The night had been cold, and in the morning, it started to rain. Paul pulled the frayed brown coat tighter around his body and his wool cap lower into his forehead. He tried to expel the cold from his fingers by blowing into his hands by turns while pushing the old shopping cart in front of him.
He longed to take a sip from the liquor bottle he could feel in his coat pocket, but knew that he must remain sober. He surveyed the gray street, the dark houses, and the gloomy sky, saw that the trees had lost their last leaves overnight, and listened to the wind gusts autumn was blowing through the streets.
He was sad. He hated what he saw, but was determined not to drink.
At the end of the street, he could make out the bright yellow of a telephone booth. In a moment he would call his ex-wife. She’d talk with him briefly as always, would exchange a few trivial words for the sole purpose of checking on his condition. And only if he passed this test satisfactorily would she allow his little daughter come to the phone.
Paul stepped into the telephone booth after carefully parking his shopping cart so that he could keep his eyes on it. All his property, everything he still owned, was in that shopping cart, and there were always teenagers who thought it was fun to grab his cart and pull out everything in it. They didn’t want to steal anything, as they considered its contents mere trash. They only meant to humiliate him, and he knew it. He had ceased to care long ago. After all, they were right. He didn’t deserve any better.
For the second time that morning he resisted the temptation of reaching for the liquor in his pocket. He dug up the change instead, and, with his trembling hand, fed the coins into the slot. Then he punched the number and listened to the ring.
“Eva Bremer,” his ex identified herself. The sound of her maiden name, to which she had returned, always hurt. He took a deep breath before he spoke.
“Hi Eva, it’s me.”
As always, there was a brief pause.
“Hi Paul. How are you?”
He swallowed and tried to sound as normal as possible, so that his wife could tell he was sober. “Fair. It was cold last night, and I’m a bit worried about the winter, but everything else is okay. How are you?”
“Thanks, things are going well enough. I found a new job as secretary for an attorney. The work is boring, but I’m making a little money.”
He wasn’t sure if he heard a slight reproach in her voice. However, after being out in the street, after his utter descent, even that didn’t matter much to him. He would simply drown her disappointment in the next bottle of booze.
“I’m glad. The two of you can certainly use that money.” He paused a little before he continued.
“I’m sober. Haven’t had a drink all morning. Could I talk with Klara? I promise I’ll behave.”
His ex-wife hesitated as always. He could understand why, knew what he had done to her and his daughter. He was sorry, but it was too late; he couldn’t undo the past, couldn’t turn back the clock. Being able to have phone conversations with Klara was the best he could expect.
“Okay, I’ll get her. But remember our agreement: not one word about your condition! Growing up without a dad is bad enough for her.”
Her words hurt, but he said yes. He wouldn’t have told his daughter anyway that he was an alcoholic bum who couldn’t even take care of his family. Why should he? So she’d look down on him? He actually was afraid that his ex might tell the child. After Eva had kicked him out, ever since he’d been living on the street, he’d been afraid of that.
After a brief moment, he heard his little daughter’s small voice on the line.
“Hi Klara! How are you?”
“Pretty fine. But it’s been a long time since you called. Mommy said you were traveling again. Where are you just now?”
That was the story they told her. Her father was on a trip to a faraway country and couldn’t come home. He knew that this lie didn’t really make things any easier for his daughter. She missed him. But at least she didn’t know what he had turned into, and he could talk to her on the phone now and then. He tried to put as much joy into his voice as he could.
“You won’t believe what I’m telling you. I’m in a city where the sun shines all the time. It never rains here and never gets cold. Can you imagine that?”
“That sounds very nice. It’s turned very cold where we are. I think winter is coming again.”
He heard his daughter’s voice, looked out of the telephone booth, saw the gray street, the gray buildings, and the passers-by, who wore thick clothing against the cold. A city where the sun shines all the time? He’d like that. He felt thirsty again.
“Do you have Clown Cheeryouup with you?” his daughter asked.
“Sure I do, Klara. He’s skipping from one leg to the other in front of this telephone booth. It looks very funny.”
He had often told her about Clown Cheeryouup. She loved her dad’s stories about the clown and asked for a new one each time he called.
“Did he cheer someone up again?”
“You know that he always has to cheer everyone up, even if that’s not what he has in mind. Yesterday he ran into a very sad little girl.”
His daughter laughed in anticipation of the story.
“What was the matter with the girl? Please tell me.”
“Okay, I’ll tell you what happened yesterday. We were walking through the streets of the city where the sun always shines, when we saw a small girl on a park bench who looked very sad. Cheeryouup leaped toward her on his little legs and drew himself up to his full, one foot, one inch height in front of her. He looked firmly into her face and asked in his very deep voice why she looked so unhappy.”
Klara laughed. She always thought it was funny that such a little clown should have such a deep voice. Paul now played the clown, saying in his deepest voice, “‘The weather is so beautiful and the sun is nice and warm. Why are you so unhappy, little princess?’ The girl looked unhappily at Cheeryouup and told him that her best friend had moved to another city, and that she was so sad because she couldn’t play with her any longer. ‘But you have other friends, don’t you?’ Cheeryouup asked. ‘Of course I do, but she was simply my dearest friend,’ the girl answered. ‘I miss her a lot.'”
“And what did he do then? Did he make the girl happy again?” Klara asked.
“It was very funny. He tried all his tricks on the girl. First he grew his ears very large, so that they were dragging on the ground, and then he danced like mad, until he stumbled over his own ears and fell on his red nose.”
Klara laughed. She was probably imagining the clown with the large ears.
“But the girl still looked unhappy. So Cheeryouup first changed the color of his nose from red to green, and then to blue and yellow. At the same time he made very funny noises with his mouth and danced on his hands. But the girl still looked at him sadly. He got crazier and crazier, but nothing helped, so I started to worry that Cheeryouup might get sad himself. You know, that would be very dangerous for him.”
Klara had been laughing loudly again; but now she suddenly said with all the seriousness of her young years, “Clown Cheeryouup mustn’t be unhappy! You told me that he would vanish into thin air if he became sad and could never cheer anyone up again.”
“That’s right, Klara. That’s why I worried about him when I noticed that none of his tricks worked on the girl. But then I saw that Cheeryouup was turning angry, not sad. Can you imagine a clown throwing a tantrum? Now, that really looked funny: Cheeryouup stomped his feet and jumped up and down, so his pants slid off over and over. That made him even angrier and angrier, and he grumbled to himself. His head turned very red and little clouds of smoke came out of his ears, while his red pointed cap fell off. This really looked very funny. And, you know what?”
Klara was laughing again.
“While Cheeryouup got so worked up, the girl started laughing after all. I guess she’d never seen an angry clown.”
“That’s very funny. But I hope he got over his tantrum?”
“Well, once in a while his ears still give out a little smoke, but I think he’s fine again.”
“I’d like to get to know Cheeryouup. Can’t you come by sometime and bring him along?”
“But Klara, I’m so far away. And besides, what for? You’re happy. You don’t need the clown.”
He heard the soft voice of his ex in the background, and Klara said, somewhat disappointed, “Daddy, Mommy wants to talk to you again. Take care! I love you.”
“I love you, too, Klara.”
It was too brief. As always it had been simply too brief, but he couldn’t stop the clock, couldn’t make the moment last.
“Thank you, Paul! That was very good of you.”
His wife’s voice sounded sad when she continued, “Maybe you could make another effort to get help. Klara needs her dad.”
“I can’t, Eva. You know I tried my best, but I’m too weak.”
He swallowed hard, glanced at his shopping cart in front of the phone booth, and felt the liquor bottle in his pocket. He knew he had to have a drink now; the morning had exhausted all his strength.
“Thank you for letting me talk to Klara! I’ll call again soon.”
“Take good care of yourself, Paul! And let me know if there’s anything I can do for you after all!” Eva hung up.
Paul remained in the phone booth for a moment. Then he stepped out into the cold, grabbed his shopping cart, and trotted over to the near-by park. There he sat down on a bench, pulled the liquor bottle from his pocket, and started swigging in large gulps.
After emptying most of the bottle, he saw Cheeryouup poking his little head out of the trash in his shopping cart and looking at him with questioning eyes.
“Cheer me up, too, little clown,” Paul said, watching him climb from the shopping cart and striking a pose before him.
The clown shook his head, lifted his red nose, and looked at him before saying in his deep voice, “You heard your daughter laughing. If that doesn’t cheer you up, then I can’t help you either.”
Paul looked at the little clown for a long time, while he drank the last of the bottle. Then he nodded and smiled.
“Let’s have a new adventure, Cheeryouup, so that we’ll have a new tale to tell!”
He got up, and together they pushed his cart into the city where the sun never stopped shining.
Original © Christian Helm
Translation © Ingrid Lansford