A Million Tiny Ropes
By Virginia M. Mohlere
Clown by Bryan Prindiville
What if they let go of the net, JennyAnne thought as she swung in the spot-lit layer of warmth between the dark of the tent peak above and the dark of the floor below. Bert, Robert, and Bobby, practically interchangeable in costume or out of it, a trio of dark heads outside the canteen trailer and a trio of squashed mud-colored fedoras under her every night.
They leaned back from the net’s edges and kicked up their oversize shoes until the crowd laughed. They danced back and forth across the ring until the crowd shouted with worry. But the center of the net was always precisely underneath her, no matter how fast or slowly she swung. Always the very center, and their six hands grasping the edges.
“We’ll always catch you, JennyAnne,” Bert said to her through the window of the women’s trailer, while she was peeling off her costume for the night. She snapped the window shade shut over his face.
None of them ever seemed to get all the black liner washed off from around their eyes.
“We’ll always catch you, JennyAnne,” Robert said, standing behind her at the canteen. She bumped forward into Sheila, the Wolf Lady.
Their breath was always cold on her skin when they stood too close to her and spoke.
“Watch it, darlin’,” Sheila said, but pulled JennyAnne into a furry embrace, “you come up here and fill that plate. Get much thinner and you’ll take off from that trapeze, fly up off into the night.”
Oh, she would, too. Fly up through the hole at the top of the tent and off into the warm summer air, away from nets and clowns and debts and wooden bars chewing up the palms of her hands.
But until that happened, the calluses, the net, and the Roberts were the price she paid for those instants of flight. She slept on the platform sometimes, when they did a double show. High off the ground, safe as a bird in a nest.
JennyAnne sat tucked up between Sheila and Mikhail the Magnificent (Mike Petru from La Grange, Texas) and let them dump extra food on her plate while she pretended not to look. Baked beans, stewed apples, slices of pork roast, and slaw. She let the food sit in her and warm her up, even though it made her heavy, heavy as a thing that might get caught in a net.
You want the net to be taut — just enough to break a fall. But a net has to be a little loose, as well, or a body will bounce up, out, and splatter like an old tomato on the ground right in front of the audience. There are two middle points, one good and one bad.
The good net is the one that’s firm but yielding, like a mother teaching manners to a small child. It catches you, keeps you from breaking, with just enough give to hold you close.
The bad net is the one a little too loose. It’s the net of getting into cars with the wrong boys. You fall into it, and you go farther than you meant. An extra drop that sends your stomach up into your throat. Then it folds around you, all those tiny ropes tying you up at once, and you’re caught.
Three times, her hand has slipped on the bar while she stares down at the net, trying to judge whether it’s a good net or a bad one. Or even a net that will be there at all.
“We’ll always catch you, JennyAnne,” Bobby had said, in the dark moment before she climbed the ladder to her platform.
His hand on her arm had been like sandpaper. It left a tender spot when she shrugged away.
Her hand had slipped, and when she had glanced down, the six eyes staring up at her were black, glittering. Chips of obsidian under fedoras, above red-painted smiles. For the briefest instant, the lips underneath all that paint also smiled, parted in welcome.
It was stone fear that gave JennyAnne the strength to hang on single-handed, swing her left hand back into place on the bar. She tried yet again to swing herself so high she’d take off, but she always came back down to ground. To the dirt, the power of gravity, and the Roberts, with their permanently shadowed eyes and too-red lips, cold breath and skin like sharks. Circling, with a net.