"You don't get it, kid. This job ain't about makin' people laugh." He exhaled cigar smoke with every word. The name on the label stuck to one of the suspenders holding up his hoop-waisted trousers read: 'Foboz'. He had the eyes of a disillusioned cultist and obviously hadn't shaved or showered in a while, his greasepaint smudgy and rough-looking for being plastered over several days' growth. "Do you know where we got the word 'circus'? Think about bullfights."
Dingdong abandoned his piled-high plate of shrimp and ahem'd, the deliberate cough of a non-smoker, while flapping the end of his oversized purple tie at the offending fumes. "Sure, it's about making people laugh. That's what we do." He raised his voice to compete with tinny carnival music blaring from the wall-mounted speakers overhead. "I don't think you're allowed to smoke in here."
Foboz exhaled another fat cloud. "No, you don't get it. The job of a clown is to distract, to obfuscate. We're the right hand that hides what the left hand is doing. We make the audience laugh so they don't think too hard about what might happen if the knife-thrower misses, trapeze artists splitting open on impact, lions chowin' down on the tamer. You get the picture."
"I. Uh..." The convention was winding down now, but even at this late hour the venue was still a motley parade of razzle-dazzle wigs and painted faces, unicycle salesmen and lurching stilt-men. Dingdong watched as flakes of cigar ash floated into the salad trays. He swept a surreptitious look around the rest of the hall in the hope of spotting a security guard. "I'm just
going to get a drink."
Foboz grappled Dingdong's shirtfront and tugged him close, his teeth gritted around the cigar stub, "Listen, I don't have much time. You ever wonder where it all began?"
Dingdong had started to struggle, but stopped when it occurred to him that maybe this guy could get really violent or even be armed, some kind of circus-hating terrorist. "Let go," he said, in his best calm-but-firm voice, "Or I'll have to call security."
"We weren't always hired buffoons. Time was, we were holy men. Sacred fools. Masked, drugged to the gills and set loose to roam the streets, gibberin' threats at sinners and singin' praise to the faithful. We were avatars of the gods, masks of flesh through which they walked and talked in the world."
"Quit that!" The cigar-end fell from Foboz's mouth and rolled to a stop against the other man's right shoe, a size 28 lime green fat-toe from which rose the faint and acrid smell of burning plastic. "I get this one chance a year to tell somebody the truth. This year, it's you. And you're gonna listen. 'Cause if you do, maybe you won't die."
Dingdong planted his palm against his assailant's chest and shoved hard, "Security!"
Foboz stumbled back against the table, upending the potato salad. The tub never hit the floor.
It took Dingdong several seconds to realise that the hubbub around them had stopped. Foam-cream pies hovered in the sudden silence. Tumblers and contortionists froze, in rolls and knots respectively, and ludicrous flower-buttons spurted thin arcs of what looked like solid ice.
He gaped, orange-triangle eyebrows hitching high. "How
"Gods, son. Forces beyond our mortal reckonin'. Most are gone now, at least in these parts, but a few still hang around. We clowns, we're the avatars of Death. And that's what you call job security - Death's the one god none of us'll never be rid of. Why do you think so many kids end up with clown trauma? They ain't so blind to the truth, is why."
Dingdong's painted-on smile bent into a far less cheerful shape. "You're
going to kill me."
"No, I ain't. I'm giving you a chance here, a way to hold off from dyin' for a time. You ever hear of mummers? Kachinas? People have always put on crazy get-ups and acted the fool. But it wasn't always to make people laugh. You know what laughter is, son? It's a talisman against fear. What does a monkey do when it's scared? It shows its teeth." Foboz smiled, a wide rictus of yellowed ivory ringed in red and white paint.
Dingdong nodded, his eyes taking on a glassy look, "I see."
"No you don't," the smile vanished. "Laughter is a gut reaction to our own mortality. We've just softened it up some, 'cause we can't take the horror of oblivion shiverin' down our necks every minute. We can't stand the idea of comin' to an end. But every one of us does, son. That's the joke. And when we laugh, that's us barin' our teeth at Death like the scared, defiant little monkeys we are."
why are you telling me this?" Beads of sweat bulged through Dingdong's greasepaint, "Why me?"
Foboz shrugged, his polka dotted pants hitching up and down with the motion of his trouser hoop. "World's a different place now. Death ain't so free to roam as he was in the past, so I'm it the last of the avatars, and it's long past time I retired. A hundred and ninety-seven years, now, I've looked for a clown among clowns, a man who could take Death into himself and not show his teeth. And I think maybe that clown might be you
" He paused to read the other man's tag, "Dingdong."
"Wh.. what about the others? The ones from all those other years?"
"Let's just say, ain't none of 'em fit for the big top now." And then the room was once more a bustle of life, motion and sound resuming as suddenly as it had ceased. The salad tub collided with the floor in a spatter of potato chunks and mayonnaise. Pies hit faces, stilt-men wobbled, music jangled. Foboz cracked an awful grin. "You ate the shrimp, already, right? Of course you did. Who doesn't eat free shrimp? So in about three hours, you'll be dead, along with eighty-four percent of the clowns in this room. No point warnin' anyone, if that's your next thought, it's too late for that. There's a choice you have to make, son. Take my place right now, or don't. You're gonna die anyway, so if you fail the test, you've got not a thing to lose. But if you pass
"I get to live?" Dingdong cringed away from a spider-limbed mime in a hat adorned with a huge, blue daisy, who was nudging past him to pick at the seafood platter.
"Better than that. You get to remind people to smile when the Reaper comes callin'. And you'll live forever, or until the novelty wears out and you find yourself a replacement." He seemed to have shrunk while he spoke, become old and very grey as though his face, wig and hat had smeared into a single, colourless lump. "Like I
Foboz slumped and collapsed mid-sentence, caving in on himself. A moment later Dingdong was staring at a pile of dust dressed in a loud shirt and hoop-waisted trousers.
The mime in the flower hat dropped her plate, clutching at her stomach. Somebody at the front of the hall shouted for an ambulance. The music twisted into the next synthetic barrel-organ tune.
Dingdong bared his teeth, laughter rising in his throat like shrimp-flavoured vomit.