When The Circus Comes To Town

I detest and fear clowns. I don't know the reason, but he does...the one leading the parade down Main Street in his baggy checkered pants, gigantic shoes, and ridiculously tiny bowler hat perched on his marmalade hair. Onlookers roar as he falls over his own feet, but the granite eyes fixed on my face contain no hint of merriment.

No matter where I stand in the crowd, he finds me. Every year, he finds me. Deftly tumbling head-over-heels, he acknowledges the applause, but his gaze returns. He pulls down the corners of his brightly painted smile. His cosmetic mask is now sad and melancholy, but the sorrow is mine, not his, and he is merely reminding me of that.

"Roll up," cries the barker, hawking his tickets. I am first in line. "One?" he asks, flaunting an oily grin punctuated with flashes of gold.

I nod, saying, "One for each performance."

He hands me four tickets. "That's what I call a true circus fan," he says. I shrug. I can buy them now or later, there's little difference. I'll be at every show because I don't have a choice in the matter.

The same seat is always vacant in the first row, but that's no surprise. It's where he wants me to sit. The first three performances are the calm before the storm, so why he wants me there at each of them, I have no idea...but then there's much about him that eludes me.

The clown outdoes himself during the final show. He has never been funnier, more doltish, or more sinister, but I'm the only one who recognizes the latter. He shuffles across the sawdust circle clutching a pail of water and then trips. It's part of the act. Those in the closest seats cover their heads, but there's no need. The contents of the bucket are always intended for me.

Miraculously, the water transforms into sequined sparkles which glitter in the spotlight like multi-colored dust motes. They cling to my hair and shower upon my skin, each one delivering a sly pinch or a spiteful nip. The clown winks and darts his tongue at me like a snake toying with a helpless mouse. When he tires of the game, I am free to go.

Seated on the park bench, I wait for the clown to appear. In the distance, I hear the whistle of the circus train, but he's not on board. I can only assume he catches up with it later. My vigil is a short one. He peeks round the old oak in the middle of the green. I never remember he'll materialize there until I actually see him, and then I wonder how I could ever have possibly forgotten.

He beckons with a thick finger...a fat, oversized sausage stuffed into the white casing of his glove. I go, not only because I'm unable to do otherwise, but because this could be the year he'll tell me what I must know.

As I reach the tree, he kneels down so we are eye-to-eye. I never seem to remember he's that tall either, until then. The anger and hostility I feel overcome the dread and I claw at his face. My sole desire, to rip off the mask in order to confront the monster who lurks beneath.

There are globs of white make-up lingering under my nails and my palms are smeared with red greasepaint...but the clown is gone. As always, I begin to doubt that he was ever really there at all.

I slide down the trunk of the oak and pull my knees to my chin. "Will you never tell me?" I ask. The question is carried upward to the leaves, where it rustles drily...reminiscent of the pale-blue taffeta dress I used to wear on special outings when I was five or six years old. The echo brings no comfort and certainly provides no answer.

"Never tell," it repeats in the quavering voice of a small child making a desperate promise.

"Never tell."

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