Circus People, 1926
My mother was the unofficial recruiter for the entirety of the Gladstone and Co. Circus from the time I was born and well into my teens.
A circus, most don’t know, is populated with grunt-girls—the young women who run the rides and tend to animals, assist performers, mend costumes. They sit in the ticket booths and yawn. They cook slabs of beef-steak on the grill, boil potatoes in stained pots, wash the chipped dishes. They keep morale up with their singing of Broadway recordings, their airy renditions of chain-gang songs, their baudy rephrasing of folk ballads. They flirt with the men to keep them sane. They retrieve water from running streams.
My mother gathered the girls as we crossed great swaths of farm country, which spanned the midwestern states, as we swept through small town main streets and over county lines. They flocked to us—locusts with scarves in their hair, mayflies in elbow gloves. They were sweet girls who believed they were beyond saving. Small versions of sailor’s tattoos danced across their calves and their forearms—a blue and red compass rose, a mermaid curled around an anchor, a swallow with an arched back.
I think my mother considered them her makeshift daughters—or at least, my adopted sisters. They darned my socks and heated my bath water over an open flame. When they called me in for dinner-time, they blew cigar smoke from Clara Bow mouths, patted down the dark mass of my hair, called me baby. Baby, they said, how was your day? You have fun today, baby? They were all barely out of their teenage years, all of them younger than twenty-five, and so of course I was their doll. Half of my boyhood was spent with lipstick hearts drawn over my cheeks, with a lace-hemmed shawl draped across my shoulders.
They called me baby and I would go the rest of my life turning around whenever I heard a group of girls laughing over nothing. I would stand still and watch them throw their heads back and close their eyes tight—as if bracing for an impact.
FIONA STANTON is a senior Creative Writing major from Boise, Idaho. Her writing has appeared in The Red Wheelbarrow, Valley Visions, and the Henry's Fork Journal. She was also a finalist for the Lake Effect National High School Poetry Contest, and received a National Gold Medal and an American Voices Medal from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. She will attend Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina this fall, where she has been named a Patricia Cornwell Scholar in Creative Writing.