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 awaited.
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 hard dirt.
"What is it? What's going on?" I said.
"Shh," Grady hissed.
The band started up again, playing "Stars and Stripes Forever."
"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, go!"
He didn't need to tell me twice. Marlena was in that tent.
From Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen. © 2006 by Sara Gruen. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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