The Greatest Show
by Michael Downs
Louisiana State University Press
Michael Downs is the son of a man who–as a three-year-old boy–did not attend the infamous Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in Hartford, Connecticut on July 6, 1944, thereby escaping one of the greatest fire disasters in history. Instead, a family quarrel resulted in a decision to keep the boy home. The impact of his father’s near miss did not escape the author.
The Greatest Show is a collection of ten linked stories about a three-year-old boy who does attend the circus that day. But the stories are not about the drama of smoke and flame. They’re about the aftermath, the internal and external scars of those affected.
In the first story “Ania,” Teddy’s mother, a Polish immigrant, illegitimately secures circus tickets she cannot afford on her housekeeper’s pittance. She prays to the Black Madonna:
Ania tried to explain why she took the tickets, how she so wanted Teddy to spend a day laughing, his eyes opened to a place beyond his imaginings in the way her eyes had been opened the day she and Charlie [her husband] arrived in America.
“For the sake of the boy,” she prayed, “bless my sin.”
Her action ignites a series of stories that span over fifty years and a legion of characters connected to one another by the events of that day. Seven of the ten stories center on Teddy, though five of those seven are not told from his point of view.
In “Ellen at the End of the Summer,” Teddy is “at the age for starting school.” Ellen, the childless woman who pays Ania to clean her house, takes Teddy on a picnic.
[Ellen] worried that he would tear his shirt, or his trousers would ride up the leg in some rough boys’ game, and the others would see his scars…That he was having fun did not lessen her concern. Still, she was glad to feel it, because it seemed akin to Ania’s concern, to a mother’s concern.
Ellen’s grief over her childless state and her fixation on Teddy are fueled by the fact that it was from her desk that the tickets were stolen, that somehow she could have prevented the scars on his body. Downs skillfully associates the guilt and sorrow of one woman with the guilt and sorrow of another, Teddy’s mother.
“Mrs Liszak,” one of the stories not central to Teddy, is the story of Suzanne, a motherless teenager obsessed by the burn lines on Ania’s face, which echo the scars on the painting of the Black Madonna, reminding the reader of Ania’s prayer. The motherless child theme here is the reverse of the childless mother theme in Ellen’s story. Where the character Teddy does not serve as a direct link, theme acts as the unifier.
In “At the Beach,” forty-two year old Teddy meets Rosa. Though it’s his body that is rife with scars, Rosa’s awareness of her own insecurities becomes a turning point in their relationship.
His kind manner helped her past her embarrassment…. Maybe he’d learned that, how to put people at ease by living with his scars. Such a skill could fend off staring, help him fit in…. Sometimes love came because you could fit in, because you helped people feel at ease with your strangeness.
And, in the story “Elephant,” Teddy, now with a family of his own, is finally able to understand the full impact of the fire. He recalls his father’s version of the aftermath, how his father visited the charred tents and the neglected animals, how his father couldn’t bring himself to visit Teddy and Ania, “alone in hospital beds, their skin peeled.”
The title story advances the calendar to the day the circus in Hartford cancels in deference to the 9/11 tragedy. The performers describe how Teddy and Rosa visit the big tent despite the sign No Circus Today. When they learn of Teddy’s past, they rally to put on a show.
Even that day when events had shoved in our faces that circus work was trivial and measly and low, Ted and Rosa’s applause helped us embrace the optimism of our craft.
Though never far from our minds, Teddy is not the one true protagonist. Instead, throughout the collection, the author accomplishes a “we” protagonist, weaving characters in and out of each other’s lives, creating a whole from the sum of its parts.
Jodi Paloni earned an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is currently working on her own collection of linked stories.