Horla Fiction (November 2019)

Fair warning – some limited strong language

 

THE FIVE 

by EDDIE MATTHEWS

I HAD JoJo when I was twenty-one. I’d been hooking up with a construction worker who was on a short-term contract to build the first superstore of the town. He wore t-shirts with beer stains and didn’t talk much, but showed love by fixing pipes and lining the edges of my shower with caulking. I told him I was on birth control, but I wasn’t, and got pregnant around the time his contract was up. When I told him over the phone, he said he knew a guy who knew a guy who could get it taken care of and he’d help pay for it even though it meant he’d have to work doubles for a month.

‘I want to have him, I don’t need you to be his father.’

‘Him?’

‘I know it’s a boy.’

‘How?’

‘I was told I would have a boy.’

I had JoJo six months later. From the time he could form sentences JoJo showed me that vantage point only children can, the kind that dissolves with age and resurfaces, in diluted form, through parenthood. One time he asked me if people revolved around each other like the planets. Another time when I was working late at the police station, he was colouring at my partner’s desk and asked the perpetrator I was processing if he liked his pterodactyl drawing and the guy nodded with a wholesome smile. That’s what he did—showed peoples’ hidden wholesomeness.

JoJo had a group of friends that did everything together—rode bikes, fished off the pier, climbed around the lumberyard—but their favourite activity was gawking at the attractions of the carnival. There were tents of midgets sumo-wrestling, fire breathers, grinning men with face tattoos, snake charmers, palm readers, used bible salesmen, three-hundred pounders smoking hookah, old Irish sisters baking sweets. The Ferris Wheel loomed above the fairground, axis half-lit against the skyline behind the fish and chips shop where the only other immigrants worked.

The Clown was the face of the carnival. Everyone knew about The Clown, or Jeb as he was called, and the myriad unproved cases against him which only drove him to spend more time secluded at the carnival, doing maintenance on the rides, sometimes paid sometimes not.

JoJo and his friends came to the carnival in its waning years. The Clown’s performances morphed into a strange medley of ‘talents’: swallowing a goldfish from a bowl on one side of the stage and spitting it into a different bowl on the other side; belly dancing; pen flute playing; operatic excerpts from Bizet’s Carmen. I chaperoned JoJo and his friends to one of these shows. I remember the silence of collective anxiety humidifying the theatre, a dense, invisible bubble we all filled until it was suffocating and had to be punctured by the full-throated, ridiculing laugh of a teenager. The Clown pressed on, but that laugh began a chain reaction until he had to stop. He lashed out, telling us we should respect his artistry that took thousands of hours to attain, then pointing at fat people in the crowd and hurling insults from a bygone era. One of JoJo’s friends, Winston, had a smartphone and recorded this performance, then put it on YouTube, tagging the location. The video got a million views and The Clown got hundreds of letters of hate mail, a few in little kids’ handwriting.

Three months later, JoJo and the others got on the Ferris Wheel and ascended to the top … then the windowed cabin came off the wheel and fell a hundred feet, crashing to the ground at the foot of a sycamore tree. Their bodies were mangled like wet spiders—arms wrapped around each other as if doing so would enable them to face the other side together. The chief of police investigated the scene himself and determined it was by chance, bad luck, no way of knowing how or why, case closed. No explanation for why the only cabin that came unhinged was full of five boys that tormented the very same clown who operated the Ferris Wheel that night, the one day per week he was Jeb, not The Clown. That was standard operating procedure for the local police before I joined. I keep a jar of JoJo’s shattered teeth I found on the floor of the cabin on my desk as a reminder.

The five dead boys, came to be referred to as The Five. Their absence was everywhere—The Five empty seats in school classes, the lack of a tenor and alto in the Christmas choir, the missing striker, keeper, and centre back on the football team. We tried out a traditional grief counseling group, but the therapist kept forcing us to relive the details of the night, so we fired her and created the ritual, each of us taking a job within it that aligned with our skill set. At our first ritual, Mike brought a cricket bat and an apron, but Desmond kept him from crucifying the clown, explaining that his body needed to last for the greater good—to incrementally absorb the suffering our children would’ve experienced had they lived.

We met monthly on the theatre stage in the middle of the fairground. Mike told jokes to break the ice. Kathy set up the halogen lights that made the theatre stage glow like an alien abduction. Shelly administered the correct dosage of pain meds from a paper bag which allowed multiple people a turn before he passed out. Minnie set up the Oreos and coffee while Desmond read the notes in his booming, barrister voice. Vernon clamped down the stocks he’d made from recycled wood over the clown’s head and hands.

Tonight it was Glen and Nadine’s turn. Desmond read their note: For when Isaac would’ve fallen off his bike and scraped his knees. Glen wrapped sandpaper around his knuckles and massaged his trembling knees until they turned red like an overripe peach. After he finished, he wiped the pulpy blood off his hands with a towel and Nadine stood up, holding an empty wine bottle, as Desmond read—For when Jacob would’ve punched through a sliding glass door after learning his wife was cheating. She broke the bottle on the stocks then sliced The Clown across the knuckles and he screamed as blood ran in neat lines between his fingers and we encouraged her for the honest intuition about her boy.

When it was my turn, Desmond didn’t read anything off because I hadn’t put a note in the box—I didn’t know what to say. I thought about JoJo, my boy who sucked his thumb long after the normal age but only when he thought no one was looking. I thought about the pain he’d experience and the numb of deep loneliness came to mind. That night, in front of the clown’s yellow teeth and bleary eyes, I realised I didn’t know JoJo like I wish I did. When I thought of him becoming a man, I just pictured a guy with a cowlick walking places alone. Was this a reflection of my parenting? A projection of myself? Or reality? And if the latter, how to inflict that pain upon this man?

The other parents always made up these elaborate stories about what their child would’ve endured, trying to one-up each other to show the value of just how well they knew their kid, how much life was robbed from them—the better the story, the more drawn-out the punishment. I was at a loss, so I beat him with my police baton over and over and over and over—each one met with a muted ooph—until my right arm tired and his back was pockmarked.

 ‘Let’s move on to part two. Shelly, will you start us?’ Desmond, the self-appointed emcee, said.

‘Wife batterer!’ Shelly said.

‘Child killer,’ Glen said, leaning in.

‘Fuck-up,’ Vernon said, monotone.

‘Pervert,’ Kathy said, landing the P like a polevaulter.

‘Abuser,’ Nadine said.

‘Home wrecker,’ Mike said.

‘Cuntfucker,’ Desmond said, then turned to me. ‘Luz, want to jump in?’

‘I was a single mother. He made me just “single”. What name can I call him that sums that up?’

Desmond nodded and turned to Minnie, who had developed a thick stammer since it happened.

‘Honey? I want you to try to call this monster a cunt. Can you manage that, do you think? Let’s try together.’ Desmond put two hands on her shoulders, the same gentle touch he used when he helped her put an electric flyswatter to the clown’s tongue.

Her tiny body shook.

‘Cu-cu-cu-cu … cu-cu-cu-cu … cu-cu-cu-cu-cu-cu-cu-cu-cu-cu-cu-cu …’

She went on trying for a couple minutes until Desmond hugged her. I came in the following night, when we weren’t meeting, and found Minnie in the dark, sitting in the centre of the theatre stage, cradling The Clown in her lap and weeping.

***

I’ve been having disturbing thoughts recently about the clown. Sometimes I wonder if he notices how beautiful the pines surrounding this area are at the close of day, when the leaves catch the dying light. I wonder if his name is in the guest log of the cancer ward. If it was his idea to have his mother baptised before she died. I wonder these things because something tells me they are true. Maybe it’s intuition—what the other parents use to fuel the imaginings of how things would’ve played out, in my case, inverted to Jeb’s past.

As the scars on his body multiply, this sense won’t go away, so I ask myself over and over How do I continue the hate? and then I look at his curdled milk feet and it helps but not enough. I try to use the memories of JoJo as fire, but instead they glow like nightlights. I notice how the knobs of Jeb’s spine poke through his rubbery skin and my fear deepens all the more because I can’t imagine a world where I come to pity the man who killed my son.

 

 

***

American writer Eddie Matthews is undertaking a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Swansea, Wales. He is researching how borders shape human interaction. His work has appeared in a number of publications including Construction Literary Magazine, the Cheval 11 anthology of young writers, and Zero Hours on the Boulevard.