I am a grown man and I collect clowns. Statues, dolls, paintings, photographs, knick-knacks, flower vases, ashtrays, coffee mugs, music boxes, picture frames: anything having to do with clowns, I dig. Now, I am fully aware that this is not typical behavior for a somebody my age, and if I had one clown item for every time a friend, family member, or girlfriend has voiced this sentiment, well, I’d probably have the same amount of clown items that I do now. Which is a lot.
I keep clowns everywhere. I have so many clowns in my room that people who know me have dubbed it “The Clown Room,” a title that I probably find more endearing than it is intended to be. I even have a couple in my car: a painted statuette of a magician clown nestled in my center console and a clown on a swing that I rigged up from the rear passenger window so that it actually swings while the car is in motion. The latter is an exceptionally cute little conversation piece:
“I just love your Cadilla—Is that a clown on a swing?”
“Yes. Yes, it is.”
“You know, where I’m going isn’t too far of a walk. You can let me out here…”
A lot of people seem to be put off by clowns. Creeped out. Terrified, even. Case in point: My clown collection has served as a pretty spot-on litmus test for potential romantic interests; If they can’t take the clowns, then they probably just aren’t the one for me. It’s worked out pretty well thus far, although my romantic life has suffered long spells of inactivity. With clowns as with women, I’m picky.
Because I don’t like just any clown. No, I’m very particular. They have to have a certain allure to them, an indescribable mystery that captures my interest. I need to look at a clown and think to myself, “I wonder what’s going on behind the make-up? Did this guy just win the lottery or did his dog die? What’s the score here?”
That’s why I especially like the sad clowns, the pasty-faced entertainers who seem to be hiding something inconceivably tragic behind a painted grin and red rubber nose. Maybe it’s that old (but certainly not outworn) comedy/tragedy dichotomy incarnate that grabs me, but when I see a melancholy clown, I want to take it home and name it. That’s right, I name my clowns too, tragically comic names like Punchinello and Rigoletto and Morgan Grinder. They look so lost and forlorn that I feel like it’s the least I could do.
For a long time, I never knew where my clown obsession came from. There wasn’t anything that seemed to account for this admittedly strange psychological obsession that I developed some time in my late teens. The noble profession of clowning was never on my career radar, and I don’t recall ever wanting to run away to join the circus when I was kid. Hell, I don’t even think I ever went to the circus as a kid. Indeed, it all seemed like a random manifestation of some borderline personality disorder or something to me. That is, until recently.
Last October, my paternal grandmother was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and given six months at the most to live. Grandma Mary was the only grandmother I ever knew, as my mother’s mother passed before I was born. I spent many days of my youth at Grandma Mary’s home in Corona del Mar, which she had lived in since 1969, swimming in her pool and reading old literary editions from her collection. As I got older though, we drifted apart. She was old school, of proper Italian Catholic aristocratic stock, and I was an upstart, left-leaning academic with atheistic tendencies. We clashed. Some things are genetic, I suppose, and I imagine that I inherited a bit of my outspoken brashness from her.
When she got sick, none of that seemed to matter anymore. If Grandma were to be allowed to stay in her home and avoid spending the last of her days in a hospital, she was going to need around-the-clock care. I immediately volunteered, and along with my aunt (Grandma’s eldest daughter), I suddenly found myself a caretaker. You see, Grandma hated having strangers in her house, and the prospect of having nurses there appalled her. Proper old school, she was.
For the next four months, I was with my grandmother nearly every single day. Since I couldn’t really leave her side, we had to find ways to keep the both of us entertained, and one such way was for her to answer all of my pesky questions about her life and what I was like as a kid and her family history. In this way, I would also begin to understand my clown fascination.
Grandma has a painting of a clown in her family room that has been there as long as I can remember. She says she made my grandfather buy it for her in Chicago sometime in the late 1950s because it “fascinated” her. Grandma didn’t share my clown obsession; she just liked this one particular clown painting. And I don’t blame her: of all the clown items I’ve come across, it’s definitely one of the best ones I’ve seen. It’s about two-and-a-half by one-and-a-half feet done up in vivid acrylics, the real good stuff they used to use with all the toxic chemicals that made the paint shine but also probably poisoned a lot of painters. The main subject of the painting peers in from the left side and is only visible from the chest up. He’s wearing red frills trimmed in blue, with his mouth and nose painted the same hue as the trim, and he’s got a little red hat perched atop his head at a gravity-defying angle that should have a really comedic effect but doesn’t. Perhaps this is due to the rare and disconcerting way in which the clown’s blue eyes stare straight at you no matter which angle you view the painting from. This clown’s visage takes up the majority of the canvas, although there is another clown visible walking in the background: this one doesn’t look human, rather more like a child’s effigy of a clown. The painting is signed R. Waite, and I sincerely hope that he didn’t meet his demise as a result of acrylic-related toxic shock.
Grandma said that I used to stare at that painting for hours when I was little, and even though most people were scared or put off by it, I didn’t seem to be. Grandma also related familial anecdotes that I had never heard before, stories that my father couldn’t even recall. How accurate they were I can’t say, but they make perfect sense to me in regards to my proclivities. For example, she told me about her cousin with the glass eye who would be carrying on a conversation with you and then take his fake peeper out, drop it in his water glass, wipe it dry with a handkerchief, and plop it back in his socket, keeping eye(s) contact with you the whole time. And then there was her uncle the gambler, who got so overwrought with excitement over winning big on an underdog longshot at the track that he keeled over dead of a heart attack, the lucky ticket pried from his fingers and cashed in by another with better luck and looser morals. Her sister’s husband was a real character too. When he died unexpectedly, his wife went to cash in on the insurance policy, only to find that there was another woman claiming to be the dearly departed’s spouse. Both spouses had a son with the same name of the same age and had been married to the same man for around the same amount of time. Apparently, it was much easier to be a bigamist back in the good old days, and the man had merely split his time between the two households by telling each wife that he would be away on business a few nights a week.
All of these figures would have made fantastic clowns, at least the kind that I’m fond of. Comedy in the tragedy, a mysterious air evoking a funny feeling somewhere between tears and laughter. I would listen to Grandma talk about these would-be clowns for hours while I mentally painted their faces with sloppy garish colors and put them in torn frilly costumes. She always entertained my questions, although every once in awhile she would pause and wave a petite, dismissive hand at me.
“Nobody cares about this stuff, Sterling. This is old news. Why do you want to hear all this?”
“Because it’s comforting to know that I may be able to blame all of my eccentricities on genetics and family history.”
And Grandma would roll her brown eyes and scoff and likely think to herself, Maybe I shouldn’t have let that kid spend so much time in front of that clown painting…
Grandma passed nine days ago. She went peacefully and comfortably in her home and I am proud to say that I took care of her until the end. I will never forget the time I had with her, and I will never be able to thank her enough for all that I got out of it. I’m still a grown man who collects clowns, particularly sad ones, but I like to think that it’s a little more excusable now, or at least more explainable. Grandma must have agreed, because she willed her beloved painting to me, saying only “You’re the only person in the whole world who should have that painting, Sterling.”
Personal essay to appear in 2014 edition of WALL literary journal. Originally composed March 5, 2014. Drawing by Anibal Santos http://www.anibalsantosart.com