By Peter J. Stavros -
One time when I was a kid, Pops took me to the circus, just me and him, a “guys’ day” he called it. It wasn’t one of those fancy circuses, not the kind that sold out the Fairgrounds for two straight weeks each spring, or that would arrive on a steam train to much hoopla and fanfare and parade through town, elephants marching down the street trunk to tail. This was a small, local, modest circus that performed every so often at the high school gymnasium, usually on a Sunday afternoon when there wasn’t anything going on, that advertised with paper flyers tacked to telephone poles that simply read “Circus this Sunday!” Even so, I would beg Pops to take me, promising that I would never ask him for anything else for as long as I lived. But he was always too busy, with work or whatnot, and he kept putting it off, said we would go the next time, and the next time after that, and then the next time after that, and so forth, and so on, until this one time, and maybe I had worn him down, and perhaps Mama had gotten involved as she could be rather persuasive, when Pops took me to the circus.
There weren’t any lions or tigers or bears or elephants, no high wire walkers or trapeze artists, nobody getting shot out of a cannon or throwing knives or swallowing swords, nothing that extravagant. But there were clowns, and tumblers, and trained poodles in frilly skirts that jumped through hoops, and a guy who juggled bowling pins without dropping many of them. And there was a ringmaster, this boisterous old character with a waxed handlebar mustache who wore a shiny red suit trimmed in sparkling rhinestones and a top hat that reached to the sky. He had a bold manner about him, and a presence that commanded your attention. Through his giant megaphone he would announce each act in a booming baritone and provide a running commentary, hollering out stuff like, “well folks, won’t you just look at all them clowns getting out of that teeny-tiny car” or “how ‘bout them tumblers and their flippity-flops?” or “it ain’t easy juggling twenty pound bowling pins, y’all.” He was funny, and it was fun, and this circus was okay enough. I liked it just fine. And Pops bought me a tub of popcorn and an extra-large soda and a blue cotton candy, so I was happy.
Towards the end of the show, to set up the grand finale, the gymnasium went pitch dark and a lone spotlight shone on this fellow who came marching out from behind the curtain, all businesslike, a mountain of a man who must’ve weighed well over three hundred pounds, dressed in a leopard printed single-strapped singlet with a leather belt and leather wrist cuffs and matching leather boots. It was the strongman, and as he entered, he was pulling this steel cage mounted on a wooden cart with thick, rumbling wheels. Inside the cage was a real live gorilla with a massive body, broad shoulders like a football player and bulging hairy arms and legs as sturdy as tree trunks. For as big as the strongman was, this gorilla practically dwarfed him. And the gorilla appeared none too happy to be confined in that cage. In fact, he was downright spitting mad, lashing out with its meaty fists and yanking at the bars, and howling something awful, exposing its razer-sharp teeth.
An anxious hush fell over the audience as everyone stiffened and grew silent, the air thick with anticipation, nobody knowing what exactly this strongman was intending to do with this angry gorilla in a cage. The ringmaster informed us, in a solemn, foreboding manner, that the gorilla had only recently been captured from the wilds of the jungle and transported all the way here to Louisville in the cargo hold of a container ship that had traveled for days upon days down the Ohio River from New York City. I wasn’t much for geography, had nary a clue if someone could properly sail from New York City to Louisville down the Ohio River, but it sounded plausible enough to me, and I reckoned that, if it was true, a lengthy, uncomfortable, cramped trip like that would’ve made anyone ornery, particularly a gorilla that had only recently been captured from the wilds of the jungle. Yet it was what the ringmaster said next that seemed truly farfetched. He said that the strongman was going to wrestle this gorilla!
There were scattered murmurings and whisperings among the audience, blank stares and shrugs, mouths agape. Surely, as we all surmised, that had to have been a joke, and we waited in earnest for the ringmaster to offer some indication of that, a subtle grin, a mischievous wink, if not just coming straight out with it and admitting, through his megaphone, “nah, folks, I’m just kidding.” But instead, the ringmaster assured us that this was “no joke, folks,” resulting in further scattered murmurings and whisperings, blank stares and shrugs, mouths agape. I sat perched on the edge of my seat, everyone did, to see how in the world this was going to transpire, especially given that there was no wrestling ring and, moreover, and more importantly as far as I was concerned, no ropes or partitions or any type of barriers to prevent the gorilla from escaping into the stands. I glanced over at Pops but he was unfazed. He just looked on, with this vague smile on his face and a faraway gaze, as he drank his beer out of a paper cup.
I took a deep breath, and steadied myself, and watched as the strongman pulled the cage into the center of the gymnasium floor, with the gorilla continuing to carry on as if it wanted nothing more than to get at this strongman, probably to take out on him all of its pent-up aggression from being captured and then sent on a slow boat down the Ohio River. And sure enough, that gorilla got its chance because no sooner had the strongman opened the cage when the gorilla leapt at him as if it had been sent hurling from a catapult. The crowd let out a collective “ooh” followed by a collective “aah” as the strongman and the gorilla proceeded to brawl, wrestling each other with a ferocity like they were sworn mortal enemies. The ringmaster provided a play-by-play that nobody was really listening to as we were all too focused on the fighting.
It was some spectacle alright, and a surprisingly even bout. The strongman would be on top for a spell, and then they would flip, and the gorilla would be on top, and vice versa. It went back and forth like that, the two of them rolling about on the gymnasium floor with neither appearing to gain any competitive advantage nor getting the better of the other. I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing, had never seen anything like this, not on TV or in the movies and certainly not in the flesh, a man wrestling an ape. People cheered and shouted, although it wasn’t entirely clear who everyone was rooting for. I wasn’t for certain who to root for myself since, after all, that gorilla had been uprooted from its home and brought to be in a circus in Louisville so it had every reason to be perturbed, but I also didn’t want to see this strongman get hurt. It was thrilling regardless of picking a side, the most exciting experience I had ever been party to, and I could not wait to get home to tell Mama everything about it.
This violent clash between these formidable opponents went on for a while, persisting longer than I had anticipated, and it seemed to be moving towards a draw when the gorilla, with a precipitous burst of energy, got its second wind, and hauled back and then rushed at the strongman with everything it had, driving its humongous shoulder into the strongman’s chest and knocking him into the air and onto the ground with a wallop that reverberated off the gymnasium walls. There was a thunderous roar that arose from the crowd, with high-fives and pats on the back, and acknowledgements of “way to go!” and “you did it buddy!” to the gorilla. But the gorilla wasn’t interested in anyone’s adulation or in basking in his victory, and it also didn’t seem content with merely besting the strongman. Indeed, the gorilla wasn’t yet done and it began stomping on the strongman as he lied flat on his back, out cold and completely helpless, its gigantic feet throttling this poor man, the gorilla’s arms raised triumphantly above its head.
The crowd was once more silenced at this unexpected turn, this gruesome display, with the audience members visibly concerned for the wellbeing of the strongman as it appeared the gorilla might stomp him to death. People yelled for the ringmaster to do something, to put an end to this carnage, some pleading, impassioned, others furious and demanding immediate intervention. But the ringmaster, for all of his previous bluster, looked to be as frightened and confused as everyone else. Furthermore, since he was there on the gymnasium floor in the midst of that mugging and well within striking distance of the gorilla, he did what I supposed most folks would’ve done in his circumstance, though for those of us in the audience it came as quite a bombshell. The ringmaster turned tail, and he ran, scurrying off so fast that his top hat went flying and he threw a shoe. He just skedaddled away from there, as swiftly as he could. The houselights came on, and with no one presently in charge, the crowd was flung into a panic, me included. But I glanced over at Pops and he was still just looking on, smiling and enjoying his beer.
After a fleeting few minutes of this uncertainty, which nonetheless felt like an eternity, the gorilla mercifully ceased its assault on the unconscious strongman, and eased away. The crowd exhaled a sigh of relief, but it was short-lived upon the realization that there was still a wild, and very much agitated, gorilla on the loose in the high school gymnasium. And sadly, the gorilla didn’t seem to want to call it a day, as it pivoted to scrutinize the spectators. I then watched in horror as the gorilla began to make its way into the stands. Everything downshifted into slow motion for me as people screamed and squealed and shoved each other aside with no regard, tossing their popcorn and sodas and cotton candy, scrambling for safety as the gorilla tramped and trudged and lumbered up the rows of metal bleachers. And to my utter dismay, it was headed directly to where Pops and I were seated!
I was momentarily frozen but managed to break away enough from that petrifying scene to turn to Pops, and he still didn’t seem concerned, not in the slightest, and I could not fathom how he could remain so calm and collected. I guessed that maybe he had drunk too much beer, as he was apt to do, to be in any actual fear. But he needed to be afraid, and he needed to get out of there, we both did. I grabbed at Pops and tugged on his shirt sleeve, and I exclaimed, hysterical and terror-stricken, “Pops, let’s go, let’s go! We gotta leave! Let’s go! That gorilla’s coming into the stands. That gorilla’s coming at us!”
Pops didn’t react, other than to keep smiling and drinking his beer. I had spilled my soda and dropped my popcorn and cotton candy like everyone else, and I was fixing to run like the rest of them, my body jittering, my heart thumping, wide-eyed and frantically searching for an exit. All the while that gorilla was steadily approaching, as incensed as it had ever been, snarling and bellowing, those razer-sharp teeth. I was convinced that the gorilla was coming to get me, that that was my destiny, just the hapless hand I had been dealt, to be attacked by a gorilla at some local circus in the high school gymnasium on a Sunday afternoon. It had to be because there was nobody else around, everyone but me and Pops had up and left and Pops didn’t seem to care. I was smack dab in the path of this enraged beast that had already beaten a strongman into submission so what chance did I have, just some kid.
“Pops, come on, Pops – let’s go!” I yelled, my voice cracking, tears streaming down my face, but Pops just smiled, and sat back in his chair, and casually crossed his legs, and drank his beer from a paper cup. “Pops, come on, we have to leave! We have to – let’s go!”
I was jumping up and own, and grabbing and grasping at Pops, begging for him to do something, to get us out of there, whatever I could to get his attention so that he would understand the seriousness of this, screeching and shrieking with hardly any voice left, imploring Pops to take me away from there, to please just take me away. And I kept on like that, and on like that, as the gorilla drew closer, and closer, with Pops still not doing anything about it. I couldn’t understand this, and I couldn’t accept this, and I knew that this couldn’t be happening to me and yet it was.
The gorilla was right there, squared up, so close that I could reach out and touch its tangled and matted fur. All I could do was close my eyes and pray for this to be over and that it wouldn’t hurt too badly, that hopefully I wouldn’t know what hit me, like that strongman who had been left for dead. I waited for whatever it was that the gorilla was going to do, surrendering to my fate. I became sorrowful that I might not ever see Mama again, or any of my buddies from school, but I was plumb out of options at that point. So I waited. And I waited. And nothing. There was nothing from the gorilla. I cautiously opened my eyes, first squinting through one eye, and then both, and saw the gorilla standing before me, staring at me, a scowl and those razer-sharp teeth but otherwise its expression was oddly fixed. I couldn’t figure it out, had no earthly idea what this gorilla was up to. Then it did something I would have never imagined. The gorilla put both of its catcher’s mitt-size hands against its ears, and kind of shook, and sort of twisted, and it pulled off its head!
Underneath the gorilla’s head was a man’s head. As it turned out, it wasn’t a wild gorilla captured in the jungle after all, but a man in a gorilla suit, a sweaty and red-faced and portly man with a ruddy complexion and unruly stray strands of damp hair in his face that he pushed back over his bald spot with his bulky gorilla glove. It had been a man in a gorilla suit the whole time, and when he saw me, how I was in shock and disarray and disbelief and still altogether fearful, as well as a bunch of other emotions, none of them pleasant emotions, he doubled over and started laughing as if it was the funniest thing ever. And everyone around us, as people returned to their seats and also saw that it was only a man in a gorilla suit, started laughing, with the loudest laughter coming from Pops as he pointed at me and finished his beer with a chug then wadded the paper cup in his fist and tossed it to the floor.
The ringmaster came back out, and the strongman bounded up off the gymnasium floor to take a bow, and both of them were laughing as well. The ringmaster announced through his megaphone about how they liked to end the show with a joke, and he said some other stuff too but I wasn’t listening after that. And I wasn’t laughing either because I didn’t get the joke. I didn’t think that was funny. I sighed heavy, and looked down, and noticed that I had peed myself, the front of my shorts with a wide wet spot that I attempted to cover with my hands. I just looked down, and wished for this moment to pass, as my heart gradually resumed its normal beating, and I wiped the tears and snot from my face, and I swallowed hard to dislodge a lump that was stuck in my throat. I just looked down, until this was over, until Pops got me out of there and took me home. We didn’t talk in the car, and I didn’t say anything about it to Mama. I didn’t say anything about it to anyone. I just tried to forget about it, to bury it deep in the furthest corner of my mind and never think of it again, that one time when Pops took me to the circus, and it was the most scared I had ever been in my life.
Peter J. Stavros is a writer in Louisville, Kentucky, and the author of two short story collections, Three in the Morning and You Don’t Smoke Anymore and (Mostly) True Tales From Birchmont Village. You can find him at www.peterjstavros.com.