I was seven and we’d been at my Uncle Andy’s apartment in the East Village for his birthday, a trip that lingered due to a brief conversation between Grandma, Uncle Andy, and his longtime roommate, Danny. As we readied to leave, Grandma suddenly started crying and was quickly ushered out the door by Grandpa.
We already had our jackets on and Mom was in the process of smooshing winter hats down over our ears when Dad came over and said, “We might be a few minutes,” and then took an armload of beers from the fridge and headed into the back room with a red faced Uncle Andy and a dejected looking Danny. I was annoyed, since the hat made my head itch and it was too hot in the apartment with my puffy jacket on, but thankfully Mom started pulling off our layers as we listened to the voices rising and falling in the other room.
When I asked my mom what was happening, she said, “Don’t worry, hun. They’re just discussing politics.” And then she handed me and my brother Jeremy ice pops and sat on the couch, rocking our sister Mel in her arms and exchanging worried looks with the drapes, which I remember were a very dark purple.
By the time we left Uncle Andy’s apartment, it was nearly midnight and, according to Mom, Dad was a little sleepy, which of course meant that Dad was a little drunk. But we hopped in the car anyway and headed back uptown towards the Midtown Tunnel. I fell asleep in minutes, as I did whenever I was in a moving vehicle. The summer before I’d passed out facedown on the lap of a sailor during the short boat ride out to the Statue of Liberty. Our grandparents had taken Jeremy and me there under the guise of it being an important historical lesson, but we’d been staying with them for almost a week (our parents had gone on vacation to Florida with Uncle Andy and Danny) and I suspect they were running out of things to do with us. My grandmother thought the whole sailor incident hilarious and proceeded to take a roll’s worth of pictures, one of which found its way onto the picture board at Jeremy’s wake, where it stayed since no one had the heart to remind her that it was, in fact, me. So it was no surprise that on the ride home from Uncle Andy’s failed birthday party, my mother’s rousing calls failed and she had to shake me awake.
“Look, boys, quick,” she said.
I grumbled and opened my eyes, only to conclude that I was still sleeping since there were elephants marching up the street from the Tunnel. Four of them, huge grey beasts lumbering up 34th Street, trumpeting to each other and shaking their heads, ears and trunks swinging, swathed in the light of the streetlamps and the mist of their combined breath. Red, sparkling coverlets were draped over their backs, emblazoned with the words “I Heart NY.” I held my breath and stared out the window in awe.
“Can we get out?” Jeremy asked.
“Just for a minute,” Dad said and pulled over in front of an open meter.
We piled out of the car and hurried up the block toward the other spectators. Behind the elephants were horses, high stepping in unison, their hooves clattering on the pavement, heads and manes adorned with blue and red plumes that waved through the dark like mad birds. A singular lion followed, big and proud, glaring at the crowd as if daring someone to take his place in the parade. Men with strained smiles marched on each side of him, holding long poles with loops on the ends that were tightened around his neck. When he looked our way, I was sure they wouldn’t hold, that he’d leap out into the crowd and tear us to shreds. Jeremy started to step forward and I grabbed his hand.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “He probably doesn’t even have teeth.”
I let go and leaned into my father, locking an arm around his thigh. Jeremy moved up near the front of the crowd and probably would have gone on to prove his theory had my father not growled, “That’s far enough now.” Jeremy halted and we stood and watched as the lion moved on, followed by a group of goats, llamas, and a handful of other animals I didn’t recognize. Last came a group of clowns, whose white faces and mixed emotions scared me almost as much as the lion had, even though they handed out balloon animals as they went. Jeremy took an elephant from one and suddenly they were talking, Jeremy gesturing back toward us, the clown down on one knee to better hear him. They huddled there as the parade moved forward, the rumble of the elephants fading and the bleating of the goats echoing off the buildings back to us. Even in New York, there was something strange about seeing a lone clown in the street, crouching and talking as if his face weren’t painted, as if speaking seriously with a child in front of a crowd in the middle of 34th Street was the most natural thing in the world.
And then up he popped with a flourish, revealing three bowling pins that had been hidden somewhere within the folds of his costume. Up they went, twirling end over end as he skipped up the street after the animals. Jeremy came back with his arms full of balloons.
“It has teeth,” he said. “But it’s probably too old to effectively pounce.”
He handed me an elephant, a weenie dog, and a long sword that he said was for “just in case.” A singular lion, he kept for himself.
Ringling Brothers apparently does this Animal Walk every year on the eve of their opening night and I’ve often thought of trying to catch it again, particularly in the years immediately following Jeremy’s death. Really though, I’m glad I never have. I prefer my elephants to be mammoths and the menagerie mysterious. I couldn’t bear to see the coverlets ratty, the animals easily identifiable on Wikipedia.
When I think back to it, I can still feel the roughness of my father’s jeans, I can still hear the echo of the departing circus and my mom cooing to Mel. I can even smell the hotdogs and pretzels from the vendor on the corner. But most importantly, I can still see Jeremy, his stance jaunty and overconfident for a ten-year-old, turning from the bent clown and reaching out toward me with those balloon animals. And that’s how I think of him now, my older brother, my protector with balloon sword outstretched, because I can’t bear the other image, the one that always lurks in the periphery of my mind, that forever looms in the shadows behind the parade.