As we ate lunch, I told her that the hardest thing in the world was to make people laugh.
She didn’t believe me, but she flew on the trapeze and had an eye for the sword-swallower who dined on flame in his spare time.
Those blades can kill, she said. You just have tumbling moves and seltzer bottles.
If a clown doesn’t get the laugh, I said, that’s it, no career.
She had been one of those kid gymnasts, short and slender and bestowed with too much pressure at a young age. She was good, but never good enough for medals. I liked her because we’d both known that stress, the childhood burden of wanting.
When I told her this she said it wasn’t the same.
I was competing, she said.
I was too, I said, for the title of class clown.
No, she said, that’s different.
All of us in the circus were there because we needed to be watched, because we craved that treacherous moment in the limelight. She worked with a net for safety. I wouldn’t have asked her to do without one, but we all knew people wanted to see the real danger: if she’d miss the bar. They were waiting for me to make them laugh. They were waiting for her to die.
We were in Kandrakar, which sounded like it should have been a city in some Asian country instead of Indiana. Our nights were tired and boring, too many of us just wanted a drink after each performance. Clowns are faster than you’d think to pick fights; stuffed in that little car so much of the time we got on each other’s nerves.
At the time our act was a camping skit. We tumbled into the circus campground to pitch a tent, fish for dinner, start a fire. It ended with a guy in a bear costume running after us. I was in charge of the fire, tried to light one but it kept going out. During the skit I was doused with seltzer a few times and chased by the bear.
I watched her during our breaks. She flung her body through the air with grace, though she said that weightlessness made her too aware of weight.
Laughter made me too aware of silence.
You need to find yourself a down-to-earth woman, he said. Trapeze artists are fickle.
I shrugged him away, but now I know he had a point. I always wanted attention from people who didn’t give it to me. The real trick, the real prize, was catching their gaze.
You’d respect me if I could breathe fire, I told her.
Don’t be silly, she said, do what you do. Fire is dangerous. It takes years of practice.
I’ve been practicing my craft for years, I told her.
That’s true, she said and tore the crusts off her sandwich.
She didn’t appreciate the difficulty of my job, just because it was harder for a clown to physically die. But there are many kinds of death. I never told her my worst nightmare was being fired from the show and spending the rest of my life as a bank teller. Maybe I should have said that. Maybe she would have understood me.
I wanted people to realize the treachery of clowning. No one in my family did. Not my parents. Not my brother. They laughed and said I must be having a great time, that it was the best job in the world for me. And sometimes the circus was great, but it was more work and stress than they could imagine.
When you’re a clown you take laughter seriously. That was always in me, a compulsion and not a choice. Even in high school. You don’t know how hard the class clown works. There is pressure to maintain the role once you have it. There can’t be a day when you don’t feel like being a smartass. When I was a teenager I woke up each morning sweating, almost ready to throw up. I didn’t understand why until I was clowning professionally and had that same feeling.
What if some day I was not funny? Lose the title of class clown, and all I’d forfeit was the title and a place in the yearbook. In the circus it was my job.
I had to keep it fresh. I needed new routines. What hadn’t they seen before? Most people had seen everything. It made the job that much harder. That was why we clowns drank after the show. To float above those thoughts for a while.
Real clowns don’t laugh much.
Frank was toasted the night he got on me about the trapeze artist and why the fuck I was clinging to her.
There are a lot of better women around, he said.
It was the “better women” thing that got to me. I thought Frank was a great guy, a great clown, but love does strange things to people. A couple other clowns had to hold me back so I didn’t deck him.
I said I needed some air.
Everyone agreed it was a good idea.
Half drunk, I marched around in the humid Indiana night.
That’s when I figured out how to get her attention.
How to improve the act.
I had learned some tricks in those few circus years.
I knew I could thrill people.
I was also sick of entertaining children. In high school I was a real jerk, especially to my brother’s friends. They were six years younger, too easy to taunt. When they came over to play with my brother, I stole their money, called them names, made them cry, and teased them for it all over again.
The kids parading around me at the circus were penance for that behavior. I had to be nice to them even though they whined and cried and screamed to get another lollipop. The darlings.
I needed an outlet. To be respected for the difficulty of my profession, I had to do something that looked harder but was indeed more simple.
I started practicing for my new trick the next night. It got me away from Frank and the guys and the booze, which wasn't a bad idea. To start I used water, filled my mouth over and over and sprayed the liquid out. I had to make a strong fine mist, not a jet because the flame could travel back. I used a small metal torch, just a foot long with a cloth tied at the end for a wick. I lit the cloth and held the torch at arm’s length, tilted my head at a forty-five degree angle and sprayed water at the flame, keeping my lips tight to create fine droplets. When I switched to fuel there’d be less danger of the fire erupting close to my face.
Have you decided to drink alone, Frank asked me after a couple days, or are you with that lady friend?
No, I said, I just need time alone.
Oh, he said and scrunched his eyebrows. I hope I didn’t upset you too much.
I’m fine, I said, but I continued to stay away from the trailer, practice my new art until two in the morning.
When I was satisfied with the water trick I switched to using real fuel, paraffin lamp oil because it had a lower burn temperature than kerosene and would be less likely to kill me if I swallowed it. I sprayed the oil in the same way I’d sprayed water, a neat mist that made the torch erupt in a ball of flame.
Breathing fire was easier than clowning. I had to be careful around the flame, but the audience reaction was guaranteed. Even my flier friend would be impressed. Comedy is more difficult to achieve since it's not universal. It's far simpler to make people gasp or cry than to make them laugh, though no one but we clowns knew that. We rehearsed our act until we knew every eyebrow twitch, every sight gag, but our fear remained the same: the fear of silence. We were nervous individuals, knew every audience had to be charmed. It was a war for their smiles. Every guffaw was victory.
It's a wonder we didn't drink more.
My plan to use fire in the campground act was ingenious. I already had a stick with marshmallows for a prop, and I practiced holding the stick alongside my lit torch, spewing fuel from my mouth so a ball of flame toasted the marshmallows. When I performed with the other clowns I practiced sneaking in paraffin and a torch and matches hidden in my pockets. The plastic paraffin bottle wasn’t hard to conceal, and while it wasn’t comfortable to stick the unlit torch up my sleeve, it was short enough to manage.
After a week of spewing paraffin oil into the flame I had no eyebrows and needed to put salve on my lips because of a few slight burns, but I was good enough to make my debut, good enough to explain my plan to the rest of the guys. I didn’t have the best timing, waited until after the show when everyone was drunk. They didn’t think I was serious.
After another shot or two I’ll be able to breathe fire, said Frank.
The other clowns roared laughter, slapped him on the back, and offered me a beer. I refused the bottle. It was fine with me, they could believe my fire-breathing was all drunken delusion until I performed in the show.
I was afraid my trapeze artist friend would see the redness around my mouth when we ate lunch, but she didn’t mention it.
I can’t wait to leave, she said. It’s too boring here. There’s nowhere to go at night.
That’s why they need a circus, I said.
I suppose, she said, but I’ll be glad to move on.
I don’t know why she didn’t notice the burns, but I was happy she didn’t look too close because I would have had to explain them. Then again, part of me wanted her to look closer, scrutinize the lines around my eyes and mouth. I wanted her to be interested in the details of me.
But I would have to be content with spectacle.
Some of the other clowns sniggered at me after the show that evening. I knew what they were thinking about, but I didn’t say anything.
I was ready to perform my revised act on our second-to-the-last night in Indiana. The torch was secure. The matches were secure. The paraffin was secure. I had my stick of marshmallows and my vision. It was Friday, a huge crowd, the perfect time for my debut as we began our nightly havoc. I palmed my paraffin bottle and matches in the same hand where I held the marshmallow stick. I was ready, took that swig of oil, pulled the torch from my sleeve, lit the wick, and held the torch and marshmallow stick side by side. The ring was such chaos that few people noticed me until I spewed that paraffin through the flame as I’d been practicing so many nights in the field beside the fairgrounds.
When breathing fire it is important to test the direction and speed of the wind. I’m not sure what happened because the air in the tent seemed perfectly still. Two seconds after toasting the marshmallows I heard a gasp from the crowd and felt the prick on my scalp. My wig was on fire, a synthetic puffball in flame. I didn’t feel pain, just dropped to my knees and rolled on the ground to extinguish my head. I don’t know who threw the blanket over me. Possibly Frank.
When he visited me in the hospital the next day he said that some of the audience members thought it was part of the act, applauded until the ambulance came.
What you did it was impressive, he said. Even though you’re a fucking idiot.
I didn’t know if she would visit me. I didn’t know if the circus would renew my contract.
It didn’t matter.
Frank touched my shoulder, a good place to touch since it didn’t hurt.
The guys told me to tell you to take care, he said and bowed his head for a moment.
It wasn’t just about her, I said.
We know, he said.
Frank and I looked at each other for a moment and nodded. In that space between us was all the seriousness of laughter.
|© Teresa Milbrodt, 2014