“Clowns” by Adam Szetela

Erica Ruscio

James was asleep under his desk. So, I went into the storage closet. I got boxes of printer paper. I stacked the boxes in front of his desk. I got trashcans and recycling bins. I stacked those in front of his desk too. Then I took down a black curtain and put it over his desk. When James woke up, he said it was pitch black. He thought he had been kidnapped.

Later that week, James and Tim found a box filled with hundreds of KFC coupons. We didn’t know what to do. At first, we thought about throwing them into a fan. Then we thought about throwing them off our building. But we couldn’t find a fan, and no one knew how to get on top of our building. As we talked about what to do, Rick came into the office. He said he was going home early. He had conferences with students in the morning. When he left, we went into his cubicle.

I put the coupons in his drawers. Tim put the coupons in his books. James unscrewed the ceiling light and put them behind the cover. When we turned on the light, a dozen Colonel Sanderses looked down on us. We threw the rest of the coupons on his desk. We threw them all over his floor. We even threw them in his recycling bin. When Rick met with his students in the morning, one student asked him if he worked for KFC.

A few days later, Rick went into Tim’s cubicle at night. He brought containers of dental floss. He wrapped all of Tim’s books in dental floss. Then he wrapped Tim’s desk and chair in dental floss. He even wrapped Tim’s Zelda bobblehead in dental floss. To deprive Rick of a laugh, Tim said he didn’t notice anything when he came into his cubicle. He said the custodian must have cleaned everything up. Rick was disappointed. He also felt bad.

I don’t remember who came up with the clown prank. I think it was Tim. But it might have been Rick. I know it wasn’t me. I was eating lunch when they came in and told me about it. James told them he had coulrophobia. That is, James had a fear of clowns. He said he had a panic attack whenever he saw a clown. Tim and Rick said we should pool our money to bring a clown to the office.

Apparently, clowns are not cheap.

While the rest of the department read books, wrote papers, and graded student work, Tim and Rick printed out pictures of clowns. They printed out pictures of clowns in movies. Carnival of Souls. The Clown at Midnight. Killer Klowns from Outer Space. They printed out pictures of clowns in video games and comic books. Twisted Metal. Final Fantasy IV. The Killing Joke. They even printed out pictures of Pogo the Clown.

Pogo the Clown’s real name is John Wayne Gacy. In the 1970s, Gacy raped and murdered over thirty young men and boys. He tricked his victims into wearing handcuffs as part of a magic trick. He kept the bodies inside a crawlspace in his home. He also painted paintings of himself dressed as a clown. Tim and Rick found pictures of his paintings on Google.

When I walked into James’s cubicle, there were clowns all over his desk. There were clowns on the walls. On the ceiling there was a mugshot of Gacy. In it, he is laughing. But he isn’t wearing his clown costume. When I pointed this out, Tim took it down. Then he taped a picture of Gacy’s last painting to the ceiling. In the painting, Pogo the Clown is in a casket carried by the seven dwarfs from Snow White.

James came into the basement around noon. We heard him in the hallway. He said he had slept late. He had student conferences for the rest of the day. He planned to make coffee and eat breakfast before they started. As we listened, Rick started to laugh. He said it would be hilarious if James walked into his cubicle with a full pot of coffee.

When James walked in, he had an apple in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. He didn’t choke on the apple like Snow White, and the coffee didn’t hit the floor. He just laughed as he asked us why there were clowns everywhere. Rick asked him why he wasn’t having a heart attack. James said he was scared of clowns. He wasn’t scared of pictures of clowns.

In my last semester of graduate school, I defended my thesis in a small room with three professors. The room had no windows to throw KFC coupons out of. It had no bobbleheads to wrap in dental floss. It had no pictures of clowns. It had a portrait of a man who used to be the department chair. The man wore a jacket with elbow patches. A pocket watch hung out of his vest pocket. The man did not smile.

Before I walked into the room, I paced in the hallway. I thought about James. He had dropped out. I thought about the other students who had dropped out too. I thought about the crumbling tenure-track job market for people who had graduate degrees in English. I thought about the Boston job I had quit to pursue a graduate degree in English.

When Tim saw me sweating in my shirt and tie, he said I looked like an anxious stoner who had just been fired from Blockbuster. When Rick walked over, we made fun of his fishing hat. We made fun of his Hawaiian shirt. We told him that he looked like a deformed version of Hunter S. Thompson.

When the professors called me into the room, I wasn’t thinking about all the students who had dropped out. I wasn’t thinking about all the flaws in my work. I wasn’t thinking about my unemployment application. As I bit down on my pencil and shook their hands, I was trying as hard as I could not to laugh.


HeadshotAdam Szetela is a writer who splits his time between Ithaca, New York and Boston. His recent essays have been published by Public Books, The Progressive, and elsewhere. A story about the time his friends burned a kitchen floor with sparklers will be published by Ninth Letter this fall.

Headshot - EricaErica Ruscio is a librarian in Massachusetts. She likes reading, drawing, tabletop gaming, and swimming in the ocean.