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Clowning Around

by Michelle Cacho-Negrete

Jake raged at his stupidity; he pounded the door furiously, kicked it, rattled the doorknob, then gave up after a final fierce tirade of shoving that sent shooting pains through his shoulder.  He’d stepped out to throw the garbage down the chute, left the keys on the table, and here he was stranded in the narrow dark hall, in a ridiculous clown suit. He hated the voluminous purple and white polka-dot costume that swallowed his body, hated the impossible-to-walk-in purple floppy shoes. And the goddamned hat!  He yanked it off his head, hot and itchy from the tight band, and threw it against the door, watched it slide down, hitting the floor in a crumpled purple heap. He kicked it for good measure, then sighed, retrieved it and put it back on his head. His fingers came away coated with greasy white makeup. Great! It had taken three tries and an hour of squinting in the mirror to get the make-up right.  He searched for a place to wipe his fingers, then knelt and rubbed them along the faded paisley hall carpet, spitefully dragging his nails to pull threads from the fraying short fibers.

“No damned janitor in the building.  Why the hell do I pay exorbitant rent?’ he muttered to the empty hall, then looked at his watch; he had forty-five minutes to get to the car dealers, a borough away, and his wallet inside his jacket pocket, to act as Snuffles the Clown.  Snuffles! He’d been Puck in Shakespeare in Central Park for God’s sake. His stomach wildly fluttered and his hands began to shake. He clenched them into fists and shoved them into his pockets.

Breathe, Jake. Breathe.

Time for positive self-talk, the mantra of the rehab program he was barely a week out of.  So start; OK, Jake, it’s going to be fine,’ he whispered, even though he didn’t believe it.Every problem has a solution. Just think, think it through.’

Who could he call?  It would take Mort, his agent, at least half an hour, if he was actually around, to get here, maybe more, and he drove ten miles an hour in his hundred-year-old, gas guzzler, let everybody pass him, cut him off.  His agent — he couldn’t think of anybody else? Thirty-five years living in New York, twenty years in the business and he didn’t have a single friend he could call on in an emergency. What did that say about him?  

Angela?  Should he take the chance? He’d passed out drunk in his apartment when he was supposed to escort her to a party at her office. The ringing phone woke him and when he picked it up, Angela’s raging voice was on the other end.  “Call me after you’ve died, Jake, and I don’t mean after one of your crummy performances.’ The slam of the phone. He’d stumbled back to the couch and the next morning, when he called her, she wouldn’t pick up the phone – four months since they’d spoken.

There must be a way out of this, but all he could think of was that he needed a drink. Six weeks off the booze and the only job he could get was Snuffles the Clown.  It was all that kept him from having to face that snotty, unemployment jerk who’d asked him each visit for the list of where he’d applied for jobs.

“Look,’ he’d told the idiot, “I’m an actor.  Unemployment is an occupational hazard. There are hundreds of us out there looking for work.  Do you think I wanna come in here and get my balls busted by some young schmuck?’ The kid turned red, stuttered with embarrassment and demanded that he leave, threatening to call the security guard while he backed away as though he actually believed Jake would slug him.

“I’m going,’ he’d growled in his best imitation of a German accent, “But I’ll be back!’

Yeah, he knew he was a son-of-a-bitch to deal with, even off the booze.

No…especially off the booze. He groaned; one more person to make amends to.  The list never ended.

Mort had found him the job as Snuffles — a way to get groceries, anyway.

“This is easy, nothing to do, a quick one hundred bucks for three hours and if you draw in business, maybe more.’ Mort patted his hand, which Jake had instantly jerked away, then signaled the waitress for more tea in that ancient little closet of a restaurant that Mort liked so much. “Look Jake, just take it.  We’ll find you something real. Something in television, maybe. A commercial, they pay good. And you get exposure, you know?’ Mort spoke with conviction, enthusiasm, but his eyes signaled that it was long shot. “Everybody sees your face, they say, Hey, it’s Jake. He’s back. He was pretty good. Did you see him in that thing he did off-Broadway?  We got a part for him?’

Mort was old, Jake thought, watching him eat his fat, corned beef sandwich, while the mustard and sauerkraut juice leaked down his fingers. He wore old suits with the narrow ties that nobody had worn since, well, forever.  He didn’t know shit about the new way of doing business, still believed in a handshake, like that meant anything to anybody nowadays. But at least he’d agreed to still handle him. You were nobody in this business without an agent. They’d scuffled a little longer about Snuffles. Mort remained patient and sympathetic throughout Jake’s tirade: “So this is what you’re gonna get for me from now on?  My acting career spent in clown suits, and Santa suits, and Easter bunny suits, maybe making it to the big time as a permanent hamburger working for a chain of burger joints, making the rounds in hick towns to stir up business?’

“Jake, look. I know how good you are.’  Mort kept nodding his head, squeezing lemon into the tea, and only looked at his watch once or twice, when he thought Jake wouldn’t notice him doing it.

“Just take the job, Jake,’ he said when Jake finally ran down. “Until we find something better, OK?’  He shrugged and patted Jake’s hand again. “You got a history, you know what I mean.’

“Yeah,’ Jake said wearily.  “I know.’

“Hey,’ Mort joked.  “You can’t beat the visibility.’

“Right,’ Jake said.  “Walking up and down the street in front of a lousy car dealer in Queens. Maybe I should add a little Hamlet, beef it up, give it some class.  Maybe some television crew will come pass, and stop, and interview me, put me on the news. Once you’re on TV, all the calls come in. Right, Mort?’

Mort shook his head.  “Relax, Jake. Relax.’

The old man was really trying.  Nobody else in his life had ever tried this hard for him.  He looked at Mort and asked, “Why are you still handling me?  I’m a drunk. A drunk in recovery’ –he crossed his fingers– “but still, you’ve got a lot of good actors in your stable.  Why are you putting up with me? I’m a bastard and I know it.’

Mort laid out a bunch of bills to pay the check and said, “Because, Jake, nobody else will handle you, not after all the crap you pulled at that off-off Broadway production.  And I figure, this is the first time you went into rehab. I wasn’t gonna handle you anymore, but then you went. I figure everybody deserves another chance.’ He shrugged then and smiled. “Actually, Jake, I gave you a lot of chances, so what the hell, what’s one more?’

Embarrassed, Jake looked down and nodded. “Thanks.’

Mort was right.  It was an easy hundred that he really needed.  There weren’t really any lines to learn. He just had to say, “I’m Snuffles the clown,’ and hand out balloons to the kids, (“Smile,  Jake, while you do it,’ Mort told him) and hand a circular to the parents. His lines… “Maris Car Dealers, they’re not clowning around, lowest prices anywhere,’ that was it, short and sweet. Three hours, one hundred bucks and a call-back if it got people in.  But, hopefully, by then, Mort might have gotten him something real, a part with more than ten words.

It was getting later and Jake needed to make a decision.  He stood up and checked his pockets. No keys had magically appeared. What did they say about that?  Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, that was crazy…yeah, he was crazy alright.  Who else but somebody crazy would be walking around New York in a clown suit?

He’d figure something out.  If he went outside, maybe some shop owner would let him call the car dealer to explain and say that he’d get there as soon as he could.  Or maybe he’d take a chance on Angela. The only problem was once he got outside, the outer door locked and he’d have to wait for a neighbor to come home and let him in.  Then he’d be back to figuring out how to get into his apartment. Homeless in his own hallway. That would be his style, alright.

 He didn’t know anybody who lived in the building, but if he knocked on a door to ask for help, assuming somebody would be home on a working day, he’d have to introduce himself then go into the whole megillah: why he was wearing a costume, and locking himself out by accident, and make small talk and laugh about how stupid he was, and on and on.  Screw that.

He walked down the stairs, scratching his arms, sweating in the clumsy costume, he’d stink by the time he got anywhere, opened the outer door, hesitated for a brief moment and then closed it behind him.  His stomach turned over at the click of the lock. Well, now he was out for better or for worse.

Enough with the drama, Jake, he thought.

Out on the street it was spring.  The six weeks he’d spent in rehab had been the kick-off to winter’s demise and spring’s arrival; his life vanishing out from under him, under the days of heavy drinking, night melting into day, winter melting into spring.  He squinted, blinded by the bright sunlight since his sunglasses were sitting on the table next to the keys.

Angela.  He’d give it a shot.  What could she say that was any worse than what she’d said before?  The Laundromat next door had a telephone. The guy there knew him. He swung open the door and was greeted by the hot, detergent-misted air.  Unbelievable, there was nobody there, not even the owner. He stepped up to the counter and called, “Hey, anybody here? Eric?’

No answer. He stepped behind the counter and peeked into the tiny room where Eric went to do paperwork, or jerk off, or whatever the hell he did back there.  Empty. Now what? The phone was on the desk, should he take a chance, go in, should he go somewhere else? He made up his mind, walked in and sat down facing the door.  He picked up the phone and dialed Angela’s office. He suddenly laughed out loud, imagining what Eric would see if he appeared. A clown sitting at his desk, sweating, talking on the phone like he belonged there.

At the sound of Angela’s “Hello,’ he swallowed hard.  A wave of longing, of missing her that he’d managed to keep at bay, flooded him.

“Hey, Angela,’ he said, in a hoarse voice.

There was absolute silence for a moment.  “Jake?’ Her voice was curious more than anything else.  A good sign?

“Yeah.  How you been?’

“Now that you’re out of my life, I’ve been pretty good.  Why are you calling, Jake? I told you to never call me again.’

“Listen,’ he said desperately.  “Listen. I’ve been in rehab for six weeks.  I’m different.’ He thought about that then said, “I’m working on being different. I haven’t had a drink for six weeks.  I’ve got a lot of amends to make, and to you especially, but look.’ He swallowed hard. “I need a favor, a really big one, I’m….’

“You need a favor,’ she interrupted.  “A favor from me now that you’re sober and ready to make amends, but after the favor, I guess.’ She was quiet and he waited.

“Who are you playing this week, Jake?  Oh yeah, the drunk in recovery. The drunk who’s sorry, who’s going to make amends, who’s never going to hurt anybody again.’  She inhaled deeply then said, “You’re a great actor, Jake.’ She continued in a passionless voice that made his chest tighten. “That’s because you’re always acting from some stage in your head.  If you’re playing a role, you never have to show your real self, if there’s one left.’

“Angela,’ he said.  “Please, you’re right to hate me, but I’ve got a gig.  It’s a nothing gig, but I really need the money. I’m locked outside my house in a clown suit…’

“A clown suit?  How appropriate.  Life with you was always a circus.’ Her laugh was brusque.  “I don’t hate you. I’d have to still care about you in order to hate you.  I don’t even think about you, Jake. Don’t call again.’ She hung up.

He gently put the phone down and his eyes filled with tears.  It wasn’t self-pity, they were for Angela, that he’d hurt her that much.  “You really are a bastard, Jake,’ he muttered.

   He wandered aimlessly down Central Park West.  He could call a cab, but then whatever he earned would be gone.  It wasn’t cheap to get from Manhattan to Queens. People turned to stare, smiling at him, thinking it was some sort of publicity gimmick, which it was, but not here, not now. He had a waddle, the shoes flopping along the ground, thudding dully on the concrete. His feet were hot and sticky.  The ruffles at the bottom of his pant legs caught on bits of twigs and sticks. He jerked them up angrily and heard a tiny ripping sound.

Jesus, he’d probably have to pay for the damned costume when he brought it back.  Who the hell knew what it cost; they could charge him anything they wanted. He wasn’t gonna give the goddamned costume back, he was gonna burn the damned thing, he was gonna throw it down the garbage chute!

But this time he’d make sure he had his keys in his hand.

 A couple of guys in expensive, grey business suits passed, ties flying in the breeze.  They paused to look and one of them smiled. Jake gave him the finger then laughed at the guy’s confusion.  “What’s your problem, man?’ the businessman said and walked past.

Jake walked along the edge of the sidewalk pulling up the pants to keep from tripping.  The wind kept blowing the pompom on his hat into his face and he had to stop a few times to push it back. A kid strapped into a stroller saw him and started crying, sticking a fat thumb into a loud mouth.  The mother, cute and too young like they all seemed these days, smiled and shrugged at the way babies are and he scowled at them both. She looked down, sudden blush revealing embarrassment and rushed past. He turned to apologize but she crossed the street without glancing back.  

He passed a lot of people who didn’t bother to look, like they saw a clown walking down Central Park West everyday.  Who the hell knows, maybe they do, he thought, and tugged at the sleeves falling over his hands. This was nuts. He had to keep his hands down to pull up his pants so he wouldn’t fall and break his neck, but his fingers kept getting tangled in the sleeves and then he had to tug on them and let go of the pants, and then he’d trip, and then the pompom would hit his eyes, and on and on and on.

He was finally in the park and everything was green and soft, the benches dry enough to sit on.  There were flowers on the trees, some kind of pink things with a thousand tiny petals blowing around like loose paper. He found a water fountain and took a good long drink, starting to wipe his mouth and then stopped, remembering the bright red lips he’d drawn again and again until he’d gotten them right.  He bent over and took another long drink and looked at his watch, sat down on a sunny bench and thought about what to do next. Go to Mort’s office? Find a locksmith and throw himself on his mercy? Call the car dealer to come pick him up…hey, he had enough cars. This was perfect, get fired from a job before he showed up rather than after.

He was sweating in the suit, why didn’t he have this job in winter?  Maybe he should keep it and wear it then like some kid’s snowsuit. He looked around. The park was nearly empty but some of the homeless had settled onto a few benches and sprawled under trees.  A few joggers carefully avoided looking at them, grateful to have Jake to stare at instead.

Maybe he should hire himself out as a statue, distract people’s attention from the homeless in the city.  How long could he stand still?

Even the homeless people looked at him.  Hey, with all those layers of clothes piled over the dirty bodies, they were probably as hot as he was.  Who knows, maybe he’d soon be joining them on the benches, and not in a clown suit either. There were also some elderly people on benches, who stared at him.    

It’s the middle of the day, he thought viciously, everyone here, they’re losers.  

And then his palms were suddenly sweaty, not from the clown suit this time, and a jolt of fear shot through him that he quickly pushed down, deep. He shook his head again and the pompom at the end of the long hat waved, tipping the hat forward over his eyes.  

He angrily ripped the hat off his head and threw it on the ground in fury.  Soft laughter sounded behind him and he turned, surprised. Some of the homeless people – what the hell did they have to laugh at? Just behind them a few of the old geezers were smiling too.

Jesus, he thought to himself, I’ve never seen so many losers in one place, and that includes me.  He reached for the hat, now stuck on a branch. He awkwardly tried to pull it off without ripping it and heard the laughter behind him again.  He turned, still bending over and saw the faces focused on him.

One or two of the people clapped.

A fucking encore, he thought, that’s what they’re asking for. My audience. It hit him like a punch. In the park, in the middle of the day, a bunch of people who had nothing to do but watch an idiot in a clown suit, was that what it came down to, how it was going to end? He thought of all those casting calls he’d gone on, the ones where people said, “Nice reading, we’ll call you,’ and then never did.  It had been, let’s see, four or five years since the bit in Central Park, and nothing out there on the horizon. It would take a long time before people stopped thinking of him as a drunk, if they ever did, which they would if they gave him a role and saw him sober and realized he was a damned great actor! He didn’t know what else he’d do if he couldn’t act. When he’d performed in the past, he knew the audience clapped for the whole cast, but he got a feeling of what it was like to be appreciated. It was like the best trip he’d ever been on, the one where everything went right and you thought to yourself later, when can I take the next hit?

He’d never been much good in school, barely passing, spent all his time at home daydreaming.  He could still hear his father warning him that if he didn’t get his act together he’d be nowhere, a useless piece of trash.  That’s where he was now. The only thing Jake had ever done right in school was to be in all the plays, even musicals although, God knows, his voice was a joke.  “Jake,’ his drama teacher had told him once after he’d shown up stoned, “You have a gift, use it, nurture it.’ It took long enough to get that gift on the road, but it stalled in first, so to speak, although the plays Jake had been in had been interesting plays.  He’d been lucky, considering his drinking, to have appreciative audiences and actual reviews. One reviewer had written a few lines about him, saying he was perfect in the part, gave it what it needed, and that he hoped they’d be seeing more of him.

Come on out to Central Park, here I am, he thought bitterly.

Here I am.

Oh God, he thought, and stood, forgot to pull up the pant legs and tripped.  A ripple of laughter sounded. He bent to roll up the legs and the hat flopped into his eyes, as he tried to push it back, the long sleeves fell over his fingers and his hands were trapped.  He inched forward, shaking them to loosen his hands and the ruffle around his neck slid over his face and met the brim of the hat. He was blind! He tried to stand and tripped over the long, loose shoes.

The sound of rusty laughter greeted him.  

He rolled to a sitting position and looked up helplessly through the canopy of thick green leaves into a soft diffused sky covered with milky clouds. He tried to roll into a position that would enable him to stand and the pants wrapped tightly around his legs so that as he stood he was actually bow-legged.  The laughter was louder. He watched the faces, dirty and looking so fucking tired and old that they were ageless. He felt fury build in him. Who the hell were they to laugh at him?

America, he thought, where an almost out-of-control drunk makes a bunch of people who live in the street laugh.  He turned to face them full on. He had everyone’s attention now. The laughter had even woken up the people sleeping under trees.  This is my new job, he thought bitterly as his eyes moved from face to face, I should carry a sign.

He boomed suddenly, rolling out the vowels and waving his arms around, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless to me.’

There was silence and then some applause and then, from the old geezers behind the homeless contingent, some quarters, and even a dollar bill came raining down in front of him.  He looked down at his feet in astonishment. Passers-by had stopped curiously to watch and he was suddenly, deeply embarrassed, and then furious at his embarrassment. He wasn’t begging, he didn’t ask people to throw coins.  He knelt then and scooped them up, counting the money. He had enough to buy a bottle, something cheap. He could feel the heat of the alcohol already, his body letting go, relaxing, and then the anger rolling off him in waves like sweat.  He dropped to a bench. If you take a drink now, Jake, that’s it, he told himself. Mort will never handle you again. Shit, nobody will. Right now, you can still salvage it. You can call the car dealer and catch a bus or maybe they’ll let you start tomorrow.  You can make getting locked out a funny story. You can call Mort to come get you. Think it through.

The thing about acting, it was his whole life. A chance to be somebody else, somebody who people reacted positively to, somebody people wanted to see.

But it wasn’t enough for it just to happen when he acted, what about a life?  What about his life? He was exhausted then. His anger threatened to swallow him up.  He was always so fucking angry. He decided to make a noon meeting and be angry there and he was even angry that he was going.  He didn’t know if being sober was less complicated than being drunk, maybe, but he would give it one more day.

“All the world’s a goddamned stage after all,’ he thought, then stood, bowed low, and fought with the hat like it was alive, giving it all he had, and listened to the laughter rising up around him like applause.