Family Circus

Jeff Alphin

We once made a commercial for a lottery game called “El Gordo,” the “Fat One.” It was based on the annual La Loteria in Spain, and someone at the Maryland Lottery thought it would be a good idea to play off the concept in the U.S.

The commercial was a spaghetti western send-up, part Leone’s Man With No Name, part Alex Karras as Mongo from Blazing Saddles. Baltimore Orioles big man and lord of the long ball Boog Powell starred as El Gordo, a mystery man who shows up out of the desert bestowing money bags upon the humble and nonplussed townsfolk.

We traveled to Old Tucson for the shoot, a replica of 1860s Tucson that doubles as a movie studio and Western theme park tourist attraction. Can-can girls in the saloon, stuntmen shootouts at high noon, panning for gold. Stuff like that.

Half the Westerns you’ve ever seen were filmed there. 3:10 to Yuma, Rio Bravo, Gunfight at the OK Corral, and The Trial of Billy Jack. The Outlaw Josey Wales, and a personal favorite about the time the calvary tried using camels, called Hawmps!. Director legends from Howard Hawks to Kurosawa, John Sturges to John Landis with a cavalcade of leading men. Glenn Ford, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, Walter Brennan, Dean Martin, Charles Bronson, Kirk Douglas, Randolph Scott, and Lee Marvin walked the lamp-lit boardwalks along Main Street to the off-key tinkling of a player piano drifting through the swinging doors of the saloon.

Since it was close to Halloween, Old Tucson was trying to sell itself as a haunted attraction at night, lighting open fires and torches along a horror desert trail of scare skits featuring zombie gunslingers, skeletal sheriffs, calcified cowpokes, witchy women of the night, and mad doctors with rusty sawbones.

The whole week was pretty surreal.

We spent three days working with character actors, extras whose leather faces were oddly familiar, probably because they’d signed up for the posse, ridden on the cattle drive, or played cards in the saloon in just about every western you’ve seen for the last 20 years, the rough and tumble of the old West dripping off their mustaches like sarsaparilla.

The wardrobe guy on the shoot had been Clint Eastwood’s main man for years. He told us that Clint was such a skinflint he wore the same pair of shoes for every Dirty Harry movie.

After the final wrap, we all went to dinner and ate Caesar salads with buffalo jerky instead of anchovies. Boog told a story about how he and Roy Clark used to pop greenies, shut all the windows at Roy’s place in Florida, jack the air conditioning way up, then build a roaring fire in the fireplace and bat baseballs around the house.

The next day, the agency people got on a plane and went back to Baltimore. Jane and I decided to stay an extra day and experience a desert Halloween.

So, at twilight on October 30th, we stopped by the hotel bar for happy hour. The place was dead. Just the bartender and us. We scrounged a local paper for some action, debating the scare quality of a Jaycees Haunted House advertised on the local event listings.

The bar was a few steps down from street level, half-sunk into the hotel parking lot. It had long rectangular windows up high, giving you a prairie-dog's-eye view of landscape shrubbery, grass, and clouds, split diagonally by a wheelchair ramp. Nursing a happy-hour vodka drink and a beer, we stared up past the shrubs at the purple orange of the parking lot sky.

There was movement on the wheelchair ramp. Enormous red clown shoes flopped down the incline and disappeared from view.

At least someone around here had plans.

Minutes later, a second pair of clown shoes came down the ramp. Hobo-style clown shoes with striped socks and a hole where the big toe would be. Five minutes later, another pair, this time elongated clown saddle shoes. And another pair after that, rainbow-colored clown brogans. And then another, flopping like swim fins. The clown shoes kept coming. None of them took the stairs. Clown shoes and stairs are not made for each other.

And then, just like in the joke, a clown walked into the bar.

A Bozo the Clown clown. White pancake makeup, flaming red wig, pom-pom buttons on a sack suit with blue piping.

His demeanor was quiet and matter-of-fact as he sat at the opposite end of the bar and ordered a drink. A sad clown.

A second clown walked into the bar, an unkempt one, blue wig askew, crooked hand-drawn eyebrows, and large plastic-frame eyeglasses. Bozo jumped up to greet him with a handshake. His drink was ordered, and the clowns clinked pints.

The next two clowns were a Ronald McDonald knockoff and a Red Skelton Freddie the Freeloader. Jane and I stared over the lips of our drinks as all four exchanged hugs.

For the next hour, clowns continued to enter in small groups. There were no other patrons, just 25 sloppy-kissing, beer-guzzling, guffawing clowns. From what we could tell under the wigs, noses, and makeup, they ranged in age from twenty-something to middle-aged to card-carrying AARP.

They all seemed to belong to different circuses. The classic style of Ringling Brothers' Emmett Kelly. The horror grin of a Killer Klown from Outer Space. Hastily smudged on Anna Nicole Smith clowns. Rubber masks, foam noses, flashy rentals, and homemade disasters. Clustered together as if in a Clowns Only section, they raised glasses, did shots, slapped backs, and hooted--a Dutch Masters painting for a box of exploding cigars.

My finger danced on the shutter release of my camera until I could resist no longer. I approached and asked.

There was an overwhelming Hell yes. Within seconds my viewfinder contained the team photo for the Squirting Flower All-Stars. I snapped away as clowns draped themselves over one another, squeezing everybody into the shot, adjusting noses and sloshing shot glasses.

One of the clowns bellowed, “Get in here and take one with us!” The bartender came out from behind the bar, and I handed him my camera.

The ice broken, I asked the burning question. “So…what’s the story?”

I’ve never killed a party faster, before or since. The clowns fell quiet, looking amongst themselves for someone to address the issue.

A clown I guessed was in her early 40s soberly explained that they were all family-- brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews--originally from somewhere in the Midwest. Over a decade ago, her older brother moved to Arizona and cut off communication. No matter how they tried to reestablish contact or convince him to come to a Thanksgiving or Christmas or milestone birthday party, he wouldn't respond. Wouldn’t even return the call.

A Greek chorus of clowns nodded in affirmation.

They decided to take action. They would come from all over the country to meet in Tucson on his birthday, the night before Halloween, and go out to his house in the desert to surprise him. Dressed as clowns.

Trick or treat.

As the odds of horrific backfire dawned on me, I noticed several looks of uncertainty be- hind clown greasepaint. I wasn’t the only one who thought this might be a bad idea. Nonetheless, this family was sticking together. I suspected now that these weren’t party shots they were drinking. This was liquid courage.

Another round was ordered, and the clowns went back to acting like clowns. Jane and I moved closer. A couple of them asked where we were from. “Baltimore,” we said. A place that seemed uncharacteristically normal at the moment.

The clock struck 7:00, and the clowns settled their tab.

We were saying goodbyes when two clowns I took for soccer moms asked about our plans for the night. Upon confessing we didn’t have any, someone blurted, “You should come with us!” A concurring roar from the others.

Jane and I fumbled for appropriate regrets--this is a family thing, he’s going to be so happy to see you, we would be intruding.

Nonsense, they replied. You’re one of us now. You have to come.

As I have said, these clowns had been drinking. When 25 boozy-breathed clowns get in your face hell-bent with an invitation, you can fight it all you want, but you will eventually say yes.

They gave us directions and told us to be there by 9:00, so as not to spoil the surprise. The Halloween night of our dreams, slash nightmare had been dropped in our laps. Heaven or hell.

How would the coin land?

It didn’t seem right to show up without costumes. But not as clowns. That was reserved for family. We’d have to move fast. The Halloween aisle at the drugstore near the hotel had been picked down to the bones, lonely tubes of fake blood and rubber teeth left dangling on the pegboard. With the clock ticking, we rummaged the floor bins and scored two rubber devil skull caps with horns, red and black makeup, some beard hair, and two red kiddie capes.

We bedeviled ourselves, leaving the hotel room bathroom mirror looking like a murder scene. With our miniature capes flipping behind us, we hopped into the rental car, consulted our directions, and drove out into the desert.

Way out.

The lights of the city fell behind us.

Jane’s black goatee fluttered in the cracked driver-side window wind. Despite our misgivings, my grin spread wide from one pointy red ear to the other.

I couldn’t remember the last time Halloween felt so Halloween. The thrill of ringing an unfamiliar doorbell. The giddy butterflies of the unknown. An invitation to a haunted house.

We drove farther into the desert, the sky darkening to deep purple and blue with a canopy of bright diamonds, the campfire aroma of burning mesquite, the towering saguaros shapeshifting into monstrous sentries in the distance.

We had a CD mix with a live version of John Prine’s “The Missing Years,” about the unaccounted-for time in the life of Jesus. The possibilities of cutting all connections and disappearing into the desert got me thinking. What had this guy done, or wanted to do, that made him decide to vanish?

The ranch house was far from its neighbors in a sparse development against a backdrop of intense starlight. The circular drive was lined with desert flora, cacti, and a couple jack-o-lanterns. Eerie gorgeous.

There were no cars out front other than a baby-blue VW Beetle. It was five minutes to nine. Unless the Beetle was a bona fide clown car that had transported the lot of them, there were no signs of a party.

Remembering standard surprise-party protocol, we drove past until we came to a line of cars in front of someone else’s house. We parked and doubled back on foot. Reality set in. We were doing this, the night’s most apprehensive trick-or-treaters. We began to second-guess our choice of costumes with the sick dread of having accepted a proposition to which one’s better judgment fires a warning flare. We rang the bell.

After a gut-checking 30 seconds, a clown we didn’t recognize opened the door, looking at us as if we were mentally stunted adults trick-or-treating a day early. We introduced ourselves and stumbled through how we’d come to be invited. As the door clown ushered us through the house, I looked around for clues of this man's personality. Nothing more than the standard Western furnishings and bric-a-brac. Painted steer skull, a Navajo blanket, cowhide throw rug, earthenware pottery. We were led into the kitchen, where the family of clowns who had embraced us two hours ago now looked at us as if we were some weirdo party crashers. The devil costumes made us impossible to recognize.

I pondered the mechanics of the night. How’d they get into the house? What was the ruse for getting the guy out of the house? Was there a decoy/escort clown?

But there was no time for Q&A. The guest of honor was due to arrive any minute, and the house was bustling with jittery clowns putting out the dip, setting up the bar, reconnecting in socially awkward clusters, and emitting nervous laughter. Everybody seemed out of sync.

We never did get a grip on their intended plan. They didn’t even get the chance to hide and yell “surprise.”

Without fanfare or announcement, the long-lost relative walked into the den filled with family he hadn’t seen for ten years, dressed like an insane clown posse.

Then things got weird.

The guy, who at a glance looked like a pretty normal guy--slightly shaggy hair, sun-baked, jeans and a T-shirt-–seemed to just quietly freak out. Wearing a vacant smile, his eyes jumped from red nose to red nose, receiving tentative hugs from tentative clowns. It was hard to tell if he recognized anyone.

I kept my distance, apprehensive of getting sucked into a drama I had no business in. Jane somehow got swept up in the encroaching tide of clowns, closer to the action. She told me the guy looked like he’d been through some shit. Drawn cheeks, nose collapsed like someone with tertiary syphilis. She hypothesized a vet returning home from the warlike Sam Stone with a hole in his arm where all the money goes. I didn’t get that impression, but like I said, I never got a good close-up look.

So as the guy was getting smothered by clowns, I backed into the kitchen and found my- self with another set of clowns I hadn’t met yet who couldn’t figure out why there was a devil by the guacamole. My explanation only seemed to create more confusion.

The trip was starting to go bad.

The unexpecting host only stayed in the den for about ten minutes before disappearing into the recesses of the house.

An uncomfortable silence fell over the scene. The clowns broke ranks, peripheral players retreating to the sanctuary of the kitchen while those who I assumed were closer, more immediate, or influential family members went off in pursuit of their quarry, presumably for some back-room powwow.

It dawned on Jane and me that this was no surprise party. This was some kind of intervention.

Instincts told us to beat it, but it was tricky. It felt rude to just disappear, and who do you thank? As we tried to orchestrate a graceful escape, people started drawing us into conversation, a distraction to get through this stomach-turner of an evening.

For the next hour, we holed up around the kitchen island, snacking nervously and making small talk. The scene was periodically interrupted by the emergence of a clown from the inner sanctum, exchanged whispers, and the next round of reinforcements selected for a private audience.

The rest of us ate cheese curls.

Reality was setting in for the clowns. Their misguided efforts, this heartbreakingly desperate, well-intended master plan, was a familial train wreck.

Noses were removed and faces scrubbed, revealing weary concern. Wigs accumulated like a pileup of psychedelic lapdogs at one end of the counter. Exposed patches of genuine bald pate shined under the kitchen fluorescents. Florid bulbous noses looked almost as red as the rubber ones. The room took on the air of a clown locker room after the last show in the last town on the circuit.

Reluctant to give up the protective cover of our costumes, Jane and I became comic relief, the story of the devils by now having circulated throughout. “So, you’re that couple from the bar.” No one could believe we had actually shown up.

The guest of honor never returned to the party, and fatigue set in. It was time to leave. We tried to spin positive, thanking everyone within earshot for the most unforgettable

 Halloween we never saw coming. Even though we hadn’t really connected with anyone, in particular, the parting round of hugs was surprisingly heartfelt. Like they needed to hug someone who would hug back without ten years of incommunicado baggage getting in the way.

Back in the rent-a-car, we exhaled. Who, what, how, and why the fuck was that? What will the family do now? Is that guy okay? Were we okay?

If I conjure a scenario where my extended family descends on me to confront a personal problem I have or a decision I’ve made, each with their own lifestyle, politics, prejudices, and hang-ups, dressed as clowns, well, let’s just say I don't sleep too well.

For all we knew, the clowns were the villains, while their ambushed relative was just an alright guy trying to live his life. And for all they knew, the party-crashing devils could have been Natural Born Killers and left the place looking like In Cold Blood.

We’d just spent a week filming a commercial starring a retired first baseman dressed up as an oversized Pancho Villa in a Saturday-morning cowboy-serial town filled with stuntmen good guys in sheriff badges shooting blanks at bad’uns in black mustaches. Makes it hard to tell who’s who. It seemed like the guy who supposedly had something to hide was the only one not wearing a mask.

On the way back to the hotel, we pulled into the Jaycees Haunted House to calm our nerves.


About the Author

Jeff Alphin lives and writes with his wife, Jane, in Baltimore, MD. His work is included in The Best of Fiction on the Web, Silk + Smoke, and Tiny Spoon.