The Greatest Show on Earth

The first 500 words of my forthcoming novel, Tragic Lovers on the Radio.

There’s this old couple that gets around. Maybe you’ve seen them. They’ve been touring the country for years, ever since America elected its first actor for president. They started off as part of the Greatest Generation Fireworks & Comedy Extravaganza, doing decent business at casinos and conventions until their hallucinations and tantrums began causing problems. At a fundraiser in Houston the husband launched into a profane tirade about the military, raising the house lights and pointing at specific members of the audience including the Secretary of Defense, saying he refused to perform for “a bunch of pornographic machine-gunning murderers.” Although this earned the couple some stock with the underground scene, the punk rockers and break-dancers didn’t know what to make of their comic mambo routines and clumsy impressions of Hubert Humphrey and Dorothy Parker. Soon they were kicked down to the county fair circuit where they drank all the booze, spiked the acrobats’ water with a particularly nasty strain of LSD called Black Sunshine, and set enough tents on fire while cuddling up with cigarettes that even the Alabama carnies wouldn’t have anything to do with them. So they began hitching from city to city, busking on street corners and subway stations and that’s probably where you’ve seen them.

Nobody knows their real names, although there are persistent rumors that he was once a billion-dollar account man on Madison Avenue who invented Black Friday sales and she was an Italian model who appeared in Vogue throughout the 1960s as one of its “downtown personalities.” If you look at the controversial 1962 photo of Estelle Luna kneeling on the runway in a short gown made from a chainlink fence with three strategically placed “Hands Off Cuba” buttons, there is a distinct resemblance. And maybe the husband is David Parker, the man grinning on the 1981 cover of Forbes under the headline “Black is the New Green.” But there’s no way to be sure because now they’re completely wrecked, way past elderly and a few clicks beyond haggard, a ghostly blur of yellow-white hair and dangling cheeks. Time has given up on them, no longer bothered that they’re still alive. They’re also completely mad, wearing white make-up that strikes an eerie middle ground between clown and mime with inverted triangles on their cheeks applied with cigarette ash, staggering down the street grinning with cherry red lipstick smeared around their mouths, their make-up running in the New Orleans or Phoenix sun. People turn away, their children erupt in tears. But the old-timers will tell you they used to be stars.

Watch them closely now. She’s propped against the wall of a Walgreens with a cardboard sign that asks “Are you righteous?” while he fishes a half-smoked Newport out of a sidewalk crack with a long fingernail. Look at the little kid joy in his eyes as he brings the prize to her, letting her puff away first. Notice the terror in her eyes as he begins to cough, sputter, and battle for air before popping to his feet and doing a goofy little jig to blot out her worries, to prove that he’s feeling just fine and won’t leave her alone out here. She giggles at this routine she’s seen a thousand times and soon they’re dancing together, waving their arms in the middle of traffic, howling and whooping, singing ‘baby don’t fear the reaper’, a whirlwind of rags, streaked make-up, and flying hair. And when you see how their eyes shimmer when they look at one another, you feel a flicker of envy. You might even wonder if they might be on to something.

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