Mt. Rushmore with Bozo the Clown
I never had a sibling, grandparent, pet, or cousin my age, It was a silent childhood, that’s why I made up stories, and for this story, I need a sister. This is a story about the artist Ron Lee’s limited-edition sculpture from 1988, “Mt. Rushmore with Bozo the Clown,” so I have an urge to make my sister and I be in conflict over the sculpture. But I don’t want to fight this sister of mine, having just met her. I like to imagine we would get along. In this story my parents are dead, or rather, my father is, and I feel okay imagining my father dead because, like airplane safety instructions, you’ll be more resilient if you imagine out the scenarios, according to my therapist, whom I might not need if I had had a different father, not to speak ill of the dead. In this story, my mother, who is getting too old to live alone, is moving in with my sister, something I’m jealous about, worried that it’s because my income is diddlysquat and I am flagrantly homosexual and I don’t have children and don’t have a house and live thousands of miles away, while my sister, who was always more practical than me and also more shrewd, stayed in Tallahassee, has a child and a home to keep the child in, works as a dental hygienist, is married to an IT consultant, and because I don’t know any better, I’m bitter that she and Mom colluded for Mom to live with her instead of me, rejecting me, although really, since I have no sister, I am the sibling Mom may need to live with. I should be grateful to this sister of mine. But my mom, my sister, and I are not taking such a grand perspective. My mom, my sister, and I are arguing over “Mt. Rushmore with Bozo the Clown.” It’s a toaster-sized Mt. Rushmore, except a redheaded, blue-jacketed clown on a ladder is carving his own clown face out of the rock, to the right of Lincoln. I told you, I really didn’t want to argue with this new sister of mine. But now that Dad is dead and I’m getting to know her, I have realized we are such different people, which is my polite way of saying I don’t understand her values. She’s telling Mom that Mom can’t bring the clowns.
“We don’t have space for Mt. Rushmore,” she says. “We always said we’d get rid of the clowns once he passed.”
“They remind me of his humor,” Mom says.
My father was very sarcastic which I always explained by him being Catholic but I’m not sure if that makes sense. This story is in danger of being derailed by Catholicism and my hatred of Catholicism, and this danger makes sense, I guess, if this is a story about my father, who was put on his knees by Catholicism and whose Catholicism pulled down his gay son, too. I was hoping this would be a story about my mother, my sister, and I, since I don’t want to write about my dead father while he’s still alive (not to mention about the father, the one I prayed to every night, who I have concluded is not only dead but never was born), but this might be a story about my sister and my father. My father was a good father to my sister. My sister influenced him to be a better man more than I ever did. My sister was never angry at Dad like I was, and I resent her for it. I’ve told her before that if she was gay maybe she would have realized that the Church was wrong, and she would have left, like I did, been on my side, but instead she took my parents’ side and it’s always felt like three-against-one and I resent her for being a goody two-shoes and for letting them get away with their dumb ideas. Which is why it’s a reversal of our usual roles that she’s taking such a hard line against his clowns.
I know you may not believe me, since I’ve already admitted to lying, but the very true kernel of this story is that my father has, or, before his death from prostate cancer, had, a collection of clown art. Our 1,500-square-foot house in Tallahassee was bedecked with dozens of mass-manufactured sculptures and paintings of clowns, which my dad collected in the 80s while still a bachelor. My parents did not understand that this was weird. “Clowns represent all the human emotions,” my dad would say. My high school friend Jessica would not step foot in the house, because she had watched It at an impressionable age. It was never fun to have friends over anyway because my parents were afraid that if they let me out of their sight I would kiss a girl and her parents would call them in anger. There were clowns in boxes in the attic. There was a little clown playing the piano. A clown crying. A statue of a clown with a dog with an umbrella balanced on its nose. A clown doctor. A clown with Valentine’s Day roses. A painting of a sad clown sweeping with a broom. Now that I list it all, it sounds poignant. I hope you are not misunderstanding. I hope you don’t think it’s charming, or even tender, that my dad had all these clowns. The clowns were idiotic. Dad was just some kid who grew up in public housing in Hartford and made good money as a federal law enforcement officer because he was Irish and male and it was Reagan’s America and it all felt good so he made some bad choices on decoration. My whole life I’ve been fleeing those clowns. Their assemblage was, among many things, a waste of privilege.
While we wait for my sister to respond to my mom’s pleas, let me tell you about my father’s love of Mt. Rushmore. My father had this love of Mt. Rushmore just like his love of clowns. My mother was always trying to get him to go on vacation because just like her mother always wanted to go to Hong Kong but never did, my mother always wanted to go to Hawaii but never did, and Dad was always saying the only place he wanted to go to was Mt. Rushmore which Mom didn’t even want to go to although she said we could go to “Mt. Rushmore and Yellowstone” and I tried to explain they’re a nine-hour drive apart. “The only place I want to go to before I die is Mt. Rushmore,” Dad said, and then he never went to Mt. Rushmore and he died. Mt. Rushmore seems to me the dumbest place in the world. My father has some misguided notions, that’s all I’m trying to say, my father is working-class and I am his middle-class son, my father is my working-class father for believing that the Virgin Mary talks to little children all around the world (this is his fervent belief! That a goddess pops out of bushes, glowing, and whispers secrets to peasant children during times of famine and fever) and for being, just, can I say it? Do you think I could be forgiven? Trash, my father is white trash although he could not have been. I loved my father deeply, he was often a loving, dependable father, but his ignorance made me cry. Once he said to me, “you don’t believe that we’re descended from monkeys and all that crap.” It was not a question.
Let me tell you two truths now, because when this paragraph ends, I’m going to begin lying again. One, my father grew up in a place where there were so many Irish Americans it was salacious to date a Polish American (in adolescence my father’s sister dated a Polish American, salaciously), but I don’t know exactly how Irish things were or if this was a particularly Irish experience. Two, we don’t have photos of my dad as a youngster because when he was a kid there “was a fire,” and this seems important enough to my story (“Tell me, John, why was your father a homophobe?” “There was a great unspeakable tragedy, red and orange curls licking the balustrade”), but Dad never talks about this, and I hate to always be complaining but this is also something called the masculine repression of emotions and I don’t like it, because when I am very sad and start to cry, the tears don’t flow. Something is broken in me and my dad: windows, heat. It may be that I love men because I hate them.
The fire started in a very Irish way. My grandmother was cooking potatoes in the most Irish way possible. The cat, an Irish cat, green, a literally green cat, knocked over the potatoes and the flame spread onto the Irish thing that was sitting on the Irish table: a crucifix. “Jesus is burning,” my grandmother screamed, in her Irish accent, and the family gathered in the Irish-style hallway, decorated with potato sacks. “We must flee the house like we fled Ireland!” screamed my grandfather, a leprechaun. He was very, very short and had a disproportionately large belt buckle and hat and everywhere he went, in the air, there was a tidy little rainbow. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” he said, signing the Cross.
My father, Little John, was crying, his tear system still working. “The clowns!” he cried. “My clowns!” Under his bed he had three clown dolls. The first doll was John Wayne Gacy, the killer clown, who raped and murdered over thirty men in the 70s while also dressing as “Pogo the Clown” for charity events. Gacy was Catholic.
They stood on the sidewalk and watched it all burn. “The clowns will die but we will get new clowns,” my grandfather said. “There is an old saying in the green hills: Right now it’s shitty to be Irish, but one day you’ll be white.”
“What does it mean?” Little John asked. “Does it mean my clowns will live?”
“It means one day, when you have disposable income,” my grandfather said, “you can buy objects you don’t need, that have no purpose. These objects won’t make you less lonely but they can make it more difficult to move, they can make it where you have so much junk you can’t imagine ever moving houses again, and then you’ll be stuck in the same place, which is the secret key to happiness.”
“Dad,” Little John asked. “What if I only have one child and he’s a faggot, and that’s the end of out family? Wouldn’t that suck? To come all the way to America, starving, and then disappear?”
My grandfather, the leprechaun, put his hand on his son’s shoulder. “See that big blaze of light?” he said, pointing to the incinerating building. “That’s a metaphor.”
“What’s a metaphor?”
“It’s when you talk about one thing, but really you’re talking about something else. And the question for you is, what is this really all about? You get to decide. That’s another saying we have in Ireland: You don’t have to do things just because the British did them.”
My father dashed up to the porch and entered the front door, coughing, his eyes itching with smoke, determined to rescue his clown. The crews did not find my father until morning. He lay beneath a rainbow, fingers curled around chocolate cherries in gold foil. Or so I am told.
My sister, it turns out, is a Republican. This makes sense, given that we were raised to be Republicans, because Bill Clinton, we were told, was a Baby Killer.
But really, I don’t know what a sibling of mine would be like, how they would vote. It’s a self-concerned question befitting an only child’s anxieties—do you mind if I talk about this for a bit? It’s a bigger issue for me than you would imagine. Tonight my ass bled. There was a tomato-red streak in my stool and it kept bleeding and then later I farted out shit—I was standing by my bed having just put on my pajamas, and I heard this fart sound, and I went to wipe myself with toilet paper and I got shit all over my hands. It would have been convenient to have my sister’s vagina. I wonder what it was like for her to have a stay-at-home mom, whether she, woman and straight, was more fucked by my parents’ understanding of gender than me, man and gay. Not only do I have a sister, but I have my sister’s daughter, a niece. I have a place to go on Christmas. Really, outside this story, once my parents die I’m not sure I’ll have anywhere to go for the holidays. They’re going to die and they’re bequeathing us Clown Mt. Rushmore.
“Clown Mt. Rushmore is worth a lot more now,” my sister says, “on eBay.”
“It’s because of Trump,” I say. “Trump is the clown.”
My sister is not amused. “I think we can sell it so mom can help use that money to pay for groceries and utilities,” my sister says. “We might could get two hundred bucks for it.”
“There are people who have paintings worth hundreds of millions of dollars and don’t sell them for sentimental reasons,” I say. “And this is Dad. This is his vision of life.”
“You should never have gone to graduate school,” my sister says. “You’re corroded.” Except my sister is not a real person, so I’m saying all of this. It’s me who knows there’s something lost. Don’t forget for a minute that I’m tricking you because I want something from you. I want you on my side.
“We’ll keep it and sell it if need be,” Mom says.
“Don’t ever sell it,” I tell Mom. “Don’t ever give in.” The chicken salad I am eating as we talk is too wet—too much mayonnaise. There’s no mustard, no pickle juice, no apples, no pecans. At least I feel empathy for my mother. She spent her whole life in a patriarchal society.
“I can’t do it,” my sister says. “I can’t take you, mom. We don’t have the space. There’s too much tension with Tom.”
“I’ll move back to Tallahassee,” I say. “Mom and I can live at home. We can take the house off the market and I’ll care for you, Mom, in the same place you cared for me. I can Uber again.”
I hate how this story is turning out. I can’t believe you’re here—although I don’t want you to go away. I hate how I’m turning into some hero, a hero with a sister for a foil. Am I afraid of claiming that I would do the good thing? It’s infantile anyway, to want to live with your Mom. Dad is dead, because I, the author of the story, killed him off, and now I’m planning to share a home with my mom—so frickin’ oedipal. Is that what happens when we plumb the depths, do we just get obvious intractable shit? I touch the makeup on my face, the red nose, look down at my rainbow-striped trousers. I guess something this story taught me is I may never have a closer family than my parents, so I ought to give them a call.