Tickles the Clown had been intheMarines. He had seen things he wouldratherforget. Sometimes he would wake up in a cold sweat, convinced he wasbackthere. However, things weregettingbetter. A lengthy and painful therapeutic process had led him to the discovery that becoming a party clown was the solution tohisproblems. When he put on the make-up, it was as if he becameanotherperson. A happier, warmer,friendlierperson. A person who liked children, which had never been thecasebefore. Even when he had beenone. And so he had trained as a clown, taking workshops witha clowningtroupe. Why didclowninghelp? Maybe it was that the uniform was an inversion of hispreviousone. The make-up was a mask, but afreeingone. Or maybe it was something else. Tickles wasn'tapsychiatrist. The important thing was,itworked. He had also tried drag, but didn't take to it. For one thing, he didn't like the way it made himlook. Clowning was different, though he never would have guessedit would become a career. Among the people already in his life, not many knewabout it. Not that he was ashamed, it was just easier not to bring itup. He probably would, sooner or later, butnotyet. He found his few former Marine buddies the mostsympathetic--they all had or were looking for ways to cope, and knew on some level where he wascomingfrom. Otherwise, his only real confidante washissister. She was the only surviving relative that he was still in touch with, and the person who got him his firstfewjobs. It had been over ayearnow. He was almost an old hand--a veteran, he sometimes joked--but he could still be taken by surprise every sooften. This one time, he went to what seemed like a pretty typicalchildren'sparty. The parents both greeted him before thepartystarted. The father seemed nervous, which Tickles had learnedtoexpect. He had encountered parents before who had a fearofclowns. Usually, they wouldavoidhim. One guy tried to pickafight. He hadn't met any children yet that were scaredofhim. Presumably, when it came to children, people checked aheadoftime. With parents, it wasn't considered necessary, or else it was assumed they would hold up justfine. This dad heldupfine. He laughed a little too hard and his wife held his hand, tight, while he spoketoTickles. He wasgood. Tickles almost wanted to congratulate him, but it was unlikely he would take it as acompliment. He had arrived in costume, but the procedure usuallywas to go outside, or to a vacant room, until his services were required. But before this could happen, more parents came to drop offtheirchildren. One woman, Bernice,seemed especially excited to meet a clown, about as excited as her sonwasindifferent. Laughing even more than the father who was hosting the party (and surreptitiously hiding at the far end of the kitchen), she touched his costume, and asked ifhe had a flower that sprayed water, and if he would spray it on her. Slightly embarrassed, he did assheasked. She seemed to enjoyit. More people began to arrive, so he went to the room he had been allotted, where hisequipmentwas. He was surprised, on opening the door, to see a boyinthere. They stared at each other for amoment. "The party's downstairs", said Tickles, and the boy shuffled out past him and down the stairs. *** Twenty minutes later, Tickles alsowentdownstairs. The party proceeded in much the same fashion as they usuallydid. Most of the children and some of the adults seemed to enjoy theshow. Balloon animals were birthed, people got wet, and when it was all over, he went back to the roomupstairs. He was changing his clothes when he noticed hiswallet wasmissing. He went through his things three times and couldn'tfindit. Searching desperately around him, he saw it, open, on the floor bythedoor. He picked it up and lookedthroughit. His cards were still there but he was missing all hiscash. Remembering the boy he had encountered, he hastilyplaced the wallet in his pocket andhurrieddownstairs. Maybe the boy's parents would bethere. Theywere. But on seeing them, he realized it would be a mistake to confront them or the child, so he went to the hostess. "I don't want to cause any trouble, but I'm missing the money from my wallet." "What?" She looked into the wallet. "I don't know what to say,"shesaid. "I can't imagine anyone here doingthat." "I know who did it," he said, "But like I said, I don't want to cause any trouble." "Are they here?" He gestured towards the boy who had been in the room, who was at this moment quite clearly watching them out of the corner of his eye. "I saw him in the room before the party started," said Tickles. "It might have been someone else, but I'm sure it was him." She frowned, and patted him on the shoulder. "You wait here,"shesaid. "I'll take care ofthis." She went over to the boy andhisparents. Tickles took a deepbreath. Suddenly, he heard a voice behindhim. "Hi there!" He turned to see Bernice. "It is you," she said, "Isn't it?" "Yes," hesaid,smiling. He suddenly felt a bit safer seeing a friendlyface. "I saw some of your act," she said. "It was great." "Thanks." "I might actually, um... I might want to book you for something, if you're interested." "Definitely. I have a card--" He reached into his pockets but a hand grabbed him and swunghimaround. It was the boy'sfather. "What the hell are you saying about my son?" the man said. "How dare you throw accusations around?" Tickles focused on his breathing, remaining calm. "All I'm saying is, I saw him in the room--" "Sowhat? Anyone could have goneinthere! Maybe you fakedit! Thought you could get a little extra money by accusing an innocent child, is thatit?" The man was standing very close now and kept poking Tickles with an indignant index finger. "Please don't poke me like that," said Tickles, "I'm just--" "Don't you tell me what to do, you clown!" The man gave him a shove, and Tickles instinctivelyhit him back, knocking him ontheground. The room wentsilent. "I'm so sorry..." Tickles reached down to help him up, but the man slapped at his hand, and slowly got up himself, yelling heatedly about assaultandlawsuits. The hostess tried to calm him down and looked at Ticklesapologetically. "I think you should go," she said. Henodded. As he left the house, he could feel all their eyes on him, and his career in clowning coming to anend. *** When he got back to his flat, he was at a loss forwhat todo. Finally, in an attempt to unwind, he exercisedand showered, and thenhecleaned. He went out with some friends and drank and complained, and came home andpassedout. The next morning, he was woken up by the sound of the phone ringing. It wasthehostess. She apologized about the previous day, and he apologized for punching one of her guests. He was hoping she would say his money had been returned, but she couldn't get the father to agree to anything. She was relieved she had been able to talk him out of a lawsuit, and Ticklessympathized. He had no parties to attend today, so he stayed home and looked through the job ads until he got another phone-call. This was from Bernice, who told him the hostess had givenher hisnumber. She seemed veryconcerned. "How much money was it?" she asked. "About 500", he said. "Oh my God. I bet that little shit did steal it.I've heard some stories about him. His parents just make excuses for him too. I'm so sorry." "It's fine,"saidTickles. "To be honest, I'm more worried about word getting outaboutthis. It might stop me from getting work, and I really need thisjob." "Oh, of course!"saidBernice. "I'm sure nothing like thatwillhappen. Actually, I might have a job foryou. Would you like to meet up sometime and have a talk?" This was unexpected--Usually, people would just give him a date and ask if he was available, but Tickles wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. "Sure," he said. "Are you doing anything tomorrow?" *** The following evening, he found himself waiting in abar. When Bernice arrived, she was dressed as if she was going for ajobinterview. Tickles started to think something was up here. But once she recognized him, she was friendly, and insisted on buying himadrink. It was the least she could do,shesaid. So she bought him a drink, and thenanother. They talked about themselves forawhile. He told her about his past, without talking too much about the PTSD, and she talked about her life, her recent divorce, and her son, who she wasdevotedto. He asked about the party, and she said she was hoping to arrange it for the next week or two, and then asked if he had a range of costumes, or if it wasalways the sameone. "It's always the same face," he said, "but there are a few different outfits." "Could I seethem?" He didn't usually sample his outfits for people, butshe seemed pretty eager, and he was less than sober and lessthan inclined tosayno. They ended up going back to his place, and the rest was ablur. *** When he woke up the next morning, he hadaheadache. She was gone, but there was an envelope on thebedsidetable. On the outside was written: "I'm sorry, I had to go, but I'll callyou. I felt so guilty about what happened that I had to give yousomething." Inside the envelope was money. Still holding the envelope, he went to get a painkiller. He threw it back in front of the bathroom mirror, and then caughthisreflection. He was in his full clown gear from the waist up, with the make-up on, if a little clumsilyapplied. Obviously she had done itforhim. He looked at the money, a few hundred bucks, and at his reflectionagain. Bernice's party never did happen, but at least his career wasn't over.