The Clown

~ a short story

“Jokers are wild, D.”

The words fell to the forefront again, the voice of his grandmother resounding in mind. Dom held the thin card between his fingers, rolled it over his knuckles. Repeatedly, it bent but never creased. Resilient was this card, borne of a deck equally so. He faced its moving play produced from his lithe control, but yearned no memories from the moment all the years ago this deck had been bought for him. A standard set. $3.99. Nothing special about it and that standard plastic covering upon it, so well designed as to prevent such creases through that common cause of shuffling. No, Dom’s considerations were elsewhere. Thoughtlessly, he kept bending it through the seams of his fingers, distressing it to the limits of its resolve.

The stagnant, humid air of the night buffeted the young man. Sweat already poured from underneath his light, non-breathing shirt. Even his fingers, the ones willfully flipping the little playing card, were moist. His grip did not falter, however. He held it with the care afforded the night. The card was too important to him, especially at this moment. The small steps up and into the midnighted establishment beckoned. Dom began to walk up them, but slowly, intermittently. Little parts of him were still preparing.

Dom stopped turning it and inspected the art again. On opposite corners were two nearly identical jesters against a stark white background, replete with their flamboyant, multi-colorful jingling hats and elfin shoes rising up in their curls. A car passed behind him silently on the road, busier than usual. First day of the weekend. People were out. And so was he. The two of them danced and jived and smiled eternally, their legs up and their backsides out. In the center was the face of a third gentleman and his grin. This one’s hat was splayed in all the directions of a star, alternating gold and purple. Or was he the same one? Dom wondered. Three different iterations, three different personas. Only one joker, jester, clown.

“Jokers are wild, D. That means they are the best, most versatile draw. Any card you need ’em to be, in any situation. That’s your jester. Most don’t keep ’em in the deck, see. Not a part of the fifty-two. Not a part of your standard game. But I like to keep our little clown. Makes things more interesting. Whoever grinned like this at your ‘standard’ game? Ha! Why not make things wilder? … We only have one of ’em, though. Rarity ups the stakes. One out of fifty-three means you only draw the jester every once in a while. Inevitably it comes when you need him most, to change everything about your hand and the game at whatever stage you come across him, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat and such, spicing the pot with wayward chances and turns within the game. Makes it better for everyone, even if they don’t appreciate it. Got it? … Shall we play, D?”

Dom carefully placed the card back into his left breast pocket, patted it twice, and proceeded through the doorway with a developing grin.

~

Inside, in the wilderness, the people conversed as the music played, lights low and spirits high. Low ceilings further shadowed the simple bar’s expanses. Dom’s steps lightened one after another. At the bar were cadres of companions, new and old, awaiting his arrival with anticipation. As Dom took them in, the frayed edges of his person became hardened, his course more definite and clear to him. Other parts of him pruned themselves away, easily and in a routined craftsmanship. The grin lost its forcefulness and became an easy and sincere smile. When the cadre saw Dom, they reciprocated. The grift was on.

On the walls were alternative posters for overplayed movies; on the screens were obscurantist music videos to the songs no one enjoyed until they heard them. The totality of Dom’s signature persona arose to the task at hand, backing him, urging him, guiding him into their midst.

Eye contact is met, engagement is set upon, and the wild game begins.

Dom cultivated ideas and spit words at the speed of a mind borne for such play. The start is slow but momentum is gathered without many impasses. He commanded the connections that needed to be made for it to work. He’d know the unseen person and their inclinations, the reason for their absence, the light that may be shed on them, for good or ill, to advance the interaction further into its destined fruits. He’d seen the show, or heard of its cleverness, or been long apprised of its most well-heated take. He’d share his own upon the person, or the subject or the take itself, but only if it served him, and served his counterparts’s fancies. The latter was so much more important; so much so, that it superseded the former every time it came to anything resembling blows. At a future stead, the courses of one’s lives, of the collective life of the career or even just the party, inevitably rose to the forefront of the converse. It was opener and endgame, alpha and omega. It only ever made sense to him. After all, these matters were already at the constant shores of his own mind. Much the same as his heart, now shielded by the wildness of his own shadowy counterpart, veiled source behind his thoughts, words and actions, grinning and dancing with reckless abandon. These parts of his mind were not present for this event, shrouded in the darkness of his responsibility. 

For Dom, every conversation, every cooperative interaction among friends or strangers or enemies was education. And Dom was educated. Not a master, but on the path to maybe becoming one. In at least one, singular position and craft. In the conversational collaborations and duels and appraisals and invectives, all astride a sea of short and long-sighted attitudes and sayings amongst different groups, it only ever came down to one singular principle for him: Say the un-obvious thing. If Dom held any pet peeves, it was statements of the obvious. It was never interesting or funny, always easy. If he accomplished nothing else in his work amongst these groups and their incessant socializing, he wished to say things people had not heard or thought of. Or at least, only half-considered, or never imagined in quite the way he delivered. In any of these conversations, a goal was to reach a little further into the hearts and minds of the personages in play. This could only be done with novel words due their novel landings.

Dom listened and developed a comical inference. He waited for the right moment of delivery, and did his duty. More goodwill, conscious or no, was produced. Dom, drink in hand and bobbing on his calves so as to stay focused, returned to his base state of a vigilant smile bolstered by his bold stand, just a bit taller than he should be.

Tonight, same as ever, the conversation’s relative essence as an activity men and women do while in each other’s darkened and alcohol-misted midsts was meaninglessness beyond the sharing of information and ‘the catching up’, and the occasional forging of indestructible bonds of companionable memories. Dom didn’t have many of those; and thus, he valued them most of all out of hand. Such thinking was obvious. But Dom also understood all this to be the secondary goal. It was so secondary, subsequent to the primary considerations in conversing, because it was difficult. Progress in these arenas of companionable bonding demanded vulnerability and time and a certain established pathos for the mission at hand. Not so easy to come by, in any group and in any time and place. Thus, it was an ancillary windfall. Welcomed but rarely hoped for in an experienced holder of cards.

The primary goal, Dom recounted while verbally riposting and drawing up newfangled depictions of the latest pop culture monolith tying to the group’s strange personal histories… the primary goal was good humor. Laughter was why people kept coming. Initiatory to any real developments within the relationships, acquaintanceships or friendships or something even beyond that, there was the sharing of “funny” experiences. Being funny was the best thing one could be here. For Dom, it was his only card to play. So he played it with gusto, for more than one decade now.

He kept returning here, with the whimsy in hand, to perform the verbal dance it felt he was born for.

Dom thinks mostly of himself in all this. Only of himself, truly. He considers only the volume of the laughter, the intensity of the following engagements spouting from his own mouth in consequence. They ask for him back so his impressions must be consistent with weightage more positive than negative, right? This is the primary indicator for his prosperity, many times, the only one: the follow-up, the 2nd interaction beyond that precious opening salvo. Feedback as nectar. The countering grins and the invitation to summon them again in another time and place is the only way Dom knows he’s appreciated. He eats it up with his false grin, momentarily uplifted by the prospects of more chances to bear his false heart bursting with its critical humor and its vexing ambivalence. All of the repression, the thin mask over his heart giving nothing, taking all — it’s part of the act that has become his waking life; part of the stand he continually crafts. It is the only reason why he is effective, although he doesn’t grace it with any thought because he doesn’t grasp that.

In these minutes, while Dom pauses to sip his rancor in a dulling coolness, some things are changing.

Dom stepped back as his latest trump rounded off the work of the setup and the bellowing of the group followed suit. He nodded, searching his deck for the next course, efficiently moving on to the next gambit. The vital dins from the bar room’s revelry near and far from his radial position here at this moment go unnoticed. All Dom sees is the table, the other players, flop, turn, river. Endgame. The faceless crowd is lost in a background as stationary as a piece of artwork.

Dom saw every single game as an opportunity. For his civil providence, he had a role to play to afford him and capitalize on said ops. Dom bore witness to a perverse responsibility within it all. At surface, he simply played to his talents, working his hand as best he could. In a deeper seat, the young man was bearing out a complex in which only he could do so, ‘the one within the fifty-three.’ A one-off.

Once again, Dom pushes away the thought of the clown’s unique loneliness, carrying no suited companions of royal hierarchy or threadbare chronology of numbers to lead on or to follow from. With a smile, Dom chooses to see only the shining power of the jester’s singularity, and not his solitude.

Here tonight, Dom sits in the deeper seat. Revelations befall him even now, of himself and his position amongst these ‘companions.’ In the midst of another round of drinks, and another hand of light slaps of belly borne from cloying words from his own sincerely trying breaths, Dom’s mask is shifting. Faltering, a better word. His mid-game stories do not land without considerable volatility, and with more words than necessary to bring them back to bear. They fail to connect because they are founded in nothing but wit and wit alone. No underlying experience binds them and purchases their authenticity out of anything in the world of the real, ‘the world men and women living their lives as more than art.’ At this, Dom’s inexperience shows out to those he tries to communicate with. All his secret consumptions, of arts and poetics and comedies, do him no good here. They are secrets, unshared and uncooperative among his co-conversers.

Dom sweats as he speaks. The inner revelations fall upon him, even as the outer conversation slows. They rain as they have before, before once more being willfully forgotten in the folds and minutia of his persona’s welcoming inner, protective ignorance. They fall as rain fast turning to daggers. That inner umbrella is crafted from the same stuff as his stories. Any shelter built to withstand this eventuality is far. So far that Dom cannot see it (and never has). So far that Dom believes he alone could never make it that far, unallied with anyone faster and more home on the road. In an unseen truth to this particular speaker, the shelter he conceives is so far that he could never possibly make it that far alone. But he is alone.

When a clown’s around nobody can frown!

The inane phrase suddenly came into mind. From where? The flash of some long forgotten commercial of his youth, from a distant and misty Saturday morning? From father? No. Where then? Where are these damned words sourcing from? Dom wondered angrily, wistfully, despairingly. The untruth of it stuck in his gut like a blade.

When a clown’s around

Who cares when he’s not? A clown is indispensable to no one. Even to himself? Dom stopped thinking and started talking again, louder this time, his turn more boisterous and jumpy, the scenarios he plotted for his audience more absurd. His smile grew wider and it came naturally. The returns are less so. Nothing is hitting. Dom believed it to be because they could tell. He fell silent again. … nobody can frown. He turned the one forming upon his face into an expression of neutrality. Forced, but neutral nonetheless.

Soon after their latest bouts, the group shifts positions and Dom takes his moment to regroup and reassess. He waits for the next flop. The meandering cadre of revelatory truths are dodged and braved in equal measure. Dom hopes his sudden hesitances in the conversing, his inner despairs and fears of coming failures go unnoticed in the purview of those he works with on this night. He would be satisfied to know they do not notice. But he would be caught in some new, darker kind of despair — as he soon will be — to know just how much they do not notice, or understand, or care.

The underlying truth, present each and every time and unforgotten up to now: Dom is not borne of ‘their’ world; he is unfit to work his craft amongst them in any worldly way, especially in any space beyond these darkened rooms of beats and saturnalia. He is invited to the dark rooms for an express purpose. Time in is demarcated quite intensively from time out, amongst them, amongst other folk. The real ones, the ones residing outside of his weirded, wayward mind bustling with characters of his own unconscious creation. They – the real people out here – held no thought of him when he was away. No acknowledging sighs for any time at all their clown wasn’t right there before them, dazzling them, daring them beyond their mundanity for a spell.

The parties, the events, the social atmosphere at which he arrives at the ramparts of, these are games and tables to which he dons a character they need as much as he does. From force of habit, and the repetition of hidden hearts welcome to the fooling, the game is quite effective. Routine permits him the confidence to beckon his steps up of his own volition, his card at his breast and his smile equipped and ready to be wielded. It was always swung with a passion he can find nowhere else and amidst no other types of company. Even as he misses widely the experiences his spirit obliges, he is able to put on his play here, to a welcoming audience awaiting it.

Dom is home, just away from hearth, astride acquaintances.

Dom, a beguiling personage devoid of all worldly faire, endowed his ersatz stage and temporary attentiveness.

Dom, the one there to entertain, to make everyone forget amidst his casting, rare and rousing in his work; the one who enters to leave his light behind him, at the stead of the crowd jeering and jabbering with the prospective escape of fleeting humours.

Dom, so much a clown due his special coterie.

An outsider is furnished his tao as jester by some strange brew of history and expectation. Dom is funny. “Dom, what do you think of this?” Dom is self-aware. “Oh, you gotta show this to Dom.” Dom is wacky and contributes to any possible intrigue in play. “We gotta invite Dom to this. It’s gonna be insane.” The mix is out of the actor’s control; his mask crafted by hands unseen and unknown, and it is strangely well-crafted. Dom is never remiss, however, to find that the mask fits. It is worn in comfort. Like an old friend birthed upon his old spot, warmed and welcomed, Dom accepts it into himself every time, with a grin fast becoming indistinguishable from the authentic. The one which is held away in tragedy, for longer and longer days, its original lock-up long past and long forgotten.

All this is a truth Dom presents to himself. Thus, it’s as true as any objectivity as to position. In these social atmospheres, his work as the wild one is promised and earned.

At the new table, Dom tacks onto the latest story with a white lie of his own. This one lands, chuckles are had, and Dom sighs, breathing a little easier.

And yet, the mask has slipped its hold. It is gone, and no one else yet notices.

Except Dom, even in the work, in the game, cards in hand, who takes note of it now for the first time.

~

Dom once the heard the words, indirectly half-remembered, even spawning from within a fevre dream,

“A persona is a mask, but also an armor, for the heart, and is so donned when confronting worldly matters.”

Dom imbued these words into his heart, even while he co-created his persona to perform the work required of him.

Required. Granny seemed to know it. From long before Dom understood the reason or the context or the mechanics and design of his own actions, he was ‘funny.’ A goof, a comic, a trickster and stooge. Top banana. A humorist disguised as a stupid little kid. A clown. Dom’s yearning for humor was compulsory, automatic, unconscious. This indicated it as necessary.

The innateness of it made his transformation as ‘the clown’ amongst the collective that much simpler and easier. His aptitudes for the craft fashion him his place at the table, on the ship, in the hearts and minds of his peers. His position here makes his work easier, as he is finally afforded the time to experience them and their wild worlds. This is what he drew from to feed his inner wilderness, gathering factual drama to wield as fictional comedy.

All of it begged the question to the boy: did Granny know of my position inherently and so awarded the jester to fit my bill? Or did her action, to include the wild little jokester in our precious game, will my destiny on to such a role, to wield this persona? Did she act as empowerer or emperor, investing or dictating?

Did it matter? His heart told him that it was the former. Granny was his longest and strongest ally in this cold life of his. Colder still at the possibility he draws here of her duplicity. And coldest of all in the knowledge that Dom could never trust his heart in these matters, and never had before.

Dom couldn’t be sure of the truth. And so he chuckled to himself, lost in himself at the table, trying to hide from further inquiry or expectation.

But Dom was becoming sure of something else, something far aside from the core of his revelations thus far. Not so far, though. Not so far as he hoped.

All the facts and circumstances and states of truer being, as a person in this world, who walks and talks and sometimes goes to strange and dark places to try to live and interact and make people laugh, or just be happy to see him — all this was hidden from view. The only unobscured piece of him was the card, and its standing presence presenting itself to those he attempted to connect with. Attempt, because that’s all it was. Attempts and subsequent failures, due directly to this newfound special fact. The truth — of a mask and its transformative properties, to grin and to sow the seeds of an outwardly extravagant and inwardly false joviality.

Dom, staring momentarily through unmasked eyes to the table in a rare silence, beckons a final revelation:

The clown never shares his burdens, only his mirth.

Dom suffers from this, and has suffered. This burdened boy, this impactful and rare little dealer in the absurd, drawn up only ever so often as a spice and a salve to the others, for the others. The card burns upon his chest, beating his heart into a fuller and speedier flow. Dom hopes for some kind of change to his bizarre position. At this bespectacled table, a hopeful, releasing change is willfully coaxed out of his secret heart, shadowed by an eternally smiling persona of regressively wacky rendition that cannot be dispelled any longer. The smiling man, of wayward and hackneyed purple & gold, shadows Dom, pressing him on and on in his game. His struggle made manifest as a persona he can never doff. Dom smiles in a mirrored resignation at the futility of it.

Dom hopes for this sight to somehow become collective one day. Maybe at the shared converse of fellow escapists, personas fully rendered out of their own secret escapes he could never fathom, they may finally communicate, and stop laughing away their fears. Dom yearns for all their unmasked faces to regard the reality of this game they keep playing, at the last, yet sooner rather than later. Dom does so, even as he grins and sets up another hand for playing, acting upon the only routine he knows, holding the only card he wields, casting it the only way he ever has. ~