the Marlboro Review No. 6. Summer/Fall 1998 the Marlboro Review, Inc., A short story from Issue6
Richard Schmitt, Curtainman

purple line

... opening night in Tulsa.

The Curtainman checks his gray Rubbermaid crap barrel to make sure it's roomy enough for the Spec crap, then stands with his back to the curtain clutching its lip, ready to draw it back when he hears the director's whistle. Spec is big, crowded with people and animals parading through the curtain just before intermission. The curtainman opens and closes the curtain, that is his function, and keeps the curtain area crap free. He has the barrel, a 50-pound bag of sawdust, two brooms, and a wide aluminum shovel with which he scoops up piles of horse shit, soggy logs of elephant shit, sometimes tiny poodle shits, and always the Camel's hard round balls rolling about in the dark. He hates those camels: "They don't stop to shit like every other beast," he says, "camels just walk and shit like they've got a goddamned desert to cross."

The crowd of painted faces presses toward the curtain until the curtainman is packed among the performers. He hears what they say, the things that worry them, who they talk about. He sees the showgirls tug at their underclothes, pull their breasts up with the palm of their hand. The clowns wear gloves and brightly colored coats with cloth-covered buttons the size of dinner plates. He sees the stiltman shoulder his way through the crowd to his ladder which sits just inside the curtain. With each hand the stiltman holds twenty-foot-long pantlegs rolled above his knees like giant bagels. He climbs his ladder straight-backed without letting go of his pantlegs and sits on top. He straps on his 2X4 legs then stands and lets the pantlegs drop. He lifts one leg then the other for balance. The curtainman has never gotten used to a guy with twenty-foot legs standing over him. Trapped against the curtain he nervously eyeballs the stiltman. If that fucker falls...

The stiltman sees the top of everyone's head. Pink heads, purple heads, bushy red and orange heads. Showgirls in flowing plumes, clowns in towering coneheads, and some regular heads: greasy dark hair parted on the side. One man has long golden locks swept back like a mane. Another guy, bald as a cue ball, hold a pack of toy poodles on thin lines: rhinestone collars set off their curly white heads.

Horse heads are fidgety, camel heads chew cud, striped tiger heads stare behind bars, and a big gray elephant head rocks and bobs like a harbor buoy. Directly below the stiltman is the curtainman's -- a little bit jumpy -- dirty blond head.

"Two minutes! Two minutes!" The director, wearing a black tuxedo and chrome whistle the size of a doorknob around his neck, plows through the curtain knocking the curtainman aside. "Goddamnit, Curtain," he says. He doesn't know the curtainman name so he calls him Curtain. The director is a big German and he looks over everyone for a moment then turns and goes back through the curtain.

The performers are quiet, the painted faces taking deep breaths, anticipating the whistle. Then there begins a sound like the opening of a fire hydrant. Everyone starts yelling and pushing and jumping back from Alfred, the only male elephant on the show. His giant penis is wagging back and forth and bouncing a torrent of yellow piss off the cement floor.

The curtainman hurries to the bag of sawdust. He is a former speed freak who now drinks a lot and smokes pot all day. Consequently he is uncoordinated and easily confused. He hasn't been a curtainman for long so has no experience with pissing elephants He grips the sawdust bag with both hands and drags it to the elephant who is standing in a massive, fast spreading, pool of urine. Everyone is whining and holding their noses and saying "Goddamnit, and looking at their now-piss-stained shoes. Everyone except the bullhandler who stands unconcerned in the puddle, his canvas sneakers soaked, his blue coveralls darkstained to the knee. Alfred is still flowing strong and the curtainman has trouble opening the sawdust bag. "They got about a forty gallon bladder," the bullhandler says. Finally the curtainman pulls out his knife and stabs the bag and sawdust explodes all over him. Performers are gagging and coughing and saying Goddamnit, and then the whistle blows and the director starts shouting Curtain! Curtain!

The curtainman panics and tries to run but the piss has crept under his leather boots. He slips and falls to hands and knees. The clowns push the curtain back and make way for the stiltman He ducks under the curtain cable and takes fifteen-foot steps down the backtrack. Alfred, forty gallons lighter, is ready to go. The curtainman has to scramble out of his way.

While they are out walking and waving the curtainman spreads the sawdust in a sodden twenty-foot circle. Problem is the cement floor is covered with thick rubber mats and the piss has gotten underneath and traveled around. After the show the curtainman will have to turn back the mats to let the cement dry out. It will take him half the night to shovel up the wet sawdust.

The stiltman walks big and waves and smiles, dodging ropes and cables, and he keeps one eye open for ground obstacles. Once a season or so he catches the tip of a stilt on a wrinkle of track rubber and goes down like a sawed-through timber and breaks his arm or his nose. He must have forgotten about the elephant piss by the time Spec was over and he returned to his ladder. He later told the curtainman that he was thinking about his wife and son who live in Sarasota during the school year. He wants his kid educated so he'll have options. Not that the kid doesn't have a future as a stiltwalker, they are great in the summer, the three of them walking together, the wife on 16-foot stilts and the son on 10-footers. A regular daddy-long-legs family. They are enroute from Sarasota to Tulsa, and that, not elephant piss, is what the stiltwalker has on his mind.

He ducks under the curtain cable and plants one stilt to turn-and-sit on the ladder but the rubber mat slides on the piss soaked floor and the stilt goes out from under him. Once that happens there is no getting the twenty-foot stilt back under his body. He grabs the only thing within reach, the curtain. The curtainman has just scooped up a shovelful of sodden sawdust when he hears the grommets pop one, two, three. He looks up and sees the stiltman toppling toward him like the crown of a lopped off redwood. The curtainman drops the shovel, raises his arms -- he knew it was coming to this -- and the sun explodes in his head. They both go down into the mess of golden sawdust.

The curtainman is famous after that, working the curtain with a broken collarbone and a concussion. The director is easier on him, learns that his name is Gregory, and does not shout at him so much. The stiltwalker has a broken wrist for a few towns and the following year gets it written into his contract that he doesn't have to work when an elephant takes a piss. Gregory The curtainman becomes part of Tulsa, even years after he vanishes from the show up in Canada and nobody remembers his name, they still, when Tulsa comes around, say, remember...

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