We walked down the hospital corridor, a labyrinth filled with warning signs, gurneys covered in bloody sheets and laundry hampers stuffed with soiled clothes. The clown kept behind me, walking the walk of someone who still had hope. At the very end of the hall, we arrived at a room where two visitors sat in silence. The woman hadn’t slept in days. The man’s tie hung like a noose around his neck.
After I checked the patient’s vital signs, I pulled the curtain to reveal the VIP: a five-year-old boy at death’s door. The clown fired tepid water from a limp flower and squeezed his bulbous nose releasing a flatulent honk.
The clown joked. He danced. He bombed.
Instead of laughter, he heard the steady intonations of the machines around the bed. Flop sweat crawled down his face, stripping away the greasepaint like a disgraced officer losing his stripes.
I occupied my mind by calculating the minutes until happy hour, checking the cuticles of my stubby fingernails or examining the premature grey in my auburn hair. Mom chided me about my appearance, but I figured what you saw what was what you got.
When I found the mercy to pull the curtain, the clown wheezed in disquieting harmony with the boy’s raspy breathing. I walked him out of the room, handed him his check and thanked him for his time, not his jokes, but his time. I sent him down the elevator. A couple hours later, I took a smoke break outside and found him still loitering in front of the ER.
“I feel awful,” he said.
“Imagine how the kid feels.” If people didn’t understand my humor, then they didn’t understand me.
“I made a total fool of myself,” he said.
“Wasn’t that sort of the point of your visit?”
He yanked his nose off of his face and struggled to get his enormous shoes out of his calico pants. He was anxious to shed his clown skin, but try as he might, he just couldn’t untangle himself from the whole sordid mess. In the pale moonlight, his lean figure cast a tremulous shadow across the cracked sidewalk.
“Listen, I get off in a couple of hours. Let me buy you a drink,” I said.
He didn’t so much accept the offer as much as accept that his fate wasn’t up to him to decide. I left a clown and hours later returned to find the kind of guy I could take home to Mom. He had stuffed his work attire in a bag for medical waste.
I took him to one of my favorite haunts but he refused every drink I bought him.
“How do you do it? How do you go back there day after day?”
“Same as you,” I said, downing another drink, “With a big red nose.”
I took the sober clown back to my apartment and peeled his thin layers like the skin off a ripe banana. With my scrubs still on, I climbed on top of him and traced little starbursts over the flush skin that hid his frayed nerves. I felt his faint pulse through my kisses on his neck and tasted leftover greasepaint hiding in the stubble on his chin.
Most men complimented my sexual vigor, thinking I owed it to them. All of them credited themselves afterwards, but the dour clown just lay there. For a moment, I thought I loved him.
We shared the bed like two strangers on the 6 train. When he found the strength to get up again, he was far more gracious in his thanks to me than I was to him at the hospital. He was a bad clown, the worst, but a good man.
I could have said something supportive, but I didn’t. I didn’t even say goodbye. Instead, I locked the door behind him and tried to forget we’d ever met.
I called my mother and waited for the incessant ring of the phone to wake her. My shakes overtook me again. I had to light up a cigarette just to have something to hold.