First of May1

by Robert Cipriano

I’m standing on a mountain 
of gravel by the train station in a quiet town, 
waiting for my ride to a new circus
in my seventh summer as a roustabout2.
It’s running late, and the sun begins to set
as I look for a truck, something heavy-duty 
like I’m used to in this line of work
but it’s a beat up blue van, with scuffed stars 
and a cracked clown peeling off 
its paint that hurtles into the lot,
skidding, scattering the rocks. 
Two burly, bearded, beer-bellied
roustabouts with a shaggy sheep dog 
have come to pick me up.
The men look cobbled out of clods 
baked solid in the sun, bronzed
and built like out-of-shape Olympians. 
One wears a Robin Hood hat, barefoot 
with harlequin tights, the other sports a child’s 
costume cape and fanny pack, both salvaged 
from a “Free Box” on some grandma’s lawn.
Seeing all of me in one glance: 
my sapling frame fresh from the city, 
green like the first of May, they frown
like clowns, at odds with the humor of their clothes,
but it’s those disappointed looks alone 
which make me want to see this mud show3 to the end.
I present my fist like a snout for the dog to sniff, 
and shake the bear pad palms of the men, 
admiring the nails filed by and for their purpose, 
set strong like clams half-embedded in the mud, 
they swallow my hand as softly as a tiger 
lifts a cub in its jaws. 
Then, with careless ferocity, they toss 
the duffel bags full of everything 
I am and own into the van, while the dog
ignores my friendly touch, squeezing 
next to him in the back seat.
The sun’s behind the mountains when we stop 
at a roadside stand, and I wait in line to 
buy us maple creemees4 while they and the dog 
dig in the garbage cans, cutting in front 
of the wholesome, disgruntled families 
to offer me cold, half-eaten french fries,
which I partake of like a sacrament
and they like a delicacy, before wolfing down 
my gift of ice cream with as much pleasure
as contempt for being bought and sold.
It’s dark when we roll off the highway 
onto a forest road, where the only light 
comes from the car, flickering on the trees 
which seem to spin like empty slots 
on a zoetrope5, and without a word they turn 
the engine off, I hear the inner rumbling stop, 
and we fly as fast as wheels can go in neutral. 
Somehow, I feel safer in this silence than I did before
as Robin Hood, with his hands on the wheel 
and his head half-turned to face me,
tells the story of an acrobat who screamed for his life
on this same winding wooded path,
on this same rite of passage, we laugh
and the dog stirs from his sleep,
I rest my hand on him, then
the only sound is hollow tires 
rolling, grinding dust, 
racing downhill 
in the dark.
1. Nickname of new hands in circus work.
2. A circus laborer.
3. Circuses that play small and unconventional venues, often moving every other day.
4. Vermont soft-serve ice cream made with real maple syrup.
5. “A 19th-century optical toy consisting of a cylinder with a series of pictures on the inner surface that, when viewed through slits with the cylinder rotating, give an impression of continuous motion”–Oxford Dictionary.