The clown stood a few paces from the store front’s window, just beside a bench table topped with vases and glassware and a bicycle built-for-two. The window was encrusted with dust. The shop shrouded in darkness, closed until Tuesday, according to the hours posted.
Stepping into the shade of the shop to get out of the sun, a woman noticed a pair of glass figurine dancers on the table, and then, the bicycle-built-for-two. Peering closer, she startled at the clown, mistaken him for a person. Laughing at herself, she looked over her shoulder, relieved no one was there to see her foolishness. He looked real enough, she thought. Looking back, she felt almost as if he was laughing at her. She heard laughing like a taped laugh track of a bad 90s sitcom over her own laughter. It sounded like the laughter of everyone who had ever laughed at her.
She turned away and rummaged through her purse for cigarettes, something she found herself doing at least twice a week even though she quit smoking 23 months ago. Her hands marauded the bottom of her bag, searching them out like tiny little ghost limbs. She walked to the curb and looked down the street for the bus, but nothing was there.
“Wonder what people do for fun around here,” she asked no-one as she looked down the row of boarded up shops, all of them unidentifiable except a hardware store, a saloon whose bold, white letters over the shuttered window simply read ‘SALOON,’ and the antique store.
Across the street stood a small movie theatre advertising Kangaroo Jack and The Devil Wears Prada. Closed indefinitely due to PANDEMIC was scrawled in black Sharpie on a piece of paper taped to the ticket box. She doubted the theatre had been packed even before the pandemic. Then again, what were the alternatives?
She checked the time on her phone and the directions her sister had given her with no way of knowing what time the bus would come. Still angry at herself for letting herself be spooked by a silly clown, she felt a lump in her throat and wished she had a glass on water or an ice cold can of soda. She searched her purse for a piece of gum, but all she found was a cough drop. Good enough. She unwrapped it, put it in her mouth, and noticed the clown again.
He was standing slightly forward, one hand on his hip, the other stretched out before him, his fingers and thumb curved out as if holding a bottle or glass, as if mocking her, smiling. She looked closer. Nothing in his hand, but she was sure he had been laughing before. Both hands on his hips, his head and back arched back slightly. Ridiculous. It couldn’t be. Some mime’s kicks in a little no name town?
She shaded her eyes with her hand and leaned into the window. His eyes were black, empty, matte. She could hear her mother chiding her over active imagination. She shook her head and walked back to the curb to look for the bus.
Down the street, she saw a little black square. She watched it grow bigger, form into the image of a bus. Relieved, she threw her wrapper in her purse and counted out her bus fare. As the bus pulled up and opened its doors, she gave a last look over her shoulder. She couldn’t see the clown.
The bus was almost as empty as the street. An older man with white hair whittled something, leaving a small pile of wood chips on the floor in front of him. An old woman with a scarf tied over her head and several shopping bags sat a few seats up from him; and way in back, the woman was surprised to see a teenaged girl happily plugged into her earbuds. The woman chose the seat behind the old woman who reminded her of her grandmother and wondered what it must be like for the girl to grow up in a town so small and quiet.
The bus drove over a small bridge that crossed the river, and turned into a stretch of long, winding roads with little houses clustered together here and there like crooked teeth. There were no traffic lights and even less traffic.
After a few blocks, the bus driver put his hand to his throat, looked at the old woman through the rear-view mirror and made a loud, phlegmy, gasping noise. The old woman cried out. The woman was about to run to the driver’s aid, sure they were about to crash and die, when he started laughing. The old woman shook her head and dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. Confused, the woman looked at the driver through the read view mirror, but his eyes were back on the road and he was fine.
This happened every few miles. The woman looked around at the other people on the bus, but no one seemed at all bothered except the old woman who softly wailed and dipped her head into her handkerchief each time. The man whittled, the girl nodded along to her music, and the bus chugged along.
Finally, when the bus came to the 2 pump gas station alongside the green barn where the woman was supposed to get off, she pulled the call chord and walked to the front of the bus. As the bus pulled to the side of the road, she couldn’t help asking.
“Sir, I noticed you’ve been making strange sounds that seem to be upsetting that old lady, is everything ok?”
“Oh yeah,” the driver chuckled. “Her son hanged himself last month. I just like to razz her, keep her old heart pumping.” His chuckle turned into a full roiling laugh as he turned to the woman. His face white, his round nose red, his make up bright, and his mouth wide open as the still sun-lit sky.
His gloved hand pulled the door release as the woman nearly tumbled off the bus and ran down the street. The roiling laughter echoed from everywhere around her.