The Trapeze Artist

Randy grew up under a big-top church tent in the Midwest called Church of The Holy Awakening of the Divine Lord Jesus Christ. His father was the founder and preacher and secretly an atheist, a communist, and environmentalist. Despite the lack of faith, regular doses of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide allowed him to continue preaching with a veracity unlike any other preacher in those parts.

The church was known throughout the state for its Holy Glorious Choir. Randy was tone deaf but determined. He sang the praises of the savior, but always slightly out of tune. He was frequently asked to keep his praises a little quieter than the rest.

As for other aspects of his youth, Randy was too clumsy to keep up with the other church boys when they played kickball. A slight learning disability prevented academic excellence. After a short time at the seminary, he found that he wasn’t very good at believing in God either.

The town of Hillsboro took the day off to walk out to the fairgrounds to see the spectacle. Stores put up “CLOSED” signs. The town Sherriff let the town drunk out of the jailhouse, and locked it up behind him. The schools let out early because none of the students could concentrate. Some brought clippings from the newspaper for him to sign. Some brought their babies for him to kiss. Some brought their entire families. Some demanded their families to stay home. Some brought picnics.

After leaving the seminary, he worked a series of jobs, mainly on farms. Horse breeding, dairy, corn growing, apple-picking. He never lasted long in any one place. He found the work boring, only rewarded by the few times he was allowed to go into the closest town for a an evening at the tavern, if the town had a tavern. He often became anxious with the isolation of a farm and, furthermore, he developed habit of seducing the farmer’s wives.

The ladder leading to the platform extended well beyond the view of any binocular that anyone in the town owned. The tower was constructed by the a group of men from around the county. Ranch and farm hands who had some extra time chipped in a few hours here and there. Together, they created a structure that appeared flimsy, but nevertheless withstood the strong gales that frequented the area. The construction was fairly simple: three towering steel poles that joined together high into the earth’s atmosphere, with a  platform a few hundred feet below the convening point of the poles. The newspaper called it a sensation. The local parish denounced it as a Tower of Babel, distracting worshippers from real salvation.

After abandoning or being run off enough farms to gain a reputation, he found it difficult to find work, hitching rides from town to town. In each town, he got to know the folks, their values, their unique traditions, their fears. Before long, he took to conning townspeople to make ends meet. He opened up an oddity shop where he kept taxidermy carcasses of animals joined together to make a new animal. He orchestrated low level Ponzi schemes. His most famous con job involved burning down grain silos to sell faulty sprinkler systems. He also did a little preaching on the side to make ends meet.

At the stroke of noon, the Randy began his ascent up the ladder. folks mumbled as they watched him move his hands from one rung to the next, and then his feet. He moved quickly at first, and everyone’s eyes were on him.

Two towns over in Kellum another tower had been erected. As the Randy began his ascent, another trapeze artist began her ascent in the same manner. The plan was this: when they reached their respective platforms, they would wait until the sun reached a certain point in the sky (slightly lower at the Kellum tower). Their hands firmly grasped to the rungs, they will give a little jump off of the platform and begin their long swinging voyage towards each other. During the swing, somewhere over Gainersville, the woman will hoist the lower half of her body into position so that her legs bend over the bar leaving her arms outstretched and ready to receive Randy, 15 – 20 minutes later, after the trapeze artists have dipped to their lowest points and have begun the arc upward, Randy will let go of his run and fling himself into the atmosphere, falling through the sky in a controlled and graceful somersault before releasing his tuck to extend his arms towards the woman who will be rising to receive somewhere him in the troposphere. Once in each other’s grasp, the man and the woman will fall into their arc back towards Kellum, holding tight, finally arriving sometime late in the evening. Their descent on the ladder will be met with wild celebration of the local Kellum community.

At least that’s what Randy told everyone. In reality, there was no woman. No other tower.

In his ramblings, he met the only person who he could ever truly love. It was on a Sunday in a small town south of Missoula. She was passing by with a carnival on their way to the larger town where she would perform the trapeze high above a tense screaming audience. On this particular Sunday, the tavern had halted business so that Randy could come in and say a few words of gospel to a congregation that filled the entire bar. Communion was taken with peanuts and seltzer water. Mid-sermon, the carnival trapeze artist started hollering hallelujah the loudest, which was amazing, since hallelujahs weren’t really part of his sermon. The louder she hallelujah’d, the more fervent he preached. Soon, everyone was hollering. Before long, the congregation turned the bar into a ruckus of hallelujahs and amens more excitable than the Friday night square dances, which it eventually became. The bartenders, carried away in the ferver, began recklessly serving shots at the bar. Someone pulled out a gun and began shooting holes in the ceiling. The commotion carried out onto the streets, where guns were fired off into the air, fistfights broke out, and the sheriffs building was burned down.

After it ended. Randy found the trapeze artist who started the commotion. He intended to express his consternation at her over zealousness. “Devotion like that,” he said to her is gonna get me killed.”

“That’s the purest kind of devotion,” she responded. As soon as she said that, he knew his farm hand and Jesus days were over.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“You can call me Janae.”

“Can I call you ‘Whirlwind’?”

“No,” she replied.

Randy followed that carnival everywhere they went because, why not? He needed something that would bring him on the right side of the law, and the free ticket entrances didn’t hurt either.

The moment that haunts him more than the moment that haunts him the most is the one night following a show. They lay exhausted in a wheat field atop a blanket after making love. He asked her how she does it.

“Do what?”

“How do you keep throwing yourself into space hoping someone will be there to catch when you let go and there’s nothing down there if they don’t?”

“It’s the only kind of falling that I do.”

“What does it feel like,” he asked her.

“Well,” she said. “It sort of feels like this.” And then she looked into his eyes as deep as she could, like a telescope finding a new galaxy. He could feel all his stars getting pulled a little bit, as though they were aching to be discovered. Then she leaned in close and kissed him. Kissed him like amen.

By the end of that summer Randy was swinging on the trapeze himself, throwing himself back and forth, tossing his body into the air to be caught and swung and flipped. Every chance the caravan stopped, Randy and Janae ran up the poles and platforms and swung back and forth for hours and hours. At first he was just a training partner. After a while, Janae became more daring than the other trapeze artists, pushing herself into impossible midair contortions, flinging herself into endless flips that she wasn’t able to with the other trapeze artists. The other trapeze artists refused to take such risks. Randy didn’t know better though, believing that all of her risks were completely routine and part of the act.

Of course management took note. After watching a complete leg-based triple round-off birdie plank with silk ribbons, a movement that had been known to cause breezes strong enough to blow out a candle about half a mile away, they pleaded for the two perform the act in the carnival. Randy and Janae obliged, knowing how great they were going to be.

They were a crowd favorite. So much so that the carnival was centered entirely around their act. They were featured on the posters. Some of the other acts were laid off on account of being too timid. They made a fortune. Whenever they rolled into town, they were treated like celebrities. Towns completely shut down to catch a glimpse of them practicing. They were featured in every newspaper from coast to coast.

Rung by rung, Randy climbed. He shooed away birds that had made the ladder their home for the past week or so. He pushed past the low clouds. As he climbed higher, the air became thinner. Pacing was important so that he wouldn’t get winded on account of the thin air. His breaths became quicker, his limbs heavier. After the first day, he could barely see the people below.

The townspeople didn’t know what to expect. Some had heard about the carnival, and how famous he was in it. Some had friends who had seen him perform with Janae. Even fewer knew that the act had split up. Either she left him or he left her. Long philosophical arguments were made in the town tavern as to which. Either way, after their split the carnival dried up and went out of business. Now here he was, the one half of the most famous and extraordinary trapeze acts in the world right there in Hillsboro. And a couple towns away, there she was (so they thought), and he was going to flip his way into her arms and she was going to swing him back to Kellum. Nothing like this had ever been done before, not to mention in such a humble part of the country as theirs. Even if they couldn’t see the top, nor could they see the actual trick, they were still rapt with the idea. After all, they couldn’t see God either, but that didn’t stop most of them from believing.

In the larger cities, they did their most daring acts. City people, they figured, had seen it all and so they had to perform their most impressive acts to keep them interested. In the smaller towns between the large cities, they could play it safe since, they figured, anything would impress the small-town bumpkins. They could simply swing back and forth and the audiences would roar with approval.

The final carnival show was in a small town in Nebraska that no one remembers the name of. No one knew it would be their last show. Despite the small size of this town, they wanted to give the town a big show, so the pulled out all of their most daring stunts.

There’s no way to describe this. You must feel it to know.

Find a friend. Someone you have cared about for a very long time.

Grab on to their wrists and have them grab on to yours. Pull away from each other as slow as you can. Now, slower. Feel you skin get tight with the pulling against the fingers of your friend. Feel your fingers against their skin, stretching, warming with the friction. Look into each other’s eyes for the entire duration. Look into each other eyes as though each other’s gaze contributed to the holding on. When your fingers get tired, hold on tighter.

After an hour or so, all you will have left are your fingertips gripping onto their fingertips. Take time to feel the unique ridges of their fingertips. Memorize them as you continue to slowly pull apart. The pinkies go first. A betrayal by the smallest part of your body. Then the ring finger. A moment will come when the remaining fingers are still holding on that you know they won’t hold on any longer but you still hold on. When they finally come apart, your fingers will snap hard into a fist. There will be a jolt. Keep looking into her eyes. That is the last connection you have. That won’t be enough to keep her from plummeting, but it is enough to let her know that you’ll never let go.

Watch the look in her eyes as she begins the fall. There is panic at first, a wild flailing of thoughts searching for rationality. Then the thoughts become calm, as though she expected this, as though she knew the entire time this was inevitable. As though she accepted this long before you even met.

Now speed that up 100 times.

The sound of her head hitting the concrete was not unlike the sound of a Bible being torn apart. The crowd remained silent for the rest of their lives.

Newton once predicted that when a bullet is fired, it falls to the earth at the same rate of speed as any other object, notwithstanding air resistance. If the speed of the bullet were fast enough and if fired high enough, he went on, then the bullet would continue to fall at the same speed, though as it followed the curvature of the earth it would never hit the ground. Thus, the bullet would perpetually fall without hitting the earth, and thus orbit the earth.

Randy was not a physics genius. He was not aware of Newton’s theory about a bullet falling into orbit. Having spun and threw himself into the air over and over, though, he gained an intuition of the same physics that Newton had used to make his theory.

Finally reaching the platform, Randy laid on the platform breathing heavily. His thoughts raced trying to focus on what he was about to do, but his mind kept coming back to Janae, her eyes when she looked at him in her descent, the pain in his fingers the next day. After some time, he gathered himself and stood up. Lightheaded from the altitude, he reached for the bar affixed to the poles. Holding firmly to the bar, he said one last prayer. When he concluded the prayer, he jumped over the edge, and began his downward arc.

Some say he died immediately.  Some speculate he died up there and never performed the stunt. When the town disassembled the tower, they didn’t find a trace of him. Some believe that he built the tower all the way to heaven, and instead of smiting him for his arrogance, God embraced him for his ingenuity. There are a few who believe he is still somersaulting towards his partner. Some believe he let go to begin his plummet to the ground. At least one or two of the townspeople, though, suspect he’s still up there, in the atmosphere, falling and falling and falling forever.

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