Looney the clown was too dependent on his environment to survive in the outside world, like an animal kept in captivity its whole life. Tooney watched Looney’s grave like it was a blinding sunset. Tears stung his eyes, falling to the ground and welling in a sea of shame. Tooney was the proverbial clown nobody wanted to see cry.
Looney’s palms were sweaty, stomach twisted in knots, heart beating against his ribcage. He forced himself to yawn, loosening up his jaw. Performed jumping jacks to get his blood going. Raised his shoulders, then let them drop to release tension. He looked over at his partner, Tooney, who was fast asleep.
“Boys and germs, ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm welcome to circus town’s very own Looney and Tooney!” The ringmaster shouted.
The crowd went bananas, and Looney knew it was show-time. He shook Tooney.
“Wake up, wake up, it’s showtime,” Looney said.
Tooney’s eyes were relaxed, face pale from the makeup. Looney shook his partner again, this time harder. Tooney woke up and gazed upwards, studying the red and white stripes that began at the roof of the circus tent and flowed down to the ground.
“Oh, sorry man, I was just catching a nap.”
Looney was amazed. Clowns were usually very tense people, but not this one. Looney helped his partner up and they made their way out of the little dressing room.
Looney stopped in the hallway and took deep breaths.
“Every time man,” Tooney said with a laugh.
“You got to have a routine.”
“Our whole life is routine. I mean, we do the same act, at the same time, at the same place, every day.”
“Different people every time, that’s what makes it so exciting. You perform the same thing, but you need to calibrate that performance for your specific audience. I call it the connectivity loop, they give you silent feedback of your performance and you must take that feedback and improve as you go.”
“If I were that serious about performing I’d want to kill myself. Relax, man. Say, can I just use your real name? Calling you man all the time is kind of weird.”
“Call me Looney.”
Tooney laughed and shook his head.
“You really are something.”
Looney didn’t have time to respond. The corridor ended, replaced by a big tent with a semi-circle of seats. The seats were set up in rows, getting higher and higher until Looney could no longer see them. The ringmaster began, he was part of their act.
“Why hello boys! Say, why are you wearing underwear?”
“Hey, don’t look down there,” Tooney ran over to a teenage boy in the front row and covered his eyes. The audience erupted into laughter. Looney was always nervous when his partner went off-script.
The rest of the routine involved Tooney and Looney trying to build a house for themselves. Tooney continuously hurt Looney, who fell and flipped over and tumbled around like a gymnast. Tooney got all the laughs, Looney was more of a silent partner who did stunts. This was the final show of the day, so when it was done all the performers lined up outside the exit, waving goodbye to the patrons, taking pictures, and signing autographs.
“Hey Tooney and Looney, could you guys sign this brochure?” Asked a small boy. He handed it to Looney first. Tooney looked at the kid with a fake, painted-on smile.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Okay Tommy, turns around for me,” Tooney said.
Tommy laughed and did as he was told. Tooney rested the brochure against the kid’s back and signed it.
“I hope you don’t mind Tommy’s parents,” Tooney said to a couple behind the kid, “I needed a table.”
“Want us to leave him here for you?” The dad asked with a smile.
Tommy started crying.
“Look what you did!” The woman scolded her husband.
“Sorry,” the man said, grabbing Tommy by the wrist and dragging him away.
“Hope you enjoyed the circus folks!” Tooney called after them.
After the guests left, the performers and the ringmaster cleaned the facility. The central circus-tent was swept, the tiger exhibit was locked up and the tigers fed. Looney stayed late to help the ringmaster check the technical equipment for tomorrow’s show. The tiger master stayed too. The man traveled all around the country with his tigers, showcasing them in some of the world’s biggest circuses. The fact that he always came to circus town for one month of the year, even if it was a relatively slow month like October, meant a lot to Looney.
“Some lady called me evil,” the tiger master said out of the blue, “she accused me of mistreating animals for the sake of the circus.”
Looney looked shocked. The ringmaster merely shrugged.
“Well, do you mistreat the tigers?” the ringmaster asked.
“Sure, a little bit, but my tigers live twice as long as they would have in the wild. I take care of them, feed them, all that stuff. They have to perform a lot, but I don’t make them do anything cruel.”
“Listen to me Dan,” the ringmaster said, “if you didn’t work them so hard, you wouldn’t be able to afford to take care of them. Sometimes you have to push people, for their benefit, isn’t that right Looney?”
“Yes sir,” Looney said.
“The woman said there was a circus in Germany, circus Roncalli, that uses holograms instead of animals; cruelty-free. People like me belong in the past, that’s what she said.”
“Dan, do you think that woman knows as much about tigers as you do?”
“No,” the tiger master said.
“To hell with her, she has no idea what she’s talking about,” the ringmaster said.
“You’re right, I’m sorry to bring that up Harmon, she kind of got under my skin.”
“Listen, Dan, there are people out there who hurt animals, bad people. This woman is just as uneducated as they are. You, on the other hand, have spent your whole life studying tigers, you know what’s best for them.”
“Does knowledge automatically put me in the right?” the tiger master asked.
“No, but trust me, those animals are better off with you. Nature is cruel, harsh, unforgiving. All those tigers should have died a long time ago, you’re their savior.”
They finished by checking the audio on the ringmaster’s microphone, then headed home. The ringmaster gave Looney a ride.
Looney loved driving at night. He stared out the window, admiring all the streetlights that materialized, then dematerialized as the car sped past them. Outside, it was cold and dangerous, but inside he felt safe.
“Tooney told me I take clowning too seriously,” Looney said to the ringmaster.
“Looney, you’re not a clown, you’re a performer. Do you think you take your craft too seriously?”
“Right, perhaps Tooney isn’t serious enough?”
“Maybe, but the audience loves him more,” Looney said.
“Think Looney, why does the audience love him? What gives him the chance to shine?”
“I don’t know,” Looney said.
“Fine, let me rephrase that. Who do you think gives him the chance to shine?”
“Exactly, he’s just reacting to all the stuff you’re doing. You’re a true clown, boy, your father would be proud”
Looney nodded and turned away from the ringmaster, staring outside the window again. Yellow lines on the side of the road were like a snake trying to keep up with the car. Looney watched the snake, admiring its relentlessness. Then the car turned, and the yellow snake was gone, burnt out.
“I think I’m ready to hear more about my father, what happened to him?” Looney asked.
“Of course,” the ringmaster said, “I should have told you about him sooner, I just didn’t want to scare you away from clowning.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your father was the original Looney, just as I was Tooney. We were doing a bit with a high tightrope, your dad was supposed to fall unto a net. It broke under his weight. We called an ambulance right away, cleared out the circus, did everything we could. He didn’t make it, I’m so sorry. After that, I bought the circus, quit clowning, and gave you the job of Looney.”
Looney took several deep breaths. He wished he was in full makeup, wished there was a fake smile on his face. It was too dark to see the tears, but the ringmaster heard them.
“Your father died doing what he loved,” the ringmaster said.
The rest of the drive was spent in silence. Looney arrived home, brushed his teeth, showered, stretched, then collapsed into bed and fell asleep. The next day he woke up, repeated the things he’d done before bed last night, and went off to the circus.
“Huh? So your dad broke through the net?” Tooney inquired.
“I guess so,” Looney said.
“I’m sorry to hear that man, listen if any of the stunts we do are too much for you let me know.”
“Are you implying something?”
“Of course not, just looking out for a friend.”
“I’m not my dad, okay, I’m fine.”
“Alright, calm down, let’s just drop it. We’re on soon anyway.”
Looney yawned to loosen up his jaw, a movement that began the rest of his routine. Finally, he stepped into the corridor and took several deep breaths.
There were no windows in a circus tent, much like a casino, and Looney was no better than a gambler; making a fool of himself, forgetting what time of day it was, addicted to the thrill of performing.
“Why hello boys, say, why aren’t you wearing any underwear?”
“Dry cleaner mishap, sorry boss,” Tooney said.
The audience chuckled, and Looney smiled to himself. Tooney was sticking to the script this time. Who cares if it didn’t get as many laughs as his improvisations? The show ended. Looney ate his lunch quickly, then went to help clean and set up for the night’s show. Business as usual.
“Good job boys. Looney, would you mind helping me and Dan clean up the tiger cage?” the ringmaster asked after the show.
“Sure,” Looney said.
“Do you need me?” Tooney asked the ringmaster.
“Up to you,” the ringmaster said with a shrug. Tooney smiled and left. Looney knew the ringmaster didn’t need Tooney’s help. Poor bastard had to go sit at home.
“Alright, let’s go clean up after the tigers,” the ringmaster said.
“Yeap,” Looney said happily.
The ringmaster looked over at Looney and laughed. They walked across circus world to get to the tiger exhibit.
“Are you ever going to retire Looney?” The ringmaster asked.
“I take precautions like stretching so that I won’t have to.”
“No, Looney, I meant by your own choice. Do you even remember your name? Do you have a girlfriend? Life doesn’t wait Looney. Besides, it’s best to have things outside of your craft, you could learn more and bring that back into clowning.”
“A girlfriend is going to help me be a better clown?”
“It’s worth finding out,” the ringmaster said.
“No, what I need is to improve my act, I work ten times harder than Tooney and he still gets all the laughs.”
“I’m afraid hard work doesn’t guarantee success,” the ringmaster said.
Looney tried saying something, but he couldn’t.
“A little competition is good Looney, you’ll only be more motivated to improve,” the ringmaster said.
“Yeah, and beat Tooney.”
“Exactly!” The ringmaster smiled. He had raised a good boy; hard-working, dedicated. Looney’s father would have been proud of him. The boy had the same determined glint in his eyes as his father.
Looney woke up early the next day. He rubbed his tired eyes, a blood vessel exploded, and now they were all red. He had also developed grey bags. Brushed his teeth, stretched, showered, and headed to the circus. Tooney was already sitting in the dressing room, he smiled when Looney entered.
“Good morning,” he said.
“How do you do it?” Looney asked.
“Do what?” Tooney asked.
“Perform the way you do! Improvise!” Looney shouted.
“Quiet down man,” Tooney clutched his head, “I was out late last night.”
“So what? You take naps, you know I’ve tried and I can’t. I just can’t! Some nights I hardly fall asleep at home, you know that!”
Tooney considered his friend’s predicament.
“Wait here,” Tooney left the dressing room. He returned with a six-pack of beer, sliding it towards Looney, who looked like he was getting ready to fight the beer. He backed away, hands raised near his head.
“You don’t have to, but no harm in just trying one,” Tooney said.
“Is this how you manage to stay loose and improvise?” Looney asked.
“It’s part of it, sure,” Tooney said.
Looney nodded, picked up a can, and took a big gulp. He coughed and wheezed. Tooney watched his friend, already in full clown makeup, bounce around the dressing room as he drained the can. Looney took another can, and the process repeated. Tooney was enjoying the show so much he forgot to keep count of the drinks. The pack of beers was empty now, half an hour had passed, and their cue was fast approaching.
“Are you okay?” Tooney asked.
Looney nodded. They made their way out of the dressing room.
“Why hello boys, why aren’t you wearing any underwear?” The ringmaster asked.
“Sorry boss, dry cleaner mishap,” Tooney said.
Looney ran over to a boy in the front row and covered his eyes with one hand.
“My eyes are up here bucko!” he said. The audience erupted in laughter.
“You like that, huh?” Looney shouted.
The audience clapped and cheered.
“How do you like this!” Looney took off his underwear, and the audience stopped cheering. He ran around the circus-tent. Other performers waiting for their cue were called out to stop him. The audience booed and jeered. He was forced to stop running when the vomit started coming up.
“Lay him on his side so he doesn’t choke!” the ringmaster said. Looney was in the dressing room now, surrounded by the whole cast and crew of the circus.
“Tooney, will you stay with him?” the ringmaster asked.
“Sure,” Tooney said.
People shuffled out, Looney saw a few pat Tooney on the back. He looked up at his friend, and for the first time fell asleep at work.
The sun ran to the other side of the Earth, and only then did Looney wake up.
“Hey man, how are you feeling?” Tooney asked.
“Good,” Looney lied.
“Do you want a ride home?”
Looney looked broken. The clown who flew too close to the sun.
“I shouldn’t have drunk, or improvised, those are your strengths,” Looney said.
His friend nodded.
“Are you sure you don’t want a ride?” Tooney asked.
“No, I’m good.”
“But you don’t have a car, and everyone else has already left.”
“It’s okay, I don’t need to get home.”
Tooney nodded. He assumed his friend was going to sleep in the dressing room. He thought that somehow staying at the circus all night would cheer him up.
The next day Looney was in the dressing room, laying on the floor.
“Wake up, wake up, it’s showtime,” Tooney shook his friend. Nothing.
Tooney knelt next to him, checking his pulse.