When Ann went missing, the circus was in the desert and had been there already two weeks. They were trying to get rubber to retread a few tires, and they weren’t in a hurry. They were doing well enough, with so many young women working in the factories or the hospitals, coming home to quarters cramped with children and their grandmothers, all of them wanting to be anywhere else, wanting to be entertained. Tickets were cheap and supplies expensive, but overall the circus came out ahead. Their next engagement would have to wait. He wired the councilman who had signed the contract and heard back, OK. Lot empty. Will wait.
Ann would have walked into whatever land surrounded them, he thought, but the desert suited her more than other landscapes might have. He imagined her in a slow-moving trance with her arms raised at her sides for balance. He believed what he imagined—it was almost a vision—but he acted as if he believed the opposite. After all, he had been wrong many times.
Except for Sid, only Scott Green seemed to care that they’d lost her. Scott said, “Don’t waste your time looking. She walked into town and caught the first train out. We’ll never see her again, I’m willing to bet you.” But if Scott was right on all counts, while they still lived they would never verify the bet.
If Ann had left because she’d been hurt, she would have left the first morning or the first week. More likely, she’d left because her sweetheart, Kid, had already gone, or because she was tired, or because Sid had failed her as a doctor. The injuries healed; her body had always been strong. But he had failed because he had not wanted to believe that the men had left her pregnant—he had not wanted to believe, as her injuries suggested, that there had been men, plural. On the day of her abortion, neither of them mentioned the attack. She was on his table. He held her ankle.
“All right, Annie. The injection will hurt. And you’ll have some cramping later.”
“I don’t care about that, Sid. I’m ready. In the damned stirrups, right?”
“You’ll have to roll to your side for a second.” She rolled. He held the hypodermic up to the light, squirted a drop, steadied her hip. He stopped himself from telling her it would be cold. As the needle went in, she flinched. The birthmark inside the curve of her right hipbone looked like a turtle with its neck stretched.
“Now we have to wait for it to work.” She turned to lie on her back. She had lost weight. If he looked at her face, he would be terrified. “Are you cold?”
“No. Maybe a little.”
He laid a folded sheet across her legs. “I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I’ve done this—I don’t know—many, many times.”
“I figured you had.”
“I’ve never had a problem.”
The radio was broadcasting the news, so he fiddled with the dial until he found a bland crooner singing any old love song. Treacle—you could practically hear his plump lips smacking. At the kitchen table, he washed his hands and arms in the water he’d boiled. The towels were warm and thick, and he wanted to lay his head on them and sleep.
Her hands were folded on her stomach. “Did you grow up with both your parents, Sid?”
“In a sense. They died when I was fourteen. Four months apart, in fact. But up to then, I had them both.”
“Chicago, mostly. I must have mentioned it before. There were only the three of us. All of us big readers. That’s what we did together, read. They would never have believed that I would end up here.” He saw his father’s polished shoes. “We should be ready now.”
She sighed. “My mother would have expected something exactly like this, I bet.” Her heels fanned out, settled in the stirrups. He wouldn’t tell her everything would be all right.
His patients always kept their knees together, almost always, and you had to tell them to scoot down. He lifted her hips and settled her at the end of the table.
“Tell me if you start to feel anything.”
“Any pain.” She’d closed her eyes. He lifted the sheet from her shins and nudged her knees apart. At the first glimpse of pubic hair and labia, he had to remind himself how tough women’s bodies were. He fingered the labia apart and inserted the speculum. His mind had already moved on to the technique of what needed to be done, as if this were anyone’s body, until he faltered. He remembered the first second she’d lifted her skirt to show him what happened.
He said, “You healed well.”
She didn’t answer.
He thought, Not that I’d ever question you about that again.
Women healed so well that sometimes it seemed another injustice, a faulty design that made them convenient to injure. He hadn’t asked if she still had pain where he’d stitched her. The question seemed irrelevant, in regard to Ann.
When she had come into the trailer that night, he had been awake, but he’d pretended to sleep so that he wouldn’t spook her. He’d hoped she would spend the rest of the night in the spare bed, her bed. But she locked the door behind her, and he sat up. “Annie? What is it?”
She moved heavily in the dark. “I’m bleeding.”
He went for the light, and she stopped his arm. “Wait. Promise you won’t ask me about it. Just fix me up. I think I might need stitches, or I wouldn’t have bothered you. Promise.”
He would have promised anything.
She started clearing the examination table. “Maybe you should grab the whiskey. Not to alarm you.”
“I’ll want a couple of swallows.”
She tried to climb onto the table and slipped back. He helped her up. Already chronology failed him; he believed he’d helped her up before she’d fallen, and yet there she was. She lay back, propped herself on one elbow, and hoisted her skirt, which had covered a diaper made of a towel. The skirt was wet. She had bled through the towel. For a second he thought she’d been shot. She made a noise that might have been impatience and worked at the pin on the towel. “I can’t, Sid. You do it.”
The pin was too small; she had jammed the fabric into the clasp. He pressed at the bar and then tugged until the clasp bent and broke. After all the hurry, he had a second of confusion, as he sometimes did at the sight of severe injury, and then he cringed, and shame flushed through him because he’d been confused.
He asked what had happened. She said, “No. You promised.”
“You shouldn’t have asked me to promise. I wouldn’t have if I’d seen.”
“Then I’d have gone somewhere else, or I’d have taken care of it myself. I probably could. Or I’d crawl out into the woods, if there are woods around here, and gather some moss or spider webs. Isn’t that what they do in the wild?”
“Wait. Wait a second. People don’t survive in the wild, Ann. I’ll take care of you. Only answer one question. Was he from the circus?”
“On my payroll. God, Ann.”
“I’m so tired.”
“Did he threaten you? Is that it? We have to get the police out here. Have to. I don’t have a choice. I don’t care if you don’t tell me as long as you tell the authorities.” The blood kept coming. He shut up. She was losing consciousness. He was afraid to leave her, to go for water, so he flushed the lacerations with whiskey, thinking, As if we’re in the goddamn Civil War.
The bruising was a splotched crescent from her pubic bone up to her hips and two half-circles through the thighs. He prepared the needle. He didn’t need to look at the rest of her as he sewed, only the wounds, and he didn’t pay close attention to her breathing. She groaned as he tied off.
He said, “We’ll need ice.”
She propped herself on one elbow, then the other. He avoided her face. She said, “I guess I’m going to make it, then.”
“You’ll need to stay out of men’s beds for a while.” He felt her glare. “So you’ll have a chance to heal, Annie, I’m not saying anything else.”
She exhaled. “I understand. I’m not exactly feeling randy, anyhow.”
“Just rest here a few minutes. I’ll lock the door behind me. Don’t get up.”
Outside, he shook. A buzz started under his skull. He rubbed his hands—like a movie villain, he thought, and stopped it. Somewhere, a couple was talking, probably in a bed up against a screened window. Everything else was still, out into the flat land around them. Late nights had been that way even before the war, before blackouts; he loved the circus’s concentrated rest. They slept well. In promising not to ask questions of Ann, he had more or less promised to stop thinking about it, the way she seemed not to think of it. He set his mind on other things.
When she’d missed a period, he gave her ergot, the best he could do at that stage. She bled a little and told him so. He thought they’d finished with it; they hadn’t. She tried liquor—it was the first time she’d been drunk, as far as he knew—and while they were waiting, he said, “I know you won’t like me asking, but I’m going to ask. Do you think it might be Kid’s?”
“Kid wasn’t involved. It couldn’t be his. No.”
“You were spending so much time together.”
“Yes, we were, and he didn’t get me pregnant. He thought he did, he had all sorts of ideas about it, but I wasn’t pregnant while he was here. It didn’t work out.”
“I thought you might settle down with him.”
“Where would we do something like that? He was afraid of you. He thought you were my father.”
“I wish he’d stayed.”
Sid couldn’t hate the men he employed because they couldn’t all have attacked Ann, and he couldn’t accuse any one of them singly; he couldn’t imagine that any specific man among them could be so brutal to a girl with a purpose on the show.
Later, years later, every time he thought of her injuries, he shut his eyes and covered his face. How was it he’d been certain, back then, that what had happened to Ann was the end of it, that whoever hurt Ann wouldn’t go after her again or decide to hate another girl? There were so many other ways he might have sleuthed out what happened. But Ann had cut off his inquiries, and so he’d let the matter drop, thinking it would fade away to nothing. Thinking that if Ann pretended it hadn’t happened, he couldn’t drag her name back into it. To do so would be tantamount to inflicting the injuries all over again.
It was true he had thought of punishment. He had, for a brief Wild West flash, considered hangings and gunshot, even castrations. But his only true protective measure was to let Ann know that the unmarried men would have to clean their own trailers from then on. No such violence had happened since—dumb luck, and for Ann, his luck did very little. She was on his table again. She was as stoic as Scott Green’s animals became once you bound them.
Finally, he said, “That’s it. It’s all over, except you’ll still bleed for a while. We just have to watch that it doesn’t go on too long or get too heavy.” He lifted her.
She said, “I can walk.”
He set her in bed and arranged her bedding. “I could give you something so you’ll sleep.”
“I guess I want that.” She touched his arm. “Thank you, Sid.”
He squeezed her hand and settled it at her side. He wanted to smooth her hair or get her another blanket. Instead he gave her the sedative. He puttered, cleaning up, rearranging. Any second, the door might be flung open. His underground fear of the attackers had surfaced again, now that it was over. Coward, he thought. He locked the door and fastened the latch.
On the day when he’d signed the papers on the circus, the man who had sold to him gave him a gun. It looked like a paperweight on the lawyer’s polished table. “There you are,” the man said. “Comes with the circus. Just another little tradition. Now don’t go blowing your brains out.”
By now he had used it a few times—to shoot a horse, to walk the periphery of the camp when they were in hostile or questionable areas. With his back against the door and the gun on his knees, he dozed and woke to the thought that a bullet fired from outside would go right through the door into his spine. Even a knife might puncture the metal. He woke again. Not long before, he had put a spare bed in his trailer so that Ann might stay, so that he could watch out for her. He wasn’t sure who had noticed or who might care. All at once, he could imagine the whole lot burning. He saw himself stooped, shaking a can of gasoline.
Ann must have disappeared into the desert; he felt that they should be able to scan straight out to the foothills and see her, if she hadn’t found a way to be absorbed.
He saw, in his mind, Ann leaning against the elephant, stretching one arm up and the other down in a wide embrace. After a few minutes, she would open her eyes and jump back, having formulated her plan. She had left her cleaning supplies in order. The rags had dried before anyone noticed that she was gone. About cleaning she liked best, she had told him, the moment when you swished a dried rag in water. The stiffness went out of it, and it became elegant.
She would have set her palms on Claudine’s hide again and kissed her, a happy kiss the elephant might never have noticed for its lightness. As far as Sid could remember, she was sentimental only about the elephant.
He reviewed how he had failed her.
He hadn’t liked how she looked the first time he saw her, when he met her at the train station. She was younger than she should have been, younger than her mother had led him to believe. Her eyes were too far apart, and they hid nothing; every bit of her expressed agitation that she seemed to think she was concealing. He had expected a graceful girl like her mother, someone light, decorative, effortless. Ann was dark and strong; she’d carried, or at least dragged, her own suitcase, which had nearly flattened him when he lifted it into the truck. She was forceful. Before they’d stopped to eat, he knew that unless she had proof, he could never believe she was his child.
He’d left her to Garrity, but Garrity was a work director, not a mother, a better guardian than he, but not soft. He sentenced Ann to hard work that she was too young for; he told Garrity she was fourteen, because that was what he and Ann had agreed, when she was no more than twelve. Garrity repeated, “Fourteen,” and shook her head, and then joined in what seemed to be Ann’s project of toughening herself. He had seen Ann lift her hands bright red from dishwater that must have only just stopped boiling; she stamped her foot and plunged her hands in again. All of her force went into drudgery. It hadn’t concerned him.
When she gave up on what passed as their school, he didn’t ask why. Garrity would have told him if he’d shown any sign of wanting to know, but he didn’t want to know, because he didn’t want to give up the extra half-day of Ann’s work. Looking back, he supposed Ann herself would have told him why she quit lessons if he asked; he had already, then, made a practice of dropping off books for her to read. Once, she’d even sought him out for an extra. She was downcast and prideful, picking at a loose string on her sleeve and then lifting her chin, and at that moment he would have accepted her as his child, but he only left her standing at his trailer door, took Robinson Crusoe from his shelf and gave it to her. She asked how he had been lately, and he said, “Fine. I’m always fine.” And smiled with benevolence, or—as he saw it now, remembering—with stupid self-satisfaction.
She had the animals to clean up after in the morning, and the unmarried men in the afternoon. Garrity said she was a good girl, odd and tough but a hard worker; she didn’t complain. In the mornings he’d cross by the animal cages. She was absorbed in her work as in a pleasure. He caught sight of her reading. Otherwise, he paid her no attention.
Even so, when Garrity died, he thought of Ann first, because it occurred to him that Garrity loved her and that he could expect her to be brave and useful. With Garrity gone, he didn’t know anyone else he could call. He stood outside of the girls’ trailer, where even he couldn’t go, and he spoke her name softly. She came out and said nothing. He had a shadow of alarm, just as soon forgotten, that to bring her before this death would kill whatever in her was still a child.
Yet he left her with Garrity’s body and fetched the police to clear him of wrongdoing. That very night, she washed his floor.
It wasn’t enough that he tried to befriend her afterward. She pretended reluctance to learn backgammon, but she wasn’t reluctant. He gave her more books, and they spent more time talking about them. He told her, too, about becoming a doctor in the army when he was too young for it, a month before the flu epidemic started, and remaining a doctor though he had lost in those weeks more patients than he had expected to lose in a lifetime.
She became a kind of friend or a pet, and still he would have let her take on every piece of manual labor they had, if anyone asked. She was up to it. He didn’t help her, not really. He didn’t direct Scott to treat her as an apprentice instead of as labor. He didn’t find her a calliope teacher, and he didn’t stop her when all the rest of the circus turned against her because of her poor playing.
He didn’t stop them, either. But he could forgive himself that much, because he had never seen a way to stop anyone in the circus from doing anything. He held as a principle that if on balance his people were good, the worst ones would, sooner or later, be adequately disgusted to quit.
He sat smoking on his trailer’s stoop. The next day, they would leave the desert. He thought Ann might come walking in now if only because it was her last chance.
The arguments against him started. He summarized: because she was in fact stronger, he had let her down. He smoked another cigarette and began to argue back.
After all, she must have known something would happen, the way she behaved. She had come to his trailer too many times reeking of sex and so worn out she could hardly talk. He had warned her—about her health, not about the men; she would have gone out again the second he brought up her youth or why she should care what people thought of her. When Kid had brought her into his act and otherwise paid her what seemed to be mute attention, Sid thought she was in love, but she didn’t entirely rid herself of her habits. Had she expected to get away with visiting about every man in the camp but snubbing a few of them? All the men talked. He had overheard enough. The circus’s gossip had to run its course like the flu.
What happened to Ann was unfair, no one should have suffered such injuries, but for her part, Ann should have understood that when people turn against you, every flaw in your behavior increases their hatred tenfold.
And he loved her, but it was true she hadn’t put effort into befriending the other girls.
And then she wouldn’t give up the calliope.
And she’d stolen silver knives from someone’s place settings, probably before she left home, had brought them to his trailer and asked him how much they were worth. She was offering them in her awkward way; she was not selfish, but where the silver came from, he never knew.
And he’d always known that something dark had passed between her and the animal trainer. In that case, at least, she had tried to make up for it, nursing him through his last weeks.
Kid had left her behind.
And even her own mother had been desperate to send her away.
The day they were to move on, a girl came to him, maybe fifteen years old, big in the elbows, abdomen already distended, so scared her voice cracked. Even there, even in the desert, they found him. Word was passed. They knew. After she’d gone, he saw rain blurring over the hills.
He took the downtown bus for the last time. The doors opened, and he fit himself in; he stood in the aisle. The bus was full of young women and older men riding out to the second shift at the factory. He asked those around him if they’d met Ann. Breathing the hot air tinged with soap, cologne, and hair oil, packed in with all the patriotic bonhomie and chatter, he felt that he was trying too hard, that Ann had been taken into all of this, she had found a better job, and he should leave her be. She might marry a returning soldier; there would be plenty of them. She had the right face for a soldier’s wife. Still, he knew he hadn’t tried hard enough. He saw her as she’d been at twelve, her square hands trembling. She flipped them palms-up; he had asked for her birth certificate.
At the second hospital, he wanted to describe Ann as he’d remembered her. She might resemble the twelve-year-old now rather than the girl who had walked out. He thought of the birth certificate, which Ann’s mother might not have had anyway, and a shock went through him, because he was certain Ann was in that hospital, in a bed, washed by a sponge in someone else’s hands. She was somewhere. The desk clerk was a heavy blond in a white uniform without the cap or other regalia of a nurse. He gave her Ann’s name. She adjusted a hairpin. Her eyes were dark-rimmed, purple underneath. She licked her index finger and turned back to the registry for the day Ann had disappeared. She ran her finger down the list and turned to the next day. A factory job would have brought the clerk more money, but she could keep this position when the war ended. She said, No, that one’s not here. But he was welcome to try again. Her hands patted the pages.