The Clown of Rome

John was coming from St. Peter’s. Steph had never mentioned St. Peter’s in her emails, so going there had been okay. When he reached the empty street along San Spirito Hospital, he spotted the man, chubby, bearded, with thinning hair. The man held a binder. John angled to avoid him. The man lunged and grabbed his hand.

“Where are you from?” the man asked.

John tried to free his hand. The man wouldn’t let go. “Ohio,” John said.

“I know Ohio. Cleveland. Ohio State.” The man spread a smile across his face, false and thick. A mayonnaise smile. “You like Roma?” His English was good, with little accent.

“Sure,” John said. He tugged again on his hand. The man tightened his grip. John’s blood, sludgy from his hangover, quickened in his veins. His wallet and his passport hung like easy prizes in the zipped front pocket of his ridiculous hiking pants.

“I’m out here to raise awareness. I’m a student, and I visit children in the hospital.”

“Sure,” John said again. A student, with that balding scalp and jowly face.

With his free hand the man opened the binder and balanced it against his chest. He paged through it to show photos of himself in a clown getup standing next to children in hospital beds. But not a full clown getup. No rainbow wig, no mask of paint. It was half-assed. A red nose, red spots on his cheeks. That was it. And the kids—John only glanced at the pictures, but to him they didn’t look that sick. The man kept speaking, but John stopped paying attention, eyed the end of the street. When the man let go of his hand to fiddle with the binder, John took his chance, twisted away. He was headed to the apartment; he’d been out all morning and there might be an email waiting, even if it was barely dawn in Ohio. Last night, one minute after swearing to himself he wouldn’t, he’d written Steph I want to die I want to die twenty times over.

The man caught up, clamped his hand on John’s arm, tight.

“I’m asking for a donation,” he said, keeping pace with John, digging his hand into John’s arm.


“Just two euros, one.”


“For children.”


John walked faster, making for the open light at the end of the street. An intersection was there, a bridge over the Tiber.

“Not one euro! Selfish American! Go on!”

And that was that. The man let go, and John got to the intersection. Here traffic, laden with tour buses, churned and clogged. Here two nuns, gray habits flowing, waited at the crosswalk. Here German schoolchildren, skin flushed by the Italian sun, marched along in cliquish, flirting clumps, matching backpacks slung on their shoulders. John looked behind him. The man had turned his broad back in retreat. When the signal changed John went across to the bridge and on to his apartment. There he checked his email. Nothing. Then he used the bathroom, peeled off his sweaty shirt and replaced it with another.


Steph was supposed to be in Rome with him. That was the plan. Her plan, in fact. She and John were to arrive on separate planes, each find their way into the city, and go to the Tazza d’Oro just off the Piazza Rotonda. Stand at the bar, Steph wrote, have an espresso, put it down, turn, and there I’ll be. It was her fantasy, meeting him like that, as if it were an accident. As soon as they saw each other they would race up to the apartment—theirs for a week—strip off their clothes, and make love, the windows open to all the noises of the city. I want church bells, Steph had written.

The morning John landed, he’d taken the train from Fiumcino, then a bus from Termini station, and stood at the Tazza d’Oro bar for three hours. He drank an espresso, then another, then another. Steph was supposed to show up only a few minutes after him. At the sound of each new person coming in, John’s heart danced, then wilted. It was never her. He brought out his phone to look for messages, put it up before he could. The overseas rates were monstrous. Besides, he told himself, he wasn’t worried, not yet.

By the end of the three hours, though, his skin buzzed from the caffeine and his worn-out heart sank deep in the hollow of his chest. John left the café. The apartment was only yards away, in the Via Pastini and up five flights of stairs: he had the keys in his pocket, had already dropped his bag there. Inside the apartment, winded from the climb, he opened his laptop and typed in the wireless code. While the connection was made, he hummed what he considered positive waves at the computer, then checked his email. Nothing. Checked Steph’s flight status. The plane had arrived hours ago. Checked Facebook. No messages. Phoned her through Google. No answer. He went back to Facebook and typed in her name, to see if she’d posted anything new on her timeline. Steph didn’t show in his search. He hung there a moment, as if his body itself had been sucked away from him and he floated, a cartoon outline, a shade. Then he forced himself to look at his friends list. Steph was gone.

First John wrote her a quick email: ?? Then a longer email: Where are you? I’ve been waiting. Did you miss your flight? Anxious. Love. Then another, longer email, detailing every fear. She’d changed her mind. There was someone else. She’d never meant it. It had all been a game.

Not caring about the data charges, he pulled out his phone and read over the email Steph had written detailing the afternoon they would spend there, kissing each other in its lonely corners.

They’d met at a state teaching conference, had flirted between seminars and finally made out in her hotel room during the conference’s last, drunken night. He could still feel the smooth of her back under his hands as he reached up to her bra, unclasped it. She lived in Chillicothe, he in Toledo, the entire state between them. For weeks, then months, they’d emailed, texted, called—sharing petty outrages from their respective schools, inventing increasingly baroque tales of the saddest-looking presenters they’d seen at the conference (especially the one Steph had dubbed Lettuce Mustache), and, wonderfully often, narrating what they’d do to each other when they reunited. He’d been willing to make the drive, but she’d said no, not like that, better, and then had described what it was she wanted: Rome, glory.

Now, in the apartment, John sat on the bed, watched his screen of dead emails, eager for the white, hopeful stripe of a new message. His inbox remained inert, brick upon brick of gray.


In his clean shirt, John left the apartment. This was his fourth day in Rome. So far he’d avoided the sights Steph had talked about seeing—the Vatican Museums, the Borghese Gallery. Instead he’d gone to Santa Maria del Popolo to study its pair of Caravaggios, to St. Peter in Chains for the scrambled pieces of a tomb sculpted by Michelangelo. He’d walked through the park surrounding the Septizonium, filled with homeless men on mats, and down to the Lateran, where he’d measured himself against the four pillars that were supposed to show the height of Christ; Jesus was taller. But now John was in the mood to hurt his heart. Once he was out of the Piazza Rotonda he headed south across the city toward Trastevere. Not caring about the data charges, he pulled out his phone and read over the email Steph had written detailing the afternoon they would spend there, kissing each other in its lonely corners. His skull throbbed from the bottle of wine he’d drunk the night before while sitting in the apartment’s Jacuzzi. It was then, his mind fogged, that he’d broken down and typed I want to die over and over.

John climbed partway up the Janiculum, back down. He got lost in the bright Trastevere streets, just as Steph said they would. Late in the afternoon, he sat against one of Santa Maria’s columns, watched the church’s piazza. A couple in front of him kissed. “Fuck you,” he muttered. The couple looked at him. A small stuffed animal hung from the woman’s backpack like something murdered for its pelt, and her blond, Nordic hair was braided into a single rope, like a knout—a student in John’s Honors World History had done his Punishment Day poster project on the knout. “No, fuck you,” she said, and stared at him as if to shame him into going away. John didn’t leave. I’ll sit here, right here, until Steph comes, he told himself, or until I’m a pile of bones. The thick gold light turned dim and blue as night approached. He sat longer, but he was hungry—he’d skipped lunch—and the piazza’s stone cut into his butt cheeks. What would Steph care anyway? He got up. In the Via del Moro he saw a sign for a forno and went in. When it was his turn he pointed to the long rectangles of pizza he wanted his pieces cut from, nodded at the placement of the knife, then bought a Coke, took the warmed pieces, and sat at the counter. The counter faced a brick wall.

He’d just picked up the first square, potato, and brought it to his mouth when someone shouted, “It’s you!”

John startled at the English—no one around him was talking in English. He glanced back. The kid cutting the pizzas, nineteen at least but teeth full of braces, had switched to English for him when he ordered. But the kid was turned away, sticking squares in the oven. Then came another “It’s you!” John looked up the length of the counter. The clown grinned from the farthest seat.

John’s stomach tightened. He glanced away, focused on the brick wall. Seconds later the stool next to him slid out, its legs scraping along the tile.

“How are you, Ohio?”

“Fantastic,” John said.

“Fantastic! It is fantastic that you are fantastic.” The clown’s English apparently had no register for sarcasm.

“You want something?” John asked after he’d eaten half his square of the potato pizza. The clown had stayed put.

“Nothing. Just to say hello.”

“Hello, then, and good-bye.”

“Ha! Hello. Good-bye. I like the Beatles.”

John waited. With that, the clown might leave. But he just sat there. He was a heavy breather and his damp, hot breath blew onto John’s pizza.

“I’m not rich,” John said. “I’ve only got a few euros on me.”

“You are funny, Ohio. Go ahead, eat, I won’t bother you.”

John wasn’t hungry anymore, not with the clown beside him, but he forced the rest of the potato pizza into his mouth, then the other square, squash blossom, which had lost most of its warmth by now. The blossom snagged on his teeth, came off with the first bite. He crammed the rest in, the thick bread, the gray stripe of anchovy, the melted wheel of mozzarella, washed it down with warm, flat Coke. The clown was quiet, like he’d powered off. John risked a look for the clown’s friends. Were there friends? The people who had filled the forno when he came in had cleared out, and new people waited in line, pointed at their pizzas through the glass. The kid with the braces calved off squares with his knife. In the doorway, a British father and son debated whether to stay and eat. The mother and daughter, both in gauzy, spaghetti-strapped dresses, tapped at their phones. John could appeal to them. But what would he say? There’s a man sitting next to me?

He folded his paper plate over his soiled napkins and backed from the counter.

“Here, let me take that, Ohio,” the clown said. He grabbed the plate before John could say no and went over to the trashcans in the back of the forno. The British family came inside and John darted past them, out the door. But it was a tease, that escape. In two steps the clown was beside him.

“You are here alone?”

John ignored him. He didn’t know what the clown wanted, and he didn’t want to know.

“Alone. This is sad.”

“No, I’m meeting people,” John said, realizing he should have inserted this lie sooner. “I’m here with friends.”

“Alone. Sad, sad.”

“This way,” the clown said. “I will show you something nice.” He waved his hand at the stairs that led to the river.

The streetlights were on, the sky black above. Ahead of John and the clown, in the piazza before the Ponte Sisto, clubgoers crowded the steps of an anonymous monument. A man passed out neon handbills for a restaurant. Two teenagers pushed a grandfather in a wheelchair. The grandfather rattled on the cobbles, and all three laughed as they hooted to each other in a language John couldn’t place. Nearer the bridge, a pair of policemen watched the tide of people.

“What’s sad is getting money from tourists for something you don’t even do,” John said. He walked toward the policemen, said, “Scusi, scusi,” then glanced back. The clown had slipped away, lost himself in the scattered crowd. It was the same problem as before. What could John say, if he got past Parla inglese? A man was walking with me and now he’s not?

“You want picture?” the policeman on the right finally asked. Other tourists took their pictures with Roman policemen. John had seen them.

No, grazie,” John said.

African and Indian hawkers perched on the Ponte Sisto’s railings. At noon they were selling paper umbrellas and now they were selling black plastic sticks that flashed a grid of red lights. All over the bridge, the grids widened and shrank. John looked down at the Tiber. It disappointed. A creek, really.

Back home it was still the middle of the day. The longer John avoided his computer, the more likely he’d find a stack of fresh white messages waiting for him. He planned to wander far into the night. The deeper that stack, the greater the chance he’d succeed in having coaxed an email from Steph in among them. He indulged this superstition. The cosmos would reward his patience.

“I visit those kids.”

The clown hovered at his side.

“What do you want?” John said. “I can give you a euro. I’ll give you two euros.”

“You misunderstand. I am your friend.”

“Where’s your folder? Let me see the pictures again. I could maybe do ten euros.”

At the end of the bridge an old man roasted corn in a kettle grill. People clumped as they waited to cross the Lungotevere into the city. The clown shoved his body in front of John’s.

“This way,” the clown said. “I will show you something nice.” He waved his hand at the stairs that led to the river. They disappeared into darkness, pure nothing.

“I’m not going down those,” John said.

The clown spread that smile. “You must! It’s a secret, but you can tell people and they will say, ‘This man knows Roma.’ ”

Just a few feet away the old man poked at his coals, and the clump of waiting people grew. They hadn’t noticed, but John could yell.

“I only want to show you,” the clown said, his voice sagging, punctured by John’s distrust.

“Fine,” John said. He’d written Steph that he wanted to die, hadn’t he? If something happened, so what? He could make her feel guilty. Fuck it.

The stairs dropped steeply as he went down. He primed himself for a shove, tumbling, a broken neck. But he got to the bottom safely. There, on the wide stone walkway of the lower embankment, the night’s black settled, cast out of the streets above. Young people, Spaniards maybe by their echoing shouts, drifted in the distance. The clown came down behind John, grabbed his arm, steered him toward the edge of the Tiber. Was he going to be thrown in? Knifed? Let it happen! Let Steph blame herself! Trees sprouted wild over the water, out of the bank’s exposed mud. Without losing his grip on John’s arm, the clown reached in among a tree’s leaves, tore something from a branch. In the dark it took a while for John to see: a fig, brownish purple, wrinkled.

“Nobody knows about these,” the clown said. “They don’t even look. Just walk past and go pay money for fruit not even ripe. But you and me, we are not fools.”

John opened his hand for the fig. It bled milk from where its stem had broken off.

“What did you think I was going to do?” the clown asked, the smile spread nice and wide. He tore another fig from the tree, wiped it on his shirt.

“I won’t say.” John laughed. The laugh was shallow, tentative.

The Spaniards disappeared. Far above, on the bridge, people were happy. Their cheer fell in tangled bursts. John started on his fig. The first bite was good, the fruit still warm from the day. I want to die: he was ashamed about writing that. He would write about this instead, show Steph his life went on. Goddamn it, he ate sun-warmed figs on the banks of the Tiber. The clown finished his own fig, tossed its stem into the river. John bit deeper into his.

“Ohio,” the clown said. “Apologies.”

Before John could note the change in tone or pick apart what was meant, the clown wrapped him in a hug and pulled him to the ground. John’s back hit the stone. His brain yapped: shit shit shit. He was an idiot to come down here, an idiot. As if Steph was watching him, would know. The clown spread himself on top of him, tried to pin him. John twisted half-free, but in a quick move the clown flipped him over, planted himself on John’s spine. This, it seemed, was what the clown wanted. Pressing his full weight into John, he tugged on the hiking pants. Loose, they slipped easily. Was the clown going to rape him? Shit shit shit. John kicked, shouted. Happy sounds fell from the Ponte Sisto, indifferent.

“Be quiet or I will hurt you,” the clown said.

“Please don’t.”

“I will put my pinkie in your asshole.”

“Please don’t.”

The pants came free of John’s shoes. “You want me to?”

John was quiet. Please don’t. Shit shit shit. Please don’t.


“Please don’t.”

The clown slapped John on the bottom, let out a jovial laugh, jumped up, and ran, taking the pants. Too scared to rise, John listened as the clown’s footsteps echoed fainter and fainter off the embankment. Wallet, phone, passport, keys—all stowed in the hiking pants’ zipped and velcroed pockets, all gone.


A policeman helped him. Not one of the ones he’d approached before. John was too embarrassed, had refused to go back over the bridge, through its bright and happy crowd. This one stood at the end of the Via Arenula, where the earth opened, pitted with ruins. He listened as John described the clown, gave him a card with a phone number and website on it. “They find maybe,” the policeman said. He was unfazed. He acted as if pantsless tourists came to him nightly. In fact, as John walked toward the apartment, no one seemed to notice. He pulled his shirt as far down in front of his boxer briefs as possible, and with the crotch’s tell-tale seams covered, the boxer briefs looked like biker shorts, at least at a glance.

At the other side of the ruins, scooters zipped among the cars on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, filled the air with their high, weedeater cry. A bus wheezed to a halt, its inside glowing. John waited, pulled his shirt lower. The light refused to change, and others gathered about. “Looks like you’ve had a night,” a man said in a southern drawl. He had a slick bald head and a camera that bobbed on his belly. John didn’t say anything back. Alive! he reminded himself.

Now the light changed. John hurried, reached the Piazza Rotonda, its edges lined with restaurant tables, each table stocked with tourists. Everywhere cameras flashed, and laughter erupted from one table, then another. Head down, John powered across, angled up the Via Pastini, where yet more tourists sat, and at last sighted the Subway, yellow and clean, his landmark: the door to his building stood just before it.

The rental agent was waiting there, called by the policeman. A gift, John had remembered the agent’s name, and with one search on his phone the policeman had found the man’s number. The rental agent was middle aged, with eyebrows like ashed cigars, and he looked as if he’d been roused from bed, though it wasn’t yet late. “Senza pantaloni,” he said gravely, not glancing down. He gave John the spare set of keys, told him he would owe for the set he’d lost, and John didn’t argue.

Up the five flights of stairs and in the apartment, John stripped off his shirt and underwear. He ran water in the Jacuzzi, fetched a bottle of wine from the kitchen, dragged in a chair, balanced his laptop on its seat. When the water rose above the Jacuzzi’s jets John settled in the tub and turned them on. His ribs ached from the clown sitting on him, from being pushed into the embankment’s stone. After a moment’s soaking, John leaned over to the computer. He brought up the website on the policeman’s card, and the website took him, in English, through the steps of filing a report. But before finishing the first dull paragraph, John checked his email. No messages from Steph. Of course not. He wrote her quickly, Are you there? Then, I was attacked by this clown (!) He drank from the bottle, let the water bubble around him, sat back, and watched the screen.