© CS DeWildt
I got the call a few days ago and I was between gigs so I agreed even though it sounded kind of weird.
“Is this Chuckles?”
“Hi Chuckles. My name is Dr. Nicholas Kranz. I'm the psychology department chair over at the U.”
“I'd like to hire your services for about two hours on Friday. You wouldn't happen to be available would you? I do realize it's short notice.”
“Lem'me check my shed-yool.” I opened up my planner. I knew I was free, but I still needed to double check. I'm a little crazy that way. Anyway, it's good business to make the customer a little anxious and believe you might not be available. You can usually negotiate a higher fee if you make them think that haggling over fees could result in their asking to speak with Giggles or Dipsy or Mr. Buggaboo. Who wants to be on the phone with clowns all day?
“Schedule's a bit tight. What time?”
“I'd need you by 1 o'clock post meridiem.”
“Let's see, let's see, ok, yeah, I can do that.”
“Marvelous, what's your fee?”
“For two hours? Let's say one-fifty?”
“That sounds reasonable.” Damn. “Let me tell you how to get to my office. And I should probably tell you about the job. I'm sure it's not the usual.”
Bring up the subject of clowns in a room full of adults and at least one person will admit to a clown phobia. I don't think it's always a legitimate fear, but rather a self-deprecating badge of honor or maybe it's like the opposite of a guilty pleasure (a proud shame?). It's fashionable. It's akin to the behavior of those people who use the flimsiest of pretences to share the fact that they're in therapy.
“Ice cream makes my teeth hurt a bit, they're too sensitive. Should I maybe see a dentist?”
“My therapist says I don't like chocolate ice cream because my dad cross dressed while potty training me too early.”
Fear of clowns seems to have become a secondary facet tacked onto the clown's identity. Like most public misconceptions, the media can be blamed. There's John Wayne Gacy, but his extreme kink didn't really have anything to do with his being an amateur birthday clown. Then there's the It clown and Killer Klowns from Outer Space . People forget that for every “scary clown” out there there's a million Bozo's. The deviation from the norm has become the exception that proves the rule. I'd even gotten some requests to be a “monster clown” on a couple of occasions. I did a haunted Halloween house gig that lasted two weeks. I had to seek out a few additional props and I found some evil looking yellowish fang dentures and red cat eye contact lenses. The church that sponsored the house provided me with a bucket of red dyed corn syrup for bloodying my chainsaw (chain removed) and stationed me in the final room of the maze. The room was decorated like a dark big top circus tent with these eerie shafts of green light shining through cracks in the wall. Life size skeletons hung from the swinging trapeze bars above. To get out you had to get by me. It was an enjoyable departure from the normal routine and I was surprised at how naturally I got into the part of intentionally scaring kids. The first screaming, crying kids threw me a bit, but by the second night I was keeping a running tally and made it my goal to beat it each consecutive evening, which I did.
When it comes to traditional clowning a crying kid at a party gig isn't unusual. You just keep going with the jokes and balloon animals while some adult escorts the kid out of the back yard. Sometimes the one scared kid will lead to another and before you know it every kid in the place is crying and shielding their eyes, clutching each other or running for their mamas. Those gigs aren't bad necessarily. I don't take it personally and no one has ever tried to stiff me even though I only worked for ten minutes. Coincidentally, I discovered the bizzaro twin of clown fear at a party I was doing. The birthday boy began shrieking immediately when I emerged from his house and stepped into the crepe paper and ballooned backyard.
“I knew this would happen,” his smiling young blonde mother said as she chased after him. “Just go ahead.” I noticed how short her skirt was and then looked at the fifteen or so kids staring at me with their moon faces.
“He hates clowns,” a little girl in a flowered dress said.
“You don't say.” A few of the chaperoning parents laughed and I got busy teaching the kids how to make a balloon dog.
“How many heads does a dog have?”
“One!” a chorus chanted.
“Right on! You guys are a bunch of geniuses!” The balloon screamed and squeaked like nails on a chalkboard as I twisted it into shape.
“Sorry,” I said. The kids' faces were as twisted as my balloon and each one's shoulders were at their ears with every hair stood at attention. “Sorry.”
Post show I went back into the house hoping not to see the kid, but needing to collect payment.
“You finished?” the young blonde mother asked. She was sitting at the kitchen table smoking a long cigarette.
“Yeah, sorry about the little situation. It's more common than you'd think.”
“Don't worry about it. He hates clowns.” I waited for her to offer up the missing piece of the puzzle, but we just looked at each other until I felt naked.
“So why did you hire a clown?”
“The rest of the kids enjoyed it. Not everyone hates clowns.”
“Good thing for me, right?”
She smiled and blew a thick cloud of smoke out her flared nostrils like a dragon. “Good thing for you.”
Lured to her bedroom with the promise of a check, she jumped me and screwed me silly against a tall cherry wood wardrobe that smacked the wall, shaking the whole house. If her kid walked in now, sheesh, damaged for life. When we finished she lit another cigarette and wrote a check for double my quoted amount while I pulled my plaid pants up and replaced my rainbow suspenders.
“See you next year,” she said. Her face was a smeared reflection of my make-up. She asked for my card so she could recommend me to some friends of hers. And she was good to her word. Not often, but every now and again some party mother would send me home with a bonus and a smile bigger than the grease paint grin I'd arrived with. But that kind of gig was a rare exception, much more common was a crying kid in wet pants.
Friday came and I prepared for the gig. I had several personas, a trait frowned upon by some purist clowns, but I liked to be able to tailor my performance. It just made sense as I was providing a service and it's good to be prepared if someone wants a specific look. I selected a giant pair of patchwork short pants (hobo clown) and paired them with my big purple shoes and an electric blue cowboy shirt (rodeo clown). I painted up my face in the traditional white face style and a big red smile. The red rubber nose was right for any occasion. I chose my green comb over balding man wig as opposed to my various solid colored Afros. The comb over wig went over pretty well with the adults when I tipped my hat, which today was a ratty, ridiculously large top hat. I pinned a squirting daisy to my suspenders. I checked myself in the mirror and took an inventory of my tattered prop suitcase and makeup kit. I left my apartment looking like a very friendly, very professional clown.
I had experienced a variety of jobs, but the good Dr. was right, this was not the usual. I was hired by Dr. Kranz to do my show in a small conference room in the University's Psychology department building. Dr. Kranz was an expert in phobias and emersion therapy. He sent me some of his published journal papers via email, but they didn't mean that much to me, lots of jargon and statistics. I did learn however, that there's a name for the fear of clowns: Coulrophobia. My job today was to simply perform the most benign of acts: balloon animals, a few jokes, some slap-sticky fall on my ass stuff. I was to be part of a patient's therapy.
“It's progressive, or a progression rather,” Kranz had said on the phone. “We start with a weak stimulus, say a photo or even just talking about the appearance of clowns, the make-up, the hair, the clothing. Then as the patient becomes more comfortable with each stimuli we increase the intensity, watching a videotaped clown performance, handling clown dolls, observing a clown from a distance, you understand, yes?”
“I've made tremendous progress with this patient over the past year and now it's time for her to spend some time with a live clown, face to face, alone.”
“Better than a dead clown.”
“You said, ‘live clown', I said- never mind. Is she going to freak?” I asked.
Kranz chuckled. “Unlikely. I've made tremendous progress. I expect her to be a new woman after today, completely free of her debilitating, irrational fear.”
“Yes. I'd say it is. Quite.”
I expected some kind of reaction out of the department's office staff, but they must have been prepared for my arrival. The girl at the desk had her back to me when I entered and turning her chair to find a clown in front of her didn't faze her in the least.
“You're here for Dr. Kranz.”
“Have a seat. I'll let him know you've arrived.”
Three beige chairs sat empty at the wall behind me. I took the one in the middle and put my prop case up on my lap. I did another inventory, making sure I had all the basics: balloons, gag buzzer, back up squirting flowers, noses, make-up kit, can of nuts containing spring loaded snakes, juggling balls. I rested easy reassuring myself it was all there. I popped open my make-up kit and checked my face with the little mirror I carried.
A pretty blonde student entered the office and did a double take when she saw me. She wasn't Coulrophobic. She smiled and I flushed under my make-up. She needed to see some professor and was told to have a seat. She looked at me again and smiled then looked to the empty seats on my right and on my left. She chose the left.
“So you're a clown?”
“What gave it away?”
She laughed, “Um, yeah,” she blushed. I leaned into her a bit.
“Smell my daisy?”
“I don't know. Are you going to squirt me in the face?” She lapped an invisible something off her bottom lip with a slow pierced tongue.
“Only if you want me to.”
“Chuckles,” Dr. Kranz said leaning into the office. He looked different than I expected, younger, not much older than me I suspected. I was pretty sure that under the beard hid baby soft skin. I stood and extended my hand.
“Dr. Kranz.” He took my hand and jerked it back from the loud vibrating buzz between our palms.
“Ha, very good. You got me. Are we ready then?”
I handed the blonde girl one of my cards. “If you ever need laugh.”
She looked at the card. “See you later Chuckles.”
We walked the bright halls of the department and I stared into each of the rooms, watching heads turn away from abnormal behavior discussions and child development theories. A group of chatting students became silent and stared as we passed.
“Hello my friends!” I said tipping my hat and showing my green comb over. Most of them laughed, but one of the girls said clowns gave her the creeps.
Dr. Kranz led me farther down the hall and we finally stopped outside a heavy door labeled Conference Room C.
“Okay, she's waiting. I want you to enter and start your act just as we discussed.”
“Don't be alarmed by the video camera. It's so I can observe in the next room via television monitor.”
“Give me a few moments to get into place and then enter as you will.”
I gave him ten seconds after the door of the adjacent conference room closed behind him. I took a breath to calm myself, got into character and opened the door.
“Get ready for fun! Chuckles is here!” When I saw who was sitting there, the old woman clinging to a stuffed lion, my skin went whiter than the greasy make-up on my face.
Ms. Dahl taught my fifth grade class. At that time she was teetering on the thin line between seasoned teacher and educational burn out. She'd taken a special dislike for me over a disagreement in English class. It was petty, but it hit a nerve. She'd been teaching us about nouns and explained that a noun was a person, place, thing, or ideal not idea , ideal . I took it upon myself to correct her.
“It's idea, not ideal.”
“I don't follow, Chuck.”
“You keep saying a noun is a person, place, thing or ideal, it's not. It's idea.”
“Oh, I see. You need to read more closely.” She tried to continue.
“I'm reading the book, Ms. Dahl. It says ‘idea'.”
Ms. Dahl walked toward me with a look of smug superiority. She pointed at the book, tapping the page with a stiff finger.
“Let's put an end to this nonsense and the rest of the class can continue with the lesson. Look here it says ‘person, place, thing, or-'”
She stopped speaking. He tapping finger died on the word.
“Idea,” I said.
“Idea,” she conceded. A few people giggled.
“Enough! Perhaps one of you feels qualified to teach the class? Chuck, do you want to finish today's lesson?”
“No, I was just-”
“You were just getting smart! That's what you were doing!”
She stared at me and I felt my face flush red as everyone else joined her.
“Everyone take out a sheet of paper.” The groans began. “Alright then, two sheets!” The groans stopped. She returned to the board and wrote out the following: I will be respectful of the teacher while she is leading the classroom.
“Get going,” Ms. Dahl said, “front and back, both sheets. Be upset with Chuck, not me.” And they were. I took a nice beating during recess.
After that day I stifled anything that could potentially be taken by Ms. Dahl as criticism, but it was too late. I was marked. I was a target. She kept me out of the district wide spelling bee by intentionally mishearing me during the classroom qualifier. The word was Tournament, t-o-u-r-n-a-m-e-n-t, Tournament. She said I forgot the “a”. I started to protest, but someone told me to shut up and I did.
Then on career day we were to come to school in costume and do a presentation on our dream career. Ms. Dahl had given pre approval so there'd be no surprises like bank robber or pimp or drug dealer. Only Kenny DeVries' first choice was vetoed. He wanted to be a clown, but had to settle for insurance salesman.
“Be serious about this people!” Ms. Dahl had said and then gave a lecture on proper careers.
I was practically finished with the assignment before I began. I'd wanted to be an astronaut since I'd seen Challenger blow up in 1984. I put together a costume from a painter's jumpsuit and an old white motorcycle helmet I spray-painted gray. I hand copied all the appropriate decals and patches from one of my favorite space books, painting each of them with great care. Finishing off the ensemble with a silver pair of winter moon boots, I stood in front of the full-length mirror of my parents' bedroom to admire my work. I imagined myself in space, just floating, tethered to the ship on an emergency space walk, nothing but my expert training and bravery between my fellow astronauts and a fiery space death.
“And what are you supposed to be, Chuck?” Ms. Dahl asked. She clutched the metal clipboard with the approved career list in her hand and tapped out an impatient beat with her violet nails.
“Oh. What does one need to do to become a space man?”
“Um, it helps to have a military background and college too. There's a lot of like, special disciplines that they look for, mostly they have scientists so you need to go to college too.”
“And you think your grades are good enough to get into college?”
“I don't know, maybe?”
“Do you think astronauts get C's in math?”
Ellie Hampton snickered. She was a brain and dressed as a teacher. Her only prop was a ruler and glasses without the lenses.
“Probably not,” she repeated. We stood in silence and I stared at her with a burning face. I lowered the visor on my helmet and tried to pretend I was in the silence of outer space, but Ms. Dahl was an evil alien who wouldn't leave me alone.
“Do astronauts need to be physically fit?”
“Yes, they do lots of training.”
“Maybe so, but do you think someone like you could do it? You had some trouble climbing the rope in gym class. Even the girls did it better than you did. Remember how you cried when you were halfway up? Space is a lot higher than ten feet off the gym floor.”
Mark Dawson laughed. He was a jock. He wrestled for the jr. city team and he enjoyed demonstrating how strong his headlock was for me. I stood in front of the class. The feat of mental strength needed to hold back the embarrassed, defeated tears left me unable to speak.
“Have a seat, Chuck.”
I took my place in the back of the class and let go of the tears quietly while Chad Carson told the class how he was going to be President of the United States.
The Ms. Dahl in my audience was somewhere between middle aged and old. She watched my bright rubber balls fly with a pleasant little smile. She looked calm, very unafraid of me, like some who had indeed made tremendous progress. I alternated juggling the balls low and fast and then high and slow. I did my trick of letting the balls escape from their orbits and fall one by one into the oversized waist of my pants. I feigned obliviousness and continued juggling the air. Ms. Dahl laughed at my stupidity. I pantomimed throwing the balls very high and running back and forth in front to catch them in the waist of my pants. I shook a leg and released the three balls, letting them roll away. I grabbed the can of nuts from my suitcase and approached Ms. Dahl, shaking it. The beads in the can's false bottom rattled convincingly. I watched for her to tense, as I got closer. She remained loose and happy.
“I knew it! You look crazy as a loon!”
Ms. Dahl laughed and caught the flying can with a surprisingly fast whip of her paw. She shook it.
“Are there snakes in here?”
“Boy lady, you are crazy! Open it up and have a nut you nut!” She opened the can, releasing the purple, pink, and blue spring loaded snakes into the air.
“I knew it!”
“She knew it! She knew it! What's your name, Ms. Know-it-all?”
“Gloria Dull! You must be a riot at parties! Well Ms. Dull, do you like balloons?”
She nodded. I returned to the case on the table and inflated a long red balloon.
“What's your favorite animal, Ms. Dull?” She squeezed her lion.
“Astronaut? Okay!” I started twisting and bending the balloon. Ms. Dull was still putting together lion and astronaut as I finished the stick person. I tossed it up and batted it to her. “He's on his way to the big astronaut tournament!” She dropped the empty nut can onto the white tile and caught the balloon. It popped in her hand and she jumped. “Can you spell tournament?”
“Spell tournament for me Ms. Dull.”
She looked dumbstruck. She squeezed the lion. I saw her cogs and gears struggle with the request. I stared at her and crossed my arms, tapping my giant purple shoe on the tile.
“Hope you're not a teacher!” I went into a long bout of silly laughter and watched her wring the support out of the lion. She looked at the video camera in the corner of the room. Her foot tapped quickly having picked up my now dead beat. Her toe clipped the snake can and it rolled toward the door, fake nuts rattling across the room. I returned to my case and ducked my head behind the open lid. I opened my make-up kit and grabbed the yellow fangs. I popped in the red contacts.
“What are you doing?” she squeaked.
“Don't be afraid! I just had a great ideal!”
I heard the slightest of whimpers.
I winked at the monster clown in my make-up mirror.
CS DeWildt has two jobs and writes stories. He is a teacher by paycheck but prefers the title "corrupter of youth". His hobbies include changing dirty diapers and preparing warm bottles of milk. He can usually be spotted with his nose in a book. His story Tu's Chicken will appear in Bartleby Snopes August 2009.