In pajamas, Spencer sat on the sofa. Dazed and dull, he had lost track of time. According to the television, a fiery display of red, yellow and hot blue, it was Friday morning. He watched Mindy pack a suitcase with grim fury.
“I need to get out of this relationship,” she said in a voice raspy from smoking.
Mindy loved drama. She had vitality and a great figure. Men fluttered toward her like moths to a flame. Spencer felt the attraction, did not flutter, and Mindy was intrigued. She mistook his silent longing for strength, and she moved in – literally. The relationship was news to him. There was news on the television, too. It made no sense.
At last, Mindy threw on a trench coat, cinched the belt to enhance her waist, and hoisted the bulging suitcase. She wrenched open the door of the apartment, a rent-by-the-week motel room.
“Adios, amigo!” The remark was meant to sting. The way Spanish rice was tastier than rice? Mindy slammed the door. Instead of making a satisfactory wallop, it flapped like a plastic lid. Spencer sat unblinking, and the door reopened.
“Hollow core,” she rasped. “As flimsy as your excuses, Spencer. You’re a clown! Except nobody’s laughing.”
Mindy turned her face to the future and stomped down the stair, footsteps ringing on the metal treads. Cold air swept through the open door.
On bare feet, Spencer stumbled to the door and pulled it shut.
“How right you are.” Neighbors hoping for a snappy come back would be disappointed. This was life, not a soap opera. Even reality TV was scripted.
At the School of Dramatic Arts, or SODA, Spencer hated improv exercises. He did poorly at anything quick-witted, verbal, and spontaneous. Interacting was a problem. The instructor steered him away from major roles.
“Maybe you should consider mime. Character bits. Parts that don’t have spoken lines. Lead to your strong suit.”
“What is my strong suit?”
“Ha, ha!” he poked Spencer in the ribs. “The joker!” SODA accepted credit cards but made no guarantees.
After Mindy’s exit, the day was dull beyond anything. It was February, the month of slush, when snow refused to melt. It turned gray and littered the ground in clumps. The lone white pine in White Pine Court scrubbed at the sky with bottle – brush branches, unable to clean it of half-frozen clouds.
Spencer heard Mindy’s parting words inside his head like a broken record. The dingy room was airless. His throat had a tickle. Whiskey did nothing to quell the fever, but it soothed the tickle. He forgot to cough. He slept for twenty-four hours.
At last, he was well enough to go out. And hungry. After lunch at the Chinese buffet, where the staff wore neon smiles and talked in high-pitched voices, he found himself next door in a thrift shop, staring at a rack of pants marked Clearance. The pants were all size L, XL, or multiples of X, too big for his skinny hips. An idea blinked on.
Spencer grabbed a pair of pants in a hideous shade of yellow, then looked for a shirt and necktie. Nothing ought to match. The shirt he picked was plaid and the tie was broadly striped. What did they say about wearing stripes and plaid? A mortal sin that sent you straight to hell. A bulbous hat like a giant mushroom, the poisonous kind with spots. The biggest, baddest shoes he could find, like a pair of pontoons.
In the tiny fitting room with its full-length mirror, Spencer assessed the effect at close range. Was he a sex pervert or a lovable tramp? Creepy clown or Charlie Chaplin? The costume would need tweaking. Also some safety pins, stuffing, and practice.
The cashier had a scar across one cheek and an air of having been on her feet for several days. Weary unto death, she took Spencer’s crumpled bills and shoved his purchase in a plastic bag. If he wanted to buy this pile of crap, far be it from her to stop him.
Back at White Pine Court, Spencer did some research. There were websites for clown apparel and accessories. Makeup, wigs, flowers that squirted from a wide lapel, gloves like prostheses, and noses like rubber balls. Photos in ads for Goofball Gus, and Mr. Scooper with his sidekick dog Pooper, also in clown gear. There were clown clubs and clown support groups. There were opportunities to perform at day care centers, hospital wards for children, senior assisted living units, and low-security prisons. Was a captive audience better than none?
There were women dressed as clowns, which gave Spencer pause. A clown was male by definition. Were they transgender clowns, asexual beings? He shivered.
Spencer had a part-time job. Afternoons and evenings, he sold popcorn and snacks in a movie theater lobby. It was duty that left him free to dream. In his spare time, he used to walk the streets and loiter.
Now Spencer had a mission. In the motel room, he worked on his costume and accessories. Some decisions were easy. He ditched the wig, since the hat would hide it. No twirling cane—too cliché. No patter or music—the act would be purely visual.
He decided on a handkerchief as a prop, a big one he could flutter and wave, make into a bouquet, pretend to sniff, then sneeze and blow his nose on. His moves were a parody of suave sophistication. His clown persona was a boulevardier with two left feet, a slim young man without a clue.
In the thrift shop again, he found a black tail coat and slipped it on. He wiggled and flopped and thrust. The spastic jerks became a kind of dance, high-stepping, knees up, elbows turned out. The cashier stared. On the street, he spotted a toddler in shoes that twinkled around the sole.
Spencer got needle and thread, scissors and pliers, and electrical tape. He was skilled with tools and do-it-yourself projects. Had he missed his calling? He fitted his oversize shoes with miniature bulbs from a Christmas tree set. He ran a wire up the leg of his pants to a switch in a pocket. His daffy dance was his signature. His working name was Twinkletoes.
Spencer was too scared to wear the full rig outside. And the hat kept falling off. But the need to go public grew urgent.
In costume, he practiced in the court of White Pine Court, normally deserted. He walked up and down the asphalt lane between parked cars. He got into the swing. His arms and legs went rubbery.
What would Mrs. Patel in the office think? The Indian lady was discreet about her clientele, never a word about their goings-on, so long as the rent was paid. She never smiled, but she never betrayed impatience, either. She observed him through the little window, saw him rehearse, and then said nothing. Residents ignored him. It was going to be okay.
He couldn’t settle on how to paint his face. In clown illustrations, the base was white, with exaggerated eyes and brows painted on, a false nose, big lips, and maybe a tear running down each cheek. Spencer tried different moods, used his face as a canvas. The hobo look was wrong, and so was the blank-faced mime. The insane clown was out of the question. He gave himself a big smile, sparkling eyes, and twirled-up brows.
“I dare you to take it outside,” he said to the medicine cabinet. He was excited.
It was Saturday morning, April. The snow had melted, the sky was light blue, and the breeze bore the scent of flowering trees. He stepped outside and lurched down the stair like a frogman in flippers to White Pine Court. He limbered up and hit the street.
A few blocks of shuffling and hip-swinging got him jazzed. Main Street was crowded with people walking, enjoying the spring weather. They relaxed and chatted. Strollers were full of squirming children. Sidewalk vendors sprouted like crocuses.
Twinkletoes ambled and flapped his shoes. Secretly, he switched them on. He executed a neat turn. He bowed to a fire hydrant. He tipped his hat to a mailbox. Children giggled. Their parents laughed out loud. He felt dizzy and faint, but in the groove.
Twinkletoes had skipped breakfast. There was no food in the apartment. Working on the clown project, Spencer had logged few hours at the movie theater. His savings were depleted. He was down to eating snacks lifted from the lobby. He was scraping by, living on air, dodging fate by the skin of his teeth.
Among the crowd on Main Street, a pert young woman in a trench coat cinched at the waist paused to watch the clown dance. Pretty good, she thought. She got the Twinkletoes joke right away. The costume was hilarious — this guy went to a lot of trouble. Was he ever going to stop and hold out his hat for money? Wait a minute, could that be . . .
Thrown off-balance by Mindy’s voice, he lurched sideways into the street, in the path of an ice cream truck.
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Bangalore Review, Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Poydras Review, Short Fiction (UK). Visit his blog for more.