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FICTION / Entrance of the Gladiators / Don Robishaw

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February 1972
Boston, Massachusetts  

Ezekiel Swede Karlsson lives in a walk-in-van, more like a walk-in freezer, and attends night school in an effort to use his GI Bill benefits before the ten year statute runs out. How cold is it? God and Ezekiel know. 

Life’s difficult for The Swede these days. He’s trying to escape a bad living situation. 

Swede picks up work here and there, like tonight he’s got a temp job cleaning up after a circus performance at ‘The Gahden.’ 

Swede sweeps from the top row to the arena floor. He grips a broom and shakes his head. He’s not planning upon returning tomorrow night. Swede has trouble fitting his giant ‘sequoias’ between the seats to sweep up popcorn boxes, candy wrappers, and cotton candy sticks. Bending to pick up a nickel, his foot slips. Tipsy… he trips, tumbles two rows ahead, and yells, “Ahhh, shit.” 

The Swede’s mind drifts… a ten year effort and still no degree. Swede gets strange ideas when he hears himself think, like there’s some point to my existence. Since there isn’t, why not join the circus, again. He continues to dream of better days.

Swede teeters into the employment officeand finds a gentlemen behind a desk. He tilts back, looks up, flattens out a well oiled pencil-thin mustache, stands in his checker-board-suit and bowtie, and offers up a slippery grip. They shake. “Bill Collins, Technical Director, here.”

Swede covers his face to hide his whiskey-laden-breath, “I’m interested in work with the circus.”

“You’re hired. Oh yeah, you’ll be assisting with the circus animals.” The Swede loves animals.

“I’m not sweeping under those seats again.” 

“No problem.” Trying to hide a smirk, the TD’s thinking,no, just bear shit, that’s all.

 

March 1972
Montreal, Canada  

The buses pull out of bean-town. Swede makes a move on the Russian Dog Trainer. A relationship develops between him and Lady Lada. They spend a month hanging out in Montreal.   

Lada’s older than Swede, but looks younger. She’s been training dogs since she was a pup herself, back in the USSR before immigrating to the US. Lada fell in love with dogs during the siege at Leningrad. Germans blockaded the city for two years, as a million people died. Starving people ate most of the dogs. As a child she protected strays by keeping them hidden in her basement. 

Nikita, her Russian Wolfhound is often found back stage sipping overproof spirits with a roustabout called, The Mad Greek Fisherman.

 

April to June 1972
Riding the rails 
Final Destination: Vancouver.

After one month at the Maurice Richard Stadium in Montreal, next stop on the itinerary: Ottawa. A northwest bound special train takes the circus family two thousand, two-hundred and ninety-four miles through six scenic provinces. After the final performance in Ottawa the engine roars and rumbles and the tracks rattle and the whistle blows and westward ho and on to Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary, through the Rockies to cross paths with Jasper, and two months later round a curve as the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean. The train comes to a crawl to finish up the tour in British Columbia.

Final stop, Vancouver. There’s a problem on day one. Management needs the kids from the Children’s Hospital to sit closer, so as to be ale to squeeze in a few more seats. At the same time, the Canadian government seeks improved security.

Ten roustabouts return backstage at the arena. The TD assigns them to various tasks. “If a bear comes out during the act, chase the bastard back into the ring.”

Swede’s jaw tightens, “Packing more seats ain’t gonna fill the producers pockets, with lawyers up their asses. For Christ Sake’s, move the kids back. Man, what if that doesn’t—.”

“Demonstrate your all state wrestling moves. That’s why I hired you!”

Swede thinks, I’d like to kill this son-of-a-bitch.

“You’ll be all right, Collins,” says The Greek Fisherman, son of The Bearded Lady. “Ya know what mother would do if she—.” He rubs his eyes. “She’d put a fish-hook right up your ass and drag you into the ring.”

With matching beards and weight, Fisherman and mom had a special tag-team wrestling clown act. She died. He’s been reduced in stature to a common roustabout. Once a star; he’s no longer billed as The Mad Greek Fisherman.

Hands moving in a jerky motion, Collins rubs sweat off his neck, “Knock it off boys. You got your orders.” An unseen shiver runs down his backside. “The show must go on!” Collins walks away.

In a rare moment, before the opening act, Swede reaches deep into his white overalls for a ring box. Swede thinks, Lady Lada, tomorrow night my dear. Still, The Swede’s very shy around women. He doesn’t even know if the Russian dog trainer has real strong feelings for him.

The Swede’s built like a brick shit-house and challenges the strongmen to arm wrestling contests. He always wins. Swede’s just another lonely tough guy with a sad history of failures. He has a soft spot for children in wheelchairs and pulls lollipops from behind their ears. They squeal with delight. His problem: He over drinks. 

With five minutes to go before the first performance of the trained bears, several roustabouts take their position around the outside of the ring. They squat down. Swede adjusts himself.                                 

Fisherman cups his palm close to Swede’s ear, and says, “Tight jeans, eh?”

“Like a cheap hotel.”

“What do you mean?”

“No ball room.”

Fisherman shakes his head, “You’re a crazy bastard, ya know.”

“You’ll see, if a bear gets near the children.”

“Then it’s round one, Collins and me, center ring.” 

Near tears, Swede says, “Once, I was a clown… use to make the children laugh.” 

There’s silence. In the darkened arena, lights sparkle from a spinning overhead mirror-ball. The ringmaster enters the ring to that old jazz favorite, ‘Take the A Train.’ Lights come back on. Standing in tails, the ringmaster removes his top hat, bows, and removes the mike from its cradle and announces, “Ladiesand gentlemen, boys and girls, it’s show time!”

Crimson grand curtains lift, gold curtains part, as three costumed bears roll up the back stage ramp on oversized motorcycles with training wheels. They enter the ring upstage center, turn left, and circle the ring several times, as the orchestra plays, ‘Entrance of the Gladiators.’

On hind legs three adult bears and a cub enter the ring wearing bright colored costumes. Swede has become especially fond of one of the adults, Little Brother. The cub carries a jump rope. Imagine children’s laughter and delight as two adult bears swing a rope side to side as a cub jumps to Tchaikovsky’s,Nutcracker Suite.’

The earth shakes, arena lights go out, music stops, thus disrupting the routine. Bears miss their all important musical cue and their food pellet rewards. When the lights return, Little Brother has vaulted over the perimeter ring. Bewildered, two adults waddle towards the audience.

A girl on crutches screams, slips, and tumbles over a boy in a wheelchair. Shrieking sounds from hysterical children add to the confusion.

Two circus strongmen stuff food pellets into one of the hungry bear’s muzzled mouth, tackle, tranquilize him, and drag the bear backstage.

Meanwhile, Little Brother knocks wheelchairs over, causing injuries. Swede rams a shoulder into its ribs. Both fists raised and long blond hair flowing, like Conan The Barbarian. Swede’s face-to-face with Little Brother. Swede punches Little Brother in the nose and ducks as he feels a breeze whizz by his ears.

Little Brother roars, attracting the attention of Big Brother, still in the center ring. 

Nine-hundred pounds and in a bad mood. You don’t want to mess with this son-of-a-bitch when he gets that way. 

Big Brother charges. Swede checks on the children’s safety. Ninety-feet and moving at forty MPH, he chews off the muzzle. At twenty-feet, stops and stands, all ten feet of him.

Along the catwalk, above center stage a sharpshooter has Big Brother in his crosshairs. He fires a shot, directed at the bear’s heart.

Time freezes.

A near miss, but still able to maul The Swede. He takes a second shot, a direct hit. Too late as Little Brother pounces on Swede. With a third shot the sharpshooter drops another bear. The cub licks Little Brother’s face. Performers and staff are saddened and protest.

February, 1973
San Francisco California 

At a special ceremony, President Nixon awards Swede with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He says, “Ezekiel Swede Karlsson, you saved the lives of many children. Don’t ever think again that there’s no point to your existence. You’re a brave man, sir.”          

Today, the former circus clown’s a permanent resident at a VA Hospital and watches ‘Water for Elephants’ reruns and other circus movies with his wife Lada Karlsson and Little Swede at his side. 

Tom Collins was last seen in the Yukon… still running from The Mad Greek Fisherman


Before Don Robishaw stopped working to write, he ran educational programs for homeless shelters. His work has recently appeared in Literary Orphans, Crack-the-Spine, Open: Journal of Arts and Letters, Flash Fiction Magazine, O’ Dark Thirty, with additional stories forthcoming in The Remembered Arts and The J.J. Outre Review. Many of the characters he developed have been homeless, served for periods of time in the military, or are based upon archetypes or sterotypes he's met while on the road.