Spunkles the clown drove the stolen ‘70 Dodge Charger like it was a rental vehicle; fast, aggressive and with abandon. At stoplights on his way out of town, he squealed the tires and lit them up. On the open highway a couple of times he pushed it to a hundred miles an hour on the flat stretches of Nebraska. Life on the run from his reality was pure adrenaline. For the first time in nearly thirty years he felt alive, clownishly alive, painted-smile-on-his-face alive. He wondered why he’d waited so long to do something this edgy and life-changing. He was headed west with no plan, a half tank of gas and the stolen car of his dreams.
The fields of corn zipped by endlessly on this hot afternoon in June as Spunkles lost himself to the classic rock on the eight-track player. The chump he’d stolen it from had tapes of Elton John, Foghat and even a little Blood Sweat and Tears - to shake it up with a little brass. It was his kind of music, the tunes he grew up with. He let the thoughts roll through his red wig headed cranium as he pushed the Charger’s tachometer to the high end. He sat back in the vinyl seats and enjoyed the music over the purr of the banana yellow muscle car. Man, the owner of this thing was true to spec right down to the music player, he thought.
Two hours and a hundred and fifty miles later, Spunkles felt a growl in his stomach and thought it might be good to get some dinner. He was nearly to the Colorado state line and the sun was still going to give a few hours before it set, so he pulled off the freeway and into the McDonalds drive-thru. No sense in going into the restaurant and risking someone stealing his stolen car. Now that would be ironic, he thought.
He ordered a number three and pulled ahead to the payment window. The cute teenaged clerk turned around from talking to a coworker and jumped with a start at the sight of the clown in the Charger. “Oh, hi! You scared me there for a second. Are you any relation to Ronald?” she asked smugly.
“Nope. Different clown lineage,” Spunkles replied, chuckling with disdain at the clerk’s attempt at a joke. It was a joke he heard a thousand times if he heard it once. People were so unoriginal, not to mention clown-ignorant. Did everyone really have such a simplistic understanding of clown culture that they thought that the whole spectrum consisted of Bozo and Ronald McDonald? Most people are probably oblivious to the big names like Emmet Kelly the popular tramp, or Dink the midget sidekick of Doink, or even Flint Rasmussen the award- winning rodeo clown. The man knew his way into and out of a barrel, that’s for sure. But, no, it was always Ronald and Bozo. What the heck was wrong with people? No appreciation for the true art of clownery.
He passed the clerk a ten, took his change and set the bag of food on the seat. The clerk said, “Nice car, by the way.”
“Thanks, I’ve worked hard for it,” he lied.
Spunkles pulled into traffic and worked his way through town toward the freeway.
A hundred miles past the Colorado state line, Spunkles decided he needed three things, dinner, a drink and bed. He’d been driving for nine hours and was spent. His makeup was starting to crust on his face and he thought he’d best get it off before too much longer. He pulled into a rest area and walked into the men’s room. After a fifteen-minute scrub down with soap, water and a half mile worth of paper towels, he looked human again. He was still wearing his clown costume, but he was too tired to worry much about it right now. Spunkles walked out the door and hit the road.
The parking lot of the Rusty Spur bar was empty except for a couple of cars parked near the door. It was a Tuesday night after all, and he was in the middle of Colorado nowhere. He stepped through the kitschy, creaky cowboy doors and tried to look all tough and John Wayney. Unfortunately, he came off more like John Wayne Gacy, dressed as he was in his polka dot shirt and striped pants. At the bar sat a middle-aged gentleman about the same height and weight as him. The bartender was a good-looking woman, brunette, probably in her mid-thirties.
“Well, hello there, Sparky, can I get you a drink?” she said warmly with just a hint of smug.
“It’s Spunkles. And yes, I’ll take a Whiskey sour.”
“You got it, Sparkles,” she said.
“Hey, it’s Spunkles, alright? Let’s get it right!” he commanded with half a grin. How could people be so discourteous about a name, even if it was his stage name?
“Oops, sorry,” the bartender apologized as she clinked some ice into the rock glass and started her pour.
The gentleman at the far end of the bar pointed at the Charger out the window spoke up, “Nice car. I thought you guys only drove ridiculously small cars.”
Oh, Lord, another snarky stereotype! Don’t people realize that clowns are people too? Maybe this clown just happens to like going real fast, sometimes. That, and the occasional grand theft auto. How about that? Chew on that one.
“Nah, that’s just a stage gag,” Spunkles declared. “That car is my renovation project.” He tried to remain amiable despite his displeasure at all the clown animosity hanging in the air.
“What’s with the Illinois plates? You on a road trip?”
He’d forgotten about the plates tying him to his home state. He quickly fabricated a lie. “Yeah, there’s a national car show in Vegas and I’m in it. Well, I mean, my car’s in it. So I’m taking her out there.”
“I see. And what’s with the clown outfit?”
The bartender set a drink in front of Spunkles and said, “Four dollars.”
Spunkles reached into his oversized clown pocket and pulled out his wallet. He slid a five across the bar and waved signaling for her to keep the change.
The gentleman’s question about what he was wearing caught Spunkles off-guard. It was so much a part of his clown persona, he’d almost forgotten he was wearing it. Why hadn’t he thought this out a little beforehand?
“Uh, I’m also a travelling rodeo clown. I just finished up a gig up north.” There he went again! The lying was becoming almost second nature.
“Huh. That’s quite a life,” the guy replied. “So, I’ve been waiting all evening for someone to drink with. Let me get you a shot. What’ll ya have?”
“Well, I like Whiskey, so how about a Wild Turkey.”
“That’s what I like in a clown, someone who can drink like a man. Make that two, Lulu.”
Spunkles chuckled at the irony of the clown/man analogy and sneaked a peek at the bartender’s figure as she turned to set up the shot glasses.
She poured a couple of heavy-handed shots. The gentleman slapped a ten on the bar and slid Spunkles his shot.
“Hey, I don’t even know your name yet. What’s your name, man?”
“Name’s Ben Murphy, but everyone calls me Murph.”
“Well, then, thanks, Murph.” Spunkles lifted his drink in Murph’s direction and slugged it down while Murph did the same.
“I didn’t catch your real name either?”
“Well, a good clown never reveals his real name, so let’s just keep it at Spunkles.”
“Ha! I get that. Kind of like a magician not revealing his tricks, right?”
“Yeah, a lot like that, actually,” Spunkles replied, happy to have dodged the need to reveal his real name. He was on the run after all and divulging too much information to the wrong person could get him in trouble in a hurry.
The two of them exchanged stories for the next hour and a half. Spunkles was sketchy about giving details and sprinkled lies within his stories freely. While they talked, Murph kept ordering shots. Spunkles waved off every other one.
He said, “I gotta drive, man.”
Murph took it upon himself to forge ahead alone on the hard stuff while Spunkles sipped on his side of seltzer water. He chuckled at the irony that he was drinking seltzer water, the liquid of so many clown gags at parades in his past.
“Yeah, I don’t have that problem anymore. I lost my license about a month ago, so I’m on two wheels.” He pointed to a mountain bike leaning on the front railing outside the bar. “There’s my ride, right there. Got my own little Charger stored in my garage until I get my license back. Nothing classic like yours though, mine’s only a couple years old.”
“Nice bike. And those new Chargers are my dream car. If I had to have a newer car, that would be my choice,” Spunkles said.
“Yeah, that bike there keeps me honest,” Murph said as he raised his latest shot and horked it back with all the experience of a good drunk. Spunkles noticed his newest friend’s eyes were starting to get glassy and when he turned his head, they trailed it by a second or two. The old drunk delay.
This guy drinks like a fish and, man, he’s getting hammered. Time to move on, he thought.
“Well, I gotta get running. I have a rodeo gig coming up tomorrow. You need a ride home, bud?”
Murph looked up from his sudden focus on the intricacies of the bar’s woodgrain and said with a subtle slur to his speech, “Sure, that sounds kinda good ackshally.” He signaled the bartender for one final shot to cap off the night.
“Sorry, I can’t serve ya Murph. You’ll kill yourself on that bike,” she said.
“Well what if I told you I had a ride with Spreckles the clown, here?”
“It’s still Spunkles, man!” Spunkles declared as he looked at the bartender, smiled and winked. She returned his smile, amused by Murph’s slipup.
“Spunkles, Sprockets, what’s the difference, man?”
The bartender poured him one more and put it in front of him. “This is only because you’re not riding tonight.”
“Thank ya, darling” he said.
After he sloshed it back, the two of them stood up to leave. “He’s in good hands,” Spunkles said assuringly. He waved bye to the bartender as he propped open the door for his friend who was walking a zigzag with unannounced lane changes.
It was stiflingly warm and humid, unusual for a Colorado evening. As his skin began to warm from its air-conditioned state, he realized he had no key for the trunk of the stolen Charger to enable him to haul Murph’s bike back home. Murph was so drunk he probably wouldn’t even know, so didn’t say anything as they piled into the Charger.
“Lead the way to your house, partner” Spunkles said.
“Head up this highway about a mile. Flagler. 500 Ouray Drive. Flagler”
“Flagler. Roger that.” Spunkles hit the gas and felt the surge of the Mopar’s big engine. They rode along in silence for a couple of minutes. Then he thought he’d surprise Murph with a little clowning. He took a battery-operated blinking glow-nose out of his pants pocket, turned it on and pinched it on his nose. Next, he pulled a gun out of his coat and pointed it at Murph and pulled the trigger. The gun clicked and a small flag that read “Bang!” unfurled from the barrel of the gun. When Murph didn’t react, Spunkles looked over and saw his passenger was clocked out, dead asleep.
“Aw c’mon, really?”
Was he really this pathetic that he couldn’t even get a laugh from a drunk friend? Lately he’d been questioning his clowning abilities and even his love for the craft, and things like this weren’t helping any. In fact, this was pretty much the nail in the coffin for his clown career as far as he was concerned. Spunkles the clown was about to be involuntarily retired.
He took the nose off, put the gag gun under the seat and pulled out his phone. He clicked open the Google Maps app and typed 500 Ouray, Flagler. The map refreshed and after clicking Get Directions, a pleasant female voice guided him the last couple of miles to Murph’s house. He pulled up in front and looked over at his passed-out friend. He sat back and thought for a moment. He was at another apparent crossroads in his day and needed to decide whether to take the righteous road or continue down the highway to hell that he’d started down back in Illinois.
He breathed deep and after a minute, reached over and carefully put his hand into Murph’s front pants pocket. His keys came out of the pocket with relative ease. He grabbed his phone and clown wig, opened his car door and walked up to the house.
When he got to the front door, he tried the keys until he found the one that opened the deadbolt. He quickly ran through the living room. The place was a pigsty. The food containers and dirty dishes pointed to this guy living alone. He entered the bedroom and went to Murph’s closet. He spied a Denver Broncos Peyton Manning jersey hanging on a hanger and mumbled, “I need that.” He grabbed a couple more shirts hanging there and went over to Murph’s dresser. He opened the top drawer and grabbed two pair of pants and headed downstairs.
He went out to the garage and what he saw nearly caused him to choke on his stolen pizza. Sitting there was a shiny black Dodge Charger probably a year or two old. It was a thing of beauty. The only vehicle he could think of that he’d rather have than a classic Charger would be a new one. Spunkles hit the key fob on Murph’s key ring and with a flash of the headlights and a chirp of the alarm, he entered his second stolen car of the day. He threw Murph’s stolen clothing in the back seat, hit the garage door opener and backed out of the drive.
When he reached the classic Charger, he got out and took a peek at Murph, still passed out in the passenger seat. Spunkles pulled out one of his gag foam red noses that he gave to kids as part of his act. He pinched it and put it on Murph’s own clownishly red drunkard’s nose. It took everything in him to stifle the laugh that built up in his chest as he gave his friend the nose job he’d never asked for. Only then did it occur to him that Murph would wake up a different person in a different car from a different year than the day before. In a way it was a complete swap. Spunkles had become Murph and Murph had morphed into Drunkles the Clown. It was a Murph morph.
Spunkles climbed back into the idling black beast. He eased the car through the subdivision and out of Flagler onto the freeway. On the entrance ramp he lit up the tires. When he was hauling down the road, he found Murph’s CD collection on the passenger seat and started thumbing through it. He slid Foghat Live into the CD slot and cranked it up. He advanced it to the second song, “Home in my Hand.”
♫ Well I got my home in my hand.
Travelin’ across the land.
Tryin’ to earn a living
Givin’ everything I can. ♫
With the music blaring one of his favorite songs from back in the day, he got to thinking. It occurred to him that he’d done everything the right way until today. He’d gone to school, got a good job with a nice clowning side gig, and a decent apartment. But despite all his successes, he just felt empty. He was tired of playing the game between the lines, painting his life by numbers. He even suspected that the clowning was an attempt to cover up his unhappiness and that maybe the painted-on smile was just a masking of larger issues.
And so this was what it had come down to. Two counts of grand theft auto, one breaking and entering, burglary and probably a DUI mixed in there somewhere for good measure. He had nothing but the clown outfit on his back and a few stolen clothes in the backseat of a stolen car. In a single day, his life had become a comedy of a different sort. With the turn of a key, he switched the paradigm from that of a happy whiteface clown to a homeless frowning tramp. He couldn’t explain why he’d done it and he certainly didn’t have much of a plan beyond the next exit, but for the first time in the last twenty years he felt truly alive – truly free.
The man formerly known as Spunkles the clown hit the gas and headed west.