by Peter Clarke

I always bring my bed of nails to kids’ birthday parties. The little girls cry the whole time. As part of the act, I ask them to stand on my chest as I lie there. They act all flustered, even the brave ones. Sometimes there’s a girl who won’t get off. She stands there, staring like a tourist, a million miles away from her comfort zone.
You’d be surprised how easy it is to have a cinderblock broken on your chest while you lie on a bed of nails. Over the years, I must have had hundreds of cinderblocks broken on me. Only once, when the sledgehammer didn’t fall hard enough, was I injured. The block didn’t break—it bounced off my chest, cracking a few ribs. The show must go on, so I nod to my assistant to give it another try. The second blow is too hard. I manage to finish the rest of the act without breathing, smiling my happy smile.

* * *

I’m a juggler. Juggling is a broad term. Any form of object manipulation is juggling. Tossing shit in the air is just the beginning. If you’ve seen someone manipulating a hat—that’s juggling. So is hula hooping.

It takes years of practice to become an adequate juggler. Most other sideshow acts can be learned in a few hours. If you want to learn to hammer a nail into your nose, just take a straw and practice sticking it up your nostril until you find the hole to the back of your throat. Get comfortable finding the hole. Then keep shoving things back there until that spot is desensitized. In less than a week, you can do this using a nail and a hammer.

The usual sideshow acts get easier. I make them up on the spot and perform them simultaneously. I don’t need to practice with my finger to stick a sword all the way up my own ass. After a few years in the circus, I start doing more of the gimmicky sideshows. At that point, I write my own material. If I juggle, I use bottles of whiskey. It takes about ten minutes to perfect stealing large gulps while tossing the bottles.

* * *

At last I stop performing all the sideshow acts that aren’t offensive and stick to what I know best: smoking, drinking, and being every young girl’s perverted dream.

Families come up to me all the time, no matter how bad my set has been. “Hey, kids, let’s take a picture with the clown!” They don’t even ask permission; they just poke me on the neck to get me to turn around. I always smile, since it’s painted on.

Everybody wants in the photo. I’m a symbol that fits with nearly every religion and clothing style. Mormon grandmas want in the picture as badly as goth teenage boys. Does my clown suit complement the young lady’s flower blouse? Easy. Does my smile go with her Jewish grandpa’s pinstriped tie? No problem.

Thanks to my image in so many family photo albums, hundreds of young girls will never be satisfied with future boyfriends. Each growth spurt will take those adolescent boys further and further away from my innocent face.

* * *

One night at a bar, after three months on the road with the circus troupe, a fifty-year-old woman comes up to me. “Can I take your picture?” She moves and talks like a person with a lot of money.

I’m caught off guard. Immediately I want to tell her to stop pretending to be eccentric.

“I used to have hair just like yours.” She nuzzles close for the picture.

I’m not in my clown costume, but my hair is done up in a pink Mohawk.

The woman’s husband laughs, slaps the bar, and holds up a photograph on his phone. There’s the proof: the woman has hair just like mine—except her Mohawk is purple.

After snapping my picture, she rubs her hips against my thigh under the bar. “But then I shaved it all off.” She removes her wig to show me.

Not such a babe anymore, I think. She looks sinister, even to me, and I’m plenty used to looking at freaks. Her husband keeps slapping the bar and laughing. Finally he takes a long drink and goes back to telling the guy to his left about his real estate investments.

* * *

It’s obvious I can’t interact with people anymore without imagining that sledgehammer crashing down, obliterating everyone in sight. I’ve seen it myself. All the adolescent girls have grown up and married rich. The young and the beautiful are completely useless if this is all they will ever amount to.

Looking up at the girl standing on my chest, I imagine the sledgehammer falling on her head, splitting her right down the middle and smashing her flat. Thank god, she finally faints and falls off.

Peter Clarke is a writer and editor with a law degree from the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law. His fiction writings have appeared in over 40 literary journals including Hobard, 3AM Magazine, and Western Press Books. He is an editor for a Thomson Reuters company and an assistant editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal. Native to Port Angeles, Washington, he currently lives in San Francisco. See: