Ditchmoss – by Andrew Shaughnessy

Muriel sat at the kitchen table beside the south-facing window that drew in the morning light as if it had no better place to go. Her diminutive size allowed her to scrunch up on a kitchen chair to work the Saturday crossword puzzle. Her septuagenarian husband Walter squatted on a stool at the kitchen island,rifling through the flyers that arrived with the morning paper.

“I need help with this one,” she said. “Six letters. Submerged freshwater perennials.”

“Elodea,” he said, articulating his bearded gaping maw to enunciate each of the four syllables. “Also known as pondweed or ditchmoss.”

“Good to know.” She filled in the letters as a hummingbird hovered outside the kitchen window.

“Ditchmoss,” he said again, stretching his mouth as if biting into a piece of thick-crust pizza. “I like the way that sounds.”

“I’ll give you ‘moss,’ but the ‘ditch’ part really brings the pairing down.”

Walter’s muddled mind hadn’t received enough caffeine to know whether she was engaging in wordplay to make a point about the two of them. He had shifted his attention to a glossy brochure. He opened it to reveal a centrefold of dancing bears, Jack Russel terriers in bejeweled collars jumping through flaming hoops and a top-hatted ringmaster holding the gold-chained leash of a Bengal Tiger. A popular acrobatics troupe had been organized to open the show, being held under a big-top tent in Sanders Meadow, a multi-use field the city had set aside for things, like the circus, that rarely came.

Walter flipped the brochure over, as if he were looking for the fine print. “There’s nothing here about a food tent.”

“I think you are confusing the circus with the fall fair. The most you’re going to get at the circuit is the caramel corn that does nothing but attract the ringmaster’s little monkey.”

“Sold,” Walter said, making a move to the phone to invite the neighbours, Hank and Mel, to a matinee show. He returned to report their agreement: “Old Hank had a bad experience at the circus once, but he’s prepared to try again, provided that Mel can fix us dinner after.”

“Lucky you,” Muriel said. Since Hank had retired, he had given up golf, walking, and pretty much anything other than sitting in his wingback chair trying to manage their retirement savings. His newly-discovered sedentary lifestyle resulted in Mel, the neighbourhood’s best baker, frequently delivering half-finished desserts next door to Walter and Muriel where they were readily dispatched.

#

On the day in question, the four seniors, packing cellophane bags of caramel corn, presented themselves at the circus tent early to take their seats in the back row of the floor section adjacent to the centre ring. A family of four was in the front row, trying to settle twin four-year-old boys each seized with fear at being so close to the action. Hank studied the scene as if this were one of the circus acts. The boy’s father, catching the seniors’ stares, walked back ten rows to speak to the group. He approached Walter, presuming him to be the group’s alpha male.

“Would you mind horribly if we swapped seats?” he said, pointing at his two children clamped onto their mother’s legs. “The children are frightened. Back here, they may feel safer.”

Walter was never one to decline an act of charity, especially when kids were involved, or when the offer involved the securing of an advantage. He had selected the seats in the back row, so as not to obstruct the view of any children with his tall frame and unkempt grey mange (and because they were cheaper). With Walter’s virtue and vice both satisfied, he was happy to have the group move.

The circus performance was nondescript, until the final act, when the ‘Amazing Romagnoli’ and his ‘Lippizaner Stallions’ took the centre ring. Romagnoli, dressed like a field marshal in a double-breasted blue tunic, used the skillful handling of a bone-white whip to dance, prance and run his six horses, each sporting colourful feather plumes, around the ring. For the finale, the six stallions stood on their hind legs — “sort of like a lawyer in court,” Walter mumbled to Hank, a pejorative barb aimed at his soon-to-be ex-son-in-law, a one-time lawyer. The horses were slowly inched backwards by Romagnoli until the horses were equally spaced around the perimeter of the ring. One of the horses was perilously close to the point where Walter and Hank were sitting.

“Good thing we swapped seats with the family,” Hank said, leaning into Walter who himself was leaning into Muriel, seated beside him.

The Amazing Romagnoli cracked his whip. In the stillness of the big top, it reverberated as though a gun had gone off. The children in the tenth row cried. Five of the stallions began to hop on their hind legs. The sixth, the one near Walter and Hank, stumbled backwards in a way that made it almost certain that Hank was about to be squashed. The horse regained its balance and righted itself, but not before lifting its beautiful combed white tail and, after a few nervous stutter steps, doing what horses will, from time to time, do—or “do do,” as Walter would say in later months—all over Hank and his white trousers.

“Good thing,” Walter said, craning his neck around to see the horrified faces on the family of four looking down on them. The ringmaster and Romagnoli, as well as the circus clowns, rushed over, oddly creating the impression that this was now somehow part of the act. When Hank, disgusted, stood up and stepped into the ring to protest — with a “Would you look at what you’ve done to me?” — the crowd, once silenced with shock, roared with laughter. When Hank picked up a ‘road apple’ and flung it at the ringmaster, knocking off his top hat, he was caught in the act by the local newspaper’s photographer.

#

“All tragedy becomes comedy with the effluxion of time,” Walter said, offering Hank a second double scotch, as the two of them sat on the back deck.

“Walter,” Hank said, the slightest of slurs creeping into his voice, “a horse reared up and shat all over me. In public! When does that become funny?”

It’s a good thing Hank was sitting outside — and not inside where Muriel and Mel were pissing themselves with laughter. “And to think he wouldn’t leave,” Mel said, “until he had had it out with the organizers about the limitation of liability on the backside of the ticket.” She sipped her white wine. “I told him how much I hated those white pants. He’ll never wear those again.”

“I dare say he’ll never go to a circus again,” Muriel added. “Was this as bad as the first time?”

Mel nodded. “He had agreed, as some charity stunt, to be fired out of a cannon.”

“Oh my,” Muriel gasped. “That sounds awful.”

“It was perfectly safe, but a frightful experience.” Mel giggled. “Let’s just say he should have gone to the bathroom before they put him in white tights.”

“Oh no. He didn’t?”

“The only difference is that there was no one around to take his picture then.” Mel poured herself some more wine. “I don’t think he’s realized he’ll be in the paper tomorrow.”

“Maybe you should come over for breakfast with me and Walter and leave him be.”

#

The next morning, Muriel sat at the kitchen table across from Mel, who was sipping coffee and studying the photo on the front page of the newspaper folded on the table in front of her. Muriel was engrossed in her puzzle while Walter was at the island on his tablet trying to determine at what speed a body gets thrown out of a cannon.

“Keyboard instrument with steamwhistle sounds,” Muriel said. “Eight letters.”

“Calliope,” Mel said, pronouncing it ‘Cali-yope.’

“Kuh-lye-oh-pea,” Walter said instructively, “the Greek muse who presides over eloquence and poetry.” As he said this, a shadowy form blocked the view from the kitchen window. It was Hank, holding up the front page of the newspaper and pointing at the photograph. He was frowning. “There’s a man who thinks he’s witty,” Walter started. “Went to the circus but found it sh—”

“Walter! That is neither eloquent nor poetic.” Muriel got up, opened the door for Hank and ushered him in. “Take my seat, Hank,” she said, after checking to see what pants he was wearing. “Let me get you some coffee.”

“I’m the town’s laughingstock,” he complained.

“But they did call again this morning to apologize,” Mel said.

“That was good of them,” Walter said. “Did they offer anything?”

“No, but the family whose seats we had taken had called the organizers to get our information. They are oh so grateful. They want to send a gift.”

“See Hank,” Muriel said, “good things grow even when the sun doesn’t shine.”

“I think that’s horsesh—”

Walter interjected. “Ditchmoss, you mean, Hank. Ditchmoss.”

Image of elephants and circus performers walking around the ring.

Andy is a Welsh-born Canadian, raised in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. He is an intellectual property litigation lawyer practising in Toronto, and escaping to Gravenhurst as much as he can. He fills his spare time with the pursuit of his love of short story writing, particularly those that are prompt-based and contest-driven. 

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