Tom De Poto
Location: Nutley, NJ
Publications: Lynx Eye, The Open Door, Story Time
One last check in the mirror over the sink. Eyebrows outlined and arched way up onto his forehead. Big red and white smile.
“Mirror mirror on the wall,” he says, “Today’s the day, don’t let me fall.” He fills in a bare spot on the side of his nose with more white greasepaint. As he does he whispers, “Stanley, they’ve just gotta love you today,” unsure even to himself if he means his birthday audience or his Mary’s parents.
He opens his bag of tricks, which is an army surplus duffel that he and Mary painted in circles of primary colors. Inside is his black hat, check, with its colorful scarves already tied together and tucked behind the faux silk lining. And inside is his flaming frying pan, check, with Pidgy the pigeon sealed under the lid.
The frying pan is the great showstopper, the finale. It’s coated with paraffin and kerosene that Stanley, better known as Bobo the Clown, lights with a flourish as the crowd leans back, aghast. The igniter is on the handle, unseen. Stanley quickly places on the lid, twists it to be sure it’s airtight and thus suffocates the flames, and with a deft wrist flinch flips the nipple on top releasing the trap door inside so Pidgy falls into the pan. Stanley lifts the top to expose Pidgy, confused, like a stray thought, with his wings aflap for balance.
It’s at this point that Mary, in tux (with pants, because Stanley’s usual audience is children at a birthday party) steps in, places two fingers under Pidgy’s breast so the bird can climb aboard and be restowed in the bag.
But Mary isn’t assisting today. She’s with her parents, who’ve flown in from Boston to meet Stanley, the clown who stole their daughter’s heart.
Today’s birthday party is for a four-year-old. The worst audience, thinks Stanley: too young to be amazed, too old to be pacified. These are the crowds Mary’s angelic patience handles best. She has a way about her that brings children back to civility.
“Oh, you adorable clown” she’d say after a show where the tykes had gotten on Stanley’s nerves. “Just leave the mothering to me.” At this point Stanley usually wanted to kiss her, but he knew sweaty greasepaint never quite served as an effective mood setter, or even a thank you. So he’d smile his clown smile and squirt her with his lapel daisy. And Mary would laugh as she tried to fend off the splash.
Stanley checks his bag again for the coloring book that colors itself, the magic wand that goes limp, and the other wand that holds the paper flowers that pop out when he releases the latch on the bottom with his thumb.
Because today’s party is across town and on the way to Mary’s apartment, the plan calls for Stanley to wrap up his show early, head to Burger King’s restrooms for a washup and quick change, and appear at Mary’s doorstep in time for a late lunch with Mary’s parents. The Boston banker and the Brahmin mamma, Stanley calls them, although he has yet to met them.
One last check: bag is packed, tricks are set up, his civilian clothes are already in the car. He looks at the clock on the kitchen wall. A few minutes left. He takes a joint from the cutlery drawer and lights it on the stove flame. To fortify himself, he says. “Tough day ahead,” he says out loud. His lungs feel cold as he holds a cloud of smoke in them. Soon he hears his heart beat and then lets go. Now his lungs burn a little. He repeats this a few more times until he feels his leg muscles have gone for a walk without him.
This is the world Stanley prefers. Slightly risky, blurry on the edges. It’s Saturday, an overcast April day. A little aftertaste of winter still lingers, and nothing could be sillier than being dressed as a clown in broad daylight about to deal with four year olds and potential in-laws who will examine him like a stock prospectus. Mary has set today as an ultimatum. Be there, she’d said, or forget about me.
One more drag and Stanley pinches the lit end of his weed to save some for next time.
Once outside he stands on the top step and takes a deep breath. He is a little tipsy, and a little unsure if he is unsure of himself or not.
He looks up and down the street, hoping no one is out who will see him like this. But as if they’d been waiting for a clown to appear, three boys on bikes pedal his way. Stanley recognizes one of them as the neighborhood troublemaker.
“Hey, look at the clown,” the one says.
“Shut up, kid,” Stanley answers, knowing how silly those words are coming from a life-sized Bozo with a painted smile.
“Hey, do a trick for us clown. Pull a rabbit out of your hat.”
The three bikers were now parked next to Stanley’s blue VW beetle.
“Only a moose can pull a rabbit from a hat,” he says, thinking that his rabbit died last week because Stanley forgot to feed it, having spent so much time at Mary’s. “Now beat it. Really.”
“Hey, you’re supposed to be funny, clown. That wasn’t funny,” says the one, bike straddled, hands hip-placed.
Why does he have to start every sentence with “hey,” Stanley wonders, and before he has a chance to second-think it he goes face-to-face with the twerp and sticks his middle finger upright right between the kid’s bulging eyes. It’s a ridiculous gesture to make in this get up, but the white gloves give it added oomph.
Stanley opens his car door, drops the seat forward and tosses his bag into the back. The junior bikers are quiet.
Stanley gets in. The kids are still parked on the sidewalk next to his car. Stanley rolls down the window and sticks his tongue out.
“Weird,” says the one, and the three pedal off.
As they do so, Stanley sees standing there, hands also hip-placed, his landlord, Mr. Browner.
“Stanley,” says his landlord, approaching the open window. “The rent.” His voice is low but not soft. “You’re overdue. By two weeks.”
Stanley sticks his ruffled sleeve out the window while his other hand turns the ignition key.
“I know, Mr. Browner. If all goes well today” -- meaning the performance and the introduction to Mary’s wealthy parents -- “I’ll pay you this afternoon.”
“Not IF, Stanley. I want the money. This afternoon.”
Stanley rows the gearshift til it finds a groove, flips a papal wave and drives off.
Poor down-on-his-luck Stanley. A look in the rearview mirror reflects his painted clown face. Twenty-nine-year-old Stanley, a little buzzed on a late Saturday morning and wondering if he’s in love with Mary, his sometime-assistant who goes by the name Diana the Wonder Girl. She’d swallow a flaming sword for him.
* * * * *
Stanley notices how thick the traffic is this morning when he hears the two toots of a tug with cargo barge in tow. His hands drop from the wheel and fall by his side. The bridge is going to open just a few blocks from where he sits. He drops a glance at the dashboard clock. He’s going to be late.
Never should have taken that toke, never should have talked to those bullies-to-be.
Above the faded denim blue Volkswagen clouds roll by. Pin-sized raindrops poke themselves onto his windshield.
“Do I love her?” he wonders about Mary-slash-Diana. Mary Collins. The Collins that puts the fizzle in his vodka, the fool’s assistant and the daughter of Daddy megabucks. He’d taught her his fire swallowing act. It became a metaphor. She’d handed him the key to her heart and that’s all that Stanley really wanted, the key, free access.
His key? Lost somewhere. He doubted anyone would ever find it, even Mary. If he knew where it was would he turn it over to her? He didn’t think so. It’s too vulnerable to live that way. But Mary had the means to change Stanley’s life. So what’s not to love?
* * * * *
A final quick glance at the dashboard clock tells Stanley what he already knows -- he’s a half-hour late.
“Not good,” he says to himself. The kids will be wild, the parents upset. He decides to leave the flaming fryer trick in the car. He’s pressed for time already -- has to get to Mary’s -- and he’s afraid without his lovely assistant by his side Pidgy may take off in the house. Besides, playing with fire in front of kids isn’t a good idea.
“It’s decided,” he decides about Pidgy and the pan, so he takes it from his pack and leaves it on the backseat along with his change of clothes, the pressed pants and white shirt he plans to wear to Mary’s.
The party house is on a dead-end street, a grand Victorian with a wrap-around porch and tall windows. Two men are crossing the lawn to Stanley as he hefts his duffel to the sidewalk.
“You must be the clown,” says the first one. He’s wearing a sweatshirt that says “World’s #1 DAD.”
Behind #1 DAD is a red-faced man wearing a red-and-white Budweiser painter’s cap and holding a beer can with a matching logo. That hat’s to camouflage your face, isn’t it? Stanley thinks silently. “Sorry. The bridge was open.”
Stanley extends his hand to shake and as #1 DAD reaches to accept Stanley flips the buzzer ring into his palm. They shake, and at the first “bbbrrrrrgggggghhhh!” #1 DAD jerks his hand like he’s been bit by a rattler. He stares at Stanley, confused, angry.
“Hope he’s funnier with the kids,” says Budman.
Stanley lifts his palms upward and shrugs his shoulders. How can you not love a clown?
Once in the house Stanley sets up his makeshift stage on a coffee table. The children have been hustled in and seated. They squirm, Stanley thinks, like worms in mud. Against the wall stand some parents -- #1 DAD, Budman and a few mothers. Stanley sees one in particular with a wine stain on her neck. This is the one Stanley would choose to fall in love with, given a choice, the one he could single from the herd like a cowdog because she was flawed.
“Hello boys and girls,” Stanley says.
“Hi,” they squeal, louder than is necessary. What’s left of this morning’s marijuana kicks in and for a moment, just a moment, lifts Stanley into somewhere else.
“Usually Bobo gets an introduction.” Stanley looks at #1 DAD. “But let’s just get started, OK?” His voice is more sing-songy than he’d like.
A blonde haired boy, hair so blonde it seems iridescent in the light, pops to his feet and with his hands stiffly at his side says, “I want to pull your nose off.”
It’s either screams of fear or laughter from the rest of his juvenile audience, Stanley can’t tell which.
“No one touches Bobo’s nose, little boy.”
“I want to pull your nose off,” blondie says with a left-foot stomp, and again the others screech.
Stanley looks for the parent of the brat, but the mothers have slipped into the kitchen, except for the one with the wine stain. #1 DAD and Budman are just watching, arms crosschested.
“Boys and girls, if Bobo is going to do his tricks for you you’ll all have to sit down and behave.”
“No! I’m gonna pull your nose off!” More cheers.
“What’s your name, little boy?”
“Wesley, be a good boy and take a seat.”
Instead, Wesley grabs Stanley by the arm and tries to pull him down to kid-level so he can yank the nose.
Stanley shakes him free, but the other kids are screaming delight. It’s a four-year-old’s version of Circus Maximus, and Stanley knows he’s going to be sacrificed unless he does something.
Wesley makes a grab for the arm again but Stanley raises it out of reach and at the same time clamps his clown-sized brogan onto Wesley’s designer Nike footwear.
Stanley then curls his fingers in front of Wesley’s face and goes POOF! like he wants him to disappear. Wesley, startled, tries to back up but with Stanley on his toes he falls straight onto his rump.
The others are roiling with hysteria. Even #1 DAD and Budman are laughing.
Wesley is crying.
Suddenly a mother bursts through the door. “What happened here?”
Stanley catches the wine-stained woman watching before he turns to hunt some tricks out of his bag.
“Okay boys and girls, for my next trick . . .” Stanley holds up a coloring book. “It’s a coloring book! But look!” He opens the book and with exaggerated surprise says, “None of the pictures are colored! What should we do?”
On cue his audience yells back, “Color it!”
Wesley has been forgotten. The mother -- Wesley’s? wonders Stanley -- picks him up by the armpits, lands one arm under his embarrassed bottom and with the other she pats him on the head and then carries him from the room. Stanley notices, but tries not to make it obvious. The wine-stained woman has left, too.
“What color should we use to color the pictures?”
“Blue!” “Red!” “Green!” Green!”
“Blue? Okay. Pictures,” Stanley intones, “we color you blue!” Stanley shifts the book in his hand so the blue cut pages move forward. He flips the pages with his thumb. They are cut so that only the blue pages show.
Stanley puts his hands on his hips and frowns a big frown.
“That was kind of boring,” he says. “Why don’t we use all the colors in the rainbow?”
He shakes the book, as if to set loose the colors from a paint can, then switches hands so the pages now go from back to front, showing the rearside of the cut pages, which are in full color.
His young crowd cheers. “They’re mine again,” he thinks. “Bobo the triumphant.”
Hitch-free the show proceeds, much to Stanley’s relief. He’s made the string of thin silk hankies disappear and reappear from his rubber thumb. He’s made a cup of water vanish in a up newspaper, and now he is teasing them with his collapsible magic wand when one young girl in her best party dress stands and points out the window.
“Mr. Bobo, your car is smoking!”
Stanley turns. Through the window he can see his blue beetle with gray plumes rising from the window. And on the edge of the lawn stands Wesley, blonde hair falling on his collar.
Stanley drops what he’s doing and runs to his car. Awkwardly, looking like a circus clown in his big red shoes, arms flailing for balance, he goes past Wesley, who can’t help but giggle.
The door is stuck but Stanley yanks it hard, then steps back as the trapped smoke, sick of its own foul work, escapes to fresher air.
Inside, the upholstery of his back seat is smoldering. Tiny flames are licking up the pants and shirt he planned to wear to Mary’s. He pulls them from the car and stomps them until all is still.
And then he finds the source of the fire, his trick frying pan. He removes it from the car and turns toward Wesley.
“You fried my bird! You stupid kid. You fried Pidgy!”
He lifts the lid and there lies Pidgy, char-broiled, gray feathers soot streaked.
Stanley looks up and sees the parents coming from the house, moving at him like a living wall. He knows he can’t go for Wesley’s throat.
#1 DAD hands Stanley his duffel, scarlet Budman right behind him.
“I think you’re done for the day, Bozo,” he says.
Stanley looks around. The commotion has brought out the neighborhood. He sees what they see: a pathetic clown standing on the damp green lawn between a roasted pigeon and singed clothing, facing an angry mob. His bag has been packed and he’s been told to get out of town. This is no time for a gunfight. He takes his bag, throws it into the car. He picks up his clothes and tosses them in, too. Pidgy he leaves where she lies. Maybe they’ll have her for dessert. Without even rolling down the windows he squeezes himself and his foolish get-up behind the driver’s wheel and pulls away.
But Stanley has forgotten that the street is a dead-end. He reaches the cul-de-sac, the bulb of the thermometer.
Before he turns the car around he sits for a moment in the rancid odor of scorched plastic and vinyl. Many things are suspended in the air: the gauntlet of angry parents and curious neighbors; the crowding rain clouds; and the appointment with Mary’s parents. He appreciates the deliberate equilibrium at play and realizes he’s been jeered by kids and is about to be dismissed by Mary’s parents as not good enough if he shows up late, smelling of smoke in a clown suit, his regular clothes having gone to ash.
“Story of my life,” he shrugs. An opera without a tenor whose lows are low and highs at best midrange. “At best,” he thinks.
He agrees with himself to turn the car around and head home where he’ll finish that half-toked joint, and in an hour or so have another. If Mary doesn’t understand where he is, surely her parents will.