Waiting backstage on a muddy day at RenFest stood a clown with a painted-on smile. He shifted his weight from one giant shoe to the other and fastened his bulbous red nose. Then he burst onto the wooden stage.
“Make way! I’m coming thr —” Diddles the Clown expertly tripped, flopped, flipped, and rolled, landing on his butt. The audience roared in laughter.
“Looks like somebody could use a pie in the face,” said Brian, the lead clown. The whipped cream swirling to its pointy tip in the aluminum pan sounded like oil frying. The audience stamped in the mud and chanted, “Pie! In! The face! … Pie! In! The face!”
Diddles pleaded under his breath, “Not again.”
The cheering swelled as Brian stood behind the seated clown and raised the pie up high. He smashed the thick mess against Diddles’ face. Amid the eruption of laughter and clapping, no one could see Diddles frowning underneath the creamy mask.
“What a great show, huh?” Brian said afterwards. “I mean you had them rolling.”
“Mff,” said Diddles as he wiped pie from his mouth.
“Everybody loves you, man. You’re just so funny. God, you’re so stupid up there, it’s great.”
Diddles fingered some cream out of his ear, and the sounds of the milling crowds joined the sound of laughter still echoing in his head.
“You all right there, buddy?” Brian asked. But Diddles just kept cleaning his face. “I don’t understand you, man. What greater joy than to make people laugh?”
“Can we switch roles for the next show?” Diddles asked.
Brian chuckled. “Wait, are you serious?”
“Diddles, I mean …” Brian gestured with an upturned palm first to himself, then to Diddles. He was right: they looked their parts. Brian was tall with arrogant good looks; Diddles was a baby-faced marshmallow. “Maybe someday,” Brian offered without enthusiasm. Then he walked away. Diddles stood and joined the throng of barbarians, fairies, and members of the court, his shoes smacking against the thick mud.
“William Michael, you get out of that water this instant!” a woman yelled.
“Is everything all right, ma’am?” Diddles said heroically.
“I let my son’s hand slip from mine for one second, and there he goes into the dunk tank, clothes and all.” Diddles looked, and sure enough, a young boy splashed around the dunk tank, unattended. “He won’t listen to a word I say,” said the woman. “Why should he? I’m just his mother.”
Diddles inflated his chest. “I’ll get him back for you,” he said.
The scenario played in Diddles’ head like a summer blockbuster: “Help! Help!” the drowning boy cried. Diddles the Clown rushed forward and ascended the narrow, creaking steps. “Back away, everyone!” he demanded of the gathering crowd. Hooking his feet under the highest step and balancing with one hand on the tank’s rim, Diddles stretched his free arm forward. “Grab on!” he yelled. But the boy fatigued and went underwater. His mother screamed. Diddles took a deep breath and held it, then let go of the tank. A collective gasp rose from the crowd as the clown’s upper body folded into the water, braced by his feet. He fumbled until he found the boy’s wrist. Then, in an incredible feat of strength, Diddles pulled the boy out of the water using only his legs, and threw him over the tank into the crowd’s waiting arms. He descended the steps to thunderous applause. “My hero!” the boy’s mother said. She threw herself into her savior’s arms and wept. “Thanks, Mister,” said the boy. Diddles gave him a wink and a thumbs up. “Anytime, kid.”
What actually happened was Diddles leaned over the tank and reached for the boy, unnoticed until he slipped and fell in himself, causing a cascade of water to pour over the rim. William surfaced, climbed out of the tank screaming, and ran to his mother.
Water invaded the clown’s ears, nostrils, and even windpipe. He came up for air, hacking and shivering, then descended the steps and walked away to the familiar soundtrack of laughter.
Diddles’ clothes sagged, and his shoes were heavy with mud. Brian would never let him be the lead clown if he saw him like this. No, Brian would probably just shake his head and chuckle. And he would be right to: Diddles was the consummate clown, even offstage. Couldn’t he go just one day without falling or tripping or saying something dumb? “You get roped into the dunk tank again?” Brian would ask. “Oh Diddles, not the dunk tank.”
Diddles was distracted from his thoughts when he saw a short, skinny man creep up to a woman from behind. “I’ll take that for you,” the man said. He reached for the woman’s shoulder and picked off her purse by the strap.
“Hey! What are you doing with that?” Diddles yelled.
“What, this?” the man said.
Diddles narrowed his eyes and strode towards the man, who shrank from the clown’s hulking presence and took off with the purse. “Thief!” an onlooker shouted. “Call the police!” “No need for that,” answered Diddles. He bent his knees, raised a fist in the air, and sprang. He soared like a rocket, suspended in air just over the crowd. His flight blew away a brass band’s sheet music, startled a stilt walker off balance, and made glassblowing artists hit the deck while the audience oohed and aahed. He lifted his chest and glided upward for a bird’s eye view of the festival, then spotted the thief. Pointing his outstretched arm straight towards him, Diddles the Clown dove until he tackled the thief to the ground and recovered the purse. Just then, the woman ran up. She was blindingly beautiful. Diddles scooped her up and kissed her on the mouth as the crowd clapped and cheered.
“What the hell?” the man said from the ground after Diddles had pushed him over.
Diddles dropped to one knee and held the purse as if presenting a sword to a king. “I got your purse back, ma’am,” he said.
She snatched it from the clown, then promptly beat him about the face with it.
“He’s my husband, you idiot.”
Between the wallops, Diddles could see through his shielding hands that people were pointing at him and laughing. The husband, red-faced, laughed hardest of them all.
When Diddles left the scene, the storefronts spun all around him. He stopped at a kiosk and mumbled through closed teeth that he wanted a bottle of water. A young girl passing by snickered.
“What did he say?” she asked her friend. “Did you get any of that?”
Diddles left the kiosk and walked to another far away. He held out three soggy dollars and pointed to a bottle of water. The cashier looked confused.
“It hurts when I talk,” said Diddles. The once vigilante hero winced and massaged his jawline. When he looked up, he caught the cashier smiling just before her lips shrank into her mouth to hide it.
As Diddles grabbed his water, he heard a commotion from behind.
“I’m telling you, I got here first!” said a bearded man dressed as a pirate.
“Did not!” said a taller, clean-shaven man in a polo shirt and khakis. “That’s my turkey leg.”
The bearded one shoved the taller one. “It’s mine!”
The taller one shoved back. “Mine!”
They were about to attack each other when Diddles saved the day: “Stop!”
Raising his arms outward and lifting his face to the sky until lightening formed around his hands and he glowed blue all over, Diddles the Clown approached the men and —
— tripped and fell down, his face splatting in the mud. It tasted like crawling bugs. After a moment of silence, the whole crowd exploded into laughter.
“What a clown,” said the tall one.
The bearded one grabbed the turkey leg from next to the cash register and brought it to Diddles. “Here, you can have it,” he said, and let the food drop to the mud. The crowd’s laughter rose to tidal wave height, and Diddles felt as if he were drowning. The two men shook hands and parted.
“Way to go, clown,” said someone as the crowd dispersed.
A hand clapped Diddles on the shoulder as he stood, making him cringe. “Diddles! Funny finding you here,” said Brian. “Look at you. What happened?”
Diddles felt like a ship lost at sea as he tried to navigate his memories of the day. “I got hit by a purse,” he finally said.
“Ha! I love it. Always the performer.”
“Everyone laughs at me.”
Brian patted Diddles on the back. “That’s why you’re the best. Now come on, let’s get you cleaned up.”
When Diddles tried to drive out of the fairgrounds, the wheels spun fruitlessly in the mud.
“See you tomorrow, Diddles,” Brian called, walking past. “Save your appetite for some more whipped cream!”
Dark clouds came together like jigsaw pieces. Diddles turned off the engine, rolled up the windows, and sat there listening to raindrops ping off the car.
A man stood outside holding an umbrella, his other arm wrapped around a little girl’s shoulders.
“Excuse me,” mouthed the man. “Excuse me.”
Diddles cracked open the window. “What is it now?”
“I’m … I’m sorry, I … That’s the clown, dear,” he said to the girl. “Go on, tell him.”
The girl turned away from Diddles and huddled against the man’s thigh. Diddles rolled the window lower.
“Sorry, she’s a little embarrassed. Well, we just wanted to say … um … the thing is … we had to put her dog down yesterday, you know? She’s been feeling low all day. Except when she saw you perform, that is. You’re the only one in this whole festival who’s made her laugh. So thank you.”
Diddles softened and looked down at the girl. She turned ever so slightly, revealing a sliver of her face like a crescent moon. Diddles caught her eye, the color of a calm sea, and saw the corner of her lip curled upward.
“Well … have a good day,” the man said. “Come on, dear.”
As the pair walked off hand in hand, the girl looked back, and Diddles waved in response. For one fleeting moment, he wore a smile that required no paint.
Jonathan Levy lives, works, and writes in Austin, Texas. Most recently, the staff and readers of Havok, Cafe Irreal, and Pure Slush have made him feel so grateful and lucky.
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