Issue 7 - Fall 2013
  • The circus had lost their snake man.

    Leonard Zhabir Muhammad, also known as King Wagadugu, also known as Charlie, died in the spring. Not from a bite from a crocodile, not from a squeeze from a snake, not from a fall from a camel. Charlie died in a car accident. He was fifty-five. He was tall, thin, his bald head shining black and resplendent as he carried an alligator into the ring, making his entrance as the Reptile King. His costume was skimpy: just a red-fringed, Zebra print cape that covered his shoulders and the top of his pecs, a matching wrap skirt, beaded headband and anklet. His stomach was exposed, his long lean legs.

    He wore water shoes with his King Wagadugu costume.

    Out of the ring, Charlie wore glasses. He led rides on the camels, Sally or Heidi. He strapped in the riders, their legs dangling over the sides of the padded harness perched on top of the camel like a hot air balloon basket, and guided the animal in circles. When rides were slow, he smoked. He sat on the platform the riders climbed to mount the camel, swinging his legs, and looked around: fair.

  • Another fair.

    * * *

    The Zerbini Family Circus is a small outfit, and as the name implies, it is a family. Patriarch Alain, a former aerialist; grown children including Julian the teenage acrobat/dog trainer/tightrope walker; and Melody the ringmistress (who is married to the clown). There’s a miniature horse that performs with the camel. There’s a chimpanzee named Chance. A few years ago, the Zerbini Family Circus started billing itself as the only circus with a performing buffalo, Tantanka, who walks up and down a tilting ramp, turns and hops on a trampoline.

    There are no elephants, no tigers, no cannon, no trapeze. This is no Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, no Cole Bros., no Carson & Barnes. This circus consists of fifteen people. The Zerbinis play fairs mostly, showcases, fundraisers for schools or youth groups. Admission is sometimes free, and the circus makes its money through concessions (popcorn, two dollars; cotton candy, three) and souvenirs (coloring books, five dollars; plastic whistles, one). Like all circuses, the Zerbinis have a long and storied history  ...........

  • involving immigration, accidents, an attack from an eight-hundred pound tiger, a fall from the flying trapeze.

    It is rarely a life you join. It is mostly a life you are born into, like the Amish, or organized crime.

    * * *

    Not so with Charlie. Born in Patterson, New Jersey, Charlie worked as a cook. He met Alain Zerbini in New Jersey, and joined the circus after a friend who was offered a job said he would sign on if Charlie came too. Charlie agreed, then the friend backed out. But Charlie had already quit his job. He went ahead on his own, leaving New Jersey with the caravan.

    It was not anything he’d dreamed about. It was not anything he had prepared for, or wanted, or even thought about before. But he learned to raise a tent and tear it down; to set up bleachers and riggings, ladders and guy wires and a ring. How to live on the road. How to smile for a crowd. How to charm a camel.

    Charlie found he was good at it all. He was good with the animals,  ............

  • taking care of the two camels, five ponies, a miniature horse, two snakes, twelve dogs and an alligator. Sally gave him kisses when he came near. The dogs fell in line. He was good in the ring, wrestling the alligator, wrapping a snake around his shoulders, putting the five foot-long python’s head in his mouth.

    “I’m in the ring approximately eight minutes,” he said in a 2011 video interview conducted by Lane Talburt, a circus fan from Connecticut. “If it’s a good day, I won’t have a problem with the alligator.”

    Charlie found he was good with audiences, too. Billed as King Wagadugu, African royalty, the Reptile King, he strode into the ring in his Zebra-print, grinning despite the obvious heft of the alligator in his arms. He danced with the reptile, held up a few snakes as the kids screamed. At the end of his act, he got his hands around the alligator’s jaws, sealing them closed. He smiled.

    “I stayed because… I liked what I was doing that they showed me,” he said in the video, “and I was promised that I’d be made a star. And they didn’t lie to me.”

  • Performer, roustabout, animal trainer, king.

    “He do everything for me,” Alain said.

    * * *

    When Charlie died, Alain bid farewell to him on the circus’s Facebook page, calling him “my son.” Charlie had been with the circus for eleven years, most of Julian Zerbini’s life. Julian has matinee idol good looks, an impressive head of long, dark, curly hair, and an equally impressive female fan base. They swoon over Julian on facebook. Legal yet? But Julian had a girlfriend, a fellow performer named Darinka; Charlie might have teased him about that.

    In a picture from Julian’s birthday, Charlie holds up a large, half-empty jug of amber liquid while the birthday boy and friend hoist a case of soda (Julian was just seventeen, after all). After the last show of the night, after the crowds had gone home, if it was not a travelling day, the boys would go back to the ring and “play circus,” trying out new tricks on the trampoline or wires. Charlie would grab the mic and start singing, dancing around the ring,  ............

  • performing for no one. He had a great voice and an easy smile, despite a missing tooth. At night, without the glare of the spotlights and the press of the crowds, the tent looked smaller, somehow, warm, almost homey.

    * * *

    The circus had professional pictures taken a few years ago, gorgeous, sun-drenched shots: Alain leading the buffalo through the long grass; Darinka in a sparkly pink bodysuit posing by the camels; an aerialist stretching in a field. In Charlie’s picture, he wears a black suit, crisp white shirt and tie, the tailored clothes a sharp contrast to his usual dress. The python twists around his shoulders, into his outstretched hand. He holds the snake out like an apple. It’s a stunning picture. Charlie’s nephew tattooed this image on his shoulder after his uncle’s death; the Zerbinis used it to make a memorial plaque.

    * * *

    The Zerbinis have been coming to the Richland County Ohio Fair for sixteen years, performing two or three free shows a day in  ............

  • between the tractor pulls and the country acts, the steers and rabbits and goats in the show arena, the freestyle rides of the horses from the Clearfork Colts and Fillies Club, the wandering magician and the Big Cats.

    When Charlie died, it was less than a month before the circus’s first performance of the season. The Zerbinis had lost their animal trainer, their snake and alligator handler, their camel leader, their king. The show that premiered in Richland County, five months after Charlie’s death, was smaller, shorter, more sedate than in years past. Teenager Jennifer performed a new balancing act, tipping her head back, resting a sword on the glittery crown on her forehead, then climbing a ladder. At the end of her act, she turned back flips in the ring, resolutely throwing her arms out, waiting for applause that never really came. Ossi juggled pins, rings, then rainbow-colored straw hats, the ringmistress getting on the mic and encouraging the audience to clap, “Come on now. Give him a hand.”

    Gustavo the clown works the Wheel of Destiny now, a giant spinning hamster wheel that rotates the performer up in the air. Billed as “the circus’s daredevil,” Gustavo ran around the inside  ............

  • of the wheel while it was in motion, then climbed to the outer rim, stooping when the wheel reached the top of the tent, his back brushing the canvas with an audible hush. He stumbled on his first attempt. Julian gave the wheel a push to start it spinning, then waited below, looking worried, a black Zerbini T-shirt over his sequined outfit from the previous act.

    Now that Charlie’s gone, Julian seems to bear the brunt of the show, appearing in the trampoline act, showing dogs in the “Zerbini Dog Pound Revue,” leading Heidi the camel and the miniature horse around, and assisting with the finale; at a recent matinee, he went through four costume changes in less than an hour. He was not out of breath at the end, but neither was he smiling. Julian turned eighteen this year. He and Darinka are engaged.

    * * *

    This year—the year that Charlie is not there, the first year after his accident, the first after his death—the story at the Richland County Fair is swine flu: cases confirmed in Butler, Ohio, just a few miles south. The swine barn is noticeably quiet. No 4-H kids  ............

  • sleeping in there. No families lined up to see.

    Otherwise, it’s the same. The circus is camped in the field by the entrance. From his perch on the camel stand, Charlie would have seen food vendors: elephant ears, French fries, Taco-In-A-Bag. He would have seen the Fun Slide. He would have seen the little carousel with only white horses, most of them rider-less and scuffed; a small tilt-a-whirl with cars in the shape of spinning rabbits; a ring toss game (Goldfish: Still Only $1); and Das Fun Haus, the Oktoberfest-themed fun house.

    He might have seen the start of the antique tractor parade, which lined up behind the circus this year: the Silver Kings and John Deeres and big red Internationals gasping in place (Tractors must be in working order) before lapping the outer belt of the grounds. He would have seen the DJ in the gazebo. He would have heard the announcements, repeatedly calling for the owner of the white Chrysler mini-van to turn off their lights.

    This year, the trailers of the circus are parked in a semi-circle behind the tent, protecting it like a half-ring of buffalos. It’s been rainy, cold for August, and the performers wear jeans and clogs,  ............

  • stay inside or gather on the steps of their trailers. Julian bounces a toddler, a girl with black pigtails and a rainbow skirt. One of the show dogs had puppies this year, and a mixed bred pile of small, spotted tumblers are sequestered in a large wire pen. The sign Beware of Dogs isn’t fooling anyone.

    It’s been another year of storms and rain at the Richland County fair; rain and wind back in Clearfield, hail in Stanhope. At the end of July, wind bent some tent poles nearly in half. The Zerbinis usually clean their tent once or twice a year, the whole crew helping out, then celebrating with a BBQ. With the huge canvas flat on the ground, everyone grabs a mop and some Dawn, stands on a stripe and leans into it. You can slide down the sidewalls, thick yellow and blue, as slick as glass.

    Once, someone slid clear into concessions.

    The tent was just cleaned, but already the sidewalls are blotched with mud. Mud is the main story of the circus, mud and dirty laundry. The air smells, as it always does, of powdered sugar, fried dough, French fries, hay. There are pony rides this year, along with camel rides the whole circus has pitched in to lead. A

  • new guy handles the snake now, a skinny boy with earrings and a goatee. He lets kids pose with the python after the show, the snake’s mouth shut with Scotch tape.

    The boy doesn’t wear a costume, just a Zerbini shirt and shorts. But maybe someday, he’ll be the new king.

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