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.

Polaris

Polaris

On the coldest day of the year, the weather man walks back from the measurement booth across a snowed-over plain, solid as cement and tinted with the pale yellow glow of the northern lights. He looks up and smiles. The movement cracks the thin layer of frost inside his nose and he feels the air as a sharp and painful cut. By the time he reaches his house, made of wooden planks that have survived a hundred such winters, it seeps through his double-gloved hands.

Propped up against the side is a boat he built from pieces of scrap metal, salvaged from the ship that brings supplies in the summer. The crew always looks at him with pity.

“How do you manage all on your own with not a soul around? Don’t you get lonely?”

No, he says, but doesn’t mention the pleasure of floating in his boat and watching the reflection unbroken in the sea, now frozen and indistinguishable from the coast. They are too young to know that he was once one of them, noticing time pass only with the oranges distributed once a week. He doesn’t miss those days. Now he has stale bread and coffee but enjoys it under the stars. Still, if he looks at the horizon for too long, he feels it tilt and sway, like he used to for thirty years on ships breaking ice across the Arctic.

He returns to his desk, piled with outdated meteorological journals, an atlas of clouds, and a photograph of Yuri Gagarin, which he cut out of the newspaper article in 1968. He keeps it there to remind him of his first trips up north, when he thought of himself as a cosmonaut of the Arctic, a connoisseur of open spaces and harsh climates.

He closes his notebook, an old shipping log divided into columns now overrun with weather patterns, and checks the radio. The receiver still gives him static. It will take several days for the nearest station to pick up his data and relay it to Moscow: snowfall, heavy winds, and a record low of forty below zero.