In the beginning, there were clowns. That is, my earliest memory is of a birthday party—mine, as a matter of fact—with two clowns anchoring the celebration. A quiet, modest affair (at first, anyway). Just two year old me, and my parents, in our basement rec room. And rain, no doubt. Rain pat-patting the windows, the muddied lawn.
The adult strangers, arriving, are only blobs at first: intangible beasts in the distance, bobbing at the top of the stairs, slithering down, down, down, oozing onto the basement floor. Outstretched like tentacles, long arms glom onto me. (A tad unsettling, to be honest.) Forgotten is the entwined buzz of voices and light fixtures, but there in that rec room, beneath dangling light bulbs, those two clowns flicker forever and ever. Strapped to my teetering highchair, I was riding bronco a whirlpool of twitchy light, of portentous abyss. Down the drain goes little Farley Aloysius Nostrum.
The swirl clearing, through my memory’s eyes I see the harlequins’ painted faces, their lips enormous and white, like wings of ghosts, fluttering in sync with a now-silent clown joke. And my parents are slapping their knees, having a laugh over the jesters’ antics, but everyone is mute. For though the year recalled is 1953, talkies haven’t been invented yet. Not in my memories, anyway. Traveling through time from my grown up vantage, I am seemingly deaf. The gurgles and the screeches that I surely made are, like good children everywhere in time or place, seen but not heard.
And balloons! I remember balloons hovering above, but where they cling, the shapes and colors are lost amid the fluorescence of light and mind. Perhaps the balloons were roundish only, and maybe they came in black and white only, but I doubt it. There must have been colorful shapes: fanciful animals squeezed into creation by the gloved hands of clowns. But my memory refuses to make them and paint them. I see only their simplest, blandest forms, their purpose unclear, until . . .
Grinning harpies, their balloons thumping somehow silently, swoop down on my highchair, tickle my captive toes, and rub balloons against my head, the clowns’ instruments of torment sticking to the ceiling and my frizzled hair. I lash out with my hands but miss every time, like a kitten. A de-clawed kitten.
Just the five of us at my party, counting the clowns. No friends. I’m too young to have any friends. And my two brothers haven’t been born yet. Was there cake and punch? Probably, but for the adults only. Were nips taken from flasks hidden in the clowns’ bloated pantaloons? Who knows? For me, though, nothing more than some milk, thank you much, and some pathetic mish-mash of peas and carrots, I’d guess. The mind simply can’t corral every last detail.
But there were clowns, for sure. One male, one female. Rather than comedic looking, Mr. and Mrs. Annoying N. Tacky looked more like Frankenstein’s monster and the monster’s bride. Her electric beehive coiffure—oh, my! And his pomaded bangs: black zigzags against a pale, stretch-marked forehead. Black hair, both clowns. No colors yet in my recollected world. Just in-your-face monsters of film land, their deranged irises flaring as if backlit by the torches of angry villagers. You guys are supposedly funny? What a joke. Ha-ha. (I seize every opportunity to laugh, no matter how utterly scanty the stimulus. Learned this early on.)
Come to think of it, my parents were fond of hilarity, so I bet they indulged in a little helium that day with their clown pals. It’s possible I did too, because, in those days of raising baby by the book, my parents were considered mavericks, odd to the core, as odd as my mom’s pink politics in those days of black lists and McCarthy. (I speak of Joe, not Charlie.) I have a feeling all of us sounded like munchkin Donald Ducks from suckling the balloons of clowns . . .
But my earliest memory, it seems, is straying from quiet purity; I’m falling inch by inch into the din of speculation. It is time, as they say, to move on.
A little clearer here and there, the next-oldest memory that I harbor happens also to be of a birthday party, my third, actually. And I suppose—sorry, I know—that the pervasiveness of clowns that day is what causes it to outweigh in importance the birth of my brother Rolf the month before. Yes, my parents had once again hired clowns. Three of the buggers, three. Hmmm . . .
Did I go “hmmm . . .” that day? Did I slap my forehead and say, “Oh, poop!” or the like? No, my cognition back then was too darn dull. Regardless, had I been a prodigy (I was not. No mastering ancient Greek at age 3 for little Farley), denial would have disallowed me to recognize the unfolding pattern.
The party is fuzzy around the edges, and it flickers in black and white, everyone’s lips moving, the words long forgotten. But when I rip away—like a Polaroid’s backing—the stuff my memory can live without (the coffee table, the funny-shaped TV, the couch), I’m able to focus on the human presences, judging the importance that the adults or children extant held for me, for good or for bad. (Sorry, Rolf. Maybe you were there, but I don’t remember. Sorry, Dirk. You ain’t born yet, little bro’.) I then extrapolate from the scene whatever art it makes for me, infer what my parents’ lips were conveying, and render an opinion as to the aesthetic effect. On me. It’s all about me . . . it’s my memory.
Accordingly, reflecting now, I can see that my parents loved me despite the annoyances that come with the toddler territory. Farley, Farley, what a mess ooo made, but we wuv ooo so much anyway. A little Elmer Fuddish, to be sure. Still, out of my prehistory, my parents’ unconditional love echoes: an angels’ choir amid our glimmering basement walls, resilient as the lovely cave paintings of the Cro-Magnon.
And I hope that I shone my love right back at them, communicating my affection via pretty eyes and jam-smeared goo-goo faces. I can only imagine my own early attempts at syntax: Mama! (gurgle) Da! Wuv OOO . . . puppy?
My unconditional love, pretty as a finger-painting.
But clearly, my parents weren’t responding to my whimpers, my kittenish scratching. On some bargain basement level I must have mused: how do I communicate my ambivalence about
. . . clowns? (Without hurting Mom and Dad’s feelings? Do I worry about such things? I think not! I’m only three—barely. Besides, unconditional love does have its limits, ha-ha.) What I need is … vocabulary! A glossary, please. I need the words that go with the feelings, darn it! I’ll make them up if need be. Clowmphs, no! Argghh!
Like I said, I doubt whether I’d smelled it coming. But they numbered three that day, I’m certain. Three hired guns. They happened to vary greatly in height and weight, which they exploited, comic-fashion, ala Mutt and Jeff, the two as bookends to the third clown. (Muff? Jutt?) Alas, I recall nothing comical at all. And in their numbers I find no geometric beauty, just the bad art of clowns. One look and I upchuck my meager allotment of cake. Unconditional love be hanged, I need me some words!
But wait, I think I’m getting . . . full-blown sound: creak goes my highchair, the chair legs wobbling as I attempt to escape. The obnoxious squawk of balloons being rubbed together. Voices boom, “HEY, KID!” as three mug shots hunker down to get real, real close to Birthday Boy, holding bulb-horns they must’ve purloined from Model T’s.
“Hey, kid . . . Farley! Happy Birf-day!” HONK a HONK a HONK a HONK a . . .
“Mama! Clowmphs! . . . Argghh!” (Crash goes the highchair.)
Hmmm . . . a pattern emerges.
Every October the tenth, another clown is added. The clowns’ malevolent effect increases arithmetically (not exponentially, thank God—the horror!) And my memories sharpen too. Pixels increase in number and gather closer together, until from mystery comes almost organic clarity, forms shifting and morphing into shapes of beauty, of horror, much as a school of tiny crustaceans eludes a baleen whale’s sieve-like mouth, only to be crushed by the cream-white, blunted daggers of a great blue. Witness please, the gap-toothed, blue-haired giant clown. The lemon-yellow midget. And sandwiched in the middle, the tomato-red Bozo of middling size. Yes, color’s finally been added to my memories. And they’ve become talkies.
When did I become aware of the diabolical pattern—fully, consciously?
And why didn’t my parents hear my cries? See my winces? Find the stains planted anew every birthday in my short pants? How was it they could be so clueless? Had they been blinded by love, by denial of my phobia? Just listen:
I remember eavesdropping on my parents shortly before my fourth birthday. I wasn’t trying to gather intelligence about some cabal of clowns. No, I only wanted to know what presents to expect. The innocence of my intention!
The clang and tinkle and squeak of dishes. Mom washing, Dad drying. I sat squatting in the hallway, my hand cupping like a megaphone my left ear. The somewhat deeper voice cleared itself . . .
“It’s settled. Clowns and cake again. I can’t wait to see the bugger’s cute little face.”
Uh oh . . . No, Dad, pretty please. No clowns. Rescue me, Mom!
“I don’t know, Al. I just don’t know. And four clowns, at that?”
Four . . . ? I peeked around the corner: Dad shook his head . . .
“Oh, jeez, Bernice, here we go again. Farley’s gonna expect four clowns this year, don’t you suppose?”
“Honey, listen to me. Farley doesn’t like clowns too much.”
“Meh. Lotsa kids afraid a’ clowns. He’ll get over it.”
“We’ve been over this. The more the better, the faster he’ll get over it. Just like me. Just like my dad did with me.”
“But, Al, four clowns is . . . how much?”
“It’s four, Bernice. Four. Haven’t you been listening?”
“No, I . . . sweet Jesus . . . I mean, how much money?” She’d gritted out that last word, if you ask me.
“Clowns and cake, hang the expense! I just got me a raise, don’t you know.”
“Well, sure. The raise, the raise. A darn good one, too. But . . . four clowns?
“Bernice, Bernice, are we going around in circles here? And wash a little faster, please. I’ve got nothing to do.”
Mom stiff-armed a dripping water glass at Dad. “My point, Aloysius, sweetheart, is this: Ready? I think it establishes a dangerous, um . . .”
“Precedent?” He seemed pleased having anticipated her word choice.
“Yes, Al. A dangerous precedent.”
“Yeah, sure . . . I mean, no! It’s the best way to cure him.” Dry beyond dry, the water glass in his hands squeaked and squeaked.
“But project to the future. Please!”
“I am!” The glass stopped squeaking. It nearly popped as if he’d squeezed dead a mouse.
“OK, but say he’s —” She stopped talking, pried the glass from Dad’s fist, and placed it on the shelf above her— “Say he’s twelve, Al. Okay? Are we going to have twelve darn clowns?!”
“Yeah. If he’s still afraid of them.” He touched her arm. “Bern, listen. He’ll be cured long before he’s twelve. It’s been tough on him, sure, but just you wait. My father cured me; I’ll cure Farley. And he’ll cure his own sons someday. So it goes, ad—”
“It’s ‘ad infinitum’ and you know it. Besides —”
“Oh, God . . .”
“Besides, nothing prettier than tradition, Bern. Except maybe a —”
“Yes, I know, I know: ‘Nothing prettier than a kid coming to terms with his demons.'”
Mom set her dishrag down, and sighed. “Okay,” she said. “Have it your way—again. But we’ll see about it come his twelfth birthday. Deal?”
That’s the gist of their conversation, anyway.
And so it was. Every October the tenth, they added another clown. Of this I’m certain, because each basement scene comes to me pure and true. (I doubt any man, alive or moldering, has ever had a memory quite like mine.) On my fourth birthday, four clowns. On my fifth, there were five. Why didn’t I say something to Mom and Dad? Pointless, really. They weren’t blind to my suffering. And it pained them too. They were doing this out of love and tradition. Something akin to tossing the kid into the deep end, I guess.
On my sixth birthday, how many clowns? Take a stab.
And what about the years following? Admit that I spied on them? No problem. But admit my fear of clowns, although I’m seven, eight, nine . . . ad infinitum? I’m trying to become a man here! There was nothing much I could do. Except maybe . . . fool everybody into thinking that I’d grown up? Hmmm . . .
Another clown and another, until their assorted colored ranks circling my cake with ten candles flickering were as perfect a statement mathematically as they were a damn good photo op: a moment framed forever in mid-air, captured on my tenth birthday, Dad swaying atop the ladder with his fanciest camera. In that spacious basement room, witness the Galileo-panted clowns, ten in number, orbiting the candled cake and the shy boy at photo’s center who was born at ten minutes after ten on October the tenth. All those zeros and ones: 101010101010—Glorious! Ten clowns, ten candles, poster boy for the dawn of the Digital Age. In that basement, the universe was made safe for base ten mathematics and for all the world’s ten-fingered, tool-toting, reason-loving denizens. Lovely, just lovely.
But—speaking of reason—take another look at the photo, will ya?
Oh, I put on a good show all right. As always, I did my best to hide my fear. But Mom, for one, must have seen it in my “smile,” the curve as flat as the horizon. She saw it in my eyes, too. The wear and tear of almost a decade’s worth of birthday clowns.
And every last one of them . . . scary.
Fucking scary bastards.
On my eleventh birthday, a hiatus from clowns. Nine cowboys defeated two Indians, the opening of the west the party theme. Had Mom convinced Dad I would never get over my fear of clowns his way? Or had Dad simply grown tired of clowns, clowns, clowns . . . ?
I never found out for sure, but I remember Dad looking pale that day. He’d lost some weight lately. Without even trying.
Two and a half months after my eleventh birthday, and two days before Christmas, Dad died.
Wallowing in denial, I escaped. But after awhile, I emerged, feeling every bit of the pain of loss. My schoolwork went to hell. Depressed one minute, angry the next, I would pick a fight with anybody. One by one, I lost every friend I had. By summer I’d come to expect nothing more from life than the raw basics: food, shelter, family, and now and then, laughter. Like a talisman, a rite, laughter waves backs the demons. Speaking of which, having seen death from a distance just one small step removed, I guess I was amazed that I was ever afraid of anything so piddling as clowns. In fact, I’d taken to peeking at a TV show featuring local clown great, Paddy McPatches. Eventually, I realized I was laughing. And for a half hour every morning that summer and fall, I found solace in those painted eyes.
On a drizzly October the tenth, 1963, I walked home from school, kicking cans and bottles and cats, as usual. My head felt so heavy, I almost stumbled over Rolf’s feet. On the corner nearest our house stood Rolf like a guard. From under his sweatshirt he pulled out a yellow legal pad. He showed it to me. Three pages were covered with tally marks—four slashes and a diagonal for every time he’d counted five.
“What have ya been counting, Rolfie?”
“Never mind, but there’s a slew of ‘em. Mom wants proof, I guess, of how many she rounded up, altogether.”
“Cowboys and induns, right? Twelve, all told?”
“Guess again.” A cluster of balloons drifted by, mist clinging to the curves.
“We’re back to damn clowns again? She thinks I’m still afraid of clowns. Me?”
“Uh, I think she pretty much threw that notion out the window, Farley.”
I turned the corner. Down the block to our house and way beyond: nothing but clowns, clowns, clowns . . . My grin nearly yanked me into the air. Mom had spirited a pantheon of harlequins, tricksters, and balloon-festooned buffoons. Fat clowns, string bean clowns. Paul Bunyanesque clowns (“HI YA, FARLEY!”), mousy clowns (“Happy Birthday, Farley!”) Jesters everywhere, squeezing balloons into swords, dachshunds, and poodles (“There ya go, Farley, the puppy ya always wanted!”). They were all toting the requisite clown trappings: the red rose cheeks, the Washington Delicious noses, the psychedelic birds nest hairdos. Smiles shimmered under layers of paint, eyes glowed like comets —painted flower-petal lashes all a’twirl. In everybody’s hands, flowers: (“Have a daisy, Farley!”). And bulb horns: HONK a HONK a HONK a HONK a . . . as if the sky had been rendered its white-gray palette by all the world’s geese flying wingtip to wingtip.
Mom, Mom, “clueless” Mom, well-meaning Mom . . . lovely Mom. She’d thrown the notion out the window, as Rolf said. And you wouldn’t believe how many clowns he’d counted, but I’ve got the tally marks on this legal pad to prove it. Squat clowns, waddling. Bozos on stilts, juggling. Magic tricksters, wobbling on unicycles: “Nothing up my sleeve!” one said, and pulled a rabbit from the air, right in front of my grief-shot eyes.
Clowns everywhere! Guy clowns, gaudy as male harlequin ducks and wood ducks, like Mister Beepers, Mister Tweedy Petey, even TV’s Mister Paddy McPatches! And Punch (“Just call me Punch—no ‘Mister’ necessary—I’m your casual alternative, thank you much.”) And a load of shrill voiced Judys sang through the mist. Motley fools told jokes that made me giggle, including the mild (“Hey, Farley, how many Irishmen does it take to screw in a light bulb?), and the bawdy (“Hey, Farley, how many Scandahoovians does it take to screw a chicken?”).
Clowns barbecued hot dogs under our drizzled porch as autumn darkness set in. The street lamps firing up, from the sleeves of a hell of a lot of clowns flew the pigeons and the doves, en masse to the pewter gray horizon, to the foothills aglow with snowfall, feathers twirling around the lampposts, like so many moths.
The sky soon turned black, everyone shivering as cold descended, rain about to pour mightily. Four mimes shrugged their shoulders as the day’s first significant raindrops fell. A sparkler-eyed little clown tugged his suspenders, raised his forefingers, and yelled, “By George, I’ve got it!” And an army of jesters, punsters, and twits pointed their fingers at our house, formed a queue, and began to funnel through the front door. Laughter and color quickly displaced the bland cubic footage of our house. Upstairs and down, a veritable clown convention: Bozos milling in our kitchen. Tumbling down the hall. Lover clowns, stacked two-high in the bedrooms. Shadow puppets danced on walls, the backlit fingers of clowns their creators. Flying out of puffy sleeves, lovebirds and parakeets flittered along the ceiling, basking in baseboard-warmed air.
Clowns of all faiths, creeds, and hair color. A Rastafarian puppeteer, dreadlocks like multi-hued ropes. Bald Buddhists. Hasidic Jews, their sidelocks falling in rainbow colors. Bible thumpers, their bowties gigantic, jumped on the sofa. Three black Muslims, reverent on throw rugs, bowed toward the east. And pale devotees of blue-skin Lord Krishna, their hair up in topknots, wore 16 EEEE sandals. Ankles ching-ching-chinging with expropriated donations of dimes and quarters, they chanted, “Hare Krishna, Hare Rama, Farley, Farley, Happy Birthday.”
And out of the upstairs bathroom twirled a Sufi clown, like a spinning top in white, flowing robes, somehow pirouetting on the tips of shoes as long as my arm, until he’d stumbled, anyway, upon the (open) door leading to our basement. Rolf and Dirk and I found him in the pantry, pinned under collapsed shelves of canned peaches, pickles, and pears, his giant fairy’s shoes jutting upward ala the bad witch under Dorothy’s fallen farmhouse. We thought he was out cold (the x’s painted cartoonishly on his eyelids had fooled us). But he went “boo!” and jumped up and snatched from his shoes quarters for each of us.
Down in the rec room, atop heads everywhere, stacks of hair like stuffing from Easter egg baskets. Once you got to chatting with everybody, there were moppish Libertarians, buzz-cut reactionaries, and Communist clowns with itchy, red goatees. Stuffed in the half-bath, philosophical clowns convinced themselves they didn’t exist. In the laundry room, an Allen Ginsberg fan howled verse while his pantaloons churned in the washer, the colors brightening, the whites whitening.
And the music! A duo of red cheeked ladies vaguely resembling Miss Judy Garland waltzed down the stairs, singing, Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are . . . Following them were eleven clowns brandishing tin whistles. Up and down like a row of pistons their heads bobbed and their white-gloved fingers piped a wondrous Irish aire. It was like a wake for old Dad, too long postponed. Mom dancing the night away, a Rudolph-nosed Eagle Scout clown played jigs and reels on his harmonica and nose flute, simultaneously. I fingered his purple sash with merit badges bearing gaudy symbols: a pinkish balloon shape for excellence in balloon artistry; a winking, smiling sun (for joke telling, I’d guess). And a rose (For horticulture?) Laughing, my face ran wet from the water squirting from the fake flower on his sash.
Table legs staggered under the sweet weight of candy, Popsicles, and 3-tier cakes. Bowl after bowl of R rated punch, enlivened by the contents of once-hidden flasks. Snacking on canapés, little tramps sized each other up, gazed for clues winking through layers of makeup, for bulges under pantaloons and blouses all puffed up like zeppelins. All kinds of clowns: vegetarians, breathatarians, hot dog enthusiasts. Dieters spooning cottage cheese and zip-cut canned fruit. Mandarin clowns chop-sticking little cubes of Jell-O. Potato chip-favoring Celtic Bozos . . .
Speaking of which, I’ve often wondered, whatever became of Mister McPatches? Paddy McPatches, he of the twin pyramidal stacks of hair, lime Jell-O green. Paddy hasn’t been seen since driving into the sunrise, crammed knees-to-chest in his one/third scale ‘24 Stutz Bearcat. He drove the best he could that morning after my birthday, considering. Steering with his feet, one arm waved a bottle and the other tossed green popcorn and green seeds, handful after handful from an elongated, trailing bag resembling nothing so much as a cotton picker’s bag. A Johnny Appleseed bent on making the world safe for green corn.
Is there such a thing? As a safe world, I mean.
I think of Mister McPatches often. No wonder.
And now the year is ’01, the month October, and it’s the tenth day of what has been a damn cold month. It’s the golden anniversary of my sliding into the froth of the world. No wonder all these memories are coming up. It’s not that they’ve been backed up. No, I haven’t been talking this night until morn about repressed memories—the ones that come to you on a doctor’s fancy couch, or out of the air when some odd stimulus causes the synapses to fire up images of events long forgotten. Such memories are suspect, impure, verboten. I forbid such distortions to intrude upon my catalog of re-spun days. I’ve remembered my second birthday since the very next day, and my next oldest memory, too, dates unequivocally to one day after the experience had been made. In living color, in wrap-around, surround-sound, life.
It was inevitable that I’d think of Mister McPatches today, my birthday. If I think about Paddy more often than I do the other clowns, it’s partly because he cut quite a sight against the sunrise. Also, he was the first to leave our house after the night was spent.
But most of all, I think of him because he was the only clown to leave, period.
Some say the clowns lacked the will to leave our home. If so, I say they would have stopped eating, shriveled up in despair, and died. Instead, they did the opposite. By morning, all the hot dogs, cake, and candy had been gobbled up, the music still pounding, the laughter ringing out. Within days the freezer, the Mason jars of canned peaches and beans, all had been sucked dry. The owner of the little grocery store on the corner beamed—business had never been so good. Our one and one/half baths were soon rendered none, effectively: fixtures clogged, pipes whimpering. And Mom was exhausted. Just keeping up with everybody’s laundry was killing the poor thing.
“We’ve got to move, boys.”
It was just as well, she told us. She’d seen it festering in me, in my brothers, and in herself. All the good memories born in our house—including now, this grand party—had been outweighed by one awful memory, the illness and death of our beloved Dad. Not even a slew of clowns had drowned out that scene. So when the clowns made Mom an offer she couldn’t refuse, she sold them the house for about ten percent over market. And the clowns took over the layers of mortgages she’d taken out to pay the bills from hospitals that had done their best, all they could, to try and save Dad.
And so was Mom absolved of most of her earthly debts, and we moved out. A different house, new neighborhood, new friends. But the relatives stayed on, the living and the ghosts, all clinging to a mad yet elegant spiral.
A man dies, life goes on.
Mom didn’t mean to be glib, nor irreverent toward Dad, not at all. She’s right, anyway. That’s how it works.
Boys, it’s like that poet once said. We’ve got to keep on moving on.
Our hands, our feet, keep moving. And so we recreate the world.
–Art by Barbara Florczyk