Singing Pagliacci by Marie Griffin
Singing Pagliacci by Marie Griffin
Sterling’s heart raced when he thought about being late for the coffee house, but he had to get his makeup perfect. He stared at his reflection in the mirror and practiced various faces. .He hoped people would find his clown outfit original. He ran out of the bathroom, grabbed his phone, put on his red Converse sneakers and rushed towards the door. He decided to cut through the woods on his way to the coffee house. He imagined Pam, the opera singers, and all her friends watching his clown act with admiration. He kept checking his phone, but she hadn’t called or texted since he repaired her laptop.
When he ran, the trees curtsied him like debutants in their frocks of pumpkin, scarlet, and gold. He’d taken a shortcut Google Maps had suggested, and cursed when he plowed into a thick pond of pine-straw. The villain to every outdoor runner in the Carolinas; He could break an ankle if he blindly plowed through it. Cursing up a stream of epithets that would have embarrassed his mother, his hopes lept as he reached the end and struck solid ground. Joyfully, he sped up to his fastest pace as he saw a blind curve at the base of a thicket of trees. He rounded the corner, his calves feeling the as he moved up the hill, peeking at the time on his phone. Sterling stopped when he heard crunching leaves and the rustling of pines.
Sterling turned around and saw a thin woman standing holding a gun. She was higher up on the hill and had the gun pointing downward towards his head,. Her hands shook. She had wavy, shoulder- length silver hair, high cheek bones and flirty green eyes. Sterling raised his arms. “Ya got me, “ he said.
“You think this is a joke?”
“ I hear you and your clown friends have been scaring the children.” Sterling raised his eyes and stepped back.
“Are you kidding?”
The woman stopped shaking.
“You heard me.”
“No,“ Sterling tried to maintain eye contact. He started to rock.
“I’m on my way to a coffee house. I work there.” He pointed towards town.
“Dressed in a lady’s blouse?”
“Got my clown outfit at Goodwill.”
He took a couple of deep breaths and could hear his father’s voice telling him how stupid he was. It just never occurred to him that someone would perceive him as dangerous. Sterling wiped his sweaty hands on his pants and took a deep breath.
“Walk that way.“
“I said move it.” She pointed her finger up the hill towards the woods. He thought about the number of times his mother had warned him not to allow other people to trick him into doing things. Was this some kind of trick or a game? Sterling heard a pop and stepped backwards. He looked over and saw a large, writhing Copperhead. He jumped back.
“Watch where you step!. ” Sterling looked for the dead copperhead that was now camouflaged by the straw.
“Didn’t see that, ” Sterling said shakily.
“That’s how life is.”
He dropped his phone.
Sterling nodded and took cautious steps towards the woods and kept looking over his shoulder.
He listened to the chatter of squirrels.
“Keep going,” she said. A small, white clapboard house loomed in the distance.
Sterling stumbled, then walked towards the house. He stopped at the door, contemplating bolting into the woods, but she still had a gun. Even as fast as he was, he couldn’t outrun a bullet, She opened the door to the porch. Sterling sat down on a white swing and she across from him on a white rocking chair with a blue cushion. He looked around the porch. Her Boston Fern was fighting for it’s life. There were crushed Diet Coke cans on the rattan table next to a chess board. Gracie picked up a blue pitcher on the wicker table.
“ Look like you could use some tea. I’m Gracie. ”
“Thanks, but I’ve got to go,.” He fidgeted and looked towards the door.
“We gotta talk,” Gracie said.
Gracie placed the gun next to her and took a sip of tea. Sterling tried to avoid looking directly at her intense green eyes.
“You know I’ve been praying for a man. And what do I find? A clown. Don’t know what the good Lord is trying to tell me with this one.” Gracie looked up for a moment then took another sip of tea.
Gracie set down her tea. Sterling looked at the floor and tried to keep his body still.
“I don’t know whether to call the police, or try to talk some sense into you. You could’ve been buzzard bait.”
He looked down at his red Converse sneakers, avoiding her gimlet eye.
“I think I’m being neighborly by asking you what in God’s creation are you doing running around in the woods dressed like when there are perverted clowns running around here and scaring the children.?”
Sterling shrugged and looked down at the wet boards on the floor.
“Did you graduate from regular school?”
“Yes, computer science was my favorite subject. “
Gracie wrinkled her brow.
“Well, It pays to be handy with computers,” Gracie said as Sterling started organizing things on the table. Gracie furrowed her brow.
“So who are your people?” Gracie asked.
Gracie’s eyes widened.
“Oh, they’ve been around here for ever. Do you have a relative named Vivian?”
Sterling nodded. “That’s my Mama.”
“ She was such a nice girl. Smart but odd. Bless her heart. And what is your name?
Sterling leaned forward,” I was named after my grandfather, Sterling.”
“So you come from good people. I just don’t get it.” Gracie said.
Sterling picked up his phone. “I’m supposed to meet this girl who is an opera singer.”
Gracie raised an eyebrow.
“I’ve been taking theatre classes and this is my chance to show off my skills.”
Gracie’s lip curled.
“Well, you come from good people, but you’re no Mensa candidate.”
“Mensa?” Sterling asked. His eyes widened. What would a country lady know about Mensa?
“Yes, it’s a club for smart people that means stupid in Spanish. I took their test at the library. They wanted me to join for a bunch of money, so I decided to buy some drapes at Pennys instead. ”
Sterling started to rock. He would be late and who would believe that he was held up by a granny with a gun?
“So what do you do?”
“I work at Starbucks.” He stiffened. “And help people with their computers on the side.”
“Overpriced swill. ” She snorted.
Sterling looked up at a spider crawling in the corner. His shoulders slumped. He found the sound of windchimes calming. He wanted to check his phone to see if he had a text from Pam. There was no text. She was nice to him, but she never invited him to go out with her friends. People in school used to tease him by pretending to be his friend.
“Whatcha looking at your phone for? You know if that girl hadn’t called you by now, she’s probably not going to.”
“Well, I was hoping this opera singer would be coming to the show. Her name is Pam. Seems like she only talks to me when she needs help with her computer. “
The woman’s eyes sparkled and cajoled.
“Aggh, dressing up like a fool to impress a woman. So you’re playing Pagliacci.”
Sterling scratched his head.
“An opera. A sad clown sings a tragic song. “
Sterling’s eyes brightened. Gracie had just given him an idea. He had a nice tenor voice and used to sing in the choir. He wondered how many languages Pam knew. He was still impressed by her recital. A gray and white tabby jumped in his lap. Gracie looked surprised. “Ninja is a good judge of character. Can’t deny that. Maybe we need to get you cleaned up.” She opened the screen door to her house.
“And I need to do a better job cleaning up this place. One never knows when she might have some company.” Ninja followed Sterling and mewled. The cat rubbed himself against Sterling’s legs. He reached down and petted Ninja. Animals always liked him and he could sense what they were thinking.
The house smelled musty. Sterling wanted to start dusting. There were stacks of books all over the floor and a television was conspicuously missing. Did she not watch television? Puzzle pieces were strewn all over the coffee table. There were boxes of puzzles next to the couch, and pictures of two young girls on the end table. Sterling wondered if her children ever visited.
Even though the house was cluttered, she at least kept most of her stuff off the floor.
Gracie led him to a small bathroom that smelled like bleach. Sterling shuddered when he saw cat litter strewn all over the floor.
“Oh, need to sweep that up. Just changed the box” Gracie said. “No. My deceased husband used to keep it on all the time.”
“So how do you keep up with what’s going on?”
“Used to get the paper but got sick of the smut peddlers. Bought a computer. Now you wash your face.” He turned on the faucet and studied the cracks in the yellow sink. After he washed off some of the makeup, the woman’s face brightened. She grabbed a wash rag from the closet and scrubbed his face then she put some kind of cream on his face.
“Hate to see such nice eyelashes wasted on a man. You clean up well.”
Sterling’s ears felt hot.
“If you want to impress that opera singer, why don’t you just try to be yourself? “
Sterling studied his reflection in the cloudy mirror. He glanced back at Gracie to see if she still had the gun. She pointed the gun towards the floor. Gracie then led him to her bedroom. Clothes were scattered all over the laminate floors. She pulled a blue dress shirt out of the closet.
“It’s my late husband’s shirt. Might fit okay. You can wear that. “
“He passed away. Had a heart attack a year back. I still iron his shirts.”
Gracie glanced at the picture of her deceased husband on her night table. Sterling followed the direction of her gaze and saw a picture of Gracie with her husband when she was young. They were sitting in a cafe.
“We were in Montpeyroux,” she said. Sterling widened his brown eyes.
“Been all over the place. Fred was a pilot. But I still say the Carolinas are one of the prettiest places I’ve seen.” She looked misty eyed. Sterling put on the shirt and was surprised that it fit.
Gracie squinted and eyed him up and down.
“Not bad. You look like you got some sense. Now what you need to do is stop looking at the ground. Look a woman in the eye. “
Sterling blushed and tentatively looked into Gracie’s eyes. He followed her back to the porch. He
He admired her computer as he walked through the room.
“Now go run along and see your opera singer. But don’t settle for someone who don’t treat you right. I learned some tough lessons early on in life. Took a while to find the right one.” Gracie’s eyes watered.
Sterling held onto the loose railing. He decided if he could look into the eyes of a woman holding a gun, he could face Pam.
“Okay, you run along now,” she said, leading him to the door. “And bring my shirt back!”
He walked towards the woods and then sprinted without looking back. He still had time to make it to the show to ask Pam about Pagliacci. Maybe he would come back and tell Gracie how it went. The leaves appeared incandescent in the afternoon sun.
Copyright Marie Griffin 2020