Paul Pekin lives in Chicago, Illinois where he has worked as a printer, storekeeper, teacher of writing (at Columbia College and the School of the Art Institute). and police officer. His work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Reader, Sou'wester, Other Voices, The MacGuffin, the Little Patuxant Review, and many other literary, commercial, and Internet publications. His work has won prizes from the Illinois Arts Council and the Chicago Headline Club
The clown was driving an old Buick station wagon with several boxes of gifts and party favors in the back. He was a regular clown in a regular polka dot clown suit with a big flowered tie dangling from his unpainted neck. His face was cake white with enormous red lips and there was a little bell on the tassel on his cap and--as if it were the most normal thing in the world, he kept a set of size thirty-six false bare feet on the seat beside him. Children especially liked to step on these feet and the clown especially liked to cry out in simulated pain.
On Walters Road there was a car in the ditch with the driver standing by, and the clown pulled up to help.
"Are you all right?" he called to a young man who had injured nothing more than his pride. The young man stared at the clown. There was not a trace of emotion in his sallow face.
"Anything I can do?" the clown said.
The young man took a step. He seemed to be thinking. He was wearing boots, blue jeans, and a leather jacket that was zipped right up to his throat. "What is it you think you can do?"
"I can drive you to a gas station.”
The young man's expression did not change. People usually showed a bit more curiosity when greeted by a fully costumed clown.
"Okay. You can drive me to a gas station."
The clown removed the false feet from the front seat to make room for the young man. "My feet," he explained. "I like to have them on when I get to the picnic. I do picnics. I get out of the car with my big feet on and the kids run up and step on them."
The young man did not smile. He showed no more interest in the false feet than he would have in a pair of old gym shoes.
"Can't drive with them on," the clown explained. "I'd end up in the ditch."
"Like me," the young man said.
"Sorry," the clown said. "Do you think you broke anything?"
'Your car. When you went in the ditch.”
'Oh, who gives a damn about the car," the young man said. "It isn't mine."
"Well, we'll get you towed out," the clown said. "There's a Shell Station a mile along. But I'll have to leave you there. I can't be late for the picnic."
"What picnic?" the young man said. The clown had been waiting to hear this. Sooner or later, everyone wants to know about a clown.
"Odd Fellows," he said. "Let me show you." He opened the glove box with his white-gloved hand and took out a printed handbill. Twelfth Annual Picnic. French Creek Forest Preserve. Food, games, prizes. Kelly the Klown. "That's me," the clown said. " I'm Kelly. It's a hobby and, you know, I like kids, I really like kids."
The young man was silent, his face expressionless.
"It goes on all summer. I'll do one, maybe two a week. You get a few bucks, but it's a hobby, really. I'm retired, so it's something to do. You should hear those kids. They say, Here comes Kelly the Clown!"
"And then they step on your big feet."
"Yeah!" the clown laughed. "They step on my big feet!"
The young man was not laughing. He was not even smiling. "Kids hate clowns," he said.
"Naw, naw, naw, don't you believe . . . "
The clown stopped in mid-sentence. The young man had reopened the glove box and removed the clown's wallet. "Hey! What do you think you're doing?"
The young man counted the bills in the clown's wallet. "That's all you got? That's all?" He sifted through the credit cards and I.D.'s and found the clowns driver's license. The photograph showed an elderly man with a wisply halo of white hair circling his bald head.
"What do you think you're doing?" the clown repeated.
"Shut up," the young man said. "Keep your hands on the wheel and shut up."
The Shell station was coming up on the left hand side of the road. There was a brand new yellow tow truck parked next to the garage bays. The young man read the clown's thoughts. "Never mind," he said. "Just keep driving."
Several miles further down the road the clown said in a quiet voice:
"I'll be late for my picnic."
"Thirty eight bucks," the young man said without changing his expression. He rolled the money into a ball, thrust it into his pocket, and threw the clowns wallet, cards and all, out the window. The clown stepped on the brake pedal. Then he saw that the young man had drawn a gun. "Just keep on driving," the young man said. "I have to think."
It was a small chrome colored automatic pistol and the clown did not doubt for one moment that it was real. He could feel the sweat start up under his arms. It was a lovely morning with the sun just getting strong, with the roadside bright and green, with traffic brisk, light, and preoccupied--who would miss a clown if he failed to show at a scheduled picnic, who would think to look into his whereabouts, who would ever imagine that Kelly the Klown had been taken captive?
"Thirty eight bucks," the young man repeated. "I've got to have more than that." He poked the gun into the clown's ribs. "Pull in over there."
"Over there" was a little strip mall adjacent to a row of yellow brick suburban homes. The mall had a Seven Eleven, a travel agency, a laundromat, and a chop suey restaurant. "Let's make it the Seven Eleven," the young man said. As soon as the car came to a stop, he slipped the gun into his jacket, pulled a silk stocking from the other pocket, and drew it masklike over his face. "Put on your big feet," he ordered the clown. "And then you just do what I tell you to do."
There were six people in the Seven Eleven--a young woman with a long blonde pony tail at the register, an older woman with a sour face making sandwiches behind the counter, three customers with coffee and newspapers waiting to buy their cigarettes and lottery tickets, and an off duty sheriff's deputy who was using the washroom usually reserved for employees only. The people by the registor saw only the clown with the big bare feet when he and the young man entered.
"Hey, it's Bozo," one of the men waiting to buy a lottery ticket exclaimed.
The clown felt his mouth so dry he could not even speak. He placed one of his white gloved hands in his pocket as he had been instructed to do and waited. The young man at his side brought up the little automatic where everyone could see it.
"This," he said through his stocking mask, "is not a toy. "We want your money, all of it."
There was a moment of disbelief. Then the woman who was making the sandwiches took a cautious step that brought the girl at the register between herself and the gun. "Watch it," the young man said, and that was when the off duty deputy emerged from the washroom.
The deputy was also a young man and like every young deputy in this country he carried his gun off duty in hopes that someday would come the chance to use it. Only last weekend, on a tape he rented from Blockbuster's, he had seen a movie in which two outlaws, disguised as clowns, had robbed a bank. It took this young deputy only seconds to recognize the situation and it never once occurred to him that public safety might have been better served had he just quietly turned back and remained in the washroom.
The young deputy stepped around the counter, drew his weapon, a forty-five automatic, and shouted, "Freeze! Police!" A moment later he had emptied the clip and the young man with the stocking mask, was running from the store, doubled over, clutching at the dark hot blood that was pulsing from his abdomen.
The clown was lying dead on the floor. A round from the deputy's weapon had taken him squarely in the face and emerged from the back of his bald head along with most of his brains; the clown had been knocked clean out of his funny false feet. The young deputy, running hard, vaulted over the body, burst out the door, and pointed his empty gun at the fleeing Buick. There was a trail of blood all the way to where it had been parked.
The people in the store were standing at a careful distance from the clown's body when the deputy returned. The young deputy had never felt so light of heart, so filled with ease and pride; it was as if he were walking on air.
"I called the police," the sandwich lady said.
"He won't get far," the deputy said. "I got him good. I got them both good. How about it? This is one clown who'll never rob another store."
"He's an old man," the girl with the blonde ponytail said.
"He's a dead man," the deputy said. He walked back to the cooler, found himself a diet cola, popped the tab and started to drink. For some reason he was unable to stop until he emptied the can.