The Odd Vertex
At the desk, I turn on my wife's vanity mirror lights because it's time to be a clown. "Be a clown, be a clown. All the world loves a clown," I'm singing. I pin on my wig made of yellow yak hair. Before I paint my face, I remove dirt and oil from my face with witch hazel. Next, I cover my real eyebrows with eyebrow plastic. I cover my face in clown white, being careful to leave my nose bare. I tear a couple pages from the back of the vinyl padded guest services binder, and blot the excess with the room service page. My twin boys come in to watch.
They like this part because I dab the extra white on their cheeks. I need to make things fun for them now after I lost the house, and everything inside it to the God damned IRS. No toys, no bikes. Not even a yard for them to play in. Only a hotel room. But they don't care; they still love their Dad, especially when I'm a living clown.
They look forward to these days now, the days when I have to perform at a party. It doesn't even occur to them I'm a qualified mathematician who got carried away in the heady days of the internet boom, and that I moved a bunch of money, which the firm thought of as embezzlement. I just moved some money from abandoned accounts into Slovenian-American Marionette Theater, a non-profit account. Not even an issue to them.
"I've been working all morning while you slept in," Janet says as she dodges my pop-up flowers and squashed top hat en route to the phone.
"I didn't get my wake up call," I tell my wife.
I can't wake up without it because they have a vinyl curtain behind the regular curtain, and the sun can't get through. Also, I don't like to open the curtains because we are nine stories up, and that is exactly 118 feet by my own calculation. I have vertigo so I can't go by the window. This morning I opened the curtains from the bed, leaning across a stack of pillows, and even then I had the sensation I was a ship listing over a big white wave about to crash through the window.
Using oil crayon, I draw real eyebrows on my forehead in the shape of two black crescent moons bent towards each other. "There's the moon. There's the other moon," Matt says. His favorites are the moons and the stars. I make wide red stars around my eyes. I outline the stars in lime and then black. Matt is singing twinkle star. He hangs over the armrest looking up at me, singing off key with that lisp that makes star sound like thstar.
It gets me in the mood for this. While he sings, I color a deep U-shape under and over my mouth with blue. I add my trademark; a blue teardrop on my left cheek. "Why don't you ever make another tear," Nathaniel asks me. Nathaniel is the serious one. "Each clown face is unique. No two are alike," I say. "The blue tear gives me originality. So, it's not a tear. It's like my calling card, like a clown business card," I tell him just like I did the last time he asked. No Saturday morning cartoons for these kids.
They know the real thing is better than a phony cartoon. They have pretty high standards for a couple of four year olds. I glue on my red nose. This always worries Matt because he wonders how I can breathe, so I make some bull snorts at him through the holes in the latex ball. To him I'm more than just a standard looking clown.
In reality, my only unique aspect is a yellow wig made of scratchy yak hair I found through a Sherpa living here in San Francisco. The thing actually smells a little like the Himalayas on my head, but what the heck. It gives me a rush when I think it came down to me from the tundra at 14,000 feet.
I hate my long checkered shoes with humps on the ends, maybe because it hurt to buy something so clichéd for $195. Only a year ago we'd spend $200 on eating dinner in a restaurant, and not think twice.
In the vanity mirror I notice Janet's in here now.
"What? Another party?" my wife Janet says. She says it with the attitude that I'm a jerk. Meanwhile, propped up in my tackle-box of clown make-up, my teacher Meg from the Clown College looks at me with approving eyes. In the Polaroid I took, she holds a pineapple on her head. The very pineapple I gave Meg for Valentine's Day instead of flowers.
"Yeah, what did you think I was doing? I'm trying to put my face on here," I say in a professional tone.
"Good, we need it," she says. "Monty, I don't think the company will be paying for the hotel after this month."
She's always threatening this.
"Did the boys eat breakfast?" I ask.
"Why don't you order some room service? I need to finish my make-up," I say. The Clift just debits Janet's corporate account for room charges without itemizing the room service, so once again we're having two continentals and two orders of Mickey pancakes. It couldn't be that hard for her to remember. We've had room service every morning for a year now. Yes, I am thinking of marionettes and their same square jaw lines; mini costumed Czechs all from the Czech Republic. They had such inviting big eyes, I think while I'm painting my face. We had a big collection of those growing up.
"Shit," Janet says. She dangles a coiled phone cord.
The boys have taken the phone receivers again to play guns. I don't deny them this. I mean shit at least they can invent themselves some toys. Janet flips open her cell phone to dial room service. She could at least cut back on the $200 a month cell phone minutes, which the company does not pay for.
My first clown gig was for the twins' third birthday party when we first moved into the hotel on Janet's relocation package. The kids and even the adults raved about it. I got a scholarship at the Concord school of Clownology based on that routine. I wanted the boys to like me, I guess. I can't get any other job because of the bankruptcy on my record. I wouldn't have filed either if I hadn't used a bunch of consumer credit to invest in Marionette Theater during the final phase of their capital campaign.
So, now the Mt. Everest wig covers up my Clark Kent hair; the hair that gave me the look of a successful banker. Now I am a doll. Like all those dolls from the Czech Republic they used at Marionette Theater.
"Maybe you could worry about our bankruptcy instead of those squirting flowers of yours for once," Janet remarks.
If she reminds me one more time about my negligence I'm going to shoot her with more than a fucking phone receiver.
"Thank God you got a re-location. I mean, if we need to worry about a bankruptcy all the time, at least an expense paid stay at the Four Seasons Clift in San Francisco ain't a bad way to go after losing it all," I say to her. She gets fed up and leaves the room.
When I'm dressed, I jump on the bed and the twins do it too. What the heck, it's a hotel. We have a pillow fight and break the lamp. So what! I'll just blame it on the kids. They've got what, 8,000 lamps here? If she wants to classify me as irresponsible, well then I'll give her what she wants. Maybe she secretly loves a man who has a free spirit; a guy who's not afraid to break the rules. Maybe she just pretends to hate me.
When the breakfast arrives on a rolling table, Matt and Nathaniel shoot at the waiter with the phone receivers. When he glares at them, they duck behind the mini sofa. I bound out from the bedroom and announce, "I shall save you," and then I add a flamboyant bow. The waiter responds with a polite laugh.
"Would you like me to pour the coffee? Should I set the table on the balcony?" he asks using the polite tone he probably learned at the Cornell hotel school, the preferred recruiting college of the Four Seasons Clift. This I know from the Guest Services binder. Now why on earth would I eat on the balcony when I can't even look down from the window?
"That's all right, my friend," I say. "I'll just sign the check." I take the bill with a fumbling flourish, the tiny page flying around in my hands.
"You're a pretty funny guy," the waiter says. His tone indicates I'm lacking originality in my costume.
The twins climb onto the rounded arm rests, and are shooting across the sofa at each other. Matt dies saying ugh you got me, and flops into the sofa with his arms flailing, making pillows fly up so the waiter has to dodge them. The waiter's silver coffee urn wobbles precariously on the tray he's balancing with one hand. He makes one of those prissy huffs.
I give him my best Clark Kent banker stare to throw him off and I'm thinking, "Maybe, pal, I'm just so clichéd I'm surreal."
"Topsy-Turvy anyone?" I bellow in my pompous, stereotypical, Ringling Brothers clown voice. I always do Topsy-Turvy with the twins before I leave for a party. They shriek and leap like lemurs.
"Tonight I need you to present something simple for David, in layman's terms," Janet says over the shrieks. I knew it. I take Matt and dangle him upside down at the open waist of my baggy clown pants.
"Topsy," I announce, and then drop him inside. Matt squiggles down my leg and out. "Turvy," Matt shouts.
Janet's invited her boss over for dinner tonight. She wants me to try to get a job from him.
"So, do I have to be at this dinner?"
"Yes. I need you to make a pitch to David."
"Show him the Rationalization theory. Make your investment theory simple. Now, that place at the end of the tunnel is here, and you move toward it step by step with small rational thoughts, your mind focused, coherent, making the simple connections, the distilled argument and refined counterpoint, and you summarize in common sense terms, this is how you need to pitch David," she says.
She says it using the posture she told me they taught her in media presentation basics; she even uses the hand gesture; the one where one hand is slicing the bread while the other holds the loaf steady. She's come a long way since the days when I was a math professor at community college, and she would stay after the lecture to ask me questions.
It bugs me that Janet hasn't really slowed down through all this. She doesn't save a dime. Right now she's wearing a brand new black suit jacket. I know because of the garish wide lapels. I've never seen that before. Even that satin blouse she's got on underneath has a new mood about it, all red wine and sheen. On top of that, I know for a fact she's wearing new shoes because, she informed me, the rounded toes are out. Now, that's rationalization.
Nathaniel and I yell "Topsy." He squirms down my leg with muffled yelps, until I see the crown of my red headed boy come popping out the bottom of these yellow polka dot pants, and his smile with those gaps where he has lost some teeth makes me pause. When his arms are free he starts to tie the laces of one shoe to the laces of the other shoe, and I make a mental note. I pretend not to see him.
"Four o'clock, ok?" Janet adds. She notices my shoes are tied together and I'm stuck, and so she saunters up close. She gives me a kiss on the cheek, and in the mirror by the front door I can see she has left a speck of lipstick, or what she refers to as Estee Lauder Al Fresco Pink, as if the name brand were so important.
"You made a mark on my white," I say. I instinctively go toward the mirror to wipe it off and I loose my balance because my laces are tied. I jump before I fall and this dents the hump of one very expensive clown shoe. Damn. Damn her.
"I don't want to pitch David for a job," I yell.
"We can't stay here forever," she yells back. The kids run.
"Nathaniel get back here," I scream.
"He didn't know any better. Quit yelling at him," Janet screams.
I try to ignore her and fix my shoe. I hear her stomp over to the desk and back.
She hands a piece of paper down to me. Her legs look God damn great from this angle, especially in those shoes, and with that new short skirt. I see it's a piece of letterhead from the bank she works for. I grab it. I don't use a fumbling flourish with this piece of paper. It states that they've closed our account at the Clift. The bank has relocated out of San Francisco, she tells me. Just like all the rest of the banks, and all the internet companies. There is nothing left here, there is not even any traffic jams on the bridge anymore, except when there's a Guadalajara vs. Mexico City soccer game at the ball park.
"We've used our one year allotment," she says. "You need to get a job. Can't you do something with math?"
I'm always doing something with math, like the height of our floor, the way to book room service, the way to make a waiter forget he didn't get tipped, the distance between the window and the bed. She doesn't see that? Forget the stinkin shoe. Geez. Meanwhile the boys play with the plate lids, once again making those syrup circles on the carpet that the maids hate.
"All right, that's it, I'm going to Topsy-Turvy you both right now," I yell.
The lemurs come back.
I never do Topsy-Turvy at my birthday parties. The kids in this swank suburb on the other side of the bridge seem so reserved, I'm almost tempted. If these parents wouldn't hover over their children, the kids might pay me some attention, here. I feel like a bum who rolled off a train next to this black lacquer armoire all stuffed with mirrors and crystal, and this cold marble coffee table with some kind of Zen fountain on it. The main distraction, however, is the panoramic view of the whole San Francisco Bay in front of me. It would be cool to look through that inter-galactic telescope and actually watch the people walking across the Golden Gate Bridge. Where do these kids play when their house is on a sheer cliff? I can't concentrate. I think I'll cut the routine and do some twisted balloon animals.
I can't concentrate on making this boy's lion head. Does Janet realize I've lost all credibility? I mean I never went to jail, but still. How does she believe in me, or maybe she doesn't. She expects me to pitch David, her boss, for a job? This way we can get another relocation package or something? I mean, a couple years ago we were so high, we could do anything. Now I can only think, hey wouldn't it be a nice thing to jump off that beautiful bridge and die.
"Why are you so sad?" The child waiting for the lion asks.
"I'm only pretending sad," I say.
"Why do you have that blue tear on your face then?" he asks.
I wish he would shut the fuck up and leave me to my thoughts.
"Jason," his mother says. "Be nice to the clown and wait for your balloon, and then you can say thank you."
"I have the blue tear because I make myself fall down all the time," I say in a nicer tone for the Mom. What would Jason think if I did the Topsy Turvy to him but didn't let go. What if I made him almost suffocate before I let him free at the last minute?
"Oh," Jason says. He takes a few steps back.
I make a comeback with the fake slips and falls I learned at Concord. The party ends for me sooner than I planned. I top it off by throwing out Skittles and giant Jaw Breakers while the kids go nuts.
It's lonely walking away from the pack of kids. Maybe I'll go do some math and forget we're practically homeless now. I take the bus to the County Library after the party. The swath of pristine water, the postcard city, the bridge over the mouth of the bay all harmonious somehow and musical, just sitting there while I performed for those children I didn't know sticks with me like a terrible angel, haunting me.
That piece of paper with the bank letterhead is stuck in my mind too. Problem solving usually works in these situations. A math session shuts out the world.
At the library, I breeze by the librarian on my way to the stacks. "Bring on the clowns," I say to be funny. She shrinks and rolls her eyes. Maybe she's read too much Stephen King. Not every clown is maniacal.
I find the special corner after the reference catalogs where they keep the math books. It's a quiet room with the one glass window, one carpeted kidney-bean shaped chair, and one oak desk with all formulas scratched into the surface. It feels great to scratch things on my paper on top of those anonymous scratchings. I never really could plot and apply the irrational element for investment decisions. If I could get that, maybe I could go back. I feel it's like in The Little Prince where he watches forty-four sunsets in a row, and still he stays sad. The boys like that one.
The equations aren't giving me anything today, so a math history book sounds better. I flip to Euler, and the bridges of Konisberg. He wanted to see if he could cross the city using each bridge only once. He develops a formula to do it, and later that very formula becomes the basis for electronic circuitry. I rip out the map of Konisberg and try it. Each bridge is a vertex. First time you get to each vertex you need to plan your exit. You're allowed only two odd vertices because you can never re-trace. An odd vertex means it has an odd rather than even number of paths leading to it. It gets so fucking confusing I'm tempted to jump off a bridge and use the water it's so frustrating. Oh to be the artistic Euler and take a continuous path that passes through every arc once and only once.
On the bus over here we passed the sign with the words, "Last Exit before San Francisco." That sign before the last exit to the bridge is stuck in my mind. This is the only decent thing I can come up with other than the bank letter. It's like a calling or something. I'm not getting anywhere, and this room feels claustrophobic.
I'm on the bus and I pull the stop cord when I see the sign, "Last exit before San Francisco." It warns the cars who want to turn back. I've never even walked over the Golden Gate Bridge. Why the hell am I afraid of heights?
The walkway is very narrow.
All that investor seed money, $300 million in capital investments, and then $2 billion in revenues on top of that, all at my fingertips. And then our phenomenal growth rate on top of it all, it seemed endless, and we were so free to spend money wildly.
It's supposed to be wide enough for pedestrians to pass each other in either direction, but the cars careen past so closely it feels like I'll be grazed by a side view mirror any second now. I can't look to my left, over the edge. I look across traffic to the other walkway. That one's for bikes only. I wish I was over there because it's empty. Up ahead my path splits into two to go around a support beam. I'll have half the amount of sidewalk, but its okay. It's only for around the beam. Thinking about the split makes me walk slower. It's getting harder. It's like forced labor to move forward. Someone's yelling at me from behind, but I've got to try to shut them out so I can concentrate here.
"Hey Clown. Hey, clown, stop! Wait!" a stranger shouts from behind me but I can't stop for even a second to turn around because then I'll lose the concentration I've got to use to tabulate the distance each clown shoe gets me, and then ease it forward that distance. Maybe I can move aside to let them go by me. I slip a sidelong glance to the left just so I can calculate the distance to the guard rail to make sure I know how close it is, and then my mind just leaps to that space beyond the rail, and the ocean reacts to me, swirling out of control. It screams at me in the voice of the color blue extrapolated and ocean-sized. The tourists cut in front of me. This forces me to stop unexpectedly. This disturbs the calculation of my steps. My stomach roils because the sidewalk is a tightrope, and there's no trapeze net below me. It was just a non-profit investment account for Slovenian American Marionette Theater. I personally owned one million shares at 45 bucks a share. I could do anything.
"Can we take a picture with you," the tourists ask. They hold cameras.
"Okay," I say.
"Not this way," they say. "Can you turn around so the city is in the background?" they ask.
That's it, the city horizon where all the people mill about on solid streets. I'll look at the city and forget the lurching water animal below the orange guard rail which is only about four feet high. I'm turning. My baggy pants flap in the wind. My shoes feel like bricks on a bobbing tightrope. I need to make some calculations to get through this. The guard rail is six clown shoes away. That guard rail would come up to the base of my suspenders. I've done an eighth of a circle diameter around I have three eighths to go.
"This is going to be a great shot. A clown on the Golden Gate Bridge," I hear.
I move one shoe. How many shoes is the span length? I do length times height, move the next shoe, and come up with 228 feet down. I've turned around now and even though it was only a total 45 degrees I'm wiped out. I feel like I'm on that tiny square tightrope platform attached to the 228 foot pole. I'm dizzy. The tourists crowd around me. I flash a big grin at the cameraman whose windbreaker pulses violently.
"Thanks," they say and hurry ahead all together. Without them I feel I will fall smack into the speeding cars, so I move sideways six steps to hang on to that four foot guardrail. Okay, I know damn well what is straight down from here, 228 feet of thin air, and then lashing waves whose movements I can barely hear. I look at the fine cement edge of the path, and this would be ok except for the fact that the damaged hump of my one clown shoe is protruding over the edge, and I've got the sensation I'm teetering again. To stop, I focus on something. An ocean liner cuts a perfect white pie slice in all that blue out there. Bright red letters spell Mitsubishi on its hull, and it doesn't appear to move, at least not from this vantage point, and it makes me hate capitalism, especially venture capitalism. The guard rail is freezing my skin, but I tighten my grasp using every one of my forty hand bones. The bored sky mocks me with its grand innocent swath of robin's egg blue. I can't take it, so I look straight down. I can't breathe. A gust of wind knocks off my wig, and it drifts below the span into thin air falling faster into the muscle of gravitation. Down goes my yellow yak wig bucking on the wind currents all the way down to where the blue ocean swallows it. The speck of yellow comes up for a second before the water knashes it back under. My knuckles hurt at the joints. I must force myself to breathe with a muscle spasm, like someone having an asthma attack.
Should I go after my wig, just like doing a Topsy Turvy? Maybe it would be easy. It won't be so bad because of the G-force, which would knock me out. Maybe it won't, though. Maybe I'll survive, but be seriously injured. The surge would make my body twist underwater. I see myself try to explain it to the boys while my head bobs. Matt tries to talk to me underwater. The surge doesn't matter to him. He's fascinated to see me all swaying jellyfish like beneath the ocean surface. It might bother him if I didn't have the wig, or if my costume came apart somehow in the crash. Then Nathaniel, how would they explain it to him so he could make sense of it? Would he worry about bridges for the rest of his life? No, he wouldn't. He's no coward.
I inch my clown shoe back from the rim. I'm still looking straight down, and I'm dizzy from the lack of oxygen. I'm awake. I still can't breathe. I jerk my chest and a shock of cold air rowels in my throat. The waves below wail for another taste of me, but I hold my ground. "My boys," I want to scream it, but the fierce air sucks my voice away the minute I open my mouth.
I make a 45 degree turn away from the guard rail the strength it takes to push a car. Fuck Janet and her Fuckin Estee Lauder Al Fresco. Who gives a shit about money? It's not important. The oncoming traffic shocks me into gasping for another breath. I rip off my fake nose and throw it down. A car smashes it as I snort the wind. Fuck the what, the mother of my boys? I run for it, back to the bus stop fast, but it's more awkward than I planned. I'm like those walk racers in the Olympics because I have to negotiate with clown shoes. Pretty soon they'll be tired of a dad who's a clown. My white is cracked, and it's running down my chest. I must've really been sweating. The math might have saved me out there. Maybe irrational human decisions do connect with eventual rational patterns in a formula. I take off the big shoes. Barefoot, I take my first step off the bridge. The plain, brown, dirty old ground feels great under my feet.
I enter our hotel suite right in the middle of the dinner party. The room smells of grilled prawns. Sure, I'm late, barefoot, and wearing a clown costume. They all stop what they're doing, except David who swirls his wine in the glass he holds before the lamp. With the other hand he pops a shrimp into his mouth. Down goes the shrimp, but wait, he picks the tail back out of his mouth. I extend my hand. He places the shrimp tail in my hand with a laugh. I fling it in the air and catch it in my pocket, Topsy Turvy like. Janet is fuming. So what? Janet looks sexy when she's mad.
©2006 by Catherine Segurson