“Dats right, genius,” muttered Jeckles, flicking his cigar ash onto the gravel. “We iz a dyin breed, we iz.”
From the lawn chair beside his Winnebago, Jeckles eyed the bloody sun slipping down into the thin pines ringing the fairground lot. A red-and-white greasepaint target stretched across his sagging jowls. From his Yankees cap, a string of gray hair hung down.
“I didn’t get into dis racket to be ad-mired.” He squeezed out the last syllable from his smeared lips. “Lemme tell ya, Hemingway, night shifts iz da worst. All dose drunkass punks.”
I snuck a glance down at my notepad. I could barely make out the scribbles by the undulating LED’s of The Zipper. This freelance piece was my best shot to climb back behind my desk at the Daily News and show my ex I still had the stuff.
“Where’d you grow up?”
“Buffalo wuz my home sweet home,” Jeckles moaned, tilting back. “Dats where I roamed, see? My Ma and Pa, da two of dem wuz carny freaks. He’d stick dis long needle all da way through his arm, and she’d hang a big cement block from her tongue.” He thrust out his fat red tongue. “Like dis.”
I was getting dizzy from the smell of deep-fry grease and horse droppings. I could feel my eyes start to close.
“But it wuz no circus growing up dere, lemme tell ya. Dose other kidz made my childhood a livin misery. Boo hoo. Wanna here my sob story so youz can put it in yer story and get rich?”
I could only nod.
He folded his arms across his chest. “One day after school, dese two older kidz hung me by da collar from a spike on dis telephone pole. I wuz up dere for what seemed like hours before my Ma heard me hollerin and yanked me down. It was just like dat Pieta in Rome, both of us blubberin away like nobody’s bizness.”
His voice had melted into the chorus of air compressors, hoots of laughter, and blared megaphone come-ons. The sky had gone pitch black, the tops of rides sparking into the sky.
When I came to, Jeckles’ chair sat empty. I stood up and looked around. Strips of colored lights had set the whole midway on fire: the stands for fried dough and Italian sausage, the Bottle Bust and Frog Bog. Packs of teens ranged across the beaten-down grass. Young moms with gold hoop earrings and black leather pants pushed strollers, while their boyfriends lugged gigantic, plush pink bunnies or llamas.
A familiar voice rang out. “Hey dere ballplayer! I need me a ballplayer!”
There was Jeckles perched on a swing above his dunk tank, shouting into a hidden mic.
“I’m high and dry. Gimme some love!”
A crowd had formed a ring around him, pointing their cellphones over their heads at him like a concert.
He singled out a scraggly girl walking by with a nose ring and Metallica t-shirt.
“Hey Goth Girl!” he hollered at her. “Da ’80s called, dey want youz to come home.”
The crowd snickered. She looked up, frowned, then went back to her phone and kept going.
“Whoa, dude, ya been hittin da gym?” He waved at a hefty guy in a blue EMT uniform with reflective stripes around his cuffs. “What’s ya been liftin, Big Macs?”
That got a laugh, and EMT Guy fished out his wallet and passed a five to Jeckles’ front man, a dude in a cowboy hat, with feathery hair leaking out like Willie Nelson. He handed EMT Guy three baseballs from the rack.
“Easy, don’t give yerself an infarction, huh big guy?” Jeckles taunted. EMT Guy whomped the first ball against the canvas backdrop.
“Ya ever figure out who stole yer neck? Ya look like an armpit with eyeballs!” Bang went ball two against the skinny ladder.
“Yoohoo! Gym dude! Over here!” Jeckles sang, pointing to the round metal target. EMT Guy nailed the last throw, and Jeckles whooshed down into the tank, then crawled right back up, sputtering and shaking himself off. “Come on, whoz next? Who wants ta play ball?”
He picked out a woman up front with a helmet of gray hair. “Hey granny, ya looks great! Ya been losin height?”
She clapped and burst out laughing, then jostled the arm of the retiree in the scooter next to her.
Then he spotted me off to the side. “Hey dere, Professor! Ya finish yer best-seller yet?”
I sucked in a breath. My half-finished novel was buried under English 101 essays, all I could get after the Daily News went digital.
A few couples nearby swiveled to watch. I tucked my notebook in my pocket.
“Come on, take a shot, Mr. Writer! What ya waitin for, da Nobel call at five a.m.?”
That got a chuckle, and more heads turned toward me.
“It’s only a five-spot, right Roy?”
Roy the front man nodded and fanned out three balls between the knuckles of his right hand.
“Ya pop dat bulls-eye,” cooed Jeckles. “I sink or swim.”
I looked around. I thought I saw my ex’s blond swirl at the back of the crowd. I froze in place.
“Cmon, Hemingway, drown da rude rude clown! Be a big man and show us what youz got! Drown da clown! Drown da clown!”
The crowd closed in around me and started to chant along with him, their bright faces bobbing like balloons. I felt for my wallet. “
Drown da clown! Drown da clown!”
A wave of nausea hit me, fed by the swirling lights and the sweet-sickly smell of spun sugar and stale vomit. My eyes blurred.
I lurched forward, slapped down a five, and grabbed the baseballs from Roy. I could feel hot tears at the corner of my eyes. Right in front of me, Jeckles was rocking back and forth on his swing, hollering, but I couldn’t make out anything to my left or right. The chants grew louder, their din muffling my ears.
I wanted to shout, cry for help, but nothing came out.
Humiliated, half-blinded, I sank down, still clutching the baseballs. My knees hit the muddy ground. I could see EMT Guy’s reflective stripes head toward me. I could feel my dry mouth begin to form some words.
I was sure nobody could hear me whisper to EMT Guy as he bent down to feel my forehead. “I’m da clown. I’m da clown.”
Gary Duehr has taught writing for institutions including Boston University, Lesley University, and Tufts University. His MFA is from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. In 2001 he received an NEA Fellowship, and he has also received grants and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the LEF Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation.