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  • I'm OK, You're OK
  • Daniel Mueller (bio)

When I opened the passenger door of his Plymouth station wagon, the clown in the driver's seat turned to me. "Tell me you aren't going to murder me," he said.

"OK," I said.

"Now that we have that settled," he said, "you might as well stow your pack in the back."

With an oversized prosthetic thumb he signaled over his polka-dotted shoulder. His other hand rested firmly on the steering wheel. Back then I was afraid of no one. I was twenty, had dropped out of college and was hitchhiking to Alaska to make my fortune seining salmon, though I knew next to nothing about it. Earlier in the day, my mother had dropped [End Page 30] [Begin Page 32] me off on an I-94 entrance ramp thirty miles north of the Twin Cities and sped away in her Volvo sedan, hurling gravel behind her. Neither she nor my father wanted me to go, and they had tried to dissuade me from leaving by imagining all sorts of gruesome scenarios. What if someone put a gun to my head? What if I was in a car with jerry-rigged locks? What if I was picked up by an Ed Gein who could see me only as bowls and lampshades and furniture upholstery? Always the what-ifs returned to Ed Gein. My father, an M.D., had grown up forty miles north of Ed's hometown of Plainfield, Wisconsin, and from this believed he'd acquired unique insight into the workings of Ed's brain. I went to school with guys just like Ed. A guy like Ed will stop at nothing. You know this, right?

"Feel free to rearrange my stuff," said the clown. "I know it's a mess back there."

The backseat was folded down, the cargo area heaped with the props of his trade. Balloon pumps, squirting cameras and hula hoops. Devil sticks, dove pans and linking silks. Blooming bouquets, wilting carnations and spinning plates. Beneath all the novelties and gags, which I swept gently to the side, lay flat cardboard boxes containing electrical fuses of various types and ratings.

As I climbed in next to him on the passenger seat, the clown said, "Gig in Fargo. Kid's seventh birthday party."

I pulled the passenger door shut. "Cool," I said.

"You like clowns?" he asked as we gathered speed on the shoulder, then merged with the northwest-bound traffic. "You find them entertaining, do you?"

"Not especially," I replied, which brought a chuckle from him.

"You're not alone, buddy. And that's coming from someone who subsidizes his income handily by performing as one. Why, you wouldn't believe how many parents tell me, usually as they're cutting my check, mind you, how creepy my performance was. But they don't know creepy. I know creepy."

"What's creepy?" I asked.

"You wanna know what's creepy? What's really creepy?" With the same rubber thumb, which had been molded to appear infected with a dark red abscess to the right of the nail, he pointed at his forehead, painted white to an orange wig that gave one the impression of a scalp on fire. "What's going on in here, behind the makeup, behind the flesh and bone." He turned to me and improvised the snarl of a cornered cat, though his pair of dimples and heart-shaped smile remained as fixed as his round, red nose. "Scaring you yet?" [End Page 32]

"You don't scare me," I said.

"Not even an itty-bity bit?"

"Sorry," I said.

"Be a tough guy, then," he said. "See if I care."

Earlier in the day I'd been picked up by a divorce attorney on a Kawasaki KZ650 and a soybean farmer in a '57 pickup. The former had taken me sixty miles, the latter a mere twenty-three, though the amount of time I'd spent with each seemed about the same. The divorce attorney had treated me to a hamburger, fries and Coke at a Dairy Queen buffered on three sides by a granite quarry, and as he told...


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