Because the once-upon-a-time boy made it here with wizened face and wise eyes, there’s no more uncertainty of the cold boxcar and each town rolling by, asking, Is this the one? Is this the one? Is this the one? Only his story remains waiting for a bit of fate to walk around the brick corner of a Minnesota main street. A girl or end-times evangelist. A job or a glass-eyed shyster with a proposition too good to be true or passed up. In this case, a ringmaster leading a tiger cub by the leash. And so, because it can snow in October in Hibbing, the boy takes shelter in the heat and the fire of the striped big top, always the same no matter the town. While the cub learns to leap through that fire, rewarded every night — no matter the town — by the boy, with a swept cage and a wet hunk of meat, flung through the bars. The boy — coins in his pocket, new boots on his feet, the nightly smile of a sequined girl. Until one night in Quapaw, Oklahoma, the cub, grown full size on not-quite-rancid meat, leaps through the ring of fire to pin paws-to-shoulders the sequined trainer, a girl who never quite got the hang of the trapeze but was too pretty to let go. And the boy learns that losing love can feel like a mauling, the windpipe ripped clean from your throat, while the good people of Quapaw get a show they will never forget. He’ll grow old and wise within earshot of the rail line that nightly demands, It should have been you, It should have been you, It should have been you. A thousand miles to arrive at the conclusion. At some point you get used to living with the chance of snow.
J. V. Skuldt is a writer and editor living near Chicago. She has her MFA from Eastern Washington University and was formerly managing editor at The University of Wisconsin Press. She has taught art, writing, Latin, and started an after-school arts program for elementary school children in her community. Her work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, The Wisconsin Academy Review, and (in)courage, among others.