STORYGLOSSIA    Issue 19    April 2007


The Clown Beneath


by James A.W. Shaw



Peterson is already ten minutes late to Sarah Schneider's birthday when he parks near her building in the Upper East Side. He chooses the red foam nose over the more professional molded plastic, because the plastic pinches his nose when the seven-year-olds squeeze it. He prefers the bald wig with a wavy horseshoe of hair, but instead wears a curly, multi-colored wig with a form-fitting rubber cap underneath, which is harder for the kids to tug off center and less odd-looking when they do.

With the rearview mirror, Peterson touches up his face paint and pats on baby powder. He hairsprays his neck to keep the make-up off his collar, and rolls down the window of his van, his hand flapping away the lingering mist. A middle-aged woman with a Doberman walks by, scowling at him from behind enormous sunglasses. He smiles back. He can't blame her for being suspicious of a grown man in clown make-up, hanging out in a beat-up van.

As he gathers his bag, his cell phone rings. The caller ID says it's his wife, Miranda, who moved out last month. He fumbles the phone and flips it open, saying hello with exaggerated cheer.

"Peterson, I don't care about those stupid books." Her voice is like a gunshot, and he clicks down the volume and rolls up the window. "Burn them for all I care."

"I thought you wanted them." Peterson feels like bawling, but he can't ruin his make-up. Last night, he showed up drunk at Miranda's new apartment with her books, pleading into the intercom. "Plus, we needed to talk. Figure things out." He hears her slow intake of breath, and winces when she expels the air like a punch.

"Peterson. I—" Miranda throws another roundhouse sigh. "Marc was here last night." Last year, Peterson suspected Miranda was cheating, so one Saturday he told her he was working a party, but instead waited outside their building and followed her. After a short walk, she threw herself into the arms of a man at Café Mona Lisa. He spied on her the next week, waiting for her outside her law firm at lunch, and when she saw her and the Mona-Lisa guy walk out together, with their power outfits and briefcases, he understood.

"You said it was over with him," Peterson says. "You promised."

"It was," Miranda says. "But everybody knows about us, and Marc called to check on me, and . . . " Her voice trails off.

"And what?" Peterson remembers walking Miranda's beagle, Barney, through Washington Square Park on Sunday mornings while picking up coffee and scones before Miranda woke up. He would carry the food in on a tray while Barney curled up on the end of the bed. When Miranda moved out, she took Barney with her. Waiting for Miranda's voice, Peterson realizes he can't hear Barney, who barks incessantly, and his shoulders drop at the thought that Marc may be out walking him right now. "And you don't love me anymore? Is that it? And you love him? And you've always loved him? Whatever. He's not better than me, you know."

"We can't help each other anymore, Peterson. We've got nothing for each other." Miranda's voice softens to a whisper. "Please, you can't come by again. Maybe we can talk someday, maybe be friends. But not now. Drop the books at the Salvation Army, okay?" Miranda hangs up.

Peterson, teetering between anger and grief, stares at the cell phone. He needs to get to this party—the mother has already paid in advance—but he flips the phone back open and dials Miranda. He gets voice mail, and leaves a message—his eighth since last night. He reclines the bucket seat, remembers last night's fifth of vodka, now half-empty inside the console, takes two quick shots, and sips a third while thinking about how stupid he was to go to Miranda's. Marc. Of course she was with Marc.


                                        ~ ~ ~


Seven years ago, Peterson—thirty-five, college-educated, but restless—went down to the community college to sign up for an evening seminar in bartending. There, he met a small, quiet woman with short, brown hair that swirled at the base of her neck. Turned out they'd graduated college the same year. They talked about a concert they'd both seen the night before. He'd gone by himself, and said he wished he'd met her there. She smiled at that and told him her name was Miranda. At a friend's suggestion, she was signing up for a clowning class to overcome her shyness. And so he said, "I want to try clowning, too."


                                        ~ ~ ~


He squirts some minty mouth spray and takes slow, calming breaths. He pulls on a red plaid tuxedo jacket with a blue collar and yellow buttons. Beneath is a yellow shirt and red bow tie. His pants match the jacket, and his shoes are deep red leather and six sizes too big in customary clown fashion. He gets Miranda's voice mail one more time. "Fuck her," he mutters, and tosses the phone on the passenger's seat. He slings his polka-dotted bag of tricks over his shoulder, and the doorman directs him to the elevator.

"Where've you been?" snaps the woman at the door. He shrugs, squeezes the rubber bulb at the end of a horn three times, and blurts out a rising chuckle. She stamps her foot and points. "This way. Mister Clown."

He walks into a room of seven-year-olds. "Where've you been, Stupid Head?" says a girl under a cone-shaped "Birthday Girl" hat—Sarah Schneider. Another girl says, "I told you he wasn't dead," and a boy answers, "Still that would've been so cool." Yeah, totally cool, he thinks.

Peterson finally feels the first tingle of vodka, and his rolling laughs come more easily. The mothers drop themselves into chairs, sadistic expressions poised on their faces like Romans at the Coliseum. They have expensive haircuts and bags under their eyes. They're wearing shorts and solid-color shirts with short sleeves. Miranda is much better looking than any of them, than all of them combined even. In the corner, though, a pretty girl sits alone, watching him over the top of a Cosmo. Too young to be a mother, he thinks. More like high school. Maybe a senior, he thinks as a boy tugs at his sleeve saying, "Mr. Clown, look at me!"

The girl has green eyes and thick, red hair that falls past her shoulders, and she's wearing a short, green skirt with a white tank top. He watches her pull her sunglasses from her hair and slide them back. Lounging in an armchair, her back nestled into the corner, she throws her legs over the side. To turn the pages, she stabs her finger on the top corner of the right-hand page, flipping with such follow through that she is pointing to her left when she's done. She pauses on each page long enough only for headlines and pictures.

Miranda would never have read one of those magazines, not even if she was half-dead in a hospital room and that was the only printed material within a hundred miles. She read fiction exclusively, primarily by authors he'd read only in college, and the new authors trying to live up to their standards. She teased him for the mystery novels he read. "Those characters don't experience life, they just live it. No emotional depth," she said.

Peterson notices the girl is now turning pages without looking at the magazine. She smiles when he discovers her watching. He wants to tell her how pretty she is because he knows every girl, no matter how pretty she really is, worries she's not pretty enough. He tells himself maybe she's older, in college. It could be.

Peterson wonders what Miranda was like when she was in college. They met more than ten years after graduating, when Miranda was already settled down, working at a large law firm. He'd seen pictures of her at fraternity parties where he could tell how drunk she was, even behind the red-eye in the snapshot. She said little about college, but a couple of Miranda's old friends had whispered a few funny stories to him at a party. Was Miranda ever anything like this girl? Did she ever let her hair grow long, just hang out with a magazine? Ever?

"Hey, kids! Wanna see some magic?" he says with his rolling chuckle. "Make your toes disappear," one boy shrieks, jumping up and slamming his foot toward Peterson's clown shoes. Peterson dodges each of the boy's stomps. He has done this dance before, and he usually loves the way the kids mischievously laugh, but today he wishes the mothers would set a better example and stop laughing themselves. That is, until he notices the girl with the magazine laughing hardest.


                                        ~ ~ ~


Miranda made a terrible clown—she didn't even finish the class—but Peterson has a surprising knack and affinity for it. He loves making kids laugh, and finds even the brattiest child forgivable. He and Miranda would drink coffee, and she would tell him how funny he was. When he said he wanted to try performing at kids' birthday parties, she encouraged him. Although she never came along to a party, she kept track of the finances of his new enterprise, not that there was much to keep track of. Miranda would fuss if he got any make-up on her, and she started leaving out cold cream on the bathroom sink. She insisted he change out of his costume as soon as he came home. After they married, Miranda started hanging Peterson's costume in the front closet. She never explained why she moved it from the bedroom; without thinking about it, he just started hanging it there, too.


                                        ~ ~ ~


The birthday girl's mother pulls him aside to tell him that because he was late, he'll have to postpone his final interactive juggling finale until after the cake and ice cream. Carnival face-painters can expect only tips, not the solid hourly rate he charges for parties, and he can't risk losing these gigs. He twists a final leopard into existence from a yellow balloon, adding spots with a magic marker, and says, "Hey, hey, hey, see you soon kiddos!"

He grabs his Lucky Strikes from the van, and ducks into a nearby alley. Miranda had always coaxed him to quit, warning him that someday a child might catch him in costume—a major clown no-no. "Nicotine can be a clown's worst enemy," she'd always said. He always resented Miranda's nagging, but still he's careful to hold the cigarette downwind to keep the smell off his wig. He leans against the brick, tips his head back, and closes his eyes to concentrate on absorbing the nicotine into his bloodstream, each lonely inhalation bringing him closer to sanity.

When he opens his eyes, there she is. The girl. The red hair, the short skirt, the tank top. He stubs out his cigarette under his clown shoe.

"Mr. Clown, I presume," she says with a faux British accent, her hands clasped in front of her waist.

"In the flesh," he says, tossing an arm to the side and bending. "And the make-up and wig, of course."

She giggles. She secures the lid of a metal trash, and jumps up to sit. "So, like, what gives?"

"What do you mean?"

"Dude, you're like fifty and you're dressed like a clown at my sister's birthday party."

"I'm only 42. I mean, you know, I love being a clown."

"Still. And where's Mrs. Clown?"

"I'm a solo act now." The girl stares back. "She dumped me, okay? No big deal."


                                        ~ ~ ~


When they first started dating, Miranda told him how she loved the way he drew her out of her shell by taking her to clubs and concerts. They'd stay out late, and she didn't mind going to work with dark circles under her eyes. Her co-workers teased her, but gently, because they were glad she was going out. After they married, she started begging off, going to bed early, leaving Peterson to meet his friends after he had kissed her good-night. When she came home from work, she sometimes would find him still in his boxers, writing an Op-Ed about global warming he'd never try to publish, researching how to open his own coffee shop, or sticking thumbtacks into a map of the United States to mark the places his band would play if they ever got it together to tour.

Miranda would ask, "Who are you, Peterson?" He'd chuckle when she'd say this. He liked to think of himself as a guy who operated outside the box, but sometimes he'd dream he was a squirrel scurrying toward a glob of peanut butter waiting under a box held up by a stick. When he'd take his first bite, the last thing before darkness was Miranda pulling the stick away with a string.


                                        ~ ~ ~


The girl tosses back her hair and snickers. "Do clowns ever get laid?" He crosses his arms, and looks at her over the top of an imaginary pair of sunglasses. "OK, but do you, get like all creepy and wear the make-up and everything when you do it?" She is laughing—at him, not with him, but he can live with that for now.

"You're crazy," Peterson says. "What are you, fifteen or something?"


"No, I mean really."

"C'mon, give me a cigarette," she says.

"You're just a kid."

"I'm nineteen."

"Going on fifteen."

"You wish."

"Fine, here." He lights a cigarette between his lips, and hands it over, the filter smudged red by his lips. She snatches it between her thumb and forefinger, leans back and, closing her eyes, takes a long drag. She exhales, blowing smoke rings toward his head. He pretends to try to catch one with his fingers.

"You know you can't do that," she says.

"There are a lot of things I can't do," Peterson says. He lights a cigarette, and looks at her smooth legs coming out of her skirt, crossed at the knees. "I'm Peterson, by the way."

"Can't I just call you, 'Mr. Clown'? "

"I prefer Peterson."

"OK, Mr. Clown, whatever. I'm Jordan."


                                        ~ ~ ~


Miranda insisted on taking Peterson shopping to update his wardrobe so that he might look acceptable for a job interview or two. "A 9-to-5 won't kill you," Miranda had said. It wouldn't kill him, it was true, but he enjoyed the collage of jobs he had pasted together: barista 20 hours a week, bicycle messenger 15 hours, and a few gigs per month as the bass player in a punk band he discovered after tearing off a strip of paper dangling from a flyer. He couldn't figure what had Miranda so worried. She made big money as a lawyer closing big real-estate deals. "You can't do this forever, Peterson," she had said, but he couldn't think of a single reason why not.


                                        ~ ~ ~


Jordan's eyes lock on something over his shoulder, and he hopes she isn't looking where he thinks she is, but it's hard to ignore a bright yellow van with his picture painted on the side. "Is that yours?" she says. Jordan leaps off the trashcan, grabs his hand, and darts toward the van. He holds his ground, and she jerks to a stop. She just rolls her eyes, yanks his arm, and pulls him along.

"Let me in," she says. He tells her there's nothing to see, but she keeps jiggling the handle. He sticks the key in the lock, and she jumps past him into the driver's seat.

"Wow, cool," she says, looking everywhere. She climbs over to the passenger's side, then onto the back seat, out of sight of the side windows. "Where's the clown gear?"

"I'm wearing it."

"All of it?" she says.


She looks disappointed. He thinks about telling her that his costume is expensive, top of the line, but he doesn't want her laughing at that, and he knows she would. He climbs into the driver's seat, closes the door, and cracks open a window to let out the smoke. She finds the vodka bottle between the two front seats. He tries to swipe it back before she takes a swig, but he doesn't try to stop her when she takes the next two. Instead, he peels off his jacket, crawls into the back, and sits next to her. He hopes she doesn't notice the mess in the very back of the van: empty bottles and cigarette cartons strewn among corpses of balloon animals. He grabs the bottle and takes another shot of vodka.

He looks at her, though she's gazing elsewhere. He is taken by her lips, big and full. He wants to run his fingers along them. She won't ask difficult questions about his life, his work, or his future. She'll just want to talk about nothing much, and that's all he wants to think about.

"I totally wanted to put on clown stuff," Jordan says. "You know, big shoes, funny nose. My sister would love it."

"I could paint your face."

She looks at her sneakers and twirls a shoelace. "No way, that stuff sucks. It wipes off if you touch it."

"I don't mean the stuff I use on kids in the park. I mean the real stuff, the stuff I wear."


"Have I ever lied to you?"

"Mr. Clown, so silly," she says. She rolls her eyes up and left, and puts her fingers on her cheeks. She looks back at Peterson. "Let's do it."

"Okay, but first let me get a picture. You know, before and after," From his bag, he pulls a Polaroid camera he uses for a game he plays with the birthday boy or girl during his juggling finale. He knows he only has one picture left, and that he should save it for the party, but he can improvise. Then, he realizes there won't be film for the "after" either, but he'll improvise that, too.

"Okay, sure," she says. He leans back and holds up the camera, careful not to leave a white ring on the eyepiece. She leans back on her hands and puckers, spoofing a 1950s pin-up. He takes the picture, and the camera releases the yet-to-be-realized image.

She ties her hair back with an elastic band, faces forward, cross-legged on the seat. He drapes a beach towel around her neck to keep her clothes from getting stained, crouches on the floor in front of her, and starts swirling white base onto her face with his fingertips. To steady himself, he puts a hand on her knee. She doesn't flinch.

He applies baby powder and brushes away the excess. Slowly, he circles on pink polka-dot cheeks, first outlining, and then filling from the center and finally sharpening the edges by re-tracing the shape. She smiles as he does this. Peterson is lost in the feel of Jordan's cheeks, and he intentionally smudges spots so he'll have to linger to repair them. When he tells her to be still, she closes her eyes, inhales, and lets it out between her teeth so she doesn't move her lips. He moves his hand across her face to feel her breath on his palm.


                                        ~ ~ ~


Miranda often told Peterson how darling he was when he talked about children at parties, and she would watch him and smile at the way he played with the children her friends were having. Sometimes they would volunteer to baby sit, and Miranda would joke about how much fun it was to play mom and dad. It wasn't long before she talked about wanting a baby. Peterson said it was a wonderful idea, but not now, not until they were ready. The first time he said that she kissed him and held him close. He kept putting her off, though, and the hugs gave way to sarcasm. "Are we waiting until we're ready, or until you grow up?"


                                        ~ ~ ~


He saves Jordan's lips for last. He has a large lipstick he could use, but he uses a smaller red pencil. He traces an oval, starting from the upper lip to just above the chin, circling closer toward the lips. He takes the most time there, touching her lips, perfecting her smile.

When he finishes, he raises a handheld mirror to her face. She snatches it and turns away to look.

"We're like twins," she says, giggling, looking from every angle. "Awesome."

"I bet you've got a boyfriend."

She laughs and rolls her eyes.

Peterson tells her a drinking story from college, a funny one about his roommate pretending to seduce a donkey, the campus mascot, by dropping his pants and waving a tequila bottle just as campus security happened by. She laughs, though not really in the right places.

"Boys can be so immature," she says, dragging out the "o" in "so." He imagines the boys who must try to kiss her, and do it all wrong.


                                        ~ ~ ~


In retrospect, it was obvious. Miranda used to work occasional late nights, but suddenly she was working late three or four nights a week. A couple of times she came home tipsy, which she explained away as a drink with the others at the office. She mentioned Marc, he's sure of it, but she stopped and for a while Peterson forgot about him. He welcomed her socializing with the other lawyers because it seemed to relax her.

Around this time, Peterson met Andie Schwartz. She worked his shift at the Little Paris Café. He would tell her about his plans to open a coffee shop, and she made him promise he'd make her manager. She was an actress, but it was just for fun, she said, it wouldn't last. When they started working the 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. shift on Thursdays together, they would hang out after work. Miranda wouldn't be home yet, and Peterson didn't have anything that needed to get done. He never did. When she invited him back to her apartment, he told her he couldn't. They talked after work the next day, and they laughed it off and said they'd still be friends. Now, he regretted not having gone over to her place, even if it had been just that once.


                                        ~ ~ ~


"My aunt says girls mature way faster than boys," Jordan says. "So, why do we have to go out with them before they grow up?"

"Good question," Peterson says.

"I mean, seriously."

She crosses her arms in mock disgust. She talks about TV sitcoms, but he isn't interested in listening, so he discreetly gazes at the Polaroid. Sexy, he thinks, and imagines her in different poses.

"What's your next trick, Peterson?" she says.

He knows he shouldn't, but he tells her to close her eyes, and she does. He puts his hand on the back of her head and pulls her close. When their lips touch, she freezes, but he kneads the back of her neck with his fingertips, and she cautiously kisses him back, hands at her sides. For a minute, they kiss like that, and then he moves his hand from her knee to her breast.

All at once, she springs from his lap, slamming her palms flat into his chest. "The fuck?" she screams.

"Sorry." His clown shoes are sticking up in the air. He flails his arms to scramble to his feet and lunges for her arm. "Calm down."

"Dirty fucking old man!" She dives out of the van, runs down the sidewalk. He runs after her, calling her name, one clown pursuing another. When she reaches her building, the doorman stops her with a hand on her shoulder, but a moment later he hustles her through the door. Peterson tries to follow her, but the doorman steps between him and the door and says, "Going somewhere, pal?"

Peterson is out of breath from sprinting and can't say a word, although it doesn't matter because there's nothing he can say. He walks back to his van and ducks inside. He sits in the back and lights another cigarette. At least he had brought all of his gear out to the van, though he probably won't need it again. He hopes Jordan rushes unseen into the bathroom to wash her face. More likely, she'll tell her mother. He holds the smoke in his lungs for as long as he can, and wonders how to blow a smoke ring. He starts the engine, and drives home.


                                        ~ ~ ~


He swings open his apartment door all the way, forgetting the keys in the lock after he walks in. He takes off his clown suit and wig, and tosses them into the bottom of the closet. He imagines Jordan in a year or two, telling her Pervo the Clown story as an icebreaker in the dorms. He grimaces in the mirror by the door, afraid to imagine what Jordan saw. Or what Miranda saw when she left. Seeing Miranda's books, he kicks them across the floor.

He slides the security chain into place and pulls the shades, stretches his arms straight up, and falls backward onto the bed. For a few minutes, he stares at the Polaroid of Jordan, holding it parallel between the ceiling and his face. Then he sits up, puts his elbows on his knees and notices a picture of Miranda sitting on the dresser. He puts the two pictures side by side.

The picture shows Miranda at an office Christmas party three years ago. She is wearing black pants and a blouse, but she's let her hair down. The top three buttons of her blouse are unbuttoned. She left her hair down the rest of the night. It became tangled and sweaty and sexy after they had danced. After they made love, he caressed her hair until she fell asleep. It's Peterson's favorite picture of her, his favorite way to think of her. How playful she was, carefree. It hurts to think how much he wants back the Miranda from that night, but he realizes this is not the woman who left him, not the woman sleeping with Marc in her new apartment, not the woman refusing to take his calls.

He opens a bottle of Merlot and plays Mingus loud on the CD player, willing the throb of the jazzman's bass to dislodge the memory of today's fiasco. He finds surprising comfort in the rhythm, how it constrains the shape of the song with a patterned universe of chords, but still remains improvisational, unpredictable. He plays the song again, and then again. He tosses the pictures onto the bureau, and stuffs the clown suit into the garbage can, spins the bag closed, and drops it in the hallway.

He studies his make-up in the bathroom mirror, and turns on the water. He rubs the bridge of his nose with the tips of his index fingers, and then drags his fingers down his nose and across his cheeks, tracing the path teardrops would follow. He looks at the red and white caked under the nails of his index fingers before raking his whole hand over his face. He doesn't bother with the cold cream. He scrapes again and again, rubbing his fingers on his pants, watching his face slowly revealed, wondering what he will find when he has wiped it clean, hoping he won't find the clown beneath.


Copyright©2007 James A.W. Shaw