Lion of the Afternoon
A native of Belfast, Ireland, BRIAN MOOREis now a Canadian citizen living in Montreal and devoting full time to his writing. His first novel, THE LONELY PASSION OF JUDITH HEARNE,is currently being made info a Broadway play; his second, THE FEAST OF LUPERCAL,was published last spring.
THE four non-professionals in the men’s dressing room wore blue blazers with white tin buttons in the lapels. On the buttons, like a profession of faith, were their names and the name of the Kiwanis branch they represented. All four stared at Tait when he and his partner walked in.
Jack Tait was an achondroplastic dwarf, twentyfour years old, with a handsome head and normal torso, but tiny arms and legs. His partner, Davis, was a melancholy young man, six feet six inches tall. They were billed as The Long And The Short Of It, and were to be paid twentyfive dollars for this afternoon’s work.
As Tait squatted on his tiny legs to unzip his overshoes, a man wearing a magenta suit with silver lapels straightened up on the bench opposite and put a yellow balloon in his mouth. He blew the balloon into a long sausage shape until it reached across the aisle and gently patted Tail’s brow. Tait looked up, smiling.
“Hi, Len. Haven’t seen you around lately. Lots of work?”
Len let the yellow balloon deflate and stowed it carefully in his pocket. ‘’Been up in Kwee-bek City,” he said. His pronunciation of Quebec told the listening Kiwanians he was an American.
Tait stood up on the bench, unbuckled his belt, and let his cut-down flannels fall, revealing thick, dwarfish thighs. “How was it there?” he asked.
“Great, just great,” Len said. “I had this one-week guarantee, see? But after the first night, the manager comes in with a contract for a full month. That’s the good thing about this act, the jokes don’t count. Just blow and smile. You see, this was a French audience in Kwee-bek. Worse than here in Montreal. None of them speak English good.”
“What club was it you were in?” one of the Kiwanians asked.
Len ignored the question. He turned to them politely. “You in the show today?” he asked.
Four faces smiled as one. “Yes,” one said. “We’re a barbershop quartet.”
“Matter of fact, we’ve been a regular feature at this crippled kids show for the last five years.”
“Six years, Howie.”
“Yes, by gosh, it has been six years, come to think of it, Frank.”
“Say — what do you do with those balloons, anyway?”
Len obliged. He took a green balloon out, blew it up, then blew up a yellow one. Smaller balloons appeared and were inflated. With great dexterity, he began to bend and tie them. He held up a multicolored, balloon dachshund for the Kiwanians’ edification.
“That’s cute,” one said.
The others nodded. But, sidelong, their eyes were on Tait. He had dressed himself in baggy check pants, a yellow blouse, and a comically cut, tiny tailcoat. He opened a box of paints and began to make up his face, white cheeks, wide, clown grin, and star-shaped dimples. Childishly, he hopped down from the bench and began to shoo the Kiwanians away from the center of the room. “Would you mind?” he asked, his face serious beneath the painted grin. Curious, not knowing whether to smirk or look grave, they obeyed, instinctively dressing themselves against the wall in their quartet positions.
“Thanks, fellows,” Tait said. He turned his back and walked with dwarfish toddle to the end of the room. Then ran towards them, little legs flying. Up he went and over in a forward flip, his acrobat shoes thudding squarely on the bare boards.
The Kiwanians were surprised. Being a dwarf was enough, they felt. What they had seen, the fact that he did somersaults, somehow lowered their stature. They were not athletic.
Tait, loosening up, walked on his hands for a moment. Then he did a standing somersault, leaping off the floorboards like a trained terrier in a dog act. His partner, meanwhile, began to dress himself in a Superman costume, a black and white suit of cotton tights which clung to his lumpy muscles like shrunken underwear. Dressed, he took out a pocket mirror and began to comb his pompadour of black hair into a series of mounting waves, designed to make him seem even taller. Tait relaxed, flexing his fingers. Len carefully concealed his folded balloons in the pockets of his magenta suit.
SOMEONE knocked on the door. Tait went to open, reaching up childlike for the doorknob.
“Hello, Shorty,” a woman’s voice said. She looked over Tait’s head into the room. “Haven’t seen Arnoldi, have you?”
“No, Doris,” Tait said.
“He was supposed to come in and help me,” she said. “I’m all alone in that dressing room next door. Say — do me up, will you, Shorty?”
She turned her back to Tait, dropping her rose dressing gown, revealing long, black-meshed legs, black-spangled hips. Her costume lay open in a deep V all the way down her back. Tait reached up, grasped the material firmly at the opening, and quickly zipped it shut, black spangles blacking out white nakedness. The Kiwanians looked at the woman and then at the dwarf. It was an interesting speculation.
“Excuse me,” a voice said.
“I’m sorry.” Doris hastily pulled her dressing gown up and moved out into the corridor. The newcomer bowed graciously. He entered the dressing room. He wore a gray hopsack suit and a white clerical collar.
“Hello there, gentlemen,” he said. “Everything going all right, I trust?”
The Kiwanians, restored like fish to a tank of water, swam up at once to greet the minister, handshaking, talking. Tait backed into a corner and did some knee bends. Then he bounced over in a somersault. The minister was interested.
“Hard work, eh?” he said. “Never could do that trick myself. Although I used to be a great man for gym. Yes.”
“It takes a lot of practice,” Tait said, stopping, looking serious.
“Keeps one wonderfully fit, though, doesn’t it?” the minister decided. Then, slightly embarrassed — the little chap might take a remark of that sort amiss — he held up his hands for attention.
“Well, gentlemen,” he said. “We have eight hundred crippled children waiting for us in our auditorium. They’re all terribly thrilled and I’m sure we won’t disappoint them. I say we because I’m afraid you’ll have to put up with me as your master of ceremonies.” He smiled headmasterishly, “Now, we’ll start with Tommy Manners, one of our local entertainers. The children love his singsongs. And after he’s warmed things up, we’ll bring on our friends the clowns, here” — he gestured at Tait and Davis — “and then we’ll follow with our singing quartet, and then the gentleman with the balloons, and finally, of course, the magician. Now, how does that strike everybody?”
“We’re not a clown act,” Davis said. “We’re acrobats.”
“Oh, I see.” The minister looked at Tait. “I thought the little chap here . . . ?”
“So, we’re on second, then, okay?” Tait asked, hurrying over the rough spot.
“Yes. If that’s all right with you, gentlemen.”
“But don’t bring us on as acrobats neither,” Davis warned. “Just leave the intro vague.”
“I see,” the minister said doubtfully.
As though on cue, a voice cried in the corridor. “Ready there, Reverend?”
The minister opened the door. Outside, a very fat man was buckling an accordion against his heavy paunch. He stared into the room, his eyes finding Tait at once. As he and the minister went off up the corridor, his voice could be heard, asking: “Who’s the midget?”
The Kiwanians looked over at Tait. But Tait was using his eyebrow pencil, his clown face stony, unhearing.
A SOUND of accordion music drifted back from the stage. Then, gathering force, hundreds of childish voices faltered and followed the accordionist into a popular chorus. A tall man in evening clothes hurried into the dressing room, shutting the door, muting the singing sound. He took an empty pint bottle of whisky out of his tailcoat pocket, slid it under the bench, then opened a large trunk in the corner of the room. From the trunk he took a white, silk-lined cape, an opera hat, and a paper bouquet. He laid these on the bench. Then he removed several silk scarves, four metal containers, and a collapsible card table. He laid these on the bench too, placing them very close to Tait.
“Move over, Tiny Tim,” he said.
Tait turned, eyebrow pencil poised, clown face white and hideous. “So you’re drunk again, Arnoldi,” he said. “Doris will love that.”
Arnoldi aimed a mock blow at the dwarf’s head. Tait jerked his head back. The eyebrow pencil smeared his check. He put the pencil down, then very deliberately scattered an armful of Arnoldi’s scarves to the floor. He hopped off the bench, fleeing Arnoldi’s anger.
“You little runt! So you tell Doris I’m drinking?”
Tait dodged his head out from behind his partner’s thighs. “Tell her? She don’t have to be Dunninger to find that out herself!”
“Arnoldi?” a woman cried.
“Here, here, stupid!” Arnoldi yelled, abandoning his pursuit of the dwarf.
Doris came in. She wore elaborate stage makeup and had removed her dressing gown. The Kiwanians watched her black-meshed legs and comely hips as she bent, picking up the scarves from the floor, folding them in a complicated layer arrangement. Arnoldi, ignoring her, carefully hid the paper bouquet in the pocket of his tailcoat.
“Acrobats?” a voice cried in the corridor. “Acrobats next!”
Davis stood up at once, his head higher than the naked light bulb in the center of the room. He picked up a fake bar bell and signaled to Tait. Tait toddled across the room and they went out together, the long and the short of it. Single file they moved along the corridor, Tait close on his tall partner’s heels to avoid having to push and tug at the church workers and Kiwanis officials who might not notice him, child-small in the crowd. In the wings they paused, waiting like wound-up toys.
“Look - about Arnoldi,” Davis said. “I’ll tell him to lay off you.”
“Who asked you?” the dwarf said angrily. “Mind your own goddamn business.”
Rebuffed, the tall man looked out at the footlights. Beside him, his tiny partner scuffed his feet, studying the stage for loose floorboards. Tommy Manners was finishing his act, the accordion shaking like a jelly cake on his huge paunch as he urged the children through a final chorus. He began to back towards the wings, panting like a tired dog, but the minister came out, leading him to the footlights for a bow, a long burst of applause.
When Manners finally backed off, his great rump bumped against Tait’s forehead. He did not seem to notice, but stood sweating and happy as the minister hushed the children’s applause and announced the next act. When the minister had finished, Davis stepped out into the lights, rolling the fake bar bell carefully in front of him. The children were silent, their eyes on the strong man.
At center stage, Davis bent double, his melancholy face contorted, his big hands gripping the bar bell, trying to raise it up. He lifted it about a foot, then falsely collapsed, letting it sink back to the floorboards. In the darkness, beyond the footlights, the children watched. Spastics, polio victims, the congenitally deformed: all knew what it was like to be defeated by the physically difficult. They waited, with the patience of experience, as Davis tried a second time.
In the wings, Tait raised his arms above his head and came out on a handstand, the ridiculous tailcoat rucked up his back, his silly clothes a Catherine wheel of spinning color. Davis dropped the bar bell, ears pricked for laughter. It came. Tait, moving with an exaggerated, circus-dwarf swagger, walked to center stage, looked at the bar bell, rolled up his sleeves, picked the bar bell up, and twirled it above his head.
They were off then, off on a drum roll of laughter, into the hard work, the pratfalls, the somersaults, the running and the catching; awkward in spots when the adult hint of obscenity must be stripped from the routine, covering up by more outrageous antics than an adult audience would have stomached. And Tait, the children’s favorite, commanded the stage. The curiosity, the smiles that met his every waking moment were assets now, turned to triumph by his willing acceptance of the dwarfish role. In the dark sea of the auditorium, the children’s heads moved like weeds drawn back and forth by the tide of the tiny man’s movements.
In front, close to the empty orchestra pit, were two rows of tightly ranged wheelchairs, attended by four white-uniformed nurses. In these chairs, mouthing and twitching soundlessly in an unpleasant parody of old age, the spastic children sat. When Tait‚ perched high on Davis’ shoulders, fell thumping to the footlights for a final pratfall, nurses and children cowered back, on guard against familiar injury. But Tait bounded up, smiling, spat out a set of fake false teeth, waved at the cheering children, and went off on a handstand while the children made the auditorium shudder with their applause. Back he came to their frantic cheers, admired, a wonder man, the lion of the afternoon.
AT THE last bow, the hall lights bloomed and the minister stepped forward, hands raised in benediction on the cheering children. In the wings the Kiwanians waited, fussing with their bow ties, their minds already in close harmony as the acrobats passed them by. Tait lowered his head as he followed Davis along the crowded corridor. As always, he felt let down when, the act over, he was returned to normal stares. He dodged the patting hands of pleased officials, glad to reach the dressing-room peace.
The non-professionals had gone. The professionals had taken over. Doris and Arnoldi sat side by side on one bench while Len, the balloon blower, drank from a bottle of rye.
“How was it?” Doris asked, with an angry side glance at Arnoldi, who had seized the bottle.
“Kid stuff,” Davis said. “They’ll go for anything.”
He sat down, tired Superman, on the bench beside Doris. Arnoldi drank, then passed the bottle to her with a malicious smile. Angrily, she took it, did not drink, but passed the bottle on to Davis. The tall man tilted it towards the ceiling as he drank, then lowering the bottle, leaned forward to hand it to Tait, who waited his turn, childlike, standing in front of the big people.
But Arnoldi, in a swift magician pass, flicked the bottle from Davis’ fingers. “Not for the louse,” Arnoldi said. “This stuff is for people.”
“Go on, give him a drink‚” Len said.
“It’s my booze,” Arnoldi told him. “And I say no.”
Tait turned away. He hopped onto the bench and began to scrub his clown face clean. Arnoldi put the bottle in his trunk and then he and Doris began moving their magic props into the corridor. Davis sat silent, his great head drooping, as he watched his tiny partner change into street clothes: windbreaker, ski cap. flannels.
“You in a hurry, Shorty?” he asked.
“Wait, and I’ll come with you.” He stood up, beginning to unbutton his Superman uniform.
“I don’t want you. I got something to do downtown. I’ll see you later at the hotel, okay?”
“Okay. See you later, Shorty.”
Tait went into the corridor. “See you, Shorty,” Doris said. He did not answer. He went down the fire escape stairs to avoid the crowd and emerged at the back of the auditorium, pausing to look up at the stage where the Kiwanians rocked in humming unison. Moving behind the rows of watching children. Tait came to a door marked EXIT. He opened it and entered an ill-lit stone corridor, leading to the street.
“Wait! Where are you going?”
Tait turned. A woman, a tall woman wearing glasses, held the door open, calling him. She came out and put her hand on his shoulder. “Looking for the washroom?”
“No,” Tait said. “I’m leaving.”
She tightened her grip, guiding him further down the corridor. She opened a door. “Wait here a moment,” she said. “I have something for you.”
Tait allowed himself to be pushed inside. He looked up at her face, wondering. She couldn’t be that shortsighted. But then he saw the other small figure in the room and decided that with these particular children she might be excused her ignorance.
“Now, just wait here,” she said. “I have to go and get it.”
She shut the door. The small boy swung around stiffly to face Tait. His left leg was a withered miniature, supported by a heavy, stiltlike, iron brace. His features were bloated and coarse.
“I got a little car in mine,” he said.
Tait stared at him for a moment. Then asked: “Did you see the show?”
“No, I got sick,” the boy said. “Did you get sick too?”
“I was in the show.”
“Stupid,” the boy said. “Only grown-ups are in the show.”
“Well, I’m — look, I can do a somersault,” Tait said, and did.
The boy watched him somberly. Then sat down, stiff-legged, on the floor. It was obvious he had difficulty in standing up. Tait felt embarrassed.
“I can crack my knuckles,” the boy said. He pulled at his fingers.
Tait squatted on the floor beside him. He took the boy’s hand. “You have strong fingers,” he said.
“Want to feel my grip?”
They gripped hands and the boy squeezed. Tait made a grimace.
“You have big hands yourself,” the boy said. “You should practice a grip like mine.”
“I will,” Tait said, seriously.
When the woman came back they were sitting on the floor, looking over the contents of the boy’s gift package. She handed Tait a cardboard box, wrapped in green tissue paper. “Now, this is yours,” she said, “You can play with it here until the others are ready to go home. It won’t be long.” She smiled at them. Tait kept his head down so that she only saw the top of his ski cap. When she had gone, he unwrapped the green package. Inside were a small rubber ball, a paper hat, a bag of candy, and a small metal automobile.
“Your car is better than mine,” the boy said.
“Here.” Tait held it out. “You can have it.”
The puffy white face turned to stare. The weak eyes watered. Slowly, unsure of himself, the boy reached out and took the metal car.
“You can have the other junk too,” Tait said. “Except the ball.”
“My name is Kenny,” the boy said, watching Tait.
“Mine’s Sh — Jack.”
“You’re sure you don’t want this stuff then. Only the ball?”
“Yes, just the ball,” Tait said. He put the ball in his pocket and picked up his club bag. The iron leg brace made a scraping sound on the floor as the boy turned, white, coarse face tilting upwards. The boy said, “Why are you going away?”
“I better,” Tait said. “I’m not supposed to be here. So long, Kenny.”
“So long. Thanks for the car and stuff.”
In the corridor outside three women were talking, their backs to Tait. They wore armbands marked OFFICIAL. Tait moved down the corridor in rubber-soled silence. He reached a steel door marked EXIT TO STREET. Opening it, he found himself at the top of a flight of steps. It was snowing and the street lamps were lit. Across the street, a line of school buses waited for the children.
Tait paused at the head of the steps. He took out the rubber ball and looked at it again. It was like one he had owned as a boy. The snowwhitened steps, the waiting school bus, the rubber ball: they touched on memories of his childhood.
He thought of the cripple on the floor. Remembered the iron brace, the tiny, withered leg. Did the leg never grow? It must be funny to be a cripple. How did they get in and out of bed, for instance? What happened to them if they fell in a lonely place and no one could hear them? Did women shrink from that tiny, withered leg?
Above him, the snow clouds had blackened to night. Like a baseball pitcher he wound his arm and skied the ball high into the darkness above. It fell, faraway, beyond the street lamps. Gaily, Tait ran down the steps.