The Confessions Of A Clown

Here's the story Coco the clown told me one evening: I've never known my father. Neither have I asked who he was. Mother was a Galician Jewess who toured the big cities with a circus. She was known as "the Spanish beauty". An acrobat she was, and used to ride a lovely red pony round and round the arena as the audience showered her with flowers and cheers. The gentlemen thronging her dressing room after she was through with her number would tell her she was far more beautiful than the sirens balancing on the crests of rollers as she skirted the front tiers reclining on the pony's broad back. That's how I will always remember Mother: holding court amidst a swarm of gentlemen in tuxedos, breathing fast, face flushed crimson, eyes sparkling, smiling her formal thanks to her suitors, and urging her tuxedoed admirers to grant her a moment of privacy to take off her costume. When she was left alone with me, she didn't as much take off things as put on other things on top of them. Then we'd leave together in the carriage of one of the gentlemen who'd previously flocked to her dressing room. The place we called home was truly wonderful. We never ran out of sweets or flowers. Mother loved me a lot. When I grew up a bit, she started giving me dancing lessons. A few months later I was also to experience the flowers and applause tumbling down from the tiers graced by army officers and elegant ladies. Young children are naturally adept at securing indiscriminate appreciation. The circus took an early grip on me. Hiding behind the curtains admitting the performers to the arena, I could see for myself why the audience had such a great time. I could see the-acrobats swinging dangerously high above the audience, while the music came to an abrupt stop allowing the rapid rumble of the drums to swell up ominously; I could see nimble clowns loping about in loose breeches, slapping each other's faces or breaking eggs against their heads. I could see hunchbacked Pantaloons, red of nose, their top hats squashed out of shape, who'd get in the way of the stagehands, or get hold of the horses' tails only to fall down backwards and sham dead; I could see old, white-faced men, whom they called "musical clowns", playing concertinas and jangling bells strung on leather straps. I could see powdered riders juggling torches and having a hard time trying to balance themselves on top of their horses; I could see half-naked women on horseback who'd plunge through paper loops and landed back in the saddle to the audience's roar of excitement; I could see acrobats lifting cannonballs made of rubber and pulling off the ground as many as four of the stagehands on the skinny side; I could see trained dogs doing clever tricks and being far more popular than the clowns; I could see snake-men, and all sorts of men and beasts, trained to perform all sorts of tricks. I was six years old and saw everything in the bright light of the gas lamps marching forward to the beat of the merry circus music. Mother was beautiful, and she was good to me, and her friends were generous. I had everything I wanted. I wish time had come to a stop back then. Why did everything have to change? I had my first taste of melancholy when my hair was cut short, my long, soft hair, which Mother used to tie with blue ribbons, my hair that would go fluttering round my head as I twirled on the tip of my toes, spinning faster and faster to loud applause, showered with flowers and sweets. I was sad on another occasion, too. A much deeper sadness than my first bout of melancholy. On a winter's day, a gentleman brought Mother flowers and jewellery, and presented me with a story book. I leafed through it next to the window, lingering over the story of the cricket and the ant. Poor cricket! Where was he to go in that terrible blizzard? I was watching the coloured picture with the miserable minstrel shivering as he clutched his guitar. I was overcome with grief. That state lasted for quite a while, as I stared into the book open in my lap, pensive and with tears in my eyes. It was only in the evening, in the bright circus light, that I forgot about the story of the cricket and the ant, carried away with the mirth of the clowns. With time I started experiencing sadness with increasing frequency. I was no longer the romping child I used to be. My nimble dances were no longer so popular. Mother no longer received so many flowers, and I was no longer given sweets and coloured story books. I was now supposed to hop on a horse. The circus master issued me with a black pony on whose back I used to perform expertly. Still, since my tresses no longer fluttered around my head, the shower of sweets I used to get dwindled to a trickle. They were now lavished on a little girl who had been promoted to the arena, and was riding a toy-like white pony. That little girl was the first creature I ever hated in my life. Later on I was forced to hate more and more people, starting with the circus director who no longer cast Mother and I, and ending up with the audience who no longer gave me the warm reception they used to. When I turned eighteen, I started experiencing the true bitterness of life. Our new companions were mean. The old ones had left us one by one, to go either to another circus, or to some hospital, or to the grave. And old clown I used to care for a lot when I was a child died in front of my eyes. That little girl whom I used to hate grew up pretty and I ended up in love with her. When she ran away from our company to join another circus, I ran away with her. She hadn't asked for much: I was expected to quit riding, become an acrobat and pass myself off as her brother. I accepted. I left Mother with her aged, mean companions without a trace of remorse, like a heartless bastard. It was only when I was left on my own – my princess had run away once again to join yet another company – that I was overcome with longing for Mother. Feelings of guilt overwhelmed me. Remorse would circle me like birds of prey, pecking at my brain, clawing at my heart. Like a prodigal son, I returned: she'd been so good to me… but Mother was no longer with our old company: the director, not having to fear my opposition anymore, had driven her away. She was now wandering God knows where, in what small town, or else she was long dead. Much later I heard, to my great shame, that she was lifting weights in a Galician circus. I flung myself from the trapeze on the very day I got the news. Yet I did not die. A broken leg was all I got – just one broken leg. It took some clever doctors a mere two months to make me whole again. One of them quipped: "Well, boy, let's see you now back on the trapeze." …I should have taken a new course, started a new life. But the smell of the circus I'd been breathing in for all those years had seeped into my blood. I couldn't get away from it. And as I could be neither rider nor acrobat any longer, I ended up as a clown. I turned somersaults, got my bottom kicked around, hung myself from the horses' tails, and blew graceful kisses to the women riding through the arena like sirens balancing on the crests of rollers. I was a clown for ten years. During that time Mother died. I kept moving from company to company, from town to town, from circus to circus. I'd come to speak most languages, and told jokes in a broken accent to the delight of the audience cramming the cheap seats. At first I was embarrassed by such jokes, but later on I started taking my job seriously, and would mope each time my jokes fell flat. With each day I was increasingly overtaken with the base desire of being appreciated by the many, debasing myself all the way up to where the riff-raff were perched. Nevertheless, my jokes were falling flat on a regular basis. Some of the circus directors didn't pay me, and I had to leave, others did pay me and kicked me out. I had to go without food. I was sick and no one visited me. Yet I came to see better days, too. Now I've turned fifty and I'm still playing the clown. I'm ashamed of myself. One of these days, after painting my face white and dubbing me a musical clown, the director will give me a portion with the stagehands, or – even worse – assign me to the stables. I shudder at the prospect. I feel things could have taken another turn for me in this world which gave me such a warm reception while having so many sorrows in store for me. The tale of the poor cricket, guitar strapped to his back, whom the heartless ant drove away from her door, is still stirring my compassion and brings tears to my eyes as I remember the poor child who once watched him on a winter day, pensive and with tears in his eyes… Minerva, 1981

by Victor Eftimiu (1889-1972)