(Written fall 2009.)
The spotlights hung nearly at the level of the high platform, and they half-blinded Penelope. Her new red leotard was uncomfortably tight, and the gold sequins dashed across the front scratched through the bodice. She rotated her shoulders, hoping the straps wouldn’t inhibit her movement, and glanced anxiously down at the ladder. Kay should have been standing with her, but she climbed halfway up now, her hair easily visible with its streaks of green, blue, and purple.
Mr. Moreno’s magnified voice boomed from below: “And now on the high trapeze, our world-renowned acrobats will perform death-defying feats, challenging the limits of human ability! In a rare circus performance—you won’t see this just anywhere—not only two, but three trapeze artists will fly through the air. Hailing all the way from Italy, we have our great flyer and catcher Dante, as well as our nimble African negress Penelope. Last but not least joining the trio is our youngest performer and own American, Kay the Cat!”
Penelope grimaced even in her wide smile, turning from side to side to wave at the crowd. He always tried to make them sound as exotic as possible, but she wished someone would tell Moreno it was 1977 and no one said “negress” anymore.
She gripped the bar above her head, lifting it off the hook. Far across from her on another platform, Dante raised his arms to do the same.
They fell forward into space together.
As they rushed toward each other, Dante flipped his legs between his arms to hook them over the bar at the knees just as he let go to bend backward and reach for her. Penelope lifted her feet toward him, and as his hands seized her ankles, she surrendered her bar.
The crowd broke into appreciative applause and gasps as she swung head down over the ring below. Duncan and Looey rode backwards on unicycles, and Berry stood upright over two horses, one foot on each saddle, riding them around the ring.
Behind her, Kay reached the platform and caught the bar Penelope had just released. She rose to her tiptoes before flipping herself in a somersault over the bar, initiating its arc toward them.
Dante’s bar had just started to slow, but he began swinging Penelope back and forth as a pendulum to gain momentum. She reached out her arms to receive Kay’s ankles, but Kay abruptly turned another somersault, landing the balls of her feet lightly on top of the bar. Smiling, she beckoned toward Penelope as she swung away from them again.
Dante swore above her, and Penelope gritted her teeth. She reached up to grasp his wrists, and he released her ankles to take her wrists in turn. Right side up, she was able to help him swing and could better see Kay sitting daintily on the bar, holding the ropes and swinging her legs back and forth.
The invitation was to switch to an old routine, not one they had rehearsed for this show or any recent one, but Penelope still felt confident of pulling it off—though only that, since they weren’t in the right positioning or sequence otherwise for the dramatic finish.
They swung faster and faster, Penelope lifting and pushing her legs as much as she could, watching Kay pump her legs in turn, throwing her body into it.
Finally Penelope gasped, “Next time,” to Dante, and he grunted in response. On the next arc toward Kay, he released her wrists as she threw her body upward, pulling into a tight ball for a somersault before extending her limbs at the last moment to catch Kay’s legs.
Applause burst from the audience, and Penelope swung her legs up to hook over the bar next to Kay and pull herself up. They leaned back in opposite directions, holding their arms out to receive the crowd’s admiration.
Penelope executed one final flourish for the last act and stepped gracefully sideways behind the curtain. Turning, she was greeted by the unholy sight of Lola and Mack grinding against each other into the wall, all their attention engaged in an obscene, open-mouthed kiss.
“For fuck’s sake, save it for a trailer,” Penelope yelled, slapping a hand over her eyes. She heard a breathless panting behind her and dropped her hand as she whirled to glare at Looey. Sweat streaked the white makeup on his temples and cheeks, but enough paint remained to further distort his manic expression.
“Hey hey Penny, have you seen my pogo stick? Do you wanna riiiide? It’ll bounce ya really really good—”
Penelope slammed him back against the wall with enough sudden force to snap his head against the brick. It had hardly connected before her knee drove upwards into his groin. Looey let out a howl the audience could probably hear, and Penelope stepped back to let him fall to the floor.
“That’s for not wiping your filthy sweat off the clubs before me,” she told him. “And you know I’m not interested in any damn pogo sticks.”
She found the back door of the stadium and headed for her trailer. It was small and overcrowded: costumes flung over suitcases of wigs and props, juggling clubs and boxes of cheap snacks littered on the floor. A heavy curtain constructed from a rainbow pinwheel canvas had been strung down the middle, separating a bunk bed and small dresser on each side.
Kay sat at their makeshift vanity, rubbing at her makeup with a rag, her leotard already pulled off her arms and hanging loosely on her chest.
Penelope went to her, stepping easily over the chair’s back and sinking down to sit behind her. She wrapped her arms around Kay’s chest, resting her chin on her shoulder as they looked at themselves in the mirror: Kay’s scrubbed face startlingly pale next to her dark face striped with red lines. “Hey, kitty Kay,” Penelope whispered.
Kay leaned back to look at her directly, grinning, then licked the side of her face. Penelope pulled away, laughing. An instant later Kay gagged, sticking her tongue out of her mouth.
“You coulda waited until I took my makeup off,” Penelope chided, reaching for a tissue to rub her tongue.
The trailer door burst open. “Kay, child!”
Both girls turned to see Momma Tonky’s large frame filling the doorway before she stalked forward. Her colorful clown outfit of hanging rags shook energetically as she spoke and gestured.
“Where the hell—on God’s green earth—was your sweet ever-lovin’ head? What do you mean by that nonsense on the trapeze?”
Penelope drew her arms back around Kay, holding her against her. Kay said nothing.
“Mr. Moreno ain’t pleased! He won’t put up with that nonsense. It’s dangerous, and you know it.”
As Kay still did not respond, Momma Tonky exhaled loudly and looked to Penelope. “‘Nelope, girl. Talk to that child.”
“I’ll take care of her,” she said quietly.
Momma Tonky’s lined face furrowed further as she studied her.
“We’ll be fine,” Penelope insisted.
Heaving a sigh, Momma Tonky turned away, muttering to herself about hard-headed girls as she disappeared behind the curtain.
Penelope lowered her mouth to the curve between Kay’s neck and shoulder, sucking the skin there. She felt Kay’s body relax and arch toward her.
Now wasn’t the time to talk about what had happened. She slid her hands under the leotard, over Kay’s thin ribs, and shifted both of them so she could extend her legs, which had started to cramp.
“We should get outta here,” Penelope whispered to her. “Blow off the whole lot of them.”
Kay leaned her head back, smiling at her. “How are we gonna do that?”
Penelope leaned her head back to look at the yellowed ceiling. “We’ll get our alfalfa from Moreno and walk away. Not here, but in a real town—Chicago or Los Angeles. We’ll get a nice little apartment to ourselves, where no one tells us where to be or what to do or who we gotta be around. We’ll get a job…you can work at the zoo, helping to feed the lions and tigers and giraffes and seals—”
“Sure,” Kay said. “Then I’ll set them free.”
Penelope paused. “What are seals gonna do in the middle of the city?”
“So we’ll steal a truck and drive them to the ocean.”
“Okay,” she said, wondering how to get back to a remotely plausible plan for their future. Kay might dream of smuggling seals to the nearest ocean, but Penelope was serious about working out a plan to get out of there.
She had learned the hard way over the years that running away to join the circus was fairly simple; running away to re-enter the real world was just about impossible.
In Moreno’s circus they were fed (though never with great variety or the healthiest of fare), they were housed (in these clapboard trailers, four to each, except for the men’s trailer, which had five—or four and a half, as Looey said, with Duncan the midget), and they were paid. The last was the biggest joke of all. They each received an equal share of the earnings from each show—after deductions were made from what it cost to feed the animals and themselves, the rent for the circus grounds, gas, and other communal expenses. Whatever was leftover—ten, fifteen dollars—they could claim, but it wasn’t safe to keep cash anywhere in the trailers, and none of them had bank accounts, for reasons which usually boiled down to some form of inability to prove who they were or their legal status in the country. So most of the time they signed a receipt with Moreno, who kept their pay in his own trailer—which was entirely his, the one in the best shape, and which none of them could ever enter on threat of being thrown directly out on the roadside. Moreover, none of them ever saw the gross earnings from each show; they had to trust Moreno to be honest about the total and deductions. The performers were sullen about it, aware of the likelihood they were cheated, but none of them were in a position to protest or walk away. That was why they were in Moreno’s circus.
And where would she go, if Penelope took her earnings, hundreds of dollars all in a bag, and walked away? Where would she sleep that night? What sort of job could she get, besides performing gags and improv in a park and begging for tips? She wasn’t qualified for anything; she didn’t have a high school diploma or even any form of ID.
Kay snuggled closer, nipping at her neck, and Penelope was reminded that tonight was not the time for solving life’s dilemmas, discussing Kay’s troubling behavior, or indeed talking at all.
Penelope turned her head to kiss her, one hand sliding up Kay’s chest and the other withdrawing to tangle in her hair. Kay gasped and whimpered so deliciously that Penelope thought it was a shame to hush her, but did anyway since it was best not to push Momma Tonky too far.
“You love me?” Kay whispered.
“I told you I do a thousand times. I love you more than anybody.”
Kay turned her head to look her in the eye. “You ain’t gonna run off and leave me, no matter what?”
“No matter what.” Penelope kissed her ear. “Nobody in the world could make me leave you. Not ten Morenos.”
Kay was not satisfied. “No matter what I do?”
A sharp knock on the door gave them just enough warning to start apart, and the door flung open to reveal Berry—a young, pretty woman with short dark hair. She looked at them, lip curling with thinly veiled disgust, before speaking. “They cleared the house out—Dante’s already gone to set up our next place. Moreno says to hurry up changing and get back out for breakdown. Also,” she added to Kay, “he already said you’re not doing any more trapeze acts.”
Kay looked back at her, expressionless once more. Berry disappeared down the steps.
Penelope sighed and pressed another kiss to Kay’s cheek. “Let’s go, babe.”
Sometime the next morning, she woke up with a start as the trailer jostled. They were on the road again, she realized, taking in the sounds of the highway; then she sighed and rolled over, wrapping her arms around Kay. The girl mumbled in her sleep, squirming against her.
A second bump jolted Penelope awake again. Giving up, she rolled out of bed, then leaned back to pull the sheet back over Kay. She tugged on the closest large T-shirt at hand and stepped through the litter and props to draw the heavy tent-curtain aside.
Momma Tonky was driving, Berry still sprawled asleep on her bed, her short hair mussed over her face. A few empty bottles clinked and rolled underneath her bed.
“There you are, child.” Momma Tonky had caught sight of her. “Fry up some eggs, won’t you?”
Penelope sighed, dropping to her knees before a small minifridge, and plugged the nearby hot plate into an outlet. From the fridge she took a carton of eggs, half a loaf of bread, and a tub of margarine that was nearly empty. The orange juice was gone too, she noted with a scowl.
A few minutes later she brought two egg sandwiches on paper plates to the front, where she handed one to Momma Tonky and dropped into the passenger seat.
“Fetch me a cuppa orange juice, child.”
“We’re all out.” Penelope rummaged on the floor and brought up a half-empty thermos, offering it to Momma Tonky.
The woman took it with a grunt and set it in a cup holder. “Mr. Moreno won’t buy no more ‘til next week.”
They sat in silence, eating and watching the flat countryside roll by. So much of the Midwest looked the same, interchangeable from one state to another.
“Did you talk to that child?”
Penelope swallowed her mouthful of food. “Last night wasn’t the time.”
Momma Tonky scowled. “No, last night was the time for something else.” Penelope hoped that would be the end of it, but then she pressed on more vehemently. “Lord knows I’ve said little enough over the years—”
“And I appreciate it,” Penelope said, and received the darkest scowl in return.
“Will you let an old woman talk! …As I said, I kept my mouth shut, I let you two be and do as you liked, ‘gainst nature and God’s Good Word and all decency—not to mention better sense, seeing as what could happen if anyone outside ever saw you…but I bit my tongue, like you are now, ‘cause Lord knows neither of you had enough love in your short lives, and you might as well keep what you can get in this devil’s hell of a circus.”
Penelope fixed her eyes on the highway, pressing her hand to her jaw to keep it still. She heard Momma Tonky sigh with less indignant force.
“Penelope, child…I took you as my own blood and kin, seven, eight years ago, when you showed up claiming you had no place to go. Mr. Moreno woulda taken you straight to the cops if I hadn’t fought for you tooth and nail and taught you to walk the tightrope in less than a week. I never bothered you for where your family is or your real name—”
“My name is Penelope,” she said fiercely. “And I ain’t got no family but you and Kay.” No one had missed her when she left, and she refused to even think of what she had been called before. Penelope was a strong girl, a circus girl, and she had no other identity—no history, no childhood.
Momma Tonky took the outburst coolly. “I dunno what happened before you came here, but you didn’t show up with no cigarette burns.”
Penelope shut her mouth.
“Kay was younger than you when she came. Six or seven, the lady said, but she didn’t look no more than four. It was two years ‘fore you showed up, ‘round Christmas time when all the dog-and-pony circuses get together down in California. The last night, when nearly everyone had hit the road, some lady showed up with Kay in her arms and begged Mr. Moreno—they went into his trailer together, and when they came out she handed that baby to me. She didn’t say much, only that the girl’s parents had finally got themselves killed and the baby was better off with strangers than the rest of her family. Well, I could seethat. Mr. Moreno musta known the lady or Kay’s parents—he did it as a favor to them. We dressed her up like a puppy and she rolled around the ring just fine from the start, but she didn’t say a blessed word for nearly a year.”
Penelope had heard the story before, but she didn’t interrupt or tune it out. She had never asked Kay if she remembered anything before she came to Moreno’s circus, understanding it as taboo as her own pre-circus history. Kay still had nightmares occasionally, crying and speaking insensibly, and that was all Penelope needed to know.
“I raised you both best I could, though Lord knows this ain’t no fit place for a child. I ain’t yo mama—if I was, I woulda beat that outta you a long time ago. But you’re getting to be a woman now—I do believe you’re eighteen.”
Penelope sucked her bottom lip. She had discarded her birth date with the name she had been given on that day, and instead marked her age, when she felt like it, by some time approximately six months from it. “I guess.”
“That’s well old enough to be making your own choices. But Kay—”
“You said we got a right to whatever love we got,” Penelope snapped. “And she needs me. She loves me and she needs me.”
“I can see that, child. But you gotta start thinking of what’s best for her, too.”
I am the best thing for her, she thought sulkily.
“And what are you gonna do with her for the rest of your life?” Momma Tonky demanded.
Penelope looked at her, refusing to admit the heart of the problem.
Right on cue, a thin piteous wail came from the back of the trailer. “Penelopeeeee…”
She jumped up at once, saying, “I’m gonna take care of her,” as she leaped over the mess and reached the curtain in two strides.
Kay sat up in bed, knees drawn up to her chest and hair wild about her head. “You left me.”
“I did not, baby.” Penelope knelt on the bed, reaching for her, but Kay drew away.
“Yes, you did. I woke up alone and you promised that wouldn’t happen. You promised me last night nothing and nobody would ever take you away, but I close my eyes and you’re gone. You couldn’t wait to get away.”
“No, Kay – listen, I’m sorry. I didn’t really go away, I was still nearby in case you called—”
“I just wanted to tell you you’re a liar,” Kay said, and she turned her back on her.
Dusk had just settled into night when Moreno’s circus exited the highway. They drove through unpaved back roads for nearly half an hour before coming upon a dark mass of structures, lit only by a handful of grounded floodlights illuminating the sides of colorful, wildly patterned tents and metal. As they reached the compound, shouts and laughter were audible through their trailers.
They had arrived at the carnival.
The trailers circled slowly around the perimeter, until Moreno spotted Dante’s sign for them driven into the ground. They parked in a semi-circle, and all spilled out.
A couple of shoddily-dressed men waited at the perimeter. One, shorter and with a large belly, stepped forward with extended hand for their ringmaster. “Moreno, how you been?”
Kay nudged Penelope from behind, bumping her head against her shoulder, and Penelope understood it as an apology—or more likely, in Kay’s mind, forgiveness. It was, at any rate, as much as she would get in terms of making up, so she took Kay’s hand and pulled her into the dark carnival. Now they could see a glimmer of red fires through the maze, and they moved toward one at random.
A large group surrounded a bonfire with skewers and hot dog wrappers littered over the grass. Most were drinking beer and listening to a few musicians, who sang and played a guitar, fiddle, and tambourine.
Penelope and Kay slowed down as they approached, uncertain if they knew anyone or would be welcome. But one woman looked toward them, then cried, “Well, if it ain’t Moreno’s gals!”
The rest turned their heads, many still strangers, but Penelope moved with relief toward Dixie. She was a tall, weathered woman of indeterminate age—lines around her eyes, long hair streaked with more gray than blonde, but she moved spryly and gave the impression she could carry her weight with whatever needed to be done. Penelope was used to seeing her at least once a year at their annual reunion outside San Diego, when Dixie took them in for a few meals that just might have had all-natural ingredients. She mothered them in a less abrasive way than Momma Tonky and was especially kind to Kay.
“We ain’t Moreno’s girls,” Penelope told her as Dixie released her from a hug.
“Oh, then whose trailer did you come in on?” Dixie swatted her lightly, then put her arm around both her and Kay as she brought them into the circle. “Take a seat, girls, I’ll get you some drinks.”
Penelope studied the faces around the fire, smiling and waving at a few, but there weren’t many she knew. Dixie returned with a couple sodas and sat down on the log-bench between them.
“So how have things been with Moreno?”
Penelope grunted. “Same shit as usual. One of our horses, Rex, died.”
Dixie tsked, waving away a mosquito. “That’s a pity. How’d it happen?”
“Tripped during a rehearsal. ‘Least it wasn’t a show. Berry nearly broke her neck too, with her feet on his back. Moreno went and got his gun and shot Rex hisself. He was terrible afterward for weeks.”
“He had that horse a long time.” Dixie sipped from her beer. “So how’ve you girls been keeping up with the outside world? You do know we got a new president, right? His name’s Carter, I hope you remember that.”
Penelope rolled her eyes. “We know that, Dixie.”
“I didn’t,” Kay said unconcernedly. “And I don’t remember the last president’s name either.”
A sudden pinch on Penelope’s shoulder made her start and spin around. “Darnell!”
His round black face split with a broad grin, and she jumped up to hug him. He lifted her in the air with a squeeze; laughing, she came back down and turned quickly to Kay, touching her shoulder.
“Will you be okay for a while?”
She nodded placidly, leaning against Dixie’s side.
Darnell led Penelope away from the bonfire, around the corner and out of sight from the others. They sat down on thin wooden steps protruding from the front of a large booth with a canvas drawn over the front. Darnell fumbled in his pocket before carefully extracting a lighter and a long white joint. He lit it, took a deep drag, and passed it to her.
“How’ve you been?” he asked.
Penelope held her breath before exhaling the smoke, then took a second hit, feeling the burn in her throat and nostrils. She and Darnell had a long history, first drawn together since there were few blacks among the circus crowd. A few years ago he had tried to kiss her, and she had pushed him away and told him succinctly enough about Kay and that, on the whole, her preference lay in that direction. When he understood, Darnell had grown angry and said something nasty. Penelope had punched him in the jaw. Once he recovered, Darnell had asked her, with a new respect which did not fade, where she had learned to hit like that. She hadn’t answered, because she never talked about her life before the circus. That lesson was, in fact, the only one she had carried from that period: it did no good for women to rely on pansy little slaps.
After that incident, they had gotten along much better, Darnell treating her like a younger sister. Penelope was honest with him in a way she wasn’t with anyone else, so she said now: “I hate this shit. I gotta get out.”
Darnell took the joint back. After a few more drags, he asked, “So what are you gonna do?”
She dropped her head, running her hands over her tight braids. “I don’t know.”
Another silence stretched before he inquired, “You and Kay still…”
Darnell nodded and, after a moment, suggested, “Maybe, if you got away to a different circus—there are better ones than Moreno’s –”
She sat up sharply. “Hell no! I ain’t spending the rest of my life here, Darnell! I don’t even want to be here another year, doing the same damn tricks like a show pony for a few damn dollars thrown my way. I’msick of it.”
“Okay, relax.” He held the joint out to her again. Penelope took a couple more deep hits until the end burned her fingers; she stubbed it out and handed it back for him to save for later. He lit a second blunt. “I know what you’re talking about. This is the seventies—circuses are over, no one cares anymore. They got their color TVs.
“Listen. I got family in St. Louis. They always tell me they got a place for me or any friends of mine who want out. They’ll help you get a job, get on your feet, take care of you for a while.”
“Would I be shitting you about this?”
“But—” Perhaps it was the grass going to her head, but she tried to get a hold of herself and not jump on something that seemed too good to be true. “Can Kay come with me?”
Darnell gave her a hard look. “Depends. Can she keep her shit together?”
Penelope looked away. It wasn’t fair to ask that of her. “Some days. She has good days and bad ones.” She turned back to him. “It doesn’t matter—I’ll take care of her. Where she goes, I go.”
He expelled a cloud of smoke with a sigh. “All right. We’ll see.”
Next Monday the carnival closed for the day, having learned this was the slowest day of the week. Dixie organized an outing into the town after lunch, and Penelope and Kay were glad to go along for a change of scenery and atmosphere.
They met at an old pick-up on the edge of the carnival grounds. Darnell hauled the girls up into the bed of the truck, and they nestled down, comfortably crowded with the others, Penelope pulling Kay between her legs. Even being jostled down the rough roads with the wind whipping her face seemed better than the airless trailers—too thin to insulate in winter, yet not thin enough to let air in during the summer—she was normally trapped in. Some shouted back and forth, but Penelope reclined, content to simply be there, carried along.
The town was small and simple, and it didn’t take them long to reach the downtown: a small radius of streets with dusty, square, two-story buildings. At a street corner of a bank and insurance agency Dixie stopped, and they began vaulting out of the truck. Darnell stepped onto the edge of the side and sprang into a somersault, landing on the road with his arms stretched up like a gymnast’s.
Laughing, Penelope grabbed the side herself and flipped up into a handstand, switched her hands so she faced the other way, and let her legs fall slowly to the ground. Down the block, she saw a family that had stopped in its tracks, gazing at them like they were a pack of just-escaped zoo animals. Grinning, she turned back to Kay, who sat on the edge with her arms outstretched toward her, palms up.
Penelope obliged her, turning around so Kay could hop on piggy-back.
“Oof,” she said, staggering. “You’re too heavy for a baby.”
“Am not—you’re just not strong enough,” Kay said in her ear, pressing her cheek to Penelope’s head. “I wish your hair was softer.”
Penelope rolled her eyes. “Too bad, honey, that ain’t gonna change.”
“So,” Dixie said, walking around to them, “we’ll leave right at dusk. Be back here. If you’re not, you get to walk back.”
Darnell offered a salute, and they split apart in groups. Dixie walked with the girls.
“Know what you’re looking for?”
“A park,” Penelope told her.
Dixie pointed to their left. “There’s a nice-sized one a little ways over there. I have to find a Goodwill for some new costumes, so I’ll catch you girls later.”
Stopped on the way for ice cream, they reached the park in the height of day, with many clean, white families strolling the paths and picnicking. A small, carefully shaped pond lay in the middle, on which some boys were sailing paper and plastic boats.
Penelope and Kay walked around, taking the measure of the crowd, and then ducked behind a cluster of bushes by the far end of the pond. Opening her bag, Penelope pulled out long furry leopard-print gloves, which covered from Kay’s knuckles to her elbows. A furry tiger mask fit snugly on top of her head above her eyes, and she fastened a tail onto the waistband of Kay’s pants with a safety pin. Penelope next withdrew a long coiled whip and shook out a bright red tailcoat with fraying gold edging on the cuffs and down the front seams. It was a little tight on her shoulders and upper arms, but it would serve. The top hat was rumpled and bent, but she pressed it with her hands and set it at an angle on her head. Kay grinned at her in approval.
Penelope leaned close and whispered, “Do your thing, kitty Kay.”
Kay leaped out of the bushes with a roar, and everyone nearby spun around.
Penelope strode out after her, calling, “Ladies and gentlemen—do not be alarmed.” Kay growled, crouching low to the ground and moving on all fours, eyeing the people around her.
“As you see,” she continued, “a ferocious tiger just escaped from the zoo. Be careful, do not approach the tiger—I am a trained professional and will tame her.” With one fluid motion, she uncoiled the whip and snapped it in the air dramatically. Kay yowled and spun around to face her.
The crowd developed almost instantaneously, those nearby clustering in a loose semi-circle, and many more approached, drawing others in their wake.
“That’s a girl!” a small boy exclaimed, and Kay turned at once toward him, growling and moving forward so ferociously he backed up behind his mother’s dress.
Penelope cracked her whip between them, and Kay slunk back. “Don’t be deceived! This is a real tiger, a special breed, and very dangerous.” She began pacing to the side, Kay focused on her now, and intoned, “Allow me space, ladies and gentlemen—I will tame the tiger.”
Thus began their dance. They circled each other, Penelope crossing one foot behind the other, Kay rippling her shoulders and hunching her hips in a way that was almost disturbingly good. Occasionally she got distracted and leapt at the audience, causing them to scramble backwards even as Penelope snapped her whip just to Kay’s side. Once she rushed at the lake, splashing, lapping at it, and dipping her paw to rub her nose and behind her cat-ears, which earned laughter from the crowd.
Finally Kay growled low and long, lowering her chin almost to the ground and her rear swaying high in the air, and charged her. Penelope spun out of the way, red coattails flaring as she raised her whip high and struck down.
Kay let out a high-pitched yowl, arching her back before rolling over. She lay still.
A chorus of “awwwws” immediately sounded from the audience, and a child cried, “You killed her!”
Penelope knelt by her side, bringing her head close as she touched behind the cat ears and her shoulder. She counted to five, then sprang to her feet.
“Behold!” she cried. “The tiger is tamed!”
Kay jumped to all fours again, beaming up at her. She meowed loudly as she rubbed her side against Penelope’s legs, back and forth. The crowd burst into applause and laughter.
Penelope led her in a series of tricks, all of which Kay performed happily and ended with her taking Penelope’s hat in her mouth and prancing around the spectators, beseeching them in mute appeal. The wallets came out. Penelope bowed gracefully again and again from the middle, whip behind her back.
“Twenty bucks!” Kay whooped, twirling on the sidewalk. Laughing, Penelope caught her, attempting to contain her exuberance. Some of the townies passing by gave them odd looks.
“What we gonna buy, Penelope?” Kay grabbed her elbows in turn, leaning back to swing around, and Penelope barely caught her weight in time to keep them from falling. “Let’s buy something amazing. A hawk!”
“We can’t keep a hawk in the trailer,” Penelope protested. “It gotta have room to fly.”
Kay tipped her head back, spinning more forcefully. “We’ll tie a string to its foot and to the top of the trailer, so it can fly as we drive.”
“A hawk ain’t a kite, Kay—” At that moment Penelope stumbled against a stack of metal chairs, knocking half of them over. She almost fell with them, but caught herself at the last moment, Kay pulling her upright. Penelope turned, seeing what had been in her way and an older man who sat just a few feet from them, before the entrance to a bar. “Sorry,” she gasped.
The man rose slowly. He was dressed simply, in a plaid cotton shirt and jeans, and in the blue dusk his weathered face seemed hardened into an immovable expression of scorn. He looked them over coldly before addressing Kay. “Have some self-respect, girl, and keep your monkey in a cage.”
With contemptuous slowness, he turned and entered the bar behind him.
The girls stood stock-still. Penelope’s disbelief had just begun to melt into anger when Kay let out a screeching howl that filled the street. Its reverberation had not faded away when in one smooth movement she snatched up a rock, whirled around and hurled it through the window.
It shattered with a crash, glass exploding inwards, followed immediately by cries from the men inside. For a moment, Penelope stood rigid; then she burst forward, seizing Kay’s arm and setting off at a run down the street. She pulled her left, then right, then left again. Just when Kay’s feet stumbled, threatening to fall, and Penelope realized she had no idea where their meeting point was, the glare of headlights caught them from behind. Dashing out of the road, they pressed against the brick wall of a drug store behind them. Heart in her throat, Penelope wondered what they would do if it were the men from the bar, or cops—
The dark truck pulled alongside them, and someone shouted, “Did you want to walk back to camp?”
With a gasp of relief, Penelope ran forward, scrambling into the back of the truck. She pulled Kay in after her and sank down so the top of her head was barely visible.
One of the men sniggered. “What’d you steal?”
Penelope scowled. “Nothing. Fuck off.”
Kay sat up straight, head turned toward the town they were leaving behind, her blowing hair obscuring her face. Penelope looked up at her, then turned away, toward the dark corner of the bed of the truck.
Moreno’s campsite was deserted when they got back. Penelope no longer touched nor guided Kay along, although she followed her all the same.
Inside their trailer, on their side of the curtain, Kay moved immediately away from her to pick at the sequins on one of their costumes. Penelope dropped her bag on the floor and stood staring at her. At last she said, “Kay.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“We got to talk about it!” Penelope yelled. All at once, she was furious, clenching her fists and longing to shake her. “You can’t keep doing shit like that!”
Kay looked at her, her face remote and strange. She said distantly, “He ruined our day.” Then, more strongly: “They didn’t catch us anyway.”
“They know we’re not from there! They’re gonna come here and ask around, and it won’t be long before they find Moreno!” She didn’t say that by that point, the black girl would be the one who broke the window. Kay didn’t think of that—she never did—she never thought at all. A wave of despair overtook her, and again she wanted to shake Kay until her head worked like everyone else’s. Instead she turned and punched the wall.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Kay jump, and then move quickly for the door. The door snapped shut behind her, and Penelope pressed her arms and forehead to the wall. She could feel a dent where her knuckles had struck. She remained motionless for a minute longer, then pushed away to hurry out, set on finding something to help her forget rather than find Kay.
“‘Nelope! Where’s that child?”
Penelope groaned, crossing her hand over her eyes. Her body felt stiff, like it didn’t belong to her, and the idea of opening her eyes seemed unbearable. “Momma Tonky, ‘lemme ‘lone!”
The sheet over her whisked off, and she rolled over with an inarticulate roar.
“Get your ass up, girl! Mr. Moreno wants us all dressed and outside for the opening to point townies our way. We got less than an hour! And where is that child?” Anxiety edged into her voice.
“She’s with Dixie,” People said, the lie coming automatically. “I’ll get dressed, Momma, just let me ‘lone.”
“You better go get her.” Momma Tonky’s footsteps moved away, and Penelope heard the drag of the curtain.
Only then did she force her eyes open. The world was bleary before her, nothing in focus, but she pushed her legs over the side of the bed and stumbled to the sink. She splashed her face several times, though it did nothing to clear her head. Leaning her arms on the sides of the basin, she exhaled and swore softly and repeatedly to herself. She shouldn’t have broken her resolution never to swallow anything without being sure what it was, but last night she had been desperate to forget responsibility, among other things. She didn’t know how she had ended up in her own bed at the end.
Plucking through a pile of clothes, she pulled on a shirt and skirt that seemed the cleanest and found her way to the door. The balmy air outside jolted her in a way the water hadn’t, and she took a few deep breaths before stepping barefoot onto the cold dewy grass. Penelope had a pretty good idea where Kay was.
Behind Moreno’s trailer his two horses stood hitched, and next to them was Max the lion’s cage. The old lion lay stretched out, asleep, and Kay was curled against his side.
Penelope stopped before the bars of the cage, resting her forehead against them. Kay was facing Max’s side, her knees drawn up against the lighter-colored fur of his lower belly, arms pressed to her own chest, and her head resting on his shoulder below his mane. Looking at her, Penelope thought she had never felt so unspeakably depressed.
She slid to her knees, head still touching the cold metal bars, and whispered Kay’s name, gradually louder and louder, until the girl shifted and looked up. She blinked at Penelope without recognition.
“I’m sorry I was mad,” Penelope said quietly. “I didn’t mean to scare you. You know I’d never hurt you, Kay. I’m sorry.”
Kay didn’t answer. She stared at her, not moving from Max’s side.
Penelope tried to smile, raising her hand to open it toward her. “Will you come out here, please?”
The silence stretched, neither moving. At last, when Penelope thought Kay would refuse to get out until Moreno made her, she sat up and reached for the latch on the outside of the cage door.
Penelope stood up quickly to embrace her as Kay stepped out. She held her close for a long time, Kay’s arms wrapped just as tightly around her own back.
“You’re half warm and half cold,” she whispered. Kay shivered, as though reminded. Keeping her arms around her, Penelope turned back to their trailer. “Come on, let’s get you washed.”
They hadn’t gotten halfway across the grass before a voice stopped them. “Penelope!”
Moreno stood on the steps outside his trailer. He was a man of only average height, but his muscled arms and chest made up for any loss of intimidation there. His features were most often lost in a fierce scowl, and his grizzled jaw, which he only shaved before a show, added to his ferocious bearing. Most of his circus had known him for years, but he allowed no one leniency, treating and expecting the same amount of work from each of them. The only gentleness or care he ever displayed was for his animals, whose feeding, shelter, and training he meticulously supervised.
The girls had long grown used to him, but with the events in town the night before, Penelope’s heart skipped a beat when he shouted for her. She looked to Kay and pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Go ahead and start washing, I’ll be there in a second.”
Moreno’s frown appeared even blacker than usual to Penelope as she approached, and her dread doubled when he held open the door of his trailer for her. She had never been inside before.
She was only able to take in that it was a much neater, cleaner space than her or any of the other trailers’ ever had been, before her attention was fixed by the ringmaster.
Moreno leaned against a counter on the other side and folded his massive arms. “Men from town were just here.”
Her stomach dropped.
“They told me a couple girls—one white, one black—broke their bar window last night. You know anything about that?”
After a pause, she jerked her head in a nod.
Moreno stared at her, black eyes glinting like rocks in which there could be seen neither sympathy nor dislike. “Kay threw it. Didn’t she?”
Penelope took a deep breath, closing her eyes; but knowing that had been enough of a confession, she nodded again.
He moved, pacing slowly past a small card table. “She’s getting worse. More of a liability. Soon enough she’s going to cause an accident during a show.”
Penelope twisted her hands into her skirt. “She was provoked—it wasn’t just for the hell of it. And I’ll talk to her about keeping to the rehearsal for shows. She won’t put anyone in danger.”
Moreno turned sharply to stare hard at her. “Can you guarantee that?”
Throat too tight to speak, she nodded.
He lifted a finger, shaking it threateningly. “I’m going to hold you to that. I’m holding you responsible. If Kay can’t behave, she’s out. Understood?”
“Yes, sir,” she whispered.
He straightened, gesturing to the door behind her. “Go get dressed. Carnival opens in half an hour.”
The sun had risen a little higher in the sky, bringing warmth, but Penelope still shivered as she stepped onto the grass. She stood still, hearing the shouts and bangs from the rest of the carnival preparing for opening, and then she moved purposefully for her trailer.
Kay had dressed in a red bodysuit and was rubbing her wet hair with a towel. She turned at her entrance and, seeing Penelope’s face, went over to her at once.
Penelope took Kay’s hands, holding them within hers before their chests, and she spoke quietly and with urgency. “Kay—I was talking to Darnell the other night, and he told me he has family that take in circus people like us who want to get out. In St. Louis. He can help us go there, and they’ll take care of us, help us get jobs and start a real life. We don’t owe Moreno nothing. We can get our alfalfa and take off, for real.” She pressed Kay’s hands together tightly. “Let’s do it, Kay. Let’s go today.”
As she spoke, Kay’s eyes grew larger, and when Penelope finished, Kay jerked her hands free and stepped back. “No.”
Penelope stared at her.
“No,” Kay said again, now with an edge in her voice. She took another step back and walked around in a quick circle, shaking her hands jerkily. “No, no, we can’t leave. I can’t leave. What would we do, Penelope? Do you got a plan? Do you know any of those people? Do you know their names? We ain’t got that much money, and it’s just gonna get stolen, and then we’ll be on the street with no food or place to sleep or nothing. It’s ain’t safe out there!” She stopped moving to shout at her.
Dumbfounded, Penelope stretched a hand out to her, then dropped it. “Kay—it’s okay, this is Darnell’s family. It’s safe.”
“No, it isn’t!” Kay pressed her hands to both sides of her head, her face pulled in panic.
Penelope moved forward slowly, intending to calm her, but Kay retreated to the wall. She stopped, not knowing what to do, but she said with increasing desperation, “It’s a risk, Kay, but it’s one we gotta take! Hell, do you want to stay here forever, for the rest of your life?”
“Why not?” Kay cried.
Penelope stopped again, unable to believe what she was hearing. “Kay…”
“It’s safe here, Penelope! I don’t know what’s out there, and neither do you! That’s why you left, remember? You wanted to leave, and I don’t want to go back! You can’t make me!” She let out a deep, wild sob, lowered her head and rushed for the door.
Penelope caught her halfway there, pulling her down to the floor, but Kay fought like a trapped animal, savagely, scratching and hitting her hard enough to ensure bruises until Penelope caught her wrists and crossed her arms before her chest, holding her like a strait jacket and pressing her head to Kay’s to keep it still.
“Kay—Kay, stop, stop it, it’s me. I’m not gonna leave you. We ain’t—we ain’t gonna leave.” She heard her voice say the words, and there was no outcry from the rest of her, as though she had alr\eady known it deep down. She felt nothing but a great sense of desolation, washing out all else. “I didn’t mean it. We ain’t leaving—I’m sorry I scared you. Hush now. Hush. You’re safe.”
But Kay lay limp in her arms and lap, sobbing as though already broken.