My friend and writing partner Marsheila Rockwell linked to this Smithsonian article today. It's about why clowns are scary--as if the fact that they're scary because they're terrifying wasn't adequate explanation. And it reminded me that my friend Misty Dahl took down her flash fiction collection, which was the only place my short-short story "The Clown Killer" had ever appeared.
So I'll probably post it up on my website one of these days, but I thought maybe it was short enough to post here, too.
Also, I'll probably read it next week at KillerCon, so if you'll be at the reading (Friday at 6 PM), DON'T read it here.
Seriously. This guy is here as a warning.
And now, without further ado:
The Clown Killer
Jeffrey J. Mariotte
For Amy and Sara
“I’m afraid,” Bargle said.
“Of what?” Glorioso asked. Glorioso’s red, white, and blue costume was vaguely patriotic, with a gold eagle’s wings stretching from shoulder to shoulder. Bargle didn’t think his act was all that funny.
Bargle’s full name was Bargle the Dog-faced Clown. In younger days he’d been Bargle the Dog-faced Boy Clown, but he was forty-seven, and although greasepaint could disguise a multitude of sins, it couldn’t erase thirty years. “Bargle” came from a bit he did, where he barked and gargled at the same time. It gave him a foamy, rabid look and allowed for a juicy spit-take.
“Afraid” was an understatement. Bargle was terrified, from the top of his curly orange wig to the tips of his fifteen-inch purple-and-red shoes. “You know. Don’t make me say it.”
“CK?” Glorioso said.
Bargle shivered. Every clown learned about the Clown Killer on the first day of clown college. Some were frightened away from the craft, but then—or so prevailing wisdom went—those were probably forty-milers anyway. They’d never been farther than that from home, and would quit the show before passing that mark.
“You ever know anybody CK got?”
“Couple,” Glorioso said.
“Just one, for me. Zanie Zack. I’d just become a trouper.” A trouper was someone who had put in a full season on the show (in Bargle’s case, the World Famous Robins and Nye Traveling Circus, so-called to obscure the fact that they were known only in small towns throughout the Midwest and deep South). “They found him hanging from a fly bar.”
“Tellin me.” Some clowns didn’t believe in CK.
Bargle had always believed, but that belief didn’t keep him from pursuing the appropriate clownish activities. He had been a carpet clown, participated in the Charivari and the chase and the firehouse number, driven the crazy car.
And in thirty-four small towns, he had left behind corpses.
Murder was a clown’s most sacred duty, even above entertaining the crowds. Someone had to cull the herd, to thin the ranks, to punish the lot lice and rubes who could make life on the show unbearable.
Typically, Bargle would pick his victim out during the walkaround. A local sitting with his arms crossed, defiantly refusing to laugh. Or one who spoiled gags, loudly announcing what came next.
Bargle never killed in costume, and no one recognized a clown out of makeup. At the end of the stand, the show would be on the jump, so show clowns were seldom caught. Bargle only knew two who had done hard time, and one who got the needle. Not bad, considering how many Larrys had exhaled their last breath at the painted hands of those three.
“You smell somethin?” Bargle asked. He sniffed the air.
“I gotta dress,” Glorioso said. “Stay funny.”
Already costumed, he watched Glorioso walk toward clown alley, where after last night’s show Bargle had found the ominous message scrawled on his mirror in his own greasepaint: “You’re next. CK.”
He smudged the words with his thumb before anybody else saw them, and eyed his fellow clowns with raw suspicion.
The night had passed without event, and the day. Now the come-in had started. The audience filtered into the big top. Rain was falling, and lightning splintered on the bleak horizon. Bargle paced the soft lot in slop shoes, wondering why CK had chosen him. The night smelled like hot electricity and greasepaint and tanbark and something else, something pungent that he could not name.
As he rounded the spool truck, a man came toward him. Bargle’s stomach clenched, but it was just a rigger, carrying a flashlight and headed for the big top to check the tent stakes.
He had to chill. Clowns played tricks on each other, after all. Never about CK—some things were too serious to laugh about. But there was that new jill, Hungry Henrietta, she was called, with the big hooters—two bulb horns tucked into a rope belt, which she blasted instead of cursing when she played angry. The kids found it uproarious and their dads dug the double entendre. Maybe she didn’t understand the gravity of CK.
If he survived till the blow off, he would ask her. For now, he had to get his painted, bewigged head into a clownish space. Forty minutes till the Charivari, and he had to be ready for the clowns’ grand entrance. Thoughts of rubes he had shot, stabbed, spiked, strangled, and otherwise slaughtered had to be pushed aside in favor of hilarious hijinks.
No matter how he tried, though, Bargle couldn’t shake that sense of dread. CK, the legend said, was eternal, and had been around as long as clowns. He had assassinated fools and jesters, famously impaling one on his own Marotte in the wings of the Globe Theatre. He had decapitated an early Pierrot with a guillotine, the head landing in the basket in full whiteface and painted-on tear. A Venetian Pantaleone had been drowned in the canals, his corpse discovered when a gondolier’s pole jabbed it on the forward stroke.
Bargle pulled his collar ruff from his throat and swallowed hard.
“Get it over with!” he cried to the weeping sky.
The only response: a peal of distant thunder, another shard of lightning.
But that smell was growing stronger, and Bargle’s skin, under the greasepaint, was beginning to burn. He remembered when he had first noticed it—as soon as he had attached his red vinyl nose.
With that realization, the burning sensation grew more intense. Bargle’s hands went to his face, clawing at painted skin, trying to tear away the nose. The smell was cooking flesh, and Bargle dropped to his knees with a scream trapped in his throat.
CK got to my makeup, he thought, made me poison myself.
It was almost funny.
No, that was an understatement. It was downright hilarious.
Bargle the Dog-faced Clown died.
But he died laughing.