Pain is God’s little way of reminding you you’re still alive, thought Betsy Allen Wrench as she made her way slowly out of bed and into the bathroom. “Thank you, Lord,” she groaned as she hiked up her nightgown and plopped down on the toilet, “but if it’s all the same to you I’d rather not be reminded I’m still alive quite so often or quite so intensely.”
God’s always got your back . . . and your arms and legs and neck and fingers and toes and muscles and tendons and sinews . . . and. . . . She ran out of ands. She ached. She peed. She peed with relief, but she still ached. Such is the price of fame, she thought with a certain irony.
Fame drives pain, or maybe vice versa, and Betsy Allen Wrench was not a stranger to fame. She’d made her mark. The usual crowd had adulated her affectionately, mindlessly, and for a time she’d lapped it up like a puppy to milk in a dish. It was addictive, she knew it. But she also knew that fame comes with a price. Fame can be and is an ephemeral thing; one day it’s there in all its tinsel glory, the next day it’s gone with Thursday’s trash pickup, and somebody else is king or queen of the heap. So it had been with her. It had lasted about a dozen years, but the concomitant pain gradually increased until it was no fun anymore.
As her career was about to tank — had tanked, in fact — she wasn’t stupid. Betsy heaved a sigh. She was now in southern Kansas, the season was ending here in a couple of days. Kansas was as good a place as any to call it quits.
“Time to pack the suitcase and get out of Dodge,” she exclaimed, stood up, flushed the toilet with conviction, and went to get dressed. Fame or no fame, the day had finally come that she’d had enough. She was done for. She needed to pay a visit to her boss.
Betsy’s fame was not that of the current rage. Not in acting, not in sports, not in writing, or in music, teaching, business, politics, or science. And certainly not in anything notorious. Her fame was as a circus performer. Back in the day when circuses, though on the wane for years, were still a popular source of entertainment for the masses in rural America, she’d attached herself to one of the itinerant outfits that stuck pretty much to the corn-belt regions of the North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas. Betsy Allen Wrench was this circus’s star contortionist.
In her prime Betsy could tie herself into knots, humanly impossible knots — overhand, figure eight, bowline, studding sail and hitches galore was the claim. She was so famous for her tortuosities that the circus featured her variously in those six states as Sheepshank Shelly, Rubber Woman, Knotty Girl, and Byzantina, the long-lost fourth Ross Sister. Though her name was Betsy, Circelli’s Circulating Cirrostrati Circus (aka Triple Cirs Circus, after the three Circelli brothers: Cirillo, Ciriaco and Cirino, formerly a team of high-wire aerialists) was big on alliteration, and so ‘Shelly’ matched better with Sheepshank than did Betsy. Rubber Woman was no exaggeration. Her ability to bend and twist and flex and curl and tangle and slither more than 360 degrees in practically any direction certainly made her seem to be made from caucho. Knotty Girl was a natural play on ‘naughty girl,’ both for her ability to tie herself into knots and for the very unladylike positions her profession often required of her. The last one — Byzantina, the long-lost Ross Sister — of course was also a play on the byzantine convolutions of her act, though the missing Ross Sister was utter nonsense. There were nearly two whole generations that separated her from the famous Ross Sisters supple singing sensation, not to mention the fact that Betsy couldn’t carry a tune if her life depended on it.
Perhaps not, but she could tie herself into knots like nobody else. And for the better part of her teens and into the early twenties she drew crowds whenever the Triple Cirs Circus came to town. Mesmerized doctors who had seen her act — the kind of doctors that fool around with bones and muscles and sinews and joints — wanted to carry her off to their laboratories, take x-rays, core samples, ultrasounds and MRIs and then perform experiments, perhaps even vivisection, to see what preternatural phenomenon was going on in her body that made her so übermalleable. She seemed like she possessed latex bones. Neoprene, it was claimed . . . Hypalon™ even. She was unique, singular, unparalleled. DuPont allegedly sent out their people to acquire her for research. Betsy demurred, however, and told them all to pay the circus entry fee to see the performance or get the hell out of her face. That was all she was going to show any of them.
Those days were past. Knotty Girl was no longer so knotty. She’d finally lost her knottability. She would not wait for the circus manager, Cirillo Circelli, to dismiss her. She knocked on his trailer door. He opened, saw her cringe with pain. He almost closed the door again. He knew what was coming. He sighed and let her in.
“I’ve had it, boss,” she whimpered. “This broad’s bod’s finally gone abroad. I couldn’t twist myself into a pretzel anymore even if it hadn’t been baked yet. The pain is just too intense now. I won’t embarrass you by waiting until you sack me. I quit.”
Cirillo Circelli protested; Betsy was adamant. Cirillo nearly wept. Then he did weep. “Your talent! God-given! You were the best, kid,” he sobbed. “You put me and my brothers’ circus on the map. You’re like a daughter to me. It kills me to see you leaving. But listen, let’s not precipitate things, okay? There must be something else you can do. I can’t just throw you to the dogs!”
Betsy gaped at him. “Like what? What else can I do besides tying myself into half hitches and hawser bends?”
Cirillo bunched up his face in concentration, then shrugged. “Oh, hell, how should I know? Wait! Hold on! Of course! Acrobatics! I bet you’d be terrific as a tightrope walker! Or-or an aerialist! I could teach you!”
She smiled sadly and shook her head. “Nah. Gives me vertigo even thinking about climbing a foot stool. I’m — was — only good with my hands, elbows, knees or toes tied fast to the ground.”
“But . . . .”
“In any case, I’ve lost the limberness, the nimbleness, it takes for that job. It’d be too dangerous. I’d end up falling or dropping a partner. I’d rather be cleaning out the lion cages than running that risk, boss, but you already know if I get within three yards of the animals I break out in hives.”
That last part was a lie. She’d lived side-by-side the circus beasts for years without so much as a sneeze. But Betsy was ready to leave whether another job was there for the asking or not. She knew she was no longer circus material. Frayed rope, so to speak. Still, Cirillo wasn’t ready to let her go quite so easily, and they argued back and forth for hours, he trying to dissuade her, she insisting that her elastic days were over and that there was little else in the circus that suited her. Circelli finally gave up trying and threw up his hands.
“All right! All right! Quit, then! But what are you going to do now?”
Betsy shrugged. “Not sure yet. But believe it or not, over the years I’ve managed to save some money at this gig, so I’ve got wiggle room to hunt around for something else to do. Need to see my folks first, of course. It’s been way too long.” She patted Cirillo’s fat cheeks and smooched his forehead. “Don’t worry about me, boss. I’m not planning to starve to death just because I can’t tie myself into a decent clove hitch or a lark’s head anymore.”
He sputtered a raspberry of mock derision. “Hey, who are you kidding? You’ve never done a lark’s head in your life, sweetie. You’d need two people for that one.”
Betsy cocked her head and winked at him. “Well, maybe I better just find me a feller, then.”
He laughed and gave her a hug. “I hope you do!”
She hoped so, too, but it wouldn’t be anybody from the circus world. It was a hard, grueling, often cruel business, rarely stable. She loved her co-workers more than her own family, but she swore she’d never marry a carny. ‘Only sensible people need apply’ had been her sworn eligibility oath.
The laid-away savings was flimflam, of course. As was the wiggle room. Who was the soul who could squirrel away money working for a gypsy carny show plowing the farm circuit? Betsy had just enough cash to drive to her folks’ place and a checking account which had never seen more than a grand and a half, tops, festering there at any one time.
After the last circus performance of the season, after Betsy had received a standing ovation from her fans, Cirillo Circelli, his brothers Ciriaco and Cirino, and the rest of the Triple Cirs Circus troupe gave her a rousing going-away party, which lasted most of the night, and then bid her a tearful and reluctant goodbye the next morning. She had a good cry of her own later in the privacy of her circus trailer, blew her nose, washed her face, tossed her foot locker and a beatup suitcase in the trunk of her equally beat-up Chevy, and drove away, refusing to look at her rear view mirror. A half hour later she found a cheap motel in Dodge City to stay a couple of nights to rest and to plan her return home.
Only she had no real home to plan a return to. Her parents long ago said they’d welcome her into theirs with open arms whenever she wished, but she would neither be a burden to them nor be burdened by them. Even now, after all these years away, she’d hesitated going back. Piltdown, Nevada, wasn’t exactly the dream town city folk teemed to when they retired. It certainly hadn’t been hers. She had not let her parents know she was on her way back, because she wasn’t sure that’s where she ever wanted to go to again. But after a day at the motel, she decided just to make a vacation of it at first, do a little sightseeing, wherever the road took her, before heading off for Piltdown.
A week and a half later, a little after noon, the road took Betsy finally to that small backwater in southern Nevada that she once called home. She wasn’t certain that it could even be technically considered a backwater, since it was a parched desert town the size of a postage stamp in the middle of nowhere with scarcely enough water it could call its own. This was where she had been born and raised, also the town which she’d slithered away from twelve years before . . . And joined a ragtag circus just because she was as lithe as a sidewinder, of all things. She shook her head in dismay.
“What in God’s name was I thinking?”
Still, in those twelve years hadn’t she’d made a name for herself, several names, weird though they were — and in as weird a fashion? Hadn’t she’d been famous in six states? Hadn’t she’d entertained thousands; brought delight and awe to a multitude? All that, and yet, here she was again — idling at the border of a godforsaken podunk where absolutely nobody knew her from Adam anymore but her mother and father — washed up, almost broke, no future prospects in sight, exhausted, aching with pain that was just short of agony. Through a dirt-spattered windshield she peered across that border. And finally sighed.
“Well, pain is God’s little way of reminding you you’re still alive, after all, ain’t it? And I’m still alive, ain’t I!”
Former Knotty Girl Betsy Allen Wrench ground gears and headed into town.