Donny Clatterbuck hated team sports — baseball, football, and basketball. On the short side, he had a solid build, with broad shoulders and a snub nose. In gym, he could climb a rope in a flash, and he was good on the rings and the pommel horse. But the county school didn’t compete in gymnastics. When he turned 14, Mr. Yates recruited him for wrestling.
“Every boy needs a sport,” the coach said. “Sport is more than training the mind and body. It’s a preparation for life.”
Donny wanted to prepare for life, but Mr. Yates never spelled out how sports would do this. For him it was like the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
Donny gave wrestling a try. The foul mats, the other sweaty boys, and their obsession with body weight put him off. There was also the question of talent. The coach favored some boys with pats on the back, pocket money, and tips on dealing with injuries. Donny’s performance was so-so. He was agile and flexible, but other boys had size and power.
“Stick to it!” Mr. Yates said. “Nobody likes a quitter.”
“How do I get leverage?” Donny meant the physics of the lever, which was the only way he could win. He wanted more than a stock phrase.
“You want my honest opinion, Clatterbuck? If you work hard enough and set your mind to it, you can achieve anything.”
Donny’s father had skipped out years ago, before he could form a memory. A photo showed a lithe, dark figure wearing a baseball cap. The visor hid his eyes. Where did he come from, where did he go, and what was he like? In their one conversation on the subject, his mother was no help. A local girl, she had picked an outsider.
“That man gave a different story every time you asked. Sometimes he said he was mixed race, and sometimes he said Mediterranean, which covers a lot of territory.”
“Were you married?”
“You’re legit, if that’s what’s bothering you.”
“What about the last name?”
“He had more than one to suit the occasion. I kept my name to stay out of trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“Debt collectors, court subpoenas. He was in and out of jail.”
“Do I look like him?”
She turned her attention from the sock she was darning to the boy who was becoming a man.
“You look better.”
“When people ask if you’re black or white or what, tell them you’re a Clatterbuck.”
Janine Clatterbuck was preoccupied with earning a living as a waitress, meeting the payments on the mobile home, and dealing with Donny’s older sister. Annabelle was a girl of exceptional beauty and extreme low pressure, like a tropical system that sucks up all the energy nearby and spews it back in a torrent.
Like his mother, Donny’s teachers in the county school had their hands full. They saw him as a quiet boy who never acted out or shone in any subject. He was lost in the middle.
The summer he turned 15, Donny took up juggling. The how-to book said it was low-stress, an exercise you can do anywhere, a way to improve muscular coordination, and a skill that would come in handy in any social situation. The book was illustrated with drawings of a faceless human figure surrounded by little numbers and arrows, like a cloud of midges.
Daily practice was the key. Donny was determined. By the last year of high school, he could keep four tennis balls in the air, sometimes five. He could also spin a plate on a stick, twirl small hoops, and balance a chair on his forehead, though not all at once.
His grades were passing but mediocre. Donny was not college material. He wasn’t trailer trash, either. Annabelle was, but she fixed that. After a stormy argument with her mother, she left town with an older man who claimed to be a photographer. Annabelle was destined for a career as a fashion model and actress.
“A pair of boobs,” Janine said. Whether she meant the couple or Annabelle’s main attraction was open to discussion.
Juggling practice kept Donny out of trouble, but it was a solitary pursuit. He had no friends. And no enemies, thanks to his athletic build. Bullies looked for easy prey, sissies and shrimps.
Despite the promise of How to Juggle Practically Anything, nobody in high school or the mobile home park cared much for juggling. They watched Donny for a while, then grew bored with the repetition. A routine that would last several minutes and keep a crowd enthralled had yet to emerge. Practice was its own reward, like playing a musical instrument or running a mile every day. Skill was a secret kind of pleasure.
Donny graduated in May and got a job installing asphalt shingle roofs. Construction paid well, and Donny liked being high above the ground. He had no fear of falling. But the roofing contractor sent men out in teams, and Donny’s foreman harped on teamwork. Another talking point was the efficient use of material and labor. Donny’s coworkers wasted both. The game was to see how much they could get away with.
With Annabelle gone, the mobile home was more spacious. Janine Clatterbuck said Donny could stay so long as he was clean and quiet, which he was. He was gainfully employed. He paid for his own food, contributed to rent and utilities, and saved the rest of his wages toward a used vehicle. Begging for rides and waiting for them to show was getting old.
Donny wanted a pickup truck like you see on television, fording a stream or chugging up a dirt road, with massive treads. Instead he bought a compact car with good fuel mileage. The tires were almost new.
At the end of August, a traveling circus came to the county fair. A splashy poster showed an old-fashioned troupe of acrobats, clowns, and sword-swallowers. One girl stood on the back of a pony that raced around a ring, while another girl hung upside-down from a rope, her arms spread like wings. A master of ceremonies in the dress uniform of a European field marshal flourished a whip. The troupe was called the Magnificent Magyars, “on tour by special arrangement.”
Donny took a shower after work and drove to the fairground. The sky was still bright, but the heat of the day had passed. It was Friday, payday, and good to be alive. Donny wanted to see if anyone in the circus troupe juggled.
Two young women did. They looked like the girls on the poster. One was the star, and the other was her assistant. They played music on a boombox, up-tempo and loud, and they wore a costume of tights and a flimsy skirt. While one performed, the other gestured like a ballet dancer, as if to say: “Behold!” Their routine was not much better than his, a few minutes of balls and hoops. When the bowling pins dropped to the ground, nobody booed. The audience laughed, like it was a good joke.
Donny wanted to talk to the jugglers. What would he say? The set was over, and the crowd dispersed. He strolled in, picked up four balls, and started to juggle. The young woman watched, and the assistant ignored him. Donny finished with a behind-the-back flourish and bowed. There was no applause.
“Where did you learn?” the young woman said. Up close she looked tough, no nonsense. Browned by the sun, she had black hair.
“At home. I taught myself.”
“Not bad,” she said coolly. She was Donny’s height, though when she was performing he thought she was taller.
“Thanks.” Donny was elated.
“Not good, either.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s not enough to have the moves. You need to wow the audience, create a little suspense, make them gasp in awe. Or laugh, like today.”
“Can you teach me?”
The assistant snorted with impatience. She wanted to pack up. The young woman talking to Donny was in no hurry.
“Who are you?”
“Mara. That’s my sister, Juliska.”
Juliska grabbed the balls from Donny’s hands.
“You live here?” Mara asked.
“You have a job? A car?”
Right then and there, Donny wanted to tell Mara the story of his life. The way she screwed up her eyes made him stop. Somehow, she already knew. And she didn’t care. No, that wasn’t true. She cared where he was headed, not where he had been. Donny saw himself through Mara’s eyes, and he felt giddy.
“The fair closes Sunday,” she said. “We move on to the next gig, and then the next, until the season is over. My father is the leader, more or less. Everybody is their own boss, but he puts together the tour. His name is Arpad.”
“Are you gypsies?”
Donny shrugged, and Juliska laughed.
“Big difference,” Mara said. “And you?”
“You want to know if I’m black or white?”
“I’m a Clatterbuck.”
“Can I meet Arpad?”
“He’s busy. Come back tomorrow.”
“Should I bring my stuff?”
“That depends.” Mara gave Donny that gimlet look again. “Bring whatever you’ll need on the road, and be ready to go.”
In a fever of anticipation, Donny went home. Janine was out, working a dinner shift. Anyway, how could he explain to his mother what he was about to do? He wrote her a note.
“I’m going to try something different. It involves travel, so I might be gone for a few days. Or years. It all depends. Love, Donny.”
He put the note in an envelope with some money, what he owed for the month. He packed one bag of juggling equipment and one of clothes. He went to bed expecting to lie awake for hours and woke at dawn from a sound sleep.
Janine’s bedroom door was closed. The rule was: Do Not Disturb. Donny left the envelope in plain sight on the kitchen counter. He loaded the car and drove to the fairground.
In the cool of the morning, kids were picking up trash, toting bales of straw, spraying water from a hose, and tending pigs, cows, sheep, and a llama. Prize ribbons were pinned to the pens. Donny knew some of the kids from school. The animals were their 4-H projects.
A village of campers, trailers, and tents had sprung up, out of the way and under some trees. Donny asked around.
“I’m looking for the Magnificent Magyars.”
Soon he was standing face to face with a lean man in his forties, evidently the master of ceremonies. Instead of the field marshal uniform, the man wore rumpled khaki pants, a collar shirt open on the chest, rolled-up sleeves, and a felt hat. Black eyebrows and a mustache gave him a fierce expression. This was Arpad.
“So you want to run away from home and join the circus, is that it?”
“I can pay you nothing, only food and bed. For that you must work hard, chores like a farm hand. There is no glamor in this life. You understand?”
Donny nodded, a lump in his throat.
“You have good timing. I need a young man to replace the one who disappeared last week. Into thin air, just like that!” Arpad snapped his fingers. “How old are you?”
“The same as my Mara.”
As if waiting to hear her name called, Mara emerged from the camper. She acknowledged Donny silently and stood beside her father. Donny saw the resemblance, except that Mara was not fierce. In the dappled sunlight, she was beautiful, softer than the day before. Instead of the showbiz costume, she wore jeans and a faded, oversize shirt, one her father had discarded.
“You are free? No strings?” Arpad said.
“Mara tells me you can juggle. Mara tells me the truth always. You will show me what you can do later. First, we have a little test, a … what do you call it?” Arpad turned to his daughter.
“Initiation,” she said.
“It is nothing,” Arpad said. He swatted away an imaginary bug. “It is entertainment!”
“We do a knife-throwing act,” Mara explained. “My father is an expert. In many things, but with knives he is the best. Normally I am the victim, the one who stands still in front of the target.”
Mara gestured to a six-foot tall board on which thin punctures formed the outline of a body, a ghost of herself. Meanwhile Arpad retrieved a black leather case. It snapped open to reveal a double row of steel knives. They glittered in the sun.
“You will be so good as to stand there,” Arpad said. He took a knife from the case and examined the blade.
Donny looked at Mara, and she smiled.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she said. “Stand perfectly still. Don’t flinch. The knives must stick as close to you as possible. That is the point.”
In a daze, Donny moved into position. Mara made sure he was flat against the board. Her hand pressed against his stomach.
“One more thing,” Arpad said. “Keep your eyes open. If you blink, I know you do not trust me.” He held a knife in each hand, thumb and index finger on the tip of the blade.
Donny blinked rapidly, then raised his eyelids as far as they would go.
“So, you juggler, you fearless young man,” Arpad said to the world, “you who dare to speak to my daughter, the one I love more than my own life, are you ready to face death?”
Panic raced through Donny from head to foot, but he held firm. Mara stood within arm’s length, watching. Loud and clear, he shouted:
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