“DO YOU WANT TO GO into the Globe of Death?” Victor Flores asked. I wasn’t prepared for the question. I had met Victor, the leader of the Fearless Flores Circus and Thrill show, only a few hours earlier. I scanned his face to determine if he was joking. I glanced toward a corner of the Rio Grande Valley fairgrounds in Mercedes, where a spherical cage, made of black crisscrossing wrought-iron bars, was held upright by a few wires and stakes. The moan of content 4-H cattle drifted into the surrounding onion fields. “You mean now?”
“When we do the act,” Victor said. “we are waiting for cousins to come up from Mexico, but it looks like they will not make it, and we need someone to stand in the middle of the motorcycles, you know, when they go around inside.” He smiled, showing two sparkling gold-capped teeth. “You want to do it!” I shrugged.
But the next day the cousins still hadn’t arrived from Mexico. By one o’clock on a 90-degree spring afternoon, Victor’s 22-year-old daughter, Frances Flores, was suited up in a polyester, cobalt-blue pant-and-vest outfit that she had made years ago for the Globe of Death act. She surveyed the family’s simple arrangement on the grass-spotted fairgrounds: stage left, a contraption called a breakaway sway pole; a white-and-cherry-red center ring decorated with hand-painted blue diamonds; stage right, the Globe of Death. She ripped off her silver helmet, sprang off her motorcycle, and wiped the sweat from her upper lip as she turned down the heavy-metal guitar music blaring out of two desk-size speakers. Then she took the microphone and faced curious big-brown-eyed boys and girls wearing pressed denims, slouching on hay bales. Some of them dragged their prize-winning goats close to the ring, then led them back to the show barns, where the sweet cotton-candy smell of hay hung in the sunbeams. Wearing a T-shirt and jeans, I stood behind a two-paneled red-velvet-curtain backdrop and waited for my cue.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, how do you like the show so far?” Frances asked. The crowd clapped and whooped in a singsong of little squeals. “Well, all right, would you like to see some more?” Victor, who was dressed in a cobalt-blue costume similar to Frances’ and sat near the globe on his motorcycle, signaled for the audience to shout. The kids kicked and stomped and leaned forward. A group of boys wearing thick glasses whipped their heads back and forth, wagging their snow-cone-stained tongues, unable to hold still. “Yeeeeah!”
Frances laughed. “All right. Well, we have one more surprise for you. Right now we’re going to bring out somebody who will join Victor and me in the Globe of Death. The motorcycles will race within inches of her body. After that, we will come out into the audience and answer any questions you have about the Globe of Death. We will also sign these souvenir photographs for two dollars a piece.” Victor’s wife, Linda, a blond woman wearing a gold lamé pantsuit, entered the ring with a smile frozen on her face. She marched in a small circle. High above her head she held up the photographs of the Floreses posing in front of the Globe of Death. Frances continued, “All proceeds from these photographs will go into a health insurance fund for the Fearless Flores. You see, no company will cover us. Because they say this,” she paused, “is suicide.” The crowd gasped. “And now please give a warm welcome … “
I heard my name and stumbled out from behind the curtain. Frances pulled on her helmet and sped over to the globe. Linda cranked up the guitar solo, and Victor opened the metal sphere’s door. I followed Victor and Frances inside, slammed the door shut, and stood facing the audience from the bottom of the sphere, which was about two and a half times my height. Victor was sitting on his motorcycle in front of me; Frances was behind, on hers. She was close enough that I heard her say, “Smi-i-ile,” over the roar of the bikes. Victor winked and flashed a brilliant grin. “You ready?” he asked. “Remember what I said? First whistle, arms up, second whistle, arms down. Got it?”
“Got it,” I said.
“Okay.” He nodded at Frances, and they rolled their wheels back and forth in short bursts. Once. Twice.
The third time they took off. In about three seconds they had accelerated to 30 miles per hour, chasing each other around on the sides of the cage so that their bodies were horizontal to the ground.
I gritted my teeth and tried not to move. The deafening high-pitched whine from the motors and the vibrating cage rattled in waves through my stomach. I began to imagine what I would do if one of them fell or if they crashed. Should I jump up and cling to the side of the cage? Could I hold on?
I raised my hands, and Victor and Frances rode one-handed, slapping my palms as they rode around the side. Victor whistled again, and I put my hands down. They began to ride higher on the walls of the cage, turning almost completely upside down, passing each other so they wouldn’t hit each other—or me.
I spotted one girl with chubby cheeks and long black hair in the audience. She was sitting close to the cage, but she couldn’t see that I was laughing the way you do when a roller coaster is about to plunge and you’re totally helpless. She looked terrified.
Just about the time I started wondering how long the act would last, Victor whistled again. He and Frances made three more loops and came to a dead stop at either side of me at the bottom of the cage.
Linda shouted over the microphone, “Let’s hear it for the Fearless Flores!” I struggled to get the heavy cage door open. I hoisted it to the side, hit my forehead on it, and skipped over a thin cable,