A Clown First and a Doctor Second ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
I was born in a hospital. My parents didn’t want me. They told the hospital people to drop me off at the nearest orphanage—or smother me with a pillow, whichever was most convenient. I was a healthy, sturdy, good-looking boy, but unwanted. I didn’t even have a name. With my profusion of white-blond hair and prominent baby nose, somebody on the hospital staff suggested I looked like the schoolroom pictures of George Washington, so my first name became George. A nurse who was eating her lunch was given thirty seconds to come up with a last name for me, so she said Pickles. From that moment on my name became George Pickles.
The question for the hospital people was what should be done with me since I didn’t have a home or a family. The nurses in the baby ward took care of me the same as they took care of the other newborns, but that couldn’t go on forever. I would grow and soon it would become apparent that I was a reject left behind.
The hospital people thought I might make an excellent janitor when I was old enough to use a mop or a broom, or, failing that, my organs might be used for a dying patient who needed a new liver, lung, kidney or heart right away. Of course, if my organs were used in this way, my own life would come to any end. This is undoubtedly one of the hazards of being unwanted.
At the age of three, I remained at the hospital and still nobody had decided what was to be done with me. Some of the doctors and nurses took a real liking to me; I became a sort of mascot. I was good-natured, easy to please, and not temperamental or fussy. Why somebody hadn’t taken me home and adopted me, I cannot imagine.
I could no longer stay in the baby ward for obvious reasons, so some of the doctors cleared out an unused room in the basement for me to stay in. They put me in a sort of baby bed on wheels that I liked because it was high and, out the tiny window over my head, I could see the sky. When I saw a bird fly past, I cooed in excitement. The nurses took turns taking care of me, feeding me and doing what else needed to be done, throughout the day and night. Some of the doctors would stop by just to pick me up and tickle me in the ribs so they could hear me laugh. Even though I didn’t have a real home or a mother and father, I lacked for nothing.
When I became a little older, the baby bed on wheels was swapped out for a regular bed. The nurses dressed me up in clothes from the charity box and fed me food from the hospital kitchen. They fixed up my room the way a little boy’s room would be in a real home, with stuffed animals, building blocks, tiny cars to roll around on the floor, and pictures on the wall of clowns and horses.
At five years old, I began to learn to read. At first one of the doctors would sit with me and patiently teach me the letters of the alphabet, but in no time I was reading on my own with little effort. Soon everybody started bringing me books because books were the things I liked best: colorful books with pictures of animals and simple texts and, later, young adult fiction. A couple years after that I was reading at an eighth or ninth grade level and, from there, I graduated to Mark Twain and the less-tedious classics of American literature.
As I was reading so well, somebody suggested that I should be in school with other children my own age. “It’s no need,” I told them. “I can learn everything I need to know right here on my own and learn it much more efficiently than I would in a public school.” The hospital psychiatrist was asked to give me an intelligence and reading comprehension test, whereupon he decided that my education was in no way lacking and was, in fact, far superior to what I would have received in the real world.
Besides the books people brought me, I had access to all the books in the hospital library, as well as the doctors’ closed-to-the-public medical library. I was reading novels and short stories, books on history, paleontology, archeology, ornithology, clowns, anatomy, physics, sociology…whatever the subject, I was reading it.
You’ll notice that in the preceding paragraph, I stated that one of my interests was clowns. I first became fascinated by clowns from the pictures on the wall in my room in the basement of the hospital. When I evinced an interest in knowing more about them, a particular friend of mine, Dr. Moorehead, brought me a book called The Big Book of Clowns, which contained many fascinating, colorful pictures and stories about real-life and fictional clowns.
After I read Dr. Moorehead’s book from cover to cover, I told him I wanted to be a clown; the next day he brought me a clown suit with clown shoes, clown makeup and a large red clown nose. The next time I saw Dr. Moorehead I was a clown. After that, I wanted to be a clown all the time, but the head nurse, a woman named Vera Ralston, told me it just wasn’t practical in the real world unless I joined a circus and she didn’t think I would ever want to do that.
Wearing my very own clown clothes, nose and makeup, I taught myself such clown tricks as juggling oranges, pie throwing and seltzer-water squirting; also some “physical” tricks like crumpling up when I got hit on top of the head with a rubber chicken, tightrope walking. and sliding on the floor without getting floor burns.
When people asked me why I was so interested in clowndom and in everything having to do with clowns, I told them I didn’t know, but that I believed somehow clowning was my destiny, that it played some role in who and what I was. One boy is interested in dinosaurs, one in racing cars and another in being the best at throwing a ball. My interest was clowns. How can we know where these things come from?
Somebody who felt sorry for me gave me some professional clowning attire with floppy shoes, wig, and a one-piece suit with plenty of padding, ruffled collar and cuffs. In this get-up I entertained at hospital staff parties. Sometimes I would go to the children’s ward and, despite my innate shyness, entertain the small patients there until I was exhausted. They especially liked me because they knew I was a child just like them.
As I got older, I knew I couldn’t be a clown forever. I needed to cultivate some additional interests. Dr. Moorehead, Nurse Ralston, and other people on the hospital staff asked me if I had any interest in becoming a doctor. When I told them I thought I might make as good a doctor as anybody else, they began bringing me books they thought might interest me—books on simple anatomy, the circulatory, respiratory and reproductive systems, and a book just about blood.
I had what’s known as a photographic memory. I could read one page and then put the book down and recite the page verbatim without any trouble at all. I absorbed medical knowledge like a sponge. I began working with some of the doctors as they went on their rounds. (I wasn’t allowed to see patients as a clown, though. I was instructed to wear a white coat so I looked like all the other doctors, which meant no rubber chickens, no red wig and no pies in the face.) In a couple of years I was ready to take my exams to qualify as a fully certified doctor.
Something was still bothering me, though. I wanted to know about my real parents: what they were like, where they lived, and why they didn’t want me when I was born. It’s natural for a person to want to know these things.
When I learned that the name and identify of my parents were in a confidential file in the hospital, I began trying to figure out how I might see this file, which, of course, was supposed to be strictly off limits. Nurse Ralston, Dr. Moorehead, and everybody else told me I was better off not knowing what was in the file. Still, they provided me with information that allowed me to find the file and read it at two in the morning when the hospital was sleeping.
There wasn’t much information in it other than the names of my real parents—Otto and Minnie Gruenwald—and their address, which I knew to be in a dreaded neighborhood downtown, a place people referred to as Skid Row. Telling Nurse Ralston I was going to an afternoon movie, I took a cab to the address and discovered it was a stricken residential hotel, midway along a boulevard of broken dreams.
The handful of people didn’t look at me as I entered the lobby. It occurred to me for the first time that a lot of years had gone by and my parents probably no longer lived there. Living in this place had probably killed them.
A desk clerk sitting behind a grubby pain of glass looked at me disinterestedly and expelled smoke from his nostrils. I told him who I was looking for and the corners of his mouth turned down into a reverse smile.
“What do you want to see them for?” he asked.
“It’s private,” I said.
“Are you a process server?”
“A police officer sworn to uphold and protect the law?”
“No. I think I might be related to them.”
“You have my sympathy. The elevator don’t work. Take the stairs up to the fourth floor, if you’ve got the wind. They’re in room four thirty-one.”
As I knocked on the door of room four thirty-one, my mouth was dry. I realized I hadn’t thought beforehand what I was going to say.
A tiny woman, a midget, opened the door and looked up at me. Her face was covered with wrinkles and she had a cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth. Her reddish hair looked burned, bitten off.
“Are you Mrs. Minnie Gruenwald?” I asked.
“Whatever you’re selling I don’t want it!” she said.
“I’m not selling anything. I’d like to have a word with you and your husband if it’s convenient.”
“If this is about his gambling debts,” she said, “you’re out of luck. He died a month ago.”
“That’s what I said, isn’t it?”
“Is it all right if I come in?”
“If you’re selling insurance or cemetery plots, I can tell you right now I don’t want any.”
“I’m not selling anything.”
“You’re not going to knock me in the head and take all my money, are you?”
“All right, then,” she said with a sigh, “but make it quick.”
She let me into her tiny suite of three rooms. I looked around quickly, seeing piles of clutter, clothes, papers, and magazines on every surface. She pushed a stack of newspapers off a wooden chair and gestured I might sit down if I was so inclined.
I sat down and I knew she was looking at my clothes and shoes, my haircut. “You don’t belong here,” she said. “I hope you make it out of the neighborhood alive.”
I thought she was making a joke, but when I looked at her and smiled I knew she was in earnest.
“This is an interesting old hotel,” I said, trying to find an opening to what I wanted to say.
“No, it’s not,” she said. “It’s a rat hole. The city is about to condemn it.”
“I’m sorry. I suppose that means you’ll have to move.”
“Cut the palaver and tell me why you’re here.”
“You said your husband died?”
“Yeah, what of it?”
“His name was Otto Gruenwald?”
“It was, unless he had some other name that I didn’t know about.”
“Do you mind telling me how he died?”
“He had alcoholics’ disease, his liver was shot, he had diabetes, emphysema from too many cigarettes and he was insane. Are those good enough reasons to die?”
“Did you and your husband have any children?” I asked, trying to keep from sounding nervous.
“I’m not answering any more of your questions until you tell me who you are and what you want!”
“My name is George Pickles,” I said. “I’m a doctor or soon will be.”
“Did county welfare send you?”
“Nobody sent me.”
“If you don’t tell me what you’re doing here, I’m going to call that little punk at the desk downstairs and have him send up a couple of goons to eject you!”
“You were in the circus?” I asked, pointing at a faded poster on the wall.
“Yeah, what of it?”
“Were you and your husband by any chance clowns?”
“My husband was a clown. People loved midget clowns. He was like me, only a couple of inches shorter. I was a bareback rider and acrobat. I could do all kinds of shit while standing on the back of a moving horse. But why am I telling you all this? It’s none of your business. You still haven’t told me what your business is.”
“Was he always a clown?”
“He was a clown until he broke his back and had to quit. He was a clown, his father was a clown and his grandfather, going all the way back to the beginning of time.”
“So that’s where it comes from!” I said, excitedly.
“Where what comes from?”
“Nothing,” I said. “I was just thinking out loud.”
“I’m going to have to cut this little tête-à-tête short,” she said. “I’m a very busy woman and I’ve got things to do.”
“Do you mind telling me if you and your husband had any children?” I asked.
“What do you want to know that for? I don’t think it’s any of your business.”
“I want to know for my own information. I’m interested in knowing about clown life.”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’m writing a book.”
“You won’t use my name, will you?”
“Of course not.”
She was silent while she got a cigarette going. “Well, it’s like this,” she said, letting a stream of smoke escape from her mouth. “I did have a baby once, but I had to give it up for adoption.”
“I’ve never talked about this before with anybody.”
“Strictly entre-nous, I promise.”
“The circus was no place for a baby. The life was hard.”
“I’m sure other people managed it.”
“They did, but they weren’t freaks like us. I only saw the baby one time but I knew he wasn’t a freak and that he wouldn’t have any kind of a life with us. My husband was always a heavy drinker and unreliable. No kind of a father. He even went around with other women, if you can believe that. He didn’t want the kid from the very beginning.”
“But you wanted him?”
“I knew I made the right decision for all of us, but especially for the baby.”
“Don’t you ever wonder about him? How he fared in the world?”
“Sure, I wonder about it all the time. I always hoped he was adopted into a nice family and grew up into a happy, successful, good-looking man.”
“If you knew how to find him, would you ever like to meet him?”
“Oh, no! I wouldn’t want him to see the trash he came from! He’s better off not knowing.”
“Maybe he’d like meeting you.”
“No, I want to keep things the way they are, with him not knowing anything about me and his father. And, anyway, I’m going away and I don’t know yet where I’ll end up. I don’t have any family or friends anymore. I might just get on a plane and fly around the world and choose a spot where freaks are welcome.”
“You shouldn’t think of yourself as a freak,” I said, standing up.
“It’s what I am,” she said. “Like it or not.”
After I took my exams and passed them to become a full-fledged doctor, I packed my bags and left the hospital. The people there were my family and, of course, they wanted to know where I was going. I told them I’d be back one day, but first I had something I had to do. I was a clown first and a doctor second.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp