The guy in the black leather biker jacket had been staring at her for a bit longer than he should have been. She wondered whether that could be him. The length and color of his hair matched the photos he had sent her - short, gray, slightly balding at the crown - and his build seemed just about right. But it was the fact that he was over the top that made her think it might be him. He wore glacier sunglasses, the round kind, with polarized lenses and leather side flaps to block the sun and snow. He had a red bandana wrapped around his left wrist. Despite the look, he was clean shaven.
She contemplated waving at him. That was the sign they had agreed would signal a recognition, but the chance of her being wrong and waving to a stranger that looked like a member of Hell’s Angels made her hold off, even though the outfit seemed too costume-y to be real. If only she were closer and able to see his eyes… She knew that Jack’s eyes were green.
She lowered her head towards her easel and continued pretending to be painting the scene in front of her. It was a Boston classic: the Public Gardens’ pond with its famous footbridge in the background and a couple of swans in the foreground, a busker playing the guitar on a bench to the pond’s right.
She hadn’t made a single mark on the canvas yet, so she took a pencil from the pocket of the white lab coat she was wearing, which she had smeared with paint that morning to make it look like a real painter’s overcoat, and started drawing the outline of the pond. Getting the shape right was harder than she thought. She looked up again and saw that the biker jacket guy had walked towards the busker and was now staring intently at him. Probably just some park weirdo.
The Garden was relatively empty at 3:00 pm. The people who went there for their lunch break had already retreated back into the area’s many office buildings, and it was still too early for the afternoon joggers to emerge. She’d spotted a couple of middle aged women in sports clothes earlier, their perfectly coiffed hair showing them to be professional wives. A group of young stay-at-home moms pushed prams across the footbridge as the occasional homeless person dragged a cart filled with whatever crap those carts are usually filled with. She had also noticed a group of young children - a kindergarten outing - having a picnic on the lawn next to the bronze statues of Mrs. Mallard and her eight ducklings, the park’s main attraction. Having kids in the frame when she first encountered Jack was not how she had imagined the setting of their first date, so she sat with her back to them and hoped that he would come in from the park’s Boylston Street entrance.
Her life as a graduate student offered few perks, but one of them was that she could enjoy moments of the day that normal working people - like Jack - had probably forgotten even existed, which is why she was surprised when he suggested they meet at the Boston Public Gardens at three o’clock on a weekday. One of the very first things he had told her when they first started chatting online several months before was that he worked as an insurance analyst at the Prudential Center and that he rarely left the office before eight at night. That, and that he was 52 - more than 25 years older than her.
He said he’d attended a talk she gave on ‘Metamorphosis and Enchanted Islands’, a comparative study of Ovid’s classic and the cultural geography of the late Roman Empire, and then befriended her on Facebook because of it, citing parts of her talk and apologizing for not introducing himself in person. Flattered, she clicked to confirm his request.
His working hours had limited their conversations to the evening. They began with a couple of lines exchanged before dinner, then grew into fuller debates that lasted for an hour or so before they both went to bed, until eventually they had established an unspoken, but highly anticipated, nightly online date from about 8:30 when he arrived home until 11:45pm when she usually fell asleep. They would talk about nearly everything: from the US elections and the Nobel Peace Prize to Magical Realism and the arrangements of ancient Greek phalanxes, and she was always happy to play the role of the highly knowledgeable younger woman who was teaching an older man a thing or two.
Her disguise was meant to confirm that: despite his advanced age, she could outsmart him. She took the blue paint tube from the wooden paint box she had borrowed from her roommate, opened it and squeezed it onto a medium-sized brush. She then applied it to the top part of the canvas. She had never painted before in her life, and the canvas absorbed the acrylic much faster than she could spread it out, making what she had imagined to be an evenly colored sky blotchy and cloudy.
In the interest of the game they had agreed on playing, she decided to continue smearing paint on the canvas, looking like she knew what she was doing, trying to even the hue out. She added some white, which made it worse.
This was, after all, her idea: the dress up, the purposeful obfuscation of their identities, the prolonging of recognition. Her rules were clear: come to the park dressed up as something, and make it hard for me to find you. It was her attempt to bypass dating clichés and a way to test Jack’s offline zeal. He insisted on a caveat of his own: the first of them to recognize the other gets to propose the activity of the date. This did ring an alarm, but the prospect of a scintillating afternoon with a man old enough to be her father wiped the suspicion away.
But fifty minutes had passed already, and she began questioning the genius of her idea. Her confidence had waned, her fingers were smudged in blue and white and she started feeling hot under the lab coat. Perhaps she’d been stood up.
She realized that the busker, who had been providing the soundtrack to her thoughts for almost an hour, was no longer there. The bench he was sitting at was empty. Her recognition of the absence of music made the park scene warp into slow motion. In that moment, there was no one crossing the footbridge, and a cloud that was slowly drifting over the sun had changed the light. She tried following some stray rays that hit the pond’s surface with her eyes when she noticed something moving behind the large willow tree that draped over the bench the busker had been sitting at.
At first she thought it was a large red squirrel with a bushy tail on the tree’s bark, but the movement was fuller, suggesting something larger, and she remembered that squirrels in Boston weren’t red anyway. Behind the falling green branches of the willow tree she eventually made out a rainbow pin-stripe suit. Jill followed the stripes upwards and saw the painted white face of a clown.
The clown pushed the willow branches aside and Jill was now able to see it clearly. It was a man. He had a red wig with a bald patch down the middle, a big red plastic nose, and black diamond shapes around the eyes. For a brief moment the clown stood still, facing Jill, about five meters away from her. Then he covered his face with his hands in white, puffy gloves, and opened them up by turning his palms outwards and sticking his tongue out. The clown was playing peek-a-boo. Jill turned around to see the kindergarten group’s reaction, but the picnic table behind her was empty. The kids had gone.
A crust of ice formed on the inside of her ribs. She sat up as straight as possible on the wooden stool she had brought with her, hiding her face behind the canvas. This could be Jack. She peered slowly from behind the easel to get another look. The clown had moved closer, and had placed one hand on his forehead, palm facing down, moving his head from left to right in an exaggerated scanning movement. He stopped when his gaze met Jill’s and waved at her. It was a large, languid wave accompanied by an open-mouthed smile. That was the signal.
Jill waved back. The clown started walking towards her, at a parodically slow pace. He was an hour late but at least he was there, and she took his lateness as a compliment: she had been hard to find. As for his reward...how bad could the choice of a man in a clown suit turn out to be?
She stood up, unbuttoned the white overcoat and let it drop to the ground.
By then he was standing only a meter away from her, the easel and canvas between them.
‘You took your time,’ Jill said.
He said nothing. He tilted his head to the right, and stared at her. Now that they were almost face to face, Jill saw that the white paint was cracked over Jack’s heavily wrinkled face.
‘OK, you can cut it out now. Where were you hiding?’
He smiled, revealing a set of greying teeth. He took a step closer. White paint mixed with sweat dripped down the sides of his face. Thin, gray hairs were sticking out from a gap between the wig and his forehead where the wig’s smudged bald cap was torn and a flap of it was sticking out.
A jolt of cold pierced Jill’s chest and radiated outward, to her limbs. The black diamonds around his eyes were in fact a non-shape: dark lines badly drawn around his bloodshot eyeballs. She tried to check for the color of his irises without looking at them. They were brown, not green.
Before she could react Jill heard a slitting sound, the delicate snapping of fiber. She had gone through a mental plan of what to do in cases like this a million times, yet her feet felt like they were sunk in concrete and her jaw was locked shut.
She looked down at the canvas. The clown had stabbed it and made a vertical slit from the top to the bottom of the painting. The tip of a knife blade gleaned for a second before slipping behind the canvas again.
She tried opening her mouth to scream out for help but the only sound that came out was an inchoate ‘ah’.
The clown raised his right index finger to his lips, silently ordering her to shut up and stay put. He started walking away, backwards, one step at a time. His actions became choppier, less choreographed as he snapped his head left and right, checking for passersby. When he was past the willow tree he turned his back to her and ran.
As soon as he was out of sight, Jill came to her senses. Stumbling over the overcoat she ran towards Boylston Street looking for someone, she didn’t know who. Her breath felt squeezed in the back of her throat. She thought she saw a police cap near the George Washington statue and changed direction.
‘Watch it, lady!’
A group of joggers had emerged, long-legged in neon t-shirts, and she found herself in a bundle of arms and legs, running against the current. She could see the Boston PD badge through the moving torsos. She lunged forward and grabbed the police officer by the arm.
The officer jumped, a look of panic on his face.
‘A clown. There was a clown… with a knife—’
‘Ma’am, calm down.’
The officer’s voice was shaking. He looked left, then right.
‘Behind the willow tree! Go!’
He mumbled something incomprehensible, but didn’t move. He looked at his feet as Jill grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him.
‘What the hell are you waiting for?’ she screamed.
‘I - I’m not a cop.’
Jill let go. She felt her stomach drop to the ground.
The man lifted his head and looked at Jill. He was around fifty years old, plain-looking but fit. His eyes were green.
© Argyro Nicolaou 2016