by Matthew Sheahan
Barney & Blythe’s Five-Ring Circus was in its second week of playing New York’s Madison Square Garden and despite a few animal rights groups protesting outside and sometimes causing a scene, everything was running smoothly.
James O’Donnell was the security chief for the circus, and his small staff was augmented by that of the local venue. In this case, Madison Square Garden’s security staff was formidable. There were also NYPD officers there, overtime pay at the expense of B&B.
“We’re getting a report that one of the clowns exposed themselves and urinated on the floor in the upper mezzanine,” came one of the radio calls.
O’Donnell snapped to and went into action. He told Garden security to search for the culprit. Then he notified the police, took one of his deputies and headed to the upper mezzanine. Something like this had to be dealt with quickly. He was fairly certain that unless one of the Bailey & Blythe clowns had some kind of medical emergency, it was not one of the circus’ clowns. There were clowns that worked the crowds, but most didn’t go that far away from the ring, since they had to be a short distance from the action at all times. Every one of the clowns passed a rigorous background check. On top of that, being a B&B Five-Ring clown was a rigorous selection process only available to the graduates of the top clown colleges, of which there were only three in the U.S. and one in Italy.
This was well into the first part of the show. On his way to the upper mezzanine, he got confirmation from the first ringmaster’s assistant that none of the B&B clowns were missing. No one had called in sick; everyone had made every call and cue.
When he and his deputy got to the upper mezzanine, the urine was already cleaned up and the police were taking a statement from a man and a small girl. He spoke with one of his guards.
“They say a clown whipped it out and took a piss right here and then went out that exit there,” said the guard. “I sent a few guys down to try to find him but I think he left pretty fast. One of the guys is outside now looking for him. That exit stairway only goes outside. He couldn’t get back in from there.”
“He could still be outside causing problems. Let’s get a few more guys outside. I think NYPD is going to send out a description to their people soon,” O’Donnell said.
“The clown pissed on me!” the victim was yelling. A large dark spot on the front of his pants was still spreading.
“I was scolding my daughter about how she was complaining about going to the bathroom, and the clown taps me on the shoulder and he pissed on me!” the man said, shaking with rage. “I yelled at him and he just zipped up and walked away, giving me a mean look. I ran back over here and I called for security.”
“Did he menace your daughter in any way?” asked the officer.
“I’m sure she’s in shock! This is not supposed to happen at this circus! He made it look like I pissed myself! I have to travel home like this! What kind of circus has clowns like this?!?”
“We’re pretty sure it’s an intruder and not one of the circus clowns,” said the cop. “We’re going to put out a bulletin and there is already security looking for him.”
An all-points-bulletin went out for a middle-aged or elderly balding white male wearing clown makeup and glasses. The police sent some extra officers to find the suspect, but nothing came of the search. The police made a sketch of the suspect, including a version without makeup, based on the description given by the angry father.
Two weeks later, the Big Ring Circus was in the middle of its week-long stay in Scranton, Pennsylvania. A family of five was outside the tent in the midway area stocking up on snacks and souvenirs when the father spotted a clown off by himself juggling.
“Excuse me! Clown!” called the father. “Let’s get three of those balloon sculptures over here!”
The clown appeared not to hear him, and continued juggling by himself, away from everyone else.
“Hey!” the father said again before letting out two sharp whistles to get the clowns attention. “You, the one juggling! We need some balloon sculptures over here!”
The clown continued to juggle.
“Come with me kids. This clown is going to make you some balloon animals.” The father led his brood to the lonesome clown.
“Here we are! The clown here is going to make you some balloon animals. Won’t that be fun?”
“Yay!!” sang his spoiled children.
“OK, let’s have a dog and a couple of giraffes,” said the father as he opened a box of popcorn and began stuffing its contents into his mouth. “And hurry up; we want to take our seats soon.”
The clown stopped juggling and calmly put his juggling balls into one of his pockets and then slowly drew a balloon from another pocket. He began to stretch the balloon and then started blowing, making the balloon long and filled with air. He inflated the balloon until it was swollen with air and fragile with tension. Then he calmly clapped his hands together to destroy the balloon.
The loud POP jolted the group, the father’s popcorn raining down on the clean-combed heads of his children. His wife dropped one of the sodas she was carrying.
“That’s out of line!” the father scolded the clown. “I’m going to have a word with your supervisor if you don’t make with those balloon animals.”
A few seconds later, the clown was ready with the second full balloon to pop, and he calmly popped it and reached for another while the father vowed to tell the management and get the clown in trouble.
A few minutes later, security was on the spot where the clown had been, but found no trace of him, save the eyewitness accounts.
Grandpa the clown wears blue khaki pants pulled up to his chest, a striped casual shirt, dark or argyle socks and black orthopedic shoes. He has silver hair that is balding with a very bad and obvious comb-over. His makeup consists of a big grey circle around his mouth and cheeks, a red nose, red lips painted into a frown, and silver circles around the eyes marked with thick black lines denoting bags under the eyes. He wears small-framed glasses that look almost like bifocals. There were a few grainy security camera photographs of him and a sketch that was circulated among the security departments of the circuses, but no one had any information about him. Some suspected he was a disgruntled circus employee of some kind and a few of the older clowns maybe had a few ideas of people who left the business on bad terms, but no one knew much about Grandpa the Clown.
It was hours before Arthur Guard’s Big Top Circus was set to begin and one of the trainers was frustrated with Old Jim, the circus’ oldest and largest elephant. Old Jim was slow and confused, and should have been retired years ago, but the budget was tight and they couldn’t afford a new elephant. The trainer, an angry and frustrated type with little patience, was taking the whip to Old Jim pretty good. The trainer laid into the pachyderm with gusto, cursing him the whole time. As the whip cracked, a clown appeared and was putting on large glove. The trainer continued laying into Old Jim, cracking the whip on his tired back.
“You damn dumb animal,”—crack—“Old and dumb as dirt!—crack—.
“You ain’t seen nothing y—ump!
Without warning, the clown slammed the trainer in the face with a heaping handful of elephant dung. The trainer fell on his back, rolled over, and began coughing and vomiting. The clown continued on his way as if he were taking a casual stroll, peeling off the protective glove and letting it drop on the ground behind him.
After the video of the elephant dung incident was made public, news about Grandpa the Clown traveled far and wide. Grandpa became a folk hero and a holy grail among underground culture watchers. There were enough photos and eyewitness accounts of Grandpa to weed out the many imitators that sprung up over the years.
Eventually though, someone found him and approached him. They arrived outside of his home and knew his real name. Taken aback, he politely listened to them. They explained how he had become a cultural phenomenon and held immediate and possibly lucrative pop culture cache. They urged him to appear and embrace the public that so venerated him. They offered him a lot of money.
“Oh, my God! Guess what! The real Grandpa the Clown is coming out of retirement and doing a show at the Highline Deluxe Lounge!”
Tickets cost $100 and the Highline Deluxe Lounge was a well-furnished venue of decadence that allowed only those 21 years of age or older.
Tickets sold briskly and it was a packed house when Grandpa arrived. A professional crew had followed his instructions and installed all of his props, including a dozen very heavy barrels outfitted with lights and electronics stationed throughout the venue.
Grandpa steps on stage to thunderous applause. He juggles for a while, endures hecklers calling for him to commit acts of violence. He makes some balloon animals and hands them out to docent young women. The young women gesture and pose with their balloon animals, embracing and celebrating their own childishness.
Grandpa the Clown walks over to his suitcase and takes out a cell phone. He opens it with a flourish and, in big sweeping gestures, begins to press the number keys.
There is a flash of white light as an obliterating force overcomes the audience, which feels nothing. The show is over.
Giggles the Clown played by the rules and worked well. Clowning was very satisfying. The best part about the Big Ring Circus is that it paid well and it was a non-profit circus that did lots of charity events for children and visited sick children in the hospital. That was where the trouble began.
I kept coming back to one girl with leukemia. Meredith.
Meredith was seven years old. I was her favorite; she kept asking for me. I think it was the way I danced and didn’t say much and made balloons. Too many of my colleagues tried to come on larger than life and not do what they normally do best. The horror of the situation there is such that it’s tempting to mug and overact and try to get the big laughs soon. All that has its place, no doubt, but I knew what I was good at and it wasn’t the big pratfalls, it was the consistent and subdued presence that made me likeable, at least to the right people.
Yes, I was her favorite, and I kept going back to see her. Things were looking good; you can see the healing power of laugher and smiling on the patients. Really, you can.
We were getting ready to go back to that hospital, when the ringmaster and the general manager called me into the office. I thought they wanted to talk to me about next season; I had submitted some good ideas for new routines.
“Meredith didn’t make it, Earl. Sorry about that. Here’s information about the family and services if you want it,” the general manager told me. She was being nice; better to let me know ahead of time rather than to see an empty bed where my favorite patient used to be.
They warn you not to get too attached and wrapped up in what’s happening to the kids and how some of them may not make it. I knew that. But once that hit me I couldn’t go back. Nothing could be the way it was anymore. I lived a lie to her and my clowning did nothing but at the end make her feel betrayed and scared. I couldn’t go back. I did away with Giggles. I quit. They let me go home that day and I never went back, not to get any of my things. I don’t even remember if I sent them a letter or even answered their calls. I took odd jobs and found something where I could make a decent living and not need the clown or the circus game anymore. I don’t want to live that way and bring happiness to the smug and undeserving faces that pack into the seats.
I bring a small taste of justice to the spoiled and the unworthy. I am a real friend to children because I refuse to smother their spirit with lies. Let them see that life is ugly, life is death. Let them see that there is not a smiling face around the corner waiting to make things feel better; those faces are false and their words are lies. I give them the truth: that their parents and teachers and clowns for hire are liars who are only going to betray them.
They will surely call me a monster. They watch children die and they smile and pretend it’s OK. How am I the monster?
Let them see the face of real life, the face of anger and disappointment and things never going your way. I am a performer for the real world, bringing truth to those who need it the most, those that are paying for a disgusting fantasy away from life. I am the sudden reminder of real life, smeared with paint to mirror their own altered faces, giving them a taste of the ugliness they’re paying to run away from.
Young people celebrate me and want to meet me, but they are just another version of what I rightfully despise. They are self-centered and delusional, riding for fun on a rotting world while horrors abound all around them. That I have rejected the blind, amoral existence that most of the world embraces has only made me a thing of sick entertainment for people.
I did what I did not because I thought I could change the world, but because my own sanity needed it. By striking out at the unjust I made peace with myself for the years I was a complacent accomplice to selling children the Big Pack of Lies.
This notoriety is not because people are interested in my work or take some satisfaction in the small measures of justice I managed to execute. The people today celebrate only themselves. They look to me as a gambler watches birds at a cockfight, or a cruel theater owner who makes minstrels bow and scrape. They laugh to let others hear them laugh, not because their hearts know real joy. They are the embodiment of our sick society anew.
My final act will be a violent lashing out at this culture of spoiled adult children. I will give them the performance this world deserves.