At one time—had it only been five years ago?—Ricardo stood onstage at The Laugh Factory running through his material, the crowd rolling with each joke. He strutted around in a tight, purple silk Versace T-shirt, an Armani sport coat, no socks. He had the Crockett look down. Everyone loved him. But he grew tired of moving from club to club while Renee, back in Monterey, was lonely. He quit when she said she went on a date with a coworker. Ricardo came home to Renee, and started back at the beginning.
Now, today, like the days before it, he had no appetite and drifted from shop to shop, sipping Diet Pepsi through a straw. Something about Del Monte Centre made him feel at the center of things. People of all ages gathered in the open-air byways frantically hunting for gifts. If Renee suspected his depression—she couldn't possibly, though, could she? And if she did, what did it matter anyway?—he would blame it on the holidays.
Earlier that afternoon, sitting in his bathroom, staring into the yellow glow of his make-up mirror, Ricardo had dabbed on paint with a square pad of foam, drew in the lines of his down-turned smile, and marked his jowls in brown for his five o'clock shadow. He stepped into the stained size fifty-four Jaymar Sansabelt slacks he'd purchased for five bucks at Goodwill and strung with a wire hoop in the waistband to hold the shape of the portly men they were made to fit. He slung the suspenders over his shoulders, knotted his bright orange bow tie. He pocketed a package of Phillies in the breast of his over-sized sport coat. Finally he topped his head with a cigar-burned porkpie.
For a week he'd wandered the mall alone at lunchtime rather than meeting Renee at the Taco Bell on Alvarado Street in downtown Monterey. "I've no time; got to prep for tonight's gig," he'd tell Renee on a payphone, and once he'd hung up he'd stand at the edge of the mall, guilty about the lie. He craved solitude in the midst of people. He wanted the alone feeling that came from anonymity in a crowd, which in Sappy's line of work scarcely came at all.
Years of parties had taken their toll: fingernails stained yellow from constantly-lit cigars; under his face paint, cheeks sagged and reddened from whisky; a nose blossomed so red he looked like a clown without the costume ball. Sappy's customers expected quality adult entertainment. Balloon sculptures—female silhouettes with buxom chests and life-giving hips, three-foot phalluses—blonde jokes, and novelty over-the-hill T-shirts made up his repertoire. His clients expected him to drink, and fed him shots throughout his act (which he gladly accepted), then sprayed him with water from the miniature soda spritzers he passed out from his sack of gags before each party.
Aimless thoughts coursed his mind: there's a nice color for a Lacoste knit; will the remake of Father of the Bride be as good as the original?; so many damn movies starring Michael J. Fox.
He people-watched. An old couple, arm in arm, passed him. The old man wore a Fedora and black-rimmed glasses. The woman, in a dress dotted with purple hyacinths, rubbed away an eye-booger. After so many years she probably didn't have to worry about being attractive for her man, but there was a quiet dignity in the action, as if to say, I am wrinkled and useless, but I refuse to allow myself to look unkempt. Teenagers out of school on Christmas break hung near the Champs Sports and the movie theater, laughing in gaggles of black clothing, the girls' wrists glittering with the occasional flash of their many bracelets. Some groups stood smoking cigarettes, not talking to each other. The young and middle-aged professionals in business suits zipped from the parking lot to the department stores to do their Christmas shopping as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Sappy avoided the department stores. They felt like Holiday Inn lobbies. Their One Day Only sales and eager-to-earn-commission salespeople. Sappy wanted to be left alone, and he preferred the tiny mall shops where the clerks were paid minimum wage and couldn't care less whether he bought anything or if he spilled his Diet Pepsi. Said clerks, usually eighteen to twenty-year-olds who gawked at him when he entered, sometimes spoke on the phone from behind the cashier's desk while Sappy aimlessly wandered the shop: He did not say that! You're kidding.
Sappy knew he was depressed, and had a good idea as to why; he'd read the GQ articles. He had become bogged down with life's details. Each afternoon the same routine: shower, brush teeth, apply makeup, put on coffee, dress and sip coffee while reading newspaper. After checking his van to make sure it hadn't been keyed or broken into for the stereo system, he warmed her up then locked the front door of his apartment. Then he locked the iron cage that closed over the door. He lived in a rough neighborhood in Seaside, and although none of his predominantly black neighbors messed with him, it was better to lock up than to be sorry. Sometimes Renee stayed the night and she pecked him dryly on the lips before leaving in the morning for the office where she was a paralegal.
Sometimes Sappy's early gig was at an elementary school. He limply dragged in his sack of jokes. He went through the motions making balloon animals or squirting kids with the flower on his lapel. At lunch he and Renee met at the Taco Bell downtown and sat through quiet seventy-six-cent tacos. Renee might mention a client's outcome in a civil case. Sappy might say something about the woman who had laughed hysterically during his act, repeating you guys! to the coworkers who'd chipped in to pay for the birthday surprise. Unbooked evenings (early in the week), after Sappy had showered and washed away the paint, he (and sometimes Renee) watched "In Living Color" and "Seinfeld" and ate simple, healthy, and tasteless home-cooked boneless, skinless chicken breasts and vegetables, artichokes, a bottle of Chardonnay. But beyond Thursday Sappy's nights were occupied. He alternated between the Maker's Mark and soda water. His cigars glowed orange in the dim middle-aged partiers' parlors. He pulled dildos from his coat pocket and wedged them in the cleavage of smiling red-faced wives.
Last night, as they lay in bed, Sappy put down his magazine and turned to Renee. "So a clown and a little girl are walking through the forest."
Renee let her Diana Palmer novel drop to her lap and she looked at him. "I think I've heard this one," she said.
"Are you sure?" Sappy said. "The girl says 'Gee, I'm scared,' and the clown says 'How do you think I feel; I have to walk out of these woods by myself.'"
Renee smiled. "You've already told me that one."
"You want to fool around?" Sappy asked, rubbing Renee's forearm.
"I'm tired, Ricardo," Renee said. Ricardo sounded foreign, even coming from Renee. "We've both got work tomorrow."
"What?" Renee said, her face in her book.
"Never mind," Sappy said.
Renee let the book fall again and she kissed his cheek. "I'm sorry, I'm just tired."
"Yeah," Sappy said. He rolled over and shut his eyes, thinking that if he did so, he would fall asleep, awake to the alarm, and begin the day afresh. But he couldn't sleep. He tossed back towards Renee. "Sometimes I think about trying again," he said.
"Trying what, hon?" Renee said. She still had her face in her novel.
Renee let her book fall into her lap. She stared at him.
"It's not supposed to be this way, you know? I could've kept going and had my own series by now. I should be a star, not gigging around in that stupid van."
"You remember how hard it was. You missed home; we never saw each other."
"At least I felt like someone then, someone people paid money to see."
"People pay for you now." Renee was reading again.
"People pay for Sappy, not for Ricardo."
"Sappy is Ricardo, right? That's what you always say." Renee squeezed Sappy's forearm. With her other hand she held up her Diana Palmer novel.
If he wanted he could buy presents: gifts for his eight brothers and sisters, his nieces and nephews, whatever Renee wanted. He could pay with VISA, Mastercard, American Express. But he didn't because it couldn't fill his emptiness. Yet something about wandering the mall made him feel a little better. The white lights in the trees, the lamps wrapped in plastic imitation pine boughs, Frank Sinatra singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" on the overhead speakers, the children who gathered, waiting for a trick that never came. He wandered urgently, pressing for answers, the pressure building until he realized that he needed to pee and he ducked inside Macy's to use the restroom.
The department store fluttered with activity. Shoppers zipped about, most of them glancing at him and chuckling, but moving on, hurrying to finish their shopping. A glove display on a countertop had been ravished so that all the gloves lay in a heap separated from their partners. Some had spilled to the floor where passerby walked over them and no one seemed interested in picking them up.
The bathroom was in as much disarray. It reeked of piss. Used paper towels heaped from the trash like whipped cream and scattered on the wet floor, tracking footprints on their soaked surfaces.
When Sappy relieved himself he had to unzip below the hoop in his pants that made him look fatter than he really was, and he couldn't see to make sure he peed in the right direction. But here it didn't matter, since he pissed into a urinal that wouldn't flush and was already filled with bright fluid and the floating remnants of a urinal mint. The walls were decorated with the typical bathroom graffiti: crude genitalia, a few phone numbers, vulgar lines of verse.
Sappy was surprised that the bathroom angered him, a department store bathroom logically a mess on December 20th. He supposed it was because he'd gone into Macy's thinking the bathroom would be cleaner than the bathrooms in the open mall. Wasn't Macy's supposed to be the "high class" department store? Just a notch below Nordstrom's, but not quite JC Penny or Sears? There wasn't a live pianist on the main floor, but couldn't they at least pick up the gloves and hire someone to keep the restroom clean?
Shaking his head at his stupid anger, Sappy dried his hands, tossed his used towel onto the heap, and made his way from the restroom. The bathroom was tucked into a corner of the men's shoe department and he had to weave his way through racks that wafted leather smells and shoe salesmen stinking of Ralph Lauren Polo and cigarettes, before he was back out on the crowded main walkway.
He saw her from halfway across the store at the makeup counter. Her hair drawn back in a bun, lips painted red, she smiled to her customer as she talked and applied eyeshadow. She had perfect straight white teeth and she caught Sappy looking and kept smiling, which wasn't unusual; people always smiled at him when he was in costume. But this woman was gorgeous, and she seemed—somehow—to have smiled specifically at him, Ricardo, and not at Sappy.
Sappy got caught up in a crowd that shoved along at a decrepit pace, a kind of Christmas Shopper Death March, and by the time he'd reached the store's opposite side Doris Day had ended and Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" started up. It was enough time, in fact, that when the Filipino kid and his girlfriend pushed past Sappy on the inside and forced him off the main walk (the kid saying, "Watch it, clown"), where he slammed his knee into the makeup counter, the blonde had finished with her customer and stood, smiling her perfect smile. She quickly frowned as Sappy winced and she asked, "Are you okay?"
Sappy bent, rubbed his knee, and looked up at the woman. "Jesus," he said. "These people are ruthless."
"It is Christmas," the woman said, as if Sappy, the idiot with the red frown, needed help understanding why the place was so crowded.
Before Sappy could say anything more the woman smiled at him again, then laughed and said, "I'm sorry. It wouldn't be so funny if you didn't have the sad face."
Sappy's knee still stung and he'd doubled over, rubbing it, looking up at her and he said, "Very funny, lady. You know—"
But she cut him off. "Are you shopping for your wife, your girlfriend? . . . "
Though Sappy was angry over her amusement he became aware that this was an honest and obvious question of interest from a beautiful woman. Whether or not she truly cared if he had a wife or girlfriend, or if this was a sales pitch, he found himself straightening from rubbing his knee in order to assume a confident and obviously aloof pose. "My sister," he said.
Melody, the counter girl, showed Sappy a plethora of Lancôme perfumes. She sprayed samples onto tiny cards and Sappy leaned in to sniff, dizzying himself over Melody's perfect, manicured hands, her nails shining as red as her lips. Enthralled, he asked after each perfume; he didn't want to reach the point where he'd have to buy some, because then he'd leave.
"And what about this one?" he said.
"That's Pôeme," Melody said. "It's a younger woman's scent, but you might like it. I'm wearing it today." Melody leaned forward, tilted her chin up.
Sappy could see down the open V of her blouse, past her cleavage, and below her bra the white of her belly. He leaned forward, his nose grazing her neck momentarily, before he caught her scent. She giggled at the tickle. She smelled light, powdery. The smell of soap on her body heavier than her perfume. Sappy came up with warmth growing in his belly. "That's nice," he said. "I like that one."
He paid for the perfume—eighty dollars—and Melody slipped it into a paper sack. It would, he reasoned, make a good gift for Renee. Melody thanked him, smiled. This twenty-something, beautiful blond saleswoman could take her pick from the surfers at a Santa Cruz bar, and she was actually digging him, Sappy-the-Clown, the thirty-one-year-old, early-midlife-crisis-having, depressed-as-hell professional loser. Sappy thought, if I can land her, I am the man.
"Do you want to get a cup of coffee?" he said.
Melody smiled. "It's a little busy, with Christmas and everything." She handed Ricardo his receipt.
He considered the situation. "Don't you get a break?"
Melody looked left and right, as if she'd forgotten something elsewhere. "Not for a while," she said. "I've got to take care of the other customers."
And with that she was gone, whisked away to the counter's opposite side, assisting others with the same beautiful smile she bestowed on Sappy.
For a moment, Sappy stood there, his stupid bag weighed with the perfume he'd wrap for Renee weighing his hand down. Then he shuffled forward, toward the exit of Macy's, toward the light, and back into the day.
But her break did come. They sat on the patio at Starbucks. Sappy learned that she was twenty-two and a student at Fresno State, studying political science. She'd come home to her parents' for the holidays. She was into political theory, and was a Pi Phi. Sappy joked, not knowing who Thomas Paine was: "Sounds like a real pain?" What about Karl Marx? Melody wanted to know. "I never received good marks in school," Sappy said. Melody laughed.
Sappy said, "In theory, you know what they say about a man with big feet," and he lifted a clown shoe.
"They have red noses?" Melody said.
He honked the bicycle horn he kept in his sport coat pocket. "They're horny," he said.
Melody laughed open-mouthed. "You are a clown," she said.
"My real name's Ricardo," he said.
"Not Sappy?" Melody sipped her coffee.
"I can be Sappy whenever I feel like it," he said.
Melody smiled that wide perfect smile. Sappy could sit there, happy in his sad face, and watch that smile all day. He didn't think of Renee, about gigs, Christmas, his failed comedic career, nothing.
"You're funny and sweet," Melody said.
Sappy thanked God for the paint because he could feel his face growing hot, and he laughed at his own discomfort. "The rest of me's just a mystery," he said.
"Sure," Melody said. "Underneath all that paint you're probably hideously ugly, and in your real life you molest little boys."
"I have my own sinister van and everything," Sappy said.
"I bet you do."
"Do you want to see it?" Sappy asked. And a half hour earlier Sappy never would have thought he'd even talk to a woman who looked like Melody, much less drink coffee with her, or show her his tricked-out van. But now, surprisingly, Melody said that, yes, she would in fact like to see it.
This day, like most in Monterey, was covered with low-riding fog that scraped the top of Jack's Peak. The parking lot looked over the bay. The water reflected the gray skies. A line of white crashing waves curved around the bay and out of sight past Marina to the north. The scent of pine carried over the parking lot from the earthy islands separating parking spaces and the shoulders of the highway.
"I love it," said Melody, covering her smile with both hands, like she might have something caught in her teeth. She ran a finger over the custom paintjob. "It's like a hippie mobile. Like something you might see in the parking lot at a Dead concert."
"Here," Sappy said. He unlocked the door and helped Melody into the passenger seat. Sappy walked around the nose, jumped inside, and turned on the radio. He'd been listening to Nirvana earlier that day and "In Bloom" thundered through the speakers. Melody jerked when the music blared out. "I can play whatever," Sappy said. "There's a CD changer in here." He changed the music and Bob Marley's "Mr. Brown" came on. "Something more appropriate," Sappy said. Marley sang: "Mr. Brown is a clown who rides through town . . . "
"Very cute," Melody said. "And this must be where your sinister deeds go down." She turned to the rear of the van where Sappy kept his toys for kids—and adults—his sack of gags, and where the back seat folded down into a bed for long waits between gigs.
Melody's body had turned so that her neck was close to Sappy's face, close enough that he again smelled her intoxicating scent. He reached across the empty space between the seats, caressed her neck and leaned in to kiss her.
"Whoa." Melody gently pushed him back.
Shame and embarrassment ripped through Sappy's insides, like heartburn. "I'm sorry," he stammered.
"That's okay," Melody said. "We're just getting acquainted. None of that funny stuff."
But tears had begun to stream down Sappy's cheeks. He couldn't explain his crying. In his mind flashed the night of that long-ago telephone call when Renee told him she'd begun to see other people. He'd had a good night at LA Improv and was settling down in his hotel room after a few drinks. He thought of Renee's dark curls framing her face, a face that looked on him with unquestioning love. "I'm sorry," he said. He wiped at his face with a bright orange kerchief, his white face paint rubbing off on the fabric.
Back outside Sappy shook Melody's hand. "You do have a nice van, Mr. Sappy," she said.
Ricardo chuckled, embarrassed. "I'm really sorry," he said.
"Don't worry about it," Melody said. "But you probably should have told me you had a girlfriend."
From his helium tank Ricardo blew a balloon with his name ("Sappy") and his phone number printed on it. "Call me," he said. Melody took the balloon without looking at it. "If you ever want a laugh," he added.
"Okay," Melody said. She walked away, the balloon floating above her, her heels clicking on the asphalt. A woman in a Mercedes stopped behind Sappy and his van, obviously thinking he was about to vacate his space.
Sappy pulled the van out. The woman in the Mercedes took his vacant spot. As he left the mall he spotted the Exxon across the street and its pay phone. He parked the van and dialed Renee. As he waited for Renee to pick up, a balloon—he could swear it was the exact one he'd given Melody—floated through the air and ascended into the fog.