The car pulled up to the curb. Leelee leaned forward to check the license plate: XKY041. She looked back at her phone: XKY041. Silver Toyota. She opened the door. “Hi,” she said.
“Yep,” she said.
“Need me to pop the trunk?”
“No, that’s okay,” she said, hoisting her duffel bag into the dark cavity of the backseat. “I just have this one bag.” She climbed in after it, pulled the door shut.
Inside, the car smelled like hazelnut coffee, and the driver was a clown. The whole shebang: painted white face; springy cloud of hair; two bright round dots of red on the cheeks; and a red lozenge around the mouth, drawn drooping slightly downwards. Big red honker of a nose. Thin black greasepaint lines spindled straight down from the clown’s eyes, like the stems of two old-fashioned tops turned over. In the streetlamp light, Leelee could just make out stripes on the blousy shirt beneath the clown’s dark jacket.
“All set?” said the clown.
Leelee buckled herself in. “All set,” she said.
They took off down the empty streets.
Leelee looked at the big blue numbers of the dashboard clock: 4:28am. Her flight wasn’t until seven, so she still had plenty of time even if they hit traffic on the bridge. Even if they hit traffic and security was busy, which probably wouldn’t happen, but you never knew. It was good to plan ahead. She had time to get breakfast at the airport. The hazelnut coffee smell inside the car was making her long for a cup of coffee, even though she didn’t like coffee with flavors in it; somehow, in this dark, cozy interior space, it smelled even more like coffee than regular coffee did. She tucked her cold hands under her legs and looked out the window and thought about the coffee she would buy, the warm weight of it inside a paper cup, handed to her under the bright lights of an airport kiosk.
The clown glanced back at her in the rearview mirror. “Are you afraid of clowns?”
“No,” she said.
“That’s good,” said the clown. “Some people are. I always feel bad about that.”
Leelee smiled, trying to project kindness.
The clown’s phone made a little alley-oop whistle and said, Passenger added.
“Hmm,” the clown said, and turned right, following the neon lines on the phone’s map. “Just have to pick one more person up.”
They pulled up alongside a new-looking apartment building, its lobby dimly visible behind the glass facade. Together, Leelee and the clown watched a man in a dark suit jog lightly across the half-lit lobby and out the doors, towards the waiting car.
“Ray?” said the clown.
“That’s me,” said the man, sliding into the backseat beside Leelee. He smelled cold and sharp: strong aftershave, a float of rubbing alcohol. It cut the sweet hazelnut coffee smell. He was still looking down at his phone—it illuminated his face with a bluish glow. Handsome. Stubble peppering the firm cheeks and jaw. Comb-marks in the dark wet hair.
“Yep.” His phone clicked off, and he slid it into his pocket. “Hey, when you drop me off could you—oh, Jesus,” he said, catching sight of the clown in the rearview mirror. “Oh, what the fuck, man.”
Leelee thought she saw the red painted frown on the clown’s face droop deeper.
“God! Sorry. I’m scared of clowns,” said Ray. He turned to Leelee. “Aren’t you scared of clowns?”
“No,” she said.
“Seriously? You’re telling me a girl like you isn’t scared to get in a car alone with—” He jerked his thumb at the front seat. “Not at all?”
“I mean… no?” Leelee had begun to feel that she and the clown had a rapport, and she resented Ray for fracturing it. She was glad her duffel bag lay on the seat between them.
“Well. If you say so,” he said. He settled back against the dark leather seat, angling himself away from the clown in front of him. “So, where you headed? Airport?”
“Boston. My sister’s having a baby.”
“Boston’s nice. You from there?”
“Yeah. Well—near there. A short drive.”
“I’m from here.” he said. “Boy, has this town changed. You from around here?” This last sentence to the clown, who gave a curt shake of the head no. “I grew up just a couple miles from here and let me tell you, it is so different now.”
“Oh?” Leelee said, incurious. She was looking out the window, catching small flashes of activity in the still-sleeping world: a cat disappearing into dense hedges; rows of bright snack labels in one brilliantly-lit shopfront; a figure in a baggy coat waiting patiently to cross the street, beneath a blinking don’t-walk sign. Ray kept talking about how it was so different now, this place. The words slid by like the featureless blocks of dark houses and empty parking lots, like the long fences around new construction, their plastic tarps loose and flapping at the corners.
At University Avenue the light turned red and they stopped. There were no other cars.
“Shit, I feel like we should all get out and run in circles,” Ray said.
The clown looked at him in the rearview mirror. “That’s what they all say.”
“Is it?” Ray made a noise halfway between a chuckle and a scoff. “Listen, no offense, pal, but… I just don’t get it. The clown thing, I mean. It’s creepy.”
“Did you have a bad experience?” asked the clown.
“Me personally? No. No, I haven’t. My mom, though—she went to the circus when she was a kid, got scared half to death by some clown with one of those water-squirt flowers. Those joke boutonnieres. You know what I’m talking about. Ma wasn’t even ten, and the way she tells it this clown just walked right up to her, leaned down, got all in her face, and then squirted all over her. Terrified her. Disgusting behavior, if you ask me.” He grimaced. “I heard that story one too many times as a kid. Cautionary tale. Always steered clear of clowns after that.”
Leelee watched the side of the clown’s face closely—the white makeup nearly glowed in the shadowy car, but with that painted-on frown it was impossible to read any subtle changes in the clown’s expression.
At any rate, the clown’s voice stayed gentle and even. “That’s too bad.”
They had come onto the highway now, and at this hour it was nearly clear of traffic. A thin fog had drifted in overnight, but out her window Leelee could see across the bay to the twinkling skyline as they zipped along. Up ahead, the bridge, massive and white and still, hung over the black water.
“I just don’t get it,” Ray continued. “I mean, there’s plenty of people out here who like being funny, right. We all like being funny. I’m a funny guy. But you don’t see me out here trying to—you know, do up my face, and wear big shoes, and goofy clothes, and get in people’s face about it. I’m just funny. You know?”
“Well,” said the clown, carefully. “It’s not just about that. Being funny.”
“So, what is it about then, huh?”
“Why does it matter so much to you?” Leelee said, a little more sharply than she meant to.
“I’m just trying to understand it, man.” Ray shifted in his seat and leaned towards her a bit, blocking the narrow channel of open space between the front and back seats. He rested his forearm on her duffel bag. “The psychology of it.”
“I really don’t think it’s that complicated,” she said.
To get onto the bridge, you had to pay a toll, and often at the curve in the road just before the tollbooths, traffic would grind to an agonizing standstill. Leelee braced herself for bad traffic, but they swept around the curve unhindered—only a distant line of red taillights heralded the booths ahead.
As they approached, the clown said, “I can’t speak for everyone. I can only speak for myself, you understand. But ‘the psychology of it,’ as you say… it’s no different from your own. There’s not any pattern. Nor any pathology. It’s simple, really: Some people are just clowns.”
Five dollars to cross, paid in cash. The clown accelerated fast out of the tollbooth lane and onto the span of the bridge. Above the car, thick white wires fanned out like wings, illuminated by spotlights below. For a moment there was total silence.
“I just can’t believe that, though,” Ray said. “That it isn’t a different psychology. There’s just something fucked-up about it. It’s not right. I mean it’s just not right.”
“What is your problem?” Leelee said. “Can’t you just leave it alone?”
“I told you—I just don’t like clowns!”
“You want to get out of the car?” said the clown.
“No, please, listen,” said the clown. “You’re upset, you’re scared, being here with me—you can get out of the car. You said it yourself earlier, that we should all get out, right? Right?”
Leelee felt her seatbelt lock as the clown slammed the brakes.
They were in the middle of the bridge.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Ray said. “Is this some kind of joke?”
“No.” The clown turned around in the driver’s seat to look at both passengers. “I’m absolutely serious. Get out of the car.”
So, they did. There they were, the three of them—man, woman, clown—standing on the bridge around the silver Toyota, its emergency flashers clicking away in the pre-dawn blue. A few cars, whistling past them at highway speed, slammed their horns; the sound flattened out as they whizzed by and disappeared into the night. A cool, wet sea wind blew a few strands of Leelee’s hair into her mouth. She picked them out and watched the clown—who was much taller than she’d expected—advance toward Ray.
“Don’t you fucking touch me!” he yelled, circling around to Leelee’s side of the car. “Don’t come near me.”
“I’m not going to hurt you,” said the clown, and held up a dark leather wallet. “I’m just trying to give you your money back.”
“My money!” Ray looked, despite the stubble and sharp-cut suit, like a terrified child. He scrambled backwards, jacket vents flapping up in the wind. “You can’t do this! You can’t do this. I’m gonna—I’m gonna call—I’m gonna report you—”
The clown moved slowly, patiently, around the car. Ray kept stumbling back, around the hood, keeping his distance. The wind, which was really quite strong, split little ruffled V’s in the clown’s bouffant of red curls. Leelee slipped her hands into her coat pockets, thumbing their contents. An idea occurred to her.
“Hey,” she said. “Here. I’ll pass it to you.”
Ray looked at her from his stakeout point on the driver’s side. “What?”
“The money.” She walked up to the clown, who withdrew a twenty from the wallet and gave it to her. She lifted the bill so Ray could see it, snapping back and forth in the wind like a flag of truce. “See? I’ll pass it to you.”
She walked around the hood of the car to where he stood, shivering. Palming the bill, she stuck out her hand. “Shake on it?”
It had been a very long time, she realized. She wasn’t even certain the thing she’d found in her pocket still worked. As he reached for her hand, she felt a thrill tighten in her stomach like a coiled spring.
He shook. The wire tripped. Zzzzzzzzzp! went the little silver gizmo hidden in her hand.
The look on Ray’s face was the one that never got old, and the scream that came out of his mouth was priceless, which was good, because he yanked his hand back so fast that the twenty dollar bill slipped out and got whisked away on the wind, tumbling up and over the concrete median, blown out of sight, lost at sea.
He took off running down the length of the bridge, back the way they’d come, his screams swallowed up by the highway sounds. Leelee and the clown stood quietly for a minute, watching.
“Was that what I think it was?” asked the clown.
She opened her hand to reveal the gizmo, its loop wrapped around her finger, trigger button glinting.
“Where’d you get it?” asked the clown.
“From a friend,” she said. “A long time ago. I don’t really use it that much.”
“It’s called a joy buzzer. Did you know that?”
“I do now. Thanks.”
“Come on. Let’s get you to the airport.”
Leelee hopped in the front seat this time. The clown looked over at her and smiled through the painted frown. “You know, you’d make a great clown.”
Leelee winked. “That’s what they all say.”
As they drove away, the clown began to laugh.
Corbin Dewitt lives and writes in Minneapolis, MN. Her work has appeared in Hobart After Dark, Bright Wall/Dark Room, dirt children, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @corbin_dewitt.