Authors: Monica Drake; Chuck Palahniuk
Table of Contents
For Kass and for Mavis
TO WRITE THIS BOOK, OR ANY BOOK, WOULD HAVE BEEN impossible without the love and support of so many people. In gratitude, I thank:
Kassten Alonso, who understood this novel from its inception, who’s not afraid to laugh at a clown, drink red wine and say
What if, what if, what if ?
; Alex Behr, for her generosity and attention to detail; Tom Spanbauer, who taught me the urgency of storytelling, the value of voice; all the writers in our workshop, particularly Chuck Palahniuk, Stevan Allred, Suzy Vitello, Greg Netzer and Erin Leonard; Cherryl Janisse; Nirel; Cynthia Chimienti, gorgeous comedienne, keeper of costumes and ritual; Mickey Lindsay, with her brilliance, who knows why ducks are funny; Shelley Reese; A.B. Paulson; Larry Bowlden, who asked
How’s the writing?
even before I started writing; Rhonda Hughes; Kate Sage; my parents and family, Barbara Drake, Bud Drake, Moss Drake and Bellen Drake; Charles Mudede; Karalynn Ott; Haley Carrolhach; Kevin Canty; Pete Rock; Elizabeth Evans; Carolyn Holzman, who taught me to defy gravity, or at least keep on trying; and for Candy Mulligan, in memory.
WELCOME TO THE BOOK OF MY ARCH ENEMY. “RIVAL” would be a nicer word, but let’s be honest.
In 1991, in Tom Spanbauer’s kitchen, where our whole workshop of beginning writers still fit around his dinky kitchen table, every week Monica Drake was the star. The stories she read to us…about sitting all night locked inside the Portland Art Museum, alone to guard the ancient mummy of a Chinese empress, staring at a dish filled with the preserved contents of the mummy’s stomach—mostly ancient pumpkin seeds. As Monica talked about being locked behind steel gates and barred doors and bulletproof Plexiglas, the rest of Tom’s students, we’d forget to breathe.
Every Thursday night, Monica told about hunting for cash register receipts in supermarket parking lots, even begging shoppers for their receipts as they loaded bags of food into their cars, all because the store sold eggs for twenty-five cents per dozen if you could present receipts totaling twenty-five dollars. Monica wrote about a world where characters ate nothing but cheap eggs, getting stinkier and stinkier in apartments where everything had been broken at least one time. Wire or glue held together every cracked lamp and dish or splintered chair. Poverty and violence haunted every situation. People bought and sold food stamps for enough profit so they could drink NyQuil all day and stagger the streets with a permanent green mustache. Her characters, like the best characters, Monica based on real people in her life.
To make Thursday nights even worse, Monica’s stories made everyone in Tom’s workshop laugh. Laughter so loud and honest that to people passing on the sidewalk, in the dark, we might have been apes hooting, or dogs barking.
No matter what you’d bring to read, Monica would write something better, funnier, more surprising, and sexy. Every week, Monica Drake showed us how good stories could be. Tom taught us craft, but Monica taught us freedom. Courage. If my writing improved, it’s because her work was always better. If a story of mine got laughs, hers were always funnier. Monica moved away from Portland to study with Amy Hempel and Joy Williams, and now she has a first novel.
. And all over again, Monica’s showing us just how funny and nuts and sad storytelling can be.
Writing this introduction, I’m not doing an old friend a favor—I’m paying a decade-old debt. This isn’t charity or flattery—this is honesty.
Writers are nothing if not rivals, but competition as good as Monica Drake is a blessing.
is more than a great book.
is its own reality.
We should all have an arch enemy this brilliant.
People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own souls.
In a theater it happened that a fire started offstage. The clown came out to tell the audience. They thought it was a joke and applauded. He told them again, and they became still more hilarious. This is the way, I suppose, that the world will be destroyed—amid the universal hilarity of wits and wags who think it is all a joke.
The Clown Falls Down; or, Sniffles Stumbles
BALLOON TYING FOR CHRIST
WAS THE CHEAPEST BALLOON manual I could find. The day I bought it, it was hidden on the lowest rung of a dusty spinner rack down at Callan’s Novelties, snuggled alongside shopworn how-to guides:
Travel Europe by Clown Circuit!
Rubber Vomit Skits for Beginners
Latex: The Beauty of Cuts, Bruises, Scars, and Contusions
Want to tie the Virgin Mary? Start with a light blue balloon. For Jesus, use Easter green. There are tips on tying a crucifix, a lamb, even a Sacred Heart in two sizes, big or small. Ooo la la! These tricks are simple but smart. The grand finale is the
, Mary with a grown Jesus sprawled across her lap in a four-balloon extravaganza like a tangled link of sausages, or a Japanese bondage trick. The
or bondage, sacred and profane; in balloon art the two are that close together, one thin twist.
I studied all twenty pages of the flimsy, hand-stapled booklet. And so, ta da! By the chance of cheap pricing I’d come to specialize in religious tricks, clown iconography and chicanery extraordinaire! Most people, though, looked at my balloon art and saw what they wanted to see instead. It was Interpretive Art, abstract and expressionistic. The big plan? I had one. Someday I’d be able to tie all the great works, starting with da Vinci’s
Madonna of the Rocks
complete with Baby Jesus, John the Baptist, and a little balloon-twisted angel clustered together on a rocky perch. Already I’d invented my own version of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s image of God giving breath to Adam. Two balloons linked formed their famous outstretched fingers.
Saturday afternoon, in the thick of a street crowd, I tied a crown of thorns and handed the crown to a tiny girl in a fake leopard sundress. She put the crown on her head as a tiara. “Lovely, lovely,” the girl’s mother murmured, and tapped the crown with one jeweled hand.
Pure princess, in a crown meant for a martyr.
The mother pulled her tiny daughter away from the spill of day care overflow, five-year-olds out to celebrate the King’s Row street fair. The pack surged forward. My makeup was sweating off and my feet hit flat and hard against the cement in cheap, oversized shoes. The summer sun was hotter than I’d ever welcome in the city even on a Saturday. Unused balloons clumped together in the hothouse of my pink vinyl shoulder bag alongside juggling balls, a sleek silver gun, and the gentle rub of a rubber chicken. I pulled out a handful of balloons like gummed spaghetti.
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God…
That’s the biblical quote, but in the world of balloon art the old Camel Through the Eye of a Needle trick is easier than it sounds. Start with one balloon, underinflated. Make the camel really small. Twist a long balloon around the camel’s back—that’s the needle—and cinch it like a girdle.
I passed the camel and the needle to the dirty fist of the highest bidder, an anonymous reaching hand with a five-dollar tip crushed in it. Bingo! A five-year-old with a five-spot was rich enough for the temporary kingdom of balloon heaven on earth. I shoved the cash in the sleeve of my striped shirt, pulled out another balloon.
Once balloon tying starts you can’t get away. There’s always a river of kids. I was hired as a
clown, but no way could I rove. Kids had me corralled, pushed to the side of the Do-Your-Own ceramics place, what used to be the Wishy Washy Laundry with all-day breakfast and off-track betting. Next door was the Pawn and Preen, our little local hockshop salon, but the P and P had been turned into a dog biscuit bakery, and for this King’s Row celebrated. Street fair vendors filled the air with the grease of Wiggly Fries. I whistled,
tra la la
, and tried to sidle. Kids blocked my path like little sentries, hands up, demanding balloons.
Matey and Crack were team-juggling. Crack balanced on a fire hydrant. I waved a hand.
I pulled an automated plastic wolf whistle from the sleeve of my shirt and gave it a go. With the press of a button, the whistle let loose the loud up-and-down bars of a sexy call.
They looked my way. I waved again.
They stopped juggling and froze. Matey drew fast from her old Creative Incompetence routine; she turned to Crack, looked over her shoulder, past the purple stuffed parrot sewn there, and made herself comic-style confused, head tipped, one hand scratching. Crack leaned back and shook a long, striped, stocking-covered leg at me, a floozy on the fire hydrant in her version of a high-wire act. They mirrored each other’s shoulder shrugs and went back to juggling.
I was on my own. There was no room for sidling, running, sneaking off. No way out but on with the show. To tie a wise man, start with yellow, a knot at his neck like a collapsed artery, head like an engorged penis. Yellow is all about wisdom. It doesn’t say that in the Christian book, but Buddha was yellow, every good Buddhist knows it, and in the nineteenth century some big psychic seer announced that a wise person’s aura is mostly yellow too. The Hopi Indians, they believe in the wisdom of yellow clowns. I tied a skinny sheep for a greasy-haired kid and another took his spot like water rushing in.
With the tip of the toe on my oversized shoe, I pantomimed a line on the sidewalk, a place not to cross, and the kids crossed it.
Hands to my hips, balloons in a fist, I drew the line again. One kid pushed three others over the line, and they laughed. I squirted the squirting daisy pinned to my frayed lapel. A spit of water hit a child’s face. “Hey!” he said, and wiped a hand down his cheek. Another kid pushed him forward.
I squirted again, still smiling.
Those kids, the beasts, vigorous in their balloon lust, were God’s constant audience, according to
Balloon Tying for Christ
. But for the moment they were my audience, my bread and butter, and they grabbed my clown pants, my shoulder bag, my hot, limp balloons.
The rubber chicken fell out of my prop bag. I dove for the chicken, chased off a pudgy dumpling of a child, got up and fast pantomimed the line again.
The problem was, by my own self-imposed rules I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t yell. I don’t believe there is a good clown voice except maybe a helium breather or some loud, fake Italian braying. Any human voice spoken from a clown face ruins the illusion. My kind of clown says nothing. If we were the Marx brothers—Matey, Crack, and me, I’d be Harpo. If we were in mime gear, what I do might look like mime. The result? Kids don’t listen, but on the up-side—I’ve never been asked on so many dates in my life.
I tied another sheep and broke a clown rule by making two of the same animal in a row. While I tied the sheep and drew the line on the ground to hold back the pack of tiny, sticky hands, a man passed me his business card.
Who are you?
he’d written on the back.
Can I get your number?
He was an architect, the card said. A Spatial Use and Planning Consultant.
A clown fetishist. A coulrophile. I put the card in my bag and gave a fresh balloon a quick, professional snap. Blowing up balloons made me dizzy, but it was only a passing moment of dizziness. Learning to blow a long, tight, and skinny balloon is a trick in itself—it’s all diaphragm, no cheek action. Maybe that’s what the fetishists like, the lip work. I smiled at the architect sweating in his summer suit. His face was flushed. His hands ended in a row of rubbery pink fingers like underinflated balloon art.
A second man gave me the dancing-eyebrow leer, flashed a rack of polished teeth. He was tall, with a head of white-blond hair like a dandelion gone to seed.
I winked back. Gave him a quick wolf call with the whistle now hidden in my pocket. He stepped forward in an amateur clown walk, all bent knees and low to the ground in a long stride like an old R. Crumb “Keep on Trucking” poster.
. I squirted my squirting daisy. A silver thread of water arced through the short space between us and rained down against the dandelion man’s khaki-clad crotch. Ta da! He stepped back, half-laughed, stepped forward again.
Fetishists don’t give up.
I squirted a second warning shot, fluttered my eyes over a fresh balloon, doubled over, then reared back and blew the balloon up like playing a wailing saxophone. I turned to the kids. The balloon grew larger and tauter until it was long and arched as an eager cock. A cock that I’d twist into a religious trick, maybe a Sacred Heart, one of the Shepherd’s flock, an angel or cross.
Baby Jesus in a crèche is a quick trick, fast in pale pink. But kids never get it. Some fly it like a bumblebee, others hold it against their knuckles like a swollen hand, a vaginal cluster of plump pink rolls.
Then the crown-of-thorns girl came back, the princess in her leopard sundress. She pushed her way past kids and coulrophiles, mom in tow. The girl was screaming, crying, her free hand full of damp, split rubber.
Such a big voice from such a tiny girl.
“It’s OK, baby. The clown’ll make you a new one,” the mother said, and signed me up like she didn’t see the pack of kids already waiting.
I had to move fast. Once kids start cycling back through the line, balloon tying is a losing battle. Sheep boy would be next, his sheep-styled balloon popped in the heat, swollen with the day’s sun, twisted into final submission and gone to the big balloon party in the sky.
Nothing lasts forever, right?
It was time to rove. Get lost in the crowd. The kids had me trapped, as Our Lady of the Perpetual Poppers. I tied a third sheep and let the leopard sundress cry. I held up a finger, pointed to another child. Clown sign language for
wait your turn
. I meant to start making anything else—Jesus on the Cross, a wise man, one of the lowing cattle, or even a good old nondenominational, interfaith duck, balloon loon, or common quacker—but all my hands could tie was another sheep. The kids screamed,
I did a little polka with my sheep, then passed it to a quiet-seeming girl. She tucked her hands under her armpits. “A flower,” she said. “I want a flower.”
All I could tie was sheep! I couldn’t think. This had never happened before. It was like some kind of a stroke, my brain shutting down. The screaming and laughing and crying of children was a wall of white noise that severed my body from my brain. Sheep and sheep and sheep. Light blue, I tied a sheep. Green, more sheep. Even yellow—a wise sheep.
Fake leopard sundress howled and clung to her mother. I waved good-bye, clown sign language for
. The fetishist architect hovered in the near distance. The other, the dandelion-headed dandy with the high-buck smile, he was gone.
I started to tie a replacement crown of thorns but it turned into another sheep. Sheep piled at my feet with all the same twists, the same fat bubbles. The hot force of the sun was like a hand traveling its ninety million or billion or kazillion, however many miles to press against my skin and melt the polyester of my striped Goodwill pants, the ad-libbed clown suit. The sun, the kids, the screams—I felt faint, empty, small as an insect sliding underfoot. The world was onstage. I was the lone audience slouched in the cheap seats.
This wasn’t the clown I set out to be.
Once my plan in clowndom was to defeat physics and defy gravity by using sheer strength to balance in positions seemingly impossible in the Newtonian world. I choreographed a silent adaptation of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” costumed and lit as a live equivalent of black- and-white film. The show was glorious in its melancholy, physical beauty!
“The Metamorphosis”—the story of a man turned into an insect—was the story of all humanity!
When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.
Self-expression was the antidote to verminville; I practiced and practiced until I was Kafka’s tale incarnate.
But productions are expensive. I needed cash. A software company came out of nowhere and hit me in my sore spot. They offered big cash for a few hours of work, a few tricks. A party. Corporations don’t care about bodies defying gravity, human teeter-totters, and translated literature. Kafka? No. They want silly walks, balloons, and juggling. The money’s there.
What a grueling job I’ve picked,
Day in, day out…
I bought my first bag of balloons and the flimsy paperback
Balloon Tying for Christ
as a sure way to fill contracted time. Next thing I knew, I was a corporate clown. I worked for an international cookie company, a burger chain, a mortgage investment bank. I met Matey and Crack on the job. Crack had an agent. She waggled a finger, flashed a few paychecks, and at her side I turned full-on commercial clown as a temporary deal. For the street fair gig, she hooked us up with the Neighborhood Business Association.
I twisted another sheep head, another pillowed body; the kids screamed. My arms were heavy. The world moved closer, noises louder and colors glaring migraine bright. I fell to my knees, fell on my flock of sheep. Balloons squeaked and squirted out from beneath my weight and danced into the air. They shifted, drifting around me. The kids laughed. Of course they laughed! The rubber chicken poked a leg out of my bag as the bag slipped from my shoulder.
Tiny hands brushed against my clothes. Their voices were as one, the cackle of an amplified gag gift, a screeching giggle box. They pressed the squirting daisy, pulled the pom-poms used as hair. One kid took the chicken and swung it over his head. I reached, but could barely breathe in a claustrophobic cloud of peanut butter, grape jam, and soft, sour milk breath. I looked around for the architect, my fan. Any coulrophile would do.
When I caught the eye of a passing stranger, I tipped an invisible glass to my lips. Water. I needed water. The guy kept going. Another looked. I pointed my thumb to my mouth, hand in a fist, pinkie cocked. A drink. I needed a drink.