A short Story By Canadian poet, writer, and playwright Grant Guy Flywheel was her circus name, but her friends called her Alice. Alice was not her birth name. No one outside her people could pronounce her birth name – so Alice she became in the United States.
Her people were from Eastern Europe and prided themselves that their language was the most difficult of all language to learn. It shared only four letters with the ancient Latin alphabet and two with the Cyrillic alphabet. The people of Bohemia were in awe of Alice’s people. The Bohemians boasted how difficult it was to learn their language. The Bohemians were eating linguistic crow.
Alice’s people no longer had a homeland. Her people were a conquered people almost as long as their language was old. Ground squirrels and gypsies were held in more esteem. And each invading regime outlawed the language, but the language survived.
The centuries of occupation by foreign regimes, led her family to adopt a radical anti-authoritarian stamp. They wore it like a badge of honor like the Basque utopians that had settled in Wyoming.
Alice’s birth certificate said her name was Nataša Gollová, a government name, but no one in her village called her Nataša. Even after her parents’ arrived in the United States, when she was five-year old, she was always addressed by her ancestral name.
Alice quickly grasped American English. She was bright. She not only remembered what she was taught but understood it. Her grasp of the hidden within facts led her often into conflict with her teachers. And everything was open to questions.
She had a natural talent with music, gymnastic and had prestidigitation dexterity. She joined a Seattle amateur drama club. She learned all she could about being on stage and backstage. She was particularly good at comedy, could adlib and pratfall with the best. Her childhood American hero was the clown Dan Rice.
When she was about eight years old her mother took her to see The Greatest Circus In the World that visited Seattle in 1871. She was discerning. She had political difficulties, as much as an eight year old could, with Albert Aymar, the great Civil War era clown and his Cavalcade of Ku-Klux-Klan. Years later she had the opportunity to meet the famous clown who was still spiritually stuck in his Antebellum sentimentality. Aymar had a framed, autographed photograph of Robert E. Lee he cherished more than his mother and God.
It was at the outside the offices of The Daily Pacific Tribune where Alice spotted the poster that changed her life. She studied the poster with awe. Her eyes lit up like candles in the winter. It was a poster announcing the formation of a circus school for children. Classes were every Saturday during the week and a two-week circus camp in the summer. She took the sleeve of her mother’s blouse and yanked. She pointed out the poster to her mother.
“Can I? Can I?” she begged her mother.
After a month of badgering her stepfather and mother, they conceded and enrolled her in the circus classes. Money was tight, but somehow her father scraped up the enrollment fee. Tom Wildon (Petr the Extravagantly) was the principal of the circus school. From his first meeting with Alice he knew she was something special. In time Tom found a sponsor that would subsidize Alice, freeing her parents from a financial stress. Tom’s classes were not limited to the circus arts. He wanted to introduce Alice to the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, Karl Marx and Michael Bakunin. Alice proudly informed her teacher she was familiar with the writing of the authors. Her parents had a small home library and their books were well represented in her parents’ library.
From then on all her activities, athletics, choir, band and the drama club, were directed towards the circus arts. She learned tight and slack rope walking, juggling, the arts of sword swallowing and how to somersault on the Russian bar.
After seven years of studying the circus arts with Tom, against her parents’ hopes, who had imagined their daughter as a poet, a writer, a prophet for her people, she board at stage coach to San Francisco. There she enrolled in a Commedia school run by a man who studied mime and Commedia in France with Alfonso Rossi and Eugene Morietti.
In the Commedia school Alice gelled with a half a dozen other students who had dreams of starting their own circus, a roaming circus of American gypsies. They were given encouragement and administrative support of a populist, circus owner of The Greatest Littlest Circus.
It was three years before Alice and her seven fellow students at the school of Commedia could establish their little circus of juggling, gymnastics and clowning. Instead of ornate circus wagons the circus toured in chuck wagons, their canvas painted in the brightest and happiest colors their imagination could conceive. Over the next twelve years their reputation and popularity increased. The circus was now a family of forty-three people. Children were born into and grew up in the circus.
The bohemian centre of the circus could not hold. The performers, getting older, found it more and more difficult to sleep under the stars. Some performers quit and began ranching. Others got jobs in the towns and cities that dotted the west coast from Seattle to the Mojave Desert. The circus dwindled down to five performers. At that time all, but Alice threw up their hands. The wagons and horses were sold and the money distributed equally among the five remaining members.
The public taste had changed. The one-ring mud circus was falling out of favor with the public always on the lookout for new exhilarating thrills and spills. The new thrill and spill were the three ring circuses with lions and elephants. The three-ring circus was exotic and foreign to the eager audiences.
Alice, now jobless, to survive financially, lead workshops in youth clubs throughout California and into Oregon and Washington. She acted in several theater productions from the Bay Area. She tried performing at industrial associations, but her sense of humor, and her politics, did not dovetail with the goal of the emerging corporate industrial world and patriotic associations. Years later, as an old women, she dedicated her time to the Wobblies. She worked a few vaudeville houses. With comedy clubs she had to argue with the owner to get paid. They told her to perform for tips. The owners would put their hands on Alice’s shoulder and say,
“We are giving you something better than money. We are giving you exposure.”
Four years later Alice received a telegram from the P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome,” a traveling circus. She was invited to perform with them on a one-year contract, touring the northeast. They said her talents would compliment their current show. She boarded the first train east to Chicago. At the Dearborn Station she was met by a representative from P. t. Barnum, who led her to a livery outside the station. He told the driver to take her to the Stratford House, and told Alice to appear at the circus at 10:00 a.m. There she would be shown the act she was to duplicate.
“Duplicate?” Snapped Alice.
“Just show up and do what to you are told.”
He did not accompany her to the hotel, which surprised her. She was a surprised by his coldness. There was no “glad to meet you”, no “how was your train trip”, no “welcome to Chicago”.
Alive was prompt the next morning arriving exactly on time. A man directed to her the audience benches and told her just observe. A clown performed a clown turn. Very quickly Alice recognized the act they wanted her to duplicate was her act she did on the West Coast. Her jaw and heart dropped. The only difference with her version of the act and the P. T. Barnum version was that it erased all of the hard edges of the original. It was polished it like rhinestone, making it palpable to a refined eastern audience who thought circuses ought to entertain and not challenge them. When she complained to the Stage Manager she was told the Grand Traveling Museum had sworn off independent acts like the Amazing Ronnie. Everyone was expected to stick to the script or go the way of the dinosaur. They were no longer welcome in the ring. Independence was an anathema to Barnum.
She insisted with her protests.
“If you are unhappy with our offer you can quit right now, but we will sue you to the ends of the earth. And we have the pockets and lawyer to do it,” she was informed by the Stage Manager.
When she got back to the hotel room a telegram was waiting for her. It was from the Amazing Ronnie.
“I just heard about the offer made to you by the Barnum. Stop. If I had heard sooner I would have warned you. Stop. The Barnum’s circus is like Peter and Pail Fortress. Stop.”
The next night she opened the cages of the circus animals. She released the animals with the aid of Dmitri Lunachenko, a Russia animal trainer. Lunachenko left Russia un a hurry after he insulted the Tsar from the circus ring. Both Lunachenko and his offending pig were tried and if found guilty would have been sentenced to the Peter and Paul Fortress or exiled to Siberia. It was unclear whether the pig would follow him to either. Lunachenko and his pig were smuggled out of Russia. In America he was quickly snapped up by Barnum. It took him less than two weeks to know Barnum and he were a bad fit. Lunachenko was trying to revolutionize animal training. In Russia he was perceived as an eccentric and an animal freak. In Odessa, during an outbreak of the Black Plague, he rounded up rats and hid them in his hotel room to prevent their extermination. He quickly became a vocal critic of how P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome treated the animals. He was threatened with deportation. He had already had made up his mind to liberate the imprisoned animals before he was approached by Alice. If he were unable to free humanity from its imprisonment he would set them free. Alice and Lunachenko shared a rebel spirit.
The morning after the animal exodus Alice caught the first train out of Chicago, heading back to Northern California. The escaped circus animals spread terror through Chicago for the next three days.
It did not take her long to hook up with some of her old colleagues from the circus. The all had the original spirit. The spirit was vibrant and erupting. They all had spent too long dancing to someone else’s tune. From now on it was going to be their revolution and they would dance at their revolution. In six month their little, little circus was performing to old and new audiences form San Diego to Vancouver, sharing the profits with charities, cooperatives, labor unions and anarchist/socialist libraries scattered throughout Oakland. Children of the performers were performing alongside their parents. The two, and now three generations created a new energy and a circus that served the needs of their community.
The Barnum’s lawyers never arrived.
And in the eleven months, while performing in Eureka, the Amazing Ronnie had joined their band of jesters.
No one was making big bucks but who gave a damn. Not Nataša Gollová.
Grant Guy is a Winnipeg, Canada, poet, writer and playwright. Former artistic director of Adhere + Deny. His poems, short stories, essays and art criticism have been published in Canada, the United States, Nigeria, Wales, India and England. He has three books published: Open Fragments (Lives of Dogs), On the Bright Side of Down and Bus Stop Bus Stop (Red Dashboard). His plays include A.J. Loves B.B., Song for Simone and an adaptation of Paradise Lost and the Grand Inquisitor. He was the 2004 recipient of the MAC’s 2004 Award of Distinction and the 2017 recipient of the WAC’s Making A Difference Award.
My origins in art derive from theatre. Theatre is a story telling medium of the human condition. It may be hyper realism or absurd but it is of stories of the human experience. As my career moved from play-writing to prose and poetry I remain committed to the human experience.
From the front jacket of the collection of short stores The Naked City by Sterling Silliphant – where a crime of violence and an act of infinite tenderness can occur seconds apart . . .
In many respects that is what I am attempting to do with my poems and stories. I am interested in our individual humanity in a harsh and sometimes comical environs.
I believe, if there is a god, god is a prankster.
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