first chapter of THE ELEPHANT GRAVEYARD by Boman Desai

CHAPTER ONE: JUST A JUGGLER

I’m what you’d call a spook, but no spook as you know spooks, no woman in white turning the screw, no titan from a twilight dimension, no Nosferatu in the night, no, most certainly not – just a rattling of bones, dust and ash in a box in the graveyard, my limbo for twenty-three years. Twice a man was I born, twice a man did I live, and twice a man did I die, my two lives bookending my time in the graveyard. Let me be plain. I lived two lives, each of them short, together barely a single life.

Call me Spike, everyone did, but I’m a Bailey, Daniel Patrick Bailey, descended from Mr. James Anthony Bailey of Barnum & Bailey, who was once an orphan named McGinness, who changed his name to Bailey when he was apprenticed as a billposter to Fred Bailey, a circus agent who claimed descent from Hackaliah Bailey of Somers, New York, best known for owning Old Bet, America’s first circus elephant, back in 1815 – but unlike the orphaned James Anthony Bailey, who ran from his sister’s home to the circus when he was eleven, I was born in the circus, just half an orphan (still living with pa and sis), and ran from the circus to India, only to plunge into the graveyard.

Yes, call me Spike, more accurately, the poltergeist, the ghost of Spike, the fetch, the hant, the bhoot of Spike, the hide and hadow, shade and shadow, phantom and phenomenon, wraith and revenant – the soul, the spirit, and the specter. I am the spook of Spike. I killed a man – accidentally, but as surely as if I had rent his limbs, thrust the knife to the hilt and twisted the blade, the deed which opened the gate to the graveyard, sorry miserable wretch that I was, shiteating shithead, bloodletting loon.

Look at me the way I was before my damnation, my incarceration in the graveyard, a runt of a 16-year-old, skinny as a snake but swaddled in a baggy coat, hair pale and thick as straw peeking around the motheaten edges of a beret, the very reason I was called Spike except by my ma, who had called me Danny, but she was long dead – an accident, I was told, nothing more, but the accident was palpable in my face. Look at my eyes, slits in the sun, brimful of water in the shade, muddy green and glazed, drooping at the corners, the sorrow of a man in the face of a boy, seed of the knifetwisting loon soon to be loosed in the world.

Look at me boarding an early bus to Toledo, Ohio, on a Friday (payday), with Monks “Moley” Moran, one of the dogboys, and Padraic “Paddy” Murphy, one of the propmen. Monks was his real name, but those who knew what he could do with his hands called him Moley. Paddy’s chief talent was his eternal readiness for a cashgrab, for which he’d taken more than one ride in the paddy wagon – named, by the way, for the number of its besotted guests named Paddy. Respectable they were not, but their coats were cut from respectable cloth for the occasion, borrowed from the circus wardrobe, their faces shaved, shoes shined, and heads sporting fedoras. Each of us carried a sack, mine full of apples, oranges, tennis balls, and bowling pins, theirs empty and invisible, buttoned into the linings of their coats.

It was November, end of the trouping season, the busiest time for agents routing the new season, contracting for grounds, parades, feed, water, and billposting, but the gloomiest for troupers, propmen, roustabouts, and butchers, the end of a party, end of summer, end of childhood, Moley and Paddy among the ranks of the unemployed. The dismantling of the circus, storage into winter quarters, was like the funeral of a friend, leaving in its wake orphans all. Suddenly, and until the following April, many of us were without prospects and many dispersed the same day with their final pay, some to Salvation Army centers, some to ride the rails, but even the more foresightful among us, who had lined up indoor engagements elsewhere or saved enough for the lean months ahead, left just as abruptly, just as dejectedly.

Some stayed, blacksmiths, carpenters, and wardrobe men, making repairs for the next season; skinners, cage hands, and bullmen – meaning us, Baileys, the elephant handlers. All elephants are bulls, even the cows, and all handlers bullmen, even the women. I, my big sister Hazel, and our pa Dinty rented a room in a flophouse, the Abbott Hotel, close to the winter quarters of the Great Frank Bros. Circus in Kendall Green, Ohio, for which Hazel held herself accountable with savings and wages waitressing at Salt’n’Peppah, a diner. What Dinty did was a mystery even to Dinty, and I did what I did for love, but I was sixteen, young enough to confuse lust with love. Love paid you back, lust made you pay. Love was its own reward, lust exacted punishment. Love gave you wings, lust made them wax. I soared for a brevity on the wings of an eagle, soon to be turned to wax.

The woman was Mary Eileen McDonnell, billed the Girleen from Ballaghaderreen, outfitted in glittering green when she took her turn in the ring, a girleen for her size more than her age (thirty), but an equestrienne supreme, at the peak of circus aristocracy, ahead of (in descending order) aerialists, featured stars, wirewalkers, acrobats, animal trainers, and joeys (as clowns were called after Charles Dickens edited the memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, the famous English buffoon, which sold more quickly in its first edition than Oliver Twist).

As juggler and tumbler I might have been counted among acrobats, but as a bullman not even among joeys. I was barely above ponypunks and dogboys in the circus dungeon, while Eileen hovered among the clouds that drifted past the turrets and towers. Each of us did flips and tumbles, but mine were on the broad back of Hero, the blackest elephant in the world, and hers on the thundering rump of her Andalusian, Andromache, a difference you might have likened to the difference between performing in the middle of a plain and the middle of an earthquake – and differences there were more and plenty.

First, little women with large animals are a greater draw than little men. Second, Eileen leaped from tanbark to bareback, Andalusian at the gallop, and back again, and back, a stunt not even a kangaroo could have managed with Hero. For my star turn I maintained five bowling pins in the air while Hero lifted me to a pedestal – but my turn was little more than a prelude to Hazel’s, and once again the little woman with the big animal outclassed the little man, her white spangled virtual nudity contrasting sharply with Hero’s craggy black hide. Third, Eileen, in love with the smooth streamlined gloss of horses, forelock to fetlock, hated the ugly untidy mass of elephants, their rough wrinkled epidermis, their smell – and, I was convinced, their handlers as well. Fourth she was a celebrity, flashed on the posters, tycoons gave her diamonds, beer barons gave parties in her honor. I couldn’t compete.

As luck would have it I didn’t have to compete. She knew better what to do with coals smouldering in the basement than I did. She invited me into her trailer one lazy Sunday afternoon in Wilmington, Delaware (we played different towns every day of the week, resting on Sundays). I lacked grace, I lacked gravity, I lacked authority; I lacked emeralds and other glittering flowers; I lacked the means to make them available; but though my face was as smooth as a girl’s my appetite was more rapacious than that of the most heavily bearded man, my stamina that of a stallion. I marveled at my fortune, the girth of her thighs, each thick as a hydrant. I appeared and disappeared at her pleasure, asked no questions, and said little, not because I had little to say but I didn’t want to reveal how little I knew about the world, how littlesuited we might be for each other.

She had engagements in Europe for the winter: Lisbon, Barcelona, Strasbourg, Frankfurt, Prague, Cracow, Budapest, Salzburg, Milan, Zurich, Paris, The Hague, London, to mention only the most prominent. I studied maps, tracing her itinerary, planning to send perfumes, purses, scarves, stoles, sachets, flowers, and candies to her as often as possible, to as many of her destinations as possible, culminating in a bouquet of red roses in London; also to have a photograph accompany each gift, of myself, her trailer, the winter quarters, landmarks in Kendall Green, the horses she’d left behind (she’d taken only Andromache), culminating in a bouquet of photographs, again in London.

We chose the business district that day in Toledo. I drew a wellheeled crowd, letting my hands (and beret, belly-up, on a bench) do the talking. Moley and Paddy kept tabs (locations of wallets, quantities of cash). Paddy stumbled into the marks, smiling and apologizing while steadying them, backing them into Moley. Moley let his hands do the walking (the burrowing for which he was named), talking to distract the men, brushing breasts and thighs to distract the women, smiling and apologizing all the while no less than Paddy – but this is the moment of the ugly truth, the beginning of my end, the birth of my death, my key to the graveyard, ignominious, shameful, brutal, vile. Despise me if you will, I would think less of you if you didn’t, but you couldn’t despise me more than I despised myself. I’m sorry it happened, sorry to be revealing it, sorry for every miserable thing I’ve ever done, sorry for the wretch I was, my head too full of hammers even to know I was swimming in a sea of shit – but here’s what happened. I miscalculated – hugely. I didn’t account for the unaccountable. A burly man, chest like a barrel, in bowler and vest, rummaged suddenly through the pockets of his coat and pants, and yelled. “WHOA! I BEEN ROBBED!”

Moley and Paddy were at the periphery, I was at the epicenter. The burly man’s gaze latched onto my skinny sunbrown face, framed in arcs of whirling fruit, pumped by two blurry whirring arms. I was clean, but the burly man’s insinuations, the involvement no doubt of police, the commoner’s mistrust of the carny, would entail an expenditure of time and explanations I had no wish to indulge. The fruit flew magically into my bag, cash from the beret on its belly to my pocket, the beret on its belly to my head, and – shame of shames, ugliness of uglinesses – I turned to a young negro, not quite twenty, crouched at my feet, as mesmerized by the disappearance of the fruit as he’d been by the incredible spinning wheel, and shouted as loudly as the burly man. “HEY! WHERE’D THIS NIGGER GET THIS WATCH?”

The crowd became a cyclone of activity.

“HEY! THAT’S MY WATCH!”

“HELL’S FIRE! WHAT’S GOIN’ ON!”

“TARNATION! MY WALLET’S GONE!”

“CHRIST ALMIGHTY! SOMEBODY CALL THE POLICE!”

The watch was mine, a small price to pay. The crowd pounced like a panther and I disappeared like a rat into the night. On the bus back, I sat as we had planned apart from Moley and Paddy exchanging discreet winks, puffing on cigarettes. They had been jubilant making their escape, judicious in their movements and cautious as professionals, but I shudder now to see myself in my blackest moment. A woman of the palest complexion sat on one side talking to a boy with tomato hair, someone mentioned Truman, someone else the Brown Bomber, someone else hummed “Nature Boy.” I didn’t know it, but I was already a ghost, already a man without a country, already dead among the living. Look again at the face, closely at the eyes. You can pull the wool over the eyes of others, you can pull a mask over your face, but you can’t mask the eyes, and mine were crying dry tears.

It was dark and drizzly when the bus pulled into Kendall Green. Moley and Paddy separated, shucking coats, unbuttoning linings, removing fedoras, sloughing shoes, taking separate routes to Moley’s room where I joined them. Paddy picked up Johnny Walker on the way. We were cautious dividing the money, quiet not to attract the attention of the walls. Moley and Paddy couldn’t stop smiling, blowing smoke rings, lifting glasses. I aped their faces and gestures, but the cloud shadowing me from Toledo had settled like a shroud on my shoulders. My horror was plain: my smile a grimace, my face a sea of wrinkles, my expression of a man haunted (hollow cheeks, wide white eyes, head of hard white bone).

Moley nudged my elbow. “C’mon, Spike. He was just a nigboy, y’know.”

Paddy grinned. “Even nigboys good f’somethin’.”

The two laughed like a chorus of crows, but I couldn’t laugh.

Moley struck my shoulder: “Y’did whut y’had to do. He’ll get a good drubbin’, thet’s all.”

Paddy nodded, still grinning: “Yeah, he was just a nigboy. Why’re we even talkin’ about ’im?”

“B’sides, when they see he got nothin’ they’ll let’im go. Thet’ll be the end o’thet.”

I hoped thet would be the end of thet. What was done could not be undone and there was work yet to be done, the sweetest part of the job, the hill of purses and wallets to be divided among us, the evidence burned. “Yeah, I bet you’re right. They’ll just let’im go. C’mon, let’s get busy.”