The Laughter of the Clown
by Mark SaFranko
The moment Garrett Bernson pushed through the turnstile and went for the vacant bench, he saw her. A tall blonde of around thirty, she was standing near a pillar at the north end searching for something in her purse. Except for her, the waiting area was completely devoid of commuters, which was unusual. It was a cold, rainy Thursday afternoon, true, but in New York an empty subway platform at any time is a rarity.
Then something even more unusual happened. When Garrett pulled out his Wall Street Journal, the woman appeared at his shoulder almost at once.
“Does the 9 train come very often?” she asked, sitting next to him on the burnished wood.
She was beautiful: blue eyes, long, straight naturally golden hair, full pink lips tied like a bow into a smile.
“Every six or eight minutes, I think….”
“Oh, good. I wasn’t sure — I don’t usually ride the train at this time of day.”
Her voice was sweet, like honey. She mentioned something about being downtown for a meeting. Garrett was flustered. He realized now that he never really thought about how the trains ran, and it seemed that if he was going to dispense information, it ought to be accurate. All he ever did was descend like a sleepwalker to the platform each weekday morning and board the underground monster reflexively en route to his office at a midtown ad agency. So it was atypical that he should be waiting for the train at twelve-forty on a Thursday afternoon too, but then extraordinary things were also happening in the office — an unexpected, new sales campaign by a major automaker — causing him to alter his usual schedule for the past few days, arriving later than usual and working into the night. He wondered vaguely why the woman hadn’t consulted the schedule near the token booth.
It was eerily quiet aside from the sound of water plop-plopping from an unseen fissure in the ceiling. Garrett could make out shreds of paper eddying over the rusty tracks on a foul breeze that came from who knows where. He couldn’t remember the last time a good-looking woman had approached him; a few years, it had to be, since he’d sunk into married life and fatherhood. It wasn’t that he was indifferent to the opposite sex, and it wasn’t that he was unattractive, despite the appearance of such unmistakable signs of middle age as sagging jowls and an expanding waistline — but life was hectic, there was scarcely any time in an overcrowded schedule to indulge fantasies. And the idea of having another woman aside from Deborah, his wife, had become pretty much inconceivable — not that it hadn’t crossed his mind.
After being roused out of his doldrums, Garrett found himself eager to talk.
“Do you work nearby?”
Etc. He began to tell her about himself, without, of course, mentioning his wife. He hoped suddenly that the train wouldn’t arrive any time soon. Other passengers had gathered at the periphery of the platform. Finally the 9, looking for all the world like a long, antiquated fire engine, rolled up and spewed out a few bodies. Garrett hoisted his briefcase, walked across the greasy tiles, and stepped inside the open doors. The car was vacant except for a seedy woman in a filthy ski cap perched between two overstuffed shopping sacks at the far end.
Much to Garrett’s surprise, the blonde woman took the seat across from him.
“So, what do you do?”
“Work — for a home furnishings outfit,” she shrugged. “I sell high-end carpeting.”
Under the harsh lights of the car’s interior, Garrett got a better look at his new acquaintance. She was statuesque, if that word was still used, and her legs were well-shaped, with those muscled calves that he tended to favor. Something about her black pantyhose was a turn-on, too. On her feet were immaculate white sneakers, indicating that she was planning to change into pumps when she arrived at her destination, like many of the city’s working women.
As the train rumbled through the black hole, their conversation grew more animated. At one point she said, apropos of nothing Garrett could figure out: “Life isn’t what it used to be. When I was a little girl, you’d see children playing everywhere, in the streets, the parks, the playgrounds. Now all they do is sit at home with their computer games. Of course that’s the only thing some of them can do. It’s a shame, don’t you think?”
Despite the fact that he had a young daughter of his own, Garrett hadn’t given the subject much thought. When the train stopped at Canal Street, Garrett knew that if he was going to do it at all, he would have to make his move, and soon. It was just a matter of taking the chance, jumping off the cliff like those daredevil divers in the tropics. The truth was –- and he could admit it to himself now — that he’d been waiting for something like this to happen for a long time.
Mustering up a nonchalant tone, he asked for her name.
“Maura — yours?”
Maura….An interesting name. She didn’t look like one of those, whatever a Maura looked like. But she was definitely a find, wrapped in her chic lavender overcoat; he could sense her generous curves even from a distance. She was the kind of female a man could feast on. And she was sitting right in the palm of his hand….
They were at Christopher Street. The train had begun moving again. Maura would be getting off soon.
“Would you like to get together sometime, for a drink, or something like that?”
Garrett forced a grin. He didn’t know where to look, whether at the floor, or directly at Maura, or at the intricate map of subterranean New York posted on the wall behind her. He could feel the color rising to his cheeks: a mixture of desire, and excitement — and guilt.
“I’d love to! Call me when you’re free….”
Garrett took the palm-pilot out of his inside breast pocket and punched in her numbers, both home and office. He would have liked to give her his home number, but that was impossible. Instead, he handed her a business card with his name, title, office number and address. This in itself was somewhat risky, he realized, but he didn’t want Maura to not have a way to contact him.
When she debarked at Twenty-Eighth Street, Garrett ruefully watched her disappear into the crowd through the smudged window. He’d be lucky, he thought, if he ever saw her again.
At home in his South Cove apartment, Garrett felt as if he’d slipped into a dream. His surroundings (which he shelled out an arm and a leg for every month) were the same: an airy, spacious duplex, done up by his wife in a light-embracing southwestern motif, and through the windows a nonpareil view of the Statue of Liberty out in the harbor, but something had changed. Deborah had always joked that he was the worst liar in the world, as transparent as a pane of glass, but as he talked with her about nothing in particular across the breakfast table the following morning, he knew that he’d crossed some kind of threshold — because she looked at him, asked her innocent questions and made banal conversation, as if nothing at all were out of the ordinary, which proved to him that he had a genuine desire to follow up on his proposed liaison with Maura Frieman. If his wife picked up nothing unusual -– and Deborah was very intuitive as well as intelligent — then he must be serious about what he was planning to do. Because anyone who could hide his ulterior motives successfully had to be committed to a particular course of action, like the rebellious teenager who tells his parents he’s off to bed and then climbs straight out the bedroom window. As for his four-year-old daughter, Rose, she was blissfully unaware that her father could have any object of consciousness aside from herself.
“More coffee?” asked Deborah, getting up from the table with her cup.
“Not for me — I’ve got an early meeting with the art department….”
Garrett Bernson loved his wife — after a fashion. They’d been together for so long now that their relations were pretty much exhausted. If he were honest with himself, he would admit that he nursed a kind of contempt for Deborah. Not for who she was, but for what she’d become, perhaps through no fault of her own. Marriage sapped the life out of the people involved — just look at his friend, Jack Alger. Garrett had known Jack for nearly fifteen years, and the man was barely a shell of his former self after a decade of wedlock and a pair of brats. Poor Jack was bald, overweight, overworked and overtired. It was all slowly creeping up on him and Deborah, too. Where was their sexual relationship? What had happened to it? It had expired for the most part after Rose was born, and showed no signs of reviving. Why should he be relegated to an allotment of one roll in the hay every two weeks or so at the relatively early age of forty-five? The fact was that his wife seemed to have more interest in their child than she did in him. He noticed that he was spending more and more time re-imagining his sexual conquests from before he met Deborah, when as a young blade of twenty-eight and thirty he met and bedded new women on a regular basis, when he could close an Upper East Side watering hole at four a.m., go out for breakfast with his buddies or a girl, catch a few hours’ sleep, then do it all over again the next night.
But none of all that mattered now. The question was, when was he going to act? He waited with a giddy, mounting anxiety through the weekend, until Monday, when he got to his office. He’d hoped that there would be a message in his voice-mail from Maura — “Been thinking of you…give me a call if you feel up to it” — but he was disappointed. Finally, after a lunch complete with a liberating flagon of saki at a sushi bar across the street from the headquarters of Simson, Jankowitz, Elders and Reed, Garrett summoned his courage and picked up the telephone.
She was distracted, he could hear it in her voice. He flinched. This whole thing is a mistake. But instead of hanging up, he tucked the receiver between his shoulder and ear and snapped the band of his Rolex nervously.
“It’s me, Garrett -– Garrett Bernson. Remember me from the subway last week?” he said, injecting a teasing energy into his voice.
“Garrett…? Oh, Garrett — God, yes! How are you?”
The blast of enthusiasm put him immediately at ease. Nevertheless, having been tethered to his wife for so long, he was unsure about how to proceed with an illicit affair. They gabbed for ten minutes about everything from the prematurely warm February weather to the recently played Super Bowl, before Garrett got around to what he was really after.
“So — when do we get together?”
“You name it, I’ll be there.”
Garrett had his strategy in place in the event he got this far. A neutral location would be the thing, somewhere he wouldn’t be spotted by his office colleagues or any of his wife’s friends.
He suggested a bar he knew on Second Avenue and Eighty-fifth Street. After all, what harm is there in a drink or two after work? Half the city does it. They agreed on Wednesday at six-thirty. For the rest of the afternoon, Garrett was on a high, flashing on brilliant ideas, knocking out top-notch rewrites for the new kit of auto ads, laying out his concepts for a new international telephone calling card to a meeting of account executives. It was as if he was a kid all over again, having landed a date with a girl he had his eye on — and as if he wasn’t saddled with a wife and child.
How was he going to deal with Deborah? Simple. He’d tell her he was working late. Between her part-time consulting job for an art importer and looking after their daughter, she wouldn’t notice a thing.
Wednesday afternoon turned out rainy and windy but warm, the harbinger perhaps of an early spring, and Garrett’s original idea was to ride the subway to his date, but at the last moment he decided to jump into a cab so that his jacket and slacks — a stylish Italian-made sports ensemble — wouldn’t be soggy when he arrived at The Trendsetter. The place was humming, but after scanning the long bar, Garrett realized that Maura hadn’t yet shown up — if she was going to show up. His heart began to vibrate nervously, and he made his way around the tightly-packed bodies to an empty space where he ordered a vodka tonic and pretended to relax.
The drink was strong, and it helped. When Maura appeared nearly twenty minutes later, Garrett had already started on his second, and the alcohol was in the process of suffusing his brain cells.
“So sorry I’m late!” She was out of breath and her silver raincoat was sprinkled with fine water drops. “I got stuck with a client in from Minneapolis, and for the life of me I couldn’t get him out of my office….”
“I know how it is,” Garrett reassured her, though secretly he was relieved. “What’re you drinking?”
He summoned the barman. Moments later, after a few sips of her dry martini, Maura laid her hand with its long slim fingers and polished nails on his and turned toward his ear. “I’m so glad you called,” she whispered. “I found myself thinking about you….”
Garrett was aroused. He no longer cared whether anyone saw him and Maura together, though the chances were slight at best. Before long he and Maura were confiding in one another, intimate words, that had he been sober he would never have considered saying to someone he’d met for only the second time. It was incredible that she never once inquired about his marital status (he’d removed his wedding band in the taxi), and amazing that it was so easy making time with an attractive woman again. What had he been missing all these years? Why had he kept his head in the sand for so long? What he wanted was a double life, the alcohol emancipated him so that he could understand that, and he was going to have it too. Because being with Maura was good. Being with Maura made Garrett Bernson feel alive again. And there were hundreds, thousands more like Maura in this city alone.
Garrett checked the moon-like clock that hung over the mirror behind the bar. Nine o’clock. He’d not given a single thought to phoning his wife, and he wasn’t about to make a call now and destroy his mood.
Maura noticed. “It sure flies when you’re having fun, doesn’t it?…So — where to now?”
What did she mean by that? That she was ready to sleep with him? Obviously he couldn’t take her back to his place. At some point during their rambling conversation she’d asked: “Where do you live, Garrett?” and he’d answered with a single word: “Downtown.” She’d not pressed the issue, and he’d volunteered nothing further. Should he suggest a hotel?
“I’m over on West Ninety-first,” she said, as if reading his mind. “We can grab a cab if you’d like….”
He looked into her eyes. He was completely, recklessly taken with her, couldn’t wait to get his fingers into her magnificent mane of hair, couldn’t help craving her body.
“Then let’s grab a cab.”
Done….He dropped his charge plate in front of the barman, who grinned at him, he thought, insinuatingly. After leaving an indecent gratuity (Garrett saw the barman as somehow in collusion with him in his deceit of his wife), he and Maura found themselves outside. They snagged a ride quickly. As soon as the driver turned his back on them, they began to maul each other.
“Right here,” shouted Maura, abruptly pulling back after they passed through the foggy, heavily shadowed park.
Garrett tossed a twenty at the driver. The facade of the huge building was of faded red stone, ornate with gargoyles but eroded. Garrett and Maura floated past the doorman and into the mirror-paneled elevator. The car lurched to the eleventh floor. There was an odd, muted light inside 1107 when Maura turned the key. On a bench in the narrow anteroom sat a diminutive, modestly dressed brown woman reading a newspaper covered with the symbols of an exotic alphabet, Arabic or Russian, a dour expression on her face. On seeing Maura, she got up, folded the gazette, and silently removed her overcoat from the rack behind the door. Maura reached into her purse and handed the woman a fat envelope.
“Thank you, Reimi.”
The woman nodded and slipped into the corridor without so much as a glance in Garrett’s direction.
“Your –- ” he began, not knowing the word he was after. His brain was cloudy after all the booze. And the unexpected presence of the woman left him slightly embarrassed, though he couldn’t have said why.
“Oh, Reimi. She helps out around here,” Maura answered indifferently.
Garrett followed her into the living room. He searched automatically for the source of the muffled glow, and saw that it emanated from a night light in the form of a garishly-painted, grinning clown’s face plugged into the wall.
Strange sort of gewgaw for a woman of Maura’s age, he thought.
The flat was one of those boxy uptown numbers whose ceilings were inordinately low and whose faded, glaucous paint job seemed as ancient as the city itself. Side by side in the east wall were a pair of closed doors. The crowded furnishings — sofa, chairs, bookshelves, pottery — were neither old nor new. Garrett had the extraordinary impression of standing in the atrium of an overgrown garden, where any light shone only from the moon, though he knew it couldn’t be; it was just the weird illusion cast by that clown’s leering mug.
He and Maura began to strip the clothes off each other, falling to the carpet in the process. Before he quite realized it, he was inside her and the two of them were rolling across the floor like a pair of wrestlers.
They were lying side by side in Maura’s tiny bedroom later when Garrett lifted his watch from the night table and peered into its face.
“It’s almost one,” he exclaimed, reading the iridescent numerals. “I should be getting back to my place — I’ve got a conference call at an ungodly hour tomorrow morning.”
The part about the early call was a lie. He just didn’t want to stay any longer; the entire escapade had been a blunder. Garrett was a guy. And like a normal guy, once the sexual explosion happened, the aftermath was a letdown.
“Oh, no!” Maura moaned, somewhat mockingly. “I’m not easily satisfied….”
Garrett didn’t care about her needs. He was tired, depleted. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and switched on the bedside lamp.
“When do I see you again?” coaxed Maura, draping herself over him, her naked breasts flattened against his back.
He didn’t want to say anything, but he knew that he had to. “Well — soon as I can manage it.”
Garrett felt both triumph and unease. What was he going to do with this trophy now that he’d won it? As he was buttoning his shirt, he scanned the room. The standard reproductions of masterpieces by Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso hung on the walls. And there was a daub by some modern fellow — Garrett thought his name might be Fisher or Fishel — in which a slavering, rabid dog threatened a terrified woman on the deck of a small boat out on a roiling sea. It was an unsettling image that caused something inside Garrett to quake. Finally there was Maura herself, sitting cross-legged and naked in the center of the bed, pouting a bit, watching him with sad eyes.
Tightening his belt he said lamely, “That was really something….” He pushed his stocking feet into his loafers and moved toward the door. Behind him he heard Maura sliding off the sheets.
The first thing Garrett set eyes on in the living room was that damned harlequin’s ghastly face. In the very next instant it was eclipsed by a small black cloud, which stopped him dead. Someone — something — had managed to get into the apartment when he and Maura were in bed.
He stood rooted to the spot, suddenly unsure of his sense of direction. He noticed that the door next to Maura’s bedroom stood slightly ajar. Just then she brushed against his left arm. He turned to her helplessly.
“This — There’s -– ” he stammered, before she cut him off.
“Oh — Walter! We woke you….You poor thing! Come here, darling.”
Walter. Darling. What was this? A dog? A cat?
Maura reached for the wall and switched on the overhead light. Garrett looked down. His first impulse was to laugh out loud, before shock numbed his senses altogether.
Walter stood less than three feet tall. His feet were bare, and the stumpy toes were connected by a nexus of fine webbing. He was wearing a huge diaper — Walter was nothing more than a baby. His head had been deformed by something — disease, a birth defect — so that it had the contours of a vulture’s skull. Or maybe there wasn’t a deformity at all, maybe it was only the unnatural perspective created by that infernal glowering clown.
The creature’s ears were small and shriveled like peanuts, the eyes pink, watery, devoid of intelligence. Like worms, his blubbery lips undulated with painful slowness.
“Mmmvvvmmmmmm” he bellowed, lifting his arms helplessly so that his mother (for that’s who Maura was, Garrett understood now, just as he now grasped that Reimi had been his sitter — or keeper) could lift him up.
Garrett’s body twitched involuntarily. He was covered with a cold sweat. He made a move for the door, but Walter was blocking the way.
“Walter, darling, this is Mister Bernson….”
At that moment, Garrett’s own name was foreign to him.
“All right, darling, all right….Garrett, my son, Walter.”
Maura swept the homunculus off the floor and held him to her breast, where he once again produced that inhuman groan.
“Say hello to Garrett, darling. He has to go just now, but he’s going to come back and see us again very soon….”
At that prediction, Garrett unfroze. He flailed around the living room for his jacket. He dragged it off the chair where he’d left it and staggered to the door.
He said nothing to Maura, not even goodbye. The vision of mother and monster in an embrace was what Garrett could not expunge from his brain as he hurtled down the emergency stairwell, past the impassive doorman, and out to the street. He rushed blindly along the sidewalk with the silent laughter of the clown ringing in his ears, looking for the nearest taxi, but there wasn’t one to be seen, not even on Broadway.
He would have to wait for a bus then…and of course there was always the subway. But no — that was where it started. He would rather walk all the way to the tip of Manhattan island than board the subway. Whenever he saw the red globe indicating an entrance to the underground train, he passed on.
In the following days Garrett was tempted on more than one occasion to come clean with his wife about where he’d been the night he slept with Maura. But he couldn’t. It wasn’t that he hadn’t the desire to bring his transgression into the open, but he was simply too shaken by what had happened in the uptown apartment to even talk to Deborah about it. He cleaved to his wife and daughter now as if there were some unspeakable evil loose in the world, and he wanted to protect them — and himself — from it. Yet he was frightened. And of what, really? A woman who peddled carpet for a living? A pitiful soul who happened to give birth to a defective child? Why, something like that could happen to anyone….But if only she’d told him about Walter beforehand, he reflected anxiously, and not allowed him to discover the boy the way he had, in the dark. There was something about the jolt that had completely unhinged him.
He managed to avoid answering his telephone at the office, and for days after his date with Maura she left no messages. But on Thursday afternoon of the following week, she got through when he was expecting another call.
“I thought I’d hear from you,” she sighed wearily, her old buoyancy gone. Had she been drinking? Taking drugs? Was she insane? “I waited for days, and the phone never rang. I wish you hadn’t driven me to do this….”
“D-do what? I was going to call you as soon as I had the chance — really….”
His protest was weak, feeble, and unconvincing, even to his own ears. Garrett looked out the window at the forbidding March sky and wished he was a million miles away. The worst part of all this was that Maura could call him any time, she could show up and harass him — she could kill him if she wanted to. It was the kind of thing that happened all the time these days, all you had to do was read the newspapers. He was trapped now like a helpless animal.
“It’s all because of Walter, isn’t it? You have something against me now because of -– ”
”No! That’s not true,” Garrett shot back. But it was true and he knew it. It was all true, every single word. She had given birth to a freak, and now his own seed had traveled inside her. Perhaps she would bring forth a freak that would be his.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with you,” concluded Maura. “I’ll talk it over with Walter, and we’re going to decide, the two of us. And when we decide, I’ll call you back. Don’t even think of trying to get away from me, Bernson. Remember, there’s nowhere for you to hide.”
And with that she hung up. Garrett Bernson waited for a long time, then pushed himself away from his desk, got up, and opened the door. He watched his colleagues running to and fro with their ads, for frozen dinners, frequent flyer miles, sophisticated computers. They all looked so carefree …so normal. He wanted to be one of them so badly that tears welled up in his eyes. He no longer knew what to do with himself, how to exist in the world. Whatever peace he knew in life was gone, perhaps for good.
He retreated, shutting the door behind him. Then he drew the curtain over the window, resumed his chair, and went back to the computer where he’d been working out the text of a new print ad for an upscale men’s underwear line. He tried to read what he’d written, but his attention faltered. Like a man coming to terms with a death sentence, he pulled the telephone close to his elbow. It may as well be near him, he figured, since it was only a matter of time.
* * * * THE END * * * *
Copyright Mark SaFranko 2018
About the Author: Mark SaFranko novels include Hating Olivia (Harper Perennial and 13E Note Editions, named one of Virgin France’s Favorite Summer Reads of 2009), No Strings (Thomas & Mercer and Black Coffee Press, named one of Blackheart Magazine’s best books of 2012), The Suicide (Honest Publishing, named one of Foyles Best Novels of 2014), Lounge Lizard (13e Note Editions, Murder Slim Press), God Bless America (13e Note Editions, Murder Slim Press) and Dirty Work (13e Note Editions, Murder Slim Press). They have collected rave reviews and a cult following in Europe, especially in France and the United Kingdom. His stories have appeared in more than 70 magazines and journals internationally, including the renowned Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. In 2005 he won the Frank O’Connor Award from descant magazine for his short fiction. He was cited in Best American Mystery Stories 2000 and has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize.
His Official Website: http://www.marksafranko.com/