Under the Big Top


Marjorie Detweiller heard the clowns’ raucous approach before they burst through the trailer door in a cascade of noise and laughter like they were falling out of a tiny car, arms full of six packs and Doritos.

The other girls who lived with Marjorie had been with the Scorzelli Family Circus for at least a year. Marjorie was a First of May, new to the circus life, having signed on with the troupe only one month before. During that time she’d worked the ticket booth, hawked as a candy butcher, and had just been given a chance to stand still and look pretty in a hand-me-down sparkly costume during the finale.

She heard her bunkmate Cody whisper, “It’s Augie,” and the bubbly, boozy girl talk hushed.

“Hello, girls, can we play through?” Riley Lajoie, a golfer character clown, said.

The other clowns hooted and moaned. Big Jack Scorzelli, leader of the clown crew and the circus owner’s son, slugged Riley on the shoulder.

“Nothing like living your gimmick, Riles. Next thing, you’ll be wearing your face all the time like Augie here,” he said.

Marjorie couldn’t help noticing Augie stiffen, as did the other clowns. She noticed almost everything she could about him, and she wasn’t sure why. In her short time with the show, she had never seen Augie not wearing his makeup. He played the part of the Auguste clown in the crew, the trickster and instigator, the larger than larger-than-life bad boy.

Other than during the show, though, Marjorie never saw Augie display such behavior. When he wasn’t eating at the lunch wagon or dressing with the others in Clown Alley, Augie kept to himself, reading or keeping to his own trailer. Some thought him aloof at worst, eccentric at best. And it was hard to stand out as eccentric in the circus. But the other clowns loved him.
Cody noticed Marjorie staring at Augie.

“You know, Augie Pinto’s not his real name. Riley told me Augie made it up from his character and from the nickname Jack’s father gave him six years ago when he appeared at the door looking for a job and a way out of Indiana.”


“Yeah, but I don’t think he went off the reservation like you did after that Rummysprinkle…”


“After that Rumspinga thing you Amish kids…”

“Mennonite, Plain People, Cody.”

“…Mennonite kids do. If your folks could see you now. Do you think they’d allow bedazzled fishnets with your dark dress and bonnet, Margie?”

“Ha, well, we wear plain clothes, but not that bonnet stuff. However, I’m sure they wouldn’t allow me to hang with a bad influence like you, either, Cody.”

Marjorie looked over at Augie again.

“Why is he like that, do you think?” she said. Augie stood apart from his partners, taking a pull from a bottle of Bud and staring around the trailer at nothing.

“I don’t know. Maybe he’s hiding out, running from the law. Maybe he killed his parents, fed them to the hogs on the farm back in Podunkville, and now he’s repenting by making people laugh,” Cody said.

“And who cares? I saw Riley working out with the aerialists the other day and let’s just say he’s got more than a putter in his bag.”

“Cody!” Marjorie said. “You are so bad. Stop, he’ll hear you.”

“I hope so. What about you? You want to get to know one of these guys any better?”

“Well…you know.”

“You’re a big girl now, Margie. High time to spread those…wings.” Cody laughed.

“I’ll be okay, Cody. You go enjoy yourself.”

“Mingle, honey, mingle.” Cody wiggled her fingers and flipped her hands in a shooing motion. Cody was right, Marjorie thought, taking a deep breath and walking over by the beer cooler and Augie.

“Hi,” she said. “I’m Margie. Thanks for coming by tonight.”

“Uh, hello. You’re welcome. I know who you are. New girl. Riles was talking about you as much as he was Cody all day. He kept saying, ‘How am I gonna get Cody away from that little holy roller roommate of hers?'” Augie said.

“Oh.” Marjorie said with a blink.

“From the looks of things over there,” Augie nodded at Riley and Cody, “that really wasn’t anything he needed to worry about.”

Augie turned for the door.

“Please don’t leave. I’m glad you could come. I was hoping you would.” Marjorie said.


“I don’t know. I just feel… I don’t know. I was hoping you could come and I could just talk with you.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“No, really. I’ve wanted to meet you.”

“Is that why the guys wanted me to come over here tonight?”

“I don’t know. Maybe Riley and Cody…”

“I really should go…”

“Please don’t,” Marjorie said.

“Okay, but can we go outside? I don’t like crowds. Funny for an entertainer to say, but….”
Augie and Marjorie slid past the milling zanies, flyers, and wire-walking fumnambulists and stepped out into the darkness. Most of the other trailers were dark, their owners either sleeping or looking for someone with whom to sleep.

Moths swirling around the bare light above the trailer door drove Augie and Marjorie further into the dark.

“This is better,” Augie said. But he didn’t look at Marjorie when he said it, instead looking toward her left. “What would you like to talk about?”

“I don’t know. Stuff. What’s it going to be like when we really hit the road? The big swing through the rest of the country for the rest of the year?”

“Tiring, boring, lonely, sometimes painful, every now and then broken up by bright lights and the terror that people won’t like you. Your act, I mean.”

“That doesn’t sound as appealing as I thought it would, but I like it so far. If it’s so bad, why do you keep doing it?” Marjorie asked.

“Eh, it’s what I do or what I’ve become. Not many options for me in the straight world.”

“Why? You wanted by the law?” Marjorie giggled and tried to look Augie in the eyes, to let him see she was kidding.

Augie turned his face toward Marjorie, but looked down at his feet.

“Those rumors start among you First of Mays already? No, I’m not running from the law. What’re you running from?”

“I’m not running. I’m just trying to find … me, I guess.” Now Marjorie turned to shoe gazing.

“With a circus? Maybe you’ve noticed, nothing around here is real, except the tawdriness, the hard work, the ennui, and the smell.”

“Tawdry? Ennui? You know, for a clown, you use pretty big words. Have you been to Clown College or something?”

For the first time that evening, Augie grinned. Or at least Marjorie thought he grinned. It was hard to tell in the dim light and when he had a perpetual smile painted on his face.

“No, no college, clown or otherwise. Like I said, there’s a lot of down time between shows, the travel and all. I’ve read a lot. Picked up words like I picked up gags from other zanies.”

“They all really respect you, don’t they?”

“I guess so. It’s a team thing and we’re all in it together. I’m kind of out front, but if one guys fucks…I mean one guy screws up…sorry, we all could end up looking bad. I never want to let them down and they know it. I’ll never let them down. They’re my family.”

“Do you have a family, a real family? Wife? Brothers or sisters? Mother?”

“No,” Augie snapped. “No I don’t.”

“Oh, okay. I do, but I decided to leave them back in Kentucky. Mom, Dad and my brother, I mean.”

“You running from the law?” Augie said.

Marjorie was sure he grinned this time. In fact, he looked directly at her, then quickly shifted his attention ever-so-slightly over her left shoulder toward the trailer again. She wondered what he was looking for.

“No, not hardly. I come from a Mennonite family. God’s law is what we do. Very well. Most of us. Can we sit down over there?” she said. She pointed to a couple of folding chairs just outside the edge of the semicircle of light in front of her trailer.

“I guess, so,” Augie said.

Marjorie pulled the chair on the left closer to Augie’s. Now they were closer to eye-to-eye. Augie fidgeted under her benign scrutiny, but this time didn’t seem like he was looking for an exit. He leaned toward Marjorie and then pulled back.

“Look, Marjorie, you’re very nice. I’ve enjoyed talking to you, but I think I’d better get back to my RV and maybe you should get talking to some of the boys in there. You’ve turned a couple of heads in the last month.”

“Speaking of turning heads, Augie Pinto, I think I better let you know you may be turning mine.”

“What? Look, Margie, you don’t know what you’re saying. How many beers did that little twist Cody give you?”

“I’m not used to being so bold,” Marjorie said. “I wasn’t brought up that way.”

“What way were you brought up?”

“To not do this.” Marjorie pulled Augie’s face to hers and kissed him. Augie tried pulling away, but didn’t. He kissed back. Then he stood up and backed into the light.

“Shouldn’t have done that,” Augie said.

“Done what? Which of us are you talking about?”

“Ahh, who am I kidding? I’m not used kissing or being being kissed by a woman.”

“Oh, I’m really sorry. You’re not…”

“Gay? No. Just have trouble with people, especially women.”


“I don’t know if that’s any of your business, Miss Marjorie.”

“You’re a fabulous performer. From what I can see through that silly makeup, you’re a good looking man. Your peers respect you. I think you’re…”

“I think you should go back to the party.”

Augie took Marjorie’s arm and led her back toward the door. Marjorie wanted to pull away, but she just looked up at Augie. Where she had held his face was a smeared handprint. She had wiped some of his makeup away. It was then she saw the purple skin.

“Augie, what’s that on your face?”

Augie reached up and covered his right cheek.

“Nothing, just get inside.”

“No, I don’t want to be with them. Right now, I want to be with you. Please tell me what’s wrong.”

“Nothing’s wrong. Look, you really don’t want to know. It’s one of those things I don’t let people know.”

“It certainly can’t be that bad.”

“Maybe not to you right now, Marjorie, but to most other people it is and it is to me.”

“Hey, where have you two been?”

Riley Lajoie sat on the steps beneath the bare lightbulb outside the door of Margie and Cody’s trailer. His voice was full of anger and booze and something Margie wasn’t sure of but frightened her.

“You know what, Miss Prissy Britches, that roommate of yours is nothing but a friggin’ tease. Invites me over here and gets my motor humming and when I finally make the move, she tells me I’m drunk and disgusting and to get the hell out of her trailer,” he said.

“Well, from the looks of you, Riles, she was right,” Augie said. “Did you piss your pants?”

“Shut the fuck up, Chief Spotted Owl. This little tease know your big bad secret?”

“Get inside, Margie. I’ll take care of Riley. Thanks for the invitation and conversation.”

“That what you Amish girls call it?” Riley said. “I knew you’d screw up my night. C’mere.”

As Marjorie tried to slide by Riley and open the trailer door, he grabbed her by the hair, pulling her against his body.

“Ow, stop. You’re hurting me. Stop.” The fear in Marjorie’s tone went beyond the fright of some drunk grabbing her and she suddenly began screaming, terrified.

“Why don’t you give ol’ Riles a little of that scrapple, hon…”

Riley never finished the sentence. No sound escaped his throat because a large left hand had clasped around it.

“Let her go, Riley,” Augie said, squeezing his hand around Riley’s neck.

As Marjorie pulled away, so did Riley. She pressed her back against the trailer door and continued screaming.

“Back off, man.” Riley wheezed. “I don’t give a shit who you are. I’m tired of these bitches playing me. You may not be getting any, but I’m gonna.”

Riley turned toward Marjorie, just as the trailer door opened a crack and hit her in the back, sending her sprawling. He reached for her again, but only managed one step before he was jerked back like he was attached to an acrobat’s safety line.

Augie held Riley with his left hand and punched him in the face with his right. He wouldn’t stop. As revelers poured out of the trailer the same way they had entered, they heard Augie say through clenched teeth, “No more, no more, no more.”

It took three men to pull Augie off Riley, whose bloody face was already swelling. Augie broke free and two more men, Ed Slezak, the catcher for the aerialists, and big Jack Scorzelli tackled him.

“Get that piece of shit off my lot,” Scorzelli yelled in the direction of Riley.

“I wunt doin’ nuf’n,” Riley said through bloody lips as a pair of clowns hauled him toward Clown Alley and all the other partiers decided to make themselves scarce.

“Cool off, Augie. Cool the fuck off,” Scorzelli hissed into his top clown’s ear.

“I’m okay, I’m okay,” Augie said. “How’s the girl?”

Marjorie had her head buried against Cody’s shoulder, still shaking and sobbing.

“I think she’ll be okay,” Cody said. “What did that perv do to her? She doesn’t need this shit.”

“He never got the chance,” Augie calmly said, as Slezak and Scorzelli helped him up but continued to hold him by his arms. “Sorry, boss, I lost it. Never happened before. Want me to clear out?”

“Circus fight, Augie. You been around long enough to see plenty of ‘em. We’ll see plenty more before we get back to Florida. You’ll still be my top hand then, too.”

Marjorie turned from Cody and said, “Thank you, Augie. I’m sorry I’m such a baby. He scared me so much and I…”

“It’s okay, Margie. I don’t think he’ll be bothering you girls for a while. And neither will I.” Augie turned toward his RV.

“Don’t leave!” Marjorie yelled and pulled away from Cody. “Please, I’m still feeling a little scared. What if he comes back?”

“He won’t be coming back,” Scorzelli said.

“It’s okay, Jack, I’ll stay here for a few minutes until Margie calms down a little. Okay, with you, Cody?”

“Sure, I’m tired and I’m pissed that none of those other clowns thought enough to be my hero when that drunk started trying to peel me like a banana right in front of the queso dip,” Cody said. “See you in a little while, okay, honey?”

“Yes, Cody, thank you,” Margie said.

Augie and Marjorie sat on the trailer steps in the dark. Cody had flipped off the outside light and was tossing empties into a bag inside.

“Can you tell me what’s wrong? Why don’t you share anything with anyone, other than your act? The boys know something, I’m sure, but they don’t tell anyone even when they’re drunk. Well, except for that creep Riley. I’ve felt a connection with you, Augie, from the first time I saw you. I don’t know what it is and it’s driving me crazy.”

“You’re obsessed with a dream, Margie. I’m not who or what you think I am. We all have secrets and some of us have big ones and want to keep them to ourselves. Now, I think you should go back into the trailer.”

“What if I tell you a secret? What if I tell you something no one around here but Cody knows? Tell you why I’m here, why Riley scared me so?”


“I was … I was … when I was a little girl, someone…” Now Marjorie looked away. But she wouldn’t let go of Augie’s arm.


“I was just a girl and he was, uh, a family friend.”


“My parents didn’t believe me when I told them. But then he did it again and my father caught him.”

“Okay, please, enough. I’m you don’t have to do this.”

“It’s a closed little world in Marion, Kentucky, you know? Rumors like this get around. Things were never the same for me. When I got to senior high, it was almost a joke. Only nobody laughed. We all got smushed together in our little religious group. Except I wasn’t accepted with the Plain People or the other students. When I was 18, they sent a bunch of us out in the world to see if the life back home was what we wanted. I knew it wasn’t since I was 12.”

Marjorie began crying, leaning her head to Augie’s chest. Augie looked around and saw he couldn’t escape. Her arms around him reminded him of that trapped feeling he would often get.

“Marjorie, it’s okay. You don’t have to tell me any more,” Augie said.

“I met a girl at the laundromat in Cincinnati who worked with the circus,” she said. “I wanted different from Marion, from the my people. I took the bus to Chillicothe and asked Mr. Scorzelli for a job. He said he didn’t want to hire me. But I was getting out on my terms. I followed you all to Florida last winter and asked again. I’m…persistent. And here we are, Augie. You and I. And I still feel something about you that I can’t explain,” she said.

Augie bent down and held Marjorie’s hand. For the first time, he looked into her eyes.

“Okay, okay, I get it. I…I understand. Really, I do,” he said. “It’s just that… Look, we clowns are a divisive lot. No one is ambivalent about us. They either love us or they’re unnerved by us. Then there are the freak chicks who just want to boff JoJo. And that’s a sick and unfortunate fact of our lives.”

“I’m not one of those women, Augie. You heard the story. I would never force myself on someone,” Marjorie said.

Augie took a deep breath.

“Okay, here’s a secret for you. I’ve never been with a woman. How’s that euphemism for the average adult American male to use? And now you know my makeup does more than just make me a zany. You know I’ve got a secret under this paint.”

“Everybody’s got secrets, Augie, you told me that,” Marjorie said.

“Yeah, I did. Now you know that I was born with a pretty nasty port wine stain covering my right eye and cheek. That’s a tough thing for a kid to grow up with. By the time I got to junior high, I began losing pigment on other parts of my skin. Including a spot on the left side of my face.”


“You know how mean teenagers can be. So can a mom who has too many kids from too many boyfriends. Her last guy made my classmates seem like angels. When he wasn’t belting my mom, he was smacking me, and then he’d wash his hands for fear that he might catch something off my face. It certainly wasn’t out of guilt.”

“Oh, Augie, I’m so…”

“I left home and tried to find a job where people wouldn’t look at me like a freak. So I went where the freaks are. I was a pretty good athlete, a gymnast in school, so I saw old man Scorzelli’s signs and wandered over to the midway. Told them I was a budding aerialist. The old man said, ‘Not with that mug you ain’t, pinto pony’.”

“How mean!” Marjorie said.

“Heard worse before that. Anyway, here we are. I’m Augie Pinto now. Top zany with a shit-heel circus wandering the country. I’m happy being a clown in a family of clowns. And I’m lonely and that’s just how it is.”

“Can we just talk for a little while longer, Augie? I promise not to be so … clingy.”

“All right,” he sighed. Their conversation went on for another hour. Once, Augie even laughed.
When Marjorie went into the trailer for more beer, Augie was waiting for her when she came back out. This made her smile.

Later that night, holding Augie, feeling so safe in his trailer, made Marjorie happier. She would tell him it was really her brother who did it some other day.

That same night Augie had the dream again. It was the dream where a woman whose face he can’t see is sitting on the edge of his bed in a dark room.

She reaches out to touch his cheek and he turns away, just as he’s done in all the other dreams. The woman shifts around on the bed so the light shining past the edge of the not-quite-shut hallway door illuminates her face.

Augie looks up to see her and that’s when he always wakes up. Other times he’s gasped, or cried out, bolting upright or flat-out jumped out of bed with his heart pounding. Tonight, though, he hugged Marjorie closer.

It’s this woman’s face. In the dream, he thinks he knows her, but her face is hidden behind all that makeup. The pasty, powdered face. The high-arched brows. The painted red lips. And then she reaches beneath his comforter and…

He always hated it when his mother came back alone from the bars.

Okay, so today, Day 9 of my September story-a-day challenge, I was supposed to write an Ugly Duckling plot. Well, like Cinderella from yesterday, I tried and failed three times. So I dredged up this l-o-o-o-n-g one, which might be an Ugly Duckling story if you squint and hold it sideways. I’ve always intended to include it in my first collection of stories, which has the working title of “…But Don’t Touch,” stories about men who are awkward, oblivious, fearful or indifferent to intimacy. Augie’s was to be one of my tentpole stories, but it needs a ton of revision and polish. Sigh…I hope someday these ducklings of mine will become swans.

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