Far-off thunderheads were boiling toward them out of the abyss beyond the horizon—as if belched out by some almighty fire-eater—but here on the fairgrounds there were carnival tents, sideshow acts, booth games, a penny arcade with automatons, pickpockets, apes, alligators, hot-lit rides, and the more immediate (and entirely gratis) spectacle of a well-contested knife fight.
The crowds crowded in—thronged and flocked. The thunderheads, for their part, rolled closer.
The spectators hopped about like grasshoppers on sizzling pavement. It was all the dizzy hubbub one could ask for to whistle away a reckoning. Bells rang, gears clanged, bulbs flashed, and all the midway sang sweet.
The crowds jigged and juked one way and another with the single mind of a shoal of mackerel or a mass of starlings.
They had a hollowed-out buffalo, it was roundly whispered. Stuffed alligators too. Live orangutans. Dancing girls of becoming grace. Blow-offs and blow-ups. That was what the flyers and posters had crooned, to which the barkers now added verses more forbidden and sweet and goshwow, out-thundering thunder with rodomontade. All the fat of the land had been promised. And all would be delivered.
A big man strolled the midway promenade with a girl on his arm—one of the little fair inamoratas, or catch crumbs, such as live in the halo (or beard) of all great men, such as buzz in the aura of the hot lights. They took it in and grudgingly rendered forth that Nothing was wanting.
Burt and Bart, henceforth known as Judas the Chariot and Zelander the Axe Alexander, were limbering up in jigtime. A right old unscheduled slugfest was now most assuredly in the works and on the docket. They were girding their loins, waxing their mustache ends, riling the opponent with witticisms: the fisticuff-preamble essentials.
Heat lightning luxuriated, in jigtime, across the Midwestern sky.
Come and see, come and see: all the brunt-bearing saints of the circus. The gulls thronged the fairgrounds. The thunderheads sprawled, advancing—sprawled like lack-a-daisy tabbies, save in this: the thunderheads picked themselves up each moment and plopped closer.
The shadow-dappled crowds flocked to the hot-lit rides. The hot lights almost out-lit the lightning.
The organ grinders of our darker nature were gearing up. O my inamorata, my sweet catch crumb, they began to play. The tethered monkeys jigged. The pickpockets and other sneak-thieves gleed and gulled, catching coney after coney.
Step round, step round, in jigtime if you please, so one and all can see. Judas and Zelander, having cudgeled each other down to stumps, were now exhibited to wide applause.
The gulls gathered in jigtime. They frolicked in jigtime. Beer, rye, and boogie-woogie tunes. Until their jig was up.
Now the thunderheads had come and could not be whistled away. But who in their heart of hearts would want it otherwise? The carnival cloyed; this would cleanse the whole palate.
David Macey’s essays and translations have appeared in The Literary Review, Third Coast, AGNI, The Southern Humanities Review, Mayday Magazine, and elsewhere. A winner, in poetry, of the annual Atlantic writing contest, he is writing a book on the history of sensationalist news pamphlets in early modern England. (updated 10/2016)