He’d been following me for days— weeks, even— before he had the gall to show himself. I’d been hearing him flopping around and whispering to himself for so long I’d almost tuned him out entirely… which in retrospect is probably why he stopped hiding. I think he wanted attention. I saw him first when I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth. I squeezed the Colgate onto my toothbrush, looked into the mirror and there he was, staring dismally at his reflection with yellowed, world-weary eyes.
His appearance didn’t surprise me; I had been well aware of his presence for quite a while. I just hadn’t anticipated what exactly he would look like, and it came as somewhat of a shock. I guess I expected him to look evil or at least more malicious than he did. Really though, he just looked miserable. I tried not to stare but I couldn’t help it. I doubt he cared anyway.
The first thing I noticed was his hat. It was tall and pointy like a dunce cap, with a small brim and a red pom-pom on the top. It had insults scribbled messily on it in black marker. His tan overcoat was also covered in insults and looked like it hadn’t been washed in years. It had black, white and red-striped fringe sewn onto the sleeves and collar which flopped limp over his hands and shoulders. His eyes, as I said, were yellowed and miserable, sitting back in his face like rocks thrown into sand, and they had five-pointed stars drawn around them in eyeliner. The rest of his features were small and pale, except for his red, bulbous nose.
I finished brushing my teeth and gave my face a quick wash. I decided not to take a shower in case he tried to follow me. I was going to be gardening later anyway… a shower would have been somewhat counterproductive. So I went into the kitchen to get something to eat, and he shambled after me and moved aimlessly around the kitchen while I toasted a couple pop tarts and poured myself a glass of tomato juice. At one point I looked up and caught him about to draw on the fridge with a big black magic marker. I said “Please don’t do that,” and he threw me a very annoyed look, but he put the marker away. I was going to offer him one of the pop tarts, too, but if he was going to be like that then he wouldn’t get any. I felt weird eating in front of him, and apparently he felt the same way because he left after a little while. It was somewhat of a relief, but I could still hear him shuffling about in the foyer, muttering to himself, and I could only hope that he wasn’t writing on the walls.
After I’d finished eating, I put my dishes in the sink and went straight to the foyer to check on him, and to get my shoes so I could go outside. The walls were bare, thankfully. He was there, staring out through the windows on either side of the door with enough distaste to make you think that sunshine was an affront to nature. I wasn’t sure if he’d follow me outside or not. I almost asked him if he would, if for no other reason than I would have been uneasy leaving him in the house by himself. He looked so deep in his thoughts, though, I would have felt rude disturbing him. Not that he’d been the perfect gentleman himself exactly, but one must act as an example in these types of situations. So I left him alone and went to the closet to get my boots on.
Only they weren’t there. At least, that is to say that they weren’t on the floor where I’d put them the day before. It took me a moment of confused rummaging to figure out that they, along with all my other shoes, had been stuffed into the sleeves of my winter coat. I sighed and glanced around at him. “You’re not going to make today easy for me, are you?”
He ignored me. I shook my head and removed the various shoes from my coat. Then, once I finally got my boots on, I headed outside with my miserable clowne man in my wake. Being out in the open somehow made me think that maybe he’d go somewhere else for a while and leave me alone, but he continued to tail me into the garage. I tried to ignore him, but it’s very difficult to ignore someone who’s following deliberately close behind you, and especially if that someone is wearing long, floppy shoes. They kept hitting me in the heels, and every time they did I’d turn around and glare at him and he would back up, pretending it wasn’t him. So I kept trying to ignore him, and it kept not working. Eventually I finally retrieved my bushel basket and a pair of clippers from the garage and headed to my tomato patch.
My tomato patch is on my front lawn, separated from the sidewalk and the street beyond by a dingy wooden fence. My lawn is splotchy and unkempt, the paint’s been peeling off my house for years and the fence is about to fall over, but my tomatoes… they are the stuff of legend. Some men wax sports cars in their driveway during the summer while others put shiny new grills on their porch and have barbecues with their families. Me? I grow tomatoes. But I don’t just grow tomatoes, I grow award-winning tomatoes. I grow the best tomatoes in town.
Well… I grow the only tomatoes in town. But they are magnificent. Honestly, I don’t understand why more people don’t grow tomatoes. Seeds are cheap if you know where to get them, the taste can’t be beat, and the work is very cathartic. When I got down between the cages and started pulling weeds out of the ground, I heard him flip-flopping across the lawn somewhere else. With a sigh of relief, I pulled up a sprig of purslane and munched on it, tossing aside the less-desirable weeds. That was more like it… just me and my garden, and no miserable clowne man hanging around.
Weeks before he’d appeared I had barely heard him. His disgruntled whispers were overpowered by the inane chatter of my coworkers at the office, his shuffling footsteps masked by the rustling of a newspaper bearing more news about crooked politicians and natural disasters. I started noticing him during rush hour when everybody was driving at half the speed limit because of a few drops of rain. His disgruntled mutterings mingled with my own and it provided some mild comfort against the stupidity coming from the other cars. It was nice to know I wasn’t alone.
But it was the weekend. I had time to relax and unwind. Why was he still hanging around? I paused my work and arched my back, catching a glimpse of the sky. It was almost noon… a clear day, plenty of sun, comfortable and warm. Wisps of cloud drifted lazily through the blue behind a small group of robins flying through the telephone wires, behind a white helium balloon flittering against its tether in the breeze. It had “BITE ME” written on it in black marker. I flinched and brought my eyes back down into my yard. The balloon was tied to the fence with a length of black ribbon. There were more of them tied to the fence, a couple to the mailbox… “RETARD.” “GET STUFFED.” “PISS OFF.” “DICKFACE.” “WANKER.” “CONGRESSMAN.”
“Ah jeez…” I muttered, standing up and looking around the yard. I’m not one to care what the neighbors would think, but this was starting to get a little too ridiculous even for me. My eyes swept the yard quickly, but he was nowhere to be seen. I checked in the overgrown grass to see if I could follow his tracks, but his floppy footprints were everywhere going in every direction and it was impossible to see where he might have gone. He’d apparently been running laps around my house while I’d lost myself in my weeding. I had to find him before he did something really outrageous.
Then I heard a soft hissing in the distance, like air escaping from a compressor hose. I stopped and strained my ears, and then I heard it again. It was coming from the garage. I jumped out of my garden and practically sprinted across the lawn to the garage. I found him standing around the corner of the garage next to the wall that faced the Grangers’ dining room window with a can of spray paint in his hand. I don’t know where he had gotten it, but he’d apparently been using it to write “LEON EATS DOG PO” in six-foot high letters on the siding. He’d just started the second “O” when I found him.
“Give me that!” I yelled, pulling the spray paint out of his hand. He looked at me the way one looks at a yappy dog that’s been following them around all day. “What the hell do you want from me, anyway!?” He didn’t say anything and continued to stab me with his eyes. “You’re not scaring me,” I said. “Come on.” I grabbed his wrist, pulled him into the garage and opened the passenger door to my Jeep. “Get in,” I said to him, “we’re going to the hardware store.” He rolled his eyes, but got into the car anyway. I slipped into the driver’s seat, put the key into the ignition and twisted it.
The solenoid clicked wildly and all the gauges on the dashboard jumped, but the car didn’t start. I cocked my head and tried again, but the same thing happened. Two more tries yielded the same result and I let out a roar, giving the steering wheel a solid whack. Of all the times for my battery to die…
I didn’t look at him, but I could feel him watching me, ridiculing me silently with his stupid face. I could almost hear him laughing. I set my teeth and opened the door, trying to keep my temper. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of getting on my nerves. “Alright then,” I said evenly, “we’ll just have to walk.”
So we did. Into town we went, with me in front and him following even closer behind than before. With almost every step, the toe of his floppy shoes would hit the backs of my shins. About half way to town he started poking me in the back with a piece of broom handle he’d apparently pulled out of his coat. I’d swat it away and he’d stop for a little while, but then he’d start again not a minute later. It was worse once we actually got into town. He’d blow raspberries at almost everyone we’d pass, pull handkerchiefs out of his nose and push them in people’s faces. Everyone stared at us as we passed by, giving us a wide berth. They whispered loudly to each other, thinking we couldn’t hear them. I tried to ignore it. He just took it as an opportunity to hand out more of his insult balloons.
I was very relieved when we finally reached the hardware store. The only person inside was Brenda, the cashier. She knew me… she was the one who sold me all my gardening supplies. She was short and bright with dyed black hair and a willing smile. She greeted us warmly when we came in. “Who’s your friend, Leon?” she asked, eyeing my miserable clowne man from head to toe.
I shrugged. “He’s been following me around all day,” I replied.
Brenda looked at the clowne man and he stuck his tongue out at her. “Oh… okay then,” she said, turning back to me. “So what do you need?”
“Paint,” I said, “for my garage.”
Brenda looked skeptical. “Since when do you paint anything?”
I pointed at the clowne man with my thumb. “This guy put graffiti all over the south wall. I need to do some covering up.”
Brenda nodded. “Okay, okay, that makes sense.” She came out from behind the counter and headed for the row of shelves where the paint was kept. “Did you have a specific color in mind?”
“Not really,” I called after her, following her through the shelves. I paused and turned around to face the clowne man. “Do not touch anything!” I whispered sternly. He thumbed his nose at me and we continued walking.
“How about this?” Brenda asked as I caught up with her. She pulled a can of deep red latex paint off of the shelf and showed it to me. “It’d go with your tomatoes.”
I took the can from her and looked it over. “I’d have to redo the whole garage,” I said.
Brenda shrugged. “Get him to help you,” she said, nodding toward the clowne man. “If he’s the one who ruined it in the first place.”
I smiled. “Right… I don’t think he’d be much help.”
“It never hurts to ask,” she replied. She looked around me at the clowne man. “You will help him, won’t you?” He crossed his arms and rolled his eyes. Brenda looked back at me. “See?” she said brightly, “I told you he’d help.”
I looked back at the clowne man. He had straightened and was now looking quite angry with Brenda, who was smiling sweetly back at him. “Here,” she said, “I’ll ring a couple of these up for you. My shift’s almost done… I can come by if you want to make sure he’s holding up his end of the deal.” She pulled another can of paint off the shelf and slipped down the rows of shelves back to the counter. I followed her, looking back at the clowne man. He looked dazed, like he’d just lost a hand of poker to someone who had been bluffing.
I paid for the paint and Brenda made the clowne man carry one of the cans. We were about to leave when Brenda stopped us. “Did you guys walk the whole way?” she asked.
She raised her finger. “Hang on a minute.” She went through the door behind the counter that led to the back room. The clowne man and I looked at each other and then back at the door. A little while later, Brenda emerged without her apron on, jingling a key ring. “Here, I’ll give you a ride home.”
The clowne man and I followed her outside and we all got into her station wagon. I sat in the front with Brenda and we talked about gardening and food and things. I looked into the back every now and then to make sure the clowne man wasn’t drawing on anything. When we got back to my house, I retrieved some old paint brushes from the garage and we all set to work. Brenda and I worked fairly quickly, talking all the while. We worked much faster than the clowne man, who was looking more and more dismal the more we painted. Halfway through the first wall, Brenda watched him for a little while. “He looks hungry, Leon,” she said. “When did you see him eat last?”
“He hasn’t eaten all day as far as I know.”
“Aww, poor guy,” she muttered. She set her brush down on the edge of the paint can and put her hand on his shoulder. “Hey, you wanna get something to eat?”
He looked like he was trying to be indignant, but he couldn’t quite manage it. Finally he nodded, his pointy hat flopping oddly on his head.
Brenda smiled. “Come on inside, we’ll get you some food.”
I watched her lead him into the house and stood there, dumbfounded. Is that really all it took? Why hadn’t I thought of that? I’d been trying to avoid him, trying to get him to go away and do something else for the whole day, and Brenda had done it in a moment or two. I would have been frustrated if it weren’t for the fact that I felt a lot better now that he was gone.
I continued painting. It was a little after noon now. The sun felt good and warm on my head, and it was helping the paint to dry quite nicely. I liked the red… it really did go with my tomatoes.
I’d just finished painting the south wall when Brenda came back out of the house. I watched her approach, waiting for the clowne man to come out the door at any second, following her. He didn’t, though. Brenda smiled at me, squinting in the light. “He was really hungry,” she said. “He ate three tuna sandwiches and had five glasses of milk.”
“Where is he now?”
“I left him napping on the couch.”
“Oh okay.” I thought a moment. “How was he?”
“He behaved very nicely. The food cheered him up a lot.”
“Well good,” I said. I looked across the street where the roofs of the houses and the tops of the trees gave way to the sky. “I hope he’ll be okay.”
“He’ll be fine, I’m sure.”
We stood there and looked at the bottom of the sky for a while. A breeze sprang up and caught the insult balloons, making them sway. I walked quietly to the garden and picked up the clippers I’d left in the bushel basket. One by one, I went to each balloon and clipped their black ribbons, letting the insults float away into the sky.