By Richard C. McPherson
“Why do you p-p-p-paint your face white?” The little boy was about nine and pushed his thick glasses up his nose, ignoring the giggles rippling across the classroom.
Joey’s smile was emphasized by her oversized painted red lips, and her eyes shone with affection. After a banker, bus driver, and nurse, Joey was the star of Career Day: a professional clown, invited by her nephew Nathan, beaming from the second row. “I remember asking my father that question.” Wide-eyed, she faux whispered, “He was a clown, too!”
The children gasped and laughed, but Joey was stopped by a rapid pop, pop, pop from the hallway. They say it always sounds like firecrackers. The intercom came alive: “Active shooter! Lock your classrooms!” Another pop. “Shelter in place! Police responding.”
There were four generations of clowns in Joey’s family. Great-grandfather Solomon performed for Franklin Roosevelt, visiting Kansas when families in tattered Depression clothes were little better dressed than the hobo Sol played at small-town railroad stations. Two decades later, Grandpa Mick became a hit in early television when clowns and cowboys ruled Saturday mornings. Years later, her father expected to be the last clown in the Grimaldi family. He provoked gales of laughter with slapstick, fiercely battling the cynical movie trend to make clowns scary, even deadly. By the nineties the nation was richer, but people were poorer. Businesses, schools, and government got bigger, but people felt smaller. Joey’s dad, a star at Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey, did what clowns do best: mock authority and assure audiences they could get through life’s calamities. But circuses were dying. Winter quarters became graveyards for colorful rail cars, striped Big Tops, and ringmasters’ silk top hats. In 1997 the Clown College closed, ironically the very year Josephine was born.
Joey learned from her grandpa and dad, who did their old acts by the fireplace. By age twelve, she could disappear behind whiteface, her real identity irrelevant, and make people laugh. Battling a stutter and the inevitable bullying, she learned to mime. Family and neighbors were rapt by her stories, told with graceful, tender gestures, without a single word. Everyone agreed, Joey had a gift.
Television and newspapers across the country carried the searing, familiar images of terrified children rushed out of the school by desperate teachers, police and swat teams bristling with guns, creeping beneath windows. But one photo captured the nation’s attention: a clown in gaudy circus clothes and big shoes, whiteface paint streaked with tears, carrying a sobbing child gripping his thick, broken eyeglasses.
When Joey saw her image, she knew what she must do.
The next day at noon, Joey appeared outside the Guardian Firearms facility, a fortress of a building on the edge of town. She wore full clown regalia and whiteface, but her red painted smile had been replaced by a frown, and a huge blue tear was painted beneath one eye. She stood near the entrance and neither spoke nor mimed. When a surly security guard told her to move, she ostentatiously saluted and took exaggerated clown-steps to the public sidewalk. Cars slowed and a few drivers waved or tapped their horns.
Joey repeated the silent gesture for two more days, and cellphone pictures began circulating on social media.
On the fourth day, another clown joined Joey. This one carried an oversized, comic circus gun, a blunderbuss, and circled menacingly. Joey knew instantly what he had in mind and prepared herself. Cars halted as the “shooter” clown took aim at Joey and pulled the trigger. A loud bang issued from the blunderbuss, along with a tiny flag which said BANG.
Joey knew every possible way to fall and chose one with arms flung wide, landing flat on her back, legs kicking in the air. After scattered applause from bystanders, the two clowns left.
The next day three more clowns joined Joey. The shooter clown appeared, aimed at Joey, and fired the circus gun. Joey – and all four clowns – fell theatrically to the ground. The growing crowd clapped, and a man in a suit emerged from the Guardian Firearms office and told them they had to leave the area unless they had a permit.
The next day, permit in hand, Joey and the shooter clown appeared on the sidewalk at noon. There were almost twenty clowns, who all fell flailing to the ground when the blunderbuss went off. Television news reported clowns were beginning to be seen at other gun manufacturers and numerous gun stores around the country. Like Joey, they stood silent, faces painted with whiteface, a frown, and large tear. A picture of Joey and scores of “dead” clowns was the cover of USA Today.
Clowns appeared outside the U.S. Capitol, flanked by people with signs that read “Stop clowning around, pass gun laws.” America was watching.
Also watching was an unsmiling man who lived in Joey’s town. He had graying crew-cut hair and owned a great many guns. His pride was a military grade sniper rifle which he caressed with a soft cloth every night while he watched the news and seethed.
It was noon on Day 26 of the “Clown Vigil,” as cable news now called Joey’s effort. The large crowd parted with reverence as Joey walked to her place on the sidewalk. They made way for the dozens of clowns who followed her. Across the street in a small park, the crew-cut man shifted his position high among the branches of an oak tree. He adjusted the sight on his sniper rifle and slowly placed his finger on the trigger.
Bang! At the sound of the blunderbuss, all the clowns fell with ritual theatrics, arms and legs flailing. Except Joey, who stumbled backward and crumpled to the ground. Those nearby noticed a dark red stain spreading across her chest. Joey attempted to lift her head but failed. Her eyes looked at the blue sky, and she was both confused and certain. She was terribly cold. A real tear trickled down her cheek making a delicate rivulet in the whiteface. She heard applause turn to shouts and screams, then grow distant, then fade away. She could only hear the memory of her grandfather’s voice: “To touch people deeply, to really open their hearts, you must first break their hearts.” Joey curled her fingers and brought her hands together over her bleeding chest and formed a heart for the world to see.
* * *
Richard McPherson’s short stories have been featured in Black Fox Literary Magazine, The Write Launch, and the 2022 Anthology “Conversations” from Unleash Press. McPherson has written for NPR and PBS stations, and taught digital communications at UCLA, Columbia, and New York University. His website is richardcmcpherson.com.