Harry sat alone in the little house. It seemed larger now that Juanita was gone, which Harry liked. When she had lived there, they had fought day in and day out, and the house felt more like clothing that had shrunk in the wash. Now there was room for Harry to swing his arms and breathe deeply.
A car drove by the house. The vibration from the road rattled the old windows just slightly and rocked a little end table. A folded index card under the back leg of the table would have kept it from moving, but Harry had never noticed that the table wobbled.
What Harry did notice was the circus clown bobblehead on the table. It had been Juanita’s, and Harry supposed she had left it as her final gift to him. He didn’t want a farewell gift from Juanita, but a farewell gift had to be treated with respect.
Harry was wrong; Juanita simply neglected to pick up the bobblehead when she threw her things together and left with Maria, who was also leaving her husband. Juanita’s true farewell gift was not calling Harry a “godforsaken dumbass” one last time before slamming the door.
Because the end table rocked a bit, the clown bobblehead bobbled its cheerful head with the ebb and flow of the traffic. It also bobbled when Juanita slammed the door that last time, but Harry had not seen that.
Harry had never paid the clown much attention. It was simply there, like Juanita, only quieter and less demanding. But now that she was gone, it was — except for the images on the TV screen — the only thing moving, and so it caught his attention just as a crow notices something shiny.
Also, it was the one concrete reminder of Juanita in the living room. The dishes piling up in the kitchen reminded Harry of Juanita and how she used to wash them. The rapidly emptying cupboards reminded Harry of Juanita and how she used to bring food home from the store. The pile of laundry slowly gaining altitude reminded Harry of Juanita and how she used to wash the clothes occasionally.
Juanita used to sit on the sofa and watch the TV, but everyone did that and Harry could sit on the sofa and watch the TV without thinking of Juanita other than in terms of the extra space he now had. That is, until a vehicle went by and set the bobblehead to bobbling. He could not help but see it, from the corner of his eye, and invariably turned to look at it. Its brightly painted body held stock still, but the big, round head emblazoned with the gay colors of the circus nodded up and down and looked around as if trying, Harry thought, to find Juanita.
“Well, she ain’t here, and you can look all day for her without ever seeing her,” he told the clown. “She’s abandoned both of us, and good riddance.”
The clown kept nodding, apparently agreeing that the absence of its former owner was a wonderfully positive thing.
A couple of days later, Harry struggled to open the door to go inside his little house. His arms were laden with three heavy sacks of groceries. Once inside, he kicked the door shut, which set the clown to bobbling. Harry saw this and nodded back politely but perfunctorily. He navigated his way into the kitchen and let gravity take the sacks from him. They landed on the last clear spot on the kitchen table.
“Hate buying food,” he groused quietly. “Too much work. Now I gotta make it.”
He fished in a sack at random and pulled out a cheap store brand can of spaghetti and meatballs. He grudgingly rinsed out a saucepan and dumped the contents of the can into it to heat.
Harry took his meal into the living room, still in the saucepan to save washing a bowl.
“She always hated coming home and cooking after a day at the diner,” Harry told the clown. “But do my job and come home to cook. That’s what’s hard.”
A bus went by and the clown bobbled.
“She always complained about carrying home the groceries. Well, that’s fine for her to say, but I’m the one moving boxes around all day at the plant. It’s harder for me ’cause I’ve been lifting heavy stuff already with the forklift. I don’t need the extra work, you know?”
The clown appeared to.
“And on my day off — my day off! — I gotta get to the laundermat and figure out how to wash my clothes. But I can’t wash too many ’cause I guess I gotta be the one to pay all the rent now. I don’t miss her yelling at me and telling me how dumb I am, but Juanita did me wrong by leaving me to have to do all this house stuff. That’s not right.”
There was a lull in the traffic and the clown was still.
“You don’t agree?”
The clown continued to invoke the Fifth Amendment.
“What? You think I oughta have to do all this stuff and worry about things like rent after a hard day at the plant?”
A red light up the street had changed to green and the traffic picked up again, bobbling the bobblehead.
“Well, the hell with you, then!” And Harry turned away from the betraying clown and ate his spaghetti in wounded silence.
Harry did not talk to the clown for a couple of days, but he increasingly interpreted its bobbling and lack of bobbling as mockery. This shortened Harry’s fuse, and his boss yelled at him for driving the forklift as though he were at Talladega. His grocery bags on the counter were quickly emptying, so Harry meekly accepted the rebuke rather than spearing the boss and shaking him up and down with the forklift. Then he was mad at himself, for that image reminded him of the clown at home.
He slammed the door hard when he got home that evening, and the clown’s head bobbed frantically about. It was just like when Juanita used to nod her head and shout, “Oh, so you finally decided to come home. Lucky me! Lucky me! Thank you!”
“You quit that!” Harry yelled. The vibrations from the traffic kept jiggling the end table, however, and the clown kept bobbling. “Quit it!” Harry took three steps toward the clown with the thought of smashing it. Then he remembered that a farewell gift had to be treated respectfully; he was left with nothing to do but stamp his foot repeatedly, which increased the clown’s happy oscillations.
Harry retreated to the kitchen where he threw two encrusted saucepans and a handful of dirty silverware to the floor. He yanked the refrigerator door open and the near-emptiness inside reminded him he had downed his last beer two evenings ago. He slammed the fridge door and opened it and slammed it shut again.
Harry charged back into the living room and fell onto the couch. He put his head in his hands and emitted a bellow like that of a sick cow.
Minutes later, he lifted his face and found himself staring into the happy, malevolent face of the clown. Traffic had slowed and the bobblehead did not so much as twitch.
“You were a bad farewell gift,” Harry said quietly.
The clown made no reply.
“You hate me just like Juanita.”
A single car went past the little house and the clown nodded minutely.
To know he was hated by a happy clown broke something in Harry’s heart.
“You think I won’t ever be anything.”
A van and three cars drove by.
“You think I’m nothing but a selfish, lazy bum.”
A bus and a handful of other vehicles passed by the little house.
“You think I’m a godforsaken dumbass.”
Two semi-tractor-trailers rumbled down the street where Harry lived.
Traffic eased once more and the bobblehead gradually quit nodding and came to rest looking straight at Harry again.
“And she’s never coming back to me.”
The clown merely stared.
By the middle of the next week, Harry’s boss became curious enough about his absence to report it to the police. Two officers drove to Harry’s little house and peeked through a window. They called for an ambulance and forced the door open.
“What a botch job,” one of the paramedics muttered. “Must have taken him half an hour to strangle to death.”
“Sure can’t argue with the little sign he pinned to his shirt,” the cop said, and the paramedic laughed.
“ ‘Godforsakn dumass.’” And they both laughed.
As another paramedic wheeled in a gurney to collect the corpse, a clown bobblehead on a wobbly end table nodded merrily to itself.