Running Away with the Circus by Connor de Bruler

2001: a bad year, but a morally justified one. It was the year Julia’s mother took her on their first out-of-state trip during her Christmas vacation. She could tell Julia needed an out for a little while. It wasn’t the fact that she was stressed, everyone was stressed that year. Statistics had shown that child and adult obesity coupled with coronary heart disease and suicide had significantly risen that year. Unfortunately Julia was part of this statistic as her mother noticed that life on the Carolina coast had caused her daughter to contract that insidious disease of boredom. Because of her boredom, she was starting to get a little fat, which her mother originally thought to be okay since most ten-year-old girls were a little fat but the extra weight had unfortunately triggered an early puberty. She was now dealing with all the pain at the age of ten that she wasn’t supposed to encounter until late middle school or high school. Of course, her mother hadn’t exactly lived the most normal of lives, so how was she supposed to know what was natural for her daughter? This was the reason she took her on a long road trip north: she, like all intelligent girls her age, desperately wanted to feel normal. Julia Billy-Jack Wood was born in Beaufort, South Carolina to her mother Jester Eliza Wood. There hadn’t been a father to speak of, and Julia thought for the first six years of her life that a Mommy didn’t need a Daddy to conceive. When she finally wised up and asked her mother who her Daddy was, Jester just gave a little embarrassed shrug.

“The hell if I know, kiddo. Might have been one of those marines.”

Needless to say, every time they drove past the marine base Julia looked for man who might have faintly resembled her. Once she actually found a guy in a supermarket, combat boots and all, who definitely had her nose. She bluntly addressed him, asking if he had sex with her mother about nine years earlier. The marine, who only looked about nineteen, laughed and said, “I was your age nine years ago sweetheart.” Jester apologized to the off-duty marine and pulled her daughter away. She didn’t want to be the type of mother to scold often, but she did warn her daughter about the dangers of speaking to grown men.

It was at school mostly where Julia realized she wasn’t normal, not that she was an only child in a single parent family, there were plenty of kids like that, it was the fact that her mother wasn’t connected with the world everyone else lived in. All the other kid’s parents had friends with other members of the community whereas her mother was a bit of a recluse, working alone in the back of a butcher’s shop on nights and weekends, and tending to horses at a stable during the day time. All the other kids had a favorite television program, but Jester and Julia didn’t own a TV, and according to her young mother’s admonishing speeches they weren’t ever going to buy one. She also felt–and only her mother could see this– that she wasn’t as pretty as Jester. Her mother was slim by supermodel standards, and because she was half-Hispanic she had a beautiful lightly tanned quality to her skin. Julia asked a few times during that year if she was adopted, because as far as she could tell she was as white as could be. Another source of her daughter’s depression, along with early puberty and feeling ugly with herself, was the fact that most kids in her school were black. There were a few years were Julia ended up being the only white girl in the class. Because she was easy to spot out, she was made fun of. They called her Julia Morning Wood. They called her mother a lesbian because she didn’t have a boyfriend. They even found out that her Mother had given her the middle name Billy-Jack so they called her Billy for several weeks. Julia cursed her mother for giving her that stupid middle name, burying herself in the one queen sized bed they shared in the living room.

“I hate you! I hate you!” she told her mother, her face drenched in tears and snot. “Why did you give me a boy’s middle name?”

“Because a very good friend of mine who took me in when I was homeless had that name. Perhaps one day I’ll tell you the story, but today you’re a little too young to understand.”

“Why can’t we be normal?”

“We are normal.” she said. “As normal as anyone else.”

Julia knew this wasn’t true. On September 11 as the towers were coming down, the entire classroom was gathered around the little portable television, enveloped in a bout of hysteria. Before the day was half through, the children’s parents were picking them up early from school to spend the dismal day in American history at home, in front of another TV. By the end of the school day Julia was the only one being picked up on time.

“Why didn’t you pick me up early like all the other kids.” she asked her mother.

“I had to work Julia.”

Julia felt embarrassed with her mother. She loved her because she was the only person she truly had to rely on, but she wanted more. She wanted acceptance from the other kids. How was she going to get acceptance if her mother was called a lesbian by the other children? and sometimes worse: a Jingler. A Jingler was one of those young, tank-top, mini-skirt wearing moms, who waited for their kids in the school parking lot with their keys in their hands, jingling. It was the children’s drawn out way of telling Julia that her mother was a whore.

Finally the Christmas holidays had arrived, and Jester decided that it was time to expose her daughter to something else. She needed to get out of the town, and see something neat for a change. She needed to learn about her mother and in turn herself. She needed to have some fun. Jester told her daughter that on the trip she could have whatever she wanted as long as it wasn’t too expensive, that the trip was her Christmas gift and even though Julia really wanted a normal Christmas with presents under a tree, she thought a road trip would be fun too.

“We’re gonna have a blast Julia.” her mother said. “You’re finally going to see mountains.”

 

They set out on a Friday morning. The road took them out of the marshlands and into the many cow pastures and rolling hills.

“This terrain reminds me of Kentucky.” she told her daughter.

“Kentucky?”

“Yeah, I grew up there.” she said.

“Where is Kentucky?”

“Its right above Tennessee, and below Indiana.” she said. “I’ve also lived a long time in

Tennessee.”

“Why did you live there?”

“I just traveled around all sorts of places. Saw what there was to see.”

“You traveled a lot?”

“Oh, yeah. Not since you were born though.”

“I thought you came to Beaufort after you left your foster parents.” her daughter asked.

“No, I traveled around the country for years.” she said. “Got into all kinds of trouble and stuff.”

“You got into trouble?”

“Not a lot of trouble, but even then it was hard to walk around the country alone.”

“Mom?”

“Yes?”

“I have to pee.”

They pulled into the rest stop, and she escorted her into the ladies’ restroom. Julia washed her hands with the pink foamy soap that came out of the stainless steal dispenser, and dried them in the blow drier mounted on the wall.

“Remember when you used to be afraid of these?” asked Jester.

“I was?”

“I couldn’t bring you to the McDonalds restroom because the noise would scare you.”

“I don’t remember that.”

“You were afraid they were going to burn your hands. You would eat your cheeseburger with dripping, soapy mitts every time.”

“Are you making this up?”

“No, it’s all true.” she said.

As the rusty old Fiat headed northward, the sky became gray and the air colder. By the first day they had reached the Upstate. They stopped into a small roadside motel. Jester was accustomed to these places. Julia on the other hand couldn’t stand it. She went to take a shower in the bathroom and began to panic after a wolf spider leapt out of the drain. Her mother squished the spider with her big toe, and went into a lecture about overreacting. This was what Jester would always do at times when she felt her daughter wasn’t tough enough. Jester wanted Julia to be a little less prissy, a little less concerned about what people thought of her, a little more of a tomboy like herself. But she wasn’t going to change for her. How could she? She would always be herself: her daughter would always be her daughter. At the end of the speech, when Julia started tearing up a little bit but held it in for her mom, Jester realized that her daughter was out of her comfort zone staying in a reasonably shitty hotel room for the first time. She hadn’t seen prostitutes too many times before and the girls congregating in the parking lot had shocked her. Jester knew that Julia associated her with this kind of world, and that saddened her. She looked at the cracked tile shower and said, “Oh, never mind. It’s kind of disgusting anyway.”

As Julia showered, Jester sat down on the bed. She was going to hate her until she was eighteen or perhaps beyond that if she didn’t make this trip really special for her. She was going to have to take her shopping and to marginally cleaner hotels in the future. One day Jester thought Julia was going to have a husband and a big house, and Jester would still be living in a dilapidated cabin on the marsh.

When Julia came out of the bathroom her mother had already turned the lights off and put the sheets over her in bed. Julia tucked herself in next to her and lay down facing the opposite direction. She felt her mother’s hand on her shoulder and she turned around for her. Her mother was wide awake.

“You took a long shower.” she said.

“I did?”

“Yeah. Are you clean now?”

“Yes.”

“You dried your hair, right?”

“Yes.”

“Okay then.” she said.

“Mommy?”

“Yeah?”

“Are you still mad at me?”

Jester propped herself up with an elbow. She would change her posture whenever she was going to be serious, or brutally honest with Julia.

“It was wrong of me to say those things to you in there.”

“You didn’t mean it?”

“No, I meant it. I just realize now that I was wrong. It’s alright that you don’t like spiders. It’s just that screaming isn’t going to help anything. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Now come over here and warm my feet up.”

Julia scooted up the bed and her mother put her arms around her.

“Mom?”

“Yeah?”

“In the morning can I watch TV?”

“Sure.” She kissed her daughter on the forehead.

In the morning they watched an infomercial for a fruit juicer. It was extremely boring and Julia let her mother know.

“Is this all television is?” she asked.

“Yeah, pretty much.”

“I don’t like it.”

They had a modest breakfast consisting solely of apples in the car as they made their way through the Blue Ridge Mountains. Years upon years earlier Jester had taken weeks to walk through these mountains.

“What do you think of this?” she asked her.

Julia looked absolutely amazed by the long sweeping vista of mountains and mist. She had only known marshland, beach and palm trees her whole life.

“This is beautiful.” she told her mother. “This is awesome.”

“I knew you would like it.”

They stopped at a Waffle House and ate a thoroughly expensive meal. This was primarily due to the fact that Julia had ordered a piece of pie after their food. Jester liked the smoky diner atmosphere. It reminded her of her days on the road.

“Where are we actually going?” Julia finally asked out of the blue. “I mean where are we trying to make it to?”

“Well, I wanted to take you to Asheville for a night. And then I wanted you to see where I lived in Tennessee.”

“Where did you live in Tennessee?”

“I lived with a group of Native Americans: Cherokee. They took me in when I was homeless.”

“That’s who I got my middle name from?”

“Yeah, I lived with this guy and his girlfriend for a little while. His name was Billy Jack.

He got it from a popular movie about Indians.”

“I thought Indians lived in the desert?”

“Jesus Christ kiddo, what are they teaching you at that school?”

“I don’t know. Stuff I guess.”

“You never learned about all the different tribes of America?”

“Yeah, a little bit. The Navajo, the Sioux, Apache.”

Jester took a deep breath. For a brief moment she was worried her daughter didn’t know anything. That would have been worse than anything else.

“There are Native American tribes all over the U.S. honey. The Cherokee happen to be the ones from this region.”

“And you lived with them in the woods?”

“No, they lived in a trailer court. They go about their lives just like us.”

“Did you learn to speak their language?” she asked her mother, eating the last piece of her pie.

Jester smiled, remembering that wonderful year. She said, “Yes, as a matter of fact I actually did. Not perfectly: I was trying to learn Spanish at the same time.”

“You speak Spanish?” Julia asked, shocked.

“Yes, I do.”

“Are you lying?”

“No, I speak Spanish.”

“Why didn’t I ever know?” Julia asked.

“You haven’t seen me speak it with anyone have you?”

“No, I haven’t.”

Jester eyed her daughter’s empty plate and lathered a good bit of the excess cherry pie topping onto her index finger.

“Did you like the pie?”

“Yeah, it was great.”

Jester licked her finger. “Not bad.” she said.

They stood up after a few moments of silence and paid for their meal. Jester felt like cringing as she produced the bills from her wallet. No fue muy barato. As they pulled out of the parking lot Julia said, “I learned a song about Tennessee from the girls at school.”

“Really? Let me hear it.” Her mother encouraged her to do anything, even if she wasn’t going to be any good at it.

“We cookin’ chickens in the kitchen. We go to prison then get out and then go back again. I can’t help it nigger, I’m from Tennessee, throwing up this Hennessy, blowing up my enemy.”

“Who the hell did you hear that from?”

“I told you already. It was the girls at school. It’s a Young Buck song.”

“Don’t repeat that again. And don’t ever say the word nigger.”

“I know it’s a bad word, but that’s what they said.”

Jester could feel a parental fit coming on, but she stopped herself. Her daughter understood what the song meant, and that it was meant to be somewhat foul.

“It’s okay. I know what you mean.”

Asheville was a first big city Julia had ever visited aside from Charleston. There was something dirty and cluttered about the city that made it so unattractive but she didn’t say anything. Upon their arrival Jester checked them into a Days Inn, which wasn’t quite as upscale as Julia had been hoping for but what could she do with her mother in charge? They opened up the room with the magnetic card, a luxury that impressed Julia to no end, and she plopped onto the bed face down, kneading the fresh covers with her elbows.

“Are you comfortable?”

“Yes.” her daughter said.

They walked a good bit around the city, casually entering tiny shops that sold everything from handmade soap to local artist’s paintings. Julia, having lived in Beaufort all her life, was not particularly impressed with the artwork. There were more than enough galleries back home. They strolled towards a more commercial district and spent a significant amount of time in a Pier 1 Imports store; lighting the scented candles in the corner, taking pictures of themselves on the golden Buddha, and laying on the assorted beds when the staff wasn’t looking. During the mid-day, they found themselves in a large park near a University. It was beginning to rain.

“Mom, I’m going to get wet.” she said.

“No, on the count of three we’re going to make a run for the gazebo over there.”

“What gazebo?”

“Don’t you see that one up on the ridge?” She pointed it out to for her.

“Oh, that one. Okay.”

“Ready? On three.” She counted to three and they raced out from under the tree, working upwards, scaling the ridge. Julia was severely lagging behind her mother, and running out of breath quickly. Jester could see the reproachful expression building up in her daughter’s face, so she pretended to loose her breath and began to slow down. Their hair was quite wet now, and when they reached the gazebo they were sitting down on the concrete ground, panting like a couple of stray dogs. They sat in silence for a few moments, laughing between breaths. Jester was faking it of course, but she didn’t want to ruin the moment with her daughter. Pure moments like these were one in a million.

Julia started to look somewhat pale. Her head started swinging around from a loss of balance.

“Mom, I don’t feel so good.”

“You’re probably low on blood sugar.”

“I guess so.” She turned her head to the side and a flurry of water and stomach acid erupted from inside her. It sprayed across the concrete floor like a burst water balloon. The most amusing part was the fact had as she vomited a group of young, hipster college students had strolled by and saw it. Julia, who felt relieved of her nausea immediately after, was the first one to start laughing. Jester laughed a little while after, but not at the actual vomit rather the embarrassed, prudish university students’ faces. Pure moments like these were one in a million.

When the rain subsided they walked to a small, nostalgic diner and Jester ordered a warm plate of chocolate chip pancakes for both of them. They giggled and laughed about the incident the entire time. After another hour of window shopping they went back to their hotel room, and once Julia brushed her teeth she fell asleep from the exhaustion of a day’s worth of being a pedestrian. Her mother stayed up a little longer watching a standup comedian on TV. Sometimes Jester’s laughter woke her up, but she would always drift back into the warm blanket of the unconscious.

They left the city heading north towards rural Tennessee. The scenery from the highway began to slowly shift from the sweeping foothills to a steep rocky landscape. There were cages on either side of the road to keep the falling rocks from colliding with the commuters. Jester could tell the differences in the landscape. It appeared that the invasive species of the Chinese Empress had taken over the sidelines of the Tennessee highway. After a day of driving they took an exit and spent the night at a public rest stop. Julia dubiously slept, sprawling herself out on the long backseat, while Jester reclined the front passenger seat, making sure they were alone. In case of a problem she always kept an unregistered .357 in the glove compartment. When they woke, they made peanut butter and marmalade sandwiches, spreading the preserves onto the bread with Jesters hunting knife. It was the coldest day they had experienced yet, and they had to put on there jackets for the first time during their excursion. They had been taking a back road through the forest most of the day. By five o’clock they stopped at another waffle house.

“Can I try coffee Mom?”

“I guess so, sure.”

They sat across from each other in the cracked, red vinyl booths drinking straight black coffee.

“Do you want to here my Tennessee song again?”

“No, not really.”

“Okay.”

Her mother paused.

“Are you having fun?”

“Drinking coffee?”

“No, on the trip. Do you like the trip so far?”

“Yeah, but I want to see another city not just the forest.” she told her mother.

“I’ll take you to Knoxville after we visit the old trailer park.”

“Knocksville?” she asked. “Like a hard knock?”

“No there’s and X in it. Knoxville.” she corrected. “Do you want to order some food?”

“No, I’m not hungry.”

 

Perhaps it had been the fact that they were driving through a heavily forested area at night. Perhaps it was the fact that Jester hadn’t really remembered where the old trailer park was, or maybe it was the absence of clear street signs. Whatever the reason was, they were now lost. Julia, experiencing her first caffeine rush, was wide awake listening to the scratchy music channeling through the old radio box and bent antenna of their car. She was also offering her own annoying advice on how they could possibly get out of their predicament.

“You should turn around.”

“I’ve turned too many times. I don’t remember where to go.”

They crossed an old, cast iron bridge. It creaked and echoed as they sped through the ailing structure. It was like driving through an old piano in an abandoned chapel. The Fiat rolled off the altar and down the aisle past the all-consuming darkness and woodland pews. The radio static was the closest thing they had to hymnals.

“Okay, we are totally lost.” Jester admitted. “I don’t know where the hell I’m going.”

“There’s a clearing over there.” said Julia.

“Where?”

“Over there past the trees, where the light is coming from.”

Jester slowed down, and took a moment to see where her daughter was pointing. Once she saw it she pulled off the road and floored her way through a patch of forest. They parked in a vacant lot the weeds had claimed and won long ago, jutting up out of the cracked asphalt like flag poles. Above them was a frosty florescent light flickering off of a telephone pole. To their right was an empty field and the sound of running water. To their left was a mechanics garage that may have been new in the nineteen thirties. Jester got out of the car, followed by her daughter.

“It’s cold Mommy.”

“I know.”

They scanned their surroundings. Jester called out to see if anyone was there. Her ‘hello’ echoed into the forest and stirred nothing to life.

“I don’t think anyone else in out here.” said Julia.

“Maybe that’s a good thing.”

Julia looked at the old garage. There was a battered, crusty sign for Royal Crown Cola on the side.

“Wouldn’t it be scary if someone was in there?” she asked her mother.

“Why don’t we take a look?”

“What?”

“Come on.” She pulled her daughter close and walked up the garage door with the

peeling green paint.

“I don’t like this idea Mommy.”

“It’ll be fine, I’ve got my hunting knife.” She stood in front of Julia as she kicked in the front door with her boot. She poked her head through the doorway.

“Be careful Mommy.”

Jester looked around the tiny garage. It seemed utterly vacant. There was a piece of a ceramic doll’s face on the ground that looked up at her. She kept Julia back so she didn’t have to see it.

“Is anybody in here?” she called out. “I’m not here to kick you out, I just want to know.”

There was no answer.

“No one’s in here.” she told Julia. “We’re the only ones.” She retreated and closed the door to the garage.

“Are we going to stay here for the night?”

Her mother looked down at her and said “I don’t see why not. I’ll probably be able to navigate better in daylight.”

“This place is scary though.”

“I have a remedy for that.” she said, and opened the passenger door to the Dodge. Jester took out the gleaming, silver .357 revolver and presented it to her daughter.

“That’s a gun Mom!” her daughter yelled, frightened.

“It’s a precautionary measure.” she instructed her. “Two traveling girls like us have to keep vigilant these days.”

“They said at school that guns were dangerous!”

“They are Julia. Oh, yes. Just watch.” Jester pulled the trigger and shot out the thin glass windows of the garage. “They’re also really fun.” Unlike her voice the gunshot echoed through the forest. They gazed up at the purple sky. The leafless trees looked like chopped upturned arteries, bleeding out a few birds into the night. She and Julia were alone, definitely alone.

“Mom you can’t do that.”

“No one else is out here. This is the best place to do it. I’ve been meaning to teach you about firearms for awhile now. Here,” She set the pistol in her daughter’s hand. “Take a shot at the place.”

“Won’t it hurt my hand?”

“No, it’s a really low caliber, barely any kick to it.”

Julia pulled the trigger and put a little peep hole in the center of the front door. This was the catalyst for the next thirty minutes of a mother daughter target practice. She could see her daughter was having a good time, but it was a strange, precarious one as though she was afraid something bad would happen but damned if she was going to stop. When they were finished (almost out of the necessary ammunition) they sat against the car in the cold, huddled next to each other watching the stars.

“Mom?”

“Yeah?”

“I don’t care anymore that my middle name is Billy-Jack.”

“I’m glad.” she told Julia placidly. However, she could have burst into tears of joy she was so happy with herself and her child. She was winning because she was a cool mom. She was winning because she was a reckless mom. She was winning because she was her mom, and Julia was just now realizing that. At that moment they heard a tremendous rustling in the field behind them.

“What was that?”

“I don’t know honey.”

They heard a thundering mass headed their way, yet nothing was visible. Jester stood up holding onto Julia.

“We need to go.” she said. “I think it might be a car, or an all terrain vehicle.”

They got inside the car and pulled out of the overgrown asphalt trying to turn around, back down the hill they came from when they caught the shocking image in their headlights. There was no way they were seeing what stood before them. Jester nearly let go of the wheel as the car drifted backwards. She quickly put the car in park and shut it off.

“Mom is that what I think it is?”

“If it steps onto the car I want you to jump out the door as fast as you can.”

“I’m scared.”

“If we’re quiet it might go away.”

Before them, standing in the headlights, was tall, bulky, female Asian elephant. It listlessly eyed them through the windshield and then trailed off into the darkness of the grassy field. Once the shock subsided curiosity got the best of them and they ran out after it.

“It’s a real live elephant!” Julia yelled hysterically. “It’s an elephant.”

“Yes, it’s a real elephant.” her mother repeated. “Don’t ask if we can keep it.”

They caught up with the pachyderm as it was aimlessly, mulling around the field. Jester kept her daughter close and they both stood a good ten feet away from the animal, but the curiosity was apparently mutual as the elephant only came closer to them as they walked back.

“I think its friendly.” said Julia.

“Let’s not tempt the devil.” her mother cautioned.

“Where did it come from?” she asked.

“It probably got loose from a traveling circus or something.”

“Isn’t it cold?”

“I don’t think elephants mind the cold. They have a lot of body heat. That’s how Hannibal was able to take a legion of them over the Alps in the Second Punic War.”

“What?”

“I’ll tell you later.”

They got back inside their car and drove off into the night eventually finding a drugstore parking lot to sleep in. At around eight in the morning an old woman started banging against the glass of the Dodge yelling, “You can’t sleep here! You can’t sleep here!”

“Sorry, we just got lost.” she told the lady whose face was as wrinkled as the elephants.

“Just get gone.” she snapped.

“How do we get out of here?”

“You turn over at that road to your left and keep going straight until you hit a sign says, ‘Elephant Sanctuary’. Take a right there and that road will take ya to the interstate. Now get gone!”

They took the neurotic old hag’s directions. When they reached the sign that said ‘Elephant Sanctuary’ Julia asked, “Do you think we drove into the place for the elephants last night?”

“Yeah, we probably did.”

“Can we go see the elephants again?”

“Sure,” she agreed, turning in the opposite direction of the interstate.

“Can we shoot that scary lady back there?” her daughter asked.

“Absolutely not.”

“It was a joke.”

“I know.”

They drove onward toward a small building. It was part of the retired elephant sanctuary.

“I don’t think there’s any people allowed in the sanctuary.” said Jester.

“I don’t care. I just want to sleep some more.”

“Okay.”

“This place can be our sanctuary too.”

“I guess it can.”

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One Response

  1. I loved this story and was sorry when it ended.

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