Action and Reaction
Cat Ennis Sears

Richmond, Virginia, 1932

Otto was sure he was someone’s father, but he didn’t know whose. He’d had a lot of sex in Texas when he’d first come to the United States. He’d met a lot of women in roadside motels, and he was sure he’d left behind someone who would remember his name when he was dead. He said this to Lara and she said, no, just me, I’m the only one who will remember you when you die, and I promise I won’t remember you for long.

He looked at Lara. What did she know, the fat cow? He’d had a youth full of promises and laughter. He knew that someone out there thought about his absence; he knew he’d make a difference when he died.

France, 1917

Later, Otto heard it called the chemists’ war. They told you to pee on a piece of cloth and hold it to your face when the chlorine gas came, and you did it because you didn’t know what would happen if you didn’t. They knew what would happen. You didn’t.

He thought of the war as happening between two distant laboratories. Later, he saw photos of the men and women in long white lab coats, producing chemicals, mixing them for unexpected reactions, creating different kinds of gas masks for their side and preventing the other side from having them. He saw photos of the masks, some with long trunks like an elephant, some with long oval eye holes like a fly.

But when the gas came that first time, they didn’t have masks yet. They covered their eyes and mouths with their hands and tried to stay low, to let the clouds pass over them, but the gas settled lower and lower. Otto stumbled, blinded, the terror of the gas worse than that of breaking rank.

Otto was 18 then, from Buchenbach, Germany, the gates of the Black Forest. He knew about fog, the way it could roll over the dark trees, the hills gradually swallowed up in it, how it became harder and harder to see, how you put your hand in front of your face and couldn’t count your fingers. He knew how to feel forward through fog and trust that he knew his way, to keep his eyes on the ground and not to stray off of the mountain path, to keep walking straight down into the valley, where the fog got thicker, settling deeper into the valley.

Otto knew that Germany had used it first, but didn’t think about it when the gas came. He didn’t think of it as the Englishmen’s revenge. The wind was from the West all year, and the Germans endured attack after insufferable attack before the wind favored them. He’d heard stories about other troops releasing gas canisters that blew right back onto them.

It was Otto who noticed the yellow-green clouds rolling over the hills towards their trenches. It smelled like pineapple and pepper. Otto couldn’t help it: He breathed. And breathed again in the fog. He ran with the rest. Blinded for six days, he gradually regained sight. But the lacerations left on his face were like a sailor’s facial tattoos from Polynesia, marks he wore that prevented him from joining the ranks of normal society, a reminder of a time in his life he’d rather forget.

Richmond, Virginia, 1932

Otto doubles as a bareback rider. The bareback show is early in the night, before dark, when the twilight shadows lengthen outside the circus tent. The horse’s muscles ripple beneath his thighs. He is powerful and in control when he gallops in tighter and tighter circles around the dirt ring. But everyone does double duty here: There are no free loaders. When he’s done riding, the sweat of the horse still mingling with his own, he goes backstage, puts on the red makeup, the heavy layers of oversized clothing and the red sponge nose and becomes Jacko the clown.

They know their roles. François is the manipulator. He rules Otto. He wears whiteface, his features enhanced, not distorted, more elegant, more graceful. He paints his ears red and shaves off his eyebrows, drawing them back on with a thin pencil and spreading olive oil on them to make them shiny. He accentuates his lips with red paint and wears an extravagant ruffled collar and pointed hat.

Between acts, they distract the audience from the rigging, the change of scene. During these clown stops, François is the straight man—he sets up the jokes and Otto falls for them. François points at the ground, and, when Otto looks, in big suspenders and polka dotted balloon pants, he gets a slapstick to the behind, the loud clap of the slap overexaggerated. Otto’s lips form a perfect O of a fool’s exaggerated reaction.

After the tight-rope walkers perform, graceful bodies so high up in the air, floating in silence then applause, François and Otto come out. They set up a rope between two chairs, only two feet off the ground. François beckons to Otto and mimes walking on the rope. Otto takes one step on it and falls. He tries again, and falls, doing somersaults, tumbling across the dirt floor. The crowd’s laughter is ugly and high-pitched, like small dogs barking. Every night, Otto falls, rolling in the dirt while the people laugh.

The air is thick and hot. They’re camped beside a rocky river, and while he waits to go on as Jacko the fool, Otto can’t help but put his feet in over and over. The Southern river is warm, like bathwater flowing around his tired toes.

He can’t help it, it churns up again from inside of him. He remembers Ypres in 1917. “If I could fly, I could get out of here,” he remembers thinking. But there was not much he could do. He wanted magic he did not have. He stood at attention. Better to kill the boy fast than to make him suffer. Later, he’d get the courage to talk about this moment. He’d say to the women in the sideshow, standing in their costumes and garish makeup, “The best way to do it is, put the gun right up against the skin of the head.” The women got quiet. He liked the women that way. He hadn’t wanted to kill the boy, and he wouldn’t have. The boy had led them to a sniper; the French made him do it.

With his feet in the river, Otto thinks about how he’ll have to roll across the dirt floor, how he’ll have to be subordinate to a Frenchman. The laughter will soak the walls of the tent like thick syrup or blood, so unlike the hushed silence and applause of the bareback show.

Otto reaches forward into the muddy warm river water and washes off his tan makeup. The swirls of tan makeup go off down the current, catching on logs and rocks, collecting in crevices, flowing downstream.

He’ll try something different tonight.

He goes back to the boxcar where Lara is lying on the bed, her rolls of fat beneath her spreading and pooling. He thinks she is beautiful like that, like a beached seal that only he can save. Later, she won’t be so beautiful, sweating as he weighs her in cattle scales, the fattest woman in the world, the signs say. She’ll sweat as the country women guess her weight and win candy apples, but for now, she is lovely.

“I’ve got to do something different tonight,” he says.

She rolls over onto her side, her dimpled elbow supporting her weight. “Whatcha gonna do,” she says, snapping her pink chewing gum.

“Make a change,” he says.

He pulls on his black riding pants, his black suspenders and the tight white shirt with frills that he wears when he rides his horse. He carries his crop and puts on his heeled riding shoes.

He puts red paint on his entire face, except a large semicircle around his mouth, which he makes white. It looks suddenly as if he doesn’t have a mouth, as if his mouth has been taken away from him and replaced with a white muzzle. He goes to the corner where they store the pork grease from cooking Lara’s bacon. He loves watching her eat the bacon and he saves the grease for her to eat later. He fashions his hair into two blunt horns.

Lara watches. She watches Otto like a fat cow chewing cud.

François waits outside the tent, smoking a thin hand-rolled cigarette. He sees Otto coming and throws the cigarette down into the dirt.

“What are you thinking, you little piece of shit? We have only five minutes, and this is what you come to me with?” François’ accent is still thick. He’s lived now in the States, like Otto, for years, but he stubbornly holds onto the way he says his vowels. “Minutes” rhymes with “loots.” They are veterans from the same war, but François has no sympathy for Otto’s scars.

“We will do something weird tonight.” Weird, Otto thinks. He was reluctant at first to use this word in English; the German connotation is supernatural, the Weird Sisters, the three fates, but tonight he is happy with the way the word is inhabited with different, stronger meanings.

The knife Otto is holding has a carved wooden handle, soft and smooth to the touch, held by Otto so many nights in the trenches in France. The blade is thick and straight. François sees the knife. And Otto’s face is terrifying, his white muzzle mouth, his blunt horns.

After the tightrope, François brings out the two chairs and the rope. He mimes standing on the rope; the crowd laughs. He takes one tentative step forward and falls, tumbling and somersaulting across the floor.

Otto enters.

The crowd is not sure how to react. They expected another funny man, but Otto creeps low to the ground, a knife in his teeth. They expected to laugh, to love the antics. Yet, Otto creeps along the floor, behind François.

François and Otto have switched roles. Otto is in control and François is the fool. François tries again and again to walk between the two chairs, and again and again he falls.

Otto cuts the rope.

François falls heavily to the floor.

The crowd finds Otto unstable, unpredictable. They start to whisper behind their hands as François gets to his feet.

François tries to hit Otto but misses, the punch landing in the air. Otto grabs François’ hand and twists it behind him.

Otto smiles at the audience, laughs. They think, maybe this is part of it, a mock fight. One of the more raucous men in the audience says, “Yuh!”

The two clowns grapple with each other, trying to come up on top. Now it’s Otto, with his horns and red face, his tight black pants and frilly white shirt, now it’s François, his elegant white makeup and extravagant ruffled shirt, his balloon pants. The crowd starts to get into it, they cheer and scream. They rise to their feet; they pick favorites.

A troupe of acrobats comes on stage to pull them apart, and the crowd boos. Three men have Otto, the other three have François. It’s over now, they pull them back stage.

The show goes on, it’s time for juggling, the crowd settles back in, sated now.

Otto comes back to the boxcar, out of breath, shaking, his shirt ripped. He tells Lara he hit François and they have to leave. “Leave? I’m not leaving,” she says. She hoists herself up and stands in front of the dirty mattress, swaying back and forth with exertion, her fat face inhaling, exhaling, inhaling. “You can leave.”

He says, you crazy fat bitch, and gives her a quick back hand against the face. She lets herself fall back onto the mattress. He stands in front of the open door of the boxcar and looks at Lara looking at the river outside of the door. She’s watching the current, the rapids as they maneuver over rocks. He wants to see her face make a reaction. He’s tired of the way she just stares.

Otto says, “You’re irresistible Lara. I want to fit inside of you. You know that I have to be inside of you, like a nut inside a shell.” As he says these words, he’s aware of the red and white makeup, he knows that his greasy hair like this might frighten her. He wants to frighten her.

They ate shoe leather in France. Their parched throats burned when they swallowed. When he went back to Buchenbach at the end, the town had been gutted; all the livestock were killed and eaten. There was nothing left. His family was gone and all that was left was the stone foundation of the barn. He knows hunger, and what a woman looks like when she is hungry, that starving, emaciated empty look.

He moves over to the icebox and gets out the cream. He says to Lara, drink this. She doesn’t want to. He says, you will drink this, and he holds her mouth open with one hand while pouring the cream in with the other. The cream goes down her front, soaking her breasts. He looks at the blue flowered fabric stretched tight across her wet breasts and tells her, drink more.

She does. She drinks it.

He knows the kohl makes his eyes look huge in the half-dark. His eyes are black semi circles that take up half his face; there’s a white muzzle where his lips should be. He removes the black suspenders. He takes off the white frilled shirt. He’s taken off everything except the high heeled shoes. He likes their dainty click clack against the wooden floor of the boxcar. He catches a glimpse of himself in the murky mirror; his small and skinny body is like a walking skeleton.

Otto dreams of a day when she will no longer be able to move away from him when he comes toward her, the way she’s moving away now. He wants her to be immobile, to sit in one place, to stay still and wait for him. He dreams of a day when she won’t even flinch when he comes toward her, when she just waits for him to do what he will do to her and afterwards he wants her to look at him with milky bovine eyes, maybe her eyes will be watery, maybe her eyes will be swimming in gratitude for the attention he’s paid to her.

He comes toward her.

The mattress sinks as he climbs onto her. Adding weight to weight.

He won’t leave. He’ll stay with her. He could live like this forever, he thinks, wrapped up inside of her.

Cat Ennis Sears recently graduated from Emerson College with an MFA in fiction, where she taught freshman composition and research writing. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Quarterly Review, Bateau, The Printer’s Devil Review, received honorable mention in a Glimmer Train short fiction contest and been nominated for the 2011 AWP Intro Journal Awards. “Action and Reaction” is a part of a collection of linked short stories