A Clown is Born
The ringmaster says, reaching into the red cloth bag at his hip. He pulls out his hand and starts throwing fistfuls of confetti over the crowd. Pink paper squares about the size of postage stamps rain down on the smiling faces. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of these little pink scraps and they blow into baby carriages, flit across the tops of outdated hairdos; land in red and white striped boxes of popcorn, stick in the mud around our feet like dead apple blossoms.
Suddenly, Ryan's laughing. He turns to me, points to his eye and says, "Hey Patty, look!" A single piece of confetti clings to his eyelash. He flutters the lid at me and the paper sticks. "I just found my Halloween costume."
I laugh, but it's not the hearty, ha-ha laugh of a wife who finds her husband's antics cute, it's more the laugh of someone who didn't want to go to the circus in the first place. An 'enough already' laugh. I say something along the lines of, 'yeah, that's great Ryan,' and he finally gets the picture, pinches the paper between his thumb and forefinger and yanks. When it doesn't come off, he shrugs.
And, he leaves it there. Leaves it as we walk down the muddy midway back towards the parking lot, leaves it as we climb into the car; get on the freeway, pull onto our street. Somehow, he thinks that's funny. Every so often he leans toward me and flaps his eyelids.
"So, I guess this is what false eyelashes feel like." He says, and I grunt.
"I'm serious Patty. I'm wearing this for Halloween. Too bad I couldn't get one more for the other eye." And I think how stupid that statement is. Halloween is tomorrow and there's no way that paper will stay put until then. Even if it did, what the hell kind of costume would that be anyway?
I stare out of the car window knowing my husband still has that stupid thing on his eye. That pink, clown thing. The trees drone past. I watch crisp, amber leaves swirl along the shoulder of the road, float up and skim the curb as we roll by. The horizon is the color of fall, of sun-bleached asphalt, overlaid with puffy pink clouds too thick to be innocent. For some reason, I think of balloons.
"Okay, okay," he says as we pull in the driveway. Our house is dark. Un-carved pumpkins greet us with blank expressions, four shadowy heads topping the splintered, wooden shoulders of our porch railing. We should have carved them this afternoon instead of going to the Fall Festival Circus. I sigh.
"Enough with the confetti." Ryan says, putting the car in park. He leans towards the rearview mirror and tries to remove the paper. When it doesn't relent, he palms the hair away from his eyes, tilts forward and tries again. I glance at his shirt. It's rumpled and smells of sawdust, cotton candy and vomit. All things circus, I think, and shudder. With the paper still stuck on his eyelid he leans to me and asks for help. I reach across the seat and try.
"Why the hell won't this come off?" he says, standing at the bathroom mirror. He's jabbing my tweezers around his eyelid. "Jesus, it's like glued there or something!" His mouth unhinges when he finally gets the paper pinched in the tiny metal jaws. He tugs at it then, he tugs again. "Damn!" I notice his ears are getting flushed. A moment later, he's really cursing.
"Let me try before you poke your freaking eye out." I say, yanking the tweezers out of his hand. I steer him to the toilet seat, too rough, and he sits down frowning. His shirt still smells like vomit. His hair is a twisted, black nest. I mention that he needs another haircut.
"I just got one two weeks ago."
I lean in close to examine the paper. Bubblegum pink, perfectly opaque, square, the outline of a tiny blue balloon stenciled in one corner. That's funny, I think, and manage to get it grasped with the tweezers. I tug gently and when I lift it out and away from his eye, the paper actually snaps back.
"What?" Ryan says. "Did you get it?" He presses against the toilet tank and starts rubbing his eye with the heel of his hand.
I shake my head and try again. I've got a good hold now but when I pull, that's when I see them. For a second, all I can do is blink. Standing there over my red-eared husband in his rumpled, circus stinking shirt and African bushman hair, I can't move. I'm frozen, horrified by what I think I just saw. When I pulled the paper, two skinny little things reached out from the corners and grabbed the loose skin of my husband's eyelid. Like arms, only so thin they looked like thread; arms with wormy white fingers shooting off the ends of them, digging into his lid as if holding on for dear life.
And the tweezers drop from my hand, hit the bathroom rug and disappear into the robin's egg blue shag with a muffled thump. I step back. A solid lump of fear claws up the back of my throat.
"What's the matter?"
I say he needs to go to the hospital, say he needs a doctor. I say everything but what I just think I saw. My mouth's twisting. I can't stop it, wrenching between concern and revulsion and surprise. And, he laughs at me. Typical Ryan shit, that laugh. Not a chuckle either but a big, hearty, 'you're such a goddamn drama queen' laugh, and he leans down to fish the tweezers out of the rug.
"If you think I'm going to go to the hospital on Mischief night for a stupid piece of paper stuck to my eye, you're crazy. We still have to carve the pumpkins."
"Yeah but "
That's all I can manage. It's all he wants to hear from me so I don't tell him about the arms that are hooked into his eyelid. At this point, I'm not even sure if I saw them.
"Patty, please." He says, "It's just a piece of paper. It's not going to kill me."
And I think to myself, I'm not so sure about that. The images float around in my head like tiny, terror-filled balloons. That square of paper sprouted arms as thin as dental floss, only they were more rigid, with claws or hooks or finger-somethings blossoming out of the ends. They're on him right now, clasping frantically at his lid. Now I'm thinking about something I read once, something about parasites. The hookworm.
I stand there, the veins in my neck twitching, my palms slick with sweat. He throws the tweezers in the sink, turns the water on, bends over and starts scrubbing his face. I'm standing there watching him do all this. I can't help him. Those terror-filled balloons in my mind begin to burst. The circus Ringmaster. His words loop through my head. May all your days be circus days. Suddenly, I'm too afraid to speak.
Ryan looks up at me, face dripping worry and water. "Patty?" he says, and I can't help but stare. The confetti is still on his eyelash.
I spend the better part of the morning in the shower examining myself, looking in every crevice, fold and length of hair for a pink scrap of paper. Ryan's downstairs already. When I round the corner into the kitchen, I find him hovering near the stove cracking eggs in a metal bowl. The tomatoes are diced and smear the cutting board foamy pink. No matter how many times I've told him that you can't buy good tomatoes this late in the year, he doesn't listen. The pan sizzles, popping butter. I walk past just as he starts beating the concoction in the bowl. The sound grates me. He knows this and makes sure to scrape the sides.
"Look!" he says, holding the folk up to his face. The fork's dripping yolk, looping snotty yellow strands as he does this, wave it around his bloodshot eye. The slime lengthens and twirls, threatens to drop. "The paper must have fallen off in my sleep. Must be in the sheets somewhere."
I make a mental note to burn the bedding. "That's great." I say, sitting down at the table. But here in the kitchen with the gray October morning slipping through the mini-blinds, I'm not so sure if I saw anything at all.
Ryan's made me a cup of coffee. Of course, it's cold. A moment later, he pushes a plate in front of me. A tomato omelet, the exact color of his eye.
"Your eye's all pink." I say. He sits down across from me nodding. His eye looks raw, sick- the color of strawberry fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt that someone's stirred up. Pink and cloudy, darker clots skating along his lower lid. Watery. His tear duct is now a puffing, puckered thing. A miniature inflamed anus. I glance at his omelet. He's cooked it loose. Suddenly, I'm not hungry.
"Just irritated." He says then shovels a forkful of eggs into his mouth.
"Could be pink eye," I say, "maybe you should see Doctor Ellington this afternoon."
He waves away my suggestion. "On Halloween? Nope, not today. I've still got to get my costume ready. I'm going as a pirate."
"But Ryan, you don't want to go to Meg and Danny's Halloween party if you've got an infection like that. They have kids."
"Yeah, well they're not my kids." He grunts. A hunk of omelet wiggles off his fork and drops to his plate with a sickly splat. When I look up at him, I'm shocked by what I see. Three or four thin, white threads about six inches in length are squirming out of his inner ear. They snake down and across his neck, palpating along the sharp barbs of stubble framing his jaw while he chews.
When I lift my hand to point, I drop my coffee cup. Cold coffee and porcelain chips fly.
"What's the matter?" he says, bringing his fingers up to his neck to scratch it. The thready things recoil with a slurp. Groaning, I push my plate towards him.
"Ryan, there was something creepy hanging out of "
"Not hungry? Good, more for me. I'm starved."
"Ryan, you better see a doctor. I think you've got "
He slips my omelet onto his plate. "'I'm fine. Oh, and clean that mess up, will ya?"
This is the house. 5,200 square-foot floor plans. Seven bedrooms, one master bath, three full and two half baths, a library, in-ground heated pool with natural rock ledges, an au pairs quarters with solid bleached pine paneling, matching floors and Anderson skylights, a chandelier as big as a BMW droops off the ceiling in the entranceway. The driveway is almost a half-mile long if you count the circular loop that swings around the Greco-Roman fountain in front.
A severed head rides Neptune's brass trident, its rubber eyes rolled up white. They've colored the water inside the fountain red to look like blood. Someone's stuck a dummy on the porch bench. There's a cleaver lodged in its skull and a fine red mist spurts from a tube semi-buried in the split. The lawn scintillates with flickering triangular eyes. All of this belongs to our friends, Meg and Danny. Ryan walks by my side, sweating and rubbing his eye. It looks so irritated now. Bright red veins run across it like cracks, so I tell him so and he promptly tells me to shut up. I can't help wondering where that slip of paper went.
"This cape's too hot." He says, loosening the necktie. "Why'd I have to wear this stupid thing anyway? My pirate costume was better."
"Your pirate costume," I say, side stepping the red concoction squirting from the dummy's head, I press the doorbell, "consisted of an eye patch and an inflatable parrot. You didn't even have a head rag, or a striped shirt. What about a wooden leg? Got one of those?"
"Who cares, this isn't any better." He points to the wax fangs I bought him on the way over. They're cheap and yellow, hanging over his bottom lip like candy corns. Veins of fake blood trickle down his chin. The white face paint he applied is turning powdery and already cracking around his mouth.
The double walnut doors before us creak open. Hired help stands beyond them dressed as Spanish maidens, tits straddling their collarbones. They greet us with full, red smiles.
Inside, the music is too loud. Not for me, but I'm sure Ryan will complain. The lights are dim. Cobwebs are everywhere. All the vases are filled with black paper roses. On the leather top Duncan Fife drum table sits a blinking strobe light. Next to that, a burning wax skull candle and a Lenox dish full of Belgium chocolates shaped like bats.
Danny's standing just off the entranceway completely wrapped in loose, brownish-yellow rags. Meg's nearby directing an army of skeleton-faced servers with silver trays into the living room, where a pack of assorted ghouls wait, crystal goblets of expensive red wine clutched in their claws. Meg grabs the scruff of a passing server and rearranges the cheeses on his platter. A second later, she waves at us. She's wearing a pith helmet. Butterfly net slung over one shoulder. Her hiking boots are from Nordstrom, no doubt.
"Hey you two!" Danny shouts, limping toward us. "You made it." He shuffles up to Ryan and I, drops a bandaged hand on my shoulder and shakes me softly. "Lookin' good, looking real good Patty. You make a great Elvira. LOVE the wig."
And I say, "Well you make a pretty good mummy, daddy. Speaking of, where are the kids?"
Danny makes a chopping motion with his hand then squints at my husband. "Good costume. I like the vampire cape." He points to Ryan's mouth. "What are those candy corns?"
By midnight, I'm asking random people if they've seen my husband. Meg is too drunk to notice. She's sprawled over her leopard-print fainting couch, pith helmet pitched over her puffy eyes. Her $400 hiking boots are nowhere in sight. Danny's sitting on the floor near her feet finishing off the last bits of a candy apple. He tells me Ryan was complaining that his feet hurt. He nods towards the fireplace. My husband's shoes sit on the floor. The toes are completely split out. The floor around them is spotted with fake blood.
I cross through the entranceway, walk down the hall past a few drunken ghosts and finally ask a woman dressed as a showgirl if she's seen a vampire with pink eye and no shoes on. She tells me, yeah he's upstairs. Wrist dripping in emeralds, she points her glittery hand towards the spiral staircase and adds, maybe the reason I can't find him is because he changed costumes.
And I say, "Changed his costume? What the hell are you talking about?" The woman nods. Big, gold earrings clank against the side of her neck. "Yeah, changed costumes. Last time I saw him, he was wearing a clown suit."
The master bedroom upstairs is dark and quiet, the carpet plush.
No answer, but the lump of shadow in the four-poster bed shifts and I know it's not a pile of coats. The room smells sweet and greasy. The smell reminds me of circus peanuts and vomit, sawdust shavings and candy mingled with farm animal sweat. Someone chuckles when I trip over the pine floor saddle in the doorway. It's a low, deep gurgling sound. It's Ryan.
"Very funny, asshole." I say, stumbling along the wall looking for a switch. Then I find it. The light is dim, but it's my husband propped up on the bed.
The vampire makeup has leaked down his cheeks, one perfect black triangle under each eye. It's smeared up past his eyebrows, streaking his forehead and ends somewhere in his hairline. His skin looks sallow. His hair is a sagebrush of obsidian curls. His lips, which are pinned up at the corners, are greasy. I gulp. He's a clown.
I never finish that sentence. Looking at his hands, I see the fingers are gone. Not just gone, but chewed off at the knuckles; eaten, removed bone and all. The half-nibbled digits lay on his lap like cigar stumps. Bits of flesh snag in his teeth. From his hands, new fingers have already sprouted. White gloved fingers, ballooned smooth, wiggle in the air. And they remind me of the time I had a piece of glass stuck in my fingertip. How my finger swelled so badly from the infection that all the wrinkles disappeared. Like magic, like balloon fingers, so smooth, like my husbands.
"Well, hello there Patty. Yuk-yuk!" He chokes, then shoots up to a standing position on the mattress so fast, I fall back into the door. The knob punches my spine. My head bounces off the hard wood and the door slams shut behind me.
He giggles, bounces up and down. His severed fingers become unglued from his pants, tumble down his legs and land by his feet with a soft thumping sound. His feet, I see, are big, red and bubbly. There are no shoes on them. These are his new feet. His clown feet. Fingers stumps bounce on the pale yellow comforter beside them like sausages.
He springs forward, curling his puffy clown fingers around the bedposts. I look at his chest and gag. Shirtless, his nipples have erupted into huge, skin petal blossoms. He sees me gawking and pinches a nipple-flower between his fingers and squeezes. Like a joke, something squirts out. The liquid runs down his chest, leaving a watery red trail behind.
He sways back and forth on the bed grinning and I realize that I've seen that mouth before. It's the mouth of a clown, a trickster, a magician, the mouth of the Ringmaster from the Fall Festival; the greasy-lipped madman who wished everyone would have circus days--then to ensure that, threw bits of himself, these tiny pink scraps of flesh stamped with blue balloons over the sea of smiling faces. Raining on the heads of old woman with outdated hairdos, terrible skin seeds landing in baby carriages, in half-eaten boxes of popcorn. On my husband. On my husband's eyelash, so that night, while we slept, its papery pink body could fold itself into an Origami snake and slither into his body through an opening say, a tear duct. To make more of itself. To replicate. To birth clowns .
"Betcha' like this costume Patty! Te-he-he! Made this one all by myself, ah-yup!" he shrieks. Then he lunges over the bed.
Before I can move he's on me, got me on my back with my arms pinned over my head. So close I see the skin on his face bubbles like batter. The white cake make-up is exactly that; cake. Fleshy nipple-flowers scrape along my chest as he crawls further up my body. His tongue squeezes past his lips then drops, wagging over my eyes like a meaty pendulum.
And that's when I hear it. The tinkling sound of music, faint, but there, spreading over the rumples in my mind like powdered sugar melting on a hot funnel cake. The song, that God damned song. It's coming out of him. Not from his mouth, but his pores. His paste-white skin cracks from the vibration like a brittle candy shell.
Send in the clowns
Ryan pulls a tiny scrap of pink from the corner of his eye. A moment later his horrible hand's are in my face. Balloon fingers squeak as they slide across my clenched teeth.
"Open wide sweetie!"
He works them into my screaming mouth, places that pink skin scrap on my tongue. Its barbs dig in and I can only imagine what those wormy things are doing in there; hooked into my flesh, threadlike fingers of a parasite drilling into the soft meat of my tongue - -infecting me with clown-ness. I gag. It's wiggling, tasting of sawdust and vomit and pizza grease tears.
"Happy Halloween Patty." The thing Ryan has become hisses, but instead of struggling, for some reason I'm thinking of all the people passed out downstairs; Meg sleeping so deeply in her pith helmet, Danny the mummy laying next to her on the pine flooring, bandages draping off his oh-so-vulnerable ear; the weary skeleton troupe in the kitchen washing empty silver serving trays. The Spanish maidens down the hall shedding off their bustles. All those little children curled asleep in the basement.
The thing on my tongue shimmies to the back of my throat, rides the swell of my tongue with every gulp, hooked in tight. It tickles.
And now I'm thinking about how stupid those costumes really are, these ghouls and skeletons and vampires all playing dress-up for one night a year; playing pretend. This here, well this is the real thing.
His eyes glow pink. He's whispering. Hot webs of cotton candy breath spin into my ears. I'm listening to the sounds of him, the carnival he's become. The tempo of his caramel- coated tongue slapping my neck, the rubbery, high-pitched squeak of his fingers as they twist around my lips.
The soft crunch of bone in my head as it yields to the bright blue seedling that's ballooning in my skull. The sounds of my fingers swelling smooth and popping off, one by one and the eerie inflating noise my feet make as they rise from my shoes and mushroom over the sides like yeasty bread. A balloon string drops out of my nose. Smell's like sugar.
This is how clowns are born.
And Ryan says how this was his best Halloween ever.
How everybody loves a clown.
How, all the people downstairs need a little happiness.
Let's go spread some happiness
And he tears off my eyelid.
In this new light, I can see.