I don’t normally write short stories. It’s just not my thing. But St Pete’s local literary organization (shout out to Keep St Pete Lit!) sponsored a short story contest as part of its festival of all things literary called the Sun Lit Festival. So I entered. As you may have surmised from the blog’s title, I did not win. Despite my loser status, I like my odd little story. I’m thinking it may be the seed that grows into a book someday. We’ll see. Anyway here it is. My take on the prompt: “the last time I saw my ______ she/he/they were _______”
The Last Time I Saw My Mother
The last time I saw my mother, she was a he. No. no. It’s not what you’re thinking. I kinda wish it was. Trans parents are very in right now. Not that I really care about what’s “in” but it seems like there’s a lot of information out there these days. They could google it. Or they might have watched that show. It might make my story more relatable. People might not look at me with that “uh … she was what?” expression.
No. The last time I saw my mother she was Elmer. Elmer the clown. There I’ve said it. My mother was a clown. A real life, white face, red lip, orange wig, floppy shoe, horn blowing clown. But not even a happy clown. She was one of those sad ones. The kind that got laughs by messing things up and being the butt of the joke. You see what I mean though about the clown v. transgendered thing. Clowns are creepy. I think most people, if they really think about it, are way more afraid of clowns than they are a trans man or women. Perhaps we should pass ridiculous laws that keep clowns out of bathrooms. It would make more sense.
I’m getting off track. Sorry. Back to the story.
The last time I saw my mother she was a clown. A sad male clown named Elmer. She hadn’t originally chosen the sad sack Elmer routine. She originally was Zanni Franceschina the Italian Clown. Named after some 17th century theater tradition. She even sewed her own fancy costume and everything but, as she used to tell me, the clown game was a bit of a boy’s club. On both sides of the paint. The boys didn’t like Zanni’s shtick and mom wanted to be a clown. Enter: Elmer. When you think about it though, why are the people playing the clowns almost always men? And why are clowns usually “male”? Aren’t most clowns really kind of genderless? Even Zanni hadn’t been overtly “girly.” I mean she wore floppy shoes! Anyway, she always said she was lucky she even found a solid gig. Being a woman and a clown made it tough enough. She didn’t need to be a woman clown.
I can see you thinking. A clown? Why? Well times were different back then, I guess. I’m sure more than one girl ran away hoping to be a mermaid after seeing Esther Williams. My mother just happened to have some kind of teenage epiphany while watching The Greatest Show on Earth. My grandfather, her father, told her: “girls cannot be clowns.” But then she found an old poster for a lady clown. Evetta the Only Lady Clown for the Barnum and Bailey Circus. She was a woman AND a lady clown. That was it. A clown was born. My grandparents were appalled. But she was determined. She was going to be a clown whether they liked it or not. They didn’t. My grandmother even cut up the first costume my mom made. I don’t think mom ever forgave her for that. I know my grandparents never forgave her for running away.
So, I guess she bounced around for a year looking for a work as Zanni before she gave up on her and put together the Elmer routine. Not long after she did that she found a steady gig as Elmer with The Traveling Rings of Traverse City featuring the Famous Tumbling Toddlers. That’s where I enter the picture. Well first my father entered the picture of course. He was one of the lion tamers. He was a strapping blond Adonis of a man. She was a svelte yet buxom brunette. They fell madly in love, defied everyone’s advice to wait, snuck off, got married, and lived happily ever after.
Ha. Had you going for a minute. No. That’s all a lie. Or at least mostly. My mom was brunette. But the rest of it, who knows. She would never tell me who my father was. I’ve seen show posters and they did have a “lion tamer.” Not sure why. They only had one lion and he was so old I’m not sure he needed any actual taming. But the tamer wasn’t strapping or blonde. Like the lion, he was also a little long in the tooth. But like I said, I don’t know who my father was, so I guess it’s possible it was the lion tamer. Or the circus accountant or maybe another clown. I don’t know.
I say I don’t really care. But that’s a lie too. I’ve pored over the show posters to try and see my features on one of the performers but it’s hard to really see anyone’s real faces. It’s not just the clowns that wear paint.
So back to the question. The last time I saw my mother, she was … what? She was the same as she always was. She was a sad clown. I think the better question is why was the last time I saw my mother the last time? I don’t know. From the day she left me at my grandparents until the last day I saw her, I never knew when I’d see her again. Early on, she’d pop up a lot. When I was seven she came six times in one year. But after that, visits got further apart. Once, I saw that the show was gonna be in Sioux City and I snuck out and saw her act. Damn my grandparents were pissed when they caught me sneaking home! Then a couple of years went by with no visits. Only postcards. Then nothing. No visits. No more postcards. The last one came in 1970. I was fifteen. I told myself I didn’t care.
And for years, it seemed like that was true. Probably because I passed out drunk every night, so I didn’t have to think about it. But I’m sober now. Five years this month. Now there’s nothing to block the thoughts. What happened to her? If someone could answer that for me then maybe I’d sleep better. As it is sometimes I dream about her. She’s always morphing from one thing to the next. She’ll be Zanni or Elmer but then she’ll become Bozo or Krusty, that clown from the Simpsons. That’s bad enough but sometimes she turns into Pennywise or The Joker. Not the fun one from the Batman series. The Jared Leto one. Or maybe it’s the Heath Ledger one. I don’t know. It’s the fucking terrifying one.
Anyway, that’s why I’m here. I want to know. Not about my father. I know I said I care who he is. And I do, but I think the boat sailed on that story. But my mother. That story is still out there. It has to be. I read your ad. “Lost someone. We can find them. Guaranteed.” So here I am. I lost someone. My mother. And the last time I saw her, she was a clown: Elmer the sad clown, proud member of The Traveling Rings of Traverse City featuring the Famous Tumbling Toddlers.