by Aleks Wittkamp
When I arrive in Hungry Pond for my first solo performance, I wear the makeup we call grotesque whiteface. It’s a base of white greasepaint under thin blue eyebrows, an overlarge red mouth, and bright cheekbones. It scares children and amuses parents. Either reaction is better than the non-reaction my own face gets me. As a young boy, I wanted so badly to excite people that I snuck into their homes and waited in their closets to scare them.
Hungry Pond’s Main Street is pure Rust Belt. Nothing has been repaired since the late 90s. The sidewalks are more crack than smooth. Sun-faded vinyl signs advertise the stores: Al’s Butcher Shop, The Nail Salon, The Corner Grocery. Circus performers call this sort of town a one-night stand. It’s dull enough that everyone comes to the show the first night, and it’s poor enough that nobody comes twice.
The Hungry Ponders give me eyes, but it’s not the usual what’s-a-clown-doing-here stare. Their pupils press into me like canines. Their nostrils snuffle at my frilled collar. Three old men sitting outside The Corner Grocery call me over. “Where’s the show?” they ask. They reach their swollen hands out to rub the fabric of my polka-dot onesie.
“The library!” I tell them, and I honk my nose.
One of the old men, his irises glaucomic, catches a spill of saliva in his palm before grabbing a fistful of my material. He shows me his teeth. They are big and healthy.
I was a bland white-blond teen. My thin skin was transparent to both light and attention. I didn’t want to be handsome; I wanted to be noticed. In grade ten, a classmate asked if I’d go bike riding with him on the weekend. I didn’t own a bike, but I told him I did. That Friday I stole a road bike from out front of the grocery store. All Saturday I waited for my classmate, but he didn’t show up.
A group of papermill workers come out of the diner. Grease shines around their mouths. They bump into me from all sides and fondle my big red buttons. The foreman in his blue cap leans in. “Can’t wait for the performance.” His breath fills my ear. He smells of fried meat. The workers bundle into a pair of rust-eaten pickup trucks and drive off. My pulse resounds in my skull. I hadn’t expected the whole town to know about the show. I rub my thumb over my ribs.
I wonder, sometimes, whether God is a clown. He’d be an Auguste. For makeup, that’s a ruddy base under exaggerated white-black features. On-stage, the whiteface commands the Auguste. “Pick up that anvil,” the whiteface says. The Auguste strains at it, splits his pants, and falls down. “Make people notice me,” I tell the God clown. He strains at this command, splits his pants, and falls down.
I took to hiding among the clothes at department stores. The shoppers sifted through the dresses, and I imagined I was what they searched for. Management banned me from the store the third time they caught me. The fifth time, they were going to call the police. I ran, but my feet snagged the clothing stand and I went head-first into a bucket of men’s underwear. I came up with a pair on my head. People laughed. The manager set down her phone.
From the direction of the library, a woman in a butter-yellow sundress comes walking. She waves so cheerfully that I check to see if someone’s behind me.
“I’m waving at you, silly!” Her hair is a tumble of chestnut curls, and her dress displays her figure attractively. She honks my nose and says, “When’s the show?”
“I’m on my way there now.” I’m not sure why, but I go on to say, “I’m thinking of calling it off.”
“Don’t be silly! You can’t call it off! The whole town is expecting you!”
“What’s at the library?”
A dreamy look comes over her. Her cheeks flush red, her lips part, and, ever so quietly, she moans. “The performance of your life!” She pulls me in for a kiss, and my makeup bleeds across her. She comes away looking grotesquely whiteface.
At clown school, they chose me to be a tramp. That’s a sooty base, white around the eyes and mouth, and a darkened false beard. The tramp is the butt of the joke. He gets kicked, sprayed, and made fun of. They said the role suited me. I refused. I became the whiteface. My shoe kicked the tramp’s behind. My flower sprayed the Auguste’s eyes. My whistle commanded the audience’s attention. Under the makeup, finally, they noticed me.
The closer I come to the library, the lower the sun gets. It’s midsummer, and the days ought to last well into the evening, but it’s nearing five and already gloom spreads across the sky like saliva across a tongue. The library is a handsome modern building of bright steel and angular glass. I run my fingertips across its metal siding and a sliver enters me. I suck it out with my teeth. At the glass doors I pause and look out over Hungry Pond. The last rays of sunshine dapple the rooftops. I could call the show off. I could head home. Gloom presses the sun below the horizon.
Inside the library, signs direct me to a basement stairwell.
The smell here is at once putrid and clean. It’s the smell of a bone stripped of its marrow. My footsteps echo around me like applause.
I don’t know what I’d expected. The basement room could be any library meeting room. A silver coffee urn perches next to a basket of donuts on a folding table. Fluorescent tubes hum in the ceiling. Dozens of Hungry Ponders sit in a circle on warped plastic chairs.
The buzz of conversation cuts out when the metal door swings shut behind me. People shift their chairs and I pass into the center of the circle. It is occupied by a massive grey-green toad.
The toad is squat and fat and hunched precariously forward on its thick forelimbs. A pink tongue splits its grey lips to pool around its feet. The smell of decay comes off the toad’s skin, which pulses in and out like lungs. There is no comfortable position for me next to the toad. I stand to the side in the Auguste’s place.
The three old men from before are in the audience, rubbing their palms together. The papermill foreman leers at me. The woman in the yellow sundress lets her tongue hang out. Dog-like, she pants. Every other person I’ve seen in town is there, and their eyes flick expectantly between me and the toad.
A rumbling builds in the toad’s gut. Its throat bulges into the shape of an enormous, grey-green scrotum. It ribbits. Green froth spills from between its lips and flows across the beige carpeting.
The Hungry Ponders gasp and applaud. They stomp their feet in the froth. They scream for more.
The toad lurches toward me. Its tongue drags behind it. It ribbits again and sour froth foams over my pants up to the knee. The smell is acidic and rotting. “Eat him!” the papermill foreman shouts. The woman in the yellow sun-dress groans. “Do it!”
My heart sinks. The Hungry Ponders don’t want me for me. They don’t want me to run a show. They want me to play the tramp, the butt of the greatest joke ever told: No matter what you think of yourself, you’re food.
The toad’s lips spread wide and its gullet is a growing black tunnel. Froth pools around the hard ridges in its mouth. Its tongue snakes forward, wraps around my knees, and pulls me in.
My life pushed me in this direction. No matter how talented I became, no matter how skilled at tricking people into liking me, they’ve been waiting for me to become the tramp.
I thrust my hand upward into the soft roof of the toad’s mouth. The orb there is its eye. I pinch it and draw a wail of pain. The townsfolk’s screams leak through the toad’s cheeks.
Today is the not the day I play the tramp. Nor is it the day I become the Auguste, undone by his illusion of control. I’m a grotesque whiteface. I decide what happens.
I draw my legs into the toad’s mouth. Its lips seal shut, and the blackness stifles me. The rot is so strong I can hardly breathe for retching. I plant my feet against the ridges of the toad’s mouth and push myself upward into its eyeballs. It bellows. The tongue tightens around my waist until my lungs seize. A rib snaps. I claw at the roof of the toad’s mouth. My fingernails slide across mucus. Nothing I do has any effect. I lose my mind. I pummel the roof of the toad’s mouth as fast and hard as I can. My knuckles flatten its eyes from below. Froth geysers from the toad’s throat. With a tremendous ribbit, it vomits me onto the carpetting.
My reappearance silences the Hungry Ponders. The toad crawls backward, its eyes meekly shut. Still reeling from the fumes in the toad’s mouth, I stumble to my feet, only to slip in the froth, fall forward, somersault, and land ungracefully on my bottom. The Hungry Ponders applaud. I hop back to my feet and call out, “Ladies and gentleman! For one day only, I am honoured to present the Hungry Pond Circus!”