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The Saint of Clowns
A Guest Quarters story
If Jerry told people that his mother loved clowns, it would not be hyperbole. Not that he knew anyone who would care about his mother's habits. He never brought people home after school, primarily because it would trigger a lengthy explanation Jerry just didn't want to make.
From the outside, the house looked normal enough. There were no outward clues that the weary tract home, with its peeling sky-blue paint and worn-bare Florida saw grass lawn, masked what Jerry could only describe as a schizophrenic temple to rubber noses and greasepaint. But to cross the threshold was to dive into a living room that would send a coulrophobic individual screaming for the hills. White walls and rose pink carpets provided the stage for the single largest collection of clown memorabilia that Jerry could have dreamed of. Glass shelves bracketed the sofa, stuffed to overflowing with every kind of clown kitch imaginable: a parade of ceramic statues, coffee mugs with garish smiles leering from the sides, plastic dolls with yarn hair, blown glass buffoons, gently rusting lunch boxes, more than he could ever hope to catalog.
While the living room alone was enough to guarantee Jerry never invited a would-be friend home after school, anyone who made it through the big top nightmare of the living room would have bolted when they saw the hallway.
The glass dome light-fixture in the hallway was still there, though it hadn't worked in Jerry's memory. Instead the hall was lit by small lights hanging above framed clown portraits that ran along both walls two rows high, one end to the other. Unlike the living room where there were both happy and sad clowns, the greasepaint gauntlet of the hallway contained no smiles. A large portrait on black velvet at the far end depicted a sad hobo clown with a dying flower. This was, so Jerry's mother insisted, the boy's father.
He had no reason to question her.
Jerry never met the man. He had vanished when Jerry was only two, and Jerry's mother never mentioned his name.
The boy paused at the end of the hallway, knapsack dangling in his left hand. He contemplated soldiering past the sad faces to his room. The Firelli Brothers Circus was in town for another day. Instinct born from years of experience took over and he steered towards the kitchen instead. Even here, the ever-present clown motif prevailed, with framed vintage circus posters of clowns on the wall above the table. He dumped his books on the table and turned on the radio to the only country music station that could be picked up within the city limits of Winterspring, Florida.
By the time Jerry finished algebra and the required reading for American history, he could hear stirring in his mother's room. He kept his pale, freckled nose buried in the book. He got only a glimpse of saggy checkered pants and oversized shoes as his mother's guest shuffled quietly out the front door. Jerry wondered despite himself if it had been a sad or happy clown. Whatever was painted on the unseen face, Jerry figured he had been a happy clown.
Jerry's mother loved clowns.
She loved them a lot.
He filed the finished homework in his binder and stuffed it back into the bag with his books. Jerry could hear the shower in the master bathroom running when he got to his room. He was not na´ve to the ways of the world. He figured out what was going on between his mom and a seemingly endless parade of circus clowns when he was only twelve.
Only circus clowns, though. No barrel-jumping rodeo clowns, no balloon-twisting party rent-a-clowns ever darkened their door; no, only the vagabond big top professionals. Maybe it was something special about their kind of humor, or their special clown code. Maybe it was just that they were only in town for a few days to a week and then gone. Jerry's mother never explained it and he didn't ask.
The doorbell buzzed, a descending drone like a swarm of angry bees flying away. Even if his mother heard the weak call over the blast of the shower, she wouldn't bother to answer. Jerry pressed his face against the screen in his bedroom window, but whoever rang the bell was too close to the door to be seen.
He navigated the hall of clowns, fingers tracing a line between the two rows of pictures on his right as he went. The buzzer sounded again and Jerry quickened his pace. He opened the small brass window in the middle of the door that his mother affectionately referred to as the "murder hole."
The man waiting just the other side of the door was in his forties, thinning brown hair swept back from the temples with a bit of clown white at the roots. The face was broad, marked by sad eyes and thin lips that tilted up in an easy smile when the murder hole was opened. "Hey there, Jerry. Is your mom around?"
Jerry threw the door wide. "Uncle Tink! I didn't know the Magellan Circus was in town!"
Uncle Tink shifted the battered gray fedora into his left hand to avoid crushing it with the offered hug. "They aren't. Bit of a story, there."
"Mom's in the shower, but she'll be out in a bit," Jerry backed up to let Tink in. "I'm sure she'd like to see you."
The suddenly hard line of lips and nervous glance that Tink shot towards the hallway suggested otherwise, but he accepted the hospitality. Worrying the brim of his hat around in a circle, he perched on the edge of the plastic-covered sofa. "She wasn't expecting me," he said, a thin quaver in his voice. "I should have called first."
Tink wasn't a real uncle, not in any blood sense. But he had been coming to visit Jerry's mother with such regularity that he had become, over the years, the most constant male face in the young man's life. His real name was never revealed. "Clowns like me don't have what you'd call real names," he said. Instead, Jerry called him Tink as the informal shortening of his performing name, Mr. Tinkle on account of the jingling bell motley he wore when he performed.
Jerry perched on the edge of the worn, red recliner. "What did you mean there was a story about the Magellan Circus? Is everything okay?"
"How long do you think your mom is going to be?" Distracted glances towards the hallway bypassed Jerry as if he weren't even there.
"I don't know. Ten minutes, maybe? She might even want to take a nap," Jerry watched the clown squirm. "I could go let her know that you're here."
"You could," Tink said.
Jerry made no signs of moving from his seat. One eyebrow raised in a sign of challenge.
Tink sighed and looked at the hat in his hands. "I broke character, kid."
"What? Where?" Jerry sank back into the chair.
"Up in Thomasville. The new guy didn't flush the seltzer bottle after cleaning it. I got hit in the eye with vinegar, and I shouted," Tink gave his head a rueful shake. "Not much of a shout as things go, but enough. It was the first time I've vocalized in character in over twenty years. "
"Did they..." Jerry found himself clenching the arms of the chair and willed his hands to relax. "I mean, were you fired?"
Tink blinked in surprise. "What? No. Fired?"
"But if the circus isn't here..."
"They shut down for a week. I still have a job. Clowns are the backbone of the circus, kid, and I'm as much of a star attraction as that ragged three-ring affair can afford. But there were repercussions, and the circus has a few things to sort out before going on. Clown justice kind of things," Tink's eyes widened, then focused intently on his hat again.
They had known each other for as long as Jerry could remember. Even with the irregular visits, a few times a year, they had built a certain level of trust. Even though Jerry couldn't put his finger on it, he knew there was more to the story, just as he knew that Tink wasn't going to spill the full details so easily. "I'll let my mom know you're here," he said finally.
By the time he got to his mom's door, the shower had been turned off. Jerry rapped lazily on the hollow-core door. "Mom? Uncle Tink is here to see you."
The sound of a hair brush being tossed into the sink rattled through the door. "Tink?" The door cracked open. His mother, clad only in her short floral robe, likely untied judging from how she hid behind the door, eyed him suspiciously. "He isn't supposed to be in town for weeks. Did he say why he was in town?"
Jerry shrugged. "Circus is closed for a bit; something about clown justice."
Pale green eyes narrowed. Her mouth hardened. "Wait for me there. Don't move."
The door closed, but he could hear his mother's every movement. Sound carried far too well in this cheaply made house. He listened as the closet door rolled quickly open. Hangers jangled as his mother selected a dress. Jerry even heard the rustle of fabric as his mother slid into the chosen garment. When his mother threw open the door again, she was in a casual sun dress, bright yellows and oranges a contrast to the icy cast of her face. She stormed past Jerry, sweeping him up in her wake. The sad clowns bore silent witness. She was shouting before she got to the end of the hallway.
"You son of a bitch! You promised me you wouldn't say anything!"
Tink shot from his seat, hands out before him to ward off an expected attack. "Joy, I swear I don't know what you're talking about!"
Jerry's mother struck one of the quivering hands away, knocking the fedora free. It flew into the lower shelf of a bookcase and sent an assortment of clown dolls scattering. Her rage ratcheted up another notch which Jerry didn't even think possible. Her finger jabbed like a dagger into the clown's chest. "Clown justice, Tink. Do you think he just came up with that on his own?"
"I was just explaining why I'm here and the Magellan isn't. That's all! I didn't say anything about Dusty!" Panic filled his face, and shaking hands flew to cover his mouth.
Time stood still as the universe held its breath.
"Oh, God, Joy... I'm so..." Tink started.
Jerry's mother cut the clown off with two words hissed through her clenched jaw. "Get. Out."
Tink left so quickly that it was only in the stunned silence that followed that Jerry realized the clown's fedora had been left behind, a misshapen felt house crushing an all-clown munchkin-land. Jerry couldn't take his eyes from the scene. The scattered clowns, while vaguely disturbing, still felt safer than engaging with the seething anger of his mother. He wanted to ask who Dusty was, and why he mattered. A glance at his mother, still frozen in place as she wrestled down her rage, made Jerry's decision for him. He kept the questions to himself.
When his mother finally addressed Jerry, she didn't even bother to look in his direction, her eyes focused on some indeterminate space. "Did you finish your homework?"
He risked the lie just to have the excuse to go to his room. "No. I still have reading to do for English."
"Go finish up," she finally turned to face him. The anger was gone, replaced by something Jerry couldn't name. The face which directed him back towards his room looked pinched, hurt, lost, maybe. "Be done in time for dinner at six."
Dinner was fish sticks and tater-tots, eaten in nervous silence punctuated by questions and answers so rote, so practiced that they might as well have been presented on flash-cards. Neither of them brought up Tink's visit. As he chewed, Jerry plotted and waited for an opening. He saw it when she asked what he wanted to watch on television that night. "Actually, if it's okay, I'd like to bike down to the Crest Theater and see a movie."
His mother narrowed her eyes. "Which movie?"
"The superhero one," he barreled straight through before she could object, "I know I saw it already, but Shawnee Smith from my English class is going to be there with a few of her friends." That was the key word, he knew. "Friends." Though his mother was eternally hopeful, Jerry found friends difficult to come by.
She folded her napkin carefully and set it beside her empty plate. "What time does the movie get out?"
"Just after nine. And I promise to stay off the highway and I'll come straight home after."
"I don't like it," she said after far too much consideration. Jerry was certain that she had figured out his motives. "I'm staying home tonight, so you can take the car. But drive carefully. And if you're going to be late, call."
It was Jerry's turn to blink, confused. "Late? I won't be late. I'll come home as soon as the movie is over."
His mother stood to collect the plates. She smiled down at him and shook her head. "Everyone might want to go to Steak & Shake after the movie." She set the plates in the sink and reached into her purse for the car keys and her wallet. From the chunky black wallet, she pulled a crisply folded twenty. "Just in case," she said. She tucked the bill into Jerry's shirt pocket and kissed him on the forehead.
Thirty minutes later, Jerry reflexively touched the shirt pocket that contained the money as he drove past the Crest. He kept driving straight for another two miles until he hit the bus station. Jerry parked across the street in the light of the street lamp then went in to check schedules. The small building was almost empty, just the clerk and a well-dressed couple with a pair of suitcases between them as they watched some reality show on the crappy lobby television.
Winterspring was a small town, and there weren't many busses running to Thomasville. The next wasn't until eight the next morning, and the last had been after Tink had visited the house. The clerk had been on shift when Tink had come in and purchased a ticket for the morning bus. The clerk, an old man with a faded anchor tattoo on his liver-spotted forearm, wouldn't let Tink stay in the terminal overnight. Instead, the incognito clown had been directed to the Sleep-Rite Motel down the block.
Jerry walked to the motel. All he had to do was look for the room with the lights on and no car parked out front. The motel, like everything else in Winterspring, wasn't that big. Hell, Jerry thought, even our dreams are small.
Much to his credit, Tink didn't appear surprised to see Jerry at his door. He was dressed down, with no shoes and wearing a white undershirt three washings away from being relegated to dust rag. He waved Jerry in with a half-full plastic bottle of vodka. "I wondered which one of you would come find me. I guess I'm glad that it's you, kid. Pull up a chair and stay awhile."
The only chair was at the built-in desk, and the faded red vinyl cushion let out a puff of mildew and stale cigarette smoke when Jerry sat down. He held up his hands in protest when Tink offered him a plastic cup for vodka. "I'm driving my mom's car. She'll be mad enough when she finds out where I was."
Tink nodded, resigned. He sat on the edge of the bed and poured himself a glass. "So Joy doesn't know that you're here?"
Jerry shook his head. "I'm sorry that I got you in trouble with her. I didn't know."
"Pffff...if she had given me the chance to explain, it wouldn't be a problem," Tink took a pull off his cup. He leaned in, a conspiratorial tone in his thick voice. "That business up in Thomasville, it was small potatoes; just one sad clown with a couple of broken legs and management covering their bases. If it hadn't been so close to here, I wouldn't have bothered swinging through town. I was feeling kind of down, and I missed seeing her. You too, Jer."
"I thought it was about you falling out of character."
"It was," Tink nodded, emphatic. "Well, it was and it wasn't. It was decided that Dingo, the guy who had been responsible, needed to be taught a lesson. He had a bad fall in the process."
"Clown justice?" Jerry ventured.
Tink shifted uncomfortably. "Yeah. Clown justice. We look out for each other, and settle disagreements among ourselves. It's the way it's always been. Hundreds of years back, all the way back to Italy."
"What does this have to do with my dad?" Jerry gambled.
"Ah. Dusty," Tink deflated. "How much did she tell you? No, scratch that. Joy didn't tell you bupkiss. How much did you figure out on your own?"
Jerry suppressed his smile, thankful for the lucky guess. "Just his name, and that something happened to him."
Tink sized him up. "You're a smart kid. What, sixteen? Seventeen?"
"Eighteen in two months."
Tink nodded, squinting in shrewd contemplation. "Good grades?"
"Good grades. Why?"
"What are your plans after graduation? College, I'm assuming."
It was Jerry's turn to shift uncomfortably. He had applied to a few colleges, mostly at his mom's insistence. The truth was that he had never given a tremendous amount of thought to his future. "Probably college. I don't really know."
"The circus, maybe?"
The question caught Jerry off guard. For all of his mom's love of clowns, probably because of it, he had never considered joining the circus. His mother had never suggested it. He was surprised to hear himself answer, "Maybe." He convinced himself it was just to make the old man happy.
It didn't have the desired effect. Tink shook his head bitterly with a snort. "It ain't all cotton candy and puppies, kid. I wish someone had warned me. I wish they had warned your dad."
"What happened to him?"
Tink's voice was barely above a whisper. "Clown justice."
Jerry steeled himself for the story. His home life had never been ideal. His mother had loved him and had avoided being too smothering. The endless parade of clowns would have been strange, perhaps horrifying to other kids growing up. It was just something Jerry had accepted. His mom was eccentric. So was his upbringing. But it occurred to him that any dark family secret would have to be pretty goddamned dark under the circumstances. He didn't know if he would ever be ready to hear the truth. But he knew he wouldn't be at peace until he heard the whole story. "Tink. Please. Tell me about my dad."
Tink thought it over. He took a long drag on his vodka, then set both the bottle and cup on the floor next to the bed. "Ok. So you already know that his name was Dusty Pockets. He was good, but not great. Still a little green when we started out together in the Magellan. Another few years, maybe he would have gotten there. But not everyone is cut out for a life of constant touring."
"Was my mom travelling with you?"
"No," Tink shook his head sadly. "That might have made the difference, but the Magellan was, still is, a small outfit. Your mom had no circus skills, and no interest in gaining them. Plus, she had you, and the road isn't the best part to start a family."
Jerry winced. "Quoting Journey lyrics?"
"Did I? Well, if I did, then they know it too. Touring is a demon that eats your soul, one shitty little town at a time. We buy it back with every laugh, every smile, but sometimes it seems like the game is going to be a net loss. With Dusty, well, the road started to get to him. One town after the other, the loneliness started to set in. Then we hit Walsenburg in Colorado," he paused and looked at Jerry sitting across the dimly lit room. "Listen, Jerry...are you sure you want to hear this?"
"I don't want to hear it," Jerry said slowly. "But I need to know, Tink. You understand, right?"
"I had to ask, because there's no coming back from here."
Jerry nodded, and reluctantly, Tink continued. "So, Walsenburg. I don't know what happened. None of us knew. Not that it mattered," Tink's eyes started to tear up. He paused long enough to blow his nose. He caught his breath, steeled himself for the gauntlet to come, and barreled on through, avoiding Jerry's eyes the whole time. "Jesus, Jerry. The girl was about your age. She was dead, cold and dead when we got there, and we still had to pull your father off her body. He was weeping the whole time. We got both of them dressed best we could. We knew what we had to do. Clown code. Clown justice. We couldn't let anyone find out what happened or it would be bad times for all of us. So we buried her in a vacant lot a few miles from the fairgrounds. But clown justice is supposed to protect all of us. And Dusty had put our entire community at risk. I mean, we still hadn't regained the public trust after that bastard John Wayne Gacy..."
"Gacy? But he wasn't a circus clown!" Jerry protested.
"Damn right he wasn't one of us!" Tink agreed. "Damn part-time party clown! What a fucking joke! But to the rest of the world a clown is a clown is a clown. It's a big goddamned brush they paint us with. So we did what we had to do. We stopped in the middle of nowhere on the way to our next show. Me and three of the other clowns took Dusty out into the prairie and buried him. Sometimes I can still hear him screaming as we shoveled in the dirt."
Jerry had to remind himself to breathe. "You buried him alive?"
For several long moments, the only sound was of the two men breathing and traffic hissing by on the highway outside. Tink took the chance to refill his glass. "I was the one that drew short straw," he continued. "I was the one that had to tell your mom when we returned to wait out the winter."
"You told her..." Jerry started, choked on the word, started over. "You told her everything?"
Tink sobbed softly. "I had to. She had to know. And something inside of her broke. She didn't blame us for what we had done. She understood. The scandal would have destroyed her if anyone found out. And you were only two years old at the time. She didn't want you exposed to the ugliness of that, so she made me swear to keep my silence."
"But you're telling me now," Jerry said. "I'm sorry if this is going to get you in trouble with her. If you want, I can keep it a secret. You're the closest thing I've had to a father. The last thing I want is to get you into trouble."
Tink stood with a shake of his head. He patted Jerry on the shoulder as he passed by on the way to the bathroom. "Hell, Jerry. She thinks you already know, thinks I've already told you at least enough to ask the right questions," Tink rinsed out his glass and filled it with tap water. He drained it in a series of deep gulps, refilled it, then returned to the edge of the bed. He nodded towards the phone on the bedside table. "I've been calling all night, and she keeps hanging up on me. I'm doing her a favor by telling you. She can stop lying now, because you weren't going to stop asking, were you? And this way she's spared the pain of having to tell you about it herself. Best it came from me."
Jerry sat, numbly processing the information.
"She blamed herself," Tink went on. "At least a little bit. Felt that if she had gone on the road, been a better wife, maybe Dusty wouldn't have gone looking for love the way he did. That's why she provides comfort to us clowns out here on the road. Maybe she's stopped something like Walsenburg from happening again. There's no way of knowing, I guess. But it's still a blessing to have her around. Like I said, kid. The road is lonely. To feel like someone loves you, really loves you, if even for a few hours... that makes a difference."
"I thought she just loved clowns," Jerry mumbled.
Tink patted Jerry on the shoulder again. "She does, kid. In her own way, she does. I sometimes get it in my head that when I retire, I'm going to come back here and marry her. I wouldn't interfere with, well, you know. But I don't think she'd have had me, even before today. And that's okay. That's okay."
They sat in silence. Jerry kept asking himself it knowing had made anything better. Time and again, he kept coming back to a single, simple truth; at least now he knew who he was, where he had come from. Not all answers are good answers. Not all truths are the ones we want. But he resolved to own his legacy, for good or bad. With his roots fully disclosed, Jerry could finally start thinking about the future.
When the couple in the next room started having particularly noisy sex, Jerry figured it was time to go. "I'll see you around, Tink."
"I doubt it, kid. I'm heading back to the Magellan tomorrow. I don't know when I'll be back. Hell. I don't know if I'll be back at all. But you'll be alright. You have a lot of your dad in you. And before things went bad, he was a good man. He could have been a hell of a clown. Hopefully you learn from his mistakes."
Jerry stopped at the store to pick up a few things before going home, by which point his mother was already asleep. He put the $20 and car keys back in her purse and crept to his room without waking her. He set the alarm for before dawn and settled in for a few hours of sleep.
When the faint buzzing woke him, he rolled to action, dumping his knapsack out on his bed. Jerry got dressed then filled the bag with things he would need. He went to the bathroom and got ready to leave, a process that took longer than he had expected to get right. He finished packing his bag, scrawled a quick note, and crept out into the hall.
Jerry turned off the light beneath his father's picture before he left, with the note taped to the hot brass hood of covering the bulb. It read, "I understand. I love you. Goodbye." He shouldered his bag and crept quietly to the door, passing the gauntlet of sad, greasepaint faces one last time. It was still early, but he would need the time to walk to the bus station. He still needed to buy his ticket for the 8:30 bus to Thomasville.
He looked around one last time, smiling wistfully beneath the painted on frown. When he left, he left like a man with a purpose. He left like a clown.
Nathan Crowder. Raised in the southwest by a borderline hippie mom and beatnik librarian father, Nathan grew up with an appreciation for the odd, the working class, and thinking outside the box. He has used this to write fiction in a wide range of genres, including science fiction ("Frames of Reference" in Close Encounters of the Urban Kind), superheroes (Cobalt City Blues), horror ("Fishwives of Sean Brolly" in Cthulhurotica), urban fantasy ("Ink Calls to Ink" for www.Wilywriters.com), and crime ("Kid Gloves" for www.thuglit.com). His first clown-noir story was written as a micro-flash piece he included in holiday cards to friends and family a few years ago. It provided the seed for this story.
Nathan lives in the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle, within walking distance of more coffeehouses and brew pubs than he can shake a stick at. Online he can be found at www.nathancrowder.com where he makes up words and talks writing, music, and fringe candy. He splits his time between writing and stalking the great white buffalo.
Story by Nathan Crowder, Copyright 2011
Image by Amber Clark, Stopped Motion Photography, Copyright 2011