After the Circus by Cynthia Moritz

Returning from his rounds of the neighborhood, Bill sees Dad’s car is already in the driveway. When he lets himself in the back door, Mom isn’t in the kitchen. Must be helping with PJ’s bath or—yup, the laundry room door is closed—having a quickie with Dad to apologize for dinner not being on the table when he walked in the door. The patriarch still believes in that kind of bullshit. 

Bill takes the stairs two at a time and encounters Dolly and Jeffy—sorry, must remember, Delia and Jeffrey now—manhandling a naked PJ down the hall. PJ will always be just PJ, because not only can he not say Patrick Jonathan, he doesn’t even recognize the words. Almost the size of a man now, and with hair sprouting from his armpits and making a nest in his groin, PJ resists until he finally gets that they are headed to his favorite place, the bathtub. Then he runs, dragging his brother and sister with him. 

“Nice of you to show up once the hard part is done,” Dolly—no, Delia—snarks at Bill as the three careen into the bathroom. 

Though he would never tell her, Bill notices how good Delia is looking now that she has finally rebelled against that tight ponytail Mom made her wear the whole time they were growing up. The soft curls, in light magenta, frame her face and distract from the round face that they all inherited from their mother. Bill himself has grown a bro beard to give his face some shape. It’s only partially successful, but it pisses Dad off, so a win overall. Jeffrey has done nothing to disguise the roundness, but he has taken to wearing bright blue eyeliner when he is safely away from the house. Bill gestures to him to get a last little clump of it that is lodged in the corner of his eye before the old man sees it.

“I can take over now,” Bill says, kneeling by the side of the tub and shooing the other two out. “I’ll just need some help getting him out.” 

As PJ plays with his bath toys, Bill reviews his most recent pass through the neighborhood. On the down side, the tear in the Fenskes’ wire fence has been repaired, so he can’t use that as a pass-through anymore. But he was able to snag a couple beers from the refrigerator in the Merrills’ open garage and gulp them down while he watched from the roof of a shed next door as Hailey Gruening and a girl he didn’t know sunbathed topless in the Gruenings’ backyard. He snatched up a package laying on the Billings’ front porch, but all it contained was a fancy teapot, so he heaved it against a tree in the little patch of woods separating their yard from the Smiths’. In a stroke of luck, he spotted a squirrel carcass practically at the end of Cody Gahagan’s driveway, and since there didn’t seem to be anybody home, he scooped it up with an advertising flyer tumbleweed and slipped it through their mail slot. That would teach Cody to call Jeffrey a faggot. And he walked Mrs. Dotson’s trash can from the curb up to her back door. He had seen her a few weeks ago using a walker, which must make it tough to drag that can up and down the driveway. He had always liked her because she had always given out full-size Snickers bars on Halloween. On his way home, he picked a bag of dog turds out of the Samuels’ trash next door and poured the contents into their pool. 

The bath water is getting cold, so now Bill needs to coax PJ out of the tub. This is usually tough, but Jeffrey is at the bathroom door with PJ’s favorite lovey, Bear Cub. The hard part is holding PJ back from hugging Bear Cub until he’s toweled off. Then it’s down the hall to his room to wrestle him into an adult diaper and the footed pajamas that Mom found in a size big enough for a grown-up. God bless the internet. 

Downstairs, Mom and Dad are seated at the table with coffee like they’ve spent this entire time having a Very Important Discussion. There are no signs of dinner cooking, so Bill guesses correctly that pizza is on the way. 

When the doorbell rings, Mom gets up to gather plates and napkins and Dad says, “Dolly, would you get that, please?” 

Bill’s sister explodes. “Dad, for the millionth time, it’s Delia! How can I ever be treated as an adult woman if you keep calling me by the name of a toy! God!” Meanwhile, Jeffrey guides PJ into the living room and Bill grabs Dad’s wallet and goes to retrieve the pizza. 

Settling in front of the TV, everyone grabs a plate and a slice except PJ, whose pizza must be cut into small bites by Mom. While she is doing this, Dad handles the remote, looking for something that they can all watch together. It has to be something that not only IS calm, but sounds it. PJ gets upset at loud, angry voices, or even the jangly sounds of sarcasm. 

Scrolling through the choices, Dad finds a “Mayberry RFD” marathon. Jeffrey, Delia, and Bill all roll their eyes and let out pro forma groans. But in a few minutes they’re drawn into the rhythm of a simpler time. In this episode, Opie meets a bully. Andy makes everything right by the end.

Cynthia Moritz is a fairly new fiction writer. She has spent most of her working life as a writer and editor at a university, and also has a degree as a mental health counselor. This is her third publication.