9 | The Last Clown

| Episode 9 | 

<  A professor of continuing education, McCurdle lectured in the evening, usually during rush hour, and mostly because of his contrary manner. He sat halfway atop a chemistry table at New York University, his hands clasped upon one knee. He delved into a subject, momentarily, in the affirming lobe of his mind. He was one day older than sixty-two. He ultimately decided, in view of the oak flooring, and a synthetic group of unknown white flowers in a gray, cement pot, not noticing it was probably out of place: He could not possibly have been any happier anywhere else.


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He began introducing the course to a group of two-hundred, and thirty-one youths, each possessing an odd tilt only yet to be revealed; the new students – so many McCurdle wished to count them, and he did, – sat with their heads to one side or another, this was unusual, listing, frustrated and outwardly in fidget. This was no active, 55-plus group, McCurdle thought, glancing at a fresh brochure for The Villages near Orlando.

This quest of a wedge of knowledge, for learning,” bellowed McCurdle now, having timing his graceful pause, sure his voice one of a few grand traits, “is three-fold: first, how to accomplish your ideal, this dream before early an retirement; second, what does it mean, this course, is it comedy? Or something more? How do we gently nudge the industry, in short, how to become the last clown?” The latter caused an eruption of applause, which he knew.

McCurdle eluded a cough by stepping from the chemistry, and around to the chalk board, with a dramatic bow. He put both hands on the table, and seared his gaze into the darkness where ostensibly there was people. “What is it all about?” he asked, a bit disheveled, realizing this line was intended to precede the last.

He considered a legacy. McCurdle’s son, Philly, was certainly a wise-acre, but his judgment was generally good, a fact not always clear with his rants, and a language he recalled from his youth. He nicknamed him, Philly, after himself. McCurdle liked to use “Euro words” at his barber shop, something like “dollar words,” or alas Big Words, but fuzzier his way. It was an acquired hitch. The favorite of Philly, his son, was always tergiversate, and, to this day, neither of them knew the definition. The barbershop was McCurdle’s day job. He regularly asked customers if he seemed like a professor, but they seldom said he did. He was satisfied to be “entertainer,” in the abstract sense, a slim quotient. He reminisced to the sound of shuffling shoes, closing books, and polite murmurs.

That day, one woman, a fine, clowning student, whose name had escaped him, was not the least obscured by his son’s alter jargon. Philly, the son, carried on, “This was the year of ‘Ford to New York: Drop Dead,’” and he didn’t notice he was flailing his arms. He added, “Post. No. Daily News. Nineteen seventy-five, city is non-functioning; sure, just welfare, that is all. We got the world’s money: but the curtain’s rolling in. Down. Whatever. The big red curtain. I’m like unwrapping a sandwich, one of the pastramis, – pastrami, I know – this thick, right ‘ere at Houston-and-Ludlow. I could get twenty-ounces in the Bronx on a nice pastry. So. I’m not going anywhere. This is, say, a pound.” He bit into the sandwich, and peered across Ludlow, his straight chin helpful as facia; he continued, “He’s my uncle, my father, really; his folks had TB. We’ve got the same name. Philip. He goes by Professor. I’m Philly. Yeah, I know, that’s a city, too!” He adds, “So he’s gotta pee. I’m right there, wolfing a pastrami. This very spot. He got his McCurdle Barbering people, — his customers — in the chairs. They’re reading newspapers. Whatever. The shop is totally empty of all employees at two on Tuesday’s, just Uncle Philip alone cutting the hair. The line is like eight deep. I’m just there to eat a sandwich. The pole’s going around, ’round, and around. Huh. But everything’s cool. I bite the pickle, and my right eye sees Philip weaving the hell way down East Houston. Man, this doesn’t compute. We’ve got to have restrooms by law. What? East Third. Houston. He’s going to Columbus Street. You’re probably guessing now: He’s gone. G-o-n-e, gone.”

And Philly said, “He leaves the whole barber shop. He goes to shack up with this gal Sophie in Brooklyn Heights. New York retirement. I did not see Philly until the afternoon of New Year’s Day. This was August! Can I barber? No. I never barbered, but I’ve got to save his world, man. I’m into that. Saving worlds. I take like these spatulas to some Londoner lady’s hair. She wants gray streaks. I say, ‘Hey, ma’am, this is pretty gray already.’ There’s no time to complain. This dude stumbles in with a .38 revolver. Swear. I’ve have seen this man before. He’s never sober. He like rumbles towards me, and the London lady, who’s got a mean scowl going on. I’m her lad! The guy says, ‘Gimme all the money.’ Right. What else do they always say, right. How about something original, New York! So I shout up to him: ‘Buddy, no one in New York has any money! Get it.’”

She said, “And?”

Philly said, “So he nods, like, okay. He goes back out the door. Okay. True, though.”

No.”

Yeah,” Philly said. “I own the store for life.”

Restlessly, McCurdle, his shoes slipping, too, ventured an exercise.

Sophie, contemplating a Hip-Hop moment, forthrightly wishing she could teacup in an alley way, unplugged her ear from an iPhone, and would have hip-checked a Wall Street guy on East Houston, but for his quick, suitcase reflexes, the art of a dodge, with coffee, black, or cream-and-sugar. Her path did not conform to New York University on 1st. She had chosen a night class with a fetching name: “Clown Science,” narrowly, versus a Horace Mann School offer in Brooklyn to “Do Your Own Hair,” which seemed argumentative.

Two bikers were haggling near the university door. Sophie was early. She borrowed a lighter, and stashed it in her cumberbun, her eyes harrowing their demeanors, like spotlights over Brooklyn. It was a Native, All-Natural. She was suspicious, and also proud to know the cigarettes were manufactured by native American New Yorkers of the Mohawk Nation. The bikers were trying to resolve the location of the city’s most famous Christmas creche. “NYU is the corner of Washington Park, and The School of Dentistry is 3rd Street,” said one; neither was a sure reference.

The other advised, “Greene Park. Brooklyn.”

The first man got ticked. “New York’s directions are like spaghetti sauce recipes.” Sophie did not confide the creche was built annually at the Met on 5th. She may have been right.

Times Square,” mulled the second man.

The other protested, “That’s the Neapolitan Baroque creche.”

Sophie waited for the lights to dim in the NYU auditorium before easing quietly into an “awful” woodback chair. The professor shuffled agreeably shuffled in a small, dark circle in their midst, inviting Sophie to quickly caricature him as a cross between Red Skelton, and Harrison Ford. The educator’s name was Professor Philip McCurdle, and he was roaring about “one of the grreatest opportunity in clowning history,” as well as “the diminishing number of prosperous opportunities for employment in clowning,” and how to become a “truly viable clown.” His demeanor was too murky. He said, “You’ve all heard the circus reached the End of Days? Barnum, & Bailey? They’re over. Was it years ago?”

Listen,” McCurdle intoned, forgetting to sound ominous. “There will be no more circus for clowns. No full-time jobs. No business, no emerging market, no clowns in developing nations. None in Europe. South America? No. I can’t imagine a single chance to clown in this millennial. In fact, in our lifetime, we shall see – undeniably, indisputably, most certainly – the world’s last clown.”

He paused, with muted zest for triumph, and concluded, “What a chance.”

He swirled towards the opposing side of the hall, and demanded, charismatically, “So?”

A middle-aged woman from Queens stood, and offered beautifully, “The last clown is the only clown.”

Exactly!” McCurdle declared. “No one understands!”

The professor was relieved to conclude the course introduction. He moved the white, rawhide skeleton used by the biology class, and sat down in the prop’s mahogany chair.

It was time for the exercise, and McCurdle warned, “An aspiring clown must be funny. Open, and shut!” The professor pointed knowingly into the black space, and announced, “Let’s begin with a comedy drill. One-liners. We’ll ease into features that might be uniquely useful to a clown’s make-up. For example, over there — the woman with the hair like a pineapple. Groucho Marx. This counts, by the way. Quiz. Pass, fail.”

The woman in the third row objected to the description, but answered steadfastly, without rising: “’I never forget a face, but in your case, I’d be happy to make an exception.’”

Good, very good,” replied McCurdle. “Next, man with the barrel haircut. This is a tough one? Spike Milligan.”

He said, “’Chopsticks are the reason why the Chinese never invented custard.’”

Excellent. Poor taste, but authentic. Milligan just recently passed on, just recently.”

McCurdle searched the auditorium, noticing, with a comic’s instinct, that hair was largely the only thing visible in the dark. “Dorothy Parker. Young lady. She’s got glasses like a windshield.”

She, too, quickened: “’If you want to know what God thinks of people with money, just look at who He gave it to.’”

Alright. Stocky, like a baseball umpire. Right there. I say, — you’re out! Ken Dodd.”

The stocky man rose, and massaged his head; then offered, “’I have kleptomania. When it gets bad, I take something for it!’”

Good show!” McCurdle hustled, pointing. “How about five for five. Four? Way, way way in the back! Tricky: Homer Simpson.”

Red, a senior citizen, rose in the very last row, and said, matter-of-factly, “’Trying is the first step towards failure.’” ◊  

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“The Shadows” is one of three works by SODA TOM

Selections have appeared on Tumblr, and Medium, including The Shadow of Mines.


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“The Shadows,” by Soda Tom, Vol. I of III,

from The Echo By Seas; & Other Stories

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