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May 13, 2024


By Chris Barnhart

My name's Chris. I have clown issues. You know what to say, I'll wait for it. It all started when I was seven. I was so freaking cool. My Garanimals all matched. My tough skins were super tough and I hung with all the popular kids. I even had a girlfriend. Her name was Barbara Hudson and we snuck into the big truck tire on the upper playground when no one else was looking. Ick! Get your minds out of the gutters. It's not like we kissed or anything.

I should say it really all started when I turned seven, which would be much more precise. "It" being my downward slope into mediocrity and, later, total obscurity. Come to think of it, Barbara may not be in this story at all. I don't think it was the forthcoming incident that scared her off so much as my being a big-ass queer. I mean, seriously. Who at seven worries about matching their Garanimals with their socks and matching backpack?

Birthday parties were really, really important in the first grade. You had to get a cake that wouldn't make your little friends hyper, but it also must had to have mass appeal. My Grandma was a killer birthday cake fashioner. I had that one down. A train! No shit. Three cars, complete with licorice vines linking them together and sugar animals poking their heads out of the windows. Man, was I in. Presents? Not my problem. Entertainment? OK, remember, I was turning seven people. This wasn't my department.

What is it that always put every single child's birthday party over the top? What took a normally happy event and placed it beyond the surreal somewhere in the seventh circle of hell? Clowns. "Clowns," you ask.


My own personal demon was named Bubbles and she arrived late. Had I paid attention to the way my parents eyed the door, I probably would have noticed the anticipatory expressions. Even then, I knew that no good thing ever came from a surprise. When the doorbell rang, I was forced to answer it myself and there she stood: red yarn hair limply flowing out from under an oversized sailor hat, a bright red nose and floppy shoes. In between, some garment resembling a cross between an umbrella and a muumuu, covered with some sort of floral print. She was ghastly.

Clowns, of course, had secret knowledge. They weren't truly human, either. They had senses that we don't have, like dogs. Bubbles honed in on me with the speed and grace of a veloci-raptor on crack.

"Hayeeeeeeeeeee! You must be the little birthday boy!" I learned that all her sentences ended with exclamation points. She was very aptly named. And then it happened. She pinched my cheek. Swear to god. Reached out and pinched the hell right out of my entire face. I didn't even like my mom doing that crap and here I was with a face full of clown white. I wondered if it covered the marks.

Back in the living room, we were all assembled on the floor in a semi-circle around Bubbles, who lead us in some kind of cheesy kid games. Most of my friends thought having your own clown for the afternoon was pretty cool and my stock skyrocketed. I was pretty pleased and loosened up. I think I even sang along at one point, but I'm not willing to swear to it. In the kitchen, my mom and grandma prepared ice cream and got the cake ready. My dad and grandpa hid in the basement, as usual.

Now, here's where it all went south. Bubbles had a captive audience and she knew it. She was working the room, feeling good. Her clown karma was treating her right. She decided to branch out a little bit and went for the old clown bag of tricks. Really. It was the bag tied to her belt, and out of it she pulled... a finger guillotine?

I don't know what sick mind thought that scaring children into believing their digits will be chopped off somehow equated to fun, but I'm odd that way. Bubbles thought it was hysterical. Out of the bag of tricks came a carrot. Into the guillotine it went and -- chop -- there were carrot pieces everywhere. We laughed and laughed.

"OK, Chris. Now I want you to put your finger into the guillotine!"

Was she mad? One by one, all the a-list kids at my party turned to look at me, expectantly. I weighed the options. Nine fingers wasn't bad. I could go through life with nine fingers and still be one of the cool kids. In fact, I'd probably be a legend in my own way. "There goes old nine finger Barnhart," they'd say as I walked by.

The hell they would. There was absolutely no way I was ever going to put my finger into a guillotine and let some smacked out clown with a thing for killing carrots have a go at me. It was not going to happen.

"No way," I said.

"Awwwwwwww, don't we think little Chrissy-wissy should put his finger in the guillotine?!" Bubbles put her free hand on her knee and exaggerated each syllable as she panned the semi-circle of eager faces, building up the peer pressure. She looked at me again and held out the little guillotine invitingly.

"I said, no!"

Bubbles pouted, her freakishly extended mouth curving into a hideous smile as her real lips pursed under layers of fire engine red Max Factor. My mother came into the room to see what all the commotion was. Bubbles backed off a bit in the presence of the other adult and offered some other kid the chance to be first with the guillotine. Ten eager hands reached for the sky.

"Me me me me me me me me me me me me me me me!", they shouted almost in unison and practically crushed each other to death scrambling to get closer to Bubbles. It's a good thing my parents hadn't hired a British soccer team or we all would have been killed instantly.

Swoosh! The guillotine had its first victim and Marla pulled back her hand unscathed. She looked at me as she sat down, her eyes full of bitter accusation and loathing. "Chicken," they seemed to say to me. "Bwack, bwack bwack bwack bwack."

Swoosh! This time it was Shawn, king of the a-list kids. If he did something, everyone had to. Bubbles offered me another chance and I saw Shawn and Marla eye me anxiously, taking my measure. They knew I wouldn't do it and I didn't. I just couldn't bring myself to put my finger into that damned contraption.

Bubbles coaxed, she pleaded. She showed me the hidden lever that controlled whether the blade in the guillotine chopped or slid away at the last moment. I knew that the one time I trusted her and put my finger into that hole was the one time that the lever wouldn't work. Or perhaps she would conveniently forget to hold the lever down. Clowns are evil, after all. How can you trust someone who covers every inch of their body in white makeup and yarn? Doesn't that indicate a desire for subterfuge?

My mom got involved and together they begged and wheedled, they offered me extra cake. Right! It was my freakin' birthday. Like I couldn't have all the cake that I wanted. Eventually, my father was retrieved from the basement and I knew it was all over. I instantly burst into tears, ran into my room and hid under the bed for the rest of the day.

Now, here's some advice for all you seven year olds out there. If you are ever confronted by a clown with a finger guillotine in front of the coolest kids in school, do NOT panic! Put your finger into the hole and grit your teeth. The worst that can happen is that you'll pull back a bloody stump. Consider, as an alternative, my unhappy fate.Bubbles was quietly ushered out the door, I understand, and my father had to give her a little extra something to calm her nerves. Never underestimate the power of twenty dollar bills in this regard. They work wonders. The cool kids? Took their presents and went home, of course. By the next day, the story was all over school and my reputation was ruined. Jeered on the playground, snickered at in the library... by the librarian, no less! My stylish paisley turtleneck and I were consigned to the playground truck tire by ourselves. No little Barbara to comfort me. No a-list friends. Even the kids I used to make fun of outranked me. My social life never recovered.

And that is the true and accurate account of my dealings with Bubbles the Clown. She ruined my life. Don't let her ruin yours.
Article © Chris Barnhart. All rights reserved.
Published on 2003-07-21
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