Short Story: Pagliacci Rising

Larry poked the dead clown with a stick.

“Remember when this clown was considered funny?” says Larry, wiping his brow with a dirty rag he found on the street.  Muddy features on a dark, cold afternoon.  Was it a Saturday?  Nobody knew anymore.  Larry poked the clown again, a feeble squeak barely registering somewhere on the body.  Larry’s mate Sweeny, a shadow of a man, coughed and spat on the ground.  Dark phlegm mingled with the dirt, a trace of blood standing out like a still viable vein.

“This clown owes me money,” says Sweeny.

“Everyone owes you money,” says Larry, sticking his finger up his nose and generously picking as he looks at Sweeny.  For a moment it appears that Sweeny might have a go, lash out physically, do his best to do him in.  He watches as logic spreads across Sweeny’s face, creases flattening, skin smoothing.  It’s a fight Sweeny can’t win.  He backs down.  Good call.

“I’m going to check his pockets,” says Sweeny.

“Yeah, nice one.”

Sweeny bends down, his tattered jacket covered in blood and coffee stains, hanging limply around his feet.  It was a nice jacket once.  Possibly the best jacket in the surrounding area, everyone said so, but Sweeny has no idea how to look after the good things.  In the end, everything is reduced to Sweeny’s level, clothes, outlooks, people.  He puts his hands inside the dead clown’s pockets.  They’re much deeper then they look.

“Get on with it, ya daft fool,” says Larry.  He looks at the blood on his hands.  He’d clean it off, but he likes how it looks.  It makes him feel proud, a badge of honour.  If people can’t cope with it, well, that’s their problem.  He earned this blood.  He’ll wear it with pride.  And if other arseholes are put off by it, scared by it, then that proves Larry’s point.  He’s a big man around here, watch out or you’ll end up feeling Larry’s wrath, his deep thoughts, the lashing of his tongue, the contempt of his stare.

“Mate, these pockets are deep.  Not much in them though,” says Sweeny.

“Typical clown,” says Larry.

“Wait a minute…”

Sweeny pulls out some fake teeth, some lint, a pocket knife, a handful of glitter and a handkerchief that feels like it is never going to end.  Sweeny gives up on the handkerchief.  We all know how that gag ends.  Larry grabs the teeth and slips them into his mouth.  He smiles a fake smile, that Hollywood smile that the clown once used to perfection when it entertained the kids.

“Do these suit me?” says Larry.

“If you want to look like a dickhead,” says Sweeny.

“Maybe I do.”

“Maybe you do.”

Above the crows begin to circle, their alien cry echoing throughout the tip and over into the dead town that lingers nearby.  They look down with their black eyes and pass secret judgements amongst themselves.  Larry looks past them at the hollowed-out husks of the town, the buildings that once flourished with colour and joy.  He farts loudly.  Sweeny laughs.  That city had its time.  It isn’t his responsibility that it faltered and fell apart.  He can’t be responsible for the misfortune of a dead city.

“I want his hair,” says Sweeny.

“Take it mate,” says Larry.

“And his buttons.”

“Take them too.”

“I will!”

“I know you will!”

Sweeny looks at the dead clown, scratching where his chin used to be.  Sweeny lost his chin many years ago, along with his cheekbones, his nose and most of his hair.  It didn’t happen all at once, instead it took play over the course of many decades, back in the day when he was beautiful and smart and when he was going to live forever.  He was full of colour.  He was full of life.  Full of energy.  Another time.  Another age.  A long, long time ago.

“Maybe I’ll start with the shoes,” says Sweeny.

“Of course, mate,” says Larry.

Sweeny struggles with the big, long, bright yellow shoes, covered in mud and blood.  They both squeak as they’re slipped off.  Sweeny holds them up to the overcast sky.  Big drops of rain fall, smacking Sweeny in the face with an insouciance that takes him by surprise.

“My eye!” says Sweeny.

“Calm down, dickhead,” says Larry.  “It’s just a rain drop.”

“That’s what it starts as mate,” says Sweeny.  “But what if someone walked past and saw that drop and then thought, fuck me, Sweeny’s having a little cry, like some kinda soft arsehole that other arseholes could take advantage of.  What happens when a rain drop is mistaken for a tear drop, mate?  What then?”

“Good point,” says Larry while pulling a crumpled packet of cigarettes from his crushed purple velour jacket.  Look hard enough and you can see the wine stains.  Go on.  Look really closely, right there.  You can see it, hidden amongst the rest of his secrets.  Larry lights the cigarette, puffs smoke into the air, suspended in a geometrically pleasing shape before being dispersed by the cool wind.

Sweeny puts the shoes on and looks down in disgust.

“They’re too big,” says Sweeny.

“They’re clown shoes!” says Larry.  “What did you expect, mate?”

Sweeny grumbles and begins to work on the belt buckle of the dead clown.  He wants the white pants covered in mud, blood, an unknown history.  As he removes the belt clasp, a shot of water shoots out from the buckle, hitting Sweeny in the eye.

“My eyes!” says Sweeny.

“Ya daft prick,” says Larry.  “That clown’s booby trapped.  You can’t trust them.”

Sweeny feels the water sting his eyes, like the last time he cried.  When was that?  He wipes the clown water from his face, his eyes continuing to sting.  When did he last cry?  He thinks it was that time he witnessed his own funeral, amongst the refuse of the dead city, nobody there to lament his passing, just two associates stripping him bare.  He thought of his ambition.  He thought of his gifts.  He thought of his life, the passing of opportunity that he took for granted, always looking for the easy buck.  Sweeny knew the world owed him and he was prepared to get what was his any way he could.  Tears were a weakness and he was glad he was alone to witness his demise.  That was a long, long time ago.

Larry walks to the top of the tip and looks at the dead city.  Where had all the people gone?  He knew where some went, he’d helped them get there.  He had no idea about the rest though.  Might be time to move on.  Get out of this pit of despair.  He’s ready to go.  He’s got new teeth and a new smile, and you can go far with teeth and a smile, even if they’re not yours.

“Hurry up Sweeny!” says Larry.  For a moment he loses him amongst the trash, his eyes peering, searching and eventually finding him there, down there, in the dirt.

“I’m tryin’”, says Sweeny as he wrestles with the big buttons.  He removes the green pom poms from the front of the dead clown and hurls them further into the rubbish.  A crow swoops down and picks one up with its beak and then drops it immediately, disgusted at the taste, the lack of food.  Sweeny finally works the buttons loose and then screams as water shoots out of a fake flower pinned to the dead clown’s lapel.

“My eyes!” says Sweeny.

“You and your goddamn eyes!” says Larry.

Now Sweeny’s eyes are really stinging but he’s so close to removing the jacket he forges on.  When he sets his mind to something, everyone knows, Sweeny can achieve what mere mortals can only dream of.  He crunches his jaw together, a sign of his determinism, frantically pulling apart the clown’s life.  He hears something snap and his tongue pushes at his teeth, which fall one by one from his mouth.  Not all of them, only the three, everything in this life happens in threes.  He spits them onto the ground.  He doesn’t need them anyway and besides; lost teeth are a badge of honour.  Means you’ve lived your life free of compromise.  Larry taught him that.  Or he taught Larry and then Larry reminded him.  He can’t remember.  He’s been too busy living to learn where stuff comes from.

He doesn’t even remember how he met Larry or how Larry met him.

It doesn’t matter anymore. 

Just what is happening now. 

That’s all that matters.

“Check this out,” says Sweeny.

Larry cocks his head to one side.  Could he be arsed going back down there, amongst the rubbish and the dead?  He picks up a rock and throws it at one of the crows, who evades it easily.  Larry waves a fist, a futile gesture in a futile world.  He can hear the crows talking, holding court, their parliament of murder.  He knows they’re passing judgement on him and Sweeny.  He may as well go down, see what Sweeny wants to show him.  You would too, wouldn’t you?  A bit curious to know what he has down there, down in the dirt and the blood and the rest of the world’s rejections. 

Larry slides down the side of the tip, his feet barely keeping him upright.  When he lands at the bottom, his forward momentum nearly topples him face first, so Larry breaks into a small jog to make it look like that’s what he was doing all along.  He smiles somebody’s else smile at his acquaintance.

“Smooth,” says Sweeny.

“You bet,” says Larry.

Sweeny pulls the dead clown’s jacket into a position that allows his arms to slip nicely into the sleeves.  He already wears the pants and the shoes.  Sweeny holds the matted green wig, covered in dirt, in one hand, a scalp brandished in victory.

“Are you taking the tricks?” says Larry.

“Nah mate,” says Sweeny.  “I’ve got me own…although if you find some spare teeth, I seem to have lost some of my mine.”

“Too late, dickwad,” says Larry.  “The teeth are all mine.”

“So they are.”

“So they are.”

They look down at the pale body of the clown, it’s make up caked and cracked, the corpse so thin it looks like it could easily fall between the cracks of the world and be forgotten forever.  In the distance thunder rolls with purpose, heading their way.  Larry kicks the foot of the dead clown, a little squeak emanating from an undisclosed place on the body.

“How’d it do that?” says Larry.  “You have the shoes on.”

“Clowns just squeak, mate,” says Sweeny.  “Have you noticed something about this clown?”

Larry shakes his head.

“Nup.”

“Look closer at the face, mate,” says Sweeny.  Larry does so.  Still nothing.  Wait.  He does see something, very vague in the features, beneath the bruises and the make-up and the dark, clotted blood.  He looks closer to be certain.

“Are you seeing what I see?” says Sweeny.

“Yeah mate.  This clown looks like you but you from ages ago.”

Sweeny doesn’t reply.  He pulls the wig on, it scratches his forehead and tears his paper-thin skin apart, a trickle of blood running down his face and over the mud and the make-up.  He wipes the back of his hand across his lips, his red lipstick smearing across his cheeks.

“Are you messing with me?” says Sweeny.

“No mate,” says Larry.  “You know me.  I’m all about the truth, the uncomfortable truths that other people are too fucking scared to say out loud.  If I see something, I say something because that’s what I do and, too bad if you don’t like hearing this, but that dead clown looks like you mate.”

Sweeny has a moment of déjà vu.  It washes over him, from the top of his head to the bottom of his toes.  He wonders if he’s about to pass out.  He scratches his arm, then his other arm, and then his bum.  He has a think about what he should do next.  His tongue slips in between the new gap between his teeth, just to one side, feeling its way around the gum, the taste of blood leaving a metallic taste in his mouth.

“Nah mate,” says Sweeny. 

“Nah, mate?” says Larry.

“Yeah, nah, mate.  I reckon that clown looks like you, back in the day, when you had someone else’s smile.”

Larry rears back, an animal standing to full height, his bulk spreading across his chest, a fire in his eyes, a dead clown’s smile plastered across his face.  He wipes his hands, blood and dirt crumble, whisked away by the dry wind.  He rubs the side of his forehead, smearing his own make-up, his left hand making a fist, ready.

“What are you saying mate,” says Larry.  “You know how this clown got here, right?”

“That I do,” says Sweeny.

“You’re saying that dead clown there looks like me?”

“That I am.”

“Well mate, I reckon that dead clown there looks like you.”

“Maybe it does.”

“Yeah, maybe it does.”

They look at each other, working out what will happen next.  Larry slips his hand into large pockets and wraps his hand around the knife that killed the clown.  Sweeny puts his hand in his pocket and wraps his hand around the syringe that has the drug that knocked out the dead clown.  They stare at each other, these clowns, these acquaintances, these partners in bastardy.  Above them, at the top of the tip, from the dead city, comes a pack of wolves who look down at them, intrigued by what is about to happen, hopeful there will be some new food to devour.  One wolf howls and then another and then another but the two clowns don’t acknowledge the baying around them.

Larry grips his knife.

Sweeny grips his syringe.

Overhead rain begins to fall from a grey and bruised sky.

“You’re lucky the rain is covering your tears, mate,” says Larry.

“You’ll be crying soon, mate,” says Sweeny.

There they stand, two clowns with murder in their hearts, their weapons ready.

Then a crow swoops down and lands on the dead clown.  It rips at the throat.  It rips at the chest.  It rips at the eyes.  More crows descend, tearing apart the body of the dead clown.  They take to the air, stuffing in their beaks, glitter covering their black bodies, beads clasped in their claws.  At the top of the tip, the wolves bay in harmony, jagged lightning revealing their red eyes.

Larry and Sweeny snap.

“Fuck off crows!” says Larry.

“Show some respect!” says Sweeny.

Now the wolves run down the sides of the tip, their howls calling out for more of their pack to join them.  Larry and Sweeny stand defiantly but soon decide the odds are against them and quickly run to the other side of the embankment, clamouring in their clown suits to make it to the top, their feet squeaking in the mud.  They’re both certain they feel the creatures of the night nipping at their heels but they’re wrong.  By the time they make it to the top, the wolves and the crows are ripping at the dead clown, growls and caws mingled in an opera of destruction, nature’s symphony.

“Bastards!” says Larry.

“Bastards!” says Sweeny.

“They’ve ruined our home!” says Larry, turning away from the tip. 

“We can’t go back there now!” says Sweeny, having already turned away.  “What do we do now?”

Larry runs his tongue across his new teeth and smiles another clown’s smile.

“We move on mate.  That’s why we have to be the truth tellers, so that carrion can’t get away with shit like this.”

“Yeah,” says Sweeny.

“Yeah,” says Larry.

And with that, the two clowns walk back to the dead city, ignoring the sounds of what they left behind.

 

Copyright Justin Hamilton 2018