by Matt McDonald
Clowns were hard to come by. My friends and I never owned one, but sometimes we’d ride our bikes across the highway into the rich subdivision to watch other kids play with theirs. It seemed like every kid over there had one. We’d stand in the street like losers and watch them bounce on trampolines, unicycle up and down the driveway, make balloon animals—generally have all the fun we couldn’t afford.
“Look at those assholes,” Rusty said once, and we all huffed and nodded. “They got like ten just on this street. Think they could let us have one or two.”
“It’s all about who you know,” Jake said. “My dad’s been trying to get on a list since last year. Can’t even get on a list, and these bastards got ‘em coming out their ears.”
Timothy kicked at the concrete. “Not fair.”
“Bullcrap,” I said.
One afternoon we were in the rich subdivision watching this meathead kid juggle cannonballs with his clown in the front yard of his big-ass house. We watched him for a while, and since the kid couldn’t look away without getting smashed in the face by a cannonball, he didn’t notice us until it was too late.
Jake untied the wagon from his bike and ran full speed into the yard carrying the rope. Of course we followed him. The clown tossed a cannonball just as Jake dove for his feet, and the ball he was supposed to catch hit him square in the chest. The meathead kid, distracted by the action, got hit right in the temple and knocked out cold.
Rusty, whose dad was a team roper, tied the clown’s ankles together while the cannonball and Jake’s foot held him to the ground. We dragged the clown to the curb and onto the wagon. Timothy looked around all paranoid. Jake kept slapping the clown on the head.
“Laugh,” he said. “Like we’re playing a game.”
The clown moaned.
“Wipe that blood off his mouth,” Rusty said.
With the clown tied up on the wagon and one of the cannonballs stowed between his knees, the four of us formed a train: me, then Jake walking his bike and pulling the wagon, Rusty on knot maintenance, and Timothy in the back on authority watch. We crossed the highway and went back into our neighborhood with either nobody noticing or nobody caring.
Our parents would ask a bunch of questions if they found us playing with a clown, so we hid him in Mr. Wright’s barn up the street from my house. We tied the doors shut with the rope, and I think Rusty and Jake snuck back over there later to take him some food. I went to bed that night dreaming about all the things I always wanted to do with a clown.
Problem was, everybody else had their own ideas too. I really wanted to throw a baseball with him while he rode a unicycle around the yard. I saw one doing that one time, and it had always been my go-to clown fantasy. Rusty wanted to run him with his horses, and Jake wanted to see him drive a tiny car. Timothy wanted him to juggle, which we thought was stupid because we’d already seen that.
The next day after school we went to feed him, then stood out behind Mr. Wright’s barn kicking dirt clods and arguing.
“I ain’t saying they’re dumb ideas,” Rusty said. “I’m just saying mine’s the only idea where we already have all the stuff.”
“We got a cannonball,” Timothy said.
Jake shook his head. “One. Can’t juggle one ball. Plus we already done seen that.”
“It don’t have to be balls. He could juggle anything. Oranges. Bowling pins. Hula hoops.”
“Why don’t you juggle my balls,” Jake said.
Timothy’s voice got high-pitched. “You don’t have to be a jerk. You’re the one who wants to watch him drive a stupid car, which we can’t even get.”
“Y’all shut up,” Rusty said. “Sound like my sisters.” He spit a wad of tobacco juice against the barn and looked at me. “What about you?”
All this talk about the cannonball jogged my brain. “I don’t have a unicycle, so mine’s out. But….”
“What?” Rusty asked.
“Y’all know my cousin George?” They all shook their heads. “He’s older. Like seventeen. He goes to these Civil War re-enactments with my uncle, and he keeps a bunch of crap at his house.”
“What kind of crap?”
“He’s got a cannon.”
Jake’s eyes got wide. “A real cannon?”
“Yeah, I guess it’s real. Looks real. Makes a boom when you shoot it.”
Timothy flapped his arms. “But we can shoot a cannonball without a clown.”
Rusty must have already picked up my scent because he gave Timothy a look.
“No,” I said. “We shoot the clown out of the cannon.”
Rusty spit and nodded while Jake and Timothy let out a bunch of oohs and ohs.
“What if he dies?” Timothy said.
Rusty shrugged. “We can’t keep him long anyway before we get caught.”
“True,” Jake said. “But then what’ll we do with a dead clown?”
“Shit, it won’t matter,” Rusty said. “Nobody’ll know it was us anyway. They’ll probably think it was that rich kid’s fault.”
“You know that kid got in so much trouble,” Timothy said.
Rusty looked at me. “Where’s your cousin live?”
My cousin lived a couple miles outside of town, which raised some logistical questions. Like, would it be easier to get a cannon back here from a couple miles away, or to smuggle a clown that far down the road? After some brainstorming and a lot of crude arithmetic, we decided to stick with what we knew.
The next morning we all ditched school and met up at the barn. Rusty brought some more rope and small single-axle trailer that we chained to Jake’s bike. None of us knew anything about everyday clown behavior. Some people let them live in the basement or attic and even ate meals with them. But then others built special sheds.
The barn smelled like the ass-end of a dead dog when we opened it up. The clown had found him a bucket to shit in, but couldn’t get out to dump it. So Timothy busted up in there and ran back out gagging and whining and raising hell until Rusty and Jake rushed in and dragged the clown out by his feet. He looked pretty rough. Dirt clods and straw hung in his rainbow curls, and skin showed through a few smudges in his face paint.
“I thought they had white skin,” Timothy said.
Jake laughed. “With big red circles for cheeks?”
“Nah. I thought those were painted on.”
Rusty tied the clown’s ankles together and walked him out to the trailer. I tossed him an apple from the sack of food we brought and he started gnawing on it.
“Come and get on the trailer, clown,” Rusty said. “We’re going for a ride.”
The clown wheezed and some apple chunks sprinkled down into his overalls. The overalls used to be white, but between the blood stains and the barn floor they’d gotten dingy.
“I wish he was one of them with the striped suit,” Timothy said. “I like those better.”
We all grunted in agreement.
Through a mouthful of apple, the clown said, “Boys, I think my ribs are broken.”
Jake and Timothy shot one another this look like they didn’t think clowns could talk. I had never heard one talk, but I kept cool about it. I’d always figured they could talk, but just generally weren’t supposed to say anything.
Rusty prodded at the clown’s back with a hoe he took from the barn. “Well, we ain’t taking you to no clown doctor. Sit down on the edge of that trailer and swing your feet up.”
The clown mimed a sad face and pitter-pattered up to the trailer. After we got him tied down, Jake asked him his name.
The clown smiled real silly. “Mr. Buggles.”
Since the trailer would be heavy and slow, the rest of us left our bikes at the barn and walked alongside Jake. With everybody in school or at work that time of day, we made it out of the neighborhood and to the two-lane without any problems. A couple trucks passed by but didn’t pay us any attention. Eventually, we ran out of things to say, so we just kicked rocks down the road and watched the tractors out tilling the cotton fields.
“Do you boys want to see some tricks?” Mr. Buggles said after a while.
Timothy smiled. “Can you pull a scarf out of your mouth?”
“Not with my hands tied.”
“If you can do it, you can do it,” Rusty said. “Hey, why don’t you pull some quarters out of our ears so we can get a Coke?”
Mr. Buggles wheezed out a laugh and leaned in, holding up his tied wrists. “But I can’t reach your ears!”
We walked along in silence for a few minutes.
“This kind of sucks,” I said.
“Oh well,” Timothy said. “I guess he won’t need his hands for the cannonball thing.”
I glanced at Mr. Buggles when Timothy said this, and his face collapsed. I didn’t know if clowns could show emotion, but he looked pretty worried.
“What sort of cannonball tricks do you boys have in mind?”
Jake turned around on his bike to yell, “Think we should tell him?”
Rusty spit into the road. “I guess we got to now, don’t we? Since everybody wants to talk so much.”
“We’re going to shoot you out of a cannon,” Timothy said, smiling.
My question about whether or not clowns showed emotion got answered pretty fast, because the clown’s whole mood changed. He furrowed his brow and looked out over the edge of the trailer to the ditch. He craned his neck the other way, looking up the road past Jake, and then just stared at the ground.
“A trick like that, boys…it takes other clowns to do it right.”
“My cousin knows how to use the cannon,” I said.
Mr. Buggles started thrashing, pulling at the ropes on his hands and kicking at the ropes on his ankles. He shook the trailer around so much that Jake almost laid his bike over, and finally had to stop.
Rusty banged the hoe against the trailer until the clown calmed down.
Jake dropped his kickstand and walked back beside us. “What’s he doing?”
“I think he got spooked,” Rusty said.
Mr. Buggles sat breathing heavily, wincing with every breath. All of a sudden, he let out an eardrum-busting scream.
“Whoa, shit,” Rusty said.
“You know I’ll do whatever you tell me!” Mr. Buggles said. “You don’t have to keep me tied up.”
Rusty shook his head. “Well, now I think we do. If you’re going to act crazy.”
“I thought clowns were supposed to be happy,” Jake said. “He don’t look very happy.”
“What do you think is wrong with him?” Timothy asked.
I looked at Rusty. “You think he’s hot in them overalls?”
“Maybe he’s worried about his owners missing him,” Timothy said.
Rusty poked his foot with the hoe. “Why ain’t you happy, clown?”
“Well, boys,” Mr. Buggles said. “My chest hurts real bad from that cannonball. And it’s very uncomfortable being tied up like this.” He looked at Rusty. “I’m also worried about Kevin—that’s my owner you saw me juggling with the other day. And to be completely honest with you boys, I’m concerned about the safety of your plan.”
The plan would either work or it wouldn’t. I didn’t see the big deal.
“Clowns get shot out of cannons all the time,” I said. “It’ll be fine.”
Rusty poked him with the hoe again, this time in his side. “You just better smile like you’re supposed to.”
Mr. Buggles’ eyes got droopy. Jake picked up a rock from the road and tossed it at him, hitting him on the arm. “We don’t want no sad-sack clown.”
Rusty tapped the hoe against his knee and Mr. Buggles recoiled. “Come on now, clown.”
“Quit being a pussy,” Jake said, tossing another rock.
I kicked at the trailer, shaking him around. “We ain’t been waiting all this time for a clown just to get one that don’t know how to have fun.”
“Maybe he’s just sad about his owner,” Timothy said.
Jake looked for more rocks. “Maybe he’s defective.”
Rusty cracked the clown across the shin with the hoe. “Look up and give us a grin.” He climbed up on the trailer and took a golf swing at his foot. “Smile!”
Mr. Buggles squirmed and tried to crawl away from Rusty, but the ropes wouldn’t let him. Jake dug up a bigger rock and threw it as hard as he could. It hit Mr. Buggles right in the forehead and cut a big gash that gushed blood all down his face.
Mr. Buggles started yelling. “Boys! Boys, please. What are you doing?”
Rusty hit him in the ribs with the hoe. “Shut the hell up!”
Jake threw another rock. “Dumbass clown!”
I climbed up on the trailer and kicked him in the stomach. Timothy started to cry.
Mr. Buggles started to cry, too. “Boys, just untie me and we’ll do some tricks! I’ll show you how to do them.”
The tears mixed with the blood from his forehead and smudged his face paint even more. I thought his hair might be a wig, so I grabbed a handful of rainbow curls and pulled as hard as I could. I came away with a big clump of hair and it grossed me out so much I threw it back in his face. Pieces of it stuck to the blood and tears.
Timothy turned and ran back the way we came. Rusty was really going to town with that hoe, and while I dusted the loose hair from my hands, Jake came around the other side of the trailer with a chunk of asphalt. He smashed it against the back of the clown’s head. Mr. Buggles’ eyes rolled back in their sockets. I grabbed Rusty’s arm to get him to chill out with the hoe, and we stepped back and watched the clown twitch around. He kept pulling against the rope and rocking the trailer.
When he stopped, the three of us took a minute to catch our breath before Jake said, “Hell, I guess he ain’t in no shape for a cannon now.”
“He wasn’t in no shape to begin with,” Rusty said.
We untied his hands and feet and rolled him off the trailer onto the shoulder of the road, then gave him a good shove toward the ditch. He rolled down into the water and weeds at the bottom.
“Think we should turn him face up?” I asked.
“I ain’t getting in there,” Rusty said. “Probably shit-water.”
He tossed the hoe onto the trailer, and Jake got on the bike. “I’ll check with my dad again about that waiting list. See if he had any luck.”
Rusty nodded. “Just make sure you get a good one.”
Matt McDonald is from northeast Louisiana. He works in higher education, and is a musician and former high school English teacher. His stories have appeared in Monkeybicycle, Loud Zoo, Eunoia Review, and Swamp Ape Review. He is currently at work on a novel.