Paper Atmosphere by Brooke Larson

This isn’t a story. This is stage direction. The circus has come to town. The circus has never left. You are seized by a sense of running away to the circus. Of having always already arrived. You find yourself here. You are seized by the need for the audience to understand. We are each a vanishing point in the circus ring, and each vanishing point is the star performer. That’s the hilarious thing about stars. They’re all far flung, yet every one the center. Center is to say, the mouth made by sucking distance. You need them to understand. You suck your bottom lip, stare out. Hold a beat. You then go about making an invisible circus ring. Go about this the way you go about life. Where possible, an elephant should be present behind you. Now, tear out this page. With flourish: wrist flick like sharp tooth and fine silk, as fiery as airy — this is the circus, dammit! Tear it out, and then bite off a corner. Spit it back into your palm. Pocket it for later. Balance rest of paper on your head. Like so, disrobe completely. You should not come off as naked, nor nude. You should not come off as anything. This point is important, if they are to understand. Now, call Science to your aid. Remove piece of paper from head and place over beach ball. Science insists: it must be a piece of paper and it must be a beach ball. This is the thin layer of atmosphere separating our Earth from outer space. What keeps the cold black suck of soundless space from clasping our thin little wet skins in its everywhere and nowhere arms? It’s this paper balanced on a beach ball. Hold it. Of course you are wearing a clown face. Wear it as you wear life. Clown paint, like atmosphere, is a protective layer. It is also a mask. A mask cannot be to scale because a mask is relative to wearer and viewer. And now! For the grand finale of relativity! Which is also just the pre-show! Pull out that paper scrap from your pocket. Ideally, one edge will be serrated with visible teeth marks. Lay it flat on your palm. Spit on it. Spit on it in the way you’re sometimes made to spit out life. Allow some spit to remain dangling from your lip, to remain never reaching the paper. Bend down. Finger the dirt between your feet, within the invisible circus ring. Pinch a bit between your thumb and forefinger. Stand up. Sprinkle dirt on spit on scrap. Mix it around. Immediately crumple up scrap into a ball to contain what’s there. This is your layer of skin surrounding your wet soily insides. You should still be holding the layer of atmosphere over the Earth in your other hand. Balance these two balls in your two palms. The air around you, and the space outside it, is everything else. Breathe in. Breathe out. Take a bow.


Brooke Larson is a writer, collagist, and sometimes wilderness guide. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University and is currently a Ph.D. student in English at the University of Louisiana.