I AM GIFTED, IF I DO SAY SO myself, in that I can see the downside of everything. Unbridled enthusiasm has never been part of my constitution. Indeed, the most I can ever muster is “restrained interest.”
A few years ago, I was working on a story about a Catholic priest who travels with the Ringling Brothers circus. Cleveland was the closest the circus would come to the Twin Cities for quite some time, so I enlisted my friend Tim to join me, and early one morning we piled into my Toyota for the 14-hour drive across the Midwest. In our attempt to alleviate the tedium of a long drive, we started making fun of everything.
We mocked the misspelled homemade signs for cheese and eggs; we derided people’s political sensibilities, as evidenced by their bumper stickers; and we even—I’m not proud of it, I’m just telling it like it is—ridiculed cows. It got feverish in that car, each of us trying to outdo the other in our scorn. By the time we got to our hotel, we were exhausted, the life sucked out of us. My excitement and curiosity to meet the circus priest had evaporated, and grimness had overtaken me. The whole project was just another stupid thing. I pulled the bedspread over my head and tried to sleep.
The next day we went to the arena as the circus folks got ready for the night’s performance. For hours, we trailed Father Hogan through the bowels of the arena. Braying elephants were escorted past us, cranky lions paced in their cages, and the clowns talked on their cell phones. It was all I could do to match Father Hogan’s quick pace as he talked to the young acrobats about their First Communions and the lion tamer about his baby’s baptism. At one point, a couple walked by. Father Hogan nudged me and, sotto voce, remarked: “They get shot out of the cannon together—they’re having marital difficulties.”
Just before the lights went down for the performance, we were shown to our ringside seats. We were too hungry and tired to talk, and my mind knitted on all the questions I should have asked in my interview.
A sadness swelled through me as I thought about how I would never become a trapeze artist. The spotlights began to crisscross, and the pageant of tigers, trapeze artists, and tight-rope walkers began. As the show continued, the entire auditorium seemed to undulate with the collective gasp of wonder.
But all I could think was, “Any one of them could die at any minute.”
Then a group of young men took the center ring. Dressed in a costume designer’s idea of urban street wear, they pulled out a bunch of jump ropes andÂ—with rap music blaring—starting jump-roping. I’m talking serious jump-roping, complete with somersaults and bouncing basketballs, all fast and furious and dizzying.
Behind me was a boy maybe 8 years of age. I could hear his body shift in his seat as he watched, hear his “Oh, wows!” Suddenly, a young man in the troupe collapsed dramatically to his stomach and began flopping over the flying ropes. I felt the kid’s gasp ruffle my hair. He began to holler, “He’s doing the worm! He’s doing the worm!”
The worm, of course, is a dancing move where the person lays on the ground and makes a rippling motion. The kid knew this, but simply couldn’t stand it; his body couldn’t contain it. He shrieked, “Mom! Mom! He’s doing the worm!”
The crowd loved the spectacle, but the child behind us was beholding a miracle. You knew he’d talk about it for days. Maybe he wouldn’t get to sleep that night, his body charged with the memory. Again he cried, “Oh. My. God. He’s doing the worm! The worm!” As if none of us really understood the magnitude of this.
After a big closing number, the music finally stopped and the confetti fluttered to rest. As the lights came up, we watched the kid take his mother’s hand, telling her with quiet conviction, “Mom, this really is the greatest show on Earth.”
Tim and I spoke very little on the drive home. Cows and “cheze” were left to themselves. Now and then, we’d marvel aloud at the kid, laughing at how overcome he’d been. Maybe my resistance to getting carried away about anything is hereditary. Perhaps it’s part of growing up in the Midwest. Maybe life does that to a person, the years smoothing the raw edges of fervor. Still, I think that kid knew something. On those days when I am waiting for the other shoe to drop, I try to remember that someone, somewhere, is doing the worm.