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Nancy & Jester

By Adam Ares

During weekends at Auntie Emma’s house, my brother ate chicken nuggets. I often watched him lean over the tray table, forking nuggets—dragging them through the ketchup, disappearing them into his mouth with only a flick of the wrist. He looked like a juggler at the circus, so I knew he was a clown.

***

Sometimes, Auntie Emma and her boyfriend took us to the movies. This could be awkward, because my brother wasn't comfortable around men. Pretending to examine a spot on my dress, I would watch from the corner of my eye as he stared.

If only I could cover that face in white make-up, I knew that it would be the happiest in the world. He was going to be the perfect clown. He was so little; so cute; confused, but talented.

***

He started trying to wear my clothes. I sat him down and explained that it was not okay for him to wear my tights, because I was a girl and he was a clown. I said that girls were allowed to wear black tights, but that clowns could only wear silly striped ones, in colors like pink and blue.

He winced at my mention of the word "clown." I made a silent note to refer to him henceforth as a "jester," instead. I noticed that this had a nice ring to it, and decided that it was his new name.

***

We went to the local courthouse. "Excuse me," I said to the secretary, "Where can I file a Petition for Name Change? It's for my brother. He's 10 years old, but I'm 13, if that's relevant."

"You'll need his parent or guardian to do that," she told me.

"Well, our mother never leaves the house," I said, "And our dad's dead."

"Way dead," Jester added, "I saw it happen. It was weird."

"I'm sorry to hear that," the secretary told us, "But you're not allowed to do that sort of thing for yourself until you're 18. What's the reason for the name change?"

"Occupational," I said. "He's going to be a clown." I patted Jester on the head. He smiled and nuzzled his head against my armpit.

***

That summer, my brother and I became closer than ever. I gave up trying to change his name legally, but he got used to being called "Jester." Meanwhile, a local theater company was preparing an adaptation of my novel, Diary of a Little Girl (self-published with the help of my father, while he was still alive). Jester would sometimes take over my share of the housework, so I could visit with the cast and watch their rehearsals.

One night, I returned home particularly late, to find that Jester was lying awake in his bed and crying. "You were with Jason, weren't you," he said. This was a question, but he spoke it as a declaration. His pronunciation of the word you whistled through clenched teeth.

“Yeah, he made me dinner. Did you miss me?” I sat down on his bed the way that parents do in the movies. “I told you that I might be out late tonight.”

“And how was dinner.” It was as though he’d forgotten how to raise the pitch of his voice when asking a question.

“It was good. We had wine. Have you ever tried Port?”

“I’m ten years old.”

“Well, yeah, but whatever. I'm 13. I don't know what you've been doing at recess.”

“I’m also not a clown. There. I said it.” His back was to me. I touched his arm. He pulled me next to him.

Once I was holding him, the biggest sobs began. He breathed in short, violent gasps, so sudden and so forceful that they reminded me of a flushing vacuum toilet. Maybe he was right. Maybe he wasn’t a clown; but he would be, in time. He was my brother, after all. I loved him. I wasn’t about to let him give up on his place in society. I would make him the greatest clown that the world had ever seen.

***

Jason was my first lover. Our involvement lasted until the cast party for Diary of a Little Girl. There, I took him aside and explained my situation— that I was going to begin work as a dishwasher in order to buy private Clowning lessons for my brother. Between working and taking care of the household, I would have neither the time nor the energy to maintain any sort of romance— let alone one that regularly required my assuaging the guilt of a 26-year-old who would collapse on my bosom and weep, “Thirteen! Thirteen!” while grasping feebly at his bed sheets. I’m not sure how I phrased this all, exactly, except for the words “while grasping feebly,” which remained a running joke between Jester and I for quite some time.

***

I knew that it would take a small miracle for Jester to agree to clowning lessons. This miracle, I decided, would come in the form of the world-famous Socko the Clown.

***

I had correctly guessed that Socko, out of costume, would act mean. I was therefore prepared for the scowl that met me after I knocked on his door.

"Mr. Sheriden, I presume?"

"Yes," he answered flatly, "And you are…?"

"My name's Nancy." I extended my hand. He received it uncertainly. "I'm a novelist. I know that it's a bit unusual for me to visit unannounced, but I have a business proposal for you."

"You're a novelist."

"I'm the author of Diary of a Little Girl. It was well reviewed, but not so much a commercial success here in the States. I'm also a dishwasher on the side. And I'm starting the eighth grade soon. But what I'd like to talk with you about are my plans for a follow-up to the Diary. I'm not sure how familiar you are with presentation software— " I patted the laptop under my arm, “but I've put together some slides with PowerPoint that I think will help illustrate my proposal," I breathed. "If I might be so bold as to request fifteen minutes of your time this afternoon."

His expression was changing into one of concern. He looked into my eyes, which were pointed toward his own but never focused. I avoided eye contact as a matter of course. His pretense was softened. The old clown let me inside.

***

"Little girl— Nancy, did you say your name was?"

I nodded. He looked confused.

"What do your parents do for a living?"

The fingers of his left hand massaged the palm of his right hand. He was leaning forward in his chair. The elastic in my socks had worn out, so I kept pulling at them. "My father died a few years ago," I told him. "He was fishing with my brother in the middle of a lake and got struck by lightning."

He watched my eyes again. A few seconds later, he responded, "I'm so sorry, little girl."

"I'm okay, but my brother gets flashbacks."

"He was in the boat."

"The death would be one thing— "

"But seeing it— "

"No," I said firmly, "That's not it. He was eight years old. He couldn't drive a boat. He couldn't swim: he only knew how to doggy paddle. And there was Dad, thrown into the water when he was hit. My brother didn't know whether the body might be dead or alive. The flashbacks aren't about what he saw; they're about what he thought. Was Dad dying? Was he supposed to pull him out from the water? If he touched Dad, would he get electrocuted, too? Should he try to do CPR? Should he doggy-paddle to the shore? Teach himself how to drive the boat? What happens now is, my brother gets flashbacks to this thought process. He starts thinking, Am I supposed to save my father? If so, how? How can I save my father, when there's no one to tell me how to save my father? He's the person I want to talk with you about, my brother. He's going to become a clown. He's a natural."

Socko the Clown was starting to cry. I walked over and held him. He felt like my brother, with the way his chest heaved, and the way his head kept moving like a bobble-head doll.

***

"It's a pleasure to meet you," said Mr. Sheriden.

"You're Socko the Clown?" asked Jester.

"Until recently I was, yes."

"Do the thing, then."

Mr. Sheriden did the thing.

"Wow."

***

They sat next to each other and began to get acquainted. I pulled a cigarette from my purse. My blood sugar was low, so I tried not to move too quickly. I passed through the kitchen, out to the smoking porch. The working title for my next book was A Clown is Born. On the front of my notepad, I had written the words, Clown Notes, in purple ink.

I lit the cigarette and guessed what they might be doing. Mr. Sheriden would probably want to speak with Jester in his own excruciating terms— as adults so frequently did— but Jester would demand immediate action and want to learn juggling right away. Mr. Sheriden would laugh, invigorated by this enthusiasm.

Months and years would have to pass before my brother mastered the art of clowning. He would be a prodigy, nonetheless. Being Socko the Clown's protégé would ensure him a career. I would be saddened by his early departure from home.

All was according to plan.

***

Jester was snoring. His arm dangled over the side of Auntie Emma's couch. I elbowed the beanbag chair to make myself more comfortable.

Auntie Emma exited her room. She was barefoot. She stepped over dirty clothes and dishes. Her hand came to rest on the top of my head.

“Hey, Nancy,” she whispered, “What are you doing awake?”

"Can't sleep," I told her.

"That's sad," she said, "A girl your age, having insomnia." Her hand moved through my hair, then pulled away, yanking out several strands. I winced. She didn't notice my expression.

***

"Mama," Jester was mumbling in his sleep, "Mama."

I threw a pillow at him.

 

Adam Ares has green eyes, dark brown hair, and a wide smile.  He will soon finish his B.A. in English.

Photo "Creepy Face Mask" courtesy of Kadri Poldma, Tallinn, Estonia.

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