“Fear makes strangers of people who would be friends.” Shirley MacLaine
“I’m friggin’ bored,” Jude moaned. Her doughy cheeks, pockmarked like stale puff pastry, made Tessa shudder.
“Tessa? You mad at me?” Jude reached for her friend who neatly avoided her touch. She picked at some fresh eruption on her face. “I hate Hartford.”
“Cut it!” Tessa’s sharp retort rattled Jude. It must be the heat making her so touchy, Tessa thought. She turned back to Jude. “What do you think? Hartford’s the last place on earth I want to be.”
“Oh, sorry,” Jude muttered. “You’re never bored. Why would—?”
“It’s not my friggin’ fault you’re bored!” Shrugging off Jude’s dismay Tessa reminded her of their first adventure. “God, remember that friggin’ dog in New Britain? Oh man, you were freaked out!”
“Ma-a-an. He was friggin’ evil,” Jude drawled, relieved. Short of carfare on a long holiday weekend in early October, they’d made the nearly nine-mile trek on foot to an art museum the next town over from Hartford. It was at Tessa’s instigation that they plotted a route, packed a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and started out at dawn. Their only misstep brought them uncomfortably close to a nervy Alsatian pacing his domain, his matted coat oilier than the floor of the gas station, his bared teeth the color of old piano keys.
The museum turned out to be old-fashioned stucco that looked like somebody’s grandmother’s house. There was an abundance of Hudson River School paintings on display. Nature portrayed as gaudy characters in cheap romance novels, what Tessa called calendar art. Her preference was for the modern, the stuff that pissed off her dad, like Andy Warhol’s Mona Lisa. She loved it all, every avant-garde thumb that flicked at the nose of convention.
Tessa grinned. “It scored points with Miss Merz, am I right?” She mocked the art teacher with a prim New England lilt: “Albert Bierstadt was a painter of such grandeur. What divine brushstrokes….” She twirled an imaginary brush in Jude’s face.
There was that irrepressible shriek, followed by the spluttered coughing sound Jude made when she laughed. Laughter was their shared release and Tessa added to their whooping chorus. Jude’s friendship had such ferocious intensity though, that had she not been so lonely it would have put Tessa off.
Jude’s fingers trailed lightly across her own face, exploring.
“Don’t do that, okay? You’re bumming me out.” Tessa Scott looked away, searching for some distraction among the unruly flame-colored daylilies fanning the porch stairs they sat squarely upon. It was still a novelty for Tessa, roomy old houses and the wicker furniture that creaked with exhaustion. Wildflowers with their messy fusillade spilled across the worn selvedge edge of an unkempt lawn.
Tessa lived with her father in a small apartment on Laurel Street a few blocks from the high school where she’d spent her senior year.
She’d grown up on the lower east side of Manhattan where front porches and backyards were as scarce as swollen bank accounts. What prevailed were drab tenements, tough housing projects, Italian pizzerias, Jewish delicatessens, Ukrainian coffee shops, and bars. There was Tompkins Square Park, a place she avoided at the best of times, despoiled by the career homeless, as her dad called them, and paper bag winos. He’d had equal disdain for the other bums, the artists and poets—the beatniks—who had put down roots and whom Tessa secretly admired. “Get a job” he’d mutter or “Get a haircut.” There had been talk about fixing up the park, but the neighborhood was less bothered by a derelict band shell. They wanted something done about encroaching crime, rival teen gangs. They wanted to leave their airless apartments, return to park benches of a summer evening and linger among desultory conversations with their fellow escapees. They wanted their park back.
On any enervating summer afternoon—her skin glistening with sweat—Tessa would have languished on a stoop in the projects where they’d lived since she was two. She’d watch through letterbox eyes as drugs were passed in narrow doorways on Avenue D. Older boys jimmied the hydrants and sunburnt kids came out of nowhere, like acne on a teenager’s forehead, to spread across the street and sprint through the icy cold torrent. A dare would prompt one of the braver among them to bodily redirect the deluge to an open basement window until the building super rained his fury upon them and they scattered like cockroaches at first light. Hartford had none of that. She couldn’t get good pizza, not like in New York, a whole pie for under a buck. For beer, Connecticut had package stores. A hero back home was a grinder in Hartford.
The student population at Hartford Public High had taken her by surprise. It wasn’t so much segregation as dissociation. Arriving for the first time on opening day she was struck by the scramble of Negro teens discharged from a parade of yellow school busses. Martin Luther King’s dream was not quite the reality on Forest Street. Her old public high school had been fully integrated. Bussing, unless it was on public transportation, had been unnecessary and both the financially underendowed and the students who were better off coalesced for the purpose of generating some kind of art. Apart from Miss Merz’s class, which suffered from 20th century blindness, there was nothing like that at Hartford Public High; no painting, no photography class, no sculpture studio, no fashion and no advertising design. Woodworking was a boys only class so she was relegated to home economics, a subject Tessa found laughable.
All expectation of fitting in was abandoned early on. She’d been thrust into her senior year in a strange school. Her clothes were wrong. She spoke with a funny accent she refused to modulate and she considered herself an artist. Friendly overtures to Negro girls in her homeroom were met with wary amusement. The madras and Weejuns crowd gave her wide berth. Asylum Hill seemed a perfect name for the neighborhood.
A big girl with a coarse complexion had been seated next to her in art class. She’d cackled with delight when a cheeky comment escaped from Tessa, producing an irritated pucker from Miss Merz: “Jude, we’ll have none of that,” the teacher warned, not unkindly. Then, addressing the transplant: “You’ll find there is culture beyond New York City, Miss Scott.” Tessa’s face had burnt brighter than the Bierstadt sunset projected onto the pull down screen at the blackboard. But the incident brought her the admiration of the few defectors from preppy she found there.
She’d left her old schoolmates and neighborhood pals back in New York. It was also where she had left her mother.
Jude never asked and Tessa never revealed her mother’s violent rages; rages that came from nothing ever being good enough. She had a flirtatious side that bordered on hysteria. Tessa suspected she had been unfaithful. Though there were times when her mother fell into an almost sweet confusion, like she didn’t know who or where she was exactly. Then, for a while there would be a tenuous connection between the three of them. They were like strangers thrown together and for a brief respite while they steadied their little boat until the tranquil sea turned savage again. Avoiding flare-ups, Tessa sought refuge in her journal, her art, and the many galleries and museums in the city. Her father put in even longer hours at his upholstery shop on First Avenue near the 59th Street Bridge. Sometimes Tessa would walk the few blocks after school and spend the rest of the day into evening at her father’s side.
He had talked about leaving New York. Tessa had assumed he’d meant the three of them. There was a citywide newspaper strike that lasted one hundred days and then it was all he talked about. Tessa imagined it was the real reason he had wanted to leave the city. He sold his business and took a job with a decorator in West Hartford. He never talked about her mother. If Tessa asked about her he replied: “Yours is not to reason why….”
But all that was behind her, allowing a dozy intermission on a muggy afternoon in June; the air so warm you could hear it drone in the trees. It would be Tessa’s first summer away from New York. Liberty for a few weeks longer in a strange city stretched ahead, untried, until the summer job started.
Jude’s life was just as it had always been. Here on this splintered porch, in the house where she’d been born, accepting in her way. Her older brother, a painter, had left for Canada just before Tessa arrived. An escape artist, Jude said once and then never mentioned him again. She’d had few friends before Tessa came along, but they fell back as Jude stepped forward to embrace her new friend. They could not compete with a girl from New York.
The houses on Jude’s street wore their benign neglect without rancor. Her home differentiated from the neighbors only by its inhabitants. Jude’s family was white. The neighbors—apart from a few elderly Poles and Lithuanians further from Farmington Avenue—were black. The houses set back from the street shared a common fall from grace that demanded they respect each other’s privacy. They did not mix. They did not need to.
A command, gruffly served in Polish, came from behind the girls. “English, Mama,” Jude sighed. She took the straw hat leveraged above her from the thick, purposeful fingers of her mother. Mrs. Kowalski did not like Tessa and granted only the thin evidence of a smile. It did not sit well that Tessa’s mother had stayed behind in New York. They were diehard Catholics, Jude explained. “She’ll like you once she gets to know you.” When the girls bent over homework together or hauled over-sized sketchbooks to their laps Jude’s mother appeared and wordlessly shoved her daughter’s bedroom door fully open. If Tessa stayed overnight, Mrs. Kowalski was sullen and more uncommunicative in the morning. It was disconcerting and made Tessa uneasy, though Jude tried to reassure her. It was the language thing. Summer brought them out in the open, out of an airless bedroom under the eaves.
From the start Jude followed Tessa’s lead, though her ardent nature was bothersome at times. They’d had other outings closer to home. Many Saturday afternoons were passed in the cool marble interior of The Wadsworth Atheneum. It was quiet there and they wandered the empty galleries unnoticed, heads close, brooding over their reflections in a shallow pool under a statue of Venus in an open sunlit court. More often they found themselves in a dark corner, mimicking the marble statue of a couple of scowling women. “Let him perish!” they’d squeal and tear up the staircase behind it.
“Caked on blustery of dusty history,” Jude recited aloud, fragments from the poems she wrote and never showed Tessa. She’d nodded in earnest as Tessa excitedly described the meaning of a certain minimalist artist’s installation—the ‘approximate invisibility’ of the piece—but she’d failed at enlightening Jude to the deeper meaning of a florescent tube. Compared to the museums in Manhattan—apart from contemporary bright spots—after a few visits Tessa found it antiquated. She missed the welter of emotions that sprang up when she’d stumbled upon the ordered chaos of a Twombly at the Modern and be both disturbed and aroused by a swan’s ecstasy.
They sketched outdoors in Elizabeth Park and Tessa showed Jude how to abstract the seemingly normal landscape around them. They had explored all three floors of Mark Twain’s pink and red Victorian Gothic mansion that rose above Farmington Avenue. Smaller, but no less impressive, was the cottage around the corner which had once belonged to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Writers she had devoured as a sophomore. “We’re readin’ it for English this year,” a classmate offered. “Uncle Tom’s Cabinet.” Hartford was a desert she’d not have to endure much longer.
Tessa stabbed a loose floorboard with her foot. Unthinking, she pouted. “What did you ever do without me?” Jude, eager for validation gushed, as if on cue: “M-m-m, my groovy friend.” She gauged Tessa’s irritated squint. “I meant groovy in a good way.” And then helplessly she blurted: “I mean, special. You’re my beautiful special friend.”
Tessa rolled her eyes, mitigating discomfort. She took in Jude Kowalski’s lank, waist-length hair, an ambivalent dishwater blonde cascade. Jude wore apology effortlessly: the thickset Polish physique, shoulders like sagging house beams, and a downturned mouth that even laughter could not right. Tessa knew, because Jude told her often enough that she despaired of ever having the kind of attention Tessa got. Jude’s hooded reptilian stare and a complexion unfairly scarred by genetics were constant reminders.
They were as unalike as Lucille Ball and her television sidekick Vivian. Tessa knew they made an odd couple in the school hallways; she with her trim athletic build, pert breasts and a disposition that drew guys to her like rats to cheese. Tessa’s new female classmates regarded her with suspicion, taking in her defiant blonde ponytail, fresh, flawless complexion, and a laugh that struck like lightning.
Tessa wanted to say don’t blame me if I’m pretty. She wanted to scream, “I hate it, hate all the friggin’ attention. I hate every friggin’ minute of it. Guys don’t take me seriously. No one takes me seriously.” Instead she softened her rebuttal. “You were born here at least. You weren’t dragged kicking and screaming.” She snatched the straw hat from Jude’s head, spinning it with her index finger. “You’re really talented, you know. You get to be treated like an artist, Jude, and everyone drools over your work. Miss Merz thinks you’re a genius already.”
Jude shrieked and lunged for her hat. They wrestled like boys, rolling into the wicker chairs, shoving them aside in their tussle. Jude straddled Tessa, thrusting her meaty hands against Tessa’s thin shoulders. “Get off!” Tessa shouted, grimacing and red-faced. She rose sharply and clapped her hands to her thighs. She tugged at her denim cutoffs. “Right. I have an idea.”
“You’re cr-a-a-zy,” Jude snorted. She drew her hair into her fist, scowled at the ends for a moment and then tossed it behind her.
“Shush,” Tessa whispered and pushed Jude from the smaller gallery in the Wadsworth where the new acquisitions were displayed. Jude, unsure of the urgency, yelped: “For Pete’s sake, don’t have a cow.” “Cool it. Let’s go outside,” Tessa urged under her breath and Jude allowed herself to be hurried past the tapestries and through the Great Hall.
On Main Street at some distance from the entrance Tessa breathlessly repeated her idea. This will blow your mind, she said. They would create a painting, frame it, and hang it in the museum. They were artists right, ready for anything? Ready to be a little daring? Jude nodded soberly, still unconvinced. “But we could get in trouble, big trouble. What about the guards? You gonna hammer a nail—?”
That was going too far, Tessa had to admit, banging holes in museum walls. But she was running out of options. Downtown took only a few weeks of exploration before she’d covered all the historical sights. The hoopla surrounding a newly completed glass building they called “The Boat” seemed overblown considering where she’d come from. She’d be working on the mall soon enough, filing medical records for an insurance company. It had a desolate crypt-like feel away from Main Street’s older department stores. She’d sauntered around the neighborhood of her school back home and saw the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Suzy Parker. She cut class sometimes to wander alone in the village and check out the troubadours in Washington Square Park. Downtown Hartford got pretty old, pretty quick.
They planned their moves carefully and made many return trips to the museum noting the sleepy-eyed guards’ whereabouts. Because it was summer a heavy overcoat would only draw attention so they had to devise a way to sneak in the painting. It was a watercolor portrait of a clown, loosely painted on a thick sheet of Arches that they gingerly removed from a 9 x 12 block. Jude balked at making it into an abstract. “I’m painting it, let me do it.” Tessa saw the bigger picture and left Jude to her creation. Tessa signed it ‘Maurice Rageau.’ They framed it with the simplest one they could find at the art supply store and attached picture wire to the back. It looked professional enough and fit nicely under an old paint smock Jude would wear buttoned to the neck. They practiced roping her waist with a perfect tie that would loosen with a flick of the wrist. They purchased gummed hangers and tested them to hold the modest weight of the picture.
The final touch was the label typed on an old Remington in Jude’s father’s office behind the pharmacy he managed at the top of the hill where Farmington veered off Asylum. He was always pleased to see Tessa. Whenever they stopped in they were treated to grilled cheese sandwiches at the lunch counter and scarfed them down with cherry cokes. He enjoyed their giggling presence and did not interfere as Tessa pecked out the words: The Clown, by Maurice Rageau.
On a quiet weekday under a dull sky they set out for the museum. For a brief moment they stood before the turreted stone castle and reconsidered. Jude’s heartbeat caused her to stammer. “We, we, shudda done a dress rehearsal.” She gripped the bulk she was carrying, feeling for the knot atop her stomach. Tessa breathed in deeply and steadied their resolve. “If you snooze you lose, Jude. We can do this.”
Moments later they were flying through the galleries, heading straight for the main entrance. They slowed past the lone guard who had not seen them arrive. He nodded to the familiar sight of a couple of teenage girls.
They tore across Bushnell Park, charged with adrenaline. The sight of the palatial sprawl of the Capitol building stopped them. They were joyous and sweating profusely. Relief came in a swell of laughter that forced their excited cries: “We did it!” “We friggin’ did it!” Breathlessly, Jude ripped off the ridiculous smock and threw it to the ground. A fresh round of laughter punched the air from them and they collapsed onto the grass, gripping their stomachs. Jude and Tessa stared at the overcast sky. “Can you believe it?” Tessa wheezed. “How easy was that? Now, aren’t you glad we did it?” Jude turned on her side and gazed at her friend. “I am,” she said giddily, “I’m glad you’re my special friend. Love you,” she whispered.” “Love ya, too,” Tessa laughed. Jude stretched her arm, a languid motion that landed her fingers above Tessa’s face. “I mean, I love you,” she breathed and trailed her fingers across Tessa’s cheek.
They walked home, barely speaking. Normal for the aftermath Tessa reasoned. Jude left her at Laurel Street. Tessa shouted after her, “Later!” Jude raised her arm in a half-hearted wave without turning and continued along Farmington Avenue.
Tessa flipped through her assigned carousel and pulled cards on file with names and numbers of those listed as deceased. It was deadly boring but she’d make a little money for her return to Manhattan in September, only a month away. Everything was planned now. She’d work in an art gallery that sold posters on Madison Avenue as little more than a glorified stock girl. At night she would attend classes at the Art Students League. She’d revived her friendship through letters with an old classmate and they planned to move into a basement apartment on Perry Street in the Village.
When he asked, Tessa told her father that Jude was getting ready to move to San Francisco where she would take classes at the Art Institute. “We’re both busy, you know. But we speak on the phone.” Jude’s father told him another story. Tessa’s dad had stopped at the lunch counter at the pharmacy for a coffee. “What happened with you two?” he asked Tessa. “Mr. Kowalski said you don’t come around anymore. He said Jude is brokenhearted, like you guys had a falling out or something?” Tessa felt ashamed and angry at the same time. She was busy. They both were.
In the days after their escapade Tessa had planned to call Jude but one thing or another got in the way. Then, she started her summer job. She never told anyone about the museum caper. Once or twice she thought about walking over there on her lunch hour to see if it was still hanging. She didn’t, not because she thought she might run into Jude. She didn’t because she was busy.
She received a letter from Jude in the mail. Her father asked about it, was Jude already in San Francisco? Yes, she told him. But that was untrue. The letter contained a poem Jude had written. It was typed, Tessa could tell, on the old typewriter at the pharmacy. Jude’s hands shook as she read it in the privacy of her bedroom. It was a bold poem. Tessa was surprised at how good it was, but it struck her like a knife, tearing at her insides. Some clowns are worth tears, it said. You get what you ask for. She’d crumbled the paper tightly, unable to tear it up.
She would get what she asked for. She wouldn’t have to think twice. She would be all right. Freewheelin’ soon, like the song said.
BESPOKE CLOWN is an original short story by Linda Danz.
STORIES ON THE AMERICAN FRIEND Writers Guild of America, East #R28299
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business organizations, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. The use of names of actual persons, places, and events is incidental to the plot, and is not intended to change the entirely fictional character of the work. © JULY 2011