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.

Washed Up

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At noon on a weekday in the off season, when the trickle of tourists who wandered into the Mermaid Curio Shoppe had died out completely, she walked in with wet hair, leaving tiny puddles on the floorboards. Everything interested her: the cameos, coconut lamps, fish scale pins, sea plumes, snakeskin belts, and shell necklaces. She picked things up and put them down. She stood in front of the old diver’s suit, slumped in a chair, and ran her long, acrylic nails over its threadbare surface. As she got closer to the register, I noticed her tattoos were starting to warp on sagging skin. She adjusted her denim shorts over orange-brown legs rippled by cellulite.

“Can I help you?”

She took out a bottle of eye drops from her purse and leaned her head back.

“You look familiar,” I continued. “Don’t I know you from somewhere?”

She wiped her eyes and looked at me, blinking heavily. Her face was smooth, like a fish scale.

“I was on a singing show a while back.”

“How did that work out?”

“I didn’t get past the second round. I sing on a cruise ship now.”

She started drumming her nails on the counter. I thought I could smell brandy on her breath.

“Listen, you know that diver suit?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you mind if I try it on for a minute?”

What could I say? She untied the rope that held the suit in a sitting position and climbed into the rubber legs with ease. The thing hadn’t been worn properly since the early ‘40s, when sea sponges disappeared from Tarpon Springs and the divers’ suits became useless novelties.
“Just pretend I’m not here,” she said and put the helmet on.

Her breathing reverberated inside the brass dome and came out as a shallow hiss, interrupted, after an uncomfortable few minutes, by the sound of an engine running outside the shop. It was a white pick-up truck with a faded sticker of the confederate flag on its side.
The driver knocked over a line of seashells on his way to the register.

“Have you seen my wife? Red hair, probably smells like brandy?”

“I’m afraid not. It’s been quiet all day.”

He looked at the suit.

“Where’d you get that?” he asked.

“It just washed up,” I said.

Bad Monkey

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The hotel sits on the highest point in Shimla: a place of cedar-scented air, an aggressive monkey population, and summer houses left by the British Raj. The owner keeps the fireplace going in every room, serves afternoon tea, and remembers when his grandfather smoked cigars in the sitting room.

One morning in April, as he polishes the breakfast trays that will go up to the guest rooms, he hears the soft slap of travel booklets fall to the floor and rapid steps climb the carpeted staircase. He stacks the trays and listens. A floorboard shrieks upstairs. The cook, the only one up at this hour, knows how to move through the house quietly. He hears a curtain ring fall to the floor, then nothing.

The door is open and an icy gust follows him up the staircase.

“Hello?” he whispers.

The curtains lie in a heap, too heavy to move in the wind that now ruffles the flowers. He looks outside. Light snow covers the oblong leaves of the rhododendron bushes, about envelop the house in splashes of bright scarlet.

Beyond the potted plants and paved yard, a shower of white dust disturbs a thicket of firs. He quints. First he sees a grey-brown figure bobbing up and down, then the flushed face, then the tiny fingers gripping a stack of rupees.

Before he sets off, out the door, down the flagstone path, past the abandoned tennis courts, and after the monkey who holds the week’s tips, stored always under an antique butter dish, he thinks of his grandfather. He did not polish breakfast trays, or get up early, but he did employ a servant whose sole job was to shoo away monkeys.

Cricket Box

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Tonight the autumn air is clear and still. There is no frost to compare to moonbeams; no wind carries lotus fragrance or rustles maple leaves; no rain transforms pine trees into parasols; the moon is too ripe to call a sliver, too thin to call full; and the wild geese have yet to start their southbound flight. There are only crickets, grinding out their melody in golden cages.

Later, he will ask me to sum up the evening in verse. As I sit with the ladies of the palace, listening to the shrill chorus that silences all other sounds, I wonder if I will have anything to give him.

All month has been like this. By day, I follow him on official duties and entertain his friends. I look respectable, respond to drunken requests for poetry, and try not to dip my loose sleeves in their wine.

After the day is over, I join their wives in the garden, glad that the crickets deny conversation. We sit on tall wooden stools, legs dangling above cloud-carved feet.

The ladies are restless. They open two of the cages, shake the crickets between their palms, and set them facing one another on the ledge that separates terrace from garden. The sound intensifies. The servants tell me it carries past the gate, into homes and shops now filled with more cages and crickets. Perhaps they too replicate these microscopic battles.

I wait until the ladies have left for the keeper to collect the cages. Before he strings them on a long pole, he takes the loser, legless and docile, and pockets him.

I ask him what he will do with the victor.

Breed better crickets, he says.

I ask him what he does with the female crickets.

Feed them to the birds, he says.