If you’re lucky, you’ll get to climb on one of the silver stools with the red leather caps at Winchell’s Doughnuts. It’s after the graveyard shift. The time, my momma says, when all the important people are still up. Elliot, who plays piano for Momma at the Lido, never comes. Just for you and me, Romy, she always says. Momma taps on the glass case with her long candy-pink nails—is it the click of those nails that gets the attention of everyone in the place? It’s the crullers she wants. But for you: you like the plain glazed. You know the Winchell’s lady—Prudence—behind the counter. She’s Indian, your momma says, the kind from the reservation, and her wide face is a mass of wrinkles under the bright fluorescent lights. Prudence is always pin-neat awake and smiling; her gold tooth glints.
You love Prudence; you love the way the dawn softens away the crisp night, growing milky beyond the windows. Every stool and every booth is taken because it’s between shifts. Momma’s done for the night. But some are just coming on: grabbing coffees, doughnuts—their eyelashes on, their hair sprayed tight and glossy to their heads, their shoes shined.
You twirl on the stool and sometimes Max is there to push you. I am Max, the Master of Ceremonies, he says, using his deep pretend voice. His Circus Circus voice, Momma says. He still has his makeup on, his eyes large, creased with black. His cheeks blush a bright pink—his mustache thickly filled in, drawn up like another smile over his lips. You have to hold on or you will fall and Momma will be mad. [End Page 166]
You laugh and the very air elongates around you—turns people into shafts of light and color. He’ll say, Hold on, Romy, and it’s right before you get the doughnut, that sweet confection of air and sugar.
It smells like hot fried grease—Momma’s smiling. Prudence laughs in that silent way. Sometimes, when the stool stops, the room’s still spinning. Everything circles, circles—his face in front of you—your head still wobbly. His eyes search yours in a lonely way as if he wants to know who you were before you were you.
I’m just Romy, you want to reach out and tell him this, to touch his face, to reassure him, because sometimes you’re afraid that tears might slip from his eyes, heavy as clowns’ faces dancing around him every night.
Once he took you both to the Circus Circus where women hang suspended in cages, circulating high above the casino floor. They toss out long balloons, one leg raised.
I used to do that, once—a long time ago, Momma whispered into your ear. You can see it: Momma in the feathered cap, like these women, dressed in downy costumes to look like birds in cages, circulating, slowly circulating in the air. The balloons fall, fall down, and you remember the spotlights came down on you.
Ladies and gentlemen, Max said, may I have your attention? We welcome our smallest guest: Miss Romy Cash! A flourish of his top hat, a drumroll. You raised your face into the blinding light.
Maybe you were four; it was part of the year that you can still remember. Because that was the year you couldn’t see, when the world went all gray, fuzzed out like an empty TV screen. When, for a while, the world was just noise.
The stool pulls to a halt, and you’re still dizzy from the ride. Prudence, plump and pleased, gives her silent nod, and Max is himself again, ruffling your hair. Momma hands you the doughnut. You’ve just taken your first bite: want to savor the tunnels of air between the dough, the coating of [End Page 167] sweet sugar. You’re ready to let it pool in your mouth, to fill your bloodstream, then circulate down to your toes.
But Momma is impatient. She wants to leave. The sugar has barely filled your mouth, and Momma is...