My grandfather was a clown prophet. I mean he was a clown. A literal clown. He wore clown makeup. And he foretold the end. Accurately.
John, the Puranas, Snorri Sturluson, Nostradamus, any of those apocalypse writers—they didn’t know shit. The guy who really knew the magic, the guy who really knew about how the end of the world would come, was my grandfather. A piece of white trash from Detroit who dressed like a clown and rapped about a world after our world in which the evil were chopped to bits. Little bleeding bits.
The ones who did the chopping were clowns. But there were butchers, too. But they weren’t always human. But they were coming. My grandfather knew that. Him and his best friend Shaggy told anyone who would listen. And a lot of people did. More than you’d expect. Their band and their beliefs attracted people from every rotten trailer park in America. Their followers numbered in the thousands.
It was a religion about fake killing. And by that, I mean my grandfather’s band rapped about killing, but never actually killed anyone. They might have been thugs, but they weren’t evil. It was a religion about fake insanity. Everyone who was a clown was “psychopathic” even though they weren’t really. They might have been outcasts, but they had emotions. And a conscience.
It was a religion about real clowns.
My grandfather rapped about hate for his entire life, but really what he brought together was a group of people who needed to be loved. And he loved them. And they loved each other. Because no one else would. He was like Jesus to these kids and grown-up kids.
He said, “Yo, The Butchers are coming and they will judge, but before they do: I love you. I love your broken arms, I love your nasty unwashed hair, I love your bummed cigarettes and your beer guts, I love your ugly, and let’s make it more ugly and be as covered in acne scars and skin tags as possible because the beautiful have disowned us but they cannot kill us.
“The uglier we get, the scarier we get. WHOOP WHOOP.”
And they did get scary. But they never got dangerous. Because even though they’d never say it this way, being a clown was about being a decent fucking human being.
• • • •
I was looking for my grandfather. And I was looking for my father. I was making my way through Detroit, heading downtown to my grandfather’s compound. I turned from Lawndale onto Whittaker and checked my map while I stood next to a crushed house. The house looked like it got hit by a meteor that burst a hole in the roof and collapsed the building. But then, instead of burning the house with fire, it burned the house with graffiti. The grass around it looked more like wheat.
It was Devil’s Day, the day before Halloween when all the kids used to go out and burn down abandoned houses. No one went out anymore. There was no one left. All the houses were abandoned.
Almost everyone was dead. Almost everyone was judged.
The only people left alive on Earth were the people who believed in The Dark Carnival. When The Carnival came to end it all, the clown family was spared.
I pulled my ratty, hole-filled, and grease-stained hood over my head. It started to rain. It rained Faygo. The oceans were Faygo.
I would have killed someone if it meant I could take a shower. I would have actually killed a person if it meant I could take a fucking shower and stop being sticky. Granted, if I did kill someone, the Judge Clowns would come for me because in The End Times killing was a capital offense. I would have gotten the bladerings and the fire juggling and if I had any hands left after that I would have gotten the hatchet. Then they would have killed me. But it would have been worth it. For a shower. To be clean. Just for a few minutes. One thing my grandfather never said about the apocalypse was that it would be so fucking sticky.
• • • •
Before the world was over, my father was a clown apostle and so was my father’s partner Monoxide Child. They rapped about The Carnival, too, and my grandfather told his followers that my father’s word was just as good as his. And the followers didn’t accept it at first. But eventually they accepted Monoxide and my father like they accepted everyone else. They all worked together for years.
There were other apostles. But my father and Monoxide were the favorites.
After sixteen years, my father and Monoxide left my grandfather’s record label. It was supposed to be a graceful leaving. But a leaving like that can’t be graceful. After such a long time, my father was aching for a reason to leave, and my grandfather was aching for a reason to want him to leave. The anger made the leaving easier.
Both sides were bitter. Both sides were still clowns. Both sides were still ugly. But something was shifting.
Followers of the two had to choose. Either my father or my grandfather, no compromise. The family was dividing. In a way, it was dying. The family wasn’t a single unit of dropouts and burnouts and misfits and lonely kids who got almost beaten to death in high school bathrooms, covering their faces with their forearms and trying to keep as many teeth as they could while boots slammed into them and they smelled their own snot and the dust of pubes and ancient dehydrated piss behind the toilet. Those kids had to pick a side. They had to hate the other side. If they picked my father, they had to hate everyone who picked my grandfather. And vice versa. Even though the kids on both sides just wanted a place where they felt safe. Even though all the kids were the same.
It wasn’t ugly vs. beautiful anymore. It was ugly vs. ugly.
• • • •
Laughter and the sound of chains mixed in with the patter and sizzle of the soda-rain. I didn’t want to deal with a Carny. They were rough. They made you show them your tits. It was how they could tell if you were lying or not. They looked inside you through your chest.
They were sickening.
It was against The Law to hide from them. But I wasn’t in the mood, and I definitely wasn’t taking my shirt off in the rain. I wrapped my hand in a faded blue Faygo-stained towel and I smashed the window of some old house. I cleaned the sill as much as I could and climbed through the jagged square. I ran up the too-narrow stairs and found a bathroom. I locked myself in.
I sat on the toilet and looked around, waiting for the devil to pass.
If he found me, he would smile when I unhooked my bra. Carnies enjoyed it. That was what made me nauseous. He would have seen into me and through me, through my chest and into my insides, and he would have known what was moving in there.
He would have gotten hard staring at my chest, but he also would have seen the thoughts I didn’t want him to. He would have seen what I was planning. He would have stopped me. He would have carried me half-naked to a Puzzle Box. And I would have been Judged.
• • • •
I took the old, dried soap from the seashell soap holder and looked it over. I cleaned off the shell. Underneath the years-old soap scum the colors of the shell were pretty—strange, warped circles of almost glowing blues and browns. I ran my finger over the faintly textured ridges of color. Rain ran and popped through the gutter.
I heard footsteps heavy on the stairs outside the bathroom. Lurching. Like shoes in a washing machine.
I quickly wrapped the shell in a plastic bag and put it in my backpack. It was hard to find soft things like that. There were no more seashells. The only things that washed up on beaches were knives. Clam was just another word for what was between my legs, not an animal anymore. Pretty much the only colors were smoke and blood. It was nice to have something quieter. Something that wasn’t sticky.
The Carny ripped the door out of its frame.
“Yo little ’lette, what’s you doin’ in this closet?”
He was too big to fit in the bathroom. His breath smelled like Cheetos. Pieces of popcorn tangled in his stringy, faded green hair and he had a name tag pinned to his apron that said “Hi! I’m at your service.” The “at” and “ser” were struck out with a Sharpie that was just sun-faded enough that you could still read what it was supposed to be covering—Carnies slept outside. A chain was wrapped around his leg and trailed behind him down the hall.
“Just waiting out the rain,” I said, “And planning on peeing. Before you came in.”
At first, his chapped lower lip shoved into his upper lip, like two shedding caterpillars fucking themselves into a frown. And he started nodding. Then the nodding got a rhythm.
“Yo! Chain! Hit me with a beat!”
The part of the chain around his ankle dragging in the hall moved on its own and started slamming into the walls of the hall—back and forth—cracking the drywall and paint in the same rhythm as his nodding.
Carnies only spoke in shitty rhymes. It was another one of their really endearing qualities.
“I’m walkin’ down the street on Devil’s Day
Tryna find a bitch who owes Hell some pay
And along comes this ’lette
Who means disrespect
She runnin’ from me, hidin’ in a fucking toilet.”
I stared up at him for a while. He just kept nodding his head while the chain smashed into the walls, almost in time. You couldn’t kill a Carny. But you could hurt them. And if I was going to get past him and out of the house, I was going to have to do something. He was technically right. Hiding from a Carny was a punishable offense.
“Do you know who I am?” I said.
The chain slamming stopped. He didn’t look happy. I shivered in the silence. I set my left foot behind me, as subtly as I could. I got ready to get hit. He raised his hands to the top of the door frame and I flinched, but he didn’t hit me. He started slamming the eave with both of his hands, shaking the walls, punctuating each hit by screaming a syllable:
He lowered his hands and glowered at me. Off somewhere in the distance, some other Hell-thing offered a “FAM-I-LEE” in return, muffled by the miles and walls between us.
Basically, what he meant was:
“Yeah. I know who you are. But you broke The Law. And you’re going to get treated like everyone else in our family who breaks the rules. Because we’re all equals.”
“So, your name is Your Vice, right?”
He nodded, looking a little less pissed.
“I know I fucked up. But. I was really into your lyrics—”
The chain interrupted me—slamming in time again. He sneered and started rapping:
“Chunky bitch takin’ a sit to piss
Actually hiding from me, now she diss
me ackin’ like she give a fuck what comes out my mouth.
How ’bout I tie her down and cum in her mouth.”
He wouldn’t. He couldn’t, actually. I hadn’t broken enough Laws. But sometimes Carnies got a look. A look like they didn’t care about The Laws. And it made you wonder how strict The Laws could be when they were written by clowns.
“Mr. Vice?” The chain stopped so he could listen. “I know that’s what juffalos say when they’re fronting—they try to compliment what a Carny is spitting to get off the hook.”
My juggalo-dialect was ugly. I wasn’t raised using it, so it sounded terrible. My mother used to say that it sounded like I was a straight-edge, middle-aged housewife in a pantsuit trying to relate to her wayward teen kids. I told her that’s because that’s how I feel when I talk to devils in white face-paint.
Still, Your Vice started nodding and said, “True bitch. True bitch. True bitch. True.”
I kept going, “But I was actually saying it because I have a mixtape and I wanted you to check it out.”
His expression changed. He was interested. Carnies couldn’t pass up a good mixtape. And even if we were all equal in the FAM-I-LEE, a mixtape by the granddaughter of Violent J was irresistible to a low-order police demon.
I had him. The motherfucker was doomed.
• • • •
After the schism my grandfather tried to reach out to my father. He could see that the family was in jeopardy. He was worried about the hatred that was profaning what it meant to be a clown, what it meant to accept those that no one else would accept. He was worried about how much of the divide was his fault.
He tried to organize shows with my father. He organized a march on Washington for Clowns’ Rights—clowns had been recognized by America as a gang and it was messing up a lot of clowns’ lives. They were losing their jobs, being kicked out of the military. Clown discrimination was at an all-time high.
My grandfather invited my father to come to the march to show his support. Clowns’ Rights were important for both sides of the schism, he said.
My father declined. Monoxide called the march a marketing stunt for my grandfather’s band. He said the march had nothing to do with Clowns’ Rights. It had nothing to do with The Faith. It was just for money.
And honestly, it might have been. My grandfather may have been a prophet, and he may have been a good man, but he was a man. And his followers were leaving him. His favorite disciples had abandoned him. He needed a way to stay relevant, a way to bring more freaks into the fold. So they would march, and even if he said it was about all clowns, it was really about clowns under him.
• • • •
The march happened. Clowns’ Rights got changed, but not really. Scum is always going to be scum to the powerful. They shuffled around the letters of the official position on clown gangs. Like an anagram. But all the letters were still the same.
• • • •
Eventually the schism widened. When it was clear that there wouldn’t be a reconciliation between my father’s faction and my grandfather’s faction, decisions were made on both sides about how they would dress from then on. Because there had to be some way to tell who was on what side. So my grandfather’s clowns kept the old ways—Tripp clothes or no clothes, dreadlocks and grime, a rainbow of knotted hair and fishnets. Distorted parti-color clown-goth.
My father’s clowns quit color. Black and white were the only options. It was a statement about purity. They were the real clowns.
There were fights between the factions. Some were closer to wars. The family was dead.
• • • •
I pushed the gun and the seashell and the pens and the other shit from my bag around while Your Vice watched me. I pulled out my headphones—some shitty plastic things that I had to duct tape together because the headband had snapped. I plugged in the CD player. I looked at Mr. Vice.
“You’re gonna have to kneel down so I can get these on your head.”
He rapped before he kneeled, more quietly this time and without the chain.
“Cute little bittie got a mix tape for me.
Tells me kneel down and bump my track and see
if you like it Your Vice cause I gotsta know
if you dig it be-fo
you beat my ass and leave me on the flo out cold.”
I couldn’t tell if he was reminding me that he was still angry about me hiding, or if he was sorry that he had to follow The Law and beat the shit out of me for it.
I put the headphones on one of his ears—his head was too big for them to reach both. His hair left grease-shines on the plastic. He smelled like a basement mosh pit in summer.
I pressed play. I zipped up my bag as the track started playing. Mr. Vice looked upset.
“The Dark Carnival is loud as fuck
and my ears get bumped and bumped and bumped,
so the tracks I love get fuzzed and tough
to hear socanIgetsomefuckin’ volume in here?”
He actually seemed pretty ruined by that. Carnies were things made of music. Shitty, man-slime, white-washed rap music. But still. If he had trouble hearing what was a part of him, that actually did suck.
I turned it as loud as it would go. The first thirty seconds was an intro beat. He started nodding his head to it. The chain rattled, but it didn’t hit the wall. It shook when the cymbals hit on the track.
I got ready.
After thirty seconds the beat stopped mid-phrase and Alanis Morrisette’s “You Oughta Know” started blaring from the speakers. Your Vice’s ear touching the headphones started to sizzle as his skin burned. His eyes got huge, like angry bloodshot jellyfish, and he screamed so loud that I couldn’t hear anything but ringing when he finally ran out of breath and had to inhale.
He smashed around the hall as Alanis told him all about Mr. Duplicity. His chain started bashing wildly around. He dug at his head with deathwhite knuckles trying to get the headphones off his head, smashing his head and his arms through the drywall in different parts of the hall, grabbing a dusty photo frame with a picture of a baby in a Humpty-Dumpty onesie from a hallway table, smashing it, grabbing the glass hard and trying to cut off the headphones from his head. The initial burn had cauterized the foam onto his ear in a nasty bubbling mess, and now they were fused to his head.
You couldn’t kill a Carny. But they were things made of music. If they hated a kind of music, it affected them physically. And if there was a musical enemy to shitty, man-slime, white-washed rap, it was Alanis Morrisette.
If they could die, Alanis Morrisette would kill them.
• • • •
After the schism and after they picked their colors and the family was dead, my mother saw my father in a bar. This was before I was born. And before they really knew each other.
The bar was the kind of bar where if you go to the bathroom and touch anything you’ll get gonorrhea, even if all you touch is the soap. They saw each other through the weed-smoke haze and my mother first noticed that his colors were wrong, then noticed how attractive he was, then realized he was her father’s mortal enemy, then decided she didn’t give a fuck about his colors or who he was. She came up to him in her lime-green dreds and looked him right in the black-and-white painted-on grin and told him to buy her a drink. They were like a clown-gang Romeo and Juliet. They never should have talked to each other. But they did. And they never should have gotten drunk. But they did.
I don’t know why my father did it. My mother said he wanted to hurt my grandfather one more way. But I don’t really know. Sometimes I forgive him. Sometimes I forgive both of them.
She got pregnant. And my grandfather disowned her when he found out who the father was. So she tried to find my father, but he couldn’t have it on the street that he had fucked the enemy—that he might have loved the enemy.
So she was alone. But it wasn’t that bad for her. Because as soon as I was born the Joker Cards stepped out of the dark and killed everyone who wasn’t a clown. I think my birth sort of caused all of this.
I was delivered by The Ringmaster. He killed everyone in St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Birmingham while my mother was in labor there, and he used bones from all the bodies to make a cradle and toys and anything else that my mother might need to keep me entertained. It was like a baby shower, if baby showers were real showers filled with blood.
I grew up in that hospital. Most of the world got offed pretty quick, so we could always scavenge the city around us for anything we needed. The demons mostly left us alone.
It was fine. Growing up there. But I needed something after a while. I needed more than just Mom.
I needed a family. And friends that weren’t bone baby toys. My mother wouldn’t leave the hospital and wouldn’t let me leave either. She said that she had no idea what kind of demons were outside Birmingham. She said that if she ever saw my father and my grandfather again, she would crack both of them like wishbones. And my idea of a family reunion didn’t involve two fourths of the reunion being dismembered by my mother.
• • • •
When I was eighteen, my mother and I were sitting in the cafeteria of the hospital eating dinner. The room was clean now. She had washed away all the carnage years ago. The walls were still stained a kind of brown and it still smelled faintly like bleach and vanilla from the year that she filled the hospital with every air freshener in the city to override the death-stench that hung in the air. I think that might have been what kept most of the demons away. The place actually smelled nice. Or as close to nice as it could.
We were eating microwaved chicken wing dinners because all the fresh food had rotted years ago.
“We should go to Detroit,” I said, not looking at her and brushing a stray corn kernel from my lap.
“I already told you. It’s dangerous. No.”
“It’s not dangerous.”
“Those things out there could kill you.”
“Why is death dangerous?”
My mother would sometimes stand on the roof of our hospital and look up at the stars. Her eyes would slip from one star to another like she was asking the sky what the hell was going on. But the sky was just a random mess of light. Things would bark in the street below. And when I asked her why death was dangerous, she looked at me like she looked at the stars.
She bit into the crackling skin of the chicken wing, shook her head and said, “Don’t say things like that.”
“It’s not though. We’re princesses of the apocalypse. We know what happens when you die. So why is it a big deal?”
“It’s a big deal because you don’t sound human when you talk like that.”
I stared at her. She didn’t wear makeup anymore and she didn’t have dreds, but she still dyed her hair. It was blue. It made her look younger than she was. But in that moment she looked so old. And tired. For once she looked like she should in the world she was in.
“Maybe I’m not,” I said, even though I didn’t mean it. Even though what I actually wanted was her to not say things that made me feel like an alien to the one sentient person I had ever talked to.
When I was younger, she was better. But I think the years of being alone messed up both of us pretty bad. And I could feel myself becoming something. Something separate from her. I wasn’t her kid anymore.
I stood up and left her there. I went to the third floor. That was my floor. And I packed my bag. And I pulled on my hoodie. Back when it was clean and didn’t have any holes.
That was the night I left.
The journey wasn’t actually that bad. It was long. But away from the cities it was quiet. If I needed anything I could just take it. The Carneys and the Ticket Takers and whatever else was out there didn’t need human things to survive, so whatever you wanted you could just walk up and take, as long as you didn’t mind taking it from a blood-filled apartment where the previous occupants had been Judged. And I didn’t.
Sometimes I would pick some batteries out of a TV remote in the living room of some poor twenty-something couple, and I would see what was left of them and think of what my mom said. I would think maybe she was right. I didn’t know how to relate to these corpses. The pictures of them smiling and skiing didn’t make sense to me. I wasn’t part of that world. When people were human. This was the reward for my grandfather’s faithfulness—a giant empty world where a juggalette could wander wherever she wanted and steal whatever she needed without ever going to jail.
• • • •
I ran through the rainbow of different flavored and colored rain drops and it stung my eyes. Mr. Vice was still screaming, and I could hear him from blocks away. So could other things in the city. Higher order beasts would be moving towards him. Now I would be given worse than a beating.
But if I hadn’t attacked him, he would have given me a full examination. Before he beat me for hiding from him, he would have made me undress and then he would have made me tell him where I came from. Who I came from. Why I came from. Everything. I ran until I threw up. Then I kept moving.
• • • •
I saw people standing on the street. People. Not demons. I slowed. They looked at me through dribbling clown-face, half melted by the rain. There were three of them, one woman and two men. They were standing at a gate. The gate was made of barbed wire and razor wire and balloon strings. They were holding assault rifles.
“Yo,” the woman said with a smoker’s rasp, “What’s a ’lette like you doing on the other side of the wall?”
I had never seen a person other than my mother. Not a living one. The rain pattered softly around us. The woman was beautiful. And so were the men standing next to her. They were dirty. But they were alive. I started laughing. And crying. They were confused. I didn’t care. I was so happy.
“I’m here to meet my grandfather!” I yelled, slurping my snot and still laughing. My tears were crackling as they mixed with the rain.
“Who’s your Papa, baby-girl?” she said.
I swear to God their jaws dropped. They actually all opened their mouths. I wiped my face and called out again: “Can I hug you?”
• • • •
They led me to the center of the compound. Their names were sUzi Buzsaw, XX and Thugfucker. sUzi held her gun in one hand and my hand in her other hand. She told me they had been waiting for me for years. She said I had my grandfather’s nose. Her hand was warm and wet. It stuck to my hand. Just a little. But sticking to someone else was nice.
My grandfather was in a building covered in shitty graffiti. According to my map, it was the “MGM GRAND.” But letters on the building had been changed so it said “ICP GRAND.” The right three lines of the first M had been hacked off to make it look like an I. The straight parts of the G had been cut to make it look like a C. The last M looked like an I, but they spray painted a loop on it to make it look like a P. Ladders of all sizes leaned against the building so “artists” could paint all over it. Most of it was clown names. And a lot of dead or dying black and white clowns.
My grandfather sat on a throne of plastic skulls next to Shaggy, who had a matching throne. There were a few lawn flamingos mixed in with the skulls. He was old now. I had only seen him in interviews and music videos from before the end.
He stood when I walked in. He shook his head. Then he just said “Baby?”
He started to walk toward me. He walked with a cane that had real diamonds hot glued to every inch of it. The top was a bottle of Crystal Skull that had been repurposed into a handle. He opened his arms open for a hug, still shaking his head, tears sitting in his eyes, but held back because he couldn’t cry in front of his retinue.
I shook my head and held out my hand to make him stop coming toward me. He stopped.
“Do you have a phone that works?” I asked.
“I—” his voice was raspy and shaking “—sort of.”
“Can you call my dad?”
His mouth twitched. Something like anger. Something suddenly sober.
I nodded. I put my pack on the floor and kneeled while I unzipped it, I could hear my heart pounding in my skull. My fingers bumped into each other and shook and weren’t moving exactly how I wanted them to. I took out the gun. I pointed it at my grandfather.
“Call him. Tell him I’m in charge now. Of both sides. Of the whole family. Tell him we’re a family again.”
And I shot him in the leg to make sure he knew I was serious.