You first see him through your patio window. Had you not been staring into the street, watching the minivans and compact cars zip past, gazing for minute after minute, you would have missed him. He isn’t directly outside your window. No, he is across the street in the parking lot of that enormous, glittering church with its arrogant steeple. You’ve wondered what Jesus would do in such a church. Would he become as lost as the souls he sought? But you don’t think about that now. All you can think about is the clown. He stands between two of the church’s sparkly new vans. He waves. He wanted you to find him.
You don’t remember where you first encountered a clown. You were never taken to the circus. Your childhood birthday parties were in backyards with tire swings and stagnant ponds and gap-toothed uncles. But certainly you’ve seen one before. This one has the paste-white face and round red nose. A wide mouth, also painted red, and an enormous bowtie. His pants, which are twice the circumference of his actual waist and roomy enough to smuggle dogs or midgets, are held up by suspenders. He has floppy shoes that extend far past his toes. He holds a balloon, and even from this far away, you see his expression of regret. After a moment, he extends his hand, as if he expected you to trot across the street and take the balloon yourself. You stay inside, of course. The clown lets the it sail into the air. He watches it ascend, and so do you. It floats higher and higher, and finally, it’s gone. You grip your coffee mug in both your hands, let your head fall to your chest. It’s silly feeling this way, but you can’t help it. That was your balloon. It was yours, and he let it go.
You see him again at IHOP. Since you’ve been single, you’ve had eggs there more and more often, now three times a week. Smoking has been banned, and this disappoints you, but you feel insulated among people who look so despondent or preoccupied. Amelia tells you you’re slumming it, you’ll never meet a man in a place like that. But you have opinions about Amelia she wouldn’t like to hear. You spy the clown in a corner booth several tables away. He reads the newspaper. He seems captivated, he won’t look up at you. You stare at him, needing him to see you. Finally, he folds the paper and sets it aside. Your heart races. You want to apologize for not taking his balloon. He lights a cigarette. No one, neither the customers nor the waitress, stops to complain. He blows wide, arcing rings above his head. They expand as they near the ceiling, break apart once they reach it. This fills you with a longing that makes you look away. What does he want from you? Why must he disturb your eggs, one of the few pleasures you allow yourself? You lift your head to look at him again, but he is gone. You quickly slip into your coat and leave the restaurant. You realize after you’re in the parking lot that you never paid, but you can’t go back. After sitting behind the steering wheel a moment, overwhelmed by the urge to call someone, you turn the key in the ignition and drive away.
Amelia notices you’ve been preoccupied lately. That’s not the word she uses. She says you’re bummed out. She takes you dancing at one of those horrible clubs with two-dollar bottlenecks and men who keep smiling even after you’ve stopped. The two of you stand at the bar, surrounded by slick-haired people in tight clothes whose elbows move too quickly. They honk at each other, their heads strangely close together. You tell Amelia you want to leave, but she insists you both will have a splendid time. That’s not the word she uses. She says kick-ass, you’ll have a kick-ass time. She takes you by the hand, a habit the two of you developed early in your friendship, and leads you to a part of the club she thinks has a better selection of men. You both stop just shy of the dance floor, a hard-paneled enormous wooden square in the center of all the drinking and posturing. Strobe lights bounce crayon-bright orbs of color off its surface. You turn to say something to Amelia, but she is already chatting with a man in a polo shirt and white jeans. Disappointed, you watch the dancers. They shimmy and hiccup to the dull thud of a song you don’t know. You want to go home.
The clown appears at first in glimpses. He bobs out from behind one clubgoer, then vanishes and pops up behind another. Is he dancing? This shocks you. It delights you. Forgetting Amelia, you watch him shimmy his shoulders and hop on the balls of his feet. The poor clown, he’s an awful dancer. You laugh, put your hand to your mouth, suddenly self-conscious that someone might be watching you, watching you watch him. Certain Amelia is still captivated by her new friend, you inch toward the dance floor. The clown chugs up and down. Sweat starts to run down his face, smearing his makeup. You’re going to meet him. You’re going to speak with this sweet, silly clown.
Amelia yanks you back by the shoulder. She gobbles about that awful man and how much she hates this place and why did they come here? You listen to her because that is what Amelia expects. When you steal a moment to glance back at the dancers, the clown is gone. You don’t panic, maybe he’s still there. Amelia grabs you by the wrist and drags you from the dance floor. She’s your friend, and you must follow her. Leaving, you look back, and the clown has not returned. The sadness descends on you completely, but you feel safe inside it.
The clown begins appearing more places, more often. You see him at the supermarket in the reflection of the glass doors that display the frozen food. Singing along with the oldies station in morning traffic, you notice him in a car adjacent to yours. You see his pointy hat. You watch his white-gloved hand beat a rhythm on the steering wheel. Are you listening to the same song? You hope this is true. You see him while standing in line at the drug store as he flips through magazines, but you’ve waited too long to give up your spot. Alone at the movies, you check the rows behind you, expecting him to arrive. The theatre darkens and the previews begin. The first trailer is for a children’s film, and there’s a clown! You laugh loud and freely. That clown, he’s playing a clever joke on you! Just wait till you see him, you’ll show him what you think of naughty tricks!
Amelia says you’ve become a recluse, always keeping to yourself. That’s not the word she uses. But you really aren’t listening to her. You hold the phone to your ear and answer her questions as simply as you can. It takes all your concentration to keep watching the patio window. You think you’ve seen the clown in the church parking lot two or three times, but when you stepped closer to investigate, he was never there. You can’t let him elude you this time. Amelia says something hostile and tells you to call her when you’ve snapped out of it. You hang up, not saying goodbye. You gaze out the window. The cars fly past like lazy stars streaking the sky. Dusk glows outside your apartment. Then night arrives and you slip into darkness. You wait. Morning colors stretch past the horizon, and you finally leave for work. Tonight, you tell yourself. He will come tonight.
But the clown does not come back. You wait another day, then another. You wait a week. The clown does not come back. You sink into a dull silence. Seated on your recliner in front of the coffee table, you slurp lukewarm stew straight from the cooking pot and watch reality television. Where is your clown? And that’s how you think of him now: your clown.
You never do return to IHOP. Now you drink in a dim, cramped bar with too much neon and not enough air conditioning. Jack and Coke, one after another. You drain your glass and wait silently for the bartender to spot you before signaling for another. You’re trying your hardest to be quiet. You never want to say another word. Soon, you’re drunk enough so that the world has narrowed into a slim, dark crawlspace and all you must do is keep looking straight ahead. You don’t see him sit right beside you.
The clown says your name. It takes you a moment to realize this. You’re unnerved someone in this dingy place knows you, but you turn your head to greet him anyway. And there he is: the mouth, the nose, the pointy hat.. But it’s his eyes that enlist you. You’re never been close enough to look this deeply into them. They’re pale blue, like a baby blanket, and they’re filled with a yearning, a tenderness that you’ve longed for since you first feared you’d never find it. Dumbly, you say hello. The clown says he’s sorry he had to go away, but now he’s back. He’s come back for you. You ask him where he wants to go. You say it doesn’t matter, you’ll go anywhere. Just don’t leave me, you say. Don’t leave me alone again. I won’t, the clown promises. But first you must tell me something. Anything, you say.
Who am I?
You open your mouth to respond. It then strikes you like a backhand that you don’t know his name. Your breath deepens, you’re terrified. What if you disappoint him? The other drinkers at the bar carry on like nothing strange is happening. You look around yourself, perhaps seeking help. But no: it’s just you and the clown. I’ll help you, he says. He removes his pointy hat with a crisp gesture. You see his curly hair but still cannot think of his name. He removes a handkerchief from his pants and wipes away the white makeup. Through the streaks, you can see the flesh of his face. You still don’t know. Done wiping, he pops off his big red nose and looks at you, waiting. His face looks kind, almost plain. You stare at it like you would through a kaleidoscope. He waits for you but then finally asks again: who am I?
You’ve never seen this man before. You wish you could invent something, some answer that would please him. But you cannot lie to the clown, not your clown. I don’t know, you say. The clown sadly shakes his head. He raises his hand as if to smack it down on the bar, but he lets it gently come to rest. He gazes into your eyes, and you shiver to see the regret on his face. I have to leave, he says. Your mouth moves but no words come out. You’re actually quivering. No! He can’t leave! He’s your clown!
He takes the big red nose and gently places it on your own nose. He takes your hand, squeezes it once, then bows his head and turns to leave. He passes through the tables. He pushes open the door. You watch helplessly until it has closed. The nose still on your face, you droop back over the bar. Your shoulders sink. A great sob erupts from you. The tears spring from your eyes but it doesn’t matter. You let them fall as you struggle to get down your drink. You stay like that for some time, crying. But at last, you begin to calm down. At least you can still drink. You’ve forgotten about the red nose on your face. You signal the bartender for another, and he sets it before you, never commenting on your new disguise.
You don’t know how long he’s been staring at you before you notice him. No, not the clown. Your clown is gone forever. But across the bar is a man. He’s about your age. He looks handsome but not in a way you’d remember any time later. Still, he compels you. You recoil from the shamelessness of his desire, even from across the bar. You’re perplexed. No, you’re angry. Who is he? Who are you? You’re just some brokenhearted fool with a stupid clown nose on your face. Why would he ever look at you? Why would anyone look at you? But he won’t stop. Then, you remember you’ve seen that look. While watching for the clown through your patio window, you often caught a reflection of your face. That’s what you see now, the same need and devotion. He sees you. Someone has seen you for the very first time.
Thomas Kearnes holds an MA in Screenwriting from the University of Texas at Austin. His two collections are Pretend I’m Not Here (Musa Publishing) and Promiscuous (JMS Publishing). His fiction has appeared in Litro, The Adroit Journal, The Ampersand Review, PANK, Word Riot, Eclectica, SmokeLong Quarterly, wigleaf, Storyglossia, A cappella Zoo, Spork, The Pedestal, Digital Americana Magazine and elsewhere. His work has also appeared or will appear in Pseudopod, DarkFuse: Horror d’Oeurves, Collective Fallout, Grim Corps, Pantheon Magazine and Underground Voices. He is studying to become a drug dependency counselor. He lives near Houston.
Artwork: Rob Woodcox, from “Family Circus” series