“It’s not that you aren’t still a beautiful woman Glory, God knows there are still a lot of men out there that like to look at you. It’s just that with the new show starting in the spring we think it might be a good time to hang up the tights.”
Joe Booker drew a long hit from his cigar and leaned forward resting his meaty arms on the desk. The smoke curled up from his stained fingers and drifted towards the ceiling.
Glory knew this day was coming. It wasn’t that much of a shock but she’d thought she’d have at least one more year. She pulled her robe a little tighter and then reached up and pulled the blonde wig from her head and ran a hand through her own short crop. “There are older performers than I am Joe.”
“True, but they aren’t women.” He held up a hand to stop her before she could protest. “I’m not saying it’s fair. I’m saying it’s the way it is. You’ve had a good run. But it’s time to move on.”
“With Sophie?” “Yes, with Sophie.” “And what about Tom?” “He’ll stay on. He’s got the most experience, he’ll keep her safe. She’s still green.”
Glory felt her heart begin to pound. A slow inferno was building in her chest. “So you’re telling me that after all this time risking my neck night after night. Traveling for half the year, doing as I was told, when I was told to do it and giving my adult life to the show that there isn’t any place for me?”
Joe sighed. He hadn’t thought she’d take it so hard. Glory was 42, Sophie barely 21. He’d get twenty years out of Sophie, God willing, but he’d be lucky to get two or three out of Glory. He’d seen her rubbing her knees after a show. The hips were sure to follow and then her balance. You can’t walk a rope without balance. Why couldn’t she see that?
“I’m sorry,” he said. “And my last show?” “Tonight.” “Tonight? So that’ it.” “I’m afraid so. Look Glory, I know it isn’t easy but you could still marry. Have a baby maybe." He stopped short. “I didn’t mean it,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking.”
Tears had sprung to Glory’s eyes in spite of herself. It was a long time ago but the fall had seen to it that a baby would never be part of her plans.
She had literally given everything to performing. It was her life. It was her reason for getting up in the morning. When she put on her costume and made up her cat eyes and donned the blonde wig she was Glory B, ‘Queen of the Tightrope’.
But after the show, when the lights were low and all the fans had gone home leaving the smell of popcorn trailing after them in the air, she was just plain old Gloria. Gloria Brown.
She’d been born to the rope. Her father and mother were both performers. Her dad had her walking the rope when she was only 3 years old. A foot off the ground to start and every year a little higher until she was 18 and ready to go out on her own. She’d long since left the safety net behind. Glory was surprised Joe didn’t just put that back in the act if he was so worried about it.
“Think of it as a new chapter Glory,” Joe said, stubbing the last of the cigar into the ashes of countless others. Glory stood. “I’ll give them what they want tonight Joe, don’t worry.”
She pulled the door open and went back to her trailer. All around her the buzz was starting. It didn’t matter how many shows they did. It happened every time, a frisson of excitement, the ripple of nerves, restless animals and the set jaws of the aerial performers.
She climbed the two steps into her caravan. She’d miss it. The sheer red drapes, the beaded lamps, the row of lights around the makeup table, the dummy heads holding all of her wigs lined up at attention, she’d miss all of it.
But more than that, it was the belonging. There was nothing like the belonging that came with being part of a traveling show. It was a type of family. There were jealousies and rivalries but underneath it all there was a bond she’d never have had otherwise. Now what? She had no idea.
Glory sat at the makeup mirror and began to apply the heavy stage makeup. She pulled the abundant wig back on over her curls. “Give them what they came for kid,” she said to her reflection. She adjusted her fishnet hose and took of the robe. It lay on her bed, the silk perfectly arranged so that the Phoenix embroidered on the back was poised for flight.
There was a knock at the door. It was Tom. Naturally, he was worried. Joe said she hadn’t taken the news well. But Glory pulled the door open and said, “I’m ready.” “You’re alright?” Tom asked. “Just fine,” Glory replied giving him a smile. “Best show ever, right?” It was what they always said.
“That’s right,” he said. He took her hand and they crossed the lot to the big top, its red stripes billowing faintly in the breeze. Folks were lined up chattering like a box full of chickadees. Glory gave them a wave. The fans cheered.
She and Tom ducked in the back and began to limber up. They were on in the second set. They looked at each other and grinned. Best show ever.
No one could say for sure what happened. It was a trick she’d performed a thousand times but as Glory B placed her hands on the rope to go into a handstand one of her hands slipped. It was over in an instant.
The crowd was in shock. It was one thing to let the fear that she might fall tickle their insides and quite another to see Glory B laying on the sawdust floor like a broken bird.
“They say her father went that way,” someone said. “There will never be another like her."
The fans milled out of the tent in stunned silence. And from the wings Sophie watched them carry Glory away, then went to her own trailer and packed her things and disappeared into the night.