He layered the roast beef with thin strips of newspaper and a generous coating of paste, then set it on the counter to dry. Each coarse was a delicate and painstaking work of art. He prepared a dozen apples to set in a bowl as a centerpiece taking great care with the stems. His fingers were stiff, the joints swollen, but he was still up for the work. He was a master with the brush—years of white-face and mixing paints for props, altering jackets and hats because once Martha was gone, who else to do it?
He’d taken less care with the room, a shabby monk’s cell. A narrow bed stretched along one peeling wall and the table that was a series of tables, a broken rail line of tables, and chairs he’d borrowed from neighbors or scavenged from the streets. Odd, he thought, to end up in this dark, cold, colorless place, after a lifetime of cacophonous noise and motion and blistering lights. The silence made him nervous and even the small space seemed large and when he wasn’t preparing, he was pacing like one of the lions. And of course he wondered about the big cats, it was worse for them to be moved but to rarely move, they of motion. Maybe God was punishing him, he thought, but then, he didn’t believe in that nonsense. And the years were a dream, the screech and rattle and screams as razorbacks guided wagons and carts down the runs from trains, the roustabouts heaving up the tops, the clatter as the cook tent rose from the dirt and cooks set pans a’ fire for bacon and cakes and fields of eggs, and wagons creaking over washed-out roads loaded with canvas and rigging and poles and kiesters, and the slurp of horses hooves pulling from the mud, the swish of rope and clang of metal and the music, it was all music, and the sour, sweet and often putrid smells of the sleeper cars and shit and rotting meat because sometimes the meat for the cats was rotting, and sometimes there was no meat, and the ammonia headaches and after all that now this, the all-out leaving a vast ocean of trampled grass and scattered litter, and the emptied lot was this room stained and yellowed with a few spare dissonant notes from the creak of the bed springs when he pulled himself up in the morning and the scrap of a chair on the floor. His was the loneliness of the left-behind, his days, echoes, the vacuous wake from a passing train.
Of course he would host a party if they were coming through town before the home run, a party befitting his family, his time and position as a whiteface, priest of the show, his show—no other clown could say that—before his slide-for-life to the walkaround, throwing gags through the stalls and the gallery. Frank didn’t tend toward the philosophical, but that he’d grown a respectable circus from a dog and pony show, nineteen cars at its peak, if only for the wink of an eye—that was a straw house, a triumph if there ever was one in the funny business. And now this prison as a prize, it wasn’t right. Living cursed like a Larry. . . . and so the banquette was the final ruse, a performer’s trick for his troupe. Why a ruse he couldn’t say, but it was who he was and the unexpected was an obligation, and an encore should be illustrious. So he spent months preparing, hoping they didn’t change the date, or the route. And the preparations made him young, the splattering of flour paste, paint drippings, and the ticker tape parade of paper and color—these were a comfort redolent of clown alley.
There were moments in those months when he tried for something solid. When he ran out of flour for paste, he walked down to the corner market and the clerk watched him come through the door from behind the counter. She was fat and well past her prime but there was something vibrant and Frank watched her like a starving man as she scooped flour into his jar, her arms thick and muscular and when she turned she met his gaze and her eyes were warm pools, and he pulled a bouquet from his sleeve, a novice gag but he was nervous and storm clouds drifted across her eyes, and in those moments, all that could passed between them, a relationship born of curiosity died in disillusionment, and when he broke free from her vision he was no longer a man but something ancient, impotent, and his hand shook as he took the jar of flour and her smile was from across and ocean.
And so he made pies with utmost care, but then his fingers felt large on the delicate crusts. He threw away the loaf of bread shaped like a brick. On the day of the party, he laid a white sheet across the tables and tacked it down in the corners, and lit candles around the room though he knew this was a hazard. He put on his baggy paints and a large yellow tie with green polka-dots, and set the table with place settings he’d collected from the mess tent over the years. The apples he set in a large class bowl in the center of the table.
Robert and Lillian were the first to show.
How are you dear? Lillian kissed him on the cheek, her lavender velvet voice matching her dress. Frank took both their hats.
I like your tie, Robert said and his voice was cutting, this man who had been like a son. Frank touched his tie and smiled generously. He motioned the two into the room.
I hear you two are stars now. . . . I always knew you would be.
Because of you, Lillian said and the three stood awkwardly.
You should come back. There’s always a place for you.
Frank snorted. A walkaround. I made that show what it is.
The Ringlings made the show. You sold yours, Robert said. He glanced around the room.
Whiskey? Frank asked anticipating his need. Robert’s bitterness cut his heart, but Frank didn’t let on.
He doesn’t mean it, Lillian said, touching Frank’s hand protectively.
Yes I do, Robert said and took the glass from Frank. They held their glasses up in a toast. To you, Frank said smiling grandfatherly back at the couple.
Look, Lillian said and showed Frank the large garnet ring on her finger. Isn’t it beautiful! You haven’t even congratulated me.
Lillian’s look was earnest, and for that Frank was grateful.
Congratulations, Lilly. We all know Robert has an eye for beauty. The two men threw cold glances.
Now stop you two. Lillian had a way with her eyes, a penetrating gaze, and the two men turned from one another.
The others should be here any minute, I imagine, Frank said.
What’s cooking? Robert asked. He sniffed the air and glanced around the kitchen.
It’s a surprise.
I’m sure it is.
The bell rang and Frank rushed over to answer the door. Five more people, Slim, the auguste to Frank’s whiteface character as well as the rubberman when need be, Cooky the picture gallery, and Merlin the dwarf. Frank didn’t recognize the two aerialists but their compact bodies and cat-like grace gave them away—the other part of Lilly’s act, they had to be. Neither was as deceptfully delicate as Lilly, nor as lovely. Frank watched Lilly kiss the women on the cheeks, clasp their hands and lead them to the table, her enthusiasm childlike, and Frank felt ashamed by his attraction.
Amazing show tonight, Frank, you should have seen it, Cooky said fumbling for a glass, since Frank seemed to have abandoned his role as host. Those brothers are really something. Looks like we’ll be sending a troupe to the East Coast next season.
Frank didn’t see the show, Robert said and he poured himself more drink.
Right, Cooky said, and settle into his glass.
You have quite reputation, the aerialist who called herself Ariana said. I hear you had tea with the president.
That was my father. He campaigned for Zachary Taylor. Frank’s tone said he didn’t want to talk about his father.
Well, sit. Sit, everyone. Help yourself to some whiskey, or there’s wine. He was back as the gentlemen host. Slim struggled to pull out his chair, pulled as if it were nailed to the floor. He walked around the table and looked at the chair, touched it as if it might bite. He could feel the tension in the air and in awkward moments he defaulted into character, his most natural state. And what is a clown but a fun-house mirror, a caricature, one who travels to the dark lands with cream pies in both hands? Frank was annoyed at first—Slim’s performance wasn’t part of his plan. But Fox was a professional and so became the straight man, walked over and moved the chair and then made a spectacle as he sat in it while Slim looked crestfallen. Frank stood up and offered the chair to his partner who again struggled to adjust it. They spent several minutes on their routine and somehow the party was seated.
Thank so much for inviting us, the woman named Darling said. They were nice girls, they deserved a nice meal, but this was not the time for regrets.
The group chattered contentedly, they were all tired from the day’s double billing and grateful for a night off the lot. After a while the guests started glancing around, no doubt starving, so Frank left the room and returned through the front door rolling a cart bursting with produce. He had to admit he’d done good with the food, a cornucopia of color with bright pink watermelon, lightly browned mushrooms with delicate paper gills, lettuce with finely veined leaves flowering on a plate, cucumbers several shades of green, purple onions and the roasting pan which Frank lifted with great ceremony and placed in the center of the table, and he removed the lid and the roast swam in a sea of carrots and potatoes and thin slices of celery, and the group sucked in their breath and stared at the papery feast as if to process the site, except Slim took an apple and examined it, and turned it in his hand, and felt the weight of it, and he took several more and he juggled them, then wiped them on his shirt, because that what clowns do. And Frank set a several pies on the table, blueberries and apples bleeding through the crust, and Slim stood up to sniff them, made a motion to his face.
These are lovely, Lillian finally said, and she picked up a mushroom and examined it.
This must have taken a long time, Ariana said. She was studying the bubbles on a pie.
Merlin leaned back in his chair, his acceptance was of resignation, another day in the life with the zanies. He was a respectably short dwarf, but not a star and so his habit was to go where directed. His fantasies were of fourteen more inches and a house on a farm with chickens, he loved the chickens, and things with roots and height and place where body was something demanding respect, not prodding fingers and chuckles. He rolled a cigarette and the smoke in his lungs satisfied some hunger.
Robert was furious.
This is it, he said and his voice was dark, and this man who had been like a son was no more and he shoved his chair away from the table, and Frank smiled and gestered to the table.
There were some feeble attempts at playing the game. Arena scooped a spoonful of sliced celery to her mouth, then felt childish and was already young, and she set the spoon on her plate and wiped her mouth with a napkin.
Well you’ve wasted a perfectly good evening. These people have had a long exhausting day and I can assure you, they’re hungry. And you’re serving up tricks. We get enough of that, Frank.
Lillian put her hand on Robert’s arm and he squeezed it, then stood up.
I’ll take my coat, he said, then grabbed it off the bed and the other’s followed his example, slowly rising from their seats.
Paper mache Robert said with disgust.
It’s beautiful, Darling whispered to Frank on her way out the door. Cooky held up a loaf of bread. Do you mind? He asked. You never know when a man’s going to need some bread.
Well you got the last word, Robert said as he walked out the door. Lillian waited for the others to go. She gave Frank a hug and her smile was sad. Take care of yourself, she said.
Frank saluted and shut the door behind her. He sat at the table and stared at the food and he was tired. He picked up a loaf of bread and stared at it. He sure was hungry. All this food, he thought to himself, and nothing to eat. He could see why the others were upset. He drank his whiskey and the pies were thick, and it occurred to him he could make up a basket for the woman at the market, it all seemed so hopeless, but maybe she’d smile at him, and at the thought, his heart skipped.