By Paul Pekin
Sit down, my friends, and let me tell you a story. Many years ago in my hometown, there happened to be a man named Fred Walters. You might think this a fine normal name for, say, a cigar store owner, and you would be right, had he been a cigar store owner, but our Fred was a Freddy, a gentle, likeable man, who made his living wandering up and down Western Avenue, handing out leaflets and advertising fliers for our local merchants who paid him as little as their consciences would allow.
With this, he supported himself and his brother, Harry, who seldom came out of the house and was almost never seen on our streets. They lived in an old frame building with a shed out back and an outdoor privy that children and passing tramps frequently used. Luckily, Freddy’s mother had installed electric lights and indoor plumbing before she died, or I do believe Freddy and Harry would have done without.
On the street, in the stores along the Avenue, or in the shop where I worked, Freddy talked nothing but circus. “Circus coming,” he would say, unrolling a poster he conveniently had in his bag. Sometimes there would be a white faced clown with grinning red lips, sometimes a tiger held at bay by a wooden chair, sometimes an elephant sitting on its haunches, often ladies in tights on the high wires, and once, but only once, a raging gorilla clearly meant to suggest King Kong. “It’s coming,” Freddy would say. “Elephants coming. Horses. Ladies will ride them standing up.”
A circus did visit our town yearly, setting up on the same field that was used for our annual Fourth of July celebration. There would still be an odor of gunpowder on the grass when the tents arrived; the little sideshow tents where you could gamble or get your fortune told, and the big main tent where all the acts performed—the trapeze artists, the high wire walker, the bareback riders, and of course the clowns, white-faced, black-faced, harlequins, hobos, even a dog named Bruce.
In those days, I worked for the town newspaper, not as a cub reporter, which would have been very nice, but as a lowly job pressman, turning out letterheads, envelopes, and church bulletins. I had little to do with the Saturday Star, which actually was published every Thursday evening and consisted mostly of advertising and local news of the most sanitized variety, which is to say nothing remotely critical of our town ever saw print. Even a dog bite was censored out so not to reveal such a thing had happened on Western Avenue.
That Saturday afternoon, I was working alone. The office was closed, and my boss had slipped out to make a few bets at the nearby bookie. The alley door was unlocked, but I had the key just in case he did not return on time.
I did not notice the visitor until he was almost at my side. I was running one last job on the Gordon, business cards for Hanahan’s Funeral Parlor. I do believe you can get a job like this done today on the Internet, or even pop it off on your home computer, but then it was a mildly skilled task I took pride in accomplishing. I stood at the press, feeding cards in one at a time, watching the counter and thinking about the circus, which was to open that very night, and to which I’d planned to take my sister.
When I looked up, he was standing next to me, a little man in a suit that must have been made in another country. A DP, I thought, quite a few of these displaced persons had found their way to our town immediately after the war. “Excuse me,” he said, yes, in some kind of an accent. I held up one finger and continued with my job. I had about eighty cards to go. I could do eighty of anything in less than a minute. When I was done, I switched off the press.
“We are not really open now,” I said. “You have to come back Monday morning.”
“I am Barthtok,” he said, as if that alone would explain his presence.
I set out to wash the press; you had to do that, wipe the ink from the rollers with a gasoline-soaked rag before it dried and ruined the rollers.
“I come here because you are newspaper,” he said.
“Yes, but the newspaper office is not open.”
“I understand,” he said, shaking his head. “They told me to come here.”
“Who told you what?”
“Mr. Walters. They said he might be here.”
It took me a moment to understand that the Mr. Walters he was talking about was our own Circus Freddy.
“Yes, he does stop here,” I said. “But I haven’t seen him today.”
“We fear he may be ill, or worse,” the little man said.
For all his old world shabbiness and ugly name, this Barthok had a certain grace in his movements, an otherworldly lightness that made you think of ancient things, of satyrs and fauns and mythological beings with forgotten names.
“He is our acolit,” he explained, so gravely I did not doubt he was telling some truth, even though I did not know what that word meant, and am not, even today, sure I am putting it down right.
I knew where Freddy lived. As soon as I punched my time card, I locked the alley door and led the way.
Today, our town has merged into the general suburban sprawl that surrounds any big city. Then, we actually thought of ourselves as a city on our own. And a very old one, by Midwestern standards, established shortly after the war of 1812 by traders and settlers who drove away the Indians. Most of the town rested atop a stretch of high ground surrounded on three sides by low-lying swamps and a little river that once may have contained fish. The oldest part of town, all wooden houses with false fronts and gravelly yards, was where Freddy and his brother lived. Anyone who grew up in our town knew this house well, although neither I, nor any person I knew, had ever been in it.
I knocked on the front door. After a long moment of silence, Freddy was before us, his bald head uncovered. When he saw the little man, he grinned his wide Circus Freddy grin.
“Oh, Barthy the Tok,” he said, clapping his white hands. “I told you circus was coming.”
Barthtok seemed to straighten up and gather dignity. He did not smile, nor did he offer his hand. But he did make a brief bow.
“You were not there to greet us. We feared you were ill.”
Freddy put one finger to his lips. “Not Freddy,” he said. “Harry is the one.”
He took us into his musty house with its bare creaking floors, and we saw the older brother stretched out on a couch, covered to his chest with a sheet. I had never seen this brother before, only heard of him, but he certainly did look like Freddy, and he was, I realized, dying. He was in striped pajamas, his white hands playing with the sheet, and his wide open eyes focused upon nothing. With every breath he took, I heard something I had never heard before, the rattle of death.
There was nothing for me to do here, and nothing I was wanted to do. I edged out the door and left them together, our own Circus Freddy, his dying brother, and Mr. Barthtok. I did not belong with them.
That night, as the sun was setting, my sister and I walked to that great field on the edge of town. I had not told her of what I had seen and did not know how I ever could. She was twelve then, her dark hair naturally curly, and she wore the same glasses you can see in those yellowed old photographs I still keep in my family album. To say I loved her then and miss her now would be to start another story, which I do not intend to do. I paid for our tickets, and we went into the big tent and found our way to the highest seats in the grandstand.
Then came the band and the elephants and the prancing horses, the whistles, the roars of great beasts, the acrobats, and the clowns, everywhere the clowns, juggling, slapping each other with bladders, riding wobbly bicycles, shouting out in incomprehensible languages.
Among them was Barthtok, wearing a bashed-in stove-pipe hat, a colorfully patched coat, and oversized shoes. I recognized his walk, light and graceful, and dignified in that exaggerated way we associate with the theater. I pointed him out to my sister.
“How do you like that one?”
Before she could answer, a lady in gold tights was on the high wire, carrying a parasol, almost, it seemed, walking on the air itself. “Do you think she can fly?” my sister whispered. “Do you think she will let us see her fly?”
The following Monday morning, the newspaper office was open, and, as always, crowded with gossip. My duties kept me in the back shop with the ink and clatter, but I knew how to work my way up front when something interesting was going on. Here, the events of our small town were discussed; here the real news that never made the paper, the dog bites, the wife beatings, the traffic arrests, the sightings of respectable men in disrespectable places, the rumors of good daughters gone bad. My bosses, brothers who had inherited the newspaper from their immigrant father, were present in their white shirts and rolled up sleeves, and so was our editor, Hugh Merryville, who earned even less than my father did at the wire factory. Sheridan Watson was there, as he always was when there was something to gossip about. Someday, he would so shamefully neglect his shoe store business as to leave no other options than bankruptcy and a quick bullet to the forehead. Also present was Morton White, who sold insurance and houses, and second hand cars when he had one, and stout Father Kelly of my own St. Benedict’s Parish. Father Kelly, you should know, was more than a priest; he was a bon vivant who went drinking with the Knights of Columbus fellows and publicly defied damnation every Thursday night by polishing off a White Castle hamburger just before the stroke of midnight.
Voices were raised when I entered. These men were having a very good time, and I heard someone, probably Morton White, who had an opinion on everything, loudly say, “Circus Freddy.”
Freddy’s poor brother, Harry, had “passed” Saturday afternoon, not even an hour after I had tiptoed off.
“Tis a terrible thing,” Father Kelly declared. He had a bit of an Irish brogue he may or may not have cultivated. “A man should be buried properly.”
“Pshaw,” said Sheridan Watson, whose own remains would someday be denied a consecrated place. “A man should carry insurance, isn’t that right, Morton? We carry insurance so others do not have to foot the bill. It’s that or Potter’s Field, isn’t it?”
Our editor, who may have been the most mild-mannered and timid man in town, coughed gently. “That’s not the kind of thing that makes a community look good.”
“Pshaw! Only if you put it in the paper, and you’re not going to do that, are you?”
“If only he were a Catholic,” Father Kelly said. “Perhaps I could do something.”
“Maybe you could baptize him,” Sheridan said. “I’ve heard you guys baptize the dead.”
“Only with their permission,” Father Kelly said, and there was more laughter than seemed decent.
At that exact moment, the office door opened, and the little man from the circus, Barthok, came in, dressed entirely in black, his hat in his hand.
“Gentleman,” he said. “I believe several funeral parlors in this town. Which the best?”
“Why, it’s Hanahan’s,” Father Kelly cried. “But they will never take a charity case.”
Barthtok put on his black hat and bowed. “I will speak to them,” he said, and was out the door as quietly as he entered.
“Who the hell was that?” Sheridan asked. Barthy the Tok, I could have replied, but the best thing was to remain silent.
I have been to many wakes and funerals since, some more sorrowful than I dare describe. The talk in the newspaper office for the next few days was that R.J. Hanahan had refused the job, even when the offer was accompanied by a check, but then reconsidered for reasons never made clear. “They got something on him,” Sheridan Watson insisted, in the office every day, breathless for an update. He was troubled by the length of the visitation. From Tuesday till Thursday. “A long time to have a stiff lying around? Doesn’t a body start stinking after a while?”
It was a bad thing to say, and I wonder if he remembered it when it came time for him to go. Probably not. When a man presses a revolver to his forehead, he is long past thinking about his sins.
Circus Freddy sat with his brother every night, or so I was told. I went once; why, I can’t say, probably to see who would be with him, and what I saw was no one, only Freddy sitting alone on one of those little benches that faced the casket. I stood in back where he could not see me. If I were to step forward and touch him on the shoulder, what would he say? “Circus coming”? I stepped back into the vestibule and signed the guest card, my name alone on the page. I did not have the heart to turn to the page before it.
People in our town still talk about that funeral, but I was not there to see it. I worked every Saturday I could, made all the overtime I could. I have always had an immense respect for money. They were all there, those people from the circus, and they buried Circus Freddy’s brother, who, I somehow imagine, they had never seen alive once. They did not, as some pretended years later, show up in costume. No clowns in broken stove-pipe hats, no aerialists in gaudy gold tights, no ringmaster in black tails; that was just a story some people made up for reasons they alone can explain. But they did show up. A dozen or so somber men and women who looked like they came from a time and a place not measured in years and miles. They were the ones who had paid for the wake and the funeral. They were the ones who carried poor Harry to the waiting hearse.
They were the ones who followed it in their ancient cars that wheezed and backfired and reminded us all of those distant years before the war. They were the ones who stood by the grave while a prayer was read, if a prayer was read, as I suppose one was.
After that day, we never saw Freddy again. His house stood vacant for years and finally burned to the ground, leaving a vacant lot whose ownership is still in dispute.
There are nights when I, now an old man with his own shining bald head, lie awake, and it all plays before me as it should have been. Here it comes, Hanahan’s great black gleaming hearse, behind it, the entire circus band with the ringmaster in his magnificent black cape in the lead. Oh, the trombones, oh the polished tubas, oh, the blazing trumpets, oh, the bass drum with the words “Clark Brother’s Three Ring” painted on its side. After the band, the lone elephant, one is enough, with a blonde rider in gilded tights. Next, the horses, and the ladies who ride them bareback, next, a lion and tiger, pacing in their darkened cages, and then, oh then, the clowns, in white-face, in black-face, in harlequin colors, among them Barthy the Tok with his stove-pipe hat all beaten in and tipped over, his oversize shoes flapping.
So many are gone after all these long years. Gone, those I loved and hoped I would have forever; gone, those I barely knew, gone; gone, the good; gone, the bad, gone. It is a wonder I remain. At night, I hear the railroad trains whistling far across the city. And I remember that night, after the tents went down, and the circus moved out of our lives and took with them the man we called Circus Freddy. This is the story I told my sister that night, and I believe it to be true, to this very day.
He will be with them, white-faced and grinning forever.
Paul Pekin, a Chicago writer, started out as a printer. He owned a small store in Logan Square, taught fiction writing at Columbia College, The Chicago School of the Art Institute, and several other schools, and spent ten years as a police officer. His work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Reader (frequently), The New York Press, and numerous literary and commercial magazines (Sou’wester, The South Dakota Review, The Mochilla Review, etc). His work has won awards from the Illinois Arts Council and the Chicago Headline Club, and has been anthologized in The Best American Sports Writing.