“Forever” – Fiction by Michael Chin

Circus – August Macke, 1911

An unemployed young man meets a passionate and charismatic woman who literally makes his life a circus in “Forever,” Michael Chin‘s wild and haunting short story from our Spring 2018 issue.

{ X }

YOU FALL IN LOVE WITH A WOMAN ALL AT ONCE. You lose her in pieces.

The Ringmaster, before he was The Ringmaster, met a woman with hair the color of ripe peaches, and the whitest skin you’ve ever seen. The kind of woman you sensed you could bite right into and she’d dissolve like cotton candy.

His name was Verne in those days. He met her at a drugstore where she was shoplifting lipstick. The owner caught her, an Iranian man with a bald head and a handlebar moustache. “Thief! Thief!” he screamed, followed by a tantrum of curse words and guttural sounds. His six year-old son stopped taking inventory with the nub of a red crayon to look up. The Iranian’s wife, a white woman with a patch over her left eye, watched from the counter.

Verne pitied the family and loathed the Iranian, but his store was close by and he carried the frozen orange chicken Verne liked—the Americanized Chinese food his parents would never abide. He was third generation Chinese. The first in his family not to know Mandarin. The one who was supposed to fulfill all of the American dreams. A doctor, or a lawyer, or a physicist. Someone to be counted. Instead, Johnny Walker and orange chicken consumed his nights while he collected unemployment checks that would run dry exactly one week from that night.

“She was going to pay for it,” Verne said.

The Iranian held the woman by her wrist. Knuckles turning white. Verne thought he might take a cleaver to her hand like they did in the old country.

“You know her?”

The woman’s eyes grew glassy.

“I do,” Verne said

The Iranian waved the tube of lipstick in the air. The shiny black outside caught the light for a second. “Why’d she put it in her purse?”

Because she was stealing, of course, but that was the only answer Verne couldn’t give.

The woman kneed the Iranian in his balls. He doubled over and crumpled to the floor. She snatched the lipstick from him and took Verne’s hand.

Before he could think, they were outside and running. Verne clutched three cardboard boxes of orange chicken under his arm.

The Iranian came outside, still bent, clutching his crotch. “You never come back to my store! You come back and I’ll kill you!”

The woman laughed maniacally.

They wound up at Verne’s apartment, a studio cast in dull yellow by a single desk lamp. “Would you like some chicken?” He laughed as he said it, all that adrenaline and nervous energy and the absurdity of the moment overwhelming him.

“Sounds delicious.”

He opened a box and perforated the plastic film, then put the first plastic tray in the microwave. When he turned back around the woman was there waiting for him. Taller than him. His eyes met her neck. She held the canister of lipstick in her fingers. “Since we’re sharing stolen goods, can I interest you in some ravishing red?”

He took the lipstick and smeared it over his lips, drunk on her.

He took the first tray of chicken out and put in the second. “Chopsticks or fork?”

“No thanks.” She picked up her first piece of chicken, still steaming, between thumb and forefinger.

He started in with his chopsticks. She asked him to show her how to use them.

“I don’t use them right,” he admitted. He was self-taught—annoyed when he was little and his older cousins made fun of him. His parents never taught him the proper technique.

“They wanted me to be an American. Leave Chinese things behind.” He held a piece of chicken up in front of them. His extended family still laughed at him for holding the chopsticks wrong. White people never noticed.

“It’s silly,” the woman said. “Our parents tell us what to be. Most people never realize they can be anything else.”

The woman had drawn close to him. He could smell the orange sauce on her breath and feel the steam from the plastic tray rise at his neck. A scrap of the fried chicken skin had affixed itself to her lower lip.

“What do you want to be?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

She kissed him.

“I don’t even know your name,” he said.

“Penelope.”

She kissed him again. This time, he expected it and clutched her. Wrestled her to the floor. Or maybe she wrestled him. First he was on top, then her. The floor felt rough against his back. Her hair tumbled down, surrounding him. Darkness with orange edges where the light peeked between strands.

“Tell me you’ll want me forever,” she said.

He touched her breasts and salivated. He couldn’t imagine a circumstance in which he wouldn’t want her. “I will.”

“You will what?”

“I will want you forever.”

They continued. He wasn’t sure how long they carried on, only that the first morning rays to shine through the window made the film of sweat on her skin shine.

He woke hours, minutes, maybe seconds later, to the sound of the microwave. The smell of hot orange chicken. Penelope perched herself on the counter, wearing Verne’s shirt from the night before, and feasted.

Movement meant agony. Verne stretched his arm up over his shoulder, and dipped his hand onto the tender flesh of his back. His skin had broken, bleeding over the bare hardwood.

Penelope watched him. “Hungry?”

 

Once you love a woman, you’ll follow her anywhere.

Verne accompanied Penelope on her visit to Spiddledy Clown College. He had heard of the college, of course, an oddity on the outskirts of Shermantown. In high school, Spiddledy loomed as a threat of where the real losers and weirdos wound up. He’d heard boys from the lacrosse team snuck into the girl’s dorm to steal polka dot bras and panties as a rite of initiation.

Penelope and Verne crossed the threshold of campus, a break in a tall hedge that fed into the main quad, the big top at its center.

Penelope was in town to scout talent for her father’s circus, but she’d told Verne her father’s approach was all wrong. “Father cares about diplomas and credentials,” she said. “College is where the imagination comes to die.”

They watched the show from the bleachers. After a particularly lame comedy act, Penelope gave him a sideward look and smiled mischievously. Verne imagined fucking her in the car after the show and smiled back, open-mouthed and careless.

 

You think you’ve lost someone. You smell what’s left of her scent on a pillowcase, on a bath towel.

Penelope disappeared while Verne slept. He drank what he had in his apartment, refusing to go outside, certain she would come back and he didn’t want her to think that he had abandoned her. He drained a burning bottle of Russian vodka. He sucked down an airport bottle of rum. He drank the cough syrup left over from his last cold.

Enough hours passed to give up waiting. He stumbled to Clifford’s, following the fuzzy neon beer signs in the windows and settled on a stool there, where he drank whiskey until he fell asleep and drooled a puddle on the bar.

Halfway home, he fell to his knees. He registered that the sun was only then fading and rested his cheek against the cool, rough pavement, thinking he might sleep it off or wait to get arrested or die.

You lose your lover, and even the extreme options become perfectly reasonable.

He blinked and she was there.

Tall black heels. Long black dress.

He kissed her feet.

“My father’s dead,” Penelope said.

“I’m so sorry.” He slurred the words.

“The circus is mine now. Ours if you come along.”

 

Verne heard “circus” and expected elephants and lions. Spotlights. Music. Energy and good humor.

They were freaks and vagabonds. Dirty. Tired. They dined on roadkill and grass. A fire eater, half his face burnt and melted. A sword swallower, mute for all the mistakes he’d made. The Reptile Man. Big bosomed dancing girls. A loud-mouthed wrestler.

Penelope introduced him to Claude.

Claude had worked as a strongman until he threw out his back. Ever since, Penelope’s father kept him on as a stagehand, gopher, and security. Bald, thick stubble over his cheeks, he offered Verne his dirt-blackened hand.

“Claude, this is the new ringmaster,” Penelope said.

Penelope hadn’t discussed the role with Verne. Truth be told, he hadn’t committed to more than going to see the circus. He had warned her he had no talents, no experience.

Claude eyed him. The Ringmaster stood barely taller than his waist. Men—particularly those with little else to make a name on—have a tendency to size up other men. To determine their worth by how they would fare in a fight. Claude smirked and turned back to Penelope. “Doesn’t look like much.”

“Lucky for you, he doesn’t speak much English,” Penelope said. “But he’s run circuses across the Orient and he’s trained in seven martial arts. I saw him kill a man by laying a finger on his neck in just the right spot.”

Claude lost the smirk but didn’t back down. “Suppose he’d have to reach up to my neck before he could do much damage.”

The Ringmaster folded his arms, trying to strike a balance between appearing menacing and confident, while acting as though he couldn’t follow the conversation.

“Maybe,” Penelope said. “But when you lie down to sleep at night, everyone’s the same height.”

Claude spit on the ground, just a few inches to the right of The Ringmaster’s foot, put his hands together in front of him and bowed his head. The Ringmaster couldn’t be sure if he actually meant it as deferential or as a parody. The Ringmaster half-bowed his own head and returned his attention to Penelope.

When they were alone he asked her about The Ringmaster title and about saying he couldn’t speak English.

“It makes you mysterious,” Penelope said. “These people aren’t scared of much. Mostly of what they don’t know. Something they haven’t seen before. You can speak English in front of them, but make sure it’s always broken. And use an accent. It’ll be more interesting for the crowd, too.”

“The crowd?”

 

When someone you love gets sick, it does more than make her ache and cough and moan. It takes all of your petty troubles, all of your trepidations and tosses them into an aluminum trash can with a lighter fluid and match chaser.

Penelope had a cough one day and she went to bed early.

She wrapped herself in layers of blankets the next and insisted on lying down behind The Ringmaster and Claude in the cab of the truck when they drove.

The next day, she didn’t leave her tent at all.

The Ringmaster brought her a helping of the campsite chili. He’d plucked the extra hot peppers from it, worried they couldn’t be good for her increasingly delicate constitution. She had always been pale, but in her weakened state, she almost appeared translucent. He borrowed and bartered for every extra pillow and blanket he could find to make her comfortable.

“What do you think happens when you die?” she asked him.

“I don’t know.”

“You must have thought of it.”

The plastic tent bottom crackled beneath him as he sat by her side. “My mother used to talk about heaven and hell like other children hear about Santa Claus. Scrub out the bath tub or you’ll go to hell—that sort of thing.”

“What did she say hell was like?”

The Ringmaster hadn’t thought of it for years. “Hot,” he said. It was difficult to differentiate what his mother told him from his imagination and from made-up of images in books. “And she used to prod at my ribs with a fork and say the devil would stab me with his pitchfork.”

“Poor boy.” She touched a hand to his face. Her fingers were so much colder than when she had touched him all over on his apartment floor.

“When I got older, I took the fork from her and pressed the points up under her chin. Told her I’d stab straight up until I’d pinned her tongue to her eyeballs. She never stabbed me again.”

Penelope smiled at that. Her face was sweat-soaked.           “I liked my mother better than my father. But my father says that’s just because she died before I could really know her.”

“How did she go?”

Penelope sat up and coughed hard into one of the blankets, hacking for nearly a full minute.

“We should get you to a hospital.”

“No hospitals.” She was out of breath.

“What can I do?”

She lay back. Spittle and blood freckled the blanket. She pulled it back over herself. “Our family had a different story about heaven and hell.”

He leaned forward, rubbing her arm beneath the layer of blankets. “What do they say?”

“They said if you were good, you relive all of the best parts of your life. With all of the people who mattered most, at all the right times. And it all happens at once. You’re five and twelve and thirty. You’re with people who died before you and after you because eventually we all die and the order doesn’t matter.”

He felt for her fingers, but it was too hard to isolate them through the wool. “It’s beautiful. We’ll be together.”

“But they said if you were bad, you don’t go to that place. You stay with whomever you belonged to.”

“Who do you belong to?”

“You said you’d want me forever.”

“So we’d stay together?”

“Wait and see.”

 

Penelope died in the middle of the night. The Ringmaster wasn’t sure exactly when she went, but checked her breath, her pulse, tried to wake her. He realized it was the last time her body would ever be warm, so he climbed beneath the blankets and kissed her before he cried into the mess of her red hair until the morning light.

They buried her in the middle of camp, in some anonymous field off the side of a country road. That was their way, Claude said. The way her mother and father had each been buried, and countless others. There were no speeches. No flowers. No ceremony.

Trees and fields. Blue sky. The Ringmaster watched it all pass by on the road. He thought of Penelope, but also of the weight of responsibility she had left behind. Between Penelope and her father, they had charted a course that would carry them through the southern tier of the United States until winter. But once they reached southern California, it would be up to The Ringmaster to say where they went next. In some towns, the circus had contacts. The Ringmaster knew nothing of these people but what was scrawled in a yellowed notebook, mostly in Penelope’s father’s script.

“You speak more English than you let on.” Claude drove them at the front of the caravan in a blue pickup truck. “I don’t know if Penelope said anything, but I’m the right hand man to whoever’s in charge. Been that way for years. No point in keeping secrets from me.” He pulled up to a stop sign. “You know the rest of them don’t trust you, right?”

The Ringmaster fingered the edges of the notebook on his lap, water-stained into uneven waves of paper.

“The ringmaster spot ordinarily gets passed down family lines, like royalty.”

“Penelope—no child.” The Ringmaster struggled to figure out the right words to leave out or misuse, still acclimating himself to his persona.

“It makes people suspicious.” Claude opened the console between them and removed a bottle of beer. No telling how long it had been there. He cracked the top off between his teeth. “Penelope’s been sick for years.”

“She didn’t seem sick.”

“It would come and go, chief,” Claude said. “And each time it came, it came harder. I didn’t think she’d survive the time before. Then she goes and disappears. I figured she went off to die someplace peaceful, instead of leaving it to chance on the road.”

“She came back.”

Claude drank. A trickle of beer streamed off course, rolling over his bottom lip, down his neck. “She came back for a day. Next day, her daddy dies. Took us all by surprise. A man in good health has a heart attack out of nowhere.”

Claude was waiting for a response. The Ringmaster wouldn’t offer the satisfaction.

“Penelope didn’t cry over her daddy’s grave or stick around to pay her respects. What’s she do? Tells us the next town to go through and that she’ll meet us in two days. Then she shows up with you.” Claude stuck out his tongue, lapping at the spilt beer like an animal. “I’m giving you the benefit of doubt. The rest of the crew figures you’ve known exactly what you’re doing every step of the way.”

“What do they think—doing?”

“They figure you’re a circus owner yourself. And whether you found Penelope or she found you, the two of you struck an agreement. She wanted the circus out of her father’s hands. You wanted new talent. So you paid her off to poison her daddy and bring you into the fold just in time for her to die. Ipso facto you’re the new man in charge.”

“I pay her.”

“That’s right.”

“Knowing she die.”

“Exactly.”

“Why she take money if she going to die?”

Claude looked straight ahead and took another sip of beer. “I guess they didn’t think of that.” He swallowed. “Of course, that’s part of why I believe you—why I believe there was no foul play, I mean.”

The Ringmaster closed his eyes. Better to get his shuteye when he could. He wanted to be rested for when they arrived at the next town. Where he’d make his first speech to the circus.

 

The Ringmaster found himself in a room with white walls on a white bed with white sheets, all of which seemed to radiate bright white light. Through a picture window, he could see a green vine curl downward, the end of it spiraling in on itself.

And there was Penelope.

He could have sworn he was alone at first but then he felt the unmistakably cool, smooth touch of her fingers against his chest. Then her hair. A flurry of orange fire whipping over him. She kissed him as hard as she had on their first night.

“I thought you were dead.” Words between kisses. Between gasps.

She filled his mouth with her tongue. Inelegant. Starved. “I belong to you.”

He tried to roll over. To get on top. To pin her down and kiss her harder. She always found her way on top, though. The bed expanded beneath them, regardless of how much they moved, they were always in the same place.

“Forever,” she said.

 

For ten consecutive sleeps, The Ringmaster dreamt of Penelope. After the first time, he woke in the passenger seat of the truck, sweaty, erect and embarrassed by Claude’s side. But Claude went on talking as if for all he knew The Ringmaster had been awake the whole time. The Ringmaster reminded himself of how time in dreams could be funny. Hours of sex in his mind could last seconds on earth.

The first dream rattled him. All he could think of was that white room and touching Penelope again. So, he put off his speech. Told Claude to spread the word that he needed to think more and would discuss matters with everyone at a later stop.

That night, he dreamt of the white room again. He noticed small differences. The window was framed in dark wood and the vine had grown, had pierced through the window without breaking the glass. It was inside with them.

The night after that he could hear the ocean.

“You’re dead,” he said after his second orgasm, her first.

She panted in his ear, her clavicle to his throat.

“We buried you,” he said.

“I told you what my family believes.”

“About heaven?”

“About hell.”

“You can’t go anywhere.”

“I stay with the person I belong to.”

“You belong to me?”

The Ringmaster rubbed the back of her arm, his fingertips touching freckles he could swear hadn’t been there moments before. “That’s why you brought me to the circus.”

“I love you.”

“They think it was a coup.”

“Not untrue.”

“Do you love me?” he asked. “Or was I the first warm body you found?”

“I knew you were special.”

“I don’t know how to run a circus.”

“Here’s what you tell them.”

 

“When I was young, I had a brother.”

The Ringmaster stood on the flatbed of a pickup truck. From that height, he could look most everyone in the eye for his speech.

“As prank, I put shard of broken glass from soda bottle in his cereal.” More attention. A few laughs. “He didn’t notice it on his spoon. Bit down, cut his tongue. Bleed, bleed, bleed.”

The Ringmaster never had a brother. He repeated Penelope’s story, even the words she chose to fit his supposed diction.

“Our circus—it’s bleeding. Not enough money. Too many mouths to feed,” the Ringmaster said. “Some of you no trust me. And you right.”

Claude stood by the side of the truck, almost The Ringmaster’s height, flatfooted on the ground. He nodded to punctuate each sentence.

“My brother lost sense of taste. Ten years later, he get gun and kill himself.”

No laughter this time.

“He left note. Said life lost flavor. Not worth living. Same for circus. You don’t have flavor, no place in circus.”

 

Penelope gave him advice. The words to use. The towns to visit. The contacts. The way to treat his performers to get what she wanted.

They still made love each night, but only once or twice. They spent more time talking.

“All I ask is that you stay faithful to me,” she said.

“Of course. I love you.”

“Forever,” she said.

“Forever.”

He thought the promise would be easy to keep. But then Nina, one of the dancing girls, brushed her midriff against his hand on the way to the center of the ring. She wore a gypsy costume, all flowing green cloth, that followed her in circles as she spun. Her skin was smooth, her abdomen hard and tight. All at once, The Ringmaster remembered the glory of physical contact in waking life.

Nina visited his tent at night.

“Listen to them all,” Penelope had said, “but listen critically. Now that they know their livelihoods are at stake, they’ll try to take advantage of you. Don’t be surprised when those dancing girls try to sleep with you. They understand that we don’t need three, and one of them will be first to go.”

Even as he listened, fingering her spine, he thought of feeling the same spot on Nina. Just as quickly, he wondered if Penelope could read those thoughts, the way she seemed to read his waking ones.

He intended to deny Nina if she came to his tent again at night. He’d tell her his sleeping space was private. But before he could, she pulled her shirt off altogether.

“You won’t cut my act, will you?” Nina asked afterward, big brown eyes looking up at him, chin on his chest, propped on her elbows.

“Never.”

Penelope knew it all.

“You said you’d be faithful.” She wore a shiny, silky white robe that night, and lounged on the opposite end of their bed.

Most nights, they didn’t spend an instant out of physical contact. This time, when he reached for her, the bed seemed to grow wider, or his arm shorter. “She meant nothing.”

“More will come.”

“You overestimate me.”

“You underestimate your power.”

“I run a circus.”

“You feed them. You want to see a desperate woman, make her hungry.”

“What should I do?”

“Cut Nina.”

In the waking world, his body was still intertwined with Nina’s. “I can’t.”

“They’ll all sleep with you.”

“I’ve heard of worse problems.”

Penelope slapped him. That was the motion at least, and yet it was a slashing blow. He touched his cheek and felt five distinct cuts. His blood stained the white sheets.

She turned soft again. “Think of it. You can’t let them manipulate you. What will you do—hire only women? Fire all the men? And what about when their demands grow? When feeding them isn’t enough?”

The Ringmaster made up his mind. After the show that night, he’d cut loose another one of the dancing girls, and he would turn away Nina if she tried him again. She didn’t own him and he didn’t owe her. They had no arrangement. Just sex.

He watched each of the dancing girls that night. Sveta’s one-woman tango, dipping herself at impossible angles, all but flying in the arms of an invisible partner. Sonali’s belly dance routine. Nina’s routine was least compelling. Sensual, but not subtle. Gyrating. Spinning. Girlish nonsense. But, she had come to The Ringmaster’s tent first.

He invited Sveta to his tent. He intended to tell her she could stay on up to a week. Until they arrived at a good place to start the next leg of her life. Maybe someplace with family.

He invited Sveta, but she and Sonali both came.

Sonali kissed his mouth.

Sveta unzipped his pants and breathed hot air over him.

He had never had two women at once. Never expected it. Never really even imagined it for how impossible it seemed.

Back in the white room, he lay alone in bed. His wrists and ankles spread, bound to four posts by deep knots in the vine he had stopped paying attention to days ago, that now coiled through the window and all around the room. The vine’s thorns stuck and tore at him.

“You wanted me to know I couldn’t control you.” Penelope stood by the window, her hair lighter in the direct glow of outside—not of the sun but of a brighter, whiter light. “And I can’t. Not in the other world.”

“The real world.”

“This world doesn’t feel real?”

In his waking hours, a sex life that existed wholly within his mind felt inadequate. The only time the white room felt real was when he was in it.

“We’ll have to see what we can do about that.” She carried a length of vine. Her own hand bled from handling it.

“What are you doing?” He pulled his arms, his legs. No escape. Just new cuts. Every time deeper. He tried to wake himself, but as he already knew full well, these were no ordinary dreams.

She whipped the vine across his bare stomach. His chest. His face. He whimpered and cried. She asked if he wanted her to let him go. He screamed yes. She produced a saw, rusted brown around its teeth. It must have taken an hour to saw off his left leg. Longer to saw off his right. He awoke halfway through his right arm.

He awoke intact. Stirred by the motion of Sonali and Sveta, rising from his sides. “We don’t want for there to be talk,” Sveta said. She petted him like a dog and the two of them giggled, stealing away from his tent.

The Ringmaster didn’t dare go to sleep again. He studied his arms and legs, looking for saw marks. Any sign of the lashing. Mere minutes removed, it all had the hazy quality of a dream.

But she’d be back. You fall in love with a woman all at once. You lose her in pieces, until you wish she was all gone. Until nothing good remains but hard, sharp parts.

She belonged to him, she had said.

And he to her.

Forever.

{ X }

MICHAEL CHIN was born and raised in Utica, New York and currently lives in Georgia with his wife and son. His hybrid chapbook, The Leo Burke Finish, is available now from Gimmick Press and he has work published or forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, Passages Northand Hobart. He works as a contributing editor for Moss. Find him online at miketchin.com or follow him on Twitter @miketchin.

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