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my as Year A CloWn R O B E R T S T E V E N W I L L IA M S

AGAINST THE GRAIN PRESS


Day 1 I dash out the front door, tossing a dozen supermarket roses on the backseat. I gun the Toyota. Claudia’s flight is due in an hour, and I’m ninety minutes from the airport. I stop at the exit 12 rest area for a double espresso, down it like a whiskey shot, and hop back on the highway. Midday traffic is light, and I push the car to its eighty-five-mph limit, backing off when the steering wheel shakes like my washing machine in super-spin mode. I’m excited. I’m nervous. I’m always this way when I haven’t seen my wife in months. The espresso jolts my senses. Hyperalert, I scan side and rearview mirrors. I weave through traffic pretending to be a fighter pilot. The a/c is busted and the windows are down; humid air swirls. I turn on the radio to cut the roar. It’s Mike and the Mad Dog debating the opening day losses of both the Giants and Jets. It makes no difference to me. I’m a diehard Philly fan. Tonight the Eagles make their debut on Monday Night Football in the first regular season game at our new stadium, Lincoln Financial Field. The George Washington Bridge is clear, as is the turnpike. I zip past the Meadowlands, and twenty minutes later I’m juking through the International Arrivals lounge, dodging and feinting like O. J. Simpson in the old Hertz commercial, back when his claim to fame was as an NFL rusher. I’ve got to hurry because Claudia’s flight landed forty-five minutes ago and I don’t want her waiting. I burst through the line of limo drivers holding signs with passenger names. I sidestep immigrant families waiting for loved ones. I spin around janitorial crews. I cover the entire arrivals lounge in record time. Claudia must not have cleared customs yet. My wife is returning from another twelve-week archeological dig, this one in Denmark. The separation is never easy, and her first week back is always awkward. Like quarterbacks and receivers at an offseason minicamp, we need time to rediscover our rhythm, but it rarely takes more than a few days. My brother says most men would kill for a


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three-month vacation from their wives, and if it was during football season he might be right, but at forty-nine and still single, Jimmy’s hardly an expert. Friends often ask how I get by without Claudia. Some wonder if I just shut down. Do they really want to hear that I beat off to Cheerleader Sex Addicts III? Still, there’s nothing like the real thing. In our early days, Claudia and I couldn’t keep our hands off each other, but today she’ll shower, eat, and hit the hay, zonked from the flight. At least tonight I’ve got the Eagles game. I’ve been looking forward to it since that devastating NFC Championship loss back on January 19, which incidentally was our eighteenth wedding anniversary. Claudia’s still sore that I went down to Philly for the game, but we were favored. We should have won and gone on to the Super Bowl. How could I have missed that? In the arrivals lounge, passengers leak out of customs in a slow trickle. Clusters of dark-haired Spanish-speaking people come out, followed by a ragtag collection of Eastern Europeans with suitcases wrapped with duct tape. In the waiting area, kids run around making loud obnoxious noises. Families chat as if they’re at a backyard barbecue. Finally, fair-skinned Nordic types parade down the ramp neatly dressed in casual wear, even the children looking like they’ve stepped out of a Nordstrom’s catalog. I met Claudia backpacking across Europe in 1982. Most guys brought back photographs and souvenirs, a beer stein or an ashtray. Not me. I was the luckiest man alive coming home with the British-born, twenty-year-old Claudia. She wore a tie-dyed dress and Birkenstock sandals the day we met; now she emerges from customs with a Barbour jacket draped over the handle of her luggage cart, blue eyes peering through Gucci frames, her long chestnut hair tied back in a ponytail. I enjoy seeing her like this from afar, as if noticing her for the first time, falling in love all over again. After her nine-hour flight, men’s heads still turn as she passes. Claudia takes the left ramp, forcing me to bob and weave through the crowd. “Hey,” I say, touching her lightly on the shoulder. I bend to kiss her but she twists away. “Don’t you still have that cold?” she says. “I can’t afford to catch anything.”


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I know she’s a germ freak, but this is beyond even her obsessive self. She steps aside and I push the cart, squeezing the handle until my knuckles turn white. Derailed in less than ten seconds, a new record. A lump settles in my gut as if I’ve swallowed a football. Why, when I try to make things right, do they turn wrong so fast? Do I unconsciously undermine myself? Just like the Eagles? In last year’s championship game, they scored a touchdown in fifty-two seconds, but after that it all went bad. They never scored another, blowing lots of opportunities with unforced errors. What might my next unforced error with Claudia be? She and I silently walk to the car. I toss her suitcase into the back, feeling like a limo driver. “Can you turn on the air?” she says, fastening her seat belt. “It’s hot.” “Still broken.” She hits the passenger window button hard. She takes a map from the glove compartment and fans herself. I point to the roses in the backseat next to my gym bag. “For you.” She waves a hand in front of her uptight English nose. “How long have those dirty clothes been in there?” “A few days.” We weave through the maze of airport ramps and onto the turnpike. The traffic north is thick and greasy. “How was the dig?” I ask. “Were those animal bones you found significant?” Claudia continues to fan her face with that map. “The temperature was far more pleasant there.” “Actually it wasn’t a bad summer,” I say. “And I made great progress with my book, got a solid draft, start to finish.” We chug past oil refineries, and the stench hits the car like a tidal wave. “Ugh,” she says as if I’d just farted. She puts the window up and rolls her eyes. I inch the Toyota forward and reach for Claudia’s hand, hoping physical contact will ease the tension. “We’re always a bit on edge when you come back,” I say. “Was it a rough flight?” “Actually, it was. I didn’t get much rest because—look, there’s no


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easy way to say this. I met someone on the dig. I have a job in Wisconsin. I’m leaving Thursday.”

Day 2 I wake up in a fog on the futon in my basement studio. I dimly hear Claudia rustling around upstairs. Is she packing? I pull the covers over my head and shut my eyes tight. I want to restart this morning as if yesterday didn’t happen. The rest of the ride home from the airport was a blur. Things came back into focus at the house. I carried Claudia’s suitcase to the bedroom. She disappeared into the bathroom. When she came out I was on the bed, head in hands. She touched my shoulder. “It’s for the best,” she said. I wiped my tears with the back of my hand and looked into her eyes. I saw the same azure sparkle I’d fallen for in Europe all those years ago. I pulled her toward me as I’d done a million times. There were tears in her eyes too. At first it was like any kiss, warm and soft, our tongues gently touching, almost playful, but hers stiffened. She pushed away. “This isn’t a good idea.” Part of me wanted to put a fist through the wall, smash a guitar, or throw her out the window, but there was no risk that our household would make the eleven o’clock news. My anger simmered, but I wouldn’t let it boil; a rash act could let her off the hook. I had to answer her betrayal with kindness and understanding. It was the cruelest response I could muster. Claudia’s big announcement had put a damper on last night’s game. Still, I kept half an eye on the TV flickering in the corner of my studio. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were trouncing us in this much-anticipated rematch after January’s NFC Championship upset by these very same Buccaneers. The Eagles were laying a fat goose egg on national television.


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I eyed the joint I’d rolled earlier, sitting unlit in the ashtray. One of our cats, Guinevere, the calico, rested on my chest. Arthur, the black one, was upstairs snug in bed, asleep with Claudia. The first half of the game came mercifully to an end with Tampa Bay up 10–0. The score should have been worse. Guinevere was still on my chest, our breath moving in tandem, in, out, in, out. Guin suffers from cardiomyopathy, a hardening of the heart. She was diagnosed at the same time I got laid off five years ago. The vet said she’d be dead by now. She requires pills three times a day, but with me at home working on a novel, it’s not a burden. Perhaps my love for her has slowed the hardening. If only she could return the favor. In the third quarter, the Eagles still looked like a high school team. It was embarrassing after that last beating by these guys, but it was something Eagle fans expected—bearing the cross of failure was part of the job. Claudia could never understand why I stuck with them. “I don’t know anything about your American football,” she said shortly after we were married, “but I do know they will lose. Why don’t you support the Niners?” At the time we were living in San Francisco. Montana had already won two of his four Super Bowls. It was a reasonable question, given that all our friends were SF fans. I explained that it wasn’t that easy. I’d followed Philly for over three decades. She laughed and said something that resonates today. “I guess you’re destined for heartache.” The Eagles haven’t won a Super Bowl, but I remain hopeful. I should have shut the game off, but I watched to the bitter end. Tampa won 17–0. I caught the postgame interviews and the subsequent recap on ESPN’s SportsCenter. Another cycle of football news rolled by, and I forced myself to witness every replay. Then it was on to celebrity poker. I know Gens X and Y love the cards, but I can’t think of anything more boring on television besides bowling, yet there I was at four a.m. watching B-list TV stars playing Texas Hold’em as if they were the Eagles in the Super Bowl. September 8, 2003: a day that will live in infamy.


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Day 4 Claudia used to complain that there wasn’t enough space in our bathroom with only one sink, the vanity crammed with her bottles, lotions, and whatnots. I rifle through the drawers. All that’s left is a single tampon. But her smell lingers—the eucalyptus shampoo, the jasmine facial cleanser, her aloe vera skin cream. These scents have embedded themselves in the tile the way smoke settles into fabric; no amount of scrubbing or disinfectant will remove them. I join the cats in the kitchen. Guin is on the countertop licking her paws. Arthur prances back and forth by the water bowl, meowing. I crack open a can of organic cat food. Four furry ears perk up. If only Claudia and I could have lived in the moment the way they do. Look at Guin, she’s not worried about her heart. I chug the remaining half a pot of coffee, ignoring the bitter taste of the brew I made three hours ago, the last pot Claudia and I would ever share. I’ve spent my first hours as a separated man cleaning the house. I’ve swept the porch, trimmed the hedges, and raked the leaves. These chores cleared my mind, cleansed the wound of betrayal, but each time somebody drove by, I glanced up hoping to see Claudia’s green Mazda 626. I’m back in the house now, vacuuming the living room, an eye still on passing cars. A Ford Taurus pulls into the crescent driveway. A bearded man in a baggy dark suit exits the vehicle. Admittedly, I’m a paranoid wreck, but anyone can see that this is a man carrying a summons. Claudia’s lawyer is having me arrested. I’ve got to run, gather the cats and head north for the border. I ricochet around the house, ending up back in the living room. I gape through the bay window. The bounty hunter is now halfway up the drive, his walk slow and confident, his black wingtips shining. I kneel down behind the window shade. With a better angle I realize this is no representative of the law, it’s Simon Godfrey, the rabbi I met at an open mic last month. My heart slows. Simon hired me to help him make a CD. I forgot he was stopping by. The suit threw me. I open the front door, much relieved.


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“Shalom, my friend. I’m on the way to synagogue.” He loosens the knot of his red-striped tie. “I promised to drop off these CDs.” He hands me a plastic bag filled with his favorites. “Listen to this first,” he says, pulling out a Rebecca Levy CD. “She’s the daughter of the famous Rabbi Mordecai Levy, you must know him.” I know little about contemporary Jewish music, but I smile as if I do. Rebecca’s wearing a low-cut evening dress, her long blond hair cascading across her left shoulder. She looks more like a Victoria’s Secret model than the offspring of a religious luminary. “She’s hot,” Simon says. “Yes?” I don’t know what to say. Is this a values test? My hesitation betrays me. He slaps me on the back. “We’re not Catholics, for chrissakes.” “Right,” I say, still feeling awkward in the way I felt when my father gave me the birds-and-bees talk. Simon’s clearly not your typical rabbi, but I’m in no mood for jocular humor. I’m in mourning, sitting shiva, as the Jews do when someone dies. Good thing Simon has to be elsewhere. Before he leaves he asks if we’re still on for next week. “Sure,” I say, but I can’t see past the next five seconds, let alone the next few days. Back in the house, I set the CDs aside and unload the dishwasher. The cats join me in the kitchen, eyes wide, meowing. Their bowls are empty. I can’t remember if I’ve fed them. I open a can and dole out half to each. They eat as if they haven’t seen food in a week. There’s another knock at the door. This must be Claudia. I rush to answer it, but it’s Siobhan, my Irish neighbor, holding a covered dish that smells heavenly. “Strawberry-rhubarb,” she says with her emerald accent. Last night, Claudia went over to say good-bye at my insistence. Siobhan and Paddy moved here five years ago. He works for an Irish bank and does something with derivatives. They were one of the few couples we’d socialized with, and I was hoping that seeing them might bring her to her senses. When she returned, she said nothing. I was dying to know what happened, but now it doesn’t matter, I just want to sulk in solitude. Still, the pie does smell delicious. “That wasn’t necessary,” I say, feeling obligated to invite Siobhan in. On this warm, muggy day, Siobhan stares at me through bookish


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glasses, wearing a frumpy sweater, a long skirt, and stockings. She’s pale, like Irish cream, and sprinkled with freckles. I offer to make fresh coffee. She insists that I sit and serves me a slice. The pie has a glazed, crusty, homemade shell. The filling is sweet and tart. “This is fabulous,” I say. “Claudia never baked.” “The English rarely do.” I swallow another mouthful and feel more in the mood for company. “Tell me everything.” Sitting beside me, Siobhan whispers as if Claudia is still upstairs. “I couldn’t credit the nonsense coming out of her mouth. She told me that you’ll never finish the book, that you made a mistake leaving the business world. She said she couldn’t wait to get out of here.” Siobhan removes those thick-rimmed glasses to rub a few tears from her freckled cheek. “I told her she was mad.” I grab a Kleenex from the box by the sink and hand it to her. She sniffles. “I came to console you.” I force a smile. “What made Claudia lose faith in me?” Siobhan pats my arm; the warmth of her touch is comforting. “Have you filed for divorce?” I look at my brown boat shoes. The frayed leather laces need replacing. “Yesterday. Claudia’s being fair, I’m keeping the house.” “You must be relieved.” “Well, my lawyer says I’m lucky, but I can’t say or do anything that might upset her until the judge approves it. Can you imagine? I have to be nice while she’s off with him. Bartholomew. What the hell kind of name is that?” “It’s all terribly unfair,” Siobhan says. “Here, have more pie.” It’s a hot, sticky September afternoon. The sky is low and purple, like a fresh bruise. I sit in one of our Adirondacks, staring like a zombie into the backyard. We got a great deal on these chairs in Lake Placid two years ago. We’d gone camping over the Labor Day weekend and picked them up on the way back. Now the damn armrests have splinters. The cats are chasing birds and voles in the yard. The trees are still mostly green, only the chestnut by the pond is bare. I shut tired eyes and drift away.


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Someone is shaking my arm. I must have dozed off. It’s the first real sleep I’ve had since the big announcement. “Mommy wants to know if you’ll come to dinner,” says Erin, Siobhan’s seven-year-old. “Sure,” I say, wondering how long I’ve been out. Erin drags me from the chair, her ginger braids swaying. “Come on, sleepyhead.” She leads me past the azalea bushes and into their garden. “I never liked Claudia.” “Oh,” I say, surprised that she knows. “Well, she wasn’t used to kids.” Erin shrugs. “What’s there to get used to?” We go up the back steps and into the kitchen. Two columns of steam rise from the stovetop. The air is heavy with garlic chicken. Declan, the five-year-old, sits in a booster chair at the dining room table. “Hi, Chucky Cheese,” he says, laughing, his Ninja Turtle T-shirt already splattered. Paddy is working late. Siobhan sits me at the head of the table next to Erin, Declan to my left. “Wine?” she asks, pouring red into a glass. The kids devour french fries and poke at the chicken and peas. I joke around. We laugh. We talk about the Scooby Doo movie they just saw. After supper, Erin does homework in her room. Declan sits in Siobhan’s lap, sucking his thumb. “You’d make a fine dad,” she says. “Really?” I sip my wine. “Not sure why we didn’t have kids. Guess it doesn’t matter now.” “Funny,” Siobhan says. “I was a lot like Claudia, not interested, and then I got pregnant, and now I wouldn’t change things for the world.” This was news to me, Claudia not wanting children. Whenever we discussed it, though it hadn’t been often, she’d never dismissed it, and yet she’d told Siobhan she didn’t want kids. “Do you have a therapist?” Siobhan asks. I swirl the wine in my glass. “Why? Do you think I’m crazy?” “It couldn’t hurt to talk to someone who can provide objectivity and guidance.” Siobhan pours more wine. Declan yawns, revealing a missing front tooth. “Paddy and I saw someone this summer,” she says. “I was tired of him working late. It was as if he were looking for reasons not to be home. He promises things will change.”


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I squirm, wondering why she’s telling me this. Is it because she has a front-row seat to the most humiliating experience of my life? Or is it because her marriage is headed for disaster and she sees possibility now that I’m available? A weight settles in my gut. It never crossed my mind, me and Siobhan, but now that I’m single, I guess I’ll have to pay attention. Declan pouts. “I’m hungry.” “You just ate,” she says, plunking him back in his booster seat. She goes into the kitchen and returns with a mini ice cream for her boy and the number of that therapist for me. Back home, slightly buzzed, I head downstairs to my office in hopes that Claudia has sent an email: nothing. On the wall is a picture of us on our Hawaiian honeymoon. We’re standing on the beach at the end of the Na Pali coast’s Kalalau trail. We’d just completed the twelve-mile, two-day hike. I’m looking at youthful faces shining with belief that together anything is possible. There’s no hint of the huge fight we had about pushing back our honeymoon a day. It was just one day. What was the big deal? We eloped Saturday in Reno, I caught the Super Bowl on Sunday in Palo Alto, we left for Hawaii on Monday. But it was a big deal for Claudia. If I could have scored a second ticket, I would have. I take that Hawaiian picture down and shove it in a drawer. Siobhan is right, I probably do need help. We’ve lived next door for years, and tonight was the first time the thought of screwing her came to mind. Is this how it will be from now on? A woman speaks to me and I’m gonna think, Does she want to fuck? Well, I might be in desperate need of assistance, but so might Claudia. She could be anywhere at this very moment. What if she’s in trouble, then what? I grab the phone and punch in the first three numbers of her cell, then hang up. Someone needs to make sure she’s okay, but that someone’s not me. I’d like to think that it’s my last shred of dignity that keeps me from calling, but really it’s the fear that she’ll say, If I was in trouble I’d call Bart, you idiot.


About the Author Robert Steven Williams’s work has appeared in Billboard, NPR, USA Today, Orange Coast Review, and Poets & Writers. He is an entrepreneur, writer, and musician. A graduate of San Diego State and Harvard University, a former EMI Music Group executive, he now runs his own communications consulting company, Against the Grain. He was a finalist in the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest and executive producer of the Harvey nominated CBGB Comic Book series (coauthored story 6). He also coauthored the best-selling business book The World’s Largest Market, released by The American Management Association. He is a contributing writer to The Good Men Project Magazine.

My Year as a Clown First Pages  

My Year as a Clown: When his wife of twenty years leaves him for another man, Chuck Morgan is abruptly forced back into the single lifestyle...

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