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The Lovely Assistant

He hasn’t said anything to me, but he doesn’t have to. I know my husband and if I could read other people’s minds as well as I read his I would have my own booth on the midway, make a fortune. I wouldn’t have to stand here in this garb, waiting for the man who is breaking our marriage vows to throw knives at me.

I would’ve found out sooner or later. There are no secrets on the lot. Affairs happen. A woman gives birth to a child who looks exactly like the ringmaster. Her husband either cares or doesn’t. He either sleeps with an acrobat or doesn’t.

It’s windy today. Not a good thing for the lovely assistant. The dust on the lot is blowing around and I’m getting dirty standing here. But it’s also bright out, and light glints off the knives as he does his warm-up, making it hard to see. At least my hair isn’t blowing in my face. It’s up, with so much hairspray it’s practically glued there. Of course, I have my requisite velvet choker on. One time Rachel happened by when I’d forgotten it, or couldn’t find it and practically stopped the whole show. I’ve got other things on my mind.

I get nicked often, especially when we’re trying out new techniques but it’s never anything a Band-Aid can’t take care of or Elaine can’t sew up herself with a few homespun stitches. I’ve developed a strong stomach.

He lands one, pinching my earlobe, and I can feel some blood, a worm of it slip to my neck. Someone shrieks and he silences her with a menacing look. Shut that crow up, I hear him thinking. People think we plant the screamers but we don’t. A knife thrower and his assistant do not need hysteria in the tip. We are working. This is our job and concentration is key.

He could so easily take me out, but he takes pride in his work. Plus, who else would stand here? Josie? Not likely. He’d be ruined anyway. And he’s completely unemployable in every other manner. The only reason he’s standing there is because I’m standing here. No one else knows him as well as I do and a knife thrower’s success is dependent on the connection between him and his assistant.

He only has only one good eye; the other is practically useless. We kept it from Rachel for a long time thinking she’d squawk about insurance premiums. But she was thrilled—had posters with him wearing an eye patch made up and the advance man has been slapping them up around the country ever since. We started bringing in bigger crowds and everyone, especially Rachel, was happy. He has good eye-hand coordination and that’s what matters. I can feel the hot metal against my cheek from that last one. The one before that pinched my little finger. I must clear my mind, stop thinking about this. I could get myself killed.


I’m getting too old to do this for much longer anyway. Another one, just a little too close. He pauses for effect, looks right at me. The skin under my chin is getting loose, not to mention my thighs getting wider and these skimpy clothes—sparkly shorts and halter-tops—I have to wear are embarrassing; they no longer make me feel sexy. My face, which had always been part of my fortune, is starting to betray me. My eyelids sag, my cheekbones no longer sharp. Nobody wants to see knives get thrown at an ugly woman—Rachel told me so the first day she met me all those years ago. More blood, a bead of it, on my shoulder, crawling toward the strap of my top. Elaine scrubs every last drop out by hand; she’ll be busy later.

I could just as easily hurt Josie— mess with her rig. Or I could kill him, but what would I have? I love him, but don’t think it hasn’t crossed my mind. I could leave. I wanted a life free from living paycheck to paycheck and that’s what I’ve got. And while I don’t make much, all my needs are met by just standing here and trusting a man—the man I love— who has been lying to me for weeks now. One slices the canvas just above my head; the knife perched there like a primitive tiara.

I’m still, like a dead person. If you have an itch on your thigh, you might be able to move your fingers just the slightest bit and that would satisfy it. But your elbow? Forget it. Rubbing your elbow against your pelvis is awkward and crossing one arm over to itch is verboten. That’s a word I learned by reading the dictionary. I started at the end because I figured most people would start at the As. If there’s an itch on your ear, never mind it. Your job as the lovely assistant is to stand still and telecommunicate with a man throwing knives at you. No other assistant in the history of knives, magic, or even to the stressed-out, highly paid executive, has ever had it so bad or so easy.

The gossip is true. I can’t ride a horse standing up or even juggle. But I can stand here, and let my husband, who is cheating on me, who promised to always protect me, throw knives at me. Let anyone else try it. Even Ingrid, the contortionist, who folds herself into a trunk every night. She’d quiver here, shake.

I didn’t finish tenth grade. Sometimes I wish I could relive that day that made me walk away and never look back. It wasn’t wanderlust as much as it was fear and boredom. I went home and packed a cardboard suitcase, my father asleep on the couch, snoring. My mother working her bony fingers stiff in a sweatshop sewing women’s girdles— that wouldn’t be the life for me. But now I have dreams of grammar problems, diagramming sentences. Geometry, acute angles. My job is as much about skill as his. I’ve given him so much power, but he is equally useless without me.

So I ran away, slept under trees, lived like a hobo for two weeks, maybe more; it’s hard to remember. I ate scraps of food, raked people’s lawns for a sandwich and a cup of coffee. Nobody was suspicious of a young girl. Then I got a job waitressing in a greasy diner. I slept on a cot next to the fridge. It’s hum, and the sound of mice scurrying to and fro, lulling me into dreamless sleeps. Six years I stayed there, rushing from one customer to another, to the register, the supply closet. He’d come by in the early morning before we opened. I’d let him in and we’d have a cup. When he asked me to leave with him, I went. I walked out another door, without a look back, occasionally sending postcards to my parents— but neither of them could read too well. I’m still not sure how much they understood. How happy I was. Now we’ve been on the road for over twenty years. I don’t own much; it never takes long to gather up my things. Which leaves more time to breathe the fresh air, listen to birds, watch clouds go by.

He gazes at me and I look into his one good eye and I know he knows I know. We lock pupils like they’re antlers, my two to his one. I’ve got his number and he knows it. It’s painfully silent for a few seconds until someone in the tip sneezes and sets off some nervous laughter. He’s always been so graceful, honest—with me at least. A flicker of guilt trips across his face and then just as quickly is gone. He can’t think about it right now if he doesn’t want to kill me accidentally. I’m not really worried. But let me come out on the other end of this day alive. This day at least. My eyes fill up with tears. He sees them— looks away, looks back and then hurls one with more force than ever before and I blink.

He traced an outline of me one day on a piece of cardboard in the empty lot that served as our backyard and threw knives into the drawing of my body while I watched. Three times in a row we did that. I stood perfectly still while he traced me, the warmth of his hand making my knees weak. Or maybe it was nerves. But every time I’d step away, he’d throw and every time there was a perfect outline of my body in knife handles. The fourth time, I told him: Never mind with the outline. And I stood there. Willingly stood there, believing in him.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. What is loyalty anyway? I know he loves me. But still I can’t help but think it was something I did. Or didn’t do. He lands one right next to my ankle, where I wasn’t expecting it. He’s trying to keep me on my toes.

I came in one evening, just as dusk was falling, after watching Maggie’s kids practice their tumbling. They’re good kids. Twins, daughters. He was sleeping on the makeshift hammock outside our trailer, twitching, and I thought about strangling him right there while he snored. He’d slipped into bed next to me that morning as the sun was coming up. Even the sponge bath, I heard him take, or maybe because of it— I could smell her on him. He’s a foolish man. He knows I always wake up between five and six and lie awake for an hour or so before drifting back into a deep slumber around seven and staying dead asleep until at least noon. He should’ve stayed one more hour with her. That was the first night it happened. And since then he’s made up excuses. He’s subtle, I’ll give him that. If I weren’t in this position, I might never have found out. Who can say? He taught me this.

We had a child once. Almost. I loved the feel of it inside of me. Even after I started to show, I worked. Until it became painful to stand for long and women who knew nothing about love, trust, or standing still, began to cluck in the tip and I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t want anyone to think I’d be a bad mother and I refused. We became just extra mouths to feed. Rachel was furious, of course. But that period of time only lasted a month before I bled it out. In Louisiana. One horrible night my child, not even a child, a cluster of squish came out of me and I buried it, under a tree, in the shade, on the bank of Lake Pontchartrain, clawing at the dirt, crying. Elaine made me tea from raspberry leaves and that was that. Now I hate to go to Louisiana. I have nightmares of my cluster of squish sinking in the lake, schools of fish feeding off it. People who don’t know, recent hires, always say to me, How can you be depressed in New Orleans? But you can be. After that I didn’t want any baby. I wanted that one.

Three days later I was back on the job. Back in the skimpy clothes. Anyway. Maggie’s girls always get me a little sad, but it’s not their fault. Same age as my child would be. I worry about them breaking their necks but Maggie doesn’t seem concerned, she’s a good aerialist, a good teacher and a good mother. She wouldn’t put them in any danger, I know. But still, to watch them hurl themselves through the air, it’s disconcerting. That’s another word I learned.

The sand whips at me and stings as the wind picks up even more. I quiver, but only a little. He’ll never say anything to me. Coward. It’ll be up to me to confront him; to walk or to stay, work through it. He’ll get tired of Josie soon; she’s boring, dim. I’m angry, but I’ll get over it. And being certain of his milquetoast is enough for me; it’ll have to be.

He’s finished. There is a blade at my elbows, my knees, both sides of my neck, at the top of my head, down my calves—all around me. I gingerly extend one foot, step out and turn to look. The outline of handles is a sculpture of wood on the canvas. I stand back and gesture to our work. I bow to him and everyone claps. He graciously tips his hand back to me smiling, then not smiling, before he quickly works this group of strangers, taking their money, picking their pockets if he has to, while I remove the knives, get ready for the next show.


Sona Avakian lives in San Francisco and has never stood still while near anyone throwing knives.


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