Dick loved clowns.
He loved the smell of sawdust, roar of the crowd and the excitement of opening night.
In just six hours the Big Top would be filled with people. Dick’s nerves tingled and he grinned. Just thinking about it excited the eight-year-old.
On his right, Sandy and Anna were rehearsing with the horses, ponies, dogs and monkeys. On his left, Neil, Joe and Ben were checking and finalizing the rigging, massive coils of rope and chain littering the ground outside the main ring and hanging from the internal structure.
Across from Dick, Big Tom, the circus’ strong man was lifting weights equivalent to medium sized cars.
Behind him, the boy could hear Pop shouting orders up to Mike who was connecting the lights in the top of the tent.
Mia waved to him as she led Darsha around the outside of the ring, the elephant taking her time as she always did. No one hurried Queen Darsha. She was stubborn and cantankerous but the moment the spot lights came on and she had an audience to perform to, Darsha turned on the personality just like every other born performer.
“Mike! Higher. I want one of those main lights hitting the trapeze at the top arc of John’s swing and the other spotting Dick when he does his quadruple summersault.”
“I’m trying Pop. The damn thing is stuck.”
“Alex, where the hell are all of those roustabouts you signed on this morning? Get them in here to finish setting up the seats,” Pop yelled.
“Pop, there’s someone here to see you,” someone shouted.
“Great,” Pop snapped. “Mike, higher. It has to be higher!”
This was Dick Grayson’s world – loud, robust and electrifying. He’d been born in the circus and performing since he was three. His dad had been born in a circus too, not Pop Haly’s Circus but a circus. Most of the thirty-nine people who were a part of Haly’s Circus were second, third or fourth generation circus brats. Of course, that thirty-nine swelled to almost sixty at each venue when extra roustabouts – known as Cazos - signed on for casual (cazo) work.
Dick knew to be cautious around the Cazos. While most were good people, Dick knew he always had to be within sight of a member of the ‘family’. Most people only had small families. Dick was part of a circus family of almost forty.
The boy dashed toward Big Tom, flipped twice and launched himself at the man. Big Tom stuck out an arm the thickness of a tree trunk and caught the child by his ankle. “Hey, Dickie.” He lifted the boy up by one leg until the child’s eyes were almost level with the six foot eight giant’s face.
Dick grinned, one dark lock of hair falling across his eyes. “Bobby needs your help to shift the camel cages.”
Big Tom gently lowered the child to the ground. “Righ’o. On my way.”
“Dick, lunch break is over. Your afternoon lessons start in ten minutes,” a deeply accented voice called from the open tent flap.
Dick grumbled and nodded to his father. “Yeah, I know.” John Grayson flashed his son a ‘don’t be late’ look. “I’ll be there, Dad,” Dick called. As he turned his back to his father, Simba let out a roar.
Bella bolted. The small black and white pony shot out of the ring headed straight for the rigging and coils of rope the set-up team were still working on.
“Bella, HOLD!” Sandy cried.
Dick assessed the situation in a heartbeat. The animal could break a leg if she tripped on the ropes.
Dick raced at a forty-five degree angle toward the bolting pony. He knew he had to time this exactly right. As his and Bella’s paths came together, Dick grabbed the pony’s saddle and swung himself onto her back, gripped her mane and pulled back with all his might. “Whooh, Bella. Whooh!”
The small horse slowed but the mass of ropes loomed. “Jump, Bella!” Dick shouted, squeezing his knees. Bella reacted, soaring over the ropes and trotted to a stop.
Dick’s heart pounded in his chest... and he could feel Bella’s racing breathing under him. He leaned down and patted the pony’s neck. “Easy, girl. Good girl.”
Sandy appeared on one side of him and his father and Big Tom on the other, all three shouting his name. “Dick!”
“We’re okay,” Dick assured.
John scooped the child off the horse. “Dick, what did you think you were doing?”
“Saving Bella. It’s okay. Bella was wonderful. She jumped.” Dick frowned at the anger in his father’s face. “Dad?”
John wrapped his arms around the boy and squeezed briefly before releasing and settling him on the ground. Dick could tell he was in trouble. Before his father could say anything Dick decided he should explain as much as he could as quickly as he could. “Sandy taught me how to mount a running horse. I’ve been able to do it since I was five. ”
“A calm, running horse, Dick. Not one that is bolting,” his father insisted.
“But it’s Bella. I’ve been riding her since I was two.”
“I understand that, Dick, but...” John Grayson stopped speaking and then smiled. “I’m fighting genetics here, aren’t I?”
“It’s in his blood, John,” Big Tom chuckled. “Well done, kiddo.”
Dick beamed up at the strong man and stroked Bella’s neck.
Sandy rose from checking the pony’s legs. “She’s okay. Thanks, Dick, but you should never mount a bolting horse.”
“But Bella would have been hurt.”
The three adults exchanged glances.
Tom shrugged, “He handled it perfectly.”
“He’s a Grayson,” John stated proudly, placing his hand on Dick’s shoulder and winking at him.
Sandy rolled her eyes, muttered, “men,” and then her stern gaze dropped to Dick. “What you did was very brave. You probably saved Bella from injury.”
The boy grinned and stepped around in front of the pony. Bella nuzzled him. “I love you too, Bella.”
“But,” Sandy added, “I don’t want you doing it again.”
Dick didn’t understand. He’d saved Bella. Bella was grateful. Big Tom and his father said he did it perfectly. So, what was the problem?
“Dick, do you mind taking Bella to her enclosure. I’ll bring the other animals and brush them all down in a moment. First, I want to have a word with Ashton.” Dick didn’t need to be an adult to tell Sandy was annoyed with the lion trainer. Lions didn’t mix with horses and elephants. Everyone knew the lions weren’t supposed to be in the tent when the horses and elephants were inside. Rehearsals were specifically timetabled to ensure they never crossed paths.
“No problemo, Sandy. Come on, Bella,” Dick chirped, taking the small pony’s reins and leading her outside.
“Dick, seven minutes and counting down. If you’re late, your mother will go on the warpath and then we’ll both be in trouble.”
“I’ll be there, Dad,” Dick called back.
The boy exited the Big Top and paused scanning the ‘town’ that was rising out of nothing. Yesterday, when they’d arrived, this had been an empty paddock. Already, food stalls, rides and the petting zoo were in place. Dick knew it all like the back of his hand. No matter where the circus set up, the circus ‘town’, as it was called, was always erected on the same grid pattern.
The animal enclosures were kept near the trailers. Dick let go of Bella’s reins, knowing the animal would follow him without being led. “You’re lucky. You don’t have to do lessons,” he murmured as the pair turned right down passed the dodgem cars and food stalls.
Sylvia leaned over a counter as he passed and handed him some cotton candy on a stick, winking and whispering, “Our secret.”
Dick grinned. “Thanks, Sylvia.” He’d have to eat it quickly. His mother didn’t like him snacking between meals.
Dick opened the gate in the erected barrier that divided the town in two. On this side were the living quarters of all those who worked in the circus along with the animal enclosures.
Without a word, Dick opened the gate for Bella and watched as the pony strolled inside, made her way to a hay bale and began feeding. “Sandy won’t be long. I’d take all your gear off, but I’m late.”
Dick sighed as he locked the gate and bit into his cotton candy. Usually he didn’t mind his school lessons but not on set-up day. There was too much to do. He circled around the outside of the horse area and ducked under the rope of the elephant enclosure where Mia was checking one of Darsha’s feet.
The elephant spotted him and trumpeted softly. “I don’t have anything for you,” Dick stated, slapping the elephant’s leg. Darsha twisted her head, gently wrapped her trunk around the child and lifted him.
Dick giggled. “Okay. Okay. I may have a peanut or two in my pocket. Dolu.” Darsha obeyed the ‘down’ command and lowered him. Dick dug into his pocket and fished out two peanuts. Darsha opened her mouth and the boy placed them on her tongue. As the elephant chewed, Dick rubbed her trunk. “Good girl.”
He wished he could stay, but his teacher would be starting any minute. As he moved to go, Darsha again encircled him with her trunk. He patted her long nose affectionately and looked up at her. “I have to go. Verze.” Darsha released him immediately.
“I heard there was a kerfuffle in the Big Top,” Mia commented.
“Ashton brought Simba in while Sandy and Anna had the horses in there. Bella bolted.”
Mia shook her head. “He honestly thinks his is the only act in this circus.”
Dick took another mouthful of cotton candy. Darsha sniffed at it curiously. “You can’t have any of this. It’s bad for your teeth.”
“Hey, have you seen, Pop?” Mike asked jogging up to the pair.
“He was called away to speak to someone,” Dick offered.
“Could you check and see if he’s in his trailer and tell him I just can’t get that light to budge. I’ll check for him at the ticket box.”
“May have to get Big Tom up there,” Mia chuckled. Mike winked at Dick.
Big Tom was the biggest and strongest man Dick knew but it was a well-known fact the circus strong man was afraid of heights. “Maybe my dad could. He’s pretty strong.”
Mike grinned. “He sure is, Dick. Now, off you go and check Pop’s trailer for me.”
Dick nodded and jogged off; darting passed the camels, the empty monkey cages, across the sheep and donkey enclosure and down between the trailers headed for Pop’s Winnebago.
AlowishusArchibald Haly – known as ‘Pop’ to everyone - owned the circus. His father had bought it forty-three years earlier and Pop had taken over after his father’s death. Some of the Cazos were afraid of Pop because he had a quick, fiery temper, but Dick and the rest of the circus family knew Pop’s bark was worse than his bite.
As Dick approached Pop’s trailer he spotted a stranger in a suit loitering near it. The boy slowed his pace. None of the Cazos were supposed to be back here, though; this stranger didn’t look like a roustabout. No worker would be dumb enough to show up in a pin-striped suit.
The boy stopped walking. He considered going over and asking what the man was doing but rejected the idea immediately. His parents had told him repeatedly not to approach anyone when he was on his own. Dick breathed a sigh of relief when he spotted Pop approaching from the other direction.
“Sorry. I was held up.” Pop wiped his black smudged hands on his old trousers. Perspiration drenched his navy blue wife beater (singlet/vest/undershirt) which clung to his broad body. “Some of these roustabouts don’t know their asses from their elbows. If they had a brain, they’d be dangerous.” Pop offered his hand to the man who peered down at it as if it were dog crap and then took it gingerly. “So what can I do for you Mr....?”
“Zucco. Tony Zucco.” Zucco took out a handkerchief and wiped his hand.
Dick didn’t like this man. Some people looked down on circus people and it was clear to the youngster that this man was doing that to Pop now.
“Mr. Haly, I have a proposition for you.”
Pop pursed his lips and looked the stranger up and down. “Then you’re not one of those damn animal activists. For the record, my animals are happy and healthy and treated better than most people’s kids.”
Zucco laughed. “Not interested in your animals.”
Again Pop looked the prima donna up and down. “Okay, I’ll give you five minutes. Come inside.”
“Pop!” Dick called, but the burly fifty-five-year-old disappeared up the stairs and into his trailer behind the stranger.
Dick took another mouthful of his cotton candy. Pop said he’d only be five minutes so the boy decided to wait outside. He walked up to the trailer and leaned back against it to wait.
There was a strange sweet smell in the air... not unlike his mother’s perfume.
Pop’s voice wafted out the open door. “Clock’s ticking.”
“Looking after your workers must be your main priority.”
“So, you’re an insurance agent? Sorry. We’ve got all the insurance we need.”
“I’m not talking about traditional insurance, Mr. Haly. Insurance is what you need after something happens. I’m offering protection so nothing does happen.”
Dick stood up. He could tell by the tone of Pop’s voice something was wrong. The little boy moved across to the doorway and peered inside.
Pop was standing. Mr. Zucco was lounging in Pop’s favourite chair and smiling.
“You see, Mr. Haly, Gotham is a very dangerous city these days.”
“Oh, yes.” Pop’s voice was incredibly strained. Dick held his breath. Anyone who knew Pop knew he was about to blow.
“For a modest fee, I can ensure your workers don’t have any accidents while they are in town.”
“Now you listen to me, you pathetic, sweet smelling, piece of shit.” The volume was so loud the windows shook. “I’ve been in this business all my life. I’ve come across mongrels like you who think you can scare people. Sonny, I don’t scare. Now get your ass outta here!”
Zucco rose, glaring at Pop. “I really think you should reconsider, Old Man.”
Dick grimaced. Zucco had just crossed the line.
Pop stepped forward so his ruddy face was only an inch from Zucco’s. “Did you just call me an old man?”
Abruptly, there was a knife in Zucco’s hand.
Dick gasped. Pop grabbed his attacker’s arm and spun him around, slamming him up against the wall and jolting the knife loose. “Did... you... just... call... me... OLD man?”
Pop yanked Zucco off the wall and bodily tossed him out the door. Dick leapt to the side as Zucco sailed through the air and landed with a thud on the ground.
Pop stepped down out of his trailer and roared, “Now get off this property. I’m renting it for the next two weeks and if I see you here again, I won’t be as hospitable.”
Zucco rose to his hands and knees, looked up at Pop with hatred in his eyes and then rose to his feet. He glared down at Dick and then back at Pop. “You’ve made a mistake. A big mistake!”
Pop stepped forward.
Zucco backed up, spun around and strode away.
Pop placed his hand on Dick’s shoulder. “That, my boy, is what a cowardly weasel looks like.”
“Do you think he’ll come back?” Dick asked, watching Zucco disappear under the fence and get into a big black car.
“Nahhh. I deal with fellas like him all the time, son. They’re just bullies. Besides, if he does come back, we’ll feed him to the lions.” Pop winked.
Mary Grayson swept a lock of her dark hair out of her eyes and returned to washing up the lunch dishes. As she stared out the large trailer's window, her mind drifted back to a day when she’d lived in a normal home, back to when her mother had been alive. Sadness washed over her; today was her mother’s birthday.
As a mum herself now, Mary realized what an amazing person her own mother had been. A teacher who became a single mother after her soldier husband's death overseas. Yet, Mary had been given the best of everything - ballet, gymnastics and piano lessons and a private school education.
Mary shook her head. She’d been devastated when her mother had married Karl Brennan – a lazy alcoholic. After the severe asthma attack that had taken her mother’s life, Mary had run away. She hated Brennan but had no other family to go to. Somehow she’d found her way to Haly’s Circus where she had been embraced the moment she’d told her story.
Nancy had taken her in. Mary smiled fondly. Nancy had been a rough diamond. A huge woman who smoked, had diabetes and who sadly, had passed away from a heart attack just before Mary’s twentieth birthday. If not for Nancy, Mary may well have ended up on the streets at the age of fourteen.
In the early days, Mary had joined the ground tumbling team, her gymnastics and ballet background placing her in good stead. After the trapeze act had defected to Pop’s main competitor, Pop had advertised for trapeze artists. That was when John Grayson had entered Mary’s life. John had lost his family in floods in Europe and had come to America to start a new life. He never spoke about the tragedy that had wiped out his entire Circus family but Mary had looked it up on the internet. A flash flood had ripped through the town The Grayson Family Circus was visiting. Every animal washed away. Every person in the circus drowned. By some miracle John had survived.
Mary had read fairytales that told of love at first sight and had scoffed at them. However, the moment she saw John she fell head over heels in love. He was tall, handsome, kind, talented... everything she’d ever dreamed of. And best all, he’d felt the same way about her.
Together Mary and John had started their own trapeze act - just the two of them. They’d married within months of first meeting and then had been blessed with Dick. They’d named him Richard after both of his grandfathers.
Dick looked like her, though he had his father’s jet black hair and sparkling blue eyes. But more than anything, Dick had his father’s nature, father and son sharing the same buoyant personality and positive outlook on life which never ceased to amaze Mary. They seemed to bounce back from adversity with ease, and assisted others to do so as well. Neither stayed angry for long, things forgiven and forgotten quickly. Of course, both her husband and her son could be stubborn, and their untidiness was infuriating, but they had so much love to give.
Mary smiled. She was truly blessed.
Her thoughts drifted to her son. He was the only child in the circus at the moment. Sometimes Mary wondered if she and John were doing the right thing by their little boy. Several other people in the circus had kids but all were either living with the other parent – separation and divorce an occupational hazard – or had been placed in boarding schools. Most stated it was because they wanted better for their kids.
Mary bit her bottom lip. She hated the thought of sending Dick away but it was a decision she and John would have to face when Dick was ready for high school. She knew John would be against it. Her husband had limited formal education but he’d learned English along with his native language. Mary was determined her son would have every opportunity and a formal education would give Dick options