The Curtain Falls
“Mom!!” Alvin exclaimed “We’re hells late!”
They were indeed late. The carnival had hit Phoenix (Arizona), their city, a week ago. Today was their last day. It was now or never for Alvin. He’d been on his best behaviour all week. All his efforts were for today. His parents had promised to take him.
“Language, Alvin. We don’t want your father hearing you say that” Muriel said. She wasn’t interested in wasting away a perfectly calm weekend roaming around and along crowded tents, but Alvin had thrown a tantrum.
Patrick had taken the car out onto the road. He couldn’t hide his excitement either. It wasn’t just Alvin who had been looking forward to this. Patrick had been looking forward to the shooting games in the carnival. He loved those; it was almost like the real thing, and the prizes weren’t half bad either. He started honking the horn, with almost the same excitement as his son.
Soon, Alvin and Muriel were in the car, they buckled up and set off to the East of the city where the carnival was taking place.
Neil was alone almost his entire life; granted for him, the words ‘entire life’ meant nine years. He had been abandoned when he was four years old. He then was taken in by a church where he used to stay; study and eat. The father of the church was a pious man, so he had taken him in and would feed him. That was the first glimpse of good parenting in Neil’s life.
Years passed by and Neil was now nine. The padre’s health had taken a plunge and he was replaced by a new priest. This person however wasn’t as kindred a soul as his predecessor. He’d driven Neil away, and had forbid him from coming back.
So, Neil was an orphan again. There had been a circus group visiting the village. Neil found himself outside one of the bright coloured tents, he had gone in hoping to find either food or a spot to hide and sleep. Not a great idea but what did he know? He was nine.
Soon, the owner of the tent, Dimitri, a lion tamer walked in. Neil; hadn’t done a great job hiding; because the moment he walked in, Dimitri said “come out boy! I see you”.
Neil slowly walked out, fearing the worst. The bear sized guy had an accent alien to him, sounded dangerous; a far difference from the well-spoken and collected priest he was so used to. Staring steadily at his feet, Neil said “Yes sir, I was just trying to find a place to sleep sir.”
Dimitri gazed at him with a practiced beast tamer’s eye. Then he took a whiff of his vodka and said “So of all the places you could have done that, you chose my tent. Go on boy; go back to where you came from. Don’t have the time to deal with little cubs.”
“But I have nowhere to go, sir. And it’s dark outside. I am scared” Neil said, visibly shaking.
Dimitri looked up from his bottle. Studying Neil, he said “What are you called, boy”
“Neil, sir” Neil said.
“Well, Neil, you’re in luck. I happen to be looking for an assistant for my act. You won’t be paid, but I’ll put a roof atop your head and food in your belly” Dimitri said. He had been alone his entire life, he was abandoned too, but he had fought his way out of Russia. He was empathetic towards little Neil.
There started Neil’s life on the move. Dimitri was actually good at his job. He had continuous gigs. Neil used to help him dress up into his gear and help him, ever so little in his acts. Neil felt at home here, albeit his home kept moving, a life on the road.
Soon two years passed by. One night Dimitri came home and asked Neil to pack the bags and the equipment. “We’re moving to a carnival, Neil. The circuits are better, they pay more. I met a few of them in the pub; a cheerful group, the lot of them I’ll tell you!” Dimitri said.
Neil didn’t share the excitement. He had made friends in the circus; but he didn’t speak up. Dimitri was the closest he ever had to a father. He would go wherever Dimitri would.
Next day, he was on his first tour set with the new group. They had a cottage trailer now. He oftentimes remembered the circus folk, the padre and all the people with whom he’d spent a few years each of his life. Tears would well up; but he’d try not to show it to Dimitri. He felt like he owed that to the man.
He wasn’t kidding about the better circuits though. In the three months that they ran with the crew, they had already gone to Washington DC, St. Lawrence, New York City, Seattle and other such cities.
During the days off, Neil would sit by the cottage window and peer through the curtains looking at the circus crew bustling with activity, all the kids seemingly around his age with their parents, happy and satisfied looking. Not a single worry in their lives, their life was a mirage in the edge of the desert, an oasis he could never find.
Alvin could barely contain his excitement. HE wanted to see all that he can. He kept tugging on his mom’s sleeve, steering her to the shows that he wanted to watch in the carnival. He was convinced he’d earned it. He wanted to go for the beast taming show. His friends in school had told him it was a treat. His mother had argued about the barbarity of the whole ordeal, but hadn’t managed to dissuade him.
Soon they were on the stands of the beast tamer’s show tent. The opening mini program soon started but before it could even end, people voiced in chorus “main show! Main show!”
Dimitri and Neil made their way onto the spotlight. They had yet another show to present. As a final day treat, they made a special show, two animals were to be contained, together. Neil was circling around the lion, lashing his whip in a manner of timed practice. Every time the whip came down, the crowd cheered.
In the front row, Alvin could barely remain seated. He was watching the show with open-mouthed wonder. Neil could hear the crowd, the sounds and shrieks of excitement from the crowd made by kids his age. He was trained for the spotlight. Not many things could surprise him.
Just as he thought that, someone from the crowd blew an air horn. This was sudden and unexpected for Neil; he missed his regular practiced hit with the whip. He hit the animal square between the eyes. The lion roared in pain and anger.
It all happened so fast. The animal pounced forward and before Neil or the circus’ safety professionals could react, was on top of Neil who was barely pushing it off with the chair. Then one powerful paw hit him on his sides and he was flung toward the barricades, right under where Alvin was seated.
Alvin had started feeling scared; the crowd had slowly started leaving the tent as the show was officially called off. But Alvin couldn’t take his eyes off of the kid who seemed his own age.
Neil was looking up at Alvin as well. Then he passed out. All was dark.
“How’s he, doctor. He’s just a boy” Dimitri said frantically.
“We have done all we can Mr. Dimitri, He’s in observation now. You can see him in a few hours” Patrick said. Then looking at Dimitri, a giant of a man unbuckled so, almost broke his heart. “The circus folk aren’t treating him? I was there watching the show with my wife and kid. My Alvin is around the same age as your little Neil.”
Dimitri looked up “no, sir. The circus folk don’t take any responsibility.” All actors and performers are there on their own risk here. II didn’t want this for Neil. I promised I’d let no harm come to him” Dimitri said, weeping.
Alvin came running in. The hospital had called them in when they were still in the carnival, so Patrick had brought his family here as well. Alvin noticed Dimitri crying. He was a clever and sensitive kid. He said “Don’t worry sir. My daddy will fix your boy; he’s the best doctor in this world.”
That brought a smile n Dimitri’s tired and work visage. “Sure seems so, thanks kid.” He said extending his hand to shake Alvin’s.
But Alvin wasn’t done talking. “You can even come and live with us. You can live as much as you want to” He said.
“That’s enough, Alvin. The good gentleman here has his job to take care of. Stop being rude” Patrick reprimanded Alvin.
“But, dad..!” Alvin started
“No buts; go wait with your mother. Let me finish my meeting, then I will drive you home” Patrick said sternly. Alvin knew better than to argue when his father got like this. He quietly left the room.
“Sorry Mr. Dimitri, my son gets carried away sometimes.” Patrick said.
“No sir. You have a good kid there” He said and after a little thought said “Actually, are there any foster houses in this city, or anyone looking to adopt. I do not want Neil to waste away his life with a wayfarer like me. He’s a smart boy. I think he deserves better.”
Patrick considered Dimitri. Here was a man breaking down in front of him evidently making the hardest decision of his life. It was also evident that it was tearing him up inside. He pitied Dimitri; he sympathized too, being a father himself.
“I’ll take him” He said abruptly, before even thinking.
Dimitri looked up, with a face that betrayed mixed feelings. “I do not know how to thank you, doctor” He said “But I don’t think I’ll be able to do this if I talk to him. Please tell him about this after I leave with the crew tomorrow. I hope I’ll meet him later, at a better time. Maybe I could come visit once in a while, maybe I could call…” He trailed off in thought.
“Sure. Mr. Dimitri. I will take him home, talk to him. I am sure he’ll appreciate what you’re doing for him.” Patrick said.
The two men then sat in silence, the clock ticked away.
Neil’s eye opened and he woke up with a start. He looked up. His eyes were met by an unfamiliar ceiling. His sides were bandaged up and his mouth tasted like stale bread and medicines.
“Where…” he voiced strenuously.
“Mom, He’s awake!” Alvin shouted and bolted to fetch his mother.
Neil gingerly sat up, reached the curtains near his bed and pulled it back and peered out. He saw a street bustling with activity. His doctor was watering the plants. The kid who had just run off was yelling at his father and mother and they were running in. He closed the curtains and feel back into the bed.
Well what do you know; he managed to reach that oasis after all!