Smile for Me

By Cristina Hartmann

The phone rang as the television blared: “For only three installments of $19.99, you can get a full head of hair … out of a bottle!”

A man wearing only tighty-whities lunged for the receiver. “Jenny! I thought you’d lost my number!” he said when he heard his agent’s voice.

An act had fallen through at the county fair and would he pretty please fill in? “I’ve been calling all around, and nobody will do it. Probably because it’s only fifty bucks, but they’re hard up,” she rasped with her smoker’s burr.

“You called the right clown!”

With only an hour to make it across town, he went on a scavenger hunt for his props. He found the balloons in a drawer overflowing with broken rubber bands and frayed string from practice skits gone wrong. His floppy shoes were under a pile of orphaned shoes. He had to scrub off a stale-smelling yellow stain off his squirter. He wondered how his apartment had gotten into such a state. If Rosa were here … he thought but ended it right there.

He put on the face, masking his pallor with thick white paint. The upturned triangles he traced around his eyes added sparkle to his dull eyes. The wig bursting with red, orange, and yellow covered his thinning gray hair. He took his time drawing the smile, his favorite part. It tilted up higher on one side, giving him the mischievous grin of a boy opening his present before Christmas morning.

Once he secured his suspenders, Felix da Clown stood where Andy Bukowski had once been.

The name Felix had been his wife’s brainchild. Rosa told him that Felix sounded awfully like feliz, which meant happy in Spanish. “You are feliz come to life,” she often said as she watched him get ready. The sound of the word on her expert tongue always made him feel as if he were more than a man in a fool’s getup.

He grinned at the reflection, his smile superimposed by the larger one. “It’s going to be a good day, Felix. I can feel it,” the man underneath the clown said.

With only thirty minutes to spare, he backed his sputtering Volvo out of the parking lot. The car rattled in protest as he zigged and zagged through the city’s labyrinthine back streets to the fairgrounds.

A fair! He laughed at the thought of garlic fries and pony rides. This gig would surely be better than the last one. Everything had been going well when he had been making a flower balloon for the birthday girl, a quiet little thing with big, awed eyes. As he handed her the flower, two boys snuck up behind him and snatched his wig. The boys roared with laughter as he clasped his bare head. After a moment, he stammered, “N-Now, now. Give that back. You’ve had your fun.”

They dashed off, waving the wig. He chased them all around, stumbling in his oversized shoes. When he returned with the wig back in place, the girl stared at him with terrified confusion.

A parent slipped him an extra twenty and chuckled, “When you chased these kids … damn, that was hilarious.”

Andy considered flushing the crisp twenty-dollar bill down the toilet but put it toward the electric bill instead.

He preferred to think of better days.

One of the greatest mysteries of his life was why Rosa had sashayed up to him and said, “Want to dance, big guy? You look like you can handle yourself.” The air reeked of ganja and beer as his arms flailed while he tried to keep up with her perfect rhythm. She laughed, one of those buoyant laughs that made him forget he was in a seedy bar on the wrong side of town. What he remembered the most when he went home with her phone number clutched to his chest was her eyes. Her dark brown eyes had looked deep into his, as if she saw something other than a gawky doofus.

Maybe that was why she had told him, “I know miserable souls. I know bitter souls. I know angry souls. You’re none of that. I’m fed up with these,” on their third date. He grabbed her hand and kissed her for the first time.

The car lurched as he slammed the brakes. The driver who had cut him off flipped him the bird before zooming through a yellow, leaving him at the red.

“Be careful of that birdy,” he called out. “It might fly away.”

His heart pounded as he watched the longest red light in town stay red. Minutes ticked by as cars joined the gridlock. When the light finally turned green, he exhaled. “Settle down ol’ heart.” He patted his chest. “We’ll make it.”

According to the doctor, his heart wasn’t settling down anytime soon. “Mr. Bukowski, your blood tests show elevated LDL and triglyceride levels, which indicate a higher risk for heart disease. I strongly recommend you change your lifestyle to incorporate healthier foods and more exercise.”

“But Doctor, I’m taking my daily dose of laughter!”

The doctor sighed. “Well, there’s no conclusive evidence of that. We don’t know if humor is correlative or causative with well-being. Eat well and exercise. That’s my advice, Mr. Bukowski.”

He drove home thinking about the absurdity of a skinny clown. He picked up a Big Mac and ate it in the car.

He sped the rest of the way, slowing down for the school zones. After circling the lot several times, he finally found a parking spot, which turned out to be the furthest one from Building 11. Felix da Clown sprinted past the tractor exhibition full of hulking machinery, popcorn carts spewing buttery goodness into the air, and a tap-dancing cowboy. His smile grew as he drew closer to his designated venue.

When he had met Ramon for the first time—the only good thing to come out of that mistake of a marriage, Rosa had told him—it had been at a fair. The doe-eyed boy had peered up at him as he clung to his mother’s legs.

Kneeling, Andy reached behind the boy’s ear. “Looky!” he said as he pulled out an oversized coin. “You’re a regular piggy bank!”

“How did you do that?” the boy squeaked. “You’re a wizard!”

They dashed off to see who could eat the most cotton candy. An hour later, they were clutching their bellies with sticky pink sugar dripping down their chins. He let the boy win the strongman contest even though it took several tries for Ramon to hit the lever. When Andy slipped on a banana peel with an oof!, Ramon went into ecstasies of hilarity. Andy couldn’t help but join in despite the jabbing pain in his lower back.

They went to the fair every year after that.

He arrived at Building 11 ten minutes late with a stitch in his side. A thin man with a clipboard looked up and said, “You the clown?”

“Felix daaaaaaaa Clown reporting for duty, sir!” he panted as he saluted.

The manager chuckled. “Cute. Performing already?”

“A clown’s always on duty, sir!”

“Sure, Bozo.”

“It’s Felix, sir!”

“Right, sorry. Listen, thanks for coming on such short notice. I can’t believe the dance troupe canceled two hours before their performance. Assholes.”

Felix brandished a balloon sword. “I’ll vanquish ‘em for you, Cap’n!”

The manager shook his head as he watched Felix parry the air and hum Hail to the Chief. “Uh, people are already outside. But you probably have stuff to set up. Do your thing. I’ll be by with the check afterward.”

Felix went to the DJ booth and asked for the Hokey-Pokey and the Chicken Dance.

The DJ looked at him with red-rimmed eyes and said, “These are so lame. How about some rap? I got this guy who’s gonna bring the real gangsta back. Rap’s too soft nowadays.”

To that, Felix snapped, “This is for children, okay? Play the Hokey-Pokey and the Chicken Dance.” His chest throbbed as he stalked off. “Simmer down, old boy,” he whispered.

He inhaled the unmistakable scent of a rinky-dink county fair: the cloying aroma of cotton candy mixed with the putrid stink of cow manure.

By the fourth time the fair rolled into town, some good luck had finally come his way. He got promoted to regional sales lead and moved everyone into a two-story house in a school district that sent kids to four-year colleges instead of jail. Soon after they put Ramon into one of those good schools, the principal started calling about Ramon getting into fights.

“They call me names!” Ramon spat.

“Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can’t hurt you,” Andy told him. “How about making ‘em laugh? People can’t resist a funny man.”

Whether or not Ramon ever made a joke, he didn’t know. What he knew was that Ramon kept getting suspended and sneaking out to see his no-good, criminal father. Rosa pulled her son out of his father’s shack of a house, muttering, “Your father has ruined his life with his anger and pride. We have a chance to be happy, mijo.”

That was when Andy enrolled in clown college. He sat on 204 whoopee cushions, squirted his flower 637 times, and made 493 balloon animals. “I’m not five anymore, Andy,” was Ramon’s response when Andy did a backflip for the first time.

The next time the fair rolled around, Ramon was in juvie for boosting one of his classmates’ cars. “Why should he get such a sweet ride for being born here instead of there?” he shouted at the judge at his sentencing. Things got worse when he got out. He got into a gang of kids he had met back in the slammer and got better at grand theft auto. He graduated to breaking and entering, which eventually earned him twenty-five-years in jail on account of the three-strike law.

He peeked out at the crowd. A dozen children sprawled on folding chairs, either asleep or playing with their phones. Only one, a solemn little boy, was watching the stage. Twenty-odd parents congregated in the back, looking either bored or exhausted. One father shouted, “Hey, let’s get on with it. We don’t have all day!”

Felix ran out. “Hello everyone! It’s Felix daaaaaaaaa Clown is here to save the day!” he shouted as he cartwheeled into a wall. Bouncing back, he spun around and said, “Oh no! Something got stuck in my nose!”

A girl roused and frowned. A boy glanced up from his phone.

“Oh, it’s itchy!” He swatted his nose. Everyone’s eyes were fixed on him, making him smile. He pointed at his nose, “Do you see something in there?”

Nobody answered. He turned to a wispy-haired girl with two missing front teeth. “Hey little girl, what’s your name?” he crooned.

“Sandy,” she whispered.

“Sandy, can you help me out?” When she nodded, he bent down and said, “Can you look up my nose? It itches something awful.”

She squinted and shook her head. “There’s no holes to look up. Your nose is a ball.”

He smiled. She had played her role so perfectly, it felt choreographed. “Pull it off, then.”

She reached out slowly but lost her hesitation once her fingers touched the felt. With alarming speed, she yanked it off. He scrambled to perform the trick, but managed it with a flick of the wrist. A bouquet of flowers popped out. The girl was now holding daisies.

She burst into walloping sobs. “Mommy!” She cried, and a woman rushed over. “It’s yelllooooooooooow!”

Some kids were just like that, crying at this and that. He had his line ready—”Don’t worry! I’m not Republican or Democrat … I only vote for the Green Party!” which always snapped a frightened child out of it for some reason—but the mother spoke first. “She’s terrified of yellow! Nothing in our house is yellow. Thanks a lot.”

“But all girls love flowers!”

“Please don’t use gender stereotypes,” she snapped before ushering her sniffling daughter away.

His smile faltered as he stood frozen in front of the crowd. The children’s attention wavered as they turned to their neighbors or to their phones. The parents shook their heads and whispered amongst themselves. You’re still a clown, so get going! he thought. “Golly Gee Wilikers! At least my nose doesn’t itch anymore!” he chuckled. Nobody laughed along.

He made a balloon sword for a girl and a heart for a boy. (See? Felix da Clown could defy gender stereotypes!) The two kids giggled and switched balloons as soon as he walked away.

PHHHHBBBTTTTT! went the whoopee cushion when he sat down next to a boy playing Angry Birds. The boy glared at him, “You made me miss, mister!”

A girl giggled as he squirted her, but shrieked when one caught her in the eye. It took him ten minutes to coax her back into laughter. During that time, half of the children had wandered out to watch the fattest pig contest … except for the somber little boy who watched him the whole time. Every time Felix drew closer, the boy moved away.

He danced away when the time was up, scattered applause following him. Once in the backstage’s darkness, he leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. The years ground on his bones: his joints aching and his knees swelling. Fifty is the new thirty! he told himself. His body responded with a back spasm that made him gasp.

He strained to hear his wife’s lilting voice. Rosa always sang him to sleep in Spanish whenever he was sick. Hearing the soft words he didn’t underused as he burned up with fever made him believe that he would jump out of bed the next day, right as rain.

Except that he heard her last words to him instead. “Oh, Andy. I’ve made so many mistakes … How I wish we had met you earlier … Oh, Andy, you should be happy.”

He had reassured her that he was as happy as a clam, but her eyes had known.

That was the last time he had seen her.

Well, that wasn’t strictly true. When he came home to a quiet and still house, he thought Rosa was out with friends. She just needed some happy in her life, he congratulated himself. He had begun to think that the sorrow drawn on her face at Ramon’s sentencing had been in permanent marker … and that his clowning around wasn’t helping. That was before he opened the bedroom door and found Rosa lying still and peaceful next to a bottle of sleeping pills, a small, sad smile on her lips.

Whether it was an accident or she had done it on purpose, he would never know. After that, he went into clowning full-time. When his boss offered a raise after Andy handed in his resignation, he said, “What’s the point if I don’t have anyone to use it for?” Between his temp jobs and gigs, he paid the bills.

He gulped the fresh air as he stepped outside. “Bad memories ain’t going to do you any good, Felix,”

A muffled noise drew his attention to a woman huddled by the bush, a petite brunette. Her delicate features were leached of color, her cheeks wet and eyes swollen.

“You all right, lady?” he asked.

She jerked upright. “I’m fine …. Didn’t mean to disturb you.”

“Ain’t no bother. What could a pretty lady like you be sad about?”

A tear ran down her cheek. “A lot, actually. I have to go back … I told Marcie that I was popping into the bathroom… “

He watched her wipe her eyes, the residue of her grief still on display. Such a pretty woman should never have to go out like this, all marked up by sadness, he thought. “No, no, lady. Wait a minute!” he said.

She faced him. “Yes?”

“Let me cheer you up!” He flapped his arms in his trademark chicken dance.

As he hopped, she wrung her hands. “Mr … Ah, Mr. Felix … Please…”

He looked up. “Yes, lady?”

Her hands hung by her sides as she … stared. It was as if she were seeing him instead of his costume. Her steady gaze unnerved him, but he continued his hijinks.

“Do you always do this?” she asked.

“Clowning? Sure! That’s my job!”

“No … Trying to cheer up people.”

He paused as he twisted a balloon into the shape of a dog. “Well, what else is a clown for?”

“But … what if I don’t need cheering up? What if I just need someone to talk to? I’m so tired of having to be cheerful.” Her eyes bright and direct as they looked deep into his.

In her eyes, he saw something that he hadn’t seen in years. Knowledge. This woman who had met him a few minutes ago somehow knew something he didn’t. He froze.

He didn’t realize he had uttered something until the woman said, “Rosa? Who’s Rosa?”

His heart ached, a deep throb that permeated his body. “Rosa’s … Rosa’s … my wife. She … died. She had eyes like yours and … “

She squinted as if she couldn’t quite make him out. “What’s your name, your real name?” she whispered.

The balloon shook as his hand trembled. One of the cardinal rules of clowning was never to break character. When you donned a clown costume, you were a clown, not a man. But the woman’s eyes knew just the same.

“A-Andy … Andy Bukowski.”

“Luciana Borges. It’s nice to meet you.” She took a seat on a nearby log.

He slipped off his wig as he sat beside her, the breeze stirring his hair. He wished that he could take everything off—the floppy shoes, the paint, the motley—but the wig would have to do. The half-completed balloon dog floated into a bush after he let it go.

She turned, “You’re sad, aren’t you, Andy?”

The answer surprised him. “Yes. I miss my wife and son very, very much. I tried to fix ‘em, make ‘em laugh but … couldn’t.”

She looked down and sighed. “My husband—well, ex-husband now, I suppose—left Alex and me for another woman. Love of his life, he said … except he was the love of my life. I know he’s awful for what he did, but you can’t turn off love like you can a light bulb.”

“The man’s a bigger fool than me, and I’m wearing motley.”

Her laugh tinkled, a gentle and soothing sound. “You might be right. He was always a bit stupid.” Her voice lowered. “But … Alex … it was like a light going off. He was so happy once.”

The grass rustled as the somber little boy passed by. “Alex!” She leaped to her feet and ran forward. The look of pure, unadulterated joy on her face made him smile.

The boy almost smiled at the sight of his mother, but the twitch never grew into a proper grin. It was the same look he had during the performance: someone fighting joy.

After hugging and smooching her son, Luciana said, “Look who I found!”

Wig back in place, Felix got to his feet with a newfound bounce in his step. He hopped and skipped over to them.

The boy stared up at him with an expression that came close to awe. “You’re the clown,” he whispered.

Luciana nudged Alex. “This is Felix da Clown.”

The boy extended his hand. Felix’s instinct was to sneak in a buzzer for a little jolt but decided against it. Instead, he enveloped the boy’s hand in a simple handshake.

“Ready for some clowning around?” he asked.

The boy shrugged.

Felix paused. The memory of Ramon words sprang to mind, “You know what’s crazy? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting something different.” Then Ramon had laughed, a harsh bark that was a perversion of a joyful sound.

His hand froze mid-air. I have to try, he thought. I just gotta.

He played the fool the best he could. He squirted flowers. He twirled until he was dizzy. He made jokes about vegetarians. Alex stood still throughout with the same stifled expression on his face.

He wondered if he was losing his touch. Perhaps he had never had it in the first place.

Then he saw the banana peel splayed on the dirt.

“I’m go-a marching! A-boom, a-boom!” he shouted.

When his foot landed on the peel, he felt a lovely squish. He fell backward into the most perfectly comical sprawl he had ever done. “Gosh, where did that come from?” he said as he got up only to slip once again. His feet flew up in the air, and he landed with a big old SPLAT!

Alex’s eyes widened. A burst of laughter rushed out of him. “You slipped on a banana peel and did it again,” he murmured in a rusty, quiet voice.

He smiled up at Alex even though the boy couldn’t see it under the facsimile. Cramps knotted up his back, but his smile only faltered a tiny bit.

He hopped up onto his unsteady feet. “Hey kid,” he said. “It’s okay to be sad sometimes, but there are times to laugh and play, too. Okay?”

The boy gave him a shy smile and nodded.

“Felix—Andy,” Luciana said, “please let me pay you. That was a wonderful performance.”

“No, no. Like the lawyers say, pro bono!”

He cartwheeled away, coming to a tottering stop around the corner. Cold air filled his lungs as he gasped through the aches and pains of a man who had been trying too hard for too long. As his cramps loosened, he guffawed for the first time in years, a belly laugh that reverberated throughout his body. “Oh-man-oh-man. That classics never get old!”

Once he settled down, he headed back to his car with a hop and a skip. The manager’s voice came from far away, “Where’s that goddamned clown? He can’t skip out on me—I have fifty bucks!” which made Andy’s smile widen.

Back in his bathroom, he looked at the clown in the mirror. It beamed back at him, its joy flat and static. “Thanks, old fella,” he said, “but it’s time to close up shop.” He splashed water onto his face, streaks of paint dripping down to the sink.

His face scrubbed pink, he gazed at the weatherworn man in the mirror. A small, sad smile tugged the corners of his mouth as tired eyes stared back at him. “I did it, Rosa. I got the boy to laugh,” he whispered before pausing for a long time. “I … I’m so sorry that … I couldn’t do it for you or Ramon.” He closed his eyes, the lilting sound of a Spanish lullaby fading away into nothingness. He opened his eyes and said, “I’ll go see Ramon tomorrow. This time without the clown costume.”

He hung up his floppy shoes behind the door, where they would remain until the next time he needed them.

© Cristina Hartmann