Updated: Apr 18
By James Morena
Last spring I purchased a longboard skateboard. I woke each morning, checked the weather, then slipped on my Adidas shell tops. I wore short shorts - my white, upper thighs fading into a caramel tan - so I looked hip on my eco-friendly bamboo board. I never skated as a kid. My best friend skated. He halfpiped. He kick flipped, ollied, fakie bigspinned, and all those other sick moves that attracted the grungy girls. And we loved the grungy girls. I wanted to drop in and tail stall and noseblunt. I wanted to go shirtless on summer days, building ramps from stolen wood and reused nails. I dreamed of growing my hair over my eyes and saying, what up, bruh. But I couldn't. I was too busy clowning around with my white father.
My father was a shriner. He went to homes for the sick and ailing. He went to Ronald McDonald Houses to entertain children. He drove one of those little, battery-powered cars in parades. He dressed in a rainbow-colored, vintage clown costume and painted a permitted frown upon his face. His clown eyes drooped. His shoes twenty-one inches long. His curly hair bright blue.
When I was ten, he had forced me to join his troop. Forced me to wear a bright-red clown suit. Forced me to wear size fourteen shoes and to wear white paint and a red nose. I was comic relief for his comic display. I ran through crowds with a bucket of fake water filled with glitter. I chased him around corners and over steps. The crowd laughed then roared. Little fingers pointed. Kids crumbled with joy, unable to sit up right as we zagged by their extended legs. The climax of our routine involved him stopping in front of a chosen few, him desperately searching for his escape as I wound up dowsing water all over him. But he always seemed to thwart me, my splashes, as I glittered everyone within ten feet of our routine.
For some reason when I was eleven, Father bought a unicycle. I had never seen him ride a bike or go for a jog or play a sport. In our civilian life, our non-clown life, he ambled along. He often lounged in front of his TV. If he needed another cup of coffee or can of soda or third helping of food, mother, my sister, or I were at his beckon. So when he bought a second-hand one-wheeled contraption, we three side-eyed him. Father wore a twenty to thirty pound spare tire around his waist for as long as I could remember. He often quarterbacked from an armchair. He had two left feet so he avoided dance floors. And I had never seen him once stretch his arms wide to fake balance-beam a curb or painted line or a crack that might break his back. But still he bought a unicycle.
That summer he woke at five in the morning. He pulled tube socks to his knees and laced his New Balances. Sometimes he sipped coffee. Sometimes he ate a breakfast bar. But mostly he rose early that summer, waking me too, to go for a jog. We ambled around one block, then two, then walk-ran a mile, then signed up for a 5K. In the evenings my father took out his unicycle to practice, forgoing his hot dinner.
“You need to keep the tire a bit flat at first,” he had said to me, though I didn’t ask questions. “It helps maintain balance.”
He compared the tire to an elephant's foot and how more surface area and this and that provided for a better whatever. I watched as he leaned against a wall for support. How he tried mounting his seat from the front then the back. How he inched along the garage wall in the grass then inched, palms and knuckles grazing bricks, in our driveway.
“Once I get good,” my father said, “maybe I’ll buy you one.”
“No thanks,” I said.
“Come on,” my father smiled, “You can be just like me. Besides, the kids would love seeing us chase each other.”
The thought of learning to ride a unicycle was daunting. I had just learned to ride a bike. I was a late cycling bloomer. Instead I played football and basketball and baseball, so I had little time for riding around. I went to camps and after-school athletic programs that required me to lift my knees high, spring-up from supine position then run past some imaginary line, and hone my dexterity with both hands and feet. Also, I felt stupid as a ten year old having my insistant, tiny Filipina mother run along side me, being my human training wheels.
“It okay,” she had said, “I no let you fall.”
“No,” I said. “I have to practice _______.” I would fill in that blank with whatever sport was in season, until that summer when I became Father’s little Pierrot, his standby joker, his fool.
I soon noticed that my father’s jeans became loose. His ass drooped. He had to take-in his belt. I noticed that his tight-fitting shirts flowed. His shoulders seemed broad. He had to take-off his T-shirts whenever he was inside or outside the house. Without his spare tire his balance stabilized. He became nimble and agile and beautiful to watch: his strong arms extended, his rippling core making sharp turns and corrections, his expertise in coming to a full stop after having achieved max speed. Up to that point I had never seen Father give his full attention to anything for an extended period of time. He often channel surfed. He read the comics in newspapers. He never attended a school play or sporting event or participated in a parent-teacher conference. But that summer, Father mastered, with tire fully aired, the unicycle.
“They loved the performance,” Father had said after introducing his new routine.
This time he chased me. I was prey to his bucket of fake water and freshly painted unicycle. I darted and dodged. I sprang and swiveled. Fleeing Father was a difficult task because he could bunny-hop legs. He could spin 180, 225, 360. He could reverse on a dime. He too had taken-in his clown costume. So there was little friction, little wind resistance, nothing to tangle or snag.
After shows people stopped Father: “That was great,” “You were amazing,” “How long did it take to learn all that?” He showed his pearly whites. Sometimes he blushed. Other times he bathed in their admirations.
“I appreciate you coming out,” Father had said.
“It wasn’t much.” Father’s newfound modesty showing.
“With a little dedication,” Father preached, “anyone can achieve greatness.”
That unicycle-summer was the catalyst. I didn’t learn this until adulthood, but that summer ignited a spark in Father. I thought nothing of it, but Father had started to linger around corners. He leaned into tall, blonde-haired mothers. Fixing his brown eyes onto their baby blues. He bent to whisper into brunette-haired, older sisters’ ears. Brushing away hair strands that might hinder whatever amazing words trickled from his lips.
He started commanding, “Wait here. I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.”
“Pick up all the props. I have to ________.” He would fill in the blank with some excuse that freed his time.
I was left sweeping glitter. I had to gather fake hammers and cork guns. I stuffed duffle bags with wigs and rubber balls. I dragged boxes to and fro. And, I gently rolled his unicycle, our money maker, to the trunk of his car. I never questioned him. What’s around the corner? Who’s that mother? What did you say? I just waited, leaning against the passenger door, sitting on a curb, tossing pebbles at lamp posts. I too was a late bloomer to identifying philandering, cheaters. I needed my Filipna mother to guide me, to say, “It not okay,” but Father never invited Mother to watch his clowning.
As summer browned to fall, Father stopped waking me. We no longer trotted around the neighborhood. Sprinted on high school tracks. He began to work late. He needed to spend time with Shriners. Go to meetings. Book more shows. Critical tasks had to be addressed. Assignments that demanded his full attention that kept him away from home.
I ignored his late returns. His staggering through the living room. His deflecting Mother’s questions. Besides, my time was occupied with school and football, then basketball practices. I had homework and new friends to gossip with on the phone for hours. But, I could not ignore Father shouting at Mother. I heard their cuss words, their blamings, their slaps. I listened to glass shattering and doors slamming. I cried when Mother whimpered or spat angry words through gushing tears.
“Who that women?” Mother often yelled. “You liar.”
As fall whitened into winter, Father’s unicycle lay dusty in our garage. The tire had deflated. Things were piled on it. Father’s chisel began rounding. His belt was readjusted to its original loop. Whenever he was home, he no longer walked about the house shirtless. Years after I had moved away from home, Mother and my sister told me about Father’s women: The ones he had traveled miles to see; the ones who had lay in their bed; and the ones who I had spent time talking to, getting to know, laughing and joking with. During their reveal I remembered that unicycle summer and how it triggered the cycle from weight gain to weight loss, the cycle of coming home later and later.
“When he lost the weight,” my sister had said, “he was dating another woman.”
Mother and my sister had kept me in the dark. They feared that I would retaliate, take Mother’s side, and fist father like he had fisted all of us. They saw the fury in my confrontations when I grew tall enough and weighed just enough; I shouted that I would never be anything like him as I stood in the way of his beatings. So, they didn’t want to take the chance of telling me.
Nowadays when I am on my longboard cruising along the riverfront or down moderately sloped city streets, I meditate on the feeling of freedom and peacefulness that comes with gliding and body control and utilizing tendons and ligaments that I ignore on a daily basis. When I first bought my board, I wondered: Did Father think about his freedom and body control that came with his unicycle? But, I no longer think about his thoughts.
Instead, on my board I take-in parts of my neighborhood I would have never ventured. I see young parents playing ball with their teetering toddlers. I see big and little dogs chasing and barking at passersby. Delivery drivers waving or giving me a thumbs-up. I smile at them, nod my chin, then say, what up, bruh. When I’m cruising and meditating on my longboard, I try my best to forget about that summer when my father made me his fool.
James Morena earned his MFA in Fiction at Mountain View Grand in Southern New Hampshire. His stories have been published in The Citron Review, Orca, Forge Journal, Pithead Chapel, Rio Grande Review, and others. He also has published essays and poems.
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