Kim Herzinger

 

KIM HERZINGER is a Pushcart Prize-win­ning crit­ic and writer on min­i­mal­ism and oth­er con­tem­po­rary lit­er­ary phe­nom­e­na. He is the offi­cial biog­ra­ph­er of Donald Barthelme and edi­tor of three of Barthelme’s posthu­mous­ly pub­lished books, Flying to America: 45 More Stories, The Teachings of Don B. and Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews. Herzinger is also author of D.H. Lawrence in His Time and the own­er of one of the fine used book stores in New York City, Left Bank Books. He teach­es at University of Houston-Victoria.

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Bim Was Sad

 

In 1920, Bim the Clown was shot by the Cheka (polit­i­cal police), in the mid­dle of a per­for­mance, for mak­ing anti-Bolshevik jokes.”

–Richard Vinen, A History in Fragments

 

Bim the Clown tried nev­er to walk home in cos­tume.  He had done it once, yes, not long after the October Revolution.  It had become wretched­ly cold in Moscow that November and there was no coal for the stove in his dress­ing room, so he took to the streets straight from the the­atre.  He wore his wig, with its stiff, black, greasy hair uncoil­ing straight up from the top of the head, and on it was a tiny hat, a musty black bowler too small even for a child, with two holes in it that allowed patch­es of hair to corkscrew upward.  He had on his mot­ley coat, far too small for him, made of old car­pet and fad­ed rags and sewn togeth­er with large child­ish yel­low stitch­es, and also pants that were entire­ly too large for him, held up with rope in the place of sus­penders, with a bil­low­ing seat that had been pol­ished until it shone even in the dark Russian night, and blue and green patch­es on the knees and one for goat­ish good mea­sure at the top of his fly.  His boots were both too large, too, but not at all alike.  One was brown leather and crusty with age, the oth­er was a made from some form of bil­ious rub­ber, and looked as if it had been paint­ed many times—red, black, blue, green—but had now set­tled for a kind of mot­tled bloody gray that looked like a miner’s lung.  It was so cold that night that he had even kept on his nose, bul­bous and streaky and the col­or of a new bruise.

As he stopped to wait at the cor­ner of Krappak and Plotz, slap­ping his sides to keep warm, Bim noticed a group of work­ers stand­ing around a small fire in the ruins of a demol­ished church.  They looked at him but did not smile.  Their eyes glis­tened in the fire­light and Bim thought he could see in their faces a kind of anger, a deter­mined kind of dis­gust.

Then it came to him.  They think I’m mak­ing fun of them with my unwashed and unkempt hair, Bim thought, and by wear­ing clothes that I might have pulled from a garbage heap, in what­ev­er size and what­ev­er con­di­tion, wear­ing what­ev­er boots I can muster from scrap; with a nose red and huge from too much cheap vod­ka and beer.  And then there’s this stu­pid hat, as if wear­ing a hat—any hat—is a last faint attempt at being a gen­tle­man.  I look like an aristocrat’s nasty dream of the pro­le­tari­at.  I might as well have just come from per­form­ing a satire for the plea­sure of the Whites.  The clown is a per­vert­ed car­i­ca­ture of the work­ing man, stuck togeth­er with phlegm and glue, dirty by choice and habit, going in sev­er­al crazed direc­tions at once.

Bim went home that night swear­ing alle­giance to the Party, so when Felix of the Cheka had asked him to clown on the Party’s behalf, he thought that this was indeed a way he could con­tribute.  He would become, he thought, a new kind of clown, a clown who knew what clowns were, a clown who would reverse the dam­age done to the peo­ple by hun­dreds of years of clowns, a clown who would reveal to the work­ing class a pic­ture of them­selves that they could laugh out of exis­tence.

 

But now Bim was sad.  He had been sad for a long time, but recent­ly his sad­ness had almost inter­fered with his act.  The jokes the Cheka had giv­en him to deliv­er weren’t fun­ny, and the audi­ence, which once seemed to enjoy jokes at the Party’s expense, now sat silent, coughed self-con­scious­ly, or craned necks to look around the room.

Bim felt trapped.  When Felix Dzerzhinsky had first approached him, Bim thought anti-Party jokes would be just the thing to make his name, to give him—as it were—a dis­tinct pres­ence in his pro­fes­sion.  And Dzerzhinsky had con­vinced him that the Russian peo­ple need­ed a lit­tle light­en­ing up after the dif­fi­cul­ties of the Revolution.  “Times have been tough for some of them,” Dzerzhinsky had said.  “It hasn’t been a very long time, but some of the peo­ple fool­ish­ly thought the Worker’s Paradise would come into exis­tence as soon as the Tsar was dead and the Bolsheviks were in pow­er.  When that didn’t exact­ly hap­pen they became a lit­tle rest­less.  You can help, Bim, you can give the Party a human face by show­ing the peo­ple it is aware of these tem­po­rary short­com­ings.”

Bim was flat­tered.  There were, after all, so many clowns these days, but none of them would be mak­ing their liv­ing by telling jokes that demeaned the Party.  And clowns were every­where.  The Tsar’s court had loved clowns, and had hired them for every occa­sion.  The Tsar him­self had made it known that he want­ed vari­ety among his clowns.  His five chil­dren ran the gamut in age, from 14 to 23, and Alexandra her­self seemed to have a warm spot for dif­fer­ent kinds of clowns—jugglers and magi­cians of course—who didn’t love jug­glers and magicians?—but it was bandied about around the net­work of clowns that what Alexandra liked most were jokes and skits that actu­al­ly made fun of her rank.  Many of the clowns were still around that once made their names con­de­scend­ing to Alexandra and amaz­ing her kids with their jug­gling prowess.  And then there were all the new clowns, dressed in Constructivist cos­tumes and wear­ing their hats at rak­ish angles, doing skits that fea­tured Nicholas and Alexandra dressed in pompous eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry clothes and order­ing death with the flick of a fin­ger.

At first, Bim made up most of his own jokes.  Laughter erupt­ed, for instance, when he told the one about the Tsar and Lenin.  “Why did the Tsar wear shoes while Lenin wears boots?” he asked the peo­ple.  “Because in the Tsar’s time the shit was only ankle-deep.”  The peo­ple had loved that one.  But one night a few months ago, when he told the same joke, a man stood up in the mid­dle of the audi­to­ri­um and yelled, “The Tsar wore boots, too!”  He was adamant, this man, and spit­tle flew from his mouth as he spoke.  The crowd mur­mured assent.

In fact, this joke was one of the few left over from the time, only a year or so ago, when Bim had felt real inde­pen­dence about per­form­ing his own mate­r­i­al.  After all, he thought then, abor­tion and divorce and free love are now offi­cial­ly allowed, our artists are turn­ing art upside down, the church­es and monas­ter­ies are being leveled—now every­thing is per­mis­si­ble.  But after say­ing what he want­ed for a few months, the Cheka began to insist that he use their jokes.  At first, he object­ed, telling Dzerzhinsky that their jokes just weren’t fun­ny.  Dzerzhinsky coun­tered by say­ing that he thought they were.  “I laugh,” he said.  “The peo­ple will find fun­ny what I think is fun­ny.  I know this because I am a man of the peo­ple.”  He had raised his eye­brows in such a way as to imply that per­haps Bim was not a man of the peo­ple.

That very night Bim struck back at what he thought was Dzerzhinsky’s rude attempt to lim­it his inde­pen­dence.  He wrote a new joke just before going on stage.

In England, what is per­mit­ted is per­mit­ted, and what is pro­hib­it­ed is pro­hib­it­ed.

In America every­thing is per­mit­ted except for what is pro­hib­it­ed.

In Germany every­thing is pro­hib­it­ed except for what is per­mit­ted.

In France every­thing is per­mit­ted, even what is pro­hib­it­ed.

In Russia every­thing is pro­hib­it­ed, even what is per­mit­ted.”

The peo­ple had laughed, and Bim imag­ined that his revenge might be com­plete.  But Dzerzhinsky had met him in the wings.  His face was red and the veins in his neck stuck out from above the lapels of his gray suit.  “That,” he said, “was not fun­ny.  Not at all.  From now on you will lim­it your­self to our con­tri­bu­tions to your act.”

But Felix,” Bim said, “they all laughed.  Didn’t you hear them?”

I heard noth­ing of the sort,” said Dzerzhinsky.

Nothing?  Where were you stand­ing?”

I stand with the peo­ple,” said Dzerzhinsky.  “Always.”

Bim said noth­ing, as there was noth­ing to say.  Finally though, Dzerzhinsky smiled and held out his hand.  “Perhaps we can resolve this issue.  Have you eat­en?”

Just then, at the wrong moment, Bim lat­er thought, anger had got­ten the bet­ter of him.

I haven’t eat­en since 1917,” he said, and start­ed to walk away.

He did not turn around when he heard Dzerzhinsky say, “Just now I am think­ing of with­draw­ing my ges­ture of friend­ship, Comrade Clown.  And with it, of course, would be a with­draw­al of trust.  Remember this.”

In his dress­ing room, as he removed the shock-haired wig that had been pro­vid­ed him by the Cheka, Bim began seri­ous­ly to con­sid­er the pos­si­bil­i­ty that Felix Dzerzhinsky might revoke his license to clown.

 

Things had only become worse since then.  Bim had sent his own jokes into exile, and now was doing mate­r­i­al pre­pared exclu­sive­ly by the Cheka.  No one would have argued with Bim if he told them that the Cheka had no sense of humor, but he knew this was true in a way no one else did.  For the most part, dur­ing his act the peo­ple just sat uneasi­ly in their seats and wait­ed for the girls to come sweep­ing down on their trapezes.  There was a time when the girls would grab his hat while he flailed at them stu­pid­ly, lung­ing from one side of the stage to the oth­er, and the crowd roared in sym­pa­thy with him, the flum­moxed man in a stum­bling attempt to regain his dig­ni­ty after los­ing it to the sparkling girls, who glid­ed far above him with mock­ing laugh­ter and stream­ing hair.  But now the peo­ple applaud­ed for the girls alone, and they whis­tled the clown off-stage, relieved at his exit.  He could feel this change, and it wound­ed him.

The only real laugh he had man­aged dur­ing the whole of the last week came when he changed the script.  The Cheka had writ­ten a joke about gravity—Bim had argued with Yanov, one of Dzerzhinsky’s lack­eys, that the sub­ject of grav­i­ty was not gen­er­al­ly assumed to be a crowd-pleas­er with Russian audiences—but Yanov had insist­ed, and even threat­ened to bring in Dzerzhinsky if Bim refused to per­form it.  Yanov sim­ply couldn’t man­age to write any­thing that real­ly made fun of the Party.  So Bim had start­ed going his own way, and a cou­ple of weeks ago had sent Bim out with a hand­ful of jokes mak­ing fun of the Swiss.  “It’s no use mak­ing fun of the Swiss,” Bim told Yanov.  “Nobody cares, and besides there’s just noth­ing fun­ny about them.”  And he was right, of course.  The crowd sat silent as Bim deliv­ered a num­ber of jokes about eco­nom­ic con­di­tions in Switzerland.

So now Yanov had sad­dled up anoth­er horse, and appar­ent­ly thought he could get a good ride out of grav­i­ty.  In one of Yanov’s jokes, Bim was sup­posed to say, “What the peo­ple think is grav­i­ty is sim­ply the Party hold­ing tight on the reins.”  Bim found he just couldn’t do it.  Not that it might not be true, of course, but it wasn’t fun­ny.  Even the Cheka had to real­ize it wasn’t fun­ny.  Still, he could see Yanov in the wings, rub­bing his hands with antic­i­pa­tion, when he start­ed to say his line.  But what he said was, “What the peo­ple think is grav­i­ty is … is … real­ly just … what’s hold­ing them down is  … that the world sucks!”

The crowd laughed, but Yanov was livid.  Speech seemed beyond him, and once Bim was in the wings Yanov mere­ly opened and closed his mouth and blinked wild­ly at him.  Bim could not take his eyes off Yanov’s hands.  The Cheka’s lead­ing joke-writer had hands like a baby, curl­ing and going rigid like a baby’s hands, jerk­ing spas­mod­i­cal­ly, clench­ing and unclench­ing and miss­ing their mark, except when they sud­den­ly careened through his hair, glis­ten­ing from the grease in Yanov’s spe­cial pomade—his “only con­ces­sion to the bour­geoisie,” as Yanov had once told him in an inti­mate moment.  The hands were all Bim could see.  He didn’t even hear Yanov when he final­ly sput­tered some­thing about how Comrade Felix would have some­thing to say about clowns think­ing they could make up their own jokes in a time of cri­sis.

 

Back in his flat, Bim sat down to a drink with his friend Pezkov, who almost always vis­it­ed after work­ing hours.  Pezkov, too, was in the clown busi­ness, but he suf­fered every night by hav­ing to play sec­ond fid­dle to the Great Ekkles.  Clowns rarely said any­thing very bad about oth­er clowns, but Pezkov almost always had some­thing bad to say about the Great Ekkles.  Bim was in no mood to lis­ten to Pezkov’s com­plaints, and he thought his friend would sure­ly notice that he was seri­ous­ly depressed.  But Pezkov was off and run­ning.

Well, Ekkles real­ly did it tonight.”

I’m no longer my own man, Bim was think­ing.  I’m not the clown I could have been.

He pulls a girl out of the crowd, you know, the way he does every night.  So there he is, smil­ing that grue­some smile of his—he’s got the chin exten­der on and everything—and he’s twirling this lit­tle girl’s hair.”

Bim was aware of a kind of hard empti­ness mov­ing some­where around the stom­ach.  Fear?  Self-dis­gust?  What was it?

Now this is where I come in and honk at him,” Pezkov went on, “act jeal­ous, chase him into the cor­ner, and hit him over the head with the paper buck­et.”

A paper buck­et real­ly is out­ré, thought Bim.  What kind of clown would use a paper buck­et in these days and times?  Even the Cheka was past paper buck­ets.

Little can­dy hearts are sup­posed to fly all over the place and then he gets down and scoops them all up into his shoe and offers them to the girl with a big watery tear com­ing out of his eye.  The girl always takes the hearts.  We worked on this bit togeth­er, it was most­ly my idea real­ly, and it nev­er fails. Never.  True love wins out and all that.  They love it.  They laugh, they roll, they’re slap­ping the shoul­ders of the peo­ple in front of them.”  Pezkov shook his head and guz­zled more beer.

The room was silent.  Pezkov put his head in his hands.  Bim was think­ing about the Great Ekkles still using a prop as out­dat­ed as a paper buck­et.

So, what hap­pened?” asked Bim final­ly.

Pezkov took anoth­er swig.  “Well, the girl was ter­ri­fied, see.  So I see the girl is fright­ened and cry­ing and I start honk­ing at Ekkles.  He grabs the lit­tle girl’s hand and puts the can­dy in it, but the candy’s sticky and when the girl tries to get rid of it these hearts just stick to her fin­gers and she shakes hard­er and hard­er and the hearts are stuck to her fin­gers like lit­tle pink leach­es and she’s real­ly bawl­ing now, and so I start honk­ing at Ekkles and I move at him like I’m going to chase him around the room again and hit him with the paper buck­et—“

—“I can’t believe Ekkles is still using a paper buck­et,” inter­rupt­ed Bim.

No, me nei­ther, but he’s from the old school.  Anyway, instead of let­ting me chase him around, he keeps press­ing the girl to eat those can­dy hearts, he’s stuff­ing his mouth full of them to show her how to do it, and she’s hold­ing her arms out to her Papa and bawl­ing.  When I get up to him, I say, “Take off, won’t you?  Start run­ning.”  But some­thing got into him, I don’t know, some­thing, and he comes right at me, ruf­fles fly­ing, his mouth full of pink goo, and he starts chas­ing me around and grabs the buck­et, and the crowd is jump­ing through the roof.

But Ekkles, well, Ekkles takes this oppor­tu­ni­ty to stick his honker in my ear and blast it—I still can’t hear out of it—and whack me over the head with the paper buck­et.  I look like an ass.  I just stand there.  I don’t know what to do.  I’ve got no role.  After the girl runs back into the crowd, Ekkles says to me, ‘You call your­self a clown, you Menshevik screw?’ and then lies straight down on his back and begins to give out these great heav­ing sobs.  After a while he starts clam­ber­ing around the stage on all-fours, pick­ing up a can­dy heart, putting it in his mouth, and blink­ing teary-eyed at the audi­ence as if he’s look­ing for his long-lost, and he does this until the peo­ple start to clap, and, final­ly, when they’ve clapped loud enough and long enough, he stands up and bows and waltzes off the stage as if he’s hold­ing an imag­i­nary lit­tle girl in his arms.  I’m still just stand­ing there, until final­ly I just give a honk and move off.  They’re whistling at me, like I’m the vil­lain of the piece. He’s the win­ner.  It was humil­i­at­ing, I’m telling you, it was humil­i­at­ing and dis­gust­ing.”

Yes, Bim thought.  Disgusting.  Bad for clowns every­where.

After a long time, Bim final­ly said, “Listen, Pezkov, let me tell you some­thing.  It’s some­thing I’ve told no one.”

I knew it!  You’re a Buttercup!”

No.”

Sure?  A Snuggles?  A Daisy?”

Yes, sure.”

Shit, I thought maybe you were a Buttercup.  I mean, no girls.  Except maybe for that Elena, the trapeze girl, back in ’16. “

Elena went home to her boyfriend.  He came back from the front with­out legs. Plus, there was some food out there.”

Okay, you’re not a Buttercup.  So you say.  But you did lose out to a leg­less guy and some turnips.  Don’t for­get that.  Anyway, enough.  What is it you want to tell me?”

Bim got up to get anoth­er drink.  “You and Ekkles, the Great Ekkles, you do your own stuff, right?  I mean, you decide what you’re going to do out there and, even when it goes wrong—like tonight—it’s still your stuff, your mate­r­i­al.”

Pezkov snort­ed.  “So?”

Don’t you see,” said Bim, “don’t you see how impor­tant that is?  If we can’t do our own stuff, we’re going to do some­body else’s.”

Or do noth­ing.”

Exactly.”

Not an option,” said Pezkov.  “A clown’s got­ta do what he’s got­ta do.”

Pezkov is not a great clown, thought Bim.  Pezkov is a sec­ond-shelf clown at best.  But even he knows a clown can’t clown on some­body else’s say-so.

What would you say to a clown who takes his orders from Felix Dzerzhinsky?”

You mean Party Felix?”

The same.”

Everybody gets their orders from Felix Dzerzhinsky.  And he gets his from The Man.  Since that woman shot at him they’re after every­body who knew her, every­body who knew some­body who knew her, and every­body who knew some­body who knew some­body who knew her.  Not to speak of every­body who may have known some­body who may have known some­body who may have known her.  Plus all the Mensheviks, all the Whites, and all the Tsar lovers.  That’s every­body.”

Not every­body gets their act from Felix Dzerzhinsky.  But I do.”

How much of it?”

All of it.  Now.  These days.  Once in while I’ll do some­thing of my own out of anger. .  . or bore­dom.  You can tell if its mine.  They laugh.  But Pezkov, what’s worst isn’t that they’re not laugh­ing at the Party’s stuff, it’s that I’ve been … com­pro­mised.”

Pezkov was very qui­et.  He sat star­ing at his vod­ka.  He tapped his fin­gers, still dirty with the dirt of the ring and the stage.  Finally he broke the silence.

I wouldn’t wor­ry about being com­pro­mised, Zherkin.  I’d wor­ry about get­ting killed.”

Hearing Pezkov call him Zherkin, his actu­al name, the name his moth­er in Peszka had giv­en him, remind­ed him that he had once had a life out­side of being Bim the Clown.

 

Bim woke up in a sweat.  He couldn’t eat a break­fast, and his stom­ach would not allow bread for lunch either.  Outside it was snow­ing again, and Bim sat next to the coal stove but could not warm him­self.  Every so often, groups of men car­ry­ing long sticks and ban­ners marched down his street and then back up it.  He could not quite make out what they were chant­i­ng, but they looked deter­mined, and the sound of their words seemed to form into small but sin­cere blocks of ice that hung in the frozen air until they dropped to the ground while the men crunched stolid­ly over them.

In the after­noon, Bim began to pre­pare for the evening’s per­for­mance.  Having noth­ing to wear is not usu­al­ly a clown’s com­plaint, but Bim found that noth­ing he had seemed right.   He greased his hair and pulled it up into elec­tri­fied points, then twirled it until it looked like a child’s draw­ing of a fright­ened man.  In the end he sim­ply mashed it down until his hair stuck to his scalp like a patent leather hel­met.  His cos­tume, the same one he had worn so long ago when he decid­ed he would clown for the glo­ry of the pro­le­tari­at, the same he had worn since he began his life with the Cheka, sim­ply would not do.  He felt small inside it.   In his clos­et he found the clothes he had worn when he walked to Moscow from Peszka, the day his moth­er had cried when she said good­bye to him and had giv­en him some chest­nuts and the fam­i­ly icon.  When he put it on it seemed fune­re­al, some­how, for­mal wear for a serf’s wake.  He put on a tie, not the ghast­ly over­sized clown tie he wore when he skew­ered the aris­toc­ra­cy dur­ing the best days of his act, but the thin trite tie once worn by his late uncle to a provin­cial fair where he was going to receive a rib­bon for the fan­tas­tic girth of his chick­ens.

Night fell ear­ly, and now the men mov­ing up and down his street were no longer singing.  He could bare­ly see them through the scrim of the thick snow­fall.  Their ded­i­ca­tion had turned to the sin­gle-mind­ed task of hurl­ing their hunched bod­ies and long coats ahead, mov­ing them­selves inex­orably toward some dis­tant goal.  Petersburg, per­haps, Bim thought.   Those lamps.  But he did not know for sure, he could not real­ly tell.

On his walk to the the­atre, his usu­al clown cos­tume in a bag he car­ried over his shoul­der, no one took any notice at all.

 

Yanov was already there when Bim arrived, and grave­ly hand­ed him some new mate­r­i­al for his per­for­mance.  In the hall­way that served as a dress­ing room to the entire troupe—a jug­gler, a magi­cian, gym­nasts, trapeze girls, and two Constructivist clowns who dressed as The Big Dipper and The Eiffel Tower—Bim read Yanov’s first bit about the foibles of Estonian inde­pen­dence and then care­ful­ly fold­ed the rest and put it in his pock­et.  Even though Bim’s per­for­mances had been anti-cli­mac­tic for well over a year now, he would still be the last to take the stage.  He had plen­ty of time to think.

The the­atre was jammed.  Winter snow had not sti­fled the crowd, and dur­ing the magician’s open­ing act he could hear that it was a par­tic­u­lar­ly live­ly one.  The Party had pro­vid­ed the­atres which suf­fered from errat­ic heat some large ban­ners which read “Let Your Comrades Keep You Warm,” and tonight it seemed that such a thing might actu­al­ly be nec­es­sary.  They cheered the magi­cian and the jug­gler, moved their feet and clapped respect­ful­ly when the two Constructivist clowns did their com­ic take on the dynamism of three-dimen­sion­al planes and walk­ing tow­ers, and went absolute­ly wild when the the­atre man­ag­er took the stage to announce that mov­ing pic­tures would be added to the pro­gram as soon as the cor­rect equip­ment was exam­ined and released by the Central Committee.  Bim had long thought that mov­ing pic­tures were a threat to his pro­fes­sion and his liveli­hood, but had con­tent­ed him­self by think­ing that at least the peo­ple would no longer have any use for Constructivist clowns once they were shown that mov­ing pic­tures could do with ease all of the things that the Constructivists strug­gled to demon­strate as the­o­ret­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties.

The crowd reached a peak of excite­ment dur­ing the per­for­mance of the trapeze girls.  The girls had long since stopped com­ing out dur­ing Bim’s act, which always came next; the Cheka had decid­ed that they were a con­fus­ing diver­sion, the man­ag­er thought they were redun­dant, and the girls them­selves were hap­py to be able to leave the the­atre a lit­tle ear­ly.  By the time Bim took the stage, the crowd was stamp­ing its col­lec­tive feet and call­ing for more at the top of its col­lec­tive lungs.  In the wings, Yanov was stand­ing next to Durstoff, a Cheka goon hired to watch for inap­pro­pri­ate laugh­ter from peo­ple in the crowd, and beside him was Felix Dzerzhinsky him­self, his arms crossed and smok­ing a cig­ar which had some­how made its way out of Germany to Moscow, where it was passed out as a favor by the Central Committee.  “Finally,” one of the Committee mem­bers had said, “our share of the repa­ra­tions!”

 

When Bim stepped onto the stage the crowd imme­di­ate­ly went qui­et.  Yanov and Dzerzhinsky stepped up to the mouth of the wing and stared.  Yanov was ges­tic­u­lat­ing and stamp­ing his foot. “Where’s the clown?” some­one in the crowd final­ly shout­ed.  “Where’s Bim?”  He was wear­ing his uncle’s gray suit and brown tie, and the crowd did not rec­og­nize him.  When he took off his hat, though, laugh­ter erupt­ed.  “He’s plas­tered it on!” some­one else called out.  From the back of the room, some­one else roared, “He’s from the Cheka all right.  Look out for your chil­dren!”

It’s going bad­ly for old Bim,” some­one else shout­ed, “look how much weight he’s lost!”

He eats saw­dust sausage like the rest of us,” yelled some­one else.

What’s a sausage?” chimed in anoth­er.

With this, Durstoff stepped out fur­ther, pulled out a pad of paper and wrote some­thing down.

Bim felt slight­ly drunk, and felt him­self sway a lit­tle.  “I have some news from Estonia!” he roared.  He pulled the pack­et of Yanov’s Estonian jokes from his back pock­et.  “Listen to this, lis­ten to this,” con­tin­ued Bim, and then he read the first joke on the page.  “Estonia wants its inde­pen­dence from Russia because Estonians think rela­tions are more inter­est­ing out­side of mar­riage!”

The crowd groaned.  A few whis­tled.  “Fuck the Estonians,” one yelled out.  “Estonians aren’t fun­ny,” yelled anoth­er.  “Funnier than this so-called clown,” roared a third, while the crowd whooped its agree­ment.

Yes, I agree, the Estonians are not fun­ny.” Bim went on.  “And also they are wrong when they say they want their inde­pen­dence because they dis­agree with the Bolsheviks.  The Bolsheviks are right when they tell us we are very close to being in Paradise.  We are!  Here in Russia men and women have no clothes to wear, live with­out a roof over their heads, and have but one apple between them.”

Now the crowd shout­ed with laugh­ter.  “And snakes too!” some­body yelled out.

Durstoff was on the edge of the stage now, writ­ing furi­ous­ly.

Bim held up his hands for qui­et, then point­ed at Durstoff.  “Don’t wor­ry about him.  He’s a pass­ing fad.  When real Communism is built in Russia we’ll have no police, no Cheka.”  Instantly, the crowd was back on its feet.  “No Cheka!  No police!  No Cheka!  No police!”

Durstoff scrib­bled more names.  Dzerzhinsky fin­ished his cig­ar and rubbed it into the boards with his foot.  Yanov held his head in his hands.  His eyes were per­fect­ly round.

Bim again raised his hand.  The crowd wait­ed.  The loud chant­i­ng and the stamp­ing of heav­i­ly shod feet ceased.  This par­tic­u­lar clown, this Bim, had some­thing to say and he was about to say it.

There will be no rea­son for police, no rea­son for the Cheka,” he final­ly said as he crossed him arms.  “Because by then all of you will have been taught to arrest your­selves.”

At first the crowd was qui­et, then slow­ly, from the back of the room, the chant­i­ng and stomp­ing rolled for­ward.  “No police!  No Cheka!  No police!  No Cheka!”

Durstoff looked at Bim and growled.  “But we have not reached the stage of real com­mu­nism yet,” Bim shout­ed into the crowd, point­ing again at Durstoff.   “Look at him! His opin­ion of the Bolsheviks is the same as mine—that’s why it’s my duty to arrest him!”

The crowd roared even loud­er, “No police!  No Cheka!  No police!  No Cheka!”

Bim’s ears were ring­ing.  He stag­gered per­ilous­ly close to the edge of the stage.  He slapped the hands of the men in the first row, he held his arms above his head and clapped to the rhythm of their chant.  He felt a kind of ver­ti­go, the top of his head seemed to be com­ing unscrewed, and he could hear him­self talk­ing with­out know­ing what he was say­ing.  When Dzerzhinsky start­ed walk­ing towards him from the side of the stage, he appeared to come for­ward in a flick­er­ing wave.  Instinctively, per­haps, Bim began to move away from him, lurch­ing this way, then that, still talk­ing to the men in the first row, who con­tin­ued to clap and chant.

Bim had reached the oth­er side of the stage and in his head there was a sort of chug­ging, as if the air itself was being chopped and ham­mered.  But even through the shud­der­ing going on between his tem­ples, above the waves of the crowd’s hot breath, he could hear laugh­ter, won­der­ful pure laugh­ter, like it had been before the Cheka, like it had been when the trapeze girls swooped above and mussed his hair, like the way he had imag­ined it when he left his moth­er in Peszka to walk all the way to Moscow to become a clown for the peo­ple.

The crowd point­ed and roared with laugh­ter when they saw what looked to be anoth­er red-faced clown in Cheka dress emerge from the wings with out­stretched arms, stum­bling awk­ward­ly as he chased Bim around the stage.  Now this was fun­ny!  This was what they had come for.  It was worth trudg­ing through the snow­drifts and endur­ing the freez­ing weath­er to see these two clowns bum­ble about in a par­o­dy of pur­suit and fear.

 

Bim was flat on his back at the edge of the stage, his head cocked at a crazy angle, and his blood dripped through the boards.  The crowd prob­a­bly hadn’t heard the shot, but they had seen the smoke rise from the bar­rel of the gun.  And they had seen Bim jerk back and hold onto his neck; they had seen Dzerzhinsky walk away with his back towards them, grab Yanov, who was sway­ing with faint, and pull him off into the dark­ness.  What an act, they thought at first, far far bet­ter than Bim’s recent per­for­mances, in which he had made unin­ter­est­ing jokes about Switzerland and the Ukraine and the bad cook­ing of some of the wives of some of the mem­bers of the Bolshevik Central Committee.

Bim’s last thoughts drift­ed qui­et­ly, then lodged some­where around the bridge of his nose.  He was think­ing of the Great Ekkles and his paper buck­et.  How ridicu­lous, he thought, how sil­ly to think you could get by with a paper buck­et in these advanced days of clown­ing.  The peo­ple will no longer stand for such rub­bish.  He blacked out for good with the image of him­self wag­ging a fin­ger at the Great Ekkles, abashed and on his knees before him, in the midst of a promise nev­er again to com­pro­mise the dig­ni­ty of his pro­fes­sion.