Jack kept his focus on the dressing room mirror as he smeared white makeup over the entirety of his face, ears and neck included. He used black make-up to draw on his eyebrows – large inverted V-shapes half-way up his forehead – and blue to color in the space underneath. More blue around his mouth, red inside the blue making his lips into a garish slash in the lower third of his face. Red dots on the apples of his cheeks, and the iconic red ball on his nose.
Clown faces were supposed to be living grotesques, animated faces in the funhouse mirrors, but Jack didn’t feel particularly animated that afternoon. He was exhausted from traveling on the circus train nine months a year, stop after stop, where fewer and fewer people lined the streets to see the animals march from the train yards to the arenas where they’d be performing.
He was fatigued from doing show after show for dwindling crowds, for children who were more interested in watching videos on their smartphones than in the acrobatic and comedic feats he and his colleagues enacted every Wednesday through Sunday afternoon, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays.
Now, instead of kids daydreaming about running away with the circus to have lives full of travel and adventure, they were more likely to parrot their kale-eating, coconut water-drinking, hipster parents: Circuses are evil. Animal acts are cruel. Acrobats are anorexic. Tightrope walkers seek unnecessary danger.
And clowns? Clowns aren’t happy-go-lucky jesters, they’re lewd men hiding behind gross caricatures of the human face.
Clowns lured mis-behaving children to their doom, they said.
They had sharp teeth and black souls, like that guy Tim Curry played in that old Stephen King miniseries.
They ate you, if you tried to run away.
None of that was actually true of course, but still, they played to fewer and fewer people in every city.
And more and more clowns came out of the rings with blue teardrops on their cheeks.
No one knew how the teardrops got there, but it happened with the younger clowns first, the rookies who were new to the circuit, eager to put their juggling, tumbling, and mime skills to use. These kids didn’t come from the Clown College – that itself had closed over a decade before – not enough applicants to keep it open – but they had the bug – the drive – the need to entertain.
When the crowds were thin, though, and the children screamed with fear instead of laughing at their antics, the blue teardrops appeared at the corners of their eyes, their faces were updated in the Registry, and they disappeared. Some said they were going back to college; others found jobs as buskers making balloon animals in zoos and amusement parks, but every single one left Clown Alley, left the life.
Jack hadn’t come up from clown college either, but he was no kid. At sixty, he probably ought to be thinking about retirement, but he’d been born and raised in the circus. He was the last in a line of clowns that dated back to the first American circus.
He was a headliner among clowns; his name – Jacko – was on all the posters.
“Hey, Boss, five minutes.” Carlos, the lead roustabout came into view in the mirror.
“How’s the crowd?”
“Quiet.” Carlos’s tone was grim. “Concession says they’ll be lucky to break even, and Souvenirs are only running half the booths.”
“Let’s see what we can do about that, shall we?”
Jack pulled on his wig and hat, the last steps in his transformation into his Jacko persona, and went to join the other clowns for the opening parade.
The music began, and the ringmaster led the march out to the arena floor, circling through the three rings arranged in the center. The horses and dogs were next, then the acrobats and aerialists, the fire eaters and sword swallowers, and all the other performers, and finally, the clowns, twelve of them, tumbling and bobbing, racing into the stands and returning to formation.
Jacko stopped in front of a crying child, and knelt down to be at eye level with him. He pulled at the white handkerchief in his pocket, and offered it to the boy, who tugged and tugged, his tears finally turning to a smile, and then laughter as scarf after scarf came of the clown’s pocket.
He gave a big thumbs up to the boy and his mother, and made his way around the circle, honking the tin horn in his hand, and scattering colored streamers as he went.
Carlos had been right; the spectators were a quiet bunch, but Jacko managed to make some real connections with a few of the children.
The show went on.
The lights and sounds eventually faded into nothing, and the show lights turned off, replaced by normal fluorescent bulbs high in the arena ceiling.
The roustabouts were already dismantling the safety nets and trapeze rigging, loading sections of the rings onto the trucks that would carry them back to the train.
Two days later, just outside Cedar Springs, Jack was he was resting in his compartment on the train when he got the call. The tour was over budget and ticket sales were slumping. They’d close down at the end of the season, three months in the future.
In the last few minutes before the final performance, Jacko surveyed himself in the mirror. He’d had offers from Circus Vargas and Ringling Brothers, but the life he’d loved for so long was no longer holding him so tightly. His children had fled the circus decades before. His grandchildren seemed embarrassed that their grandad was a clown. It was time, he thought, to head back to the Florida condo he’d finally paid off the year before, but had barely spent any time in.
“Five minutes, Boss,” Carlos warned.
“How’s the crowd?”
“Sweet,” the roustabout answered.
Jacko smiled as he adjusted his hat. Sweet crowds were the best.
This time the crying child was a girl, and she finally cracked a smile after he gave her a flower that sprayed silly string from the center. She was about the same age as his youngest granddaughter, he thought.
He was about to leave her, to push himself up from his knees and rejoin the fracas in the ring, but the child reached out and touched his cheek, just below the corner of his left eye. “Why so sad, Clown?” she asked in her little-girl voice.
Jacko mimed a shrug, and then smiled broadly, first pointing at the girl, then hugging himself – implying that he was sad because he had to leave her.
In reality, he was terrified – the little girl’s finger had come away with blue paint on it.
They took his new photo for the Registry the next morning, but Jacko never looked at it, and when the circus left Cedar Springs, the number of clowns in the Alley had dwindled to eleven.
Six months later, Jack hosted Christmas for his family. All of them came, but it was only Anissa, his youngest granddaughter who climbed into his lap and touched his cheek, right below the corner of his eye. “Sad Granddad,” she said. “Why blue teardrops?”
He hadn’t worn clown paint since June, but somehow, when the little girl’s finger came away stained blue, he wasn’t surprised.
Someday, he might even have an answer the child would understand.