Jack watches the clowns. Without the big floppy shoes and wigs, dressed in jeans and t-shirts instead of costumes, and without all that makeup, they were probably pretty decent people. So why, he wondered, did they fill him with such unease. He looks to his friends. Pat is still frozen in fear; Liz is waiting up ahead, impatient to get to The Bar None; Josh is at Pat’s side, attempting to pull her along with him into the street. They are so still, they could be the subjects of a tableaux painting, frozen in time.
Then a clown, a girl clown, running to catch up with the others, trips over her big clown feet. She careens off Jack and goes sprawling on the sidewalk, tearing her baggy polka dot pants. Her red and green wig falls off her head and lands in a puddle in the gutter. Her shoes flip off her feet and cartwheel down the street, one going east, the other west. She wipes a splash of mud off her face and takes a smear of white greasepaint and red lipstick with it, showing fair, freckled skin and a rueful grin behind the painted red smirk.
“Jeepers. Just what I need!” she says. The clown scrambles after her wig and jams it over her own brown hair – caught up loosely in a pony tail. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?” she asks Jack.
Jack shakes his head. Who could be afraid of a clown? Even Pat is unfrozen now, coming over to ask the clown if she is all right, if she skinned her knee.
“I’m fine,” the clown says, now running after her left shoe. The other clowns are disappearing into a building with a marque reading “Clown Try-Outs Tonight Only”
“I’m going to be late!” She says, jamming the shoe on to her foot, going after the right one. “If I miss the audition, I won’t get a second chance.” She catches the shoe and tucks it under her arm, racing awkwardly to the building before the two large security clowns shut her out. “Wish me luck!”
“Good luck,” Pat says.
“See,” Jack says, too loudly to Pat, “nothing to be afraid of. Just a girl dressed as a clown.”
“Sure,” says Pat. “That one is a girl dressed up as a clown, but what if she were a clown dressed up as a girl?”
“And I thought I was nuts,” Jack says, drinking again from his Koolaid and alcohol.
“I will protect you against clowns,” Josh tells Pat, gallantly.
“No, you won’t,” Pat tells him. “You’ll try, but you won’t manage.”
“I will, I will,”Josh says. “When your hope is gone, when the clowns are breathing
down your neck with their fresh peppermint breath and you feel that there is no way out of the clown car of fate, I will save you.”
“No, you won’t, ” Pat says again. She sidles up to Jack, takes his drink from him and drains the cup. “Jack might.”
Before Jack can react, Pat twirls away from him in a pirouette, grabs Liz by the arm and skips off with her down the street – singing “Everybody Loves Saturday Night.”
Jack and Josh catch up.
“It’s Friday night,” Josh points out. Pat ignores him; urges Liz to sing.
“I don’t know the words,” Liz says.
“What’s to know?” Pat asks, breaking into song again. “Everybody loves Saturday night…”
Liz, laughing chimes in, then asks, “Is there no end to the old songs you know?” then: “there must be more than the one line. You can’t just keep singing “Everybody loves Saturday night.”
“I can so,” Pat says. “I’ve just survived a near-Clown experience.”
And then they’re at the door of The Bar None, and it’s all good, Jack thinks. He’s with his friends. They’re laughing. They’re singing. They’re nuts – or at least Pat is – just as nuts as he is. There are no shimmers of color, no unreal corridors, just this:
A dark street of car body shops, deserted alleyways, low rent offices, and grimy cafes. It’s the kind of area you wouldn’t want to be in in the daytime. You wouldn’t belong. You wouldn’t be caught dead in the cafes, with their industrial coffee pots and thick china mugs, formica tables and vinyl chairs like something out of a Norman Rockwell illustration; not an espresso machine or a bistro table in sight.
The one bright spot on the street is the big neon Bar None sign, over a small door of what used to be a warehouse. There is a line up of hopefuls snaking their way up to the entrance, well dressed college kids mostly, but some who look like they’re still in high school. The doorman opens the door to let in two people who look like they’re of age, and a burst of music comes out, thankfully drowning out Pat’s one line rendition of “Everybody Loves Saturday Night.”
The doorman turns to the girls at the head of the line.
“What year were you born?” he asks one, checking the ID in his hand. “Yeah? What month?”
He makes a buzzer noise. “Brrzzzt. Wrong answer.”
“Did I say November? I meant June,” the girl says.
“Nice try,” he goes. “Come back when you know what’s on your ID.”
The doorman opens the door, and the girls think he’s changed his mind. They rush the door. He puts an arm in front of it, blocking them. “Hey, Jack, where have you been?” he asks. “Didn’t think you guys would get here.”
He holds the door open for Pat, Liz, Josh and Jack, then closes it again. Jack can hear a volley of complaint from the people who’ve been waiting their turn to get in, and haven’t just been waved through. Yup, he thinks. It’s all good.
Inside, it takes a moment for their eyes to adjust to the darkness and the light show lasers, for them to get their bearings. The place is packed. The lineup outside isn’t just for show tonight, to make the club look more popular than it is. There are lineups inside too – a lineup for the bar, a mass of people standing at the entrance to the dance floor, lines of people standing around and between the tables, hoping for a vacant chair.
It’s a new DJ, Jack sees. He’s missed a few Fridays at Bar None with the gang. Some tall guy, down there in his little booth. Josh and Pat join the pack at the bar, all hollering for attention from the bartender. “Find us a table,” Pat mouths at Jack – yelling wouldn’t help, there’s no way he’d hear her. Good luck with that, he thinks, and he and Liz join the hopefuls slouching against the wall.
An unfamiliar song starts playing – unfamiliar to Jack, that is. Everyone else in the place seems to know it by heart, and they leave off waiting for their tables, leave the lineup at the bar and surge onto the dance floor.
“And Smokie…” the DJ says as a cheer goes up. “For twenty four years I’ve been living next door to Alice.”
Jack and Liz fall into two chairs that might be vacant – there are no jackets on them, no drinks in front of them and they aren’t warm with someone else’s body heat. They each grab another chair, for Josh and Pat, and watch the action on the dance floor.
The dancers swoop around in a big circle, all singing to the recording now:
“For twenty-four years I’ve been living next door to Alice.”
then, on their own own:
“Who the heck is Alice?” Except they don’t say “heck.”
“What the heck is that?” Jack asks. Only he doesn’t say “heck” either. Pat and Josh are down there, he sees, Pat right into it, Josh hanging back a bit, not singing.
“Bar None mating ritual,” Liz tells him. “Want to have a go?”
Jack doesn’t hear. Liz yells, louder, and louder again.
“No thanks,” Jack yells, just as the music suddenly dies. “I do my mating dance in private.”
There are hoots and hollers from all within hearing distance, and then his words are repeated in waves of “What did he says,” laughter always following. Jack wishes he could crawl under his seat.
“I’ve seen your mating dance,” Liz reminds him. “And that’s the last time I’ll drink tequila.” She smiles at Jack, taking some of the sting away. It wasn’t that bad was it? He can’t quite remember…
Josh and Pat make their way to the table, miraculously bearing beer. Jack drinks, hiding behind the glass.
“Lets see,” Liz says, Pat is afraid of clowns, Josh is afraid of being poisoned,”
“And dancing,” Pat says, digging Josh in the ribs,
“What are you afraid of,” Liz asks Jack.
Corridors, Jack thinks. “The way you make me feel,” he says, raising his beer glass to her in a toast, but it’s too late. His words echo in his own ears, and he’s back in the corridor with the fun house doors and the bright colors, the irrational fear.
One of the fun house doors slowly creaks open.. The blue door, he sees, and there is something in there. Something with a whiny little girl voice. “Jack,” it calls. “Jack!”
Jack can’t help himself. He feels as if he is being pulled towards the door by an invisible force. He peers in, and there is a doll sitting on the bed in there, a large doll with deadly white arms and staring blue eyes and blond synthetic hair, a wicked smile on her bright red lips. Jack blinks and the back of the doll’s head is to him. He can see the holes in the doll’s plastic scalp, the tufts of hair poking out to form perfect curls. He blinks again, and the doll’s head is turning towards him again, completing a 360 degree turn: those ice blue eyes, those red lips parting now to show dainty sharp teeth.
The doll beckons and Jack jumps.
“You okay, there, bud?” he hears. Josh’s voice. It’s Josh’s voice! Jack opens his eyes. He’s still hiding behind his beer. He drinks, swallows.
“Sure I’m okay. Why wouldn’t I be okay?”
“The way you jumped just now?” Josh says. “I figured you were having a seizure.” He’s smiling, but there is a lack of surety about his words. “You’re not epileptic, are you? The lights aren’t getting to you?”
Jack laughs it off. Josh is training to be a paramedic. “Goose walked over my grave,” he says. And shivers.
Back in the corridor. The doll is beckoning. “Jack,” it says…
And then it floats off the bed and starts walking towards him with jerky little stiff-legged steps.