A couple of days ago, I listened as my sister explained to her young daughter the difference between rational and irrational fears. She used an example: “A rational fear is something you’re smart to be scared of, like poisonous spiders. An irrational fear is something that it’s silly to be scared of—like clowns.”
My sister grinned at me as she said it, and I did my best to grin back. Unlike the rest of my family, she’s been making an effort to reach out. I appreciate her kindness, but sometimes kindness can be exhausting. Sometimes I just want people to treat me like I deserve to be treated—with reproach and disgust and hatred.
I’ve done horrible things, and though I haven’t suffered enough, I have suffered. My wife left and took our little daughter with her. I was diagnosed with lung cancer last month even though I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life. I even had to sell my house and move into this shithole. All this, and I still haven’t approached atonement. I work a quiet desk job now, 9 to 5, doing no evil except punching hour after precious hour into the time clock, but no matter how much I endure I’ll never be able to make up for what happened at my old job.
You see, I used to be a clown—and let me tell you, being frightened of us is the most rational thing in the world.
It all started with the squeak.
I was 24 at the time, fresh out of law school and unable to find work. Sitting on a park bench, feeling sorry for myself, wondering how I was going to make ends meet—and then I heard it. The squeak.
It was immediately followed by a chorus of laughter. Young laughter. I looked up from my bench, past a section of grass barely visible through the fallen leaves, and there he was—a clown, surrounded by a gaggle of children wearing party hats, fixated on him with glee.
My first instinct was slight discomfort. I never liked clowns. Yeah, I’d read the Stephen King book, and that certainly contributed, but it was more than that. I didn’t like the idea of a regular face behind the paint, a face that kids could never see through to, a face that could have been anyone capable of anything. But as I watched this particular clown plod around the grass, intentionally tripping on his oversized shoes and cranking out balloon animals with a speed nothing short of astonishing, something shifted in my perspective. We fear clowns because we fear what we don’t know, I thought—but the unknown doesn’t have to be bad.
The more I watched, the more entranced I became. I couldn’t tell for sure, but it looked like the guy under the paint and the silly clothes was genuinely having a good time. And as I pondered the prospect of extended unemployment, unemployment which could only be relieved by a grinding, soul-sucking job hunched over legal papers, I grew a little jealous. Suddenly, I found myself wondering how much this guy got paid.
“As much as $200 a gig,” the clown whose real name was Jeff told me when I approached him after the party. “And sometimes three or four gigs a day.”
I did the math in my head. Six to eight hundred dollars a day was definitely livable. Hell, it was more than livable—it was downright enticing.
Jeff pulled out a cigarette and lit it. “You don’t mind, do you?” he asked through a puff of smoke. I shook my head. He’d been surprisingly fast about wiping off his makeup, and the face underneath the masquerade was clean-shaven, calm, unassuming. He looked to be about 35 or 40.
“So is there, like, clown school or something? Do you have to get certified?”
Jeff let out a laugh that was strangely harsh.
“Clown school? Hell no, man. You just put on the suit and fuck around for a couple of hours. You can do anything in that suit, man. Even if you just sit around making fart noises—if you’re wearing the suit, those kids are gonna laugh.”
“So you like it then? Being a clown?”
He grinned at me, half perplexed, half understanding. “Hell yes, my friend. You’d be surprised. You get to make kids laugh—nothin’ better than a kid laughing, in my humble opinion—the pay is good, you control your own schedule, and chicks actually dig it, if you can believe that. I’ve laid more than one fine piece, you know, a single mom or somethin’ who was grateful I made her kid’s birthday party a fuckin’ hit.” He paused. “And of course, there’s other perks too.”
He emphasized that last sentence enough that I had to ask: “What other perks?”
At this, Jeff tossed his cigarette to the ground and crushed it with his foot, clearly meaning to go. But before he left, he reached into his pocket and handed me a card, emblazoned with the words CLOWN AROUND WITH US in bold, colorful letters.
“Call that number if you’re serious about this,” he said, pointing at a series of digits at the bottom of the card. “Maybe you’ll find out.”
Five years later, my life was great. Happy, peaceful, and fulfilling in every way. I was married to a beautiful woman, we had a daughter together, and we’d just moved into a nice place in the suburbs. And yes, before you ask—I was a clown.
I still kept in touch with some of my old law school friends, friends who had gone on to work at big firms and clerk for important judges. And you know what? They were all miserable as fuck. Every last one of ‘em. They never would’ve admitted it, of course, but I could see it behind their eyes—the 70-hour work-weeks and the endless stream of paperwork took a major toll. Here they were, in their late 20s and early 30s, the best years of a man’s life if he plays his cards right, and they were drowning in the deep end. What good is a private tennis court if you never have time to play?
Me, I was living within my means, but that was no problem. Clowning was fine money, and nobody raked in more of it than me. I had a hunch I’d be good at it, but the truth is, I was more than good—I was a natural. Before long, I’d made a name for myself, and parents were tripping over their own regular-sized shoes to get Helpful the Clown at their kid’s birthday party.
Before you roll your eyes too hard at the name, try and imagine that shtick—a clown named Helpful who constantly tries to be helpful and constantly fails. If Helpful tried to help cut the cake, it would somehow wind up in his hair. If Helpful tried to clean up a mess, it would become even bigger than before. Usually, I’d get someone else to “guest star” with me, shaking their heads exaggeratedly at all of Helpful’s fuck-ups. To say the kids loved it would be a huge understatement.
Yes sir, times were good—until the police showed up at my door and led me away in handcuffs.
Helpful the Clown tied another balloon animal—a duck, it looked like—and led Arielle Clayton, age four, farther away from the house. He beckoned into the open backseat of a car and slammed the door behind her once she got in. Then he hustled to the driver’s side door and sped the car away.
I couldn’t believe my eyes.
The detective stopped the tape, which had been taken from the doorbell camera of the Clayton’s home. He raised an eyebrow at me. “Still sticking with your story?”
Tears started to flow—I couldn’t help it. “That isn’t me! It isn’t! I don’t—I don’t know who that is but it’s not me, I swear!”
The detective grimaced. “Yeah, I know.”
I sat, stunned. “What—what do you mean, you know?”
“That footage was taken at just after 4:00 p.m.”
“Right, I was—”
“In the backyard, entertaining the kids. I know. Mr. and Mrs. Clayton told us, as did some of the other parents. So unless you could be in two places at once, it wasn’t you.”
I started to feel angry. “Well, then…then…then why the fuck am I here? Why’d you try and make me confess to something you already know I didn’t do?”
“Just because you ain’t the guy don’t mean you don’t know the guy,” he responded matter-of-factly. “Come on, kid. This one of your friends?”
I bristled a bit at this man calling me a kid—I was almost 30. Did he think hairy forearms and rolled-up sleeves gave him the right to talk down to me?
“All I know is it isn’t me. I’m not saying any more until I talk with my lawyer.”
The detective leaned in right next to my face and snarled, “Fine, you unhelpful piece of shit. But hear this—if something happens to that little girl, and you know anything you’re not spilling your guts over right now, her blood is on your fucking head.”
Jeff listened intently to my entire story. He sat up a bit straighter when I told him I’d discovered that one of my spare Helpful suits had gone missing.
“So it has to be somebody I know, right?” I asked, bewildered. “Either that, or some random person broke into my house and kifed my fuckin’ suit.”
“Yeah, man, that about covers it,” he said through a cloud of smoke. I had no idea how Jeff afforded so many cigarettes. Hell, I had no idea how he afforded the vast majority of his stuff, I thought as I looked around his living room. The latest in entertainment systems, a stunning grand piano, elegant bookshelves completely filled with leather bindings—I mean, being a clown paid the bills, but I didn’t see how it could pay for all this. Somehow, in our five years of friendship, I’d never worked up the courage to ask.
“So what are you gonna do?” he asked.
“What can I do? I’ve cooperated fully with the authorities and they don’t want anything more from me. They know I don’t know anything. Still…” I paused, contemplating my situation. “I don’t know if I can keep clowning. I mean, the Helpful brand took a pretty big hit. I doubt I can recover from this. Already my appointments are getting cancelled. Nobody wants to fuck around with the clown thing anymore.”
“That’s bullshit,” he said dismissively. “It’ll calm down. Kids get jacked all the time. If it was some dude in a plumber suit, folks wouldn’t stop hiring a plumber, they’d move on. Just lay low for a while, and then build your business back up.”
“Easy for you to say,” I said, gesturing around at the grand living room. Finally, I could take no more. I had to know. “Dude, how do you afford all this stuff? I still live on a budget, and I get more gigs than you do.”
He laughed, a cold, bitter sound. “Yeah, you do get more gigs than me.” Almost accusatory.
“Sorry,” I said quickly. “Hey, I’m gonna run and use your bathroom.” I was halfway down the hall when he called my name.
I poked my head back in the room. “What’s up?”
“I’m remodeling that bathroom. Use the one downstairs. Third door on the left.”
I shrugged and headed down the stairs. When I stepped into the main room in the basement, I realized I’d never been down here before, but I immediately saw why. In contrast to the impeccable floor above me, the basement was utterly dilapidated. I walked through in disbelief, wondering how somebody could stand to live on top of such filth. An intensely strong odor filled the air—and it seemed to be coming from behind a closed door at the beginning of the hallway. Despite my misgivings, I opened it, and a wave of the smell nearly brought up the contents of my stomach. Covering my nose and mouth, I looked in the room. I don’t know what I expected, but this is what I saw:
The room was empty, save for one small twin-sized mattress in the floor. The floor was covered in piles of shit and vomit. Blood stains smeared the walls. The last thing I saw was a collection of leather straps on the mattress—a muzzle.
“You alright down there?” Jeff called down from the top of the staircase. I nearly jumped out of my skin.
“Yeah…yeah, I’m good,” I called back, quietly closing the door to that awful room and making my way down to the third door on the left, the one Jeff had told me was the bathroom. I swung the door open and my bladder let go. It wasn’t a bathroom at all. It was a closet, and only one item of clothing hung within.
My spare Helpful the Clown suit.
“So, yeah, we need to talk.”
I whirled around. Jeff was standing about twenty feet away from me, smiling, blocking the hallway. I backed myself into the closet, feeling the clown suit brush up against my neck. “Stay away from me,” I demanded feebly.
He laughed. “Calm the fuck down, man, I ain’t gonna hurt you. Besides…I need you for this next part.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We need to pin this on someone else, my man. I can’t keep that thing in my closet for much longer. That suit is Public Enemy #1 right now.”
“You’re—you’re not gonna kill me?” I stammered.
“Why would I kill you? We’re friends, dude, remember? I’m the one who got you into this game in the first place. Nah, you’re gonna go home and get some rest, and I’ll figure out who’s gonna take the fall for this shit. Lot of cops driving by here lately. Maybe I’m paranoid, but…” his voice trailed off.
“And how do you know I won’t report you?” I asked. “Why do you trust me?”
“You’re already a person of interest, how do you think it’s gonna look if the kidnapper turns out to be your best friend? Think you’ll be able to convince a jury you had nothing to do with this? Maybe, but I doubt it—especially with all that money I gave you.”
“Money? You didn’t give me shit,” I said, bewildered.
“Check your bank account.”
I pulled out my phone and selected my bank’s app. Sure enough, Jeff had wired me a sizable sum just a few minutes before—$50,000.
“You son of a bitch.”
“There’s gratitude for you,” Jeff said easily, as though we were talking about the goddamn weather. “Now listen. You’ve got a choice to make here, so make it very carefully. You can work with me, and that money will keep coming. As long as you do everything I say, you’ll get a payment of fifty grand every month. Your other choice is to go to jail for a long time.”
I began to hyperventilate. “What are you,” I gasped, “some kind of a pervert?”
“Ha! You think I diddled that kid? You’re out of your mind. I kept her here for a couple days, and then I sold her. She left this morning.”
My head was spinning. I grabbed the doorframe for support. “Sold her? Sold her? To who?”
“Fuck if I know,” he said. “But nobody’s ever gonna find her again, that you can be sure of.”
He was right, I never saw Arielle Clayton again. To the best of my knowledge, nobody did. She wasn’t the only one. There were so many. So many children. To this day, I don’t know who we sold them to, and I don’t know what became of them. All I know is that once they saw the clown, their lives would never be the same.
I didn’t like it—I never did. But I had no choice, because Jeff gave me a quota: one child a month. If I failed to provide, he guaranteed, my little daughter would be next.
Apparently there were others like me, guys who got involved in clowning because it seemed like a way to make kids happy, guys who wound up getting caught in the most despicable underground trade imaginable. Some of them, like Jeff, came to like it—the power, the control, the money. Others, like me, couldn’t handle it.
There is no sight worse in this world than a child’s face when he realizes he’s made a terrible mistake. That he shouldn’t have lusted after that balloon armadillo, that smiling clown face, those squeaky shoes. That his parents, who spent so much time lecturing him about things that must have seemed so trivial, were right about Stranger Danger after all. Sometimes he cries, sometimes he screams, and sometimes he just sits there quietly as his innocence slowly floats away, but without fail he is simply too small and fragile and weak to stop it.
I never hurt them. I never touched them. I don’t think any of us did, actually. But I doubt the same can be said of the people we sold them to. I’m not stupid—I know I bathe in those sins. That’s why I could never treat my daughter the same once it all began. That’s why my wife finally had enough.
I don’t know if I believe in karma, but this life I live now is a convincing argument for it. The lung cancer is extraordinarily painful. The loneliness is almost overwhelming. The guilt is so heavy I feel I may be crushed. But maybe the worst thing of all is the fear. You see, when I finally managed to extract myself from the business, not all the clowns were on board with that. Some wanted to put a bullet in my head right then and there. Eventually it was decided that I could leave, but it was made very clear to me that if I breathed a word of this to the authorities, my daughter would be taken.
I want to turn back the clock and take back everything I’ve done, but I know I can’t. So I want to at least do something to make this right now. I didn’t say anything when my sister told her daughter, who is about the same age as Arielle Clayton was when she was taken, that clowns are an irrational fear. But I can pass the word along to you. Please, readers, tell your children:
Be afraid of clowns.
Be very afraid.