By Eugene Marckx
Dale lived alone with his mother, except on nights when the banker’s top hat was hanging on her bedroom door, or the senator’s homburg, or the general’s roughrider hat. Dale slept on a cot off the kitchen pantry, so she could be available when they came through. Most days he’d wander along the backwater sloughs of the river. After school Ronnie would join him. He’d show Ronnie a swarm of tadpoles in the reeds, or a duck’s nest, or the shadows of catfish. At school Dale was “smelly.” No one missed him. With sticks Ronnie showed him how to add and subtract and how to read shop signs. Ronnie’s father owned the General Store.
Every few nights Dale had the same dream. He was on the bridge that entered town. Unlike the real bridge, it wasn’t complete. At the makeshift edge he looked down at the swift river. Across from him workmen were building forms. On the street above, the banker was shaking hands with the senator and the general.
One morning Dale asked his mother, “Who is my father?”
She sipped her coffee and looked away.
“Is he the banker?” He waited. “The senator?” Waited longer. “The general?”
“Is he gone from here? Or dead?”
She grabbed his arm. “You want us run out of town? Or dead? Don’t ask questions.”
But he couldn’t stop his dreams. Then one bright day a clown came strolling into the Town Square, a big smile painted on his lips and a red bulb on his nose. The man wasn’t only grease paint. Sunlight glanced off the cleft of his chin when the children screamed in laughter.
Days after the clown was long gone, Dale was in his mother’s bedroom, standing in front of her big mirror. She came in. “What are you doing in here? What are you looking at?”
His fingers traced the slight cleft in his chin. “I know who my father is.”
He wouldn’t say. He ran outside, down to the river. Ronnie came along on his new bicycle, taking a long way home from school. He left it on the riverbank and joined Dale.
“Daddy says I’ve got to keep in school and learn all I can.”
Dale’s mouth twisted.
“But I can show you some things that I know.” Ronnie drew shapes in the mud. Dale learned a lot from Ronnie, even how to ride his bicycle.
A year later the clown came to the Town Square again. Dale stood next to his juggling pins as he walked on his hands or played his penny whistle, or danced with crazy legs, causing peals of laughter. After he pulled off his red nose and wiped away his big smile Dale followed him to the bakery where he bought a big round loaf.
He looked back. “Want to share some bread?”
Dale jumped high in the air, again and again, as they walked along and climbed into the hayloft above the horse stables. It didn’t matter that the air was busy with flies and smelled of horse droppings. But when the bread was eaten the clown said he should go home.
“I am home. I’m with you.”
The clown looked him up and down. “Then you’d better learn how to make merry.” So, they traveled together. The clown showed him how to paint on a wide grin, and Dale learned to walk on his hands. He practiced leaping high, his hands in the grasp of the clown, who stood him upside-down overhead. Blood pounded in Dale’s ears, but he loved that wild applause.
They learned to sing together in the taverns on winter evenings, to drum and play the penny whistle. There was enough to eat, but their shoes and coats were getting worn out. Then Dale had an idea. When they came again to his old town, he saw Ronnie down on the riverbank.
“Daddy is sending me away to boarding school in the city.”
Ronnie tried to explain, but he’d only been to the city once. “Let’s go look for bullfrogs.” They crept into the reeds. “Gosh, I sure missed you, Dale.”
“Well, I had to go.” Dale didn’t tell him the clown was his father. He wanted to see his mother, but she was with a client. After performing he and the clown ate, and at night he went to the big house where Ronnie lived. He knew where the bicycle was kept, inside the horse barn against the wall. The horses nickered. Dale got on and rode away. On the road the clown pedaled while Dale sat on the handlebars. The moon went down, but they rode on through the dark.
In the next days they worked out some new tricks. Dale learned to stand on his head over the handlebars as the clown pedaled in a slow circle. Soon Dale could spring onto the clown’s shoulders as he pedaled. At the finale they stood on the coasting bicycle, the clown with his knee on the seat and the other leg trailing out behind while Dale leaned forward, his feet on the handlebars, one hand clasping his father’s, the other waving to the crowd.
With these tricks they had money enough for new shoes and coats, but as they were paying the store clerk a deputy sheriff stood inside the doorway.
“That your bicycle?”
The clown’s smile faded. “What’s it to you?”
The deputy inspected the serial number on the frame that matched a missing bicycle. “I’m taking you in for questioning.”
Dale wanted to go too, but the clown whispered, “Get out of here, go back home.”
Yet he stayed for two days until he felt brave enough to visit the clown in jail.
“Haven’t you gone home?”
Dale couldn’t speak. He broke down in tears.
The clown waited for him to calm down. “They’ll send me to the chain gang. I know what I’ll get, but don’t you stick around, or some nasty character will bust your skull for the shoes you’re wearing. Go find a safe place, back with your mother.”
Dale had a feeling of hot coals in his belly. “I’m sorry.”
“I know,” said the clown. “It’ll be okay with me if you find a safe place.”
Back in the hayloft Dale grew fearful. Instead of sleeping in the corner he squeezed behind the haystacks. Later a man climbed the ladder and crept into that corner. Dale shinnied down the ladder and got out of town.
He went back to his mother’s, but she wasn’t there. Two little girls were outside playing patty-cake in the mud. He went across the bridge and up the streets, all the way to the big house where Ronnie lived. Ronnie was at boarding school, but Dale was starving and knocked on the kitchen door, asking for him. The Black cook let him sit by the stove with a plate of food. Then Ronnie’s little sister came in from the hall and stared at him. She wasn’t so little anymore. Her curly dark hair fell across her shoulders.
“Dale, did you know that Ronnie drowned?” He gasped and almost let his plate fall.
“Come along with me.” The graveyard was behind the church. A tall stone there had Ronnie’s name and dates. Dale could barely take it in, and he felt hot coals in his belly. The girl said Ronnie didn’t go off to school but was lost in the river. Days later his body was found.
Behind them came the storeowner. “Amanda, who is this boy?”
“Daddy, you remember Dale. He’s back home, but he’s got nowhere to live since the town drove off his mom.”
The man looked coldly on him. “You can clean the stalls and live there with the horses.”
“And an allowance!”
Her father paused a moment. “Well, all right, Amanda, an allowance.”
Dale took a blanket into the stalls. Amanda showed him her father’s library, but he had little time to read. Besides caring for the horses, he had other jobs. Dale learned from the black servants to do all that was expected, or the man would beat him with his riding crop.
He grew to love plowing the fields in straight furrows for planting, and the promise of wheat into big sacks for the mill. Year after year he learned all he could from the black hands.
“Now I’m one of you.”
They laughed and told him they knew better than he about how to keep from a beating. Amanda said, “Daddy’s just taking it out on you because you’re alive and Ronnie’s not.” Then she kissed him, kissed him long. After she ran away, he felt a new fire, but it soon became the old coals he carried from the clown. All too clearly with every smile from Amanda he knew he couldn’t stay. Her father would find some excuse maybe to kill him.
Then news came of gold discovered in the streams coming out of the Black Mountains. Dale gathered his belongings.
Amanda found him. “I can’t let you go just by yourself.”
He kept a stone face. He would not cry. She kissed his cheeks, and then his tears flowed. They set off together in dark of night. When they crossed to the Black Mountains, they found that all of the paying claims had been staked. Men searched along every stream. The frantic pursuit of gold never ceased, with the merest leftover traces in streambeds driving them on. Months disappeared. Dale left Amanda in a tiny cabin. She cut wood, foraged, traded with other women, and kept soup on the stove.
He chased a rumor that gold veins lay open in cliffs along the snowline. Caught on those cliffs after dark, he was afraid he’d fall. Winds were freezing. Old dreams came to haunt him, the senator speaking in half-truths, the banker forcing people from their homes, the general before battle draining his whiskey bottle. Then Dale remembered going dizzy upside-down over the clown’s head. He climbed down from those cliffs and came back to his cabin.
When he opened the door a neighbor woman was in a chair next to the bed. She smiled at him. “You have a son.” Then she left.
Dale looked at Amanda in bed. “You were pregnant? You never said.”
“You had all that gold on your mind.”
He bent over and kissed her, then saw the boy’s dark skin. “He’s a darkie!”
“That he is.”
“How could he be my son? What have you been doing while I was up there?”
“Maybe you won’t believe a word I say.”
He felt coals in his belly and peeked again at the boy, at the cleft in his tiny chin. Then he saw for once how black Amanda’s curls were. He sat down. She looked at him.
“After Ronnie’s mama died, Daddy took up with my mom. She said her grandfather was a chieftain in Africa. My baby is yours if you want him, but I named him Ronald, Ronald Dale.”
“I can’t find that gold, “he said. “I’ve got no luck up there. I’m not leaving you again.”
Amanda smiled. “I remember you loved to plow back home. There’s land to homestead out west. Maybe we’ll start over out there.” Before spring they staked out a patch of wild and fertile land in the western hills. Dale cleared what he could, plowed and planted where he could, and found some luck in the weather. Years went by. Amanda bore all shades of children under the sun, but none as dark as their Ronald.
Along came a raga man with a limp. It was the clown, out of prison at last. Dale grabbed him in his arms and wept. “My father!” And those belly coals in him finally died.
Amanda fed the clown, and he got back strength, but only enough to gather eggs and bring in firewood. Yet he told stories about the chain gang, making fun of the guards. The children laughed and loved to hear what fools those men were. Dale gave him money for the tavern in town, but often the clown would pull coins one after another from behind the children’s ears. They believed they had hidden riches.
They found him one morning to have died in his sleep. After they buried him and Dale had time to let out his pent-up grief, it was Ronald who asked his mother.
“Is Dad my real father?”
She looked at him. “Feel your chin.”
“But Dad’s not dark, and Grandpa was plain white.”
“Your dark skin comes from me, from a line of African chieftains, and now in you they live again. She told him this. What she didn’t say was what the clown told her.
“I’m not Dale’s father. But when Dale stole that bicycle and we rode together, that was when I became his father. I was glad to go to prison for him.”
She held that secret to the end, knowing what makes a father, what makes a son.