My grandparents lived on a very desolate piece of land at the far corner of the North Shore of Chicago Bay; an area that sheltered perhaps eight-hundred people beyond Stuart and Martha Bentley. It was a different way of life, especially in comparison to the mobile home. The change felt healthy though - as if someone had taken the tape out of the VCR, spun the plastic gears backwards, and then re-inserted it - my life was starting over again.
I didn't know a soul. Then again, did I truly know anyone in Aurora County? Even if I did, was there anyone in Aurora County that I wanted to remember? This was a flash forward, where I was finally getting the chance to open my eyes after being under the darkness of blankets for years; where I was finally able to breathe after being held under the water.
Let these new times roll, I thought.
And though it was initially like a ball of rubber bands trudging down a steep embankment, I started to find a light at the end of the tunnel. I barely spoke for the first few years - essentially becoming the poster-boy emotional complex that everyone loved to spread rumors about in school. I tried like a son of a bitch, however, to dig myself out of that grave by going to gatherings, joining clubs at school, and even showing up for the Flutterfly Ball - the school's "pre-game" to the following month's prom.
Unfortunately, I didn't get the memo that you typically have a date with you when attending this event.
So there I was, Mr. Poster-Boy Emotional Complex, walking into the Flutterfly Ball - likely overdressed - with nothing but my own genatalia in my hand; seemingly frothing at the mouth in wildly innocent excitement over the fact that I was finally branching out and learning to live.
I don't remember anything dramatic happening - like a bunch of jocks pointing at me and laughing, or the music just randomly stopping as my feet touched upon the gymnasium floor, but I do remember feeling at a fair distance from everyone else. Who was I kidding? I didn't belong here. I never did. After everything that I had gone through leading up to this point, the only place that would have been ultimately inviting was the mental institution across the lake.
And who did I have to confide in?
My loving Grandparents. I wish they would have truly understood, but they didn't. They were old-fashioned, traditional - unwilling to compromise their strict beliefs. God bless them. All they wanted was for their grandson to be happy, but their recommendations didn't add up to what this world was all about anymore. Eventually, I didn't request their advice. By the time I hit 17, I was numbing everything with weed.
Lots of weed. In comic books, I'd be the guy with a giant green cloud hanging over my head.
So hypocritical of me too, especially after seeing what drugs did to my mother. It took away the doubt, the hesitance, and the insecurities though. It even got me laid - something I never thought would happen. It also made me disregard school and forget about my studies, at first. To blame a plant on my lackadaisical desire to trudge my education along would be absolutely asinine, for I was the leader and wizard of the choices I made.
I didn't like congregating with a bunch of kids that I would never relate to. I didn't like the idea that I was forced to be part of this systematic chaos of education farming - like a cow being herded through the rows. I needed to be the dictator of where I went; I needed to be the excavator of my path - and the map that revealed the only road that felt right to walk on.
So, I dropped out of school.
With only a year left, I dropped out.
In hindsight, I can't believe I did that. After all those years of getting by, I simply cut the damn cord and flatlined. Then? A year? That was a torturous, never-ending nightmare. Now, my grandfather was starting to lose sight of things - a touch of hysteria and dementia presumably - so he would have never been able to find a grasp in understanding my departure from school. So, I didn't tell him.
I did, however, tell my grandmother.
I'll never forget that empty look in her eyes; a look of shock and disbelief. Not her grandson. Not after all he had been through, not after all the striving and perseverance. She never raised her voice. She never told me to leave. She simply had this faint tone of disappointment that was devoid of any inflection. Once I dropped out, I wasn't a kid anymore. If I was going to make a dramatic decision like this, I had better of figured out what my next course of action was going to be.
"You know that you must get a job now, Fitzgerald, right?"
I just simply nodded with a smile.
"I'm going to figure all of that out. You don't have to worry."
A piece of me wanted her to worry.
"I can't worry anymore, Fitzgerald. I just need to trust that you're grown enough to do what you must do now."
An education was important to my grandmother. She fought tooth and nail for hers - and times were much harder for her when she was my age at the time. I didn't have much of a motive through her eyes, and she was probably spot on. Her and I - we never had another deep conversation again. I'll never truly understand what happened, but simply hypothesized it up to be a shock in the shift of the tide. Deep down, I believe my grandmother suddenly saw a transformation similar to that of her own daughter’s and was now beginning to wonder where the hell she took a left turn when she should have turned right.
But none of this was on her.
It never was.
This was all me.
Like clockwork, I turned 18 and my grandfather took a turn for the worst. My grandmother eventually decided to apply for residence at an assisted living center - to carry out the rest of their years together without the worries of bills and housekeeping. Once they were accepted, I had no other recourse but to move out. And for the first time, I was on my own. Thankfully, I had established myself as a waiter at the Fisher King Fryhouse - just across from the Center Street Train Station in North Shore. I couldn't afford an apartment, but was able to rent out the restaurant owner's studio space directly above the business for pennies - simply because of how hard I worked for him.
One day, Gino - the owner - asked me to work a double shift. He was frantic, actually - stressed out about something. I told him that I'd be happy to do it, but also asked him why we had to put in so much extra work. What was the stress for?
"The Golden Egg Royal Circus is coming into town."
This was huge. The biggest, fanciest, most prolific traveling circus in the East Coast was coming to North Shore? Nothing ever came to North Shore. No celebrities. No big concerts. Nothing but typical normality was how this town was always painted, by tradition. When Gino said that the GER Circus was on its way, it felt like the God damn President of the United States was en route in his motorcade.
I worked double time that night. Eventually, a quarter of the way into my shift, I heard the train whistle blow. A matter of minutes afterwards, there she was; the Golden Egg Royal Circus' transportation - a seemingly endless line of train cars connected to an engine that was painted a smooth yellow with green stripes. On the top of the first car, an egg-like sculpture advertised just what had come into town.
The Golden Egg's ringmaster, Rufas Polanski, stepped out of the train as I was placing my dish towel over my shoulder. He was dressed like a superstar - like Elton fucking John on tour; a fancy purple suit with sequins, dazzling sunglasses that blacked out his eyes, and a multicolored umbrella to defend against the rain clouds. It wasn’t just his presentation that made me want to be with him. It was his ---
There was something more natural about that smile than anything I had ever seen before in my young life. It made me wonder what it would be like to exist like that – never having to put too much effort into looking at the bright side of things. A touch of envy, you could say, but true admiration seemingly covered that up. He approached me, and I immediately greeted him, tucking one of my hands elegantly behind my back.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir.”
“Rufus.” He laughed. “I’m Rufus, mah’ boy. I’ve heard good things about this place.”
I started to open my mouth but there was Gino.
Interrupting a very special moment.
“You’re going to love what we create here, Rufus. In fact, I hope that it brings just as much magic into your life as your show does to everyone.”
Rufus winked at Gino, even showing a lack of interest in moving forward with the conversation with him. Instead, he turned back towards me.
“I’m going to bring some friends in with me. I hope you don’t mind the accommodations?”
Again, I was interrupted. The little guy doesn’t count in the equation.
“We have plenty of space for your entire entourage, Rufus.”
Rufus let out a belly-aching cackle, shaking his head in amazement.
Thinking twice about interrupting me, Gino?
“We haven’t stopped in Hollywood, have we, chap?”
Gino awkwardly giggles, trying to connect with the joke – one that he quite obviously didn’t get.
“Rufus Polanski doesn’t have an entourage, silly. He has friends. I appreciate your accommodations and efforts, even without advanced notice. Come on out guys!”
And then they exited the train car. What they were, I wasn’t entirely sure. They weren’t typical patrons – at least from a physical perspective. Is that a man transformed into a dog? Yes, most definitely. He’s hopping? Panting? And is that a tail connected to him? And that’s a lady – a face caked full of makeup and – a beard?
Oh wait. This was the freak show. These were Rufus’ attractions. A man with a combover, wearing what looked like a one-piece swimsuit, and muscles that were bigger than my entire body, followed the bearded women. Then, the one that made me subconsciously gasp appeared.
A woman – or women – two heads?
Siamese. Beautiful. Astonishing beautiful, but nothing that I had ever seen before. Rufus side-stepped to let his friends walk into the restaurant, all of which nodded their heads as a greeting to Gino and I. Rufus followed behind them with another smile, which was followed by Gino gulping and rubbing his forehead.
“Here’s the gameplan.” Gino said.
“Our other customers – they may not be, you know, too keen on the idea of having a two-headed mutant sitting next to them while they eat their cordon bleu. Let’s go ahead and relocate Rufus and his entourage to the far corner – where the wall separates.”
Two headed mutant?
“I doubt anyone is going to pay that much attention, Gino. I mean, they’re human beings with some eccentric attributes – and they all know that these are Rufus’ workers – part of a circus. These are his friends.”
Gino didn’t like the extra lip service.
“Look, be it as much of an honor to serve Rufus – this is a one-time deal, Fitz. The other customers? They’re regulars. You’re asking me to disregard my returns? The loyalty over the fame? I nearly lost my lunch over that… dog.”
“It’s just – it’s just an attraction, Gino. I don’t see what the big---”
“No more out of you.” Gino snapped back. “I’ve given you an order. Follow it. That’s how this works. Manager establishes an order for his severs to oblige by and apply. I won’t hear any more of this.”
I didn’t care for Gino’s extra lip service either – but I also needed this job.
I started to walk back into the restaurant to relocate Rufus and his friends – whom had already found themselves a section of the dining area that they were comfortable with. So, it became my job to take all of them out of their comfort zone so that the restaurant could save face and prevent others from potentially losing their lunch? Something about this didn’t seem right to me.
None of this sat right.
I approached Rufus – all the while knowing that Gino was monitoring me closely – and once again greeted myself.
“Rufus, I must reiterate how much of an honor it is to be in your presence. You know, when I was a kid, all I did was watch the circus; I remember The Grand Show specials that you used to put on. I used to be – well, when I could – glued to that television set. I’ve always wanted to be a part of that life, you know?”
Rufus was tickled pink by the sentiment.
“Chap, it means the world to me to know that I’ve got such a loyal follower in North Shore. It’s funny, we typically leave this place is worse shape than when we arrived. Chicago almost always calls for some inappropriate graphitti to our cars. If it’s not that, we typically must overcome the normal discriminatory outburst. All the same, it’s nice to know that – you know, there’s some good people still around here.”
I nodded – and then glanced at Gino.
He raised his eyebrows, trying to inch me closer to the purpose of my approach with his body language.
It only pissed me off more.
“There’s a lot of hate in this world; likely in this dining hall, if speaking honestly. I was supposed to come here and relocate all of you actually.” I said bluntly while shrugging my shoulders, careless of what consequences were bound to come any minute now.
“Oh?” Rufus furrowed his eyebrows. “And why is that?”
“My manager feels like some of his loyal customers’ stomachs would turn at the sight of some of your dear friends. So, he’s making me come over here and move all of you behind there.”
I pointed at the wooden security wall where another section of seats was.
“I’m not going to do it though. It goes beyond my morals. I just – I just can’t. And you know what? I’m probably going to lose my job tonight. Honestly? It was worth it. Enjoy your---”
And there was Gino.
He bumps his shoulder into me, visibly at his boiling point. He talks under his breath, trying to cover it up with a smile while glancing over at Rufus, who was now showing obvious signs of concern.
“What the fuck are you doing, kid? Are you trying to make me look bad?”
I shook my head. “No? I’m not going to do something I’m uncomfortable with. And you know what? All of you?”
I directed my attention to all these normal, loyal customers of Gino’s.
“These people are people just like you. They should be able to eat wherever the HELL they want; regardless of your subjective opinions – regardless of my OWN MANAGER’S opinion.”
“Oh, you little worthless prick.” Gino reaches up to grab my collar and, without hesitation, I shove him away and blast a right fist to the center of his jawline. It takes him so off guard that he trips backwards and lands onto a table, which collapses and sends a bowl of Italian wedding soup into his lap. I let out a deep breath, surveying what just happened, and before I could get anything edgewise out of my mouth.
I stood there silently, without an expression. What the hell did I just do?
What the hell did you just do?!
“Gino, I’m sorry. I lost my head.”
“And your job. Get your things and go. You’re done, kid. Find your magic somewhere else because it ain’t here.”
I nodded my head – still blankly looking back at Gino. I let my eyes close for a second as I retraced my thoughts. I glanced at all the customers, now stalling in feeding their faces to study the unfolded scene with their noses stuck up in the air. I really messed up this time – clearly. I swallowed hard, untied my apron, and then turned back towards Rufus – who seemed amazed by all of what transpired.
“Have a good meal, sir.”
I started to walk.
He responded? Oh God.
I turn around and he points at me with a wink.
“Remember. It’s Rufus.”
I playfully tap the side of my head. “I’ll have to try and remember that. Take care, Rufus.”
And that was that. I walked out of the restaurant with my tail between my legs. I wish I could have cartwheeled out of there, but this isn’t a movie. You don’t always consciously see the greener side of things, especially after you’ve made yourself look like a complete fool in front of what would have been a great reference, and essentially a legend. I just looked down at the floor and moved as quickly as possible through the dining room, through the exit door, and then to the pier railing – of which I bent my body over and vomited out everything inside of me.
You stupid. STUPID Jerk.
I move slowly to end of the dock, where there was a bench, and sat there. I didn’t know what I was going to do at this point. It had taken me a great deal of time and effort to find this job and I simply blew all of that away because of my morals? Who the hell had I become? Rosa Parks? I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I didn’t want to surround myself around anyone – in fear that I may somehow cause their castle to implode as well. So, instead, I balled myself up on that small pier bench and fell asleep with tears skiing elegantly around the pores of my face.
I had no idea how many hours had passed, but my eyes opened to a blurry landscape – almost like an unfinished oil painting. There was someone standing before me.
No, there were several people standing before me.
That’s all I could muster. I was cold, packed in snot that hadn’t been blown out of me during my emotional meltdown, and confused about my surroundings.
Then, I saw that smile.
He laughed. That laugh and smile. I didn’t feel in any type of danger anymore.
“Boy, how many times do I have to tell you that it’s Rufus.”
My vision began to clear. There he was. The Grand Master himself, Rufus Polanski, on one knee with his friends wrapped around him like some sort of last-minute congregation of the minds. There was the bearded lady, the dogboy, the strongman, the super-obese man, and the siamese twins. They all looked concerned, but also relieved that I was now awake and aware.
“You know what I was thinking, boy? I was thinking that I had never got your name.”
He wanted to know my name?
“Yes, yes. Your name.”
“Oh. Well, it’s Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald Everett Bentley.”
“Fitzgerald Everett Bentley. Boy, if that doesn’t sound like a stage name, then I don’t know what does. Would yall’ agree?”
He turned to his friends – all of which nodded their heads with massive smiles.
“Well Fitzgerald…” Rufus said, while scratching his nose. “That was a mighty thing you did in there. Some would even go on a limb in saying that those kinds of acts of kindness and honesty are on the brink of extinction. I like honest people – honest and humble. It’s how I was raised. Now, Gino has a job to do and I’m not one to look at anyone with any unnecessary disdain – but things do naturally come to a head when initially attracted opposites reach a fork in the road, Amen?”
I simply nodded.
What else was I to do? None of this even seemed real.
“I only went by instinct. It was – it was the right thing---”
“To do?” Rufus finished.
“Yeah.” I nodded again, half-smiling. “The right thing to do.”
“Following the path of instinct is a clever way of saying that you stay away from the places that create doubt. I never doubted the type of heart you had for a minute – from that first moment I bare eyes on ya’. Pure as an Orange in Sarasota, I’d say. And since I’m an instinctual fellow like ya’self, I’d like to invite you on board the Golden Egg.”
I stared at Rufus. What was happening here?
“For, like, a tour?”
“Goodness no!” He snapped back. “No one tours the Golden Egg, for there are secrets that rest within its walls. There’s a flicker of magic that lives in there, chap. The only souls that tour the Golden Egg are souls that consider themselves residents.”
I still didn’t know how to respond.
Rufus sighs and pulls out a pocket watch. He then places it into my cold hands.
“With time comes decisions to make. Much like the hands on it, time only waits for so long before it must depart for its next journey. I see something in you that I want to superimpose into bigger, great, grander things. And from my point of view, it doesn’t appear you have a job anymore. So, that only sweetens the soda that much more, am I right?!”
“Okay, Rufus.” I wrapped my fingers around the pocket watch and smiled. “I will take that offer. I can’t even begin to tell you how long I’ve wanted to hear that offer – how many dreams I’ve had of this moment.”
“Dreams do come true, chap. Now? You can prove that to all of the neighsayers. No time for that now, I imagine, for the Golden Egg awaits you. All aboard!”
Happiness. This must be it.
[Like before, F.E Bentley was now fully grown – wearing attire that matched, in some ways, to that of Rufus. Previously, he was resting on the edge of an ajar train car. This time? It’s Heidi the Elephant. The fluorescent circus tent sat in the background, while F.E took a stroll on his massive friend – looping around the fairgrounds with an expression of content on his face. He let out a sigh and patted the animal on its back.]
“Heidi’s been with me for years now. She’s a persistent son of a gun, aren’t you Heidi? That’s what it takes though, right? We all have to live a little persistent in order to see things out the way we most prefer. We all have to stay a little motivated – even when we’re approached by the biggest challenges in our lives. For Heidi? She was a North African attraction, raised and ultimately beaten by her owners because that was their taming method. She didn’t feel like having someone ride her? Beat her. She didn’t want to march around aimlessly so that people could throw food at her and scream? Beat her. Obedience was all that Heidi knew; and that’s why I connect with her so well. For a long time, all I knew is what not to say and what to do in order to stay away the mighty brick. I remember telling myself, on many occasions, to just give up. Why let all of these battle wounds manifest upon my flesh when I can simply bow out and never have to put up with this nonsense again?
Because that isn’t life, is it? Life is trudging through the muck and the mire, fighting against the tides and the heat of the fire, breaking through the cycle of madness to find a light that demonstrates peace – if the motive behind life was to simply give up, wouldn’t we all be doing it? We don’t though – and for some of us, it’s because there’s a reason to live.
For Heidi, she put up with the abuse – battled her way through the terror – because I believe, deep within her brilliant psyche, she knew that her forever home would eventually arrive. Now? She lives a lavish lifestyle – fed only the best foods, groomed, loved, and ultimately cared for unlike she ever has. And me? Well, I don’t live in that mobile home anymore. I’m having to put up with oppressive animal bosses because I am the boss.
But that takes perseverance.
At End Games, you must persevere.”
[Heidi lets out a loud, trumpeting roar.]
“And it isn’t about the person. For me, I bring the entertainment to the audience – to every last person that decide to attend the greatest show. This isn’t about Pandalike, specifically – nor is this about Fury, or anyone else in this battle. This is about everyone and what their buy-in is. What do you mean by “buy in”, Fitzgerald? How passionate are you in your perseverance? How far are you willing to take the beatings, the blood, the broken spirit and bones? Do you have a tolerance ceiling that ultimately prevents you from moving ahead in your mission? How far will you walk to find the greater good to your legacy?
Does your legacy matter?
Because if it doesn’t, then you don’t belong in the same show as me. I’m not here to overcome the individual – I am here to overcome to obstacle – and that obstacle is not one man. It’s every last person in contention – even those resting on the same alliance platter as myself. If you’re hungry enough, the people that are playing a role similar as yours don’t matter. They all become one, blurred wall that you must figure out how to push through.
To put on an event, the likes of which no one has ever seen before, you come after the number. Heidi and I? We see seven men – entangled into a ball of opposition. I don’t see one head, with two eyes, a nose – all I see is a mangled mess of limbs and flesh, and that mangled ball of limbs and flesh is slowly rolling towards me, and everything that I stand for.
If I focus on one man’s limbs, then I’m not effectively taking down the rest, am I? If I buy in to one man’s hopes and dreams, one man’s aggressions, one man’s ambition – what happens when the rest of these aggressions, hopes, dreams, and ambitions blind side me out of neglect? There is a reason why I am here, ladies and gentlemen.
I am not only the circus king – I am the ringmaster.
The center of that ring is my home, my shelter, my fortress, my dwelling, my everything and no one has ever dared to step in front of me out of fear from the silence that would spontaneously follow.
I stand in that ring as the stronghold – a man that can bring thousands to their knees in shock and awe; so what changes when I’m in the middle of a wrestling ring? Nothing. I conquered the hard knocks of my childhood, the ups and downs of self-discovery of an early adult, and found a niche as a groundbreaking, international circus phenom – End Games is the story of my life, and I’m going to put my signature on every page of it.
My buy-in is that my life has always counted on the next step that I make. I never addressed this with fear, however, I simply did it. And I am a better man for taking life on this way. My buy in is that I was born to be the centerfold – the epicenter of the attention – the epitome of the game. If I wasn’t, then I was not only a disappointment to those in attendance, but a disappointment to myself.”
[F.E pulls on the reigns attached to Heidi, forcing her to stop. F.E looks around at everything around him – all of the circus accessories, stage equipment, the animals, and places his hands on his hips.]
“My buy-in is the people that have stood by me through all of these years; the ones that have fought tooth and nail for me to get to this point. My buy-in are the ones that wanted so badly to give up on me but didn’t. My buy-in is everyone and everything that believed in my store, invested their into it, only because they knew that something grand would come out of it.”
[F.E extends his arms out.]
“Well then. Here we are. Let your buy-in be the strength that guides you – because once I lay mine on the line inside of that ring, something very special is going to happen. The question is – are you ready?”