A push in the right direction.
| I stood on a park bench to watch Le Aura dance, the only way I could see her act over the crowd. Her performance was an exercise in perfect balance: smoothly moving her body to a soundless rhythm as she kept three perfectly round oranges in the air. Le Aura mocked modesty by wearing a skin tight costume of fire red spandex and a cape-like black leather jacket. Her body left little to the imagination, which wasn't unusual for female street performers in Old Town. |
I never saw her up close. I was always afraid I'd get hooked on her act, like the Faithful Five who trailed around her like kittens for treats. The Faithful Five were the nicknames of a group of Punjabi miracle workers. Even though they had a proper Indian title for their act, no one seemed to be able to say it. I had a knack with languages, but their nickname just sounded better to me.
I wondered if anyone was going to buy my act that day. My worn black top hat was hollow as I held it between my matching fingerless gloves. Popular street performers like Le Aura didn't have to worry about filling their boxes, shoes, or hats with money. She could draw people to her in leash-like obedience. I was lucky if I could make people pay attention to me for more than five minutes.
Le Aura hopped on one foot in a circle, while juggling her oranges at the same time. I wondered how she did it. Her concentration never wavered, and she never seemed tired, whether her act was thirty minutes long, or two hours long. Our acts were too different: She was a dancer/juggler, and I was a mime. Her focus was on the constant control of objects in the face of ceaseless movement, and mine was on the absence of sound and props.
As she continued to dance, I thought about leaving Old Town. Old Town billed itself as the live entertainment capital of the world featuring the last bastion of performers who didn't do captures for vids and games. Everyone in the world came to see the endangered arts of the circus, live acting, unenhanced singing, and various other acts. It didn't take much to attract the attention of tourists. Even our bodies were unusual to people from outside Old Town: thin and flexible, or muscular and strong. The people who came to see us were usually soft and round, their bodies planted in small motorized vehicles. Old Towners called them strollers because without them, three-quarters of the tourists could barely walk.
I discarded the thought of leaving Old Town after remembering the strollers. I'd never get used to sitting in a vehicle and just watching the world around me. I couldn't see how they could sit and watch vids all day. Stuff like that made my eyes hurt. But I had to do something else. Even though my parents had been great performers, two thirds of a trio of high wire tumblers, I still felt the need to make it on my own. Even though I had a house they left to me, the refrigerator seemed to be begging for groceries. If I didn't do something, I would have to start selling some of my parents' memorabilia, still highly prized six years after their last show.
Finally, Le Aura ended her dance amid a sea of applause, and I turned back into a statue. I decided to be Nike, the embodiment of victory with my arms straight back and my head held high. No one paid any attention as the crowd moved mechanically around me out towards the next great act. They settled around Fiore, a magician who could seemingly create and extinguish fire with his mind. I felt my shoulders drop along with my last bit of hope.
The Faithful Five helped Le Aura move her oranges into a bag, not that she needed them. She tolerated them fussing over her until they had to leave for their five o’clock performance at The Big Square, where all the famous acts performed. Le Aura seemed to be relieved before heading towards me.
"Hi." She told me with a smile. Once she was closer, I could see her rather ambiguous skin tone, murky hazel-green eyes, and tar black hair that hung in uneven choppy locks past her shoulders. I didn't know her background, but she was beautiful whatever she was, even with her large nose. She put a good handful of brass tokens into the hat at my feet, traditional payment to be converted into real money later, and watched me. I wanted to tremble all over and thank her, but I didn't move one muscle. Then she put a gold token into my hat effectively buying my act for the rest of the day. "You can stop now. I want to talk to you."
I hugged the hat to my breasts, glad that I wouldn't have to my put up my father's shoes from his World Tour performance in Bangladesh for auction. "Thank you for the buy out."
She smiled again, and I could see the weariness in her eyes. "You're welcome."
I shuffled my feet and stared at the ground, wondering if I had any pride left. "What do you want to know?" I assumed the only reason she bought my act was to ask me about my parents. The only time people gave me tokens was to ask me about them. Sometimes as a joke, other performers steered small crowds in my direction, telling them I was an unofficial tour guide who knew all the secrets of the place. As humiliating as it was, my parents were one of the founders of Old Town, and I was born there. I did know secrets, and I revealed a few harmless ones if the price was right.
"You can relax. Fiore didn't trick me into buying secrets from you. And I don't care about your parents. I mean I met them once when they were still in The Delta Blues, and they were really nice, but I don't want to talk about them." She sounded like she was on an Actor's High: Exhausted from her performance, but exhilarated from all the applause, making her words sound rushed and heady.
"We can eat at The Loup. I'll have to get my tokens changed over first." I offered.
"Can you get us a table in the back?" The stress she puts on that last word makes the hair on my arms stand on end.
"Why would you need one in the back?" Performers in the know usually conducted business in the back of the most expensive tourist hotels in Old Town. There was The Loup, whose profits were the source of my parents’ residual income, and The Top, which was more of a restaurant after all those years.
"I can't say. Not out here." Although Old Town had a stable population of 5,000 people, everyone knew everyone's business. Even mental notes spoken aloud in an empty bathroom could wind up in Granny Smith's Gossip Rag, an unofficial newspaper that was treated very officially.
I hailed a messenger, which happened to be a boy on a unicycle, and sent him towards The Loup with some brass and a whisper to hold table #17 for two people. It was traditional to send important messages out with these young apprentices, who gained experience through learning the ins and outs of Old Town while on wacky contraptions like a unicycle or stilts. I got my start that way just like Le Aura and most everyone else born and raised in the entertainment capital of the world.
We walked through the acres and acres of Main Park before finally setting our feet down on Main Street. Main Street was choked with strollers, food venders, and regular Old Towners walking on foot. Occasionally, a tourist called out to the more brightly colored performers for a free picture, but all the Old Towners knew better than to stop and pose for free. Everything in Old Town had a price.
Lucious Lukas caught up with us at the corner of Main and Moore. Or rather, she caught up with Le Aura. "Hey. I need to talk to you about yesterday." Said Lukas pleasantly, as she touched Le Aura’s shoulder. Lukas worked at Fish Bowl, the water stadium that housed the undersea mermaid act she was a part of: Mirage. It was the second highest grossing act in Old Town, second only to the Faithful Five at The Big Square. She looked like she came straight from a show with her waist-length brown hair and sequined black top and bikini trunks drip drying in the sun. Her long fake eyelashes and blue-green eye makeup and face scales, made her look alien.
"There's nothing to talk about, Lukas." Le Aura sounded cold and distant, as if Lukas was the last person on earth she wanted to talk to. Lukas raised an eyebrow and gave me a once over.
"Where are you going with her?" Lukas gave me a stunning smile with venom behind it.
"Leave us alone, Lukas. I can't give you what you want. So why don't you stop wasting my time?" Le Aura started double timing it down Moore street, and Lukas didn't follow. I caught up with the dancer quickly. "She's very determined. I'll give her that. But water isn't my thing." It's a loaded phrase. Most of the mermaids in Mirage were gay, and saying you had an aversion to water was a polite way of turning one down. Then again, a lot of performers did have a phobia from thing or another, the top fear being of large bodies of water. Lukas was either hitting on Le Aura, or asking her to join Mirage.
We reached The Loup not long after that. All I had to do was approach the maitre'd and he immediately escorted me and Le Aura into the restaurant portion of The Loup. It was beautiful in The Loup, comparable to any five diamond restaurant. The theme of The Loup was elaborate french country, with wide open windows, spotless tablecloths, gourmet food, and excellent service. Rich tourists ate there to be seen, and Old Towners ate there to do their business unseen. The maitre'd led us back through the huge kitchen(to the annoyance of the head chef until he recognized me and said hello), through a storage room or two, and finally to an old boxcar that'd been converted into a kind of dining room, at least for the day. There were no set rooms for doing backroom business. I'd been told the rooms changed depending on the amount of storage space needed by the hotel staff and restaurant, but I doubted that. I thought changing the rooms cut down on the chances of being overheard.
"Will you be eating, Clara?" He asked me kindly. It was a forced kindness because my parents still owned The Loup, but I could hear pity in his voice. He didn’t remember my stage name, a sign that I was more unknown than the apprentice I sent to deliver my message.
"Yes." Le Aura answered before I can blurt out that I don't have any outside money on me. My scruffy tramp costume was more true to life than I'd like to admit. "We'll share a platter of beef ribs, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob...and what kind of drink do you want?"
"I'll have some cherry wine. The newest year you have." I was surprised Le Aura knew what my favorite food is, but then again we did our apprenticeship together and shared a meal here and there with our fellow messenger apprentices. My taste in food hadn't changed. The maitre'd nodded and left quickly.
"So what's all this about?" I asked. I didn't understand why she would have back room business with me.
"I like your act." She told me flat out. From what little I knew of Le Aura, she always got straight to the point. I raised my eyebrow at that. We had both been out of the apprenticeship for a few years now. Why was she just telling me now? "I think with a few changes, you'll be in The Big Square in a couple of months. Or at least at Three Rings as a featured performer."
I waited for the catch. This was a business meal, so I knew she was trying to grease me up to fit in someone's scheme. "What do you want in exchange for my success?"
"An offer that you are not obligated to accept." She told me.
"Which would be?"
"You would be made aware of the offer only if your new act became a success."
"And who would be directing the changes in my act?"
Le Aura raised a carefully arched eyebrow. "Me. I would also be the one asking you to accept the offer."
I was quietly relieved to hear that. I liked Le Aura, and I was glad there were no shady dealings going on. Being the daughter of important people, and suffering from a failed professional career had shown me how vulnerable I was. "I'd like to know what the offer is. Before I agree to go forward."
"It won't make sense to you until after you become a big enough to sell out your act." She answered vaguely.
"Will I be affected if I don't take the offer?"
La Aura stared at me before looking away. "I'm not sure. I'll be affected either way."
"If this is about getting permission for a new building, or just straight Outside money-"
Le Aura huffed and sighed. "It's not about any of those things. I don't care about money, or housing acts."
"I don't understand. Why all this now? It's not like we're friends. We're just a little familiar." I tell her.
"Are you thinking of leaving Old Town?" She asked searchingly.
I sighed. "Yes. I can't go on not making money. My parents would support me if I decided to stop performing, but I don't want to spend the rest of my life depending on them like that."
"So you'll let me help?" She reached over to touch my hand. There was a softness in her eyes I didn't understand. Was she pitying me? Was this whole discussion in the back a way to lessen my public humiliation by offering her help privately? I wasn't sure.
"Can I think about it over the meal?" I told her.
She smiled at that, and took her hand back. "So what do you like about my act?"
"What do you mean?" I ask mildly.
"I always see you watching me from your bench."
I half-smiled. "I'm surprised you can see anything over the first fifty people in front of you."
Le Aura smiled warmly. "You'd be surprised at what I can see. I wasn't asking the question to make small talk. I'd really like to know what keeps your attention."
"You are an excellent dancer and juggler. The control and restraint you display when you perform is amazing." I reply honestly.
Le Aura looked down at the tablecloth, embarrassed. "Thank you. I'm glad you said something other than how pretty I am. The Faithful Five are nice-"
"But they want to add you to their list of conquests." I finished for her.
She nodded. "They see me as just a woman, not a fellow performer."
"You dance sensually, and their minds go straight to sex, I imagine."
"Probably. They've been very polite so far, so I can't tell." She said coyly.
Our food arrives, brought by a sous chef, and we spent the next hour talking about ourselves, squashing rumors and misconceptions. By the time we finished, I decided to take Le Aura's help. "What would I have to do in order to be successful?"
"First things first. Will you think the offer over seriously once I give it to you?"
I offered her my hand, and she squeezed it firmly. "Yes."
She grinned. "I hope you'll tell me yes again when I make my offer." We discussed changes I should be making to my costume, changing it from the standard black to gold, and adding heavier makeup to fully disolve me in my persona. Le Aura thought I should change my stage name to Gold Mime, a play on words and a reflection of my new costume. She also suggested I should move to the entrance of Old Town and try an act she called "Pose A Mime". She thought I could get a lot of tourists interested in my act even if they had to leave the safety of their strollers. I agreed to make the changes and come back to her with the results once the act caught on.
Once I left Le Loup, I quickly walked over to Paloma's, the oldest and best seamstress in Old Town. Her home/place of business had been added on twice since she built it when Old Town started going up. Her triplet daughters ran it now for the most part, with Paloma herself getting involved only if it was a very special costume. I avoided the large flourescent sign out front, and headed for the side door. I reached my hand inside the weathered lion's head in the middle of the door and pressed a buzzer.
After waiting a few minutes, Paloma came to the door, leaning on her silver plated cane, with her signature cigarillo in her mouth. "Senora Paloma. How are you this evening?" I addressed her respectfully, hat in hand.
"I am well, Carla. Why haven't you gone to see my girls?" She chewed on the cigarillo. I had never known her to light it up. She couldn't. After all the smoke would ruin her materials.
"I need a costume made on extremely short notice. I was hoping I could convince you to make one for me."
"Well," She said, continuing to chew on her cigarillo, "I am in the middle of re-designing The Faithful Five's newest wardrobe. How can you convince me to put that on hold?"
I rolled the rim of my hat between my fingers nervously. "I don't have much money, but I can give you the gold token I received today."
Paloma raised an eyebrow at that, unbelieving. "What tourist bought your act?"
"It was a fellow performer. Le Aura."
Paloma nodded as if that was all she needed to know. "Do you have any other tokens?" Paloma took both tokens and Outside money as a necessity. Few performers had time to exchange their money if there was a wardrobe problem. I nodded my head quickly, even though I couldn't well afford it to give her my brass tokens as well. "Then I'll take your brass, joven."
I breathed a sigh of relief as I stepped into her home. Very few people saw the inside of her home. Since Paloma was always busy working, she very rarely entertained. I guessed she considered us all to be her customers, never mind the fact that her husband and two sons were Los Barcelona Tres, the most respected trapezists in Old Town. Her home was filled with piles of cloth, separated by color. I knew the drill without being asked. I took off my suit jacket and trousers, and spread my arms wide. Despite her limp, Senora Paloma used her measuring tape to take all my measurements in less than a minute. She brought me to her pile of gold fabrics, and I dug through it until I settled on a rich deep gold, and I briefly told her the style of jacket and trousers I wanted. I picked out a slightly ruffled white fabric that wouldn't chafe my skin, as an undershirt, and told her what pattern I wanted. I chose the style of hat I wanted, which was a top hat, along with my shoe style, simple comfortable loafers. My floppy tie would be made of the same gold material as my suit. Paloma quickly convinced me to have shoes match my tie. "When can I come back to pick up the clothes?" I asked, when I was discreetly stacking my brass tokens on her table in her kitchen, the only clear space in her home.
"Tomorrow morning. Before the sky pinkens."
I nodded. Paloma was officially retired and she wanted to keep it that way. I would have to use my early morning run as a cover to get in the area. "Thank you, Senora." I told her.
"Que la pasa bien, joven." She replied mildly. Her lips lifted in secretive amusement before walking me to the door and out to the street.
I didn't have enough time to question her sudden familiarity with me. I quickly went to The ChangeMan, a big cave shaped building that was painted to look like the head of a grinning, laughing man. I knew better than to walk through the front and risk getting run over by a line of strollers. I went around to the back of the building where a long line of performers were waiting to exchange their tokens to Outside money. Fiore was touching up his hair with his fingers, making it look more flamelike than usual. Yin & Yang II were standing side by side, their twin features distorted by black and white makeup and white streaked hair. They turned around and stare at me before facing forward and laughing.
"Carla!" Said Fiore rudely, his red contact lensed eyes open wide. "Who are you exchanging money for?"
"Myself." I didn't stoop to his level by calling him by his real name, Daniel. I'd always taken the high road with people. I may have gotten more crap from people, but I didn't care. I could sleep at night knowing I haven't hurt anyone.
"I wonder who took pity on her. Maybe some small child." Mused Yin, covering up her delicate red lips with her fan.
"Probably that messenger boy on the unicycle. I'm sure her parents are sending her money discreetly." Added Yang cruelly, folding his arms over his chest. I tightened my hands into fists, but I didn't say anything. I should've been glad no one mentioned seeing Le Aura with me. The performers around me start making jokes about my act, and how I'd be better off being a clown than a mime. Mimes were the rarest performers. There were only fifty of them in Old Town, including myself, and all the rest belonged to Madame Skelton's Mime Troupe. I was too different to be in her troupe, which focused on super traditional miming, so I declined her invitation to join once I finished my apprenticeship. It made me a target for ridicule, performing alone like I did. But I was used to it.
Finally I was able to get my gold token exchanged, amid jeers that someone had bought out my act to end it once and for all, before running down the grocery store for food. Most of the tourists from Outside didn't bother getting real food, so that was one of the few places that wasn't clogged with strollers going every which way. I stocked up on eggs and fish before getting as much fresh vegetables as I could carry before rushing home.
In the morning, I woke up at three and put on my hot pink running gear. Without my run, my muscles twitched and ached throughout my poses. Even if I was sick, I at least walked three and a half miles down the middle of Old Town Proper: Around the bell tower of The Old Town Cathedral, down Main Street past the entrance to the park, around The Fish Bowl, and over the bridge overlooking the water which would bring me back to my home. It usually took me thirty minutes to complete my route, and I always felt better after I was done.
I paused midway on Main Street and cut down a sidestreet to Senora Paloma's backdoor. I knocked on the door firmly, and after a moment or two, a secret slot opened up, and out came a carefully wrapped package. I slung it over my shoulder and sprinted home as fast as I could. After my shower, I ignored my side stitches and tried on my new outfit. I looked amazing! The white and gold really made me look like I was worth something.
I heard a knock on my door not long after I put on my new costume. I looked outside and see Le Aura dressed in a costume with opposite colors from the day before, black over red this time. I let her in.
"Good morning." She told me.
"Good morning." I replied. I waved her towards my kitchen table and we both sat down. "Would you like something to drink?"
"No thank you. I don't want to get pissy in the middle of my act this morning. Do you have any bread?" I give her my last slice smeared it with fresh cream, and then we discuss my act. She says she'll use her time for lunch to check up on my progress later. She leaves, and I lock up my home before walking a mile down to the entrance of Old Town.
I feel self-conscience about performing at the entrance, even with the sign Le Aura helped me make. Few people from Old Town stand at the entrance. The ones that do are usually attendants from The Big Square and Fish Bowl selling advance tickets. Performances are usually done as a group, or at least around other performers. I won't know what to do out there on my own. I start to break out in a cold sweat and hurriedly dab my forehead, thankful for my sweatproof makeup. I can't afford to be sweaty before starting my act.
Emotions aside, I make it to the entrance intact. The entrance hasn't even opened for the day, so I look for the best possible spot to perform. The entrance to Old Town is set up like the amusement parks of old, with ticket counters and small barricades separating it from the Outside. I approach a bronze sea horse water fountain which doubles as a director of traffic. New arrivals to Old Town who want to go to The Big Square, Fish Bowl and Main Street move past the fountain to their left. Other visitors to Old Town who were most likely staying at Top and The Loup took the route around the fountain on the right.
I thought about where I would stand. Of course, standing on the side of the fountain facing away from the fountain was out of the question. Anyone exiting Old Town would most likely be out of money, or else had enough of acts in general. However, if I stood too close to the fountain on either side, I'd probably get run over by impatient people in their strollers. I looked towards the beginning of Main Street and decided that would be perfect. There was an empty lip of concrete right next to the start of the cobbled road. When I was a little girl, a clown mannequin used to stand there holding directions to various attractions, but due to weather problems it was replaced with a freestanding aluminum sign ten feet down the road.
I smile at the irony and wonder if any stray Old Towners will catch on. I put my sign around my neck and stand on the lip in an easy military stance. It's my standard pose whenever I'm starting out. I let my mind drift away as I slow down my breathing. There's a line of people already waiting in their strollers Outside. All they'll need is some attendants to let them in. After an hour, the line Outside grows, and I see a few brightly colored attendants outfitted in various shades of red and white striped shirts and black pants get inside their stands and start handing out tickets and tokens.
The strollers stream by me like determined lines of ants. I hold my position still, waiting for one of the strollers to come to a stop. A few slow down, but after a glance, they keep going. Judging by the position of the sun, another hour passes. I start to question the wisdom of choosing this particular spot, but I admit to myself that I have nothing to lose by at least trying this out for a full day.
The lines of strollers finally come to a halt as a child in a little stroller stops in front of me. "Be a bird!" He shrieks. I hold out my hat for payment and point to the price on my sign, hoping he can read. He throws three brass tokens into my hat, and I oblige his request by becoming a fluttering bird, moving my arms back and forth in waving patterns. He looks fascinated, but quickly bores after a few minutes and leaves. I resume my soldier's pose, and quickly get another costumer. This time it's an old man. He's skinny and on the frail side. I get the feeling he's in a stroller out of neccesity, unlike the others. Still his eyes and expression are alive enough.
"Can you pretend to be on a tightrope?" He asks. I nod, and mime a shaky circus clown holding an umbrella, balancing on one foot and then the other. He gets a funny expression as if he's about to cry before moving on.
I don't have time to worry about him because someone is already tossing more brass into my hat so I can turn into a trapezist. I oblige quickly, jumping up and down quickly before doing a complete summersault in the air. My summersault earns me a round of applause. More requests come in: a monkey; a dentist; a rock; a poker player; a pirate; and finally someone wants me to eat an invisible banana. By the time this small group of strollers moves on, I'm ready for a break.
I quickly walk over to a ticket booth and ask to exchange the tokens in my half-full top hat for some Outside money. The booth workers look at me curiously. They aren't from Old Town, and I can only imagine what they think of me in my full face paint and shiny gold costume. The Outside money I recieve-twenty seven dollars-is still pocket change compared to other performers, but it feels so good to have money in my hands that I don't care. I buy a water from a street vendor, paying the greatly reduced Old Towner rate. I guzzle the water down and stretch my limbs quickly before getting back into place on the cement ledge.
Minutes pass before someone tosses tokens into my hat. The positions I contort myself into pass by in a blur. I don't have time to count them as a large crowd of people gathers around me. Finally, I start to feel dizzy and realize I haven't eaten lunch. I spot Le Aura at the edge of the crowd, and she playfully mimes pointing at a watch. I finish up my last pose, and bow to the crowd. The crowd cheers and moves on. I step off my ledge and nearly fall down. My arms and legs feel boneless.
"Are you alright?" Asks Le Aura, holding me around my waist.
"I'm just not used to doing so many poses so quickly. After lunch I'll be fine."
"Why don't you stop for the day?" She suggested while rubbing my side in a friendly way. "You're already worn out, and it would be good to have a loose schedule of availability people from the Outside won't take you for granted."
I chuckled at that. "You sound like my business-minded parents."
"It doesn't hurt to be. You've done pretty well for yourself. " I couldn't help but smile at that. My top hat was full of brass tokens, with the occasional silver one here and there. I offered to buy lunch, and Le Aura happily accepted. I made us both a large salad and quick-baked a chicken. There was little left of the chicken when we were through. After lunch, I told her all about my poses: which ones were hard and which ones were easy. She surprised me by listening and asking me questions about miming. Le Aura really seemed to be interested in my act.
"Thank you. I wouldn't have achieved any of this without you." I told her.
"You're just starting to get popular. Wait until you reach The Big Square."
I sighed at that. "I'll have to come up with something big. I'll have to have an act no one's thought of before."
"Don't worry about it. This is your first day. Enjoy your success." She leaves to go perform her hour-long 2pm act in the park, and I bask in my first glorious debut. I come up with the idea of putting the clown mannequin back on the ledge holding a sign with my chosen hours. I dug through my attic until I found the clown mannequin, and inspected it to make sure it was in good shape. Despite a dusty wig, and some large holes in the back of the costume, it was in good condition.
I went shopping for another clown costume and wig from the souvenir shop. The woman behind the counter eyed me strangely. "Are you dating an Ousider who doesn't like your...act?" She asked snidely. I didn't answer her. I just made my purchase and left.
I spent the rest of the afternoon altering the costume so it fit the clown mannequin reletively well. While I was in the process of re-applying paint to the mannequin's face, I heard a knock on my door. When I opened it, the only thing there was the latest copy of Granny Smith's Gossip Rag. The gossip was speculation about numerous people in no particular order, but I was surprised to see myself inside. "Who Bought Clara's Act?" Was the title that caught my eye. In the story below it, there was speculation about who bought my act. There were conflicting unnamed sources. One of them said my parents were the secret source of the gold token. Another said it came from a very juicy secret I sold to someone from Outside. The last source said it was a gift from a secret admirer.
I shook my head once I finished reading, and threw the paper away. None of it was true, least of all the last rumor. It was a business transaction, plain and simple. Le Aura only gave me the token to soften me up some, to get my attention because she knew how desperate my situation was. I shook my head. That last rumor was the cruelest one of all. It was a known fact that I didn't date anyone, and I never would again. Everyone I dated seemed to be too angry, or too outrageous to deal with, not uncommon amongst us entertainers. I had grown up with my parents fighting all the time, and that was not a life I wanted for myself. I was an oddity in a place where most people became committed to each other before they left their apprenticeship, and stayed that way for life.
When Le Aura came by, she was angry about the story. "I can't believe they would go there! They didn't even use your stage name!"
"They'll know my name is Gold Mime soon enough."
"About the last part-"
"Don't worry about it." I told her, wearing a brave face. "I know that's the biggest lie of all." I changed the subject and showed her the clown I'd been working on. Her eyes brightened up and we finish re-painting the mannequin together. When we were done, she offered to make us some dinner; spring greens, buttered rolls, and onions-over-steak. It was a good meal, and I told her as much before she left.
For the next several weeks, me and Le Aura met several times to discuss how my act was going. I was getting a steady stream of tokens coming in thanks in part to the mannequins advertising my schedule. I performed when the traffic coming into Old Town was at it's peak: 8 to 12 in the mornings when people were checking into their hotels, and 3 to 8 to catch the evening rush of strollers on their way to the night shows at The Big Square and Fish Bowl.
I was starting to get joint pain from all the posing, so I got back in the habit of my old gymnastics warmups before going for my daily jog. Originally, my parents wanted me to be part of the second incarnation of the Delta Blues along with my two older cousins. They trained us in tight rope walking and gymnastics as soon as we could walk. Once we came of age, our parents’ plans for us fell apart, but now I was thankful I had such strict training as part of my regime.
Once I started working on my flexibility on the uneven bars in the private gym in my parent's house, the joint pain let up, but didn't completely go away. Le Aura suggested I see one of the many massage therapists who live here in Old Town, but I refuse, at first.
It isn't until I sprain my left shoulder in the middle of my act that I have to take her advice. When I see the Old Town doctor, he recommended taking a break, and that I take regular massage sessions. I took the break, but I still balked at taking the massage therapy.
I scheduled an appointment with Keisha Kim's, one of the better massage parlors. Once I showed up, it was obvious that it just wasn't for me. The massage parlor was nothing more than a large waiting room cramped with massage tables. Therapists and clients talked to each other freely. The place reminded me of a crowded restaurant. My massage therapist took an instant disliking to me, so I paid her for her time and skipped out before she could put a hand on me.
I tried other places, but they were more or less the same. The Gossip Rag speculated that my absence in the park was related to some unknown injury. It further speculated that I would probably leave Old Town for good. I was furious that there was no mention of my new persona, and my absence at the Old Town entrance, but Le Aura calmed me down, assuring me that since no Old Town natives ever went to the front entrance, The Rag probably hadn't caught on yet.
I dig my heels in and start planning where I'll be performing next. I want it to be big, some place where everyone will hear about me. Le Aura takes my sudden boost of ambition in stride, and we start planning, scoping out open areas. However, it seems the best places have been taken. I'll have to go right back to my cement ledge until I become more known.
Once I recover, I go right back to my ledge, but I can't put the same energy into it like I did before. I'm scared I'll hurt my shoulder again, or worse. After my first week back, Le Aura gives me a card advertising a massage therapist. The only stipulation is that I don't talk to the massage therapist, and that the lights will remain dimmed while she works on me. I don't bother asking if this therapist doubles as a pleasure queen on the side. I'm so desperate for help that I take the card and schedule an appointment right away.
The massage therapist works out of one of the many apartment buildings on Main Street reserved for performers. I'm not surprised Le Aura stipulated no communication. Message therapists are viewed snidely as service workers, not as true Old Towners no matter how long they've been here. If the true identity of this person was discovered, she'd make the front page of The Rag for sure, and that was the worst place to be.
I tapped on the door twice, just like the automated appointment maker instructed, and the front door opened. A young teenage woman opened the door. She smiled prettily, and let me in, locking the door behind me. She seemed familiar to me, with her long pretty braids cornrowed past her back, and her pleasant white teeth that glowed against her even ginger root complexion, but I just couldn't place her face.
"Your therapist is in another room. I'll let her know you're here." She said cheerily. She buzzed an intercom. "Your client is here." She said shortly, before motioning towards a door. "Go on in."
I approached the door cautiously, and opened it. Inside was a small dimly lit changing room and toilet, complete with a lock box and key. I put my money in the lock box and noticed a note on top of the box. It read: Hi. You can call me R. List the areas that need attention, and slide this under the door. Slowly count to sixty and come in. If I do anything that hurts you, quickly tap on the table, and I'll stop immediately. The message will end when my timer goes off. Stay relaxed, breathe deeply, and enjoy your massage!
I wrote down my shoulder problem and slid the paper under the door. After counting to sixty, I opened the door to the message room. Inside were several dim candles on low stands, and someone I could barely see at the far end of the room. Thankfully, my eyes were already adjusted to the dim light, so I made my way over to the massage table and lay face down.
Small fingers on the back of my neck startled me. I hadn't even heard the massage therapist approach the table. "Calm down." Said the person close to my ears. I relaxed, and soon fell asleep under their firm fingers. I woke up to the buzzer and I quickly stood up and left the way I came.
I thanked Le Aura over dinner at The Loup. "I haven't felt this good since I started my new act!" I said while I was cutting up my lamb roast. "How did a massage therapist get an apartment in a building reserved for performer's?
"Ssh!" Said Le Aura in a low voice leaning towards me. "I can't tell you that."
"Alright. Sorry. If you know the person, tell them thank you. I'll be going there regularly. At least once a week if I earn enough." I didn't mean to draw attention. I was just thankful. But apparently Le Aura was disturbed by my question, so I didn't say anything else.
"Have you found any other places to perform yet?" She asked, thankfully changing the subject.
"Not yet. It's back to the ledge for me. And that may be a good thing. If I hurt myself again, it'll be better if it's in front of a small crowd."
Le Aura reached over and rubbed my hand. Her eyes gleamed in the firelight, forrest-like and deep. "Don't think small for long."
I squeezed it back. "I won't. There has to be some place in this town that hasn't been taken. I just have to find out what it is."
For the next five months, I perform nearly day, perfecting my skills. A few people have actually bought out my act for the day, and it's enough to finally gain the notice of The Rag. My act is popular enough to warrant an entire page to rumors about me. Some think I'm an apprentice who has debuted without permission. Others think I'm the daughter of the legendary mime Gustav Perot, back in town to carry on her father's name after all. There are some who speculate my act is a cover for someone from Madame Skelton's mime troupe to generate interest in the languishing company. The rag is leaning towards the last opinion, citing a recent growth in ticket sales for Madame Skelton's mimes. The only gossip I read about myself as Clara is strangely personal: speculation about the time I'm spending with Le Aura. The Rag doesn't mention any rumors, it just shows a picture of me and her eating dinner outside, laughing at something. I guess it's open season on our relationship.
Seeing us in that picture made me think. I had really begun to see Le Aura as a friend, not just as a popular performer who mentored me. She joined me on my morning runs, and she was teaching me traditional Turkish belly dancing for smoother transitions between poses. We were training and performing for twelve hours a day, but I was having so much fun, I hadn't noticed. The smiles and laughter she gave me when we were together always made me push myself a little harder, even more than her encouragement.
Still The Rag's article was hard to take. What else would I have to do to convince Old Town that I had a great act? And that it was me and no one else? I took an entire day off and vowed that I wouldn't stop until I found a good place to perform, a place where everyone could see me. I scoured Main Street, in my Gold Mime costume, but of course it was still crowded with street vendors hawking their Old Town branded merchandise and cart food. They're licensed by Alex Tosh, one of the founders of Old Town who snapped up the land rights to Main Street as soon it was established.
I take the slanted right onto the half-mile stretch of Gloria Road and walk under the singer's arches. At first, the singer's arches were made of plain, undecorated red brick and morter, but that has changed. To get attention from the thousands of people that zoom down the street every day, the singers have used their arches as a kind of window shop. The established singers have covered the exposed brick of their individual arches with expensive marble, granite, or gilt, while the less popular ones have to settle for velvets and satins in eye-catching colors. There are more than five hundred singers on Gloria Road, so their singing schedules have to be strictly followed. I've heard that the fine is fifty silver tokens if a singer sings even one minute early. Again, there isn't any place I'd be able to perform here, but I still find myself smiling as I look up at Leticia's arch.
Leticia's arch is a work of art: gold-veined black marble trimmed with gilded songbirds and cherubs. Leticia herself is clothed in yards of white frilled fabric against a background of artisticly torn black streamers. It's a calm day today, but when the wind whips up, and she sings a high A over C, she seems to be an elemental force. I used to watch her sing when I was younger, but she never noticed me.
But that today she was looking straight at me. "Hi, Gold Mime!" She calls out from her perch. I'm too surprised to say anything, so I just stare at her. "Still on the job, huh? I know the feeling." She blows me a kiss and gives a little hand wave. I stumbled, forgetting where my feet were, and I found my way off Gloria Road as quickly as I can. Leticia was my first crush, and it was incredible to hear her say my stagename.
I keep going down Illusary Avenue, where most of Old Town magicians and daredevils ply their trade, but there were no places I felt comfortable showing my performance. Even the less conspicuous corners were dangerously close to fire breathers and sword throwers. Although they were professionals, mistakes did happen.
I walked the entire ten mile block of Old Town proper, crisscrossing alleys, main thoroughfares, and service roads. There was no place I could perform other than the place I had already chosen. I ended my survey at the bronze mermaid fountain, feeling tired and defeated. How could I rise to the next level? I looked up at the Bellisma bell tower that loomed over Old Town, with it's distinctive brass onion-shaped minuret that housed a man-sized bronze bell. I wanted to be as well seen as that tower. I wanted everyone to see me.
Then a realization hit me. I could perform at the top of the tower in front of the bell! I ran to the Bellisima, and took the stairs to the double front doors two at a time. The front doors were always spread open, propped that way by slate wedges. Inside the doorway was an apprentice who was offering a sight-seeing tour of the tower, which had large windows on all four sides. The bell tower was composed of the same stuff inside and out, a bright-white compression of chalky softstone that seemed to be held together with layers of whitewash. Despite the rough appearance up close, from far away it seemed like a white sword with a point of gold at the top. As the tallest building in Old Town, it could be seen from any street.
I asked a wandering apprentice for the owner of the tower, and gave her two brass tokens to keep quiet about it. I knew that Lou Bellisimo had his office towards the back, and I breathed a sigh of relief when she left in that direction. She ran back to me in a few minutes, and asked me to follow her. I followed her to a small side office and opened the door. Inside was Lou himself, seated at his small desk, looking up from a stack of small papers. The ring of hair around his bald spot was grayer than ever, but otherwise, he looked none the worse for wear.
I shook his head and smiled, wondering if he remembered me. He pointed to a seat, and I sat down. "I can disprove the apprentice rumor personally. You're not someone who's training here. And you're not Gustav's girl. Does anyone look at the eyes anymore?" He said, reclining in his chair easily, using his large belly as a counterweight to keep himself from falling backward. "I must say I'm impressed, cornering the area so close to the gates. How can I help you, Gold Mime?"
"I'd like to rent space at the top of your bell tower. I plan on performing there."
He nodded. "I like the way you think."
"I'd also like to have a few of the apprentices working for me. My plan is to collect pose requests from all over town, and then have them run up the tower to give them to me."
He nodded. "That should be rigourous training. I'll agree to give you the apprentices who have endurance problems."
"Give me?" I asked. Usually that choice of words was used when someone took on apprentices for personal training.
He blinked. "Yes. Give you. I imagine you must have an intense regime to make such a turnaround. I'm sure several apprentices will benefit from your experience. "
I lowered my head, humbled. Usually, only performers who had headlined at a stadium were offered the responsibility of looking after apprentices. "I don't know if I can look after them all."
"I'm not giving you problems, Gold Mime. In many ways, they have the potential for being the next big headliners. They just haven't adapted well to following in their parents' footsteps. This group is smart enough to come up with new acts, with or without a basis in an older style. I want you to help them make their own paths, like you're doing. You know what it's like to be outcast, but you're also the best example of what is achievable if you use that to your advantage."
I sat quietly, thinking things over. "This is a huge responsibility. I'll need some time before I agree to anything."
"Good. If you had accepted or outright refused, I would have had to question your understanding of the situation. I'm not going to restrict you from using the bell tower for your act either way. I just think it would be best for the future of Old Town if you could help the apprentices at the same time. Once you've made up your mind, we can have a proper conversation in the back."
I gave him a brave smile. "Agreed."
I left his office and went off to the park to see Le Aura's act. I take my usual stance on my old park bench so I can see her over the crowd. Her movements were even more fluid than usual, thanks to her morning runs with me. When she meets my eyes, she picks up her speed to prove it, turning her rotating fruits into a blurry ring of orange while standing on one foot. I am impressed. I had never seen Le Aura move so quickly. I guess our morning training paid off. At the end of her performance, Le Aura's token box was as overflowing with tokens.
As usual, after her performance, her eyes were half-closed and dream-like. "Hi." She greeted me, wiping some sweat from her upper lip. "Did you find a place?"
I put a finger to my lips, knowing that we were being watched by a few lingering people in strollers, as well as Fiore from a distance. "I'm going to need your help."
That night, Le Aura cooked us meatloaf, asperagus, and warm cider as I told her about Trent's offer. She looked as wary as I did. "It sounds good. But you've only recently started to build your reputation. It would be all on you if one of the apprentices got in trouble, let alone get hurt."
"I agree. If I start helping the apprentices, I'd have even less time to rest. I'm spread pretty thin as it is. On the other hand, being asked to help is prestigious in and of itself. I can't think of anyone who's been offered to do this who hasn't sold their act to The Big Square, or at least to Three Rings. Could you give me some time to think about this?”
After thinking about the situation for another day, I made up my mind to have a talk in the back with Old Man Trent. It's pretty much the same kind of negotiation that I had to make for my spot in the park: A one time payment for a year's use of the space. Trent had a high asking price, equivalent to my earnings from the past three months. We haggled back and forth for three hours, sharing a bottle of vintage twenty-seven year old red wine. Eventually, Trent gave in, taking a third of what he originally wanted. It was still a lot of money, but I had proven I wasn't going to be taken advantage of.
"You make your parents proud." He told me, leaning back in his chair before taking a long sip of wine.
"I'm trying to make myself proud. I want to be known not just as their daughter, but as a performer in my own right. I don't plan on going anywhere."
"I'm glad to hear it. We've lost quite a few apprentices to The Outside. Graduation stands at 70%. This town won't be able to sustain itself if those rates continue to drop."
"I'm sure the arrival of The Faithful Five helped some. Maybe the answer is recruiting like-minded performance people from The Outside."
Lou shook his head. "That won't work quickly enough, what with people on The Outside sinking deeper and deeper into their strollers. I've already been in talks with relatives of the founders-everyone from Currys to the Lewistons-but their family's performing lineage has already been lost for the most part. I saw the great-grandson of Old Man Cranston himself, and the little boy was afraid of animals. He hadn't even seen a dog before, let alone get close to one of the big white stallions Cranston was famous for riding. The little boy was so fat he could barely walk without his stroller." Lou downed the last of his wine in his glass, and quickly poured himself another. "I don't want any of Old Town's children to end up ignorant and scared of a puppy." He shook his head. "I don't want to lose the seven I'm going to give to you."
I didn't outwardly react, but inside, I knew where he was coming from. I had been on the final farewell global tour with my parents, and seen the Outside: full of glowing flat screens of all shapes and sizes, sweet foods, and easy transportation. People on the Outside didn't even have to carry groceries from their car to their homes. They put their strollers on automatic, and that was taken care of. It would be all too easy for a disgruntled apprentice to leave and never come back.
Still, performing was demanding enough, and the apprentices were his responsibility. I had to know why he couldn't handle them. "And why can't you take a personal interest in their training?"
"It's been years since I performed at Three Rings. These apprentices need a working performer who knows how to market themselves, and knows the inner workings of Old Town. I can't think of anyone better to do this."
"What exactly are you dealing with? Disrespect? Laziness? Why would I take them on?" I asked him as I ate a bite of my stewed lamb.
"Am I supposed to puff out my chest and pretend that they're bad apprentices and that all they need is a little discipline to get them in line? That isn't the case here. All seven of them are talented, but they need something I can't give them. Just because someone is the best high wire act doesn't mean they're capable of teaching everyone."
I lifted the side of my mouth wryly before wiping some sauce away from my lips with a napkin. "Was that a dig at Caesar Utredes?"
"No. He's a good teacher overall, but I'm sure you know what his blind spot is as a teacher."
"The inability to do things more than one way? Yes. I'm quite aware of that. I barely passed his high wire class because of his insistence on using a balancing pole. For most people it's essential, but then most people didn't have parents who were The Delta Blues. I was trained on the high wire from the three years old. The balancing pole just got in my way." I could feel my forehead crinkle just remembering Caesar's class. "The only reason I passed was because I practiced with the pole twelve hours a day, and dropped out of the messenger elective. If Caesar had just let me walk the wire without the pole, I would have been one of his best students. Instead I was at the bottom."
"I remember. So you know what the apprentices are going through. And you know well enough not to be dictator with your lessons."
"I'm a working performer who just became popular. I don't have any lessons to give them unless some of them are mimes."
"None of them are mimes, but you don't have to be in the same discipline to teach them."
"I'm not agreeing to anything unless I observe them for a few days and see whether or not they're worth my time." I know I sounded harsh, but I worked too hard to suddenly be tied to apprentices I couldn't handle. "How many apprentices are there?"
"Seven." He said it casually, as if it wasn't a big number.
"Seven?" The maximum apprentice class size was five. I was hoping for that number at the most. "That's too many."
"These apprentices aren't problem children. They just need a mentor at this point. I wouldn't expect you to set up shop in the tower, or instruct them out of your parent's house."
His last statement raises my eyebrow. "It's my house now."
Lou smiled slightly. "So it is. Would you be willing to meet them all tommorrow?"
"After all the wine and lamb I ate, I won't be able to do much else." I chuckled. We arranged to meet in the tower in the afternoon, and after we shook hands on our agreement, I walked home.
When I came home, Le Aura was already asleep on my couch. I gave her a spare key to my house just in case I overslept for our morning run, or if she wanted to make dinner for us and didn't want to wait for me to be there. She never invited me to her apartment, complaining about the size of it. She lived in a two room performer's place on the third floor but it was still the size of a closet, from what she told me. I don't know whether she was ashamed of the size of it, or if there was another reason, but I didn't push her to find out.
I sat down on the couch next to her and watched her sleep for awhile. She was still a mystery to me after all this time, despite being a helpful bright spot in my life. Le Aura never hesitated to listen to my wants and needs, but when I asked her personal questions, she got quiet and changed the subject. True, I didn't have a lot to talk about considering all I had to look forward to was work and the occasional vid chat with my parents, but it seemed like a lot compared to Le Aura's silence.
I didn't know what would happen once I sold out my act, but the thought of losing Le Aura's companionship, as one-sided as it was, seemed to be unbearably painful. Le Aura showed no sign of waking up, so I allowed myself to cry a little. I sat like that for a minute or two, before Le Aura started to stir. I got up and walked over to my kitchen window, pretending to be busy by watering some potted plants.
Le Aura yawned and got up, walking over to me. "He didn't want to give you a lease?"
"Hmm? Oh, he did. That went well. But he wants to give me seven apprentices." I said, using my negotiations as a cover for my mood.
"Seven? Did you ask him for five or less?"
"I did. But he isn't budging on the number, that's why I came so late. On the high side, I don't have to take any of them if I don't want to. I'll meet them all tommorrow."
Le Aura sighed. "Tell me honestly: Are you going to take them on alone?"
I raised an eyebrow. "Of course. I can't very well ask you to help me."
Le Aura folded her arms. "And why not?"
I scratched my head. "I figured you wouldn't want to."
She chuckled. "You're right. I don't. But I'll help anyway. "
I grinned. "Thanks. I'll find a way to work around your schedule."
"I have a surprise for you." She said, going back to the couch. She brought out one of Paloma's signature packages.
"How'd you get this made under my nose?" I asked her as I started opening it up.
"That was easy. I just knocked on Paloma's door. The same way you did." She told me with a wink. Inside the package was a brand new white suit, complete with shoes, gloves and socks.
"I guess I'll keep the gold top hat. Otherwise I'll have to change my name again." We shared a smile, and for the first time, I felt a funny warmth spread over my chest and settle into my stomach pleasantly. I turned away from her for a moment, trying to get my thoughts in order. I couldn't think of Le Aura in that way, especially if we were going to be partners in looking after seven apprentices.
Just the thought of working closely with Le Aura made me feel unexpectedly weak, as if I was about to perform for the first time. Le Aura reached out her hand to steady me, grasping at my elbow. "What was that?"
"I didn't...realize how tired I was."
"You worked a full day, and you were in negotiations most of the night. Get some sleep." I nodded. "Do you mind if I finish sleeping here? It's really late."
"Sure. I'll see you in the morning." I hugged my new costume to my chest and went to my room, quickly closing the door after me. After all that, I was on an actor's high. I couldn't sleep, so after three hours, I got up and went downstairs for my daily flexibility exercises. I did thirty minutes of active stretches before doing my splits: first on the floor, then standing, and finally while doing a handstand. Once I finished, I started toweling myself off.
Le Aura walked in, and I lowered my eyes to focus on getting dry. "I thought you were going to sleep."
"I just got down here." I said shortly, studying my legs as I dried them off.
"No." I swallowed hard. She was coming closer, and I was getting excited. Excited and scared.
"You can just tell Lou you can't take on those apprentices. Problem solved."
"That's not it." I told her. I closed my mouth before I could say anything stupid. She'd already rejected Luscious Lukas, who was far more beautiful than I was. I wouldn't delude myself into thinking she wanted me.
"Then what is it? We've been working together for awhile now. I don't think there's anything you can say that'll scare me off at this point."
"Why are you helping me? You've given me so much, and you haven't told me why. You haven't told me anything about you. I haven't seen your apartment. I haven't met any of your friends, or your family. I don't feel like I know you." Le Aura looked embarrassed, and I hugged her. "I don't care if you think you don't measure up to me. I just want to know who you are."
Le Aura nodded. "We need to talk somewhere more comfortable."
We sat down in my living room and Le Aura told me her story. "My father's dead, and because my mother's married, she'll never accept me as hers openly. I have a little sister, but she looks more like my father. I don't know who I look like. I don't know enough relatives on either side to tell." She took a sip of her tea, stewing in her sadness. "When people tell me how beautiful I am, it hurts, because it reminds me of how little I resemble my parents. " I held her hand, feeling sorry for asking, but she continued. "I'm probably not being fair. I had my father for ten years before he passed away. He wasn't famous, just one member of the clown troupe at The Big Top. He married a massage therapist when I was four, but she died having my little sister. My stepmother went into labor the night The Big Square caught on fire, and back then we only had Old Man Corbis as a doctor here. There wasn't enough of him to go around."
"I'm really sorry."
"You needed to know. I should have told you a while back, but I didn't want to bum you out."
"I think of you as a friend, Le Aura. And a friendship shouldn't be one-sided."
Le Aura took a deep breath and let it out. "You think of me as a friend?"
"But will you still think of me that way once I ask you what I want?" Her eyes took on an intensity I didn't understand.
"Do you want me to use my connections to take revenge on someone? To pay them back for all the pain they've caused your family?" I felt horrified.
Le Aura shook her head and let the tears spill from her eyes. "No amount of punishment will give me back my stepmother and my father or make my mother call me by my real name instead of my stage name. I don't want revenge, and even if I did, I would never involve you in something like that."
"Then what is it? What do you need me to do?"
"I can't tell you that yet. I don't know how you'll react."
"Is this a personal question?"
Le Aura bobbed her head up and down. "It's very personal."
"Does it involve me...and you in a personal way?"
Le Aura blushed at that. "Yes. But I think I'll save it for when you sell out your act to The Big Square. We'll be working closely together. Things could change..."
"What's your name? I'd still like for us to be friends." I said, smiling.
"It's Stevie. I was named after a singer who was famous last century."
"Stevie? Cute name!"
"You should call me Evie. Everyone close to me does." She said, blushing some more.
"Then you should call me Clare. I've always hated Clara. Clare sounds tougher."
Le Aura, now known as Evie giggled. "Okay. That works for me."
"So when are you going to invite me over your apartment?"
"Well, you move fast!" She said giving me a playful smack on the back of my hand. "I don't think that's a good idea."
"If you can't trust yourself with me at your apartment, at least let me meet your little sister. And what about your other friends?"
Evie shook her head. "I've never let anyone close enough to turn me into a target. I've seen what they've done to you, and you have a great background. They'd rip me to shreds."
"But someone has got know who your mother is. That couldn't have been an open secret this whole time. Not with The Gossip Rag exposing secrets left and right."
"The Rag isn't as powerful as my mother. 'Granny Smith' wouldn't dare claim I'm the child my mother and her husband lost all those years ago." I raised an eyebrow at that. "It's good to know I can surprise you. I thought you knew all of Old Town's secrets." I felt my head reeling. A miscarriage wasn't too uncommon. My mother had three of them herself after me, and only gave up once her uterus was beyond saving. "Oh! We're not related!"
"I wasn't thinking that! I just thought how easy it would be-"
"To sweep me under the rug if the price was right? I've thought the same thing over the years. How much did my mother give my father and other people to keep quiet? I wonder. But she has bottomless pockets. She can afford anything."
I could feel her pain, a slow rolling mixture of anger and humiliation. "I'm sorry Evie."
"Don't be. You've been great for me. Better than I thought possible." She looked like she was about to say more, but she shut her mouth. "I shouldn't say anything else. And I need to go home."
"Alright. Can I walk you there?" I asked with a wink.
"Nice try! I think we should let things develop slowly from here."
"Okay. You've trusted me with enough for one night. Will you meet me back here in a few hours? You are my assistant from here on out." I teased.
"I'll hold you to that. Assistants bear none of the blame if things go wrong." She said with a wink as she left.
I finally got a few hours before I had to get up. After showering and doing a quick fifteen minute pose routine to get my blood flowing, I got dressed in my new white costume, taking the time to apply my makeup. Evie was already downstairs in her Le Aura guise, in a special red leather trenchcoat edged in black, and a black stretch suit edged in red down the sides. "Looking good." I noted, allowing myself the pleasure of giving her a once over.
"I thought you liked me for my talent." She said, winking.
"Evie, you have all kinds of talent. Inside and out."
She grinned at me. "I'm glad you think so. Let's go."
We took our time walking to Bellisimo Tower. The oak and maple trees in Main Park held gold and red maple leaves at the tips of their branches. Signs were already up for the 32nd Founders Festival about a month away. I wondered if my parents were going to put in an appearance. They hadn't shown up in a few years, but I was hopeful they would come back.
Le Aura squeezed my hand, catching my look. "I don't think your folks will miss this Founders Festival."
I shrugged. "Who knows? Wishful thinking I guess."
"Why don't you invite them back? Your popularity will be exploding by the time the festival kicks off." She nudged me a little. "Maybe they'll even put in a pose request. "
"Ha! That would be great!"
"Is it just me, or does the tower look bigger from here?" I said once we finally arrived. Tall buildings were a dime a dozen in Old Town, but The Bellisimo Tower was sixteen stories high. Even my parents' hotel was only ten stories high. I stared up at it, it's golden minuet looming above me like a giant onion that threatened to fall on my head.
"You're going to be bigger than that tower in a little while." She whispered in my ear putting a hand on my back momentarily. She pulled back before I could get too thrilled at her closeness.
I took a deep breath. "Okay. If things go horribly, I don't have to take them on. I have remember that."
We walked into the tower and were greeted on stilts by a young woman wearing a top hat. "Welcome, ladies," She said with mysterious glee, "To the greatest tower on earth! Sixteen stories of plaster! Sixteen stories of fun! Do you have what it takes to climb all the way to the top without stopping?" She lowered her voice conspiratorily. "The top is the perfect place for privacy..."
I raised an eyebrow. "You shouldn't read too much into the personal lives of your new mentors."
The young woman stumbled slightly. "New mentors? What new mentors?"
I smiled. "l'm Gold Mime." I took off my top hat and bowed graciously. Evie stepped forward behind me. "And this is my dear friend Le Aura. We'll decide whether or not to mentor you after we meet the other six."
"The other six of what? There's dozens and dozens of apprentices here." The young woman's eyes widened in alarm.
Le Aura sighed. "You're Marta, right?"
"How'd you know?"
I just shook my head. "We'll see you later. Is Mr. Bellisimo here?"
"Great. It was nice meeting you, Marta."
"How'd you know my name?" She couldn't picked her jaw up off the floor if she tried.
"We'll talk later." Said Evie over her shoulder as we walked down the hallway. I politely knocked on his door.
"Come in! It's good to know you haven't chickened out on me."
I opened the door. "Mr. Belisimo, this is Le Aura." She and Lou shook hands.
"I've heard you're quite the success at Main Park. Congratulations." He told her.
"Could a headlining act be in your future?" He asked.
"Right now, I'm going to do all I can to assist Gold Mime. Headlining can come later."
"Excellent." He replied, tenting his fingertips. "Two up and coming performers for the price of one."
"Which is great considering we're working for free." I said with an obvious wink.
Lou leaned back in chair heavily. "I couldn't have that. A performer working for free? I'd never hear the end of it. Not to mention our relationship is mutually beneficial. I'm sure a lot of people will want to see you up close, which means you'll be bringing crowds to see the apprentices. "
"Which will bring them exposure." It finally dawned on me that Lou had put a lot more thought in this than I thought.
"The stairs to the dome wind all the way through the training areas. I've even put in a lift for strollers."
"I don't think the stairs will be used at all." I laughed. "I hope the lift has a weight limit. Four people can be a thousand pounds."
"My lift has a twenty-five hundred pound weight limit, thank you very much." He replied. "And as for the stairs, I've decided to put up a physical challenge: Do you have what it takes to meet Gold Mime face to face? Only five brass tokens to try, one gold token if you succeed."
"A gold token? That's pricey. I think very few will even try."
"Not at first they won't. But these will be special tokens with your face on them."
My mouth dropped open. "What? How are you going to do that?" Gold tokens were made of nickel, but were coated in a thin layer of gold. There had only been ten designs made of the gold token, mostly to celebrate the retirement of some celebrated performer. Lou had one made when he retired six years ago. Back then he was known as Bravo Bellamy, a master of illusion. I hadn't even heard of gold tokens being made for a specific performer who wasn’t retiring.
"I'll put in an order for a limited edition of one hundred tokens to start with, after you get popular enough." He said easily. "Once you start bringing in the crowds, I'll authorize Benny to have tokens made."
I sat down in the chair across from Lou. "I don't know what to say."
"Say you'll accept my offer of the monetary equivalent of one gold token each day you work with the apprentices."
I bobbed my head. "We can split that."
Lou raised his eyebrow at that, and I realized I showed my feelings for Le Aura as foolishly as if I had shown my hand at a game of poker. "You wouldn't make her take less? After all she is only assisting you."
"I'm afraid that wouldn't be giving her my respect as a performer." I replied.
Lou turned to Le Aura. "You're a very lucky woman." He said without missing a beat. "Alright. That's an even split between you too."
"Great. I don't think we have to discuss anything else, Mr. Bellisimo." I offered him my hand quickly, feeling my cheeks sting in embarrasment. He shook it, and then he shook Le Aura's as well. Then he pulled out a lockbox of money, and handed us our pay for the day, which was five hundred dollars each in small bills. It wasn't a lot of money, but it would definitely add up over time.
"I can't have the two of you starving if business is slow for the first few days." He said with a wink. "Find the apprentices you're going to work with, and give them their assignments. Let me know by the close of evening business if you're going to take them on."
"Sure." I told him. "And thank you."
Once I pulled the door closed, Le Aura whispered to me, "Where are the apprentices that we need to find?"
"We've already met Marta. She's an aspiring announcer. Herschel is in strong-man training on this level in the weight gym." We walked further down, and we came to two heavy eight foot tall mahogany doors. Even with the two of us, we could only open a door a few inches before letting it go to slam shut. "That'll teach us." I said, panting heavily. "The stairs start at the back of the gym. We should be able to find him that way."
We walked down another hallway until we got to the stairs. The stairs were thankfully easier to walk then I remembered and we quickly got to the gym section. There were male and female apprentices straining under the weight of iron barbells of various sizes. Some were on benches, others were trying to keep the weight suspended over their heads. I could suddenly see why they had such heavy doors. Their hard work started the moment they arrived. The greatest strongman of all time, Ivan The Physical, had a silver whistle in his mouth, blowing it in the ears of anyone who showed any signs of struggling. One apprentice in particular, who was small compared to the others, seemed to be struggling the most on the bench. Finally Ivan grabbed the weight from the apprentice, and flung it away like a tennis ball, smashing a splintered hole in a wooden wall.
"If you keep this up, you will not graduate from this class, Herschel!" Yelled Ivan furiously as Herschel lay on his back on the bench. The apprentice was so exhausted his tongue was hanging out of his mouth.
"Ivan The Physical." I said calmly. My voice was quiet but it cut across the room. Ivan craned his heavily muscled neck around to glare at me. "I'm here for Herschel. "
Ivan chuckled at that. "Today's your lucky day, boy." He cruelly slapped Herschel on his abs. Herschel winced, and started curling up in a ball.
"Ivan!" My voice rang out like a gunshot. All movement in the room stopped. "He's mine. Hands off." Being responsible for an apprentice also meant I had to protect them from being bullied by full-fledged performers. Ironically, it didn't save the apprentices from being bullied by me if I chose to do that. Ivan held his hands up, flexed his still-impressive physique and roared. I ignored him and looked at Herschel. He looked too confused to wince. "Herschel, I need you to go to entrance of the tower and wait with Marta until I see you again."
He didn't have to be told a second time. He had the heavy doors open in five seconds, and I heard his heavy footsteps stomping down the hall on the opposite side of the room. Ivan spat on a bamboo mat in my direction. "Good riddance."
After shaking my head at him, Le Aura and I started up the stairs again. We had similar interactions with other instructors and apprentices on the next few floors: Marky was a musician-in-training who refused to play classicals; Luis was a tumbler-in-training who nerves were so bad he'd stumble before he jumped; Darnell was a magician-in-training who couldn't even palm a card without dropping it; Francesca was a contortionist-in-training who couldn't hold a pose for more than a few seconds; and Amy, a juggler-in-training just seemed to have a bad attitude.
"Lou wasn't kidding when he said they need help." Evie whispered to me as we took the long walk downstairs. "It's going to take a lot to get these kids where they should be."
Evie's comments stopped me cold. "I think that's part of the problem. They're less than a year away from becoming performers. Treating them like children at this point is counterproductive."
"What do you suggest we do?"
"Most of the apprentices suffer from nerves and improper training by the look of it. They're probably being overworked in their discipline. With some cross-training, maybe we can turn them around. It worked for me."
Le Aura furrowed her eyebrows. "Cross-training?"
"Yes. Even though I'm a mime, I still go for a morning run and stretch. Sometimes doing the opposite of what we normally do is exactly what we need. For example, if we get Herschel to start running, and if we get Franchesca to practice being motionless, they might improve."
"And if that doesn't work?"
"Then we'll try somethng else. From what I've seen, these apprentices are putting in a lot effort. If we can get them to apply their effort in better ways, they'll be very good performers."
Le Aura beamed at me as we reached the bottom of the stairs. "That sounds good."
The apprentices were in the entrance to the tower. Some were leaning up against the wall, others were hopping from one foot to another nervously. I told them that from then on, they were given to me by Lou himself. I explained that they would soon be relaying pose messages for me once I started performing at Bellisimo Tower. I also told them that I was going to completely change their workouts and warmups. Most of them looked scared and confused, but I didn't give them any time to think about it. I immediately assigned them all different areas of Old Town and told them to choose locations where they would wait to take pose requests. While they were gone, me and Le Aura discussed training plans, and decided to seek outside help for the apprentices whose experience fell out of our realm of expertise. We definitely had a lot of work to do.
After the apprentices came back two hours later, we discussed the areas they chose. Herschel chose an area less than a block away, but knowing the tourists were thin in the central area of Old Town, I assigned him to the courtyard by The Big Top, about half a mile away and told him to use a unicycle as a means of transportation. He fumed, and turned bright red, but I ignored him. The others were also less than thrilled when I shot down all their hand-picked locations and assigned them each a spot in Old Town.
I pulled out a map of Old Town. “Lesson number one: If no one sees you, no one knows your act.” I showed them how the locations I chose for them were by the heaviest traffic areas in Old Town, and were also near direct routes to the tower. Their locations by The Changeman, The Old Town entrance, Main Park, Fish Bowl, The Loup, and Griot Theater together formed a circle around Bellisimo Tower. This way, tourists would have access to me from all over Old Town.
In between working with the apprentices, I worked on my act. The bell was stopped and blocked in place, and I arranged to have it angled towards me like an angled mirror, directing any natural light towards me. I had to be careful standing in front of it for too long. The magnified light was enough to burn my clothes, especially when I began wearing gold gloves.
Eventually I started receiving pose requests at the top of the tower, and I performed each pose in all four directions for at least a minute before moving to the next one. I quickly got tired of it, but it was great publicity and once I got everyone used to it, I could cut back on my performing schedule like I did before.
I underestimated how hard it would be to work at such heights. The wind blew things in from every direction even on mild days, so I had to keep my hat on my head with special loops around my ears, invisible under my hair.
I found it odd after the first few days when I didn't receive any requests from The Fish Bowl, and left the tower to check on Darnell, the magician apprentice. He was sitting in a service alley crouched down and picking at street junk with a stick, his crushed velvet blue cape twisted about his body to keep it from getting dirty. I watched him for a while trying to figure him out.
"Darnell." I tried to keep my voice as neutral as possible.
He looked up, startled, and then he stood up quickly. "I'm sorry Gold Mime-"
"Apologies are for mistakes. You haven't been at your assigned place since we've started. Why?"
"I don't wanna be here. I know you're taking a chance on me, and I'll just let you down. I can't hold a deck in my hands. I just...can't."
I looked at him sideways. "Your costume is perfect. Not a speck of dust. No wrinkles. Not even a crook in your tie. Maybe if you were a complete mess, I'd believe you, but you look the part. And if you look the part, then you are the part, Darned Darnell."
He blinked in disbelief. "Did you just...name me?"
I shrugged. "Depends on if you're still quitting on yourself. A name doesn't mean anything if you're hidden."
I walked away and back to the tower. He had a lot to think about, and I couldn't make the decision for him. I checked on the other apprentices and caught Marta cheating by using a much younger apprentice to run and back and forth to the tower with the pose requests from The Big Square area.
I held out my hand for her stilts. "Now you're doing this the hard way." I made a big show of breaking them before tossing them to the side. Without her stilts, I found that Marta was very short. Less than 5 feet tall. "An MC or announcer's voice can be heard anywhere. Height or no height. And they do that work themselves. Make yourself work for it."
The rest of the apprentices were fine, even Herschel as he struggled to balance on his unicycle. I gave them an encouraging word before going back to the tower. Le Aura was waiting for me with lunch.
"Is it time to eat already?"
"No. I did want to talk to you about Darnell-"
"I talked with him earlier," I told her as I unpacked my salad. "He can do it. He just has to know that he can."
"I know you want to save everyone, but if he can't do what he's told, he needs to drop out of the apprenticeship. We can get a more junior apprentice to help-"
I shook my head, feeling tears sting at the corners of my eyes. "You don’t understand what it's like to feel that hopeless."
She gave me a wry look. "He's just lazy. I always respected you because you never gave up, even when you didn't sell. But how can we help someone who doesn't want to try?"
"So are you. So am I. But that doesn't stop us. Never has." We're sitting shoulder to shoulder, so close the honeysuckle fragrance she's wearing is tickling the back of my throat.
I look into her eyes, and all I can think about is kissing her right then. Not the fact that we're arguing, or that we're 60 feet in the air dangling our feet over the rest of Old Town. But I blink, thinking it would be wrong to kiss her when she's so angry at me. I respect her too much to give her the impression I'm just doing it to shut her up.
I turn away and duck my head in apology. "I'm sorry."
She frowns. "Sorry for what? We just have a different way of treating the apprentices."
"I did break Marta's stilts since she wants to give requests to junior apprentices instead of coming here herself. "
"Bravo. But you shouldn't play favorites. At least Marta got the requests to you. Darnell didn't do anything at all."
"You're right. I just wanted to give them what they needed in the moment to succeed. Darnell was already emotionally paralyzed, so yelling at him wouldn't have helped. Marta's a smartass, so a little humiliation is what works to keep her in line."
Evie is silent for several seconds, and when I look at her, her eyes are soft and vulnerable. "I guess I should be the one saying sorry then."
I give her little smile and nudge her with my elbow. "I guess this means you care, huh? Just in another way. Like a fierce momma bear instead of a mushy marshmallow."
She touches my arm, and pulls me closer. "You aren't made of mush." Her eyes bounce from my mouth to my eyes as if she's asking for permission before we hear a loud thud. It's Francesca, bouncing off the stairs, just managing to avoid cracking her head open by putting her hands out and breaking her fall.
I break away from Evie and go over to my apprentice. "Are you all right?"
"I'm made of rubber at this point." She replied, wiping the dust from her bodysuit. I feel Evie brush past me, but when I turn to her, she's already rushing down the stairs. "Is Le Aura alright?"
I give her a smile and hope and pray that she is. "Sure. Now give me the pose info."
I take my pose orders for thirty minutes, but Evie doesn't come back. I could decide to go looking for her, but there’s no way I'll get all the way to Main Park and back in time before I start the afternoon round of pose requests. So I eat my salad alone, hoping that my heart will stop beating so fast, and my neck will stop sweating in worry.
I get to the end of my pose orders for the day, and I realize I can't remember any of them. It's like my mind's in a fog, and I've just been going through the motions. Evie isn't waiting for me at the bottom of the tower, and when I go looking for her at Main Park I can't find her.
She's never shown me where she lives, so I have no idea where to check. The sun is setting as I walk the streets in full costume, avoiding the tourists in their strollers as they try to pin me against the curb for free photographs. I feel scared for her. Why didn't I leave the stupid act behind me and chase her? What use was my act when she wasn't cheering me on anyway?
I walk to The ChangeMan, hoping I can see her cashing out, but she isn't. She isn't buying dinner at any restaurant either. She isn't even doing her laundry at the laundromat. As night falls, I'm starting to feel desperate. No one I speak to has seen her.
There's no police in Old Town. If there's a problem, us Old Towners handle it ourselves, but there are a few of us who specialize in keeping the peace. In between Sargeant Kim's Cannon Fodder firework shop and the Smokey Bandit's cigar stand is a shutter door painted to seamlessly look like a brick wall. I knock on it, briefly breaking the illusion when it wobbles under my fist.
The door slowly creaks up, revealing a grizzled older man with a white buzz cut and bushy eyebrows. His vest says Fire Marshall, but that's just one of his titles. "Gold Mime. Are you missing a pair of shiny gold shoes? You look like a damn statue up there."
I frown, not in the mood to joke back. "Le Aura is missing. I haven't seen her since just before lunchtime."
"Maybe she just went home. That was only eight hours ago."
"She wouldn't just go home. Not without saying goodbye. We didn't even finish lunch, and she just ran off. No one’s seen her."
He gives me a look as if I'm wasting his time. "Why don't you just check her place, since you're positive she's not there?"
I bite my lip, embarrassed to admit I've never been there and would feel like an idiot going to the dozen or so housing complexes trying to track her down. I shake my head, trying to collect myself. She's never invited me over. Maybe I'm just imagining that we're more than friends. "I'm sorry I bothered you."
He sighs. "If you don't see her by the time the Old Town gates open in the morning, then come back and let me know. I'll find her if she's actually missing. But it sounds like she just needs a break."
I nod, even though I really don't understand. Did I do something wrong? It felt so good to be close to her, and now that she was just gone without any explanation, I was aware about how empty the space was next to me as I walked down the street on my way home.
I made myself dinner, feeling hollowed out without Evie teasing me about using too much paprika on my green beans. But I sat there, listening to the fan of the old A/C shudder through another cool down period, I realize that being alone is what I need right now. As soon as I get up and stretch, I am around other people trying to get close to me, most of them from the same group that mocked me only a few months before.
Who am I anymore without the crowd? Without the handpainted billboards telling everyone to go the tower and watch me? I realize the only times I stop for a break is to eat, or get a massage, and that is not enough.
But I find myself not knowing what to do with the silence, the great big nothing when no one's around. So, after dinner, with some more thought, I go to the basement and start cleaning out the float chamber.
The float chamber is nothing more than an enclosed pool for sensory deprivation. My dad saved it from being thrown away when more modern hyperbaric chambers were released on the market, but in the end, he stopped using it. I figure now's as good a time as any to try it out.
It's filthy, coated in a layer of half-evaporated Epsom salt and grime, but I once I get started scrubbing it and hosing it down with fresh water and soap, I don't stop. I finish at about midnight, but there's no time to fill the tank, so I shower and go to bed.
My dreams are confusing. I dream about Evie, but she doesn't come towards me. It's as if she waiting for something. I wake up confused, but when I hear a knock on my door, I'm relieved to see her.
"Sorry I disappeared. Yin and Yang II told me you were worried about me." She won't look at me, but I'm so happy to see she's alright, I don't care.
"Are you okay?" I want to reach for her, but I force my hands by my side and keep them still. After all, we're just friends, and she's already got her Le Aura costume on. Maybe she sensed I wanted to get closer and ran off. Maybe this is my fault she's upset.
"I just needed some space. I didn't mean to scare you."
I nod, trying to appear to be calm. "Okay." I don't mention that she's already done her warmup without me and that it hurts, makes me feel like she's putting distance between us for no reason. I quickly change into my costume and we head out, but I don't walk as close to her as I usually do.
We get to the tower and give the apprentices some speech about giving it their all. I feel like a fake, because I don't feel like giving it my all today. And I don't remember what I've said after I've said it, either.
"Hey." Evie puts a hand on my shoulder, but I keep walking towards the stairs. I don't want to lie to myself anymore.
The day goes well, but since Evie doesn't bring me lunch, I have Francesca do it for me, since she's closest to the tower. The apprentice rambles on about how she'll make it to The Big Square, but I'm not paying attention to her. I just keep looking out towards Main Park.
Lunch ends, and then I pose until the end of the day. I don't want to climb back down from the tower and have Evie not look at me again. But I do it anyway. She surprises me by looking me in the eye, and smiling a little, and I could kick myself at how quickly it relieves my tension. I smile back at her stiffly before I can give her goofy grin in return. Letting her know how I feel would just make her uncomfortable. We give our closing speech to the apprentices and break for the day.
"We should have Chinese food tonight. I don't feel like cooking." Evie's walking next to me again as if the past twenty four hours haven't happened.
I'm torn between being happy my friend is back and wanting to grab her and kiss her, and I just stop walking. I don't know what I'm doing. Do I like her because she's the only one around me, or do I like her because my feelings are real, not just convenient? I realize I don't know, and the tears start falling.
The worst thing you can ever do in Old Town as a performer is break your act's illusion. I am a golden, shiny statue. I'm not supposed to cry, or have feelings. I walk away from Le Aura as quietly as I can, and she doesn't follow me.
When I get home, I fill up the tank and float, setting a timer for an hour. I float until I can't think and all I see is the empty blackness of the chamber. The hour vanishes and before I know it, it's time for me to leave it. I wish I didn't have to, but I still have to make my dinner, and do some other chores. Sleep is a blessing when I finally make it there.
For the next month, some variation of that day repeats itself. I find myself forgetting what it was like to have Evie as anything other than a helpful associate. A co-worker. I try not to look at her at all anymore. My heart squeezes painfully anytime I get a whif of her perfume, and I always find an excuse to get away.
The apprentices are excelling, even Darnell. He's turned his card trick into a comedic act, and he gets so caught up in entertaining the strollers in front of him that he forgets to get me the pose requests. I spy on him a few times, not out jealousy, but out of relief and pride that I helped make it happen.
Marta's developed the biggest announcer's voice in Old Town. I can hear her from the tower, which means she can cheat by not walking up the stairs at all, not that I mind.
Francesca has gotten less clumsy, but I notice she still trips on the last step. And I always help her up. She tells me everything about herself, even though I half listen as I eat whatever lunch she brings me.
"...I said, can I kiss you Miss Mime?"
I squint around my egg salad sandwich, not sure I'd heard her right. "Mmaht?"
I look at her, and she's looking at me the way I used to look at Evie, and I stand up and walk down the steps and out through the tower. Francesca is calling out please behind me, hot on my heels, but nothing can stop me from striding away.
A hand is holding my arm, and I blink. I'm just in front of Main Street. It's Le Aura, in her new gold fringed black and red costume. "Why don't we talk anymore?"
I stare at her. "Aren’t you supposed to be at the park?"
"I want a break."
I shake my head. I should have known that was coming. "Okay."
"Why is it okay? Don't you want to know what I want a break from?"
She's upset, and I just want to get away from her. I know I'll cry if I stand there any longer, and my makeup will smear, and my act will be a joke, like it was before.
I go home. I don't even bother to set a timer or take my paint off. I float in the chamber as Gold Mime. Not Clara or the newest member of the Simpson dynasty. I float until I don't exist anymore.
A sudden knocking on the chamber almost startles me into a state of drowning. The tank enclosure gets lifted, and I'm staring into the wrinkled faces of my parents, 2/3 of the legendary high wire performers: The Delta Blues. They named themselves after the southern region they were born in, still famous for it's ancient music and rampant river.
"How long have you been in there?" My mother asks.
"And why do you have your makeup on?" My father asks.
I feel a little deflated. I've grown accustomed to not having to answer to anyone, and my parents have returned home, peppering me with questions. I ignore the burgeoning resentment growing inside me and remind myself that I don't have to answer if I don't want to. I am not in the mood to answer any questions or shoulder any more expectations.
I get out of the tank, thankful I'd opted to wear a bathing suit after all. "When'd you get here?"
"About two hours ago. I saw your crumpled up suit, so I knew you couldn't be too far behind. You're a mainliner and you still can't bother to hang up your costume?"
I sigh and don't say anything. I don't say I have four other costumes as spares and that I always keep an extra at the tower just in case. I don't say I get my costumes dry cleaned every day. Because it doesn't matter. All that matters is that I screwed up.
"Have you eaten yet? I'm cooking fish and grits. Tavish over there at the hotel doesn't use enough paprika. His fish always looks to anemic."
I remember Evie's comments about my heavy-handed use of paprika, and I can't stop my tears from falling. I crouch down where I am and start weeping and wailing.
My dad puts a towel around me and starts walking me up into the kitchen. My mom cleans my face, and she gives me a big cup of mint tea with water on the side in case the tea is too hot. I sip it, feeling like I've disgraced the family again. We all sit silently eating fish and grits, and it's the first time I can recall them not picking at me for just existing. It scares me a little.
"What made you choose the tower?" My mother is concerned, not critical. I've never seen her look this way.
"It's the tallest building in Old Town. Who wouldn't want to be on top of the world?" I drag up my answer through my irritation.
My parents just laugh. Convinced they're laughing at me, I go upstairs to get changed to go out. I figure I can walk the streets for a few hours before they settle down and go to bed.
"Where are you running off to?"
"Don't you have more laughing to do at my expense?"
"We're laughing because we didn't know you were so ambitious. We thought you were going to be stuck at the park until you decided to quit."
"I'm never quitting Old Town. Not since everyone can see what I can really do." I find myself standing straighter in front of them. They always doubted me. They doubted me becoming a mime. They doubted me living on my own without them. Now there was no doubt I could do exactly what I needed to do to succeed. And I could do it without the silver spoon.
"Good. Then this will be a short visit. This is our last founder's day."
"I know the two of you haven't been showing up the past few years, but that's an extreme decision to make-"
"We're getting too old to make the trip. And as a mainliner, we can't expect you to visit us in Florida."
"I don't understand." I watch their faces carefully for any sign something is wrong. But I don't see any sadness, fear or pain.
"Retirement is retirement. No one wants to see wrinkled up raisins talking about the good old days. You're the future. The future of Old Town that we always wanted."
"What we're saying is, this is a goodbye trip. We'll sign everything over to you before I break a hip or something."
I stare at the floor. My parents have never made any mention of signing any of their properties over to me. I fully expected them to run the businesses until the end. I feel weighed down and heavy. How am I going to run businesses, have my act, and work with the apprentices too?
A knock at the door shakes me out of my stupor. It's Le Aura...no it's Evie, out of costume. I open the door a crack. I have a million emotions running my mind.
"Can I come in, Clara?" She looks like she's been crying, so I open the door wide and give her a tissue. I startle her with my gesture, but she takes it.
"Who's this? Is that Le Aura?" Said my mom with her hands on her hips. "I always said you belonged in the Big Square. You making any plans to get there?"
Evie gives her a sheepish smile. "I've been busy. The apprentices are a handful."
My dad nods. "It was only a few years ago you were that age. Just remember that."
Evie ducks her head, and I take her hand and pull her out of there.
"I'm sorry about my parents." I'm pulling her down the street but I don't know where I'm going. Finally, I stop walking, winded.
She laughs, squeezing my hand back. "That's okay. Who wouldn't be intimidated by them?"
I look up at the sky. I can't see the stars. All the neon and LED lighting turns the night into a fuzzy grayish mass, but I know the stars are out there somewhere. "Why are you here right now?"
"I miss you. I don't know what happened, or how to fix it, but I want to fix it. Just tell me how."
I take a deep breath. "There's nothing you can do. This is my fault. I want too much from you. I shouldn't have asked you to take on the apprentices with me."
"If this is about Francesca, then I understand. She's young, beautiful. I should have known the way you would always leave me to help her up-"
"I'm not with-how could you possibly think that!" It was one thing if she didn't want me. It was another thing if she thought I would ever be satisfied with anyone else.
She shows me The Rag, the latest edition, with Francesca at kissing distance next to me. Another picture shows her absolutely enraptured by me. I take the newspaper and rip it to shreds.
"You actually believe that over me?"
"You haven't said one way or another."
"You never asked. If you had, I would have laughed it off. I don't have the energy to laugh tonight. You're showing me that my reputation is in tatters, my parents are dying, and I can't even look at you without it hurting."
I walk away, but she's pulling me back towards her. "I'm sick of seeing you run from me."
"I'm sick of seeing you period." The words are out before I can take them back, and she releases me.
I double time it to a hotel, and I curl up in a bed. I call up Lou and tell him to give the apprentices the day off. He tells me the apprentices aren't working for me anymore anyway, and I tell him I understand. I don't, not really. How can doing nothing cost me everything?
In the morning, I wake up and catch a show at The Fish Bowl. One show turns into two and then three until I'm not sure how many I've sat through. All I can remember is glittering scales in all the colors of the rainbow making me forget my troubles for a while. The performers are so good, I forget they aren't actually denizens of the deep.
"You were either going to be here or on Singer's Way. That's what we used to call it before the advertising consultant got wind of it and made the change to Gloria Road. Still sounds stuck up to me." Said my father, scooting next to me. My mother sat on the other side.
"You really are making us crawl out of our comfortable sky seats to talk to you, huh?" My mother jabbed.
"You didn't come home last night. But by the looks of you, that wasn't a good thing. You having trouble in paradise?" My father pointed in the direction of a woman with choppy locks sitting just three rows in front of us.
"She's not-" I don't have the heart to say the rest.
"I know you don't keep up with the rag, but the rag seems to keep up with the two of you." My mother said. "And the rag can always smell a good story, or make one." She offered me popcorn, and I nibbled on some.
"You never used to let me eat this stuff when I was younger."
"I no longer worry about your set of chompers, girl. Besides, they finally stopped burning the popcorn. Must be new management." She laughs at her own joke knowing she's signing over her ownership stake to me. But that just makes me cry.
My dad sighs. "We should have waited another year. She's a new mainliner. It's too much."
"I didn't know the two of them were fighting. I didn't know she was entertaining an apprentice. But there's no undoing the contracts now." My mother shrugs.
"The two of us? Who are you talking about?"
"You've been seeing Le Aura for a while now. Ever since she bought you your first gold suit. I wonder what price you paid for that."
My mother nodded in agreement. "A brand new costume on such short notice? Must have been someone's scheme. And not yours."
My parents are looking at me with such judgement in their eyes, as if I'm a fool. Evie turns around and looks at them. She's heard it all. She walks over the aisles and comes to sit right next to my mother. "If you have a question for me, ask it."
"Why did you help her? What do you really want?"
Evie opens her mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. I just shake my head. All my problems have returned, and I still haven't gotten anywhere.
Finally, she inhales and lets her shoulders droop. "I wanted to ask Clara out on a date. That's all I wanted. But we did so much more than that. We went running together every morning. We ate all our meals together. We did so much I forgot all about asking her out and got comfortable. I got so comfortable she didn't see me as anything other than a friend. And then I got angry at the place I made for myself."
I stood up and stepped by my mother to sit next to Evie, and took Evie's hand, even though I knew my hands were freezing. "The last time we were on the top of the tower together I really wanted to kiss you."
"But you didn't."
"You ran off first. And you didn't tell me where you went. I've never been to your place. And that's the way you treat people you like, but don't really love. I tried to stop loving you. That didn't work. It's still not working. So if there's a way to get me to stop, I'd like to know that secret."
"My sister is your illegal masseuse. I share a very cramped, very small apartment with her. Since she's not an entertainer any more, she has to make money doing other things-"
"And you thought you couldn't trust me to tell me that."
"Like you couldn't trust me with your heart?"
I kissed her hand. "Yeah." It feels dry, but I can't stop rubbing it between my two hands. I'm surprised she isn't pulling away.
"How's that working out for us?"
I raised an eyebrow at her. "It sucks."
"Yeah it does."
My parents leave, but we sit there at the Fish Bowl holding hands through the sixth show of the day. "When you said water wasn't your thing-"
"You're my thing, Clara. I wish I hadn't been such a coward and said that earlier."
"I wasn't honest either, so that makes me coward number 2. I've always liked you, but I didn't want to be obvious about it, like everyone else. The mainliners wanted you, and you knew me when I couldn't sell for three, four, five days in a row. How could I compete with any of them?"
"Maybe you're right. If you came right out and said it three months ago, I would have run off. And I ended up chasing you, so now I know how that feels. It feels shitty." She smoothes her thumb over my wrist as if trying to memorize all the lines on it.
We wait through the refilling of the aisles for the seventh show. By now, the sun is starting to set, and the angel gauze, a sheer covering resembling a starry sky forms a net twenty feet above us. It's why some tourists only come to the fish bowl at night. I find myself leaning against Evie, and she puts an arm around me.
"You know, we've never watched an act together." I point out as we watch the false stars glitter and glimmer, placeholders for the real things.
"We should change that."
"I think I'm going to do a lot more watching from now on. Lou probably doesn't want me back at the tower."
"There you go with your assumptions."
"I'm really bad at that, huh?"
"Yes. If he didn't want you back there, he would have said that."
I shrug, still unsure. "No. He just said the apprentices weren't coming back."
"I think most of them are good enough to debut. They're better than they were before. And you were right about Darnell. I should've tried harder with him."
"He stuck it out. I knew he would." Knowing that most of the apprentices were staying in Old Town put a smile on my face.
"Are you cold?" She runs a finger up my sleeve.
She pulls out a cape from an old costume from her bag and puts it over our heads like an oversized blanket. "Better?"
I snuggle closer to her by leaning my head against her chest. "I wanted to kiss you that day when you were angry at me."
"I was angry because I was jealous. I didn't want to share you with seven needy apprentices. One of them being Francesca."
"Am I that blind?"
"Yeah. But you always mean well." She gives me a gentle squeeze.
I reach up and kiss her hard before something else can happen to interrupt us, and she kisses me back. We kiss until we are breathless, and we stand up, still holding hands. We stumble our way out of the arena and out into the streets.
I let her pull me down a familiar path to the apartment building I've been so many times before. "The receptionist for your massage therapist is your massage therapist too. She pretends to just be a receptionist just in case a client decides to get nasty. She's my little sister, Miya." Evie uses her key and opens the door.
Miya is sitting in a small chair, making doodles in a sketchbook, wearing a baggy t-shirt and shorts. Her cornrows are covered with a bonnet, and it's clear she's dressed for bed. When she sees me, she grins.
"It's about time she told you!" She says. "I told her to tell you from the beginning that she lived here. She's talked about you for years now."
Now that all the lights are on, I can see how sparse it is compared to my home: No family photos, just various sketches of random objects. I can see the whole space from what passes for a living room: one bedroom with bunkbeds, a small dinette used for a kitchen, and a bathroom with a tiny shower. The massage table is actually a Murphy bed folded up to save space.
"You live here too?"
Evie nods. "Yes. I'm technically not allowed to let a non-performer stay here. And she's definitely not allowed to run a business here. But then she'd just be a live in maid just to work twelve hour days in a hotel. And even though she's not one of us, she still loves Old Town. And she helps those I can trust to bring to her."
Miya does a happy dance and brings out tacos for us all to eat. They are juicy, biriria tacos, and I have to do a weird lean to prevent the yummy sauces from dribbling down my chin.
"I feel weird eating your tacos after all you've done to help me. I wouldn't be able to hold my poses for so long without you."
She hugs me. "You're welcome, but the kitchen is now closed. The two of you have a date to go on."
"Now?" Me and Evie say at the same time.
"Yes, now. I have drawing to do." She tries to look stern, but she is too cute to pull it off, so we just laugh and leave.
Evie puts an arm around my waist when we leave the building. "I have to tell you something. About my mother." I don't make a joke about her timing being weird. I'm just thankful she's finally letting me in and wait for her to tell me. "She's Senora Paloma." Evie whispers softly.
I blink rapidly. "I would have never guessed. That's why she was able to get my first costume made so fast. And that's what she meant when she said she hoped everything went well. She wasn't talking about my act at all."
"I was trying to get you to stay, so I asked her for a favor. To keep you from going out there, outside of Old Town. I knew if you could just get everyone to stop and look at you, you'd make it. And you did." She pulls me into her arms, leans down and kisses me. My lips go numb before we break away.
"Have you thought of going on tour?"
She raises an eyebrow. "What do you have in mind, hun?" I feel myself tense up nervously at the endearment, but she pulls me close to chuckle into my hair. "Still shy? That's sweet."
I hug her, enjoying her embrace. "I'm just scared of screwing up again."
"You didn't screw up enough to get rid of me." We hold each other until I release her and we start walking again. There's a bridge that joins Main and 2nd street, and we find ourselves standing on it at it's round peak. The angel gauze of the Fish Bowl looks like a fine electric mist in the distance.
"I missed you. I missed being with you when it was quiet and we didn't have to say anything to have a good time. I even missed you insulted my use of paprika. "
"Well...it doesn't taste like anything. But I can see it's visual appeal."
"Does this count as a date?"
She laughed nervously. "You're asking me?"