el Payaso

Day One: The child clings to the stuffed cotton clown, with a red nose and gaping smile painted on its plaster head. He’s named the clown Cara Graciosa, Funny Face. He’s slept with it next to him on his cot, always, and his mama made sure he took it on his long journey with Papa when they left in the dark morning. The boy speaks only Spanish, he’s just turned four, he’s small for his age, and he has a profound stutter that makes his words hard to understand, even for his parents and siblings.

He whimpers in the glaring sun when the Americanos take him from his father at the border crossing in Tornillo, Texas. He sobs as they hook a tight plastic bracelet that has his name and a number onto his tiny arm. The name so they could get him to respond when spoken to. The number, a data point to catalog his pertinent facts into the computer. There are so many children, so many numbers. Hundreds, thousands. The administrators are too rushed for time to input other necessaries.

The boy asks the Americano lady for a bracelet for Cara Graciosa, but she just shakes her head and nudges his shoulder, moving him toward the bus in the line of other children.


Day Three: The father is being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The man thought he’d properly prepared for entry into the country, thought that bringing his child would give him a better chance to gain asylum and then assimilate, to find work in a village of compadres. But he didn’t count on the degrees of hate and anger and lack of empathy his captors and their bosses show toward all of them when all they want is a chance for a better life.

He is housed in a fenced-in dormitory, crowded in with other men, some older, some younger, fed but not enough, meal after meal of cheap and salty fast food. Rumors are running wild around the tables about deportations and reunions, but there is no real information to be had. People with badges and uniforms sit behind desks and watch the men on screens as they eat, count their humiliating trips to the portable toilets, watch their every interaction with each other, like rats in a cage.

A white baby-faced Border Patrol agent passing through the dining tables tells the father not to worry, his son is fine, well taken care of. The father phones his wife who’d stayed back in El Salvador with the boy’s siblings so they could stay in school. She is frantic, crying, and pleading, “Tell me how our child is faring. What is he eating? Where is he sleeping? Does he have his warm blanket? His clown?” He can’t tell her the truth – that he doesn’t know.


Day Seven: The father has still had no contact with his son. He is depressed, wavering on the verge of suicide or murder, he isn’t sure which might come first. He contacts several amigos who’ve already established themselves in Texas to come and collect the boy, take him in temporarily, but they aren’t blood relatives and aren’t eligible to be foster parents.


Behind another fence, the small boy is crying again. The bigger children are teasing him because he calls for his p-p-papa and his m-m-mama in his sleep, because he wets his thin mattress while he clings to his toy clown. The bigger boys call the boy Payaso, clown.

“No, I’m a b-b-boy,” he stutters out in his native tongue. “M-my name is Ricardo, not P-p-payaso.” He knows only his first name, but not his last.

A gang of four older boys holds him down and cuts off his bracelet with the sharp remains of a plastic pen they found on the ground, and now he can no longer be identified by the wristband with his name and his number on it. Then they twist the clown’s cotton body from its head and run away with it. Ricardo grabs the detached head and, desperate, slips away, determined to find his papa. He hides under a table while all the other children stand in line for tortillas and boiled eggs and juice boxes. He makes a plan to wait until everyone is asleep and to then run off and dig his way out under the high fence, but one of the Americano ladies catches him before he can go far.


Day Ten: The boy disappears, into The System. He clings to Cara Graciosa’s head, holds it so tight his fingers hurt, presses it against his heart and whispers into its ear to please help him find his mama and his papa and the rest of his cotton body. He’s stopped crying. His tears are evaporating with his hopes.


The events in this story may have taken place around five years ago. Where is the boy now? Who knows? Not his mama or papa. Not the United States Government. Do you?



Patricia Ann Bowen

Patricia Ann Bowen is the author of a medical time travel trilogy, a short story collection about people in challenging circumstances, and a serialized beach read. Her short stories have appeared in several anthologies and most recently in Mystery Tribune, Chamber Magazine, Idle Ink, and Commuterlit.com. She has taught short story writing, and she leads a critique group of short story writers for the Atlanta Writer’s Club. You can connect with her at www.patriciabowen.com. Patricia recommends the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Monday, June 10, 2024 - 21:20