Jumpers

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Many years later, when I saw her again on a crowded subway car approaching Times Square, I thought back to the night when we both shared a piece of cardboard on the roof of a freight train moving through Mexico. Her hair was short now, much shorter than it was the first time I met her in Arriaga. We were staying the night in a chapel-turned-shelter, its white cement walls covered in faded posters promising salvation. She was as sleepless as I was.

“The ones who are the most restless are the ones fleeing,” she told me.

“Who are you fleeing from?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

At dawn we walked across the lawless and nameless countryside, avoiding checkpoints, and speaking little. The thick overgrowth gave way to loosely paved roads scattered with plastic bags that clung to the gates of cattle ranches. We reached the tracks at midday. I went looking for water in an abandoned rice cellar, and when I found her again, listening for the train, she smelled of grass and sweat.

“Your body is a credit card,” she said. “Cuerpomático. Use it to buy yourself a little safety.”

She gripped a piece of cardboard between her teeth, tucked a roll of string in her pocket, and we started running to match the speed of the coming train. I grabbed the ladder in front of the car and pulled my legs off before the wheels caught up. As I was climbing, I imagined her hair twisting in the machinery and pulling her head off, but she was the first to find a spot on the roof, hot to the touch, and claim it with the cardboard.

“For two,” she said, and we settled back-to-back. A few other migrants stared at us and shifted uncomfortably on the ridged fiberglass. Ankles tied to the holed surface, we crossed into Oaxaca at dusk, the clouds of mosquitos dissolving into the pine forest around us.

Now, when the subway car stopped between stations, before the conductor mumbled about a train directly ahead of us, I wondered if she, too, thought of the moment the freight train stopped and we saw flashlights blinking ahead of us. I wanted to ask her what happened after the garroteros shoved us with their rifles and asked for payment.

“The train is free,” was the last thing I remember her saying before they knocked me out. I wanted to tell her that if my ankles weren’t tied with her string, I would have slipped off the roof, sliced by the beast’s steel bite.

She was a tiny woman, folded between businessmen who rushed out at Times Square, and I lost sight of her on the platform. Before I could find out if she still traveled in shadows, if she still didn’t want to be noticed, the doors closed.

Life Sized

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The first time I saw Little Man was on a bright, hot afternoon near the end of November, when the trains had just pulled into the fair grounds and the familiar smell of upturned turf and sun-basked animals returned to Sarasota. The stutters of tractors hauling cages had quieted down enough to hear the soft cries of trainers encouraging the elephants to rehearse their steps to Stravinsky. I wandered past the perimeter of cars humming with air conditioning, a novelty back then, and followed the railroad tracks to a row of carved wooden wagons. I must have spent several minutes examining the decorative motifs, running my fingers against the flaking gilded paint, before I noticed him leaning against a particularly ornate caryatid.

“Almost life-sized,” he said, “Like me.”

The white chalk on his face looked patchy and faded in the harsh light.

“I’m Jimmy,” he said, reaching up for a handshake. I moved towards him but stumbled on a cast-concrete putto buried in weeds.

“That’s my lawn decoration,” he said with a laugh that did not disturb the black arches disappearing into his bowler hat. “Reminds me that this is home. For the next few months, anyway.”

He looked me up and down. I began to feel self-conscious of my paint-splattered work clothes against his pristine and impeccably pressed shirt.

“The grounds aren’t open to the public yet. But you’re far too ordinary to belong here.”

“I’m usually up there,” I said, pointing across the stretch of canvas tops shimmering with silver paint and red trim.

“The Greatest Show On Ea–,” he read.

“I still have the last three letters to finish.”

“So they have money to hire a sign painter but not enough to give these old wagons a fresh coat.”

I told him that they pay me less that the price of admission, that I would gladly paint his wagon, but he waved me off.

“Don’t,” he said, peeling off a chip of paint and throwing it in the grass. “It suits me. Soon I’ll be too old to live in this row of left-behinds, and then I’ll be asking you for a job. I don’t know about climbing up that ladder, though.” Laughter left deep creases on his whitened face.

The next time I saw Jimmy was in late March, during one of their last shows of the season. I looked through the program but couldn’t find his name. I found him outside the main tent, handing out balloons and trying not to tangle himself in their strings.

“I’m billed as Little Man,” he said over the roars of children. “Watch me ride an elephant in the second act.”

Ink Play

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Lying on a high seat in the south study, this is what I see: a banana tree neatly wrapped in a coat of thatch; a small egret picking through withered grasses; a straw-hatted old man removing dead lotus leaves from the water. My mind wanders beyond this courtyard, past the three rings of pounded earth and wooden poles, past the eleven gates, across the drawbridge, and up, towards the northern peaks, where my friend lives among clouds. He gathers firewood and I watch the chill of early morning frost cover the old silk-floss paper in front of me. The egret flies off. I lodge my aimless thoughts in the criss-crossing of bamboo branches, now protesting against the cold with an occasional snap, and pick up the brush.

Ink is a plaything, my friend used to say. Layer the leaves like stacked lances; arrange them as neatly as bird wings. For the joints, think of a crane about to rise. Work quickly. The falcon swoops when the hare leaps up.

If I could find him now, following footprints obscured by leaves heaped up on bare slopes, I would tell him he was right to leave a place where these words employ useless men painting bamboo for fifty years. I would tell him that I have never achieved one perfectly satisfactory stroke.

The old man pulls his basket of dead leaves out of the water, leaving steams to meet their reflections. They bend and cross like the scribbles of a madman.