A month after Mama passes, I find her circus trunk tucked into a corner of the attic. Hand-painted with a blue sequin waterfall, it plays a familiar jazz tune when I open the lid. ‘Misterioso’ on loop, just the 12-bar theme. I hear her over the piano riff. Listen, Hon. That’s it right there. The whole enchilada. The mystery of life. Climbing steps at the start, then it’s a complete schlepp, but maybe you get some dancing along the way. No guilt, just joy for a tiny bit. Badaboom, those stairs hit you again and from that moment on, it’s all scaling down. Life is tenebrous, Baby. Remember that. She spoon-fed these philosophical morsels after her high-wire act. Night after night, I sat on the circus trunk and watched her remove a thick layer of face paint.
Word Wealth with its shiny green cover sits on the very top of Mama’s past life. Not green, chartreuse. Be exact, Sweetie. Ten words a night. Ten sentences to show that I understand. The magician uses legerdemain to fool the audience. It is crucial Mama learns the new routine. A letter from Grandma is ominous. My eyes are sage, Mama’s are cerulean.
Now I pull out other memories. Posters when she headlined with Barnum and Bailey. Stacks of tightrope shoes with suede soles and firm lacing: red with sparkles, turquoise with gold stars, silver with long ribbons to crisscross up her calves. Leotards, tights and feather-trimmed skirts. A harlequin bodysuit with ruffled neck and cuffs. I feel a flash of recognition for some, with others it is a new encounter. From each piece I sniff her scent of cedar and ripe apricot, slightly stale and musty.
Papa hollers up the ladder. Can I assist you? Twenty-two years, he still sounds like the émigré waiter Mama and I met after a show in Indianapolis. I shout, It’s ok, close the lid and listen for his disappearing heavy steps. When I reopen the trunk, I notice a miniature hand stuck on the far-left side. A replica of her garnet ring on one finger, surrounded by a word circle written in glitter. At first it appears like a wood burl, but my phone flashlight reveals her magic trick: six spins to the right, then push in and pull back. I grab her hand, follow instructions. The panel falls open in a dust haze. A white book with black binding tumbles out. Red lettering shouts: The Yale Banner Yearbook. A circus ticket stub brings me to Mama holding an English Literature Medal, while an old envelope marks another page, its address in faded ink. There, a full-page photograph shows her among a grinning group. ‘Yale Ballroom Dance Team, University League Champions 1981’ is emblazoned over their heads. They look happy. In the front row, Mama’s pressed cheek-to-cheek with a stranger who stares at me with sage eyes.