Hilariously. Those painted faces smiling so wide that when we pry one off a bull’s horns or kick one over in the gutter we cannot help but laugh. We laugh because they know the great joke of mortality.
And because a dead clown is still a clown.
This is how clowns die.
First, they white their faces and red their noses. They know what their face is because they’ve drawn it on an egg. This egg is both registration and deathmask. So Mr. Puggly knows, for instance, that when the tiny car he enters does not make it to the circus, exactly the face he will be wearing when he meets God. All of them—Puddles, Lieutenant Cupcake, Phil—each morning paint their faces without the knowledge of who will be laughing and clapping as one-by-one they enter a civic center and/or dour paramedics stack their sheet-covered corpses to fill an ambulance.
This is what we understand about the clowns. That and how the floppy shoes hold them to the Earth when they might otherwise float away. How the pie fights are an allegory for the Iraq War. How the balloon animals are minor gods. How their bicycle horns honk warnings about what comes. How for us they do tricks. For us they die.
Take, for instance, this handkerchief.
Now, take it and take it and take it. Its colors will trail out the door, binding you to the place to which you are meant to return. A place where a clown waits bouncing on a tiny trampoline, one blue tear on each cheek.
But you will think it a stale gag.
But you will take a knife to it.
Alone, we cannot trust the night to offer us anything, not even kettle corn, not even light.
The clowns know how we fail ourselves. They paint our faces on the back of their eggs, and on the morning we are to die, the egg will fall from a giant hand and burst into confetti upon the ground.
So they fill their trick flowers with tears.
So they set free the monkey.
So they die.
When we depart, we wear a different face. One pulled low, heavy with the knowledge that the sadness of our death cannot match the tragedy of never realizing who could have saved us.
Adam Peterson's fiction can be found in The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere.
Photo by Sheri.