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Circus of the Grand Design
Robert Freeman Wexler
excerpt courtesy of Prime Books

Circus of the Grand Design
Robert Freeman Wexler
Robert Freeman Wexler's stories have appeared in various magazines and anthologies, including Polyphony, The 3rd Alternative, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and The Journal of Experimental Fiction. In 1997 he attended the Clarion West Writer's Workshop. He currently lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

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Cinteotl and Gold

    No sunlight, no waning crescent moon. And the wind? The chill, battering wind lay in wait, malevolent, hidden for the moment but ready to strike. Ice crumbled in its path; its onslaught leveled mountains. Not safe here, in this flimsy house-box with its No-heat No-light.
    Nothing looked the same. Are No's moose head? Where where where? Fire had gone out, but he felt warm enough. Indecision tore at him—remain ensconced beneath Are No's down comforter, despite the lack of fire, or venture out in the wind's dominion. The narrow bed confused him—he rolled onto the floor, banging his elbow. Then he remembered...Martha had left. She had moved out after their argument. He knew she would eventually. Nothing could prevent it. Now, he was too sad to get up. He would stay on the floor all day. But this wasn't the floor of Martha's apartment. No. He was the one who had left.
    He lay his head on the carpet and closed his eyes. There had been a woman, but not Martha. She had been gentle. Her presence soothed him. The desert turned green with the Spring rains.
    "He's such a dreamy boy," Lewis's mother had said many times, and not with tenderness.
    Tenderness didn't get a person through medical school. He had learned that early. And neither of Lewis's sisters ever had to suffer that epithet. Dreamy. Lewis especially loved the irregular border where daydream interweaves with the intense, true dreams that mark the descent into sleep.
    This floor though, its unfamiliar landscape hindered his dreaming. Carpet under his outstretched hand, not Are No's Plexiglas wonder, or Martha's hardwoods. But on the wall, Are No's etching, the sad faces of the sphinx welcomed him. He was glad to have brought the etching along on his journey.
    "Here we are. Here we are," he said, and sat up, staring at the windows opposite him. A milky haze covered them. What lay beyond? He hoped they weren't always clouded. He wanted to view the landscape, see the night sky and the wonders it held.
    The soft light made him think it was dusk, but it had to be morning. Not likely he had slept through the entire day.

# # #

    In the corridor outside Lewis's door, last night's orange glow had changed to a sunny yellow. He slung his satchel over his shoulder and set off toward where Jenkins had said the dining car was. He wasn't hungry though. He had a queasy feeling, like seasickness. Maybe from that weird roller coaster sensation last night. But the dining car would be a good place to meet people. He would sit, maybe drink some coffee, write in his journal. At some point, he supposed he would have to get busy with his new duties. Things should be pretty easy-going here. It was a circus, not an engineering company. Anyway, the most crucial part of public relations is knowing the people involved.
    He entered the car after his (second, according to Jenkins's numbering). It looked about the same as his, lumpy carpet, windows on one side, gray-painted doors on the other. The windows were clouded, all of them. In the next one, the three doors were green, white with a rainbow decal near the top, and orange. His was plain wood. Maybe he would paint it. He liked the green. As he progressed through the train, he found himself counting off cars and, like Jenkins, raising fingers to keep track. One interesting door in the fourth car: an intricate scene like a greek vase, with soldiers mounted on elephants fighting spear-wielding foot soldiers.
    The dining car was a long rectangle with cloudy windows on both sides and a floor the color of egg yolks. Beneath the windows were several chrome-edged booths. On the other side of the room was a counter the color of a ripe tomato, and behind it, a man, standing so still that Lewis at first thought he was a mannequin. He was small but broad, with dark hair cut in a bowl-shape. His eyes appeared to be open, but unfocused, and he didn't move until Lewis was about three feet from him.
    "Okay boss, what would you like?" the man asked. And waited, wiping his hands back and forth across the sides of his stained white apron. Now Lewis wasn't sure coming to the dining car had been a good idea. So much food everywhere: sausages, cheeses, and grease-dripping roast ducks hung from hooks, and on the counter, bowls of dried fish smaller than his pinky, dried squid, dried mushrooms, dried fruit. He thought he might faint, and looked away, at the cloudy windows.
    "How about a suicide roll?" the cook asked.
    A blackboard menu hung by the counter. Lizard meat? Must be some kind of circus joke.
    The cook, without waiting for an answer, handed him a cup of coffee and a plate with a steaming pancake-crepe thing wrapped around some sort of filling. Lewis put down his satchel and slid onto the blue vinyl seat of the booth closest to the counter, facing away so he wouldn't have to look at all that food. He picked up a napkin and rubbed the window. The density of the mist reminded him of when an airplane passes through a cloudbank, cloaking everything in grayish-white. This mist probably had something to do with the temperature differential between winter out there and the warmth inside the train, but it shouldn't be so impenetrable. And wouldn't condensation be on the inside?
    Away from the counter's overwhelming profusion of food, he felt better. He pulled up a flap of pancake thing: potatoes, onions, and some kind of meat—lizard? He picked it up and bit into the flakey wrapper. The filling was spicy and aromatic, cumin and cardamom perhaps, but another rumble of that seasickishness shook him, and he lowered the pancake thing back onto his plate.
    Hoping that writing in his journal would settle his stomach, or at least divert his attention, he took out his notebook. He had been keeping an intermittent journal for several years. Since graduating from college. All the long years of school provided an easy identifier for his life: Cheryl Moskowitz—tenth grade girlfriend; fight with that guy he couldn't remember the name of—eighth grade; he had read The Golden Sail his first year of college, finishing it late one night after studying for a history mid-term. But after college things blurred, months, years with nothing to hang onto them. He started the journal so he could attach dates to experiences.
    He wrote November at the top of a new page. It had been the seventh when he arrived at Are No's. How many days ago was that? He shook his head, having trouble grasping the rush of events—one night at Are No's, and not even a full night, then to the train. So today was the ninth.

    The new world,
    Being the onset of a wild new chapter of life, immersion in the circus. Discovery awaits.

    The cook came by to refill his coffee cup, and Lewis asked if he knew the time. Although Dillon hadn't said anything about meeting in the morning, Lewis thought it would be a good idea, and he didn't want it to get too late.
    "I wake up and there's onions to chop. Today I made roti. Then I served you."
    Lewis wondered how to convert that answer into time. He returned to writing in his journal, but before he could complete the next word, the cook, without a sound to announce his arrival, appeared beside his seat.
    "I made these just before you came," the cook said, presenting a plate of powdered sugar-covered doughnuts. To demonstrate, the cook took one and bit into it, dusting his lips with sugar.
    "Thanks, they look good," Lewis said. "But I don't have much of an appetite now. Maybe later?"
    "Fruit then? I have a nice durian." The cook pointed to a basket filled with spiky, football-sized fruit.
    "No thanks, I really don't feel like I can eat. But can you sit down? I'd like to ask you a few questions about the routine around here."
    "Too busy." The cook carried the doughnuts back to the counter, then left through a door next to the refrigerator. Lewis heard the click of a bolt.
    First a moody porter, now a cook who was only nice when offering food. Lewis stared at the window and imagined the world flowing by on the other side. Quaint villages and stinking factory towns, apple orchards, cornfields, rivers. Without sunlight, how would he be able to judge the passing of day?
    He wrote in his journal about his experiences at Are No's and his meeting with Dillon. The Are No part—he didn't want anyone to see that. Not that he ever showed anyone his journal, but now it felt different. What he wrote incriminated him, proved he was responsible. Not likely Dillon would have taken Lewis if he had known about the arson.
    The cook returned to his post carrying something that looked like a giant turkey.
    "You cook slow or they're tough, especially these small ones from the highlands."
    The juggler entered, bouncing two small white balls. He nodded at Lewis. His red terry-cloth robe dragged on the floor behind him.
    "Morning Cinteotl."
    Never heard a name like that, Lewis thought. He turned his head so he could see them.
    "I've been chopping onions and carrots," the cook said. "Not to mention wrestling with this bird. It's good I plucked it right after I caught it."
    The juggler bounced the balls on the counter twice, then flung one of them behind him. It hit the floor a few feet from the far wall, caromed into the wall, up to the ceiling, down to the floor, to the ceiling, and back into his hand. He pushed the balls into a pocket.
    "How about a couch," the juggler said. "Haven't had one since...last night."
    From behind Lewis came the sounds of an ice machine, then the juggler sank into the seat across from him holding a plastic cup of iced coffee. "I'm Garson Gold. I juggle."

Copyright © 2005 Robert Freeman Wexler

All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author. This excerpt has been provided by Prime and printed with their permission.


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