Brandon Ambrosino grew up with clowns, learning the art and secrets under the paint and laughter.
I remember she’d take a long tube sock, fill it with powder, tie the end into a knot, then squish her eyes and mouth shut and rhythmically beat her face with the sock until her head was adorned with a fleeting halo of chalky haze. With her face still scrunched, she’d toss the sock into her open caboodle and then settle in to stillness as the cloud of powder tried to sneak away before she coughed open her eyes.
I remember she’d hold her breath and wait for the powder to dissipate, her face motionless but not emotionless, for plastered onto it were the ebullient colors and shapes of perpetual joy. The reds and yellows transfixed her whitewashed countenance, twisting and contorting the painted-on musculature into a paralysis of laughter.
I remember vividly the hours my mother spent preparing her transformation into a clown.
I remember she’d blink open her eyes and study the image in the mirror: the inverted music notes under her eyes; the triangles above them; the exaggerated, untiring smile bending up into her cheeks. It was a smile that reminded all who chanced upon it that the hilarity would not relent, that the jokes would not stop, that the comedy would not end—for what happens when the comedy ends? What happens when the laughter dries up, and the mouth reverts to its resting state?
With the careful placement of a red wig over the pantyhosed mess of hair atop her head, my mother would transform into a clown.
Watching your mom act as a clown isn’t very startling after you’ve spent an hour watching her morph into one. In fact, that’s exactly why she had me watch her put on her makeup and wig: to demystify her clownhood so I would always know she was still there under the greasepaint.
But what was under the person who was under the greasepaint? What was under the skeleton under the whiteface?
Alas, poor Yorick: What kinds of memories are hid within your skull?
Clowns featured regularly in my childhood. And while that might have unnerved other kids, I was thrilled whenever the clumsy comedians showed up to surprise me. I was fascinated by clowns. I’ve always been drawn to them, to their oddly-textured hair and the oversized freckles that dotted their cheeks. I’m sure this fondness can be traced to those quiet moments when I sat on the sink watching my mother apply her rouge.
Although my mom wanted to be a circus clown, her early marriage to my father, and my birth one year later, limited her clowning to children’s events and church functions. She might not have been a clown for Barnum, but she was certainly a clown for Jesus, committed to laughing her sinful audiences out of their damning stupor. At seven years old, I decided to follow her lead, although, at the time, it didn’t feel like much of a choice. Laughter cackled through my body the way I imagine Liberon wax slinks through the veins of a second-generation antiques dealer. So, following in the footsteps of my mom’s oversized clown shoes, I started attending clown ministry practice on Tuesday nights where, for one hour a week, I learned how best to use mime and slapstick to save someone’s soul from an eternity of damnation.
Hellfire, after all, was no laughing matter.
One year, I marched with the clown ministry in our city’s summer parade. I was one of the people carrying the banner because, if I’m being honest, I don’t think church leadership trusted my comic sensibilities enough to let me interact with the spectators. (Apparently Mr. Jerry’s fake harmonica was funnier than my bit with the juggling scarves.)
I remember that the pride I felt from being a clown was immediately replaced with embarrassment when I saw some boys from my class sitting along the parade route. At once, I felt ashamed of what I’d become. I felt as if I were some colorful monstrosity being peddled down the street as the entire contemptuous village mocked me with feigned giggles and forced applause.
Their laughter only bothered me momentarily. After all, the Scriptures warned me about how I’d be persecuted for the sake of Jesus, how I would be snickered at for believing in God or for hitting myself in the head with a squeaky, rubber hammer. Besides, if I didn’t enjoy the experience of being laughed at, then I was readying myself for the wrong profession.
Being a clown meant being laughed at and being O.K. with it—but I wasn’t always O.K. with it. Walking down the street with weird church people in makeup as my childhood bullies taunted me—I wasn’t O.K. with that. Of course, I wasn’t sure if theirs was genuine laughter or mockery, as childhood ears confuse the two. I just assumed it was the latter.
I’m not sure whether my experience with the parade affected my desire to be a clown, but I never again marched with the clown troupe. While my clowning career was short-lived (a few months, at most), my fascination with the creatures steadily increased.
Each year, my Auntie took me and my parents to the Ringling Brothers show. Because she was physically handicapped, we were always given seats that could accommodate her scooter. They were located on the actual circus platform, about twenty feet away from the center ring. We weren’t like the other thousands of people there to see the circus: We were part of it.
To access our seats, we had to go through the backstage area where we passed various acrobats, trapeze artists and pony trainers, each one clad in sparkles and rhinestones, the women’s cleavage spilling over their tops and the men’s biceps bulging past their mid-arm cuffs.
I remember seeing my first Ringling clown up close during one of these backstage trips. I was ten or eleven. As we followed the usher past several roadies, I caught sight of the buck-toothed, blue-haired trickster. He was staring at me. His makeup was smiling at me, of course, but who knew what facial muscles constricted under his mask? I caught sight of another clown to his right, and then another behind them. One by one the clown eyes appeared, and as they did, the pre-show commotion slowed to a halt.
The clowns locked their gaze onto my family, and I became immediately self-aware of my aunt’s condition. I felt as if her physical deformity gave our beholders a temporary reprieve from the monotonous gawking to which their craft subjected them. The longer I stared at their comically arched eyebrows, the more I imagined them to be asking me: “Which is more monstrous? An oversized forehead and buckteeth, or an arthritic woman with crippled limbs?”
It was a decade before I ended up backstage at the circus again.
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Brandon Ambrosino is a writer and professional dancer based in Baltimore, Maryland. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, TIME, Huffington Post, Gawker, VICE, McSweeney’s, Buzzfeed, Relevant, the Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Magazine.