The Ringmaster’s Clown; a short story

Photo by Vadim Sadovski on Unsplash

By Ron Prichard

“Will you tell me your story?”

“Isn’t it on the record? I’ve told it so many times over the years.”

“I’d like to hear it myself. The authorities leave things out.”

“You won’t believe it. No one believes me. That’s why I’m here. Cops don’t believe you when they can blame you for the blood.”

“I don’t close cases. I write stories. I think there’s still one here to tell.”


It was ’83 or ’84. I was starting my junior year. Skinny kid, bit of a nerd. Not a hardened Death Row inmate.

Silverado Days happens every fall in my hometown, which likes to favor itself as a Wild West kind of place. Mainly because Knott’s Berry Farm is located there. I’d gone since I was a kid and my mom took me every year to the little parade that kicked off the three-day fest. Mostly local marching bands and a few horses, and clowns.

Damn clowns.

I think there were animals then, full circus stuff. By high school it was just the parade, and then traveling carnival rides and games in a local park.

Some of the games were run by the carnies, others by locals who got a cut for charity. That’s why after dark on that Friday, I was running a game that required rolling a heavy ball down a ramp, hard enough to crest the rise in a metal track, but not so hard that it bounced back.

Which was harder than it looked, but just as boring as it sounds. Not like the darts or the pellet guns. Only some very large stuffed animals attracted players.

It was just me and the boss who got me set up — the ringmaster, I guess — when the group arrived from my school. Mike Quinn and a few of his football buddies, in their letter jackets and jeans. Mike was the big man on the team. In most schools that’s the QB, but he played middle linebacker. Liked to hit people. Hard.

“Hey, it’s fish boy. What’s up with this, brain?”

I’d worked with Mike in junior high when we’d done a field trip to a marine biology center. They split the class into teams to do experiments. He was of course a leader of a group, and he wanted a “brain” on his team. I did all the calculations and written work.

The names stuck, brain and fish. I had those at least. Didn’t have much else going for me in my high school years. I was one of those kids they’d describe as quiet, harmless, kept to himself.

“Hi Jeffrey,” I heard a much quieter voice say. Tammy was one of the girls hanging somewhat back, laughing with the jocks.

She was whip thin with long legs and long blonde hair, perfect for Southern California in those days. We’d been in school together since kindergarten, I think. I still think she kinda liked me, but I’ll never know. Not after what I…

Not after what happened.

“Dumb game,” Mike said after I explained it, and they started to go. But Tammy stepped up. “Hey, it’s for a good cause. Win me something.”

He shrugged. “Anything for my girl.” Probably figured he had to give if he was going to get.

He dropped about $20, significant in those days, but the ball kept bouncing back. In fact it bounced back harder each time. He was used to overpowering things.

“F’n dumb game,” he said when they left. She looked back at me and smiled.

The guy with me, the ringmaster, waited until they left to say anything. They hadn’t seen him, I guess. Or just didn’t notice him. “She digs you, I’d say.”

I chuckled. “She likes the jocks. Not me.”

“Could be because you don’t take what you want.”

The journalist.“Tell me more about the ringmaster.”

He had longish hair and a goatee, coal black as if painted on. Wore a suit that was half flamenco and half clown, with a ruffled white shirt. Battered top hat.

He seemed wise. Pretty much everything he said to me was a statement that sounded like a question. A question I’d have to think long to answer. With answers that made me want to do things I wouldn’t normally do.

I waited through a two-hour shift – I think the booth was for the Rotary Club and we signed up for shifts. A few players stopped briefly, but the visitors were mostly ride operators, game staff and entertainers coming to check in with their boss. I guess. They’d nod or say something to me, but he spoke not a word.

So it was probably 9:30 when he came over to me. “There’s your girl.”

Tammy was across a grassy area at the entrance to the Screaming Eagle, with two other girls who’d been with the football crew. “I’ll watch this. Go say something.”

I looked at him, trying to explain why I shouldn’t seize the day. He wouldn’t agree, I could tell. So I didn’t bother.

I went, said hello, awkwardly asked how she was. Talking to one girl among three was not a life skill I had. “Have you been on this yet?” was what I finally came up with.

The Eagle was a new addition to our fair, a roller coaster with enclosed cars that held two. You could spin the cars with a wheel and flip them upside down. Taller than the old basic carousel that sat alongside it, and far more thrilling.

“Not brave enough,” she said.

“Where’s your big boyfriend?”

She laughed. “He and the boys are off to the car, pounding beers. He’s never really around for me.”

And that was how I ended up sharing a small, spinning compartment with a girl I’d had a thing for since grade school, but never had a real conversation with. Nothing happened, of course, except a touch of her arm and a smell of her hair.

I’m glad I have the memory now, though. In a solitary cell. In a prison of men.

When we got out, her whole crew was there. Mike glared at me and loudly asked, “Have fun, brain?”

The ringmaster guy was nearby, with two clowns. He must have sent over a couple of carnies, big guys, because they sensed trouble and asked if everything was OK.

I caught the eye of the ringmaster and joined him as I walked off.

The night was winding down, so we wandered over to the Funhouse. Which is scary enough when you don’t go with two clowns. One had a broom and a smiling Hobo Kelly thing going on. The other had a broad pointed snarl drawn in red with white fangs, gloves with claws and – I swear – carried a baseball bat with nails driven through it.

They paused briefly once to entertain a group. The hobo at one point threw a ball and the other did his best Babe Ruth swing, so the ball got stuck. That was their bit.

On the way into the Funhouse maze they were passing a pipe, and I inhaled. It was rude back then to say no. There were also tabs of paper to be tasted, and when I hesitated, the ringmaster said “it’s faster” and “it’ll make you brave.”

I guess I needed it. The funhouse was a maze of scares and colors, jumping at you all at once. Bouncing clown dummies you had to punch your way through. Twister mirrors that showed you yourself in ways you didn’t want to think of yourself. A room of vipers and spiders with the heads of your future children.

Ramps and stairways and sliding poles, all spinning you in circles. One room was just a spinning circular wall, and you had to slide up a dozen feet and across the wall to reach the exit.

We finally poured out onto a lawn behind the funhouse, away from the park’s overhead lights, which were going out anyway. The lights from inside provided a spinning, kaleidoscopic illumination.

I was last out. The ringmaster was talking to my clown friends.

“You gotta grab that girl, kid,” he said. “Shake her up,” said the hobo clown, who handed me a large cheap malt liquor.

I think I said I was a loner. I guess not by choice, because that night I had a group and I stayed for a while.

And that was when Mike Quinn appeared on the edge of the clearing, calling me out. I hesitated.

“Get over here, brain.”

I did, sheepishly and unsteadily from all the substances. “I hear you’ve been trying to ride my girl.” He was face to face with me, closing in, just a foot or two apart.

“We went on a ride. You weren’t around.”

He shoved me back with both hands. I might have fallen. My feet were shaky and my head was spinning anyway. But my new friends held me up.

Mike was close again and still talking. He didn’t seem to notice I had friends close, or didn’t care. “You’ve been eying her since grade school. No more.”

Maybe it was that the stuff in my system made me feel impervious. Or having a clown on each shoulder. I was either going to be brave or pass out. Maybe both.

“You don’t deserve her, Mike. You could just be kind to her.”

One of the clowns. “You tell him kid. Do what you must, and if you must do it, enjoy it. We’ll help.”

He didn’t seem to hear that, or didn’t care. His fist, my stomach. I was going to faint now, I thought. Instead I refused to fall.

I clinched my right fist, raised it. “Boy, I could kill you,” Mike said.

And then I felt the scary clown press something into my left hand. Something wooden. The handle of a bat.

And honestly, that’s all I remember.

I woke up the next morning in my bed, head pounding, in my underwear. Never did find the clothes I wore that night.

“Neither did the police.”

No, and there was no blood, I didn’t have a scratch, a splinter or a bruise. Or I … might have handled things differently. Or been arrested. It might have ended there. Before her.

There was a football game that Saturday, so word traveled fast. Mike Quinn hadn’t come home. He didn’t show at 1 p.m. for a team meeting before the 4 p.m. kickoff.

We didn’t have email or cells in those days, but I got a couple of calls. And I wasn’t in the top of the social circle, which I imagine was buzzing.

About 3 p.m., maybe a little later, two guys in ill-fitting suits knocked on my door. Cops, one trim, black and 40, the other a bit younger.

“We heard you had words. About a girl.”

Turned out he only knew we’d had words about Tammy at the Eagle. At that point I barely remembered then that Mike had tracked me down later that night, so it was good the cop didn’t know.

“And that’s all you recall?” he asked after I described the scene. “Nothing else happened? And nothing before?”

I tried to shrug. I was nervous, of course, a 17-year-old facing a cop. At least it was just one. The other cop had stepped away, talking on his walkie. “It was just high school bullying,” I told him.

Or something like that, maybe just high school “shit.” We accepted bullying then.

“Honestly, no idea where he went after that,” I told the detective.

The younger one finally spoke. Sprang it on me. Maybe they’d planned it, to see how I’d react. Or maybe he’d just heard via the radio. Things were moving fast.

“We know now, kid. Found his body on the rail tracks north end of town. Looks like he was beaten and stabbed with something sharp. Brutal.”

I had flashes. Of a face reduced to ground beef. Of a clown with fangs and a bat. I guess I looked more disturbed than guilty.

“If you know something it’s best to tell us now,” one of the cops said.

I think that was a standard line. In the illegal world, and I live in this world, no one just confesses.

The football game was called off.  I went to the fair, at the park; I’d signed up for another late shift at that booth. The fair was all but empty. There was a dead kid to mourn, and that was rare in our suburbs back then.

Didn’t see the ringmaster. Closed up early, turned in the cash, zipped up the canvas screens that enclosed the game booth.

Wandered a bit around the grounds. There were the kiddie rides, quiet, looking as they did when I was a child. A few booths still open, but few playing. On the way to where I’d parked, I stopped at the fence that enclosed the public pool. The Plunge. Went there so many times when I was a kid.

Opened my car, got into the driver’s seat and sat a while. I still remember the faces of a few people who walked past. I remember it all.

It was my last night free under the stars.

Finally I knew what was bothering me. I got out of the car, walked back across the grass. Down the rows of booths and games. Past the Funhouse, wicked laughs and screams still coming out of it.

To the back. There was a group of carnies against the wall, near the back door. “Hey,” I yelled, but they ignored me. I didn’t see the ringmaster. No clowns.

“Hey, I need your boss,” I yelled even closer. It was working crowd, in worn shirts and dungarees. And they weren’t the type to take notice of much when they weren’t on the clock.

“Come on guys, help me out.”

I paused then, maybe 10 feet from the group. You didn’t offend guys like this.

The voice behind me. “Jeff.” Her voice, Tammy’s. I didn’t want to hear it.

Then the ringmaster was in front of me, in the shadows. I could see his hat and too-white face. I don’t think she saw him, though.

“You still need to handle her.” He said it softly, but something like that. She still could have heard. Should have heard.


The clowns were with him. Didn’t see them at first. They seemed barely shadows.

I turned. She looked little, and soft. Even in the dim light, you could tell she’d been crying.

“Tammy, are you OK?” I wanted to ask why she was there, but I knew.

“Jeff, I had to find you I …”

She didn’t have the words. How do you ask such a thing?

“I heard about Mike. I’m sorry.”

“The police were asking. About you.”

Of course they had. “Yea, I told them we rode the Eagle. That Mike wasn’t happy. We had some words.”

“I told them,” she said. But there was more. “Jeff, I also know he went looking for you later. I didn’t tell them. Wanted to talk to you. His friends probably know, though.”

I cut her off. “Nothing happened.” Sharply.

“Jeff, the boys will talk. I mean maybe he attacked you so maybe …”

“Nothing happened.”

The ringmaster was at one shoulder now. Might have been a clown on the other. The one with fangs. But in the shadows, I don’t think she’d seen them yet. She would have reacted.

A cold voice in my ear. In my head. “She knows.”

And she did. “Are you sure, Jeff? I mean if it was self-defense, maybe you should say. Brutal as it was, self-defense.”

“Nothing happened. Never saw him.” Again. But would that be enough to convince her?

The voices beside me didn’t think so. “Deal with her.”

This time I remembered it. God help me.

I had my hands at my sides so as not to seem aggressive. Felt the cold wood handle pressed into one palm. I gripped it, but I didn’t want to do anything.

But I did. It was like I was watching it get done, but it was me. I couldn’t do something like that, but I guess it was inside me. Maybe inside all of us, if you go deep enough.

“And no one else saw this ringmaster?”

“No. Not the clown, either. Didn’t find a weapon, but there was blood on me that time. All over me.”

The journalist was looking at her notes. “And you know there was a traveling carnival of rides and games. A few performers. But no circus. No tents. No rings. No ringmaster.”

“I know. It makes no sense. So you don’t believe me?”

“It’s not about belief. I’ve tracked down a dozen similar killings over 40 years. A ringmaster no one but the killer sees. Clowns that fade away the same way. Have you seen him since? The ringmaster?”


Once, in county jail. Quiet one night when I was alone. I didn’t listen.

A second time, in the yard. A couple of guys were coming at me. He helped.

I saw the investigator check her notes. The stabbings were in there. It was self-defense, but it had cut off any chance for commutation or clemency.

“So just twice.”

I nodded.

Best not to say I’d seen him a third time. He’d been in the room since the middle of our talk. With the clown. And the clown’s bat.

Or maybe I’m his clown now.

I couldn’t control it. It was going to happen. But I’d wait until she looked away. At least she wouldn’t see it coming.