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The Juggler

ISSUE:  Summer 1993

Say you happen upon a clearing in a city—a small park, for example, with a couple of trees, a couple of ice cream vendors, some children running around, their high-pitched laughter bouncing off the buildings in the distance—and in the center of that clearing you see a man dressed as a clown or a gorilla and that clown or gorilla is reciting (his voice is light, teasing, his voice is deep, rich, as you arrive he is saying “The Child is father of the Man. . . .”) and at the same time he is riding a unicycle and also juggling such things as oranges, apples, eggs, and when he finishes he twists long, thin balloons into poodles and giraffes and passes them out to the children and pretty girls, well then, stop—even if you don’t want a balloon dachshund. Hang around—buy a rocket pop, lick it before it drips on your new suit, grab a seat on the dark green bench, smell the oozing grass, check out the rubbery tulips, feel the sun on your fingers, listen, because birds may be singing. And watch the juggler. He’s a member of a select tribe of the lucky ones. He’s got the hands. Most don’t. This may be your only chance to catch his act. He, his ilk, move often, move quickly. So—you’re the lucky one.

This man, this juggler, is not my brother. Danny can do all of this. More, even. He has the hands. He practices, practices, the hours stacked end to end form a huge heart, wide as years, long as life. He looks only at the swirling, twirling objects, his tongue pushed to the corner and a bit out of his mouth. The cords of muscles, tendons, veins in his neck and arms are clearly visible, straining the skin, flowing past the marbles that are the bones of his wrists, ending in the polished oak of his hands. Sweat forms on his forehead, rolls. He makes things float, makes them fly, bounces them off walls, ceilings, floors. No one sees. He gets evicted. The people underneath, alongside, do not enjoy the constant pounding, the dull thuds of balls, juggling clubs, fruit, the heavy thumps of bowling balls, do not enjoy having axes and razor-sharp knives split their air, do not shiver in glee at the splat of broken eggs.

He just got kicked out of a new place, one he liked—it was a five-minute walk from the orange and pink Dunkin’ Donuts that punctuates the grayness of Route 7 in Troy, N. Y., the Dunkin’ Donuts where my brother is the 3 p. m. to midnight fryer and froster. When he got the job he told me he’d be working donuts into his act, the act no one’s seen, the act he was perfecting. “I’m almost ready,” he told me, not three weeks ago. He likes his job. He likes any job, almost, so long as the hours are good. Before this he was the bean masher in a Mexican restaurant in Santa Fe, New Mexico, before that he painted firecracker stands in Missoula, Montana, but quit due to recurring nightmares of small children blowing off their fingers. Before that, I don’t remember. He said his shift at Double D’s was good because then he’d spend the hours from midnight to dawn, when the rest of the world is asleep, doing his real work, juggling.

He called today, from a pay phone. His roommate of only one month, a guy named Otto, told him, “Screwing, I can take. Moans, groans, no problem. But one more thud and I’ll beat the hell out of you—and I kind of like you. But I’ll break your fingers. I swear it.” So Danny left. He always goes quietly, leaving a wake of chipped paint behind him. But he usually lasts longer than one month. As he spoke, feeding quarters to the mechanical demand, I wondered whether the world is losing patience with my movie-star handsome brother, whose cheeks flash with dimples when he smiles, and who is pushing 30 years old and who says he is a damn good fryer and froster, but complains that the grease is starting to get to him, that in his dreams he can see it invading the cells of his lungs, one cell at a time. And then the voice said “Please deposit $2. 70,” the line went dead, and Danny called a few minutes later, person-to-person collect, from Dunkin’ Donuts in Troy, N. Y. to the law firm on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Illinois that is the site of my job, my career, my life. “I just thought you should know,” he said. “It’s over, I’m through with juggling,” and he hung up.

So what could I do? I went to the airport and got on a plane headed for Albany, N. Y., neighbor of Troy.

He slipped the noose, flew the coop, cut the ties that bind, divebombed from the nest early, or maybe he was just different from the start, the words, “It’s a phase, it’s just a phase he’s going through,” echoing and reechoing through the halls of our house like a mantra while our parents had his room painted, and repainted, and painted again, to cover the chips. A juggling club, thrown against a wall over and over again, can do considerable damage. Danny’s bedroom was on the third floor of the house, the converted attic, and when he practiced, bouncing things off walls for the fun of it, dropping them to the floor when he was done with that particular trick, the vibrations trembled down through the house. The thuds and shudders were like white noise, the hum of an air conditioner. Every now and then that hum was broken by a truly majestic crash or thud, one that always made me feel like laughing as I wondered what trick he was trying to master. In later years, when I became aware of such things, I wondered whether Danny’s juggling affected our parents’ sex life if, indeed, they had one. Was it disconcerting, at certain crucial moments, to have one’s concentration and, by extension, rhythm, broken by a sudden noise from above? Or a shatter? Once in a while, not too often, he broke a window.

And even now, when I am involved in some dull task such as washing dishes or vacuuming my over-priced one-bedroom apartment—but it is in a good neighborhood, and the building has a doorman—I become aware that I am working in time to a rhythm of dull thuds that runs through my mind still, but when I pause and listen hard there is only silence and I remember that I am alone, an adult, and Danny is far away.

This is what happened:

John was 27 years old, recently out of law school, making himself some decent money, with muscles in all the right places and a sense of humor, when he met Miriam, a quiet girl from a nice family, who had dimples when she smiled and breasts to go with them, and they got married. They had a daughter, and then they had a son, named Daniel. Now the daughter, Hannah, was a fine, ordinary child, and they were proud parents, but Danny! Danny was joy, Danny was the SUN. He actually GLOWED, his blue eyes sparkled, his teeth glinted, his hair was gold, with his chubby arms he hugged everyone in sight and they went from him HAPPY. There was no one, no one in the whole world, like Danny.

John figured that Danny would grow up to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, but he was young yet, plenty of time. Miriam didn’t worry, just cooked, baked, cleaned for her family and was happy, her dimples often visible.

There are worse things in this life than being a juggler. One could, for example, be a failed juggler. Or one could, for example, be a juggler who fails to try. Or one might feel that juggling was not suitable, and refuse.

This is what happened:

One day a small boy bent his neck backward, pointed his eyes to the sky, and saw red, purple, yellow spheres falling out of the clouds, resting, for a moment, in huge, sure hands, and then being sent back. And he was afraid. What if he dropped one?

That was John, who became a marvel at racquet sports of all kinds, involving hitting balls away from him, as hard as he could, over and over and over again.

Another day, a fine day, another small boy saw the same sight, and was not afraid. He reached up to the sky, and he was one of the lucky ones: He had the hands.

Not many have the hands.

When Danny started running home from school, sprinting up to his room to practice, coming to dinner long after he was called, gulping down his stuffed lobster or poached salmon, skipping the chocolate mousse and running back upstairs for more practice, the child psychiatrists said not to worry. “It’s a phase,” they said. “It’s just a phase he’s going through.”

One night, when Danny was about ten, he interrupted whatever delicacy was on the menu to ask if he could go to circus camp that summer. John didn’t even pause to consider it.

“No way, Jose,” he said.

“Why not?” Danny asked.

“I can’t bear the thought of my precious little boy cleaning up elephant shit,” John said.

It was about then that John stopped melting inside when Danny would describe a new trick, named just for him— “Father’s Folly” was the one with two apples and an egg, where a bite got taken from alternating apples on each rotation until they were almost gone, and the grand finale was when the egg (raw) was the recipient of the bite. That one didn’t even get a smile, although I have to hand it to him, John never stopped trying, despite the heart-fissure that widened a bit each day. “Be sure to floss afterwards,” he said. And that was when his tone of voice as he said “My son and airhead” began to change from fondness to exasperation to despair, and it was then that he began the long, painful, and arduous process of pulling out his hair, strand by strand by strand, because, despite the continued assurances of the string of psychiatrists, almost all of whom wound up learning to juggle (Danny was a patient and encouraging teacher), John and eventually Miriam determined that the juggling was not a phase, not even a long phase, but a problem.

And it was about that time that I last saw Danny juggle. Without announcing it, without giving us advance warning, without giving us another chance, Danny stopped juggling for people. From then on he practiced alone, behind a closed door. I couldn’t look out the bay window in the living room on a sunny day and see colored balls flying through the air. And I couldn’t play my favorite game, which was for Danny to juggle flaming torches on the front lawn while I counted how many cars slowed to watch. He’d still announce when he’d mastered a new trick—he didn’t stop talking about it for a week when he learned to balance a ball on his nose, flip it to the back of his neck and then roll it down his right arm—but he wouldn’t show us. “I’m putting together a whole act,” he’d say. “When it’s finished, I’ll show you.”

The memory of those years, our teen years, is vivid. Even the smell of those years is still clear; the war between the odors of new paint and that of rich, creamy foods, a smell I had thought was unique to our house but that I occasionally detect in new, upscale restaurants.

Danny’s room was tan, then light blue, then white, and once it was yellow with maroon trim, but eventually our parents stopped choosing the colors and sheets to match, even stopped making the trip all the way upstairs to inspect for damage, just had a standing arrangement with Billy the Painter, who came every two months and sang songs about his baby leaving him as he slapped on one more coat of off-white.

The repainting bugged Danny, who said his walls were a blackboard filled with equations, the chips and smudges were markers, like tape on a gym floor, to let the athlete know where to stand, where to run, where to jump. Every paint job meant starting over. “But I’m tough,” he said. “This time next week, those walls will be as good as ever.”

When Billy finished, he’d show Danny around the room as if he was a tour guide and Danny the visitor, and then he’d say, “Go to it, kid,” and he’d wink. “And you, young lady,” he’d say to me, “Go do your homework.”

Our parents tried sending Danny away to camp, not to circus camp but to computer camp, in the hope he’d develop new interests. I stayed home that summer, working as a lifeguard at the town pool and eavesdropping on Miriam’s end of the phone calls reporting that Danny spent his time, except for meals, sequestered in the small closet in his dorm room, making thumping and pounding noises.

And so things continued, and our parents did not wake up one fine morning to find Danny, model son, smiling as he ate his Wheaties and announced his intention to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer.

As the plane takes off I squeeze my armrests and when that doesn’t work I pinch the skin just above each of my knees, pinch hard, hoping to distract myself enough to prevent an embarrassing physical display. I am earthbound, and most comfortable there. Danny, if he could, would sit on the wing of an airplane as it flew.

When the plane levels out, when I can see the white carpet that is the tops of clouds, I take out an emory board and file my nails. It’s a new habit of mine, filing my nails, and is intended to prevent my chewing them. The plane is due in Albany at 5 p. m., Eastern time.

When I see a juggler, I stop. I Watch their acts. I’ve become something of a connoisseur. Lots of them, all of them, can throw things into the air, but only a few have the hands, have juggling in their bones and blood, so that you think if you gaze deeply into their eyes, for long enough, and learn to decipher the signs, you could see constellations swirling.

The bad ones you can spot a mile away, talk, talk, talk, to cover for only three balls, childish patterns.

Danny, I know, is good, one of the best.

It’s difficult to juggle—even to juggle badly. I’ve tried. I’ve been to group clinics, had private lessons, even went, one vacation, to circus camp, where I learned to pile into a toy car with the rest of the clowns, but never have I learned to juggle.

“It’s easy,” an old boyfriend used to tell me. “It’s all in the rhythm.” Sometimes, when he was in a good mood, when he’d done well with his act that day and his hat was full, he’d go to the refrigerator and take out three oranges. “Watch,” he would tell me, and then, just to show off, he’d close his eyes and still not miss. Then he’d let me stand behind him, my fingers resting lightly on the back of his hands. “Easy,” he’d say, and afterwards we’d eat the oranges, which were slightly bruised but still cold. Then he left, made it to Broadway, to Johnny Carson, and to a blonde Rockette. But I swear that, sometimes, I could see the planets in his eyes. And once, during an unguarded moment, stars being bom. I swear.

And he was wrong. It’s hard, hard as anything. I don’t have the hands. But life has its rewards, and yields them from time to time. To be able to watch, that is enough.

The plane lands, a smooth landing. I rent a car at the Albany airport, drive to Troy and drive around, looking hard at houses that look like dirty dishwater, wondering about the lives of the people who live in them and wondering if one of them is where Danny used to live. I’m headed for Dunkin’ Donuts but I half expect to see Danny standing on a corner, trashbags full of his belongings piled at his feet, which makes no sense, as he owns a beat-up pick-up.

When I get to Dunkin’ Donuts I order coffee with extra cream and extra sugar, ask for Danny, and sit in a booth with a view of the swinging door that leads to the kitchen. Danny comes out of that door a few minutes later, and he’s not wearing a big white chefs hat like a miniature cloud, the way chefs on television do, and that’s a little disappointing. He pauses, talks to the girl behind the counter, who hands him two napkins full of chocolate glazed donuts, and then he’s standing next to the booth.

“Hannah,” he says. “How pleasant. What a surprise.” He slides into the booth, and puts the napkins full of donuts in the middle of the table. He is pissed off.

Now that I’m here I remember that I’ve never quite known how to talk to this man who is Danny, so I grab a donut and keep my eyes mostly on the table. He’s grown a frizzy orange beard that sticks out of his face horizontally and makes him look slightly goat-like, and his tan hair is shaggy and covered by a greasy baseball cap that used to be blue.

“Doesn’t food get stuck in that?” I ask, waving vaguely at the beard.

“And birds and small children,” he says.

With the beard, you couldn’t see his dimples should he happen to smile, an event which doesn’t seem likely to occur anytime soon. I take another donut.

“You’ll get fat,” Danny says. I take a third, and put it in front of me on a napkin, in the on-deck position. I figure I can sit here for a while and wait for Danny to talk. If he doesn’t talk tonight, I’ll come back tomorrow, and then the next day, if I need to.

“So,” I say, “what do you mean, it’s over?” I stuff the rest of the second donut into my mouth to shut myself up.

“That’s what I mean,” he says. Then he leaves the table and returns to the kitchen. I sit there for a while, hoping some plan of action will come to me, some wisdom from above, or that Danny will come back out of the kitchen, smiling, throwing donuts around his head and tell me it’s all a joke, have another donut, it’s on the house, and he’ll toss it to me and I’ll catch it. But that doesn’t happen, even though I give it plenty of time. While I’m waiting for deliverance I look through two different booklets listing real estate for sale in the area, and then I balance my checkbook. Then I walk behind the counter and into the kitchen, where I find Danny sitting on a gleaming metal counter, smoking.

“You’ll stunt your growth,” I say. “And it’s bad for the donuts.”

He takes a particularly deep drag. As he does I notice a dark, pink-red slash on the back of his right hand, a burn.

“Go away,” he says.

I think about it.

I wouldn’t mind being behind my desk in Chicago right now, where I have a job so full of paper that my hands are littered with papercuts, and I have a recurring dream in which nothing happens—it’s just me standing still, looking at stacks of paper. But at least, there, I know what I am doing. In fact, I’m even good at my job, which is compensation of a type, although if I was able to choose my skills I’d have chosen otherwise.

And here I am, in this freezing cold city, why we both live in such cold places is a mystery, and I am not equal to this task of telling my brother why life is worth living, which seems to be why he has summoned me here.

“I’ll leave,” I say. “I’ll leave on one condition. First you have to juggle for me.”

“Too late,” Danny says. “I quit. I’ll never be great and so I quit.”

“Too bad,” I say. “Because I’m not leaving until you juggle.”

“You’ve got a long wait in store, baby,” Danny says, flicking ash onto the floor and I follow it’s path down to the grey linoleum and when I look up I notice the burn again.

“I’ll wait,” I say.

And I leave the kitchen. Too bad the door is a swinging one or I’d slam it. I go back out to the same booth, where I spend several more hours, during which I switch from coffee to tea and from chocolate glazed to Boston Cream to plain. I file my nails again. Then I polish them, bright pink. Then they dry. I decide that I’m not one to deliver empty threats, and Danny’s not the only one who can quit. If he’s going to quit then I’ll quit, too, I’ll quit my job and sit here in this Dunkin’ Donuts and drive him crazy until he changes his mind.

At midnight Danny comes out of the kitchen with a coat on, and tells me to come with him. We go next door, to Friendly’s, and I’m introduced to Cindy, a tired-looking woman who waitresses there. Then Danny drives the three of us to Cindy’s apartment, where I sleep on a sagging green couch in her living room and Danny and Cindy disappear into the bedroom.

The next day, in the open air of the apartment house’s grassless back yard, under and over and around an empty clothesline, Danny juggles, and it is everything I ever dreamed.

When he finishes he drops a white plastic club striped with silver and blue to the ground and steps on it, hard, and it splits with a crack.

“You see,” he says. “You see how it is.”

And I don’t see at all and I know that I never will. All I know is that this one time is not enough. And I could tell Danny how stupid he is to be quitting, which would be the truth but would do no good. So I tell him another truth. I say “Thank you,” and Danny looks surprised and I have nothing left to say and all I can think of is all the balls and clubs that he has caught over the years, all of them crashing to the ground, and as each one crashes it hits me and each hit hurts.

“Well,” Danny says.

“Well,” I say, feeling like a retarded echo.

“I’ll never be great.”

“You liar,” I say. “You coward.” I am talking too much, but I can’t seem to stop. “What made you so scared? You have the hands. You know it.”

He chews his lower lip. I watch. Then I look down at the dirt, and then at our feet, mine in old white sneakers that look new, unscuffed, Danny’s in once-white sneakers that are probably not very old. Then I see his hands, on the ground, collecting balls, six of them, six pink balls. And when I look up they are in the air, they are orbiting Danny’s head.


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