The Strong | Fiction | Chicago Reader

The Strong 

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Gaspar was not afraid of fire. I know because he told me. It was one of the few conversations we ever had, so I remember it well. It was just after the Snake Lady's trailer burned, and two of her pythons had perished in the fire. She had to be held back from running into the trailer to get them and managed to get inside once, only to emerge screaming, holding half a dead python, flames climbing the hem of her dress like the hands of hungry children, yanking for her attention. We were talking about the fire in Mel's hauling truck, coming back to the campsite from some cruddy little town in Oklahoma, where he'd sent us to buy food and supplies. Gaspar, of course, had protested, as he hated to be seen with me. "I can do it myself!" he'd insisted, slamming his fist into the metal of the truck's driver-side door.

"Look, boy," Mel had said, "Don't be stupid. He'll carry the whole damn load to the truck in one trip, you'll drive. Get out of my sight."

Gaspar huffed like a child, red-faced, making what I thought was just another big stink over nothing, but then there we were, riding back to the campsite together, and he was talking a blue streak.

"I would have got them snakes out, I'd known they were in there," he said, though we both knew he was with me, hidden away in an irrigation ditch, at the time of the fire. "Not a lot scares me, see. Not fire, not tornadoes, not heights. Not much at all. One thing, though, one thing is being crushed."

His brothers, he said, Thomas and Christopher, would pile feather beds, pillows, blankets, and anything else they could get their hands on, all over him in the heat of summer. They would sit on top, and there runty, wiry Gaspar would be, gasping what he knew to be his last breath at the bottom of the stack. "Anyone tried to do that to me now," he said, squeezing the wheel like it was the neck of a tiny animal, one of the Snake Lady's snakes, maybe, "I'd just kill 'em. Just get a gun, or a board, or some kind of something sharp, and just kill 'em."

That was the only time Gaspar talked about being smaller, ever. He never said where he was from, never even gave any hints, even though we toured just about the entire United States between the autumn of 1938 and the summer of 1941. Never had anyone to look in on, or send a wire to, or speak of like maybe he missed them. And with a name like Gaspar, nobody could really guess where he was from. To look at him, you'd think he just sprung right up out of the ground where he stood, like some crack had been made in the earth and he'd slipped out.

Lifting is easy. It's the holding-up part, I tell them, that's tricky. They come lining up after shows, little kids with their mamas' hands flat on their backs, always asking the same questions, but I don't mind. It lets me have a kind of a script I always use. I would write it down, but there's no point, I have it memorized back to front. I tell them you have to pretend it's you against the whole world, pretend you're pushing yourself away from something, not pushing something away from you. "Can you hold up yourself?" they ask, marveling at the possibility.

"Maybe," I say, "but who would hold me?" Their eyes flatten out like pancakes when I say this, like maybe they don't get it but they're trying to.

The ladies sit on chairs, of course, for decency's sake, crossing their legs at the ankles, one little leather strap over the other. They giggle and grab the bottom of the chair, two at once, reaching for each other's hands, as I raise them into the air, my hands firm under the seats. The crowd gasps like this might be the day I drop someone, but it never is. Men climb on, standing on biceps and lateral with their hard shoes, urging me to stand, like I'm this rising mountain they've conquered. They always want a photograph, some proof that they once stood on the Strong. The kids I hold by the feet, balancing them back and forth with the direction of the wind and the direction of their centers. Mostly they're too scared, but a few brave ones always come forward to be lifted into the sky, raising their hands higher over their heads, the square shoulders of their little jackets swallowing their necks. It's most always boys. I wouldn't mind lifting the girls, it's just their little dresses make their mamas want to keep them on the ground.

All of this I told to a stranger, a little white-haired man in Ohio who came to every show for weeks. He waited whole days in the heat, sweating till evening came, scribbling notes into a black ledger. He only left the top bleacher once, and that was to get himself a Coca-Cola from the canteen, and then Marty made him pay another nickel to get back in. "Don't think I don't know you been here all day," he said to the doctor, even as the sweat soaked brown stains into the collar of the man's nice white shirt. "Ten cents for the whole day is a deal, pal. Lucky I don't run you off."

But he paid, and waited, and asked to speak with me after the sun set. Marty was going to charge him for it, already cooking up some kind of price for private time with the Strong, but I said I could talk to who I wanted, and the good man was a friend of mine. I had only just seen him up close, of course, but he was nice looking enough that I hoped he would be the kind I'd want to call a friend.

The doctor, Weisz, it was, had a lot of questions for me. He was very interested in what he called my "condition," and asked me to write down on a sheet of paper everything I ate in a day. I have a good memory, so I wrote down everything I had eaten that week. I eat a lot of apples. He wanted to know exactly how much I could lift, how much I had lifted, but in terms of ladies and children and cars. He wanted to know how often I relieve myself, and how much of each type of waste I produce on average. He listened to my heart bang and checked my eyes for broken veins, recorded my sleep for a week and came up with a special mathematical chart where he entered everything I lifted, and how high I lifted it, in all of my shows. He came to my trailer every night that we were in Ohio, then drove alongside us to Indiana in his motorcar to meet with me there. He followed us from Indiana to Michigan, and all over in every town, sleeping in the car when he couldn't find other lodgings. It isn't a rare thing for strangers to follow us around for a long time. Those followers usually join up, get some kind of job or reason to stay with the circus, before getting sick of moving, or falling in love with some girl along the road, or just disappearing. Doctor Weisz paid his own way, ate his own food, and didn't get on anyone's nerves, so Marty never paid notice to him again, and neither did anyone else.

The doctor wanted me to tell him about the first things I lifted. I told him stories my mama had told, the best I could remember, of picking up 30 or so pieces of chopped wood at the age of four, of trying to lift the wood stove when I was ten and thought a corner of the house was too cold, tearing the pipe from the wall, spraying ash and soot all over the house.

There was one boy, he would tell me after school that he needed my help, with bales of hay, with crates of chickens, with loads of melons or a broken tractor I could move for him. "I need help today," he'd say, and I'd walk home behind him after school. Some days, I moved everything he wanted moved, lifted and strained just for his amusement, and then went home. Other days, we went into the barn down the hill from his house, where no one would come and look for us. He was bigger than me, but he begged me to pick him up and carry him here and there, before we went up to the loft and got quiet together, on an itchy bed of hay. He always said "I need help," and I always waited anxiously for him to say it, as it was the only time he ever spoke to me in front of anyone else. This I told the doctor, about lifting bales of hay and machinery, but nothing else, nothing about Gaspar, no more about the boy, nothing about any of the others. The good doctor never asked.

I can lift almost anything. I can do it because I understand the way pressure and weight work. I know the strength and thread of each and every fiber of every muscle and tissue in my body, and I can listen and know when and where to shift the pressure. I pick up a car by feeling its push against the ground before I even touch it, and by the time I reach for it, the red heat is shooting through my veins like a million tiny hands clasping in a chain, a yellow, unbreakable chain that moves through arms and legs to torso to shoulder to inner eye and out again.

This I told the doctor, after six months of seeing his scratchy face, his scrub brush hair, his black suits, after months of being followed by a man with a car full of black notebooks and a bag full of medical tools. He said it wasn't that simple, that he'd taken the blood I gave him to a university lab in California, where they found high levels of adrenaline, the chemical that can make any man stronger than the devil at the right time. Could he, he wondered, have more blood for more tests? And this is where Mel got involved and ran Doctor Weisz off, and made me swear never to hand out my blood or fluids to anyone again, as it was surely a breach of my contract.

We spent a month in New York City at the end of that summer of 1941, because it was nice there, and we made some good money when it got cool enough for people to drive out to the fairgrounds and spend an afternoon or an evening. On days off, most everyone slept, or drank, or hitched a ride into the city to see what it was all like. Gaspar liked picture shows, and went every chance he got. I guess he was feeling generous, as the weather was so nice, but he let me, when I asked, go to the pictures with him, more than once.

Gaspar's face in the light of the projector became its own screen, his sharp cheekbones rising like ship's sails, the white flicker from the screen making his thin lips look black against his pale skin. It was always a movie about a woman with a gravelly voice, like she'd gargled rocks. I was sure, though my eyes were always on Gaspar's face through the whole film, that she'd find someone to fall in love with. They'd get on a plane together—or not, it didn't matter. Gaspar had let me go with him. I walked a good few feet behind him on the street, and sat behind him in the theater, always a little to the left so I could see the left side of his face.

Gaspar didn't know I preferred to sit to one side of him. Sometimes I saved it up like a little treat, sat directly behind him or to the right, so that he didn't know to expect anything. If I told him what I was doing, he wouldn't be happy, and neither of us would like that. He would make me sit directly behind him forever, banishing me to the back of his wild, oily-haired head, or not let me come to the pictures at all. It was my one dishonesty.

That summer, Gaspar had a woman, one he'd had around longer than usual. She kept him busy, stomping her pointy little foot when he didn't come around. Nobody saw him much between shows, so trips to the pictures, few and far between, were special. After, he always led me off, jutting his chin in the direction I should follow, like he hadn't for months. We swallowed each other like two thirsty beasts, leaving each other scratched and panting on the floor of an empty warehouse, some secret, dank place where he felt safe for a while, for long enough. On the way back, I walked behind. He didn't bloody my nose or get drunk and throw rocks at the side of my trailer in the middle of the night. Things were different, now that he had that woman to hide from, to go back to.

There were always women. Every town, every stop for gasoline or food, Gaspar found himself some woman to run off with. Sometimes they followed him, riding along from here to there like a blond-headed barnacle, packing all across Texas or Louisiana like they had some kind of business with a circus, going down to the animal tents with him to pet the horses and do God knows what else. I hated when they came along, because he got mean as a rabid dog and twice as dangerous, and would just as soon kick me in the teeth as look at me. I liked it when they dropped off the caravan and went home, eyes blackened, teeth missing, because then he took off somewhere for a couple of days and wanted me to follow.

That woman, though, that nasty, seething sack of disease he hooked up with in the middle of the summer of 1941, was the worst. He caught her like a filthy rash. Red-haired, this one was, sunburned and ill-tempered as a three-dicked donkey, the others would say, hard and mean as they come. She wouldn't let go, wouldn't be shook loose by a skinny horse trainer with a stupid name like Gaspar. He'd beat this one black and blue and then she'd come down to the mess tent, looking for some ice. She'd sit at the end of one of the tables, holding that ice shard to her split-up lip, sighing like a forgotten whore on Christmas Eve, like hers was the only heart left empty on the day hearts were filled. I swear she smiled to herself, every time, even with that split lip, then went back to Gaspar's trailer to make amends. And he let her in, every time.

I thought about that woman while Gaspar watched the picture show, while I watched Gaspar. I thought about how pretty soon, she'd be headed off somewhere else, and I didn't care where she went or who she went with, as long as it wasn't Gaspar. When I was close to him, in the dark, hands full of his black, oily hair, my chest against his, I closed my eyes and thought of the look on that nasty woman's pinched face on the day they'd tell her that Gaspar and the Strong had left in the night, never to return.

The Doom of Atlas was something Mel's wife came up with. Flora didn't give a damn about the circus, and would be the first to tell you so. She sat up in the house the circus bought her, on some little green hill in Illinois, and only intervened in her husband's affairs when she thought she had a lucrative idea.

It was a mesh metal ball that I'd hold in the air, like Atlas cradling the earth. Inside, Louis the Impossible would struggle to free himself from a locked, flaming straitjacket, then pick the lock on the door of the cage to jump out before the flames ate him. It was to be the grand finale of our stay outside New York, the final attraction that would no doubt precede us as we made our way to Rhode Island. It took several months to construct, then practice, and it wasn't ready until the end of the summer. Mel announced one night in the mess tent that it would debut on the following Sunday, closing day. We applauded, glad to be moving on, some of us hoping we'd shake loose a few hangers-on when we left town.

"I've got good news, and I've got bad news, ladies and gentlemen," Mel hollered over our applause. "The good news is, our Gaspar has gone and gotten himself hitched up to this little lady at the end of the table. That means, though, Sunday's show is gonna be his last, them two are staying back here to raise their family."

The applause exploded again, and one could only explain it by saying just how ready everyone was to get rid of Gaspar and his bitch. In the roar, I couldn't hear, and leaned forward in my seat only to see a sliver of Gaspar at the end of the table, lifting the flask of whatever he was drinking to toast himself. His pale, redheaded bitch stood to receive Mel's dry, flaky lips on her cheek, beneath her puffy left eye, and someone's white hand patted her stomach. There it was. There, in the black belly of the harlot, lay the proof that Gaspar was real.

Just that afternoon, I'd held him down while he sang muffled praises to Christ Almighty into his denim jacket. That was all he'd said.

That night, I picked up an old, rotting streetcar in a junkyard, and slammed it against a brick wall, listening to the ancient bell jingle against the inside.

The cage was brushed and cleaned free of soot, so the black would pick up a little color in the spotlight. Louis the Impossible had sewn a new straitjacket tight and strong just for the occasion. The dancing acrobats kept the crowd's eyes busy as the cart, the cage under a red velvet cover, was rolled to the center. In the din backstage, I heard Mel's proposal to Gaspar, to light Louis as a kind of send-off, as he was the only one as tall as Frank. Gaspar's voice, which I hadn't heard for days, and was now like the sound of pans clanking in the distance to my ears, protested. He said he was afraid of fire. "Horseshit," Mel said. "Go on out there."

The white spotlight spread across Gaspar's face and cast a shadow like an impish smile on his left side, his better side. He stared up at me, the flaming torch in his hand, a child in the shadow of Atlas. I centered and focused, felt the weight of the cage, the shifting mass inside it, breathed out, and lifted it by its iron handles. The chains inside tightened at each link as Louis the Impossible turned to show the lock at his back to the sections of the crowd. I let the pressure and the weight move into my elbows, then to my thighs, as Louis leaned forward. I lowered, shifted the cage onto the broadness of my back, moving the pressure and weight into the bones at the base of my skull, the pit of my throat, still grasping the handles. As graceful as a ballerina, Gaspar rose on one foot, lifting the torch to the hole in the cage, reaching for Louis the Impossible. I let the pressure and weight leave my body, let the chains in the threads of muscle break. I let the cage go, let it roll from my back. Louis the Impossible screamed in shock as he struggled to undo his chains. As the cage hit the ground the hay strewn about lit up in a second, a bright trail between my back and Louis, an extension of the burning inside my veins.

I let the pressure and weight reach out for Gaspar, where he gaped in stupid awe in front of me, and grabbed him around the ribs.

"Help me!" he screamed, as I pulled him to me, wrapping both arms around his chest. He waved the torch and swung at my head. "HELP!" he wailed, twisting from side to side, trying in vain to loosen my grip. I looked into his eyes, which flattened as I squeezed, as if he didn't understand but was trying to. I imagined that each arm was pushing against the other, that what was in between was invisible, a barrier. My hands were on his sides, I felt his ribs break in my palms, the tap of a rock on a wooden wall. He slobbered and bellowed with pain, blood bubbling from the sides of his mouth, pouring from his nostrils, and still he coughed "Help... help me."

"I'm here," I said into his sweating ear, wrapping each arm tighter against the other, directing pressure to the center of my chest. Gaspar jerked with spasms, writhed, and I felt the pull of hands, the screams tearing from the open mouths of the crowd, the heat of flames from the torch burning away clothes and skin. I squeezed until a space opened, inside, where I could feel his heart, like a tiny, flapping bird, trembling in his chest. I centered the chain on that flapping, silenced it. "I'm here," I said into his ear, as his head slumped limply, like a tired child's, onto my shoulder, "I'm helping."v

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