“The Clown” follows a real estate agent who daydreams about his inner persona, a murderous clown. For the coulrophobes (those afraid of clowns) out there, this premise will immediately have you on edge, and Mayer does an excellent job building suspense by keeping readers close to this unforgettably unsettling narrator.
The clown counted his murders as he drove the new couple to the house on Rocking Horse Lane. Not few. The Lexus needed air again, according to the little orange light, the man in his passenger seat was offering original commentary on the Clintons, and behind the clown’s left eye a toothache and an earache were collaborating. Not few at all, and some of the murders had been admirably painful, admirably patient. Outside the Lexus it was seventy-two degrees in October, and inside the Lexus, according to a different screen, it was also seventy-two degrees, the car’s climate system blowing hard even so. The clown hated the Lexus and was wearing a blazer he’d bought to match it. In the backseat, the woman, very pregnant, was picking her teeth with the aid of her phone. The clown’s mouth—thirsty—tasted like waffle fries and crispy chicken sandwich, and so did all the rest of him. Salt, grease, a synthetic drive-thru savor—he was likely composed of it by now. No matter how many times he sucked the straw the soda was still out.
“We hate to leave the downtown,” the man, Seamus, was saying again. “Our apartment is five minutes from Pinche Taco, five minutes from Cerebral Brewing, like two minutes from Über Dog, but how fast I got her pregnant, we’re going to need rooms.”
“Congratulations,” said the clown, shaking his ice. Any kind of knife murder, some hooks, some rod-and-fire stuff. One dehydration. He tried to recognize himself, his life and effort, in the résumé, but it was like he’d consigned his life effort to a secret man. What was left ate waffle fries, sold houses, awaited the secret man’s return.
But he had a good feeling about this couple. Early thirties, Apple Watches, fecund. He wanted to kill them. That was something. The woman, Eliza, was very quiet. All she had said since the place on Ridgeway Row was “Hi, Daddy” when they passed a trim tort lawyer’s billboard. Seamus was lavishly freckled, in an overlaundered polo probably assigned to lazy weekend wear, curling collar leaning toward the postnuptial paunch.
The houses on Vinci Park and Ridgeway Row, where the air still smelled of other people’s lentil soup, had been staged disappointments, unmowed drabnesses after which 404 Rocking Horse would gleam like a mirror. It was the perfect place for Eliza and Seamus; Eliza and Seamus were the perfect pair for it. The clown had been preparing this for a while.
“We’re thinking high fours, maybe low fives,” Seamus was lowballing already. “They’re reviewing me for associate sooner than anyone in my cohort, so it’s not that. I’m just not ready for the house yet, you know?”
The clown did know. The man wanted granite counters, sectional couches, a pop-up soccer goal. There was time yet for Japanese fountains. He wanted the yard the kid could mow for iTunes money, not the one that needed a koi specialist. Happiness was not so hard to engineer for the typical, but it did no good to say it. The house on Rocking Horse would speak for him, a three-bedroom with a power study and a crafts room with a guest loft. You had to let the clients spin twice in a living room and recognize themselves. Not just themselves—the selves they knew and also latent selves they just suspected. Only then, when they saw their books in the cases and their mugs in the cabinet, could the murderer emerge from the basement, where he’d been waiting all along.
“Downtown, it’s fun and all, but it’s not safe for Eliza or the kid. All the money the city has now, you think they’d clean that shit out. Our alleyway, every morning someone’s given them all hot coffee and donuts. These bums are glamping.”
The clown, forty-eight, amicably divorced, amicably depressed, real-estate licensed, was aware that he was a type too. Apart from murder, his interests were no less predictable than Seamus’s. He’d offered lunch after the Ridgeway place—he often took clients out—but now he was thinking about Tums—he loved Tums—about gin, about juice cleanses, about smothering Seamus’s face with the wet side of Seamus’s scalp. He rarely spoke his mind. He let his thoughts imbue his smile.
He’d set about it in earnest ten years ago, full sails with research and planning, whiteface and greasepaint, professional grade, learned to accentuate a menace, if there was one, already present in his face. The wig had cost a fortune, real hair, bruised strawberry, but it had lasted. The teeth too, cutlery porcelain, filed, stained. Ought to be tax deductible. The nails he made himself with molded tin. It took most of an hour to put it all on, but people did react—more so than they would to rubber stuff, he hoped. “That tall building over there would be your closest hospital, if anything happens,” he said. “Terrific obstetrics center, though I’m sure you’ve already made plans. There’s the Whole Foods coming up and here’s a mosque, should you be needing one of those. I believe it would be your polling place were you to move before the election.”
Seamus grumbled something about voting early. For the rest of Seamus’s life, a diminishing proposition, indignation would race cholesterol. He would make a colorful choking victim, but the clown had promised himself patience, intentionality. Cruelty and pain were easy quantities, but murder used to express something in him. Take the kings of Greece and Persia who entertained guests with hollow bronze bulls that seemed to bay when wheeled over a fire, when in fact it was condemned queens screaming from inside. It was cruel, it was painful—but it was so kingly too. The court clapping and marveling, pretending they didn’t know, while the king spat seeds from his grapes. The Aztecs murdered like Aztecs, the Nazis murdered like Nazis. The clown, meanwhile, had groomed himself to match the Lexus that was supposed to give him credibility regarding other people’s homes.
“Been saving this place for a special family,” he said, pulling into the driveway. It was true.
During the walk-through, Seamus stuck close by, explaining everything to the clown: “I never liked these kind of light switches . . . Chessboard, huh? I want to learn some chess strategy, some real chess systems . . . No disrespect to your grill here, but it’s all about the smoker.”
Noted. The clown had to remind himself it wasn’t about killing Seamus, no matter how urgently he deserved to be murdered. Murder had to come from the inside. The urgency must be in him.
“We’re only two crosswalks to Langston Elementary, where Mark Zuckerberg’s nephew went to school,” he said. “Langston’s a recipient of a 2016 tech-arts grant from the George Lucas Foundation, the one on NPR.” That was enough to provoke several more minutes of opinionation from Seamus. It was an old trick: the more a client heard his own voice in a house, the more he felt the house was his. Eliza, meanwhile, was going around seeing how the toilets flushed.
The clown liked knives, big knives, little knives—but what even was a knife? Something very narrow but no less hard. The set stashed in the crawl space of 404 Rocking Horse had chef’s knives, cleavers, a straightedge razor, a few more theatrical things, toothy, curving. Almost every night since the house had been vacant, he’d let himself in, retrieved his things from the crawl space, and, fully kitted out, sharpened his knives, grind by meditative grind. Just last night, he’d sat thickly painted under this floor. Breathe. Intuit the killer already implied by the house. On the iPhone on his knee, his Facebook feed worked the cud of another late-breaking candidate scandal.
Touring the basement (“Here’s your water heater . . . These guys here are for bolting a safe . . .”), he found one of his fingernails. “Huh? What do you think this is?” He showed the man, but the shrug was a shrug, not a shiver.
Whatever. He’d imagined stashing acids and paralyzing agents down there too—imagined how shocked and impressed Eliza and Seamus would be if they woke to find themselves prepped for a chemical flaying or immobilized beneath a swinging blade. He wished he could do something like that, but it was too much contraption. The engineering and constructing, the procurement of regulated chemicals—it was beyond him. He was a knife clown. He could never pretend to be what he was not.
Eliza said the house was perfect. Seamus, saving face, said they’d “have to do a little thinking through.” The deciders, the clown imagined, were Eliza and her billboard dad. “Well, I think you’re perfect for it,” the clown said. They were. Their smug veneer would rip right through. The clown expected to hear from them Monday or Tuesday at the worst. He would throw in a moving service if the sale called for it, and they’d be dead before Thanksgiving. He promised it to himself the way he’d promised Owen ski camp, which now he would actually be able to pay for. A thing to look forward to, as the boy’s therapist had suggested. Something the best version of you, if not you yourself, would want to do.
After he returned Seamus and Eliza to the RE/MAX lot, the clown accepted a Friday nachos invitation. Usually, a birthday or two had accumulated during the week. This time Lauren had made her first sale since licensure. “I’m going to buy you a drink,” she said to the clown, poking and sweeping a fingertip accidentally enough across his nipple. She leaned in and whispered behind her nails, “It’s a lie . . . you’re going to buy me a drink.” He doubted she actually wanted to fuck him, but he was pretty sure she wanted him imagining it, so he did imagine it, let it imbue his smile, and told her he’d be there.
He pulled over on his way to Baja’s and made notes on the couple in his phone. Arrogance, wealth, an anxious hatefulness, the unconscious rivalry between them. There was some authentic American fearfulness in them perfectly suited to the Rocking Horse property, away in its little suburban circlet of fast-growth trees and prize schools and four-cheese macaroni chains. He worried for a second that someone else might murder them first.
At Baja’s, Haru and Leroy hailed him from the corner booth. Lauren didn’t even look up from her eye tunnel with Monique, who was telling the story of the movie she’d watched last night. Haru and Leroy were comparing notes on the BioShock installment they both were playing. Haru liked spicy food, shoes, and video games. Leroy liked Bernie Sanders, video games, and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Monique liked movies, her husband, and coconut oil. Everybody was a person. And the clown? For his birthday, the office had given him a Starbucks card.
After ten minutes, he proposed a toast: “To virtue!” he said and sat quickly down. Lauren made a wounded scoffing sound, and everyone laughed, and the clown stood up quickly and amended: “To the conquests of Lauren—may they be many.”
They shared a smile then, escaping for some seconds the commotion of the nachos. He hadn’t been fair. These were real people, not portfolios of interest. He searched her. Lauren had bobbed black hair, wore silver; the purple in her veins made her neck seem almost tattooed. She did have at least one tattoo, some text on her side you could see through the white of her work shirts. She liked Heart, she hated baby carrots . . . He searched harder. Maybe his own self had become small through a habitual disregard for the uniquenesses of other selves. So he studied her for particularities. At RE/MAX Reservoir Day, Lauren had spat arcs of water through her teeth. She called her car Thumper. She could do fingertip push-ups. For Halloween she was going to be the Terminator mom. He waited for a reciprocal sense of selfhood to reveal itself in him, but all he saw was Seamus trailing entrails through his perfect home.
“I don’t think I should drive,” she said. It was the third or fourth time she had said it, but they’d stayed there drinking beers. The others—Monique with her eyebrows—had long ago waved bye.
“How bad is the Uber from here?” He waved for the bill.
“I don’t trust Ubers. Could be anyone,” she said. “Could be—”
He waited. “Could be who?”
“A serial fucker.” She was drunk. She laughed.
“Really. What’s the worst that could happen?”
“Are you kidding?” She chipped off a dot of toasted cheese.
She was right. He apologized. He was just fishing for ideas. He said, “You never told me though. What’d you sell?”
“Four-oh-four Rocking Horse,” she said, reviving. She popped up and did her little dance again, tossing invisible cash onto the table.
To Be ContinuedMark Meyer
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