|Sometimes it was because we had ventured into his yard to retrieve an errant baseball or glider; other times we would be in our own backyard, playing army or just digging in the dirt with our tanks and dumptrucks, and we’d hear him scream, “Alright, you kids, I’m warning you!” My dad told us to steer clear of him. “He’s a little eccentric,” I overheard him tell my mother. That must mean loud and mean, I told my little brother.
One day toward the beginning of the autumn of my second grade year, however, it dawned on me that we had succeeded in rescuing an overthrown football only a few yards from his back porch without the old man’s vocal alarm going off. Not long after that, I awoke one Saturday morning to the growl of a huge moving van backing into Schlotz’s driveway. When I got down to the no-man’s-land ditch that separated our properties, I first saw Ramona. She was wearing denim overalls and loudly chewing bubble gum. She had braided pigtails and intense brown eyes, and she watched my approach with an unemotional interest.
“Mr. Schlotz doesn’t like anyone on his property,” I said, trying to seize control of the situation, “Especially big ol’ trucks,” I added, gesturing toward the moving van.
“Mr. Schlotz has moved far away,” she said solemnly, pointing upward with her thumb, “This is our house now.” Before I could protest, she looked at me and smiled knowingly. I think I will never forget that smile. In the gray matter filing cabinet that is my memory, it is safely locked away and labeled, “Ramona: first smile.” The reason I tend to dwell on it is that it was so typical of what I would come to realize over the years as being the pure essence of herit was so Ramonaesque, if you will. It was her major weapon of choice, and I often observed her overpowering countless others by her prudent and discerning use of it. It certainly disarmed me that Saturday morning. Thinking back on it now, I feel fortunate that she valued our pending friendship enough to share it with me, or at least, use it on me, at our introduction.
The following Monday, I was pleasantly surprised when my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Clancy, introduced her to our class. “Boys and girls,” she said, “This is Ramona. She is our newest student. She and her family have moved here from another state. Please make her welcome.”
At this point in this sort of circumstance, one of the boys would usually snicker and say, “Another dumb girl. Big deal.”
Or, one of the girls would say, “I don’t like her dress, do you?”
But Ramona smiled at Mrs. Clancy and then at the class, and any rude remark was rendered dead or obsolete before it could be formed in their mouths.
That afternoon, in what would become a daily ritual, Ramona and I walked home together. The following Friday, as we hurried home to begin the weekend, she casually asked if I had ever been to the circus. Before I could answer she said, “It’s simply the best thing in the world. I especially love the wild woman from Borneo. She’s so mysterious and beautiful, but mostly mysterious. I bet she knows everything about everything.”
“Uh…” I said, not really knowing how to reply to such a profound and definitive declaration, “the wild what from where?”
“Wait a minute,” she said, suddenly stopping, “I’ve got a splendid idea! Let’s fix our backyard up and put on a circus! Do you have any money in your pockets? I just happen to have a five-dollar bill that my Aunt Button gave me. Let’s go and see what we can unearth at the five-and-dime!”
Rupert’s Five-and-Dime was on the end of the block of where our little town’s downtown area began. It was about a quarter of a mile out of the way on our walk home, but with the weekend coming up, a big plan in the works, and Aunt Button’s fiver burning a hole in Ramona’s change purse, it was not so much of an inconvenience as it was a grand opportunity.
Rupert was stirring the peanuts in the candy bin when we creaked down the rich brown wooden floors to the back of the store to where the costume jewelry, feathers, rubber masks and miscellaneous and off-the-beaten-path products were almost apologetically displayed. The store always smelled like a combination of chocolate, plastic, dust and fabric. That afternoon, there was an air of anxious joy that was thrown into the mix of smells for good measure and for good reason. We were going to build a circus.
We bought costumes, feathers, large sheets of posterboard and whatever other supplies we could think of to set wings to our weekend dream. Back then, five dollars went a long way, and we had to borrow a shopping cart from Mr. Hatmaker, who ran the grocery store next door to Rupert’s, just to transport all of the treasures. Mr. Hatmaker was one of my father’s lodge brothers, and he knew he’d get the cart back. We’d also spent our last pennies (from my pocket change) on some Co-Colas from Mr. Hatmaker’s big cooler at the front of the store.
It took us most of that Saturday to put the show together and to make the posters to advertise our backyard circus. When my mother called me in for dinner, we both realized that the big event would have to wait until after church the following day, but the anticipation made it all that much more exciting. It also gave us the opportunity to invite some of our church friends to the event.
And what an event it was. Most of the kids on our street showed up, along with three or four from my Sunday School class. Some of them brought their parents and their younger brothers and sisters. My mom made popcorn, which she insisted on distributing free (over my protests that it could be a big money-maker).
I was the ringmaster and my little brother was a clown. We had given him specific instructions for him not to try to be funny. He was to be a silent clown; if he wanted to express himself, he would need to honk my bicycle horn (which I had duct-taped to his clown belt). Still, he couldn’t help himself. “Knock knock,” he kept asking the crowd. Some of the older kids in the neighborhood called him “Knock-Knock the Clown” for years after that.
We dressed our dogs, Bippy, Albert, Ralph, and Mr. Jingles in makeshift lion and tiger costumes and had them jump through hula hoops decorated with paper flames. And we even worked Mr. Hatmaker’s grocery cart into the act. We coerced the lion-dogs and tiger-dogs into the cart with pieces of Velveeta, and my brother, the clown, pushed them through the cheering crowd as he honked his horn. “That’s my dad’s cart,” Bernard Hatmaker said proudly, as my brother honked his way up to the stage and behind the curtain.
But the star attraction, of course, was Ramona. We had borrowed the checkered curtains from our den and hung them over a rope strung across the staging area of our backyard. When we pulled back the curtains, she emerged in all her grandeur and mystery. She wore large hoop earrings and had wrapped her head in a magenta silk turban. Wild strands of hair from her aunt’s black wig sprouted from underneath the turban, and her glued-on fingernails curled under her little hands like those of a tree sloth. Ramona’s outfit was equally as exotic; she wore an elegant silk top with bright moons and stars and a thick, purple velvet skirt. She clasped a Japanese folding fan in one hand and a vinyl 45 RPM record in the other. The most unusual touch, however, was the strange monkey tail peeking out from the purple velvet.
For that matter, maybe it was the monkey tail that caused the uproar, but for whatever reason, Tombo Tucker’s baby brother shrieked in horror at the sight of Ramona gliding across the makeshift stage. This, in turn, set off the other babies like a tiny, backyard chain-reaction atom bomb. Ramona, however, was seemingly oblivious to the hubbub. She casually dropped the record onto my spinning antique turntable and turned the volume knob until it could turn no more. As the strains of “Night Winds of Borneo” filled the air, she moved hypnotically to the eerie music in a ghostly trance, and a strange, quiet calm fell over our backyard. Even the Tucker baby stared quietly at Ramona, his head swaying back and forth in sync with hers like a big-eared, one-tooth cobra. As the music rose in a dynamic crescendo, Ramona held her arms out and waved them at the audience in a smooth rotation, as if she were polishing an invisible windshield.
Then, as the music slowed to a graceful ending, the performance ended as smoothly, and yet, as unexpectedly, as it had begun, leaving Ramona in the center of the stage, smiling as she exited. The backyard broke out in waves of startled applause, and my mother waded into the audience to hand out paper bags filled with her popcorn. It was an event that would be long remembered as “that backyard circus day,” with Ramona as the focal point of the memory. And, though we would conduct a backyard circus every summer after that initial one (sometimes we’d even have two or three in a single season), that first performance is the one that everyone from the old neighborhood tended to remember at our various reunions over the years.
The fallout from that first circus was both immediate and intense. Several mothers on our block forbade their children to play with Ramona, calling her “that circus child.” Some mothers even kept their children away from my brother and me, as if Ramona’s Wild Woman ways had somehow rubbed off on us. We were, after all, her next door neighbors and circus co-performers. We also owned and took care of the lions and tigers on a daily basis. At our elementary school, the following Monday, some of the older kids on the bus began making chimp noises when Ramona and I got on at our regular bus stop. “There’s the monkey girl,” Rusty Phlamm, the red-headed hellion from two streets over, yelled from the back of the bus. It was obvious that he had been anxiously practicing his verbal ambush.
“Oh thank you,” Ramona gushed, “It was nothing, really!”
Obviously, that wasn’t the response Rusty had expected, so red-faced, he sprang up from his bus benchseat and scratched his armpits with both arms like a gorilla. “Eep, eep, eep, Monkey Girl!” he said.
“Gracious, Mr. Red Rooster,” Ramona said, smiling broadly, “We’ll just have to find you a part in our next circus!”
I was always impressed and amazed at how she always took everything in stride, whether it was a compliment or an insult. She had the incredible ability to wrestle the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune away from her would-be attackers and seamlessly convert them into implements of courteous hospitality. Her intelligence and outgoing personality served her well during our formative years. We became best friends and confidants, although I always felt like I was one step behind her. I loved her strange and quirky ways, and in junior high we grew quite close. I suppose you could say we dated, but most of our so-called dates were strange and adventuresome outings that always bordered on circusdom, if not the out and out bizarre.
Going into our sophomore year, I got up the nerve to ask her to wear my ring. “Of course, silly,” she said, “Just as long as I don’t have to wear it on my hand all the time!”
We both laughed at that, but true to form, the following day she showed up at the busstop with my ring glistening in her left nostril. Even Rusty Phlamm was taken aback. “M-M-Monkey Girl?” he stammered.
One afternoon during our senior year, over milkshakes at the Rexley drugstore soda fountain, I had a wild thought. “Let’s run off and get married!” I blurted out.
She looked up from her milkshake and smiled. “What? Before the prom? Don’t be silly. Besides, your parents would be very upset.”
She was right, of course…I hadn’t even considered the ramifications of such a plan. Besides, the prom was only a month away. Anything can wait until summer, I reasoned. Looking back, I’ve often wondered if Ramona knew what was going to happen as we discussed our future that afternoon over milkshakes. Or, if I pushed her into the next stage of her life with my impulsive suggestion of marriage. At any rate, by the time our prom rolled around, Ramona had been gone for several weeks.
To say I was frantic was an understatement. Whereas her parents were upset, I was just this side of insane. Of course she missed our graduation; that was a given. My parents kept me as sedated as they could with the over-the-counter cough and cold medicines of the time until I could graduate. That night, after the ceremony, I put my fresh diploma on top of my dresser and packed a few days worth of clothes. It was already June and summertime was knocking at the door; as everyone knew, summertime was carnival and circus season. At dawn I was already on the road. I walked down to the main highway and hitched a ride with a trucker hauling watermelons to a city just over the state line. He wanted conversation; I wanted to find carnivals. I figured that Ramona would have joined a carnival rather than a circus because carnivals were the minor league warm up to the big time and big top. I assumed that she would have had better luck getting a job at one of the smaller venues; at least until she could hone her craft.
It took less than a day for me to find my first carnival. The melon trucker had dropped me off at the city line and after waiting for an hour or two, I got a ride from a corrugated box salesman who was calling on a customer in a factory a few counties to the south. As we neared the county where the factory was located, I began noticing billboards advertising the county’s annual carnival.
“Can you drop me off at the fairgrounds?” I asked the salesman.
“Sure,” he said, “But I wouldn’t have pegged you as a carny.”
“I’m not a carny,” I said, “I’m just semi-engaged to one.”
“Trapeze artist? Animal trainer?” he asked, “Bearded lady?”
“Forget it,” I answered, annoyed at his insensitivity. “It’s a long story.”
I wasn’t sure what I was going to say to Ramona once I found her, and I naively thought that she would be at that first carnival we came to. Once the box man dropped me off at the carnival, I wandered around the sleepy midway, which at 2:00, was just beginning to wake up. “Where’s the manager?” I asked the spin-a-roo operator.
“You a cop?” he asked, then he squinted in the afternoon sun and looked me up and down, “Nevermind. Ticket booth. Far end.” He pointed with his thumb, and then went back to tinkering with the frayed wires of the spin-a-roo.”
I found the manager and introduced myself. “Do you have a wild woman from Borneo?” I asked.
“Do you have frog legs?” he asked me back.
“I’m serious,” I said, trying to look bigger, older and meaner than my eighteen years would allow.
“If you wear a dress, nobody will notice,” he laughed. “Why? Do you want to audition?”
“I’m looking for someone,” I said, suddenly frustrated.
“Ain’t we all, kid,” he laughed. Then, he went back to what he had been doing, and our conversation was over.
I walked up and down the midway and looked inside all the tents. I even jumped the fence and snuck around the trailers where the carnival workers eat, sleep and live, but there was no Ramona. This whole scene was repeated dozens, if not hundreds, of times in the coming months. The carnivals and characters were all different. Some were neat and orderly; others were filthy and disgusting. Some of the managers were polite; others were surly with an undertone of danger and violence. However, the end result was always the same. I left every midway without finding Ramona.
The days turned to weeks and the weeks into months, and September was coming on. I had already made plans to go away to college, or, I should say, Ramona and I had made plans to attend a pleasant little college a couple of hours away from our hometown. As I sadly accepted defeat and decided to go home to prepare for the fall, I hitched a ride just outside of Atlanta with a couple of frat cats who were headed north. Just outside a little town in Middle Tennessee, I saw a billboard advertising a county fair. At this point, I would have passed it up, but on this particular billboard, someone had crudely added an amateurishly painted footnote: “Starring the Wild Wild Woman from Borneo.”
I almost leapt from the car, but struggled to gain my composure. “Fellows,” I said, “As much as I’ve enjoyed the ride and conversation, I just realized that I know someone in this town, so could you drop me off?”
“Sure,” the driver said, winking at me in the rear view mirror, “We’ll even drop you at her house!”
“It’s a big house,” I said, “Say, do you guys like snakes?”
That’s how I found Ramona. She was in a sideshow at the carnival. This particular carnival wasn’t creepy, but it also wasn’t neat and tidy. I arrived just in time for one of her performances, and in the dim carnival light I didn’t immediately recognize her. But then, she spotted me in the crowd and smiled, and I saw Ramona through the makeup, fur, feathers and the Borneo-ness.
“I love you,” I mouthed, tears in my eyes.
And then she looked straight at me and said something like, “Gwahz-a-mooka-la!!! Chee! Chee!”
She must have seen the shock and hurt in my eyes, because she repeated it. “Gwahz-a-mooka-la!!! Chee! Chee!” she screamed, and then she looked to the sky (or in this case, to the top of the tent) and shrieked it again for effect.
After her show, I tried to get backstage (actually, “backtent” would have been more appropriate…the stage was a flat-bed trailer), but I was strong-armed by one of the carnival goons. “She doesn’t want to see you,” he said gruffly, “She said to tell you it was a career choice, and she’s very happy. She said to tell you to go home. Go to college. Go crazy, but just go.”
“Career?” I said, incredulously. “That’s not a career, it’s a sideshow!”
“Look kid,” the goon said, “We have several choices here. We could call the cops, which is one of our least favorite options in the world, and one that we most likely will not exercise; we can handle this ourselves, which is what we are leaning toward at this moment, and I can personally guarantee that you will not enjoy it; or you can be a good little boy and run along home. It’s your choice, sonny-boy.”
At that moment, I sadly realized that it was all over between Ramona and me, and knowing her as I did, getting myself arrested or beat up would not win her back. I could just hear her saying, “Don’t expect me to feel sorry for you for not listening to reason…it’s not hard to get your nose broken. Any fool can do it. In fact, maybe a broken nose can help you with your listening and reasoning ability.”
But I didn’t wait around for the beating or that painful chiding footnote; I ran. I ran from the tent, from the carnival, from the little town and from the state of Tennessee. A month later I was a college freshman. I didn’t however, go to the little school a few hours away from our hometown; I was afraid that it would have always reminded me of Ramona. Instead, I ended up at the university with the two frat cats that had picked me up outside Atlanta. I even pledged their fraternity and was elected frat president my senior year. My two frat brothers never mentioned our excursion through Tennessee, but they did insist on putting on a circus every year to raise money for our various house parties, and I was always the ringmaster.
My grades were good enough to get me into Harvard’s law school, and I landed a cushy corporate law job immediately after graduating. By then I was married; my wife was an attorney as well. One thing led to another, and we moved back south and fell into Southern politics; it gave me an outlet for the mean streak that I had cultivated over the years as a result of the Ramona-shaped hole in my heart. But, even that healed, and I was incredibly successful, in spite of myself.
One summer, when my daughter was six or seven, I was scheduled to speak at a carnival a few counties over from Little Rock. After my speech and the obligatory photo opps, my wife thought it would be fun to take our daughter to one of the shows. There were, of course, state troopers there to protect my family and me, and to keep things under control at the carnival. They even sat with us at the show, although I think that was out of curiosity rather than a concern over some would-be carnival assassin.
It’s interesting how your mind shuts down unpleasant memories and allows you to be overtaken and surprised by the past. Seeing Ramona was absolutely the last thing on my mind that August night in Arkansas. I was too busy thinking about how the local press was going to spin my speechI had inadvertently referred to one of my ever-present political opponents as a habitual communist. I had meant to say “columnist,” as in a newspaper writer, because he was always sending in unkind letters to the editor about me to whatever rag would give him ink. Unfortunately, what I intended as a gentle poke had turned into a major puncture wound.
Suddenly, however, there was Ramona. She had apparently spotted me before I had a clue as to what was going on. Her show was fabulous, feathers, fur, tail and all, and her smile was as brilliant as ever. Although it was quite a shock to me, as far as I could tell, my wife never made the connection between her husband and wild woman up on the stage. I was amazed that she never suspected a thing, or if she did, she was either letting it slide or saving it for some future retaliation. However, I realized that, at that instant, the old Ramona-shaped hole in my heart had been re-opened, and I also knew that this time, it would never heal.
As we exited the tent after the show, in a moment of weakness, I almost confessed and blurted out my feelings. But just as I opened my mouth and my prisoner-brain began forming the electrical impulses that would be converted into audible words, my daughter looked up at us and smiled happily. “I love the wild, wild woman from Borneo,” she said.
©Copyright 2008 Bridgital/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.