But today I dream of falling...into the crowd of God-struck people. The pale leaves of their faces tilt up and their white limbs rise to catch me as I am passed among the river of their hands, one to another, am kept by them, am kept.
-- from Walking on Air
It is the Depression in America, 1931. Twelve-year-old June is a tightrope walker. Performing in her preacher father's revival shows, June travels through cities, makeshift camps, carnivals, and freak shows. The family has no home, no money, no friends -- and faith that is getting thinner than the air upon which June walks. On her journey June examines her life and is torn between loyalty to her family and their religion, and the life she might have. She comes to understand that discovering what the world has in store for her will require facing old family secrets and making some gut-wrenching decisions.
Walking on Air is a stirring novel of self-examination, as June balances on a literal and figurative tightrope within the rich and tormented landscape of America during the Depression. Facing the problems of her day, June must use her wit, fire, and strong spirit in order to triumph.
FROM GOING TO AND FRO ON THE EARTH, AND FROM WALKING UP AND DOWN ON IT.
-- The Devil speaking to God, JOB
Another town. Wet streets and broken streetlamps. This one is not as bad as some. Only half the shops are boarded up.
We are living it up with a diner meal: white volcano of potato with lava gravy, carrots and peas, gray oblong of meat (some cow shoulder or butt).
Pa sucks on his cigarette as if it's his last. Ma raises her fork to her mouth every thirty seconds. It's like she is doing some kind of experiment and the timing has to be just right.
Occasionally, she says something pleasant, which is meant to remind Pa how nice it would be if we could all stay in one place. "Nothing like my cooking, is it?" she says, or, "Remember the roast chicken I made one Christmas when we were living in Ohio?"
As usual, Pa says nothing, just blows smoke out of his mouth as if it's words and comforting.
He rarely speaks to Ma anymore. I don't know why. Maybe he's saving his breath for when we'll haul up the tent and he will go on for hours in a voice loud and menacing enough to reach God, if He is there, and he will preach about Jesus.
I play with my food. It's another sign of my sinfulness. Pa says God is everywhere: in hungry faces, in trees, on the stripes of the barbershop pole, even in food.
God is in a mashed potato or a chunk of dead cow.
I lift my fork and set it down. I make the peas into an army of soldiers where they can triumph over the carrots.
"Eat!" Ma nags me. She's the one who should eat. Her skin is a white dress on the hanger of her bones.
"Shouldn't she keep up her strength?" she prods Pa.
Because the night hasn't gone well, Pa buttons and unbuttons his shirt cuffs, rolls up the part of his sleeve that is unraveling. Then he puts out his cigarette in his own plate of food. "Seven people," he hisses, referring to the believers who came out on this cold night to hear him preach. "Seven. You can count them on your fingers and what good'll it do ya."
Outside, the light spatter of rain turns hard. There are many hard things in the world, especially in this year of Our Lord, 1931. The world is hanging by a thread, Ma says, and the thread gets thinner and thinner. One day, it could snap.
Under the awning, I see the shadowy figure of Rhett, smoking a cigarette. He works for our family. Just once in all these years did Pa ask him to join us when we ate.
Sometimes Rhett is with us; sometimes he isn't. It's hard to figure where he goes in between. He might disappear in Kansas City and reappear in Chicago. How he keeps track of us is beyond me, but he always manages to bring me something good when he comes back: a chocolate coin, an orange, or a pencil.
As long as I remember, he has not spoken. Once I heard Ma tell someone that he had taken a vow of silence. He didn't speak up at a time when he should have, she said, and hasn't spoken since.
I think about striking up a friendship with my uneaten supper; there are days I've gone without. But before I can make a move, the waitress rushes over and sweeps my plate away.
Ma doesn't notice. She is watching the rain pour from the awning to the street, lost in an earlier time when the spirit of God made her sing, and Pa heard her voice and took her away with him. Ma thought she was marrying a man of the church. She imagined a little house, a rectory, a small garden, a choir, and works for the poor. Instead he took her away away: to his many and constant travels, his salvation shows for Jesus.
"Y'a were good up there on that tightrope, little girl." The waitress stands behind me. "The way you could jump and spin! I thought at any minute you would disappear into the clouds."
Sometimes I feel like my head is an apple on a pole. It feels so heavy, ready to fall and take the rest of my body with it, or just tumble off onto the floor, still talking and breathing.
I worry it could hinder my balance.
I tilt it back and look at her. Her hair is orange, her lips red.
I love strangers. What you don't know about them. What you can make them be.
"Thank you," I say.
"I'll bring ya a piece of apple pie and ice cream. On me."
"But did you see God?" Pa wraps his fingers around the waitress's wrist. The coffeepot wobbles in her hand.
"I see God everywhere. He gets in my mirror when I'm doing my face." She tugs her arm away and returns to the kitchen.
"You can see how bad it's getting. The likes of her sees God everywhere and don't think they need preaching to help them along. When people were fed and clothed" -- Pa swats at an invisible fly -- "Aimee Semple McPherson herself could come to town and they'd yawn and hide in their beds."
Aimee Semple McPherson is Pa's idol. She's a lady evangelist who's gotten rich and built a big temple in Los Angeles. When she preaches, crowds spill out onto the streets. Pa says she can save souls just by touching their foreheads with her little pinkie. He's even thought of renaming me after her, to remind me that I'll be a great preacher too, one day.
I can just see it. Me standing under a leaky tent in the rain, shouting scripture. Cripes!
The waitress brings my pie. The tag on her dress says GLADYS.
If I could, I would live on pie. It's as if all of the excess of feeling in these towns -- the forlorn brides, the town drunks, the lonely old ladies, the hungry kids -- have landed soul-flown in the crust, the weeping apples, the peaches like babies curved in their mas' bellies.
I love anything sweet: pastel candies in lines on paper strips, the flesh of pulled taffy, funnel cakes dredged in red syrup and snowy sugar, grainy cotton candy made of air.
We used to do our show in carnivals, but in these hard times, they have disappeared. Back then, when I wasn't performing, I could eat all the sweets I wanted.
I would duck into a tent with a caramel apple and see the bearded lady, the flippered man, the Siamese twins.
The Siamese twins were named Hari and Kari and they told me the story of their birth in a field of wheat. A farmer was harvesting his crop when he found them: one body, two heads. At first he thought that he had cut someone in two!
He picked up the babies. They were covered in a thin yellow fluid. He told his wife that they were probably hatched from an egg but she didn't believe him. What she believed was that he had been unfaithful and that these were his sons. God was punishing him, she thought, for his sins. 0
For a while she took them in. The farmer grew to love them. He loved them for their joy, the way they stuck out their two tongues and laughed when people stared at them and pointed.
My spoon slides into the pie.
"She didn't finish her supper," Ma says. "She shouldn't have dessert."
"Let her have what she wants," Pa replies. "Besides, it's free."
"Don't spill it on your costume, June," Ma adds. She sometimes thinks that I am the enemy, although I know that is not true. I know that I am the best friend she'll ever have; maybe Rhett secondly, because he is kind to her when Pa isn't looking, putting a sweater around her shoulders, helping her build a fire, giving her the change from his pockets.
"Time to close." The waitress strokes my hair. "You liked that pie, sweetie?"
"Yes, thank you."
I would like to go with the waitress Gladys. I would like to lean into her hands and close my eyes, be led through the rainy streets to where I imagine she must live in a walk-up apartment. She'll have a big radio and listen to Lum and Abner and Amos and Andy, and she'll laugh, even if she's alone. She'll have boxes of sugar almonds and a single lamp that gives off just enough light.
I would like to know what is going to happen tomorrow and the next day.
When Hari and Kari were three, the farmer's wife asked him to kill them. "Sever them in two the way God intended," the farmer's wife instructed. "Bury them under separate trees."
But the farmer didn't obey.
Instead, he got on a train and took them to Cleveland, where a traveling carnival was stopping for a big show. The head carny asked how much they ate and gave the farmer two dollars for them.
The farmer wept as he rode the train home and watched the rippling fields of wheat from the window. "It was God's will," his wife repeated, as he stumbled in the door.
If you ask me, it's bad luck to try to second-guess God's will. When Pa does it, it never goes well.
Every time Hari and Kari told their stories, the bearded lady cried. She wasn't really a lady, but a man so fat he looked like a lady. His story was also sad. His whole life he believed he should be a girl. His whole life his pa beat him for it, until finally he ran away and joined the show.
What time must it be? We're the only ones left. The cook is scrubbing down the grill. When I'm up on my tightrope, there is no such thing as time. There is only air, the lightness of it.
Tonight I wore my pink costume with my lace parasol, and danced on the rope like a ballerina. When Pa told the people that hell is an endless pit, I teetered and pretended to fall. They gasped as I righted myself and back-flipped in the air. "Come to me as little children," Pa shouted.
Gladys collects the plates. She does it like she means it. She sets a scrap of paper on the table; Ma checks it to make sure she didn't charge us for the pie. Pa pulls out the collection box. Because I don't feel like leaving the warm diner and heading out into the rain, because we're sleeping in some old lady's barn, because I feel mad for reasons I don't even know, I say, "I thought you collected that money for the poor."
"Well, ain't we the poor?" Pa pulls another cigarette from his pocket.
Hari and Kari grew to enjoy their life in the traveling carnival. They had each other, of course, and they became friends with the other performers, but they never forgot the farmer or stopped worrying about him having to live with a woman who had such a hard heart.
These are just two people (or one) whom I've met on my many travels, and who've disappeared on me like it was them, and not us, who were such fly-by-nights.
Kelly Easton is the author of Walking on Air and The Life History of a Star, which was a Teen Readers Book Sense Top Ten book and a Golden Kite Award Honor winner. She has published stories in such literary journals as the Connecticut Review, the Paterson Literary Review, Iris, and Frontiers. Kelly Easton lives in Jamestown, Rhode Island.