𝗧𝗵𝗲 𝗜𝘀𝗹𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗼𝗳 𝗗𝗿. 𝗕𝗼𝘇𝗲𝗮𝘂
𝘣𝘺 𝘚𝘵𝘦𝘱𝘩𝘦𝘯 𝘋𝘦𝘢𝘯 𝘐𝘯𝘨𝘳𝘢𝘮
The ice cracks lightly in my gin and tonic. Beads of condensation on the glass reflect the liquid orange sun kissing the horizon. I sit on the patio of the seaside restaurant, bored and looking to leave. The two insurance agents from Boise in town for a conference lean toward me with impish grins, the lower half of their faces ruddy from that day’s round of golf.
“So I told Bruce here about your story,” the first insurance agent says. “The secret island. Back in the 80s. You have got to tell it again so he can hear it. I can’t do it justice.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “It’s getting late.” I made the mistake of humoring this man, whose name I had already forgotten. I told him my story to pass the time as we lounged on the patio, if nothing else because it was easier at my age to sit and ramble on than to stand and move on balky hips.
“Come on,” says the man, motioning to the waiter for another drink for me.
“All right,” I sigh as I reach for my cigarette, take in a long draw and exhale a defeated plume of smoke. “I’ll tell it again.”
I watched helplessly from the life raft as the bow of the Sea Scone dipped below the oily surface of the water. Advertised as a sailing yacht, it was in fact a small, old cruise ship whose crew tried too hard to make the onboard experience “vintage-y”. I told the waiter he was sure splashing around a lot of brandy when making cherries jubilee tableside. He ignored me. The ensuing conflagration when the match touched the pan quickly engulfed the dining cabin and soon the entire ship.
Shuffleboard cues, Hawaiian Tropic bottles, and luggage irrevocably separated from its owners bobbed around us. By “us” I meant myself and the one other occupant of the raft. Why just the two of us in the raft? I wish I knew. I took a different exit from the dining cabin than the rest of the panicked horde and found myself facing an empty life raft. Unseen hands pushed me in, and when the raft splashed into the water, I discovered there were only two of us. The ship went under rapidly. I saw no other survivors in the moonless sea.
I took solace that the other person in the raft was a crew member. A seafaring man! He could guide us to salvation. Then I discovered he was a cabin boy. Only his third time on a ship. Eddie was his name: dirty blond dreadlocks, khaki shorts, a tattoo of a cartoon bear peeking out from the bottom of his flowered crew shirt as he lay back on the other side of the raft. I didn’t know at the time how significant the tattoo would become.
“Daamn,” Eddie murmured. “What happened?”
“There was a fire. That’s all I know,” I said. That, and we were stranded in the South Pacific.
Eddie’s head lolled lightly as if he was just lazing on a float in a backyard pool, strangely content. I was far from content. We had two bottles of fresh water, three cans of emergency kit rations, and no prospects for rescue. One day became the next as we bobbed on the open water. The sun beat down on us mercilessly. Eddie slept most of the time. My ears and lips were cracked and bleeding, face scorched. I lost track of how many days we were out there. I was delirious, awaiting death.
Finally, a small island came into view. We awkwardly paddled toward shore. The vegetation lining the beach was thick, fiery red flowers topping bushes shadowed by what looked to be coconut trees. Eddie rolled into waist-deep water and pulled the raft onto the beach. The sand was the color of bone china, peppered with black volcanic rock.
We dropped onto the sand and lay there, panting, trying to get our bearings. “Gonna get a coconut,” Eddie said, after a bit. He inched up a tree with a bowed trunk while making hooting noises. I rolled my eyes and looked around for signs of habitation. The island appeared deserted.
A figure appeared a few hundred yards down the shore. Startled, I motioned for Eddie to come down from the tree. He slid down, beaming, holding a large green coconut. “Got one. Now, how do we open it? We had somebody on the boat who did that.”
“Not now. Someone’s coming.”
“All right! We’re saved!”
There were two men. “Hullo!” one of them shouted.
“Hello!” I shouted back, my voice raw. My heart leapt. “Our ship sank! Can you help us?”
The men said nothing in reply as they continued to walk toward us. I waited for them to approach, as I didn’t have the energy to close the distance. The man who called out to me was tall and thin, in yellowed linen pants and shirt, clean shaven. His companion I couldn’t readily describe. He had a dark complexion and walked with a shambling gait. When they stopped before us the companion revealed a wide nose and imposing brow—Ernest Borgnine came to mind, for some reason. A shock of reddish hair fringed his otherwise bald head. He wore a loose-fitting suit of thin fabric with faded stripes, a daisy drooping from the lapel of his jacket, and looked ahead vacantly.
The first man extended his hand. “Thomas Maclean. Sorry to hear about your ship. Damned ill luck, that is.” His accent was Scottish, dark blond hair sun-whitened on the ends, face and neck rough and pinkened like a conch shell. He handed us a canteen of fresh water which we eagerly consumed.
“I’m George Thompson,” I said, smacking my lips from the water. “And this is Eddie . . . I’m sorry, I don’t know your last name.”
“Okay, then. Eddie. So, all of you live here?”
“We do. We have a . . . research facility on the island.”
“Oh. All the way out here?”
“Yes. The remoteness suits our endeavors.”
“Interesting,” I said, eyeing Maclean’s companion, who he made no effort to introduce. “What kind of research?”
“I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to discuss it. Intellectual property, have to be careful, you know. Industrial espionage and all that. In any event, it’s a privately-funded operation. The whole island, it’s all privately owned.”
“I see. Well, you see our predicament. We’re cast up on your shores and are at your mercy. Could you see your way to putting us up until we can make it off the island?”
“Yes,” Maclean said slowly, frowning and rubbing his thumb along his chin as he looked away, then back to me. “Yes! Of course. We’ll make arrangements for you and your friend.” He paused. “I must warn you, though. This is a secure facility. We will expect your indulgence.”
We went down the beach some distance and turned onto a path that cut inland through the jungle. Eddie glanced at me with raised eyebrows, dreads stiffened by saltwater arcing Medusa-like around his head. Maclean’s swarthy companion followed, lightly grunting as he padded behind us. The jungle parted to reveal a small collection of buildings. Constructed of lava rock, castoff pieces of wood and metal, and palm fronds, the compound was rustic but tidy. I didn’t see any sign of human life.
“You’ll stay here,” Maclean said, motioning to a stone hut on the outer edge of the compound, its low roof brushed by overhanging trees bearing large green globes of fruit. “This area,” he pointed to a series of buildings surrounded by a steel fence, “is off limits. No exceptions. You must keep to the ocean side of the compound at all times. Understood?”
I nodded, puzzled at Maclean’s suddenly despotic manner. Eddie and I collapsed on the mildewed hammocks hanging inside and slept the rest of the day.
We were awakened by Maclean’s companion putting out water and food for us on a bamboo tray. I realized how famished I was and jumped out of the hammock with excitement. Then I saw the offerings on the tray: hot dogs and stale popcorn. I guzzled the water but ate the food without enthusiasm.
“You come,” said Maclean’s companion.
I flinched when the fellow spoke for the first time. “Excuse me?”
He grunted and cleared his throat, as if steadying himself for an activity requiring great effort. “Tomorrow,” he said in a guttural voice. “You come. Dinner. Doctor house.”
“The doctor, you say. Who would that be?”
But he retreated with his empty tray and did not answer. Slap! Slap! went his shoes as he left. I turned to see Eddie happily eating a hot dog as he thrust his hand into the large wooden bowl of popcorn.
Eddie chuckled. “Kinda like the food you’d get in a circus.”
We slept fitfully that night, the insects of the jungle delighted to discover new flesh delivered up for their eating and biting pleasure. I awoke with red welts on my arms and legs.
Muted squeals and stifled grunts emanated from the gated area the next morning. We dared only venture on the trail down to the shore, heeding Maclean’s warning. I saw some movement in the brush among the fiery flowers visible when we first came ashore. I took a step toward the brush. Whatever it was scurried deeper into the jungle, jostling the red flowers in its wake. We squatted in the bay and let the saltwater salve our stinging insect bites, then napped the rest of the day.
Maclean’s companion trudged up to our hut at dusk. We had put on the change of clothes provided to us—old ugly Hawaiian shirts and baggy khaki shorts, as if someone’s aunt and uncle on vacation from Iowa had abandoned their luggage. We followed him to a large, square lodge on the other side of the compound and to the patio behind it, which was covered by a faded candy-striped awning. Maclean was there to greet us, standing erect with his hands behind him.
“Welcome, gentlemen. I do hope you’re rested up. I took the liberty of mixing us up some gin and tonics. I hope that’s to your liking.”
“Wonderful!” I said. “I was so tired of Singapore Slings on the ship.”
“Good. The quinine will do you good as well. Thompson, why don’t you sit by me.” He motioned to the bamboo table. “Eddie, you sit there. The Doctor will be with us shortly.”
“Now, who is our host?” I asked.
Maclean looked at me intently. “Dr. Bozeau,” he said carefully. “He owns and operates the facility.” He looked away to the dark jungle and then back to me. “Brilliant man. A bit... misunderstood by many in the research community, I’m afraid.” He sniffed. “Too far ahead of them.”
I turned to Maclean’s companion. “And I’m sorry, I never got your name.”
Maclean’s companion mumbled in response.
“That would be Clarabelle,” said Maclean, looking down as he swirled the drink in his glass.
Eddie snorted as he guzzled the rum punch offered him as an alternative to the gin and tonic and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
Maclean looked behind him and rose from his seat. “Ah, here we are.”
I stood up to receive our host, expecting a dotty academic in a lab coat. I was wrong. Onto the patio strode, or waddled, a tall man with a pasty expression—no, it was pasty makeup. Plumes of rust-colored hair projected from either side of his chalky pate. He wore a baggy, faded, blue jumpsuit, a limp white collar which noodled out in all directions from his throat, and large shoes sanded to a pale brown. I could not for the life of me comprehend this vision all at once. Dumbfounded, I stood and extended my hand, robotlike.
“George Thompson. We appreciate your hospitality, Dr. . . ?”
“Bozeau. It’s Belgian. You’re welcome. Sit down.”
We sat down to the table and I tried to regain my composure. Dinner was soon served. Some real food this time, grilled fish and some sort of pounded root vegetable. I answered a few questions about how we ended up on the island, but couldn’t really focus yet. Who was this man? Bozeau spoke in a high-pitched midwestern American accent as weary as his attire. His mouth and nose were streaked with rouge. Everything about him was wilted, sun-bleached. I drained my gin and tonic and poured myself another, trying not to stare. I got just drunk enough, easy enough in my weakened condition, to summon the courage to say what was on my mind.
“And so, what kind of doctor are you?”
Maclean sighed and Bozeau looked at me sharply. “I’m a medical doctor,” said Bozeau.
“Oh, really? I have many doctor friends. Where did you go to medical school?” I could tell this line of questioning was annoying my hosts, but I was too addled to care.
“Medicine is my second career. I don’t care about pedigree.”
“I’m sorry, where did you say-”
“Grenada,” Bozeau interrupted, irritated. “I went to med school in Grenada. Got out just before Reagan invaded. Too bad, too. I had a good thing going there for awhile. Anyway, I’m here now.” He cast a sideways glance toward Maclean, who looked uncomfortably down at his plate. We made small talk as the evening wore on. Bozeau’s manner grew bitter and downbeat. Any talk of American culture sent him into a rage.
“Morons!” he railed at one point when I mentioned a new comedian I had seen on American television recently. “They get cheap laughs with dirty words or pretend to be smarter than the audience. Humor today consists of insulting the crowd. No art to it. No sense of tradition, no respect for those who came before. It’s quick gratification, forget the consequences.”
Bozeau took a long drink, leaned forward and hit the table with a gloved hand.
“This society is in desperate need of the art of physical comedy. Entertainment that’s visceral. Vital! That’s not out there today. So someone’s got to re-create it. It’s not going to come from normal channels, so there has to be a new way—”
“Dr. Bozeau,” Maclean said softly but insistently.
“Sorry, Maclean. Well, Thompson, my Caledonian friend reminds me that I’m talking too freely. I’ve had a rough day, and now I’ve had too much to drink. So I’ll bid you adieu and hit the hay. Clarabelle!”
Clarabelle appeared from the recesses of the patio to clear the table and Bozeau shuffled into his lodge, muttering and scratching his side.
“Apologies,” said Maclean. “The Doctor had an experiment go awry today. He’s very upset about it. Well, I’m sure you’re all exhausted. Tomorrow we’ll discuss arrangements to get you off the island. Next supply ship is due in a week. Good night.”
“Good night,” I said as I shook Maclean’s hand. I hadn’t noticed before that he trembled slightly.
Eddie was silent throughout the dinner. “Wow,” he said, as he and I walked back to our hut. “He looks a lot worse than he used to.”
“Than he used to? What, you know him?”
“Sure. That was Bozo the Clown.”
My mind reeled as we sat on our hammocks. I brushed away a spider hanging down from the thatched roof. “Wait, do you mean that the Doctor is—used to be—”
“Didn’t you watch TV when you were little?”
“No. My parents were music professors. The TV was off except for the Met Opera and Leonard Bernstein.”
“Never mind. Tell me about this clown... person.”
“OK, this was the deal. We’d come home after school, turn on the tube and get our Bozo fix. Real hambone circus clown stuff. Even as a kid I thought he was kinda corny, but it was a grin. Yeah, Bozo... then his show went off the air and he disappeared. Never thought about him again. And now here he is. Kinda cool.” Eddie wrinkled his nose. “And kinda weird.”
“Hmm. And now he’s a doctor. Doing ‘experiments.’” On what? For what purpose? And who, or what, in God’s name was Clarabelle?
I woke the next morning to the din of seabirds and the tide washing the shore. In my dream I was sitting up in a silk-sheeted bed in a tropical resort smoking a cigarette, a beautiful naked woman lying belly down next to me with a contented smile. The stark reality hit me when I opened my eyes and Eddie came into view. He sagged over the side of his hammock, nose inches from the sand crystals below, dreads now drooping down like sea anemone seeking krill. Spittle extended in a line down from his fuzzy chin to the ground.
I was restless, curious about what Bozeau had said the night before. I left the hut and idled up to the edge of the fenced compound. Clarabelle was carrying some supplies in, his back to me. I slipped in behind him before the automatic gate clanged shut. I was now inside the off-limits area.
Clarabelle shouldered his way through the door into a long building. I followed him and sneaked in undetected, now intoxicated by my little caper. An antiseptic odor tingled my nose. He disappeared down a long dark hall. Music drew me down the hall, hushed at first, then louder as I approached, swirling music like what you would hear on a carousel as a child. I saw crusted tools and soiled gauze on a table in an empty room along the way. Finally, I came to the source of the music: a room behind a thick bamboo door painted with a red X.
There was murmuring on the inside. I pushed the door open ever so slightly with my fingertips. Suddenly the door was thrown open from the other side. I recoiled from the blinding white light and saw Clarabelle holding the door. There stood Bozeau, a latexed hand holding bloody forceps. In his other hand was the rubber bulb of a large clown horn. A moaning creature, gauze wrapped around his head, was strapped to a table before Bozeau. A red bulbous nose protruded from the wrapping. Heavy brown fur covered the unwrapped portions of its body.
“What are you doing here? You fool!” Bozeau cried. The beast became agitated and with a powerful upward jerk popped its restraints. The freed creature knocked Bozeau to the ground and hurtled toward me. A large paw shoved me aside as it lurched out of the room.
“My God!” screamed Bozeau. “Stop him! He’s not finished!” Bozeau jumped up and ran after the creature, Clarabelle grunting behind. I swear I heard Clarabelle chuckle as he shuffled past.
I ran after them out of the compound and into the jungle. Undergrowth ripped at me from below, branches clawed at me from the sides, vines swiped at me from above. Chirps, hoots and cackles joined to create a spiteful cacophony around me. I couldn’t gauge how far away the sounds came from. The jungle vexed all normal perceptions of sound and light. I struggled forward, lost, panicked, alone. Then I came upon a clearing containing an assortment of crude huts. Each had a peaked thatched roof and sides of canvas scraps staked to the ground. A little village. Suddenly there was movement behind me, a blunt sound, then the smell of wet grass close to my face.
I came to sitting under a coconut tree facing the clearing. Woozy, I couldn’t focus my eyes yet. Figures milled about in the distance in strange, jerky movements. As the blurred images sharpened, bile hurtled to my throat.
The first figure I could make out appeared to be a large standard poodle walking on its hindquarters. Head cocked to the side, in a flowered hat, it hop-walked toward me in a baggy jumpsuit, open mouth pulled back, the tip of its long pink tongue curving upward. Next was a large cat-like creature in a harlequin costume, stepping lightly on slippered hind paws, tawny tail swishing behind diamond-painted pantaloons. In front of them stepped a large bear-like beast, fiery orange hair encircling round furred ears. Wearing the greasepaint of a hobo clown, long rumpled coat dragging behind, it tripped slightly as it lumbered one large shoe in front of the other toward me.
I now understood what kind of research Bozeau did here.
Too weak to run, I lay against the tree, coughing just short of retching, and awaited my fate.
The bear-clown bent down and peered at me closely, foul breath steaming my nose, then stood back up. “It is a man!” it growled.
Upon hearing this, as if on cue, the other village occupants clustered before me. A rusted miniature fire engine was wheeled out of one of the huts and the bear-clown produced an armful of coconut halves painted with fire department insignias that the others put on their heads. The poodle climbed onto the roof of a hut and yelped. Or was it saying “Help”? The ersatz fire crew then went into motion.
After calming down, I realized they were performing, for my benefit, their captive audience of one, the old circus routine in which a fire engine full of bumbling clown firefighters rescues a stranded party. I was horrified, yet fascinated.
Then it dawned on me it wasn’t red foliage I had seen in the brush edging the beach. It was these creatures. With red noses. Watching us.
An orangutan-clown, naturally endowed with Bozo hair, clung to the top of a rickety bamboo ladder extending from the fire engine. As it plucked the poodle from the top of the hut, the ladder snapped and all went tumbling onto the ground. I couldn’t tell if the broken ladder was part of the act or not. The rest of the troupe bumbled about, ran into each other and threw buckets of confetti in each other’s faces. The routine complete, they stood in a line and bowed. I started to clap, then stopped my hands mid-air at the absurdity of clapping for a clown animal performance in a jungle. Then I clapped anyway. The troupe members bowed again and scurried away. The bear-clown remained.
“I am the Sayer of the Law,” he proclaimed.
Unsure of what he now intended, I stood up warily, blood pulsing in my head. “You know the Doctor, of course,” I said.
“His is the House of Fun. His is the flower that squirts.”
I nodded. This was definitely Dr. Bozeau’s domain.
“Don’t steal another’s joke,” the bear-clown continued. “That is the law. Are we not Funny Men?”
“But aren’t you—”
“Don’t curse. No blue. That is the law. Are we not Funny Men? Don’t turn your back to the crowd. That is the law. Are we not Funny Men? Always keep your gloves on. That is the law. Are we not Funny Men? Don’t smoke while in clown. That is the law. Are we not—?”
A loud crack came from the jungle behind me. The bear-clown disappeared. Bozeau emerged. He looked at me and sighed. “Are you alright?”
“I think so,” I said, rubbing the back of my head.
“How did you find this place? Did they bring you here?”
I shook my head. “I stumbled upon it. Who are—”
“This place isn’t safe. They’re not fully formed yet. They know just enough to be dangerous.”
“I’m sorry. I wanted to know what was happening here.”
“You should have come to me if you were curious. You’ve undone a lot of my work with your intrusion.” He exhaled heavily, his expression now more conciliatory, and held up a hand. “Come back with me and I’ll explain.”
We sat in a darkened room in Bozeau’s lodge. Yellowed circus posters hung loosely from the walls.
“There is something in the nature of the clown that appeals to the unconscious,” said Bozeau.
“It’s physical. A sensory experience. Not all these mind games these comics play nowadays. A clown engages you directly. I decided to create what was not being provided out there anymore. What do you do when no one is interested in pursuing the clown’s life? At least, no humans? Well, I began experimenting with animals. They’re quick learners, really. Just had to take care of the physical aspect of things.”
“Pigmentary disturbances, nose bulbing, grafting... A lot of electrolysis on the really hairy ones.”
I shuddered. “But how do you justify the pain that you inflict?”
“The giggling. When I induce the giggling, that’s the hardest part. Then I see who’s strong enough. Those who survive that, thrive and live to make others laugh.”
“But the suffering—”
Bozeau put up a hand, reached behind him, picked up a frying pan, and pinged himself on the head with it, never breaking eye contact with me. “The pain is insignificant, really. A small thing to overcome in pursuit of the greater good—a really good belly laugh.”
I tried to summon a chuckle, but couldn’t.
“Funny bear,” said Clarabelle, the next morning, pointing at Eddie.
“You like this?” said Eddie as he slowly sat up in his hammock.
Clarabelle stood over Eddie, holding our breakfast tray in one hand, and pointed at Eddie’s exposed belly. It was the tattoo, a pink bear with a saw-toothed collar and empty grin, high-stepping in acid-fueled nirvana. I now recognized it as some sort of emblem of a rock band. But that’s not how Clarabelle took it. Eddie bore the mark of one of their icons. It was a talisman.
“Funny bear,” Clarabelle repeated, and then padded away.
“What do you think monkey boy wanted?” Eddie said to me.
“He means to praise you,” I said solemnly, though I was joking.
We had breakfast and walked to the shore. I meant to talk to Maclean about the supply ship and what was being done to get us off the island. Something lay in the path to the beach. It was a broken unicycle, the wheel bent, a pedal missing, the frame broken in half, as if the thing had been torn apart by powerful hands. I began to feel uneasy. Why had someone destroyed a unicycle?
I heard a scream in the distance. Eddie and I ran through the jungle toward the sound. The vines slapped our faces as we ran. Spots of red in the shadows of the foliage streaked by along the way. They could have been clown noses, they could have been tropical flowers, but I was too startled to know what was what in the moment. We came to the village I had discovered earlier. In the middle of the clearing stood the escaped beast I had seen Bozeau experimenting on the day before, holding a large mallet. Bozeau lay still before its feet. The other animal clowns swayed in front of their huts, restless, looking at each other. The beast seemed to be confused, and made a hitting motion in the air with the mallet. Bloody bandages partially unwound from his head hung around him like maypole ribbons. We froze, not knowing if we were in danger.
Maclean rushed in behind us. He saw Bozeau and stalked forward holding his head in his hands. He looked at the beast sharply. “Oh, you goddamn doaty, you idiot, oh, goddamn you!” The beast dropped the mallet and staggered away. Maclean knelt down next to Bozeau and stroked his head lightly.
“It’s supposed to be a rubber mallet for the gag,” Maclean moaned. “A rubber mallet.” He touched the bloody steel head of the mallet resting on the grass. “Rubber,” he said softly.
The villagers, alarmed at the commotion, began to grunt and shriek, their animal natures taking over. Maclean rose, mumbled about something he had to do and ran back toward the compound. Eddie and I remained, uncomfortably, watching the villagers, who were now watching us. We backed away slowly. The bear-clown appeared and looked down at Bozeau’s body with a mournful expression. Then he looked up and trundled toward us. He pointed toward Eddie.
“I think they want something from you,” I said.
“What do they want from me?” Eddie said.
We were about to turn and run when the bear-clown stopped and got down on one knee before Eddie. He reached forward, palm up in reverence, and tugged Eddie’s shirt up to reveal the dancing bear tattoo. The bear-clown turned and showed the tattoo to the rest of the villagers, who gasped and jostled.
“His is the House of Fun,” the bear-clown said to the villagers.
“He is the Law! He is the Law!” the villagers responded, and rushed toward Eddie. I was pushed away in the bedlam. They bowed to Eddie, hugged him, patted him on the back roughly, then lofted him onto their shoulders and started to carry him away.
“Hey! Hey! Whoa!” yelled Eddie. He looked back to me. “George, what the—”
“Eddie!” I called out. “You make the Law! Remember that! It could save you!”
“I make the Law?” He said something else but I couldn’t hear him anymore over the noise of the crowd as the distance between us lengthened.
The villagers marched away holding their new god aloft with upraised gloved paws. There was nothing I could do to stop it. The animal clowns were large, aggressive and obviously capable of mayhem. I hoped for the best for Eddie and headed toward the compound.
I sprinted headlong through the jungle. Suddenly a figure jumped in front of me. I threw up my hands in terror. Between the fingers in front of my face I spied another one of Bozeau’s creations: a kangaroo. But not a clown facsimile. A mime. The white oval of its face was bisected by a mouth drawn as a thin black line, tiny arches painted above its eyes. It wore a tight horizontally-striped shirt. A hellish Marcel Marceau outback mutation.
“Are you from the village?” I asked, shaking, ready to dive into the brush if it moved my way.
In response, if it was in response, the creature danced its gloved paws before me, stretching out on huge hind legs to shape an invisible wall between us. I could see that it took tremendous discipline for it to engage in such fluid motions. But the illusion was not complete: its actions were that of an automaton, as if yanked by unseen puppet strings. It stared at me goggle-eyed throughout its performance. It mimed looking through a window, then walking up stairs, then it bowed and jumped into the brush. I was left alone, scared for my life. I proceeded on to the compound.
The automatic gate into the fenced area was stuck open. I wandered around the compound. I heard laughing. The sound came from Bozeau’s lodge. There I found Maclean, slumped in a rattan chair in front of a television, a large bottle of gin on the floor next to him. Playing from the TV was a grainy black-and-white videocassette of Lenny Bruce performing a nightclub routine, smoking, mumbling, whining, turning his back on the audience.
“He’s everything Bozeau was against,” said Maclean quietly, who threw back another glass of gin and roughly squeezed some juice into his mouth from a lime half, dribbling much of it onto his bloodied shirt. A padlock from a bamboo cabinet door hung open, and a pile of labeled videocassettes had poured out: Dick Gregory, Don Rickles, George Carlin. I kneeled down and picked up a Sam Kinison tape.
“It was his secret cache,” Maclean continued, his accent thickened by alcohol. “He’d let me watch with him sometimes. When he needed to recharge, to appreciate again what he was fighting against.”
“Did anybody else know?”
“Oh, na, na. The villagers, they could never see something like this. After the procedures, they’re delicately-tuned machines. Seeing these images, hearing these words, so contrary to their training and what made them who they are, it would short-circuit them. People finding humor in what the creatures had been taught was humorless. They’d go doolally.”
“What do you think they are now?” I said, feeling the anger rise in me.
Maclean paused and raised his chin. I wonder what he thought his purpose was now. Was he the inheritor of the realm? Or the master of the ruin? “They are the holy fools,” he said. “The angelic buffoons.” He looked out into the thrumming darkness beyond the patio, then turned back. “The innocent jesters. Who the world may never have the good grace to know.”
I left Maclean with his booze and forbidden tapes and stumbled down to the beach. The rest of the night I sat in the sand crying, rocking in terror and confusion as I hugged my knees. I heard animal shrieks and what might have been human screams and saw the glow of a fire above the treeline.
Only after the sun rose did I dare go back to the compound. Maclean, or what was left of him, lay in the grass outside Bozeau’s lodge. Inside, the TV played to an empty room of overturned chairs and smashed glass. The video player had been damaged and was stuck; a video of Richard Pryor pacing a stage played on an endless loop, his audience laughing hysterically. The villagers must have seen it. Here was all that they knew as forbidden—the cursing, the sarcasm, the drugs—yet the audience was cheering. How could that be? And then they did just what Maclean said they would. And he paid the price.
I stumbled upon an abandoned boat behind one of the compound buildings— who else had washed up unawares on this abyss? I threw in some supplies found in the medical building and pushed away from the island. I had no plan, but I had to get away from there. The boat topped the incoming surf and bobbed into the prevailing currents. Smoke trailed up to the sky from the island, the emerald hell I had left behind. The promised supply ship came by in a few days and picked me up. I never saw Eddie again.
“And now here I am,” I say, my words slurring. The insurance agents, spellbound, stare at me with their mouths slightly open. The patio overlooking the beach has now emptied out, stars dotting the sky above the black void of the ocean before us. Our waiter flashes us a closing-time look as she upends chairs onto tables.
“I mean, that story was even better the second time around,” the first insurance agent says, breaking from the spell, his frozen Margarita melted into a phosphorescent slurry. “Goddamn!”
“Did that really happen? All of it?” says the second insurance agent.
“I only wish it hadn’t,” I say. “I think my life would have taken a different turn.” Churlish at having had to perform for free drinks, I resent these two men, so at ease in their paunches and their casual drunken condescension. They glance at each other and awkwardly swish around their lukewarm drinks. The TV over the bar runs a story on the local evening news about a circus coming to town. Images of trapeze artists and clowns gaping at the camera flash onscreen.
At the sight of the clowns I wince. “Could you turn that off, please?” I call to the bartender, who is wiping down the bar and bagging trash. He shrugs and clicks off the TV without looking up. Trembling, I fish into the pack on the table for one more cigarette, discover it empty, and crush the pack in my hand. ✦