I was hanging out with my sister yesterday, as part of my weekend-long birthday festivities, when my nieces and nephew started clamoring to hear Stories About When We Were Kids™.
And perhaps this wasn’t the best story to tell, but I automatically launched into The Tale Of The Pantsless Clown.
It was around ’78-’79. I was eight, and Tina was six. At the time, we lived on Samoset Avenue in Hull. My mother had choir practice down the street at Saint Ann’s, and figured that Tina and I could manage for a couple of hours by ourselves without burning down the house. By today’s parenting standards, this would have been enough to have us placed in state custody. All I can tell you is that, hey, it was the Seventies. We ate terrible food laced with at least a soupçon of Red #5 on the daily, played completely unsupervised for hours on end in abandoned buildings, and had very questionable television watching habits.
I don’t know where our dad was. Probably away on a business trip. Our older brother was thousands of miles away on an exchange student program in Málaga, where he’d send postcards lamenting the preponderance of bad disco. All I know is that we were instructed to go inside once the streetlights came on, and that perhaps there’d be McDonalds in our future if we managed not to cause serious harm to ourselves or to the furniture.
We amused ourselves with the neighborhood kids, being mindful to glance up at the streetlights now and again. For some reason, the easygoing chatter of children turned very dark, and before long, we were being regaled with the story of a clown in a van. A clown that was naked from the waist down, only you wouldn’t know that until he beckoned you to come closer as he proferred….I don’t know….candy or a puppy or something. And you’d be so shocked at this pantsless clown that you wouldn’t even scream as he snatched you and tossed you into the back of his van.
As Tina and I grappled with the horror of this, the streetlights started coming on. And our friends were called in to enter their respective, safe, parented homes. Being all of two years older, I knew that I was responsible for Tina, who was perched in a tight little ball on the edge of the sidewalk, sobbing. I placed my hand comfortingly on Tina’s shoulder. “C’mon – we should go inside now.”
She looked up at me, huge blue-green eyes round with terror. “But…butbutbut…what if THE CLOWN IS WAITING FOR US IN THE HOUSE?!”
This hadn’t occurred to me. I mean, Jesus, we were total clownbait, weren’t we? Desperately, I tried to suss out my options. Run to a neighbor’s house? No, I was acutely conscious of not interrupting dinner. Stay where we were? No – the thing was to keep moving.
“Get up. We’re going to Saint Ann’s.”
We ran all the way up Samoset Avenue, crying hysterically, checking over our shoulders for headlights that appeared vaguely hostile. Like they’d be attached to a van driven by a pantsless clown. And we arrived at the church shivering and scared witless. I managed to pull open the huge mahogany door and was immediately hit with the smell of incense and floor polish. The sound of the organ and the choir, my mother’s pristine soprano ringing to the rafters, abruptly stopped and I heard: “Betty – aren’t those your girls?”
My mother raced down the front aisle, her brick-red polyester pantsuit fwisk-fwisk-fwisking as she approached us, face pinched in maternal concern. “What’s the matter? What’s wrong? What happened?”
Tina and I exploded in a cacophonous din of explanatory wailing:
“There’s this clown….”
“…in a big black car…”
“NO, a WHITE VAN…”
“…and he’s not wearing anything…”
“HE HAS NO PANTS ON.”
“…and he’s really mean and he puts kids in the van…”
“HE HAS NO PANTS ON.”
“We WANTED to go inside like you SAID.”
“BUT THE CLOWN IS INSIDE THE HOUSE, MA.”
My mother looked at me, then looked at my sister, then looked back at me. “JESUS H. CHRIST,” she muttered, then directed us into a pew, where we sat quietly ashamed until practice was over.
There was no McDonalds for dinner.