A Penny For Your Chuckles

Illustrated by Diego Rodríguez

T’es complètement bidon, frérot! — “You’re a complete phony, bro!” 

These words, an unfortunate invocation of my namesake uttered heartlessly by my talcum-laden colleague of twelve years, marked a new chapter in my life. 

The time had come for me to bid goodbye to our inter-arrondissement clown mixers, our bi-weekly face painting parties, and even Pipote, my elephant and friend, the only soul privy to the identities of my confidential crushes and cursed enemies. (For your own sake, don’t try to wring them out of him. He’ll sit on you.)

It was time to reinvent myself, or else the dreadful Pierrots of Paris would leave me a powdered carcass, jokeless and unseasoned. 

Without further hesitation, Trimare (Underclown-general of Les Farceurs de Vice, “Vice’s Vacationers,” 1946-present) shoved me out of the Buffoonery Machine and onto the frozen gully bordering the Rue des Miettes. A rat eyed me up and down as it gnawed at a rotting slice of ham. Clowns, it silently lamented, they litter our streets with their broken blagues, their shrieking laughter, their desperate self-humiliation, scurrying from show to show, hungry for giggles. 

Hush up! I snapped back. 

Four nights ago, I had squeezed my sore bum into the middle seat of the clown car, forced to make do with our troupe’s scrupulousness. Nothing, not even the odorous consequences of fitting fifteen clowns into one car, could persuade Jimbour, Head Mime and de facto driver, from veering from the course of tradition. (Save for his sudden urges to break into his favorite mimetic act mid-drive, lifting his hands gleefully from the wheel to play his invisible violin). 

We were heading to the renowned Fête de Mimétisme in Montmartre, the climax of countless clowns’ miming careers, the sowing of others’ burgeoning ambitions. Before the towering Sacré-Coeur, clowns feigned (self-)imprisonment, acted as grumpy, boule-chucking old men. They juggled full, uncorked wine bottles they insisted were empty, and impersonated the well-liked—Aznavour, De Gaulle—and the much-despised—Pétain, Napoléon. A few busied themselves pulling éclairs out of their ears. 

Recently appointed Ministre de Comédie Antoine Bourbleu and his bureaucratic army of judges roved about the fields of the faubourg, hungry for humor. “I wish for our people to laugh,” Bourbleu had pronounced solemnly the day after the Treaty of Paris’s signing. (Even he could not bring himself to bestow a parting smile upon the television reporters before him.) War and occupation had left our citizens hopeless, and even as the liberation lifted our spirits, gunshots had hushed our humor into hiatus. The dinnertime causerie of the French, even after the war, sagged under the weight of post-occupation politics, collaboration, and the fervid anticipation of a new day. 

Bourbleu, once at the helm of the newly formed department, tickled this hopeful anticipation, funding the finest carnivals and clown schools of France. Yet the government’s coffers remained selective, and only the most skillful deserved financial stimuli.

As for me, I had prepared an act I swore would revolutionize the clowning profession, bringing light to the shadows of our dimmed eyes—and would hopefully attract a pocketful of government sous. My magical act required only miserable and longing souls, a dash of hope, and a ladder. 

Hey, up here! I howled amid the swarming crowd of judges, clowns, beggars, and bobos. Having momentarily grasped their attention, I climbed up to the ladder’s highest platform. “What could possibly arouse within you some joy in this wretched world?” Qu’est-ce qu’il vous faut pour réveiller un peu de bonheur dans ce monde maudit? I demanded. The crowd stared at me, sullen. Some spectators returned to their roving promenades, unconvinced that a shivering, shouting clown could heal their woes.

“From your winter misery, I have scraped out…UN PAPILLON!

I uncupped my shivering hands slowly, awaiting the elegant swallowtail’s ascent. Just as I had devised, the butterfly, materialized from the figments of my pride, rose up to the horizon. Sparkling in ethereal hues of magenta and beige, it floated effortlessly to the pale summit of Montmartre. 

“Step down, damn imbecile! How about you get the pétanque players to teach you a few things?” 

How could they return my magic with such base ingratitude? Could butterflies not elicit goodness in even the most vile of human hearts? I looked up again to discover that my papillon had metamorphosed into a dull moth, fluttering clumsily from one bourgeois’ woolen vest to the nearest shining street lamp, where it soon shed all of its fuzzy setae—leaving it a frail fraction of its former self. 

In my hope, I had perceived the butterfly. In their misery, it had remained but a moth all along, inspiring only dread for the burdensome Parisian winter ahead of us. The distrust that clouded their eyes impoverished the vibrant hues of my butterfly.

My botched act—one which I hoped would bring but one smile to a factory worker down on his luck, or an orphan who had wandered into our carousingly comedic corner—left an unsavory taste in the mouths of my compatriots and colleagues. 

Mockery of Montmartre: Clown’s Moth Spreads Sadness, read Le Parisien’s morning issue. Bourbleu’s entourage fined me fifty francs, the entirety of my savings, for my tepid transgression. Meanwhile, in a split vote (Pipote disenfranchised), Les Farceurs disowned me, consigning my frozen ass to this rat-infested sidestreet. 

Trimar and the rest of the troupe, moments ago my friends, never looked back. I never did either. For our memories proved impotent before the ruthless race to clown ourselves out of poverty. “Our troupe can only survive on strong links,” Jimbour had told me. “No matter your intentions, your link has snapped.”

I didn’t believe it. Letting a moth into a greenhouse-full of butterflies does not spoil their mosaic of fluttering. It only means a different beauty inhabits their ranks. If spectators find it unsightly, the moth has only to spread its wings, revealing its piercing eyespots.

Nevermind my eyes. My stomach grumbled. The two francs in my pocket were all I had left. Would they be enough to purchase a croissant from the Boulangerie des Miettes

Ça suffit pas. “Not enough,” grunted the baker. The only thing I could afford were a couple of Malabars. 

So I indulged, unwrapping the bar of bubble gum like it was a fresh baguette. Inside, my childhood awaited me: malabars always contained small tattoo pads which, when applied to the skin, imprinted an image that stayed with you for the rest of the day. As a child, I strode proudly through the playground with a dozen tattoos printed upon my cheeks—kangaroos, weasels, goblins… clowns. Arrête tes conneries! “Cut your crap,” my third-grade teacher would snap as I walked into class late, pockets full of promising malabars, my cheeks boasting a bevy of cartoons.

A blue butterfly smiled back at me, dimples and all, as I unveiled my fragrant delicacy. 

“VOILÁ VOTRE PAPILLON!” I screamed into the night. I slapped the tattoo onto my cheek.

If my art could not survive amid Les Farceurs, I would carry it on alone, fluttering from corner to corner to deploy my cunning magic upon new audiences. If solitude were to be my lot, so be it. 

Yet the thought of clowning the streets alone daunted me—I would need friends to bolster my acts, to keep me sane, and perhaps happy. All I would ask of them was tolerance—after all, my name is Bidon, or phony in English…my parents apparently saw the guile in me from my first gasp. 

I would ask them to embrace the illusion of falsity, and light up the eyes of our onlookers. Si on les fait se bidonner? “Let’s give them a good laugh.”

In the distance, the Sacré Coeur shone in undulating stripes of crimson and azure. For a moment, its elliptical domes resembled three human faces—their eyes arches, their mouths radial rose windows, and their legs porticos.

Is the highest point of elevation in Paris not a cackling assemblage of clowns, staring down at us from their Byzantine perch? Quelle raillerie.

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