A Clown in the Drive-Thru
That summer I was working at one of those Taco Bell / Pizza Hut hybrids and I’d tell people (many would of course ask) that I just simply liked to Líve Mas and one way of doing so were continuous attempts to truly Outpizza The Hut — that I liked to be within hands’ reach of a Crunchwrap Supreme and/or personal pan pizza for 40 hours a week, give or take.
They’d generally look at me quizzically with maybe a little bit of worry and then neglect to take the conversation any further, which was kind of why I’d engineered that as my canned answer — though I can also honestly say that the sentiment was true and I had the blood pressure and cholesterol figures to prove it.
Not a knock on that kind of establishment at all, but I did understand why people would wonder about my working there. I don’t think anyone would earnestly argue that very few people aspire from childhood to work the drive-thru of a Taco Bell / Pizza Hut in a small town in the middle of a midwestern state, especially not at 33. (Or at least not after childhood; as a kid it sounds like a pretty dope job, especially if you know the food is free or discounted.)
But I also think almost everyone out there has some sort of understanding of what it’s like for things to happen in life that get in the way of or completely crush whatever aspirations you have or once had.
Sometimes you have to pivot, right? And that’s where my series of pivots had landed me at that point in time.
One day I had just decided it was time to move back home. (Well, maybe not home, exactly, but the place I had grown up. I’d say it never really felt like home, but nowhere had, so how did I know what home felt like, really? Maybe I was home everywhere. Or nowhere.) I didn’t have anyone or anything holding me back, which was partially why I had made the move in the first place. I needed to shake things up. It didn’t have to be permanent if I didn’t want it to be. My only real hesitance was just the thought of how it might be perceived, my returning to the place I was from. For a second I worried that people might think of it as me having given up, which I kind of had, actually, but then I reminded myself that I didn’t (or at the very least shouldn’t, I’ve had varying levels of success) care all that much about how I was perceived, especially by certain people from back home who had once vaguely known me and now knew me even more vaguely still, via social media, where I must admit I was, at least at that time, living more of my life than I was out in the actual real world, though I’d adapted a persona and these people were seeing me through an unreal lense. (Unless of course I actually was who I was on social media and not out in the real world, not vice-versa, which I admit was a possibility.)
Just before I’d made my return, my uncle, in a pivot of his own, had purchased the Taco Hut or Pizza Bell (as we affectionately or dismissively referred to it). He offered me a part-time job there in exchange for a tenancy in an apartment building he’d also purchased. I don’t pretend to think this was above board, but I took the deal. I don’t have many scruples. I had no rent obligations, and I was able to live off of savings and the occasional freelancing gig.
One day I was manning the drive-thru, as one does, when next in line came a clown.
That’s right. A fucking clown.
In the Taco Hut drive-thru line.
I could see him on the grainy video monitor when he pulled up to the microphone to place his order.
He didn’t carefully scrutinize the menu. He had a rather robust order locked and loaded that he fired off after leading in with a pleasant, “How are you doing today?” I figured he was a regular and I hoped, by the quantity of his order, that he wasn’t going to dine alone on a coffee table in front of a TV, but that he was taking a treat home to his big-ass clown family. (I was not confident that this hope rang true, though. It takes one to know one, you know?)
I gave him his total, told him to pull up to the next window where we would complete the transaction.
When he did, I identified him right away — recognized the guy even though I hadn’t seen him for years, maybe even longer than a decade. Face paint isn’t the most reliable of disguises, I guess.
“How the fuck do people not immediately just know who Superman and Batman are?” I thought to myself as I got out ahead of his order by starting to fill a couple jumbo Mountain Dew Baja Blasts. It was a flaw when it came to a lot of superhero stories, the notion that people wouldn’t recognize a person without his glasses or if they could see an entire half of his face. I guess when you’re watching something like that you adopt a sort of suspension of disbelief, or you’re not going to enjoy it.
Then I thought about how it was a good thing I didn’t have a phobia of clowns, which is a pretty common thing. My cousin always hated them and if it had been her working the drive-thru that day she would’ve went running before he had the chance to say so much as “Cheesy Gordita Crunch.”
I’d have done the same if a gigantic spider had come in for a meal.
I was talking earlier about how people pivot and our aspirations change when life gets in the way, but never in my wildest dreams had I thought I’d be waiting on Chase at a Taco Bell / Pizza Hut while Chase was dressed as a clown.
I’d recognized him immediately.
This despite the facts that I hadn’t seen him in person in at least eight years and i’m pretty sure he didn’t have much of a social media presence.
I mean, me and Chase used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders.
How could I not remember that face?
We’d shared many a communal shower in our formative years following athletic practices and events, and had even been tangential friends who, while not particularly close, had gone to the same gatherings, even held up a leg each and counting off the seconds for people engaging in keg stands. I had a brief flashback to a middle school sleepover with a bunch of dudes where he challenged everyone to a masturbation race, last to ejaculate being the loser — something that if more people knew about would probably keep him from getting much work as a clown, long ago as it was.
There are plenty of stories out there about the fall of the high school quarterback, the people who peaked in high school and went way downhill afterward, in a startling and rapid fashion (can’t say i’m not one of them), but how one goes from being a four-star highly sought-after recruit because he had a gun for an arm and a real acumen for threading the needle to a double-covered receiver, in or out of the pocket, to someone who (I assumed) spent his weekends making balloon animals for kids at parties was beyond me, but not beyond the pale, I guess.
He had always, after all, had a penchant for overdoing it with the eye black, using it more as pseudo-warrior face paint than for its pragmatic purpose of reducing glare from the sun and stadium lights. And he’d never been particularly funny, but had always enjoyed attention, so maybe the clown thing made some semblance of sense. It was a stretch, putting these two things together, but sometimes that’s the way it goes.
I noticed he was driving the same Ford truck he’d had in high school, from which we were just about 15 years removed and had been at least five years old back then, and it didn’t look all that much worse for the wear. I wondered if he still had that set of silicone truck nuts dangling from his trailer hitch and made a note to check for them as he was pulling away.
When he pulled up he was distracted, going through his wallet to pull out the appropriate card with which to pay, but as soon as he retrieved it and made a motion to hand it to me, we locked eyes and I could see his instant recognition.
“MOOOOOOOSEEEEE,” he yelled, a play on my last name that had stuck as a nickname when, during freshman year, our football coach had mispronounced my surname and given me said nickname before I could properly correct him on the pronunciation. (Eventually, so many people fucked up the pronunciation, about 50 percent or so on first try, that I stopped correcting anyone altogether. Sorry, Dad.)
I could feel my coworkers turning to look at the commotion. It wasn’t a surprise to have someone yelling shit at the window, but it was when their tone was excited in a positive way and they weren’t lobbing creative obscenities.
“Is that you, dude?” he said, in a totally normal voice that did not at all fit with his garb. A clown out of character is kind of a confusing and even harrowing thing to experience. Then he leaned over, away from me, and let rip a stream of spit into a cup occupying his center console. (Never thought I’d see a clown chewing Copenhagen.) “How the fuck are things? Long time! Last I heard you were over there in New York or something. You still dip Kodiak?”
He was pretty animated and seemed honestly kind of jubilant — and not in like a drugged up way. And while I trust that people do get pretty elated when they’re on the cusp of snagging a big-ass bag or two from Pizza Bell, I hoped this wasn’t the best part of his day.
I took his card and swiped it while I said that things were okay, that I couldn’t complain. That I’d moved back from New York a few weeks ago and was doing what I was doing while I figured out my next steps, that actually a while back I’d been writing ads for a competitor of the Taco Bell / Pizza Hut franchise but had burnt out a bit and had some bad experiences and had come home to lick my wounds. Also that I still dipped Kodiak like a fiend.
(I didn’t tell him I’d unceremoniously left my job after my girlfriend — who quickly became my ex — admitted to me in a moment of guilt that she had made out with my boss at our holiday party while I was on an “emergency” call with a client in a different timezone about a typo someone had made in a social media post.)
“Oh, so are you like, kind of like Don Draper or something?”
I hadn’t pegged him as a Mad Men fan.
“No, I’m more like the guy Ginsberg who loses his mind and hacks his nipple off in Season 7, to be honest. You know, more junior, not as great of a presenter as Don. I actually got let go from that and didn’t feel like really trying to find another spot in the industry just yet, so now here I am.”
“Cool, cool, cool,” he said. “Not a bad gig, right?’
“I mean, could be worse.”
“Always could be.”
“That’s the truth. And, you know, it’s just for now. We’ll call it a gap year. You uh, you coming from a party?”
“And I’m having one tonight. You should come by, actually.”
“Just some people from around. Nothing too wild. I won’t be dressed like this. It’s for adults. Teachers and administration mostly.”
“I’m the assistant principal of the middle school and the district athletic director,” he said. “So that’s kind of my crew, by proxy.”
“Maybe I’ll stop by.”
“Do it, man. Teachers get surprisingly wild.”
His food was being bagged and I was about ready to hand it off. We had other people in line. Never a dull moment at the Taco Hut.
“Hang on, I’ll text you the address.”
He grabbed his phone from the cupholder not holding the dip cup and scrolled for a couple seconds.
“I still have your number! Got you in there as ‘Moose,’ even still, after all these years, my man!”
“Yeah, you actually already know where it is. We moved into my folks’ old place when they went down to Florida full time.”
I wanted to say, “Oh, the same house where we had that weird beat-off challenge?” but I refrained.
“I’ll see if I can make it,” I said.
“Do it if you can,” he said. “Been too long, man. Gotta catch up. Happy you’re doing alright.”
I showed up to that party with several pizzas and taco party packs and a half-gallon handle of Jameosn and then I drank too much.
Met my wife, though.
Strange sometimes, where life takes you.