She bit into the slice savagely. It seared the roof of her mouth. She spit out the molten chunk onto the boardwalk. Britt tore the plate from her. He walked to the trash can, holding the pizza away from him like some contagious virus. He looked back at Catherine with contempt. She was crying, her hands pressed over her scorched lips. Shaking his head, he bought a bottle of water and commanded her to drink. She swished the cold water around in her mouth and swallowed. It soothed her, but when the water reached her stomach, it was a dagger in the gut. She doubled over, green in the glow of the neon.
“It’s your own fault, Cath!” Britt said, but he put his arms around her and helped her up. “Do you have to vomit?”
She wiped her lips of the brown-tasting regurgitated water and nodded no, but she’d been close. Above them, the roller coaster roared around a death-defying curve, casting off veering human screams and a shower of purple sparks from the straining metal wheels.
“We’re going back to the hotel,” Britt declared.
“No — no. Let’s make it to the end. I feel better now. Is my wig straight?”
They walked past the immense Ferris wheel. From a distance, it had resembled a bright star; now, seeing the dangling legs of the people in the open gondolas disgusted her, as if they’d been scooped up by a man-eating machine. Keep moving, don’t look up, she told herself, focusing her vision in a straight line ahead of her. Any sudden movement of her head now would make her sick.
Walking with Britt at her side, she wondered what would become of her and Horacio. Their last meeting had been strange. Suddenly, on the boardwalk, it began to worry her. Horacio had been more distant than usual, less adoring; he hadn’t even said anything erotic. He’d mentioned a possible teaching position in the French Pyrenees, in a town not far from Lourdes.
“Oh, well, good luck with that,” Catherine had said dryly, sounding like her mother. She did not believe he could ever leave her. He was too old and not a good enough painter to even get the job —after all, she’d never seen him paint anything real, like a house or a tree or a person, just those colorful disks that anyone could make. He wasn’t going anywhere…
But what if he actually did? Catherine shivered in the sweaty nocturnal heat. The pit of her stomach burned acidly. Anxiety crept up her like bubbling brackish water. She remembered how Horacio helped her vomit one afternoon behind some bushes near the pond. She’d been like a zombie after chemo, when suddenly the retching began. He’d knelt beside her and put his hand on her forehead so she wouldn’t hit the ground with each convulsion. He’d wiped her mouth clean with his bandana…
The rides began to grow infrequent, giving way to crab houses and tiki bars teeming with frat boys. Catherine and Britt were relieved to be reaching the end of the boardwalk, where they would hail a cab back to the hotel. It was then they heard the voice, like someone speaking through an electrolarynx. It wasn’t just the sound that was awful, but the insulting words.
“Faggot, you can’t throw.… Your children stink, lady… Go get plastic surgery, you ugly dyke…”
It came from off the pier, where there were a few last amusement stands.
“Let’s check it out,” Britt said. “Somebody might need help.”
Everyone seemed angry, yet no one, not even the adults with children, turned away. They were waiting to see the clown humiliated.
“You moron.… Aw! Missed again.… It ain’t so easy, is it?” The gravelly, vibrating voice was relentless.
“Britt, I’d rather go back to the hotel. My ankles are swelling; my feet hurt. We’ve done the boardwalk…”
“Wait, I wanna see what’s going on.”
Catherine followed Britt down the pier. His muscles tensed, as if preparing for a fight.
A crowd of men, women, and children stood around a wooden shack on which a hand-scrawled sign read: Obnoxious Clown. Taunt at your own risk. The shack was open at the front, like a puppet theater, and contained a tank of water. Upon a crossbeam above the water sat the most revolting man that Catherine had ever seen. Small and skinny, he seemed to be in his sixties, his face utterly withered, with cracked, blistered lips that his weak vanilla-colored mustache could not hide. He wore a thick layer of red and green makeup that also cracked at the seams of his deep wrinkles. The teeth were like broken candy corn, the eyes red and watery, as though burning from conjunctivitis. He wore cutoff shorts, a T-shirt emblazoned with a Confederate flag, and a New York Yankees baseball cap. Around his neck was a soiled bandanna. His hairless, bony legs dangled over the crossbeam, pocked with scabs and open sores like on the Christ in that painting by some old German that Horacio had pinned up in his studio.
A wire-mesh cage protected the clown from the public; within it, to his left, was a small wooden shelf, on which stood a bottle of Ten High. The man took occasional gulps from the bottle, smacking his repulsive lips. To his right, unprotected by the cage, were a small round target and a boxing bell. If anyone hit the target dead-center with a baseball, it would release the crossbeam and drop the clown into the water tank. A microphone above his head amplified his nightmarish voice.
“Come on, losers!”
A boy of about twelve stepped up to the stand, gave his ticket to a bored attendant, and selected a ball from the rack at the front of the shed. His mother called out after him, “Chuck, be careful!”
The boy took aim, wound up his arm, and threw the ball with all his might. The target seemed easy to hit, but the ball veered and bounced off the clown’s cage, plopping into the black water harmlessly.
“Beat it, you ugly, bucktoothed kid!”
The woman pulled her son back into the crowd. Catherine was astonished that children were even allowed to hear such language. Everyone seemed angry, yet no one, not even the adults with children, turned away. They were waiting to see the clown humiliated.