“A Mexican circus is a festive excursion into the unknown.”
I didn’t know what this meant but decided to follow him through the velvet curtain nonetheless. He splashed his face with a cloudy tsunami of pancake makeup so vast and caustic that I could hardly help but start coughing as the powder entered my lungs. When the growing cloud finally subsided and my nostrils confided that the air was probably safe enough to slowly reopen my eyes, I noticed his face painted white as a ghost—obviously in preparation for the colorful clown makeup customarily applied afterwards.
The musty smell of Tijuana circus animals is overwhelming. We encounter camels, monkeys, zebras, a rusty spray-painted hot dog stand full of flamingos and peacocks, a broken-down nacho wagon with three wheels missing—nothing lavish. This was the underbelly of the beast, a secret room beneath the floorboards of the stage.
The children smile as I duck my head underneath a wood-rotted doorway designed for dwarfs and underage circus workers. Sharing the blanket on the floor staring into my eyes they whisper with hollow thoughtful expressions. I enter. The young senorita sitting in the center launches upward like a torpedo—wrapping her elfish arms around my legs. The dank clandestine lair smells like a kitchen. An old bearded lady is chewing pieces of chicken from an enormous smoking burrito with her mouth half open to let out the heat. The meat smells delicious.
“You a tourist?”
I turn toward the clown. He pushes past me deeper into the already cramped crawlspace. I hunch my head into an awkward position, cracking my neck—which inspires the stoic children to break into an orgy of laughter while pointing at me.
“All I wanted was to buy a monkey,” I said, rubbing my neck.
Their convivial voices echo through the room as if it were a vast cosmic cave extending infinitely beyond my vision. In fact the farthest darkest corner from the door concealed what was the largest of impenetrable shadows. It was here where he led us, the girl attached to my ankle like an orangutan, neck and shoulders hunched lower and lower until the darkness engulfed the grayness and he told her in Spanish to let go, and slow down, “Esperame!”
I follow for a few seconds until my head begins brushing against the hay ceiling and he whispers to get down on our chests and “crawl the rest of the way.”
“Be careful,” he warns. “It’s dangerous up ahead.”
He brushes against our shoulders intermittently grabbing the collars of our shirts to hold us back, nudging us forward until we see some sort of light emitted from the ground below us. The clown crawls a few inches on dirty bloody elbows, like an army private in the midst of basic training, gracefully placing his head over the ledge and stretching his neck down below. A few seconds later his chubby clown cranium resurfaces for the purpose of cupping hands over our mouths to indicate not to make a sound. We peek down.
Intermittent candles flicker from improvised plastic and aluminum candle holders protruding from opposite sides of the dirt wall, melted yellow in the damp cool breeze. A few inches below our vision cowboy hats hover as drug runners ride mules through a narrow tunnel carved into the earth while smoking cigars. Many mules carry humongous bundles of headless weight much larger than any human body. Those not moving quick enough get stung with a whip.
“This activity is not on the tourist itinerary,” the clown says.
After the final mule marches beyond our perch he smiles. “Take her home mi amigo and hope she makes it…all that money—she can taste it—dulce American dream, monkey will be here when we return.”
And with that he stumbles down and we follow the jackass, crossing a fissured quarter mile burrow running with the lizards through the Tijuana cartel’s most covert drug route, six feet beneath the border, trapped halfway between a Mexican circus and the center of the earth, all alone expect for the eyes of the flies on the wall.