S E L L I N G S E A S H E L L S ,
P A R T 2 : T H E
C I R C U S W O R K E R A N D
T H E C L O W N .
BY MATT WARE
Rubber baby buggy bumpers. And for twins, no less. Vernon Gurney just smiled and shook his head. He’d seen a lot in his twenty-six years with the circus, but something new always rolled by. That was part of the fun.
Every night, and twice on Sundays, Vernon watched the big top fill up and empty out again and every night and twice on Sundays, he felt happy to be part of the circus. Nobody really noticed Vernon standing off to the side in his security uniform. He wasn’t anyone that anyone would notice. He couldn’t swallow swords or squeeze into the cozy confines of the clown car. He was a little bit heavy and a lot from Ohio. In most ways, he was just like all those people who chattered through the turnstiles every night and twice on Sundays. But he wasn’t like them in every way. Vernon Gurney was different in a very important respect. Vernon Gurney was living his dream.
At least a dozen trips to the hospital. That’s what his mom reckoned anyway. Vernon had lost count after about the fifth. He must have tried everything, from eating fire (six-day stay) to walking a home-strung tightrope (four days plus pins in both ankles) to climbing into the lion pen with a chair at the Columbus Zoo (three weeks, a hundred and sixteen stitches and two front-page articles). With great personal sacrifice, Vernon discovered that he had not a single marketable circus talent. Most would have quit there, but Vernon wasn’t most.
He got his first break cleaning up after the elephant show. A hundred a week, but he would have done it for nothing. No one had ever been so happy to shovel shit. From there, he just kept hanging around and now, a few decades later, he got to stand here every night, and twice on Sundays, to see that everyone enjoyed the show as much as he did. Nobody really noticed Vernon as they laughed and whispered and clapped, but he was happy that way. He wasn’t really cut out for the center ring anyway. He was happy to just stand on the edge and watch the people pour through with their surprise and their wonder and their rubber baby buggy bumpers. Always, something new. Vernon Gurney shook his head and smiled.
One smart fellow, he felt smart. Not only did he feel smart, he was smart. Not only was he smart, he was smartly dressed. And not only was he smartly dressed, he was a millionaire. And not only was he a millionaire, he was a circus clown. But he was also very sad.
What, you may ask, could possibly be making a super-intelligent, dapper, millionaire circus clown with good self-esteem feel so down? Well, it seems that not only did our smart fellow feel smart, he also felt very alone. Smart and alone; a terrible combination for anyone, but particularly for a clown. Every day our clown felt the horrible weight of his loneliness perched upon his shoulders like a slumbering pachyderm. A horrible, terrible elephant of loneliness that was there with him, riding on his back, everywhere he went. Even out into the bright spotlight and the nightly avalanche of applause.
The children, of course, they laughed and laughed. Children loved our clown. But our clown, he could only cry.
And then, one day, in a nameless coastal hamlet, a salty village by the sea, our clown went walking. He was looking, as he always did, for somewhere to drop off his loneliness elephant, if only for a little while. Size twenty-eight red shoes shuffled softly on the boardwalk wood. And then, he saw her. She stood, like him, alone. She looked like she’d been outside all afternoon, many afternoons. Her nose was red, like his, but smaller. She looked up from her shells. She had a sign: three for a dollar, except dollars (sand) for three. Their eyes met. Somewhere, an old man spat and tossed another herring into the ocean. She turned her cheek to the breeze and looked down the empty beach. Neither our clown nor his elephant had ever seen anything so lovely. He went to her, all polka dots and desire.
“I’d like three of your finest shells, please.”
She gazed down the beach and the surf rolled and the wind blew salty and our clown stood trembling while his loneliness elephant, Dumbo-like, tested the breeze with its ears, as though for flight. Slowly, slowly, she turned away from the breeze and again regarded our clown. He no longer felt smart. Or well-dressed. Or even alone. He felt nothing but the squeezed lemon seconds of breathless anticipation.
“You know,” she said, regarding our clown in the breeze, “I’ve never been to the circus.”
All was silent, save the gulls and the breakers and the midway calls of a hectoring barker. The two regarded each other, clown and maiden.
“But maybe I’ve been wrong. Perhaps I shall go after all.”
Somewhere, a few hundred yards out to sea, there was a loud splash, as though a large, African mammal had been dropped from a great height.
One smart fellow, he felt free.