When my father took me to the circus, there were many things to fear: lions, tigers, and elephants. But what I feared the most were the clowns. So, I decided to become a clown.
Now, it may seem odd to some to be afraid of clowns. But when you see their cold eyes behind their painted-on smiles and you see them attacking one another, knocking each other out of the truck then you will begin to understand why I feared clowns.
They were visions of hell – their red hair; white-painted faces, giant red lips and star-shaped eyes. They were what happens to those who do not ascend to heaven. They are rejects, outcasts, objects to be despised and hated.
When I turned 16, Dad died. On his death bed, Dad held my hand. “I will soon be passing over to the other side,” he whispered. “What is on the other side? I do not know. I was always curious. Now, I will know. If I can contact you, I will. I love you, Johnny. So, don’t be afraid.” I heard his death rattle and then he stopped breathing.
My mom married my stepfather. To my mother Big Phil, he was the nicest man in the world. But to me he was hateful. Big Phil could never take the place of my dad. I dreamt Big Phil came into my bedroom at night armed with his large steel knife with a bone handle. “Fly, Johnny! Fly,” called my dad. So, I hopped a train, taking to anywhere it was going.
The day I left, it poured rain. I found a spot in the empty boxcars with the other bums. I carried bread, and water under my coat. At night, an old bum tried to steal it from me. “Get up!” I heard my father say. When I woke up, the bum raised a stick over my head.
I kicked him in the groin and knocked the stick from his hands. I pummeled his face until he curled into a fetal position as the other bums watched silently from the shadows. I opened the box car door on a slow curve and threw him off the train.
After two days, the sky cleared. I asked for a job at the carnival in town at the county fair. I ran the rifle range: a penny a shot. The job did not pay much but it kept me fed and put a roof over my head.
At the end of the county fair we packed up, and headed south on our own chartered train.
I joined the circus in Memphis. Although I enjoyed working as a carnival barker, I could not see myself doing it all my life. All of life you can learn from working at the carnival. Some boys are confident; others are not. And flattery can take you pretty far. Those young men with those pretty girls on their arms would always spend the most money to show off for their girlfriends. I wanted a girl like that.
The Colonel offered me five dollars a week, plus room and board. I cleaned and fed the animals. He said I could be a clown-in-training. That was fine with me. I figured I would get my foot in the door and work my way up the ladder. “Careful with the lions, and tigers,” the Colonel warned. “Never forget they are wild beasts. The lion tamer always has his whip, and pistol. There is a reason for this.”
I carefully laid their steaks in the cages. “They seem to like you,” he observed.
“All work is good,” my father used to say. “Don’t be too proud to earn your keep.”
I liked animals, and they liked me. People seem so worried about their place among other people. Animals just are. There is something to be said for that.
During the shows I dressed like a clown, but I followed the elephants with a long-handled broom and trashcan on rollers. “Look, Daddy. The elephant is pooping,” a little girl said.
“Cover your eyes, honey,” the dad replied.
Well, why shouldn’t she look? It was probably the one real thing she would learn that night: all animals poop.
I soon got my chance. Spunky got hurt when Big Jim threw him out of the truck during a comedy routine. Broke his leg. A compound fracture. We had to leave Spunky in Memphis. The Colonel paid his medical bills and left him enough money for six months.
I always thought the circus was a magical place. They had the lion tamers, the acrobats, the most fearsome wild beasts doing the bidding of their human masters. But when you work there, it is a place like any other place.
People are people wherever you go. People are good and bad all wrapped in one. Some are more good than bad, others more bad than good. I just kept my head low, avoiding trouble. My supervisor was the head clown Eddie, a fat-man about 50-years-of-age with yellow teeth and stinking breath.
There was a colored clown named Johnson. Johnson was a big man: about six-four-three with a graying head of hair. One day the head clown Eddie cracked some joke about his long penis. All the other clowns laughed but me and Johnson. I could see the joke was not funny to Johnson.
“Get it kid?” Eddie said. “Long dong Johnson. Get it?”
After that I became the target of Eddie. I was still 16 and small for my age. Eddie called me “Hairless” because I only had light public hair.
“Leave the kid alone,” Johnson said.
“Ain’t no colored is a gonna tell me – a white man – what I can say or not say,” Eddie said.
“I’m a man, same as you,” Johnson said.
“We ain’t equal Johnson,” Eddie said.
Johnson stood tall. “I fought in Cuba. Black and white men fought, suffered and died side-by-side.”
“Well, I had a limp,” Eddie said. “Bone spurs the doctor said. Otherwise I would have volunteered.”
“Lay off the boy,” Johnson said.
One day, when we were setting up the main tent, Eddie dropped a wood post on my head. I never saw it coming. The Colonel was livid. “I need you to take Spunky’s place. Now you are injured too.”
“I just need a couple of days,” I pleaded.
“I can take Spunky’s spot,” Johnson said. “Just give the boy a couple days rest.”
“I’m a business,” the Colonel said. “Not a charity.”
“He’s a good kid,” Johnsons said. “I will see that he is ready.”
In a couple days, I was better. My eyes were sensitive to light. Sometimes I had a headache and sometimes I forgot where I was. But at least I was able to perform again. I drove the truck, Johnson’s old job. It turns out that Johnson was quite talented in Spunky’s role. The crowd loved him.
But all this came at a cost. Eddie rode Johnson and I mercilessly. Johnson always seemed to not be affected by Eddie’ constant criticisms. “Your timing was off, Johnson,” “You call that a joke,” “My mother is funnier than you,” Eddie said.
“I know you are right,” Johnson said with his back to Eddie, as they washed the makeup off their faces. “But the crowd seemed to like it. They certainly laughed.”
Eddie’s face turned red, and the veins popped from his head.
The train took us to Birmingham. It was now fall, and the traveling season would soon be over. “Hey kid, what are your plans for the winter?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“We will shut down for the winter,” he said.
“Oh,” I said.
“My friend Bromley has a colored circus that will travel to Florida,” he said. “You want to come along?”
“But I’m not colored,” I said.
“No matter,” he said. ‘If you want in, you are in.”
The next four months at the Traveling Circus were among the best of my life. I stayed with Johnson and met his best girl Tessie. A good-natured cinnamon-skinned girl who was always laughing, joking, and pulling pranks. I never met a woman like that before or since.
We went to Tallahassee, Tampa Bay and Augustine. Since my dad died, I never felt like a really belonged anywhere until I met Johnson.
A black man asked why I was here. Johnson said, “Because I invited him.”
In the Spring, we rejoined the Colonel in Birmingham. As much fun as the Traveling Circus was, it did not pay near as well as the Colonel’s Show Time. The Traveling Circus had no animals, save a petting zoo.
The colonel hired a new girl clown named Julia. She was beautiful and even younger than me. She ran away from her family in New York City. “We have a lot in common,” she told me.
Eddie wanted to put his filthy hands on Julia. I kept appearing whenever he tried to get her alone. “I just wanted to thank you,” she told me. “I know what you are doing.”
One day we went to the ice cream parlor in town together. “Have you ever had a girlfriend?” she asked me.
“No,” I said.
She reached out and held my hand. “I have trust issues,” she said.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“My stepfather used to molest me,” she said. “That is why I ran away.”
That night, I slept with Julia in the woods. “The boy will now be a man,” she said.
Eddie now became angry at me, Julia, and Johnson. “I gave you a job when you had nowhere else to go,” Eddie ominously said to Julia.
Even Eddie’s best friend Jocko warned Eddie. “Take it easy, Boss.”
Finally during a performance in Memphis, Eddie knocked Johnson from the truck before he had time to make a proper landing. Johnson broke his arm.
“You did that on purpose,” Johnson said.
“No, it was just an accident,” Eddie said.
“I was not ready,” Johnson said.
“It was your fault,” Eddie replied.
“You pushed him out too early,” I said.
“I saw it too,” Julia said.
“What is the meaning of this,” the Colonel said, coming up from behind us. “What happened?”
We were all silent.
“If everyone here is afraid, I will say it,” Julia said. “Eddie intentionally hurt Johnson.”
“That is a lie,” Eddie said. “Are you going to trust this tramp and nigger over a white man?”
“I saw it too,” Jocko said. “Eddie pushed Johnson from the truck before his cue.”
We left Johnson in Memphis and he took a train to Florida. The Colonel fired Eddie and made Jocko the new head clown. Jocko took Eddie’s spot and Julia played Johnson’s role.
All was fine until the day, Eddie tried to burn the circus down. We were in Cincinnati when Eddie struck.
It was early Monday morning after Sunday’s show. Eddie set the wild animals free and set the big tent on fire. We called the volunteer fire brigade, but the firemen refused to put out the flames because the wild animals roamed free.
The Colonel, lion tamer and I brought the animals back to their cages. We joined the fire brigade and other circus performers in putting out the blaze.
The woods around the county fairgrounds caught fire. The big tent was lost. The wind picked up, and flames surrounded Julia and I.
Then I saw my father’s face in the flames. There was an opening in the flames. “Fly, Johnny,” he called. “Fly.”
Julia and I escaped to freedom. The police caught Eddie nearby with gasoline and torches. We joined another circus in New York.
Mark Kodama is a trial attorney and former newspaper reporter who lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife and two sons. He is currently working on Las Vegas Tales, a work of philosophy, sugar-coated with meter and rhyme and told through stories. More than 150 of his short stories, poems and essays have been published in anthologies, including those published by Black Hare Press, Clarendon Publishing House, Eerie River Publishing, Escaped Ink Press and Devil’s Party Press. His stories and poems have appeared in Writers and Readers Magazine, the Academy of Hearts and Mind Magazine, Café Lit, Commuter Lit, Dastaan World Magazine, Dissident Voice, Jakob’s Horror Box, Indie’s Nest, Inner Circle Writers’ Group Magazine, Literary Yard, Magazine of History and Fiction, Mercurial Stories, Portland Metrozine, Potato Soup Journal, PPP Ezine, Spillwords, Tuck Magazine and World of Myths Magazine. His stories and poems appear in Ancients, Apocalypse, Blaze, Cadence, Unravel, Dragon Bone Soup, Enigma, Fox Hollow Stories, Glamour, Hate, Tall Tales and Short Stories, Gleam, Fireburst, Latin Anthology, Maelstrom, Pride, Tempest and What Sort of Fuckery Is This? “Land of the Pharaohs” won Story of the Month at World of Myths and “The Summer Camp” appears in Potato Soup Journal, Volume 1, Issue 1 (Best of).