything,” said Arvid. Shorty snorted. “No,” said Arvid, “I mean it, nothing lives in a vacuum, everything’s connected, so when something dies…” He held up a broken strap he’d been hanging on to. “I broke this strap in practice,” he said. “So now I have to change the show, slightly, you know, make a different grip here, a slightly more extended move there, because we’re short a strap…”

I opened my mouth to say something about how we weren’t so broke that couldn’t afford to replace a strap, but Arvid waved me off. “I know, I know, I can just get a new strap,” he said, “But then I have to figure out if it’s really exactly the same as the old one, I have to learn to trust it, you know.”

Arvid had a very, very slight Swedish accent, just enough to make him sound like he might have something profound to say.

“I still say,” said Shorty, “That you shouldn’t have called him.” The spliff came back to him and he took a long, deep drag. “We’re just going to have to… I mean, it doesn’t matter…” He passed the spliff on to Arvid again, and waved his huge hand vaguely. “Shit.”

“He makes everybody nervous,” said Lilly. “He’s a harbinger.”

“Harbinger,” said Arvid, thoughtfully.

I sighed. “He’s who you call,” I said. “I… look, Loomy and I went through the books, before we called him.” Loomy had, anyway, and I had nodded and believed what she said. “We’re fine, we’re going to be okay, we just have to… Look, the only thing that’s going to kill is is everybody deciding that we’re dead, you know? The talent leaving faster than we can replace them, the…” I waved my hand, a much smaller echo of the gesture Shorty had made. “Whatever it is that makes us a Show, a Company, Circus, whatever, it’s something you have to learn to be, right? If we end up going through people faster than they can learn to be this show, then we end up killing it. We get the reputation for being one of Those shows, you know, where nothing works, and then pretty soon we can only hire Those people, the ones that can’t work anywhere else, for whatever reason, and then…”

Shorty was nodding along. “And then Thom Peele shows up,” he said, “And tells you that you’re dead. We’re not there yet, it just makes people thing we’re a lot worse off than…”

Lilly exhaled a cloud of smoke. “No,” she said, “Sal’s right, most of these people haven’t see what a show dying looks like, so it’s easy for them to think we’re deader than we are.” She passed the spliff on to Shorty. “I think, when we run through the little going-away party, that it’s going to make everyone feel a lot better.”

Because she was right: We weren’t at the point of dying yet, but very few of the people who worked here knew how to tell; all they saw was this series of disasters, the rise in the general level of chaos, an actual clown in charge of the books… and the Maintenance guy somehow in charge.

And underneath it all, this… I don’t know, this edge, this feeling like… something bigger was going on, like things were lining up for… I didn’t really know what.

When I was a kid, we went to one of those revival tent shows, the last little bit of spring, right before school let out, and my parents got the bug, the whole speaking-in-tongues thing, and we spent that whole summer going to church services and passing out flyers and talking about when Jesus was coming back.

At the end of the summer, of course, Jesus hadn’t come, and it sort of became obvious that Jesus’s imminent arrival was, you know, metaphorical; but for that summer, it felt like… every day you wanted to wake up and be righteous, because Jesus might show up at any moment…

It felt like that, around the lot. Like Jesus was coming, any minute now.

The trailer door opened, and Thom Peele stepped out. He wasn’t wearing his big hat or carrying his case; he just looked around and spotted the kitchen, and walked over towards it.

All of us sharing that spliff looked at each other, and watched Thom Peele stalk off into the night, in search of a snack.

“I though this kind of thing was illegal now.”

We were walking along a different road than the one that led to town. I wasn’t sure where it led, really — that wasn’t the point; the point was to have a conversation away from prying ears.

And maybe give me a head start, in case it wasn’t what anybody wanted to hear.

The field beside the road was burning. There’d clearly been some effort at creating a firebreak between the road and the field, but still, there was a lot of fire, not far away. It made for an exciting backdrop to the conversation.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I imagine it’s one of those, you know, state by state things.”

“Hmm,” said Thom Peele. He had his big hands behind his back and his head down, looking thoughtful.

“I remember them doing it when I was a kid,” I said. “It was one of the highlights, you know, watching the fire…”

Thom stared into the flames.

“I was around, you know, for the whole mess that went down in the seventies.”

I pursed my lips, and stayed quiet.

“People talk about it like the, the showdown between the two… the two families was what caused the decline of the Circus, but it was already in a long, slow, death spiral. The seventies was actually a good time to be in the circus, and it seemed, for a time, like things might turn around…”


“Hmm.” From Thom Peele, a simple sound like his “Hmm” seemed to resonate, his deep voice echoing in his chest. This deep ‘Hmm’ seemed chastising. I shut back up.

“When the families went to war for the last time… when the Fumagalli decided to wipe out the Fenwicks once and for all — it felt like the end of the Circus; and when the smoke cleared, and the Fenwicks were all dead and the Fumagalli had… whatever happened, they vanished from the Circus… well, it was like it was all over, like there was some driving force ripped out of the heart of the Circus. The Fumagalli had been the secret heart of the Circus, and not a very secret secret, and with them gone…”

Those Peele shook his big head. “Without that war, it seemed like some sort of light went out.”

We walked for a while, looking at the fire.

“You’re concerned with our new owner and with our accountant.”

“I’m concerned,” Thom Peele said, and then paused. After a while, he finished the stencence: “With your new owner and your accountant.”

“He really is the new owner, then?”

A huge shrug from the huge shoulders. “He’s Jack Margaret’s nephew — Jack’s sister’s son — there’s not much doubt of that. There’s no will, but he’s the only living relative…”

I nodded. “The kid has the power,” I said. “He’s got that suggestion thing, you do what he says. The fact that I keep forgetting to check up on his family connection, I thought maybe… it was because he was, you know, making me forget, and why would he do that, unless…”

Thom Peele sighed. “Sal,” he said, “You know you guys are the only working show left in this part of the country? Maybe the only small show left that’s in as good a shape as you’re in.”

Something weird happened with the fire: It all suddenly rushed away from us, like Thom had said something wrong.

“I… hadn’t really thought about it,” I said.

“Well,” said Thom, “I wonder… look, would you mind if I stuck around, for a while? This is… if things are starting back up again, I don’t know if the Circus can take it. And I want to keep an eye…”

“Thom,” I said, “The whole point of calling you out is to watch how you leave.”

Thom Peele turned his great head toward me and grinned. It wasn’t a reassuring sort of grin. “We can do the ceremony,” he said. “You guys are in better shape than any show I’ve looked at lately. I just want to know if I can have a room in one of your trailers, for the next couple of months.”

“Of course,” I said, and just then the fire rushed back toward us, some sort of trick of the wind sending it rushing our way. I flinched back from it, but Thom Peele just stood and watched as it ran hard up on the fire break and then arced over the top of us, sending a shower of sparks across the road, where they began to smoulder.

Thom Peele took four great strides across the empty country road and stomped the little fire out.

He looked at me, and I looked at the little fire he’d just prevented from becoming a big fire; and then I looked back at where the circus was outlined by the setting sun, miles away across the fields.

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