Today had been a day like any other. We rode our bikes as far as they would take us. Today it took us to this empty lot. For an hour we jumped old boards and did tricks to see who was the greatest. I was never the greatest. I wasn’t the fastest, I couldn’t balance the longest, nor could I jump the highest. I tried, perhaps too hard when my chain came off. There I sat on an old crate while I watched the greatest dirt bike demonstration ever.
“They’re pretty good.”
I turned and saw an old man sitting next to me. “They’re great.”
“Did they tell you that?”
“Naw, just look at ‘em.” Mike did a jump with no hands, not to be out done Pete tried it too. They both made it.
“I’ve seen better.”
“I use to work for the greatest circus in the world. Their last show ever was right here on this lot. Those boys are riding on the center ring.”
I could see it now, the large tent, the crowds of people, and the calliope playing. It was a good place for a circus. “Were you a lion tamer?”
“The ring master?”
“No, no. But we had them all here. We had acrobats that could to triple flips and tightrope walkers that never used nets. I once saw twenty-three clowns stuff themselves into one car.”
“It was probably a trick car.”
“Nope, there weren’t an tricks. The tigers were wild and the knife juggler used real knives. Sharp enough to cut a steak.”
I finally got the chain back on and began turning the pedals to make sure it would stay.
“Why don’t you work for them anymore?”
“It doesn’t exist. It closed its doors forever.”
“I thought you said they were great?”
“The greatest, but there’s a problem with wanting to be the greatest. It’s a lonely place. Everyone above you is an obstacle and everyone below you is a threat. To be great, I mean to really make it, you have to beat down everyone.”
“Why? It’s simple. If you don’t then you’re not the greatest. It can take its toll.”
“Is that what happened to you?”
The old man laughed. He opened his coat and I saw the circus’ symbol. Below the picture was embroidered the name “Kevin”.
“Yea, I worked for the circus. I was in charge of maintenance. We loaded the trucks, and set up the tents, and cleaned up after the elephants. It wasn’t great work, but I was a part of the greatest show in the land.”
“You weren’t really part of the show.” I looked at the old man with some doubt.
“That’s what they thought. As the profits rose and the show began to move everyone was getting a piece, everyone but my crew and me. Their names were up in lights and their pictures were on countless posters slapped across town. I know because I put those posters up. It was new dressing rooms and fancier costumes all around, but my crew just kept doing their work. We serviced the tents and cared for the animals. We loaded then unloaded and loaded again, night after night after night.”
“The ring master called me in one night and said he was cutting the maintenance salary. We didn’t bring in the money so we shouldn’t receive that much money. It was the last straw. We refused to do the work so they let us go, every single one of us. In two days the big top was littered with discarded popcorn containers and half eaten cotton candy. The elephants’ cages were unbearable and people were driven away by the smell. In a few days the first kid got sick from a funnel cake that was cooked in an improperly cleaned cooker. In less than a week they were shut down.”
“Their names were on the signs that said ‘Greatest’. You know I don’t think that makes a person great.”
“I guess not.’
“Son, if you want to be great at something you be the greatest servant. It’s the only greatness you can get and not be lonely.”
I left Kevin that day and never saw him again. I also never did any tricks that made the guys call me great. I did build a ramp once that Joe used to do the best trick ever. No one said, “Great ramp!” I am OK with that.
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