I never knew who I’d get from week to week. Town to town. In Wichita, it might be four guys who never said a thing and the only way I knew they were listening was by watching the spotlights sweep, on my cue, from juggler to high wire. In Omaha, it might be four guys who talked nonstop through the performance, their voices loud through the earphones of my headset, making bets on whether the trapezist would make the triple somersault and cracking lewd jokes about the thirteen-year-old girl riding the elephant.
Our circus didn’t have a regular team of spotlight operators. We only had a lighting director—me—and we picked up a new crew of spot ops from the stagehand’s union in each city.
There were generally four spotlights in each arena we played, so there were generally four spotlight operators to man them. They were way up there, stationed along the catwalk at just about the ceiling. Meanwhile, I sat at my light board, down on the arena floor, sidled up to center ring where I was in constant danger of being trampled by elephants or peed on by tigers. But to me, it was those guys up there on the catwalk who were brave. I couldn’t even see them. Glance up in the middle of the show, through the arena darkness, and at each corner of the building all I saw were the white glows of their spotlights, like nickels flashing in a glint of moon.
My light board was a grid of levers and switches, buttons and dials. Set up on top of a wooden prop box. I had to hunt down my own chair in each new city. The levers and switches, buttons and dials controlled banks of floor lights, hanging truss lights, many-colored flashing-ball lights, drapes of Christmas lights, a spinning disco ball, and glowing stars cut into the ring curbs. On top of this, I controlled the spotlights by speaking commands into the headset.
“Stand by to hit Bulgarian acrobats in Ring Three—flood and cover… and… go.”
That’s my favorite part: “and go.” At the sound of my voice, like magic, the shadows of the arena fly open like a zipper. The combined blaze of four spotlights runs long down the arena floor. From ring one, through center ring, to ring three. And as my fingers hit the buttons, the ring lights up and the band kicks out a chord, and all the acrobats throw their arms out, ta-da.
It was a parallel universe. While the circus was going on in front of me, the five of us, as far apart as we could be in the building, carried on a secret communication through the crazy cacophony of circus music and sound.
“Up next: juggling display. Stand by, Spots One and Three to hit Ring One, Spots Two and Four to hit Ring Three… and… go.”
It was always numbers, never names. Numbers and letters. I was L.D. Short for lighting director. They were Spot One, Spot Two, Spot Three, and Spot Four. Too difficult to memorize names when the circus moved once a week and a spot op or two might even change between Thursday night and the Friday matinee. Names were always exchanged early on, but it was mostly a formality. Sometime during the hour before the first performance in each city, as the audience was filtering into the building and the kids were coming down to the circus floor to ride elephants, the spot ops and I would meet at the light board. Shake hands. It may be the only time I would see them at all during the date. A guy with ’70s glasses and broken teeth. A guy with a suit coat with patches at the elbows and flakes of tobacco at the corners of his mouth. A worn-looking woman with bleached-blond curls and dream-catcher earrings. We’d get a glimpse of each other, share a name or two, and from then on out it would be numbers, letters, and voices.
Even with all the hoopla—jugglers tossing fire torches right in front of me, the ringmaster calling theatrical strings of alliteration into his microphone, the thud of elephant feet resonating through the floor and vibrating up through my shoes—it was easy to detach and feel like nothing but a voice, floating through that wide space, bouncing from one corner of the arena to another.
And spot op voices bouncing back. Telling secrets in our parallel universe.
“Oh no, don’t! Oh! He did it!” Voice of Spot Three in my ears as I sat at my light board in front of center ring, where an elephant was giving rides at intermission. Columbus, Ohio.
“What?” I said. “What?”
Voice of Spot Three: “That guy standing on the elephant platform, helping the kids on and off? See that Coke he’s holding? Well, that elephant just unloaded a whole mess of piss and was playing in the piss with its trunk, and then it reached up and grabbed that bottle of Coke. Right there on the mouth of it. And that guy took the bottle away from the elephant—”
Voice of Spot Four: “Oh, I saw that! I saw that!”
Voice of Spot Three: “And took a nice, big swig!”
Poor Tito standing on the elephant platform. Bottle in hand, unaware, watching the elephant lope her slow circle around the ring with three children on her back. He raised the bottle again. Drank. And in my ears were spot ops groaning and laughing.
Me laughing too. Not because I liked the idea that Tito was drinking from a urine-slicked bottle of soda, but because there was something amazing about sharing camaraderie with these mostly faceless people I may never see again.
Something convenient, too, if I must be honest. I was never much for the face-to-face. Even with people I knew, I was guarded and stymied. This was in my early thirties, and your early thirties aren’t far from your early twenties, and your early twenties aren’t far from your childhood—when you were the kid who was so afraid to go up and talk to the other kids that your first-grade teacher put you together with the second shyest kid in class and said you could be friends.
I went from a childhood of being quiet to an adulthood of standing around in groups of people and laughing too loud at everyone’s jokes because then maybe they wouldn’t notice I had nothing to say. By my early thirties, I’d learned how to be somewhat comfortable in the universe, but still in my social encounters I was always calculating, always adjusting, always holding back.
I don’t know what it was about my spotlight parallel universe that made all of that go away. Maybe it was the kooky exoticness of where we were in those buildings. Maybe it was the fact that we didn’t know each other, didn’t have to know each other, and may never hear each other’s voices again. Maybe it was the fact that we were performing this very particular function for the show—not only ensuring that people could actually see the show, but also adding the spark to its drama, making the whole thing move and flow, as if the lights beaming down from above were marionette strings controlling everything—yet no one really thought about the fact that we were there.
We were completely vital and completely forgotten.
Camaraderie and circus ballyhoo. Anonymity and voice. What this created was freedom.
A funny sort of freedom. To say whatever you wanted to say in the space between jugglers and elephants. But sometimes my spot ops took advantage of our spotlight freedom in bizarre ways. In Springfield, Massachusetts, one year, one of the spotlights was an old carbon arc model. A bit of a dinosaur that got its power off of a carbon rod inserted into the works. Whatever those works were. All I knew was that the carbon rod would burn until, at some point—always right in the middle of an important act—Spot Two would have to turn the thing off to replace the carbon.
As the carbon melts its way down, excess drips from the machine, flaming hot, and is caught in what’s called a drip cup. One matinee, Spot Two came over the headset and announced that he was popping popcorn in his drip cup. Tossed a handful of kernels in and gave us regular reports on their progress from hard kernel to fluffy white to black and burnt.
"See the smoke?” he said, his voice like a five-year-old’s on Christmas morning. “Do you see it?”
On the very last show in Springfield, he and Spot Three discussed clandestine plans over the headset. I just sat quiet and listened to their back-and-forth.
Voice of Spot Two: “You ain’t gonna do it.”
Voice of Spot Three: “I’ll do it! You cover me.”
Voice of Spot Two: “You do it, and I’ll cover you for sure.”
The show went on, spotlights sweeping up and down the arena floor, until, just at the start of intermission, as the house lights came up, Spot Three hung his fanny out over his perch and mooned us, with Spot Two hitting him in a very becoming magenta glow.
The Chicago date was a full three weeks long, so not only did I get to know my spot ops better, I came to think of them by name. Particularly Jamie, who put me in a good mood every time I saw him. He was fresh-faced and red-headed. The kind of thirty-five that looked twenty-five. Or nineteen. He looked like an all-eager college student, buttoned down and wide eyed. He talked about everything with wonder in his voice, like he was seeing it for the first time. He talked about buying one of the huge blow-up aliens we sold on the show concession stand. Purple. To go with the green one from last year. He’d come over to me, down on the arena floor, before or after the shows, and wouldn’t mosey like most people in their attempts to act laid-back when being sociable. He’d walk up with purpose, stop right in front of me with a little bounce on the balls of his feet, and launch into whatever came off the top of his head. An energetic back-and-forth between us for a moment, and then he’d bounce one more time on his feetand be off.
Watching him go, Ada, our tiger trainer from Poland, said, “That guy’s a little coo-coo, eh?”
One afternoon I was sitting at my light board, going through my cue sheets, headset on, waiting for the team to assemble up there at their spots. Jamie’s voice slid into my ears as if he’d slunk up behind me.
“Hey,” he said.
I looked way up toward the catwalk and a tiny hand waved back.
“My cousin’s here to see the show,” he said.
Something stripped out of his voice.
“I haven’t seen my cousin since my little sister’s funeral,” he said.
It was the first time on the headset that I didn’t know what to say. He said it was last December. He said it was cancer.
“Oh my god, Jamie, I’m so sorry.”
The lights were bright all over the arena as the audience worked their way into their seats. I could see Jamie up there on the catwalk like I usually couldn’t. A tiny figure, shadowed by the bulk of the spotlight. Just a hint of the red of his hair. Anonymity and voice. Freedom.
To say what you usually wouldn’t say.
His voice in my ears: “You know, I haven’t been happy since.”
In Columbus, it was back to numbers and letters. Although Spot Three decided he’d like to be called Spot U238. Which he then explained was the number of Uranium on the periodic table.
Then decided that we should call him Hugh Ranium.
Then decided that we should call him Hugh Biquitous.
During one afternoon performance, the spot op I finally just took to calling Hugh (even though his real name was Richard) and Spot One (whose real name was Mike) gave me tips on spotlight terminology that I was surprised I hadn’t yet learned after all my time with the circus.
Hugh: “When you vary the width of the spot so it goes from big to small to big to small, that’s called strobing.”
Mike: “When you zero in on something with the light by reducing it to a small spot, that’s called irising down.”
Hugh: “When you iris down right on someone’s crotch, that’s called a Sylvester.”
Hugh said he didn’t know much about the origin of the term, just that it had been used back in the days of burlesque. He may have been making it up, for all I knew, but we grabbed onto that Sylvester and didn’t let go for the rest of the date. Threats were thrown back and forth. The spot ops threatened to Sylvester the ringmaster. They threatened to Sylvester me. (Which would have been impossible since I was sitting with a light board in front of me, but I appreciated the sentiment.) When the circus band stood up for its bow way down at the end of the arena, Spot One and Spot Four stayed nice and wide on the whole group while Spot Two (Mike) and Spot Three (Hugh/Richard) Sylvestered both the bandleader and his drummer.
Larry, the bandleader, would sometimes talk the building personnel into shelling out an extra headset so he could be a part of our kookiness. Today he had his headset on and was trying not to laugh while he clued in the drummer and posed ta-da to the unsuspecting audience. Then he whispered secret plans for us to Sylvester the trumpet player.
Freedom, rampant across the spotlight parallel universe. Freedom and laughter and a glorious goofing off. Highly unprofessional, yes, but I didn’t care. There was nothing like the sense of belonging I felt just then.
The performance moved on. The ringmaster made his next announcement and I went into my next cue:
“Stand by to Sylvester the elephants.”
On the last intermission of the last day in Columbus, I stepped across the arena floor, past the light board and the rings, past lines of kids waiting to slide down the giant blow-up slide, to find one of my spot ops chatting with the ringmaster. It was Mike, a big guy with lots of hair and a full, red beard.
Weird, the way Mike glanced at me as the ringmaster walked away. Quick twitch of his eyes in my direction. Something closed in around me. That freedom slipped off and away, and I was left with nothing to say.
I tried, “So, it’s the final show.”
“Yeah,” Mike said. “Can you believe it?”
But a glance to the left like he was looking for an escape.
“Well, I sure had fun working with you guys,” I said.
“Yeah, us too. Us too.”
“So, what are you getting in here next?”
I was boring him. I could tell. My brain, groping for subjects, passed across the Sylvester, but I didn’t use it. Didn’t want to ruin something so sacred by speaking it out here in the real world.
We went back and forth for a little bit and then Mike said one of those things you say when you want to get the hell out of there. Something like, Well, I guess I’ll be getting up to my light.
I did what I always did. During the second half of the show, I laughed like mad for every little thing each one of them said. But I didn’t offer much of my own. Hugh/Richard said, “Shoo, girl, you’re in a good mood. You ready to get rid of us?”
Drum roll and applause, then the ringmaster’s voice over the arena sound system. Giving thanks to the sponsor and the prop crew and “our fantastic team of union spotlight operators. Let’s hear it for them!”
More applause. I was ready to go into, “Stand by to pick up flying act in center ring,” but that ringmaster boom kept going. Something he hadn’t said all season long:
“Ladies and gentlemen, there’s one more unsung hero of the show. Our circus lighting director.”
And then my name. And four spot ops, obviously all in on the plan, laughed like they hadn’t laughed for the rest of the date. Mike the loudest of all.
“I hope you didn’t see that coming,” he said. “I thought for sure you caught me.”
And four spotlights angled down on me at my light board.
Flashing strobe. No Sylvester.
[This story first appeared in print in The Ne’er-Do-Well #3: Working-Class Stories.]
Gigi Little’s work has appeared in the books Portland Noir, Spent, The Pacific Northwest Reader, The Frozen Moment, Brave on the Page, and Thumbnail Magazine. She also wrote and illustrated two children’s picture books, Wright Vs. Wrong and The Magical Trunk. Gigi is a member of Tom Spanbauer’s Dangerous Writing community and is graphic designer for Forest Avenue Press. By day, she works as Lead Visual Merchandiser for Powell’s Books. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, fine artist Stephen O’Donnell.
Before moving to Portland, Gigi spent fifteen years in the circus, as a lighting director and professional circus clown. She has disappeared into many magic baskets, and she can spin a mean lasso.
Visit Gigi at gigilittle.jimdo.com.