Garrett Ashley

The Circus

Our mom weighed sev­en-hun­dred pounds when we were still from Mississippi, shelling pur­ple hulls dad brought home from the water­mel­on man. We asked him about water­mel­ons and he said, “Yeah, they’re still mak­ing.” Mom closed the pur­ple lid on her portable couch-grill and ham­burg­er grease poured down into the plas­tic dish.

Next year,” said dad. And always: “Come help me out under the shed.”

My broth­er Romney was taught ear­ly to water the dogs and spray around the fence so he would­n’t have to ride too close with the mow­er. Dad want­ed us to be ready, for when he was gone. Taught me how to wear the big apron and use the work­bench. Sharpen the lawn­mow­er blade on the bench grinder.

Hold this up,” he said. Sweat bead­ing down his nose. “Help me.” I lift­ed dog box­es the most. He fas­tened the bolts, ham­mered the cement nails, drilled through tin pan­el­ing and I promise that sort of drilling isn’t the qui­et kind.

Inside, mom grilled chick­en with the couch-grill. She did every­thing in the liv­ing room. Except the dish­es. Sometimes every­one else did the dishes.

It’ll be hell get­ting her to the bath­room,” dad would say. At the time, bath­room was only an excuse for us to leave.

Across the road, a clown liv­ing in a cir­cus tent walked the tight rope between two knot­ted pines, jug­gled Siamese cats, built fires and host­ed Monday night foot­ball get-togeth­ers. His yard always smelled like smoke, his smoke always drift­ed west­ward into our yard. Our bahia yard, when it did­n’t smell like smoke, tast­ed of pine sap and hot mud. Something like body odor always float­ed up from the fur­row between our front steps and the screen door.

Inside, when mom could work up the ener­gy to get to the refrig­er­a­tor, she would pop open a cylin­der of cres­cents, fill them with whole milk and spread them with burnt marsh­mal­low cream and but­ter until it sticks when mouths are full. Our tongues still melt, said Romney.

And the oth­er day, dad came home from a hard day of what he calls pick­ing ros­es to clean up the mess mom makes. He took pho­tographs of her obe­si­ty for sub­mis­sion to the Copiah-Lincoln CC Alumni Directory.

Once, the clown across the road tried to teach us the fun­da­men­tals of jug­gling live ani­mals. “The claw-ee-er, the bet­ter,” he honked.

I’d rather beat a bush,” Romney said. He was the say­er of things. So we went to the nation­al for­est and cut down an oak, us and the clown and a flash­light, stacked the logs and in a month they were dry enough for burning.

He invit­ed dad to a limb-burn­ing, who was hap­py to come by and have a drink, and mom, who could­n’t get up any­way, she was so busy por­ing over new recipes to try with her portable couch-grill.

By now, her skin must be graft­ed to the couch. Scissors might work, or the same scalpel they use to cut away warts and can­cer spots.

You know any good jokes?” dad asked the clown across the fire. It cracks the loud­est when he speaks, some­times so loud that he has to repeat him­self. And that’s any­where, not just out behind a clown’s tent, in the pine trees.

Romney always got ner­vous when dad spoke. When dad asked a ques­tion, Romney scratched the dry-eczema on the side of his head. Or he’d look down and to the right a lit­tle, but that could’ve been his fas­ci­na­tion with dirt, or trimming.

The clown, sit­ting atop a red rodeo bar­rel-turned-side­ways, rubbed his blis­tered hands togeth­er while he was think­ing. He nev­er looked like much of a clown, to be hon­est. His cheeks were still red where cir­cus-paint stuck the hard­est. “I can tell you a train just passed by,” he said. Sniff. And he told us why: “I can see its tracks.”

And sure enough, the tracks were still there. Nothing would ever wash those away. They stretched out into the emp­ty woods, emp­ty dark, weeds wrap­ping over their cracked ties and dis­in­te­grat­ed bal­lasts. When we were kids I asked Romney where he thought they went. Some place spe­cial, he had said.

Scary? I asked.

His answer: Anything must be bet­ter than this.

Dad burped. That meant he was hav­ing a good time. “What about you?” he said, kick­ing the tracks with his unsinge­able steel-toe boots, look­ing towards me, just me, with sunken, glassy eyes. But I nev­er knew any good jokes, not like the clown.

Mom taught us to keep a bet­ter track of time, and it was get­ting late. I looked at Romney, and he looked down at the dirt, or the trim­mings, the earth being so splotchy and incon­sid­er­ate, these days. Being late is the sort of thing that’s nev­er fun­ny, not with dim­ly lit pho­tographs or marsh­mal­low-melt­ed desert wait­ing, that is, if we’re lucky. Dad told the clown I’d be hap­py to join the cir­cus one day. Get out of this place.

The clown, he watched the fire, wig­gled his ears, and when the rusty squeak sound­ed over the tracks he perked up. A hand­car pumped out of the dark, rid­er­less, and set­tled on the tracks. The clown offered Romney a cig­ar and they lit up. Then they jumped the hand­car and rode out into the dark. I heard Romney cough, nev­er being much of a smok­er, and that was that.

Mom still bakes cres­cents, sends hugs and kiss­es, like there’s some hope left. Dad does­n’t keep dogs much, any­more. Takes pho­tographs when he can, of mom, the unused tent, the smoke that still ris­es in rib­bons and creeps into our yard, the tracks that seem to fade a lit­tle more every day, and that’s why—he says—he takes so many pic­tures of us and every­thing else.


Garrett Ashley lives in Hattiesburg and was once a stu­dent at The University of Southern Mississippi. He hopes to get into a writ­ing pro­gram soon. His work has appeared at PankWord RiotdecomP, and Pear Noir!, among oth­ers. He can be con­tact­ed at