The International Writers Magazine
:Circus Follies

Gladys and Bruno
Richard Corwin

Bruno discovered the circus, eighteen years earlier, as a young twenty-eight inch dwarf from Bulgaria. He was discovered by The Bingling Brothers, a touring American Circus, and by 1952 had become an international star as the world’s smallest magician.

In the diminutive social circle of circus performers Bruno had many friends and discovered his soul mate, fell in love and married the star of the sideshow. Wilma’s dermal deformity of mysterious scales, gave her top sideshow billing as the Alligator Woman. Despite their vast differences, Bruno and Wilma seemed happy. Together they enjoyed top billing and drew curious tent filling crowds at each performance.

Life was good and as living, side-show spectacles found joy in each others arms. But intimate relations were not without its challenges. Because of his skill performing magical tricks Bruno’s small, skillful and supple hands were able to create conjugal bliss.

With time the twenty-eight inch Bruno became confident enough to expand his repertoire of magic tricks. He was able to make small objects like rabbits, mice, birds, and fruit vanish. Then the day came when he felt it was time to try something of a grander scale. His magical skills had developed to an artistic level of performance. The lesser and smaller mysterious illusions now bored him. It was time for the ultimate test; to make something larger disappear.

He began by practicing with his new bride. As he succeeded his amazed audiences grew larger. They watched quietly as the Alligator Woman stepped into a wood box. Bruno would wrap the box in chains then fasten several padlocks to tightly encase the alligator woman inside.

Lights dimmed and Bruno danced around the box waving his cane, shouting some incantations as a curtain fell from above, then rushed to unfasten the chain as the curtain rose, open the box and there would be no more alligator woman. The box was empty. The audience would stand and shout for more. After the audience calmed down, she would reappear sometimes on a high trapeze or an elephant or sometimes in a small clown car circling the center ring. Their act made the circus owners happy and drove the spectator’s crazy with excitement.

There were times when Bruno would vanish, leaving the Alligator Woman standing alone with an empty box. Night after night; town after town, the audiences were stunned, excited and stood applauding the dwarf’s baffling magic.

The Alligator Woman, clowns, horses, llamas, the bearded lady, and anything or anyone Bruno chose for his act would disappear before awe struck circus goers. His fame spread. The big top filled. Audiences screamed with delight. The Alligator Woman was happy, no longer a freak on the sideshow, and she shared in Bruno’s prominence and, most notably, Mr. Bingling was happy.
Then along came Gladys.

Gladys, a young 1500 pound Ugandan hippopotamus, was newly purchased from a small bankrupt zoo in Indiana. She was timid but when she met Bruno it was love at first sight. Gladys was a born performer and like a large puppy followed Bruno as he went about his day to day routine.

Soon after, with very little coaxing and training, Gladys proudly stepped into center ring with Bruno and the Alligator Woman. A dynamic team was born and the three were quite a sight. Bruno, wearing his new black derby to make himself appear taller, rode in atop Gladys as the Alligator Woman, with sequined scales that glistened under the lights, walked beside them.

Bruno would begin the performance with some simple magic tricks as Gladys and The Alligator Woman watched. Gladys would nod her head, open and shut her huge mouth and the Alligator Woman pranced about proudly as Bruno performed his trickery. Then it was on with the disappearing act that everyone came to see; the act that made him famous.

Some observers remarked that Gladys smirked when Bruno made his bride disappear from the wood box but when he vanished she became restless, agitated and seemed disoriented until he reappeared. It wasn’t long before Bruno began using the more popular Gladys in the act more frequently than his alligator bride. The audience’s reaction was at a fever pitch when the young hippo opened her great jaws then grunted and smiled (so some say) just before she disappeared.

A special circular curtain had been constructed with a hidden, black painted and covered platform to support Gladys’ weight. The screen would drop from above over the stage hiding the two from the audiences’ view. Seconds later the curtain would rise quickly. Gladys would be gone; sometimes Bruno; sometimes both would disappear. The curtain worked well.

It wasn’t long before Gladys replaced the Alligator Woman altogether. The Alligator Woman was not happy. Following each night’s performance, Gladys would wait outside Bruno’s trailer until morning then follow Bruno as he went about his daily circus business. Gladys was happy.
Then along came Frank.

Frank, a photographer and journalist with a local paper and drop out from big city journalism stress, was enjoying a near anonymous life in the small town. Frank had developed a large red, vein-stressed nose from years of drinking that protruded from two large black circles under reddened eyes. He was anything but good looking. He drank more to smother his loneliness than the stresses of the business. The more he drank the better he thought he looked.

Then along came the circus.
As the circus approached town, Frank decided to do a human interest story on circus performers; an excuse for a paid day off. Perhaps he could find some place to hang out for awhile and maybe write something more interesting than the usual obituary or trite editorial comments on local politics.

The circus paraded through town with Bruno in the lead as the star performer riding Gladys. Behind them the band and calliope played as they marched ahead of trapeze artists, wagons with lions, elephants, clowns teasing onlookers, acrobats on horse-back, freaks from the side-show, and other entertainers strutted down the small brick streets. Spectators howled with delight and children laughed and screamed as they tagged along behind the parade to the fair grounds. Frank was excited, too. Something strange, like a childhood fantasy of running away to the circus, swept over him. He stood in the street for a long time as he watched the parade and towns people fade into the distance. He took another drink from his hip flask then slowly followed the crowd towards the big top.

The Alligator Woman was standing on stage next to the Bearded Lady when she spotted Frank in the crowd who was busy taking notes; sipping from his hip flask; taking pictures. When he finally got close enough he looked up into her eyes and saw her looking down at him. Each saw sympathy; a need for understanding; loneliness and a craving for companionship. They saw a need for each other.
Frank wrote as fast as the Alligator Woman could talk about her life in the circus; her marriage; how it was she came to be in the freak side-show; how Bruno replaced her with Gladys in his magic show and how abandoned she felt. Frank didn’t look at the Alligator Woman as a freak and she didn’t see a red-nosed alcoholic. Both were sympathetic with each others sadness. But by understanding each others afflictions, they found an irresistible mutual affection that made everything all right. The Alligator Woman and Frank spent many hours together between acts and as Bruno and Gladys were performing in the big top. Frank learned what only Bruno knew. The Alligator Woman had a name. Iris. It was the only name she could remember. It wasn’t long before she had to tell Bruno that she was compelled to leave with Frank.

It was the last day the circus would be in town. Bruno pleaded with his wife to stay with him; not to leave with the town drunk, unfamiliar with circus life. He promised to return her to his act; no longer use Gladys.
Outside, Gladys heard the loud pleas; heard the Alligator Woman threaten Bruno with divorce; threaten to clean him out; take everything he had; leave him with nothing but a fat useless hippo. Bruno begged tearfully sensing his fame was near an end. Gladys heard it all; saw Frank sitting on a bale of hay, drinking from his flask, waiting for Iris; waiting to take her from the circus. And she saw her leave with Frank after the yelling stopped.

Bruno sat on a bale of hay next to Gladys, tears streaming down his face. He told Gladys he could no longer work at this circus and would disappear during the performance. He would find another circus, perhaps one in Europe, where he began so many years before; one where his wife couldn’t find him. Then he would buy Gladys so they could resume their famous act together. "It was time for a change anyway," he said.

Show time and Bruno was running late.
The crowd roared with delight as Bruno and Gladys entered the big top. Through his tears he remembered the showman’s creed, "the show must go on," at least one more time.

He started with some little, meaningless tricks. He noticed that Gladys seemed upset so he took more time with the warm-up tricks. Rabbit out of his derby; rope tricks; card tricks; audience participation tricks and anything to keep Gladys calm and put his plan into action.

Then it was time to disappear. Bruno jumped onto Gladys’s back and bowed deeply; first to one side then the other. The audience stood, yelled, applauded. Gladys yawned and grunted. Bruno held his hat high over his head as the lights dimmed. Then the spotlight danced over the curtain as it descended obscuring Gladys and Bruno from the screaming audience.

The circus lights swept over the audience; over the curtain where Bruno and Gladys had last been seen and then the spot light was on Gladys who was standing alone as the curtain quickly rose. On the ground lay Bruno’s derby. The crowd roared in a standing ovation wanting more but Bruno didn’t reappear. Gladys turned slowly and as the spot light followed, walked out of the big top and returned to her place next to Bruno’s trailer and waited. She and Bruno would be together forever.

Several weeks passed and Bruno did not return. Police were summoned, searches made of the town and circus grounds but no Bruno. He had really disappeared this time. The authorities and his friends were puzzled.

The circus continued to travel to many more small towns without the Alligator Woman or Bruno. Frank and the Alligator Woman had also disappeared. Despite the circus vet’s best efforts, it wasn’t long before Gladys fell into a stupor; refusing to eat much or drink. She died quietly.

Everyone was saddened and blamed it on Frank, the town drunk; on the Alligator Woman for talking badly about Gladys (maybe poisoning her); and some blamed Bruno for disappearing and breaking her heart.
And then the vet investigated further.

An autopsy was called for and the vet made an astonishing discovery. Gladys had not died from a broken heart or poison but from obstructions in her lower bowels. Some undigested bones were found that pierced her stomach and in her intestines were lodged a pair of very small shoes.

© Richard Corwin Feb 2006

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Richard Corwin


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