Friday, February 2, 2024

“The Ballad of the Sad Clowns”

Milford floated and swam and bobbed through the mob of drunken people. Where did they all come from? Why were they here? Why were they not somewhere else? Why was he here?

Suddenly he stopped.

Was he heading in the right direction?

In a panic he looked ahead. Wasn’t there supposed to be an EXIT sign? Where was it? He swiveled his head on its narrow neck. Where was this supposed exit? Dear God (in whom he did not believe, now more than ever), he was lost again, lost, eternally, and he would never escape this place, and this was his hell, to be trapped here forever in this churning mass of presumed people, all of them shouting and laughing as a voice sang to a twanging and jangling banjo.
I’m your candy man
and I gots all that you wants
I’m your candy man
but don’t you eats me all at once

He turned in a circle, once, then twice, and he was halfway through a third turn when, thank God (in whom he now believed, if only for the moment) there it was, off to his left, just visible through the swirling thick clouds of smoke, an electric EXIT sign in red capital letters against a pale background.

And so, setting forth again, he took a step and then another, but why were there so many people in here? What was so great about this bar? He decided he would make better time if he flew up above, and so by an act of sheer willpower he rose up into the fogged air, bending forward so as not to bump his head against the stained and cracked ceiling, with its ancient moldings of vines and leaves, and then, churning his feet and waving his arms in a breast-stroke he swam through the clouds of smoke towards the EXIT sign. At last he reached it and the door beneath it, and he lowered his feet down to the floor. He reached his hand toward the doorknob and realized that a cigarette was held between its index and middle fingers. He transferred the cigarette to his lips and then put his hand on the knob and turned it.

The door opened, outward, and he stepped through, into a dim narrow corridor. Quickly he closed the door behind him, lest anyone should follow on his heels and perhaps try to drag him back inside.

Now what?

He removed the cigarette from his mouth. The corridor went to the left but also to the right, and there was another corridor directly ahead, going straight forward into darkness. He should have asked Shorty for directions, but it was too late now, because one thing he was sure of, but only that one thing, he wouldn’t go back through that door again, through the wood of which he could still hear the muffled clamor of drunkenness and allegedly folk music.

Right, left, or straight ahead?

What difference did it make?

An imp of perversity in his brain said, “Go left, young man!”

He headed to the left.

Where was he going, anyway? And then he remembered, he had agreed to meet Louisa May Alcott for a drink. But where? Had she said “the back bar”?

Sure enough, after only a minute, maybe two, the corridor made a turn to the right, and not too far ahead was another door, beneath a weak bare lightbulb above the lintel, and painted on the door was the face of a sad clown, and above the face were the words The Sad Clown.

Could this be the back room?

He opened the door.

It was another smoky barroom, but this one was shadowy and quiet, the only sounds the low murmuring of voices, the gentle tinkling of glassware, a jukebox playing a sad song.

A big man in a clown’s tattered suit and make-up sat on a stool to the right of the door. He had a bulbous fake red nose and a squashed hat with no top to it. In his mouth was an enormous cigar.

“First time here, buddy?”

“Yes, but I’m not sure I’m in the right place.”

“You look like you’re in the right place. You got I.D.?”


“Papers. I’m gonna have to see some identification before I let you in.”

“Would a library card do?”

“You in the union?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“An apprentice then.”

“No, I’m not an apprentice.”

“And yet you look like a clown.”

“I do?”

“Most assuredly. Look at you. The newsboy’s cap. The peacoat. The fisherman’s sweater. The dungarees and workman’s brogans. The milk-bottle thick eyeglasses. You look like a clown to me.”

“I’m not a clown.”

“You look like a sad clown to me, so I’ll let you in, provisionally. Just don’t make no trouble or I’ll have to throw you out.”

“I don’t want to make any trouble.”

“Then you’re welcome, my friend. To the fraternity of sad clowns.”

“But I’m telling you I’m not a sad clown.”

“You sure don’t look like a happy clown.”

“I’m not any sort of clown.”

A shorter and fatter man in a clown’s costume and maquillage came over. He didn’t have a  false nose, but he did have a huge red fright wig on, and a cigarette in a black holder in his white-gloved hands.

“We got a problem here, Zoots?”

“Feller says he ain’t neither a sad nor a happy clown.”

The little clown looked at Milford, up and down and up again.

“He looks like a sad clown to me.”

“That’s what I said,” said the big clown on the stool.

“So I reckon you work the vaudeville circuit?” the little clown said to Milford.

“What? No,” said Milford.

“My name’s Boots, by the way,” said the little clown. “And this big gorilla is called Zoots. What’s your moniker, pal?”

“I don’t expect you to remember it, but my name is Marion Milford, and, yes, I prefer to be called Milford.”

“Milford the Clown?”

“No, just Milford.”

“I ain’t one to give advice, but I ain’t so sure Milford is a great clown name. What about Simpy?”


“Why don’t you call yourself Simpy. You look like a Simpy. Don’t he, Zoots?”

“Simpy’s a good name for him,” said Zoots.

“You want to be a good clown you got to have a good clown name,” said the little clown called Boots.

“I don’t want to be a clown,” said Milford. “I’m looking for a lady.”

“A lady clown?”

“No, just a lady. Louisa May Alcott.”

“Ain’t no ladies named Louisa May Alcott in here. Ain’t no ladies in here at all. Just clowns.”

“Sad clowns,” said Zoots.

“I didn’t know that,” said Milford.

“Can’t you read?” said Boots the Clown.

“Yes,” said Milford.

“What’s the sign on the door out there say?”

“The Sad Clown?”


“So it’s only sad clowns in here.”

“Smart boy,” said Boots.

“Real smart boy,” said Zoots.

“I’m sorry,” said Milford.

“I still say you look like a clown,” said Boots.

“A sad clown,” said Zoots.

“A very sad clown,” said Boots.

“Well, I’m sad, and I might be a clown,” said Milford, “but not in the professional sense.”

“Come on in, son,” said Boots. “Come join our glum brotherhood.”

“Listen,” said Milford, “I mean no offense, but I’ve made a mistake.”

“We all make mistakes,” said Boots. “Every clown in here has made mistakes.”

“Well, regardless,” said Milford, “I don’t really think I belong here.”

“Fair enough,” said Boots. “But let me ask you this. Where do you belong?”

Milford paused just for a moment before answering.

“Nowhere,” he said.

“In that case,” said Boots, “you’ve come to the right place. Give him a membership card, Zoots.”

If Milford had possessed the eye for detail of a true poet he would have noticed the small table next to the stool that Zoots sat on, which had a can of Rheingold on it, an ashtray, a long, heavy-looking flashlight, and a small stack of cards. Zoots picked up one of the cards and handed it to Milford.

Milford looked at the card, which had a picture of a sad clown’s face on it, and under the picture the words:
    This is to certify that

is a member in good standing of
    the Sad Clown Society.

“Just put your name in the blank space there when you get a chance” said Zoots. “Just ‘Simpy’ will do. Dues are ten dollars for a lifetime membership, but with that you get drinks and beers for a nickel, a dime for top-shelf liquors and imported beers, plus free hot dogs with complimentary potato chips and your choice of condiments and ‘fixin’s’; I can personally recommend the ‘fatback ‘n’ beans’ and our proprietary barrel-cured sauerkraut. Please feel free to try our all-day breakfast for only fifty cent, as well as our daily-changing table d’hôte dinner special for only one dollar.”

“Well, that all seems very reasonable,” said Milford.

“Also, we never close.”

“Well, uh –”

“So, you know, just ten bucks. Payable in advance.”

Milford was afraid they wouldn’t let him leave unless he paid, so he put the card down on the little table while he dug out  his wallet, opened it, took out a ten-dollar bill and handed it to Zoots. The big clown picked up the flashlight, clicked it on, held the bill up and examined it in the harsh glare of the flashlight.

“It’s not counterfeit,” said Milford, putting his wallet away. “At least not to my knowledge it isn’t.”

“Looks legit,“ said Zoots. He clicked off the flashlight, stood it upside-down on the table, then folded up the ten and stuck it in a pocket of his ragged suit. “We get a lot of jokers trying to pass fugazis here, so I got to check.”

“Great,” said Boots. “Now that we got that all settled, let me escort you to the bar, Simpy. First drink’s on the house.”

“Look, I appreciate it,” said Milford, “but I really can’t stay. You see, I have to find this lady.”

“Why?” said Boots. “She’s only going to make you sad. Sadder, I should say.”

“Nevertheless, I told her I would meet her, and so I feel it is incumbent upon me to try to do so.”

“Okay then,” said Boots. “Go. Go find this ‘lady’. But listen. When she breaks your heart and then rips it out of your chest and throws it on the ground and dances the Black Bottom all over it, you come back here.”

“Okay,” said Milford.

“You come back here and join the rest of the sad clowns.”

“Possibly,” said Milford.

“He’ll be back,” said Zoots.

“I think you’re right, Zoots,” said Boots. “He’ll be back all right.”

Milford wondered if he should ask for directions to the back bar, but he decided not to.

“Well, thanks anyway,” he said.

“Good luck, Simpy,” said Boots.

“He’s gonna need it,” said Zoots.

“Goodnight,” said Milford.

“Wait,” said Zoots.

“Pardon me?”

“Ain’t you forgetting something?”

He pointed to the membership card that Milford had absent-mindedly laid on the table.

“Oh, right,” said Milford. He picked up the card. “Thanks for reminding me.”

“Hey, Simpy,” said Boots.


“Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.”


“It’s a joke,” said Boots. 

“Ha ha,” said Zoots.

“Now that you’re one of us,” said Boots, “you got to get used to us clowning around.”

“It’s what we do,” said Zoots.

“Okay,” said Milford. “Well, uh –”

He turned around, put his hand on the doorknob, turned it, and went out. He closed the door behind him.

So, he had gone the wrong way.

Unless it had really been the right way.

He headed back down the corridor.

A burning sensation in his fingers alerted him to the fact that his Husky Boy had burned down to a tiny nubbin, and so he dropped it to the floor, and then ground it out with his sturdy workman’s brogan.

Perhaps that place had been the right one for him after all.

No matter, he could always go back.

He sighed, for the twelve-thousandth and twenty-first time since he had crawled his way from slumber so many hours and seeming months ago, and he continued on down the corridor. 

He suddenly became aware that he was still holding the sad clowns membership card. Should he throw it away? No, just to be on the safe side, he decided to keep it, and he took out his wallet again and slid the card in next to his library card.

{Please go here to read the unexpurgated “adult comix” version in A Flophouse Is Not a Home, profusely illustrated by the illustrious Rhoda Penmarq…}

No comments: