As the loving son of a clown, he reveled in all the goofy wonder. As a grown man, he returns to the ring and discovers what was really underneath that permanent painted-on smile.
“Ich bin ein clown und sammle augenblicke.”
I am a clown and I collect moments.
I remember she’d take a long tube sock, fill it with powder, tie the end into a knot, then squish her eyes and mouth shut and rhythmically beat her face with the sock until her head was adorned with a fleeting halo of chalky haze. With her face still scrunched, she’d toss the sock into her open caboodle and then settle in to stillness as the cloud of powder tried to sneak away before she coughed open her eyes.
I remember she’d hold her breath and wait for the powder to dissipate, her face motionless but not emotionless, for plastered onto it were the ebullient colors and shapes of perpetual joy. The reds and yellows transfixed her whitewashed countenance, twisting and contorting the painted-on musculature into a paralysis of laughter.
I remember she’d blink open her eyes and study the image in the mirror: the inverted music notes under her eyes; the triangles above them; the exaggerated, untiring smile bending up into her cheeks. It was a smile that reminded all who chanced upon it that the hilarity would not relent, that the jokes would not stop, that the comedy would not end—for what happens when the comedy ends? What happens when the laughter dries up, and the mouth reverts to its resting state?
With the careful placement of a red wig over the pantyhosed mess of hair atop her head, my mother would transform into a clown.
Watching your mom act as a clown isn’t very startling after you’ve spent an hour watching her morph into one. In fact, that’s exactly why she had me watch her put on her makeup and wig: to demystify her clownhood so I would always know she was still there under the greasepaint.
But what was under the person who was under the greasepaint? What was under the skeleton under the whiteface?
Alas, poor Yorick: What kinds of memories are hid within your skull?
* * *
Clowns featured regularly in my childhood. And while that might have unnerved other kids, I was thrilled whenever the clumsy comedians showed up to surprise me. I was fascinated by clowns. I’ve always been drawn to them, to their oddly-textured hair and the oversized freckles that dotted their cheeks. I’m sure this fondness can be traced to those quiet moments when I sat on the sink watching my mother apply her rouge.
Although my mom wanted to be a circus clown, her early marriage to my father, and my birth one year later, limited her clowning to children’s events and church functions. She might not have been a clown for Barnum, but she was certainly a clown for Jesus, committed to laughing her sinful audiences out of their damning stupor. At seven years old, I decided to follow her lead, although, at the time, it didn’t feel like much of a choice. Laughter cackled through my body the way I imagine Liberon wax slinks through the veins of a second-generation antiques dealer. So, following in the footsteps of my mom’s oversized clown shoes, I started attending clown ministry practice on Tuesday nights where, for one hour a week, I learned how best to use mime and slapstick to save someone’s soul from an eternity of damnation.
Hellfire, after all, was no laughing matter.
I only remember two people from “Thee King’s Delight,” which was the grammatically curious name of the church clown troop. One was a delightful woman with a green mullet wig—her character was a crazy nurse. The other was a sweet man who was either very mentally challenged or toeing the line. His name was Mr. Jerry. He wore his regular clothes and tried to fake play a fake harmonica. You could never really tell whether or not he was being a clown, but you laughed anyway because he really, really wanted you to, and he wasn’t going away until you laughed.
One year, I marched with the clown ministry in our city’s summer parade. I was one of the people carrying the banner because, if I’m being honest, I don’t think church leadership trusted my comic sensibilities enough to let me interact with the spectators. (Apparently Mr. Jerry’s fake harmonica was funnier than my bit with the juggling scarves.)
I remember that the pride I felt from being a clown was immediately replaced with embarrassment when I saw some boys from my class sitting along the parade route. At once, I felt ashamed of what I’d become. I felt as if I were some colorful monstrosity being peddled down the street as the entire contemptuous village mocked me with feigned giggles and forced applause.
Their laughter only bothered me momentarily. After all, the Scriptures warned me about how I’d be persecuted for the sake of Jesus, how I would be snickered at for believing in God or for hitting myself in the head with a squeaky, rubber hammer. Besides, if I didn’t enjoy the experience of being laughed at, then I was readying myself for the wrong profession.
Being a clown meant being laughed at and being O.K. with it—but I wasn’t always O.K. with it. Walking down the street with weird church people in makeup as my childhood bullies taunted me—I wasn’t O.K. with that. Of course, I wasn’t sure if theirs was genuine laughter or mockery, as childhood ears confuse the two. I just assumed it was the latter.
I’m not sure whether my experience with the parade affected my desire to be a clown, but I never again marched with the clown troupe. While my clowning career was short-lived (a few months, at most), my fascination with the creatures steadily increased.
Each year, my Auntie took me and my parents to the Ringling Brothers show. Because she was physically handicapped, we were always given seats that could accommodate her scooter. They were located on the actual circus platform, about twenty feet away from the center ring. We weren’t like the other thousands of people there to see the circus: We were part of it.
To access our seats, we had to go through the backstage area where we passed various acrobats, trapeze artists and pony trainers, each one clad in sparkles and rhinestones, the women’s cleavage spilling over their tops and the men’s biceps bulging past their mid-arm cuffs.
I remember seeing my first Ringling clown up close during one of these backstage trips. I was ten or eleven. As we followed the usher past several roadies, I caught sight of the buck-toothed, blue-haired trickster. He was staring at me. His makeup was smiling at me, of course, but who knew what facial muscles constricted under his mask? I caught sight of another clown to his right, and then another behind them. One by one the clown eyes appeared, and as they did, the pre-show commotion slowed to a halt.
The clowns locked their gaze onto my family, and I became immediately self-aware of my aunt’s condition. I felt as if her physical deformity gave our beholders a temporary reprieve from the monotonous gawking to which their craft subjected them. The longer I stared at their comically arched eyebrows, the more I imagined them to be asking me: “Which is more monstrous? An oversized forehead and buckteeth, or an arthritic woman with crippled limbs?”
It was a decade before I ended up backstage at the circus again.
One night in my early twenties, I found myself cuddling on a couch with a ringmaster. I suppose readers will want to know how this came to happen, and if I had the vaguest recollection, I would divulge it. But since, either through forgetfulness or willpower, I can’t seem to recall the course of events that led me to that fateful couch, I’ll simply appeal to the authority of the storyteller and note in passing that sometimes in life one just ends up cuddling on a couch with a ringmaster.
After plowing through several minutes of conversation, the ringmaster proceeded to seduce me. Well, it wasn’t a seduction, really. What he did was grab my crotch, and then try to make me feel bad about not wanting to grab his. He asked me if I didn’t want to because he was fat. I told him it was because he was rape-y, and then I went home.
He called me the next morning and asked if I still wanted to go to the circus with him, like we planned. Of course I did, I told him, but I said it in a way as to imply that there should be no fondling unless explicitly requested. Which meant there should be no fondling. I suppose the Ringmaster accepted my boundaries because a few hours later, we showed up at the circus together. He knew about my fascination with clowns, so he brought me backstage, perhaps in an attempt to make up for the crotch stuff.
There I was, standing just outside the clowns’ dressing room. I could hear their ornery banter whispering through the walls. Juggling pins crashed to the floor as fast-talking voices ironed out last-minute performance details.
“Is the wheel act gonna have a somersault—can I borrow nose glue—three shows today boys—does anyone have a sharpener—play up!—is the wheel act gonna—TEN MINUTES—slap it on thick boys—three shows—yellow ladder—don’t forget to—play up!—wheel act gonna—TEN MINUTES—have a—THANK YOU TEN—somersault.”
As the scent of sock powder crept under the door and made its way toward my nose, I was comforted by the memory of my mother painting red onto her cheeks. I’d heard about this place my whole life, and now I was finally here. Clown Alley: that sacred circus space in which are hid the bones of infinite jest.
“Don’t forget to knock,” the ringmaster told me. “It’s a whole thing.”
Just as they have their memories, clowns have their secrets. Such as: No two clown faces can look exactly alike. Or, for good luck, you can have a veteran clown spit on your shoes. The knocking secret, I later came to learn, is one of the most binding rituals that exists in Clowndom. To gain entry into Clown Alley, you have to literally say, “knock knock.” If you barge in without respecting this rule, you will be pelted and prodded with powder socks, regardless of who you are.
“The ringmaster forgot to knock once,” Dooby told me, “and we got his black pants so good that they had to be sent for dry cleaning. He had to wear his back-up pair for the show. He got in trouble. Not us.”
Dooby is one of the clowns I met that day. He’s lanky, and because of it, every gesture he makes seems like drunken pantomime. His skullcap is bald in the middle, with two bunches of yellowish-red hair sprouting at the sides. He dons green overalls and is one of the only clowns I’ve ever seen with an actual red, bulbous nose. After several exchanges of laughter, we decided that we would be friends.
Dooby can be wacky—as I imagine all Doobies can be—but he’s also quite tender. When he speaks of the craft of clowning, he speaks with a fondness that makes me think of slow Mr. Jerry buzzing and sputtering into his fake harmonica.
Of course, clowning isn’t all giggles and bells, as Dooby explained to me a few months after our first meeting. One time he had to do a show right after he received a voicemail from his dying grandfather. The timing worked out in such a way that by the time Dooby was listening to the message, his grandfather was already dead.
“He told me, ‘I love you and I’m proud of you and I’ll talk to you later,’” Dooby recalled. “When you hear that, and then you have to go out there and be funny…” His voice trailed off, leaving behind only the red skeleton of smile.
Clowns have to be funny. They have to be funny. Not just to entertain, but to distract. Think about the job of a rodeo clown. He’s not there to make the bull laugh, but to make him forget. To avert the bull’s attention away from the rider. To avert our attention away from the rider. To step in at that precise moment when the potential of death is imminent and someone needs rescuing. The clown rescues not only the rider, but all of us watching the rider. As we hold our breaths wondering whether or not the end will come, the clown does a somersault and magically transforms our anxiety of death into entertainment.
Perhaps death is a secret that clowns hide.
“In the circus you always, always hear music,” explained Pam, another clown Dooby introduced me to. “So when there is a pause in the music that you don’t recognize, you look up from what you’re doing to make sure it’s not The Song—the one that will not even be named. If you hear that song, then that means there is an emergency, and you’re about to play the roughest room ever.”
The Song Pam is referring to is “The Twelfth Street Rag.”
When a clown hears the band begin to play it, she knows there is an emergency—an animal attacked a handler, a trapeze artist took a fall. The Song means something that was not supposed to happen did, and now it’s up to the clowns to convince everyone it didn’t. Or, if everyone saw the accident—maybe the lion tamer’s severed arm is lying in a pool of blood in the center ring—then it’s up to the clowns to convince everyone that what happened is actually really, really funny. So laugh.
“One time,” Pam continued, “they played The Song—it felt like they played that damn song forever. At this point, it’s the band and the clowns. We gotta distract. Make people laugh, drown out the screams. Look over here, not over there…it’s too horrible. ‘Look at me! I am being desperately funny.’”
“Even in laughter,” wrote Solomon, “the heart may sorrow.” Clowns know this to be true.
* * *
I remember sitting on the sink as my mother painted her face. Looking back on those memories, I wonder what it was that she was watching. Perhaps she was staring at her collection of moments, which lay just beyond the glimmer of her reflection.
“Sissy!” he yelled, “Sissy, help!” His body was crippled with palsy, and he had difficulty moving.
She ran to her brother’s room and threw open the door. He was surrounded by an audience of fire. The flames stretched out between them, creating an infinite chasm of reds and yellows. He flailed his limbs wildly but he was stuck, Sissy, he couldn’t move, his legs wouldn’t go, Sissy, the flames were laughing at him.
I remember sitting on the sink, watching my mother transform into a clown. With each smear of greasepaint she applied, she became both less and more familiar: less like my mother, and more like me; a child who delighted in pranks and tricks, who got a kick out of inciting chaos and breaking boundaries, who didn’t fully understand the scorching power of the universe.
“Sissy, Sissy, please.”
As my mother, she was there in my darkness; as a clown, she saw to it that there was no darkness, that it was expelled, lighted by the diversionary humor of a creature who was determined to affix on my face a smile as wide as the one carved into her own.
My mother told me to respect authority; as a clown, she mocked it.
“Hold on,” she yelled, “I’m gonna—“
There was even in her eyes a mockery of Death, a defiance so visceral that she dared him to strike again. She would be ready this time. His would not be the only whiteface.
Sissy—was that the last living word my mother heard him yell?
I remember she turned off the mirror lights, and came over to me, and picked me up; neither my mother nor a clown, both my mother and a clown. She made a silly face at me and I laughed at her, and as she kissed my cheek I could feel both the painted-on smile and the widening one underneath it.
Alas, poor Yorick: What kinds of memories are hid within your skull?
* * *
Brandon Ambrosino is a writer and professional dancer based in Baltimore, Maryland. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, TIME, Huffington Post, Gawker, VICE, McSweeney’s, Buzzfeed, Relevant, the Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Magazine.