This thing…this “clown-sickness,” as Kristi calls it — I remember the exact moment it began. It was a Tuesday, May 8, 2012, about 9 p.m. Kristi (we met at a sorority mixer at UT) was in the kitchen, cleaning up the supper dishes. She’d served meatloaf, which Kristi makes just the way I like it, with barbecue sauce. She’s a good cook and a good wife and mother, and I don’t blame her for anything that happened.
Anyway, Kristi was in the kitchen. Our twins, Terri and Tara, were already in bed. Back before the twins were born, I tried to tell Kristi that people were going to mix up those names, but she was already bummed about going to her cousin Candace’s wedding looking like a whale — Candace being a little hottie and all — so I just let it drop. Terri and Tara are great kids; I couldn’t love them more, and I hope someday they’ll come to understand what their old man has been through. That restraining order sure doesn’t help.
I pushed back in my recliner, flipping through Netflix, to see if there was anything I might want to watch after Kristi went to bed. Kristi has never really gone for any show that’s sexy. But she is a beautiful woman, and there was ever any trouble between us in the marital relations department, except for sometimes when Jesus told Kristi to be celibate or I ate Mexican food.
As I lay back, staring at the screen, I suddenly noticed my slippers. They were the ordinary navy blue corduroy slippers that I wore every evening. My feet always feel better in some kind of footwear, but Kristi didn’t like me to wear shoes in the house. She usually bought me a new pair of slippers every Christmas, bless her heart. Anyway, I glanced at my slippers and — completely out of nowhere — I thought, “What if I were wearing a pair of enormous clown shoes?”
I was so shocked, I cranked that recliner bolt upright! I’d never had a crazy thought like that in my entire life. Never! I mean, I’d wrestled with some homosexual thoughts during college, until my frat brothers explained that they wouldn’t have let me in the frat if I was actually gay. But nothing had put a choke-hold on me like that clown shoe idea.
My heart was pounding. Sweat beaded on my upper lip.
Kristi came in from the kitchen. “Cliff, what have you been watching?” she said.
“Well, you look as if something got you” — she dropped her voice to a whisper — “you know.”
“I’m fine,” I said. “Guess maybe I’m a little gassy from those baked beans.”
“I warned you not to take seconds.”
“I know,” I replied, “but you make ‘em so doggone tasty.” She did. She does.
I wasn’t fine, though. I was shaken. Luckily, Kristi turned on House Hunters, and the drama of a couple trying to find a house with a mud room and a man cave seemed to steady me, even if the couple was racially-mixed and Canadian. I went to bed with Kristi around eleven. Kristi said she wasn’t really in the mood, probably because I said that thing about being gassy. I guess I wasn’t really in the mood, either; I was kind of gassy.
I wish God had let this cup pass that night, but He didn’t. After that evening, I kept picturing myself in huge, floppy red shoes. Soon, it went from bad to worse. When I was shaving one morning, I suddenly got the urge to draw big red lips on my face. Why? Was this something I was born with, that had finally tunneled its way out of me, like the monster in Alien? I couldn’t for the life of me explain it — but I couldn’t resist it, either.
I checked around, to make sure Kristi and the kids weren’t in the house. With a trembling hand, I reached for Kristi’s brightest red lipstick, the shade I bought for her that she only wore in the privacy of our home, when the kids were at her mom’s in Manchester, two hours away, minimum. Clumsily, I smudged a gaudy red oval around my lips. Gazing at that spectacle in the mirror, I thought, “You look like a g-d clown!” And I knew, as sure as I knew my porn passwords, that I had finally seen the real me.
After that, clowning was the engine driving the midget car of my life. It was like being a drug addict, only instead of snorting coke up my nose, I was jamming a rubber ball onto it. I started making excuses about having to work late, so I could spend an hour fondling Day-Glo wigs and candy-colored jumpsuits in the clown store at the outlet mall. I dreamed about giant foam bananas. I spent more money than we could afford on a magenta Bozo wig that I would tease for hours, until it stood straight out from the side of my head. I used to sneak on my clown makeup and wear that wig around the house when Kristi and the kids went to picket the library every Saturday. Once, it rained, so they came home early, and I had to jump into the shower and scrub my face like the blazes to get that make-up off. Kristi shot me a worried look, but she never said anything–although I think she was having her suspicions. She’d already found the circus magazines stuffed into my briefcase. What did an insurance agent need with those? I had to pretend to her that I got turned on by women who hung by their hair. That disgusted her, but it was better than the truth.
The thing that tortured me most was that I wasn’t even a real clown. I could fake the makeup okay, but I’d never gone to clown college, and probably never would. (I hadn’t done real well on my SATs.) I tried working out some pratfalls on my own, but I think I sprained my rotator cuff, which set back my juggling. Deep down, I knew — even though I tried to convince myself otherwise — that I would never be able to entertain and creep people out like a certifiable clown.
It literally blew up on me about six months later. Kristi and the kids were at her mom’s. I was home alone, fully made-up, watching Quick Change, which is an under-rated Bill Murray clown classic. And I guess I just snapped. I threw on my orange polka-dot overalls and tossed my red shoes into the car. I drove around until I spotted a church festival. I parked, gave myself a hug, stepped into my clown shoes, and waddled into the crowd. A couple of little kids ran screaming, so I thought maybe I was going to pull it off.
Until I saw him giving me the heavily made-up eye. Slowly, he pedaled toward me on his Chihuahua-sized tricycle, the kind I slobbered over on the L.L. Buffoon website.
“Don’t think I know you,” he piped, in clown falsetto. He offered his hot pink hand. “I’m Mr. Huggles.”
“Cliff,” I replied, shaking his hand. “Er, I mean, Cliffero.”
“Cliffero the clown,” he said. “Take you long to come up with that one?”
I knew that I should run awkwardly away as fast as my oversized shoes would carry me. I should drive to Manchester, throw myself at Kristi’s conventionally-shod feet, tell her the whole, sordid story, and beg for her forgiveness.
But I was trapped like a rodeo clown in a barrel.
“Join the party,” Mr. Huggles said, motioning for me to follow.
Twenty pavement-slapping steps away stood the bomb that was about to obliterate my double life.
“I’m making balloon animals,” the clown said, patting the helium tank. “Care to help?”
I froze, staring at the tank. Grinning from ear to ear, Mr. Huggles handed me a shriveled worm of bright blue latex.
“Show me what you got…Cliffero.”
After several fumbling attempts, I managed to fit the balloon over the valve. I was startled by how rapidly it inflated. Mr. Huggles smirked. Slowly, I tied the balloon off and began twisting it around itself. Every squeak of the latex was like jagged glass ripping at my water-squirting bow tie. I tried repeatedly to fashion some sort — any sort — of creature out of that balloon–until, finally, it popped.
“You’ve never made a balloon dog in your life, have you…Cliffero?” the clown hissed, as he grabbed my wrist. He had a surprisingly strong grip for a man wearing a tutu.
The police arrived. I was forced to call Kristi and confess everything. I blubbered into my cellphone, totally losing my dignity, smearing eyeliner on my clown outfit. In the end, the DA decided not to press charges, provided I agreed to get help. He said there was a good rehab program in Memphis. It was mostly for people who impersonated Elvis impersonators, but they also took fake clowns. I agreed to enter treatment. I meant it at the time, too. But then Kristi left, taking Terri and Tara with her. After that, what was my incentive? My life was already ruined. Plus, if I was really being honest with myself, I wasn’t ready to give up my clownish lifestyle. I still craved the high of those enormous shoes.
In a chat room, I heard about an underground clown school in Paris. For a substantial fee, they’d teach you clowning tricks that would make it impossible for anyone to tell you from the real thing. Hopes high, I sold my Toyota and flew to France. Unfortunately, the school was more faux than the students. They took my money, then tried to blackmail me into working as a mime. I said I’d rather burn my wig than sink that low.
So now I live in a moldy basement on the Left Bank. I do odd jobs or hustle the tourists during the day. I make almost nothing, but it’s enough to buy bread and cheap eyebrow pencils. I’m thinking of taking a caricature class; I hear there’s money in that. And sometimes on weekends, I put on my clown makeup and my big shoes and clomp through the Metro, pummeling riders with my giant foam boxing gloves. Most people look pretty terrified. It makes me feel — if only for a little while — like a real clown.