Sunday, June 1, 2008


In 1886 Italian circus performer Paulo Duccio, like millions of other Europeans, immigrated to America. Unable to find work back East, he finally wound up in St. Louis, broke and desperate. That city had become the official gateway to the new West, and the train station was the point of departure for everyone bound for California. Duccio figured it would be the perfect place to hustle spare change.

As he had done many times before, the veteran carny reached into his bag of tricks, and this time pulled out a clown. Dressed as a bumbling aristocrat, he was an instant hit on the station waiting platform. Weary travelers loved his disappearing tricks and slap-stick comedy; loved him enough to throw a few coins into the stove pipe hat he passed around.

The railroad company hired Duccio to perform at shareholder meetings and employee functions. Performing in halls all across the Midwest, the clown gradually took on the role of court jester. Dancing and cavorting in total silence, he became Punchinello, the fool.

After every performance, with great fanfare, he produced a gilded hand mirror from his baggy trousers. Staring intently at himself for a few seconds, the clown suddenly burst out laughing. Then, slowly shuffling through the auditorium, he showed people their image in the mirror. The clown clearly enjoyed this burlesque, and his infectious giggle soon had the shareholders chuckling too. Many saw in the mirror that they also looked foolish, yet all chose to join in the charade.

The clown’s performances injected levity into the serious business of making money, and he found himself in demand for other corporate meetings. Famous at last, he started wearing his Punchinello costume everywhere. At restaurants he sat at special tables, and ate in silence, as patrons laughed and applauded. People recognized him on the street, men tipped their hats.

Over time, he forgot his other self and could often be seen at home in the evening reading his paper, dressed as the clown he had become.

One hot Fourth of July, the clown was hired to provide laughs at an outdoor rally for railroad employees. This time, however, he had a different task to perform. A tiny platform had been constructed high above a great wooden barrel filled with water.

For his part, the clown must somehow climb a flimsy rope ladder to the platform and, after much melodramatic hand-wringing, jump into the water forty feet below. His practice leap had ended badly when he injured his shoulder on the barrel’s edge.

The afternoon performance arrived, and the clown was understandably anxious. Clinging to the swaying ladder and unsure of himself, he sweated profusely in the blazing sun. After much effort, he pulled himself onto the platform and stood, eyes closed, shivering in the Midwest heat.

With a crowd cheering wildly, the clown inched his oversize shoes to the platform’s edge. Sweat stung his eyes, and he felt like puking. But there was no going back. Duccio was the performer. So he jumped.

Down and down he plunged and every mother and every child gasped in astonishment. In a blur of color, the clown hit the water, a warm spray splashing the circle of excited onlookers. He surfaced, waterlogged but alive, and checked to see that all parts were accounted for.

Under a darkening sky, the clown treaded water and marveled at his good fortune. Everyone moved forward for a better look, not minding when the skies finally opened, and it rained hard like on a Kansas corn field summer’s day. Not one person walked away.

And then a peculiar thing happened. All the rain, and water, and sweat began to have an effect on the clown. His gaudy grease paint make-up puddled and ran. His bulbous rubber nose slid off into the water, followed by fuchsias and yellows and blues.

The crowd stared in disbelief, as the clown slowly washed away and someone else emerged, someone altogether different; a pink incredulous old man. From somewhere deep under water, a shiny mirror found its way to the surface. The man held the mirror up and gazed, unbelieving, at his reflection.

Lifting his eyes, he looked out past the people and railroad tracks, out beyond the rows of tasseled corn to a spot on the horizon. A fierce rain pelted his face, but he continued gazing into the distance. Now, as the mirror fell from his gloved hand, the man gave a barely audible sigh and slipped beneath the rainbow waters.

No comments: