The thing about clowns is they can’t take anything seriously.
See a crying child, all clowns can think to do is make balloon animals and fart noises until they get a reaction.
Hear a sad song, they can’t resist dancing a jig to it, or else taking the slowest, saddest steps to the point of satire.
Everything’s a joke to them.
The clown was there.
The clown was gone.
Ingrid started seeing the clown all over, popping out from around corners, waiting on the other side of each door she opened. It might not have been so bad if everyone else had seen the clown, but her mother looked at Ingrid like she was losing her mind when she yelped at an apparently empty space, when she told nothing-at-all to go away.
It got worse when the clown showed up, not only at home, but at Ingrid’s college classes. She couldn’t pay attention when the clown did something particularly terrible, like when he urinated in Professor Washburn’s oblivious ear.
Then the clown came to work.
He showed up when Ingrid was at her lowest. When the old man—the membership card read Walter Bitters—called Ingrid an idiot child after she reported that Walter owed $13.70 in late fees, and Reel to Reel couldn’t let him rent another video until he paid it off. The clown played peekaboo, shrinking down to hide behind Walter’s narrow shoulders only to spring out, teeth bared, unclear if he meant to bite the old man’s neck, or springboard over him to gnaw on Ingrid’s face.
Then the clown was gone.
Of course, Walter couldn’t see the clown at all.
Children could see the clown, though.
The clown haunted the Children’s section most of all, bothering Ingrid when she returned cases there or reorganized the Blow Pop display. It was a reprieve when kids came in and the clown terrorized them instead of Ingrid for a while, until Ingrid felt bad about and responsible for their crying terror, displaced from her onto their smaller frames.
Ingrid confronted the clown that same day when Walter reamed her out and asked to speak to her manager, Big Todd. Maybe it was the dull edge to Ingrid’s emotional state that made her feel impervious to terror in that moment. Maybe, that one day, she’d had enough.
The clown ate cockroaches that day to terrorize a little red-haired girl who gripped to her father’s leg. Dad asked why she was being so clingy.
Ingrid told the clown to leave the kid alone. To pick on someone his own size.
The clown opened his mouth in mock-terror and wiggled his fingers, as if Ingrid were the boogie man here.
The kid’s dad looked at Ingrid like she was nuts, ignoring the kid’s look of gratitude. He took his daughter’s hand and led her away.
Just as Ingrid was working up the nerve to slap that stupid clown in his stupid clown face, Big Todd asked to speak to her.
While he told her about how Mr. Bitters was a loyal customer and the customer was always right, the clown leered over Big Todd’s shoulder with a scowl. Then the clown blew into the end of an orange balloon until it inflated to the size of an ovular, distorted basketball. Then until it was the size of Big Todd, then until it filled the row of videos behind Big Todd, then until it encroached on Big Todd, overtaking him, though of course Big Todd didn’t notice. Ingrid couldn’t hear him through the squeaking latex as it overtook Ingrid, too—Ingrid in embedded in orange, only faintly able to make out the silhouette and warble of Big Todd’s lecture form from the far side, and the silhouette of the clown, still blowing.
Then Big Todd reached out to her.
The balloon popped.
The pop was quieter than it ought to have been, but bits of the balloon were everywhere, including a big scrap of it that clung to Big Todd’s hairline and flapped against his forehead.
Big Todd ran his hand up and down Ingrid’s arm, his fingers rough. She understood him to be consoling her, because maybe he’d been too stern in admonishing her. He’d told her once before, the start of a morning shift, that he’d had a dream about her, and the two of them were in bed, the sun just coming in through the blinds, her bare arm out over the covers and she’d said she was cold and he’d run his hand over her to warm her and she’d said that felt good and he’d felt perfectly at peace because everything was all right.
In the present moment at the store, he told her everything would be all right.
The clown was there.
Michael Chin grew up in Utica, New York and currently lives in Las Vegas with his wife and son. He has published three books: You Might Forget the Sky was Ever Blue (Duck Lake Books), Circus Folk (Hoot ‘n’ Waddle), and The Long Way Home (Cowboy Jamboree Press). Visit miketchin.com.