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January 17th, 2007 WW Editorial Staff | News Stories
 

Clown Girl

Portland-penned and Chuck Palahniuk-approved—we've got a sneak peek at a Monica Drake's debut novel.

     
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I'll never forget meeting Monica Drake. On a muggy, summer's night in '83, my boyfriend and I were heading up Broadway with greasy takeout boxes full of moo-shoo pork when we ran into three beautiful, gabby young women. I don't remember why two gay guys in their 20s would chat up a trio that was still in high school, but we did. I think it was because Drake, who looked like a slumming '50s starlet, was eyeing our takeout. I asked her if she wanted our leftovers. In an already-wise-beyond-her-years mix of monotone and moxie, she said, "Suuure." And that's how we ended up sitting on the sidewalk, sharing our last bites of Chinese in front of the old Fox Theater just as its marquee lights flickered on.

Whenever I later ran into Drake—on the street, at parties—she would always talk about her writing, whether it was schoolwork, reviews for local publications, or stuff with a writing group she was part of in the early '90s—Tom Spanbauer's "Dangerous Writers" group, which also included Chuck Palahniuk.

A decade later, Spanbauer was getting parties thrown in his honor on New York piers by indie celebs, including Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell) himself. Chuck, well, he's better known as the internationally infamous author of Fight Club.

And now, Drake is about to release her own debut novel, Clown Girl, a tight, claustrophobic little tale with a charming cast of self-obsessed screwups. It forgoes the unapologetic violence of her Dangerous compatriots for a sense of persistent anxiety and barely avoided disaster. Clown Girl hits local bookshelves Feb. 1 but WW decided to give our readers a taste of Drake's ferocious, funny work a bit early.

"I'm glad to see it's finally done," Drake told WW. She's been working on Clown Girl for the past decade while teaching, getting married, raising a child and rehabbing an old Northeast Portland house.

Reliving their Dangerous Writers days in Clown Girl's introduction, Chuck Palahniuk remembers his "arch enemy," as he fondly calls Drake, "[making] everyone in Tom's workshop laugh. Laughter so loud and honest that to people passing on the sidewalk, in the dark, we might have been apes hooting or dogs barking. No matter what you'd bring to read, Monica would write something better, funnier, more surprising, and sexy." In turn, she told WW that the workshop's biggest influence on her was the idea that life is short. "You have to do your work, put in your hours," Drake said. "Eventually you'll get a raise."

And Drake is raising expectations with Clown Girl. Hawthorne Books, the Portland-based publisher that's putting out the book, upped its print run to 6,000 copies—2,000 more than an average run for the small publishing house. "To date, this is probably the most recognition and publicity we've seen for any single title," says Kate Sage, Hawthorne's co-publisher. "We knew Monica had this novel [in 2003], and we chased her down. She's sort of a household name [in Portland and Seattle], even though she's never had a book published." Palahniuk's glowing introduction, obviously a partial cause for all that buzz, captures Hawthorne's excitement when he simply notes, "Clown Girl is its own reality."

The book is a work of fiction, but it might as well be fact, because that's how it reads—kind of. "I did work as a clown in the '80s," says Drake. "But I never had a million people knocking on my door trying to sell me their rubber chickens."

Nevertheless, the opening chapter of the novel may seem familiar to locals, set on a whirling, phantasmal street corner that could be right in the heart of Northeast Alberta, lorded over by a character that could certainly live and breathe in Portland.

And lucky you, you get to meet her here in our pages first.

—Byron Beck

Chapter 1.

The Clown Falls Down; or, Sniffles Stumbles

An excerpt from the novel by MONICA DRAKE

Balloon Tying for Christ was the cheapest balloon manual I could find. The day I bought it, it was hidden on the lowest rung of a dusty spinner rack down at Callan's Novelties, snuggled alongside shopworn how-to guides: Travel Europe by Clown Circuit!, Rubber Vomit Skits for Beginners, and Latex: The Beauty of Cuts, Bruises, Scars, and Contusions.

Want to tie the Virgin Mary? Start with a light blue balloon. For Jesus, use Easter green. There are tips on tying a crucifix, a lamb, even a Sacred Heart in two sizes, big or small. Ooo la la! These tricks are simple but smart. The grand finale is the pietÀ, Mary with a grown Jesus sprawled across her lap in a four-balloon extravaganza like a tangled link of sausages, or a Japanese bondage trick. The pietÀ or bondage, sacred and profane; in balloon art the two are that close together, one thin twist.

I studied all twenty pages of the flimsy, hand-stapled booklet. And so, ta da! By the chance of cheap pricing I'd come to specialize in religious tricks, clown iconography and chicanery extraordinaire! Most people, though, looked at my balloon art and saw what they wanted to see instead. It was Interpretive Art, abstract and expressionistic. The big plan? I had one. Someday I'd be able to tie all the great works, starting with da Vinci's Madonna of the Rocks complete with Baby Jesus, John the Baptist, and a little balloon-twisted angel clustered together on a rocky perch. Already I'd invented my own version of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo's image of God giving breath to Adam. Two balloons linked formed their famous outstretched fingers.

Saturday afternoon, in the thick of a street crowd, I tied a crown of thorns and handed the crown to a tiny girl in a fake leopard sundress. She put the crown on her head as a tiara. "Lovely, lovely," the girl's mother murmured, and tapped the crown with one jeweled hand.

Pure princess, in a crown meant for a martyr.

The mother pulled her tiny daughter away from the spill of day care overflow, five-year-olds out to celebrate the King's Row street fair. The pack surged forward. My makeup was sweating off and my feet hit flat and hard against the cement in cheap, oversized shoes. The summer sun was hotter than I'd ever welcome in the city even on a Saturday. Unused balloons clumped together in the hothouse of my pink vinyl shoulder bag alongside juggling balls, a sleek silver gun, and the gentle rub of a rubber chicken. I pulled out a handful of balloons like gummed spaghetti.

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God... That's the biblical quote, but in the world of balloon art the old Camel Through the Eye of a Needle trick is easier than it sounds. Start with one balloon, underinflated. Make the camel really small. Twist a long balloon around the camel's back—that's the needle—and cinch it like a girdle.

I passed the camel and the needle to the dirty fist of the highest bidder, an anonymous reaching hand with a five-dollar tip crushed in it. Bingo! A five-year-old with a five-spot was rich enough for the temporary kingdom of balloon heaven on earth. I shoved the cash in the sleeve of my striped shirt, pulled out another balloon.

Once balloon tying starts you can't get away. There's always a river of kids. I was hired as a roving clown, but no way could I rove. Kids had me corralled, pushed to the side of the Do-Your-Own ceramics place, what used to be the Wishy Washy Laundry with all-day breakfast and off-track betting. Next door was the Pawn and Preen, our little local hockshop salon, but the P and P had been turned into a dog biscuit bakery, and for this King's Row celebrated. Street fair vendors filled the air with the grease of Wiggly Fries. I whistled, tra la la, and tried to sidle. Kids blocked my path like little sentries, hands up, demanding balloons.

Matey and Crack were team-juggling. Crack balanced on a fire hydrant. I waved a hand. Ah, yoo-hoo! I pulled an automated plastic wolf whistle from the sleeve of my shirt and gave it a go. With the press of a button, the whistle let loose the loud up-and-down bars of a sexy call.

They looked my way. I waved again.

They stopped juggling and froze. Matey drew fast from her old Creative Incompetence routine; she turned to Crack, looked over her shoulder, past the purple stuffed parrot sewn there, and made herself comic-style confused, head tipped, one hand scratching. Crack leaned back and shook a long, striped, stocking-covered leg at me, a floozy on the fire hydrant in her version of a high-wire act. They mirrored each other's shoulder shrugs and went back to juggling.

I was on my own. There was no room for sidling, running, sneaking off. No way out but on with the show. To tie a wise man, start with yellow, a knot at his neck like a collapsed artery, head like an engorged penis. Yellow is all about wisdom. It doesn't say that in the Christian book, but Buddha was yellow, every good Buddhist knows it, and in the nineteenth century some big psychic seer announced that a wise person's aura is mostly yellow too. The Hopi Indians, they believe in the wisdom of yellow clowns. I tied a skinny sheep for a greasy-haired kid and another took his spot like water rushing in.

With the tip of the toe on my oversized shoe, I pantomimed a line on the sidewalk, a place not to cross, and the kids crossed it.

Hands to my hips, balloons in a fist, I drew the line again. One kid pushed three others over the line, and they laughed. I squirted the squirting daisy pinned to my frayed lapel. A spit of water hit a child's face. "Hey!" he said, and wiped a hand down his cheek. Another kid pushed him forward.

I squirted again, still smiling.

Those kids, the beasts, vigorous in their balloon lust, were God's constant audience, according to Balloon Tying for Christ. But for the moment they were my audience, my bread and butter, and they grabbed my clown pants, my shoulder bag, my hot, limp balloons.

The rubber chicken fell out of my prop bag. I dove for the chicken, chased off a pudgy dumpling of a child, got up and fast pantomimed the line again.

The problem was, by my own self-imposed rules I couldn't speak. I couldn't yell. I don't believe there is a good clown voice except maybe a helium breather or some loud, fake Italian braying. Any human voice spoken from a clown face ruins the illusion. My kind of clown says nothing. If we were the Marx brothers—Matey, Crack, and me, I'd be Harpo. If we were in mime gear, what I do might look like mime. The result? Kids don't listen, but on the up-side—I've never been asked on so many dates in my life.

I tied another sheep and broke a clown rule by making two of the same animal in a row. While I tied the sheep and drew the line on the ground to hold back the pack of tiny, sticky hands, a man passed me his business card. Who are you? he'd written on the back. Can I get your number?

He was an architect, the card said. A Spatial Use and Planning Consultant.

A clown fetishist. A coulrophile. I put the card in my bag and gave a fresh balloon a quick, professional snap. Blowing up balloons made me dizzy, but it was only a passing moment of dizziness. Learning to blow a long, tight, and skinny balloon is a trick in itself—it's all diaphragm, no cheek action. Maybe that's what the fetishists like, the lip work. I smiled at the architect sweating in his summer suit. His face was flushed. His hands ended in a row of rubbery pink fingers like underinflated balloon art.

A second man gave me the dancing-eyebrow leer, flashed a rack of polished teeth. He was tall, with a head of white-blond hair like a dandelion gone to seed.

I winked back. Gave him a quick wolf call with the whistle now hidden in my pocket. He stepped forward in an amateur clown walk, all bent knees and low to the ground in a long stride like an old R. Crumb "Keep on Trucking" poster. Nice try. I squirted my squirting daisy. A silver thread of water arced through the short space between us and rained down against the dandelion man's khaki-clad crotch. Ta da! He stepped back, half-laughed, stepped forward again.

Fetishists don't give up.

I squirted a second warning shot, fluttered my eyes over a fresh balloon, doubled over, then reared back and blew the balloon up like playing a wailing saxophone. I turned to the kids. The balloon grew larger and tauter until it was long and arched as an eager cock. A cock that I'd twist into a religious trick, maybe a Sacred Heart, one of the Shepherd's flock, an angel or cross.

Baby Jesus in a crÈche is a quick trick, fast in pale pink. But kids never get it. Some fly it like a bumblebee, others hold it against their knuckles like a swollen hand, a vaginal cluster of plump pink rolls.

Then the crown-of-thorns girl came back, the princess in her leopard sundress. She pushed her way past kids and coulrophiles, mom in tow. The girl was screaming, crying, her free hand full of damp, split rubber.

Such a big voice from such a tiny girl.

"It's OK, baby. The clown'll make you a new one," the mother said, and signed me up like she didn't see the pack of kids already waiting.

I had to move fast. Once kids start cycling back through the line, balloon tying is a losing battle. Sheep boy would be next, his sheep-styled balloon popped in the heat, swollen with the day's sun, twisted into final submission and gone to the big balloon party in the sky.

Nothing lasts forever, right?

It was time to rove. Get lost in the crowd. The kids had me trapped, as Our Lady of the Perpetual Poppers. I tied a third sheep and let the leopard sundress cry. I held up a finger, pointed to another child. Clown sign language for wait your turn. I meant to start making anything else—Jesus on the Cross, a wise man, one of the lowing cattle, or even a good old nondenominational, interfaith duck, balloon loon, or common quacker—but all my hands could tie was another sheep. The kids screamed, No.

I did a little polka with my sheep, then passed it to a quiet-seeming girl. She tucked her hands under her armpits. "A flower," she said. "I want a flower."

All I could tie was sheep! I couldn't think. This had never happened before. It was like some kind of a stroke, my brain shutting down. The screaming and laughing and crying of children was a wall of white noise that severed my body from my brain. Sheep and sheep and sheep. Light blue, I tied a sheep. Green, more sheep. Even yellow—a wise sheep.

Fake leopard sundress howled and clung to her mother. I waved good-bye, clown sign language for go away. The fetishist architect hovered in the near distance. The other, the dandelion-headed dandy with the high-buck smile, he was gone.

I started to tie a replacement crown of thorns but it turned into another sheep. Sheep piled at my feet with all the same twists, the same fat bubbles. The hot force of the sun was like a hand traveling its ninety million or billion or kazillion, however many miles to press against my skin and melt the polyester of my striped Goodwill pants, the ad-libbed clown suit. The sun, the kids, the screams—I felt faint, empty, small as an insect sliding underfoot. The world was onstage. I was the lone audience slouched in the cheap seats.

This wasn't the clown I set out to be.

Once my plan in clowndom was to defeat physics and defy gravity by using sheer strength to balance in positions seemingly impossible in the Newtonian world. I choreographed a silent adaptation of Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," costumed and lit as a live equivalent of black-and-white film. The show was glorious in its melancholy, physical beauty!

"The Metamorphosis"—the story of a man turned into an insect—was the story of all humanity! When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin. Self-expression was the antidote to verminville; I practiced and practiced until I was Kafka's tale incarnate.

But productions are expensive. I needed cash. A software company came out of nowhere and hit me in my sore spot. They offered big cash for a few hours of work, a few tricks. A party. Corporations don't care about bodies defying gravity, human teeter-totters, and translated literature. Kafka? No. They want silly walks, balloons, and juggling. The money's there.

What a grueling job I've picked, Kafka wrote. Day in, day out...

I bought my first bag of balloons and the flimsy paperback Balloon Tying for Christ as a sure way to fill contracted time. Next thing I knew, I was a corporate clown. I worked for an international cookie company, a burger chain, a mortgage investment bank. I met Matey and Crack on the job. Crack had an agent. She waggled a finger, flashed a few paychecks, and at her side I turned full-on commercial clown as a temporary deal. For the street fair gig, she hooked us up with the Neighborhood Business Association.

I twisted another sheep head, another pillowed body; the kids screamed. My arms were heavy. The world moved closer, noises louder and colors glaring migraine bright. I fell to my knees, fell on my flock of sheep. Balloons squeaked and squirted out from beneath my weight and danced into the air. They shifted, drifting around me. The kids laughed. Of course they laughed! The rubber chicken poked a leg out of my bag as the bag slipped from my shoulder.

Tiny hands brushed against my clothes. Their voices were as one, the cackle of an amplified gag gift, a screeching giggle box. They pressed the squirting daisy, pulled the pom-poms used as hair. One kid took the chicken and swung it over his head. I reached, but could barely breathe in a claustrophobic cloud of peanut butter, grape jam, and soft, sour milk breath. I looked around for the architect, my fan. Any coulrophile would do.

When I caught the eye of a passing stranger, I tipped an invisible glass to my lips. Water. I needed water. The guy kept going. Another looked. I pointed my thumb to my mouth, hand in a fist, pinkie cocked. A drink. I needed a drink.

Clown games.

Nobody would hold my gaze. No adults anyway. They looked in the window over my head, at ceramics, coffee cups, and baby clothes. Where were the fetishists when I needed one? There's no easier way to be invisible than through the embarrassment of clown gear mixed with a plea for audience involvement. Finally, as I curled on my drifting bed of sheep, a man slipped me his card. The card fell into my hand. Call me, he'd written, with his number.

A golf course designer. A golf course spatial use and planning consultant.

I grabbed his wrist and broke my clown rule—I spoke. "A drink," I whispered.

He smiled. "A drink. Sounds good. Let me know when."

I held on. My fingers pressed tighter around the metal accordion of his watchband. I whispered, "No, I need a drink now. Water..." I said, "I'm sick."

He reached for his card back and shook his wrist free. So long to the dream date! The fetish was broken, the fantasy gone; I was only a sick girl in makeshift clown clothes. He said, "Hey," out loud to nobody, and backed away. His silver watch flashed in the sun. "The clown's sick."

No Florence Nightingale, this clown-stalking links designer.

Matey and Crack turned. The stuffed purple parrot swung on Matey's pirate-clown shoulder and the world receded into a wash of soft colors. The wail of the girl in her fake leopard sundress grew dim. There was a hum that wouldn't stop. I closed my eyes, cheek pressed into the hot hard gravel of the sidewalk. It was coming for me—the short, meaningless life of an insect. Sheep bodies touched my skin lightly, carefully, like a priest's last rites, like gentle kisses. Swimming or drowning, there's not much difference. I was flooded with grease-laden festival air, the bodies, the heat, the weight of air itself. I drifted toward balloon heaven. I was that transitory thing, an underinflated sheep, an empty carcass not meant to last.

W.C. Fields wandered across my mind's eye. He shook a stogie, and in his slow, drunken drawl said, "Hey, don't worry about your heart...it'll last as long as you live." He took a swig off a flask, turned away, and disappeared.

"My heart!" I said out loud, suddenly worried.

"You'll be OK," somebody else said, a real-world voice.

Rex Galore? My clown mate, my savior. A word from Rex and I'd revive; Rex had found me on the street. He was back in town. A hand brushed my face, trailed by the bite of cinnamon.

"Relax," he said. "Take a deep breath. You'll make it."

I wanted to believe his words, to be the truth of the story he told.

I opened my eyes to the blue of a shirt sleeve, a hand reaching out. It wasn't Rex. It was a cop. A cop had cleared the kids back.

House Rule Number One where I lived: Don't talk to cops.

But the cop put his fingers to my pulse. My head was woozy. The cop gave me water. It was a magic trick, the way he pulled the paper cup pulled from the crowd; the cup was suddenly in the cop's hand, then in mine. "Help is on the way," he said and wrapped his fingers around my fingers to hold the cup. A magical cop. Hair on the back of his fingers was sparse, golden as jewelry. His eyes were pale blue. With his second hand he propped up my head. I rested against his palm like a pillow. "Can you tell me your name?" he asked.

Anonymity. It's in the Clown Code of Ethics: I will always try to remain anonymous while in makeup and costume, though there may be times when it is not reasonably possible to do so. These were my promises: I wouldn't talk to cops and I wouldn't speak in costume.

I opened my mouth and said, "Nita."

He said, "You need a...?"

"Nita," I whispered again, with all the energy I had. The only thing holding the cup in my hand was the cop's hand around mine. Between our two hands our skin grew hot, sweat mingled. He leaned in close. He smelled like cinnamon streusel, apple pancakes. Delicious.

"What do you need?"

His hand, and his help, made me both sad and happy at the same time, and I couldn't hold on to the mix; I felt something inside lift. I was still on the ground while a heat in my body struggled to climb up. The feeling caught in my throat and closed down there, like a sob. Clotted. I couldn't speak if I wanted to.

He squinted, teetered, then caught his balance poised in a crouch. His breath brushed my skin. Ah! Too much. I took another deep, cinnamon-streusel breath. The cop was so close I could've kissed him. For one minute I didn't see him as a cop but as a man, concerned, all sweet skin and golden hair. The cop's eyes narrowed as he waited and listened. Patient. I asked, "Do I know you?"

He was young enough, but still when he narrowed his eyes his skin there turned into a weathered, radiant arc of wrinkles. He shook his head. "No," he said. "We've never met." I saw the blue of the uniform again. He was a cop, doing his job. I was a citizen in trouble.

Rex Galore was what I needed. My Clown Prince. That strong giant, Rex, darling shaman and showman; a touch of his hand would make everything right. Rex was far away. All I had was a cop, a flatfoot, an outsider to our outsider lifestyle.

"Bleeding?" I asked, and my voice cracked as it climbed past that knot of throated sadness mixed with hope. One word, mumbled. Then two: "Am I?"

He said, "You're not bleeding. "Do you have ID?"

My Clown Union card was tucked in my polka-dot bra. I didn't move for it.

The cop took the cup from my hand—from our hands—and set the cup on the ground. Where he peeled his hand from mine, the air was suddenly cool in the empty space that had been our sweaty warmth. I wanted him to hold my hand again, to say that I'd be okay, to anchor me in the world. Instead he reached in the loose pocket of my saggy polyester high-waters, the clown clothes, and his cinnamon smell surrounded me. His cop fingers brushed my thigh through the thin cloth of the pocket lining. He pulled out a handkerchief tied to a handkerchief tied to a handkerchief tied to another handkerchief, never ending.

The kids were a silent pack, watching. Adults looked too now because cop action is the adult entertainment version of a clown show and holds everyone's attention. He pushed the clothesline of pastel handkerchiefs back into my pocket. The sun was a gilded halo around his head, his forehead lined and anxious. He hit the wolf whistle in my pocket, and the whistle screamed out its two notes, one up, one down. The sexy call.

The crowd roared. I felt sick. I lay back against the cop's arm.

"Her name?" he asked again, and looked around. "Does anybody know her name?" A juggling ball rolled out of my pink prop bag into the feet of the crowd. A kid went after it, chasing the ball the way a dog would.

"Sniffles?"

A voice in the crowd. It was Matey. Matey speaking up. Matey, my co-worker, who didn't even know my real name.


Monica Drake and Hawthorne Books will celebrate the publication of Clown Girl at 7 pm Wednesday, Jan. 31, at Mississippi Pizza, 3552 N Mississippi Ave., 288-3231. The author will read during this event. The book arrives in local bookstores Thursday, Feb. 1. Check out WW's Words section in the upcoming weeks for local readings. For more information about the author and local events, please visit monicadrake.com or hawthornebooks.com.

This excerpt was reproduced with the permission of Hawthorne Books.

 
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