There was a gun involved. There was also the issue of an unreturned helium tank, a Chihuahua named Buster, a Cadillac with the front grill crushed in, and sixteen missing pizzas. For Punchy, none of those things were as weird as they should have been, except maybe the gun. That was something new. Every birthday party that he worked served as a reminder of his mistakes. Every bad choice—from majoring in humanities, to spending $5,000 he didn’t have in the bank on a chunk of sparkling carbon to put on the third finger of Heather’s left hand, right down to his Sure, I’ll put on some greasepaint for $250, why the hell not? to Dom four years ago. Every weekend, those choices came rushing back. The uselessness of the diploma and the diamond. Sure, I’ll take that shit job. There’s no real surprise to what came next. There aren’t practical jobs for humanities majors; there’s only more academia. Punchy’s grad school application kept getting pushed back. He lost it in the van somewhere. It got stained with greasepaint. He spilled soda or beer on it. And when he did finally manage to find it, clean it up and send it in, the funding fell through. Sorry, maybe next fall. Then Heather left. She took the diamond with her. Of course she did.
One birthday party on a lark for $250 turned into ten parties at $100 each. The first gig was a one-off to reel him in. Sometimes, the parties paid as little as $50. Sometimes he’d have another $250 party, usually timed to coincide perfectly with Punchy deciding to clean up his act, find some kind of real job—maybe temp work, or a bookstore—something normal. But the $250 would reel him back in and the vicious cycle started again. From Friday to Sunday, Punchy suited up six, sometimes eight times, travelling from birthday party to birthday party, making balloon animals. Getting bitten, kicked, or pissed on by seven-year-olds and talked down to by their yuppie parents, who thought Plato’s Symposium was a new wine bar somewhere in Killearn.
When he started drinking on Sunday nights, Punchy used those reasons like a crutch for the leg that should have already been healed. On Fridays, he had to pull it together enough to take down the addresses of the parties, put the clown face on, pack up his travel kit and his changes of costume. His hands had to be steady to twist hundreds of phallic balloons into poodles, giraffes, hearts, or wiener dogs. On Fridays, he became Punchy. He used to have a different name, but most days he didn’t remember what it was and wasn’t sure he wanted to—the old name was from before Punchy. Once Punchy the Clown came to visit, he never left. He moved into the house and the van with his wigs, his makeup, and his polka dot jumpsuits. Only Punchy lived there now. Punchy took down times, birthday names and spellings, addresses and cake pick-up details from Dom. Punchy drove the van to the party warehouse to pick up tanks of helium and oxygen, bags of empty balloons and party favors. Punchy performed magic tricks for biting, kicking, piss-filled seven-year-olds and spat out puns for their entertainment. Little pinballs of school and Heather ricocheted through the pathways of his memory. Punchy tried to forget every corner after the balls guttered out.
Sometimes, an 8mm frame of Heather would involuntarily flash through his pinball game, and Punchy would excuse himself. All the parents had a liquor cabinet, full of better bottles than Punchy could ever afford, and not once had any of the parents ever missed what he took. Once he found their bathroom, he took the sunlit glow off of Heather’s skin, dulled the sparkle of her eyes, and muffled the pitch of her voice in his unwelcome memories. The smell of her hair disappeared. Clothing spun itself upwards and back onto her body, covering her breasts and thighs, and then she vanished, just like the real Heather had, with not even a sparkle left behind from the facets of the diamond she took. It was only when she was gone that he could unlock the bathroom door and send Punchy back out to fill and twist balloons, sing “Happy Birthday” to Joel or Chrissy, cut the cake and get bitten, kicked, or pissed on. Punchy could collect the fee from the pleased or disappointed parents, who never failed to offer a critique. Punchy pulled together the money and his dignity, packed up, and moved on towards the next posh house and the next party, or he’d go back to the stink of his apartment, full of trash he never got around to taking out till the smell was unbearable. He never could say which was worse: home or the parties.
But getting back to the gun. The fact of the matter is that the whole fiasco was the Chihuahua’s fault. It usually is, wherever a gun, a clown and a Chihuahua are involved (and the overlap of those three things is higher than you might expect). The weekend was fully booked—a Friday party, three on Saturday, and two more on Sunday. It should have been a good weekend. Friday’s party went off without a hitch; the helium tank was ready when it was supposed to be, the name was spelled right on the cake and Punchy found the address without getting lost. There were no bites, kicks, or piss from the seven-year-olds. The parents tipped him extra for a job well done. Saturday should have been a good day. And it was, until he arrived at the second party. At ten minutes to two, Punchy arrived at 741 Saw Palm Drive. Everything was fine until Punchy began unloading his party equipment. After he took the cake and party bags inside, he loaded the helium and oxygen tanks and his magic box onto the dolly and happened to glance across the street to the front yard of 742 Saw Palm Drive. When people break up, they never really go that far. They leave the relationship and the apartment, not the city or the state. So it wasn’t actually that strange that it was Heather standing in the front yard of 742 Saw Palm Drive. The only thing that was actually strange was that it had taken four years for Punchy to see her again, and that she had a Chihuahua on a leash, since she had never wanted to get a dog at all, teacup or otherwise.
It was bad enough that Heather was every bit as beautiful as Punchy remembered she was. Her skin glowed in the sunlight in exactly the way that he remembered. He wasn’t close enough to see her eyes or smell her hair, but he knew that they were probably the same, too. Heather’s thighs were still lean and muscled; even at a distance he could see that. Her tank top showed off the full breasts that Punchy could only see now in the 8-reel of memory. Not only was she every bit as pretty as he remembered her, but she was also successful and had clearly moved on with her life, blissfully ignorant to the chaos her leaving had caused in his. Punchy knew it wasn’t entirely her fault. She had majored in marketing and had an internship that turned into a paying job after her graduation. The breakup was inevitable. Even Punchy could see that. The part that was unforgivable was that Heather kept the diamond, knowing full well that he couldn’t afford it in the first place.
She could feel him watching her, and looked across the street. A toxic brew of shame and longing swelled up under Punchy’s polka-dot jumpsuit. Under the wig, his scalp began to itch. Sweat beaded up along the greasy edge of his painted-on smile. Their eyes met for a second before she looked away and took the dog inside. Punchy didn’t know if she had actually recognized him, or if the look of pity he saw—or thought he saw—flickering across her face was simply her remembering the poor bastard who had wanted to marry her. The poor bastard who became a clown because he’d studied humanities and thought they mattered. Heather was gone before he finished loading the dolly. Punchy was distracted and everything started going wrong at the party. He popped balloon animal after balloon animal to the dismay of Cindy, the birthday girl, because all his attention was fixed on the driveway of 742. An hour into the party, after breaking at least six balloon animals and mistakenly calling the birthday girl “Candy,” Punchy heard a car’s engine start and knew it was Heather leaving, and sure enough, as the car backed up, it was Heather behind the wheel, with a man Punchy guessed must be her husband in the passenger seat. As soon as Heather’s car rounded the corner, a chain of events set into motion, all leading up to the gun.
Punchy left the helium and oxygen tanks next to his magic box in the back yard, in the middle of a clamoring wave of seven-year-olds. He didn’t have a plan—yet—when he walked out the gate, through the front yard and across the street. He’d only gotten as far as deciding to do something, though what that something was, he wasn’t sure. All he knew was that something had to change in a way he couldn’t take back. So Punchy decided to steal the Chihuahua, though the dog wasn’t worth as much as a diamond. Since he’d never broken into a house before, he had no idea how to start, but he saw a rock beside the hedges and found that the sound a window makes when it shatters is satisfying in its own way. He knew he needed to be quick, and shrugged off the cuts and scratches from hoisting himself through the window. There wasn’t any time for snooping around. No time to figure out where she kept her jewelry, and finally take back the fucking diamond that was the real reason he’d broken into her house in the first place.
Buster the Chihuahua cowered under the dining room table, shivering in a puddle of urine. Unlike most Chihuahuas, Buster didn’t even let out a yip when the window broke. He surrendered to being dog-napped, letting Punchy scoop him up, cupping his tiny belly from beneath. Punchy let himself out through the front door, and out of habit, locked it behind him. He sprinted across the street shaking from the adrenaline and fear of being caught, fumbled with the keys, and set Buster down gently on the passenger’s seat. He threw the van into reverse and gunned the engine, tires squealing, three-point turning across lawns and pavement, making his escape from Saw Palm Drive. The twin tanks and Punchy’s magic box sat abandoned in the back yard, seven-year-olds circling them like hungry sharks. Fifteen long minutes passed before an indignant Cindy reported to her mother that the clown had performed a disappearing act. But by then, Punchy was already picking up the pizzas scheduled for delivery at the next party, a party which ended up being cake-less, clown-less and pizza-less. The cell phone on the floor of the van buzzed over and over—Dom, of course—and Punchy just ignored it. Since he didn’t know what to do next, Punchy drove back to his apartment complex and parked in the lot across the street. Buster shivered on the passenger seat.
This is where the gun comes into play. It wasn’t Heather, or even her husband, who came looking for Punchy; it was Dom. When they were still in college, Dom was a small-time pot dealer. Punchy, like any good humanities major, was a pot smoker. After Dom dropped out, he branched into other enterprises—among them, party booking—to make a living without ever having to work a real job or pay taxes. Dom didn’t take losing money lightly, which, considering that he never did anything to earn it, would have been ironic, if Punchy had known just how much Dom was skimming off the top, and how small a cut he got from doing all the real work. By the time Cindy’s angry parents called Dom to demand their money back, he already knew that he was going to have to eat the cost of the party, the tank rentals, the pizza and the cake, which made giving Punchy a sound ass-kicking the only solution to the problem.
Dom was already good and pissed off when Heather called. There had been a break-in at her house, she explained. Someone stole her Chihuahua. There’d been a clown in a van across the street, and she’d gotten this number from the neighbors. She’d already called the police and they’d probably be coming by to ask about the clown—but all she really wanted was her dog back. Could Dom tell her what the clown’s name was, or how the police could find him? Dom had known Punchy for close to ten years, and he knew damn well who Heather was. That’s what sent him over the edge, because once he heard Heather’s name, it all made sense. Dom told her Punchy’s old name, and she said, I’m still reporting it for the insurance, but I won’t press charges. Just get Buster back. It was the way she said it, like she was doing them a favor, that set Dom off. And that’s when he got the idea into his head to bring the gun. He wasn’t planning on killing anyone, or even firing the weapon at all. He knew a sound ass-kicking would accomplish what he wanted—the gun was just for effect. And since Dom was only sort of a shady middleman, not a real thug, he’d never had a chance to bring it out. He thought the gun would drive home the magnitude of the fuck up, and he hoped that word would get around, so no one else would try to fuck with him or his money. It might have even worked, if Dom had known how to handle or use the gun correctly.
It was a .45 Colt Single Action Army, a Clint Eastwood. A real cowboy gun, the kind that you see in movies. The kind of gun that real criminals don’t bother with, because it’s rare, expensive, requires maintenance—and only holds six cartridges. Dom was just a middleman. There was no way he would have known any of that. He got it from one of the college kids who bought weed from him, who stole it from his father, a firearms collector whose guns were for show, not for using. The kid had wanted more weed and pills than he had cash for, and brought the .45 for an even trade. It would be months before the kid’s father knew it was missing. The .45 sat untouched in a lockbox for six months. Every time he thought he might have a chance to show it off, buy a holster and start wearing it, to stick it in his boot or waistband, he either forgot to, or changed his mind. But not that day.
The gun itself was worth much more than either the college kid who stole it from his dad or Dom knew—more than the sum total of all the money Dom lost that day because of Punchy. Three times that total, in fact. If Dom had known that, it might not have made any difference, because the gun and Punchy had no point of intersection until that day, but then again, it might have made some difference. He might have at least chosen to leave it at home, where it belonged, or he might have chosen to sell it to a collector, like the one it had been stolen from, well before Punchy pulled his Chihuahua heist, and Dom might have made some more money, been rid of the weapon and the string of bad ideas it would spawn. But that only came out later, in the police reports following the mess. Dom didn’t know the gun’s true worth. He’d had it sitting around his house and was itching to show it off. As usual, Dom’s ignorance was his undoing.
Dom came looking for Punchy with a gun he didn’t know how to use tucked into the waistband of his jeans, just like he’d seen in the movies. The grinding gears of his car announced that he was coming. There was no doubt that it was Dom as he whipped into the parking lot of Punchy’s apartment complex. Punchy, parked across the street, knew (mostly) how this was going to play out. The gun was still an unknown quantity. But in the general scheme of things, it ended up as not really that much of a surprise. For the couple of hours Punchy sat parked in his van, the pinballs in his head bounced between spacing out and not thinking about anything, trying to remember the things he’d thought he’d forgotten, and figuring out what to do next. In the past four years, he had not spent a lot of time thinking about what to do next. Usually the only things to do “next” were take out trash when the apartment began to stink and the weight of his own slovenliness threatened to crush him, get drunk, recover from being drunk, sober up and put on the clown suit, or pity himself in the spaces between. Occasionally he would call his mother and lie to her about job prospects he was looking into, and girls that he would never actually take out on a date. He would go online, wasting time reading articles he couldn’t remember later, or he’d download videos of naked girls that only made him feel lonelier and less horny, because they never looked anything like Heather and there was nothing that made him feel like he had when he was naked with her. He would never give those nameless girls a diamond he couldn’t afford to buy, and he couldn’t even get hard looking at their writhing bodies because of it. Sitting in the van, chewing a slice of pepperoni pizza that he didn’t even taste, Punchy realized that outside of Dom and his occasional call to his mother, he hadn’t spoken to anyone that wasn’t a parent, a seven-year-old, or a store clerk in months. The closest thing Punchy had to a friend was Dom—who, at the moment, was planning to kick his ass.
Buster spent that same two hours sitting on the passenger’s seat and shivering. When he whimpered, Punchy looked over at the toy-sized dog and felt a flood of pity and love for him. It felt good to feel something that wasn’t directly related to an immediate physical need of his own. Punchy offered Buster a slice of pizza that was almost as big as his body, which he lapped and gnawed at until Punchy broke it into smaller bits. Buster then hopped into Punchy’s lap and settled himself. The shivering didn’t stop altogether, but it slowed noticeably. Punchy stroked Buster’s small head, squeezed his tiny ears gently, and decided that no matter what else came next, he was not giving Buster back—not to Dom, not to the police he was sure were after him, and not to Heather, either. He had never wanted a dog until the moment Buster whimpered. He hadn’t even wanted a dog when he broke into Heather’s house to steal one. But when Buster whimpered, ate broken pieces of pizza from Punchy’s grease-slicked fingers, and settled into his lap to ease his shivering, Punchy realized that he wanted this dog.
Hearing the obscenity of Dom’s car grinding its gears snapped Punchy back to reality, and for the first time in a long time, being sober felt electric, not like a necessary annoyance. He hunched down in the seat, released the parking brake, and waited, an oddly intoxicating brew of curiosity and dread percolating through his veins. He was less concerned with what would happen to him, only determined to protect the four-and-three-quarter pound Chihuahua nestled on his lap. Punchy reached down to the floorboards of the van and fished around the pools of fast food bags, wadded up paper napkins and tissues, empty cans and other random trash until finally he hooked what he was looking for: a weathered, yet still perfectly serviceable, Florida State University sweatshirt. He carefully wrapped Buster in the sweatshirt and secured the ball of fleece-covered dog on the floor below the passenger seat, making sure there was nothing that would fall on or smash against Buster if he had to start, reverse, and take a corner quickly. Across the street, Dom threw his H3 into reverse, inadvertently crushing in the grill of the Cadillac parked behind him. Too angry to inspect the damage or care that the Cadillac owner would later add “hit and run” to the laundry list of charges piling up, Dom slammed the car door and raced to the stairs, jumping them by twos all the way up to Punchy’s apartment. From across the street and inside the van, with the windows cracked only enough to let a trickle of muggy air inside, Punchy could make out a stream of profanity and hear the pounding on his door, loud enough to cause a neighbor, who Punchy had never met, to poke her head out of her door. Dom spat, What the fuck are you looking at, bitch? Punchy didn’t know the neighbor, only that she lived at #654; still, he felt ashamed that he was to blame for Dom yelling at her. He stayed hunched down behind the steering wheel, watching his neighbors at their windows, listening to Dom’s tirade, getting louder and meaner as the door stayed unanswered. He met the silence of #652 with his balled up fist until Punchy heard the unmistakable sound of wood splitting, hinges yielding, and the weighty bang of gravity interacting with sixty pounds of wood and metal door frame.
There was nothing valuable in his apartment—no clothes worth keeping, no pictures worth having that he hadn’t already burned, and no books that couldn’t be replaced. The only thing of any value—Punchy’s laptop—was already in the back-seat. He realized that there was absolutely no reason for him to ever step foot in that apartment again. Knowing that there was nothing to leave behind freed him to actually leave it all behind—the face paint, the wigs, the shitty clown parties, the empty bottles and fast food bags, the rotten trash in the apartment, the pity party he had been passing off as his life. While Punchy thought about how free he was to drive away and start over, Dom looked across the street and saw the parked van. Punchy was still hunched behind the wheel when Dom, yelling Motherfucker-my-money, drew the gun from his waistband. Or attempted to. Dom’s ignorance was his undoing.
Never having owned a gun, or really even handled one before, he knew only the basics, which the college kid had told him during the trade. Dom either didn’t pay attention to the basics in the first place, or forgot them immediately afterwards. Because it was just for show, he hadn’t bothered to check whether or not the gun was loaded before he left the house. It was. Dom had no way of knowing that this particular type of gun was usually left with one chamber empty—because any sharp blow could damage the mechanism, allowing the fully loaded revolver to fire. His anger made him ignorant of those first two of three important facts. The third was that in attempting to pull the gun from the waist of his jeans, he had curled his pointer finger around the trigger. In a backwards order, Dom had unwittingly violated each of the NRA’s main rules of gun safety:
3. Make sure the gun is not loaded.
2. Do not place your finger on the trigger before you are ready to shoot.
1. Make sure that the gun is aimed in a safe direction.
The gun was pointed at his thigh. 1-2-3. 3-2-1. What happened next was the logical outcome to the illogical situation he had created.
Punchy locked his grease-ringed eyes with Dom’s for a moment. Their hands moved in unison: Dom’s to the gun secured in the waistband of his jeans, Punchy’s to the keys in the ignition. The two distinct sounds their actions created almost cancelled each other out. For a moment, they both thought the van’s engine had backfired, but one of the sounds was way too loud. Punchy realized what had happened at the same time Dom did, and watched the color drain from Dom’s face. Dom looked down and saw torn fabric, blood, and then nothing except the pavement rushing up to meet him. Even from across the street, Punchy could distinctly smell iron and what he guessed must be gunpowder, perfuming the humid air. He saw Dom go down. Punchy reversed, hit the gas and sped down the street. He wasn’t sure if not checking to see if Dom was okay made him a bad person. If Dom hadn’t been so dumb about rule #2, it could have been Punchy instead, bleeding on the pavement. When Punchy was sure that he’d put enough distance between himself and his old apartment, he pulled off at the Flying J, where he bought an overpriced leash for Buster and took the shivering Chihuahua for a walk in the grass behind the station. Dusk settled in a sweaty cloak, looped around the interstate. Punchy breathed in the familiar scent of scrub pine and, faintly, paper mill. After using one of the bags from the van’s floor to clean up after Buster, Punchy got the key to the men’s room and spent twenty glorious minutes washing the paint from his face. He changed into the only clothes he now owned: a pair of torn jeans and a Sonic Youth t-shirt he’d had since high school. His socks were dirty and had a hole in the toe. The Doc Martens had seen better days. He had no underwear, and his only jacket was a black hoodie that he’d found in a Starbucks. Even though it was still humid during the day, the temperature dropped after the sun went down and he was chilly when he pulled onto I-10 and headed east. Punchy drove along the rolling black stretch of starry asphalt, whose blessed dullness he’d never fully appreciated until he was leaving it behind, away from Tallahassee towards Jacksonville. At a Denny’s in Lake City, he ordered Moons Over My Hammy and took the time to clean his van before he started heading south on 41. Punchy left his cell phone on the table, along with a $5 tip for the waitress, who wore a hoop through her nose, which was freckled and turned up in a way that made him smile. Her name wasn’t Heather, but she was nice to him, and boxed up the leftover hash browns and scraps of the sandwich for Buster.
Somewhere outside of Dunnellon, David pulled off at a rest area. He left the grease paints, wigs, and the box of costumes in the corner of the men’s room and slept for a few hours as the sun rose. When he woke up, he bought a bottle of water for Buster and a weak black coffee from the vending machine. The sky swirled in a measured ballet around the pale, slow ribbons of dawn. Humidity and road haze accompanied the sun’s dance into the sky. He couldn’t smell the paper mill anymore. Central Florida smelled of menthol, especially when the atmosphere was damp. The road flattened out ahead of him and rolled along towards home. There was an emptiness in the route he took, the very same one that he had driven with his mother, just before he started college.
The weekend was almost over. From the driver’s side he counted off the mile markers winding him back home. He stopped again in Bradenton to wash the cold and sweat off his face. He ate a grilled cheese at a Perkin’s and when he stopped for gas, he bought a small bag of overpriced kibble for Buster and took him on another of the endless number of walks he would come to discover five-pound Chihuahuas required. David drank more tarry gas station coffee, and decided to stay on Tamiami Trail until it connected to Alligator Alley. When he reached the edge of the Everglades, it was close to sunset. David pulled over to stretch his legs and walk Buster before starting the three-hour hike across the empty Alley. Later, he couldn’t remember where he’d taken the picture, but he clearly remembered taking it. There had been no one ahead of him on the road, and no one was coming up behind him. Both expanses of asphalt rolled out across the Everglades, neither ending nor disappearing, just tucking their ends into the great beyond. David found his camera and stood on the yellow dashes at the center of the lanes with Buster cradled under one arm. He took a photo from both directions, and purposefully shuffled their order, because by not knowing which was which, both pictures were full of endless possibility. Months later, after all the legal issues were sorted out, he would find them while scrolling through the camera’s memory. He printed them and pinned one to his refrigerator door with a magnet that looked like a slice of pepperoni pizza. The other one he mounted on heavier stock, and made into a postcard that he sent to 742 Saw Palm Drive. Heather didn’t know what it meant, where it was taken, or why he had sent it, but she knew it was from him, just like she knew he had kept Buster. Of course she did. It wasn’t quite even and never would be. After he took the picture, he got back in the van to finish driving home. Home, such a funny word, because he had only come back once since he’d left.
It was late when he finally got off Alligator Alley and drove into Davie. The sky was lighter than he remembered, and he could barely believe it was the same sky that he’d looked out at, night after night, back in Tallahassee, five hundred miles away. David pulled up to the old ranch house he grew up in. It didn’t look the same as he remembered; his mom had wound bougainvilleas around an arch over the driveway. The porch light came on as he opened the passenger door and let Buster out. He walked to the front door, standing next to a dog whose smallness contrasted his six foot frame. Though there was still a key on his key ring that fit into the locks, he knocked. He heard his mother shuffle through the living room, look through the peephole and let out a hiss of disbelief. The deadbolt unlatched with a click that echoed through his exhaustion. Oh my God David, are you okay? she squeaked. He dropped the leash of the tiny dog down at her bare feet and folded himself into the crook of her neck, hugging her like he did when he was a small boy. Buster licked her toes and shivered.
The moon was as white and slick as greasepaint the night David came back home.
Image: “Dance of the Woes of the World, Rose Day 1955,” from Albany Public Library History Collection