The Clown Joke (or The Legend of the Comeback King)

A long time ago, there was a boy named Adam. Adam was almost indistinguishable from other buys his age with the exception that his life was almost infinitely more sad. His family lived in a small, run down house right in the middle of where the dustbowl once was. Neither parents worked; Adam's father spent his days beating his wife and watching television, his mother attended to her husband and dutifully received her lashings. Adam largely ignored this behavior. Every day after coming home from school, Adam would go straight to his room, lock the door, and blast the radio to drown out his mother's cries. Then he would sit down and write.

This transported him far away from his miserable little life, writing tales of such sweeping scope that they would carry the scratchings of his pencil late into the night. And though his stories were many and varied, they always had the same protagonists.

Clowns.

While other boys his age cowered at the thought of them, Adam would portray clowns how they were meant to be; clever tricksters who lived to bring smiles and laughter to all they met. And so his clowns would embroil themselves in deep mischief and high intrigue, fighting pirates in Indonesia or foiling Nazis in the skies above Switzerland.

However, as Adam wrote more and more, something began to trouble him. Though he loved the idea of clowns and what they represented to him, he had never actually seen one in person. Every time the circus came to town, Adam would beg his father to give him some of their welfare money to go, but on each of these occasions his father would simply take a long drag from his cigarette, grunt, and change the channel.

So when Adam at the age of eleven heard that the circus was coming to his town in scant months, he did not even bother asking his father. Every morning Adam would get up, leave for school, and halfway there turn and head instead to the local shoe factory. There, he would work eight cents a day (five after taxes) leathering shoes. After work, Adam would go home, head straight to his room, lock the door, blast the radio, wrap his blistered fingers around his chewed up pencil, and write. For months he worked until his hands became like leather themselves, saving every penny he earned, and for months he would write.

Days before the circus's opening night, Adam found he had earned enough money to purchase one ticket. Never before had he been so excited. He walked the long distance to the circus, greeted the ticket vendor with a massive grin, and purchased his ticket. The vendor ripped it for him, giving Adam the stub, which he handled as if it were made of the finest and most beautifully carved. Almost unable to contain himself, Adam entered the grand tent and found his seat.

It was everything he could've imagined. Trapeze artists swung from platform to platform with incredible ease; animal tamers snapped whips at lions and tigers (no bears though). After watching this with interest, Adam's breath nearly caught in his throat when he saw a very small car drive into the center ring. The entire crowd hushed, staring at the car in wonder. Then, out poured the clowns.

They exceeded Adam's wildest expectations. Huge red grins shined on their white painted faces as they tumbled and rolled out of the impossibly small car. The audience cheered and hooted and Adam soaked in their happiness, watching with unadulterated glee as the clowns started throwing cream pies and spraying seltzer water at each other. It was without a doubt the happiest moment in Adam's life.

And it was at that moment that the ringmaster, a tall man in a plaid sports jacket and an oversized hat, stepped forward and grabbed a hanging microphone that had been lowered just for his use.

"And now, ladies and gentlemen," he cooed into the mic. "I need a volunteer from the audience."

Before he knew it, Adam was on his feet, his voice chorusing with all the other children in their crowd, their parents sitting amusedly by. The ringmaster looked at a small note card in his hands and asked in a low voice, "Would the person in seat 47-B please come down to the center ring?"

Adam looked to his left to see seat 47-A. He looked to his right to see 47-C. Hardly daring to breathe, Adam looked at his ticket stub. 47-B. He nearly exploded with excitement as he bolted out of his chair and down the aisle towards center ring, where the ringmaster, after inspecting his ticket stub, greeted him enthusiastically.

"What is your name, young man?" He asked.

Adam shook with excitement. "A-Adam."

The ringmaster smiled. "Well, 'A-Adam', have we got a treat for you." One of the clowns had walked up to the pair, a white face with a blue-green star on his temple and a huge grin on his lips. The ringmaster gestured to him. "This clown here, is going to tell you what kind of animal you are," he tapped Adam on the chest, "in here."

Adam's eyes shone with admiration as the clown walked circles around him, carefully appraising.

"Well…" The clown's voice was high and reedy. "You don't have a big nose, so you're not an elephant." He lifted Adam's lip and took a deep look at his teeth. "And you don't have sharp teeth, so you're not a tiger…"

Adam stood in eager expectation, wondering what he possibly could be. Finally, after much deliberating, the clown spoke.

"You do have kind of big ears though… I know! You must be a jackass!"

The crowd roared with laughter as the clown produced a pie out of midair and smashed it into Adam's face. Adam stood in pure shock, tears threatening to tumble down his cream covered face as the clowns jeered at him, laughing at his embarrassment.

Adam returned from the circus to find his father burning his mother with a set of lit cigarettes. He didn't even look angry, only a little amused as he put out cigarette after cigarette on Adam's mother. Adam moved a little closer to see that he was burning a large smiley face onto her arm. Something snapped within Adam, and he shouted at his father "Get off her!"

Swinging his tiny fists, he ran at his father, who dropped his cigarette, stood, and caught Adam by the throat. Face twisted in annoyance, Adam's father lifted him off the ground and threw him into the nearby wall.

Adam, sobbing with frustration and rage, lifted his head to watch his father casually sit back down, pick up his dropped cigarette, and stab it into Adam's mother's arm. She let out a cry strained by a throat hoarse from crying. Adam bolted back into his room, locked the door, blasted the radio, and sat down to his desk to write. He couldn't even bring himself to pick up the pencil. With a cry of frustrated rage, Adam grabbed at the stacks of paper under his bed, pulled them out, and began ripping them to shreds. Sobbing with anger at his father, at the clowns, at the whole world, Adam tore away at the papers until they were all just a crumpled heap on the floor. Panting amid the scraps, Adam suddenly jerked back to his feet, grabbed his pencil, and wrote one word directly onto his desk.

"Revenge."

Adam left home that night, feet beating the dry dust road in the dark. After what seemed like hours of running, he collapsed to his knees on the side of the road and beat the ground in frustration. Nonsensical images of clowns choking to death on cream pies or tripping over their large shoes and falling down flights of stairs chased their way through his mind.

So obsessed was the boy with thoughts of revenge that he didn't even notice the headlights creeping up behind him. The car stopped and an old man stepped out.

"Are you ok?" The old man asked.

"Go away." Adam spat, refusing to look up.

"You got parents, boy?"

Adam's face twisted briefly before responding, "No."

The old man watched him carefully. "Come on," He sighed. "You're coming with me."

Head shaking, Adam said, "No."

"This isn't a matter for discussion." The man said. "It's the foster home for you, boy. Now let's go."

Rage swelled up within Adam. Who did this old man think he was anyway? "No!" He shouted. "Leave me alone you old…" Adam cast around for something truly insulting. "…Smelly guy! You smell! You smell like shit!"

The old man raised his eyebrows in amusement. "I smell, do I?" He moved closer to Adam, a small smile on his face. "I may smell now, but I can always wash. Unfortunately for you, there's no easy way to fix ugly."

Adam stopped in his tracks. Desperately, he tried to think of something to say back to the old man, but nothing would come to mind. He stuttered briefly before he realized the old man had completely defeated him. "How…" He began.

"That was a comeback." The old man smirked at Adam.

An idea began to form in Adam's mind, something that would make his revenge complete. Looking up, he asked, "Can you teach me how to do that?"

A shuddering sigh went through the old man. "Maybe, when I was young, I could've. I'm too old and too tired to now."

"Please!" Adam shuffled to the man's feet and bowed. "Please, I need to learn how to make the greatest comeback ever!"

"Get off." The man said, and Adam scooted backwards, but refused to rise off his knees. "The greatest comeback ever, eh?" He stroked his chin in thought. "What's your name, boy?"

"Adam."

"Well, Adam, like I said before, I'm too old and tired to teach anyone anything. However, since I'm old, I'm also allowed to be whimsical. You sure you got no parents?"

Adam nodded without hesitation.

"Then you'll come and live with me. When you're old enough, I'll send you off to learn the art of the comeback where I learned it. Is that ok?"

Again, Adam nodded vigorously.

"Then get up."

Adam rose to his feet and asked, "What's your name?"

"Marcus." The old man turned and walked back to his car, Adam following. "The neighborhood kids call me 'Old Man Marcus' and throw eggs at my house. You're not to associate with them."

"I won't," Said Adam, and he meant it. He was on a mission, and nothing would distract him.

And so Adam lived at Old Man Marcus's house for the next three years, cooking his meals and cleaning dried egg off the front of his house, all the while keeping his ears open, hoping to hear Marcus drop another comeback. Occasionally, he would insult Marcus in the hopes of provoking him, but every time Marcus would just smile and say, "Not yet".

In the fall after Adam's 14th birthday, Marcus sent him to a private boarding school commonly called Comeback High. The atmosphere there was highly competitive and even special awards were given to students who could cleverly humiliate others. Adam often came off the worst in his encounters with other students, but their words had very little effect on him. Nothing they said could compare with the embarrassment Adam had suffered at the hands of the clown, the memory of which still made his eyes burn with shame and anger.

Despite Adam's determination and hard work, he did not excel at Comeback High, teachers often citing his lack of natural talent. The head of the Insults Department made a note in Adam's permanent record stating "(Adam) couldn't insult a retarded four-year-old to save his slut mother from a dickless rapist." As a result, the only college Adam could get into was a two-year comeback community college.

Halfway through Adam's first semester in college, Marcus died. Although it is unknown how close Adam and Marcus had grown over the last seven or so years, two things are certain. First, Marcus named Adam his sole beneficiary. Second, when Adam returned to school, his efforts redoubled. Almost immediately, his grades rose and he managed to transfer to a four-year comeback university.

There, he excelled. Majoring in comebacks with a focus on put-downs, disses, and derision; Adam soon became a force to be reckoned with. Not only did he learn specific comebacks over his years of schooling, he also learned things like set-up and timing. One entire year of classes dealt with the mechanics of the comeback, which Adam took to like a fish to water. Nothing and no one distracted him from his passion to learn, still fueled by his desire for revenge.

Adam graduated at the top of his class, egregia cum laude. Many of his professors strongly encouraged him to return for his masters degree, but Adam chose instead to take the money left to him from Marcus and travel abroad, studying with the ancient comeback masters of China, Brazil, and Australia. It was during this time that Adam's notoriety became international. Word quickly spread worldwide of a young comeback master whose quick tongue and quicker wits left despair and tragedy in his wake. When confronted with these rumors, Adam would merely smile in a way reminiscent of Old Man Marcus and move on. As Adam studied and learned, he became more icon than person, more myth than man.

At the age of 25, Adam found there was nothing more anyone could teach him. He had mastered all the theories, perfected all the mechanics, and heard every comeback ever uttered by anyone with practice in the craft. He had become the youngest grandmaster of comebacks the world had ever seen, and still he was not satisfied. Companies and corporate sponsors tried to hire him to insult people they wanted, but he flat out refused, still desperately searching for more to learn, even though some part of him knew it was useless. After a year of this, he vanished.

Where he went, no one knew, but his sudden disappearance elevated his status to that of legend. Some people thought he had been driven mad by his own power, while others thought he was merely experimenting with new comeback methods, words and phrases that had previously eluded human comprehension. What he was doing, no one can say for sure. All they knew was that for four years, no one had seen hide nor hair of him. Then, after five years of silence, Adam returned to his family home.

He was lean and handsome, the wind whipping his medium length hair around and blowing sand into the stubble that covered his features. Very little remained of the boy that had left home twenty years ago, only the look of hard determination in his eyes. The house stood before him, small and creaking in the wind. Adam paused before it only briefly before entering.

Everything seemed smaller, but otherwise unchanged. Two ragged armchairs faced the small television with the pathetic coat hanger serving as antenna. Cigarette butts littered the shag carpeting, singing spots here and there. Adam did not linger in the front room long, but moved directly to his own room.

Nothing had been touched since he left. Even the torn pages from the stories lay tattered on the ground where he had thrown them. Adam squatted briefly to examine the pieces, but they did not hold his interest for long. They were written by another person from another life. Adam rose to his feet and walked to the desk, which was covered by a thick layer of dust. Adam placed a hand onto the desk and shivered. Just touching the desk sharpened the memory of his humiliation at the hands of the creatures he once revered. Slowly, he dragged his hand across the desk, brushing the dust to reveal one word still barely visible written into the wood.

"Revenge."

A hoarse, tired cry of pain emitted from the kitchen. Without cleaning his hands of dust, Adam left his room and entered the kitchen. There, his mother and father sat at the table. Both looked considerably older, but after twenty years of constant, lazy abuse, his mother looked barely human. Both arms were entirely scarred from shoulder to fingertips with cigarette burns, giving them a shriveled, plastic look. A long, gingham dress covered her shoulders to her ankles, but her feet were so scarred and blistered that they had swollen to twice their normal size. Her face was no longer pale, but was covered in obscene bruises coloring it black, blue, red, and green. Her nose appeared to have been broken so many times that it sat half an inch lower on her face.

She gave another, exhausted cry as Adam's father slowly broke another of her fingers. He looked up as Adam entered. "Who the hell are you?" He grunted.

Adam stood, surveying the scene calmly. "I'm your son."

His father snorted derisively. I thought you'd gone to join the circus.

Adam felt a slight twinge at these words, but he said nothing, only shook his head mildly.

"Too bad." His father snorted. "I always thought you belonged with the freaks."

Slowly, a very small smile spread onto Adam's face. With absolute calm, Adam opened his mouth and uttered a devastating comeback.

Adam's father's heart seized in his chest and he fell over the kitchen table, dead.

A slow look of incomprehension spread over his mother's face as looked at her dead oppressor. After a long moment, she turned and looked for the first time on the face of her son.

"I loved him." She said.

"I know." Adam replied.

Without another word, Adam turned and left the house. As he walked down the dirt road his tired feet had beaten down twenty years previous, the smile returned to Adam's face. He was ready.

The circus was exactly where it was when Adam had been there last. Emotions raged within him as he approached; anger, hate, anticipation, excitement, dread. Using all the focus he learned over the last seventeen years, Adam took these emotions and put them aside, allowing a mask of calm to spread over his face. He held this mask close as he walked up to the ticket vendor and said "One, please."

The ticket vendor ripped a ticket in half and handed Adam the stub, which he held in his hands until he passed into the tent, out of sight of the ticket vendor. There, he dropped the stub onto the ground and reached into his pocket, pulling out the stub he'd had twenty years ago. Without pause, he made his way up to seat 47-B.

Nothing had changed. Trapeze artists swung from platform to platform with incredible ease; animal tamers snapped whips at lions and tigers (still no bears though). Adam paid these trifles almost no attention. They were not what he had come to see.

Finally, after what seemed to Adam like an eternity, a very small car drove out into the center ring, and out of that car poured the clowns. Though his face was still calm, loathing filled Adam as he watched them tumble out, the grotesque smiles on their faces mocking him for trusting them all those years ago. The crowd around him laughed and cheered as the clowns began throwing cream pies and spraying seltzer water at each other, but Adam did not cheer. He remained perfectly still, and perfectly calm, like a rock facing the wind.

And then the ringmaster came out, a different one from before, but still wearing the plaid sports jacket and the oversized hat. With a broad grin, he grabbed the hanging microphone.

"And now, ladies and gentlemen," he spoke lovingly into the mic. "I need a volunteer from the audience."

The crowed erupted around Adam, but he remained just as still and calm, waiting for the inevitable. The ringmaster looked at a small note card in his hands and asked, "Would the person in seat 47-B please come down to the center ring?"

Adam took one, last deep breath before rising to his feet and making his way down to the center ring. As he walked down the stairs, he saw someone else entering the tent and moving towards the center ring with purpose, ticket stub clutched in hand. Adam had been prepared for this and moved to intercept him.

"Sorry," Adam said, flashing his ticket stub. "I'm the volunteer."

The man looked at him quizzically. "No, I am, I have that stub too. I was a little late in coming in, but-"

"Maybe if you didn't spend so much time masturbating to mental images your bald-headed cunt of a grandmother you'd have gotten here on time." Adam interrupted him. "Since that's not the case, I suggest you leave."

The man opened his mouth as if to speak, but seemed frozen, unsure of what to say.

"Ticket 47-B?" The ringmaster spoke into the microphone again.

Adam turned the paralyzed man and made his way down to the center ring. Approaching the ringmaster, Adam put a smile onto his face and shook his hand warmly, handing him the stub for inspection. The ringmaster glanced at it briefly before asking, "What is your name, young man?"

"Adam." There was no stutter in his voice. The calm had returned in full force.

The ringmaster let out a huge grin. "Well, Adam, have we got a treat for you." A clown walked up to them and Adam's eyes widened in shock. Though the face beneath the paint was much older, Adam recognized the white face paint, the wide grin, and the blue-green star upon the temple. This was unmistakably the very same clown from before. Adam's pulse quickened as he held onto his forced smile with all his might.

The ringmaster gestured to the clown. "This clown here is going to tell you what kind of animal you are," he tapped Adam on the chest, "in here."

Adam nodded, though he though ironically to himself that he already knew what kind of animal he was. He was a predator.

"Well…" The clown's voice was still high, but now it had a rasping quality to it. "You don't have a big nose, so you're not an elephant." He lifted Adam's lip, Adam nearly recoiling at the touch. "And you don't have sharp teeth, so you're not a tiger.

Adam stood in patient expectation, breath baited. The moment was so near. After what seemed like forever, the clown spoke again, putting the final nail in his own coffin.

"You do have kind of big ears though… I know! You must be a jackass!"

The crowd roared in laughter at Adam's expense, but he did not shy away from it, allowing the derisive jeers to wash over him, cleansing and preparing him for his work. The clown produced the pie out of midair and moved to smash it into Adam's face, but Adam smoothly twisted his body, avoiding the pie which sailed harmlessly away.

The crowd immediately hushed as Adam stood, facing the clown. Whispers began to spread through the raised seats as people began peering closely at him. Suddenly, collectively, the entire audience recognized him for who he was, the legendary Comeback King. A hush fell over the circus as Adam still stood, gazing into the eyes of a clown who, for the first time in his life, knew fear.

Adam reflected back on all the events that had brought him to that moment. He thought of his years of formal education, the kindness of Old Man Marcus, the various masters all over the world who he had met and surpassed, his wretched father and his poor mother. Very, very slowly, the small smile spread on his lips, letting the whole world know that he was in control of the situation.

"Oh yeah?" He said, drawing in the crowd to witness the clown's crushing defeat. He allowed one brief pause, before finally opening his mouth into a wide grin.

"Fuck you, Clown."