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The Shriners Circus Girl

Heidi Weiser

“She’s dizzy, and there is a small trickle of blood running over her fake eyelashes and into her eyes.”

When Ginger was nine years old, a man in a remarkably shiny white Trans-Am pulled up and offered her a ride. She was walking home from jazzercise with her best friend. They were practicing for a small talent act they had been asked to do in the upcoming circus. After she and her friend had parted ways, Ginger continued practicing their routine along the sidewalk. She was wearing a striped aqua and purple leotard, layered with fringe, and glittery leg warmers on her scrawny, long legs. Her hair was bobbed, strapped down with a thin gold polyester headband. Her shoes were yellow satin sneakers. She had fantasies of becoming Olivia Newton John in Xanadu only without the roller skates. It was 1980.

When the Trans-Am stopped, the man said Ginger’s mother was running late and he was supposed to take her to her house on Grove Street, which sounded reasonable to her. Nobody had taken the time to tell her not to talk to strangers.

Nine years later, she’s strung out and working on the Strip. She doesn’t remember Xanadu or the day the man picked her up. Right now the only thing she knows is that her head hurts. She’s hit it hard, and can’t reel it in. She’s dizzy, and there is a small trickle of blood running over her fake eyelashes and into her eyes. She gets up but doesn’t want to. She’s nauseated and can’t stand up all the way. She doesn’t expect any help. Nobody is looking at her anyway. Although the Strip isn’t meant for that, she feels safe being invisible right now.

Ginger is a whore, but she doesn’t care. She prefers to be called “strumpet.” It sounds more like an instrument, which is how she feels most of the time.

Ginger isn’t dying yet, but she probably will, from the diseases girls her age learn to avoid in school. She never went to school beyond that day in third grade when the Trans-Am pulled up and took her away. There is so little she knows about life outside the strip. On the rare occasion that she thinks of leaving, she tends to pretend the circus will come to town and take her away.

She presents herself as the fantasy she’s meant to be. She doesn’t know why she does it, and doesn’t particularly feel it’s wrong. The only wrong part of it might be that inside she’s stuck at nine years old, with the body of a temptress. She knows she looks good in her outfits. Red, glittery hot pants and a see through bra with her pert little nipples saluting her chin. Her top has a shimmering band of fringe streaming down her waistline, swaying back and forth with her heartbeat. Her hair is matted underneath a red cowboy hat that cinches her skull, especially where she’s clocked herself. The caked blood along her hairline tugs in the weaving of the hat and she’s afraid to take it off, thinking she’ll start to bleed even more.

Ginger’s ribs stick out far enough that more often than not a John will buy her something to eat to prevent from breaking her. She figures it makes them feel better. She doesn’t turn down a meal even though she likes how skinny she is. She knows her thinness helps her disappear. At times she tries to believe she looks like the girls in fashion magazines, but their legs are nicer. They have legs without bruises. One time, a John was rough enough with her that her inner thighs had two perfect handprints bruised on them. She would lie on her back with her knees bent and would wiggle her thighs back and forth and pretend the black and blue blotches were butterfly wings. She got a day off for those bruises. Freedom.

The summer desert heat is beating down more, and the blood from Ginger’s cut is flowing a little more freely now. She’s sick to her stomach, and the blood keeps dripping onto her outfit. The reds don’t match. She slides down to the curb and pinches her knees together. A little drop of blood lands neatly in her fishnets and forms a perfect diamond. It dries quickly in the heat and she stares at it until white light forms behind her eyes and she passes out.

When she comes back around, she finds herself propped up on a bus stop bench. Another one of the girls that works that side of the strip is sitting above her on the bench. She passes Ginger a breath mint. The girl doesn’t waste any time talking to her, just checks that she’s okay and moves along. As traffic drives along the boulevard, hot dust kicks up over the curb, stinging Gingers legs and face. Her breath is acrid and her eyes are crusted with tears and dried blood. Begrudgingly, she pops the mint in her mouth and sucks in her cheeks.

Across the street she sees Carlos, a regular of hers. He’s laughing at her the way men laugh when they are in love. But Ginger knows he’s the farthest thing from love. He isn’t a favorite, but he provides a steady amount of cash for her, which is enough. He approaches her and helps her stand. Her entire being feels tannic. She just wants to shower and go to sleep. Carlos grabs her by the elbow laughing at her, which she finds disgustingly endearing. He’s got a paper sack with a bottle of whisky and pulls on it as he drags Ginger to his car. It’s a maroon beat-up Ranchero that’s been hulled out. There is nowhere for Ginger to sit but on the floor where rust chips and dirt snag and tear her tights. Carlos shuts her inside and she gets faint in the staggering heat of the car. When he gets in, he forces the warm whisky on her, which makes her gag. He punches her in the face, mad that she can’t hold the liquor, and the blow opens up her eye again. Blood fills her eye. A searing pulse of anger surges in her and she clenches her fists, holding back the need to hit him back. One day she will. One day. She grabs onto the side of the door and tries not to slide all over the floorboards as he drives.

They arrive at a dilapidated motel where Carlos takes his sweet time getting drunk and watching pay-per-view porn on the television. He assures Ginger the charge for the movies will be taken from her hourly rate since she’s not living up to his expectations. He’s leaning up against the greasy veneer of the headboard, has reached in his pants and is violently tugging at himself, grimacing all the while. Ginger has stripped and stands in the corner of the room, pressed against the wall and shivering. The air conditioner rattles next to her, cranking out moldy air and dust balls. She sneezes and pain floods through her head, behind her eyes, piercing the base of her skull. She asks to take a shower before they begin, but Carlos won’t let her. He wants her dirty.

He has his way with her for an hour and makes her sprawl her legs in front of him so he can watch his handiwork seep out of her body. He sits chain smoking and pulling off the end of the whisky bottle. He leers at her and jabs her between the legs with a dirty jagged fingernail. It hurts and she moves away from him. She gets up and goes to the corner where she begins to dress. Carlos chucks the near empty bottle just above her head and it shatters against the wall. Whisky splashes all over her. She scoops up the rest of her things and holds out her hand to be paid. Carlos shorts her seven dollars, and instead pays her with a hard punch to her nose. She falls to the ground and, in a searing panic, picks up a shard from the broken whisky bottle. Before Carlos can react, she’s crammed the glass into his eye and is twisting and pushing her palm into the socket. Blood pours out of Carlos’ face and runs down Gingers hand and forearm. He collapses on the floor and she kicks him in the stomach and again in his crotch from his backside. He squeals and coughs, choking on his spit, and then he stops fussing and is silent.

Ginger stands for a moment, breathing hard, waiting for her own blood to start circulating through her body again. The fringe on her top taps at her ribs to the motion of her racing heart. Looking around quickly, she checks to see if she’s forgetting anything. She grabs his wallet, takes all his money and his license, tosses the billfold at his head. After kicking him once more in the groin, she darts from the room and is immediately relieved to be in the hot, dry desert air. She races out of the parking lot, tripping in a pothole, twisting her ankle. After moving past the pain of it, she limps along the road and heads home. She wants things to be different now. They will be different now. Starting tomorrow. The sky has muted to a dank brown and neon lights burn the city skyline. She stops at the edge of a vacant lot and tilts back her head, relenting to the pain she’s in. Tears streaming down her filthy cheeks, she tries to fade away somewhere inside herself. She stretches out her arms, clutching the wad of money in her hand a little tighter. Glancing up towards the clouds, which are streaming out of the skyline, an awkward, distant memory begins to burn from behind her eyes. Images of a Shriners circus surge through her brain. Scuffing her boots in the gravel, she imagines round-faced men in their scarlet fezzes, scooting their little cars around her, laughing, honking, zipping around and making her dizzy. Elephants swing dancing girls in elaborate baroque outfits on their velvet covered trunks. The audience laughs, balloons float toward the top of a tent. She imagines herself atop a high wire in a crimson trapeze outfit. Everyone is waving hello-goodbyes. As soon as it feels good, the images fade from her head.

She opens her eyes and sees the sky’s gone black. She tucks the money in her bra and sits down on the gravel. Picking up a large rock, she traces a circle around herself in the dirt.

After awhile, when the air has only slightly cooled, the crunching of gravel under slowly churning car tires approach her. Shuttering headlights showcase Ginger’s silhouette in the parking lot. She turns around and, guarding her eyes, slumps to see a rusty old, beaten up white Trans-Am come to a stop just a few feet from her. The driver leans over and opens the passenger door. He revs the engine but cuts the lights. Ginger doesn’t budge.