“It’s a dying art you know.”
Leopold says this to me as I am chopping up the chicken for the lions. I just grunt. I don’t see anything artistic about chopping up one hundred and fifty pounds of chicken for three giant cats that always look at me like they are wondering what I taste like. It’s about a million degrees and I am sweating like a whore in church sitting on the first pew. Leopold walks around the table to start loading the chicken into five gallon buckets. He is the only one that feeds the lions. When he is performing he wears this anachronistic safari outfit and a pith helmet . Today is his day off so he is wearing a Kent State t-shirt and some cut off sweats and flip-flops. His tawny skin stretched tight across his bulky frame. His arms are like great slabs of meat hanging from a barrel. Years of cracking the whip and swinging a wooden chair had given him Popeye forearms. He wore his hair in a close cropped black crew cut.
I was his apprentice and his son. I hated being the former and tolerated being the latter. We had a relationship more akin to employee and employer than father and son. My mother had run off with a roustabout when I was born. I think she was one of the first people to run away from the circus. My father Leopold Carmine ,raised me in a world of sawdust and tents. Where the smell of popcorn mixed with the smell of elephant shit. My playground was the safety net under the trapeze artist or the stage where the knife thrower practiced not hitting his wife. With his knife at least. I was sixteen . My life consisted of blood and chicken parts and piles of scat . The magic of the circus is lost on me . I live behind the curtain .I can see all the moving parts . Except when it came to lion taming. I had no idea how Leopold did it. The whip and the chair were just props. I had seen him enter the lion cage and feed them by hand. I had watched him rough house with these five hundred pound killing machines like they were kittens. He would tug on their luxuriant manes and pull their tales like they were a school girl’s pigtails. The lions never attacked him ,never even seemed perturbed. Peter Keene ,the elephant trainer thought my father was crazy.
“Those elephants don’t love me. They do what they do because of training . We ain’t friends .I am their master. The moment I let them forget that they would squash me like a fucking bug.” he had said one night in a small town whose name I didn’t remember .We were sitting on the tailgate of his truck drinking moonshine out of a mason jar. Me ,Peter and Aubrey Keene ,Peter’s insanely beautiful wife.
“Your Dad is either the bravest man I have ever known or the biggest fool in the fucking world.” Peter slurred before groping Aubrey’s left breast. At sixteen I didn’t know a lot about women but even I could see the way Aubrey was looking at me . Her eyes were hungry ,ravenous . She was ten years younger than Peter. Closer to my age than to his. The moonshine was making me feel woozy and Peter kept asking me to join them in their trailer. I was almost ready to go with them. Aubrey took deep breaths and her firm bosom rose and fell with an alluring rhythm as she peered at me. If my father hadn’t appeared to drag me back to our travel trailer I know I would have joined them.
Now he stood watching me impassively as I used the cleaver to chop and separate the chicken .Snapping through gristle with a grunt and a curse word under my breath.
“It is a lost art I tell ya. PETA and a bunch of granola eating Whole Foods shopping so-called naturalist make the wholeworld think we treat these kings like shit. I have trained my whole life to enter that cage and ask those boys to help me make a living. Henri Martin ,he was one of the first lion tamers,didn’t abuse his boys and neither do I..It’s an art , a skill to learn what each boy wants and needs. To become his partner and his friend. To look into those eyes and see the power that they have and learn to harness it . To put away your fear and become a brother to those boys.It’s an honor and a privilege . That’s what I’m trying to teach you Leon. I want you to take over for me. Be better than me .Make it all the way to the real big top . Be the next Gunther Gebel-Williams .” he said . His eyes looked very far away and distant “.There is nothing I wouldn’t do for those boys”
“Or how about Siegfried and Roy?” I mumbled. Leopold came up to me and cuffed me on the back of my head. It was just a glancing blow but it felt like a brick had hit me.
“They are not lion tamers. They are prancing ,preening clowns. Like children playing cowboys and Indians with real guns. One day one of them is going to find his face on the floor. Mark my words. They don’t respect their boys. They don’t know them . You don’t have to make the boys fear you. But they must respect you . And you must respect them .When an animal feels disrespected it will lash out. ” Leopold said sagely. I half listened. I was smarting from that slap up side my head. But I held my tongue. I did not want to disrespect him again.
After what seemed like hours I loaded all the chicken in to ten five gallon buckets .I then loaded the buckets into two wheelbarrows. Then I made the one hundred yard trip from the chop table behind the fortune tellers tent to the lion cages. I hated how my dad called them his “boys” He doted on them ,cared for them in a way he never could for me. The sun felt like it was five feet from my fucking face as I walked with that wheelbarrow. Sweat dripped down into my eyes and rocks and other debris almost made me tip the whole contraption over more than once. Finally I got to the lion travel cages. Each lion had his own cage and each cage was 20 feet long and 16 feet wide. They were parked side by side by side. The tongues of the trailers pointed back to the big top. They really did look like the tongues of some great beast lolling all over the ground. My father insisted that they have the biggest cages possible. He also made sure they food was fresh and that their water was changed daily. He also walked them. On a leash. The three of them heard me approach and walked leisurely up to the cage. They moved with a quiet ,unnerving power and confidence. The three of them watched me unload the buckets. I felt their golden eyes upon me. Nero, Samson and my father’s favorite Rex. Staring at me .Silent as statues. Not grunting or growling. Just staring.
‘HOW ARE MY BOOOOYS!!??” my father yelled .His voice boomed behind me. I nearly jumped out of my skin. He was striding toward the cages with a huge smile on his face. He grabbed one of the buckets and went to Nero’s cage first.
“Hey my boy,hey my boy…how is my boy? Is he hungry? “he murmured as he opened the door on the side of the cage. My stomach always dropped when he did that. I was always fearing the day when the lion pushed the door back ,knocked my father down and bit my head off. Nero scooted back against the bars of his cage and put his head down on the floor. He mewled low in his throat. My father took a piece of chicken out of the bucket and tossed it to him .He jumped up in the air and caught the breast and swallowed it with one gulp .The cage shook as he came back to earth. My father took a raw chicken leg and put it in his mouth. Nero ran at him full speed .Leopold held his hand up .Nero stopped in his tracks. Leopold wiggled his fingers imploring Nero to come forward. The huge cat came forward one agonizingly slow step at a time . Finally standing in front of my father he popped on his back legs and snatched the leg out of Leopold’s mouth.
I didn’t really know if it was art or magic. Or both. In an abstract way I could dismiss what my father did to put food on our tiny table. Seeing it in action however was always ,without fail an amazing experience.My cynical sixteen year old mind called him a freak and an embarrassment . Called him a lout and slave master. But subconsciously ,deep ,deep down inside I was in awe of his command of animals that could kill him on a whim. Leopold finished feeding the lions. Then he took them ,one by one, for a walk while I cleaned the random scat out of the cages that had piled up over night. By the time I was done by arms and back were twisted knots of steel . Finally we had all three lions fed and walked and back in their cages with fresh water.
“Alright. You can go do whatever it is you do. Be back at our trailer by 6pm to help me get ready for tonight’s show.” Leopold said as he petted Rex through the bars of his cage. He had his back toward me as he played with his favorite lion. 6pm. That gave me three hours to find something to do. I didn’t attend school .We moved around too much for that. I would sometimes take a truck and head to the local library of whatever Podunk town we were playing .I would read a lot of fiction but also some biographies and historical tomes. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life but I knew it wouldn’t involve the circus or lions. No matter what my father thought.
I was walking toward one of the community trucks when I saw Aubrey walking across the field toward the midway . She was drinking a bottle of root beer . Her full bee-stung lips caressed the top of the bottle. Beads of sweat trickled down her brow. She was wearing some cut-off jean shorts and a white tank top. Her hair was pulled back in a tight pony tail . Her full firm breasts were straining against the constriction of the tank top. I quickly dropped my head and tried to ignore her as we passed each other under the heat of the sweltering sun.
“Where ya goin, Leon?” she asked. Her voice had a light lilting rhythm and a heavy southern accent.
“Um in to town. I gonna try and find the library. “I said instantly regretting it. I sound like a dweeb of biblical proportions. She smiled. And sipped her root beer. And then smiled at me again.
“You know ,there’s a beach not too far from here. I saw it when we were coming in . I think I remember where it was .It’s so fucking hot I’d love to go for a swim.” she said. As she spoke she reached behind her head and took off her hair scrunchi .Her luxuriant locks fell around her shoulders.
“I don’t know.” I mumbled. She sipped her soda again.
“Don’t you think it would be more fun than the library?” she said softly.
I lost my virginity on a dirty ,trash covered beach in south eastern Virginia. I had no idea what I was doing but I instantly knew I was addicted . To sex in general and Aubrey in particular. She gave me head in the truck as soon as we got to the beach .I exploded after what felt like three seconds. She swallowed my seed then whispered in my ear. “That’s okay sugar .I know you can get ready for me again right? Can you do that for me?” I could . Then she took me down to the beach Her lips explored ever inch of my body. “God you are so fucking sexy . I love your abs.”she murmured as she dragged her face over my chest. Who knew years of toting buckets of dead chickens and cleaning shit would give me a six-pack? We fucked and fucked and fucked again under the shade of a maple tree that was growing out the side of an embankment near the beach. I felt like a starving man and her body was banquet of desire.
Later,after all the shouting and screaming was done,she told me about her life up to that point. How her dad had been in a MC and had take spare the rod spoil the child to ridiculous levels. How she had run away and ended up in Vegas working at a strip club. How she had stabbed the owner of the strip club when he tried to rape her in the dressing room . How she had hooked up with Pete when we were moving through Ohio. And finally how she had wanted me since the first day she had seen me.
“Peter don’t really mind. That night in Spartanburg he was cool with you coming back with us. He ‘s a dirty old man let me tell ya sugar.” she said laughing. we were laying under the maple tree mostly dressed by this point. The taste of her was still in my mouth . A pleasant ,salty piquancy that filled me with yearning. I rolled over and began to stroke her left breast.
“Ah sugar don’t start something you cant finish.” said tugging at my long black hair and pulling my mouth to hers.
We got back to the midway right at six pm. I parked the truck and ran all the way to our travel trailer. It was silver and blue old Airstream trailer hooked to my father’ Ford F-150 truck. I reached to open the door but it swung forward and almost hit me in the face. Leopold stepped out already dressed in his safari suit complete with pith helmet.
” Come on we have to get the boys over to the main tent. How was the library?” he asked
“I thought you didn’t know what I did?” I asked. Leopold walked past me and headed for the lion cages.
“Is that what you thought? “he said .
The show went off without a hitch. My father was brilliant as always. The trapeze artist, the clowns, the stunt bmx bikers everyone hit their cues without fail. After the show was over and last drunken local stumbled out of the big top the performers would take down the booths and cages and rings .Some would retire to their trailers. Some would ride into town and find a bar. Others would sit out on the empty bleachers and drink moonshine out of a mason jar or smoke some weed in the back of a pick-up truck. Leopold always made sure the lions were situated and comfortable before he retired to our trailer. He would read or drink alone in our tiny kitchenette. I tended to wander the grounds until I felt my eyelids get heavy.
But tonight I was hanging around with Peter Keene and Aubrey and Koki the clown and a midget named Uriel. Peter had one of those pull-out retractable shades on his trailer.We were all sitting around under the shade passing a jar around. I listened to Koki tell stories about the Barnum and Bailey Clown college and how he had been a star pupil until he punched an instructor who had stolen his make-up pattern. Apparently clowns take their make-up very seriously. Uriel told us about his time in the porn industry. As the night wound down Koki and Uriel wandered away from our little quorum . Peter took a long swig from his mason jar.
“Well we are going to retire to the chalet . You coming inside Leon?” he slurred. I didn’t want to stop looking at Aubrey . I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
“Yeah sure ,why not? ” I said. We walked into the little cramped trailer. A small love seat was to my left and bean bag was against the far wall. The hum of the air conditioner filled my ears. A pale sickly blue light came from the fluorescent tube over the tiny sink .Peter and Aubrey flopped onto the love seat. I fell into the bean bag. The moonshine was making my head spin and I felt hot all over. Peter started kissing Aubrey on her neck. She made soft cooing sounds with his face buried in her neck. But her eyes were locked on me. Peter pulled at her tank top until one firm tanned breast escaped. He dropped his head and took her nipple in his mouth. The same way I had done earlier that day. I felt bile trying to climb out of my gullet. Aubrey moaned louder and dug her nails in the back of Peter’s neck. A small round table was between the loving couple and myself. Peter’s jar of moonshine sat there mute as the sphinx. I peered into it’s crystal clear depths. I didn’t want to be here anymore .I didn’t want to see him pawing her like …well like an animal. Suddenly Peter pulled his head away from Aubrey’s breast.
“You want some Leon?”he said breathlessly.
“Huh?” I said.
“Some more shine,do you want some?” he said as he twisted Aubrey’s nipple between his thumb and forefinger . I shook my head .That only made me dizzier . I got up to leave
‘Where you going man? “Peter said grinning.
“Yeah Leon stay awhile.” Aubrey said .Her eyes were hungry again. I stumbled to the door.
‘Gotta go …sick.” I mumbled. As I walked past Peter he reached out and grabbed my arm in an iron grip.
“Hey ,anytime you wanna share my shine just come on back. Aubrey she likes to share my shine too.”he slurred. I almost fell out the door . I made my way back to my father’s trailer. The katydids and a few owls were singing midnight songs. I opened the door to find my father asleep at the kitchen table. An empty bottle of wine was beside him. My mother’s picture sat across from him in a shiny silver frame. She was smiling in the picture but her eyes looked sad. They seemed to know the future. A future in which she fell out of love with my father.A future in which she abandoned her only son. I thought I could see the ghost of guilt behind those eyes. Or maybe I was just drunk. I wandered back to my cot. It folded out from the wall and was held in place by two taut wire cables. I fell on it fully clothed . The scent of my pillow filled my nostrils as I drifted off to a drunken slumber The aroma of sweat and tears followed me into the land of dreams.
The next morning was hellish. My father seemed immune to the effects of copious amounts of alcohol. I had not inherited his invincibility . The lions needed food and the cages needed cleaning. The sun was as hot as it had been the day before if not hotter. My head swam in the heat. I was on my way to the cages with the wheelbarrow when I finally expelled last night excesses from my stomach. I was on my knees retching when I saw a wide shadow fall upon my own.
” I don’t want you hanging around with Peter Keene or his hot in the pants wife.”my father said . “They ain’t right. Oh Pete’s a competent trainer and performer.But you don’t need to be in their trailer past midnight.”he said as he walked away. I cursed him under my breath. Aubrey was beautiful and fun and I was just understanding that she was sexy. I had heard the term before but I had always thought of it in terms of appearances. No her sexy was in her walk and her voice. It lived in the dark country behind her eyes. It was so much more than her breast or hips or her deliciously hot mouth. I pulled myself up and continued with my chores. The sooner I was done the quicker I could see Aubrey.
I went to the midway and walked around in a daze. I wanted to go running around screaming Aubrey’s name until she was in my arms . But I didn’t . I just walked around the midway trying to look like I wasn’t looking for another man’s wife. She was no where to be found. I finally just plopped down under an awning in front of the ring toss booth. I leaned my head back against the warm aluminum exterior of the booth. I had my eyes closed and hoping my stomach would stop roiling like the Atlantic ocean during a hurricane when I heard her voice.
‘You look like something the cat dragged in after he threw it up. “she said with a laugh
“Please don’t say “throw up”. I said . She stood between me and the sun . A halo of light surrounded her head . She looked like an angel in dusty cowboy boots. She laughed again
“You can’t handle your liquor. Good thing you can handle other things. Peter went into town ya know.”she said in an offhand manner. My heart began to pound.
“Oh yeah?” I said. I hoped I sounded nonchalant.
“Come to the back of the trailer in ten minutes. Door’s open. “she said. Then she turned on her heel and sauntered away . Her hips swaying to a tune that only I could hear. That was the longest ten minutes of my life. When at last the time drew near I pulled myself up and walked toward The Keene’s trailer. I wanted to run but I made myself walk. All the while images danced in my mind .Of he taut skin below her belly button but above her vagina. Of her lips milking me slowly ,deliberately . I was tingling all over by the time my hand reached the knob on the backdoor I went inside . The trailer was dark and cool. The ac was humming low and heavy. Aubrey was on the love seat naked. Her hands were running up and down her body.
“You should get out them sweaty clothes.”she said .Her voice was husky and whiskey-soaked. I got undressed so fast it could have been a magic trick. I was crazy ,I see that now. Crazy with lust and desire and anger and loneliness. Lust for Aubrey ,anger at my mother and my father and the loneliness because my father loved his lions more than he loved me. I should have left that trailer. If I wasn’t going to leave I should have at least locked the door. I did neither .I dived into Aubrey like she was the ocean That half second when I went from trying to get inside her to being inside her was exquisite torture I went from feeling pain to feeling pleasure in an instant. I felt her nails dig into my back .Her body opened to me like a long ago locked safe that I had cracked with my nimble fingers . She shot her head forward and bit into my shoulder as her legs shuddered around my waist. I still didn’t know what I was doing but I was doing it as hard and as fast as I could. I was lost in the land between her legs . I looked at her face .It was beatific .Her eyes were wide open and staring into my mind .A fantasy life unfolded in my head. Aubrey and I leaving the circus ,settling down somewhere warm. Her laying against me in the morning as we both traveled back to reality through the wall of sleep. Me making her dinner after we both got off work . Silly I know that now. But aren’t most of our ideas silly at sixteen years old? Silly and dumb and innocent and wonderful.
Then Peter Keene came through the door of his trailer carrying his riding crop and all hell broke loose.
Peter had gone into to town. However an argument with Koki the clown about where to get something to eat had shortened their trip. Koki told me later,”If I had known how insane he was I would’ve just said yes to Subway.” So they had returned and Peter had gone over to the elephant cage. But he had forgotten his whistle so he came back to the trailer . He walked through the door and Aubrey began to scream Flush with my new found sexual hubris I thought she was screaming from my fervent lovemaking. It wasn’t until I felt the sting of the riding crop on my back did I realize her screams were of fear not passion.
“You steal what’s mine! I offer to share and you want to steal it you son of a bitch!”Peter screamed. He began to rain down blows from the crop on my back and buttocks.I fell off of Aubrey and onto the floor. Instinctively I covered my head and face with my arms. Peter began to batter my arms and hands with the crop. I felt an odd sensation on my arms .It was like warm water was being poured on me even as the pain from the crop surged through my nerve endings Aubrey jumped up and grabbed Peter’s arm. He backhanded her almost absent-mindedly . Grunting ,she fell back on the love seat . Naked ,bleeding and in pain I was all set to curl up and take a beating. I was fucking this man’s wife after all. Seeing him strike Aubrey filled me with a rage that nullified my pain I hopped up and tackled Peter ,throwing all my weight into him . I caught him off guard and we both tumbled back to the floor. I had the upper hand ,but only for a moment. I was strong but only strong for a sixteen year old boy. Peter was strong in a way that I didn’t comprehend. Farm strong,working man strong. His anger driven muscles pushed me off of him as if I was a sack of potatoes. Before I could get to my feet he was up and grabbing me by my hair.
” Son of a bitch .Just like your whoring ass mama!”he howled . He slammed my head into the door. My cheek bone snapped and white light filled my head. He slammed my head into the door again and the inside of my mouth filled with blood. The third time he slammed my head into the door it popped open and I tumbled out and down the steps to the dirt. I felt a knee in my back and a hand pulled my head until my throat was exposed. The cool wicked edge of a knife settled there against the hollow of my throat. I was tired and scared and I was crying.
“Get off my boy Peter.” my father said. I opened my eyes and there was Leopold Carmine standing there in a white t-shirt and khaki shorts. He was barefooted and sweating. On his left side was Nero and on his right was Sampson. Sometimes I forgot how huge they were ,his boys. Nero’s head was almost as big across as my dad’s chest. Sampson was a little bit smaller. I noticed through my bloodied vision that Nero’s eyes were the lightest brown I have ever seen. Like drops of honey. Sampson had green iridescent eyes.The color of fireflies.
“Leo he fucked my wife!” Peter growled. As if this would bring my father to his side and he would come over and hold my hair while Peter slit my neck. My dad had his hands at his sides . He just shook his head slowly. Sadly.
“I know Peter. But you kinda brought this on yourself. You been waving that girl under his nose for months now. Are ya mad you didn’t get to watch?” my father said. “Now Peter I’m going to tell you again .Get off my boy. ” Peter didn’t move. My father raised his left hand and Nero roared. I felt the air from his lungs on my face. The roar rumbled through the entire camp. Nero’s fangs gleamed in the sunlight.
“He fucked my wife Leo. In my own fucking house! ” Peter said . His grip on my hair had slackened just a tiny bit.
“He’s my son Peter. He’s my boy . She don’t love you Pete. Never has . Hell she ain’t even really your wife. You just started calling her that.You let her fuck who she wanna fuck as long as you get to watch and you think that makes her love you.You think you controlling things. You think you training her .But you ain’t.And now you want to punish her by taking away something she likes.You can’t train her like an elephant Pete. . It don’t work that way Pete. Didn’t work with Caroline and it ain’t gonna work with Aubrey. Hurting my boy ain’t gonna make her be true or love you more. But it won’t matter anyway because if you cut my boy, Nero and Sampson will rip your arms off before his blood hits the ground. So I’m going to tell you one last time Peter Keene. GET OFF MY BOY!” Peter hesitated . Then he shoved my face in the dirt and got off my back. He went into his trailer and slammed the door behind him. Nero roared again and this time Sampson joined in the cacophony . The Kings had saved my life.
Later I was in our trailer laying on the couch .My father had taken his boys back to the cages. I had a plastic baggie full of ice against my cheek. My father was sitting in a folding chair next to our couch. He took the bag away and pressed my cheek. I trembled .
“Yeah,I think that cheek is broke.I’ll have Doc Hatton take a look at it in the morning. “he said . He cleaned my hands and arms with warm water and alcohol .
“OWW that hurts.”I protested.
“It should . Didn’t I tell you to stay away from those two? But you young ,dumb and full of cum. Well I guess you’re not full anymore. ” he said as he rubbed my arms. I tried to lay still. There was a question squirming on my tongue and I wasn’t going to be able to hold it much longer.
“Dad. What did you mean when you said “it didn’t work with Caroline.'”? I asked .
“Hmm. I don’t know what you mean.”Leopold said as he continued to clean me.
“Dad . Where is my mother?” I asked .The question felt dirty in my mouth. Leopold stopped cleaning and looked at me.
“Your mother is in Clearwater Florida. When we go home for the winter you can visit her if you want. ” he said coolly.
“She still with the roustabout?” I asked. My father went back to cleaning me.
“You know they call us liontamers. I don’t really tame lions. .I earn their trust. I become their equal. Their confidant . I guess you could tame lions . Yeah I guess you could . But you can’t tame people. You can train them . You can control them. But you never can really tame them. They are wild at heart and wild in deeds.” my father said. He cleared his throat. “She isn’t with the roustabout anymore . “he said softly. He dabbed at my arms again
“You know a full grown male lion can eat up to 75 lbs in one sitting. In two days it could probably eat a full grown man . Wouldn’t leave nothing but the bones and maybe some skin. A scalp maybe. ” he said very very quietly. He looked at me as he dabbed my face with a washcloth. He sighed. “She loved me and you but she loved Rex more.”
“What about Rex?” I asked.
“That was his name . The roustabout . Rex. I named my boy after him. “he said as he stared at my mother’s picture on the kitchen table.