Clownish Delights, by Andrew Patch
Jackson’s sledgehammer whirled, driving the stake deep into dry red dirt. Stepping back he was disappointed to find that the sign leaned slightly to the left. The normally ghoulish clown whose salacious wink promised ‘Clownish Delights’ looked queer to him, yet it’d have to do. Time was short judging by the sounds of the local folk congregating at the fence.
Behind him he could hear his brothers rushing to get the final bits of preparation for tonight’s BBQ complete. Inevitably Herc cried out, his clown make-up distorted, as he held aloft a hand crimson with blood, ‘Gawd sake Billy Bob that’s ma hand ye gone cut.’
‘Hush now boys, stop yer messin!’ Ma bustled into view, the white paint on her face juxtaposed against the charred black joint of meat on her shoulder. ‘Ye done with that sign J-boy?’ Jackson nodded, his hand waving apologetically as the sign shifted further left. ‘Well, ne’er mind that now son, take a plate to the new act, he’ll need some comfort I reckon. An’ I need more meat fer the BBQ.’ Jackson nodded as he sliced thick cuts from the joint, pink juices coating the plate. Hefting his sledgehammer onto his shoulder, Jackson ambled down towards Freak Avenue, glad to escape Herc’s wails. His yellow clown shoes raising clouds of dust as he walked.
It hadn’t taken the family long to get used to the death of the circus. When O’Keefe had announced that the big top had to go Jackson had thought Ma was going to hang him from the nearest tree, such was her rage over the copious moonshine she guzzled that night. The stars had shone down as Ma had lamented how they were true zanies, each born under canvas, blessed by God himself to be part of this chaotic wave that rolled endlessly between cities, towns and unheralded places in-between. Under that big tent Ma and the boys had been masters of their canvas universe, playing devilish tricks on wide-eyed spectators. Buckets of water transformed by painted messiahs into glitter, custard pies slammed into flesh with bone crunching ferocity. Yet times had changed, the world drowning in dust and sorrow. Now they were reduced to serving BBQ to voyeuristic idiots salivating over the freaks that had replaced the circus folk he had grown up with.
Jackson despised the new performers; they lacked no skill or talent just an abjectness that, unlike the paint he applied each morning, couldn’t be removed. Yet O’Keefe had been proven right, for though the usual carnie diversions, rides and stalls, still parted money from owner as easily as Moses did the sea. It was the freaks that drew these southern folk out from their homes, purses laden with shiny coins. For the first time in a long time they weren’t struggling to exist.
He found O’Keefe sat on the wooden steps of the Tattooed Man’s caravan. Judging by the trembling hands of the newest tattooed addition to the avenue the moonshine in the jar he clenched was yet to kick in. ‘Now looky Benjamin, here’s Jackson with what looks like a plate to get you rarin’ to go! How goes it J-Boy?’ Jackson shrugged, handing the plate over to the tattooed man who sniffed suspiciously before quickly devouring the greasy slabs of meat. As the man ate Jackson examined the intricate and colourful markings that covered every inch of his being. Though he would never tell him he reckoned this was Billy Bob’s best work yet.
O’Keefe gently removed the plate from tattooed hands, wiping a finger around the edge, before letting his lips smack at the BBQ sauce that clung to his skin. ‘Showtime brother, now up into the wagon and earn your place, else, well there’s always someone else wanting a job these days, understand?’ The tattooed man nodded, slipping into the caravan, becoming a shadow behind the frosted glass. Around them the rest of the attractions were taking up their positions, a constellation of monstrosity. Enticing silhouettes that for just a single dollar one could inspect at leisure. Only Billy Bob’s posters that hung beside each shadow hinted at the unimaginable horrors that lurked within. Oswald the Penguin Boy! Saladin the Human Snake! Yin & Yang The Double Headed Child! Agatha The Bearded Lady! The Painted Man!
The cries of the Hawker welcoming in the punters cut through the night. ‘Promising devilish delights and delightful devils is what we do,’ O’Keefe said to no one in particular as he languidly raised himself, ‘I’ll return the plate to Ma J-Boy, that taste got a hunger fired up somethin’ fierce in ma belly.’ Jackson nodded farewell, hustling to leave Freak Avenue before it filled with voyeurs. He slipped past the booths of rigged fortune, heading for the larder wagon that lay within the darkness of a copse of trees on the edge of the field.
The wooden frame creaked under his weight as Jackson mounted the steps. The oiled bolt sliding easily. Opening the door Jackson paused, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness within. There were still three left, enough for this and the next show in all likelihood.
As he stepped inside they began to writhe, the ropes that bound their limbs had rubbed their flesh raw. Jackson ignored the muffled pleas that filled the interior as he hauled the nearest one out of the door and into the long grass. In the dim light cast from the freak show he could just make out the inked tableaus that writhed and crawled as muscles strained against rope.
Another bout of muffled pleas barely discernible over the noise of the show. Jackson raised a finger to his lips, letting his wide mouth split into a malevolent grin. He stooped down retrieving his sledgehammer from the dirt.
The one thing about freaks Ma had quickly realised was that some were very easily replaced.
He licked his finger, testing the gentle breeze, enjoying the fear in his victim’s eyes.
Then his sledgehammer whirled.
BIO: Andrew’s flash fiction has featured in With Painted Words and Flash! Friday. Later this year his short story Thirst will feature in the anthology, Happily Never After from Fey Publishing. He would mention he’s working on a novel but prefers to keep that bit secret.