“Boko” – Fiction by John Grey

The Clown - Edward Middleton Manigault, 1912
The Clown – Edward Middleton Manigault, 1912

Many clowns are silly, and sad, and terrifying, but we doubt many clowns have experienced as many absurd twists of fate as the title character of John Grey‘s short story “Boko” from our Summer 2014 issue.

{ X }

MY REAL NAME IS JEREMIAH STEPHEN DENNIS KUNITZ, though people call me Boko. My story begins when I had just graduated clown school and was excited to be entering the real world of false noses and big stick-on ears. However, much to my dismay, the circuses were not hiring that year. My gloomy red smile drooped even gloomier.

And so it was that I spent at least two months pounding the pavement on my unicycle looking for work. Sadly, many doors were slammed in my face. If you’ve ever wandered down Fifth Avenue and wondered why many of the door-knobs are smeared with grease paint, then wonder no more.

I did think myself fortunate when, after sending in my résumé, I received a call from Human Resources at Bestial Labs. I was ushered into the office and steam-bath of a Professor Stamp. Unfortunately, there’d been a misunderstanding. The company was under the impression that my background was in cloning.

“Oh no,” I explained. “I’m a clown. I do squirting flowers and I’m absolutely amazing with a rubber chicken. Oh yes and I can ride an ostrich.”

Professor Stamp set his cloned voles upon me. I was lucky to escape with my red wig and pantaloons intact.

Without a job and no money, I soon found myself being kicked down the stairs by my landlady and almost strangled by her boa constrictor.

I tried an employment office. The woman assigned to interview me merely laughed in my face. Now whether that was because she had nothing for me at that time or she thought clowns to be hilarious creatures, I cannot say. The bites in my leg from her pit-bull service dog would indicate the former.

I must confess I was a very depressed clown and I had the scars on my wrists to prove it. But I refused to give up my dream and go into chicken sexing like my father. No way I would follow in anyone’s footsteps. Besides, my size three-foot-long shoes precluded such a mode of walking. I vowed to stick it out no matter what. I’ve always believed that people need a good laugh. Or any kind of laugh. Besides, my head was designed for shoving in the barrel of a cannon, not retail or banking.

For two sticky summer nights, I slept on a park bench. No one bothered me. A serial killer dressed as a clown had been disemboweling ballerinas up at the dance studio in the Heights. The lowlifes kept their distance in case I turned out to be the Baggy Pants Butcher.

On the third night, however, I was shaken out of my shaky dreams by a cop.

“You can’t sleep here,” he snarled.

“I know,” I replied. “People keep waking me.”

“What have you done to your face?”

“It’s grease-paint,” I explained. “I’m a clown.”

After a few moments of intense and unusual brain activity, his mien mutated from badger-terrifying lawman stare to gentle, baby-kissing monsignor of a local parish.

“A clown, you say?”

“Yes. Fully qualified.”

“Where’s your trick bicycle?”

“In storage.”

The cop scratched his chin. “My boy Sherlock has a birthday next Saturday. Do you do parties?”

At that time in my impoverished life, I would have done bar mitzvahs, supermarket openings, itch scratchings, blackhead squeezings, and traffic accidents.

The officer introduced himself as Connie O’Halloran, scribbled down his address and the date and time of the party, and even slipped me a $20 bill as a deposit. It was enough to get my unicycle out of storage in Polarizing Pete’s Pawn Shop. I also needed a little dog. Luckily, a couple sipping coffee at the Sunken Boat House had let their mutt off the leash. With a couple of “Here boy”s, a “Good dog,” and a pat, Boko had his Bobo. Some colored taffeta around his throat, and a pointed party hat on his little head, and he was part of the act.

When I arrived at the modest O’Halloran ranch house in Little Dublin, Connie snuck me into a bedroom while he prepared the surprise for his son and his little friends. As Bobo and I readied ourselves for our act, I could hear the partyers in the background, jamming their faces full of candy while they busted furniture and shredded wallpaper.

“We’ll have them in stitches,” I assured my tiny friend.

The room in which we waited nervously (so nervously in fact that Bobo peed in what appeared to be another puppy’s water-bowl) was Sherlock’s. There were no posters and no pennants on the walls, only photographs of what appeared to be ancestors, all outfitted in police uniforms: Sergeant Colin O’Halloran, Officer Brian O’Halloran, Captain Michael O’Halloran, Connie O’Halloran. The frame with pride of place over the bedstead was empty, and read, “Sherlock O’Halloran,” rank currently blank.

In the background, I could hear Connie warming up my audience.

“Have I got a big surprise for you! We have a very special guest.”

“Deputy Chief Morris?” asked a tiny voice that I assumed was Sherlock’s.

“No, it’s…”

The front doorbell rang. “You’re on, Boko!” Connie shouted as he went to answer it.

My nerves eschewed their usual function of relating sensations to my brain for an impromptu game of leap-frog. My knees knocked like Mali tribesmen’s drums. Bobo peed for a third time, on my flapping left shoe of all places. I was making my professional clowning debut and, even if the audience were a bunch of dumb kids who would automatically laugh at everything I did and said, I didn’t want to blow it.

I steeled myself. Bobo steeled himself. With unicycle in one hand and dog in the other, I proceeded to the parlor stage.

I had been planning my entrance from the time Connie hired me. Get them on your side right away, was my motto. And, so it was, I stuck my black eyes, blue cheeks, bright red lips around the doorway to the parlor, and shouted out, “Hello kiddies!”

I expected my audience to burst into unrestrained guffaws at the sight of me. Their reaction instead was a volley of the loudest screams I’d heard short of being front row at a One Direction concert. The children were flailing around, thumping into each other, running for the nearest exit.

“What is it?” one shrieked.

“It’s a monster!”

“It’s the devil!”

In clown school I’d been taught the concept of coulrophobia, the abnormal, exaggerated, or irrational fear of clowns. The professor added, just in case any students had been thinking of using this as an excuse to quit the program, that it was very rare.

And here I was faced with a veritable outbreak of that dreaded paranoia. The only one in the room who seemed unaffected was a large wolf-hybrid that began to snarl, bare its teeth, and growl in my direction.

Before I could say “Nice doggy” it leapt at me, aiming to rip out my throat. Brave little Bobo came to my rescue, or tried to, but one swift swipe of the wolf-dog’s paw swatted my assistant across the room, head-first into the birthday cake. The impact blew out five of the eight candles. The other three lit Bobo’s tail on fire.

That momentary diversion gave me the opportunity to escape with no more injuries than a large hole torn from the ass of my baggy pants. In desperation, I stumbled toward the front door, barreling into the unfortunate Connie who had just answered the bell. The two of us crashed forward into his visitor and all three fell down hard on the path. Something exploded as the trio of bodies hit cement.

I slowly picked myself up. I was sore but nothing appeared to be broken. Connie O’Halloran did the same. Unfortunately for the third member of our collision, he could not move. Nor would he ever again, not of his own volition. The man’s chest was centered by what appeared to be a large blood-gushing hole. His hand gripped a dangerous-looking pistol.

Once Connie had apprised himself of the situation, he began slapping my back.

“Boko, do you know what you’ve done?”

My red lips refused to open. I shook my head instead.

“You saved my life, that’s what you’ve done.”

The attack dog appeared at Connie’s side. My having saved his master’s life apparently caused him to look toward me more kindly. He no longer showed any inclination to leap upon my body and tear out my throat. He merely growled menacingly.

”Do you know who this is?” Connie continued, slapping my back a few more times for good measure.

The dead man did not look familiar. I shook my head again.

“He’s Henry ‘The Bull’ Mozzarella. I got him sent up for ten years on murder charges. He was paroled today. And on his first day of freedom, he bought a third generation Glock 17 at the 22nd precinct yard sale and came here to kill me. If it wasn’t for you, I’d be as dead as that charred little dog that just flew out the parlor window. Come on inside and I’ll pour you a drink.”

Connie proved a genial host to a penurious clown like myself. Even the uproar that brought his son’s birthday party to an immediate conclusion didn’t bother him in the slightest. He explained to me that, the year before, he’d hired a juggler for Sherlock’s party. One of the little girls in attendance, Sally Randolph, was still seeing a therapist.

As the afternoon drew to a close, Connie and I pulled up a couple of lawn chairs and watched various arms of city governance attend to the deceased murderer.

“Not a nice man,” was Connie’s final word on the subject. “And I should know. I framed him.”

He waved to his colleagues as they attended to business.

“How’s the family?” he asked Doc Holliday as the medical man greeted this latest in a long line of bodies with his patented sneer.

“Doing fine mostly, though little Bridgette’s been kind of suicidal ever since I hired a clown for her birthday party.”

Connie merely nodded.

Mozzarella’s body was soon whisked away. A detective buddy of O’Halloran asked a few questions.

“Who do you like in the game tonight? Can I use your bathroom?”

When Connie explained my accidental heroics, the detective shook my hand.

“It’s a sorry thing to say but we don’t get too many members of the public like you, sir, willing to come to the aid of an officer in peril. I expect there’s a commendation from the mayor in this if we can ever get him sober enough to pin it on. Maybe if there were more clowns like you, brave and steady under fire, then kids wouldn’t be so terrified of that weird kinda S & M look you guys go for. When I was a kid, I damn near shit myself when my dad hired one of you weirdoes for my birthday party.”

The press arrived and snapped my picture what must have been a hundred times. The photographers kept asking me to smile but I had to explain that I wasn’t made up that way. Television cameras beamed my painted face to all parts of the city. Reporters scribbled away in notepads as they bombarded me with questions.

“How did it feel to face down Henry ‘The Bull’ Mozzarella?”

“Were you afraid?”

“Have you ever stuck your head in the barrel of a cannon?”

“Is that your dog splattered all over the shrubbery?”

I answered as best I could. All this attention from the fourth estate was a new experience for me. Until that day, the only time I’d ever been on television was when one of those roving reporter types was querying various members of the populace if they knew the name of the Secretary of State. I happened to be passing by when a guy got asked. I didn’t stick around to hear his answer.

I was just starting to warm up to the task of being famous when a cry from the midst of the press corps turned all heads.

“There’s a melee out on Clement Road! A kid’s birthday party’s broken up violently! The little monsters attacked the entertainment! An Austrian polka ensemble! A concertina player’s reported dead!”

I was just about to explain to the gathered crowd that I was available for weddings and funerals when it was as if a great tornado had suddenly blown in and whisked every last member of the press out of the neighborhood and on their way to Clement Road. When I finished my spiel, the only ones in attendance were a handful of chirping crickets.

“Never mind,” said Connie. “Have another beer.”

I did just that. And another. And another. By the time I somehow zigzagged my way back to my accommodations in the park, I didn’t know whether I was Boko or Bobo. Some passerby laughed and called me Bozo but I knew that wasn’t it.

I collapsed on my bench and fell asleep immediately.

An hour or two later, a hand shook me awake.

“You can’t sleep here,” said a firm, deep voice that could only be a cop’s.

I opened my eyes.

“You’re not O’Halloran.” I muttered.

“You knew Connie O’Halloran?” I nodded. “A shame. A real shame. He was a good cop. He didn’t deserve that.”

“What are you talking about? I saved his life. I shot Henry ‘The Bull’ Mozzarella.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t take into account his widow, Rita ‘The Cow’ Mozzarella. Soon as she heard ‘The Bull’ had bought it, she was ‘round O’Halloran’s modest New Dublin abode blazing away with an AK47. Blew Connie’s head clean off. Shot the dog too but that ain’t no loss. His boy tried to save him but, by the time the kid had struggled into his little clown suit and started painting his face, it was too late.”

The cop burst into tears. I tried to comfort him.

“Thanks buddy,” he said. ”Connie O’Halloran was one of a kind. No one could clear the Central Park benches of bums like you like him.”

The cop pulled out a flask of something indeterminate that packed the kick of a giraffe with hemorrhoids. We toasted the late Connie O’Halloran until daylight began to nose around the trees and the first wind-blown newspaper sections started floating down the park trails. I grabbed the front page as it hustled by. Imagine my surprise when I spread it across my pantaloons. The lead story in the Times was “Clown Saves Cop” and there was my picture, in full black and white makeup, staring back at me.

Of course, a later edition would update the story with “Clown Doesn’t Save Cop” but I wasn’t to let Rita ‘The Cow’ Mozzarella and her selective-fire, gas-operated, 7.62 by 39mm assault rifle cut short my fifteen minutes of fame.

A nearby phone rang. I pushed aside the weeping, drunken cop to answer it.

A faint voice asked, “Is that Boko, the cop-saving clown?”

“Sure is.”

“My name’s Arty Bailum from Bailum’s Big Top. How would you like to be part of the rootenest-tootenest circus this side of Little Cheam, Iowa?”

I must confess that, at the sound of the word ‘circus’, my heart skipped from 4/4 time to something resembling the 7/4 on my uncle Ernie’s Dave Brubeck record albums. The words “You betcha” were hardly out of my mouth when I was on the plane for Sidesaddle, Wyoming, where the Bailum troupe were in the midst of a half-day engagement. With that first sniff of sawdust and elephant dung, I felt as if I had found my true home at last. Arty Bailum was a chubby and red-faced man with hardened arteries and wore baggy trousers held up by suspenders that he stretched with his thumbs as he spoke.

“The Bailum Circus,” he explained, “has been in my family for a year and a half. We travel from one side of the country to the other. There ain’t no town too small for us to play. Now there are a whole lot of big ones that we avoid. But look around you, son. This dive may not be worth the innards of a dead skunk, but they love their circuses, yessir.”

I apologized for not having a dog as sincerely as the airline apologized for losing my unicycle somewhere between Ohio and Illinois.

“No problem,” said Arty Bailum. “I have another act all planned out for you. Ripped right outta the headlines as they say.”

Arty was true to his word. He introduced me to the other two clowns, both of whom were also called Boko. I’d be referred to on the posters as ‘ripped right outta the headlines’ Boko. My fellow laugh-getters would remain just Boko and Boko.

Our routine seemed simple enough. One Boko would be the crook with the gun. The other would be the cop who put him away years before. Crooked Boko would threaten to shoot cop Boko. That’s when I’d appear on the scene. I’d bravely push cop Boko out of the way so I could tangle with crook Boko. The gun would go off and crook Boko would drop down dead and cop Boko would hug me vigorously and thank me vociferously. It worked a charm in Sidesaddle. But then again so did the dancing goldfish.

But Spikeapple, Idaho was a whole different story. Not even the trained Bobcats went over well. And I don’t know what the matter was with the goldfish but their routine was as sluggish as a fat couple at the end of a dance marathon. It was up to the three Bokos to save the day. Now in Sidesaddle, we’d all three together shouted “Bang!” when Boko and I fought for the pistol. The audience loved it. But Arty could see that that wouldn’t work for this tougher crowd.

“Gonna have to use blanks,” declared Arty.

It sounded like a good idea but, unfortunately, the Boko in charge of the props was a little confused and filled up the chambers of that revolver with live ammunition. Now, I know what you’re thinking. When crook Boko and I tussled, the gun went off and the bullet passed right through that poor clown’s crying-on-the-inside heart. But what really happened was that, when the gun did fire, it missed crook Boko altogether and the bullet struck a peanut vendor right smack in the temple. He dropped down deader than a singer in a boy band nearing forty.

Under most circumstances, that would have been the end of my clown career and the beginning of a prime of life spent in prison stripes. But that peanut vendor happened to be an escaped convict on the run. And not just any old escapee either. It was George ‘The Other Bull’ O’Hara, the notorious hit-man. Once again, I was the hero, the ‘ripped from the headlines’ Boko. Arty Bailum quickly hired a fourth Boko to be the peanut vendor clown in the newest version of the act.

This had all the makings of a happy ending until, next morning, I got my hands on a copy of the Spikeapple Tribune and Swapper. The big news of the day was that Rita ‘The Cow’ Mozzarella had broken jail and was looking for the clown who killed her brother, George ‘The Other Bull’ O’Hara. She was described as armed and dangerous to any poor sucker in greasepaint. Now if only this damn shit would rub off.

{ X }

JOHN GREY is an Australian-born writer, works as financial systems analyst. Has been published in Weird Tales, Tales of the Talisman, Futuredaze and the horror anthology What Fears Become with work upcoming in Clackamas Review, Potomac Review, Hurricane Review and Osiris.

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