The clown took another swig of Ten High and smacked his lips.
“Ah, that tastes good… Well? I’m waiting.”
This broken clown, thought Catherine, embodied all the bitterness and vileness of life, yet at the same time was the freest man in the world, able to say whatever he felt. Did he have to be escorted by bodyguards at the end of his shows?
A muscular black man in a tank top stepped up and gathered three baseballs.
“Whoa! Whad’ya come to the beach for, darky, to work on your tan?”
The black man took aim.
“Let’s see what you can do, nig—”
The ball struck the outer end of the target with a ferocious smack.
“That was pretty close, black boy, but not close enough.”
“Come on, knock him down!” the crowd cheered.
“Knock him down, knock him down,” the clown mocked the audience. “It ain’t so easy, is it, Sambo?”
The man tried again. He had strength and skill, but the ball once more struck the outer perimeter of the target.
“It must be rigged,” Britt said. “It has to be. Somebody’s got to put a stop to this, Cath.”
“Britt, please, let’s go. This is awful.”
But Britt, like the rest, seemed entranced by the spectacle. Catherine started walking backward, away from the crowd.
The black man grasped his last baseball and threw it with full force, not at the target but at the clown himself. The ball smacked against the clown’s cage, denting the wire mesh mere inches from his face. The clown jerked his head back in a split second of fear. He recovered immediately.
“Thought you could get me, huh, porch monkey?”
To her horror, Catherine saw Britt walking up to the stand, buying a ticket, and grasping a baseball.
Her mother had presented her to the group by saying, “This is my daughter. That isn’t her real hair. It’s a wig.”
“Get him!” the crowd urged.
“Britt!” Catherine cried. “Please don’t! He’s just a poor man.”
“Well, what’ve we got here? An old gray fart. Look at him. I’ll bet he has to use Viagra to nail his bitch back there, in the orange wig.”
The crowd turned to look at Catherine, who reddened with shame and humiliation. It was almost a repetition of a month ago, when she’d accompanied her mother to a book club at the senior center. Her mother had presented her to the group by saying, “This is my daughter. That isn’t her real hair. It’s a wig.”
Britt kicked the front of the stand fiercely. “Go ahead, make fun of a woman with cancer, you sick clown. Are we gonna play ball or what?”
“Another blowhard. I see ’em all the time.”
Britt’s first throw made the rim of the target vibrate.
“Aw, too bad. Hey, lady, I really do like your wig. I might borrow it for my act sometime!”
The crowd laughed unwillingly. Catherine felt her legs trembling, turning to water. How long would this last? Horacio, save me! Catherine screamed inside of herself. Bring me back to life!
Britt threw again. This time, the target almost fell sideways. The crowd screamed. The clown even took hold of the shelf, thinking he was about to fall.
“Pretty close, creep, but ya missed. Look at him. I’ll bet he wears panties under them slacks. Hey—!”
Britt’s next throw hit the heart of the target. The boxing bell clanged. The clown had just been about to reach up for another swig of Ten High when the crossbeam unlatched beneath him and he fell, in sitting position, into the water tank, his left arm still upraised. The crowd surrounded Britt, cheering wildly, patting him on the back.
Catherine’s heart pounded, a fist punching its way out of her chest. Her abdominal muscles contracted. She fell to her knees, retching, her mouth a misshapen O. Bile and undigested food burst from her, staining her dress and silken scarf. Again. And again. The last convulsion knocked her wig off onto the planks, where it lay overturned, exposing the inner lining yellowed with sweat. Catherine’s whole body trembled. Britt was holding her. She felt for his face with her hands, like a blind person. Then, with a new, sudden strength she cocked back her skeletal arm and swung it forward in an arc, slapping him, breaking free.
“Cath!” she heard behind her, far, far away. She did not stop. The clown, dripping multicolored ooze, had emerged from the water and was clawing his way back up the cage to his crossbeam. Catherine was running toward him, stumbling, laughing, crying, her arms outstretched, the sea breeze delicious on her glistening bald head.
Alfredo Franco received an MFA in creative writing from New York University, where he studied with Philip Levine, Galway Kinnell, and Donald Hall. Currently, he teaches creative writing at Rutgers University. His work has appeared in Blackbird, Euphony Journal, Failbetter, and other journals.