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The New Clowns by John Picard | Word Riot
Short Stories

April 18, 2016      

The New Clowns by John Picard

“So what happened?”
     “Snickers. Isn’t that what you call yourself?”
     “Yes, sir,” I said, though I was Haney’s senior by at least two decades.
     “What happened, Snickers? A six year old crying bloody murder in the front row. You did something to that kid.”
     “Nothing I haven’t done before.”
     “This isn’t the first time a mother’s complained, you know. Just last week Bam Bam turned–”
     “Bim Bam.”
     “Whatever. He turned an eleven year old into a basket case. I had that woman in my office for two hours. Then there was the guy in Detroit who took a swing at Patches. What is it with you people?”
     You people.
     “You’re supposed to make audiences laugh, for Christ’s sake, not scare them to death. If I had my way there wouldn’t be any clowns in this circus. But Dad wants them. He can’t imagine a circus without them. Something like this happens again, though, you’re through. I mean it. I don’t care if you are the boss clown. We have too many clowns as it is. It’s time we started weeding them out.”

All circus clowns have their own routine, their own schtick. Mine–a big part of mine–is my laugh. It’s extremely infectious; at least it used to be. Audiences only had to hear it to start tittering. When they put the laugh to the face–ski-jump nose, long purple hair, ear-to-ear snaggle-toothed grin–they roared. I’d toned it down. We’d all done some toning down. Ko Ko stopped wearing his oversized ears. Blossom no longer set fire to her foot. Topsy hadn’t thrown a pail of water (silver confetti) into a customer’s face in ages. Despite such measures, there had been some unfortunate occurrences, mine just the latest.
     I saw the boy as soon as I stepped into the ring, his blond crew cut like a light bulb against the rows of empty seats. It was a Wednesday, always slow in the circus. He stood with his hands on the railing, up on his tiptoes. I was doing the laugh as I approached him. He looked behind him to make sure his mother was watching the cool thing that was happening, a clown picking him out for special attention. She was watching all right. I had almost reached the boy when she started to scream. Grabbing her child by the waist, she yanked him onto her lap and shielded him with her body, as if I’d just pulled the pin out of a grenade. Fear is contagious and the boy began screaming too. By the time the mother ran up the aisle with him he was hysterical.

It wasn’t that long ago audiences welcomed us enthusiastically when the ringmaster announced, “And now ladies and gentlemen…Here come the clowns!” We would tear out from the wings and sprint helter-skelter under the big top. We’d go into our knockabout act, throwing punches, swinging rubber bats, tripping and tackling and crashing into one other, then do some chases along the hippodrome track and up and down the bleacher aisles, all to great hilarity and applause. After the high wire act or the lion tamer, we were just what the people wanted, all-out comic relief, an old-fashioned, no-holds-barred frolic. Well, not anymore. Now when we appeared there was murmuring when there used to be cheers, a smattering when there was once a burst of applause. Audiences seemed as concerned about our next move as the man on the trapeze, as suspicious of our motives as the lion caged with its tamer. When did this begin to change? Why did this happen?
     Those horror movies, sure; the ones with the psychopathic killers dressed up as clowns. They were a factor. They had seeped into the public’s consciousness and even their dreams. But Hollywood alone couldn’t explain it. It was something else, something deeper. There was even a word for it now: coulrophobia. Fear of clowns. That word was unknown when I graduated from clown school. It was unknown for most of my career. There was a crisis in clowning and if something wasn’t done about it we might cease to exist except in people’s nightmares.

Twinkles was the first to go, fired on the last day of a week of performances in Allen Reed, Texas. I called a meeting. As the boss clown, I’m responsible for coordinating the clowns and the various gags we did in each show, as well as being the liaison with management. Everyone was there: Chubby, Blossom, Jingles, Toodles, Buffo, Tipsy, Cupcake, Clicker, Crazy, Bim Bam, Patches, Ko Ko, Zerbo, Smeraldina.
     “Twinkles’s gone,” I said. “There’s nothing we can do about that. He was old. He wasn’t going to change. I warned him that no gun, no matter how much it looked like a prop, belonged in today’s circus. He wouldn’t listen. The message is clear. From now on, we need to be on our best behavior.”
     “Our best behavior!” Tipsy said. “We’re clowns! We’re about cutting up and making mischief.”
     “I couldn’t agree more,” I said, “but audiences don’t have the tolerance for mischief making they used to.”
     “It’s a sense of humor they don’t have.”
     “Let’s just say we make them nervous. Whatever it is, go a little easier out there. That’s all I’m asking. Take it down a notch.”

We were not a big circus. We had three rings, but they were small rings. It could look pretty crowded down there when everything got going. But all of our performers were first rate, culled from the many small and mid-sized circuses that had been forced to close due to declining attendance. We were the creme de la creme of the junior circuit, so to speak, and that included the clowns, some of the best, some of funniest–yes, the funniest–in the business, if people weren’t too uptight to see it.
     For years I’d been hearing when I was out of costume, “Clowns give me the creeps,” with the inevitable reply, “Me, too. I hate clowns.” Never did I hear, “I love clowns. They make me happy. They make me laugh.” No one had a good word for us anymore.
     Sometimes I thought people might try harder to overcome their prejudice if they knew what we’d sacrificed to bring a little fun into their lives. Don’t misunderstand me. We all loved the circus. We all loved being clowns. And we knew how lucky we were to be working in this age of circus downsizing, but the profession takes a heavy toll on your personal life. Most of us had been married multiple times. My second wife married me on the condition I leave the circus for more traditional employment, which I agreed to, taking a job teaching history at a junior college in upstate New York. I clowned on weekends, for birthday parties and county fairs, but it wasn’t the same. Not even close. I quit after two semesters. It’s hard to be married to someone when they’re on the road nine months of the year, so after I rejoined the circus I didn’t blame my wife for dumping me. At least we didn’t have children. The fathers and mothers among us saw more of other people’s kids than they did their own. And none of us owned a home, since we didn’t make enough money to buy one.

To look at them, audiences hadn’t changed. They were still mostly couples in their twenties and thirties with young children. They still ate too much popcorn and cotton candy. Their eyes still followed the acts as if they were spectators at a tennis match. They couldn’t have been more engrossed, more entertained. Until we came on. Then they didn’t know what to do with themselves. They fidgeted. They laughed nervously. Sometimes they just stared, wishing we’d go away, wishing we’d stop. Recently, we’d just entered the big top when I spotted about ten rows back a young mother with a hand over her little girl’s eyes. My first thought was that she was protecting the child from the bright lights. But the lights weren’t that bright. I realized then what she was doing. She was protecting her child. She was trying to spare her little girl the trauma of being exposed to us, sending the message that we were freaks and, like all freaks, we should be shunned.
     This accorded with the experts on coulrophobia who said the fault lay with clowns who had so terrified the parents of today’s children that they’d passed on the phobia to their offspring. As if we could do that. As if we had that kind of power. There are young children who are afraid of Santa Claus too. What is Santa Claus, after all, but a clown in a red and white fat suit? But parents will defend Santa to a child (“He’s a jolly old soul. And he brings you such nice presents.”), where they won’t us (“He was scary, wasn’t he? I’m sorry you had to see that.”) It wasn’t fair, especially considering that Santa Claus is such a bad clown, as boring and predicable as Bozo. And as safe. The fear of clowns came from these parents, I have no doubt, but not because of something we did. We didn’t do anything. They did it to themselves. Now they were communicating to their children how scary we were, turning them against us before we’d had a chance to show them what we could do.

Next to go was Cupcake. A woman fainted after she leapt into the audience in Sandusky, Ohio, a bit of madcap she’d been doing for years but was too much in the current climate. Not long afterwards we lost two in one day. Haney started doing spot checks, slipping into the back row of the bleachers. He’d fired both Jingles–for shooting off firecrackers–and Patches–for pulling live canaries out of the ears of children. A week later Jocko was gone. Jocko’s crime? His makeup. Apparently some kid’s father had demanded that Haney do something about “the clown with the Freddie Krueger face.” Jocko didn’t look anything like Freddie Krueger. It was all in the man’s head. But Haney, afraid of bad publicity, assured the father that Jocko was history.
     “I’m so sorry, Jocko,” I told him as he was packing up his bubble top shoes and his rubber chicken, among other items he wouldn’t be needing anymore.
     He looked at me. “Carl.”
     “It’s Carl now.”
     That said it all.
     Who would be next? Anything–what we did and even how we looked–might cost us our livelihoods. Naturally we became more careful, more cautious. I reduced the size of my painted-on smile by half and eliminated my blacked-out teeth altogether. I exchanged my purple wig for a light blue one. I never allowed my laugh to rise above a chuckle.

As it has always been for the circus, Saturday was our big day. We arrived for a week of performances in Hickory, North Carolina, one more small town on our circuit. The attendance had been decent leading up to the weekend, so it was no surprise when Saturday sold out. Despite our depressed state, knowing that every seat was filled always gave us a boost, made us want to try harder to entertain the customers–though not too hard. We’d looked at the problem from every angle, and everyone had their own theory, but there was a consensus that audiences were put off by our too eager attempts to amuse. All of our running around, our noise-making, our zaniness, struck them as forced, desperate. They seemed to feel we were begging them to find us funny, begging them to laugh. The truth was, we were desperate, but that was only because we sensed they had begun to pull away from us, which resulted in increasing our efforts to entertain them, to win them back, which only made audiences more suspicious, more anxious, and so on in a vicious cycle.
     “Remember,” I told everyone as we waited in the wings. “No eye contact.”
     “That’s impossible,” Zerbo said.
     “Then keep it to a minimum.”
     “Even with the little kids?”
     “Especially with the little kids. They won’t mind but their parents will. And number one rule, number one thing to remember: no touching. No physical contact. Any questions?”
     “Yeah,” Buffo said. “Why bother?”
     “I hear you. These are difficult days. We’re going through a period of transition. But we’re clowns, damn it. We’re part of a tradition as old as imperial Rome and it’s up to us to carry it on. So let’s go out there and do the best show we’re capable of–within the aforementioned limits.”
     Out we ran, though not as fast as we once did. We took our usual places and stood before the packed house. We were well aware of Haney on the back row, hunched forward in his seat. We broke into our separate routines, trying hard not to try too hard, not to press.
     Our final bit consisted of the whole troupe scampering up and down the aisles, but without mixing it up with the audience. In the old days we would have plucked several children from the crowd and asked them to join us. How long ago that seemed. I was a couple of steps behind Topsy when he reached the end of the aisle. He was supposed to turn around and start back down but his momentum propelled him over the seats and onto the sawdust track that ran behind the bleachers. It was a short drop and he landed safely—but smack in front of a ten year old boy who, before a clown fell from the sky and nearly crushed him with his size 15 bubble-tops, before this nightmare scenario began to play out, was returning from the concession stand with a soda and a bag of popcorn. The boy’s mouth became a perfect oval. His eyes bulged. He started backing away.
     “It’s okay, kid,” Topsy said and held up his huge white-gloved hands. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
     The boy shook his head. Soda and popcorn slipped from his hands. He took off running.
     “Let him go,” I hollered, knowing he was beyond being reasoned with, but Topsy felt he had to try.
     It isn’t easy running in clown shoes and, as I followed them around the circus’s outside perimeter, every footfall made a loud thumping noise. Topsy was gaining on him when the boy collided with a man in a straw hat and overalls. The terrified child scrambled back up. After zigzagging around some burly men carrying motorcycle helmets, he tripped and fell. Scooting away from Topsy on his bottom, he cried. “No! Please no!” I felt a hand digging into my shoulder. I was shoved to the ground. When I looked up the men with motorcycle helmets were descending on poor Topsy.

“It was an accident,” I told Haney. “It could have happened to any of us.”
     “He’s gone. You’re lucky you’re not.”
     “They fractured his leg. They nearly blinded him in one eye. He can’t pay his hospital bill because the circus doesn’t provide health insurance. Have a heart.”
     “Let me show you something.” Haney opened a newspaper and slapped it down on his desk. It was page seven of USA Today and the headline read, “Youngster Rescued From Crazed Clown.”
     “But that’s not what happened,” I said. “It was just a misunderstanding.”
     “Not to the public. To the public it’s more proof you’re all a menace. I’ve been talking to Dad again. He’s starting to listen. Your days are numbered. All of you. If you can’t give the public what they want, what good are you?”

The following Monday those of us who were were left, eight in all, stood soberly in the wings. I’d informed them earlier how close we were to being unemployed. I’d gone on to tell them what I felt was our best, maybe our only, hope of preventing it. It was a bold plan, very outside the box, though it had its own logic. There was some grumbling, but after a healthy discussion it was agreed that desperate times called for desperate measures.
     “And now ladies and gentlemen…Here come the clowns!”
     We stepped out, a line of men and women mostly indistinguishable from the audience members. You had to look closely to find anything clown-like about us. Chubby had outlined his lips to suggest a pleasing grin and Cupcake had applied a tasteful dab of rouge and mascara. Otherwise, we wore no makeup, no wigs, no clown hats. Our clothes were the ones we’d put on that morning–jeans and slacks, skirts and shorts, sneakers and sandals. As we made our way around, I could see the questions in the people’s faces: Is this a trick? Would we take off our street clothes, reveal our clown suits underneath and start acting crazy?
     By now we’d spaced ourselves evenly along the hippodrome track. In accordance with my instructions there would be no knockabout act. There would be no highjinx of any kind, no clowning whatsoever in the usual sense. Blowing up balloons and handing them out to children was okay; simple card tricks, too, provided they were done quickly and without fanfare. I’d changed my mind about eye contact. Avoiding it, I decided, made us look untrustworthy. That would never do if, instead of upsetting people, we were going to reconnect with them. To that end, I’d directed my clowns to approach individual audience members and, in a normal tone of voice, introduce themselves by their real names, which would now double as their clown names (“Hi. I’m Bobby. Glad you could be here today.” “My name’s Susie. What’s yours?”), then draw them out for a brief chat (“How are you liking the circus so far?” “This is such a nice town. Have you lived here long?”), before moving on to the next customer.
     Soon the big top was abuzz with these interactions. Once we’d convinced the audience we weren’t setting them up for some funny business they began to relax. The tightness fell from their faces. The rigidity drained from their bodies. They enjoyed the show. Men, women and children were getting out of their seats and coming down to meet us. Hands reached out to us. Parents held up their little ones for a better look at us. One mother touched my arm and said simply, “Thank you.”

We worried afterwards that the show was a fluke, but the next day the same thing happened: audience suspicion and distrust gave way to smiles and expressions of gratitude. There was concern that after the public knew what to expect, after the element of surprise was lost, they’d stop coming. But the opposite occurred. Once it got around there was a new breed of clown in the circus people flocked.
     Beefing up the ranks, Haney brought back all the clowns he’d fired. Eager to capitalize on our success, he made room for us on the publicity posters, squeezing us in between the lion tamer and Rosie the elephant.

The act has steadily evolved. There have been numerous refinements. If a clown isn’t comfortable making small talk or doing card tricks, the occasional joke or funny story is permitted, as long as he or she doesn’t expect to get a laugh. Modest wigs have been reintroduced, with the stipulation they approximate natural hair color. A certain amount of loud clothing has found its way into the show. Oversized pants and shirts have also made a bit of a comeback. Makeup of any kind, however, painted faces with exaggerated features, remains strictly verboten.
     Critics claim we are not clowns anymore, that we’re nothing but meeters and greeters who engage in banal chit-chat with the audience. Clowns, they say, wear funny clothes and do silly things. Clowns make people laugh. They did once; they don’t anymore. Other struggling circuses have begun to copy our model, and with similar results, a rise in attendance along with a rash of publicity, good and bad. What concerns critics most, I think, is that the movement threatens to spread to the two or three big-time circuses still in existence. But that is a possibility that can’t be helped.
     Will clowns ever be funny again? Will they regain any of their original purpose? We’ll have to see. There has been talk of introducing more humor into the show. Some clowns have requested being allowed to put juggling back into their routines. As I said, we’ll see.
     I miss it, of course. I miss Snickers. I miss being wild and crazy for a couple of hours each day. I miss the ski-jump nose and the purple hair. I miss doing the laugh. I’ll get used to it, I suppose, I’ll adapt, but I’ll never think David is a good name for a clown.

John PicardAbout the author:

John Picard is a native of Washington D.C. living in North Carolina. He received his MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He has published fiction and nonfiction in Iowa Review, Gettysburg Review, New England Review, Mid-American Review, West Branch, Ascent, Greensboro Review, North Dakota Quarterly, and elsewhere. Recent work was cited by The Best American Essays for 2015. A collection of his stories, Little Lives, was published by Main Street Rag.

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