For Kevin by Matthew Burnside
Eliot was not like other clowns. Cut from the circus for acute melancholy, he sold his big red nose and took up spirits, sinking himself to the bottom of bottles until his malady banished the beautiful howls of children from his heart—that mystic medicine known as laughter which had once lit his blue eyes wide with joy. Night after night, the depression crept back like a stubborn weed, strangling the tiny echoes of big top guffaws and applause within his memory. One evening, in search of a bottle, he crashed into a man selling tonics from a collapsible case on the sidewalk. Step up! Step up! the old man instinctually tripped into his pitch: A cure-all for the savage blues is what I vow right now! So our perpetually-down clown relinquished all the valuables to his name for a single opaque vial. In his motel room he pored over the prescribed directions: (1) DO NOT IMBIBE INDOORS (2) DO NOT IMBIBE ALONE (3) DO IMBIBE STANDING ON THE HEAD. Standing on the? Willing to try anything, he stretched on the cold curb and popped the cork, readying for a passer-by. Posing himself inverted against stained brick, he swallowed quick until the miracle juice sluiced into both nostrils, causing him to keel over while a crowd laughed loud enough to eclipse his crippled cough. To hear such a reaction was like experiencing music again for the first time and, hunting down the conman, he shook his hand. Your fine product saved my life tonight! he admitted, before absconding to the pawn shop in search of clown clothes and the reddest nose. In such a world, comedy was free-of-charge: no circus required to elicit stitches in the sides of strangers.
Eliot was not like other mermen. Not the strongest swimmer, he paddled everywhere in fluorescent floaties hovering above the waves where no self-respecting merman would be caught alive. Dangling his trident by a safety cord from his hip, he took every precaution to ensure he’d never have to brave the bottom of the ocean. When he found himself dodging harpoons from a father and son on the surface, hunting for fins and other exotic trophies to confirm the myth of merman existence, he tucked his tail and dove beneath the fizzing blue to escape slaughter. It was at the precise moment Eliot considered swatting off his floaties to save himself that the hunter’s son fell overboard, sinking like a cannonball to the deep nadir. Above him, Eliot could hear the father begging the god of the heavens and earth to do something, anything, his hands clasping together through a blur of briny billows. So Eliot thrust himself down toward the twilight floor, adrenaline dragging the floaties against their own buoyancy, until he scooped up the child. When upon the waves his boy appeared, a safety cord wrapped around him connected to a trident wearing floaties, the hunter knew what fate had befallen the merman. Instead of returning to the boardwalk to sell off their prize, they sailed to a secret island where they put the trident to rest. On its tombstone was written: For a brave and noble creature of the sea.
Matthew Burnside‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, > kill author, PANK, Gargoyle, Contrary, NAP, and others. His chapbook, Escapologies, is forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks. He is managing editor of Mixed Fruit and an MFA fiction candidate at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He keeps a list of his sins at http://www.matthewburnsideisawriter.tumblr.com