Later, after his mother had gone to bed, Cole went and stood at the top of the stairs and looked at his father sitting on the sofa, looking toward the moonlit window. His hair was grey now and even in the dark Cole saw how much weight he had lost. Cole smelled the cold cream and hard, worn-out leather; the football smell of his father’s luggage.
He went downstairs quietly. There was a window open in the kitchen and the cold air came in.
“Hey kiddo.” His father turned and smiled. His cheeks had sunk into his face and he still looked sad when he smiled, like he knew things wouldn’t keep, but smiled anyway.
“Yeah,” he said. “Looks like.”
“Where you been?”
“North? Only thing north is Canada.”
“What’s up there?”
“Not much.” He winked. It was exaggerated and Cole thought it would look better with his makeup on. “You should call me dad sometime.”
“It made mom and Scott angry.”
“Oh.” He looked Cole up and down, carefully, his eyes black and glossy with the moonlight. “I like your pajamas.”
“They’re bronco busters. They’re from gramps.”
Cole looked at his father’s luggage, next to the sofa. The leather looked tired, soft to the touch. Well-traveled, his father had said. When Cole was younger his father would come home every two weeks, during the summer, after being on the road, and kick open the door, a bag in each hand, with an excited dog-like smile and something silly, a wig or oversized shoes, still on, just to make her laugh. And she did. For a few days the smell of animal manure and grease paint lingered on him and softened the hot summer air.
“Why’d you go, anyway?” Cole asked.
“Cocktails. Too many cocktails, always on Sunday, always at three, with the Whitmans.”
“I don’t get it.”
“That’s a good thing.”
The floor moaned above them and they froze. Outside yellow leaves fell against the windows. They waited, watching each other, a small smile on Jack’s face, small and amused, his eyes laughing. His hair was waxy, held together with cream, grey and grainy. Jack nodded toward the kitchen and Cole followed him, sat in the stool by the telephone and watched him warm up milk in a copper saucepan over the stove. The wind came through the open window, fresh and snapping cold. Jack kept looking around, toward the backdoor, worried.
“Where’s Bando?” Jack asked.
“Died? He was seven. And healthy.”
“He got sick. Scott put him down.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
Jack poured the warmed milk into two mugs and pushed one over in front of his son. He took the brandy bottle from the liquor cabinet, added a dash to his milk and held the bottle over Cole’s, waiting. Cole shook his head. The steam rose from the mugs and Cole looked at the picture of Santa Clause on his, tried not to look up at his father. Jack opened the kitchen door and looked out into the backyard. The lawn needed raking.
“Circus is in town,” Cole said.
Laura was having the Davenports over for cocktails that Sunday, at three. Cole watched his mother brush out her heavy, blonde hair and thought it was almost too much for her tiny frame. She stood in front of her open closet, thinking quietly, while Scott, still in the shower, told her to just get dressed already, they would be here soon. Cole left his mother and went to his room, leaned out the open window and looked at the front lawn. His father had raked the leaves but left them in a waist-high pile over by the maple trees and Cole smelled the cool dampness of the dew still trapped deep in the leaves. He saw the Davenports walking down the block and thought they couldn’t be blonder. Mr. Davenport wore an autumn red scarf even though it was still warm out and it caught in the wind, struggled like it was trying to get away from him.
Scott came to his door.
“You’re not dressed?” His smile was broad but his face was too bony to ever look friendly. Cole wondered why Scott’s hair was still black, he was older than his father.
“I’m not staying.”
“Does your mom know?”
“Haven’t had a chance to ask her. Some of the boys are playing football. I was gonna go.”
“Football? Well, that’s a good reason not to stick around. Didn’t know you liked football.”
“Everybody likes football.”
“True enough.” He smiled. “I’ll clear it with your mother. Get out of here before I change my mind.”
“Take the back door. I don’t want the Davenports thinking you’re being rude.”
Cole looked back out the window at them. Mr. Davenport smiled and tried to hold his wife’s hand.
He was cold without a sweater and he walked quickly, the sun showing in bright yellow flashes through the chestnut trees and he walked past the park. There were a few people playing ragtag baseball and he kept going, went through town and to the fairground where the circus had set up their tents. There were no lights up, no bunting or flyers or music and the wind was cold and rattled the “soon” sign that had been driven into the grass. He walked around and found a bench in the sunlight and sat there until it was dark, watching the workers, watching the clowns. Everyone seemed to smoke and he thought it looked out of place on the big-lipped clowns. Their arched eyebrows made it look like they were choking on their cigarettes. One of the clowns stopped talking and looked over at him and took off a new black top hat. He winked and did a small tap dance, held open his arms as if to say “ta-da” and turned around and ran from sight. He had been too far for Cole to see his eyes.
He walked home through the woods, avoiding town, and came at the house from the backyard. The lights were on downstairs and he could hear music, the swaying kind his mother played when she wanted to dance, when she wanted men to look at her dance, her eyes closed like she didn’t know anyone else was there. He knew she would have drunk too much and was glad because he wouldn’t get yelled at for staying out so late.
His father sat in the shadows, on a wooden lawn chair he had built, long ago. It leaned to the side and he always said that was how he wanted it. He wore only a flannel shirt and looked cold, like he had been there a while.
“It’s strange, you calling me that.”
“Sorry,” Cole said. “You staying over again?”
“No, not anymore.”
“Got somewhere else?”
“There’s something under your chin.”
Jack touched his chin and rubbed it with his thumb. “Greasepaint.”
Scott started drinking early. He stayed downstairs, in the library, by the window that looked out onto the street, lit hellish colors by the cool, red sky. Cole thought he should have been dressed as a devil. Scott turned to him, standing in the door, aimless, and cut him down with a look.
“What on earth are you wearing?” Scott asked.
“I’m going as a clown this year.”
“Jesus.” He poured another drink and held it up, watched it settle and drank it down. “Does your mother know?”
“I’m not sure.”
“You don’t look much like a clown.”
“Well, I wasn’t finished getting ready. I need to paint my face.”
“Is Jack coming or something?”
“I wasn’t told.”
Scott looked him over, his eyes glazed with the hard shine of alcohol. They heard Laura start the vacuum cleaner in the living room. Cole smelled the caramel coated popcorn she had made earlier, with peanuts, like she had learned way back, when Cole was young, from his father.
“Besides, I won’t be here much,” Cole said. “I’ll be out, trick or treating.”
Laura stopped vacuuming and they heard her talking to someone. Scott turned back to the window and Cole left him, went to see his mother. She wore a black ball gown, her hair piled high on her head, and her bare feet looked young, shy and out of place. She leaned against the back door, letting the cold air in, talking to someone. Cole smelled burning leaves and his mother’s perfume. Her voice was childish, like it used to be, before Scott.
He saw his father outside, standing on the back porch. His hair was clean and moved in the wind.
“I don’t want him getting, well, sick.”
“It might be hereditary, but it’s not contagious,” Jack said. “It won’t make any difference.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Of course I do.” Jack looked past Laura and smiled at Cole. “Is that popcorn and peanuts I smell?”
“Cole won’t eat anything else at Halloween.”
“Look, I have to get ready. Why don’t you take him out to play football or something? Say next Saturday?”
“Okay. Hear that kiddo? Next Saturday, I’ll be here at six in the a.m.”
“Scott won’t have people before nine.”
“I’m not coming for Scott.”
“Be here at half passed nine,” she said.
Jack smiled again, his face and eyes lined and he walked through the back yard and into the woods and turned away, toward town. He looked at all the fallen leaves and shook his head.
Laura closed the door and gave Cole a box of bright face paints and setting powder. There was a Hershey Bar tied to the box with brown twine.
“From Jack,” she said.
“You know he’s going to come back at night and rake the lawn again.”
She shrugged and went to finish the vacuuming. Scott stood in the living room, watching them, swirling an empty glass. He grabbed Laura’s wrist as she walked past and he pulled her close, pulled her hard, said something into her ear and kissed her wetly on the mouth.
Cole came home late. His make up had faded off his cheeks and he had lost his wig in an empty house he and some boys decided was haunted, cursed by blood and doomed to death, they had called it. He came at the house from the back and saw the lawn had been raked, the leaves pulled back into a neat pile by the trees, near the start of the woods, out of the way of the cold, dry wind. The house was dark, barely lit by the pale moon, the lights off though the sound of Nat King Cole’s voice came laughing out a window. He hoped they had had too good a time to notice how late he was.
The house smelled of too many warm bodies and cigarettes and he left the back door open and started quietly for the stairs. He heard her breathing and froze, thought he was done for and turned to her, sitting on the sofa, sunk into it like she had been waiting all night for him. She was breathing roughly. Her head was back and in the soft light he saw the silver wetness on her cheeks and knew she had been crying. He took her hand and she opened her eyes, looked at him, drunk and unfocused, her hair a mess behind her, and she smiled and told him to go upstairs, get ready for bed, she would come up to say good night in a minute.
He washed up in the bathroom, opened the window to move the air and heard the hall floor moan. Scott came and stood at the bathroom door, leaned lazily against the frame and smiled broadly, spoiled, like a boy who has beaten his grandfather at checkers and thinks them equal.
“Looks like Jack raked the lawn for you again,” Cole said.
Scott shook his head and walked back to bed, muttering something about Jack being an institutionalized hobo.
The carnival had opened and Cole thought the air was different for it. Excited and breathless, hungry for the salted popcorn, the animal smell blowing with the dry, bright leaves in the cold air. He waited until dark and left the house without telling his mother, without telling Scott and he walked through the woods, through the silver shadows, his jacket open and collar up like he had seen Jack do. He saw the lights from a long way off but there was no music and no voices. He came out on the road and saw the crowds milling about, quietly watching a silent master of ceremony. Cole thought they looked like burnt out, black shadows against the soft and steady gold light of the circus.
A woman with clothes so tight it made him nervous ushered people into a tent and Cole walked around her, around the crowds, to the back and found a bench and watched the clowns, talking, smoking, sitting on the backs of trucks, bored and waiting. One kept looking up at him and he broke from the crowd and came over to Cole. He stood there, looking down at Cole, his worn out black shoes moving the dirt, his white wig in hand, tapping against his thigh.
“You look familiar,” the clown said.
“I was here the other week, watching you practice.”
“I don’t need to practice. I been doing this since the mud shows.”
“Before trucks and trains. I just mean I been doing this too long. I swear I know you.”
“Maybe you know my father. Jack Westcott.”
“I know plenty of Jacks. Too many.” He put on his wig. It made him look worried. “You should join us. We’re a man short these days.”
“What could I do?”
“A little song, a little dance?” He smiled. “You watching the show tonight?”
“No. Another time. When it’s a little quieter. I like the quiet nights better.”
“Not many people do. We got a silent song and dance man who used to say the same thing, but no one could hear him.”
“You gotta work on your jokes.”
“Yeah, I know.” He started back to his friends and stopped, turned around. “Come on a Thursday. Thursday’s are best. They’re quiet, and we’re always happy on a Thursday.”
“Why’s that?” Cole asked. He smiled, waiting and the man shook his head.
“I’m not aiming at a joke there. Too tired. Thursday is just a good day, is all.”
He went home and the sounds of voices and laughter grew and followed him into the woods. It was cold and he smelled the snow on the air and thought the circus would start south any day now. Moonlight came through the trees, lit his steamed breath and he zipped up his jacket. He thought he should have had some popcorn or candied apples. He was hungry and he knew he would get in trouble for sneaking out, be sent to bed without dinner.
He stepped on the body and jumped back. It hadn’t made a sound. Cole watched it for a minute, expecting it to get up, do a soft shoe shuffle and bow. He was dressed like a bum, his suspenders too big, his tweed coat too small, and his make up had been put on with a shaky hand.
Cole got down on his knees, next to the body and tapped it on the shoulder, put a hand above his open mouth to feel the warm breath but there was nothing there but the smell of gin and burnt candle wax. The clown looked at him, the white make up around the eyes catching the moonlight, making his eyes watery and dark and familiar. He took the body’s hand to pull him up but the stiff, callused hand scared him and he dropped it and felt sick when he heard it land in the dirt and he ran home.
He heard his mother come home late, alone. Her skin would be pink and cold to touch and she took off her heels at the bottom of the stairs but made a racket going up anyway. She quieted down when she got to the top and Cole remembered her saying something about a party, another chance to catch up with the Davenports, with Mr. Davenport.
She opened his bedroom door and he saw her dark, thin shadow looking down on him, the pale nighttime glow from the window caught in her hair. She sighed and walked away and he thought about the smell of the dead clown and the way it smiled at him when he ran.
Laura took him driving in the countryside, told him she needed the fresh air, needed to clear her head. They had missed the changing of the leaves and the trees dotted the landscape harshly, like cold skeletons under an iron sky. The car smelled of his father’s cold cream and the road was littered with the dry, brown-red leaves that seemed to crack when the wind blew. Cole turned to check the back seat for his father or his luggage.
“It smells like Jack in the car,” he said.
“Be an angel and press the car’s lighter on for me.”
“You think Jack’s going to go away again?”
“They think they cured him.”
“Cured him of what?”
She looked at him sideways and licked her teeth. “It’s Scott I would be more worried about. I don’t know what we’d do if he left.”
Cole shrugged and looked out the window. “Scott would be an awful song and dance man.”
She laughed, “Yeah, he would be. He can’t even clap along with a record.”
“They leave in a week. I talked to the emcee, it’s a woman and I thought she was you from behind with the big blonde hair. They go next week.”
“Was she pretty as me, this emcee.”
“Wait until next year.”
“You ever see Jack work?”
“Yes, long ago. When I was quite young. Young and pretty. Prettier than your emcee.”
“How was he?”
“Your father? Good. Too good. He made me sad. He got a few laughs but he broke a lot of hearts. I guess it caught up with him, that sadness.”
She looked at him again and he saw she was worried.
“Where do you think he was?” she asked. “These last eighteen months?”
“He said he was upstate. Must have been a heck of a show.”
“Heck isn’t a swear word.”
“It is now, so don’t use it.”
Cole looked out the window at the hobby farms and acreages along the highway. They looked familiar, comfortable and carefully dilapidated.
“You know the Davenports have a little place out here,” she said.
“It’s just here. Why don’t we go knock and see if anyone happens to be here this weekend?”
She pulled down the long driveway toward a pretty, small farmhouse flanked by fir trees and Mr. Davenport opened the front door and stood on the porch waving, his blonde hair staying firmly in place even in the wind.
When his father didn’t show he decided to go to the circus. Laura looked up from her newspaper, smiled, and told him to put on a sweater, it would get cold soon. He thought it had been a long while since he had seen her look so relaxed and so young, and she turned back behind her paper and picked up a coffee. Its warm smell filled the kitchen and he left through the back door. The lawn needed raking again. The sun hit the woods with a cool tangerine light and Cole looked behind him, feeling eyes in the back of his neck.
The circus was a relief. It wasn’t as bright or loud or crowded as in the movies and pictures Cole had seen, the tents and the stands and the acts looked worn out and tired, sanded soft and smooth by a thousand miles of road dust. The emcee smiled when she saw him and he thought she looked like she wanted nothing more than a winter-long sleep. She was too skinny and he knew she was sick of smiling. There was a softness and a weariness to the air and the lights that Cole liked and he walked past the tents and side shows to the back, where the trucks were parked and the sun cast long shadows in the earth.
He watched the white haired clown talking to a candy and cigarette girl. She touched her long, dirty hair, patted it and twisted it and Cole thought she was trying to look bored but only looked worried. The clown shrugged and walked away and stopped when he saw Cole. He came and sat next to him, took off his wig and mopped his brown with a handkerchief and cursed under his breath.
“She’s too damn pretty anyway,” he said.
“I need a straight.”
“You know what that is?”
“Yeah. My father told me.”
“Good man.” He looked at Cole, still watching the candy girl. “Boy, you remind me of someone, make me think of something and I just can’t put my stumpy little finger on it.”
“Like I said, you probably know my father.”
“I’ve seen you hanging around an awful lot.”
“I like it here.”
“We’re still a man short.”
“People just get tired, get old, and they up and leave. Don’t tell a soul. We just wake up one morning, or evening as the case may be, and find we’re a man down. You got any tricks?”
“You’re young, you can learn quick.”
The sun started to set, the light bright in Cole’s face. He turned away and watched the flies in the dust, near the man’s feet. The bugs were usually gone this late in the fall. He smelled apples and cinnamon and realized he hadn’t eaten since morning.
A clown in a top hat walked by and winked at Cole. His hat was torn at the back but still had the shine of something new to it. He lit the lanterns that were posted around, strung up from tent to tree, and the smell of burning kerosene was strong. He looked back at Cole and tipped his hat, his face sad and solemn, his eyes dark and glassy with night’s shine.
“Now that fellow there is one of a kind,” the man said.
“Never seems to be able to get a laugh out of a crowd, but they keep coming back, wanting more, and they’re not sure why they do.”
Cole watched him walk away, into the darkening crowd. He took off his hat and rubbed his grey hair, smoothed it down and Cole lost him.
“It’s getting late,” Cole said. “I’m going to go look for my father.”
“I’m gonna go look for my straight.”
He walked around the circus but there were too many people, too many families and he saw the Davenports, blonde and laughing in the chilly air, her skin perfectly blushed at the cheeks and when he threw his head back, laughing wildly, his hair didn’t move and Cole wanted to know how that was.
When he came to the woods it was late and dark, the moon and the stars disappeared behind a heavy, thick sky and he moved slowly, stepped carefully and he stopped and sat when he came to where the body had been. He had gone there the morning after he found it but it was gone and he had been several times since, alone, at night mostly, waiting for it to come back, sure it would. He could still smell the burnt candle wax.
He sat in the sunshine, on the front porch. Earlier, alone, in his room, he had used the make up Jack had given him, gave himself a white face and a lop-sided circle of a black beard around his lips. He had washed it off before Laura saw him but he still felt the grease of the make up on his skin, still smelled the cold cream he had put on first.
They were having cocktails, at three, with the Davenports, and he had to be there because Scott wasn’t. He had left the front door open and he saw Laura walking past, her blonde hair out, in the same way that Mrs. Davenport wore and Cole thought they looked alike, little and blonde with something cold about them he couldn’t put his finger on, something stern around their thin, red lips. He looked up the street for the Davenports and wondered if they would both come. He pulled at the collar of his sweater and thought about what his father had said, about his having too many cocktails, every Sunday, at three, with the Whitmans. All those planned Sundays made Cole uneasy, but he liked the soft and grateful look in his mother’s eyes when she sat on the sofa, her legs crossed, voices and music mixing lightly, sipping slowly at ice cold gin.
Laura came out on the porch and sat down next to him. She had a drink, something golden, warm-looking in the sunlight, and they squinted when the wind blew. The leaves on the lawn were a deep, dried-out brown and they blew into the street. She kept patting her hair back.
“It’s nice like this,” she said. “Just you and me. No men around.”
“I’m a man.”
“But it’s different. You’re a boy. You’re my boy.” She put her arm around him and squeezed. He smelled her perfume and thought it must be new, he didn’t know that smell. He didn’t like it. She moved back. “Why do you smell like your father?”
“I smell like Jack?”
“He smells like leather.”
“Oh his better days.” She sipped her drink and looked at the glass. She tried to rub the lipstick off the rim with her thumb and Cole saw her nails were freshly painted, pale and clear, like she had them before Scott told her bright red was her color.
“You ever hear from Scott?” Cole asked.
“He come back for his things?”
“Do you think he will?”
“I’m not sure.”
Cole saw Mr. Davenport walking down the street, his head lowered against the wind, his coat open and though it was colder now he wasn’t wearing his red scarf. Cole frowned and wondered where Davenport’s wife was.
The tents were gone but a few trucks and a scatter of trailers were still there. The dirt underfoot had been ground down to a fine dust and it hung still in the silver morning sunlight. Cole smelled coffee and fried eggs and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. A group of men were standing by a trailer, near the door, looking inside and laughing. He recognized a couple of them as locals who did odd jobs around town. The emcee came out of the trailer door wearing overalls and a flannel shirt, playing with a crimson boa, tickling the men under their hanging jaws. Her hair was short, and dark, curving in just above her shoulders. Cole thought her blonde hair had been real. She saw Cole watching her and she smiled, blew him a kiss and waited for one back. He just stood there, nervous and cold. She pouted at him and went back inside.
He walked toward the back, where the trucks were smaller, where the ground was strewn with straw and dried manure. The benches had been removed. He looked around and rubbed his feet into the earth.
An old man smiled at him, with close cropped, dark grey hair and deep lines at his eyes. He set down a beat up olive green army duffle and walked over to Cole and held out a calloused hand.
“Hey kid. Knew you’d be back.”
Cole looked at him.
“Picture me with a white wig.”
“I know who you are. I just didn’t think you were old.”
“Nice. Thanks.” The man smiled into the sun and looked down at Cole. “You got it bad, don’t you?”
“So, you gonna come along? Do a little song, a little dance?”
Cole shook his head and frowned.
“Got a woman keeping you here?”
“That’s a woman.”
“She needs me around.”
The man nodded. He scratched his chin and Cole saw the hard, thick thumbnail, bruised underneath. He held out his hand and Cole shook it. A pickup drove past, pulling a horse trailer, kicking up cold dust even going slow, and they watched it go and the old man nodded once and walked away. The smell of the trailer, of the manure that had dried and then been ground down to dirt under heavy hooves, reminded Cole of when he was younger, when his father would come home, grinning foolishly, his eyes dark and lost and worried and for a while his mother would smile back, happy.
Michael Caleb tasker have published some two dozen short stories in literary journals such as Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, and have work forth-coming in The Mid-American Review. He was born in Montreal, Canada, spent much of his life in New Orleans, LA, and currently lives in Adelaide, Australia, where he manages an art supplies store.