My hand reaches up to return a high five to the fifth grader with the long frizzy hair. I remember him from last year, all right, even if I’ve lost his name. Jared? Jesse? Jamie? He was one of the rascally boys, the ones who all year long give the fourth grade teacher fits, only to shine bright in the one-day clown class I teach each spring. I’ve been coming back to this little elementary school the first Friday in May for nigh onto 25 years.
Clown Day is an institution of sorts here, a rite of passage for every ten-year-old in town and the surrounding countryside. The children learn clown techniques, practice skits, apply makeup, present a program to the entire school and a smattering of parents. "The best thing about school is recess, lunch and Clown Day," one fourth grader told me today. Said another, “You taught clowning to my mother.” A fifth grader said she'd forgotten what role she played in last year's clown program. I couldn't remember either.
I had once hoped to bring my sons along with me to Clown Day, the year each of them was in the fourth grade. A bitter divorce intervened, made time with them hard to come by, time together outside the narrow window of court-ordered visitation almost unheard of. Knowing what her answer would be, I didn't bother to make the request of their mother. I kept mum.
I clown silently in pantomime, and this fifth grader greets me in like language. He waits in silence, black eyes wide, face serious, palm held high. We could be performing together. Me: bulbous red nose, white dress shirt, obscenely long yellow tie, maroon suspenders, tiny black vest, green highwater pants, mismatched shoes. Him: long frizzy hair, black and white mime-striped t-shirt, ragged blue jeans, scuffed black shoes. I smile broadly.
I wasn't smiling last night when I checked the brood hen, would-be mother. She'd jumped ship, changed nests, left her week-left eggs to go stone cold. Found greener pastures one nest box over, abandoned 12 little promises to life for the pleasure of warming a single fresh-laid egg in a new nest. When I see senseless waste, dreams shot down without a chance at life, something dies inside me, just as surely as it died a dozen times over in her old nest. What kinds of mothers are abroad in the world!
I returned to the house, as a spiritual discipline started a love letter to the mother of my children, my former wife, present enemy. I cast it as an opportunity to fight fire with love. Started off boldly enough. Loving words ran out of my pen, soon ran out altogether. I found myself voicing regret, petty pity, spite. Something's died inside me. I feel very sad. I wonder, if nature abhors a vacuum, what has filled the empty space in my heart? In hers?
Clown meets fifth-grader. Clown remains standing at adult height, chooses not to bend sore knees, put rubber nose within pulling range. Returns the high five. Or tries to. Hand meets empty air because boy withdraws his. The promised high-five was but set-up for a joke, fifth-grade sense of humor, getting one over on the clown. The adult feels angry. I've died enough little deaths, kid.
My adult self elbows out my clown. Man and boy continue the interchange. Boy continues to pull his hand away, but man is ready for him now. Man is quick, manages to tap boy's hand more often than not. Boy's face registers no affect, remains serious.
I come to my clown senses. What am I doing? Who am I, anyway? What do I want to do? Who do I want to be? My clown's character is one easily duped, readily fooled. I step back into clown shoes, play the dumkoff.
A teacher's aide approaches. A big smile rings her happy face. "I just wanted to tell you something," she says. "My mother was at Clown Day two years ago. Do you remember her? She was the lady in the blue kerchief, a cancer survivor. Well, anyway, she was at Clown Day two years ago and she had such a good time. She laughed so hard. She's passed on now, but two years ago, you really made her day. She laughed and laughed. I just wanted you to know."
I smile to her telling, pantomime sorrow at the news of her mother's death, doff my hat by way of saying thanks. Nod and smile some more. She leaves.
As clown, I turn to the boy beside me. Here am I, child, fool me if you will. I will to believe you. I will to trust you. I live in a world where hope springs eternal, where people tell truth, love each other. Here's my hand.
This essay remains unpublished.