He did it in rhythm with the smattered applause and laughter in the neighboring tent. Up and down, side to side, his fingers discovering crevices and lines in his face that he had forgotten existed. As the sound of clapping faded, his need became urgent. Harder and faster he scrubbed, till the soap stung his eyes and his exposed skin. The red water in the basin matched his raw face, making it look like the make up was still on. He tried to relax the muscles at the edges of his lips; it was not only his make up that he was trying to wash away. Without changing his clothes or looking up at the cracked mirror over the sink he walked outside into the sunlight and stood at the bus stop that took him home everyday.
He had seen it coming. When Mr. Buntam said the words, he burst out into a hollow laugh. It was serious news, news that one would hope was a joke, and so everyone mistook his laugh as the end of the joke, and some even ventured to laugh good naturedly with him. Even after Buntam had managed to convince them that the circus was indeed being shut down, he was the only one still laughing; this time, at the faces of his fellow workers.
One of the earliest memories of his childhood was staring at the mirror at his father who slathered on layer after layer of chalky white grease paint with his thick hairy fingers and painted a large red grin on his face. He would turn his six-year old face away as his daddy dusted on the corn flour to set the make up in. On the days that he was not in school, he would stand at the knee level of a crowd that eagerly awaited the show. The lights shone brightly and it never got old. Every single time, he would “ooh” and “aah” with the audience as they trapeze artists swung from rope to rope defying gravity and death, he would gasp in amazement when the Indian tigers and elephants came out and he would clap with glee when the Maravilla, the marvelous mutt cleared the ring of fire.
But a sound that still rang in his ears as he stood at the bus stop that hot Sunday was the sound of laughter; the guffaws, chuckles, snorts, giggles and hisses that would rend the air when Daddy came on stage. And everyone would cheer and clap while daddy tripped on imaginary people’s shoes and got slammed in the face by imaginary doors and fell backwards, flat like an ironing board. On Thursday, one special child in the audience would get to smash a banana cream pie in his face while the audience screamed “IN YOUR FACE”. And then they would laugh uproariously when daddy would pretend to fall over from the impact of a pie thrown by a five year old and they would laugh when he flailed his arms trying to get up. It was a fantastic show.
Much can be said about fate and its strange way of giving things to people who don’t particularly want or deserve them. In second grade, he was doing math at eighth grade level. They wanted to put him in a special scholars program, but the circus moved to Vermont and off he went with Daddy. In fifth grade he was doing math at a college level, they wanted to put him in a special scholars program but the circus moved to Pennsylvania and off he went with daddy. It caused him no distress, that he was not a special scholar. His gift for logic and reasoning was like a vestigial organ. It had no purpose for him, but it did not bother him either. He was in a land where laughter was sold, happiness lay in a few pennies and applause, and that’s all that mattered to him.
It was fate that gave 37 year old daddy a heart attack. A lean man who had never touched a drop of alcohol or smoked a cigarette in his life had an excruciating last few mins. The next day he stood in front of the mirror and with two long fingers and slathered on layer after layer of chalky white grease paint, stepped into daddy’s large red clown shoes and painted on a smile that did not come off for thirty years, till moments ago.
His skin was beginning to burn from the sun and vicious scrubbing. He must have looked like a sight. With half his face burned by the sun and the other bits still dyed white and red by the paint that he had worn all his life. He slumped against the lone pole that signified the bus stop.
The lights did not shine as brightly anymore, the applause was not as loud. Rows of seats lay unclaimed and tired trainers whipped haggard animals in the arena every night. The trapeze artists did not whoop when they shot hundreds of feet in the air. The laughter was gone. The world had traded in happiness for a box with moving images and just like that his art was obsolete. What thrill would you find from seeing a standing man mount a horse, when you could see him step on the moon?
The bus arrived, late as usual, and he got on to that bus for the last time. A few coins in the counter near the driver and he took his seat at the back of the bus. He turned to look outside the window. And a group of youngsters stood there mocking his grotesque get up and face. And they laughed and laughed and laughed. And the bus pulled away.