The Greatest Show on Earth
by James A. Reeves
There’s this old couple that gets around. Maybe you’ve seen them. They’ve been touring the country for years, long before America elected a game show host for president. They started off doing decent business at casinos and conventions until their tantrums began causing problems. At a fundraiser in Houston, they raised the house lights and singled out members of the audience, including the Secretary of Defense, saying they refused to perform for “a bunch of pornographic machine-gunning murderers.” Although this earned the couple some stock with the underground scene, the punk rockers and break-dancers didn’t know what to make of their mambo routines or their clumsy impressions of Hubert Humphrey and Dorothy Parker. Soon they were kicked down to the county fair circuit where they drank all the booze, spiked the acrobats’ water with a particularly vivid hallucinogenic called Black Sunshine, and set enough tents on fire while cuddling with cigarettes that even the sideshows along Interstate 10 wouldn’t have anything to do with them. So they began hitching from city to city, busking on street corners and subway platforms and that’s probably where you’ve seen them.
Nobody knows their real names, although there are rumors that he used to be in advertising, that he was the inventor of Black Friday sales events. And some say she was a fashion model who appeared in Vogue as one of its first ‘downtown personalities.’ If you look at the infamous 1961 photograph of Estelle Luna kneeling in a dress made from a chainlink fence with three strategically placed ‘Hands Off Cuba’ buttons, there is a resemblance. And perhaps the husband is the man grinning on the October 1981 cover of Forbes beneath the headline ‘Black is the New Green.’ But it’s impossible to be sure because now they are completely wrecked, way past elderly and a few clicks beyond haggard, a smear of yellow-white hair and dangling cheeks. Time has given up on them, no longer bothered that they’re still alive.
They are indestructible, like one of those shuttered hotels from the gilded age with vines creeping across garbled spray-paint on marble walls. They sleep in these empty ballrooms, curled under blankets, sharing memories and swapping jokes. Why can’t you trust an atom? Because they make up everything. They crisscross the nation, saying hello to everyone they see, offering to sing you a song, pose for a photograph, or do your taxes in exchange for a smoke and a few dollars. Wild-eyed runaways call them Grandpa and Grandma, and they seek their advice and bring them the latest pills.
You’d remember if you saw them because they wear white make-up with smudgy triangles on their cheeks applied with cigarette ash, their faces midway between nightmare and mime. They sing forgotten tunes with cherry lipstick smeared around their mouths, their make-up melting in the Memphis and Phoenix sun. Grown-ups turn away. Children erupt in tears. But the old-timers will tell you they used to be stars, long before these days with glowing screens in our palms and remote-controlled cameras in the sky.
There she is, propped against the wall of a Walgreens with a cardboard sign that asks, “Are you righteous?” while he fishes a half-smoked Newport from a sidewalk crack. Look at the little kid joy on his face as he brings the prize to her, letting her puff away before he smokes the dregs. Notice the terror in her eyes as he begins to cough and sputter, battling for air. He pops to his feet and does a goofy jig to prove he’s feeling just fine and would never leave her alone out here. She giggles at this routine that she’s seen a thousand times and they lock arms, rocking slowly to a melody only they can hear.
In six days he will die from pneumonia, and she will cradle his head in an abandoned hotel. Cold rain will fall, leaking through the rafters while she weeps in the gloom, the sleet like television static in the broken windows. She’ll search the walls for comfort and find only scraps of velvet and graffiti she cannot decipher. For weeks he’d been coughing yet she insisted on coming here. She made him breathe the grey air of this mossy old ballroom with its parquet tiles hidden beneath the plastic bags and weeds. “I wanted to dance here one last time,” she’ll whisper to herself and maybe to god.
They discovered each other in this room a lifetime ago when it was crowded with champagne and bow ties. Dark suits filled the dance floor like night, a backdrop for twinkling sequins and teeth. Ellington in a white tux on the bandstand, filling the cocktail hour with laughter and heat while she sat alone at the outer orbit of the party. She wore all black because a war had just ended or just begun, and she was wishing mankind would hurry up and blow itself to hell because she no longer knew how to deal with the paperwork that comes with being alive, the shut-off notices piled high in her kitchen like a rare Japanese art. After they nailed an eviction letter to her door, she fled to the most elegant place she knew, hoping to summon some kind of dignity. She noticed him at the other edge of the room, this shambling man in a thrift-store suit and army boots, recently returned from a Pacific island with no name. He tried so hard to appear dapper as he walked towards her but his face gave him away, those eyes like a shocked rabbit. He offered his hand, a gesture made only because he couldn’t think of anything to say. She remembered how his body shook, the fine muscle tremors of a nervous boy dancing with a pretty girl. He tripped over a small waiter but she caught him just before he hit the floor and they began an awkward box step that lasted sixty-one years.
This was the first scene of a romance that witnessed men on the moon, skyscrapers burning in the sky, and cities disappearing beneath the sea. The world’s convulsions were background music for the real show: their motel confessions and the way she parted her lips when she wanted a kiss. She will remember this as she closes his eyes, sweeping her hand across his face like she’s seen them do in the movies. I wanted to dance with him one last time. She will murmur this to strangers after the authorities take his body away, curious faces watching as she shuffles towards the coast. She will rip apart her dress until it joins the seaweed, imagining how he would probably spend an hour folding his suit into a neat pile on the shore, an image that will make her smile one last time as she walks into the waves.
But here they are this afternoon, sharing a smushed cigarette in front of a Walgreens while they watch the sun slide behind a discount department store. He offers his hand, a familiar gesture that reminds her of the night they first met at the Roosevelt Hotel, a place she’d like to see again.
Some say they inspired a Rotary Club in Atlanta to demolish a highway overpass in the middle of the night. Others believe they can tell your future by deciphering the contrails of military aircraft. Weeding out the truth would be an act of vandalism, and for what cause? We need new mythologies if we’re going to survive these years of distraction and doubt. Our bad dreams and midnight visions need someplace to go, and we can hang our stories on these old lovers like ornaments. They will live on long after his lungs collapse and she disappears into the sea, these two relics from the days when motels advertised color television and dial tones hummed in the key of F.
But right now they’re just a whacked-out couple on a street corner hustling for loose change, playing paddy-cake and cracking jokes only they understand. Now they’re dancing in the intersection, waving their arms at the frustrated traffic, howling and whooping, singing baby don’t fear the reaper in a whirlwind of rags and hair that will keep spinning until the cops come. And when you see how their eyes shimmer when they look at each other, you feel a flicker of envy. You might even wonder if they’re onto something.
James A. Reeves’s first book, The Road to Somewhere (W. W. Norton), documents 50,000 miles through America, and he has created public artworks with the Rubin Museum of Art, Annenberg Space for Photography, and a forthcoming installation at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. He’s finishing a novel about a loud god, and he makes reverberated mixtapes and keeps a nightly journal at atlasminor.com.
Image: Mat Botsford/Unsplash