Mikon smoothed on the creamy white paint. It was cool to the touch, and felt like powder on his cheeks when it dried. Giving a smile in the mirror, he squirted red paint onto his palette. Ever so carefully he picked up his brush and began to paint a thin line around his mouth, nose and eyes. Gently he pulled a yellow lipstick out of his pocket and smoothed it onto his lips. He picked up a red wig, a jacket with a large star on the back and a pair of blue shoes, that squeaked when you stepped on the toe. There came a purr from behind him. He turned to face the direction from which the noise came. There on the floor, his tail swishing like a flag on a March day, was Kipper, Mikon's better half. Kipper was an Asian leopard. He was called that because he was born and raised in captivity in Asia, and then sent to a zoo in New York. Kipper had been part of Mikon's act for three years now. At the zoo they were going to put him down because he had a highly contagious virus that seemed fatal, but Mikon saved him. He bought him off. Yeah, he was still making payments on him, but he was worth it. Mikon was able to train him and make him part of the act in New York, and he'd been a shadow ever since. Mikon squatted down and fondled his ears. He gave a "thank-you" purr and jumped onto his front paws to do a headstand.
Mikon clapped and whispered in his ear, "Now do the trick just like we rehearsed it; don't ad lib, 'K?"
Kipper understood. He turned, squatted and pounced toward the wall. Standing up for the whole world to behold his skill, Kipper displayed a mouse he had just caught, and prowled out the big orange curtain separating Mikon's dressing room from the big top.
"Blech!" Mikon gagged. "That'll definitely have them rolling in the aisles."
Opening day at a circus was never easy. New town, new faces, new funny bones to tickle. Every one was different. You get used to one town, then you're leaving to go and get used to another one. The circus was a never-ending cycle.
To Mikon, the only thing he enjoyed more than rehearsing a routine with Kipper was performing a routine with Kipper, making children laugh. To make children laugh was his lot in life. Mikon snapped out of his daydream and slipped a flower into his coat lapel. Slipping out of the orange curtain he signaled the ringleader that he was ready. He waved to Kipper on the other side of the ring. He pawed at the ground to gesture a reply.
Mikon heard over the loudspeaker, "And now the amazing Zonko the Clown, and his confoundingly cute, hairball of a partner, Kipper the Asian Leopard."
At the sound of this the crowd's laughter immediately died down and the roar and applause increased tenfold. He felt invigoratingly happy, and proud to be a clown. Mikon made a mad dash for his juggling rings. It was time to start the show. The sound of the crowd increased another tenfold as Mikon rolled out on his little unicycle, and began juggling his gray pins. He watched the other door intently, any moment now Kipper would roll out. He was right, because out he rolled. The crowd whooped and hollered. Kipper was coming closer. At that moment, something dreadfully horrible happened. The ball that Kipper was rolling on popped, sending him soaring into the air. He collided with the gate of the tiger's cage. The lock ruptured open and the tigers began to escape. The crowd screamed and began to flood out all of the exits. Five minutes later they were pillaging hot-dog vendors and looting the ice-cream stand. Mikon spotted a group of them hemming Kipper in. They were surrounding him. Mikon grabbed a hefty club, belonging to the strong man, and began to beat the tigers away from Kipper. One of the tigers came around back of Mikon and brought his claws down on Mikon's shoulder. Mikon gave a yelp of pain, which equally matched the ones coming from Kipper's direction. It was too late. The screams coming from inside the circle of tigers were horrific. Yowling probably could have been heard all over the town. In the end, Kipper's lifeless body lay limp on the floor of the big top.
Mikon was crushed. Literally. His broken body and spirit were ordered bedridden by the circus doctor. He couldn't work, he couldn't sleep, could- n't eat. He was hopeless. The circus manager, Ronan, had to do something about it. He was losing money, and losing it fast. Without Zonko, the whole show was a laughing stock. Ronan figured it was time to give Zonko a break.
"But Ronan, I can get better, I've just gone through a rough patch, I'll get better," he repeated the second time.
"I know, Micki," he called him this, often, "but the circus is really suffering with you not on stage. It'll be better if you go home to the farm and relax."
"Relax?" Mikon questioned amiably, trying to keep his composure, "On a farm??"
"Look Micki, it's almost Christmas and . . ." Ronan paused, thinking of a sweet way to seal the deal, ". . . if you want I'll keep your space hot, until you get better."
Keeping a space hot meant that if and when Mikon felt better and wanted to come back, his old billing and stage name would be waiting.
"But . . ."
"No buts, kid; now go and get your stuff ready. Hank'll help you pack. Have a holly, jolly Christmas or whatever." Ronan turned around and went to sit at his desk and began to mumble to himself.
"Oh yeah, and one more thing," Ronan threw a bundle at Mikon and set back to his work.
He peeked inside. From what he could see, there was as much as four thousand dollars in it.
"Ronan, what's this for?"
"Oh, the zoo sent it over after they heard about Kipper; they figured that you'd be a little short so they sent a little present of five thousand big ones and said, 'Keep it, it's yours."
That ended it. Mikon was going home. But with a lot of cash.
"Micki" left the main office and headed back behind his orange curtain, stopping briefly only to wave at Lou-Lou, the trapeze artist. He'd known her ever since he was first joining the circus. He started as a pooper-scooper. His job was to scoop and scour out all the stalls of all the animals. From the flute-playing aardvarks to the zebras that could do arithmetic while swinging from their ankles. Yep, all of them. It was an easy task. Lou-Lou had introduced the idea "Zonko" to Ronan and had also recommended Micki for the job. He owed all he had to her. She did a double-twisting somersault and waved back. Mikon kept on his path for his orange curtain. Once away from the big top and into the serenity of his cubbyhole, backstage, he gently soaked a rag in warm water and began to wipe off his makeup. Tears streaming down his cheeks did most of the work for him and caused the colors to mix, creating a nasty brown color. When all the paint was wiped off he looked in the mirror. He wasn't the same guy anymore. He had changed. Carefully picking up his blue face pencil, he drew a solitary tear on his cheek and colored it in.
"That's better," he whispered under his breath.
He stepped out from behind the curtain, but not before saying a prayer. He prayed that his life on the farm would be successful, because he didn't know if he could bear returning to the circus.
On his way out Mikon said goodbye to all of his friends and to the animals.
"Oh, Micki, must you go?" Willetta, the bearded fat lady, pleaded.
He only shook his head.
". . . 'ello, my friend, do you 'appen to need any of ze, vhat do you call it, oh yes, ze mooney?" asked Hank the Strongman. (He was practicing his fake French accent.)
"Naw, man, I'm living with my parents," he answered.
Hank shot out his hand for Mikon to shake. He did so and came back with three crisp one-hundred-dollar bills.
"But Hank . . ." Hank laid his massive hand on Mikon's flimsy shoulder and said without his corny accent, "I've been saving it for a rainy day; well, kid, it's raining for you."
Mikon slid himself out from under his friend's hand and gestured goodbye. He stepped outside into what now was a torrential downpour.
Good ol' Hank, he thought to himself.
Mikon walked all along the busy streets of his hometown, Temple, Texas. The blue skies made him long to be back under the blue big top of his beloved circus. He found his way through the winding roads, taking shortcuts as they arose and as he remembered them, until finally he reached his parents' farmhouse. Actually, it didn't even look like a farmhouse. More like a millionaire's estate. The gardenias and roses (which seemed funny to him, seeing them so near to Christmas, after all of the places he'd been, with such cold climates nothing could grow in this season) planted around the blooming apple trees were as lovely as ever, but a little unkempt.
"Mamma must have been pretty busy to ignore her prized rose garden," Mikon suggested to himself. He sauntered up the flower-laden walkway. Stopping in mid-step he stared up at the brick residence. All of the windowsills were decked in the largest array of wreaths and garlands of spruce with holly berries and leaves nestled between the folds of shutters. "
They always did go out of the way on Christmas," Mikon mumbled to himself.
Mikon took another look at the house, at its massive presence. It stared back at him. He heard the cows in the pastures. This reminded him of the first time he rode a bull. It was the same day and by coincidence that very talent that made him leave. He wanted to join the circus. Mikon continued the rest of the way up the path and up onto the porch. He slinked through the door and set his bags down by the stairs. He looked down and saw a deep royal purple carpet. He remembered how, when he was young, he used to pretend that he was a king and that the whole house was rolled with this carpet, his carpet, like the red ones that the stars walked on on the way to the Emmys. Taking a sudden right into the kitchen he paused in the doorway and smiled as he caught a whiff of something in his nose. It was a pungent aroma of apples and milk. Maybe a hint of cinnamon. This was definitely a change from the dirt floors and smell of popcorn and roasted pecans at the circus. He stepped the rest of the way into the kitchen, and made his way over to the sink to wash his hands. Noticing the direction from which the smell was lingering, he crossed the kitchen in three strides and peered into the modest Buck stove in the corner.
"Oh," he said, "Mamma must be cooking." There was baking in a pie dish the most delicious-looking homemade pie he'd ever seen, a homemade apple pie baking in the oven. Mikon decided he'd have a piece, but noticing another pie on the windowsill he took an alternate route to getting his hands and mouth burned, and decided to eat a cooled piece of pie. He searched the kitchen for a knife. Finally stopping his search, he found one.
"Duh, Mikon," he mumbled to himself, having had the search end in the silverware drawer.
He pulled a plate from the rack above the sink and walked over to the windowsill. He was just about to cut himself a piece of pie, when a voice rang out behind him.
"Not so fast, thief, I've been wondering who's been stealing my pies!"
Mikon dropped his knife and with a clang it hit the floor. He knew that voice. Putting the plate down, he slowly began turning around. The woman saw his face and dropped the umbrella she had been using for protection.
"Hello, Mamma," the words stumbled impolitely out of his mouth.
"Mikon, is that you?" she asked stunned.
"Yes, Mamma," he answered, as his brown cheeks went pink and his blue eyes cast downward.
"Oh, my Mikon!" she cried.
She untied her apron to reveal an orange sundress with blue and green tulips, and throwing her arms in the air she glided toward her son.
"Oh, Mikon," she said, as she wrapped her arms around her son, "I'm so glad to see you!! Papa (sob) come and (sniffle) see our visitor (hiccup)!!" she shouted at the top of her lungs toward the hallway.
"Hold on!" rang a voice from up the stairs. "If it's them darned creditors again I'll . . ." he paused as he came down the last step and turned to come into the kitchen. Dressed in his overalls and with a Sunday paper in his hand he shouted at the top of his lungs, "Mikon!!"
He ran at his son like a freight train full speed ahead, to welcome him. Mikon pulled his arm out of the way just in time, and felt a surge of pain. He let out a howl.
"Oh, Mikon, what's . . ."
"Sit down, Mamma, I'll explain everything."
They sat down at the table and nibbled at pie. Mikon explained to them his reason for being there and what had happened to Kipper. Then it was his turn for questions.
"What did you mean when you said creditors, Papa?"
"Well, son, you might as well know," he replied.
Mamma cut in, "We're losing the farm, Mikon, unless we come up with five thousand dollars; the bank has already taken possession of most of the animals we have and will take the farm if we don't come up with the mortgage money. We have until January."
Mikon made them explain everything. They did. He needed to lie down.
He made his way up to his old bedroom and settled in on the down pillows. No sooner, it felt, had Mikon lay down than it was time to get up. He roused himself, gave a immense yawn and dressed. Walking down the stairs he greeted his mamma with a "good morning."
"Good afternoon's more like it; you've slept the day away, although I don't know if I've ever heard of anyone who was more entitled to it," his mamma answered.
"Well, well, well, look who's up with the cock."
Mikon turned, and shouted, "Prue!!"
Prue was an old high-school girlfriend, and here she was, under his roof. Standing there in her tan sandals, sundress, and straw hat. He didn't know what to think. He had so many questions to ask her. They sat and talked and told each other about their professions. She was a nurse, so his mother had called her to come over and take care of him for a while. She had always lived on the farm two miles down the road. Their specialty was chickens and cows. Mikon was glad to have her by his side. He had chosen the circus over a life with her just out of college. He'd regretted it ever since. But the circus life still appealed to him.
Over the next few weeks Prue took care of him. She came every day from eight AM to six PM. Every day he grew more fond of her, and their relationship intensified. One Tuesday she came in and Mikon was still in bed. She went in to wake him and found that he was on the floor all twisted in his covers. Tugging on one end of the blanket, she rolled him out of the core of tangled covers and he tumbled onto the floor.
"Wake up!" she shouted. He didn't move. She bent down closer to his ear. "Wake . . ." she was interrupted when he turned over quick as a flash and had her by the ribs tickling her. She giggled so hard she couldn't breathe and she started hiccupping. He stopped and she gasped.
"That'll teach you not to snatch a man's cover away from him."
He grabbed her arm and pulled her to her feet. They stopped. He had her by the arm and she had her free arm around his neck. Gazing into each other's eyes, they kissed. Not a quick peck on the lips but a long, slow, passionate kiss.
"Marry me?" he whispered softly in her ear.
"Yes!" she exclaimed at the top of a murmur.
Outside the snow was falling and downstairs Mamma was cooking away. Mikon had the woman he loved and the hope of a new life within arm's reach, all he had to do was reach out and take them. Life was a bull. He grabbed on by the horns.
ONE MONTH LATER, DECEMBER 24
Jingle bells, jingle bells
Jingle all the way,
Oh what fun it is to ride
In a one-horse open sleigh, hey!
* * *
"All right, everyone! Let the opening of presents begin!" Mikon indulged in everyone's present unwrapping. He was saving the best for last.
"Listen, everyone, I've got something to say." All eyes in the room were focused on him. "Papa, Mamma, I've got something special for you." He pulled a manila envelope out of his pocket and handed it to his papa. He opened it with care and read it aloud.
The property of one Trey Coulter, father to Mikon Coulter, has been bought and paid for by one Mikon Coulter on December 19th, 2002. Thank you for acting so swiftly on our request to pay off your debts.
William A. Banlie
"Ohmygosh!" Mamma exclaimed.
"Why, Mikon, how can I ever thank you, but what are we going to do with the farm? All the animals were seized by the bank."
"Thought you'd never ask, Papa," Mikon announced, "I want to ask your permission to turn it into a retirement home for circus animals. They can't be let back into the wild, they're trained, so I thought we could make a special place for them."
"That's a wonderful idea, son," Papa answered.
"I'd like to make a toast," Papa began, "to Mikon and his lovely new bride, and to this farm, may it always prosper as a growing business.
"Hear, hear," the party guests answered in unison. Mikon looked deep into his bride's eyes. "I love you, Mrs. Prudence Coulter," he said.
"And I love you, Mr. Micki Coulter, I've got something to tell you . . . I'm pregnant."
* * *
SEVEN YEARS LATER
"Daddy, wait up!!" She came running up behind him and pulled on his jacket.
Mikon slung Gabryela over his shoulders and dug his fingers into her ribs. She giggled with delight.
"Daddy, it's my birthday and I'm seven now! You're not 'upposed to tickle me, I'm growed up!" she said with a feigning look of intelligence on her brow.
"Oh, really??" He paused, then began the tickle session again. Again she giggled with glee. Mikon loved to make her laugh. In fact, there was nothing else in the world he'd rather do than make her laugh and see her smile. Her smiling face.
"Oh now, you two, come on, the horses are this way."
The crowds at the retirement farm were endlessly booming with new visitors each year. Even though this was a retirement farm, people came from miles around to ride the old elephants and hold the monkeys. The horses were Ella's favorite place to visit. She loved riding the prancing stallions and the trotting mares. Her favorite by far was a horse named after Daddy's leopard, Kipper. Kipper the Second they called him. He was a feisty brute with blue-green eyes. He never let anyone but Ella ride him. Today of all days he was as mean as ever and rearing ferociously. Ella still wanted to ride him. They placed the little girl on the horse's saddle warily so as not to spook him. Mikon held the rope and began to lead the magnificent stallion around the paddock as Ella squealed with delight. This spooked him, and Ella was told to keep quiet. But she couldn't keep it in; she screamed at the top of her lungs. This was too much for Kipper the Second and he reared up with such a might that he kicked Mikon in the back, sending him hurtling through the air. Ella was thrown off and out of the paddock. The last thing Mikon remembered was everything going black. When he came to he could see a few feet away, his baby was on her back, blood seeping slowly away from her, staining the clothes of the onlookers and those crouched beside her, then darkness again.
Mikon awoke in the hospital and could barely hold his eyes open. His wife was by his side, so he tried to remain calm.
"Where's Ella?" he managed to choke out.
"Don't worry about that now," his wife said, gently squeezing his hand.
"Where is she?" he managed to repeat himself.
"Honey, she didn't make it," his wife said, tears falling from her lashes.
At that moment Mikon wished more than ever that he could see his little girl again. Make his baby smile. Longing to see her face light up like a candle. He couldn't. It was all black once more.
* * *
NOT LONG AFTER
Mikon smoothed on the creamy white paint. It was cool to the touch, and felt like powder on his cheeks when it dried. Giving a frown in the mirror, he squirted red paint onto his palette. Ever so carefully he picked up his brush and began to paint a thin line around his mouth, nose and eyes. Gently he pulled a yellow lipstick out of his pocket and smoothed it onto his lips. He picked up a red wig, a jacket with a large star on the back and a pair of blue shoes, that squeaked when you stepped on the toe, and sliding all three on, he remembered back. Slowly the memories flooded his brain like a tidal wave. Once again he pulled out a blue pencil and drew a solitary blue tear on his cheek.
Back behind the big orange curtain Mikon could hear the roar of the crowd. The announcer came on and introduced him. He walked slowly out to the center ring. Again the blare of the crowd intensified.
Plastering a smile on his face he searched the crowd for Prue. He saw her standing in the front row, waving a sign reading, "Make her smile!!"