If you haven’t seen the phrase, “Not my circus, not my monkeys” on Facebook or other social media—it’s an old Polish proverb—then you may not realize the words are just another way of saying, “Hey, it’s not my problem.” Or “leave me out of it”. One way to deal with difficulties to be sure. Ignore them, avoid them, wish them away, but never confront them. Of course it also means “I don’t care. Don’t bother me. I have my own baggage.”
What with all the social commentary so available to us in so many ways, news programs online and on air, sound-bytes exhorting us to do this or give to that, and to get involved in good causes, it’s understandable that some people simply want to tune out. Compassion overload. But the problem is that we do need to be involved in something, even if it is simply ourselves. Compassion and empathy are, I believe, parts of the human condition. We go through life….most of us anyway….trying to make things better; for us, for our children, for the country, and yes for the world as well. We learn this at an early age from our parents, on the playground, whenever we see a person help another person. Helping is a good thing. Right?
As we get older and more self-focused we can lose sight of the bigger picture. We tend to classify people as those who “should be helped” and those who “brought this on themselves”. In the real world that doesn’t always apply; something we discover as we age a bit more and have had to dodge life’s curves and calamities. When we ask for help and someone says “Not my circus” it stings. If we have helped that someone in the past, it stabs us in the back. And it makes us wonder if helping anyone other than “us” is even worth the effort. Not that we expect things in return for our helping hand. Do we? Because wanting credit for doing good things can also be part of being human. Our sense of self-worth thrives on thank you’s and applause. Even just dropping some coins in the red kettle at Christmas gives us a bit of a glow.
So, if helping is a good thing and ignoring the problem is a bad thing, why are there so many problems running rampant without being solved? Solutions take time. Most of us will tell ourselves there isn’t enough time in the day as it is. The thing is, there is enough. Maybe we don’t have time to go to a foreign country and dig wells or go to disaster-stricken areas after every earthquake, tsunami or hurricane, but we can do our part. Donate supplies when we can, offer to spend one evening on a telephone tree, help build or rebuild a house for Habitat. Mentor a child one day a week and possibly change his or her life. There are many opportunities in this world which cost only time and caring. We can all be a part of those opportunities if we look for them. Because, in spite of everything, the world is our circus. It’s up to us to make it the “Greatest Show on Earth.”
By the way, our friend Mae knows this well. Better than most. She gave up her way of life to make sure that her brother didn’t endanger his. With one exception. Mae also gets involved with other circus trains along the way….
I hadn’t counted on being late back to my new place. Trouble is I didn’t take into consideration what happens in New Orleans after dark most nights. Music and more music, crowds in the streets dancing, and me finding myself caught up in a Second Line going in the same direction I was. Now I was never much of a dancer, though I can do a decent Reel if the music and the whisky are right, but there’s something about the tunes of this city and her people that makes you want to move with the rhythm and strut to the beat. So I did, all the way down Frenchman to where the Old US Mint stands. Then I headed over to the building Drum and I were to call home for a while. There in front of the entry paced Sylvain, his eyes scanning the area, his face a study in worry.
“Dear God, Mae! I was about ready to call 911. Where have you been?”
“Och, man, I’ve been comin’ home from work, that’s where I’ve been.” Telling him I’d been dancing in the streets did not seem prudent. “If ye wanted me here soonest, you should’ve sent me a cab.” I moved past him but not before he’d taken my arm.
“Do you know how dangerous this city can be after dark? You could have been attacked or worse.”
“Aye, right,” I scoffed. “I look like a rich tourist with no brains. I thought you said Morales told you about me. I can handle myself. But my feet can’t handle me bein’ in these shoes much longer. And I want to see Drum’s settled in before we talk.” I didn’t wait for a reply, just took myself and walked into the building. A moment later I heard the thunk of his boots as he followed me up the stairs. “Ye didn’t lock the door?” I stared at the opening to my crib. “Did I not warn you about…?” I slapped his arm just as Drum’s voice called from the main office area.
“That you, Mae? I’ve been waiting to see you before I take my rest.”
“In a moment, dearie.” I looked at Sylvain. “Find me kettle and make us some tea, while I tend to me brother. We can talk at the table. You’ll find some biscuits in the red tin.”
Not long after, I’d gotten Drum tucked in for the night in what now was a combination sitting and sleeping area. Sylvain and Drum had between them managed to acquire two day beds as well as light blankets and pillows and a small table for books and papers. Better than the crates I’d had in Charles City, that was sure, but I missed those crates just the same. I made my own bed ready, since I planned to send Sylvain packing in not more than thirty or so minutes by the old pocket watch on the table in the makeshift kitchen. And I found me slippers, took off my working clothes and decided I needed the other set for tomorrow’s duties, and threw on my comfy chenille robe. Then I padded back to Sylvain.
“Did ye steep the tea right?”
“Don’t sound so skeptical, Mae”. Sylvain’s Cheshire Cat grin should have warned me.
“I’m right particular about my brew,” I said. “It takes a tender touch to get it done to my liking.” I reached for the cup he held out to me, prepared to have the liquid pucker my mouth with the bitterness that comes from over-steeping or too hot water. I took a cautious sip. “Holy heaven!” The warm beverage slid smoothly down my throat like honey from a hive.
“My grand-mere was quite the stickler when it came to tea, Mae. Loose-leaf, never bagged, and always always at the proper temperature. I learned early how to please that palate of hers. So, see? I do have a use or two other than moving man, Drum-watcher, and friend to Alex.” He laughed and then took a long drink from his own cup. “So? How was your first day? Can I hope for an answer to Celine’s location?”
I won’t make you sit through a re-telling of my day, but I didn’t leave anything out, including Benard and that room by the stairs. I had a few choice words about Marie-Therese as well, but that was more to get her out of my craw than anything else. Sylvain sat silent, reacting only when I mentioned my first encounter with Benard outside that ‘storage’ room.
“So you think my sister might be kept in there, Mae? Why else would it be considered off limits?”
“It seemed too quiet,” I said. “No movement, no nothing. And it was the same in the evening as earlier. I’d expect a noise or something, especially when I first rattled the doorknob. Besides, I have my own ideas.”
“ Patience, man. Remember I was supposed to be live-in help? With a room on the third floor and all?” Sylvain nodded. “Well, once I told them I needed to tend Drummond so didn’t care to stay on the premises, the third floor just happened to need repairs and such and I shouldn’t concern myself about anything up there. So this is what I think. Maybe Celine was kept in that little room by the stairs and maybe not, but now I’d wager a pretty pence or two that she’s somewhere on that forbidden floor. If she’s in the house. And that’s not all.”
“That’s enough for me, Mae.”
“I don’t like the place, Sylvain. Too perfect. Except for Benard. He’s like a square peg in that round hole. That off limits room is hiding something. I want to know what it is.”
“Find Celine, Mae. That’s all I want you to do. Alex warned me about you. A meddler, he said. With a nose for trouble.”
“I told you I can take care of myself. And Drum. Been doin’ it for a fair while…since before I met Morales. And I’ll be doin’ it after we move on from here too. Don’t you want to know what your sister’s messed up in?” I stared at him, wondering if he’d admit to the fact.
“Once she’s out of there, Mae, I don’t care what goes on.” So he said. I could read it in his eyes that he wanted nothing more than to stomp on the people who’d wronged his kin.
“Wrong answer,” I said. “You can’t have it both ways. We can rescue Celine…if she wants to be rescued…” His head came up at that and he glared at me, “Or we can rescue her and make sure she never has to deal with the likes of these people again. That means meddling, Sylvain.”
I poured myself another cup of tea, lukewarm now but still flavorful, and waited in silence while my companion wrestled with his conscience and his emotions. The sounds of the River came in through the partially open window, and there were noises as the building settled down for the night; the creaks and groans of wood and metal and…Sylvain was on his feet before I could put my cup on the table, moving quietly toward the door we’d locked behind us. He held up a hand to stop me from joining him, so I simply stood by the table, ready to do whatever was needed. We both watched as the knob on that door turned slowly from one side to another. Someone wanted in.
Sylvain looked back at me and then moved his hand to unlatch the safety chain and turn the key to release the lock. He placed one hand on the knob, jerked it firmly and pulled the door back. I might have done the same meself I have to say, but watching someone else do the deed sent a shiver up me spine. Because there framed by the door jamb stood Benard.
“What the…Sylvain?” Benard’s words were as much of a shock to me as Sylvain’s presence was to him.
“Etienne?” Okay, so now I was doubly shocked. These two knew each other? Sylvain’s next words did nothing to make me any easier. “Where did you come from? Last I heard you were up in Shreveport. And you had hair!” Time for someone with sense to jump in, so I did.
“I take it you two are acquainted.” Not the best opening, I admit but it was late, I was tired, and Benard had tried to throw me down some stairs not twelve hours earlier. “Care to fill me in? Before I find something to use as a weapon?”
“You’d better come in, Tenny,” Sylvain said. “She means it.” He stepped back to let the intruder in and motioned the chair he’d just vacated. “Take a seat. I’ll make more tea.”
“Forgive me Mae. My manners have totally deserted me in the face of this unexpected meeting,” Sylvain replied as he took the teapot and went over to the small double hotplate he’d brought over to replace my elderly one.
“Unexpected?” I couldn’t get more than one word out of my mouth. And that a question. I turned my attention, and a hearty glare, towards our guest. “Etienne?”
“Yes, ma’am. Although I realize you know me as someone else. And for that, and my lack of manners earlier I do apologize.”
I sat back in my chair, feeling as though Lewis Carroll had dumped me through the Looking Glass along with Alice and I was now a guest at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Any second now, I thought, and someone would yell “Off with her head”.