Excerpt from a novel, String Weavers
“Hey, get some breakfast and get your butt over to the elephants. You’ve got work to do!”
Michael’s pale blue eyes searched the sawdust-covered corridor between the tents and the private spaces that the performers in the circus called home. Sheets and diapers fluttered from clotheslines like flags marking where a family with a baby lived. It reminded him of his cousins’ backyards in the Narrows. The stuff of everyday living surrounded him, but he saw no one.
Michael froze. Was someone calling to him? His eyesight was not the best, and he couldn’t make out anything within range of his faulty vision that resembled the outline of a person. He resumed his exploration of the back lot of the circus with more caution. When no other command was given, he decided the voice addressed someone within one of the tents.
“You there, with the straw hat. You with dust all over your clothes.”
Michael wore a straw hat. It shaded his eyes from bright light and protected his pink scalp, which was so easily burned by the sun. Dust, from the remains of dry leaves, his only cover at night, and from swirls of fine particles of red clay from back roads parched for lack of rain, crusted his shoes and powdered his jacket. He glanced left and right. Again there was no one. With his eyes squinted to clarify what was in his line of sight, he searched the path behind him. Standing now about ten paces back was a tall, thin, blue-black man. A navy jacket, its brass buttons dull but its elbows shiny, hung on the man’s wiry frame. His skin seemed to blend in places with the cloth of the jacket. He sported a grease-spotted gray tie, gray shirt, and worn overalls. His hands were on his hips and his face wore a mask of irritation.
Michael pointed to himself. “Me? Are you talking to me?”
“You were the one who just went by the elephant corral, weren’t you?” The youth affirmed the observation with a nod.
There were no people with dark skin in the Narrows. Only once had Michael seen another nigra, one of the many names his aunt called people of color, the most polite according to her. He’d been in town with his aunt and a man swept dirt and debris out the door of a shop near them. Michael, a small boy at the time, was curious. “What makes his skin darker than ours?” he’d asked his aunt. “Did he stay in the sun too long and get burned black?”
“No, child, coloreds are born that way.”
“So he’s like you and me only darker?”
He remembered she hesitated. “God made the coloreds like He made you and me, Michael, but coloreds aren’t like you and me. You and I have feelings. Coloreds don’t. They’re different.” Pausing, she added, “sort of like animals—simple, you know?”
The comment stayed with him. He wasn’t quite sure what to do with it or with the command from a man at a circus he’d never met, much less one with blue-black skin. Michael with his translucent skin that showed his veins beneath its surface was different for sure than this man, but then they both were different from most people he knew. And Michael had feelings, very strong feelings for and about people, those he loved and those he’d come to fear and hate, but he hid them. Did this man who was as dark as he was light have feelings, too, and hide them?
“Are you coming or not?” The man’s question brought Michael out of the reverie. His memories didn’t make the decision easier, but his inquisitiveness was persuasive. Was it safe to follow this man? Was Michael about to be thrown off the lot or beaten up as so often happened in the Narrows? His aunt had told him to stay away from coloreds, but she didn’t say why. This man was not frail. The deep, resonant voice contradicted Michael’s first impression that the lanky man was emaciated and weak.
Walking away, he beckoned with a wave for Michael to follow, and the youth did as instructed. Why? He wasn’t quite sure except there was something calm and commanding in the older man’s voice, and he’d mentioned breakfast.
Soon Michael sat at a picnic table under a cook tent sopping egg yolk with a piece of toast in a frenzied manner like a minnow after breadcrumbs. This was his first real meal since he’d gone on the run over a week before. Under-ripe apples, walnuts, wild berries, and pilfered potatoes were sparse fare for an adolescent nearing manhood.
The colored man swung his leg over the bench, straddling it, and sat down next to the youth after scooting Michael’s hat away from them. Lighting his pipe he made himself comfortable. He drew in with a cough and exhaled with an audible wheeze. “Been smok’n nigh onto sixty years, don’t s’pose I’ll quit now.” He coughed again and spat away from Michael’s direction making a dark brown spot in the sawdust.
The boy didn’t know whether to cringe at the man’s closeness or to be complimented, but the food in front of him was much more important than the man’s proximity. With his fork Michael stabbed a slab of bacon for his plate and added two hot biscuits. Helping himself to a jar of plum jelly, he applied a liberal coat to the biscuits.
“Must be hungry or do you eat like this all the time?” questioned the older man. Michael nodded yes to both and washed down his last bite of biscuit with his last swallow of coffee. “Been on the road awhile? Where’d you come from?”
Michael pretended to have one more piece of biscuit in his mouth in order to stall. He didn’t know much about anywhere except the Narrows, and he didn’t want people to identify him as being from there. “I’m from west o’ here, sir.” Then fearing he’d said too much he enjoined, “Do you want me to work with the elephants, sir?”
The old man raised his eyebrows both times the youth pronounced the word sir. Then he surveyed Michael’s corn silk colored hair, clear blue eyes, relaxed face, and his wide young shoulders.
“You’re not from ‘round here. That’s clear enough.”
On the table the man dropped fifteen cents. “Nothing’s free here. You’ll have to pay your own way.” Michael reached into his pocket to get his handful of change, but before he’d pulled it out, the old man demonstrated how firm his grip was by grasping Michael’s arm and stopping its exit from his pocket. “First meal’s on me. After that, you’re on your own.” The blue-black man’s words trailed over his shoulder as he stood, swung his leg over the bench, and walked away. The youth replete with food hesitated, grabbed his hat, and tripped as his second foot failed to clear the bench because he was in such a hurry this time to follow.
The smell of the animals drew Michael to the paddock. When he arrived at the fenced area, the older man gave him instructions. “Seen you with ‘me early this mornin’. Not everybody’s got the touch. Elephants is smart about people. They’re big and dangerous creatures. You remember now! You treat ‘em right, and they’ll likely not harm you. You mistreat ‘em, and they’ll stomp your guts out. That’s their way.”
“Yes, sir.” Michael noticed the man scowled about something again, and he guessed it might be because of something he’d said or how he’d said it. “Did I say something wrong?”
The old man stared in his eye and studied his face. Ignoring Michael’s question, he said, “Name’s Painter, at least that’s what I’m called. I paints the signs and billboards when I’m not work’n the pachyderms. What’s your name?”
“Michael,” giving Painter no more information than Painter offered him.
With that Painter handed him a grain shovel and pointed to a pile of elephant manure. He motioned at a painted green and yellow trailer with a hand crafted sign. Surrounded by a variety of large colorful flowers, it read “Elephantizer Grows ‘Em Big.”
“You want me to load the manure into your trailer?”
“That’s ‘bout it. Get to work. We needs to be outta here before lunchtime.”
Michael took to the work with enthusiasm and cleaned most of the paddock by midmorning. It occurred to him this job would be there as long as the elephants had regular feed, which he presumed Painter provided.
After Michael worked up a sweat and the trailer bed was full, Painter appeared from behind a tent. He pointed to a trough pipe and a bucket, and handed the muscular youth a long- handled coarse brush. He indicated up and down movements and pointed to the elephants.
Although Michael understood the pantomime, he was reluctant to assume this second task. Painter’s warning echoed as very real when he was closer to the animals. His stomach churned as he approached the great beasts, but he felt an obligation to the man who’d bought him breakfast. Besides, the big elephant nuzzled him with his trunk when he came close to the paddock that morning. But he’d been ignorant of the danger then.
Before long, though, he’d washed and brushed the largest elephant and had a good start on bathing the smaller female. Both elephants stood patiently for him to scrub their tough hides.
As he finished up the female, the male elephant sprayed him with a blast of cold water from the trough. Michael looked up into the huge pachyderm’s eye and was sure he saw the elephant smile. The animal punctuated his point by picking up a pile of sawdust and hay with his trunk and throwing it over his back, dusting where the tall youth had just bathed him. “I’ve got a lot to learn about you critters,” Michael bantered back at the animal’s antics.
About that time Painter returned. He motioned for Michael to help him attach the trailer to an old truck. Painter supervised, which Michael noticed was his tendency, and then motioned for Michael to jump into the passenger side of the truck. They drove to town to deliver the elephant manure to Towners, the name Painter gave to the city dwellers. Those who wanted to grow healthier flowers and more robust vegetables welcomed them by hailing them and directing them to their beds ready for planting.
Painter called to the people in their yards and on their porches, “Elephantizer’ll grow your flowers the size of elephants. We shovel. You plant. God grows ‘em.”
One woman walked out to her gate waving her handkerchief to gain their attention. “Yoo hoo, boy!”
Michael was ready to answer, but before he could, Painter did. “Yes, ma’am. My friend and I are comin’ your way.” His voice was friendly and light, but his teeth clenched as soon as he spoke. Michael was confused. He was the boy. It was clear Painter was not young. Salt and pepper, close-cropped, kinky hair covered Painter’s head. Gray stubble dusted his cheeks and chin.
“Yeh, nigger boy, we need some of that shit your haulin’.” Another man next door called over his fence.
Michael cut his eyes toward Painter who was getting out of the truck. The old man’s jaw was tight, his face hard. People up and down the street gathered near the hedgerows and fences. Michael couldn’t tell if they wanted some of their elephantizer or to observe a fight. There was an air of expectation. He held his breath. He wasn’t sure what he thought about Painter yet, but he was sure that Painter had done nothing to deserve being called nigger, a hateful name for coloreds, his aunt had told him.
Painter’s wide black nostrils took in a deep breath. The familiar cough didn’t follow as he expelled it. His pride swallowed the cough, Michael decided. Painter went around the back of the trailer and motioned for Michael to join him. Under his breath Painter directed him, “Give ‘em their shit, and spread it thick, but don’t bother to work it into the soil.” He looked straight at Michael then. “No need’n payin’ them no mind. It’d only add fuel to their fire. Their money’s good as the next. But, Michael, make sure they’s paid me before you haul.” Without a word and with his head held down, Michael pitched and spread the manure. He wished Painter had moved on to another street, but he guessed his employer was right about not riling anyone.
Painter handled the negotiations and the money while the youth shoveled the elephantizer wherever he was told. Most places he turned it into the beds if the homeowners were cordial. Michael bet their flowers would grow big and healthy if they kept them watered.
Toward the end of the day at one house, a white-haired man, bent over his cane and with a face like a dried apple, wanted to help shovel because the day was getting long. Painter stepped in, relieved the man of his shovel with a gentle but firm motion, and finished the job. When the man wanted to pay extra for two workers, Painter refused. None of this was lost on Michael.
After hours of shoveling, the boy’s muscles ached, though they were used to heavy farm work. He was frustrated and more than a bit unhappy with his employment situation. When the last elephant pile was worked into the last flower bed, Michael collapsed onto the front seat of the truck, angry and exhausted, and felt taken advantage of. Breakfast may have been his pay, but breakfast was long used up by the third or fourth yard of mixing manure with earth.
Painter, sitting now behind the steering wheel, mouthed as he counted off his money, “Fifteen, thirty, fifty-five, a dollar five.” He stopped fingering the change and raised his eyebrow when Michael declared, “Mr. Painter, you’ve been real kind to give me a job on my first day with the circus, and I appreciate your willingness to help me get started in circus life, but I’ll be damned if I see the benefit of this job for me. You feed them animals. They crap wherever and whenever they want. I scoop it up and put it in the trailer. You sell it. I shovel it into flower beds and gardens, and you get paid. I understand how this profits you, but it’s not clear what I get out of this business relationship except sore muscles. You see what I’m driving at, Mr. Painter?”
The thin old black man put down his money, tapped out his pipe on the outside of the rusted door of the ancient truck, took tobacco out of his pouch, and lit his pipe before responding. “You know, circus life ain’t what people expect. They think it’s the glamour of the big top or easy money made from grift’n and graft’n. Now look at what you done today. You got a free meal—that’s a good thing, now ain’t it? Unlikely that’ll ever happen again at this circus. You learned there’s value in hard work and pride in a job well done.
“But most of all, you done learned the most important lesson of circus life. It ain’t so important what you do in the circus, but you best figure out a way to make money for yourself or you’ll find yourself shoveling shit for a living while somebody else makes all the money.” The old man’s eyes danced, and he produced a deep hearty laugh truncated by a racking cough. He took a long drag from his pipe and blew a smoke ring. “Son, you done good today, real good. Here’s a quarter, your fair share, and now we gotsta figure out your real place in this circus.”
Michael looked at the money in his hand. Except for the milk and egg money his aunt entrusted to him so he could buy the things they needed for the farm, the conscientious youth handled little money. He kept the books for his uncle for his “shine” business, but his uncle counted the money, never trusting Michael with the actual currency. So much of their business was done in barter that not much real money changed hands anyway. Occasionally, he’d give Michael a nickel or, in a generous moment, a dime to spend as he liked. It was with those few coins, carefully set aside, that Michael escaped the Narrows.
Putting the quarter Painter gave him in the pocket with his change gave him an incredible feeling of pride he’d never known. It crossed his mind that money was a powerful thing. He’d be careful of his feelings about this. His aunt said, “The love of money is the root of all evil.”
Painter and Michael arrived back at the circus well before the opening night’s show. As they pulled into the back lot, smiling circus people encircled the truck. The boy stepped down out of the front seat, weary from the day’s work. He tried to read the temperament of all these laughing people. Were they making fun of Painter or maybe Michael?
“How’d the take go? Are these Towners generous or tightfisted?” asked a red-haired, voluptuous, tattooed woman.
“Tightfisted but not in the way you mean. Some of ‘em don’t much take to colored men, but on the whole there’s some what liked to grow pretty flowers.”
“Who’s your helper, Painter?”
Painter turned to the youth with the ice blue eyes. “Introduce yourself.”
“My name’s Michael.”
“He’s a good worker and has a way with the pachyderms. Milton, you wantta introduce him around? I got stock to feed.”
Michael was quick to ask, “Mr. Painter, can I help you?”
“Sorry, I can’t afford you.” With that Painter disappeared behind a tent, in the direction of the elephant paddock.
Milton, the fat man, said, “Come on, young man. I sell lemonade. I bet you’re thirsty.”
From the coins in his pocket remembering what Painter told him about nothing being free at the circus, Michael paid Milton “5 cents a glass,” the price on the sign above the booth.
All five hundred fifty pounds of Milton waddled to the midway while Michael strolled beside him sipping the lemonade. They were joined by the three-foot-two-inch Colonel Perkins and Mickey, the mule-faced man. The first sight of Mickey, who looked a good deal more like a mule than a human, took Michael aback, but Michael soon forgot the man’s appearance, indeed all the men’s appearances, and enjoyed the comfort of their acceptance, a rare commodity in his world in the Narrows.
As they walked, Michael marveled at his good luck. He was out of the Narrows, he’d found a place to eat and sleep, and he had some money in his pocket earned fair and square.
At the dart game, they met Alphonso, the legless man who sat propped against a wooden beam. “So, you’re Painter’s new mark?” ribbed Alphonso. “I hear you got the circus fever in your head, sawdust in your blood, and elephant shit on your boots.”
Michael smiled, not knowing what a mark was, and ducked his head beneath his hat brim to hide his embarrassment over his ignorance. He for sure had elephant manure on his boots, however, and it stunk.
“This town appears pretty welcomin’. They bought Painter’s bill of goods,” Alphonso commented, “Not like the last town, right son?”
“Hoo we! I hope we don’t come across a group of Towners like those folks over the state line near Chattanooga. They were mean once they got lickered up.” The Colonel shook his head in disgust.
Michael was not so sure that these folks were any better after observing the townspeople’s treatment of Painter than the ones the circus left behind. However, he wanted the men to be right that no one was sippin’ and nippin’. That was something Michael knew about. His uncle slapped his aunt around when he’d been nippin’ his shine.
Michael listened to the men talk more about the work that was yet to be done before the first show of the night. This reminded him that Painter had told him he’d find him a place to work in the circus. “I’d best be going.”
“Where you goin’, Michael?” asked Milton.
“I need to find Painter. He told me he’d help me find a place at the circus.”
The men, Milton, Colonel Perkins, Mickey, and Alfonso, each looked at one another. All laughed so hard Alfonso almost fell off the counter. It took several minutes for the four to calm down. It was Alfonso who spoke first. “Don’t go find Painter. We’ll find the Professor, the owner of the circus, and see if we can get you signed on.”
Colonel Perkins chimed in. “Michael, Painter don’t own them elephants, he just owns the legal rights to all the elephant shit and the use of the truck and trailer. You’ve finished his work for the day except feeding those beasts which is what he’s doing right now.”
Milton patted him on the back. “Michael, you ain’t the first or last to do that man’s work for him. Painter doesn’t paint many signs any more. He doesn’t need to; he’s got so damn much money. Most of it came from those elephants’ manure. They’re owned by Professor Zambizee. He gives all the elephant droppings to Painter for looking after ‘em. The Professor always says, ‘No pachyderms, no circus.’ But Professor Zambizee liked to have died of envy when he found out what Painter was doing with all the elephant fertilizer. The professor tried to get out of the contract, but ole Painter had a signed agreement. Zambizee took Painter for a fool when he came to the Professor for his signature so Zambizee signed it. Painter’s no fool.”
Mickey, the mule-faced man braying like a mule in a well- rehearsed comment, caught Michael’s eye and said, “Hee’all, Hee’all, Hee’always gets the rookies to do his work for him.” Everyone laughed.
It was Colonel Perkins who said with utmost admiration, “Painter’s got the best grift in the circus. Towners can’t get enough of elephantizer. Skinny little prick has the perfect business—endless supply and unlimited demand.”