In a booth, with his back to the door, a clown is eating a bowl of phở. He is between birthday parties and hasn’t bothered to remove his white makeup or round red nose. An oversized red hat is on the seat next to him.
As he leaves the restaurant, swinging the hat back onto his head, kids start squealing at nearby tables. He smiles and waves.
After work, the clown goes back to his apartment. He puts the hat on a high shelf in the closet and wipes off the makeup.
He showers. He puts on a three-piece suit. He combs his hair.
Outside, he grabs a taxi and goes downtown. He gets to the opera just before the curtain.
At intermission, he passes a severe-looking woman standing in line for the restroom. She has slashes of dark lipstick across her mouth, high heels, a rope of diamonds around her neck. He catches her eye, and she looks away.
Now he is playing the role of Man at Bus Stop. The bench is cold after the buzz of the theatre.
In the distance, he thinks he sees lights. He stands, anticipating the hiss of air as the driver leans over and opens the door.
Instead, he feels a knife at his back. A man’s muscled arm has snaked around his torso, holding him tightly from arm to arm, a gesture that could be mistaken for affection.
“Come on,” the girl says, holding out her hand.
She’s shaking, looking around.
What do they want with him? He’s a man waiting for a bus, a cut-rate clown wearing an expensive suit. The blade presses harder against his back. The guy holding the knife wants to make sure he can feel it.
The girl’s arm is ruined: drugs, he can tell just by looking at the veins. Her face, too. Under a thick layer of pancake makeup, he can see the scabs.
His wallet is in his pocket. Bus fare, opera ticket, a few bucks in cash. Not a lot, but probably enough to satisfy them.
He has to reach for it.
Correction: He has to tell them he’s reaching for it. Then, slowly, he has to get out his wallet and give them the money. He needs to be at a kid’s party in the morning.
He can’t stop looking at the girl. Girl? Woman? She’s so thin—stringy, even. It’s hard to tell how old she is.
His friend was attacked, once, as he was leaving a job. A group of college kids threw him on the sidewalk and beat and kicked him. They stole his payment and his wig. He said he had never thought of himself as a victim.
“Come on, man, just give us the money.” The girl is pleading now.
Her voice is a headlight burning through fog.
It’s too late at night, he realizes. The bus isn’t coming.
They all stand motionless. It’s performance art now, a meditation: three people in the middle of things.
“What Are You Waiting For?” was first published in Orchard City, a chapbook of short fiction by Leah Browning (Jefferson Hills, PA: Hyacinth Girl Press, 2017), pp. 17–18.
At the time I wrote this story, I think I was preoccupied with the idea that we are sometimes dramatically different people in different settings. Professional actors are expected to change depending on the role, and a different set, wardrobe, and props are used to heighten the illusion. But everyone does this to some degree. Code-switching is probably the most obvious example, but there are many ways that we at least subtly use clothing, speech, body language, and other elements to transform ourselves, both in real life and using other forms of communication. Each person in “What Are You Waiting For?” (the woman at the opera, the woman at the bus stop) has many facets that are missing here, at least at this particular moment.
Leah Browning is the author of three short nonfiction books and six chapbooks. Her second chapbook of flash fiction, Orchard City, was published by Hyacinth Girl Press in 2017. Browning’s fiction and poetry have recently appeared in The Forge Literary Magazine, The Threepenny Review, Watershed Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Dime Show Review, Random Sample Review, Superstition Review, Newfound, The Homestead Review, Sliver of Stone Magazine, Santa Fe Literary Review, Poetry South, The Stillwater Review, Coldnoon, Clementine Unbound, and elsewhere. Her work has also appeared in several anthologies including Nothing to Declare: A Guide to the Flash Sequence, a collection from White Pine Press.