Thinking about the circus coming to town led me to pull out this shoe box full of faded photographs that I keep in the bottom drawer of Old Man Fagerhalt’s desk. I have not looked at them for a long time, maybe a year or more. I just now found my favorite, the one of Queen Elizabeth Jones, of course, and there she is—in her white riding tights, her golden hair done up halo style, her lips parted in that joyful smile that is like none I’ve ever seen on any other human being’s face.
In the picture she is standing in front of those two damned camels. Those poor cursed evil-smelling beasts! Detest them I did, but it was they that brought me to Queen Elizabeth Jones, placing me in debt to them forever.
I would like to brood over the picture and dream again of the time and place where it was made and the life I led then. But I hear Hilda Fagerhalt out in the hardware store chattering with a customer, and I know that any minute now she will be traipsing down the hall, her slippers slapping on the hard boards, thrusting her Swedish head through the open door to remind me sharply to prepare an order for that keg of ten-penny nails I forgot about. “Remember the post office closes at six o’clock, Ben, and don’t forget the horse collars for Jack Bilbrew’s dray teams, either.”
I call her Fagerhalt, but she’s used my name, Butterfield, since Old Man Fagerhalt caught her in bed with me. And me at the time with a leg so badly shattered I knew I’d never ride in the circus again with Queen Elizabeth Jones. When Hilda crawled into my bed, she was only trying to comfort me and ease the cruel pain of mending bones. She is a great comforter, I’ll allow that. But Old Man Fagerhalt saw me as the spoiler of his daughter’s virtue, although she was the one who came into the bed. Maybe he just wanted to get her married and off his hands.
The desk before which I sit—this handmade oaken desk with its innumerable cubbyholes filled with useless papers and trinkets—Hilda now refers to as mine, although I will always think of it as Old Man Fagerhalt’s desk even though he has long been interred in Mount Holly cemetery out on Broadway.
Those camels! Omar and Tooley. I peer again at the old picture of them and recall the day after the battle, the one the Yankees named Pea Ridge and the Rebels call Elkhorn Tavern. No photographs were made there, but I’ll forever remember the face and arrogant stance of Captain Solomon Lightfoot as he took the measurements of Johnny Hawkes and me and talked about the camels being contraband of war.
Well, I’d better put this shoe box of photographs back in the bottom of Old Man Fagerhalt’s desk before Hilda comes in here and finds me musing over them. She hates all reminders of my youthful past, especially the gaudy circus posters I keep on the walls around me. Above the desk is a tall poster of a woman in white tights jumping a horse through a large hoop. Around the hoop is a circle of big scarlet letters: QUEEN ELIZABETH JONES. THE WORLD’S GREATEST EQUESTRIENNE! Every new season Johnny Hawkes used to send me posters carefully rolled into pasteboard tubes. A few years back, when Hilda still liked to tease me, she would draw mustaches in ink on the poster faces of Queen Elizabeth Jones.
I think I hear her coming now, prancing, her loose slippers slapping the floor, and I remember Captain Solomon Lightfoot, Quartermaster Department, U.S. Army. Popinjay, carpet knight, and flimflam artist.