The Entertainer by Lani Carroll

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The Entertainer by Lani Carroll
Illustration by Sue Babcock

“Oh! Susanna, oh, don’t you cry for me,” Danny sang in his quavery tenor voice. He paused to study the effect. The men didn’t seem impressed, or even interested. Maybe Danny was doing it wrong. Jim always told him that to sing this song you needed to have a real feel for the Old South, whatever that meant. He pushed his nose between the bars of his stall and tried again. “I’ve come from Alabama with my banjo on my knee.”

Instead of applauding the man with the black hair opened the door to Danny’s stall. Danny could see he had a halter in his hand. This wasn’t right at all. Nobody but Jim ever put a halter on him. He snorted and stepped back, but then caught himself. He was the best mod-gen ever, that’s what Jim always said.

‘‘Sometimes mod-gens go bad, but you, Danny, you’re a real gem.’’ He needed to be a real gem so that Jim would be proud.

It was hard to stand still, but he only twitched a little when the man touched him. Maybe these men were new at the circus and Jim had asked them to help out. They looked grim, and Danny felt guilty about what Jim always told him: the first duty of an entertainer is to see that people are happy, and these men didn’t look happy at all.

He started to sing, “Sleep, my child, and peace attend thee,” but then remembered this was one of the songs he only sang to children. It was so confusing seeing strangers in the stable that he was getting things all mixed up.

“Would you hurry it up, Lou?” said the bald-headed man. “Crap, I was sure we’d be home before dark. And the landfill is a half an hour away, at least. It’s going to be midnight, easy, before we get back to Gloucester. Shouldn’t the idiots who bought these mod-gens be the ones who have to do this?”

The other man was buckling Danny’s halter. “Yeah, I heard the owner is on a bender somewhere. I could do with a pint myself. Or five.”

Danny was following this exchange carefully. He couldn’t understand most of it, but he knew that ‘‘owner’’ meant Jim. “Jim, Jim, Jim,” he sang under his breath, wishing Jim would walk into the stable right now.

Jim always seemed sad lately, and Danny had been working on a special new song-and-dance routine as a surprise. He could imagine how Jim would smile and clap his hands when he saw it. Jim would probably have horse candy in his pocket, and he would pull a piece out and hold it up triumphantly, and say, “A prize for the winna!” and Danny would take the candy oh so gently from Jim’s hand, and toss his head up and down, and they would both laugh.

“Not that I blame them. Euthanasia sounds bad enough, but if they’ve thought about it, they’ll know a bullet in the brain is cheaper …” The black-haired man laughed, but not in a happy way. “Crap, I’ve just about had it with this. And the virus isn’t even in England yet. Two people die in Germany and it’s like it’s the end of the world. We’re probably doing all this shit for nothing.”

The bald-headed man pushed the door to the stable open. Danny could see that it was dark outside, and his heart started beating fast. He only went out at night when the circus was open, with lights and music and people laughing. He didn’t want to step out into this big black emptiness. “These mod-gens make you want to throw up anyway, don’t they? Disgusting things. Though I did hear about this one, Madame Wildcat they call her, she’s half-tiger, and …”

“I picked up Madame Wildcat last week,” said Black-Hair, and there was something dangerous in his voice that made the other man stop talking. Now they were outside, and Danny could dimly see a truck parked under the trees with a van attached to it. It was hard not to whinny and rear when he saw the van. Nothing in the world was scarier. He tried to remember what Jim said when he loaded him into a van. “You need to be an especially brave boy, Danny. It’s OK to close your eyes if you want to.” He closed his eyes now, and he started singing his very best song, the song his name came from. “Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling.”

Suddenly there was a sharp pain on his face, and he staggered back and opened his eyes, shocked. Black-Hair had hit him. Danny snorted, but Black-Hair looked so unhappy that he forgot about his own pain.

“Last night I had to pick up a dog-boy in Cheltenham,” Black-Hair said, and he kicked the side of the van. He seemed close to tears. “I’ve had it with this. Screw twenty years on the force, I’m retiring now.” He climbed into the van and jerked Danny’s rope. Danny stumbled clumsily after him.

When the two men climbed into the cab of the truck and the engine started Danny closed his eyes again, but that made things scarier. He wondered where the van was going. Probably it was taking him to Jim and a new circus. Tomorrow night he would be dressed in his red plumes and black velvet saddle. He would dance the new dance he had made up just for Jim, and there would be a little girl in the audience with a face that glowed so brightly that Danny would bow to her and sing “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody.” And Jim would pat him afterwards and say, “Great job!”

It was raining now, and the road seemed dangerous, a shining twisting malevolent thing like a snake. Danny tried not to look at it. Would the man be angry again if he sang? “The summer’s gone, and all the flowers are dying,” he ventured, and then stopped and listened. No one hit him. There was nothing but black night and the rain, so as the van bumped away into the darkness he finished his song.

 

BIO: Lani Carroll is a writer living in Colorado Springs. She loves Colorado microbrews, TCM, and those rare moments when she can find the perfect word without resorting to a thesaurus.