You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

18. Piggy Logan’s Circus

The hour had now arrived for Mr. Piggy Logan and his celebrated I circus of wire dolls. Till now he had kept himself secreted in the guest-room, and as he made his entrance there was a flurry of excited interest in the brilliant throng. People in the dining-room crowded to the door, holding tinkling glasses or loaded plates in their hands, and even old Jake Abramson let his curiosity draw him away from the temptations of the table long enough to appear in the doorway gnawing at a chicken leg.

Mr. Piggy Logan was attired for his performance in a costume that was simple yet extraordinary. He had on a thick blue turtleneck sweater of the kind that was in favour with college heroes thirty years ago. Across the front of it — God knows why — was sewn an enormous home-made Y. He wore old white canvas trousers, tennis sneakers, and a pair of battered knee pads such as were formerly used by professional wrestlers. His head was crowned with an ancient football helmet, the straps securely fastened underneath his heavy jowls. Thus arrayed, he came forward, staggering between his two enormous valises.

The crowd made way for him and regarded him with awe. Mr. Logan grunted under his burden, which he dropped with a thump in the middle of the living-room floor, and breathed an audible sigh of relief. Immediately he began pushing back the big sofa and all the chairs and tables and other furniture until the centre of the room was clear. He rolled back the rug, and then started taking books from the shelves and dumping them on the floor. He looted half a dozen shelves in different parts of the room and in the vacant spaces fastened up big circus posters, yellow with age, which showed the familiar assortment of tigers, lions, elephants, clowns, and trapeze performers, and bore such descriptive legends as “Barnum & Bailey — May 7th and 8th,” “Ringling Brothers — July 31st.”

The gathering watched him curiously as he went about this labour of methodical destruction. When he had finished he came back to his valises and began to take out their contents. There were miniature circus rings made of rounded strips of tin or copper which fitted neatly together. There were trapezes and flying swings. And there was an astonishing variety of figures made of wire to represent all the animals and performers. There were clowns and trapeze artists, acrobats and tumblers, horses and bareback lady riders. There was almost everything that one could think of to make a circus complete, and all of it was constructed of wire.

Mr. Logan was down on his knee-pads extremely busy with his work, his mind as completely focused on it as though he had been alone in the room. He rigged up his trapezes and swings and took meticulous care in arranging each of the little wire figures of elephants, lions, tigers, horses, camels, and performers. He was evidently of a patient turn of mind, and it took him half an hour, or more to set everything up. By the time he had finished his labours and had erected a little sign which said: “Main Entrance”, all the guests, who at first had watched him curiously, had grown tired of waiting and had resumed their interrupted talking, eating, and drinking.

At length Mr. Logan was ready, and signified his willingness to begin by a gesture to his hostess. She clapped her hands as loudly as she could and asked for silence and attention.

But just then the door-bell rang, and a lot of new people were ushered in by Nora. Mrs. Jack looked somewhat bewildered, for the new arrivals were utter strangers. For the most part they were young people. The young women had that unmistakable look of having gone to Miss Spence’s School, and there was something about the young men which indicated that they were recently out of Yale and Harvard and Princeton, and were members of the Racquet Club, and were now connected with investment brokers in Wall Street.

With them was a large and somewhat-decayed looking lady of advanced middle age. She had evidently been a beauty in her palmy days, but now everything about her — arms, shoulders, neck, face, and throat — was blown, full, and loose, and made up a picture of corrupted elegance. It was a picture of what Amy Carleton might look like thirty years from now, if she were careful and survived. One felt unpleasantly that she had lived too long in Europe, probably on the Riviera, and that somewhere in the offing there was something with dark, liquid eyes, a little moustache, and pomaded hair — something quite young and private and obscene and kept.

This lady was accompanied by an elderly gentleman faultlessly attired in evening dress, as were all the others. He had a cropped moustache and artificial teeth, which were revealed whenever he paused to lick his thin lips lecherously and to stutter out: “What? What?”— as he began to do almost at once. Both of these people looked exactly like characters who might have been created by Henry James if he had lived and written in a later period of decay.

The whole crowd of newcomers streamed in noisily, headed by a spruce young gentleman in white tie and tails whose name was shortly to be made known as Hen Walters. He was evidently a friend of Mr. Logan. Indeed, they all seemed to be friends of Mr. Logan. For as Mrs. Jack, looking rather overwhelmed at this invasion, advanced to greet them and was dutifully murmuring her welcome, all of them swarmed right past her, ignoring her completely, and stormed into the room shouting vociferous gaieties at Mr. Logan. Without rising from his knee-pads, he grinned at them fondly and with a spacious gesture of his freckled hand beckoned them to a position along one wall. They crowded in and took the place he had indicated. This forced some of the invited guests back into the far corners, but the new arrivals seemed not to mind this at all. Indeed, they paid not the slightest attention to anybody.

Then somebody in the group saw Amy Carleton and called across to her. She came over and joined them, and seemed to know several of them. And one could see that all of them had heard of her. The debutantes were polite but crisply detached. After the formalities of greeting they drew away and eyed Amy curiously and furtively, and their looks said plainly: “So this is she!”

The young men were less reserved. They spoke to her naturally, and Hen Walters greeted her quite cordially in a voice that seemed to be burbling with suppressed fun. It was not a pleasant voice: it was too moist, and it seemed to circulate round a nodule of fat phlegm. With the gleeful elation which marked his whole manner he said loudly:

“Hello, Amy! I haven’t seen you for an age. What brings you here?” The tone indicated, with the unconscious arrogance of his kind, that the scene and company were amusingly bizarre and beyond the pale of things accepted and confirmed, and that to find anyone he knew in such a place was altogether astounding.

The tone and its implications stung her sharply. As for herself, she had so long been the butt of vicious gossip that she could take it with good nature or complete indifference. But an affront to someone she loved was more than she could endure. And she loved Mrs. Jack. So, now, her green-gold eyes flashed dangerously as she answered hotly:

“What brings me here — of all places! Well, it’s a very good place to be-the best I know . . . And I mean!”— she laughed hoarsely, jerked the cigarette from her mouth, and tossed her black curls with furious impatience —“I mean! After all, I was invited, you know!”

Instinctively, with a gesture of protective warmth, she had slipped her arm round Mrs. Jack, who, wearing a puzzled frown upon her face, was standing there as if still a little doubtful of what was happening.

“Esther, darling,” Amy said, “this is Mr. Hen Walters — and some of his friends.” For a moment she looked at the cluster of young débutantes and their escorts, and then turned away, saying to no one in particular, and with no effort to lower her voice: “God, aren’t they simply dreadful! . . . I mean! . . . You know!”— she addressed herself now to the elderly man with the artificial teeth —“Charley — in the name of God, what are you trying to do? . . . You old cradle-snatcher, you! . . . I mean! — after all, it’s not that bad, is it?” She surveyed the group of girls again and turned away with a brief, hoarse laugh. “All these little Junior League bitches!” she muttered. “God! . . . How do you stand it, anyway — you old bastard!” She was talking now in her natural tone of voice, good-naturedly, as though there was nothing in the least unusual in what she Was saying. Then with another short laugh she added: “Why don’t you come to see me any more?”

He licked his lips nervously and bared his artificial teeth before he answered:

“Wanted to see you, Amy, for ever so long . . . What? . . . Intended to stop in . . . Matter of fact, did stop by some time ago, but you’d just sailed . . . What? . . . You’ve been away, haven’t you? . . . What?”

As he spoke in his clipped staccato he kept licking his thin lips lecherously, and at the same time he scratched himself, rooting obscenely into the inner thigh of his right leg in a way that suggested he was wearing woollen underwear. In doing so he inadvertently pulled up his trouser leg and it stayed there, revealing the tops of his socks and a portion of white meat.

Meanwhile Hen Walters was smiling brightly and burbling on to Mrs. Jack:

“So nice of you to let us all come in”— although she, poor lady, had had nothing at all to do with it. “Piggy told us it would be all right. I hope you don’t mind.”

“But no-o — not at all!” she protested, still with a puzzled look. “Any friends of Mr. Logan’s . . . But won’t you all have a drink, or something to eat? There’s loads ——”

“Oh, heavens, no!” burbled Mr. Walters. “We’ve all been to Tony’s and we simply gorged ourselves! If we took another mouthful, I’m absolutely positive we should explode!”

He uttered these words with such ecstatic jubilation that it seemed he might explode at any moment in a large, moist bubble. “Well, then, if you’re sure,” she began.

“Oh, absolutely!” cried Mr. Walters rapturously. “But we’re holding up the show!” he exclaimed. “And, after all, that’s what we’re here to see. It would simply be a tragedy to miss it . . . 0 Piggy!” he shouted to his friend, who had been cheerfully grinning all the while and crawling about on his knee-pads. “Do begin! Everyone’s simply dying to see it! . . . I’ve seen it a dozen times myself,” he announced gleefully to the general public, “and it becomes more fascinating every time . . . So if you’re ready, please begin!”

Mr. Logan was ready.

The new arrivals held their position along one wall, and the other people now withdrew a little, leaving them to themselves. The audience was thus divided into two distinct halves — the people of wealth and talent on one side, and those of wealth and fashion or “Society” on the other.

On a signal from Mr. Logan, Mr. Walters detached himself from his group, came over, arranged the tails of his coat, and knelt down gracefully beside his friend. Then, acting on instructions, he read aloud from a typewritten paper which Mr. Logan had handed to him. It was a whimsical document designed to put everybody in the right mood, for it stated that in order to enjoy and understand the circus one must make an effort to recover his lost youth and have the spirit of a child again. Mr. Walters read it with great gusto in a cultivated tone of voice which almost ran over with happy laughter. When he had finished, he got up and resumed his place among his friends, and Mr. Logan then began his performance.

It started, as all circuses should, with a grand procession of the performers and the animals in the menagerie. Mr. Logan accomplished this by taking each wire figure in his thick hand and walking it round the ring and then solemnly out again. Since there was a great many animals and a great many performers, this took some time, but it was greeted at its conclusion with loud applause.

Then came an exhibition of bareback riders. Mr. Logan galloped his wire horses into the ring and round and round with movements of his hand. Then he put the riders on top of the wire horses, and, holding them firmly in place, he galloped these round too. Then there was an interlude of clowns, and he made the wire figures tumble about by manipulating them with his hands. After this came a procession of wire elephants. This performance gained particular applause because of the clever way in which Mr. Logan made the figures imitate the swaying, ponderous lurch of elephants — and also because people were not always sure what each act meant, and when they were able to identify something, a pleasant little laugh of recognition would sweep the crowd and they would clap their hands to show they had got it.

There were a good many acts of one kind or another, and at last the trapeze performers were brought on. It took a little while to get this act going because Mr. Logan, with his punctilious fidelity to reality, had first to string up a little net below the trapezes. And when the act did begin it was unconscionably long, chiefly because Mr. Logan was not able to make it work. He set the little wire figures to swinging and dangling from their perches. This part went all right. Then he tried to make one little figure leave its trapeze, swing through the air, and catch another figure by its downswept hands. This wouldn’t work. Again and again the little wire figure soared through the air, caught at the outstretched hands of the other doll — and missed ingloriously. It became painful. People craned their necks and looked embarrassed. But Mr. Logan was not embarrassed. He giggled happily with each new failure and tried again. It went on and on. Twenty minutes must have passed while Mr. Logan repeated his attempts. But nothing happened. At length, when it became obvious that nothing was going to happen, Mr. Logan settled the whole matter himself by taking one little figure firmly between two fat fingers, conveying it to the other, and carefully hooking it on to the other’s arms. Then he looked up at his audience and giggled cheerfully, to be greeted after a puzzled pause by perfunctory applause.

Mr. Logan was now ready for the grand climax, the pièce de rèsistance of the entire occasion. This was his celebrated sword-swallowing act. With one hand he picked up a small rag doll, stuffed with wadding and with crudely painted features, and with the other hand he took a long hairpin, bent it more or less straight, forced one end through the fabric of the doll’s mouth, and then began patiently and methodically to work it down the rag throat. People looked on with blank faces, and then, as the meaning of Mr. Logan’s operation dawned on them, they smiled at one another in a puzzled, doubting way.

It went on and on until it began to be rather horrible. Mr. Logan kept working the hairpin down with thick, probing fingers, and when some impediment of wadding got in his way he would look up and giggle foolishly. Halfway down he struck an obstacle that threatened to stop him from going any farther. But he persisted — persisted horribly.

It was a curious spectacle and would have furnished interesting material for the speculations of a thoughtful historian of life and customs in this golden age. It was astounding to see so many intelligent men and women — people who had had every high and rare advantage of travel, reading, music, and aesthetic cultivation, and who were usually so impatient of the dull, the boring, and the trivial — patiently assembled here to give their respectful attention to Mr. Piggy Logan’s exhibition. But even respect for the accepted mode was wearing thin. The performance had already lasted a weary time, and some of the guests were beginning to give up. In pairs and groups they would look at one another with lifted eyebrows, and quietly would filter out into the hall or in the restorative direction of the dining-room.

Many, however, seemed determined to stick it out. As for the young “Society” crowd, all of them continued to look on with eager interest. Indeed, as Mr. Logan went on probing with his hairpin, one young woman with the pure, cleanly chiselled face so frequently seen in members of her class turned to the young man beside her and said:

“I think it’s frightfully interesting — the way he does that. Don’t you?”

And the young man, evidently in the approved accent, said briefly: “Eh!”— an ejaculation which might have been indicative of almost anything, but which was here obviously taken for agreement. This interchange between them had taken place, like all the conversations in the group, in a curiously muffled, clipped speech. Both the girl and the young man had barely opened their mouths — their words had come out between almost motionless lips. This seemed to be the fashionable way of talking among these people.

As Mr. Logan kept working and pressing with his hairpin, suddenly the side of the bulging doll was torn open and some of the stuffing began to ooze out. Miss Lily Mandell watched with an expression of undisguised horror and, as the doll began to lose its entrails, she pressed one hand against her stomach in a gesture of nausea, said “Ugh!”— and made a hasty exit. Others followed her. And even Mrs. Jack, who at the start of the performance had slipped on a wonderful jacket of gold thread and seated herself cross-legged on the floor like a dutiful child, squarely before the maestro and his puppets, finally got up and went out into the hall, where most of her guests were now assembled.

Almost no one was left to witness the concluding scenes of Mr. Piggy Logan’s circus except the uninvited group of his own particular friends.

Out in the hall Mrs. Jack found Lily Mandell talking to George Webber. She approached them with a bright, affectionate little smile and queried hopefully:

“Are you enjoying it, Lily? And you, darling?”— turning fondly to George —“Do you like it? Are you having a good time?” Lily answered in a tone of throaty disgust:

“When he kept on pushing that long pin into the doll and all its insides began oozing out — ugh!”— she made a nauseous face —“I simply couldn’t stand it any longer! It was horrible! I had to get out! I thought I was going to puke!”

Mrs. Jack’s shoulders shook, her face reddened, and she gasped in a hysterical whisper:

“I know! Wasn’t it awful!”

“But what is it, anyway?” said the attorney, Roderick Hale, as he came up and joined them.

“Oh, hello, Rod!” said Mrs. Jack. “What do you make of it Hale?”

“I can’t make it out,” he said, with an annoyed look into the living-room, where Piggy Logan was still patiently carrying on. “What is it all supposed to be, anyway? And who is this fellow?” he said in an irritated tone, as if his legal and fact-finding mind was annoyed by a phenomenon he could not fathom. “It’s like some puny form of decadence,” he murmured.

Just then Mr. Jack approached his wife and, lifting his shoulders in a bewildered shrug, said:

“What is it? My God, perhaps I’m crazy!”

Mrs. Jack and Lily Mandell bent together, shuddering helplessly as women do when they communicate whispered laughter to one another.

“Poor Fritz!” Mrs. Jack gasped faintly.

Mr. Jack cast a final bewildered look into the living-room, surveyed the wreckage there, then turned away with a short laugh:

“I’m going to my room!” he said with decision. “Let me know if he leaves the furniture!”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02