Solving the Riddle of My Mother’s Secret Room
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The Clown Room
The clown room was off-limits. It lay behind a narrow door at the bottom of the basement stairs, which I crept down when my mother was otherwise distracted—having tea with a neighbor, or cutting someone’s hair. She had a salon in her parlor and one of those hairdryers that looked like a space helmet. She served all of her guests strawberry wafers in plastic sleeves. Some days I ate only strawberry wafers, washed down with orange juice.
The clown room was a small room with wood-paneled walls. There was a painted chest full of tricks, and clown shoes were lined up against the baseboard. The shoes were too big, clearly fake. They looked less like shoes than sculptures of shoes. The room was a closet for all intents and purposes, but in this closet was another closet, and in that closet were the clown suits and wigs. They smelled like burned things. Marionettes hung from hooks in the ceiling. The wigs hung from hooks in the walls. The wigs were long and curly, either red or every color of the rainbow. I would put them on, and the stringy hairs would fall over my nose and mouth. They tasted how balloons tasted: manufactured, toxic. I never tried the suits. They were too large and floppy. I never had enough time to deal with their limp arms and sticking zippers before my mother came creaking down the steps.
My mother was one of a troupe of party clowns who went by the names of mediocre candies. Tootsie Pop, Sweet Tart. I could never keep them straight. Their faces were impossible to make out beneath all that paint. At family reunions and birthday parties, the clowns juggled, made crystal balls float, pulled handkerchiefs out of thin air. In the summertime, we would attend two parties a day. I would sit at the back of a crowd of cross-legged children, whose frank sense of belonging left me intimidated. I worried constantly that they would tell me I shouldn’t be there, I hadn’t been invited, but no one ever bothered me so I would remain where I was, trying to understand how a birthday cake could blossom out of a top hat.
The answers, I knew, were in the clown room. Each trick was diagrammed in a booklet I’d discovered one day in the bottom drawer of the blue-and-white chest. I had paged through the diagrams and scrutinized the numbered instructions beneath each until my mother flung open the door. I hid the booklet behind my back. She sunk to her knees and asked if I had found her secrets, and I admitted the truth: that I had, but I couldn’t understand them.
She nodded. “That’s the way it is,” she said.
For a long time, my only friend was a neighbor, Imogene. She was a year older than me, a fourth grader at the all-girls school. I could see a sliver of her through the fence separating her yard from mine. One heavily lidded eye, a streak of blonde hair, a soft freckled cheek. “Hello,” we would whisper to one another. I would wiggle a finger through the gap, try to touch her, and Imogene would skip away. Whenever I invited her to my house, she said she couldn’t; her parents wouldn’t let her. I assumed she was trapped and became determined to free her, but I didn’t know how. When I asked my mother for help, she and her troupe teased me. They sang, “Jeans, beans, and Imogenes.”
My father was not a clown. He didn’t have much interest in them, either. He existed primarily in his chair, by the TV, watching The Lone Ranger. The TV troll, my mother called him. Only when I had been caught in the clown room would I stop by his chair, and he would hoist me onto his lap and tell me about Iwo Jima. One day he asked, “Have you seen that picture? The famous one of the Marines raising the flag?” He said that he knew one of those men. Don Maggiano was his name, and my mother leaned against the wall and said, “It’s not him!” So they called him up and Don Maggiano said, “I have to admit, Clive, it isn’t me.” But my father remembered him fondly. “He was a kind person.”
I patted my father’s warm, round belly and asked why he never became a clown.
“Bah,” he said, “that never interested me.”
I asked if he knew how the clowns did their magic, and he said that magic wasn’t real, God was. He informed me that the clowns were tricking me, but that God had created everyone before the foundation of the world, and that was no trick. My father’s fingers were huge. He dipped them into fonts of holy water he’d hung about the house. My mother never did this; she saved all the blessings for him. “He needs as many as he can get,” she said. She wasn’t joking. He had constant chest pain and could often be found with his hands over his heart. “Heal me, Lord,” he would say intermittently, which I fully expected to happen. I was surprised when he died of a heart attack when I was eight years old.
After the funeral, people showed up at our house, no clowns among them. They brought macaroni salad and paper plates, and stabbed at grapes with silver forks. I sensed Imogene before I saw her: beautiful, wan, blonde. She had come out in the open. It was a miracle. Yet, together, her eyes were not what I’d expected; one was slightly higher than the other, and its blue iris seemed to wander—as if being tugged by a gentle distraction over my shoulder.
“What are you staring at?” she asked, nibbling the edge of a cracker.
I had only ever seen her through the fence. “You’re so whole.”
She smiled. “You’re so funny,” she said, and stepped toward me. This close, she smelled soapy. I was dying to show her the clown room.
We wound toward it, through the house, around guests’ black pantlegs and skirts, and arrived at the top of the steep wooden staircase. She followed me down, each step groaning beneath our feet. I pushed open the clown room door, flipped on the light. I tried to see the place through Imogene’s eyes, but her reaction was unreadable. She took in the dark walls, the chest of drawers. She opened one, found plastic candies in it, put one in her mouth.
“Clowns terrify me,” she said, sucking. She spit out the candy, wiped it with her dress, and replaced it in the drawer. “You won’t become a clown, will you?”
Loosening my necktie, I retrieved the diagrams from the bottom drawer. “Can you understand this?”
She studied the papers, tracing each line with her index finger. She was only a few inches taller than me, but I seemed to be staring up at her.
“This is easy,” she said. Then she looked up from the answer sheet, one blue eye aimed straight at me, the other seeming to focus just behind me. “Which trick should we do first?”
I never told my mother that I’d learned her secrets, but after some time I think she knew. She must have noticed I was no longer sneaking downstairs. I had no reason to. She and I began to move about the house independently and oddly at peace. She picked up a job at the Italian diner half a mile away, but on weekends she continued fooling children at their parties. One night, while she was sipping tea in my father’s chair, I asked why she had become a clown in the first place. She pressed the tea bag against the side of her mug and told me that she hadn’t chosen. She said it’s the kind of profession that happens to you.
When she passed away many years later, she left the house to me. I dragged most of the boxes and tricks out to the roadside, but not before trying on the wigs one last time. I couldn’t squeeze into the suits. Now they were too small. But the shoes fit just fine.