Authors: Ethan Mordden
Thank you for buying this
St. Martin's Press ebook.
To receive special offers, bonus content,
and info on new releases and other great reads,
sign up for our newsletters.
Or visit us online at
For email updates on the author, click
The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you for your personal use only. You may not make this e-book publicly available in any way.
Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author's copyright, please notify the publisher at:
To Robert Trent
The author wishes to acknowledge the enthusiasm, audacity, and sage counsel of his editor, Michael Denneny, though after six books this is becoming monotonous: or let us say a fond clichÃ©.
The restaurant got a rave in the
and it was
If they didn't recognize your name, I was told, they wouldn't take your reservation. It was not that hot, it turned out, for they gave me no trouble. Still, it was horribly crowded, as if they had decided to run with the fame as long as it held out, and so had filled the room with tables, to serve the vested gentry at their lunches, then the chic cabaret watchers who would learn of the place from their friends because they never read, then the avid bridge-and-tunnel tourists, who would hear about it in
Then the prices would go up, and the menu would lose its energy, and the waiters would mess up your drink order. And the place would falter and close.
I was taking an old friend to lunch to celebrate his promotion to managing editor of a prominent fashion magazine. He had been given little more than a few days in which to change the magazine's entire “book”âthe major columns and featuresâand thus was invariably behind in everything that followed. Normally thoughtful and punctual, he became one of those nearly inaccessible heavy hitters who seldom return your phone messages or show up on time, the kind of Significant Other you are proud to know but can never see. At last I nabbed him for lunch, oddly timed to two o'clock, to fit into his schedule. Of course he was late, and as there is nothing else to do while awaiting the rest of your table but eavesdrop on your neighbors, I ordered a Kir and began to listen. To my right were three rowdy Communications people dishing a great load of apparently famous names; but I couldn't place those they cited. To my left were two men in their mid-thirties, whose quiet tone and conservatively sporty tweeds suggested the book trade.
They had reached the coffee stage. I supposed one was a writer and the other his editor, perhaps his agent, but I couldn't be sure because they weren't talking business. Many a telling silence passed between them. The one facing meâthe authority figure, I guessed, whoever he wasâsometimes smiled and sometimes nodded wisely. The one next to me, who was doing all the talking, had the heaviest regional accent I've ever heard, yet he spoke quickly, and filled his back country lingo with the articulate penetration of the literary man: as if he had picked up New York habits without losing his own.
What a backstory he must have, I thoughtâand suddenly, without preamble or explanation, he was spilling out his tale. I imagined that these two had met professionally and had just reached the momentâjust now, here, at this lunchâwhen the business relationship turned into friendship. I imagined that the one speaking was a writer, and that he was sharing some profound and painful secret with the man who published his work. I imagined that he had come a long way to arrive at this lunch, at this career, at this friendship. I began to hope that my friend the heavy-hitting magazine editor would be unforgivably late, so I could hear the stranger's story.
This is the story he told:
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
In Hanley, West Virginia, close on to Wheeling, where I was when I was little, there was a pokey little circus run by Hopey Paris. Most places don't have their own circus on the premises, not even a little one like Hopey's with almost no animals and a busted trapeze and these admission tickets that must have been printed up before the Civil War that you couldn't even read what they said on them anymore. In Hanley we figured it was okay to have this circus, though most of us didn't much care about it one way or the other. Anyway, you never knew when Hopey was going to put his circus on, because he ran it by whim. Also he owned the dime store. I expect what he got out of the dime store he plowed back into keeping the circus going, since he didn't own anything else.
It was like this about having the circus. Some night in light weather, mostly at the tip end of summer when everyone would just sit around and wait for something cool to happen, Hopey would come up from his end of town and find a crowd on the steps of wherever it was they wereÂ â¦ someone's porch, whoever had beer. He'd wait about three lulls, nodding and shaking along with the gist of things as they got said. Then he'd go, “Guess I'll have to have the circus tonight.” And everyone would get everyone else and go on over because, look, what else is there to do? You go to the circus.
What a funny circusâbut how much do you want for free? Hopey handed out the admission tickets in a little booth at the entrance and you would take your seat inside the tent, which stood in Hopey's backyard, hanging on by a thread to these old poles. It wasn't a big tent, of course, but, as it is written, size isn't substance. And then Hopey would come in with a whip and this hat he got somewhere to be a ringmaster in. You'd want to think he would look pathetic, wouldn't you? Hopey Paris trying to hold down a circus all by himself in Hanley? He didn't, though. He didn't look much like anything. But he did have a star attraction, the clown dog.
It's crazy about dogs, how some can do things and some can't. I knew a dog once that caught softballs in the air if you threw them underhand. Then he'd go racing off with the ball in his teeth and you'd have to trap him and pry the ball out with a stick. That was his trick, I guess, is how he looked at it. And my father had a dog named Bill who was quite a hero in his day. Bill ran away finally and never came back.
But the clown dog sure was prime. He had this costume, a yellow coat-sort-of-thing with polka dots that he wore fastened around his middle and a red cone hat with a little pom-pom at the top. Whether the circus was on or off, and in all weathers, never, never did you see the clown dog out of costume. And his trick was he could talk. That dog could really talk.
This was why we would always come back to see the same old one-man circus, with no animals or clowns except one animal-clown, like that was all you needed to call it a circus. The tent was hardly alive at all, the big-top tent itself. But you always had to go back because you wanted to see how the trick was done. Because no dog, not even a circus trick dog, can talk. But the thing about tricks is whether or not you can figure them out. That's the art of tricks, right there. And the clown dog, though he often roamed around his end of town like any dog, free in the sun, except he was dressedÂ â¦ the clown dog would never do his talking except in the circus. This was probably the deal he made with Hopey, who was, after all, his master. You'd suppose that they must have come to terms on something that important.
That's what's so funny. Because, speaking of dogs, my father never did come to terms with his dog Bill, though he would try, hard as stone, to make that dog his. He trained it and trained it. It must have run near on to two years of sessions in Sunshine's field, and Bill just didn't ever submit and be trained. My father was a ferocious trainer by the standards of any region, but he couldn't get Bill to obey even the most essential commands. And he never could teach him not to chase around the davenport, especially late at night, when Bill most felt like a run. “I will have that dog behave,” my father said, and I recall how he looked, like behavior was just around the corner. But Bill would not be suppressed. Sometimes he would come when you called, sometimes not. But when he did come, he had this funny look on him, as if he was coming over just to find out why you persisted in calling his name when it had already been established that he wasn't about to respond.
Bill was a mutt, not like the clown dog, who was a poodle, a very distinct breed. You can't miss a poodle, especially in a polka-dot coat and a cone hat with a pom-pom. But Bill was just another dog you might know, kind of slow for his race and disobedient but generally normal, except once when he was The Hero of '62. They called him that because he accidentally bit this management scud who was getting on everybody's nerves at the factory the summer before the strike.
McCosker, I think this guy's name wasÂ â¦ one of those mouthy hirelings absolutely corrupted by a little power. He had been tacking up this notice by the front gate, some mouthy, powerful thing about something else you're not supposed to do, just busy as anything tacking away and being hated up by the people who were standing around watching. Suddenly Bill bounded over to where this guy McCosker was. I guess maybe Bill thought he saw something to eat near this McCosker's foot, but McCosker took it for some stunt and he made a sudden move and Bill got thrilled and bit him.
It was a tiny little bite on the ankle, kind of in passing, but McCosker screamed like he was being murdered and all the men cheered and patted Bill, and they all shook my father's hand, and mine, too. So Bill was The Hero of '62.
This is a funny thing. Because all Bill had done was what a dog will do every so often, whereas the clown dog was truly some kind of dog. Everybody said so. You just could not tell anyhow that he wasn't talking when Hopey Paris brought him on for his circus turn. Now, that was a trained dog if ever there was one. Yet nobody ever called the clown dog a hero. And the clown dog never ran away, either, which Bill did once. Once is all it takes.
I guess you have to figure that a dog that goes around in circus clothes isn't going to earn the respect of the community, besides him being a poodle, which is not one of your heroic breeds of dog. But I liked him, because he was the first thing I can remember in all my life. Hunkering back down in my mind as far as I can sail, the picture I reach is the clown dog talking in the circus, and the polka dots, and the hat. I wonder if he ever had a name, because he was always known as the clown dog that I ever heard, and I don't recall Hopey ever calling to him. Sometimes Hopey would act like that dog was this big secret, cocking an eyebrow and looking cagey if you asked after him, as if everyone in town hadn't seen the circus a hundred times.