This is part three of the ‘Clown Chronicles’ by Leah Mueller. Click here for part one and part two
I was ten minutes early for work the following morning, a fact that was partly attributable to anticipation of Jeff’s gift. Jeff winked as I approached the dressing table, and a feeling of joy almost overwhelmed me. The job would be considerably more bearable with the ingestion of THC, a drug that had seen me through many difficult times. I could hear the boss ranting into the telephone within the confines of his private office. He seemed to be having considerable difficulty instructing one of his New York flunkies in the intricacies of financial management.
“No, no, no!” he shrieked. “I told you many times—do NOT put the funds into account number 63547! Put the funds into the OTHER account! Jesus Christ!” There was the unmistakable sound of a fist hitting a table, and then his voice abruptly became calm and placating. “I understand that it is hard to keep track of such a large allotment of funds. I have every confidence in you. If you let me down, however, keep in mind that I can and will destroy you.”
Jeff stared at me, his eyes huge. “I think we had better put our makeup on fast, and get the hell out of here before he starts in on us” he said. “But where’s Will?” I asked plaintively. “This job is going to be impossible without him.” Jeff shook his head, dislodging a shower of red glitter. “I don’t think Will is coming back” he said.
At nine-fifteen, we came to the sad conclusion that Jeff was correct, Will had abandoned us. With great sorrow, we piled the stacks of catalogs into a cart and prepared to begin our trek to Michigan Avenue. The boss stayed inside his office for the entire time, although I could hear him clearly. Since his earlier outburst, his mood had shifted dramatically. He emitted a long, cackling laugh similar to that of a cartoon villain. “Yes, yes!” he cried out. “That’s a brilliant idea—just brilliant! Money is seductive, isn’t it?”
Jeff shook his head. “He has absolutely no idea what a caricature of himself he is” he whispered. At that moment, the office door opened, and our boss stepped into the room. Ignoring Jeff completely, he gestured towards me. “I think I made it extremely clear to you that you are to smile for the entire time that you are on the street” he said, barely restraining his fury and contempt. “I drove past yesterday afternoon, and I noticed that not only were you negligent in your failure to smile at potential customers, you actually appeared to be extremely unhappy. This, of course, is unacceptable.”
“I was smiling” I said. To my irritation, I noted a hint of a whine in my voice, like a three year old trying to explain to her mother why she’d broken a plate. “Probably I was just tired at that moment.” The boss waved his hand at me dismissively. “There is no excuse” he said simply. “Don’t let it happen again. The two of you may go now.” He retreated to his office, shutting the door behind him.
“Where’s that joint?” I asked as soon as we reached the street. “Don’t worry, I’ve got it in my wallet” Jeff assured me. “I won’t have any trouble finding it. There’s nothing else in there.” We ambled down the street, pushing the cart and ignoring the stares of the passersby. “I know of a secluded spot where we can fire it up” Jeff said. “There’s a building a couple of blocks from here that has a little wooded area next to it. No one ever goes there. We’ll have complete privacy.”
After a few minutes we arrived at a slanted glass building that had tinted silver windows. It stood approximately fifteen stories high. Small, manicured bushes surrounded the building like random bits of stubble. In an attempt to create a bucolic setting, landscapers had arranged two iron park benches and a tiny tulip garden in a semi-circle, several feet from the building. There was no one else in sight. Jeff took my hand and led me to the side of the building, away from the wind. He leaned against the window and lit the joint. “Isn’t this a great place?” he asked. “Don’t worry, this building has reflective glass, so no one can see us.”
What a strange grip upon reality Jeff had—he felt certain that, since we were unable to see into the building, no one would be able to look out of the building and see us, either. I didn’t ponder this too deeply, however. I leaned against the wall, inhaled the smoke into my lungs, exhaled with a relaxed sigh. “Isn’t this a bank?” I asked, rhetorically.
Jeff shrugged. “It’s some kind of bastion of corporate America” he said. “They’re all the same.” He accepted the joint, inhaled deeply. “This is pretty good stuff. There’s much more where this came from. I’ll bring a joint to work every day.”
Suddenly, I had a sense that we were no longer alone. A man was walking around the corner of the building making his way purposefully towards us. “Jeff put out the joint” I hissed. “We’ve been spotted.” Jeff rubbed the tip of the joint on the glass behind him, and stuffed it into the pocket of his baggy pants. “I’ll handle this” he said.
The man drew closer, and I could see that he was the security guard, with a navy blue polyester uniform and a gun tethered to his hip. The guard’s face was pale and covered with old acne scars. He appeared to be only slightly older than we were. He kept walking until he stood only a few feet in front of us, and sized us up, then smiled malevolently. “Good morning” he said. “What’s going on?” Jeff assumed an expression of nonchalance, glanced briefly skyward, and then directly at the man. “Not much” he said. “Just enjoying the morning.”
“Just enjoying the morning, huh?” the guard asked. He reminded me of a gunfighter, taunting his adversary a minute before firing a bullet into his chest. “Well, isn’t that nice.” He was clearly amused, but entirely in control. I had a sudden bird’s eye vision of how we looked to him—two clowns, in full make-up, enjoying a joint while leaning against a bank building on a pleasant Tuesday morning.
The guard paused for effect, then continued mercilessly. “Hey, someone in the bank told me that you two were smoking reefer out here. That wouldn’t happen to be true, would it?”
“Of course not” Jeff replied, with a hint of scorn in his voice. “We wouldn’t do such a thing.”
“Wouldn’t do such a thing, huh?” the guard said. Jeff shook his head. There was a heavy pause, as we waited to see who would make the next move. The guard grinned hugely, but all mirth was gone from his expression. “I don’t want to pressure you or anything” he said. “But why don’t the two of you get the hell out of here. “We certainly will. Thank you very much” Jeff replied pleasantly. We disengaged ourselves from the wall and rapidly walked away from the bank, without looking back. I had an abrupt flashback to an incident with my mother, that had occurred when I was five years old.
We were at the IGA on Sedgwick Street where we often went to buy peanuts for the squirrels. Almost every day during the warmer months, we asked Ray, the grocer, for our two bags of peanuts—squirrel peanuts, which were unroasted and unsalted, and another bag of perfectly roasted and salted peanuts, just for us. Most days, my mother remembered to buy a box of raisins for me, as well, but on that particular morning she forgot. Not wishing to be troublesome, I scooped a box off the shelf and jammed it into my pocket, but my mother somehow failed to notice this. Once outside, I nonchalantly opened the box and began devouring the raisins. My mother was horrified, lectured me about honesty for a minute or two, and then sent me back into the store to return the half-eaten box of raisins. I was mortified. After the ordeal was over, I trailed home after my mother, muttering “I’ve never been so embarrassed in my entire life” repeatedly, while my mother bit her lip to keep herself from laughing.
“I’ve never been so embarrassed in my entire life” I told Jeff.
“I doubt that, somehow” Jeff said. He snickered. “That guy has forgotten the whole thing already. If he hadn’t been on duty, I’m sure he would have wanted to share it with us.”
Our pace slowed considerably as we approached Michigan Avenue. People strode in all directions with their usual single-minded focus unaware that there were suddenly clowns in their midst. I was still a bit rattled from my experience, but determined to make the best of my morning. I grabbed a catalogue from the cart, moved towards a young man in a dark blue power suit. “I’m from the Education Zone” I said, grinning hugely. He dodged me easily, as though averting an object that suddenly been hurled at him, and continued down the sidewalk without missing a beat.
The hours passed with agonising slowness. Every few minutes, I looked at the Tribune Tower clock, only to see that the hands had barely moved since the last time I’d checked. The weather was much warmer than it had been the previous day, and globules of sweat began to course down my polyester-clad arms. I started to literally push literature into prospective customers’ hands, which caused their fingers to reflexively clutch the pamphlets before they knew what was happening. Since I had finally found a method that worked for me, I applied it doggedly and humourlessly to all comers.
At exactly 4:55 PM, a car stopped on Michigan Avenue about thirty feet from me. The emergency lights flashed on abruptly. Our boss leapt from the car and began making his way in my direction. Although he was clearly furious, his suit was unwrinkled, and every hair on his head was shellacked into place. He stopped directly in front of me and gasped slightly, his face red. “God DAMN it” he exploded. “I told you to smile. You must smile all the time, or you will be terminated immediately. You’re a goddamn clown, and clowns smile.”
“I’m not a clown” I said. “I’m a human being, and I’m tired. I hate this job worse than poison. You’re an asshole. Go ahead and fire me.”
Without a word, he pulled a chequebook and a pen from his suit pocket. With a flourish, he flipped open the chequebook, and wrote me a check for sixty-eight dollars. “Sixteen hours at five dollars per hour” he said, tossing the check in my direction. “I took out your state and federal taxes.” He waved his hand at me dismissively. “Both of you may go now. Jeff, I’ll see you in the morning.” The boss started to turn away, but I wasn’t finished. “You’re a completely reprehensible human being” I told him. “You may think your money will get you anywhere you want in life, but you’re wrong. You can only screw people over for so long, and then your karma will nail you.”
It was apparent by the expression on my ex-employer’s face that no one had ever said anything like this to him before. For a second, he appeared astonished, and almost hurt, and then he composed himself. Without a word, he collected our almost-empty carts, one in each hand. He straightened his posture, assumed an implacable expression, and walked away quickly, pulling the carts behind him.
“I’m sorry” Jeff said, as soon as the car was out of sight. “I’m not” I responded. “I’ve been broke before. Poverty holds no fear for me. Let’s cash this check, and then I’ll treat you to a beer.”
We found a currency exchange near Rush Street, and I went inside to collect my spoils. The sour-looking female cashier scrutinised my face impassively, sized up my features through the clown-makeup, and quickly checked my ID to see if the two images were a match. She decided that they were, then handed me a small pile of money, which I placed into my wallet.
It took a few minutes for Jeff and I to locate a dive bar, surrounded as we were by yuppie hellholes. But then we found a good one, in the basement of a small building a few blocks from the currency exchange. We settled our weary carcasses into a booth, and I ordered a pitcher of Heineken. I reached into my wallet for a ten-dollar bill to give the waitress. Something was amiss. There were too many bills in my wallet, a problem that I had never before encountered. A closer look at the wallet’s interior confirmed it—the currency exchange had given me an extra hundred dollars by mistake.
“Jeff” I hissed. I pulled the cash from my wallet, and waved it under his face in a delighted manner. “Look. The currency exchange overpaid me.” Jeff was so astonished, it was as though a miracle had taken place. “Wow, girl” he said, his voice filled with reverence. “You’ve got some pretty amazing karma.” “Yeah, well, things like this happen to me all the time” I said modestly. The beer arrived, and I poured myself a glass, then shoved the pitcher in Jeff’s direction. “Are you gonna keep working for that guy?” I demanded. “You’re the only one left. It’s going to be lonely without me.” “Well, I’ll keep working until something better turns up” Jeff said uncertainly. “I’ve been hoping to get an acting gig. I took my resume over to Goodman and to Second City, perhaps they’ll be in touch with me soon.”
One thing you had to say for Jeff—he set his sights high. We drained the pitcher, then ordered another. Finally, I began to have a difficult time pouring beer from the pitcher into my pint glass, and I decided to go home.“ I think we’d better leave” I told Jeff. His face assumed an unhappy expression, which caused him to look remarkably like a clown from a velvet painting. I began to laugh hysterically, and Jeff led me from the bar, gently grasping my elbow.
“Are you okay to get home by yourself?” he asked me when we reached the street. “Sure” I said. “No one ever bothers a clown. They’re too busy trying to avoid catching whatever malady we have.” Jeff stood in front of me, weaving back and forth slightly. “What are you going to do now?” he asked. I shrugged. “I think I’m going to get the hell out of Chicago, and move to Seattle in a couple of months. I hear it’s cheap to live out there, and they like artists.”
Jeff shook his head, convinced that I was in the throes of a bizarre delusion. “Well, I hope it works out” he said. “No one ever really leaves Chicago.” He suddenly threw his arms around me. “I have fallen in love with you” he said. He proclaimed this with a fervor that seemed unnecessary, as if had landed an audition for a coveted role that required him to feel love. Jeff was an actor, after all, he was only pretending to be a clown. Or maybe he fell in love with every woman who bought him beer. I pulled away from him, gave him a kiss on his paint-encrusted nose. “Maybe I’ll see you later” I said. Jeff nodded. “I hope so.” he replied. I turned and wandered to the subway, without caring even remotely whether I saw him again.