The Shrieking Flesh 

Chapter Two

Ken Preston

24 April 2024

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A German expressionist illustration of a dark angel with frayed wings.

‘Clowning is a serious job,’ Herman growled, his vocal chords wrecked from all the cheap cigarettes and whisky he had consumed over the years. ‘It’s not for the cowardly, you know? You’ve got to commit. It’s that moment you climb into the cannon, you know? You can't back out. Sure you can pretend, you can cry and yell and kick up a ruckus, but you don't follow through, you’ve betrayed all those kids out there who came to see a clown get fired out of a cannon. And it don’t matter that they’re hoping you’ll miss the net, that you’ll break a bone, or something worse. That’s all part of the deal.’

The cigarette bobbed up and down in his mouth as he talked. He had to crane his head back to look at Lori.

‘Or a pie in the face, it’s not just comedy, you know. It’s a … waddaya call it … ?’ He snapped his fingers, his painted white face scrunched up with thought.

‘A statement,’ Lori said.

‘Yeah, that’s right, it’s a statement, a political statement, you know?’

‘Clowning is politics?’

‘Yeah, the schmucks out there, they love it, like you’re shoving a pie in the face of the bastards in power. Wouldn’t they love to do that? Wouldn’t you?’

Lori took a drag on her own cigarette. Canvas flapped in the wind. Outside the tent a tiger roared, followed by screams.

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‘Hey, you kids, stop tormenting Elsa!’ Herman yelled, and shook his head.

‘Shouldn’t you go out there and stop them?’ Lori said.

‘Nah, I’ve got to stay here with you.’

‘I’m not going anywhere.’

Herman dropped his cigarette on the hard-packed earth and ground it out beneath a massive red shoe. ‘Yeah, I know, but that’s what I was told. Stay with her.’ Herman eyed Lori up and down. ‘You got a cigarette?’

‘Sure.’ Lori dug a packet out of her khakis and offered it to Herman.

‘You ever thought about being a clown?’ Herman slid a cigarette out of the packet. ‘You’d make a good clown. You’re built right for it.’

Lori said, ‘That’s not why I’m here, you know that.’

She lit the cigarette for Herman, and his red lips turned up in a grotesque smile. ‘I can teach you everything you need to know. Why dontcha drop by tonight, and I can show you the ropes?’

‘I don’t think so.’

The tiger roared again.

‘Hey, you kids, if you lose a hand, don’t you come crying to me, ya little bastards.’

The tent opened and a man in a suit hurried inside, looking back over his shoulder. He spotted Herman and Lori and rushed over to them.

‘Mr … ?’

‘It’s just Herman.’ The clown gestured at Lori. ‘Here she is, just like you asked.’

‘Mr Jakel would like to see both of you,’ the man in the suit said.

The cigarette stuck between Herman’s lips drooped, and his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he gulped. Even beneath the white paint, his face seemed to grow paler.

‘Does Mr Jakel want to fire Herman out of a cannon?’ Lori said.

The man in the suit placed a fist against his mouth and coughed into it. ‘No, but we must leave now.’

Herman’s cigarette resumed its jaunty position between his red lips. ‘Sure thing.’ He began sauntering over to the exit, his big red shoes flapping up and down.

‘Mr … um … Herman?’

Herman stopped and turned.

‘I think perhaps you should change first.’

‘Mr Jakel doesn’t want to see him clowning?’ Lori pulled her mouth down in an imitation of a clown’s sad face.

‘Mr Jakel isn’t the … clowning type.’

‘What he doesn’t appreciate is that clowning’s a very serious business.’ Herman changed direction and headed for his caravan. ‘Gimme a minute to get changed.’

‘Please hurry,’ the man in the suit said.

‘Did you know that clowning is a political statement?’ Lori said.