The House of Freaks was quite a letdown, let me tell you. The exterior was a big mural featuring all sorts of fantastical freaks, like a bearded lady who looked to weigh about 400 pounds and a lizard-headed man lifting a giant barbell with his forked tongue. The other three walls were unpainted plywood, held up with an ancient frame of two-by-fours that Rick, my obese, taciturn boss, and I assembled and disassembled in every town. The whole thing looked as though any strong gust of wind would flatten it. There was nothing inside but a two-headed newborn calf in a giant jar, a few shrunken heads, a goat with a third horn growing out of its chin, an enormously short, fat miniature horse and a bunch of faded poster collages featuring hideously deformed people and animals. I mostly sat in the shade, on a stool behind the ticket counter, watching people walk down the midway. If it was slow, when it rained or something, I spent some time inside with Nat, the goat, who got lonely. I’d sit on an upturned bucket and scratch this certain spot under his chin, just to the right of the extra horn, and he’d close his eyes and lick his lips in appreciation.
The House of Freaks was right next to the Insult Clown. We would always set up the same way, with the House of Freaks at the very back of the midway, so I couldn’t help but walk by the Insult Clown about a million times a day. The object of the attraction was that this clown taunted everyone who walked by from inside a dunk tank. Crowds would form, but most people were afraid to get too close and risk being singled out. A few brave people would buy baseballs and throw them at an impossibly small target in order to get their revenge on the clown by dunking him. The rest of the crowd would cheer them on from a distance.
There were actually two different Insult Clowns. One of them was a really nice guy, very soft-spoken when he was out of his cage. He’d been a sergeant in the army when he was younger and he said that was where he’d acquired this skill of barking insults. The other Insult Clown though, he was just a bastard. He’d taken a special dislike to me and it was really wearing me down. I couldn’t even sneak around the perimeter of the crowd without attracting his attention. When it got slow he’d take cheap shots at me while I sat at my ticket counter. Somehow he’d learned my name and he managed to get a lot of mileage out of it, yelling, “Red Brown! What kind of fucked up name is that, anyway? You don’t even have red hair, man!”
The evil Insult Clown had a whole different repertoire when we were far away from the crowds and the dunk tank. He was cruder and more calculating. He took even greater pleasure in abusing me when he wasn’t on the clock. I tried to avoid him at the campground, but he always managed to park his RV where I couldn’t help but have to walk by it several times a day.
A few nights into South Dakota he was slouched in a lawn chair outside the front door of his filthy Winnebago as I made my way down the road to our spot. I pulled my cowboy hat down, hoping he might not recognize me. I walked faster and turned my head, pretending I was really interested in the jalapeno pepper Christmas lights the people across the way had strung up all around their patio set up.
“Hey, you!” the Insult Clown hollered. “Yeah, cocksucker, I’m talkin’ to you! What’s up with that hat? The sun’s all gone down, you know. Your delicate complexion’s not gonna suffer!” He chortled. I couldn’t help but look at him. He nodded as he took a big gulp from his can of High Life. “I seen you the other night,” he rasped. “You and that girl you live with. I tell you, one of these days…” he made a nasty guttural noise, accompanied by an even more disturbing thrust of his crotch, which almost sent the lawn chair toppling over. “And,” he continued, readjusting himself, “I seen her the night before that, down at the beer garden, all over some other guy. What, you not know what to do with a girl like that? You too much of a monkey-eared redneck faggot to know what to do?”
Another few steps and I was almost out of his range. I didn’t look back, but I could hear him shouting, “Cocksucker!” and “Monkey ears!” all the way back to the motor home, which Kate and I had been calling The Beast since we bought it from a retired cotton candy vender in Boise. I went in and slammed the door behind me, kicking the trashcan for good measure. It toppled over, spilling an assortment of fast-food containers all over the floor and I had to pick them up, all the time imagining the Insult Clown strapped to the back of the dart-throwing booth with a crowd of hundreds aiming true and jabbing bloody little holes in him.
I cranked up the Beast’s air conditioner, swapped my jeans for a pair of basketball shorts and poured myself a plastic cup full of cheap gin. I sat on the floor in the narrow kitchen, my head against the refrigerator door, sipping the gin steadily through my teeth.
Kate came in just past midnight, wilted-looking, a thick coat of red lipstick standing out against her pale face. She yanked off her new purple ostrich boots, threw them across the room and looked at me disapprovingly. She picked up the jug of gin and sniffed it, scrunching her nose up in disgust.
“This smells like rubbing alcohol.”
“It’s not that bad,” I told her, stretching my legs out on the floor in front of me. “I had a shitty day and it’ll do.”
“How was the Freak House?”
“The usual,” I said. “It’s that damn clown who’s bugging me. Talk about taking your job too seriously.”
“He’s never bothered me,” Kate said smugly, pulling the elastic from her ponytail and shaking her long brown curls loose. “What did he say to you?”
“The same old shit,” I muttered. “You know, he called me a monkey-eared redneck and so on.”
Kate snorted. “It’s not so much of a stretch,” she said. “He calls ‘em like he sees ‘em, really.”
Once Kate was mine. Before she got mean and skinny and started to wander, she was the love of my life. I always knew she was trouble, but she was sweet pleasant trouble in the beginning, back when I had an apartment and a normal job at the public library. Kate poured drinks at a downtown bar in Iowa City that was trendy in a dilapidated kind of way. I didn’t realize how good life was then. I was bored and Kate was crazy and we skipped town with all the library book sale profits in a brown paper bag, driving her old Plymouth Reliant, which turned out not to be so reliable after all.
Two years and eighty state and county fairs later, everything had become very difficult. By the time we hit South Dakota for the second time, things had started to unravel at an alarming speed. The air was hot and a steady breeze brought a strong smell of cow manure and fried dough to the campground. I couldn’t bring the old Kate back and the new Kate was harder to live with than I ever could have imagined.
I had brushed my teeth, but couldn’t get the taste of gin out of my mouth. I took off my shirt and my jeans and lay on the bed, trying unsuccessfully to clear all thoughts of the Insult Clown from my head. Kate leaned against the wall and pulled off her socks. She took off her dark slim-fit jeans and her shirt and stood there in her underwear, the lace on her bra creating weird shadows on the tops of her breasts. Her skin looked tight over her ribs. I once thought Kate was the prettiest girl I’d ever known. But further down the road it seemed like the more she tried to dress herself up, the worse she looked. Her features had gotten sharp and serious and her make-up was dark around her eyes.
I tried to tell myself that it was just the stupid Insult Clown fucking with my head, but I couldn’t help wondering if she was messing around with someone. I knew she liked to go out without me. I knew she liked to dress up and she’d go into town and hang out in the bars, but she always came home. And while we didn’t do it much anymore, we still had our moments.
Kate kissed me and we fell down on the bed like we couldn’t help ourselves, like we really wanted to lie there in each other’s arms, which I don’t think we did. Her mouth tasted like stale bar popcorn and alcohol. I shut my eyes.
We lay on top of the bed in our underwear, kissing, the air-conditioning cold on our skin. Kate’s hair smelled like cigarette smoke. Her nails were sharp, digging into my shoulders. I put my hand on her hip and she put her hand under the waistband of my boxer shorts, reaching. I closed my eyes, resting my head on her chest. I didn’t feel much of anything. I guess she didn’t either, because she sighed sharply and pushed me away.
“Forget it,” she said, rolling over and getting under the sheet. I did the same, gritting my teeth. We didn’t touch.
“Maybe you need to meet someone new,” my friend Shaun the Fluorescent Cowboy suggested the next afternoon. “Maybe you and Kate are over.”
“I know.” I aimed and shot one of the Bud cans dead-center with the battered cork. “But I’m not ready.”
“You want it to drag on until you’re in agony?” Shaun sat on the counter, his head bumping against a giant stuffed panda. He was wearing his signature outfit – boots, tight Wranglers and a fluorescent orange T-shirt. He also had a yellow one, a pink one and a green one. I’d never known him to wear anything else. He was only nineteen years old, tall, skinny and originally a runaway from some small town in Idaho. He’d intended to rodeo, but ended up a carnie instead.
“Exactly,” I said, reloading. There were no customers in sight. A light rain was falling on the midway. We had one quiet hour to shoot cans before my shift at the House of Freaks started.
“Sorry, Red. I don’t like her,” Shaun said.
“I know you don’t.”
“On Saturdays, when we work together, she’s such a bitch. You’d think she’d be happy to be on this game now. I mean, it’s a hell of a lot better than darts and balloons, like she used to work. But she acts like she can’t even be bothered. If she wasn’t so tight with Dennis, she’d get fired, I bet.” Shaun aimed his own gun carefully at the parade of beer cans.
Shaun’s chunk of cork ricocheted off one of the plywood walls.
“It’s just that asshole clown,” I whispered. “Ignore him.”
Shaun watched the Clown through narrowed eyes, blindly jamming a new cork into his gun.
“Oooh,” the Insult Clown cooed, coming closer. “What are you whispering in your boyfriend’s ear, Red Brown. Huh?” He didn’t have his make-up on, but he was fully suited up in rainbow striped pants and a red and yellow polka-dot shirt. Probably on his way to start a shift right now.
“This isn’t a very romantic date,” he said. “You can do better than this, Cowboy.” He gave Shaun an exaggerated once over. “Nice shirt,” he smirked. “That safety orange? You such a pussy that you’re worried you’re gonna get plugged with one of them pieces of cork?” He gestured to the gun. “Really, you do make a cute couple,” the clown said. “You could be twins! Skinny…big ears…no dicks.” He chortled to himself.
Shaun’s face had gone very red. I tried to take hold of his T-shirt, but he yanked free and stepped right up to the Insult Clown. He was a good six inches taller, but the Clown was considerably wider. I was mentally totaling the advantages each would have in a fist fight and whether it would be worth getting involved when Shaun whipped his gun out from behind his back and shot the clown point blank in the face.
The cork popped loudly and landed smack between the Insult Clown’s eyes. He gasped and stumbled backwards, catching himself on the side of the deserted free-throw basketball game.
“Owwww! You motherfucker!” he howled, grabbing his face with both hands.
Shaun clutched the gun, breathing hard. He looked at me and, as the Insult Clown moaned and massaged his forehead, we both began to laugh. Shaun doubled over, gasping for breath and hanging on my shoulder for support. It really wasn’t very funny when the Insult Clown stumbled away holding his head, looking like an old man who couldn’t see very well, his colorful pants dragging under the heels of his worn white sneakers, but we couldn’t help ourselves.
Shaun was still chuckling ten hours later, when he came to meet me after the House of Freaks shut down for the night. He stood in the entrance, smiling down at the toes of his boots and recounting the showdown while I threw the miniature horse and the goat a flake of hay each.
“I’ll never forget the look on his face when I pulled out that cork gun!”
“Shaun,” I said, giving Nat the goat a parting pat on the head. “The clown never showed for his shift. The other guy was there all night.”
“Oh shit,” Shaun said. “Do you think I really hurt him?”
“I don’t know. I’m not complaining. The other clown didn’t have a thing to say to me all night. Mostly he picks on couples, asking a guy if the girl he’s with is his grandmother or whatever.”
“What if it really is the guy’s grandmother?”
“I don’t know.” I used my hip to push the ticket counter up against the piece of plywood that served as a makeshift door for the House of Freaks. “Where do you want to go?”
Shaun’s fake ID gave his age as twenty-seven and his name as Cody Joseph Maloney. The bartender barely glanced at it. We took our whiskeys to a table at the back. It was a dark little bar, just a mile down the road from the fairgrounds. I recognized plenty of carnies there, mixed in with a bunch of drunk, tired looking people I took to be regulars.
“Look at that lady,” I whispered, nodding my head in the direction of a burly woman whose mullet was dyed blond on top and bright red on the bottom. “Do you think that’s her husband?” The man in question was skinny and bucktoothed, with a shock of white blond hair. He was sitting close by her side.
“Shit,” Shaun whispered. “My boss is here.”
“Over by the jukebox.” Shaun slouched down against the grimy wood-paneled wall. I searched for Dennis in the crowd. There he was, leaning on the Rock-Ola, deep in conversation with a scruffy-looking guy in a camouflage shirt.
Dennis was probably about forty years old. He had big eyebrows and, despite his decent-sized gut, a weird wolfish look about him, like he hadn’t had a square meal in several years. He’d been running the cork gun and beer can game as long as anyone in the carnival could remember. He loved Kate, but was lukewarm about Shaun, always calling him “kid” and sending him off on pointless errands.
Dennis touched the scruffy guy on the arm and said something, then turned to the bar and put a hand on the shoulder of some skinny cheap-looking girl. She looked up, pushing her hair out of her face. It was Kate, in a skin-tight tank top I’d never seen before and a pair of faded low-cut jeans. I hadn’t recognized her at all.
“Huh,” Shaun said, pulling his hat down as far as he could. I did the same. I imagined how we looked, like two amateur cowboy spies, petrified in the back of a sleazy dive bar. Kate got up and she followed Dennis and the scruffy guy across the room. As they got closer I leaned over my drink, watching them out of the very corner of my eye.
“This better be worth every cent,” the scruffy guy was saying.
“Oh, it’ll be worth it,” Dennis said, closing his hand around Kate’s upper arm. “You won’t be disappointed.” They walked right by our table, not even glancing at us. After a minute I heard a door slam and they were gone.
“Well, that seemed kind of sketchy,” Shaun said.
“Shut up,” I said, knocking back the rest of my whiskey.
It was long past closing time when we finally pulled back into the campground. From the open window of Shaun’s truck I saw the Insult Clown, sunk so far down in his pink and green lawn chair that he could balance a bottle of beer on his gut. His chin was resting on his chest and I could only assume that three AM had crept up on him the way it had on us. Under the cover of my hat and the dark truck cab, I got a good look at his face. One eye was covered in a gauze patch. The other was half closed. As the headlights played over his body that eye jerked open. He lifted his beer bottle into the air and leaned forward, opening his mouth to say something foul, I’m sure. But Shaun, only half-sober and in better spirits than me, chuckled to himself and hit the gas. The Insult Clown disappeared into a cloud of dust.
Shaun left me and a fifth of cheap bourbon off at the Beast. I fell in the door and surveyed what remained of normal life. Kate’s clothes were strewn all over the floor. Our entire collection of dishes – two plates, a bowl and a bunch of plastic Christmas-themed cups – were in the sink. Empty liquor bottles were collecting on built-in chairs we never sat on. Nothing looked familiar.