Excerpt from “Two Sad Clowns”

By ELIZABETH MCCRACKEN

This piece is excerpted from a story in The Souvenir Museum by Elizabeth McCracken, a guest at Amherst College’s 2022 LitFest. Click here to purchase.

 

Cover of The Souvenir Museum by Elizabeth McCracken, the anthology from which this piece is excerpted. The cover shows a teal balloon dog on a bright yellow background, with the title and author's name in white sans serif font.

 

Even Punch and Judy were in love once. They knew the exact clockwise adjustment required to fit their preposterous profiles together for a kiss, her nose to the left of his nose, his chin to the left of her chin. Before the slapstick and the swazzle, the crocodile and the constable, before above all the baby: they’d known how to be sweet to each other.

These people, too, Jack and Sadie. They’d met at a long-ago winter parade in Boston. Sadie had been walking home from a show at the Rat, drunk and heartbroken over nothing: twenty-one years old, the clamor of the smoky club still around her, a trailing cloud she imagined was visible. Her friends had terrible boyfriends, one after another, but she never had. When she felt particularly maudlin, she blamed it on her father’s death when she was nine, though most of the time she thought that was neither here nor there. She liked to imagine him, the man who might love her. A performer of some kind, an actor or musician, somebody she could admire in the company of strangers. He’d have an accent and a death wish and depths of kindness. She wanted love so badly the longing felt like organ failure, but it was the longing itself which had rendered her unlovable, the way the starving are eventually unable to digest food. At the same time she believed she deserved love—not as much as anyone, but more. Only she would know what to do with it.

She was thinking of this, love and fantasy, as she came down Dartmouth towards Boylston and saw at the end of the block a claque of towering angling parading puppets, avalanche-faced, two stories high and neither male nor female. Their arms were operated by lumber, their mouths by levers. Some human fools following behind with tambourines. Nobody whose mother ever truly loved them has ever taken pleasure in playing the tambourine.

By the time she got to Copley Square, the puppets had vanished. How was that possible? No, there was one, stretched out on the pavement alongside the public library. The parade had lost its center, become a mob, but the downed puppet was away from that, one of its ears pressed to the ground and the other listening to God. Ordinarily she wasn’t drawn to puppets. This one reminded her of a corpse at a wake. It demanded respect. Nobody loved it, either.

Its face was vast, the color of cartoon cheese. She went to its throat, then down its body to its hands, stacked one on the other; she touched a colossal thumb and felt the familiar consolation of papier mache. Its gray dress—habit? cloak? what did you call the robes of a giant puppet?—lay flat on the ground as though bodiless. But it wasn’t bodiless. From beneath the hem came a human man, tall and skeletal, bakelite-eyed, exactly the sort of mortal a puppet might give birth to. His head was triangular, wide at the temples and narrow at the chin, his hair was dark marcel. He looked at her. She thought, I might be the first woman he’s ever met. The expression on his face suggested this was possibly so. A puppeteer, she thought. Yes. Why not?

Really Jack had renounced puppetry years ago, as a teenager. Tonight he was a mere volunteer who’d carried the puppet’s train so that it wouldn’t trail in the street. Still, many a man has improved because of mistaken identity. Been ruined, too.

She said, “I love puppets.” In the bitter cold her words turned white and lacey and lingered like doilies in the air. That was a form of ventriloquism, too.

“You don’t,” he said. “You fucking hate puppets.”

He knew everything about her already, it seemed.

 

Later he would understand that love was a spotlight that had allowed him to perform, but at the moment it felt as though he’d become his true self: not a better person, but funnier and meaner. For now they headed to a bar down the street. The establishment had on its side a sign that said EATING DRINKING PIANO, though inside there was no piano and no food. He wasn’t a puppeteer. He was a sort of Englishman, sort of American, who’d just got back from three years living in Exeter.

“Exeter, New Hampshire?” Sadie asked.

“Exeter, UK,” he said. “What’s Sadie short for?” 

“Sadness,” she answered.

The bar was a dream of a bar, ill-lit and long with people in all the wooden booths. A precarity: it hung over the Mass Pike like a small-town rock formation—a stony profile, a balancing boulder—something that must be preserved at all costs. No dancing allowed. Any sudden movement might knock the bar into the turnpike. No jukebox. Never a band. In the ladies’ room you could pay a dime, press a plunger, and get misted with perfume.

“Barstool?” he said, their first negotiation, but barstools were made for long lean fellows like him, not for women as short and squat as she. The barstools were red topped and trimmed with ribbed chrome.

“Let’s see,” she answered.

He gave her his hand. “Allow me.”

The bartender was a middle-aged woman with brown hair and auburn eyebrows and the oversized eyes of a cartoon deer. If she were a man they might have thought she looked like a cartoon wolf. She wore a bowtie and a skirt with suspenders. It was an era in America between fancy cocktails, before American pints of beer or decent glasses of wine in bars like EATING DRINKING PIANO.

“What’ll you have?” the bartendress asked them.

“What’ll I have indeed,” said Jack. He tried to remember what you drank in America. “Gin and tonic.”

“You?”

“Vodka soda with lime.” She said to him, “My mother calls that the alcoholic’s drink. Goes down easy and odorless.”

“Are you?”

“No,” she said, though if you’d known her then you wouldn’t be certain.

Beer nuts on the bar top. The drinks came in their little glasses crammed with ice, and Jack remembered why he liked the place, what he’d missed about America. Ice, and narrow straws you used to extract your drink as though you were a hummingbird.

They clinked glasses.

At the end of the bar a greasy-looking man drank a boiler maker. “Lovebirds,” he said. “How very revolting.”

Jack put his hand on the bar and pivoted on his stool in order to give the man a serious look. “Hold on there, Samuel Beckett,” he said.

“Samuel who now.”

“Beckett,” said Jack. “You look like him.”

“You look like him,” said the false Beckett from his barstool. It was hard to tell whether he was Irish or drunk.

“How about that,” said Sadie. “You do.”

“I know,” said Jack, irritated.

“You’re wearing a scarf,” she observed, and touched the fringe of it.

“It’s cold.”

“You’re wearing a woman’s scarf. It’s got polka dots on it.”

“Are polka dots only for women?” said Jack.

“I do not look like Samuel Beckett,” said Samuel Beckett at the end of the bar. “I look like Harry Dean Stanton.”

“Who?” Jack asked.

“The actor,” Sadie explained. “You know.” She tried to think of a single Harry Dean Stanton movie and failed.

“Unfamiliar.”

“Another?” asked the bartendress, and Jack nodded. She put down the drinks and scooped up the money from the pile Jack had left on the bar.

“He’s my cousin,” said the man.

“Samuel Beckett?”

“Harry Dean Stanton,” said Samuel Beckett.

“Sorry,” said Jack. “I lost track.”

“He’s my cousin.”

“Really?”

“No. But sometimes people buy me drinks because they think so.”

“I’ll buy you a drink,” said Sadie, and she flagged the bartendress.

“Ah,” said Samuel Beckett, “maybe it’s me she loves.”

“It is not,” said Jack.

She was the sort of person who liked barstools after all. It felt easier to talk to somebody next to you than across, a slantwise intimacy in which you looked at the person less but could bump shoulders or elbows more. Even so she was astounded when his hand landed in her lap. It didn’t feel carnal, but architectural: whatever they were building wouldn’t work unless they put things down right the first time.

“You mind?” he asked.

His fingers were nowhere too personal. Just the outer part of her thigh. They were pleasant there. The bar balanced on the edge of the turnpike, she balanced inside of the bar.

Everything was a haze of smoke. Sadie lit a cigarette and offered one to Jack.

He shook his head. “Must protect the voice.”

“Protect it for what?”

“The opera,” said Jack.

“You sing opera?”

“I might one day. I’m thinking of going to clown college. I have aspirations.”

“Clown aspirations? I hate clowns.”

“Too late. You’ve met me, you like me, I’m a clown.”

“Aspiring clown.”

“I’ve clowned a bit. I’m more of a sad clown.”

“I’m suing you,” said Sadie. “For alienation of affection. Clowns.”

“Everyone thinks they hate clowns. But they’re not actual clowns they’re thinking of.”

“They’re actual clowns I’m thinking of. A clown pinched me once. At a circus.”

“Pinched.”

“On the.”

“On your arse,” he said, laughing.

She laughed, too. “Arse, is it. What sort of man are you?”

“What a question.”

“I mean, from where? Your accent’s American but you don’t talk like an American.”

“I am,” he said, turning on his English accent, “of dual nationality. English and American. What do you call it? Aaaasss.”

“Aassss,” she agreed.

“Too many As and too many esses.” 

“My mother would call it a bottom.”

“Now that,” said Jack, “I cannot condone.”

“I do hate clowns,” she said wickedly, loving the taste of wickedness in her mouth.

That was the thing about being in love: you were allowed to hate things. You didn’t need them anymore. When the clown had pinched her she’d wondered what it meant, whether the clown was attracted to her, whether she should engage him in conversation.

“Well then,” he said. “I’d better be a puppeteer. No, that’s right, you hate puppets as well. What is it that you like?”

She thought about it. “Boats,” she said.

“All right,” he said. “I’m off to be a shipwright.”

From the end of the bar Samuel Beckett called, “I have a favor to ask.”

The bartendress said, “Keith, knock it off.”

“Keith,” said Samuel Beckett.

“Your name’s Keith?” Sadie asked. She was already fishing in her pockets for some money to slip him.

“In this life, yes,” said the man with exaggerated dignity. “Meredith I may ask them anything I like.”

The bartender said, “Half an hour and I’ll walk you home.”

“Meredith I must go home now and these fancy people will walk me.”

“Keith—”

“It is not far away,” said Samuel Beckett, or Keith—it was hard to think of him as Samuel Beckett now that he was definitively Keith, but they put their minds to it “—but I could use some assistance.”

They looked at the bartender.

“He’s harmless,” she said. “But he’s afraid of the dark.”

“With reason Meredith.”

“With reason,” agreed the bartender.

“We’ll walk you home,” said Sadie.

“I guess we’ll walk you home,” said Jack.

They dismounted their barstools. Jack could put his feet right to the ground. Sadie had to slide and drop. Samuel Beckett climbed down slowly and deliberately, chary of the pivot, as though his head were a tray of brimming glasses he was afraid of spilling, but then he didn’t stop, his knees folded and he went almost to the floor before Jack caught him by the elbow.

“You are wearing a ladies’ scarf,” the man told Jack. Up close he looked less like Samuel Beckett. For instance, he was wearing a jacket with little cloth button down epaulets and a tag that said MEMBERS ONLY, and his eyes were too far apart, like a hammerhead shark’s.

“That’s all you got?” Jack said. “You’ll catch your death.”

“Not if it catches me first,” said Samuel Beckett gloomily.

Sadie and Jack pulled on their winter coats, red down for her, black wool for him. Gloves, hats. Somehow it was agreed that they would walk arm in arm, Samuel Beckett in the middle, Jack and Sadie on either side.

“I live on Marlborough,” he said. “You know where that is?”

“I do not.”

“I do,” said Sadie. “So were you mugged?”

The weight of Samuel Beckett pulled at them as they walked. They followed him as though he were a drayhorse. The cold had turned bitter: they’d drunk right through the start of real winter.

“Careful,” said Jack.

“You’re a beautiful couple,” said Samuel Beckett. Sadie was laughing as they slipped on the icy sidewalk. “I pronounce you man and wife. No I was never mugged. But sometimes in the snow I get too sad to keep on. So I sit. And then I put my head down. And one night I slept out all night and I woke up in jail.”

“Heavens,” said Jack.

“Too sad to keep on,” said Sadie. “I get that.”

“Do not, do not. My dear,” he said. “Or we could. Shall we sit? Look, a curb. Look, another one. It’s nothing but curbs this part of town.” He began to go down and then gave Jack a dirty look. “Why are you pulling at my arm?”

“I’m keeping you afloat, man,” said Jack, who by then was inexplicably smoking a cigarette.

“I thought you didn’t smoke,” said Sadie.

“Not much. Come, Sammy Becks. This way?”

“It’s this way,” said Sadie. “If we aren’t sitting down. We could sit down.”

“We aren’t.”

“Aren’t we?” said Samuel Beckett. “Perhaps all my life all I wanted was a woman who’d sit on a curb with me.”

They walked for what seemed like hours, turning corners and doubling back, through the numbered alleys and alphabetical streets of the Back Bay. With every step Sadie’s feet rang in the cold like a slammed gate. “Where are we?” she asked and Samuel Beckett pointed and said, “Exeter.”

It was possible, thought Jack, that they had walked to Exeter, where he’d worked in a theatre box office and rented a room from a theatrical couple—not theatrical in the sense of working in the theater but in the sense of: she was 20 years older with a blond crewcut, smelled of burnt roses, and he wore a pince-nez and sewed all of their gaudy extraordinary clothing, pintucked and double-breasted and circus striped. He’d loved both of them, was disquieted by their adoration of each other, an equation he could never quite solve.

But the Exeter in question was a cinema, the marquee said so; the cinema was named after the street. The doors opened, and costumed people walked into the night. A tall man with drawn on eyebrows pulled a blue feather boa tight around his neck. A platform-shoed and corseted person in a sequined jacket and majorette shorts squared a top hat over ears; you could divine nothing of the person at the center of all the makeup and sequins except a sort of weary joy. Around them, more people in sequins and tulle, lipstick and lamé. Their appearance struck Jack like the revelation at night of some kind of luminescent animal, jellyfish or firefly: a single instance would be uncanny, but the whole group made you accept the miracle and think of holy things.

“What is happening?” said Sadie.

“Midnight movie,” said Samuel Beckett, turning into an alley.

“We’ve been down this alley,” said Jack. 

“There’s a bar.”

“Bars are closed.”

“We can knock on the door. They’ll let me in.”

What had seemed like a lark and good deed felt now felt like a con to Sadie, but she couldn’t figure out its next gambit. Let him sit on the curb after all. That might be safer. She said to Jack, “Maybe we should just take him back to Meredith.”

“Bars are closed,” Jack repeated. “Besides, if we don’t get him home, we’ll regret it forever.”

 

 

Elizabeth McCracken is the author of seven books: Here’s Your Hat What’s Your HurryThe Giant’s House, Niagara Falls All Over AgainAn Exact Replica of a Figment of My ImaginationThunderstruck & Other StoriesBowlaway, and the collection of short stories The Souvenir Museum. She’s received grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Liguria Study Center, the American Academy in Berlin, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Thunderstruck & Other Stories won the 2015 Story Prize. Her work has been published in The Best American Short StoriesThe Pushcart PrizeThe O. Henry PrizeThe New York Times Magazine, and many other places. You can find her rather often, entirely too often, really, on Twitter.

Excerpt from “Two Sad Clowns”

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