By Tardsie (from the common folklore)
In which we retell an old tale about a boy and his tormentor.
The Greasepaint Horror
When Johnny Weems was just seven years old, he begged his parents to take him to the circus which had just come to town. Having never been to an actual circus, the boy’s head was filled with visions of fabulous and impossible beasts, of acrobats performing astounding feats, of circus peanuts and of iridescent cotton candy spun to the size of a basketball.
At first the circus proved to be everything Johnny had imagined. He gawked at the sideshow grotesqueries and flashy barkers lining the concourse. He pestered his parents vainly for a dollar to play one of the midway games, and a little later, driven half-mad by the smell of frying batter, importuned for an elephant ear and was once again disappointed.
Johnny’s heart galloped in his chest as he took a seat between his parents under the big top. The three cheered the antics of Lord Leopold’s dancing poodles, and gasped as the Family Garamond cheated death time and time again on the trapeze, soaring untethered for long moments through naked air, and then, grabbing the waiting bar just as rude gravity began to reassert dominance over human pretensions of flight. Caught rapt by it all, Johnny couldn’t remember when he’d had so much fun.
When Mr. Chuckles the Clown gamboled into the spotlight, Johnny had no way of knowing that with this harlequin would come his own complete ruination. The clown’s face was painted in a garish red frown, which rendered somewhat ironic the very-visible grin beneath the greasepaint. Clots of hair the color of a Los Angeles sunset and the texture of steel wool stuck out from under a broken-brim fedora perched atop its head.
Mr. Chuckles danced across the big top, stopping once or twice to perform a slapstick routine for the laughing crowd. Then, the clown came to a stop at a point on the ring almost directly below where Johnny and his parents sat in the grandstand.
Johnny and his parents laughed in nervous surprise when a spotlight suddenly shone down on them. Without their knowing it, the clown had nimbly stepped up the riser until he was standing over them, the spotlight marooning the four in a tiny island of light in the big top’s inky sea.
“Why hello there, young man,” the clown said to Johnny, its voice booming and merry and dark, “How do you do?”
Johnny turned first to his mother and then to his father—both were studiously looking elsewhere—before looking back at Mr. Chuckles and offering a tentative “Hello?”
Then Mr. Chuckles said, “I’ve got a question for you, my lad,” he said, trailing off and leaving the audience—Johnny included—waiting on his words. In a tone of overdone mock-seriousness, the clown asked, “Are you, sir, a horse’s head?”
“No,” said Johnny, giggling a little.
Mr. Chuckles pointed at Johnny, the mouth-beneath-the-mouth a black O of derision, howling hysterical laughter. “Didja…Didja hear that, folks?” Mr. Chuckles managed between fits of laughter. Cocking a thumb in Johnny’s direction, the clown said to the audience, “If he ain’t a horse’s head, this kid must be a horse’s ass!”
The crowd roared, the sudden explosive laughter swelling the tent, homogeneous and titanic. Running through it like an errant stitch was Mr. Chuckles’ vulgar staccato cackle.
Johnny’s parents weren’t laughing. Their scarlet faces were exquisitely expressionless as they fled the laughter that seemed to dog them all the way to the car. Johnny’s parents did not speak to him for almost three days, taking their meals in silence and passing the boy wordlessly in the hall, lips pursed in unvoiced, implacable disapproval. When Robert and Julia Weems finally did speak to their only son, it was to upbraid him for embarrassing them so badly by turning out to be the horse’s ass they had all along known he would be.
Life grew no kinder toward Johnny in the ten years that passed before the circus returned to town. He was an unpopular boy; no school friends came to play at his house, or he at theirs. Johnny was hardly ever invited to birthday parties, and his own birthdays were sad, solitary affairs. Puberty only exacerbated his awkwardness, transforming the pallid and china-delicate boy into an oily, ugly, spastic thing that no one really liked to look at or to have around. His nights were choked by bitter dreams haunted by the hysterically cruel laughter of some half-remembered demon of latex and greasepaint.
Late in his senior year of high school, Johnny summoned the gumption to ask out Tiffany Cox, although Johnny was not altogether sure that the girl whose honey-bond hair and deep, understanding eyes had enraptured him since her she had shown up at school on the first day of second grade even knew he existed. Johnny caught a break when Tiffany told him she’d go out with him, but only if he’d take her to the circus, which had just come to town. “Nobody else wants to go,” she admitted. Johnny couldn’t say just why the thought of the circus filled him with a sudden, bowel-loosening hysteria, but the thought of spending an hour or two alone with Tiffany was enough to steel his resolve and push his vague terror into a dusty corner of his consciousness.
Johnny invested all his energy into planning the details of the date. At the door of her parents’ home, Johnny presented Tiffany with a bouquet of flowers which had cost about as much as a used car, but the smile with which she favored him made all the extra hours he’d spent washing dishes at Hunan Garden seem a bargain.
They were both laughing by the time the time they stepped out of Robert Weems’ Pleistocene-era Buick in the strip-mall parking lot where the circus had taken root. Over the next hour as they strolled the midway, Johnny discovered that in addition to being the most beautiful girl in the world, Tiffany was also a hell of a good time. They both took turns at Pitch ‘Em, Johnny secretly hoping he might win a stuffed bear for Tiffany, even though he knew full well the games were crooked.
The two of them munched on candied apples as they took their seats under the big top. When Tiffany said simply, “I’m having a great time, Johnny,” the young man was glad for the darkness that hid his flushed face and grateful, unbelieving tears. It was the best day of his life.
The crowd roared when the ringmaster made his grand entrance to open the show, which—initially, anyway—proved to be a good one. Tiffany and Johnny delighted at the antic feats of Lord Leopold and his seven trained poodles, and marveled at the gravity-eschewing prowess of the Family Garamond on the trapeze. When the dauntless Sir Rodney Braveheart thrust his unprotected head into the open jaws of a lion, Tiffany pressed her face into Johnny’s shoulder. He found himself wishing the moment could somehow be stretched out like taffy and thereby made eternal.
Then Mr. Chuckles strolled into the ring, sucking the warmth from the afternoon like marrow from a bone as dark memories long-buried flooded Johnny’s brain, erupting unexpectedly from the dark clay of his subconscious. The clown had changed not at all from the thing in those dark recollections, including the fedora which was no more or no less broken than it had been a decade before. The garish frown was still belied by the savage and big-toothed grin which lay beneath it like a waiting viper.
The clown’s eyes fixed instantly upon Johnny, and to the young man’s horror, Mr. Chuckles began to jog toward him, climbing the riser until he was standing next to Johnny and Tiffany.
The clown hushed the obedient crowd with an exaggerated wave and turned to speak to Johnny, its voice painting even the far corners of the tent with dark hilarity, “I’ve got a question for you friend,” the harlequin asked, pausing a moment before finishing, “Are you a horse’s head?”
Johnny blinked for a moment, dumbfounded. The same question as before, Johnny remembered, but there had been a catch; it was some kind of trick question. Even as he thought these things, he heard himself answer, “No.”
The grin spread like oil beneath Mr. Chuckles’ Day-Glo frown, displaying an uneven collection of yellowing, tombstone teeth. “Well then, you must be a horse’s ass!” The clown pointed at Johnny and began to guffaw, the crowd howling in jolly agreement. Although he could not look at her, Johnny knew that Tiffany was laughing, too.
Johnny slunk out after Tiffany, laughter trailing him as before, as if it had stalked him like a patient beast for all these years. When he finally caught up with Tiffany, she was brusque. “I’ll walk home,” she said, leaving Johnny to stew alone in the mocking laughter which still clung to him like a repugnant odor. Tiffany Cox never spoke to him again.
The years which followed extinguished any pale hope Johnny might have entertained that he would leave behind with his youth the misfortune he bore like a scar. He settled for a girl named Stella Stubinski, a round, beady-eyed thing about a million light-years from the decade-gone Tiffany Cox. Johnny dropped out of junior college just three credits shy of his associate’s degree to marry Stella when she got pregnant, forever dooming his long-held ambition to own a lawnmower repair business, relegating him instead into a life of repairing lawnmowers for other people. Stella bore two more children before running off with her YMCA Tai Chi instructor, leaving Johnny with three snotty, yowling brats who were the spitting image of their mother. It was about six months after Stella left that Johnny’s doctor told him he was sterile, and undoubtedly had been since puberty.
Johnny endured the myriad daily indignities of his dead-end existence with a fatalistic aplomb, surviving by looking beyond them with the monomaniacal fanaticism of a zealot to the time when he might take action against his troubles. He never questioned the source of his woes. His myriad miseries, he knew, sprung from a single, malevolent source: Mr. Chuckles the Clown.
During the twenty grinding years which passed before the circus stumbled once again into town, Johnny scoured the newspaper every week for news of it with the same fatalistic intensity as an old man reading the obituaries. When at last he saw that the show had come home, Johnny felt neither a sense of elation nor of terror over what was to come, but rather the calming feeling of an incipient denouement, as if great gears had come together and a tremendous but invisible machine had come roaring to life, ready to put the world in motion.
Johnny arrived at the circus in his rusted-out Sentra. He moved like an unseeing apparition past the sideshows and carny games, ignoring the barkers’ calls inviting him to donate what little money he had into one of their unwinnable scams. He didn’t glance around until he was under the big top, and then only to find his seat in the grandstand.
Johnny sat through the parade of acts and characters–the grandiloquent ringmaster, Brunhilda the Dancing Bear, a new generation of Flying Garimonds and a superannuated Lord Leopold with his pack of arthritic, and by now entirely blind, poodles. Johnny’s eyes were cast through time rather than space, waiting for the implacable arch-enemy with whom he found himself inextricably bound either by the vagaries of indifferent fate.
Even before Mr. Chuckles sprang into the spotlighted darkness of the ring, Johnny could feel the terrible coldness of its coming. The contours of time grew fuzzy as the clown neared Johnny’s section of the grandstand. The coming greasepaint horror comprised the whole of Johnny’s vision; it was as if he and this thing were the only two beings in existence. Johnny had come here a broken man with nothing to lose and just this one shot at redemption.
The combatants’ eyes met a final time as Mr. Chuckles bounded up the riser, stopping in front of Johnny’s seat. Lifetimes passed before Mr. Chuckles spoke. “Why, hello there, Sir!” the clown said, the cheery warmth of its voice belied by the cold deadness in its eyes. “I’d like to ask you a very important question.” Then, pausing dramatically, “Sir, are you a horse’s head?”
Johnny began to act even before the question had left Mr. Chuckles’ sneering lips. The clown stepped back in what Johnny thought might have been a brief moment of fear when Johnny stood, righteous energy coursing through the ruined man like an electric current, alive with the joyous certainty that his moment had come at last and had found him worthy. This was the moment for which he had been born; in this struggle to define his existence, he would slay the beast or be slain by it. Bursting with implacable purpose, the words sprang from his lips just as he had practiced them a thousand times, ringing true and clear throughout the tent, a stinging, righteous riposte to the infernal harlequin:
“Hey,” Johnny said, stabbing an accusing finger at Mr. Chuckles, “FUCK YOU, CLOWN!”