Hector toasted with arroqueño mezcal brought in from Oaxaca by the bar’s owner. “To the new heavyweight champion of Luchadores Club!”
“This week, anyway!” Alex added.
Ramon grinned. The gold-buckled belt hung over the back of his bar stool, trophy of Ojos Rojos’ victory over El Ruiseñor an hour before. “Gracias, amigos. Salute!”
They clinked glasses, sipped liquid fire. Only gringo frat boys shot mezcal.
Luchadores Club met in a Quonset hut beside Marco’s Bar on Jerry Street. Unless rust over the door counted, the building had no sign. It didn’t need one. Neighbors for blocks around packed the place twice a week to watch lucha libre wrestlers grapple and drop-kick for a cut of the gate. It was half the price of a movie, twice as much fun. If the city cared, concern ended at insurance requirements and the occasional parking ticket.
Hector was El Lobo Gran Malo — The Big Bad Wolf. Dark gray-and-black trunks, matching Chuck Taylor sneakers with extra-high tops that reached mid-calf, a gray mask with yellow trim around the eyes, and jagged white trim — teeth, if you please — around the mouth. He used three signature moves: Huff, Puff, and Blow. He loved hearing the crowd chant, “Soplas la casa abajo!” — Blow the house down! — when he laid the third move on his opponents.
Ramon set his glass, asked Hector, “Has Emilio decided what he wants for his party yet?”
“No.” Emilio was Hector’s son, on the cusp of turning nine. “He’s gone through 20 ideas. Batman. Star Wars. Iron Man. Something called Minecraft. He’s come up with stuff I didn’t even know was stuff.”
“Kids love the luchadores,” Alex hinted. Alex wrestled as El Loco Hombre Azul — the Crazy Blue Man. Crazy about being a luchador, Hector figured. It was Alex’s answer for everything. Flat tire? Call a luchador. Termite problem? Call a luchador.
“It’s Emilio’s choice. He’s never expressed interest in a party with friends before, so he’s getting whatever he wants.”
“What’s wrong with luchadores?” As if Alex had been passed over for a promotion. Labor dispute? Call a luchador.
“Nothing. He’s a kid. Kids have lots of choices. But he needs to decide soon. Three weeks isn’t much time to set something up.”
Alex snorted. “Three hours, you could have a half-dozen wrestlers.”
It was after dark when Hector pulled into his driveway. From the porch, Lydia fixed him with a glare learned from her abuela. She swore it wasn’t the evil eye. It looked evil enough.
“You have a problem,” she said as he reached the steps.
“It was just a couple mezcals with the guys.”
“Not booze. The boy. He’s chosen his party entertainment. Came out of his room, said, ‘Mama, I’ve made my decision,’ and gave me this.” She handed Hector a folded sheet of paper.
“That’s not a problem. It’s an answered prayer.”
“Maybe if mass was at the Improv.”
Hector unfolded it. Black letters in a sea of white bond declared:
XYLO THE CLOWN
Hector studied his wife. “You’re messing with me.”
“C’mon. This isn’t funny.”
“Billy Miller told Emilio about the clown at his party. Balloon animals. Magic tricks. The folding xylophone.”
“The confetti cannon?”
“On and on about the confetti cannon.”
Hector rubbed the back of his neck. “Do you think Emilio knows?”
“No. I think you’re a victim of your own showmanship.” Lydia opened the door. Her voice dropped. “And that big lie you live.”
“Lie is such an ugly word.”
Hector followed her. Inside, his daughters Katie and Elizabeth python-hugged his legs.
In Peninsula, Texas — incorporated 1872 along the Guadalupe River, population 254,000 — luchadores and clowns did not mix.
Peninsula birthed one of the first rodeo clown schools in Texas, circa 1903. Before long, the program expanded to include circus and independent performers. Two of Barnum and Bailey’s boss clowns passed through Peninsula zip codes. One saw them everywhere.
By contrast, the city didn’t meet lucha libre until after World War Two, when Salvador Lutteroth’s traveling exhibition from Mexico City passed through on its way to Houston. The acrobatics, the pageantry, the unashamed fun — the descendants of Mexico cleaved to it. Two recreational leagues popped up in the months following Lutteroth’s visit.
A few still recalled the League Night Fracas of 1961 at the AMF lanes on Brazos Street, but the original slight was lost to history. Whether clowns believed their livelihood impinged upon or luchadores felt marginalized, the blood between them ran black. They entertained in their own neighborhoods and kept to their own sides of the street. No one was bold enough — or stupid enough — to mingle squirting daisies and flying tackles.
Except for Xylo the Clown. El Lobo Gran Malo. Hector Ramirez, plumber.
Lost in the shuffle of six siblings, Hector became class cut-up for attention. Acting up shortened to acting, begat drama club, talent shows, roles in local theater productions. He attended LSU, eyes on a dramatic arts degree. When told, his father shook his head and wished Hector luck. “Just never let me see you in tights.”
Xylo, outfitted in a lime green jacket and ruffled shirt, baggy pants, and oversized shoes, was born at LSU. Tuition, fees, textbooks, meals — those demanded every piece of change. One professor suggested greasepaint as a sidelight. “You can read a room. You’re a natural entertainer.”
As a middle child, Hector enjoyed making someone else’s birthday special. Laughter and applause were lagniappe. It beat scrubbing dishes in the dining hall. Dirty cookware didn’t applaud.
Xylo went into a box when Hector met Lydia, was a wistful memory by the time they settled in Peninsula with two kids. He met Ramon on the job with Palmer Plumbing. Ramon introduced him to lucha libre. Hector was a cruiserweight, took to the acrobatics with gusto. It was a year before he even heard about issues with clowns.
Then the economy tanked, killed by the announcement that Lydia was pregnant again. Hector scoured classified ads, seeking another job for months before stumbling across Xylo’s box while cleaning the garage.
Parties paid well. Weekends were typically free. Both wrestling and clowning covered his face. Hector mapped where it was safe to perform as Xylo when not appearing as the Wolf. His double life worked without a hitch for three years until Billy Miller, third grade braggart, soured the deal.
Hector knocked outside Emilio’s open door. The boy glanced up from a web page about the Aztecs, smart brown eyes reading Hector from behind gold-rimmed glasses. He frowned. “Mama told you.”
Hector sat on the bed. Old springs squeaked. “No. Why would I be?”
“Because I want a clown for my party, not a luchador.”
“I’m not mad. Surprised, maybe. You really like wrestling.”
“Yeah. But the guys know all the wrestlers, like how you’re Big Bad Wolf, and King Bee is Cousin Juan. It’s not as much fun. I want something … different.”
“Different isn’t always better.”
“How come ‘different’ is always better when Mama cooks something weird?”
“Because she’s Mama.”
“Anyway, Billy Miller knows cool clowns. He goes to the circus every summer. And a clown at a luchador’s house? The guys will talk about it for weeks!”
And there it was. When you’re nine, you want to impress the guys. Too soon, Hector thought, it would be about impressing girls instead. His left eye twitched at the notion. “It’s your birthday. You want a clown? You get a clown.”
“You sure you want this Xylo? He sounds kinda goofy.”
Emilio turned back to his computer. “They all would to you. You’re not allowed to like clowns. It might be a law.”
“Did Juan bang your head into a turnbuckle again?” Lydia snapped off the lamp and snuggled against her husband.
“No, really. I know how I can perform at the party.”
“In two hours, you’ve got a plan?”
“A bulletproof plan.”
“Wow. Luchador, clown, criminal mastermind. My mother was wrong. I did hit the jackpot.”
“The week of the party, when I’m around Emilio, I’ll mention it’s my on-call weekend.”
“He won’t know that. The day of the party, an hour before, I’ll get called in. I’ll have my props in the van. I’ll drive around the block, suit up, and come back on foot as Xylo. I’ll do the gig, leave, clean up, come back, and no one’s the wiser.”
Despite the dark, he could feel Lydia staring at him again. It was a strange sensation. Prickly. “Suppose the other luchadores show up to play ‘Suplex the Clown’?”
“I’m going to encourage them to come. They’re my brothers. They’ll posture, but none of them will come intending to start a ruckus. They’ll let the clown take the first swing, which he’ll never do.”
“Won’t they figure out you’re not on-call and not at the party? Doesn’t some little thing always reveal a secret identity?”
“They’ll be to busy fretting about a clown.”
Lydia was quiet for a time. “Emilio will be upset if you’re not there.”
“He’s nine. He’s elastic.”
“And you don’t think he’ll recognize you?”
“Kids fall for this all the time. Look at Clark Kent and Superman.”
Lydia kissed his neck, under the ear. “Except Superman is bulletproof.”
Commotion ensued at practice the next night, word spreading about Emilio’s clown. Hector was the Lawrence Olivier of Jerry Street: exasperated luchador and long-suffering father, trying to make his child happy. He played on their sympathies, begged their indulgence. “Don’t let Emilio’s party go bust. Let your kids come. If you’re really concerned, hang around to see the show.”
Everyone manned up in Hector’s time of need. Even Alex, who had no children. “I just want to see this joker up close.”
Emilio’s frown was the Grand Canyon the day of the party, when Hector grabbed his tool belt from the peg beside the door. “But I wanted you to see him.”
“Mama will shoot video. If I’m late, we’ll watch it together tonight.” He tussled Emilio’s hair. It brought the boy no solace. “I’ll try to be quick, but it sounds like a pretty bad leak.”
Emilio offered a half-smile. “Will you come in your mask?”
“Sure. Then you can have a luchador and a clown.”
Having both proved a non-issue. When Xylo the Clown entered the yard through the side gate an hour later, 11 masked faces greeted him with grim silence. The luchadores formed a row before the tall wooden fence, arms crossed, jaws firm. They returned neither Xylo’s smile nor wave. They might have been wrestling-themed lawn ornaments.
Xylo was setting up on the deck when Lydia motioned him to the side yard. Xylo shuffled down the steps and across the yard, rocking side to side.
“Did you call the cavalry?” Lydia pointed up the street.
A dozen clowns ambled single-file down the sidewalk, a rainbow waiting to be curved across the sky. Hector recognized several of them: Sprinkles, Polka Dot, Clapper. The others were strangers, but the show of solidarity was unmistakable.
Led by Sprinkles, they marched up the driveway to the side gate. Sprinkles tipped his neon blue bowler hat to Lydia, gloomy. “Good day, ma’am. We understand one of our brethren is performing here.”
Xylo waved. Sprinkles grinned and waved back, then grew dour again. “We also understand there are luchadores present.”
“Yes. Friends of my husband.”
“We’re here to ensure there are no unfortunate incidents.”
“Oh, everyone’s on best behavior.”
“With your permission, we’d like to tarry in your driveway until Xylo’s done, and afford him safe passage home.”
Lydia bit her lip to tame her smile. “It’s your show, Xylo.”
Xylo gave Sprinkles a thumbs-up. “See you soon!” he squeaked, a cartoon. He could feel an unfunny sweat on his brow.
Maybe it was the pressure, but Hector gave the best performance of Xylo the Clown’s life. The children clapped, stomped their feet, whistled in all the right places. Lydia and the other mothers shouted encouragement while tending the party.
The luchadores were noncommittal, eyes like hawks in the holes of their masks. Only Alex tried to stir the pot, when Xylo unfolded his namesake instrument. Xylo cupped his hand to his ear, asked the kids for requests. They shouted classics — “Old MacDonald,” “This Old Man,” “Pop Goes the Weasel.”
From the back, Alex called, “El Carretero.” The luchadores chuckled.
Xylo pointed at Alex and nodded, excited. He licked a gloved fingertip, tested the breeze. He gripped the two mallets, raised them, and banged out a simple version of the Mexican folk song with which Alex had tried to stump him.
The kids cheered. Cowed, Alex leaned against the fence. Hector caught Ramon smiling.
Xylo fired the confetti cannon to a hearty ovation. He led a chorus of “Happy Birthday” for Emilio. Mothers dished ice cream and cake. The kids ate around a long table set up under a tent, and Xylo packed, the show complete.
He’d secured the cannon when Lydia stopped beside him. “Emilio’s miserable.”
Xylo squeaked, “Didn’t he enjoy the show?”
Words worse than any body slam. “Yes. But he thinks his father skipped the party because of the clown.”
“Where is he?”
Lydia tipped her head towards Emilio, sitting alone, sullen, poking cake with a plastic fork.
Xylo sashayed across the yard and sat beside the boy. “What’s wrong, Emilio?”
“My dad missed the party.”
“I’m sure he’ll be here soon.”
The boy shook his head, fine strands of hair waving at the sun. “I think he’s mad at me because I wanted you at my party. He said it was okay, but then he said he had to work. He’s not even on-call. I checked his calendar.”
In his head, Hector saw Lydia mouthing the word bulletproof.
“Your act was great,” Emilio continued, “but I guess I wanted my dad here more.”
The sadness in his son’s voice was a nail through Hector’s heart. No ruse was worth it.
“Emilio, can you keep a secret?”
Emilio glanced, curious. Xylo unzipped the fanny pack slung around his waist. He withdrew the luchador mask, the face of El Lobo Gran Malo, and handed it to the boy.
Emilio turned it in his hands, studied it. Glanced at Xylo, then the mask again. Hector waited for the boy to connect the dots. Then Emilio shouted, loud enough to be heard on the other side of the neighbor’s house, “What did you do to my dad!?!”
One seldom witnesses the instant all hell breaks loose. Recording a tender father/son moment, Lydia caught one on video.
Emilio bolts from the chair, runs to the luchadores, screaming, waving El Lobo’s face like a battle flag.
The luchadores see the mask in Emilio’s hand. A luchador’s mask is his identity. They know El Lobo would never willingly surrender it, especially to a clown.
“What did you do, you payaso bastardo?” Alex shouts. The luchadores advance.
Hearing the budding commotion, the clowns in the driveway become a technicolor wave into the yard.
Children scatter, mobile air-raid sirens.
Pockets of chaos bloom like flowers. Luchadores launch themselves. Wigs fly. Clowns leap on wrestler backs, steer them by the eye-holes in masks. Ramon headlocks Sprinkles, crushes his bowler. Polka Dot levels Alex with the meanest left hook ever thrown by a lady clown.
Xylo stands on a chair and shouts, squeaky lilt replaced by Hector’s voice. Commanding. Resonant. Terrified. “Knock it off! Stop! All of you!” The chaos abates but doesn’t end until he adds, “Do you want the neighbors to call the cops?”
When he has their attention, Xylo rips the lime green wig from his head, pulls the matching bulb from his nose, and drops them on the ground. “It’s me! Hector! I’m fine! I’m Xylo the Clown! Everyone relax!”
For a moment, everything stops. Hector starts to explain when Alex cries, “I won’t let them convert you!” He knocks Hector from the chair with a flying tackle.
That’s when Lydia stops recording.
“I can’t believe you missed my speech.”
“It’s been four days,” Lydia said. “Let it go.”
“Maybe after you travel back in time and record it.”
“The exciting part was over.”
Hector sipped his beer with braced wrist. “At least all the injuries were minor. No one got arrested. We probably won’t get sued. And some good came out of it.”
“Good?” Lydia toweled a plate dry. “Suspended by the Brotherhood of Clowns and Luchadores Club. None of them are even speaking to you.”
“See? I united them against a common foe.” He took another sip. “The Brotherhood won’t pass me gigs, but they can’t stop me from performing. It’s not a union. The guys will come around. Ramon’s more hurt by me keeping a secret than anything.”
“No, but Marco can keep you out of the ring.”
“Marco’s a businessman. He’ll make me a villain for a while. El Payaso Lobo — The Clown Wolf. It’s like being in a sideshow.”
“Understatement of the year.” Lydia stacked plates in the cupboard, hung the damp dishtowel on a hook, and hugged Hector around the shoulders. “You’re a good man. But that was a lot of hassle for a birthday party. Was it really worth it?”
Emilio popped into the doorway, grin and waving hands, Kermit the Frog with a bowl haircut. “The ‘Luchadores versus Clowns’ video just reached 500,000 hits on YouTube! I think it got linked by Boing-Boing. It even has a comment from some guy in the Maldives. I don’t even know where that is!” Then he was gone again, down the hall with a whoop, his sisters joining him in the joyful chorus that filled the house end-to-end.
Hector glanced at Lydia, lips curled in a smile. “I’m sorry. What was your question?”