Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #5, Winter 2000-2001]

critic clown
(From the novel published in 1999 by Iron Flour Press)

By Paul Vos Benkowski


With my mother being in charge of the weekend i knew that we would not be the only guests at the house. we were only two of many visitors. the weekend had suddenly turned into a small family reunion of my mother's endearing side of the family. all in all it was everyone i did not invite to my wedding and everyone i privately held a great dislike for. i knew that my father felt the same way so the two of us hovered around his well stocked liquor cabinet and held onto each other's company as drowning men would. we allowed the clown to drown with us as she discovered herself lost amidst a sea of questions as to what the wedding was like, why she did not bring photographs, why were certain people not invited, how was being a clown. she shook off as many people as she could then she came by us and retreated to the place where my father and i wallowed with our demons, catching up on sinking down. she felt comfortable with us, my father might have even enjoyed her company, though he hardly let on. he would lean over into her and point to some one lady in the mess of people and say, "see that cow there. see that waste of carbon. go ask her how much she weighs. go ahead, that's my wife's sister," and he would laugh and laugh and laugh until the clown could do nothing else but laugh along. i only nodded in agreement.

The weekend went on like this. my father and i immoble and drunk, the clown following our warped conversations, my weak younger sister moping around the house, hiding herself in corners, retreating into her room, leaving the house all together for long stretches at a time. she was brilliantly morose. she was more than i could have ever asked for. the clown liked my younger sister, she even followed her outside at one point and spent an entire afternoon with her. i do not even want to speculate as to what they talked about. i am sure they spoke in a foreign tongue. when they returned they stayed up very late with my father and me. long after everyone else had gone to sleep, even my mother fell asleep on the couch while we laughed at her sleeping with her mouth wide open. my father tossed peanut shells into her gaping mouth until she sputtered out a breath and woke to a room full of laughing faces. she hurried off to bed without so much as a good night, instead she let slide some sloppy remark that only a drunk mother could imbue. with my mother gone, my father started in on the clown. which was fine because she was well schooled by me and when he asked for tricks she amazed and when he begged for a laugh she split his sides. all of this was fine until she decided to astound us, and astound us she did. she grabbed a straight back wooden chair from the kitchen table and stood on its seat. she placed one foot on the top of the back of the chair and tilted it back so that she remained balanced on the two rear legs. then she balanced herself on just one leg of the chair. once she steadied herself on the one leg she reached down and with a strong, strong hand grabbed a hold of the chair and lifted her body up. the chair did not shake, her arm did not flinch. we all, my father, my sister, and myself, sat dumb struck. she snapped the fingers of her free hand and told me to get her juggling balls. i never moved so quickly. i stood up and nearly fell over from being so drunk, and rifled through her bag and found her four multi-colored balls. she commanded me to toss her a ball, then another. she moved these two balls in her one free hand as if they were on a string. then she asked for another ball and without skipping a beat she kept three balls in motion until we all remembered to breathe and she gently tossed each ball back to me and lowered herself to the ground. the clown no longer seemed so foolish and the winter months no longer seemed so wasted. the moments she spent away from me must have been filled with such trying practice, such relentless discipline, such grace. i wondered with whose eyes i watched the world with. i wondered how long i had missed this. i wondered who the clown was. for the first time, seemingly. they all clapped and cheered and questioned but left well enough alone. i sat stone faced, stone drunk, and steeped in wonder. i could not move to take her hand. i could not lift up my eyes to take her in. there was no thought or idea in my mind that gave me a feeling of worth to her. what was unknown became known. i stole away and hid my tears. [...]


[#16. to laugh grievingly]

It is no wonder to me now why i have so few conversations. the conversations i remember having are the ones i would most like to forget. which only seems to clarify my memory of them. it was a couple of seasons and we had not visited the critic's family. there were definite reasons as to why we did not go there. the first being that they could not live without talking about their dead son and brother, trouble. the second reason being that the critic did not like being around his younger sister. i bothered, his mother insisted, he gave in, and we visited for a weekend.

while we were there the critic's younger sister took me for a walk away from the rest of them. we walked along the river that ran behind their house. it was a muddy spring. we walked in silence for a long time. then she began talking. i heard her voice, as if for the first time.

"my brothers are fucked up jerks. well, one used to be a fucked up jerk and you married the other one."

i looked at her to see if she was laughing, but she was not. she was angry.

"you know, i couldn't believe that you wanted to marry my brother when I first met you. i still can't believe it. you are so nice and you are so beautiful and he's a fucked up jerk."

"you do not have to call him that."

"don't tell me you don't call him that."

"i do not call him that."

"not yet, you will though, you don't know."

"i know that your brother is a good man."

"he is not a good man. he is a bad man. and so was my other brother. they were both selfish jerks. mean spirited and don't tell me that you know because you do not know anything. i know and that is why i tried to kill myself."

"why did you try to do that?"

"because i did not want to grow into what those two had become."

"what did they become?"

"fucked up jerks."

"how do you know that the same thing would have happened to you?"

"because. i hate them all. my mother. my father. your husband, even my dead brother, trouble, i hate."

"you hate your father?"

i thought of fathers. i thought of my own. we stopped and i realized why she had brought me out into the woods, because she wanted to cry. and cry she did. she melted her shell and sobbed, swimming in her hatred. all i could do was look at her and think about how unaffected i was. almost as if i had never seen anyone cry before.

"you have nothing to cry about sister." i told her and i meant it.

she soon stopped crying, maybe when she realized that she was getting no reaction from me.

she sighed. "i read in the paper a couple of days ago about a young woman in india who was being abused by her husband so she hung herself and her three younger sisters hung themselves along with her in order to avoid the same fate that met their married sister. they hung themselves from the staircase. like christians' stockings." she thought a bit. "only they were hindu, so they were more like charms then, I guess."

she laughed grievingly.

"i would have just hung there."

critic clown can be ordered for $15
directly from Iron Flour Press
2401 North Berge Road
Cambridge, Wisconsin 53523


Paul Vos Benkowski lives outside of Cambridge, Wisconsin with his wife Jennifer and two sons Elijah and Soren. He is currently working on a trilogy of novels collectively titled The Northland Trilogy. Paul is a house husband as well. 

CBR Home | Reviews | Excerpts & Features | Guidelines | CBR Press