I found the first clown in the glove box, dead. The car suddenly smelled like a cat in a dumpster in the sun.
The garage was already closed for the night, but Toby was still in the convenience store and I buzzed him.
He’s got a lazy eye, so while he plugged his nose and the rest of his face opened up all surprised, his right eye pointed over at the workbench like it was still too scared to look. “Shit… That’s not a… person, is it?”
“Smells like it was alive. Looks like a person. Does it qualify, being that size?” I said. “It’s like a toy.”
“Could be a toy.”
It was about the size of a G.I. Joe. It had green slippers, baggy red-and-yellow-stripe pants, a frilly rainbow polka-dot shirt, curly red hair, and a shiny blue cone hat with a green pompom. But it wasn’t a doll—its puffy half-open eyes were too real. Its makeup was smudged on its shirt and in the glove box.
I took a flathead screwdriver and lifted the thing’s limp arms and legs. They made tiny patting sounds when they fell back down. I pried its lips, and they flapped like a real person’s would. Its jaw hinged open. The screwdriver tip clicked on its tiny teeth.
Before Stacy and I split up, we used to take the kids to Flat Beach where there was a gas station curiosity shop with a real taxidermy mermaid. It wasn’t a real mermaid, of course, but it was real taxidermy—the front half of a monkey sewn onto the back half of a fish. They kept it behind a purple curtain in a back room. Cost a dollar each to see it, and we saw it twice each trip. The kids loved that thing.
I told this to Toby while we had a smoke and waited for the garage to air out.
“Move the map racks and the gas cans to the far wall,” I said. “It could go in that nook by the soda fountain. Put a curtain up. Perfect spot.”
“Just lyin’ dead on a table?”
“Nah, we’d use wire to put it in a pose. Maybe like it’s juggling.”
“You think this is something people know about, but just you and I never saw?”
“Well, how many new things do we hear about these days? Everything’s been seen.” I watched a car turn left at the light. “I get the impression if it was common knowledge, we’d know too.”
The car pulled into the lot and parked at a pump. The driver got out and walked toward us.
Toby stepped on his cigarette and said, “Just a moment, sir, I’ll meet you at the window,” then went back through the garage. The guy went to the night window.
The stink was still in the car, so I put some bleach on a rag and wiped out the glove box.
In the passenger side mirror I saw the guy standing at the garage door.
Toby came back. “First customer,” he said as he took the garbage bag from the workbench.
“You told him?”
“Is it a secret?”
I got out the car and followed him.
He untied the bag, staring at the guy with his left eye while his right eye made sure no one else was watching. He held the bag open. “Look at that.”
The guy leaned and looked. “I don’t see anything.”
I took out my penlight and shined it in the bag. The clown’s legs were straight together, but its arms were bent funny.
“A doll,” the guy said.
“That is not a doll,” Toby said.
“Smells like shit.” The guy put his hand over his nose and frowned at me. “What is it?”
I shrugged. “We don’t know. We found it.”
The guy leaned again, and I obliged with my light.
Toby asked him, “How much would you pay to see this?”
“I still don’t know what I’m looking at.”
I tacked our first dollar, which the guy had given us, to the wall above the workbench. I’d explained to him about the Flat Beach mermaid, and how this was probably worth more, but he said the dollar was all he had on him.
But he gave us that dollar after he’d already seen it. Which meant something.
The car belonged to an old man, who brought it in because the fans weren’t blowing strong enough.
We figured if he ever knew about this thing, he’d forgotten about it. That might be how it died. Forgot to feed it or give it water or air or something. Just let it die in its makeup. It had tiny makeup stuff? Did it put on its own makeup, or did the old man help? And who made the clothes? Were they doll clothes?
I opened the hood to look at the ventilation, and saw the second clown wedged between the exhaust manifold and the cylinder head. Its nylon clothes were scorched on the metal so I had to scrape a bit. It didn’t smell as bad as the first, a bit cooked.
We couldn’t put that one on display, it’d scare the shit out of kids.
I laid it out on a rag on the workbench to surprise Toby.
And it turned out the old man’s fans weren’t blowing strong because a third little clown had chewed a hole through the heater casing and wedged itself inside. I started to think the stupid things had all killed themselves trying to find warm spots to hide.
That third one was in perfect condition, just suffocated or something from the heat. So now we had two good ones—we could set them up like they were juggling together, or like one was spraying seltzer water in the other’s face. We could rig a button for the kids to push and make the seltzer water spray.
That would mean waterproofing the skin with some kind of lacquer after whatever taxidermy we’d have to do. I’d call my buddy Sal to get his help. He’s good with squirrels, which are about that size, and he’d probably know something about waterproofing the skins.
Then I realized we could use the burnt one, too. If the bones were still good, Sal could set up a skeleton display. It’d be better than that ridiculous fake “mermaid,” because it’d be scientific, too, since it’s real.
I felt all shaky installing the new casing because I was thinking how word of mouth would explode about this. Families lining up through the parking lot. And museum types too, when they caught wind of it. They’d beg us to sell these things to them. We’d say no until the price was right. And even then we might still say no, just because. How often do new things like this come out? Not very often, and it’s never something like this.
Stacy would drop off the kids for one of my weekends, and I’d escort the kids in right away and let them look as long as they wanted for free. But Stacy would have to pay her admission and stand in line like everyone else. She’d spend all that time seeing the excitement on everyone else’s face, so impatient to see.
I fantasized about her coming at the same time as the museum people, and I laughed. That’d be too perfect.
I took my penlight under the car to look around. Sure enough, I saw some bright colors between the pipes—another one. Then tangled in some cable—another! I hooted loud.
Toby came in and shouted when he saw them lined up on the workbench. “Holy shit, we got five of ’em?!”
“Shut up and help me with this.”
We raised the car on the lift and found three more in the wheel wells. Two of those three were useless, but we got more rags and lined them up on the bench anyway. All their shiny clothes were different colors like jewels.
I could imagine them rigged with mechanisms to balance on balls, swing from trapezes, somersault over each other. For fun we could throw in some of Sal’s squirrels and make the clowns hold whips and chairs like lion tamers.
Toby stayed the rest of his shift and helped me take the car apart. By morning he was asleep sitting against the wall, the car was just a shell on the lift, and there almost wasn’t room on the workbench to put any more of them.
I lowered it and lastly popped open the trunk. There was an old jack and a set of jumper cables. A hole was chewed through into the foam of the back seat. I lifted the trunk’s false floor, where instead of the spare tire there was another one with long blue hair, eyes closed. Its limp body was wrapped like a cat around a handful of tiny squealing clowns, each about the size of my thumb, blind in the light and struggling to suckle at the pom-poms on their mama’s jumpsuit.