by Anthony Correale
Our city is built into the crack where the Red-Nosed Mountains meet, scaling nearly to their spherical rubber peaks, the city’s foot spreading wide into the beautiful bowtie-shaped bay. The Elder Clowns for which we are famous sleep their twisted rag doll sleep entwined about the city’s gates, doubled over its tall fortifications, pratfallen into the moat, their bubble-gloved white fingers rigor mortised into eternal splay-fingered surprise. No one can remember when they fell. Their corpses never decay, only the eyes have rotted out, giving the wide-eyed impression of knowing. All are smiling their ear-to-ear sharp-toothed smiles. You have seen pictures perhaps? But they are not truly experienced except in person.
Ours is a carefully arranged city, each to their district. Along the mucky water of the shore, the slapsticks never sleep, tripping along the docks and canals, poking one another’s eyes. Few have eyes still unpoked, so only some of their klutzy antics are staged. The cars there are too small and have no brakes, the wells are bottomless—someone is always and forever falling in our wells, grasping for the slippery rope that twitches just out of reach. At the highest point is the Sophisticate’s Tower where the jokes require decades to tell. Though to the uninitiated it can seem as though all that is required to elicit a rich guffaw between Sophisticates is the utterance of a single innocent word, a small gesture, they are pulling at the thread of a context so vast, they tell us, that they would need a lifetime to explain it to an unsophisticate. Oh we believe them, but we are glad that they so seldom leave their cloister, for they are tiresome in their long white robes and fussy bowties, sniffing in disgust at even the best-timed wisecrack.
Most of us form the soft belly laugh of the city, hearty carnivales as quick with our puns as with our gas. Nowhere in the world will you find pubs as lively as ours, so many silly jigs and bawdy ballads, so many bar stories, so many vaudeville routines that you could not experience them all given a thousand uninterrupted nights. More stand-up comedy clubs per capita than anywhere. Humor is the gift we’re born with, the craft we hone, the only national pastime, the only export. Each to his place, the grease-painted mimes and the jesters with their promiscuous noses.
There are us and there are you, the tourists, anchoring your cruise ships in the deep bay and pouring forth to delight in our city—though you have not the stamina for the long party and tire so easily! And then there are the misfits, those who cannot find their place. Even in our perfect city we have such people, threatening to disrupt the venerated order. This is the tale of one such misfit, the hero Fredo. Perhaps you’ve heard of him? That noble and broad-shouldered specimen, smolder blue eyes, golden hair forever swept by cruel headwinds, his famous plasma-edged sword—heavier than a Cadillac—held aloft by a single bulge-muscled arm (ridiculous, those muscles, like overstuffed couch cushions, barely room for the noble head between them). Hero Fredo, ever questing toward the darkest pulsing heart of evil! Can you see it? Can you see the epic headlong charge, the nimble, whirling slash of a practiced slayer?
Well, let us assure you, he’s a no-account nobody. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Yes, in our city from time to time, there are those born into the wrong story. Fredo, son of a gifted mime and her pheasant and marzipan-fattened Pantalone husband. Such matches are natural. It is doubtful if the Pantalone ever noticed that his wife did not speak. At home, he would count coins on a dining table fit for a full thirty-two-member retinue, gold spilling across every inch, and she would try to amuse young Fredo by hovering over his father’s shoulder, tying an elaborate noose in the air and tightening it, tongue and eyes bulging. Fredo was a prideful boy, unsuited to that quality his father demanded of those he loved, the oblivious self-effacement practiced by the servants who prostrated themselves and licked his slippers to delight him. As for the life of a pantomime, Fredo had no gift for physical comedy. Too tense. What’s more, the boy could not stay quiet, given to outbursts of dreadfully sober and sincere drivel.
“Mother,” he might ask, “why is there so much injustice in the world?” Mighty performer that she was, she would shrug in the most comical, exaggerated way and faint dead in exasperation. But he was unreceptive to the profound truth of this performance and as he grew, his mother’s routine could no longer placate, let alone amuse him. Instead, it drove him to righteous fury, and though she pleaded with eyes made overlarge by wide circles of white face-paint, batted her overlong lashes, outstretched her arms, trying oh-so-valiantly to convey to him the ludicrous incomprehensibility of the world, he was unmoved. He would retreat to his room, slamming the door with such hero strength that the palace rattled and the towers of gold coins his father had meticulously counted scattered across the marble.
By adulthood, it was clear to all that Fredo possessed no modicum of comedic talent and could not play the heel. He was without occupation. His miserly father, with no sycophancy to be wrung from his dull boy, had cut him off. Fredo tried to cobble together odd jobs, stocking the gag stores, hammering sets together. Dependable and single-minded, but so wearyingly boring. We could only tolerate that solemn face for so long without flinging a pie into it. Such fun we had rigging the structures he’d built to collapse or assigning him to clean the gutters from our tallest towers and kicking the ladder out. He was amazingly durable, but he had no sense of humor about it. At the first good-natured prank, he’d huff away. Oh those confused hero eyes, burning with bravery that could find no object, no monster to slay.
Rather than bear us, he resigned to live underneath the boardwalk, fighting off slapsticks and training. Always training. Lifting crates of weighted milk bottles, sledging an old high striker so that it rang like a fire alarm, skipping skee-balls across the bay. With each pull-up on the boardwalk beams, the whole structure flexed, sending slapsticks into the water by the dozen.
Even filthy his hair still shone and rippled, and his tattered salt-stained clothes only bestowed on him an air of rugged handsomeness. Though heroes do not cry, he could sometimes be heard, beneath the carnival din, dry-sobbing as he did push-ups by the thousand. Do you feel for him? We do, oh yes, we truly do. Born into the most joyous, never-ending symphony without the ear to hear it.
His lot was cast with two other misfits, his closest companions. Chuckles the clown, who never removed her white greasepaint and polka-dot bloomers. Who never ceased practicing, her hands always busy toward the refinement of some trick. A formalist, meticulously planning and executing her gags with technical perfection but, alas, without any effect. She had longed since birth to be the greatest circus clown who ever lived. On her fifth birthday she had debuted, juggling five balls at five hundred catches a minute, but the face framed by the red looping blur was so tightened by concentration that it looked furious. There is little worse than a joyless clown. For a time, she performed with a bag over her head, but no matter the impressive feat, her body communicated none of the jolly ease that invited us to partake in delight, and her star soon fell. She had been given an adjunct position at the Clown College in deference to her skill, but her classes were unattended. She spent her days performing in empty classrooms for an imagined audience, elegant in her perfection but unsmiling.
The third of their trio was the bastard of a Sophisticate mother who had made her career roasting other Sophisticates and a slapstick gigolo with highbrow pretensions. The result was that abomination that occurs when mockery and parody are layered too thickly together and collapse into crass cynicism. No matter how he positioned himself, whatever tack he took, he was forever in the wrong register, and he was despised by Sophisticates and lowbrows alike. His mother had chosen the name Dogstaff for those two Shakespearean clowns because, she snickered, he was at once twice and half the fool.
Evenings, they met for drinks to unload their woes. Dogstaff pontificating and gesturing in exasperation at the antics going on around them, Chuckles nodding agreement as she glared at the endless lengths of varicolored handkerchief she doggedly pulled from her mouth and ears and nose, and Fredo gripping his beer in two broad hands, studying his companions with the utmost earnestness. They had learned to ignore the ring of mimes that invariably formed around them, running through increasingly exaggerated physical expressions of boredom, yawning and falling over asleep into each other as we laughed along. After two rounds, Chuckles paid for her drinks and Fredo’s from her meager salary and grimly cartwheeled to her unicycle, off to teach her night class. Fredo followed her out the door, the training regimen to which he was slave dictating several hours of wind sprints along the moonlit beach before sleep.
Dogstaff would be left to drink alone until he was belligerent and turned his nasty tongue on us. “What low frippery is this?” he would exclaim, interrupting our routines. “Such bungle-tongued miscreants without an ounce of talent in their dry bones!”
Sometimes we could take it, but not always. We couldn’t resist knocking a chair leg out or spit-taking tequila into his face. Thus disarmed, he turned to his fists, graceless brawling. We’d have to call the Tinys in. They’d duck under the door and mince menacingly to his table on their pinpoint feet, slapping blackjacks against their doll hands.
“Times up bub,” they said in their cartoon mouse voices. They wedged their ham-shank forearms beneath his shoulders and dragged him out to the laughingstocks, securing his neck and hands between the boards.
“Brickle foot, plunder-eyed dundergoons!” He’d shriek and with a smack, they’d set the laughingstocks bouncing hysterically on their bright yellow springs. He would be left there to jounce around while we had our fun. We drew penises on his forehead and taped signs to the seat of his pants. The slapsticks would dutifully line up to kick as directed until the morning commuters, folded knees to ears in the Choo-Choo Train’s tiny compartments, chugged by jeering enthusiastically. But before too long, Fredo would hulk back from the boardwalk and prise the laughingstocks open, escorting his friend home.
So it went and might ever have gone except for the tiresome, slow-moving cogitations of that befuddled hero brain. All his life Fredo had been casting about for some villain when all around him was jubilation. Neither the Pantalones who ventured out occasionally from their palace to survey their establishments, servants scuttling ahead to paper the cobblestones with freshly printed bills so that their gold-shod feet never touched the common filth, nor the Sophisticates sneering from on high quite fit the bill, distasteful though he found them. Lying awake watching the underside of our boardwalk shake with boisterous glee, he became more and more certain that a hidden force slumbered just beyond reach, corrupting our city. Well into his prime, he felt that his training had reached its natural conclusion and that what was needed now was an act of true heroism.
Fredo called his friends together over beer and broke his customary stoicism with a rousing speech. “Somewhere, buried deep, I have sensed a rotten heart that needs cutting out,” he said. “There is a monster here that needs slaying, but it is veiled in shadow. None can see but us, for we are chosen. We must flush this monster from its lair and set things right in this benighted land.”
Dogstaff raised his eyebrows, incredulous. But the speech sprang some tight-wound mainspring in the clown. Chuckles slapped her hands on the table with such force that the contents of her sleeves were loosed, baubles and coins spilled out and two brightly colored songbirds took wing, escaping through the pub door.
“Yes,” she exclaimed, “this city is evil! This city is wicked! How tired the poor slapsticks must be, smarting all over. Their bones are broken and we laugh! Why is there no one to rescue those who have fallen into the wells? Why do the Pantalones feast to vomiting while the lowbrows gnaw shoe-leather for their entertainment?”
She had forgotten where she was, and we, who are so often content to leave well enough alone, could no longer resist. We had to defend ourselves! We set down our drinks and donned our whimsical masks. We pressed around their table. Long noses wobbling we jeered,
“thiS cItY iS eeEViL! tHIs ciTy iS WicKeD!”
Dogstaff stood, knocking over his chair, and we could see how badly a part of him wanted to join us, to find belonging by partaking in the mockery of his friends. And what might have been if he had then? But of course, he didn’t, that poor mixed-up creature. Such a mighty struggle raged across his face! The prognathic brow, the aquiline nose, the blubber lips turned ever so uglier. He pointed at us.
“Fester trivets!” He brayed. “Pus chalices! Gangle chodes!”
We lunged for him, shoving and tripping. We had the trio backed into a corner, Fredo facing us in a wide fighter stance, wielding an oaken table, friends behind him. We dared not approach alone! We pressed the alarm, its strident whip-poor-will summoning the Tinys in full force. They crashed in, forgetting to duck and leaving bitty head-shaped holes in the lintel.
A melee! Oh such bopping! Such thwacking! Such whomp-whacking!
“Pizzle-greased slop-spleens!” Dogstaff screamed, cowering behind his brutish champion. “Quasi-botched blumpkins!” But the Tinys, blackjacks cracking, succeeded eventually in subduing Fredo, and Dogstaff was silenced. Chuckles handsprung from their small grips like a slippery fish, leaping about the pub until a club connected with her skull and she crumpled. We carted the clown off to jail and the Tinys, squeaking with effort, managed to wrestle Fredo over to a well and throw him in.
As for Dogstaff, the laughingstocks would not do this time, so we dragged him to the parapet of the Pantalones’ palace, overlooking the Sophisticates’ Tower, and hung him by his ankles. We had intended to set up a camera, to display him on the Jumbotron for the delight of all, but drunk and exhausted from the sport, we staggered off, leaving him there. For days he hung, peering into the Tower through its narrow slits and oh what secrets did he behold there? For there are terrible secrets in the Tower.
Fredo’s legs were freakish long, and did we mention that his training included yoga? Yes, he could form right angles with those legs, and as he plummeted down the well, he found that his legs outstretched spanned the distance between the walls, but only just. He skidded to a halt by his heels and held there, great thighs creaking. He bellowed up the long barrel of the well until a tail of silken handkerchiefs brushed his fingertips. Laboriously he dragged himself back into the light and found the steadfast Chuckles at the other end. Two days she had languished in jail. Together they sought out their friend. They found a changed Dogstaff, uncharacteristically sobered. He was silent while they cut him down, while blood flowed back from his purpled head into the extremities. His brow was knit in thought.
“Such folly to have doubted you, my gallant companion,” Dogstaff said at last. “In my long vigil, much has been revealed to me. Indeed, there is a beast, ogreish and foul. With mine own eyes I have espied it! All through the nights it snorts and stamps and growls such horrid things directly into the souls of men. It lurks there, in the bowels of the Sophisticates’ Tower, climbing in the night to issue its nefarious instruction.”
“You have seen it? Truly?”
“In its full grotesquery.”
“We must vanquish it!” Reinvigorated by purpose, Fredo tossed his hair and flexed.
“How will we gain entrance?”
“I can direct, but we must rely on the cunning of our clever Chuckles.”
Chuckles nodded, and with impeccable legerdemain, knives sprouted between her fingers.
The companions stole to the base of the tower by cover of darkness, Dogstaff leading them to a small hidden door in the back. Chuckles knelt and spat a bundle of skeleton keys and lockpicks into her hand. But the lock was no match for her deft touch and surrendered at the first twist. They opened the door to reveal a descending spiral staircase. Fredo bounded down, the driftwood club he’d brought as weapon high over his head, too eager for stealth. He could sense the monster now, could feel its hot, corrosive blood on his hands. How many nights had he lain awake fantasizing about exactly this moment? He dreamt of a city cleansed, transformed by his incredible feat from a Gomorrah to a Camelot. Do you see why he is so tiresome? The hero’s mind is colored only by two hues: light and shadow. Admit it, you love your heroes best when they are questing deep in the wilderness, far away, sparing you their bothersome sanctimony.
Ever deeper they descended, into the living rock of the Red-Nosed Mountains where, if you put your ear to the stone, you can hear the long, low chuckling of the earth. At last they arrived at a great banana-yellow door, its knob candy-slick red rubber. Again Chuckles demonstrated her skill, twisting the knob without letting it so much as squeak. Beyond, extending as far as they could see, was a great labyrinth. But of course the Sophisticates could not leave their secrets unprotected! Fredo surged into the hall, barely noting the tripwire’s snap against his shin. From the gas-lighted depths, a wind-up monkey waddled toward them. Chuckles sprang for it, but alas she was too slow, and the monkey clapped its cymbal hands together. Above them, another cymbal answered, and then another, cascading all the way to the Tower’s peak, a great cacophony of crashing and simian shrieking alerting every Tiny in the city.
Fredo had picked up the scent now, and he led them by feel, the pulsing of that evil heart that was his object thrumming in his ears and feet. They hurtled through the treacherous labyrinth, high-stepping over hidden rakes, disabling electrified doorknobs, dispatching the cobras that fusilladed from potato chip cans! The companions were canny and swift, but the Tinys knew of the Tower’s system of slip chutes and spilled into the labyrinth at every juncture. Oh still, the companions persisted, Fredo blitzing their lines and scattering them like tenpins, Chuckles’s knives finding their pinhead eyes and Dogstaff—well, Dogstaff was useless. They reached at last the labyrinth’s terminus, a matching yellow door that opened into the grand arcade leading to the monster’s lair. But the door was obstinate and the Tinys were pressing in. Fredo had to drop his club and yank with both bulging arms.
Chuckles, unappreciated master clown, have we admitted that we admire her? Grudgingly, but we must! We cannot help it! She held the Tinys off alone, a’leaping and a’tumbling, strafing knives from her sleeves with unfailing aim. But the horde was endless, fresh Tinys roughly knocking aside their blinded, squeaking brethren, and her sleeve-stocked armory finite. Fredo had the door open now, Dogstaff already on the other side, but the clown was hopelessly trapped. She had only to release Fredo with a grim nod, and he too reluctantly stepped through, barring the door behind him.
“You have not time!” Dogstaff dangled from the door’s heavy crossbeam as it bounced from the Tinys’ furious assault. “Slay the beast and return for me, I will stave them off!”
Fredo must have doubted that Dogstaff would be of any use holding the door. Did he consider urging his friend onward? No, it must have appealed to his nature. It was only appropriate that at the bitter end, the hero face down the monster companionless and alone. He struck out into the long arcade until his friend was lost to sight behind.
Arrayed along the walls at the arcade’s last length were the weapons of our Great War—such fun that was, but oh, the cleanup!—the jack-in-the-box polearms, the glitternel grenades, the dreaded bubble-throwers, the acid-squirting boutonnières. Fredo paused and considered, but with a typical lack of imagination, he took up the comically oversized sword. He tested its balance with a mighty swing and its plasma edge, painstakingly engineered by the Sophisticates, produced a noise like a long, simmering fart.
Sword held straight in front of him, he sprinted the final stretch and entered a vast cavern, its limits lost in darkness. A single beam of ghostly light penetrated from high above, and in its spotlight towered the monster. A thatch of matted red fur atop its head, dead black eyes set in less a face than a slag of melted flesh. The creature swatted menacingly, raking the air with dagger claws. They circled one another, feinting and testing.
But the monster was no match for this champion, and in the end, it was hardly the fight for which Fredo yearned. With a burst of hero strength, he brought the sword around. It squelched wetly as the edge gobbled through the monster’s thick neck. The head toppled over and by reflex Fredo grabbed it by its hair and held it aloft, roaring in triumph.
Klieg lights hissed and popped, and the arena was awash in light. We were assembled, all of us, in the stands. The slapsticks jostling around the ring, the Pantalones above and, over all, the Sophisticates, golf-clapping from their skybox.
Wires led from the giant to where the Pantalones sat, and there, Fredo’s father with the levers in his hands. Beside him, Fredo’s distressed mother, palms flat against the imaginary wall behind which she hid. The giant jerked, quivering as his father chortled, at last amused by his disappointment of a son. In the harsh light, Fredo saw that the head was covered by a mask, the giant’s grotesque face molded rubber. He ripped it away to reveal that he had grasped the crimson curls of an Elder Clown. Fredo tossed the head, but it remained in the air suspended by a wire, spinning. The head rose as it was reeled in, up up above us, wide sockets taking everything in, smiling approval.
Dogstaff appeared in the Sophisticates’ skybox, and they bowed deferentially as he approached the alabaster balustrade, clad in the robe and bowtie of the Tower. Have you guessed? How in his long humiliation overlooking the Tower, he was approached and promised redemption in return for his betrayal?
“What have you done?” Fredo beseeched him. “Dogstaff, what have you done?”
“I have shed that cursed name,” the traitor said. He cleared his throat and swept his arms wide, preparing to deliver at last his grand soliloquy. “Countrymen, I appear before you reborn, I have become—” But even in his moment of triumph, the voice quavered with doubt.
In that pause, the Sophisticates surged forward as one, shoving with many hands, and he was propelled forward. He struck the balustrade at the waist and tumbled, end over end, plummeting the long way down to the arena floor, his soliloquy reduced to incoherent screaming.
Such a squioch he made!
He landed on his head, body folded over him, robe bunched at his armpits and tattered trousers exposed. A slapstick darted from the stands to pants him. The grand blow-off! Did we not tell you that in the Tower, their jokes take years to tell? And here: the culmination of decades’ meticulous planning.
Above, a whoosh from the disembodied head of the Elder Clown and the hollow eyes ignited, balls of eldritch green flame sparking merrily. Its smile broke, the sharp teeth parted and its cachinnations ricocheted from the vaulting again at long, long last. Even the Sophisticates delighted in it, so swept up their bowties set to immodest spinning, their polite guffaws giving way to doubling over, to breathlessness. On their knees, so helpless with mirth, we were all as one, united in sublime hilarity.
Fredo strode forward and drew Dogstaff’s body into his arms. He wailed with sorrow, such sorrow, for he could see still the wretched, conflicted soul of his friend, doomed to forever twist with uncertainty, rejected by life and death. Good-hearted hero, how he longed to absolve him! It was the perfect trap, Fredo’s mind turned upside down. Where was good and where was evil? Who victim? Who villain? No gray for him, paralyzed in that strobing, black to white, black to white. He was oblivious to the Elder Clown’s head, swooping from the ceiling, champing and snapping, ravenous.
But that damn clown. Stubborn. Too ignorant to appreciate our masterpiece. The Tinys had thought they could lock Chuckles away and rush to the arena in time for the show. Unwatched, she had slipped her chains—so many chains, fist-sized links of heavy steel now coiled uselessly on the dungeon floor—and passed into the armory unmolested.
She zoomed in on a unicycle, two dozen flaming chainsaws leaping in double loops from her hands nearly to the vaulting. If we thought we had seen fury in her eyes before, nothing compared to what played in them now. The whirling vortex of chugging blades snicked every finger or nose that dared approach. Even the Elder Clown spun wide to avoid her, missing your witless hero. She pinched Fredo between her nimble knees, and spun about, probing for the exit. Unwillingly, we parted to reveal the arena’s entrance. She pedaled past us, visage ever dour, and Fredo hanging like a kitten, weeping freely at last. Up the long ramp, they went, and out from under the mountain to exile.
The Elder Clowns came alive for that one night, the first in memory, cavorting and tumbling. Herky-jerky they skittered with inhuman speed, careening through our streets. We cheered as they scooped up slapsticks and lowbrows and crammed them into their smiling mouths, spuming a confetti of shredded bone. Such revery! Such carnival!
Oh, but you were not there to see it! You had fled back to your cruise ships at the sight of poor Dogstaff. Cowards! Oh so shocked! Oh so appalled! But you would be back again the next day. We know you.
Don’t think that we do not know you.
Anthony Correale is a writer from California and a lecturer at Clemson University. He holds an MFA in fiction from Indiana University and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. His stories have appeared in The Journal and Day One.