Conversations stirred momentarily when the clown walked in, then fell back on themselves, on safety. When was the last time anyone had seen a clown, I heard them asking. Weren’t they outlawed? And in a bar, for chrissakes? That was too far, that was pushing on ludicrous. That was dangerous.
Somebody was sure to call the cops, but it wasn’t going to be me. I ordered another beer, showing my breathalyzer to the bartender. When you can’t joke, when you can’t let yourself get too drunk, you make sure there’s good beer. Micro-brews being a global market? You tucked that germ of laughter away in savings, hoping your mind didn’t go bankrupt before they found a cure. Some day, you said, you’d redeem that joke, and it would be glorious.
The clown took the stool next to me, sad panda to the nines. He nodded slowly, commiserating wordlessly with me and all the things best left unsaid. I wondered what he’d been through. I flashed to all those protesters, just college kids, dressing up as clowns; they thought the whole thing was a joke, absurd. Big brother, they chanted. Most of them laughed themselves to death. That was the highlight of the best-of reel played every April 1st to make sure we didn’t forget; as if we could forget living without laughter.
Laughter was too big a thing to miss, of itself; you missed the details, instead. I missed groaning at jokes that were just that end of wrong. I missed playful one-upmanship. I missed…. I took a long draught of my beer, and waited for the big one to hit: I missed love. My marriage, the real reason I was drinking on a Tuesday night. Without humor, we were just a pair of mean, cantankerous busy-bodies who had less and less respect for each other.
The clown tilted forwards to whisper, bouncing the words off the stained bar between us. “It’s a lie.” His blood-red flower threatened to dip into my nachos, and I batted it away.
“The cake, or tell me another one?” The words scattered, brown and bubbly, in the prism of my beer. I’d never been a fan of clowns; they’d always been, if not a little scary, at least disturbing. And that was before the humor singularity; after, with the vaudeville death cults….
“The joke heard ‘round the world.” He waited for the words to sink in, waggling his shaved, white eyebrows like a demented Marx brother, and all I could think of was the stench of conspiracy. I’d heard too many conspiracies. I focused on the grease-paint half-filling the crevices of his weather-worn cheeks. Had he snapped? My heart quickened—a clown gone ‘round the bend was more dangerous than I’d pegged him. But he didn’t seem quirky. It was something else.
I looked at him, nonplussed. “That’s not funny.”
He smiled. “It is. It really is. Think about it, and see if you don’t, under the rage, have to crack a smile—have to let it out?”
“I’ve seen the footage. I know people that died in the initial wave of reporting. I know people that died in the rush to self-control, before the rules were figured out. It can’t be a lie.”
He ducked his head lower to the bar, and I realized I’d raised my voice. That’s what you get, talking to a wingnut, I could imagine them saying. The clown’s whisper was almost a rasp, skimming along the bartop like shuffleboard. His dark eyes pierced upwards into mine as he watched the measure of his words. “The best lie has a grain of truth. What better way to control the masses, all of us at once?”
“All of us—the joke heard ‘round the world, the killing meme. That wasn’t a lie, and who cared if it was conspiracy? Dead was dead.”
“One step further, the twist at the end. Don’t you see it? The joke was real, the cure was not. They couldn’t target sedition or competition with their thoughtcrime virus, but they could dull the sting. What’s worth fighting for, if mere comfort is the apex of achievement? But that’s just you and me, chum. Chum in the water. They know the score, and they’re laughing in their private clubs.”
It was absurd. Patently, beautifully absurd. We, the downtrodden—the proletariat, self-flagellating for fear we’ll die, unable to even imagine another life. I imagined them pulling some random Joe off the street, and just laughing at him. His eyes would widen with fear, his breath quicken, and then he’d start to tremble. The laughter would explode inside him as well, all the more torturous for the mandatory conditioning they claimed would save his life; laughing as he collapsed in a puddle of blood, sweat, and feces.
I didn’t believe him, couldn’t believe him. It was too absurd. All the same, somewhere deep in my guts, a butterfly began to tickle; a giggle tried to burble its way out of my chest. I twisted in my seat, conditioning-cramps working overdrive to keep it in, and that was the last straw—the laugh ripped through the cocoon of my stomach, shredding my resolve. I heard dish-ware breaking, people screaming, stampeding the exits, and it was hilarious. The clown’s hand was on my shoulder, his hot breath corkscrewing into my brain. “You don’t have to die. Breathe. Let the pain go. Breathe. Let control go. Breathe. Let the hope in. Breathe. Let the madness in. Breathe.”
His voice was manta-ray skating across the folds of my brain, until there was nothing but; he repeated the incantation tirelessly, and it became me. I could breathe. A tension lifted, one I hadn’t even known I was carrying. The cramps began to loosen. Hope flooded me past full, until madness began to squeak out my ears like superheated helium. The room warped, and when my vision cleared, the bar was empty.
I could hear sirens in the distance. He didn’t have to ask: I was ready to go with him, to learn, and to spread the gospel on my own. Some day, we would all be free…but until that day, I would be a sad panda, proud and strong.
© Kaolin Fire
Kaolin Fire (http://www.erif.org/) is a conglomeration of ideas, side projects, and experiments. Outside of his primary occupation, he also programs open source games (http://www.erif.org/code/games/),