Once upon a time - which is a terrible way to start a joke - there was a little boy named Billy.
Billy was six years old, and for the whole of his short life, he had been utterly and intensely obsessed with clowns. He had clown bed sheets and clown posters; he had clown toys and clown-themed games; he had towels with clowns on them, a toothbrush in the shape of a clown, and - if it had existed - he probably would have used clown-flavored toothpaste, as well.
Try not to think about it.
The point here is that Billy loved clowns, and his parents were well aware of that fact. (They'd have to be, right? I mean, how is a six-year-old going to buy all of that stuff?) Thus, they decided that for their son's seventh birthday, they'd purchase front row seats at the circus, which just happened to be in town at the same time. Upon hearing this, Billy was absolutely overcome with excitement, and he was scarcely able to sit still until his family arrived at the big top.
Billy and his parents walked in, took their seats, and waited for the show to start.
The music flared to life and the lights came up, and in a dazzling display of merriment, everything began. First came the lion-tamers with their whips and chairs... and yeah, they were intriguing, but they didn't hold Billy's interest. Next came the feats of strength with strongmen (and one excessively suspicious woman) smashing bricks and bending bars... and yeah, it was impressive, but Billy didn't really care. The sword swallowers followed, and the trapeze artists, and the tightrope walkers... and yeah, someone might have died at any moment, but it all seemed so boring.
Eventually, Billy began to worry that he wouldn't get to see clowns at the circus. After all, he knew very well that clowns usually only appeared when something went wrong. (You didn't know that, did you? Yeah, clowns are typically kept on standby in case someone screws up.)
Suddenly, all of the lights went out.
A single spotlight shown down to one corner of the arena.
A tiny car came puttering into view, while discordant, almost forlorn circus music played.
Deet deet deedle-deedle deet deet dee deeeeee...
The car's doors sprang open, and out poured the most amazing collection of clowns that Billy had ever seen! There were fat clowns, thin clowns, tall clowns, short clowns! Clowns with bright red hair and enormous red noses! Clowns in silly suspenders and oversize shoes! There were clowns wearing every color of the rainbow, and clowns that moved like psychotic ferrets on speed! There were more clowns than Billy had ever dreamed of watching all at once!
Then, just as it seemed like that tiny car couldn't produce a single soul more, another clown stepped out. He was too fat to be thin, yet too thin to be fat... but somehow wasn't average, either. He was too short too be tall, yet too tall to be short... but still managed to be both at once. He had pale, almost white skin - not the product of makeup - and deep, almost black, sunken eyes. He had a shock of bright red (and completely natural) hair, and a bulbous, equally red nose.
Billy looked on with awe and wonder as he realized what he was seeing: This wasn't a person in makeup who was putting on an act; this was a real clown. The man - if indeed you could call him a man - reached into the front of his pants, wiggled his hand around for a little while, and pulled forth a bright silver microphone. After offering a conspiratorial wink to the audience, the clown cleared his throat... and his dry, raspy voice boomed out for everyone to hear:
"I need a volunteer!"
Before Billy had even completely processed what he had just heard, he discovered that he had leapt from his seat and thrust his hand as high as it would go.
"Pick me!" Billy screamed. "Pick me!"
The clown extended a finger and cast it over the audience, drawing lazy circles through the crowd. After what felt like an eternity, he finally aimed his cracked fingernail directly at Billy.
"You there, little boy!" the clown barked.
A cheer went up as Billy clamored over the railing and dropped down into the arena. The smell of sawdust and sweat reached his nose, but he paid it little mind: He was focused entirely on this dream of his coming true; on the opportunity to meet and perform with a real clown.
"I need to ask you a question," said the clown. "Tell me: Are you a horse's head?"
Billy laughed aloud, as much from glee as from the absurdity of the question. "No! No, I'm not a horse's head!"
The clown nodded, apparently having expected this answer. (After all, who would say yes to that question?) "Well, then... are you a horse's body?"
"No!" Billy giggled. "No, I'm not a horse's body, either!"
Once more, the clown nodded, and his broad smile - his thick, red lips - grew wider. "I see. Are you a horse's leg?"
"No, I'm not a horse's leg!" Billy replied. His own smile grew to match that of the clown.
"So..." the clown said, pacing around Billy. "You're not a horse's head, and you're not a horse's body, and you're not a horse's leg." He paused then, and stood completely still. A hush covered the audience. Then, in a whirl of motion, the clown jammed his finger through the air and brought it right up into Billy's face.
"Then you must be a horse's ass!"
Laughter exploded from everywhere at once. Billy looked around, shame and betrayal filling his heart, and saw the faces of all those strangers laughing at him. He saw his friends from school laughing at him. He saw his own parents laughing at him. Something broke inside of Billy in that moment, and with a scream of agony and anguish, he ran from the arena and didn't stop until he had reached his house.
When Billy's parents returned home, they discovered that their son had trashed his bedroom. He had snapped his clown toothbrush and torn apart his towels with the clowns on them. He had smashed his clown-themed games and broken all of his clown toys. He had shredded his clown posters and burned his clown bed sheets. (I don't know where this kid got access to fire, but clearly he was pretty serious about destroying stuff.) Worst of all, Billy's parents found that their son - who had once been so cheerful and outgoing - had sunken into a deep and unbreakable silence.
Billy did not speak for a year. Therapists and counselors were wholly ineffective, and no amount of bribery, threats, or pleading could pull even the smallest word from his lips. His parents eventually gave up, resigned as they were to the fact that their son was lost to them... but then, on his eighth birthday, the little boy held up his head, blinked his eyes once, and spoke with a clarity and a maturity not heard from most adults.
"Mom, Dad," he said, "I want you to know that I'm okay. From now on, though... it's just 'Bill.'"
Ten years passed.
Bill went on to become something of a legend in his little hometown: He was a perfect student and a dedicated volunteer. He was involved in every extracurricular activity in some way or another. He was captain of the football team, head of the chess club, first-chair violin in the orchestra, and valedictorian. By the time that he was ready to graduate, Bill had been offered a complete scholarship to literally every college in the country (with some schools even offering free alcohol after he turned twenty-one).
It came as something of a shock, then, when after crossing the stage, Bill approached his parents.
"I know that you won't understand this," he said, "but I've decided that I'm not going to college. You see, all of my success and all of my ambition has been driven by a deep, horrible wound that I still carry. I've tried desperately to cover it, to let it heal... but each night, I still hear the voice of that clown in my head. That's why I'm leaving for Tibet. I'm going to seek out and join the monastery where they teach the ancient art of Comebackery, and once I have mastered all that they can offer... I'll come back and have my revenge."
Bill's parents tried to dissuade him, but he was adamant. True to his word, Bill boarded a flight that very evening. He landed in China and trekked on foot to a village at the base of a snow-covered mountain. A year passed as he learned the language and earned the trust of the people who lived there, until the day when one of them gave him whispered directions to the hidden temple. Bill set out again, carrying only a few days' worth of supplies, and finally found himself at the doorstep of the monastery he had sought.
A knock at the door was answered by the head monk; a small, wrinkled man with a bald head and a serene smile.
"My son," the head monk said, "I can see that you have been wronged." (This guy spoke Tibetan, obviously, but the general meaning was the same.) "Normally, you would have to wait here for three days and nights to show your devotion... but I sense that you are a special case. Come into the sanctuary, and we will teach you what you wish to know."
Thus began Bill's life as a Monk of Comebackery. He learned jokes, japes, and jeers. He learned witticisms and retorts. He learned insults, insinuations, dares, and double entendres. Before long, he was able to verbally spar with the very best of his brethren.
Yet still, even after another decade of training, Bill did not feel any closer to learning what he had hoped to find.
One cold winter morning, Bill approached the head monk with his concerns. "Master," he said, "have I not been a good pupil?"
"You have been exemplary," answered the head monk.
"And have I not upheld and embodied everything you have taught?"
"Indeed you have," the head monk replied.
"Then," Bill said, steadying himself, "I wish to learn the forbidden knowledge. I wish to learn... The Ultimate Comeback."
The head monk looked into Bill's eyes for a long, ominous moment.
Eventually, he smiled.
"My son," the head monk said, "when you came to us, you were but a youth with a scar on his soul. You had been cut more deeply than any man should have to endure, and yet you persevered. More than that, you excelled. You have inspired us all with your strength and conviction, and also with your insight." The man stepped forward and clasped a hand over Bill's shoulder. "I cannot teach you what you seek, for you already know it."
At first, Bill felt himself reeling inside. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. Had he thrown his life away for nothing? Had he wasted all of those years training, only to fail at the last step? The thought was too terrible to consider, and Bill experienced a sense of loss unlike any he had felt since...
In a flash of clarity, Bill understood.
The Ultimate Comeback, he knew, was a weapon of untold power. It was to be wielded only by they who had discovered it for themselves, and it could only be discovered by they who had felt its devastation firsthand. It was so elegant, so perfect, and so deadly... and Bill knew that it had always been inside of him.
The head monk, watching Bill's face, smiled again. "You are ready."
Over the next few days, Bill made preparations to return home. He bade goodbye to his brothers at the monastery, then trekked back down to the village at the base of the mountain. He worked tirelessly in their fields and households, saving every bit that he could in order to afford a plane ticket back to the United States. It took still another year, but finally, Bill found himself stepping off the airplane onto American soil (or, rather, onto American linoleum in an American airport), and hitchhiking in the direction of his hometown.
When he finally arrived, Bill was aghast at what he discovered. This once-welcoming neighborhood had descended into squalor and disrepair. Shops were boarded up and trash littered the street. Stray dogs ran in packs, fighting over scraps of rubbish. What few people Bill encountered would quickly avert their gazes and hurry on their way. The warmth and compassion that he had experienced in his youth were both gone, replaced by a desolate despondence and an overcast sky.
It didn't take long to find that Bill's parents were long dead. His friends had all moved on, and the legend of Bill's high school success had faded into little more than an unlikely memory. Despair filled Bill's heart, along with a thrum of rising panic. Was he too late? Had he spent so much time abroad that he'd missed his chance to have his revenge?
As if in answer, a gust of wind brought a scrap of paper to Bill's feet. He reached down and retrieved it... and realized that it was a ticket to the circus's last-ever show. Not only that, but the performance was being held that very day, and the ticket would grant Bill access to the very same seat he had occupied all those years ago.
This, Bill decided, was fate.
He squared his shoulders and walked in the direction of the big top.
When Bill arrived to the circus, he found that it had fared no better than the rest of the town. The tents all hung in tatters, barely more than faded scraps of cloth. The seats were rickety and rusty, and even the sawdust bore the telltale scent of rot. Despite the dilapidation, though, it seemed that the final performance had drawn an enormous crowd, and Bill had to shove his way through the audience to reach his seat at the front row.
He held his breath, waiting for the show to start.
The music moaned to life and the lights flickered up, and in a halfhearted display of merriment, everything began. First came the lion-tamers with their whips and chairs... and yeah, they were intriguing, but Bill was otherwise occupied. Next came the feats of strength with strongmen (and one excessively suspicious old woman) smashing bricks and bending bars... and yeah, it was impressive, but Bill stayed focused on his own thoughts. The sword swallowers followed, and the trapeze artists, and the tightrope walkers... and yeah, someone might have died at any moment, but it all seemed so irrelevant.
Eventually, Bill began to worry that he wouldn't get to see the clowns. After all, he knew very well that clowns have a remarkably low life expectancy as compared to other professions. (That's probably not accurate, but it sure sounds true, doesn't it?)
The car's doors creaked open, and out shambled the most pathetic collection of clowns that Bill had ever seen. There were fat clowns, thin clowns, tall clowns, and short clowns, all of them bent under the weight of age and depression. Clowns with ancient wigs and crumbling rubber noses. Clowns in stretched-out suspenders and orthopedic shoes. There were clowns wearing every faded shade one could imagine, and clowns that moved like they were inches from the grave.
Then, just as it seemed like that tiny car couldn't produce a single soul more... the outpouring stopped.
Bill's heart jumped in his chest. Where was the clown who had wronged him as a child? Where was the monster that had haunted his dreams? Where was the target for his Ultimate Comeback?!
A shaking, rattling cough called Bill's attention to the other side of the arena, and he watched as an old man limped into view. Streaks of grey marred what had once been a shock of bright red hair, and those deep, blackened eyes seemed to have sunk even further into the white face that contained them. Yellow teeth spoke of fetid breath behind those broad, cracked lips, and tremors shook each lanky limb... but it was very clearly the clown from Bill's past.
The clown raised a tarnished microphone to his mouth and spoke.
"I need a volunteer."
Before Bill was even aware of his own actions, he discovered that he had stood from his seat and thrust his hand in the air.
"Me," Bill said. "Pick me."
The clown extended a finger and cast it over the audience, drawing lazy circles through the crowd. After what felt like an eternity, he finally aimed his cracked, dirty fingernail directly at Bill.
"You there, sir!" the clown rasped.
A reluctant cheer went up as Bill climbed his way over the railing and dropped down into the arena. The smell of mildew and death reached his nose, but he paid it little mind: He was focused entirely on this dream of his coming true; on the opportunity to get his revenge on the clown before him.
"I need to ask you a question," croaked the clown. "Tell me: Are you a horse's head?"
The single word rang out like a gunshot, echoing in the silence that followed.
The clown, visibly shaken by the response, coughed and continued. "Well, then... are you a horse's body?"
Once more, the syllable cut through the air, piercing everyone who heard it to their very soul. There was an icy, powerful venom in Bill's voice, and it utterly captivated everyone within earshot.
The clown shivered, clearly unaccustomed to this kind of behavior, but pressed on nonetheless. "I see. Are you a horse's leg?"
"No," Bill calmly replied, "I am not a horse's leg."
Nobody said a word. Nobody even breathed. Nobody had ever experienced anything as chilling as the tone in Bill's voice... but the clown had a secret weapon, too. With an evil, sinister smile, that pale-faced, red-haired monstrosity summoned forth the unspeakable power that rests within the blackened heart of every clown, bringing it to bear in a horrifying smile that should not have been able to exist outside of a nightmare.
"So!" the clown said, pacing around Bill. "You're not a horse's head, and you're not a horse's body, and you're not a horse's leg." He paused then, and stood completely still. A hush covered the audience. Then, in a whirl of motion, the clown jammed his finger through the air and brought it right up into Bill's face.
Laughter exploded from everywhere at once. Bill looked around, and suddenly, he was a little boy again. All of that shame and betrayal filled his heart, and he couldn't help but imagine the faces of all those strangers laughing at him. He saw his friends from school laughing at him. He saw the ghosts of his parents laughing at him. Something broke inside of Bill in that moment... but rather than scream and run, he held up a hand.
The laughter stopped.
The silence returned.
The clown turned to face Bill, a look of pure terror on his face.
The iciness in Bill's heart vanished and was replaced with a malevolent, hellish inferno that burned with the intensity of absolutely pure hatred.
The Ultimate Comeback was there, ready to be unleashed... and Bill unleashed it.
"You know what, clown? Fuck you!"