When Regina’s car broke down along a deserted Nevada highway, she walked for miles in her high heeled shoes, searching for a place to stay the night. The Clown Motel seemed to be her only option. The sign outside read ‘America’s Scariest Motel’, and ‘Pet Friendly’. It was a fitting end to a horrible day involving an accounting conference and being stood up by her Mumble Match date.
Regina had always been unlucky in love. In high school, most of the boys had confused her with Bridgette Meardsley, a girl from her homeroom who was on the portly side, with a chalky complexion and teeth too large for her head. Regina did what she could to distinguish herself: She went on a diet and invested in tanning sprays, she covered her mouth when she smiled. In just under a year, she lost thirty pounds and achieved excellent bronzing results (the trick is to exfoliate two days prior). Despite these successes, her romantic life never blossomed. Even now, with the help of match-making sites, she’d sometimes get a first date, but rarely a second. Regina asked her sister, Margot, if she was dull. ‘Well,’ her sister admitted, ‘your stories can be a bit ponderous.’ Apparently, it wasn’t enough to be slim, bronzed, and quick with numbers, you had to be entertaining too.
Regina yanked on the motel door and was greeted by a rush of cool air. Unsurprisingly, the decor was heavily clown-centric with lots of orange and a dizzying number of polka dots. The front desk housed all manner of clown merch: vintage jack-in-the-boxes, court jesters on a stick, wind-up clowns that clapped, cried, or marched in a wobbly circle. A sign next to the register said: ‘Out Clowning Around. Back Soon. Wait Patiently.’ Regina obeyed, her ruined shoes clutched to her chest, her bare feet leaving two dusty prints on the Twister mat which served as carpet.
She had actually worked as a clown once, just for the day, passing out balloons at a Rotary picnic with her college roommate, Lindsey. Lindsey was bubbly and beautiful. Regina liked her, but always felt upstaged by her. On that day, though, in their baggy outfits, rainbow-colored wigs and white makeup, they were nearly identical. Still, when two young men approached them, it was Lindsey they flirted with, asking her if clowns got high. They ignored Regina all together. She didn’t get high as a rule, but a person likes to be asked. Regina decided she lacked spark, a realization that snuffed out whatever tiny embers she had glowing within.
She waited there on the Twister mat for a good three minutes –left foot yellow, right foot blue, but still no help arrived. Regina gave the service bell a tentative flick with her index finger. Instead of a clang, it made a dull plunk. A little head popped up from behind the desk – a capuchin monkey in a miniature clown suit. He hoisted himself onto the counter and rifled through some papers in a folder. Then he pushed a registration form in her direction, set a pen atop the form, and stared at her expectantly. Regina glanced around, but thought it best to cooperate. She filled out the form and passed it back to the capuchin. He held it an inch from his nose and scrutinized it, occasionally looking up at her and scratching his head. She felt a rush of panic. She’d made up her license plate number (who could ever remember them?), but there was no way he could have known that with the car miles away. He held out his open palm.
Regina was peering into her wallet, deciding whether to hand him her Visa or American Express, when a man in a motel uniform appeared from around the corner.
‘Were you about to give your credit card to a monkey?’ he asked.
It was true. Regina was trusting by nature. She had once had an online relationship with an overseas gentleman in need of emergency medical funds – something about a cardiac ablation – and had sent him over two thousand dollars. It was the FBI who later informed her that she’d been duped. The fact that she was an accountant made it all the more humiliating.
The motel manager, who introduced himself as Gregory, was a tall and lanky redhead with sharp features who prided himself on efficiency. His check-in process was a whirlwind of stamping and stapling with an exuberance that bordered on aggressive.
‘Have you stayed with us before?’
When Regina admitted she hadn’t, Gregory launched into an oration on the history of modern clowning. The capuchin became a rapt audience, sitting cross-legged on the counter, hand to chin, a quizzical expression on his little face. Regina was thinking about dinner, but she was hesitant to interrupt Gregory, who spoke with the authority of a museum docent.
‘And this brings me to your room selection,’ he said finally, holding up a leather-bound book. He passed it to her as though he were handing her a wine list or the Torah. It described the rooms in detail, each with its own unique decor and named after a different famous clown. They were listed alphabetically, going from Bozo to Zippy the Pinhead. Happy clowns, lonely clowns, clowns with blood dripping from their sharp teeth.
‘The Bozo’s been recently renovated,’ Gregory said.
‘Just give me any room at all. I’m low maintenance.’
Gregory exchanged a glance with the monkey. ‘Low maintenance or lazy?’
Regina’s eyes widened. ‘Excuse me?’
‘Some people are so busy being agreeable, that they don’t even know what they want in life.’
The nerve of him, Regina thought. But it was true that Regina often struggled to know what she wanted – for a career choice, house color, breakfast. She was a first-class hemmer and hawwer. The more she hemmed, the more anxious she became, which only made her haw more. Gregory must have seen her level of distress rising. His expression softened.
‘It comes down to this,’ he explained. ‘Do you want to be scared, sad or happy?’
‘Happy, I guess.’
By the time the check-in process was complete, Regina was famished. She’d skipped lunch, having lost her appetite when her Mumble Match didn’t show. She dropped her wrecked high heels in the lobby trash barrel and used the desk phone to arrange to have her car towed to the nearest garage. On her way to the motel restaurant, she made a brief stop at the gift shop.
‘You wouldn’t happen to sell shoes, would you?’ she asked the cashier, who pointed to the far wall.
The trick to walking in clown shoes is to lift your feet purposefully, as though in quicksand. And adopting a softer gait will minimize squeaking. Regina entered the restaurant, trying to be inconspicuous. The Clown Car was a cozy little place with a bar that only sat three. On the far end sat a woman and, on the opposite end, sat a man. Regina climbed onto the empty stool in the middle. When the bartender turned to face her, she did a double-take. It was Gregory.
‘Romulus is watching the front desk,’ he explained. ‘He’s the only reliable help in the place.’
‘Your help appears to be off duty,’ Regina said, pointing just over Gregory’s shoulder at a capuchin tootling amongst the top-shelf liqueurs.
Without turning to investigate, Gregory answered, ‘That’s not Romulus. That’s his brother, Remus.’ He poured her a Lime Rickey and handed her a menu. ‘You must be starving, what with skipping lunch and all.’
Regina didn’t ask Gregory how he knew that Lime Rickeys were her favorite, or how he knew that she’d skipped lunch. The Clown Car’s offerings were limited to circus fare: peanuts, cotton candy, hot dogs. Regina couldn’t decide what she wanted, so she ordered one of everything.
‘When in Rome,’ said the gentleman to her left, who had ordered similarly. He was balding and had a wide open face. Regina offered him a hopeful half-smile, but Gregory shot her a warning glance.
When the man left for the bathroom, Gregory hissed, ‘Haven’t you had enough trouble for one day?’ He looked both ways before continuing, ‘Beware of men at highway road stops.’
When the man returned from the bathroom and tried to catch her eye, Regina stared into her Lime Rickey. He asked her what brought her to The Clown Motel.
‘Circumstances beyond my control,’ she said, with a bit more bite than she’d intended. She got snippy when she was low on protein.
Gregory passed her a bowl of peanuts. ‘Your hot dog will be up any minute now.’
Regina took a slurp of her Lime Rickey and began shelling the peanuts, making a tidy pile of them on her Bozo cocktail napkin. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Remus inching closer. ‘Back off!’ she snapped. He gave her a toothy grin and tiptoed away.
‘Monkeys can be overly assertive,’ the man to her left said, and she couldn’t help but nod. That was all the encouragement he needed. ‘They lack decorum in general,’ he added, showing her a picture he’d taken on his phone of Romulus in full clown regalia, scratching his ass, while Gregory glared from the background.
Regina’s laugh was so unexpected that she forgot to cover her mouth.
The man introduced himself as Henry. He was a traveling liquor salesman from Vegas, which, coincidentally, was Regina’s home town. While conversing with him, Regina had the feeling of being uncorked herself. Before she knew it, she’d taken him through the blow-by-blow of her day.
‘Oh, God,’ Henry said, clutching his stomach, ‘tell me the name of the accounting conference again.’
Regina felt more like Bridget Jones than Bridgette Meardsley.
‘You’re hysterical!’ Henry added.
‘I love the way you make the best of things,’ he said.
When it was time for the bar to close, he leaned in and spoke to her in earnest. ‘Would it be okay for me to get your number?’
Gregory’s eyes were on her. ‘Oh I don’t know,’ she said.
Henry’s smile vanished. He fumbled for his coat. ‘Oh, I’ve gone and ruined things,’ he said. ‘I do that. I overstep.’ He left a wad of cash on the bar and hurried out before Regina could reassure him that she’d been flattered. She felt something sparking within her.
‘Well, that’s a first,’ she said to Gregory, as she settled her bill.
‘What’s that now?’ he asked.
‘Turning someone down for a date. I usually say “yes” to any Tom, Dick, or Harry that asks.’
Gregory looked at her blankly.
‘I made the right choice didn’t I?’
‘Oh, God, don’t look at me,’ Gregory said. ‘I have mother issues. I’ve got huge problems with trust.’
That night Regina dreamt that she was standing on an island, wearing her heart literally on her sleeve, like an enormous cufflink. It was pumping and spurting blood into the ocean. A posse of clowns sailed by on a tiny wooden sailboat. ‘Excellent! Excellent!’ they cried, delighted by her exposed heart. ‘Expect love and love will come!’ one of them called out. Gregory hovered nearby on a cloud, wagging a finger in warning. A strong wind blew in and it was difficult to hear. Gregory was being swept away, but his finger was still raised.
‘What Gregory? What is it?’ she called after him, suddenly desperate for his advice.
‘One plus one makes three!’ he announced.
The dream ended with her standing there, calculator in hand, stabbing at buttons. ‘It doesn’t add up,’ she kept saying, over and over and over again.
In the morning, the garage called with a list of parts they had to order and an exorbitant quote. Regina asked for time to think, but this didn’t have the effect she’d been hoping for. They were the only garage in town.
Regina was in a state by the time she made her way down to the restaurant. She’d had to cancel three important work meetings and could tell that her boss, Monica, was irritated as though the car trouble was somehow Regina’s fault. She didn’t remind Monica that it had been her idea for Regina to attend the accounting conference in the first place, even though Regina had expressed concern about her aging jalopy making it through the desert.
Regina stood at the hostess station, taking in the packed restaurant. There seemed to be some sort of clown convention. Clowns were gobbling down their breakfasts, smearing their face paint in the process. Some had taken their noses off and placed them in empty saucers. Juggling balls rolled about on table tops and a unicycle rested in the corner.
‘It’s gonna be at least thirty minutes,’ the hostess warned in a tone that said, so don’t complain about it.
There was only one table not occupied by clowns. Henry was sitting at it all alone, and he was looking right at her. He waved and beckoned her over. Regina sighed, threading through clowns as she went.
‘You’re welcome to join me,’ he said. ‘I promise I won’t bite. Or ask for your number again.’
One of the clowns nearby seemed to nod at her and Regina smiled. Henry flagged down a waiter, who filled her cup with steaming black coffee and took her order: two eggs, over easy, with a side of bacon and wheat toast.
‘No clown-themed food?’ she asked the waiter.
He shrugged. ‘Clowns can be a lot in the morning.’
While they were waiting for their breakfasts, Henry inquired about her car, so she filled him in. When she described Monica’s reaction, he slapped the table hard. ‘But it was her idea for you to go to that convention in the first place!’ She felt the corners of her mouth turn up. When she shared the quote she’d received from the garage, he shook his head. ‘That’s highway robbery. Literally.’
Henry suggested that she let him take a look under the hood himself. It took him most of the afternoon to fix it but he refused to accept any payment. Regina insisted that the least she could do was to take him out to dinner, to a real restaurant that served more than hot dogs and cotton candy.
On their way out that night, they passed a clown in the lobby. He was holding a bouquet of wilted flowers in his hand, asking passers-by to ‘say the magic words’. Most ignored him, but Henry stopped.
‘Abracadabra!’ he said, and, one by one, the wilted blooms sprang back to life.
Alison Bullock’s short fiction has appeared in Peatsmoke, The Coachella Review, The Writing Disorder, Sledgehammer Lit, Bright Flash Literary Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, Halfway Down the Stairs, and elsewhere. She lives in Massachusetts.