Panem et Circenses

‘Sometimes, at night, I can hear my body screaming at me.’

Pip forces a smile at the mirror and paints bright red circles on her raised cheeks, elbows on the vanity. She’s moving her brush with surgical precision, and each circle comes out perfectly round.

I tilt my head to the side and she turns in her swivel chair to look at me. The colors and shapes on her face are hypnotizing, demanding attention, but her expression is blank. ‘What?’ she says, like communicating with one’s limbs is common practice. ‘Don’t look at me like that. Like I’m crazy. I’m not crazy. I just-’

‘Maria!’ a voice calls from outside the room, followed by an incessant banging on the dressing room door. ‘You’re on in five.’ Pip stops talking, and we both watch as Maria rushes into the room through the back door.

‘You aren’t gonna be late, Maria,’ Pip yells after her.

You always are. And stop calling me that, Phillipa.’

In a flurry of dark curls and bare feet, Maria leaves for the stage.

‘Finally,’ Pip mumbles. Another layer of greasepaint on her cheek. ‘About the screaming thing. I promise it’s not weird. I mean, it’s weird, but not like that. I’m not crazy or anything.’ Our eyes meet in the mirror in front of her and she huffs. ‘Are you sure ya don’t get it? It’s never happened to ya before?’

I shake my head.

‘I’m sure she will, Elbow,’ she says abruptly, laughing at herself. After about ten seconds of hysterical giggling she realizes I don’t get the joke, and her laughter ends as suddenly as it had started. ‘Oh. Too early. Forget I said that.’

She puts her brush down and rolls toward me in her chair. Now she’s right in front of me - painted white face only inches away from mine. She smells like pretzels.

‘You do sleep, right? I know that’s a weird thing to ask a person, but I feel like ya might not. I don’t even know if you blink. No offense. Do you blink, kid?’ When I nod, she goes on. ‘So imagine it’s maybe three in the morning, only ya don’t know for sure because you’re too lazy to turn over and look at the clock. And you’re sorta happy to be awake, because now you get to fall asleep all over again, but it’s weird because ya don’t know why you’re awake.’ She quickly glances at the clock on the wall behind me, swearing when she realizes she’s running out of time. ‘Give me a second,’ she says. ‘And don’t move. You’ll mess it up.’

Pip lifts herself out of her chair and walks over to the wall. ‘This should be one of the sticky ones,’ she says to herself. She presses her right foot, clad in a polka-dotted clown shoe (the left one is bare), against the wall and pulls at the clock. When it finally gives, she cradles the metal in her arms and smiles sadly at the face. ‘Sorry.’ Turning it over, she pushes the release latch and twists the setting dial until the hands are where they were twenty minutes ago, before Maria had run through the room. Blank-faced, Pip presses the clock back onto the wall and sits back down in front of me.

Resting her chin in the palm of her hand, Pip searches her mind for a bookmark. ‘Right. Three AM. You’re awake. Ya don’t know why you’re awake and ya don’t know what to do about it. Unless you’re the kind of person who prays about that kinda thing. Then I guess you’d pray about it or something. But it hurts. It feels like your body is exploding and everything is so loud. Last night? My arms called me by my damn government name.’ A pause. ‘It’s always, Phillipa. Phillipa, wake up. You’re going to be late, Phillipa. Get up, Phillipa.’ Her voice is wearing greasepaint circles and Converse Chucks four sizes too big, silly and playful and needy. Her head bobs side to side and her pink pigtails bounce with it. ‘I’m sure she will, Elbow.’

She stops there, letting silence fill the space between us. ‘I’m sure she will, Elbow,’ she says again, after a beat, like she’s taste-testing the words. ‘Wait. Nevermind. I thought that was it, damn.’ A lifetime passes and Pip only seems to spiral deeper and deeper into her own mind, mumbling to herself about words and punchlines where they should go. Only once she hears the faraway applause does she come back. We both know they’re waiting for Maria.

‘You can talk, yanno,’ she says cheerily, swiftly changing direction. ‘I know you’re new, but ya don’t have to prove anything. It’s just me.’ She glances off to the side and back at me and whispers, ‘I’m not supposed to talk, either,’ like it’s government-classified information.

I smile and shrug.

‘I guess that’s why you’re here. Always in character,’ she says, laughing. ‘Back to birthday parties for the rest of us, then. You’re gonna put us all out of a job, kid.’ She steals another glance at the clock. ‘I’ve been here a while, I guess. That’s what my arms say, anyway. It’s always, stop turning the clocks back, Phillipa. You’re running out of time, Phillipa. You haven’t done half the things you promised your mother you’d do, Phillipa. She’ll be so disappointed. I’m sure she will, Elbow.’

I let out a laugh and she squeals, clapping her hands and smiling wide, proud of herself for getting it right. ‘Finally! You wouldn’t believe how tiring it was, trying to figure out where that fit. I’ve been messing with the clocks all day. Makes a girl loopy, yanno.’ I must look confused now, because she adds, ‘Oh, you didn’t see me. I was in stealth mode. Maria would’ve had a stroke if she’d noticed. You know she’s got a ten foot pole up her ass all the time. You probably think I’m old, what with you being fresh out of school and everything. Is your voice even broken yet? It’s kind of hard to tell, since you don’t talk. But Maria?’ She laughs dryly. ‘Ancient. Ya think she’d know by now she doesn’t hafta blow a vein to get onstage on time. All that for a damn tightrope. You’d think she was a hand, the way that woman talks.’

I don’t say anything.

‘Right. Yours don’t. Hands are sorta…’ Pip pauses, looking for the words. ‘Judgy. Well, they’re all judgy, if you think about it. Ankles know judgy. But… passive-aggressive, maybe. Yeah. Like, you were really made for your job, Phillipa. You’re so good at making yourself look stupid. All that pie, too. You’re so lucky you’re too fat to be a tightrope walker. Clownery is much safer. You’re such a free spirit, Phillipa, screwing around with time like it isn’t the backbone of reality and never stopping to think about what the consequences might be. Oh, to be as carefree and reckless as you are, Phillipa.

She looks at the clock again and sighs, swiveling on her chair and resigning to her vanity. The circles are already done; the triangles go next. Two blue, under. Two yellow, above. ‘Hands go through so much, yanno. Twisting, turning, pulling, pushing, making balloon animals and yanking off gloves until they’re all cramped up. I don’t blame ‘em for being the way they are. I really don’t.’

She meets my eyes in the mirror again. ‘You know what I’m talking about. All that artsy stuff you do. With the stairs that aren’t real and the doors that aren’t real and the walls that are closing in but not really because they aren’t real. Your hands make it real.’ I watch as Pip drags yellow greasepaint across the skin between her eyebrow and eyelid. ‘Maria? Maria’s hands don’t do a damn thing. Tightrope’s just arms and ankles. You remember what I said about arms and ankles?’

I nod, but she continues anyway. ‘All ankles do is tell ya what’s wrong with ya.’ The hand painting triangles stops and starts sliding down her face, ruining the neat circles she drew before. ‘Arms make you feel like crap. Like a mother. Just like a mother. You’ll never be good enough for arms, kid. Pip the Clown - makes people laugh so hard they cry. Not good enough for arms.’ She squints at the mirror and tries to see the clock’s reflection in it. I can see her counting down silently to herself. ‘Three, two…’

‘Maria!’ It’s the voice and the banging from before. ‘You’re on in five.’

Maria blows into the room again, like a hurricane, and Pip lets all the weight of her heavy made-up head into her hand. ‘You aren’t gonna be late, Maria,’ she says, like clockwork.

You always are. And stop calling me that, Phillipa.’ She disappears onstage.

Pip groans. ‘You okay if I skip this?’

I shrug.

She walks over to the clock again, pulls it off the wall and turns the hands again, forward this time. Maria, who had only just walked onstage, reenters the dressing room, looking tired and sweaty but proud of her performance. ‘You’re up, Phillipa.’

‘Yes, I know, Maria. I go on after you every day. Tightrope lady. Pip the Clown. Marceau Junior over here,’ she says, pointing at me.

‘You’re only wearing one shoe,’ Maria points out. ‘You’ll hurt your foot.’

You aren’t wearing shoes.’

Maria blinks at her. ‘Of course I’m not wearing shoes, Phillipa. You know that you-’

‘It’s part of the damn gag, Maria!’ With that, Pip storms out of the room, pigtails flailing, into the cloud of impending laughter and applause.

Maria’s gaze follows her as she leaves. ‘That girl can be such a brat,’ she says, slumping onto the black loveseat against the east wall of the room. She pinches the bridge of the nose. ‘You’ve really got something, you know that?’

When I don’t respond, she sits up, turns her body slightly toward me and stares, hard. ‘You do. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone as good at this as you are. Except for Phillipa, maybe. She loves it too much not to be perfect at it. Your folks are proud of you, I bet. At least you finished school before you decided to join the damn circus.’


‘I wish I could do what you two do. It’s so draining, the tightrope thing. Walking, walking, walking, and your feet hurt like hell.’ She reaches for one of her feet and massages the sole. ‘It’s all awe. No love, just awe. But they love the clowns here. Adore them. I’m not nearly brave enough for something like that, though. Just… making fun of yourself in front of people. Phillipa’s great at it, though. She’s great at it.’ She sighs. ‘All that pie, too. You don’t use pie, though, do you?’

I shake my head.

‘Right, yours is the, uh…’ She gestures with her hands, pretending there’s an invisible wall in front of her. I nod.

Maria sighs. ‘That girl. I’ve never seen-’

She’s interrupted by the sound of Pip’s squeaky shoes and people laughing. ‘She’s probably doing the glove thing. You know, the fingers come off one by one instead of the whole thing. It’s funny. They love it,’ Maria says, voice breaking. ‘They love her,’ she whispers, and I notice her eyes are wet and she’s not looking at me anymore. ‘That’s all she wants.’ Maria smiles sadly. ‘I guess I didn’t do such a great job there.’

‘But one day it won’t be enough for her anymore. And she’ll regret it. She can’t do this forever.’ Maria inhales sharply. ‘I’m scared she’s running out of time. She said she was going to do something with her life. I don’t- She’s running out of time. It’s always, I’m gonna get around to it, Ma. Why can’t you just be happy for me, Ma?’’

The room grows silent again, and Maria seems to grow hyperaware of my being there. ‘What? What is it?’


‘Oh my- What did she say? Jesus. You probably think I’m crazy. That damn girl. Twenty-seven and acts like she’s in high school.’ She rubs her other foot. ‘Maybe it’s my fault.’ Then she goes quiet.

After fifteen minutes and another round of applause, Pip twirls into the room, glowing. ‘I told ya they would love the glove thing, Maria.’ She stands there, bouncing on her heels, waiting for Maria to answer. Pip doesn’t get a response. ‘What? What is it?’

Heavy silence fills the room, like an empty theater. Maria’s staring down at her foot, kneading the ankle with her thumbs.

I can see Pip’s eye twitch. ‘I- I don’t-’ For half a minute she just stands still, looking lost and helpless, before pulling the pink wig off roughly and slamming it onto the vanity. A glove hand knots into the curls at the crown of her head, thick and black like Maria’s. ‘Can you just-’ Her eyes are growing shinier with every tick of the clock on the wall. ‘Why can’t you just be happy for me?’

Maria finally speaks. ‘Phillipa-’

‘Pip the Clown, good enough for everybody but arms. Everybody but arms.’ Pip stomps over to me and reaches for the clock above my head. Not a moment passes before Maria is on her feet, trying to stop her.

‘Phillipa, you can’t just-’

‘I can't just what?’ Her voice is bitter with exhaustion.


‘I’ve tried this so many times,’ Pip whispers, staring down at the clock in her hands. ‘Every time I think… I think I’m gonna get it right. What is so wrong with me, Ma?’

She waits.


Pip looks down at me and her face is a circus all its own, colorful and captivating and heartbroken and empty. ‘Sorry you didn’t get to do your act, kid,’ she whispers. I watch as she turns the hand of the clock backward, slowly, all the way to the beginning of the show. ‘Just gotta try again. Maybe this time. She’ll see.’ Her cheeks are wet and purple, blue triangles melting into red circles fading into clown white. ‘I’m sure she will, Elbow.’

Keianna Lewis loves a good story. She has come to rely on writing as a means of escapism, resolving real-world grievances by hiding in the comfort of her wacky fictional multiverse. (It's only a little unhealthy.) Her short story, Cavea Thoracis, received a Scholastic Art & Writing award. Much to her regret, Keianna also once shaved off her left eyebrow completely, and hopes literary success will eventually overwrite that memory.