My eighteenth birthday began with a bang. I stumbled down the hallway, groggy and half asleep only to slip on a banana peel. I went down with a thump. Dad hopped out of the kitchen, his thumbs in his suspenders as he paraded around with laughter.
I grumbled as he helped me to my feet. “Never gets old, does it Dad?”
“Nope,” he said, brushing me off. I could tell by the way the wrinkles in his forehead grew soft that something was on his mind. While Dad was great with the pranks, he had a tough time with the other stuff.
“So, first off, happy birthday son,” he began. A blast of the plastic horn in his pocket. I rolled my eyes.
He fidgeted with his corsage, his eyes darting about. It was painful to watch.
“Well, uh, you’re an adult now, Nokie, and your mother and I think it’s time we uh…”
With all the racket, I hadn’t noticed Mom, on the couch, stroking her silky blue hair, “Oh just come out with it Barry, it’s not like he doesn’t suspect something.”
“Quiet Lula!” Dad snapped.
Then, regaining his composure, he straightened my nose. Enough of this, I pulled away. “Dad, what’s going on?”
“Well son, as an only child, you probably have noticed that some things are uh, different about us than your classmates.”
“Different?” I brushed past him into the living room. “I’ve been called a freak since I was in the fifth grade.”
“Yes, uh, well freak is such an ugly word.”
“Oh for Pete’s sake,” Mom finally looked up to me. “You’re a clown sweetie.”
I turned to Dad, whose eyes fell to his size 29 shoes. Meanwhile something was burning in the kitchen.
“It’s true son,” he said gravely. He rushed past me and dashed into the kitchen. A series of crashes and bangs ensued. A bell jingled. Something whistled then fizzled. Dad returned to the hallway, his red hair tinged and smelling of burnt plastic.
“Son, this is a good thing,” he started, pulling out a clump of gooey hair. Be proud of your heritage. You come from a long line of entertainers.”
Mom snorted. “Oh brother, we do birthday parties Barry, not Carnegie Hall.”
“A gig’s a gig, woman, and I haven’t seen you twisting up any balloon animals lately, not since you got all chummy with that Bozo.”
“He had his own show, Barry.”
Dad disregarded her with a wave of his hand, his shiny black eyebrows to the ceiling. “Anyway, son, I just thought you should know.”
I arrived at Miller Prep Academy in a fog. A clown. I should have known. Jake my best friend—my only friend, found me at my locker.
“Dude, Mr. Wheeler wants to see you. Some balls man, wearing that bow tie. Today of all days.”
Jake gave it a squeeze and a stream of water splashed him in the face.
“Mr. Boopsey, can I have a word with you in my office.”
We turned to find the wrinkled scowl that was our dean, Mr. Wheelie. He curled a finger and I followed his rigid steps into his office where he shut the door and motioned for me to have a seat.
“What’s with the getup today Mr. Boopsey? Might I remind you of our strictly enforced dress code? This is a preparatory school, not a circus.”
I slouched, deflated as a spent whoopee cushion. Mr. Wheeler had been gunning for me since his arrival at the beginning of the year. But no matter how much I tucked and preened, I always stood out. Mr. Wheeler started in with the usual jabber about rules and codes, adhering to standards. The prestige of the school. He was just about to point to Headmaster Miller’s bust when I heard a commotion out in the hallway. The tinny sound of a horn. The deliberate plodding of large size 29 shoes. The unmistakable voice.
The door swung open.
Springs uncoiled and cymbals crashed. Mr. Wheeler’s eyes bugged out, two golf balls dangling from their sockets. His jaw hit the desk and his tongue rolled out like a red carpet on opening night. I turned to dad, then back to our dean, who’d retrieved his tongue and eyes and had fixed his face into an unmistakable mix of fear and disbelief. But underneath it all, as he cleared his throat, stuttered and stammered into a greeting, through the sweat on his forehead I noticed what looked like a splotch of white.
Dad yanked out a pocket stop sign.
“Save it Wheelie. Now what’s this I hear about you giving my kid a hard time?”