Clown’s Syndrome

 

Clown’s Syndrome

By Joe Nazare

“Think Ripley’s more than Ringling,” Nestor tells his carload. “Dare-I-believe-my-eyes kind of spectacle.”

Most of his fellow travelers have already formed audience to this story over the past few days. They ride along quiescently now as Nestor recounts for his latest passenger, picked up tonight outside a Macy’s in Joliet.

“Not that anyone who came to see Val Kearny’s Bizarro Sideshow wasn’t expecting the incredible. And Val gave it to ’em in spades: the Bee-Bearded Lady, the Lobster Boy Knife-Thrower, the Illustrated Woman Hootchie-Kootch. Where else would you find a trapeze act conducted above an electrified ‘safety’ net? Even that seemed hardly death-defying compared to the risks Ziggy and Lloyd took every night as our Lion Shamers.”

The blackened sky and lack of traffic along this stretch of I-80 makes the surrounding scene appear even more boundless, but retrospection serves to restrict Nestor’s purview. “Naturally I’m biased,” he admits, “but for me the clown-car routine was the epitome of the Sideshow’s twisted vision. We weren’t rehashing ‘that antiquated antic,’ as Val’s spiel assured. No canned fanfare, no exaggeratedly clumsy exits. No floppy shoes or baggy outfits. Necessity streamlined our costumes—just skinsuits and greasepainted faces.” Afterwards, each smeared performer resembled Heath Ledger following a hard day battling the Dark Knight.

“We’d start out queued up, a bright, numbered balloon pictured on each of our chests like a coat of arms. Val’s proclamation of ‘Send in the clowns!’ was our signal to fall in: one by one we’d sprawl headfirst through the driver’s side window-space. That interior got cramped damned quick, and then every new addition would force us to turn contortionist. With all fifty of us stuffed inside, we made Siamese twins look like distant relatives. I’m talking total mob scene.” Yet the antithesis of unruliness. Their mass of bodies was sublimely interwoven, like something out of a Clive Barker story. An intricate meshwork of flesh that—

A rapid double thud preempts reverie, as Nestor steers straight across a moon-crater of a pothole, jolting everybody in the vehicle. Nestor immediately bounces a look off the rearview mirror. “Sorry, guys,” he offers, as the rattled resettle.

“Now I don’t doubt,” Nestor resumes his narrative, “that plenty of viewers found our writhing oddly erotic, and yeah, certain clowns would seek even tighter fits with each other after the show. For me, though, it was always more about the camaraderie, the choreography. I loved the midmorning rehearsals just as much as the nightly performances. Loved the discipline our confinement required.” Fingernails and waistlines alike needed to be kept courteously trim. Strong mouthwash and deodorant was mandatory, flatulence a carnival sin.

“Our act changed names periodically, but maintained the theme: the Sardine Sedan, the Cooped DeVille. It was after Val christened it the Claustrophobile during our Oklahoma circuit that I suggested installing the dash cams. And lemme tell you, once we started flashing our restricted gymnastics up on a big screen, there was just as much squirming going on out in the audience. From there, Val came up with the ‘jester ejector’ wrinkle. He’d draw a numbered clown-nose from a hopper, and we’d have to work to somehow crowd-surf the corresponding body out the window. Val was always plotting, always trying to push the proverbial envelope. Hmmph, one time, the crazy bastard floated the idea of setting the car in the middle of a demolition derby.”

Nestor grows quiet, his smile flatlining. “Fortunately or not, we never gave that one a test-drive,” he says at last. “Because for reasons only he’ll ever know, Val decided to see how many Lunesta could fit inside a man’s stomach.” The boss took the big sleep inside his trailer, and overnight the Bizarro Sideshow was no more.

Stunned, Nestor returned to Jersey, not because he had any family left there; he just didn’t know where else to go. He spent the next nineteen months mostly moping around his apartment, living off unemployment checks and his meager savings, having no desire to launch a new job search. Deep down, there was only one type of labor he ached to perform, and the local want ads wouldn’t be listing it. But then, unexpected as a brain attack, inspiration struck last Sunday night as he sat half-watching The Walking Dead: the idea for an extraordinary variation on the Claustrophobile. A perfect venue, too, sprang to mind.

Revitalized, he worked the phone feverishly, but his disbanded Sideshow brothers proved unreachable or uninterested. Nestor, though, was undeterred, and resolved to hit the road. He’d simply recruit as he cruised cross-country.

“Sin City isn’t gonna know what hit it!” Nestor enthuses, delighted to have gathered the makings of a new troupe. It might be easy to dismiss a single person pitching such an outré idea as the Meat Waggin, but a whole posse of ready demonstrators could be amazingly persuasive. What casino wouldn’t hire them on after seeing how they would pack themselves in?

Excited as he is by the prospect, Nestor suddenly wants nothing more than to stop driving. When he sees the roadside pictograph promising lodging up ahead, he proposes a rest-of-the-night respite. No one protests, so he takes the next exit and pulls into the motel parking lot.  He selects and backs into a spot in the corner furthest from the building.

Nestor kills the engine, gets out and steps around back of the car. “Another day closer to Vegas,” he cheerily announces to the occupants as he pops open the trunk.

Travel has taken obvious toll on Nestor’s enlistees, whose disfigured forms litter the compartment. Severed limbs have rolled away from unclothed torsos. Decapitated heads lie scattered, cueball-bald, their respective faces smooth blanks save for nose-suggesting bumps.

Nestor’s nape begins to itch as he senses the immense emptiness of the cosmos looming overhead. Averting his gaze from the jumble of pallid plastic parts before him, Nestor casts a surreptitious look around the parking lot. Satisfied, he plants one foot on the Taurus’s bumper, directly above the Garden State license plate that reads MYSP88. A second later, he’s climbing inside, and pulling the trunk a sliver short of shut. Settling down within the luxurious heap, he proceeds to brush up on the old act with his newest, closest friends.