By Sara K. McNeilly
Clown by Bryan Prindiville
She wears her makeup to bed each night. It sloughs off with the dead skin cells and clogs the pillowcase. It gets thick and stiff with pastel oil. The mornings are routine scrapings. With a straight edge barber’s razor she shaves her face back into a tin and melts it into place. Each day wears greyer, thinner, and less complete.
She starts her day with a ritual. Lights fire to dark pencils and marks herself for sacrifice. Thick dark lines stroke on a grey white surface. She puts her features back in place. Feels for the indents and ridges on her canvas and draws the template of a face. Stipples in irises and pupils. Fills in lips and brows. Brushes on shadow and light.
Each morning ends with Walter’s knock at the door. Hand smacks on the vanity table. He opens. He enters. She waits.
“Good morning,” he says. He touches her elbow and brings her to her feet. His fingers press into her jaw and hold her face in the warm light of the lamp. Walter’s tongue clucks against his teeth. “Still not right, doll. The features are there but you need to put the costume makeup on too.” He drags a cold damp pencil down her cheek and pulls it in an upward stroke. He does the same to the other side. Black diamonds dripping in long points down her face.
“Perfect,” he mutters. He opens the closet door and asks “Which today, doll? Stripes? No, no. Not Stripes. Motley, I think.” He speaks as if to an empty room. Walter dresses her with a practised deftness. He spins her in a circle, like a gentleman does his lady, and he leads her out the door.
She begins her evenings in a slow waltz. Spins in time without a partner and stares without seeing into the laughing crowd. Bows. Dips. Floats like a ballerina, and taps out rhythms with precision.
The room fills as she moves. People take their places on the benches. Tickets slide into back pockets. Popcorn flows over bags, hands, mouths. Spills on the floor. Hands cover mouths. They clap together. They clasp in excitement.
When her partner joins, they are flawless. He hisses each move. She tries to escape. Hits invisible walls. Perfectly timed. She slides to the floor. Palms press flat against nothing. Fingers curl and scratch down the air. She slaps the walls. Silent.
The audience cheers. They whistle spittle and cotton candy. Blue drool glaze slick on tongues. They clap. They laugh. Their glee is clear. Electric. Cracking between their lips.
Her partner reaches through the wall and hauls her up by the fringe of her blue and black motley neck. He holds her close and bends his mouth to her ear. He steps away and pulls a length of unseen rope from a bottomless pocket. Her arms lift in time up over her head. Bending limp at the wrist. The man in matching motley circles her. He smiles at the cheering audience. He drinks their joy. He pulls off an imagined belt. He folds it. He snaps it taut. She flinches in time with the noiseless contact of air on air. Head tilts away from the man.
He steps behind her and brings his hand down in a sweeping arc. She pulls the imagined restraints tight.
Arches away from the whip. Stands on the ends of her toes. Bends like a bow.
He whips her again and again.
He whips her until she slumps in the air.
He whips her until the audience stills.
Silent when he cuts the left tether.
Silent when he cuts the right.
Silent when her body hits the floor.
He pulls her to her feet and holds her like a giant rag doll. Twists in a tango turn.
The man bends his mouth again. She backs away. Her hand covers her face. Cheekbone to jaw. She runs like prey. Runs until she doesn’t. Runs until she hits another wall. Drops to her knees.
Her partner turns to the audience and bows with a wink. He pulls another length of rope from his pocket. He ties it in a loop and spins it around himself. He hops over it. Legs kick on high. A cartoon cowboy for the glutted crowd.
He swings the invisible rope over his head with one hand and flings it around her neck. Her fingers rush to her throat and tug at it. She crawls towards him. He pulls the rope tight. Hand over fist, he pulls her steadily. He pauses. Winks at the audience once more. Jerks at the rope. She falls forward on the floor. Hands caught under her body. Elbows cracking on the floor.
Gasps from the audience are louder than the squeak of skin on polished wood. He lifts the rope and her body follows. Scrambles. Feet kick out from underneath her. Fingers scratch at the invisible cord around her neck. He pulls her level. Wraps an arm around her waist. Tips her back. Dips deep. Lifts. Carries her bridal style out of the tent. He trips over the length of rope that hangs from her neck. He turns and bows.
And he runs away.
The audience loves it.
Her evenings begin the same way each night. Lays flat on her stomach and Walter wipes a cold cloth soaked in rubbing alcohol along her ripped and welted back.
“Flawless performance tonight, doll,” Walter coos at her. “Inspired.”
Walter picks up a picture of her as a little girl from the nightstand. Pulls a pencil from the inside pocket of his coat. Runs the pink tip of the eraser over her mouth and eyes. Burns them away into the whiteness of the paper. Removes them. Draws smooth skin in place.
Walter lays her down on her mattress. He lays her face down on her pillow. He strokes her hair. He whispers his goodnight into a kiss at the back of her head. He walks out the door and locks it behind him.
She falls asleep the same way each night. Face presses into the mattress. Her made up face rubs off into the pillowcase.
Walter’s voice rings in her ears.
“The perfect mime.”