This is the beginning of Part II. Read Part I of the story here
The clown has realized that he can no longer prey on his favorite victim. He is furious and now wants to prey on that b#&ch who stole the opportunity away from him. But then, the unexpected happens.
He supposed now he’d just have to murder her instead.
Baja’s didn’t take American Express, so he put down the Banana Republic Visa and the cash he had, distractedly trying to make a plan.
She was drunk enough. In the Lexus, he leaned over and kissed her, and she reached almost immediately for his belt. She could barely kiss, all the hurry-up in her hand. “Not here,” he said, but she unbuckled him and lifted it out.
Cheese and chips and too many Sam Adams and still that crispy chicken flavor. The Lexus needed air, according to the little orange light, and the woman in the passenger seat was now fellating him like she wanted to get things over with. “Not here,” he said again.
“I don’t want to go home,” she said. “I hate my place.”
“But this is a Baja’s parking lot.”
She laughed, only in order to say, “You make me laugh.” Perhaps everyone had done this before, accidentally fucked a coworker on nacho Friday, but did it have to be done as a grim reenactment of the last time? Back in the corner booth, she’d had him defending James and the Giant Peach, denouncing nutmeg (not a happy flavor), describing the brazen bulls Greek kings used to kill their queens, now he felt anonymous again. “I better go pee,” she said, but she didn’t sprint for Thumper. She squatted between two pickup trucks and climbed back in.
He took her to the house on Rocking Horse Lane and let her fall asleep on the couch. In the basement, he retrieved his kit and knives and changed. He listened to the subterranean sounds of the neighborhood as he greased beneath the naked bulb—the switches of preprogrammed sprinklers, the swamp coolers falling back to work, even in October. He glued on the charred eyebrows, sealed the sharp teeth in. He washed the yellow, snake-slit contact lens in saline and eased it on. He combed the wig up, full fry, cinched the big belt tight atop his happy sooted tatters. He slid a few unscabbarded knives through the belt. The nails came last or he’d shred everything in the process.
He approached the couch in squeaking shoes, leaned over the back, and watched her sleeping. Now was when the menace should awaken something in him. The secret man was here.
He leaned further, grazed his nails across her face, punctured the couch leather claw by claw next to her ear. He bit down on his gums with his cutlery teeth until a drop of blood rolled over his lips, oiled itself redder on his smile, and fell onto her neck. She didn’t wake.
Fine. He had too much beer in him for a chase scene, anyway. He aimed a fingernail for either side of her trachea. He would just rip it forward and hold her down while she drained. Then he’d get a U-Haul, find someplace to torch the couch (a show-house couch might not be missed), torch her, grind her teeth and any stubborn bones, Clorox the living room and the Lexus, and return the van. He’d have to chainsaw the couch to move it by himself. That would be dusty. Sometime in the a.m. you could expect Eliza and her dad to come peeking through the windows. He was supposed to FaceTime with Owen’s therapist at noon.
He didn’t mind hard work. He hadn’t become a murder clown following paths of least resistance.
There were Tums in the glove box. He loved Tums, but he was afraid to go even that far in his suit.
He woke her up at 5:00 a.m. “I fell asleep,” she said. A couch crease had left a rather gorgeous scar along her face.
“Let’s get donuts. I’ll drive you home.”
She blinked at him. “We didn’t even—”
“You mean you don’t remember? You cooed, you cried . . .”
She yawned, squeezing her eyes to size her headache. “That’s fucked up, Dennis.”
He apologized. “I took a long shower and slept upstairs. We’ll never speak of it again.”
It didn’t mean he was never going to murder her—just because he hadn’t murdered her last night. When the morning papers were dropped off at Donut Time, he spread the crossword and watched her make quick work of it and the Jumble.
The sunrise woke up a little rain. Saturday was supposedly a workday, but hooky made things sweet. “I like your face,” she said. “It’s a real face. Some faces look like you could reach right through them.”
He leaned forward and she tested the reality of his scruff. “You shave like a dad,” she said.
He thought he understood what she meant by that—she meant she’d finally realized she didn’t want and hadn’t wanted him. That was okay. A lover you always half suspected was trying to kill you. He’d never killed a friend before.
“I am a dad.”
“I know. Riley? Jonas?”
“Owen. And you never miss a soccer game?”
The black jelly in a halved donut trembled as a cement mixer drove by. “The soccer games are in San Jose, actually.”
“Christmases and campouts?” He looked at her, but she was already looking at him. “Your ex won’t even let you have a campout? Really? You shave like such a great dad.”
“It’s not her. Owen never liked me very much,” he said. “I thought I’d be a fun dad. Nieces and nephews always liked me. I’ve got all the Roald Dahls.”
“He’d get hysterical if his mom tried to leave us alone.”
“He didn’t grow out of it?”
“He was four when we divorced, and she waited three years before they moved away. My days were impossible. He refused to get out of the car when she brought him over. They’ve been in California now for seven and a half years.”
Lauren’s forehead wrinkles were legibly sympathetic. Her eyes, though, were wondering what had scared the kid. “He’s old enough to explain himself, isn’t he?” she said.
He told her about the therapist he paid for. “Part of me is a little proud of him, for figuring me out so fast. How long did it take you to learn to hate your dad?”
“He said he was voting for Trump and I pretty much declared it.” She’d noticed the drop of blood on her collar, was scraping at it casually, unsurprised to find it there. “I couldn’t believe him. But I figure I only need to hate him till Hillary wins.”
Lauren admitted her plan for the day was to carve pumpkins and decorate her place for Halloween. He should help. When it was time to FaceTime the therapist, she’d leave him alone. “Do you like pumpkins?”
“I like knives,” he said.
At the Safeway next to Donut Time, Lauren turned the pumpkins carefully, examining their personalities, she said. She asked him what candy they should get, and he realized his tooth- and earaches were gone. She directed him to a costume store, just opening, where she bought cobwebs and some cartoonish plastic bones, and then to an art supply where she got a large roll of black construction paper. He drove slowly in and out of parking lots so the knife kit in his trunk wouldn’t clank.
He followed Thumper from the Baja’s lot back to her duplex. The street looked vaguely familiar—maybe he’d bought a kayak off Craigslist somewhere over here?
She brewed them coffees that bore no relation to the Styrofoam stuff from Donut Time. He could feel its strength right through the mug. He leaned back against the counter, savoring, while she, with impressive fluidity, ran a razor over the blackout paper, tracing the profiles of cats and crones. She didn’t even draw the line in pencil first. He held the paper to the windows and she taped it on.
She brushed the shreds off the kitchen table and got out a mixing bowl and knives. She looked at him. “I’m going to say it even though I don’t think it needs to be said.”
“And not the kind who fuck each other.”
“Good.” She set down her pumpkin heavily, its thud and her good coinciding. “Now, what else is there that friends do?”
Her kitchen had banged-up wood cabinets and wallpaper that reminded him of bed-and-breakfast sheets. The place wasn’t her, but you could see how she’d exerted herself against it in little ways, her pretty mixing bowls and denim apron on a peg. Big Boggle was with the cookbooks on the fridge top, a duck skull she must have found on a hike was on the window ledge over the sink. She’d hung a pull-up bar in the doorway and a string of prosperity hens from the bar. She played Bessie Smith and warmed up empanadas she’d made with minced lamb. She had a homemade chimichurri.
He carved his own face onto the pumpkin. She seemed amused. “It’s Dennis,” he explained.
She looked back and forth. “I suppose it is.”
At noon, he sat with his iPad in the Lexus and talked to Dr. Jordie. She was at home, in a living room—he saw an adult son walk behind her with a cereal bowl. She asked how he was in a tone that indicated small talk, not therapeutic concern, and pretended not to observe that he’d hidden himself in a car.
“I might not be able to pay for ski camp after all,” he said. “I’m sorry. I haven’t told Tina.”
“Ski camp might have been ambitious,” she said in her Terry Gross voice. “Tina had to promise Owen he wouldn’t have to go.”
He opened his mouth to say he didn’t know what to say and couldn’t say even this.
“It’s been a rough week,” Dr. Jordie said. There was a wobbling view of her chin and blurred arm skin as she scratched something off the laptop screen. “Owen refused to go to school. He refused to eat or shower. Tina was making any deal he’d take.”
The clown thought his face looked relaxed in the little frame superimposed on Dr. Jordie, but he felt a sour pain in his saliva glands, as if they were being squeezed. He’d been made to believe Owen wanted to go to ski camp. Now he scrubbed away his image of the boy watching ski videos on his phone and intuiting potential future freedoms. A yipping alpine skier dropping through blue sky—he’d thought maybe Owen had glimpsed his own secret man, and not a bad one. Behind his face, where the therapist couldn’t see, the clown scrubbed at the free skier, until the white snow and red Gore-Tex rinsed away except for a few persistent smears.
Meanwhile, he’d missed a few sentences. “. . . got or gave himself a bloody nose and refused to hold it closed,” the therapist was saying. “He sat there in English class with blood dripping onto his shirt.” She paused for him to react.
“Was it a lot of blood?” the clown said.
“We talked at some length about it. He said he wanted to show them what a freak he is.”
“He’s not a freak.”
She smiled to indicate that the reply to follow was worth her fee. “That’s actually not for us to say, Dennis. He feels like one—but the crucial thing isn’t that. It’s that he wants to show everyone. He wanted his whole class to know who he is.”
The clown felt like a dummy for not using Lauren’s bedroom as she’d offered. It was finally a little cool out and the windows were fogging up. He’d imagined she didn’t really want him to see her room—her unmade sheets, the twisted-up workout clothes flung to the floor. Like the blazer he still had on, his bedroom furnishings were selected to match the Lexus: king mattress made of some proprietary foam, tall vase of reeds in the corner, woodblock prints of some samurai character talking to the breeze. Guests to his bedroom were rare and left knowing no more than he let them.
Dr. Jordie’s son walked by again, this time wearing a towel over his neck. So they had a pool. He imagined the son facedown, afloat on his own bleach-clean blood. “Very intimate in its way,” Dr. Jordie was saying. He thanked her and PayPalled the fee.
When he came back into the kitchen, Lauren was the Terminator mom. Witches and arched cats made of sunlight shined through the blackout paper into the room. “How did I do?” she said. She had on Linda Hamilton’s black tank top, utility belt, and sunglasses, and a water gun. “Sarah Connor, 1995.” She did a one-arm pull-up on the bar in the kitchen door and landed looking at him. Maybe she thought he’d gone outside so he could cry, but there was no scrutiny in her eyes, only attention. “I’m going to smear on some greasy war-zone-looking shit later. Do you do Halloween?”
“I was thinking,” he said before he could stop himself, “of being a scary clown.”
“Classic. For a party or for the kids?”
It felt like the fog from the Lexus was coating his skin. He shouldn’t have said anything. Halloween was Monday, any parties would be tonight. She attempted a second one-arm pull-up with no luck. “Do you have your costume yet? You should have got it when we were at the party store.”
“I have it,” he said. His voice was weird. “From last year.”
“Wait a second.” She squeezed out another pull-up with two arms and thudded to the floor. “You’re not one of those clown prankers, are you? Is this a thing you do every year?”
He instructed his face not to do anything, but she was already grinning and shaking her head. “Holy shit.”
“I’ll be right back,” he said.
Up and down her street were Hillary-Kaine signs, yes on Prop 200, yes on Amendment C, plastic gravestones, broom-crashed witches, jack-o’-lantern leaf bags, Love Trumps Hate. He got the kit from the back of the Lexus and carried it in. He laid it in a kitchen chair and undid the clasps. He set the wig between the pumpkins and showed her his greasepaint and his sponges, his red curtain-cloth pants with their ragged patches, his floorboard-slapping shoes, his shirts with their bloodstains and chipped buttons, his long stained teeth, his yellow metal nails. He didn’t look up at her the whole time. He couldn’t. He searched for more things to show her, so he could delay meeting her eyes. He unscrewed the contact case, so she could see the jaundiced snake-eye floating in its sterile cup. It scared him how violently it shook.
Finally he had to look up, so anxious now he couldn’t pretend otherwise. “I’m glad to know you, Dennis,” she said. She laughed. “I’ve known some geeks, I mean I thought I was a connoisseur . . .” She picked up the wig (“May I?”) and pressed it on over her Sarah Connor do. She giggled as she fluffed it up, brushing loose plaster dust from the Rocking Horse basement or else trapped flecks of bone. She Jokered up her smile but couldn’t hold it. Her giggling quivered the whole wig. She held one of the jack-o’-lantern knives, classic Bates Motel grip. “So you stalk around like this? People must flip out. I’d straight-up mace you before you could say ‘punked.’ I hope you’re safe out there.”
He laughed, but it was not his Lexus laugh. It started sociably enough, a laugh at himself, at how he must look, but it cracked down the middle when it reached his belly and something wet and maniacal blurted out of him. Lauren blinked and put a hand on his shoulder. She looked him in the eye, trying to see if he was crying or what. Whatever it is, let’s hear it, she seemed to say. He didn’t know what to do.
He started to say something but was laughing again—bilious, hot, disgusting, straight from his gut. It was mirthless and too loud and chicken flavored. She was backing away from him now (“You okay, Dennis?”), the wig sliding off her head.
“Give me the knife,” he said.
To his surprise, she did, the safe way, gripping the blade and offering him the handle.
“You said you wanted me to show you,” he said. It was the clown’s voice, not Dennis’s. “I’ll show you, then.” It terrified him what he was saying. He had to stop for breath between each word. I’ll show you. I’ll—show—you.
All the fun was happening downtown, five minutes from Pinche Taco, five minutes from Cerebral Brewing, about two minutes from Über Dog. There were scarecrows and Wonder Women and Cookie Monsters marauding through the early dark. Med students and waitresses, guised as Amelia Earhart, as swan-Björk, swung arms overhead to taxis, to the songs of passing cars, to friends stepping out of corner liquor stores across the street. A quartet of speeding Harleys ripped a seam in the night. A foam Hulk fist fell from a balcony and bounced into the road. Everyone was hidden in the clamor, welcomed and exalted by it. The clown felt simultaneous with himself. It couldn’t be explained.
The clown and Lauren waited at the crosswalk with two scanty pirates. They eyed him. He was suspiciously uncostumed. The clown wore just his blazer and slacks, his graying temples, but beside him Lauren was to the nines. The happy tatters ill-fit her even better than they ill-fit him. He’d whited her face and drawn a great big ripping smile, almost to her eyes. Her forehead was smaller than his and the charred eyebrows reached up and tangled in the frizz of the wig. The teeth bulged her lips into a psychopathic grin. The tinsel nails made a little music as they walked.
Seamus and Eliza’s apartment complex was exactly what he’d imagined, a high cube of condos with mountain bikes on the balconies, fake brick on Tyvek, banners over the office. He could picture the police tape, the office phone ringing, the men encamped in the alley shooing off the sirens and lights.
What he’d tell Owen, if Owen wanted to hear him, was that it was the scariest thing in the world to let yourself be known. You might not be liked. In fact, you wouldn’t be. There’s plenty in each of us that’s unforgivable, he’d say. In a political world, it would always make a kind of sense to hide yourself away. But, he’d say, I want you to know me, even if sometimes you hate what you see. And I hope you’ll find a way to let me know you too.
He led Lauren up the courtyard stairs and along the balcony past potted cactuses and airing yoga mats. He gestured for her to listen. Behind the door, Seamus was making original commentary on the Clintons. Lauren seemed nervous. She kept whispering, was she supposed to say something or do something scary? “Do I say trick or treat?” The clown took a deep breath and let it all imbue his smile. He told her relax. It was going to be great. The knife was in his blazer, his heart was in his smile. He knocked and said, “Don’t worry. Just keep your eyes on me.”