The Tragic Circus
It is our expression that the flux between that which isnít and that which wonít be, or the state that is commonly and absurdly called existence, is a rhythm of heavens and hells: that the damned wonít stay damned; that salvation only precedes perdition. The inference is that some day our accursed tatterdemalions will be sleek angels. Then the sub-inference is that some later day, back theyíll go whence they came.
óCharles Fort, Book of the Damned
Simon Said descends the staircase into the parlor, a scarf of some dubious tartan thrown around his neck; otherwise he is dressed quite dapper in pinstripe pants, scuffed wingtips and a red vest embroidered with gold Chinese dragons, which he wears over a black button down shirt. Over one arm he carries a lightweight black jacket suitable for this cool October night.
Someone once said of Simon, ìYou can almost see the gears turning in his head.î
This he overheard on his first day of kindergarten, whispered by someoneís mother to the teacher who nodded in agreement. And itís true, under the unruly cowlick and behind the black-rimmed glasses thereís something alive and prismatic. Moving. The remark stuck with him since children at that age are little sponges. He remembers it every so often and when the mood strikes, tries to provoke the same gear spinning in others. Which is taking the long way around the barn to get to the point that Simon Said is a poet. Thatís saying a lot of course, what with the deplorable state of contemporary poetry but everyone knew it from the moment he was born. Simon Said came out of his mother eyes wide open. Instead of screaming, he had a thoughtful look on his face. He was taking everything in. Making notes. Composing himself.
As if to dispel any doubts about the matter, when Simon was ten, he painted himself red and wearing nothing but a loincloth, raced through the streets of his neighborhood on his BMX bike, the one painted Haint blue with ceramic eyes attached to the front reflectors and a pair of antlers affixed between the handlebars. From a bow he launched arrows bearing cryptic poems written in a language of his own devising. Over rooftops. Into yards. Through windows. He nearly hit Misses Learyís cat and elicited a smile from miss Elsie Samathrace, aged eleven and a half. She winked at him just as he strung an arrow and let it fly with a whoop and a war cry into the trellis of old Man Halibutís prized tomato garden.
ìWhyíd you do it?î His father, Frederick Said, asked later as he escorted the young poet around the neighborhood to replace his arrows with apologies.
ìTo bring a bit of wonder to life,î said Simon. He did not elaborate.
On his twenty-first birthday Simon became a devout follower of Dionysus. While he dabbled a bit before, he baptized himself with a twenty-dollar bottle of French merlot at 8:23 A.M., on the 18th of May, the exact time of his birth. He spent the afternoon drinking Lady Saturnine, the old woman who lives at the top of the stairs, thoroughly under the table.
This evening, heís on his way to a poetry reading at a cafÈ downtown (hence the vest of oriental design) when an existential shudder creeps up his spine. He pauses on the seventh step and looks over his shoulder at the Moon seen through the window on the second story landing. By the look on his face, youíd think he could almost hear the sound that satellite makes as it revolves around the Earth. A needle on a record, scratching out its orbit.
A soft breeze, warm for this autumn night, rushes in through the window, which stands open. Simon follows the breeze to the Fourier. He sucks in a breath between clenched teeth and whispers, ìHeís here!î Just as the front door flies open.
Clouds scratch their ghostly finger across the full Moonís face. Trees moaning, mingle their voices with a stiff breeze. Leaves race through a dark wood. A Jack oí lantern glowers as a toad plops into a pond, disappears.
Out of the unanimous night and into the parlor strides a bedraggled man. Long beard, head as bald as a melon, he wears a fur coat, despite the prevailing social opinions and a ragged pair of canvas sneakers. Strung from his jaw is a grin the size of a summer sausage.
Simon and the stranger stare at each other for a long moment.
ìCan it be real?î The stranger exclaims. ìHave I been away so long that youíve gone and grown up and donít even recognize me?î
Simon just shrugs. ìCould be. Anythingís possible these days.î
ìSoren!î Comes a muffled yelp from the direction of the kitchen.
Standing in the Dining Room doorway, Frederick Said dries his hands on the apron tied around his waist and grins. He shuffles across the parlor, nearly trips on the antique throw rug and wraps his spindly arms around the man, laughing and says, ìSimon! Say ahoy-hoy to your Uncle, Soren!î
The last time Simon saw his Uncle Soren was that fateful night, twenty years ago. Although so long since and he at such a young age, Simon recalls the scene in vivid color.
Simon, age three, sat on these same steps contemplating whether or not his head would fit through the banister rails when through the parlor stormed Uncle Soren, just barely thirty-five, wearing his big fur coat, muttering and twisting his jaw (still clean shaven at the time) into a wrinkled emotion that Simon would later know all too well.
Uncle Soren, in a fit of pique, announced, ìIím going out for a bottle of milk!î And slammed the front door behind him.
The family did not see him again that night or any night afterwards.
After one year, there were still no post cards, no letters, no voice on the other end of the phone confirming one thing or another. Just long sleepless nights.
After five years, the Family did not even wait to be dragged from a fitful dream in the middle of the night by a gruff, deductive voice on the other end of the line asking them to come down to the station to verify this tooth or that finger bone.
After ten years, the Said family slept with a reluctant soundness, thinking about him on obscure bank holidays, which were Uncle Sorenís favorite.
ìHe did so love Armistice Day,î remarked his older brother, Frederick, with a great sigh one November eleventh. But that was some years ago now.
Time, moving like an arrow across the face of the universe, arranges moments into meaningful patterns that always seem to move forwardÖ
And now, here he stands. A few more wrinkles, a lot less hair up top and far more on his chin, offering a lopsided grin and a handshake to his nephew.
From the top of the stairs come knocks that rattle sleepers within rooms into a fitful shuffling of eyes towards a conscious light.
ìWho is it at this ungodly hour of the night?î Bellows Lilly Said, youngest of the household. She then crosses herself and from the corner of her eye casts glances at the gilt crucifix hanging over her bed. She mutters a prayer and throws open the old oak door, prepared to scowl at Simon. Probably itís all just some infernal bit of poetry, she surmises. Like the time when he was fifteen and set the dead bush in the front yard on fire, claiming it was Tetragrammaton, the voice of God come to inform them of the impending destruction of the Brazilian Rain Forest. Instead when Lilly throws open her bedroom door she finds a bald lunatic grinning at her from the dimly lit hall, her father trailing after, sputtering incomprehensible syllables.
ìItís, Itís UncleÖ Uncle!î Sputters Dad. This makes little sense to Lilly, as she was born three years after Sorenís fateful departure and hence, never met the man.
Lilly slams the door and falls face first back into her sheets where she lets a prolonged scream seep seventeen-year-old frustrations into her pillow.
ìWhatís what now?î Lady Imogen Saturnine, bedecked in her snow leopard print housecoat, leans against the third floor stairs as if the whole house might fall to matchsticks if she were to take a step forward or back.
Simon follows in the wake of the two jabbering brothers trying to collect the meaningful bits they have spilled all over and erect some semblance of a thought.
ìUncle Sorenís back from the dead?î He intends this statement to be imperative but it curls in on itself and by the punctuation, pops out as a question. He weighs it in the air between himself and the crone in the hall then shakes his head, deciding it makes about as much sense as anything.
After the hullabaloo subsides, they gather in the dining room, each in their place around the table. A chair left open all the years suits Soren and he flops into the space, right beneath a portrait of his younger self.
Lilly does not appear for several minutes. ìIn order to make a dramatic entrance,î Simon whispers in Uncle Sorenís ear. Just then young Lilly, wrapped snugly in her gothic housecoat fringed with black lace and red velvet lining drifts down the stairs, her blond curls pulled tight behind her.
Lady Saturnine lounges in her usual place, left side of the head of the table.
The Said Family had, many years hence, converted the third floor into an apartment to be rented out on a temporary basis. Lady Imogen Saturnine was the first occupant and liked the arrangement so much; free run of the house, a homely familiarity that is almost tangible and reasonable rent that after eleven years, she has yet to leave. Not that anyone would even think to ask such a thing of her as by now, sheís an adopted member of the Said Family. After all these years though, no one is quite certain how she acquired her title or if it is a professional honorific at all. As far as anyone knows she lives off the sale of her paintings, which are intricate, fabulous scenes, ìReminiscent,î according to her agent, Elmer Caspian, quoted in the most recent issue of Art in America, "of Remedios Varo or a medieval witch with an alchemical paint brush."
Though Frederick notices that every month, her rent check arrives in the mail from Horwitz, Feinstein and Horwitz, the attorneys who manage the inheritances she has collected from her numerous dead husbands.
She simply introduces her self, ìLady Imogen Saturnine, charmed,î and offers a hand to Soren who wiggles his eyebrows and dutifully kisses her rings. Frederick bustles in from the kitchen with a tray of lemonade and cookies and they all listen as Soren illuminates his travels until dawn.
ìÖOh, Japan is lovely in the fall. The cherry blossoms on the pondsÖî Sorenís voice drifts off in a haiku of recollection.
ìIíve always wanted to see Japan in the fall!î Frederick remarks, munching on an oatmeal raisin cookie.
When Soren gets to his travels in Africa, Lady Saturnine perks up all the more. ìMy second husband, the Colonial had a thing for Rhinoceros! We went on safari; oh it must have been half a dozen times! This was back in the sixties, when that sort of thing wasnít yet illegal. Did you perchance see any whilst on the continent?î
ìYes, as a matter of fact I did see one once. I was walking across the Savannah. I wonít tell you how I got there, as itís a rather long and embarrassing story involving a rabid baboon and a canteen filled with whisky, however, ahem. There I was in the Savannah, trekking across the plains. Now I had been warned at the outset by the natives to watch out for lions so I was scanning the horizon for the slightest swish of tawny tail when all of a sudden I hear this grunting noise beside me.î Soren pauses, imitating surprise and grunting like a pig. ìThough it was lower then that and much, much louder. Anyway. There he was, the biggest damn Rhinoceros! Just standing at a shade tree, doing that thing they do with their horns, scraping off the bark. He looks at me and I look at him and for a moment we just stand there, eye to eye. Then we both decide to go about our business.î Soren sips his lemonade.
ìI tell you one thing though. The beauty of the savannah at sunset is nothing compared to this!î He makes a sweeping gesture, taking in the dining room, the house, the whole world.
Thatís when Simon sees for the first time the long sad look behind his Uncleís eyes. He isnít sure if it was always there, the way some people always where a slight smile even when depressed, or if that melancholy is a recent addition, the thing lurking in his brain that made him just disappear one night and not return for twenty years. Or maybe it is something else altogether. But in a moment, the look fades and Soren smiles. ìItís so great to be back home!î