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Monday, January 30, 2012

The Trials of Walt-O the Clown (an excerpt from the novel-in-progress "Killing Tom")

Walter stared into the mirror as he sat in the Ford Probe in the dusty field next to the parking lot of the Frys, where the carnival had set up for the week, putting the finishing touches on his Walt-O face. He had chosen a “happy clown” face, with a broad white swath of greasepaint across his mouth in the shape of a giant smile. Black around the eyes, lips ruby red. And little teeny arching eyebrows. Walter smiled, then banged his knee on the steering wheel reaching for the green fright wig in the passenger seat. “Fuck,” he muttered, rubbing his knee. It would have been much easier to prepare at the house, he thought. But after all, he had promised Jack that he wouldn’t bring the costume inside. So, until he figured out a better place to prepare, he would have to make do with the Probe as his mobile dressing room.

Walter puffed his cigarette with his huge, ruby-red smile and squinted into the mirror as he made certain the wig was on straight. He made a final inspection and waggled his little eyebrows a couple of times to see if it would be funny for the kids. He took a swallow out of the flask and tucked it into the pocket of the shirt he wore under the clown suit, just behind the giant plastic daisy.

Walter stumbled out of the car in his big slap-shoes, flicked the cigarette into the dusty field and made his way toward the area where he had been assigned, next to the Tilt-a-Whirl. Walter belched and breathed deeply. He loved the smells of the carnival – the roasting peanuts and Indian Fried Bread. He could smell the cotton candy and the hot dogs. Now a new dimension had been added to the carnival smells: Greasepaint. The thought made Walter smile. He was a carnie.

“Hey, it’s a clown!” A little boy shouted. Walter turned to see where the clown was and realized that the boy was looking at him. Walter grew suddenly nervous and felt sweat running down the side of his face. He was nowhere near the Tilt-a-Whirl – he wondered what he was supposed to do when accosted by inquiring youth. This had not been covered when he had gone to the meeting before the carnival opened. He was to set up near the Tilt-a-Whirl and make balloon animals for the kids – that was it. He wasn’t supposed to talk too much – something about lawsuits and impropriety.

So Walter smiled at the boy, then turned and quickened his pace. “Hey, Clown!” the boy shouted. “Clown! Clown!” He heard the sound of the boy’s footsteps as he ran behind Walter, trying to keep up.

“Phillip!” A woman’s voice called out, presumably to the boy. Good, Walter thought. Maybe she’ll shut him up and let me get to work. “Leave the clown alone…”

“I want to see the clown, Mommy!” The boy began to cry. He couldn’t be more than five or six, Walter thought – though Walter was not a good judge of age. He had once been slapped in a bar for judging a woman to be approximately forty two years older than her actual age. Age baffled Walter. He continued to try and speed up his pace, but the Goddamned slap-shoes seemed a bit ungainly. That and the Percocet. And the Scotch, probably.

“Excuse me…” The woman raised her voice to Walter. “Can’t you take a minute to talk to my son?” The boy had began to wail. His disappointment was loud and non-stop.

Walter stopped and turned back to the woman, who was looking more angry than imploring. “I need to get to the Tilt-a-Whirl,” Walt-O stammered, his lips turning into a shaky smile.

“Seriously,” the woman said, gathering the bawling child into her arms and making her way toward the sweaty clown, who now realized he had to piss like a racehorse. “Is that any way to act toward a child?”

Walter shrugged. “I don’t know…” Walter saw the woman’s eyes narrow in anger. “No?” he asked.

“Most certainly not.” She approached Walter and the child’s screaming began to give way to a more subdued hitching and low-volume sobbing. “You should have the common decency to amuse the children – that’s what they pay you for, isn’t it?”

Walter began to feel uncomfortable with the woman’s tone. She was starting to build up a head of brow-beating steam and this coupled with Walter’s increasing need to urinate was making him sweat even more. “They pay me to stand by the Tilt-a-Whirl and make balloon animals is what they pay me to do,” Walt-O answered, his tone bordering on indignant.

The woman stood in front of Walter holding the child, who stared at Walter’s make up and bright red clown-smile in open-mouthed awe. “You shouldn’t take that tone with your customers – what kind of clown are you?”

“I’m a happy clown,” Walter answered. A crowd had begun to form around Walter and the woman and her teary child. The boy had quieted down, but the woman’s voice had risen in anger and Walter glanced around him, feeling the sweat run down his face in streams. He had no idea that the makeup would make him sweat so fiercely.

“You’re a happy clown…” The woman mocked Walter and some of the gathering bystanders chuckled. “You seem like a rude clown to me – making a child cry like that.”

“I didn’t make him cry,” Walter blurted out. “He started crying all on his own. I was just trying to make it to the Tilt-a-Whirl, for Christ’s sake!”

The woman’s jaw dropped and her eyes widened. The boy began to sob again when Walter raised his voice and Walter had a feeling that the sobbing was going to escalate into another full-blown fit of caterwauling. “What?” Walter asked with a shrug, noticing the woman’s apparent disbelief.

“What kind of language is that for a clown to use at a carnival?” The woman began to rock the boy in her arms in attempt to calm him. Walter’s eyes followed the bouncing child.

“Language?” Walter asked. “What language?”

“’For Christ’s sake’?,” the woman said.

“What?” Walter was confused. He wiped his sweaty face with his sleeve and came away with a swath of white and red greasepaint. He desperately wished he could get away from this lady and piss and have a drink and fold some fucking balloon animals. “Listen lady,” he said. “I don’t know why you’re all butt-hurt with me, but I didn’t do a Goddamned thing to your fucking kid, so I would appreciate it if you got off my back about it.”

“MY FUCKING KID?” The lady yelled and the crowd laughed some more. Walter glanced at them, hoping his irritability showed through his makeup job, which was now probably hopelessly ruined. “MY FUCKING KID?” She repeated it as if she expected Walter to confirm that this was truly what he had said.

“Yes, your fucking kid,” Walter answered. He yanked off his fright wig and used it to wipe more sweat off his face. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to pee and I’ve heard that urine will stain this material,” Walter said, indicating his puffy green clown-pants.

The bystanders laughed and a few applauded and Walter turned away from the lady and started back toward his car, fairly certain that his career as Walt-O, the Balloon-Folding Clown was coming to a premature and tragic end. He began to tug at the Velcro strips that held the costume in place, hoping that shedding himself of the awful costume might help stem the flow of perspiration that was running down his face and his sides under his arms.

The woman hit him from behind, like a linebacker, knocking Walter to the ground with a vicious scream that sent her little boy into a fit of screaming that rivaled his earlier tantrum. “Goddamn, you people can scream,” Walter gasped, trying to roll over onto his back under the hail of blows the woman was administering with her fists. She had knocked the wind out of him and was shouting at him as she threw punches at his face, which Walter mostly covered with her arms.

“You son of a bitch!” She screamed. “How dare you talk to me that way…Fucking asshole…” THUMP… THUMP…

“Ouch,” Walter cried as she struck him on the ear. Although he outweighed her by a hundred pounds, Walter seemed helpless as the little woman continued her assault.

“Enough, Lady!” Walter pleaded. “Fuck’s sake, get off of me!”
Finally, Walter raised his arm and slapped the lady on the side of the head, which knocked her off his chest and sent her sprawling into the dusty midway. The little boy ran screaming to his mother, who got to her feet slowly, apparently winded by her attack and stunned by the blow.

Walter struggled to his hands and knees and was rising to his feet when two sets of hands grabbed him by the sweaty armpits and raised him to his feet. “Please put your hands behind your back,” the officer on his left said sternly. “You are under arrest.” Walter glanced at the two officers who had helped him up, then glanced down and his costume and noticed his crotch was muddy. Apparently, he had wet himself in the commotion and rolling around in the dirt had gotten him all piss-muddy. “Dang it,” Walter said, putting his hands behind his back.

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