A long time ago, there was a great site called Popcorn Fiction. The site published short stories from accomplished screenwriters who wanted a way to express themselves sans studio notes and executive interference.
I remember reading it and appreciating the “completeness” the story displayed in such a relatively short space. The article above describes why the short story works so well—but you can only learn so much without having read the actual story itself.
For years, the Kreisslers were a thing of the past, a shadow of a former time that required imagination to fill in the blanks…
A reader sent in the actual text, which we assume—as the original book is lost for all-time—is OK to publish here. Strictly for educational purposes only.
The Flying Kreisslers By Scott Frank
As Ivan slowly let Rima slip from his grasp, he had no idea that her fall would become the stuff of Big Top legend everywhere. If you could have seen his face that night, you would have seen that Ivan’s mind was clearly somewhere else. Before this particular night, Ivan had caught Rima over thirty-five hundred times without incident. Theirs was a relationship based on trust; Rima knew that Ivan would always be there with strong hands and perfect timing. And Ivan knew that Rima would always be there, hanging in space, reaching for him. Sure, there were many close calls: Rima would step on his shoulder, scrape his ear with the point of her heel. Ivan would flinch from the pain, and loosen his hold on her leg, but in the end, he would always catch her. And sure, there had been hundreds of times where he almost dropped her. But he had never completely let go before. He was always there. He had always caught her. But, unfortunately, on that fateful night in Jnimski, he was thinking about something else.
A month earlier, Kiki, one of the clowns, had come to Ivan’s trailer and told him about what he had seen and heard the night before in the muck behind the tiger cages. Kiki told Ivan of walking home late after a night of drinking and clown stories and coming upon Rima and Tonda, the Strong Man, making happy love among the tigers. Kiki told of how Tonda repeatedly declared his love for Rima’s beautiful, sculpted breasts and couldn’t seem to get enough of them. Rima, for her part, was the smiling, obliging lover, doing without protest whatever Tonda asked of her, all the while complaining that Ivan’s gentle touch no longer aroused her.
As you can well imagine, by the time Kiki finished his story, Ivan was dizzy with anger and pain. So Rima prefered the heavy touch of The Strongman? Well, that night when Rima got home, Ivan beat her. He said nothing of Kiki’s description of what went on behind the tiger cages. He merely grabbed his wife by the hair and hit her about the face and chest a half dozen times.
The next day everybody knew or thought they knew what had happened. The other performers kept their distance from the couple, watching silently as Ivan and Rima, her jaw swollen, her eyes black and blue, climbed the trapeze to practice their famous quadruple forward spin-twist flip, the perilous maneuver that would, some weeks later, break up the act.
That evening, however, The Flying Kreisslers performed magnificently. In fact, it was their most magnificant performance ever. Normally, Ivan was a solemn, sour personality who never really socialized with the other performers after a performance. A man who rarely gave compliments and honestly never expected them. Rima’s opinion was all he ever cared about. But that night, he invited them all into his trailer, graciously listening to their praise. It appeared to all present that the dark, silent spell of the morning was broken. Whatever happened between Ivan and Rima was forgotten.
Later that night, still drunk with the accolades of their peers, Ivan and Rima made love. This time, however, Ivan was not his usual, gentle selfless self with Rima. No, on this night he was rough and animal-like with her. This time, he demanded of her things he’d never demanded before. Secretly Ivan wanted Rima to do with him all the things that he thought or at least imagined she had done with The Strong Man. That night, Rima did what Ivan told her to do.
Their act flourished. The routine became positively balletic. Rima’s twists and somersaults took on a gliderlike grace that many said was unparalleled in any Eastern Bloc circus. And Ivan found strength he never had; catching, then hoisting the stout Rima with the ease of the man he wanted to be.
For a few happy weeks, Ivan thought that the incident with Tanda was isolated and over. To Ivan’s delight, Rima even appeared annoyed with Tanda; smirking icily when the Strongman accidentally dropped a weight on Anna, his pretty assistant’s foot, during a rehearsal.
And for a few happy weeks, Ivan was affable and generous with his compliments. He greeted all he passed with a loud “Hello” instead of his usual vague nod. And at night, Ivan dreamed and made plans.
But then Ivan found out about the Geek. And this time, it wasn’t some second-hand account from Kiki the clown that brought Ivan’s blood to a boil. No, this time Ivan stumbled upon the couple himself.
As one would expect, the Geek lived in a small trailer off by himself. But this arrangement was not because the Geek could find no one to live with him. In fact, the dog trainer, among others, had made many rejected overtures to the Geek over the years. The truth was that the Geek, despite the indications of his title, was in actuality an erudite, bookish man who coveted his privacy above all.
Knowing this about the Geek, Ivan was all the more surprised when, coming home from a football match, he heard giddy voices and loud music coming from the Geek’s trailer. Normally one to mind his own business, Ivan, nonetheless, couldn’t help but wonder just who it was the Geek was entertaining. He took a few steps closer to the trailer and craned his neck when, inside, he heard Rima laugh.
Through the window, shadows could be seen dancing and playing about the walls of the trailer. The shadows joined as Ivan stepped up to the trailer and breathlessly peered inside. Rima and the Geek were locked, standing, in an obviously coital embrace. The little man whispered to her as they moved very slowly to the music. Books were scattered about the floor. A pair of empty wine glasses lay tipped on the table. Obviously, the Geek had been reading to her. At one point Rima looked right at Ivan in the window, but didn’t see him. Her gaze was glassy and fixed, lost in the music and the Geek’s slow, steady undulations.
Ivan listened as Rima told the Geek that he was the most skilled lover she’d ever had; that Ivan was too rough with her.
Ivan, his mind drunk and stupid with pain and self-pity, stumbled back to his own trailer. He decided not to beat his wife this time. Clearly, that approach had failed. Later that night, as she slipped silently into bed beside him, smelling of roses and mumbling some excuse about wax and the bearded lady, Ivan pondered his situation. By dawn, Ivan had arrived at a new plan: He would make Rima jealous. He would find a lover for himself.
Ivan spent the next few days thinking about the right woman for the job. Someone who would awe Rima as well as make her feel ugly and inadequate. After all, if Rima didn’t respect Ivan’s selection, the plan would backfire. The problem was, there weren’t that many eligible women in the circus. Those who hadn’t already defected, were either married or hideously disfigured. At last, Ivan settled on Nadia, the Contortionist. She was young and pretty and, according to Rima, once had a crush on Ivan.
Ivan spent the next few weeks courting Nadia. There was only one small problem: in the interim between Rima’s observation and Ivan’s decision to seduce her, the Contortionist had acquired a beau. His name was Leonid. This made Ivan’s plan difficult, but not impossible. Though the gentleman in question was much younger than Ivan, and not half as good looking, Nadia was very much in love with him. As soon as Leonid finished his Dog Training Apprenticeship, they were to get married.
Leonid had run away to join the circus a few years ago and had since tried his hand at almost everything. The boy, you see, was not altogether there. He first tried juggling but had to give it up when the objects he tossed began to hypnotize him. He had spent that entire summer walking around in a somnambulist trance before one of the midgets finally figured out how to snap him out of it. When a stint on the tightrope ended with sixty-one stitches in the groin, Gunter, the animal trainer offered to take him on. But Leonid’s experience here was cut short when one of the chimps became infatuated with him and brutally raped him during a now memorable performance before the Czar. But somehow, Nadia saw something in Leonid that no one else did. She was always making him cakes and would let no one speak ill of the boy in her presence. After some discussion and the promise of a small monetary runumerance, she persuaded the dog trainer to take Leonid on as his apprentice. And it wasn’t long after that that Nadia and Leonid were sharing her trailer set up far away from the monkey truck.
Ivan sat down and watched Nadia rehearse one afternoon. As she released her legs from behind her head and jumped down off her platform, Ivan applauded loudly and shouted, “Bravo!” Nadia blushed, curtseyed for him. At dinner he sat next to her and, as Rima looked on, offered her a taste from his plate. Once, before a performance on a particularly cold evening, Ivan offered her his coat, explaining needlessly that her lovely muscles would strain if she tried her act without warming up. She smiled as, standing close behind her, he vigorously rubbed her shoulders.
Two weeks went by, and Ivan was still unable to get Nadia into his bed. Each time he tried, either Nadia thought he was joking or Leonid stepped out of the shadows before Ivan could make a pass. Ivan was frustrated. He wasn’t making Rima jealous at all. In fact, she thought his flirtations with Nadia “cute.” She even said as much right in front of the girl…well after midnight at a birthday party for one of the midgets, Rima took both of their hands in hers and said she thought the two made a lovely couple. Nadia couldn’t stop giggling. Ivan couldn’t believe it. He yanked his hand out of Rima’s grasp and stormed out of the crowded trailer. He thought he heard laughter as he clopped back through the mud for home. When he turned and looked over his shoulder, he thought he saw Nadia and Rima kissing, but it was just Rima whispering something in Nadia’s ear. That’s all. Ivan was certain that’s all it was.
Ivan and Rima’s act began to suffer. Ivan couldn’t focus. All he could think about was seducing Nadia. Yet the more he tried and failed to seduce Nadia, the more jealous he became of Rima. He hadn’t let her out of his sight since her night with the Geek. He felt like a fool. He was not only failing, he was failing publicly. He began to wish that he hadn’t simply walked away from the Geek’s trailer that night. He began to relive the moment in which he turned from the Geek’s window, dazed and numb with hurt, and went back to his own trailer. No, he had played it wrong: He should have burst inside and killed them both.
This was exactly what Ivan was thinking as he dropped Rima that night in Jnimski. The move was risky to begin with, yes—a twist and a double somersault—but let’s face it: Ivan’s mind was on killing his wife.
I killed her, he would later think to himself, lying in the arms of Sascha, the Plate Thrower’s daughter and his pretty new partner. But somehow, he couldn’t help feeling it was all for the best. Night after night, as Sascha would wrap her warm body around his, all Ivan thought about was that last flicker of eye contact between him and Rima, the barest hint of a smile on her face as he swung her away and set her free.