I’m just a few clowns short of a circus. That’s what Bernie used to say about me. I always knew more than
Bernie thought I knew and I can remember things okay. I remember the lights first of all. Every day I would look
out into these huge white lights. Bernie sometimes hated those lights: “They’ll turn your eyes to jelly,” he’d say. I
never much minded them. In fact, you could say I kind of liked them. I’d see those lights shining and below them
there’d be all these shadowy lumps—oh and the sounds they’d make!
Sometimes I think I’m right back in the game. Bernie’s face glows on the stage. He’s an “old pro” people
would say. His mom and dad, I happen to know, had themselves an act in the early days touring all around the
country. “Without family,” he’d say, “show business is an empty game.”
I think about Bernie standing there, all slender, and smiling. He’s painted curves onto his eyebrows and little
ones on each end of his lips. He always puffs his face with powder. The stuff makes him sneeze, but puts it on just
the same. His face looks all milky when you get up close to him. I don’t wear any powder on my face. My cheeks
are turned up, and you can see little freckles all over them. My cheeks always look like this, because I always smile,
it’s how I was made. Bernie keeps his hair short like mine and he combs it back to look even more like me. Bernie
has to use this gooey stuff to get it to stay. Mine never gets messed up because when I was made, I was made for
Big Bobby V. stands outside the joint. You can hear him fishin’, “Hey there ma’am, come on in have some
laughs the kids will love it too.”
Big Bobby V. got the name because he was the house manager and he was about the size of a bear. Bernie
said that “Big Bob can be your best friend, or your worst nightmare.” Big Bobby V. hops up and down, pointing
people out with this cane and trying to reel them in, “Sir, take a load off and put a smile on! Come see this show
we’ve got for you.” His face changes color and it’s all wet. In his red suit, he looks like a big bouncing tomato. “Get
outta’ the heat, take a seat, and see the greatest show on the boardwalk.” All of our photos are outside for people
to look at. I liked the way Big Bob talks about us: “Come see the handsome Mr. Oakley and his best buddy Bernie.”
I liked being mentioned first.
At six o’clock, he shuts the doors. You could hear him heaving from the wings. With a wiggle of his hand, the
house goes dark and the show starts.
Later when it’s time for us to come on, Jerry plays us on stage. You couldn’t have the lights without the
music. The waltz we had was the same as the one they played on the carousels back then. That 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3
rhythm made you feel like you were spinning around and somehow being lifted off the ground.
Our suits match, you know. Mine is smaller than his. It went like this: a black jacket with white pinstripes
over our white tuxedo shirts. Then over that we had our black vests with gold buttons. And we finished it all off
with polka dot bow ties. We were always “lookin’ fine and dressed to da’ the nines,”
“We spent all our money on our suits,” Bernie would say.
“Now all we gots is our two cents.” I always had a huge smile on my face when I said this. That was the
insurance joke. It always got a laugh.
The light is foggy. The lumps in the shadows jump around in their seats and the dust rises up into that light.
The music swirls, and the light from above hovers and burns like the sun. Those people love us. They cheer. They
make the most wonderful noises you ever wanna’ hear. All high-pitched and free, like the sound a bird makes.
Then, in a blink, those big beautiful lights disappear and everything is black. I’m used to the dark now. I’ve been
away from the stage and even Bernie for a long time now. I hated the dark then. Although you’d never know it
because I always smiled no matter how dark it was.
It felt that we spun away through the darkness and ended up in a crowded room full of mirrors. We called it
the sleeper jump. The bigger stars got better rooms closer to the stage.
The light in this room made everyone’s faces look pale, like they were sick. Near the end, we weren’t
opening the show. We performed last, right after the dumb act. Sometimes he’d have a girl he’d hold in his arms
and kiss a little, but not usually. Usually, Bernie would play solitaire while we waited to go on.
He’d say, “We’re playin’ to the haircuts these days …but at least we’re still in the game.”
By the time we were in the sleeper jump we didn’t run on a circuit anymore, almost nobody did. But what a
gang we had back then! Pickin’ Pete was right next to us. He could play the banjo with his toes. Before he went on,
he soaked them in a bucket. Lenny and Larry were twins that juggled. These guys were real thin. Their bodies
looked like the clubs that they threw back and forth to each other. They always fought about what to wear each
night. One never liked what the other had to say about anything. We’d all be in the jump talking, laughing, waiting
to go on.
When Bernie took his makeup off, his smile went with it. I could never frown, but Bernie, oh boy! Every
expression he made was big. When he smiled, his big ears perked up, his nostrils puffed out, and his eyes flashed
in the light. When he frowned, everything that had been raised up was pushed down. Every part of his sorry mug
would fall loose and dangle. And he stared at himself through the sick light. I’d be in a chair and when Isabella was
around she would come over to work on his shoulders.
“It’s all show business,” she’d tell him, “it’s all show business.”
We’d both know when he was getting all sour and Isabella could bring up some memory. Like when they rode the
Cyclone three straight times right after lunch. She fainted on the last ride and Bernie had to carry her all they way
to the apartment which was easily two miles away.
She never took her makeup off. She’d look at you with those deep blue eyes that glowed. They looked like
they were made out of glass. She lined her mouth with red lipstick that was so shiny you could probably see your
reflection in it. I thought sometimes that these parts were made from jewelry; they were so beautiful and fragile. I
liked her. She always told Bernie that she thought I was real cute. She had poster of Dorothy Dell who was making
a kissing face to everyone who saw it. Even though Bernie never went to the pictures, he looked at that poster a
I remember once he said, “It’s flat. They ain’t like us. Dorthy Dell is just a mess of flat images on a screen.”
It’s another day and Bernie and me are looking into that light again. Bernie starts: “Two Jews walk into a
bar, bartender asks: ‘Say what you wearin’ a scarf for? It’s freakin’ hot outside.’”
“The first Jew says: ‘It’s not a scarf,’” my jaw moves up and down and the words just come out so easily.
“Bartender says: ‘Well what is it then?’”
I always did the Jew, “Jew says: ‘talus.’”
“Bartender says: ‘I don’t know what the heck it is so how can I tell you?’”
“Oy vey,” I say and throw my hands up. Bernie looks at me like he’s surprised about what I said, but it’s all
set up. He’d make his big shocked expression. Everything had to be big. “You want the guy in the back row to be
able to read your lips,” he said once.
Sometimes Big Bobby V. would come backstage to talk to us. “I’m moving Isabella up tonight. They’re a
small restless bunch out there. We’ve got keep people in the seats as long as we can these days.” Some nights
certain acts just didn’t go on. Bernie never argued with the big man.
Isabella always went on. Sometimes she was the opener.
The first time Bernie and I saw her was a couple a’ seconds after the first time we heard her. We were
backstage and Bernie was going through the routine of taking off his makeup when we heard this voice. Bernie
looked over to me like someone had just slugged him in the gut. His face was still half pasty but we ran out into
the darkness to find the voice. Bernie led us to up the rickety catwalk. All around us were pulleys and old
backdrops boardwalks and marketplaces and country parks. We leaned over the wobbling platform down toward
the voice. It was Isabella in that glow. She was working those stub holders in the shadows. She was a knockout.
She pointed, she winked, and her fluffy orange dress was just short enough to make the fellas keep a lookout for a
quick peak at whatever was underneath. Bernie stared down to this shimmering dame and she let her voice loose.
She sang an up tempo version of “You’re the Cream in my Coffee,” “Bella baby!” and “Hey there sweety!” Men
would yell out during the act. The noise from the crowd made our platform rattle.
Bernie once said that her voice “could make you feel like you were always in lights, like you’d be there
forever.” Like I said before, the lights would burn, but Bernie never felt more at home than when he was under
Now I may be a few sandwiches short of a picnic but I’m not blind. I know that Bernie didn’t care for any
girl but Isabella. Especially during those nights where we’d sit above in the dark and watch her give off all that light.
For a while, all we did was watch her. She did this little move at the end before her bow. She’d turn her
shoulders up and put her lips together like she was kissin’ everyone in the house. The shapes in the shadows would
bounce up and down and people threw their popcorn straight up in the air. They sounded like dogs.
Lenny and Larry came on after her and people got up chanting for Isabella to come back. Some people tried
to peg the twins in the head with peanuts or popcorn, and make them drop whatever they were juggling. If
something got dropped, the twins would fight onstage. They socked each other, “You two bit SOB!” they’d yell at
each other. It became a slapstick to get the audience back into it. They loved a good fight.
The first time Isabella spoke to us was after a show, Bernie had cleaned up and we saw her dancing on
stage for nobody. She moved quietly, and slowly. It was like she was being tossed in some wind. Her eyes were
closed and she twirled around in the shadows of the stage. We watched her from the wings. She looked at us and
winked. Bernie winked back. We slowly turned away like we were gonna’ leave until she said, “Hey, you two, come
over here a sec. will ya?” She was still in her orange dress on the stage.
“’Lo miss,” Bernie said very soft, not like he usually sounds.
“Miss? You know my name and I know yours.”
Bernie just nodded. His smile looked sort of funny without his makeup on.
“I see you and your little friend up there when I go on. I didn’t do so good today did I?” She did that little
move with her lips and up went her shoulders.
“No.” She gave a pouting look after Bernie said it. “I meant no, you were great. You’re always great.”
“You can say that again,” I said. I don’t think before I say things. She laughed.
“So do you live around here, missy?” I’ve asked a lot of girls this question. It’s the first thing I ask
whenever we meet a new one.
“That must be Mr. Oakley?” She shook my little hand.
“Just like it says on the sign: Mr.Oakley and his faithful sidekick Bernie Shcultz.”
“He’s got it all turned around you know,” Bernie said as he moved closer to the girl. “Let’s go get some
dinner.” Isabella batted her eyebrows and jumped off the stage. Her short golden hair bobbed as she landed right in
We’d meet Isabella and maybe watch some of the show from the wings. We all liked watching
Pickin’Pete. They giggled like children when they saw this guy’s toes picking out “We’re Coming from the Cotton
Fields” while he read the paper or ate breakfast. I couldn’t figure out how he managed to do all that, but people
loved it. Once the people clapped, Pete would stay out there. Sometimes he’d take a second bow! Everyone talked
about how he milked the audience. We called him the Milkman behind his back.
Bernie took Isabella out a lot on the weekends. I got dropped at the apartment and sat in the dark. Bernie
smiled in his suit. He put his arm out to his gal. She’d wear a hat with no bill. It was kind of like the one Skippy the
Clown wore in our show, except it didn’t have a little spinner on top. She was covered it in these beads that gave
off a twinkle. The same beads were all over her dress too. When the light hit it just right, she looked like the
marquee sign outside the famous Palace Theatre.
“You, me, and Mr. Oakley…we’re quite the threesome, eh Bernie baby?” Isabella would ask as she
straightened her hat and puckered her lips in the mirror. She always posed like there was someone watching her
“I feel like I’ve made a family,” Bernie replied real quietly, almost like he was afraid to say it too loud.
Isabella giggled. “You’re so cute.”
They walked out and I would stay put on the couch. I’d be quiet in the dark, just smiling away. I’d stare at
the shapes of the apartment. There was a picture hanging over the bed across from me. Without the light, you
could only see the lines of the frame. I know what is supposed to be there, but it disappears, and it seems like it’s
always been this way.
The two would come back in and they’d be laughing and wobbling all around. They’d kiss and they wouldn’t
turn on the light. I could hear that waltz—1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3—as I watched their shapes in the dark.
“I can’t stay here forever, Bernie.” I could hear Isabella’s voice sometimes real late at night.
“You can’t go. Who else is gonna’ shake out there in that orange dress?” Bernie talked real low, not like
when he was on stage.
“The twins can do it, can’t they?”
“Jugglers in drag.” Bernie’s laugh burst out through the darkness. I would have said something funny too,
but I couldn’t talk without Bernie’s help. “But really,” Bernie said, “I’ve been able to know you outside of the lights.
You’re the only one I know like that. Without family, showbiz is an empty game.”
Isabella didn’t say anything then, but I’m pretty sure she thought Bernie’s line about show business was
“You can’t leave your family,” Bernie’s voice was real low again, “you won’t leave your family.”
Some days in the game were real bad. Once, everyone was getting ready in the room and Lenny, who
always counted the house, came running in. “Nobody’s out there,” he said, “there’s nobody out there.”
“What do you mean?” Bernie had just put on the powder.
“I went to see what the house was like, and there’s not one person in the seats.” Everyone was listening now.
“That can’t be right. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
But sure enough he was right. I heard the waltz start and the light came on as Bernie and I took the stage.
The light makes it so that everything in front of you looks like a blur, but I could see that there weren’t any
shadowy lumps. “Hello ladies and gentlemen.” Folks usually clap here, but it was quiet. I usually say hello right
after Bernie, but my mouth didn’t move. I could see that Bernie’s glowing face was all wet. It was like he’d
splashed himself with water. He sat there for a while just smiling, not saying anything and all we had was the music
and the light. It was like we were floating all alone in space.
It was hard for Bernie. It was hard for him to imagine that people might stop coming to the show. The
sleeper jump, the show, the life with Bella was supposed to be it. But even I knew that the lights have to go out
That night as we were leaving, we saw that someone had messed with the signs in front. They painted a big
“X” over me and Bernie’s picture. Bernie just sighed, “Now everyone will know what a dump this place is.” He
didn’t get in a lather about it.
But Isabella, she was crying. This rotten bunch of hoods had scratched out her beautiful face. Small scraps
of paper were left on the ground. Her jewelry eyes and lips were wiped away. It was just a mess of white, fallen on
the dirt like a pile of snow.
“Some goofs were just having some fun, baby.” Bernie put his arm on her shoulder.
My jaw flapped. “You’re still the greatest Bella.”
She looked at us shaking her head like we were strangers. She ran off. Isabella went missing for a while.
The game was ending. Every night we left feeling cold. Nobody came to the shows. The place was a
“morgue,” that’s what I heard Pickin’ Pete say once. Big Bob didn’t even go fishin’ before the shows anymore. The
sleeper jump that was always so full of people, our friends, got empty. We found ourselves alone with the mirrors
some nights. Bernie would chug from the bottle and get all fried. He stumbled through his act, and water poured
across his face. When I said the punch lines, it didn’t even sound like my voice. Or sometimes I said something
even when my mouth didn’t move.
It wasn’t too long before Isabella came back. Bernie was sitting up at the apartment in his bathrobe,
clutching the newspaper in his hand. I sat next to him.
“It’s open,” he said when she knocked.
She came in. Her clothes looked fancier, no more little orange dresses. “Let’s get some dinner, Bernie
“Where have you been?”
“I had to go for awhile, see if I could find my way somewhere else. Let’s go to dinner and we’ll talk about
it.” She started looking at herself in the mirror again. She smiled but she didn’t seem so happy.
“Find your way where?” Bernie stared straight ahead, not at her.
She turned around and went to the back of Bernie’s chair to start working his shoulders. “Let’s go out baby.
I’ve got some good news.”
“Finding your way in the pictures? Is that it?”
“I’ve been going to a lot of shows. The movie house is packed every night. I talked to a man who can get us
work out in California.” She kissed his neck, leaving a big wet mark.
“Don’t you see what they’re doing to us Bella? Live shows will be gone because of the movies. And look at
you. You’re joining the crowd. Spending your money to help those high-hats in Hollywood get rich.”
“I’m sorry, baby. But it’s still show business. It’s all show business so we might as well get paid.”
“I’m stayin’ put, Bella. It’s not all about being in the light. It’s not worth it when they press you down, make
you flat, and take away your life.” Bernie unfolded the paper to start reading it again.
“Ahhhh… pleeeaasssee Bernie.” Her big round eyes stared at him and she puckered her lips, “Let’s go out.
We can get away from this. I want you to come with me. I’m not going back to that cut house.” I watched him grab
her hands that were on his shoulders. He held them tight, kissed one, and then threw them off of him.
Her light was going away. She looked at him from the floor. Her mascara slid down her face. Bernie turned away
from her. I should’ve waved goodbye when she went to the door, but I just couldn’t. It seemed like somebody
would say something else, but like me they were quiet. All I could do was smile.
I remember when the place closed. We stood outside with the others as they boarded up the front doors.
Bernie wiped the booze from his upper lip, “It was a cut house anyways. I’m glad to see it go.” By then Bernie knew
there would be nothing else. All he had was me and all I ever had was him.
The next time that we saw Isabella was in the paper. It was an ad for a movie. On a Friday we went out the
theater. It was winter and the weather was wicked. We had to wait outside in line for a long time. Bernie’s lips
were purple now, and his hair sprung out everywhere. He couldn’t believe how many people were willing to wait in
the cold just to see this movie. There on the marquee that blinked out in all the darkness, was Isabella’s name.
“One please,” Bernie handed over the change.
“Aren’t you gonna’ buy that a ticket,” the boy in the booth asked with a smile as he looked at me.
Bernie didn’t listen to him, and we walked through the doors into a whole new world. The place was all
fixed up. The carpet was red velvet, and uniformed men waited at each of the gold doors leading from the lobby to
the theater. So many people had turned out to see this one. Men were in ties and women came in their best
dresses. It felt so warm, almost like we were back in the game.
We took our seats facing a blank screen. We were all just in a dark room with a big picture frame in the
middle. Then there was a flash, and the frame got filled with pictures. It showed us things that we’d never seen
before. Some distant land, deeper than any backdrop. Then came the hero. I heard the music start. It was like the
waltz I’d remembered so well. I was part of the shadowy lumps now. I saw Bernie looking around at all the people
who were thrilled. They clapped at the big parts, they screamed at the tense parts. Then the hero met Isabella.
There were all these amazing moving pictures, and there she was. She glowed in black and white in the big picture
frame. And her light went out onto everyone, filling the room. They got real close to her, and I saw her jewelry
“ ‘Lo miss,” Bernie said real quiet. For a second, his smile looked like mine.