I hadn’t considered the cotton candy machine. That was the worst part of being a clown—lugging the machine from my car, across their lawns, up their steps, into the houses. Its stainless steel was always red hot, burning the skin below my bra, even through the armor of the costume.
Things that some other people would have minded, I didn’t. I could deal with the makeup and the wig, even in the heat of the summer. I could deal with the parents and their disconnected way of speaking to me—the undertones. I could tune out the sounds of the dogs behind the bedroom doors, clawing and barking, desperate to be let out. It was a party, after all, and everyone wants to be invited to a party.
My true fear was the kids. Would I be able to face them again after what happened in Wooster? Could I deal with all those screaming, over-eager children? It turned out, that part was easy. All I had to do was plug in the cotton candy machine, dump in the mix, and let it all whir to life. I’d make them all some cotton candy, and they were mine then, and would do whatever I wanted.
After just an hour of kiddie entertainment, I was free to go, fifty dollars in my pocket. Then it was the struggle with the machine down the steps, across the lawn, through the sprinklers. The dogs would bark again from the windows, venetian blinds made crooked, nearly ripped down by paws and gnashing teeth. The dogs are always so frantic to get at you.
They’re not the only ones.
The children don’t ever think to wave goodbye. They are busy with the birthday cake. It’s timed that way.
Then, clown: take the wig off in the car. Wipe the makeup away. Remove the rainbow-striped costume in the back seat. Reveal your true identity layer by layer, however flawed it is. Pink skin. Sweat. A young body like a piece of music that no one notices just yet. Maybe by the time you die they will appreciate it. Sing along, buddy, sing along. Looking out the windows to see if the coast is clear, no leering lawn boys or ice cream truck men—quick, change into your little bikini, neon tetra, neon tetra, steam up the windows. Tune the radio. Start the car if you can. Meet your girlfriends at the beach.
Whatever lingering traces of the face paint remain around the edges of the eyelid and/or corners of the mouth, the ocean will wash from you.
That is love.
My father caught me coming down the stairs from my room. Touched my arm. This was serious.
“Sweetie, I want to talk to you.”
“I just wanted to say that I’m a little worried about something …” He was trying to be delicate with his wording. There’d been an impasse between us since his high school cheerleader came back an art-school weirdo.
“Go ahead,” I said, worrying it’d be about me getting an AIDS test.
Instead, my dad said, “Ya know, just a warning. Clowns usually wind up becoming alcoholics.”
“Okay, so just—please watch your drinking.”
“Thanks.” It was awkward. He stands there looking at me, not sure who I am. I don’t know how to ease his worry about me. His hair is thin and grey. He’s shrunk 3/4 of an inch. I don’t wear earrings anymore, they’re at the bottom of some fountain. What happens is, everyone gets averaged out to a least common denominator by anyone who is even aware you exist. I am worried about being boring. I am worried about being reduced to something simpler than I could really be. He touches my wrist and I feel fine suddenly.
“I’m going for bagels,” dad says, “Would you like an everything?”
“Yes, everything,” I say.
The service sent me out as Cinderella, which was better. I didn’t have to drag around heavy props. I could dust on a regular dosage of human-flavored makeup. I got to wear a big wig, which is always something I like. My hair is thin, I hate it. I like having a big head. Add some fake eyelashes, a long beautiful gold gown and some clear plastic slippers, and I couldn’t be ‘work’ happier.
The crux was that I had to park the car a few blocks away and walk through the neighborhood in my gown, creating an illusion for the kids. Cinderella wouldn’t drive a brown Dodge Omni in real life, would she?
People walking their dogs would bust out laughing. Boys in loud import cars idled up next to me, saying they want to show me their pumpkin. Even the mailman had some commentary, “I Like your costume.”
“I like yours too,” I said, eyes on fire until he looks down at his mailman shoes.
The party was tame. Little girls, all happy to see me. We drank fruit punch, pretending it was tea. They were asking tons of questions about Prince Charming. How many ponies did I own? Could I fly? Did I personally know Alice? Was I close friends with Snow White? Of course I know her, she’s my best friend. Were her dwarves as short in real life? Shorter. Snow White herself is a dwarf. The dwarves are just slightly bigger than microscopic.
After the party, the mother and father herd me into the guest room. They had a few points they wanted to discuss before they paid me and released me back into the wild.
“You were really good,” the mother said. “You’re a natural. How old are you?”
“Perfect. This a summer job for college?”
“I want to give you our card. We have our own business.”
She handed me a red card that said, TEMPTATIONS.
“We’re always looking for girls with as much talent as you,” the father said, stroking his beard.
“You have such a nice figure. Your tits are great. They are such great tits. Have you ever considered stripping?” the mother asked.
“No,” I said.
“You should. I can tell you have great legs even with that gown.”
“Call us. You’ll love the money,” he said.
Then, I walked down the street, the sun reflecting off my dress and tiara and my long white gloves. I was lit up, impossibly bright and couldn’t stay out of sight, though I tried, believe me. My car was only a few blocks away, it felt like a thousand miles. There are no shadows that time of day. Everything was obvious, everything was exposed.
I could have stayed in Wooster, but things hadn’t worked out. My friend hooked me up with a job at the daycare center where she worked.
The kids were psycho, possessing more kinetic energy than I can explain. They ripped at my blouse, pulled my hair, flung things at me. I remember, helping a boy put blocks away and while I was bent over, one of them jumped on my back. Wild. Feral. A Little whirlwind I could not contain. I tried to get him off me but he wouldn’t let go. Then the teeth sunk in, piercing me so hard, there was blood.
I quit that job on the spot. Stop on a dime.
That night, I stood in the bathroom looking at my wound in a mirror reflected in a mirror, my blouse crumbled on the tile floor. My shoulder was so swollen I couldn’t wear my bra. I felt the puffy flesh, throbbing, pulsing, amplified a hundred times over.
When I went to the doctor, he wouldn’t give me tetanus shots or rabies shots for it. He thought it was funny I would ask. “Kids don’t have rabies …”
As I drove south, my little car shook on the highway at moderately high speeds, I felt worthless having to admit defeat and return to live in my parents house, facing the silent wrath of their non-judgement.
I was in a cowboy suit. A massive helmet obscuring my entire head, a wide brimmed hat affixed to the top. I could see out of two small holes. It was hot and my breath in the cowboy head refracted back like a furnace. I slowly waved at the cars passing on the road as they drove towards the beach. Behind me was a pharmacy that had a little window that sold ice cream cones.
I waved anonymously. I could have been anyone. At one point, I saw Jesse and Callie drive by in the convertible. They were on their way to the water. I very much wanted to be with them. I waved, they waved back. They had no idea that it was me. I could have been anyone.
A gang of little boys rolled up on BMXs.
“Look at this loser!” one kid yelled.
I just waved. They had a plan for me.
The next thing I know, I’m getting pushed around. They’re knocking into me with their bikes, kicking me in the legs, shoving me. I collapse onto the asphalt. I’m punched in the stomach, hard. I feel the giant cowboy helmet jarring to the side. I yell at them to stop, they don’t. They just kept beating on me. They’re frothing at the mouth in violent excitement. Kick after kick gets buried deep in my stomach. They stomp my neck, my hands—but when the cowboy head is ripped off, and cool air and sunlight rush in—they gasp in surprise.
“IT’S A GIRL!”
They fling the cowboy helmet out into traffic, then flee on their BMXs. Hurt. I lay there, lightly sobbing, dizzy and shocked. When I finally get up and drag myself to the window, the ice cream girl doesn’t say anything. She just looks at me like, so? She points at my cowboy head in the middle of the road.
A truck had run it over, crushing it and splitting it apart all at the same time.
I sat alone at the kitchen table. I took the red business card out of my purse. For a long time, I studied the card, also listening to the air conditioner, the sprinklers out in the yard, a bird in a tree. Wooooooo. Woooooooo. I looked down at my breasts that were almost resting on the table. I felt my legs under the table. I could be very good. I had the right body. I liked to entertain children. Men were like children, weren’t they?
I folded the card in half, tucking it back in my purse. I opened the newspaper and looked through the Help Wanted Section instead: cashier, clerk, wild bird seed saleswoman, newspaper delivery—anything else.
The service was making me pay for the cowboy head. The joke was on them though, I still had their cotton candy machine in the trunk of my car. They had no idea, but I didn’t make any more cotton candy. Fried Paradise eventually took me in. I worked the register and made french fries, shrimp baskets, drumsticks, thighs, breasts, wings.
When I sold the cotton candy machine in the fall on Craigslist, it turned out to be enough money for two books that I needed that semester.