Clown Life ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
“I hate my name,” Ruth Ellen said. “I’m going to change it.”
Her mother, whose name was Mrs. Miriam Swaby, turned from the stove, spatula in hand. “Change it to what?” she asked.
“I haven’t decided yet. I’m thinking of either Viva or Lucky. Maybe Roxanne. Something with pizzazz.”
“There isn’t anything wrong with the name you were given. We’ll stick to that for the time being. When you get out into the world on your own, you’ll be free to call yourself whatever you want.”
“I can think of lots of good names for her,” Cleve said, propping his head on his arm, trailing the tines of his fork through the egg yolk on his plate.
Ruth Ellen didn’t answer him. She had found the best way to handle her brother, when he was trying to be rude to her, was to ignore him.
“I know a girl named Cha-Cha and another one named Jeepers,” Ruth Ellen said. “Those are names with pizzazz.”
“Surely those aren’t their real names,” Miriam said. “Who would name a child Cha-Cha?”
“She’s in special education,” Cleve said. “What would you expect with a name like that?”
“You don’t even know her!” Ruth Ellen said. “How could you?”
“She wears a black leather jacket with a swastika painted on the back and she carries a switchblade. She’ll cut your heart out if you look at her the wrong way.”
“Of course you would know all about it, wouldn’t you?”
“She belongs to an all-girl gang. They’re female juvenile delinquents. They shoplift and smoke dope. They’re all headed for the electric chair.” He held out his arms and shook all over to simulate being electrocuted.
“You’ll know one of these days just what it’s like,” Ruth Ellen said, “and I hope I’ll be there to see it.”
“I was asked to join a gang,” he said. “I said I’d think about it.”
“Would that be a gang for ugly losers?”
“I think I’ll join. It would add to my prestige.”
“Who asked you to join a gang?” Miriam asked.
“Some boys at school. I don’t know their names.”
“He’s just making that up,” Ruth Ellen said. “Nobody would ever want him to join anything. If they wanted him, it would just be so they would have somebody to slap around. ”
“Everybody’s got to start somewhere.”
“That’s enough talk about gangs and electric chairs,” Miriam said. “You sound like you weren’t brought up right.”
“We weren’t,” Ruth Ellen said.
“This is what happens when children have to grow up without a father.”
“He’s only been gone six months,” Ruth Ellen said.
“I don’t know that we really need him,” Cleve said. “I don’t miss him all that much.”
“That’s a terrible thing to say about your father,” Miriam said.
“Let’s face it. Even when he was here, he really wasn’t. Some people just aren’t cut out to be parents.”
“He went off and left us without a penny,” Miriam said. “We would be destitute if it wasn’t for the property my family left me.”
“Destitute is a relative term,” Cleve said. “You would say you were destitute if you had to make do with the old drapes in the dining room instead of buying new ones.”
“He knew he wasn’t really needed,” Ruth Ellen said. “That made it easy for him to leave. When his business failed, he had no reason to stay here.”
“Other men would think their family was reason enough to stay,” Miriam said.
“Well, I guess he wasn’t one of those.”
“I think he’s got a woman.”
“A woman!” Ruth Ellen said. “Him? Never in a million years!”
“That is a truly nauseating suggestion,” Cleve said.
“If he asks me for a divorce, I’ll know it’s so he can marry some other woman.”
“Are you going to give it to him?” Ruth Ellen asked.
“No. As my mother used to say, when I married I married for life. Marriage is not something you can just shrug off whenever it’s convenient.”
“That’s so old-fashioned,” Ruth Ellen said.
“You may call it whatever you like. It’s just the way I am. Marriage is an eternal bond.”
“If he wanted to marry somebody else and you wouldn’t give him a divorce,” Ruth Ellen said, “they’d probably just live together and pretend they were married. I’m sure it happens all the time.”
“He’ll only ever have one true marriage, in the eyes of God and in the eyes of the law.”
“What if you died?” Cleve asked. “He could marry somebody else then, couldn’t he?”
“He’s not going to marry anybody,” Ruth Ellen said. “He just doesn’t have it in him.”
“When I was eight years old,” Miriam said, “my parents got divorced.”
“I knew it was coming!” Cleve said with a groan.
“My father committed suicide a few years later and my mother had many marriages. Can you imaging how dizzying it is for a child to have a succession of stepfathers? There are so many of them you can’t keep them all straight!”
Ruth Ellen made snoring sounds but Miriam ignored her.
“My brother left home at a young age and ended up a drunkard, in trouble over his head. He spent time in and out of prison and never got himself straightened out. I’ll always believe he lived a wasted life because he was from a broken home.”
“How is Uncle Stanley these days?” Cleve asked.
“My sister ran off with a married man who left her stranded in a cheap hotel room in a foreign city when he got tired of her. She called me and begged me to send her the fare to get home. She was broken and humiliated. She was never the same after that.”
“That story gets more dramatic every time I hear it,” Ruth Ellen said.
“I don’t want those things to happen to the two of you.”
“You don’t have to worry about me,” Cleve said. “I don’t have any ambition to do bad things.”
“I’m going to make sure we all stay together as a family. Even if your father is far away and we never see him, there’s an invisible bond connecting the four of us together as a unit. The only thing that will break the unit is death.”
She went upstairs, leaving Ruth Ellen and Cleve alone in the kitchen.
“She gets crazier all the time,” Ruth Ellen said.
“I had a letter this week,” Cleve said. “From him.”
“Why didn’t you tell her?”
“He told me not to.”
“Where is he? Is he coming home?”
“He’s not ever coming home. He’s joined the circus.”
“He’s with a traveling circus. He’s a clown. He went to clown school and everything. He says that being a clown has given his life meaning and purpose. He’s never been happier.”
“Did he mention any lady clowns?”
“He wants me to come and stay with him for a few days. He says I’ll love the clown life as much as he does.”
“Are you going?”
“Does the circus have a freak show?”
“He didn’t mention it.”
“What will you tell her?”
“I don’t know. I’ll think of something.”
“It might just be the thing that finishes her off,” Ruth Ellen said. “The ultimate indignity: Her husband finding true happiness as a clown outside the family unit. How will she ever hold up her head with her snooty friends?”
“She’ll make it into the most tragic event of her life. The other episodes will pale in comparison.”
“She’ll say it was all because of a lady clown.”
“She’ll say that being a clown is worse than being in prison for extortion or bank robbery.”
“I don’t think she’ll ever believe it. Even if she sees it with her own eyes, she’ll deceive herself into believing it’s not true.”
“She’s always been so good at self-deception.”
“Are you going to tell her or shall I?”
Copyright © 2012 by Allen Kopp