The giraffe is staring at him. All Johnson wants is a little peace and quiet, and this is the only tent where there isn’t an elephant raising hell, where he can escape the rank smell of horse shit and the constant screaming of children in juvenile amazement. Johnson doesn’t care if it is the circus – he had to find somewhere to take a break. And the blue tent of the giraffe enclosure is like walking into church when he was five, wrapped in utter silence as if God himself came and duct-taped Johnson’s two lips together. It is where he comes to think. But now the giraffe is fucking staring at him.
Johnson stands and walks over to the animal, roughly pushing his sleeves up as if walking into a fight. But the cuffs of these godforsaken coveralls are so tightly elasticized that the rough beige material rides up only to mid-forearm before abruptly cutting off his circulation. He yanks them back into place and looks up over the wire fencing and into the face of the giraffe, who towers almost five feet over his head. Johnson’s not a tall guy, damn his father’s genes. The giraffe blinks its big brown eyes and seems to frown in disapproval.
“Not you, too,” Johnson says to the silent animal, then swiftly turns and plunks onto a wooden crate, the motion kicking up tufts of hay. He was not expecting this. He joined the circus to get away.
Outside the tent Johnson can hear the Jack in the Box music, a sign the show’s about to start. He pictures parents ushering their sticky pink children into the bigtop, the clowns already in the ring honking their horns and doing aerial flips, caked on make-up cracking with every elastic face they pull. Johnson’s got an hour left to make a decision. He digs the toe of a crusty sneaker into the earth. The enclosure has been erected on a summertime athletic field, and the dry dirt is turning his shoes diarrhea-orange. Sandwiched between Manhattan and Queens, the circus set up shop on one of those piles of land New Yorkers call an “island” but is really just a swath of concrete slabs turned into a space to build condos and ballfields and make more money. Johnson doesn’t understand why this hell-hole is called the greatest city in the world – it smells like trash. And it’s cramped. Johnson’s already spent enough time in cramped places. He needs space now. He needs freedom. Here, people move around on top of one another, in each others armpits, connected to one another without somehow ever really connecting. Smallest big city in the world. He shouldn’t be surprised that he ran into her.
Johnson hadn’t seen Jessica since Minnesota. Six Flags Over Rochester, four years ago. He was working the Kentucky Derby game for the summer, stuck all the way in the back of Arcade Alley, in the shadow of The Terminator – Fastest Rollercoaster On Earth! Johnson was saving up some money for community college maybe. Or a new X-Box.
“Step up, step up, come and play!” Johnson yelled it robotically five times a minute, thirty minutes an hour, eight hours a day. He didn’t have a megaphone, but back then he wasn’t smoking as much either.
“Lookit the prizes, only two dollars to play!” It was an easy game: up to 10 contestants, you get a water gun and have to aim at a target 8 feet away, horse-racing the shmoes sitting next to you. First to cross the finish line wins a big prize – Stuffed Sponge Bob or Giant Kangaroo.
“Only one person at the counter so far – one in two chance to win!” Player number one weighed 300 pounds and was chewing on a straw. Johnson looked him up and down wondering how long he’d wait for a competitor to show before giving up and going to get another order of fries.
That’s when Jessica walked up and slung her leg over the hard plastic stool. She was wearing that little jean skirt with a slit up the front, and when she sat she let her thighs fall slightly open so that Johnson caught a glimpse of lacy pink panties peeking out from under denim. He walked over to collect her two dollars and tried to remember if he had woken up with any zits.
“One in two chance,” he said, taking the money and shuffling it into an apron pouch at his waist.
“I’ve heard it before,” she said, picking up the gun. She had hair the color of popcorn and threw it over her shoulder before taking aim.
“You versus that guy?” He nodded his head toward the other contestant not-so-subtley. “No question.”
Johnson watched as Jessica snapped her gum and squeezed her left eye shut, wrapping a gnawed-on finger around the trigger. She had a face like a teenage pop star, all young and buttony, and the contrast with the gun and tight clothing made the blood in Johnson’s body course so strongly that when he hit the starting bell and water sprang forth from the two plastic nozzles, he had to move behind the arcade counter to keep from embarrassing himself.
And God she had good aim. Jessica seemed to possess this strange confidence, the way she held the weapon so casually yet hit the target evenly, straight on. He pictured himself on the other side of the counter, his fingers buried beneath that denim slit, hers gently squeezing the trigger with pleasure.
A cough from the fat man a few stools over brought Johnson out of his daze. He looked up and saw to his dismay, despite the perfect aim, Fatty was in the lead by an inch. It was all over in another minute – Fatty took home the panda, then lumbered off to Chubby his wife and Porky his kid to show them his winnings. Johnson was so sick of it all. Always the same.
“Shit you almost had it.” Johnson shook his head.
Jessica put the gun down on the counter and turned toward him, her t-shirt doing nothing to hide the lacy bra underneath that, Jesus, matched the panties. “Better luck next time, right?”
“The trick is, aim about 3 inches higher than you think you should. Gravity and all.” Johnson picked up the water gun and pretended to shoot the nuts off a Giant Spongebob.
She smiled slyly. “You know all the secrets, huh?”
“Been here two years already,” he shrugged. “I could show you how to win at every game.” Johnson watched as across the arcade a ten-year-old’s dart narrowly missed the emcee’s head.
“You can leave the counter?”
“Another life, then.” She stood up and pulled down her skirt, Johnson’s eyes following the motion, stuck on the denim that now covered those soft pale thighs.
“Wait – I guess I could leave.”
“Really?” she smiled. “All right.”
Johnson nodded, but didn’t move.
“I’m Jessica, by the way.”
“Johnson,” he said.
“You’re probably going to want to take that off, Johnson.” She pointed at his money apron, an ugly beige smock the color of dust.
“Oh, right. Right.” He started fiddling with the tie around his neck.
“So, what’ll happen if you just take off like this?” Her dangly silver earrings swung as she talked, hypnotizing Johnson like that Maury the Magician act they brought in last year. That guy was a quack though. They all were.
“They’ll fire me, probably.”
She scrunched up her face in mock sympathy. “Just like that?”
“Probably. I don’t know, whatever. It would’ve happened eventually anyway.”
“Well. Then I have an idea.” Jessica plopped back down on the stool and leaned over the arcade counter so far her tits brushed the linoleum, and Johnson had to bend down to hear her.
“How bad are they here?”
“I mean, do they ever come after people?”
He looked at her quizzically.
“You know, call the cops, whatever.” She pointed her chin in the direction of the money in his apron. “I’m sure we could put it to better use than they can.”
Johnson’s tongue twisted up against the roof of his mouth as he chewed over the suggestion. He’d never stolen anything before. Didn’t have the balls, if he was honest. But it’d be so easy – who knows if these clowns’d even notice. They had their heads up their asses anyway – his boss still called Johnson “Jonathan.”
“What if we get caught?”
She shrugged. “We lie. Fuck the establishment, you know?” Her candy apple lips curled around the word “fuck” and Johnson made up his mind.
He plunged his hand into the pockets of his apron, grabbing two fistfuls of cash. Then he took one of the Giant Kangaroos and hid the money in its front pouch. Shoving the dirty beige smock under the counter, Johnson hopped over to Jessica’s side.
“So where we going?” He took her hand, which seemed the natural thing to do.
“Anywhere but here,” she said.
So where did Johnson end up? God damn jail, that’s where. The pigs picked them up at Suds’ of all places. Squeezed next to her into that cracked green banquette, he saw the reflection of the blue and red lights in the diner window. Johnson’s hand, resting on her thigh, started to sweat, and he wondered maybe he could just get a quick feel – he was so close… But as his fingers twitched to life the door chimes jangled, and uniforms appeared in front of them before Jessica had even looked up from her Diet Coke.
Course the cops searched his car, and when they pulled out the brick of weed from the backseat, well that plus the theft just did him in. Not her, though. Hand-cuffed and pressed up against the squad car, Johnson didn’t see, only heard Jessica say, “officer, I have no idea where the pot came from.” He imagined the little baby-face pout, the silver hoop earrings swinging back and forth, back and forth, I’m innocent, I’m innocent.
“I just met him today,” she said, “I don’t touch that stuff.”
And behind them Johnson’s eyes got big and he started to sputter, because really it was her weed – sure, he paid for it, but she bought it – it was her dealer, he had just been there. But the words didn’t come out and when they finally did they sounded weak, half-assed. And he couldn’t afford a lawyer who believed him, or even name the dealer to buy himself a break. Fucking life.
So he went off to jail for two years and she disappeared into the chilly blue Minnesota sky, just like that, just gone – no sorry, no I’ll write. And when Johnson got out it was all he could do to find this job literally shoveling shit for the circus. But it got him the hell out of Minnesota. And he liked animals better than people anyway.
So that was it. Til today, when in the middle of hosing down the elephant ring before the show he catches a glimpse of popcorn hair and candy-apple lips, and that face still soft and round and sexy – and there is Jessica, waltzing into the bigtop with the rest of the crowd, thinner than he remembers, and somehow taller.
Johnson almost drops his hose, spraying Pinky the female African with a shot to the eye. She rears her trunk and let out a trumpet and Johnson retreats quickly, more to hide from Jessica than the elephant. What is she doing here? He shakes his head. Going to the circus, obviously. Shit. Johnson slips between the folds of the tent and exits the bigtop, breathing hard, walking automatically toward the tall blue tent that signals the giraffe enclosure, and the peace within.
Except now the giraffe won’t stop staring at him, and he’s no closer to making a decision. Johnson takes out a cigarette and lights it. The rules no longer apply. He exhales slowly, a thick cloud of tobacco escaping his lips and circling in the air in front of the giraffe. She looks at him and blinks, but doesn’t make a sound.
“Well, what do I do?” He is, inexplicably, talking to the animal, who for all intents and purposes seems to be listening. “Do I say something? Or do I ignore her? Pretend I never saw her, go on with my shit-eating life?”
Outside on the fairgrounds the cries of children have died down and Johnson hears the telltale drumroll, the brass band playing Flight of the Bumblebee, signalling the clowns’ entrance. He has an hour to figure this shit out, before the show is over and Jessica is gone, out of his life again.
The giraffe bends down to eat some hay, chewing slowly. Johnson frowns. “Sure, it’s easy for you. You just stand here all day, like Miss High and Mighty. Your day consists of shitting and eating and sleeping. The biggest decision you have to make all day is where to take a dump.” As if on cue, the giraffe shifts its weight and drops two soft piles of maneure onto the hay. Johnson snorts. Since he’s been out of jail and with the circus his life hasn’t been much more exciting than that either. He would love to see the look on her face if he just popped up in front of her, said “Hey, surprise – remember me?”
Johnson closes his eyes. She looked different than he had pictured, something about her. She still had that confident walk, like she knew where she was going, everywhere she went. But her clothes, they were fancy – no more lacy pink bra and panties, or, if there were, he certainly couldn’t see them. The giraffe snuffs and Johnson looks over, reaching through the wire to stroke her long, sinewy haunch. He needs to see Jessica, needs to talk to her.
Striding out of the giraffe enclosure he makes his way toward the rear of the bigtop. Nodding to the guards, he slips through the folds of the tent and positions himself a few yards from the bleachers, behind a giant purple backdrop promoting the death-defying skills of Amos the Amazing. The asshole, is more like it. Johnson’s eyes rove the bleachers, skipping over fat ugly skinny freckled toddler and teen, until he spots Jessica, two rows in on the right, her silver dangly earrings swinging with laughter. She does look older, Johnson thinks, elegant almost, her shirt neatly tucked in to her jeans, her nails perfectly manicured… Which is when he notices the large diamond ring, her fingers interlaced with the fingers of someone much hairier, taller. A man. A fucking giant of a man.
What the fuck? Johnson says it out loud without realizing, then hears snickering not far away. Two parents are looking at him with narrowed eyes, and a pair of ten year old boys are giggling behind their hands. Johnson throws them a frown and beats a retreat back to the giraffe tent.
“Who the hell was that?” He almost spits his words, slamming the flap of the tent and wishing it were a door. The giraffe looks up, startled. “I mean, is she married?”
Johnson is pacing in circles now, and the giraffe begins to follow. He lights another cigarette, his anger collecting and pooling like the smoke filling his lungs. He spent two years of his life behind bars for this chick. Two fucking years. And what’s she been doing all this time? Fucking some other jerkoff, conning him to giver her all his money?
The giraffe begins to snuff, pawing her hoof in the dirt, dipping her head.
“We are so fucking stupid, you and I.” He looks up into the big brown eyes of the animal, towering over him, her small pointy ears twitching.
Without thinking, Johnson’s foot flies out, kicking the wire animal enclosure. The giraffe, startled, rears up briefly and then charges at the cage, slamming into the flimsey fencing. Johnson’s mouth drops wide, cigarette smoke falling out through open lips. Holy shit.
He kicks the cage again and she flares her nostrils, her neck straining over the wire fence. He starts to shake a little. “Really?” She sticks out her long black tongue, licking her lips, ready for a fight.
Grabbing the animal prod, Johnson opens the cage and ushers the giraffe out. She leaves gracefully, quietly, and seems to stand there, waiting for him to make the next move. He reaches up, rubbing his hand against the base of her neck, feeling the short rough bristles of hair, like crab grass, scratch against his palm. “OK,” he says. And then the giraffe starts to walk.
Johnson moves behind her, the prod at her knees guiding the animal out of the enclosure toward the bigtop. She walks in a slow lope, her neck and head bobbing forward with each step. Johnson looks up and sees the giraffe, her brown and yellow mottled skin, her alien-like frame, silhouetted against the New York City skyline. He marvels at how she almost fits in, like a piece of the puzzle..
The main tunnel into the bigtop is deserted, with everyone involved in the show either backstage warming-up or cooling off in the mess. Johnson sees no sign of the front-post guard. They enter the tent without much commotion, and it isn’t until they reach the edge of the main ring that people start to point and whisper. Johnson watches Silky, the ringmaster, turn with an open mouth, the megaphone still poised in front of his face. The brass band jars to a halt in the middle of Wagner, and Johnson smiles and shrugs apologetically, as if the encroaching insanity isn’t his fault. They move into the center of the main ring, Amos on the trapeze swinging idly ten feet over the giraffe’s head. Johnson’s eyes roam the bleachers until they land on Jessica. He smiles. Waves a little. He sees her eyes focus and click with recognition, he watches as they grow big. Then in one swift motion he grabs the megaphone from Silky’s hand and turns, walking toward the audience. The giraffe, god bless her, stays right by his side like a pet. Johnson raises the megaphone to his mouth and starts to shout,
“Ladies and gentleman. Ladies and gentleman, listen up.” He has a strange feeling of deja vu, a flash of memory from the arcade and the robotic chanting that got him into this mess in the first place.
“Sorry to disturb you, but I have an important announcement.” The crowd has grown silent – confused, but interested. Out of the corner of his eye, Johnson can see a few guards entering the bigtop.
“It is because of this woman,” he points at her, “that I spent two years in jail, framed, for a crime I didn’t really commit.” Behind him Silky is frozen in place, a strange hacking sound issuing from his mouth– as if he could stop Johnson by clearing his throat like that.
“Who committed that crime? She did.” Johnson hears the giraffe next to him snuff, her hooves pawing at the ground. He watches as the people near Jessica start getting up and moving away, leaving her in a spotlight-like circle of empty seats.
“And after I was arrested, booked, sentenced to prison – did she say sorry? Did she come to my defense? No. No, this is the first time I’m seeing her in four years, since that fateful day–” Johnson can feel the guards closing in on him, but he’s on a roll now. He inches closer to the giraffe, as if for protection, or guidance.
“And I just wanted to say, Jessica–” Johnson smiles sardonically at her, giving everyone a moment to appreciate the dramatic pause. “Fuck. You.”
Some people in the audience gasp, a few start to clap and whistle. Johnson feels supercharged, and takes a deep breath. “FUCK. YOU!” The megaphone vibrates lightly in his left hand, and with his right he whaps the giraffe on the knees with the prod, sending her flying toward the bleachers, charging straight toward Jessica. Johnson watches as Jessica jumps up, her hands over her mouth, stuck to the bleacher floor either by sticky soda or pure fear. At the last minute the giraffe veers off to the left, leaving Jessica sobbing and shaking her head back and forth, as if trying to wake herself up. The beautiful animal lopes gracefully along the length of the bleachers, its head bobbing up and down with each step toward freedom, its hoofs kicking up dust as people in the seats reach out to touch her. She slips past the guards converging at the entrance, and as she moves out into the sunshine Johnson swears the giraffe turns her head back toward him, and blinks. And in that moment he feels euphoric, as if filled with ten-thousand helium balloons that carry him up, up over Jessica’s head, past Amos the Amazing, and through the small point in the cylindrical tent til he is flying, free, flying into that chilly blue sky. And Johnson sees his giraffe running straight out of the bigtop, her long neck straining forward, her awkwardly bent legs beating out a rhythmic pat-pat pat-pat as she skirts the popcorn stands and cotton-candy machines, as she ducks under the giant outdoor marquee welcoming everyone to the Greatest Show on Earth! and heads out past the ballfields, not stopping, never stopping til she reaches the freedom of the East River. It is only as he is being tackled by the guards, as his face is being shoved into the dirt-and-shit-covered ground of the bigtop ring, that Johnson remembers a painful fact: giraffes can’t swim.