My Dad hadn’t told me he was bringing his new girlfriend to the circus with us. I was twelve then. I stepped up into the cab of his truck and found a youngish woman sitting there, holding her knees in a childish way. The upholstery smelled liked the gloves of a cigarette-smoker, and the woman already knew my name. She shifted over to the middle of the bench seat, between Dad and me, sitting sidesaddle around the gearshift with her feet and mine crowding the passenger footwell.
“Well, Matty, boy of mine, joy and pride, meet Jodie. This is the one I told you all about. Well, here she is,” he said and clapped her knee.
I felt guilty, as we drove off from my Mom and Grandma’s place, worrying I’d forgotten all that my dad had told me about Jodie. Then I decided he hadn’t mentioned her after all. “What do you think?” he asked. “Punching above my weight class, you don’t need to tell me. Your old man, let’s just say he’s got a few tricks still.” Then he held a fist above Jodie’s head, as if he were holding a fishing line, and said, “Just look at this beauty I reeled in, a hundred-fifteen pounder, my boy.”
Jodie swatted at his hand above her, and apologized to me. She said, “I don’t have to make excuses for him, do I? You know how he is.” And I said I knew, and she smiled, and thanked me, for what I didn’t quite know.
Dad said, if we were lucky, we might get to see a lion eat a lion tamer, and Jodie told him not to scare me. “Ah, this kid don’t scare,” he said. “Not in his genes to scare, but don’t thank me for that,” he told me, as he turned his attention back to the road. “I could’ve been scared off from a few dicey ideas in my life and saved myself a load of headache. You’ll see.”
It all turned out to be beside the point anyway, because there were no animals at all in the little circus tent that I could see, save for a boa constrictor a woman wore over her shoulders. I thought, from outside the tent, as we crunched closer through the gravel parking lot, that maybe it’d look larger on the inside, some kind of optical illusion, but it didn’t. A low rise of bleachers circled a red, carpeted floor, where three empty podiums stood in patriotic colors. Above there was a dangle of trapeze swings and rings and a tight rope and an unoccupied unicycle up there on a perch. “I don’t know what this is,” Dad said, “but this is not the circus I knew. What is this?”
Later, when we’d found seats that satisfied him, Dad pinched my wrists around and said, “We’ve got to put some meat on these bones. Look at these little things.” Then he shouted down a concession man a section over in the middle of a transaction. “What are those,” he asked, “salami sticks? That’ll do, good man.” He purchased four—two for me, and one for each of them. It was a curious thing to watch this woman eating a pepperoni stick. I couldn’t picture my Mom eating a pepperoni stick. Jodie, I decided, was not as young as I’d thought. The circus lights did something funny on her face. Then Dad stuck an elbow in my rib and half-whispered, “You think that’s something, you should see her eat a popsicle.”
Jodie turned around on Dad and said, “I’m not interested in entertaining your poor behavior tonight, Kent. I’m really not.”
“Well, glad to hear it, Jodes, ’cause I’m the one doing all the entertaining tonight,” he said, “the greatest show on earth.” Jodie sighed the same way Mom used to.
“Where are all the animals?” I asked, happy to be talking about anything else.
“You’re lookin’ at ’em,” Dad said. At that, he whooped like a baboon and fake-scratched his armpit with a floppy wrist. Everyone seated in the row ahead of us craned their necks over their shoulders to look and my face felt warm.
“Now stop it, Kent, you’re embarrassing him,” Jodie said, “Let’s just watch. Please.” The corners of her lips turned down at that last word, please, almost like it was too big an idea to fit in her mouth.
Finally the ringmaster announced the last act and in came four miniature ponies. They weren’t lions or tigers or elephants, but they were better than the clowns all squeezed into one stupid car. At first they just trotted the perimeter of the carpet, then out of nowhere a woman swung into the center of the ring on a rope and stood right on top of their backs. Her hair was down to her ankles.
“Now there’s a specimen,” Dad said, cupping his hand to my ear. His breath was warm and wet. I wasn’t sure what to say, so I just nodded, but he didn’t take his eyes off her. When the horsewoman came around to our side, he whistled the way construction workers do in the movies. Not three minutes later, the usher walked up the steep concrete stairs and stopped by our row. “You’ll need to come with me, sir,” he said. Dad didn’t put up much of a fight, no real show of refusal. He just kept muttering under his breath. “Not how I goddamn remember it,” he said, “not the circus I knew.”
As we crunched back to the car, the crowd inside exploded with applause. I imagined a lion snapping at the tamer’s bullwhip, elephants standing on one another’s shoulders. Jodie opened the passenger door and waited for me to crawl up into the middle seat. She didn’t say a word, not even goodbye when they dropped me off. She just looked me dead in the eye, squeezed my hand, and was gone forever.
A Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, J. P. Grasser is a PhD candidate at the University of Utah, where he edits Quarterly West.