When my mother was a girl during the Depression, the circus rolled into her prairie town on slow trains, then set up on the fairgrounds at the edge of town. She loved the big tent, the smell of sawdust. My circus? At the cement civic center downtown. I was not captivated by the clown cars, the balloons, the woman riding high on the elephant, her arm raised in faux triumph, makeup covering her tired face. Like the bland animal crackers in an exciting circus box, the show was boring and tasteless.
At the school field trip to the zoo, the primate hall smelled of feces and burnt plastic from the molded black gorillas that cost a dollar. The neurotic tiger paced in his stone and iron-barred cage. Under an overcast sky, we sat close on hard bleachers waiting for the seal show, licking our fingers sticky with cotton candy, our paper bag lunches and cartons of warm milk ignored like the stinky moat around Monkey Island.
With coaxed curiosity at the State Fair, I paid my meager allowance for the freak show. Inside the tent, the woman was not part snake, only sad with scaly skin, the audience staring at her near-naked body. The stench of captivity, the barker’s voice, the crunching gravel under my running feet.