Only three people were left under the red and white
awning of the grease joint: Grady, me, and the fry cook. Grady and I sat at a
battered wooden table, each facing a burger on a dented tin plate. The cook was
behind the counter, scraping his griddle with the edge of a spatula. He had
turned off the fryer some time ago, but the odor of grease lingered.
The rest of the midwayso recently writhing with
peoplewas empty but for a handful of employees and a small group of men waiting
to be led to the cooch tent. They glanced nervously from side to side, with hats pulled low and hands thrust deep in their pockets. They
wouldn't be disappointed: somewhere in the back Barbara and her ample charms
The other townsfolkrubes, as Uncle Al called themhad
already made their way through the menagerie tent and into the big top, which
pulsed with frenetic music. The band was whipping through its repertoire at the
usual earsplitting volume. I knew the routine by heartat this very moment, the
tail end of the Grand Spectacle was exiting and Lottie, the aerialist, was
ascending her rigging in the center ring.
I stared at Grady, trying to process what he was saying.
He glanced around and leaned in closer.
"Besides," he said, locking eyes with me, "it seems to me
you've got a lot to lose right now." He raised his eyebrows for emphasis. My
heart skipped a beat.
Thunderous applause exploded from the big top, and the
band slid seamlessly into the Gounod waltz. I turned instinctively toward the
menagerie because this was the cue for the elephant act. Marlena was either
preparing to mount or was already sitting on Rosie's head.
"I've got to go," I said.
"Sit," said Grady. "Eat. If you're thinking of clearing
out, it may be a while before you see food again."
That moment, the music screeched to a halt. There was an
ungodly collision of brass, reed, and percussiontrombones and piccolos skidded
into cacophony, a tuba farted, and the hollow clang of a cymbal wavered out of
the big top, over our heads and into oblivion.
Grady froze, crouched over his burger with his pinkies
extended and lips spread wide.
I looked from side to side. No one moved a muscleall
eyes were directed at the big top. A few wisps of hay swirled lazily across the
"What is it? What's going on?" I said.
"Shh," Grady hissed.
The band started up again, playing "Stars and Stripes
"Oh Christ. Oh shit!" Grady tossed his food onto the
table and leapt up, knocking over the bench.
"What? What is it?" I yelled, because he was already
running away from me.
"The Disaster March!" he screamed over his shoulder.
I jerked around to the fry cook, who was ripping off his
apron. "What the hell's he talking about?"
"The Disaster March," he said, wrestling the apron over
his head. "Means something's gone badreal bad."
"Could be anythingfire in the big top, stampede,
whatever. Aw sweet Jesus. The poor rubes probably don't even know it yet." He
ducked under the hinged door and took off.
Chaoscandy butchers vaulting over counters, workmen
staggering out from under tent flaps, roustabouts racing headlong across the
lot. Anyone and everyone associated with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular
Show on Earth barreled toward the big top.
Diamond Joe passed me at the human equivalent of a full
gallop. "Jacobit's the menagerie," he screamed. "The animals are loose. Go, go,
He didn't need to tell me twice. Marlena was in that
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