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“Before he became a clown, he was a bit light-footed,” Mom said. “Your father could slip away in the middle of a funeral and nobody would notice.” These were stories I collected about Dad, who I barely remembered from childhood. My father, Mom said, was always doing handstands and forward flips for anybody who had time to stand there and watch him.
“What was he like in regular ways?” I asked. “What did he like to eat, for instance?”
“He loved a good steak,” Mom said. “In fact, this was one of the only normal things about him.”
In gymnastics class, the teacher took me aside, let me know that my flexibility was excellent, and on top of that, I had potential as a mime. In this way I resembled my father. She’d read about him. His clownmanship, at this point, was legendary. I knew this was serious praise, but what did being a flexible mimic get a person in life? It wasn’t something a person needed to be good at.
“When you were just a few molecules in my stomach, your father let me know he was interested in clown school,” Mom said. “I just hoped he was having a midlife moment.”
At the dinner table, her face was crumpled. As usual, the rice was overlooked, mushy and useless. She didn’t eat her own cooking, and it was easy to see why. I splashed it with soy sauce and gobbled it up. “It’s fine, Mom,” I said.
Really, Mom was humorless. A thin and ropy woman whose job was cleaning for wealthy people. She worried about my future. I was barely thirteen, and already men were winking at me, clowning around with me, hoping to get me to take them seriously.
Mom said “Sad, what the human condition does to people like your father, how they find their way into circus tents.”
I told myself someday I’d marry an artist, not just a bad husband like Dad.
I married at seventeen, much to my mother’s dismay. At that point, she was so thin it was hard to take her seriously, and I was determined to make it easier for Mom. I’d found myself a professional circus clown with a fingernail smile.
And I can’t deny it. Chuckles made me laugh. Back then, he was like a scoop of tangy sherbet. Healthy. But not ridiculously so. I’d wake up to the sandpaper feeling of his morning stubble between my legs, just one of the pleasures of loving a people-pleaser.
I signed on with the circus troupe as a part-time contortionist. I didn’t expect to devote my life to it. I had plenty of time to think it over.
When Mom was still alive, the idea of me living in a circus caravan cavorting with freaks and geeks infuriated her. So, I promised I’d never live in a caravan, I’d live a calm and normal life she’d approve of.
“I’m not the gypsy type,” I lied, hugging her, her ribs pressing into my heart. She told me my father was living with an East Coast troupe, married to a famous freak known as “Plasticeena.”
“Your Dad married a freak-and-a-half. Her body is made of recycled milk jugs,” she said. “Maybe with me out of the picture, you two might become chummies.”
Even Chuckles had heard of Plasticeena. Boy, was he impressed.
“Wowzah,” he said. “Intimidating.”
He showed me a photo of the plastic woman plunging a sword down her translucent throat.
Behind that throat was a tired looking clown in a wheelchair, and I recognized my father.
Soon after, I found my father’s address and wrote to him. Told him Mom was terminally ill.
He wrote back to me and said he was a fulfilled man, part of Plasticeena’s medical team. “Since my terrible accident under the Big Top, I teach the clowns to clown,” he said. “This is something I can do quite well from a seated position! I teach them how to make horse-lip sounds, and how to yawn the stress out of their bodies. I feel like I’ve found my tribe,” Dad wrote. Not a word about Mom. Not even, “I’m sorry.”
It was our tenth wedding anniversary, and we had nothing planned. Chuckles was broke. “A beautiful pigeon like you really needs nothing more than a rhinestone cap, and you already have one,” he said with a sad little smirk.
But he was wrong. I needed more than what I had.
That night I met Olga, a new contortionist. She looked a lot like me, only sexier, with gleaming chestnut hair. Both of us were walking in the same direction, hoping for an invisible net. So, we hooked up near the lion cage, feeling sorry for the big sad cats while sharing the same sky-blue cotton candy. She licked it and then I licked it. We laughed and we licked it again.
We wandered the circumference of the circus together, holding fingers, pretending to be children and ignoring the clowns.
Chuckles was aging quickly, but time was still on my side. He had back issues, neck issues, sadness issues, and charisma issues. So many parts of him were deflating. “Let’s go meet your father, I’d love to know him. Let’s show him our acts!” he said. Chuckles believed that Dad might be able to help by exposing him to a new audience.
But the thing was this: I hadn’t seen Dad since I was five and felt frightened of my recycled plastic stepmother.
I tried not to think about any of it. I found myself talking to Mom again, in my dreams.
“Tethering your life to a clown is like eating chocolate pizza,” Mom said. “You’re going to vomit it out.”
She felt so alive to me. I knew she was right.
“That smart-assed clown is a limp-assed rat,” Franz the strong man said. I’d become a guest in my marriage, smiling from a polite corner of the room.
He winked at me, picked me up, carried me around. I enjoyed being the strong man’s juggling ball. Olga dug it, too. He juggled the two of us as if we were baby animals.
And it was inevitable. My dumb sense of duty to Chuckles was drawing to a halt. Chuckles wandered the caravans at night looking for drinking buddies, bullying the tightrope walker to come out with him.
“We’re all guests here in this world of woe,” Chuckles brayed, slumped like a toadstool at three in the morning, the breeze blowing his thinning hair around like tumbleweed.
“His scalp looks shiny enough to skate on,” my Olga said over coffee. This made me laugh. I needed to laugh.
I had snuck into her caravan while Chuckles was singing Ethel Merman tunes to the feral cats. We pooled our resources under her gypsy comforter. I dreamed about us living in Manhattan, knotting and unknotting ourselves on an Upper East Side balcony while sharing a salmon bagel.
“Two contortionists are better than one,” Franz agreed, as if together Olga and I could become a Hercules knot.
“Well said, Franz. You owe that clown nothing,” Olga said, her long arm tightening like a happy boa constrictor around my waist.
And so, on our tenth anniversary under a fingernail moon, I asked Chuckles for a separation. “Why have you stopped loving me?” he cried like a whiny child. Mom would be proud of me, I thought.
“The first law of holes is to stop digging,” she used to say about my father, and that is what I said to Chuckles.
“There is a law of holes?” he croaked. “What law of holes?” He looked so confused, so tired.
I hugged him and said that I would cook him some dinner anyway. “Do we have any rice?”
“Sure we do, honey,” he said.
He lay down on the floor of our caravan and, from the way he cried, the way the tears all gathered into one big puddle on his chin, I recognized my father from when I was a little girl, before I knew the word “clown,” before I knew he was a failure at love.