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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Chapter Reveal: My Year As a Clown by Robert Steven Williams

Title: My Year As a Clown
Author: Robert Steven Williams
Publisher: Against the Grain Press
Publication: December 26, 2012
Genre: Popular Fiction

Synopsis: Silver Medal Winner for Popular Fiction from the Independent Publisher Book Awards.

With My Year as a Clown, Williams introduces us to Chuck Morgan, a new kind of male hero—imperfect and uncertain—fumbling his way forward in the aftermath of the abrupt collapse his 20-year marriage.

Initially, Chuck worries he’ll never have a relationship again, that he could stand in the lobby of a brothel with a hundred dollar bill plastered to his forehead and still not get lucky. But as his emotionally raw, 365-day odyssey unfolds, Chuck gradually relearns to live on his own, navigating the minefield of issues faced by the suddenly single—new routines, awkward dates, and even more awkward sex.

Edited by Joy Johannessen (Alice Sebold, Michael Cunningham, Amy Bloom), My Year As a Clown will attract fans of the new breed of novelists that includes Nick Hornby, Jonathan Tropper and Tom Perrotta. Like others in that distinguished group, Robert Steven Williams delivers a painfully honest glimpses into the modern male psyche while writing about both sexes with equal ease and grace in a way that’s both hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time.

Day 1
I dash out the front door, tossing a dozen supermarket roses on the backseat. I gun the Toyota. Claudias flight is due in an hour, and Im ninety minutes from the airport. I stop at the exit 12 rest area for a dou- ble espresso, down it like a whiskey shot, and hop back on the highway. Midday traffic is light, and I push the car to its eighty-five-mph limit, backing off when the steering wheel shakes like my washing machine in super-spin mode. Im excited. Im nervous. Im always this way when I havent seen my wife in months.
The espresso jolts my senses. Hyperalert, I scan side and rearview mirrors. I weave through traffic pretending to be a fighter pilot. The a/c is busted and the windows are down; humid air swirls. I turn on the radio to cut the roar. Its Mike and the Mad Dog debating the opening day losses of both the Giants and Jets. It makes no difference to me. Im a diehard Philly fan. Tonight the Eagles make their debut on Monday Night Football in the first regular season game at our new stadium, Lin- coln Financial Field.
The George Washington Bridge is clear, as is the turnpike. I zip past the Meadowlands, and twenty minutes later Im juking through the In- ternational Arrivals lounge, dodging and feinting like O. J. Simpson in the old Hertz commercial, back when his claim to fame was as an NFL rusher. Ive got to hurry because Claudias flight landed forty-five min- utes ago and I dont want her waiting.
I burst through the line of limo drivers holding signs with passen- ger names. I sidestep immigrant families waiting for loved ones. I spin around janitorial crews. I cover the entire arrivals lounge in record time. Claudia must not have cleared customs yet.
My wife is returning from another twelve-week archeological dig, this one in Denmark. The separation is never easy, and her first week back is always awkward. Like quarterbacks and receivers at an off- season minicamp, we need time to rediscover our rhythm, but it rarely takes more than a few days. My brother says most men would kill for three-month  vacation from their wives, and if it was during football season he might be right, but at forty-nine and still single, Jimmys hardly an expert.
Friends often ask how I get by without Claudia. Some wonder if I just shut down. Do they really want to hear that I beat off to Cheerleader Sex Addicts III? Still, theres nothing like the real thing. In our early days, Claudia and I couldnt keep our hands off each other, but today shell shower, eat, and hit the hay, zonked from the flight. At least tonight Ive got the Eagles game. Ive been looking forward to it since that devas- tating NFC Championship loss back on January 19, which incidentally was our eighteenth wedding anniversary. Claudias still sore that I went down to Philly for the game, but we were favored. We should have won and gone on to the Super Bowl. How could I have missed that?
In the arrivals lounge, passengers leak out of customs in a slow trickle. Clusters of dark-haired Spanish-speaking people come out, fol- lowed by a ragtag collection of Eastern Europeans with suitcases wrapped with duct tape. In the waiting area, kids run around making loud obnoxious noises. Families chat as if theyre at a backyard barbe- cue. Finally, fair-skinned Nordic types parade down the ramp neatly dressed in casual wear, even the children looking like theyve stepped out of a Nordstroms catalog.
I met Claudia backpacking across Europe in 1982. Most guys brought back photographs and souvenirs, a beer stein or an ashtray. Not me. I was the luckiest man alive coming home with the British-born, twenty-year-old Claudia. She wore a tie-dyed dress and Birkenstock sandals the day we met; now she emerges from customs with a Barbour jacket draped over the handle of her luggage cart, blue eyes peering through Gucci frames, her long chestnut hair tied back in a ponytail. I enjoy seeing her like this from afar, as if noticing her for the first time, falling in love all over again. After her nine-hour flight, mens heads still turn as she passes.
Claudia takes the left ramp, forcing me to bob and weave through the crowd. Hey, I say, touching her lightly on the shoulder. I bend to kiss her but she twists away.
Dont you still have that cold? she says. I cant afford to catch anything.
I know shes a germ freak, but this is beyond even her obsessive self. She steps aside and I push the cart, squeezing the handle until my knuckles turn white.
Derailed in less than ten seconds, a new record.
A lump settles in my gut as if Ive swallowed a football. Why, when I try to make things right, do they turn wrong so fast? Do I uncon- sciously undermine myself ? Just like the Eagles? In last years champi- onship game, they scored a touchdown in fifty-two seconds, but after that it all went bad. They never scored another, blowing lots of oppor- tunities with unforced errors. What might my next unforced error with Claudia be?
She and I silently walk to the car. I toss her suitcase into the back, feeling like a limo driver.
Can you turn on the air? she says, fastening her seat belt. Its hot.Still broken.
She hits the passenger window button hard. She takes a map from the glove compartment and fans herself. I point to the roses in the back- seat next to my gym bag. For you.
She waves a hand in front of her uptight English nose. How long have those dirty clothes been in there?
A few days.
We weave through the maze of airport ramps and onto the turn- pike. The traffic north is thick and greasy.
How was the dig? I ask. Were those animal bones you found significant?
Claudia continues to fan her face with that map. The temperature was far more pleasant there.
Actually it wasnt a bad summer, I say. And I made great progress with my book, got a solid draft, start to finish.
We chug past oil refineries, and the stench hits the car like a tidal wave. Ugh, she says as if Id just farted. She puts the window up and rolls her eyes.
I inch the Toyota forward and reach for Claudias hand, hoping physical contact will ease the tension. Were always a bit on edge when you come back, I say. Was it a rough flight?
Actually, it was. I didnt get much rest because—look, theres neasy way to say this. I met someone on the dig. I have a job in Wiscon- sin. Im leaving Thursday.

Day 2
I wake up in a fog on the futon in my basement studio. I dimly hear Claudia rustling around upstairs. Is she packing? I pull the covers over my head and shut my eyes tight. I want to restart this morning as if yes- terday didnt happen.
The rest of the ride home from the airport was a blur. Things came back into focus at the house. I carried Claudias suitcase to the bedroom. She disappeared into the bathroom. When she came out I was on the bed, head in hands. She touched my shoulder. Its for the best, she said.
I wiped my tears with the back of my hand and looked into her eyes. I saw the same azure sparkle Id fallen for in Europe all those years ago. I pulled her toward me as Id done a million times. There were tears in her eyes too.
At first it was like any kiss, warm and soft, our tongues gently touching, almost playful, but hers stiffened. She pushed away. This isnt a good idea.
Part of me wanted to put a fist through the wall, smash a guitar, or throw her out the window, but there was no risk that our household would make the eleven oclock news. My anger simmered, but I wouldnt let it boil; a rash act could let her off the hook. I had to answer her be- trayal with kindness and understanding. It was the cruelest response I could muster.
Claudias big announcement had put a damper on last nights game. Still, I kept half an eye on the TV flickering in the corner of my studio. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were trouncing us in this much-anticipated rematch after Januarys NFC Championship upset by these very same Buccaneers. The Eagles were laying a fat goose egg on national television.
I eyed the joint Id rolled earlier, sitting unlit in the ashtray. One of our cats, Guinevere, the calico, rested on my chest. Arthur, the black one, was upstairs snug in bed, asleep with Claudia.
The first half of the game came mercifully to an end with Tampa Bay up 10–0. The score should have been worse. Guinevere was still on my chest, our breath moving in tandem, in, out, in, out.
Guin suffers from cardiomyopathy, a hardening of the heart. She was diagnosed at the same time I got laid off five years ago. The vet said shed be dead by now. She requires pills three times a day, but with me at home working on a novel, its not a burden. Perhaps my love for her has slowed the hardening. If only she could return the favor.
In the third quarter, the Eagles still looked like a high school team. It was embarrassing after that last beating by these guys, but it was something Eagle fans expected—bearing the cross of failure was part of the job.
Claudia could never understand why I stuck with them. I dont know anything about your American football, she said shortly after we were married, but I do know they will lose. Why dont you support the Niners?
At the time we were living in San Francisco. Montana had already won two of his four Super Bowls. It was a reasonable question, given that all our friends were SF fans. I explained that it wasnt that easy. Id followed Philly for over three decades. She laughed and said something that resonates today. I guess youre destined for heartache.
The Eagles havent won a Super Bowl, but I remain hopeful.
I should have shut the game off, but I watched to the bitter end. Tampa won 17–0. I caught the postgame interviews and the subsequent recap on ESPNs SportsCenter. Another cycle of football news rolled by, and I forced myself to witness every replay. Then it was on to celebrity poker. I know Gens X and Y love the cards, but I cant think of anything more boring on television besides bowling, yet there I was at four a.m. watching B-list TV stars playing Texas Holdem as if they were the Eagles in the Super Bowl.
September 8, 2003: a day that will live in infamy.

Day 4
Claudia used to complain that there wasnt enough space in our bathroom with only one sink, the vanity crammed with her bottles, lo- tions, and whatnots. I rifle through the drawers. All thats left is a single tampon. But her smell lingers—the eucalyptus shampoo, the jasmine facial cleanser, her aloe vera skin cream. These scents have embedded themselves in the tile the way smoke settles into fabric; no amount of scrubbing or disinfectant will remove them.
I join the cats in the kitchen. Guin is on the countertop licking her paws. Arthur prances back and forth by the water bowl, meowing. I crack open a can of organic cat food. Four furry ears perk up. If only Claudia and I could have lived in the moment the way they do. Look at Guin, shes not worried about her heart. I chug the remaining half a pot of coffee, ignoring the bitter taste of the brew I made three hours ago, the last pot Claudia and I would ever share.
Ive spent my first hours as a separated man cleaning the house. Ive swept the porch, trimmed the hedges, and raked the leaves. These chores cleared my mind, cleansed the wound of betrayal, but each time somebody drove by, I glanced up hoping to see Claudias green Mazda 626. Im back in the house now, vacuuming the living room, an eye still on passing cars.
A Ford Taurus pulls into the crescent driveway. A bearded man in a baggy dark suit exits the vehicle. Admittedly, Im a paranoid wreck, but anyone can see that this is a man carrying a summons. Claudias lawyer is having me arrested. Ive got to run, gather the cats and head north for the border. I ricochet around the house, ending up back in the living room. I gape through the bay window. The bounty hunter is now halfway up the drive, his walk slow and confident, his black wingtips shining. I kneel down behind the window shade. With a better angle I realize this is no representative of the law, its Simon Godfrey, the rabbi I met at an open mic last month. My heart slows. Simon hired me to help him make a CD. I forgot he was stopping by. The suit threw me. I open the front door, much relieved.
Shalom, my friend. Im on the way to synagogue. He loosens the knot of his red-striped tie. I promised to drop off these CDs. He hands me a plastic bag filled with his favorites. Listen to this first, he says, pulling out a Rebecca Levy CD. Shes the daughter of the famous Rabbi Mordecai Levy, you must know him.
I know little about contemporary Jewish music, but I smile as if I do. Rebeccas wearing a low-cut evening dress, her long blond hair cas- cading across her left shoulder. She looks more like a Victorias Secret model than the offspring of a religious luminary.
Shes hot, Simon says. Yes?
I dont know what to say. Is this a values test? My hesitation betrays me.

He slaps me on the back. Were not Catholics, for chrissakes.Right, I say, still feeling awkward in the way I felt when my fathegave me the birds-and-bees talk. Simons clearly not your typical rabbi, but Im in no mood for jocular humor. Im in mourning, sitting shiva, as the Jews do when someone dies. Good thing Simon has to be elsewhere. Before he leaves he asks if were still on for next week. Sure,” I say, but I cant see past the next five seconds, let alone the next few days.
Back in the house, I set the CDs aside and unload the dishwasher. The cats join me in the kitchen, eyes wide, meowing. Their bowls are empty. I cant remember if Ive fed them. I open a can and dole out half to each. They eat as if they havent seen food in a week.
Theres another knock at the door. This must be Claudia. I rush to answer it, but its Siobhan, my Irish neighbor, holding a covered dish that smells heavenly. Strawberry-rhubarb, she says with her emerald accent.
Last night, Claudia went over to say good-bye at my insistence. Siobhan and Paddy moved here five years ago. He works for an Irish bank and does something with derivatives. They were one of the few couples wed socialized with, and I was hoping that seeing them might bring her to her senses. When she returned, she said nothing. I was dying to know what happened, but now it doesnt matter, I just want to sulk in solitude. Still, the pie does smell delicious.
That wasnt necessary, I say, feeling obligated to invite Siobhan in. On this warm, muggy day, Siobhan stares at me through bookish glasses, wearing a frumpy sweater, a long skirt, and stockings. Shes pale, like Irish cream, and sprinkled with freckles. I offer to make fresh cof- fee. She insists that I sit and serves me a slice. The pie has a glazed, crusty, homemade shell. The filling is sweet and tart.
This is fabulous, I say. Claudia never baked.The English rarely do.
I swallow another mouthful and feel more in the mood for com- pany. Tell me everything.
Sitting beside me, Siobhan whispers as if Claudia is still upstairs. I couldnt credit the nonsense coming out of her mouth. She told me that youll never finish the book, that you made a mistake leaving the busi- ness world. She said she couldnt wait to get out of here. Siobhan re- moves those thick-rimmed glasses to rub a few tears from her freckled cheek. I told her she was mad.
I grab a Kleenex from the box by the sink and hand it to her. She sniffles. I came to console you.
I force a smile. What made Claudia lose faith in me?
Siobhan pats my arm; the warmth of her touch is comforting. Have you filed for divorce?
I look at my brown boat shoes. The frayed leather laces need re- placing. Yesterday. Claudias being fair, Im keeping the house.
You must be relieved.
Well, my lawyer says Im lucky, but I cant say or do anything that might upset her until the judge approves it. Can you imagine? I have to be nice while shes off with him. Bartholomew. What the hell kind of name is that?
Its all terribly unfair, Siobhan says. Here, have more pie.

Its a hot, sticky September afternoon. The sky is low and purple, like a fresh bruise. I sit in one of our Adirondacks, staring like a zombie into the backyard. We got a great deal on these chairs in Lake Placid two years ago. Wed gone camping over the Labor Day weekend and picked them up on the way back. Now the damn armrests have splinters.
The cats are chasing birds and voles in the yard. The trees are still mostly green, only the chestnut by the pond is bare. I shut tired eyes and drift awaySomeone is shaking my arm. I must have dozed off. Its the first real sleep Ive had since the big announcement.
“Mommy wants to know if youll come to dinner, says Erin, Siob- hans seven-year-old.
Sure, I say, wondering how long Ive been out.
Erin drags me from the chair, her ginger braids swaying. Come on, sleepyhead. She leads me past the azalea bushes and into their gar- den. I never liked Claudia.
Oh, I say, surprised that she knows. Well, she wasnt used to kids.” Erin shrugs. Whats there to get used to?
We go up the back steps and into the kitchen. Two columns of steam rise from the stovetop. The air is heavy with garlic chicken. Declan, the five-year-old, sits in a booster chair at the dining room table. “Hi, Chucky Cheese, he says, laughing, his Ninja Turtle T-shirt already splattered.
Paddy is working late. Siobhan sits me at the head of the table next to Erin, Declan to my left. Wine? she asks, pouring red into a glass.
The kids devour french fries and poke at the chicken and peas. I joke around. We laugh. We talk about the Scooby Doo movie they just saw.
After supper, Erin does homework in her room. Declan sits in Siob- hans lap, sucking his thumb. Youd make a fine dad, she says.
Really? I sip my wine. Not sure why we didnt have kids. Guess it doesnt matter now.
Funny, Siobhan says. I was a lot like Claudia, not interested, and then I got pregnant, and now I wouldnt change things for the world.
This was news to me, Claudia not wanting children. Whenever we discussed it, though it hadnt been often, shed never dismissed it, and yet shed told Siobhan she didnt want kids.
Do you have a therapist? Siobhan asks.
I swirl the wine in my glass. Why? Do you think Im crazy?
It couldnt hurt to talk to someone who can provide objectivity and guidance.
Siobhan pours more wine. Declan yawns, revealing a missing front tooth.
Paddy and I saw someone this summer, she says. I was tired of him working late. It was as if he were looking for reasons not to be home. He promises things will change.
I squirm, wondering why shes telling me this. Is it because she has a front-row seat to the most humiliating experience of my life? Or is it because her marriage is headed for disaster and she sees possibility now that Im available? A weight settles in my gut. It never crossed my mind, me and Siobhan, but now that Im single, I guess Ill have to pay atten- tion.
Declan pouts. Im hungry.
You just ate, she says, plunking him back in his booster seat. She goes into the kitchen and returns with a mini ice cream for her boy and the number of that therapist for me.
 Back home, slightly buzzed, I head downstairs to my office in hopes that Claudia has sent an email: nothing. On the wall is a picture of us on our Hawaiian honeymoon. Were standing on the beach at the end of the Na Pali coasts Kalalau trail. Wed just completed the twelve-mile, two-day hike. Im looking at youthful faces shining with belief that to- gether anything is possible. Theres no hint of the huge fight we had about pushing back our honeymoon a day. It was just one day. What was the big deal? We eloped Saturday in Reno, I caught the Super Bowl on Sunday in Palo Alto, we left for Hawaii on Monday. But it was a big deal for Claudia. If I could have scored a second ticket, I would have.
I take that Hawaiian picture down and shove it in a drawer. Siobhan is right, I probably do need help. Weve lived next door for
years, and tonight was the first time the thought of screwing her came to mind. Is this how it will be from now on? A woman speaks to me and Im gonna think, Does she want to fuck?
Well, I might be in desperate need of assistance, but so might Clau- dia. She could be anywhere at this very moment. What if shes in trouble, then what? I grab the phone and punch in the first three numbers of her cell, then hang up. Someone needs to make sure shes okay, but that someones not me. Id like to think that its my last shred of dignity that keeps me from calling, but really its the fear that shell say, If I was in trouble Id call Bart, you idiot.

Author Bio: 
Robert Steven Williams is an author, singer-songwriter, and musician. His debut novel,My Year as a Clown (Against the Grain Press), was released in January 2013.

As a writer, Williams was a finalist in the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest and was awarded a Squaw Valley Writers Community Thayer Scholarship. He attended Bread Loaf, Sewanee and the Squaw Valley Writers' Conferences, and worked closely with the esteemed fiction writer, Barry Hannah. His short fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, The Orange Coast Review, and the anthology Tall Tales and Short Stories Volume II. Additionally, he was the executive producer of the critically acclaimed BOOM! Studios CBGB Comic series, nominated in 2011 for a Harvey Award for Best Anthology. Robert's work has also appeared in Poets & Writers Magazine, Billboard, USA Today  and LetterPress, a newsletter for writers. He is also co-author of the best-selling business book, The World's Largest Market.

As a musician, Williams studied songwriting with Rosanne Cash, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and other top country writers. In 2005, he released the critically acclaimed CD "I Am Not MyJob," featuring Rachel Z (Peter Gabriel, Wayne Shorter) and Sloan Wainwright.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for having me on your site today -- I see you're from Alabama -- I'll be in Montgomery next week for the F. Scott Fitzgerald conference.

    Best -- Robert