01 Feb Dress Me Like a Clown
The day I met Mr. Pogo, it was my best friend Maisie’s 9th birthday party. The most I can remember is colors; it was the first time I’d ever seen them.
I’ve always been a very visual person but for the first eight years of my life, I only saw the world in shades of black, white, and grey. I was diagnosed with colorblindness when I was five, just after starting kindergarten. It didn’t affect me much; when you don’t know something, you can’t really miss it.
Maisie’s parents had gone all out this year; they invited our whole grade from school, got a massive cake, pony rides, and even a clown. When I asked my dad, he agreed to bring me, albeit somewhat begrudgingly. Dad didn’t like to leave the house a whole lot anymore. Ever since mom had left a few months ago and he’d lost his job, he’d changed. Now, he was always tired; always drinking, and not just a beer with dinner anymore. He was always angry, bleary-eyed, sour. He was hurting.
On the way to the party, we were both silent. The radio droned on in the background and I fidgeted nervously in my seat, watching grey shadows flit past the window in a blur of same-looking shapes. I sighed deeply, and could clearly hear dad’s hands tightening against the leather covering of the steering wheel. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw his white-knuckled grip, the tensity of his jaw; the heat radiating off of him was something I could almost feel.
I dropped my chin to my chest and absently brushed a hand against the deep bruise that’d blossomed overnight on my shoulder. It hurt; I winced. I didn’t make another sound the rest of the drive.
The second I saw Maisie, she ran up and jumped me with a big hug. I tried as hard as I could to not yelp, biting my lip, but a whimper still managed to slip out under my breath. She instantly backed off, worry flooding her eyes. I shifted my weight, and could feel her gaze roving my body. It instinctively stopped on my shoulder and she gave me the same look she always did; we were only kids, but she was still smart beyond her years. She knew.
We sang happy birthday, Maisie opened her presents (I’d gotten her, with help from dad, the newest Polly Pocket dreamhouse – those things were all the rage back then), and we all stuffed our faces with cake. Then, Mr. Pogo came on, and I felt the entire world shift.
From somewhere I couldn’t pinpoint, music started to gently bleat – a deep, crunchy calliope, sounding like it was being filtered through an echo chamber. I whipped around, trying to make sense of the direction. Suddenly, as if from thin air, a figure in a brightly-colored costume somersaulted into view and jumped up with a small pop.
I thought my eyes were on fire. I thought the world was ending. I didn’t know exactly what I was seeing, but I knew it was color. A flurry of alien shades exploded across my vision; I somehow knew all of their names. With my breath caught in my throat, I watched the strange man dance in a wide circle across the grass, tapping kids on the head with a felt flower (yellow, green), his wide-legged pants (red, blue, white) gently flapping in the wind; bells (golden and silver) threaded into them jingled softly. The calliope music swelled louder and louder; I felt like I was caught in a merry-go-round of sound and light.
The man pulled a handful of long, thin balloons (a veritable rainbow) out of his pocket (red) and began inflating them, twisting them into animals of all shapes and sizes. Blue dolphins and red birds and yellow giraffes rained down on us and we all clapped in wonder. For the first time, I tore my eyes away from the clown and looked around me, expecting to see a brand new world, and was shocked to find that beyond him or what he was touching, my newfound colors disappeared; it was as though there was some phantom vacuum waiting, hungry and greedy, licking them up as soon as they left his body. He flit by me, gracing Maisie’s arm with one white-gloved finger, and for just a second, I saw that her dress light up with a bright blue; her eyes widened, cradling a soft brown.
For the rest of his performance I sat, entranced, watching the traces of colors sing across Maisie’s backyard, following the clown wherever he went. Then, he was done; he left, and the colors left with him.
DIsappointed and reeling just the slightest, I decided to take a short walk to the back of the house while Maisie’s mom set up a party game. The forest that fed into their yard was vast and thick, and I’d spent quite a few lazy Summer days camped out there, swapping dumb jokes and ghost stories with my friend.
As I reached the edge of the treeline, I heard a faint, familiar jingling noise; turning around, the clown stood about ten feet behind me. The colors had returned, swirling through his clothes.
Bouncing back and forth on his heels, he reached into his pocket and produced another balloon. This one was purple. He floated over to me, inflating it and twisting it as he went, and offered it to me fully formed. A small figure sat in his palms; it looked like a child curled up, its arms over its face.
Unsure of what to say, I took the gift and stared into his eyes; they were black. Not just the pupil, but the iris as well. Underneath them, large red fans made up the curve of his cheek, dotted with a yellow scatter of stars.
Finally, I managed to stammer out a quiet, “Thank you.”
A flourish of the hand responded. I watched as it curved and dipped in the air, making its way closer to me. I felt frozen; not by fear, but rather the sense of comfort I hadn’t felt in a long time. I felt warm.
As the gloved hand came to rest on my shirt, I knew I should run. I knew I should shout for an adult. Everything in me screamed “GO”, remembering the safety lessons they taught us at school. Stranger Danger PSAs flashed through my head like massive billboards. But something told them to hush, that this was alright. He moved my collar aside, revealing a galaxy of bruises; not just the fresh one from last night, but the littered remnants of their cousins from the last few months. I looked down and, for the first time, saw my own colors; splotchy purple, fresh sickly yellow. I felt disgusting.
I took a step backwards and stumbled, landing in the dirt. His hand fluttered away, up to his mouth, and covered it with a dramatic flair. I blinked, and he was suddenly standing over me, hand outstretched. Hesitantly, I took it and felt something cold and hard touch my fingers. He pulled me up, leaving the object in my hand, and made a show of brushing my shirt off, doing a dance in a tight circle before turning and bounding away. In my palm sat a small metal buzzer, the kind you would get in a joke shop to shock people with. As he disappeared around the corner of the house, the world going grey once more, I could hear my dad calling for me; he sounded upset.
Without thinking, I shoved the buzzer into my pocket, feeling the hard metal kissing my skin through the fabric of my pants, and ran back to the front of the house. The rest of the party was fun, filled with games and dancing, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the strange clown and his gift.
That night was worse than usual; I think the energy of the day was too much for dad. By dinner, he’d already sunk himself into his fourth bottle of nasty-smelling beer and was slurring his words as he told me to just throw something in the microwave.
I watched the cheese in my Hot Pocket bubble, closing my eyes and silently wishing myself elsewhere. The microwave beeped three times, and dad called for me to bring him another beer. I obliged. As I rounded the corner into the living room where he was watching TV, shoes propped up on the trash-covered table, I tripped on the carpet, sending the beer bottle flying. The foamy liquid spattered on the carpet.
“What the FUCK is wrong with you?” he shouted, jumping up and knocking over his empty bottles. He crossed the room, grabbing at my collar and hoisting me off of the ground until my toes were dangling. “Little fuckin’ idiot,” he spat in my face. I started crying, tears pouring freely; that just made him angrier. Thinking he was going to hit me, I braced for the impact, only to be dropped back to the floor. Through my tears, his face was dark, shadowed.
Placing a hand on my bruised shoulder, he dug his thumb into it. I yelped, trying to pull away, but he kept pressing harder and harder until I thought it would snap. I wanted to hit him, but I knew that would be a death sentece.
Just when I thought I might black out from the pain, he released me, shoving me away from him. I hit the wall and slumped down, landing in a wet spot from the spilled bottle. Without another word, he stormed away down the hall, slamming the door to his bedroom.
In between hitched sobs, I heard the microwave beep again, reminding me of my Hot Pocket.
I picked myself off the ground, tugging at my stretched shirt and rubbing my sore shoulder, and made my way into the kitchen. No longer hungry, I tossed the food in the trash and went to my room.
Why, I thought to myself, did he have to hurt me? Does he not love me anymore? I didn’t leave, mom did. The same tired jumble of thoughts I’d returned to over and over again since his anger turned outward ran through my head. I flopped onto the bed, exhausted, and rolled over, hiding my face in the pillow. Something hard bit into my leg, and I remembered the buzzer.
I took it out of my pocket; there didn’t seem to be anything special about it. Turning it over in my palm, I noticed the inscription on the back; set into the sleek metal surface, the name “Mr. Pogo” was emblazoned in a thick, flowery script.
Why had he given it to me? I wiped my wet face with the back of my hand. On the front, it had a little nub poking from the center, the part that you’re supposed to touch to your victim’s palm. Without thinking, I pressed it, expecting a little shock. From the belly of the house, a deep bellow exploded, making me nearly fall out of bed. I could hear a muffled “What the FUCK” being shouted. My dad’s voice.
Staring at the buzzer, I contemplated it for a moment. It had to be a weird coincidence, right? The pad of my finger lingered on the metal stick, and I pressed down again. A static shock crackled in the air, and I could almost see my dad jumping in his bed, flinging the sheets off of him, and pounding the bedside table as he drunkenly screamed in pain.
With confusing visions of power dancing in my head, I slept safe and sound that night in the comfort of the buzzer.
The next morning, sat at the table with a bowl of cereal and a piece of slightly-burnt toast, I silently watched as dad poured himself a cup of coffee and rubbed his head; with bleary, shadowed eyes, he looked like he hadn’t slept a wink, and the hangover clung to him like a petulant child. I grinned into my spoon.
All day, through the white noise of my teacher’s words, all I could think about was the buzzer and Mr. Pogo. At least, I assumed that was his name. The strange clown had given me a gift, but why? How had he known, and why did he care? Questions breezed through my mind like frantic birds throughout the rest of the day. As the bell signifying the end of school rang, I packed up my things and headed to the door with memories of his bright colors running rampant in my head.
As soon as I got home, I ran to my room, throwing myself onto my bed and grabbing the buzzer from underneath my pillow. There had to be more to it; l turned it over and over in my hands, looking for some secret sign, some tell to its magic, but only saw stainsteel steel and my new friend’s name.
I went to sleep early that night; as I drifted off, I could’ve sworn I heard bells jingling against the curve of the wind.
Over the course of the next two weeks, little gifts started to appear in odd places. A silky pair of red and white pants and a frilly shirt under my bed, a plastic jar of white, creamy paste in my closet, and a small blue and yellow hat with a shiny golden bell on it hanging from my bedside lamp. I wasn’t worried, and I didn’t tell dad about any of them; I knew it was just Mr. Pogo trying to tell me that he was watching, that he would keep me safe. Better yet, I could see the colors in all of his gifts.
Dad only acted up once during that time, when I forgot to close the door to the backyard. I earned a shiny new bruise on my stomach and the loss of air in my lungs for that one. Lying in bed, curled up in pain, I grabbed for my buzzer and held down on it for a little longer than I probably should have. Dad’s screams ricocheted off the walls, sending chills of excitement creeping up my spine. The next day I could hear him muttering about doctors and strokes and all sorts of other words I didn’t really care about
The last day he tried to hurt me, it was cloudy out. All day it looked like it was going to rain. You know those types of days where you feel like the earth took a big breath and is desperately holding onto it, sweating just the slightest, letting little bits of air seep from its lungs every once in a while? It was that sort of day.
On my way home, I could think of nothing but what new present I might unearth that night; the gifts were erratic, but they were always wonderful. The second I walked through the door, I knew something was wrong; my dad’s shoes were in the hallway. He was home. Usually, he didn’t arrive home from wherever he went during the day until at least an hour or two after I got back from school.
“Dad?” I called out, tentatively. Silence greeted me as I walked through the dark front hall. He wasn’t in the living room, not in the kitchen, and the door to his bedroom was closed without any light showing from underneath it.
I shrugged and went to my room but stopped dead in my tracks when I saw that there was clearly a light on inside.
I called out again: “Dad? Are you here?”. My voice sounded small, nervous. I turned the knob and pushed the door in; he was sitting on my bed, the red, silky fabric of my special pants showing through his clenched fists.
He looked up at me with an expression I’d never seen crawling across his face and said, in a low, husky voice, “You been dressing up, boy?”
I shook my head, unsure of what to say.
“Found this. Thought you could hi–” he hiccuped, “–thought you could hide this faggot shit from me?”
“Found your makeup too. Whatcha need makeup for? You gonna go suck some cock at school like a pretty boy? That it?” He hurled the plastic jar towards me, hitting the doorframe. It bounced off with a loud thud and rolled across the carpet, stopping near the window. The sky outside was dark, like a cavernous mouth; it had started to rain and the world was finally yawning in deep, stormy breaths.
I heard a faint jingling.
Standing up, bracing himself on the headboard and knocking my bedside lamp to the floor, he stumbled forward, grabbing for me. I could smell the booze on him – it hit me in the face like a rank cloud. I didn’t give him time to reach me; dashing out the door, I slipped around the corner and ran through the hallway, stopping at the entrance to see if he was following. Heart pounding in my ears, I could just barely hear his footsteps thundering behind me. I burst through the living room, around the island in the kitchen, and doubled back into the hallway, reaching my bedroom door just as he realized where I was.
I managed to get the door closed and locked, pressing my back against it as he returned, huffing and puffing and full of rage. He slammed a fist into it, shouting, “Open this fucking door!” The wood flexed against me, but held fast.
The storm was raging past my window now; I could see the trees in our yard whipping back and forth in the wind and a sheet of rain splattered against the window. A bolt of lightning shot across the sky and I saw, for just a brief moment, a bright white face in the window.
It was my friend, Mr. Pogo, come to help me.
I ran to the window, wrenching it open as dad pounded harder and harder against the door, and shouted something unintelligible into the roar of the outside world. Another bolt, and I saw that Mr. Pogo was gone. I shouted for him again, and then heard a loud jingling behind me. Spinning in place, I saw him; perfectly dry, dressed just the way he’d been at Maisie’s party, he bounced up and down on his heels, spreading arms wide. I ran to him and jumped up, snuggling into his embrace. He smelled like old books and sweet flowers and cotton candy. He held me tight for just a moment, and then set me down.
“Mr. Pogo, I’m scared.”
He placed a long finger up to my lips, and gestured around us in a circle.
“I don’t understand.”
Dad howled in the background, beating his fists raw against the door; it was beginning to splinter, small cracking noises punctuating the more methodic ones from outside.
Mr. Pogo reached deep in his pocket and produced a flower with a long string attached to it. On the other end, there was a small pad with a button. He pinned the flower to my shirt and placed the button in my hand, closing my fingers around it. Jumping up, he flounced over to the window and plucked the jar of makeup up from where it had landed. He unscrewed it, coating his hand, and crossed back over to me; his feet didn’t touch the ground as they moved.
Quickly and gently, he spread the cold paste across my face. It smelled like the type of medicine my grandpa used to rub on his knees and back, and like something else; licorice, maybe. He snatched up my pretty clothes, my shirt and pants, and helped me into them. Just as it sounded like the door was about to snap in half under the weight of dad’s anger, Mr. Pogo placed the little hat on my head, pulling it down snug, and flicked the bell with his finger. It jingled; I giggled.
I knew what I had to do. I had to show dad that the world wasn’t all scares and frights, that we could laugh and have fun again. I grabbed up my buzzer and hopped over to the door. Looking back at Mr. Pogo, he gave me the OK sign with his hand, fingers seeming just a bit longer and thinner than usual, and winked; the movement was exaggerated, and as he opened his mouth, I saw that he had no teeth, just a bright blood-red tongue and a gaping blackness leading into his throat.
The walls of my room glowed a faint neon green around me as I gripped the doorknob, giving him a silent, open-mouth giggle, and unlocked the door. It opened, and dad spilled into the room, slamming into the opposite wall.
“What the FUCK is wrong with you, you little piece of s–” he stopped midsentence as he looked behind him, seeing Mr. Pogo. Silly me, I would have to introduce them.
“Who… what–” he began, but his mutterings were drowned out by the music. As though I had my very own carnival chorus, the sound of the majestic calliope spilled into the room, reverberating off every available surface. It filled the air, which was crackling with the scent of freshly-made popcorn and peanuts and candied delights, and I felt new life flow into me. I must show dad my new tricks!
I bounded over to him, chucked him under the chin, and bopped him on the nose. He stared, mouth agape, at the dancing wonder his son had become.
Bending forward, I gestured to my flower. He blinked a few times, then leaned forward to inspect it. Letting another silent giggle slip through my body with one hand over my mouth and the other gripping the button at the end of my string, I pressed down; a jet of wonderful smelling liquid sprayed out of it, coating dad’s face. The second it made contact, he started clawing at it with his fingers, screaming with all his might, and I knew my show was off to a good start.
I glanced behind me; Mr. Pogo was clapping, the spindly stalks of his eyes bulging through the red, glossy caverns of his torn-open cheeks. Hopping from foot to foot, he clicked his razor-sharp claws together, leant back his head, and crowed; it was the first time I’d heard him make an actual noise, and it was magnificent. I crowed alongside him, the sound swelling and pulsing in-between blasts of the churning organ. Then, I remembered my buzzer. I looked down on dad, writhing and squirming, his face melting from his skull in festering ribbons, the muscles in his cheeks bubbling and bursting and sending sprays of green and orange and red all over the floor, and I pressed the button.
How he convulsed! I pressed it again, watching his dance and jump in the air like a marionette; I, the gracious puppetmaster, held it down and watched his legs scramble and jolt in a frenetic blur, wanting to give my doll a proper sendoff. He crawled backwards up the wall, propelled by my electric magic, and clawed wildly at the doorframe, trying to pull himself from the room. I could see most of the bone of his face now; his skull glinted, twinkling like a diamond from the lightning outside. As the rest of his skin started to singe, parts of it popping under his clothes like wet popcorn at a fair, I jumped up and down, spinning and twirling, punching the button of my buzzer to the rhythm of my dance.
With one final scream rippling through him like a siren, dad’s feet lifted from the floor entirely; he hovered in the air for just a moment, his bones seeming to vibrate right out of his body, and a sound like meat packing against concrete tore through the house as his body popped like a balloon.
I jumped back, grabbing Mr. Pogo’s claws; they dug into my fingers, but I didn’t mind. We danced in wild circles, the steaming remnants of dad falling around us like a mucousy rain.
Birthing a set of new legs from the twitching black shell of his torso, Mr. Pogo tossed me onto his back. I settled in comfortably, and he skittered forward, stepping over dad’s ruined corpse, out the window, and dropped into the yard below. The storm screamed on around us as we danced into the night, skipping and pirouetting and whirling gracefully through the raindrops, two clowns looking for a brand new party.