The tuba train

The tuba train came to town this year. We’d wanted the circus, but somebody objected, saying it was cruel to the animals. How was it cruel? They got fed lots better than they would in the wild, and were safe from predators. All they had to do for these gifts was to do a few tricks. They should be grateful – the animals and the bleeding hearts. But they weren’t – surly and snappish, and this was both groups! It was hard to tell who was more upset at this arrangement – the panthers or the protesters. But the city couldn’t afford another lawsuit so we went with the Tuba Train instead. Lord knows, it didn’t feel any different. Instead of tigers we had tuba players. Both had to perform, both were away from their homes. Perhaps the tuba players were fed better, and perhaps their enclosures were better – windows instead of bars, and they had the ability to open and close the door to their cabins. But was it the fault of the people that they had opposable thumbs and better self-control? The tigers would do better if they could, I’m sure.

Who am I? Just your faithful council person, Lee McGee. I’ve held this office for nigh on a dozen years by now, and I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do. That’s good, because I can’t think of anybody else in this one stoplight town who would rather do this job for me.

Its lonely work, being a council person. There’s a lot to keep up with and not a lot of training. You have to figure it out as you go most of the time. Some of it is common sense, but maybe I think that because it makes sense to me. Some people don’t have common sense at all, so maybe it isn’t that common. Maybe it needs to be taught in schools alongside the home ec. classes. Better to teach it twice and be safe than not at all.

You see, this little town has all sorts of classes that everybody has to take and when I say everybody, I mean everybody. Of course, all the children have to take the curriculum – no homeschooling here, no high school dropouts here, but also the adults if they moved here after the classes started. No exceptions. It wouldn’t do to have the kiddos learning something that wasn’t reinforced at home.

We even have fines and penalties for not going along with the curriculum. Who cares if you take the class if you don’t follow it? It was just like getting a driver’s license. Sure, you could say you were going to follow the rules of the road, but none of that mattered until you actually got out behind the wheel.

So we have no illiteracy here in our little town. Not only can everybody read, everybody does read. Our library is well stocked and well used. Everybody reads whatever they wants, as long as it is at their reading level. If someone was consistently getting easy books, they’d get a visit from a literacy mentor to figure out what sort of assistance or incentive they needed. Sometimes they needed audiobooks because they had a visual processing issue. Sometimes they needed time management help, to make sure they had enough time to read. A minimum of an hour a day was expected. But sometimes they were just bored and understimulated. Then they’d get a list of books custom-made for them, like how a physical therapist would create an exercise regime for a patient with a bum leg.

We have no divorce here either. Don’t need to. People don’t just up and marry here. They understand that forever is forever. There are tests and trainings everybody goes through, and lots of counseling. The whole community has to agree that it’s a good match, and then agree to help a couple when, not if, they hit a snag.

Yes, we’re like one big family here. Not necessarily happy all the time, but not miserable neither. We work together to make it through the thick and thin times and we all get by tolerably.

This is one of the thick times, when we get to import a little entertainment to our fair burg. We don’t usually splurge like this, seeing as how it’s better to save than spend so we have spare when times get tight. But you can’t take it all with you, as many of our older (and presumably wiser) citizens are fond of saying, so we splash out for a treat when we’ve saved up enough to cover everybody’s expenses for a year. We all decided to do this in case of a fire or flood, where some (but not all) would have to rebuild. It would be a real hardship if the whole town were involved in some sort of natural disaster, but the law of averages being what it is, we don’t worry about that much. Maybe we’ll change our mind on that by the next census, but for now, for this decade, this is how we operate. We don’t pay insurance premiums though, and that’s nice. We all take care of each other.

Well, as I was saying, we chose the Tuba Train for the special celebration this year. Of course, all our entertainment that comes from out of town comes by train. We don’t have paved roads leading out, and we don’t have an airfield. We just couldn’t justify the expense – not only in money but also in trees. Many people across the world think of trees as filler, as packing material, as something that takes up space. They feel that space should be filled with houses made from the very trees that had been there, not understanding that oxygen wasn’t optional.

There was a lot of debate about bringing in entertainment at all. People who come here sometimes want to stay here, and we can’t have just anybody living here. And those who don’t want to stay might tell others where we are, and that won’t do neither.

Sometimes, even if we have a lot of money left over, we just throw big party or put on a play that involves the whole town and we call it good. That usually is enough to shake out the cobwebs of the older folk and use up some of the gumption of the younger ones.

But sometimes we have outsiders come, and sometimes some of them will stay. I should know. I was one of them, nearly 50 years back. I came here as part of a traveling circus with my parents on those very same train tracks. Yes, I know, most kids run away from home to join the circus. I ran away from the circus to find a home. It was a home that I never knew I needed, never even knew I could ask for or dream about. My parents were a little shocked to learn their only child didn’t want to follow in their eccentric footsteps. They thought they’d provided an ideal home for me, one where I didn’t have to go to school or wear normal clothes. They’d dreamed of such freedom as children, assumed I wanted it too. Maybe it’s human nature to want the opposite of what your parents want, even if it is countercultural.

The tuba train didn’t just have tubas, but it did have only brass instruments. Nothing electronic either. It was all live, all human powered. We like things like that here. All natural. Not extra or amplified. We all use tools, of course, but we’ve taken a page from the Amish book and learned the value of slow and simple. Faster isn’t always better, they proved. Sometimes going fast is just going nowhere. Better to walk at a human pace in everything you do. It gives you a chance to make sure you’re headed in the right direction.

Missing Rowley

He was one of the missing children, one of the many thousands who disappeared every year. But Rowley (if that was his real name) wasn’t like those children. Nobody was looking for him.

He’d disappeared that Wednesday afternoon, one of those wet and blustery days so common in January. The sun had been gone for so long that people simply forgot about it, simply forgot it was something to miss.

The same is true of Rowley, a boy who was shorter than average, surlier than average. If people didn’t overlook him unintentionally, they overlooked him on purpose. He wasn’t a pleasant child to deal with, and there was little hope he’d grow out of it.

He’d been a latchkey kid, a forgotten child. He could go missing for days and nobody noticed or cared. His parents (if that’s what they were) neither spoke to him or about him. He might as well have been a piece of furniture handed down from an eccentric aunt. He wasn’t wanted, and he knew it.

But then the circus came to town. It wasn’t like he ran away, so much as he was recognized. The high wire performers noticed him at the corner café, quietly pocketing leftovers from the tables about to be cleared away. It wasn’t like he was stealing, not exactly. The food had been paid for, just not eaten. It was headed for the garbage. He figured he was doing everybody a service, mostly himself.

The aerialists followed him out, not so close as to spook him, but not so far as to lose him. He knew they were behind him, how could he not? That sense was well honed in him. It kept him safe all these many years. If necessary he could make himself invisible without even leaving the area. It wasn’t running away. He knew that didn’t work – that just called more attention. It was more like he imagined himself invisible, made himself see-through to anybody who was looking. He’d had plenty of practice at the sad excuse of a home he had.

But turning invisible didn’t work this time, because the circus performers knew how to do that trick too. It was the opposite of performing. The bright light they shone from themselves when they were in the ring could be switched off just as easily. It was second nature to them. It was a skill that bonded them all into a strange sort of family, a wandering caravan of vagabonds and misfits, who somehow discovered how to jigsaw themselves together into this unexpected troupe.

The lack of a fixed address wasn’t a problem for them. They were traveling entertainers after all. It was expected, necessary even. Everybody in the circus was legitimately homeless. They’d discovered the one way it was socially acceptable. Perhaps it worked because they sang for their supper. They performed and sold tickets instead of begging. When they held a hand out, there was a top hat at the end of it. Somehow that made it OK. The public doesn’t like to think it has been deceived, but it does like to be entertained. And so they gratefully gave money to them, rather than grumbling about charity.

The two called out to Rowley, gently enough, to let him know they meant him no harm. They knew what was going through his mind. They knew because the same thing had happened to them all those years ago. This is how many of them came to the circus.

Many if not all had gone missing on purpose, because they were never noticed it home. Joining up with the other invisibles made sense. Together, they created a new sort of family, where all the rules went out of the window. Maybe it was because there were no windows in the circus. Trailers and tents were the order of the day, and even if they did have windows they were covered up with curtains or aluminum foil. This was one group that understood the value of privacy.