People often ask me if I was frightened growing up in a funeral home. Yes, I was. But not for reasons you might think.

When an entire month passed in its lazy way and no one died – that was scary. Caskets to buy, hearses to maintain, and all that. I overheard my parents’ tense voices discussing the competition, revealing that, no - Alfred hadn’t received a death call all month, either. It was like death held its breath. I thought of the stillness in that.

I’ll tell you what else scared me - Petal the clown. Every year when the woody scent of autumn pranced through the air, the participants of the Tobacco Festival Parade gathered around the corner from our funeral home. Main Street transformed into a circus-like atmosphere, as if we’d all gathered under the Big Top. At eight o’clock in the morning beauty pageant contestants in satin evening gowns climbed atop the floats, shivering as they shielded their bouffants from the breeze. In the moments leading up to the start of the parade, organizers barked instructions over the drumbeats of the high school bands as they warmed up. All was chaos as parade goers and participants scrambled to their places.

Just before the convertible carrying the Grand Marshall began to roll down Main Street, several participants broke ranks to answer the call of nature. It was inevitable; they’d been waiting for hours. Many would pop into one of the three churches on our block, and a few rushed into our funeral home where, unless we were “busy”, our house of mourning hosted a jolly, excited bunch.

Just when the funeral home became quite again, a clown came lumbering in with minutes to spare in a wave of sweat and the stale, rank odour of a bender. I’d never seen a clown in person before, though I’d noticed signs in larger towns.

I was expecting someone colourful, happy and, well, funny.

His morning stubble grew out of the white patchy makeup. The sinister red smile was a bit runny with his perspiration, his teeth long and yellow. ‘Petal’ had become smeared on his nametag. The all-in-one-clown suit, dingy from wear and too few washes, billowed out, something like this:

Petal walked with a deliberate and heavy step towards me in flat exaggerated shoes. 

 He bent down, his macabre face in mine. “Where’s your bathroom?” he asked in a gruff, demanding voice.

I screamed.  He grabbed me by both arms, “What’s wrong with you, girl? Where is it?” I pointed, then ran to find my father who was outside filming the crowd before he, too, would enter the parade driving the love of his life, a 1937 Roadmaster Buick.

Meanwhile, Petal, was taking an awfully long time. My father said it had something to do with his costume. I couldn’t imagine. He stumbled out with a curse, the tip of one of those long shoes fought with the carpet.

A half hour later, when the parade was in full swing, Petal sauntered by the funeral home waving to the crowd, throwing candy to children. He pulled out a horn with a large rubber bulb at the end of it from a deep pocket, aimed it at me, and honked. There was something mean about it.

I never learned who Petal was without the grease paint on his face. My father didn’t know him either, and he knew everyone. I’ve had a healthy fear of clowns since. 

A troupe of clowns - my nightmare.