the thirteenth clown

Allow me to explain. We had a bet. I know, a Monk and a nun betting with each other sounds like the set-up for a joke. And in a way, in the eyes of the Lord, it was. But you know, no judgment lest ye be judged.
Monastic life can at times be. . . stifling. A life of chastity, poverty and obedience can bring on cabin fever. Some Monasteries make cappuccino or stomp grapes, maybe master beautiful chants. For us it was game night. Or it was, until the night Sister made her proclamation.
It was a hoot. Every so often the Monastery and our sister Convent got together in the multi-purpose room. We played Sacred Scrabble with only Bible words, Spiritual Pictionary, Biblical Charades. There was punch and Fig Newtons on the once white tablecloths. There were triangular white-bread sandwiches with the crusts cut off.  We sat around long, wooden tables in dented folding chairs and had a nice time.
But the last time the festivities descended into transgression. Somehow Sister Mary-Margaret and I found ourselves playing a kind of chaste, Catholic version of truth or dare. The evening then further devolved into a feisty duel of one-upmanship where she and I took turns forecasting our fates. This eventually, inevitably, led to us prognosticating the circumstances of our deaths.  It was wickedness itself.
Sister Mary-Margaret and I were always chummy; at times acting like an old celibate couple. This evening sister and I got into a zone where we invented outrageous and terrible deaths, each successive turn getting more elaborate and implausible. It was great fun.
You see son, sometimes living in service to God and his flock can create its own kind of gallows humor, a gruesome coping mechanism shared by those who when not in contemplation serve around death. This calling, as blessed as it may be, can be spiritually taxing.
Daily we find ourselves attending to the dying, honoring those that have ceased and ministering those that mourn their dead. From this constant exposure sometimes rises a morbid gaiety, a kind of awe concerning the cornucopia of circumstances that might cause one to shuffle off this mortal coil. It must be the same with medics in wars and doctors on terminal wards. I suppose it’s a healthy response to death, a way to stay loving in the face of vertiginous human suffering.
During that fated game night, when casting our fates in ridiculous ways, Sister Mary-Margaret suddenly blurted out (in a very un-nun-like manner) that whichever of us died first, the survivor would have to carry around the other’s bones. A kind of perpetual, peripatetic shrine.  I agreed in jest, not understanding the gravity of her statement.
At first it seemed she was joking about the bones, and it was terribly amusing, fitting right in with the silly casting of fates. Little did I know that evening not only were we indulging the sins of the fabulist, but Sister would seal us into a strange covenant.
Earlier that night the Sister was cooking up some hum-dingers, like being struck by a bowling ball launched backward from a novice bowler’s back swing. Or gorging oneself, eating oneself to death, with tapioca pudding. This one was doubly wicked because it paid homage to one of the deadly sins, a kind of monastic, Godly pun. I countered with sudden death by super-heated steam from a carelessly opened bag of microwave popcorn, or being mauled to death by a rouge white tiger at a prosaic animal park.
But perhaps her greatest possible death was actually a finely crafted mini-life, recasting her destiny so rather than joining the convent out of high school she indulged a secular path. In this elaborate death-fantasy she went instead to clown-college, something she had not so secretly always wanted to do. In fact any chance she got – even sometimes verging on the inappropriate – Sister Mary-Margaret would dress up like a clown. But that’s a verse from another Gospel.
As she told it, in this alternate clown-college fate, Sister effortlessly mastered the clown curriculum. She aced skills like how to properly adhere a clown nose with spirit gum (in pro-clown parlance it’s called fixing the harlequin prosthetic.) She was also first to cross the finish line after running a mile in full costume, in clown shoes.
The costumed-mile was timed, to be completed in 10 minutes. The purpose was two-fold. The race was used to develop the crucial skills of balance and dexterity, and also to show the neophyte jesters that being professionally, on-call hilarious isn’t folly. In her class more than half of the apprentice clowns didn’t finish in time or otherwise washed out. I ask you, Sir, is there anything sadder than failing out of clown-college?
In this fugue-fate Sister was a gifted clown. She could twirl an oversized tie like no other. She could produce an impressive array of silly objects from the many hidden pockets of her costume. A costume lovingly sown by her hand. In her telling of it, she was born clown.
This alternate-fate Sister Mary-Margaret rendered her fine skills ever more fine. She could squirt water into a small glass at 40 feet. She could literally flip herself backward and land on the ground in her floppy clown shoes. She could produce a train of over 30 scarves from her mouth, employing a Hatha Yoga circular breathing technique. If there were clown Olympics she would be a clown Olympian.
As the story went, upon graduation she was snatched up by a grade-A traveling circus. She replaced a well-known clown who was forced to retire his face because bad knees made pratfalls impossible. Sister not only took the esteemed position of clown-boss but also was responsible for driving the clown-car, a position usually bestowed upon an elder jester. This honor humbled her and made her feel small before God, for though in this story she was a clown and not a nun, in any life Sister Mary-Margaret was pious and devout.  Come to think of it, an argument could be made that ministering and clowning have more in common than not, but that’s casting stones at my own calling . . .
As Sister told it, on opening night the air of the big top smelled of cracker jacks and elephants. She sat, her oversized-gloved hands sweating, locked in a death grip on the tiny steering wheel, rapidly inhaling and re-circulating the sad clown breath of the 5 others packed into the tiny clown-car.
On cue she put the car in gear and rolled out toward the center ring. As Sister stopped on her mark she opened a small hatch in the floorboard of the car. She then pulled up a trapdoor in the ring, and created an opening for the ten huddled clowns waiting, as if coiled, below. She exhaled and leaned into the steering wheel to free up precious inches, so the five clown human pretzel in the cab could begin to disentangle.
Once the five clowns in the car successfully unraveled and debarked, the underground clowns began to pass through. A stream of manic clowns sprung from the impossibly small car into the spotlight, a spectacular conceit.  All was well until the second to last clown, the 13th if you must know, smashed into her with his fat suit and her bosom was smushed into the mini-steering wheel. The horn blared, the car shifted into reverse, and as the corpulent clown further mashed against her, Sister’s foot slid hard onto the gas pedal.
The car slammed backward decapitating the 15th clown the second his head emerged through the hatch. The 14th clown was flailing out the window like a broken jack-in-the-box, his upper torso pushed out by the girth of the 13th clown. His panicked gesticulations were greeted with a round of applause, while the head of the 15th clown lolled at his feet. Just as the applause died out and to the audience’s apparent glee, the 14th clown fell out backward and landed squarely on his red, pointy fright wig. In tableau he convulsed and spun on his head. He then began a series of involuntary, slow motion tumbles, greeted with howls from the crowd.  All the while the horn was stuck open and squealed like a stuck pig and the clown car continued to race backward. The audience was in hysterics.  The car rolled in reverse out of the center ring toward a group of elephants stoically waiting their turn, each holding the tail of the beast in front of them in their mouths.
Something primal was awakened in the gentle mammoths when the car lurched toward them in reverse. At this moment the roar of the crowd phased from laughter to screams. Before it could actually collide with the pachyderm procession, the animals stampeded. They scattered like the twelve tribes, moving frighteningly fast. They panicked trying to escape what perhaps translated in elephant-think to a giant, speeding mouse. In their wake audience members, trainers, clowns and monkeys were trampled, as well as a couple of petite unisex gymnasts in shiny spandex.
One brave behemoth stared down the terrifying, hurtling thing, perhaps willing to die defending the herd rather than have to roll the bones of his younger brood.  With slow dignity the alpha elephant raised a grey, barrel-sized foot, high as any elephant had ever raised a grey, barrel-sized foot. He smashed it down and crushed the clown car and clown Sister Mary-Margaret. As her compacted body expired it merged with the cartoon obesity of the 14th clown and the disembodied head of the 15th clown in a manner that could only be described as tragicomic.

* * * *
Back at game-night, the still very much alive Sister Mary-Margaret took a deep breath and made little circles in the air with her hand, which signaled the end of her tall tale.
Needless to say my circus peanut had been stomped. I was in awe of the, dare I say, subversive nature of her elaborate death-fantasy. I could only pass her a triangular, crust-less white bread half-sandwich and await her lap of honor. She was (of course) dignified and saintly about her untoppable, absurdist death-dirge. She simply bowed her head a little and bit into the sandwich.
A week later Sister died. Sadly, she had an extreme allergy to ham, really any kind of swine, and I unwittingly provided the instrument of her death in a ham sandwich-wedge. She swelled up and turned purple. But before her tongue was too big for her mouth, before she lapsed into a fatal coma, in keeping with the gallows humor demonstrated in her clown massacre confabulation; she yelled: “Yoth did thit on purputh! Thwat a thilly way tho die! Yooh whhin an I whhin! You geth tooh carry my bonth!” These were her last words. But not her last act.
Ever the superior sportsperson (sports-nun?) and about as competitive as a woman in a habit could be, as soon as she lost the power of voice she frantically gestured for pen and paper. She promptly wrote this addendum to her will: Let it be known that upon my death the cenobite Friar Flannery J. Finn shall forever, AT ALL TIMES AND UNTIL HIS DEATH carry on his person my human remains in the form of seven bones of his choosing. Upon his death my bones shall lay with his in his place of rest. We have entered into a bond eternal on this 3rd day of May, 2005.  May the Lord bless us and keep us forever.  Sister Mary-Margaret.
So it was written and so it was done.

So you see Sir, ah, Mr. Lane, it should now be clear why a Priest would be travelling with . . .uhm. . . human bones. While the bones in my satchel rightly aroused the suspicion of your guards when going through the body scan, there was no reason to be alarmed.
In addition, and by way of explanation, please allow me to provide you with a few documents. Here, Sir is the last will and testament of Sister Mary-Margaret with the “bone carrying” addendum. Also please find a letter from the Rector of our Parish who witnessed the writing of the will and the events that preceded it. Also included is this notice from the chief coroner of Sonoma County, where our Parish is located. You will notice that this, erm, notice has been signed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who at the time of procuring these documents was governor of the state of California. It has also been notarized and stamped by the head of your agency, the TSA.
May God be with you, son. Now please allow me passage. Myself and my old bones must make haste to the next funeral.

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