I have a tattoo of a clown on my left arm, which I got on my 18th birthday on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood when I was walking around drunk with my buddy Mike, a crazy redheaded southpaw who'd been recruited by the Dodgers and then blew his career in a car accident because he was feeling up a girl when he should've been minding Orange County traffic.
One of the incentives for getting a tattoo was that it meant I could sit watching this hot chick get a big rose inked in above her you-know-what. The idea of that view for 40 minutes or so had real appeal.
I chose a clown because at the time it symbolized for me a vanished America I was fascinated by. Dime stores, shoeshine stands, faded Woolworth's lunch rooms, old pool halls and roadhouses, carnival midways. I was a fanatical Waits disciple then and I'd bought into that nostalgic Americana vision like a personal religion.
A summer later I was back east in college when I got the chance to get up close and personal with clowns (and later to perform as one) when the Hoxie Bros. Circus (one of the last of the true family touring circuses) passed through town. I was between jobs, and they advertised for roustabout help setting up their Big Top. So, naturally, I joined.
I sweated alongside the circus regulars — like Cranky, a skinny white dude from Alpine, Texas who'd had his chest crushed by one of the elephants when he'd passed out in their pen one night. How he survived is a miracle, but the sight of him without a shirt on was pure freak. Fangs was from Martin's Ferry, Ohio, and was gifted with both a cleft palate and such rotten teeth that his occasional threat of opening his mouth while he was chewing was enough to scare us all straight. Caleb was simply an enormous guy, who also played one of the clown characters named Fatty. He appeared to be solid blubber, but within those rolls and folds of lard there lurked a monstrous physical strength that seemed to be in inverse proportion to his intelligence.
At first glance you would've said Darian was the most normal of the lot, although this was far from true. In fact, I'd be curious to know what the professional diagnosis would be. He had the habit of putting out cigarettes in the palm of his hand (without any obvious effect), and he kept more than a few pairs of women's panties in his pockets, which he used to wipe his forehead and blow his nose. What was really unnerving about him though was his snicker. It was a kind of sly, weasely, malignant wheeze, as if something really embarrassing or outright awful was about to happen to you and only he knew about it.
Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the whole sawdust and tinsel squalor and I ended up being taken on full-time and traveled with them from Vermont to Tennessee. It was a window into a lost world, and I felt it was too strange an opportunity to turn down.
In addition to busting my hump, I got the chance to put on a clown costume a few times. I learned how to deal cards from the bottom of the deck, and some old mentalist tricks. I had a couple of flings with working gals in horn-and-gun-rack small towns. I learned a lot of peculiar things on that pilgrimage. It greatly deepened my sense of two-lane America.
One thing in particular that I learned is that a real circus really does have old-fashioned codes of conduct. I found this out in a very personal way when I made the mistake of chatting up one of the trapeze girls (who are the royalty in that weird, wandering realm). They were sisters, about my age, and both were just ravishing — or at least they seemed so if you were covered in grime and they were in their skimpy spangled leotards that made seem like they'd been oiled and rolled in diamonds.
Because I wasn't officially a part of the circus world, and a college student to boot, I had the misguided idea that I was exempt from the rule that says roustabouts do not flirt with the trapeze girls — but in their world, it was like a dirty stable hand putting the make on a princess (and with guys like Cranky and Darian around, I admit I can see some good sense in this sharp class divide).
Still, I was young and arrogant and had the hots for Marla. Her rebuff wasn't overly snooty — I think she kind of liked me. The code of conduct and strict family watchdogging wouldn't have been easy for a sexy young babe like her either. But she was honor-bound to report the incident, and that night I got a visit in our cramped little trailer from the Heads of State. Darian had been snickering a lot just before, so I, of course, had a very bad feeling.
My first thought was that they were going to tear me limb from limb and leave me by the side of the road (we were in Kentucky at the time). But no, their mission was not to dismember me, or even injure me seriously, because they needed my sweat and muscle. They roughed me up a little, but their real purpose was just to teach me a lesson that I'd always remember.
I don't feel I need to go into great detail on their training methodology. Suffice it to say, it involved a large quantity of elephant dung, which I was rather strongly encouraged to experience in an extremely close and direct way.
The next day, when I was abominably sick, I thought I glimpsed Marla flashing me a wisp of shimmery regret from atop her perch. But I did not return her glance.
The taste of elephant dung is a powerful teacher.
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Kris Saknussemm, who Kirkus Reviews called "exuberantly weird," is the author of three acclaimed novels, a short story collection, and a collection of visual art. His latest novel is Reverend America
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Kris Saknussemm is the author of Reverend America