His voice ripped the air like a chain saw. The harsh cry sliced straight through my guts the first time I heard it. The sound cut deep, but the words cut deeper. He shredded any fool who wandered near the cage. He drove people wild. He drove them crazy. Best of all, he drove them to blow wads of cash for a chance to plunge his sorry butt into a tank of slimy water.
This was just about the coolest thing I'd ever seen. Which made it that much more amazing, since I lived in one of the coolest places on the planet and I'd seen some of the freakiest things man or nature had ever created.
I was on my way down the boardwalk to get a slice of pizza at Salvatore's. Today was the start of the tourist season. The crowds were thin because the ocean water was still chilly. That wouldn't last. In a few weeks the place would be mobbed. It would stay that way until the end of summer—wall-to-wall tourists frantically packing as much activity as possible into their vacation at the Jersey shore. I hoped someone special would also return. But if I thought about her too much right now, I knew I'd go crazy.
Thin crowds or not, a dozen people had gathered near the tank, watching, listening, laughing at the marks. That's what you call someone who's about to play a game—a mark. Or a vic, which is short for victim. I'd seen dunk tanks before, but I'd never paid much attention to them. Not until now.
The whole tank wasn't more than five feet wide and maybe eight feet high. The bottom half was filled with water, the top half was protected by iron bars. The protection was definitely necessary. A shelf on a hinge ran along the back wall. A metal target attached to a lever stuck out from the left side of the booth. The other end of the lever supported the shelf. Behind the target, a large sheet of canvas hung from a wire stretched between two poles. A wooden sign in front of the cage simply said:
Dunk the Bozo
3 balls for $2
That pretty much explained the object of the game.
Ten feet in front of the cage, a guy with a change apron—a barker—sold balls to the players. This barker didn't have to do much barking—the game sold itself. I edged closer but stayed behind the crowd so I wouldn't attract the Bozo's attention. I shouldn't have worried. He wouldn't waste his breath on some kid who looked like he didn't have more than five bucks in his pocket. What would be the point in that? He sure wasn't there because he liked falling into a pool of bacteria soup. He was there to rake in the dollars.
"HEY!" the Bozo shouted at a guy near the front of the small crowd. "Where'd you get that wig? You scalp it off a poodle?"
The crowd laughed and the guy's face turned the color of a bad sunburn. His right hand jerked up toward his head, as if he wanted to adjust the fake hair that was plastered there.
"Yeah, you," the Bozo shouted, pointing straight at the guy, turning himself into a nightmare version of an Uncle Sam poster. "What's the matter? Did you get glue in your ears when you pasted on that wig?"
The mark yanked his wallet from his pocket and whipped out a couple bucks. The barker traded the money for three baseballs he'd grabbed from a plastic five-gallon bucket at his feet. He did all this with one hand while holding a half-eaten hot dog in the other. I noticed mustard and ketchup smeared on the change apron tied over his belt. Crumbs littered the front of his shirt and dangled from the shaggy fringe of his mustache, making me think of snow flakes on a pine branch.
"Imagine that," the Bozo said, his voice growing less harsh as he spoke to the crowd. It was almost like he was sharing a secret with us. "Somewhere there's a poor dog running around with a bare butt so this guy can have a curly head. Woof, woof."
"Oof," the mark grunted as he threw the first ball.
Thwunk! The ball smacked the large sheet of canvas, missing the target by at least a foot. The back of the mark's neck grew even redder.
"Hhhhhaaaaawwwwhhhoooooheeeeeeeyyaaaa!" The Bozo leaned close to the microphone that hung from the top of the cage and let loose with a screaming laugh, another chain saw through my guts. "If that's your best throw, you'd better just mail the other balls to me. Anybody got a stamp?" His grin was amplified by a huge red smile. He wore a clown's face—white forehead and cheeks, black stars around the eyes, red painted nose. Like most clowns, he was scary as hell.
Thwunk! Ball two. Nothing but canvas. It sounded like a pro wrestler getting body slammed.
"If I had your arm, I'd trade it for a leg," the Bozo screamed. "Hhhhhaaaaawwwwhhhoooooheeeeeeeyyaaaa!"
Above us, a flock of circling sea gulls squawked in agreement.
The mark, his face as red as the Bozo's nose, hurled the last ball so hard he nearly fell over. I could feel my own shoulder muscles burning in sympathy.
Thaaaawunnnk! I jumped back as the baseball smacked the canvas. A couple people chuckled, but most of the crowd murmured sounds of sympathy. They were beginning to root for this clumsy David to luck out and drown Goliath.
I braced for the laugh, but the Bozo surprised me. "Aw, shucks," he said, quietly. "That was really close. I was sure you had me that time." He looked down for a moment, as if he'd lost interest in the guy. Then, before the mark was even two steps away, the Bozo snapped his head back up and shouted, "Loooooooserrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!"
The word stretched out like a cheap motorcycle engine stuck in first gear.
I couldn't believe it. The mark spun back so fast, I thought his wig would fly off. His hand was already digging for his wallet. He wasn't a person anymore—he was a puppet. The Bozo had control.
The guy missed again with all three balls. Before the last ball had even stopped rolling, he'd bought another round. This time his third throw nicked the edge of the target, but not hard enough to trip the lever under the Bozo's seat. The crowd let out a sigh of disappointment.
The poor vic went through twelve dollars before he finally nailed the target, sending the Bozo plunging into the water. It caught me by surprise. He'd missed so many times, I figured he'd never score.
"So there," the mark said as he strutted away, smirking. Amazing—he'd just blown more money than a lot of people make in an hour, and he was leaving empty-handed. No prize of any kind. But he still acted like a winner.
In less than a blink, the Bozo lifted the platform, locked it in place, and scampered back to his seat. He reminded me of a seal slithering out of a pool. As he flicked his head to the side, throwing a shower of water from his hair, I realized he'd already picked his next vic.
"Hey, lady," he said, staring at a woman who was laughing at him. "I may be wet, but you're funny looking. And tomorrow, guess what? I'll be dry."
He paused for an instant as the crowd grew quiet, then added, "Yeah, I'll be dry, and you'll still be funny looking. Haaaaaaahhooeeee!"
She did better than the guy. It only took her eight bucks to get satisfaction and revenge. She walked away with a dark smile.
My shoes might as well have been nailed to the boardwalk. I forgot all about pizza. Even the drifting scent of candy from the NutShack over to my left didn't lure me away. An hour passed. Maybe two. I watched and listened, unable to tear myself from the performance of this outrageous clown.
For the first time in my life, I knew something for dead certain. Some way, somehow, I had to have a turn. Not throwing balls at the target. I wasn't going to waste money trying to dunk the Bozo. No, I wanted to be on the other side. I wanted to make the marks dance like puppets on a string. I wanted to shout and scream at the world from the safety of a cage.
I wanted to be the Bozo.
Copyright © 2002 by David Lubar
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