By the time Slap Happy was born, his parents, Jacob and Evelyn Happerson, had abandoned the circus life and were running a successful dry cleaning business in Canton, Ohio. Gone was the excitement of The Big Top, replaced by hard work and the strong desire to provide their only child with nothing but the best. Jacob held out hope that maybe one day he and Evelyn would return to the circus so his son could follow in his old man’s clown shoes, but Evelyn was quick to put the kibosh on any such idea.
“The circus is dead, for crissakes,” Evelyn would remind her husband. “Let it go already. Our son will be more than a circus performer. He will be a star!”
“He could be a star of the circus,” Jacob countered.
“He will be a movie star,” Evelyn said, hoping to end the discussion.
“A movie star,” Jacob said. “You gotta be kidding me. In Canton?”
“Never mind, Jacob,” Evelyn said. “You always think too small.”
“Too small,” Jacob mumbled to himself. “That’s not what those little acrobats used to say to me.”
“I can hear you, Jacob,” Evelyn said. “And I say big deal, they were midgets, for cryin’ out loud.”
Slap’s first love was Winnie Arbuckle. She had curly blonde locks and large blue eyes that mesmerized young Slap. He would wait with anticipation for Winnie’s arrival at school each morning. They would pass love notes during class until one of their notes was intercepted and read aloud to the rest of the class by an unsympathetic teacher.
Jacob and Evelyn were fine with the notion that their young son was experiencing his first crush. They had never met Winnie Arbuckle but trusted Slap’s judgement. They looked forward to the day when both families could get together for cake and coffee. John Arbuckle was Winnie’s father, a righteous Baptist minister. Although tolerance was often preached during his sermons, the minister had little tolerance himself when it came to his daughter having anything to do with Slap Happy. He saw Slap and his parents as unworthy of any social interactions that may occur between the two families.
“They are not like us. They are not Baptists,” the minister would preach to his wife. “And what’s with the name? Slap Happy? Gimme a break. Those parents have to be loony to give their child a name like that.”
“Remember what the Bible says, John,” his wife would say. “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”
“Yes, my dear, I have not forgotten those words. But cheese and rice, Slap Happy?”
Slap never knew the reason why Winnie stopped accompanying him from school but he was heartbroken. He wanted to run away and join the circus. What Slap didn’t know was that Winnie was heartbroken as well and that she was simply obeying her father’s orders.
After graduating from high school, Slap began working full-time at the dry cleaners. He was a hard worker, but knew in his heart that he wanted to do more with his life. Canton was growing at a rapid rate. The city was seeing an influx of new businesses and housing projects. The city was becoming congested with new faces from all across the country, hoping to secure a piece of the American dream. The one face that remained constant to Slap was Winnie’s. He would see her as she walked past the dry cleaners, at the movies with friends, and at the annual Fourth of July picnic. Slap would always feel an emptiness in his heart during these sightings, but would always reciprocate Winnie’s sincere smile with one of his own. When Winnie went off to college, Slap realized it was probably for the best. Not running into her would help ease the pain, allowing him to continue on with his menial life. The bottom line: Slap was not happy.
In the late ’60s, a Hollywood film crew came to Canton to make a movie about two lovers, separated by war, miraculously reunited at a convalescent hospital in their hometown.
“You’ll always be my guy, Johnny,” the nurse whispered to her wounded ex-lover. “They may have taken your legs, but they’ll never take your heart.”
“You must forget about me,” Johnny said. “Can’t you see I’m of no use to you anymore? Damn it, I’m of no use to anyone.”
“Don’t say that, Johnny. You will always be my one true love.”
“You must find yourself another. I can’t love you the way you deserve to be loved.”
Johnny turns away, leaving the nurse sobbing on his bandaged chest.
“Cut. Perfect. We have ourselves a wrap,” the director said, before murmuring under his breathe, “What a fucking disaster,” then bellowing, “Somebody get me a drink! Make it a double!”
Slap was witness to this scene, having stood behind the cameras, holding one of several garment bags the film crew had dropped off at the dry cleaners. Slap had caught the eye of the young lady seated next to the director and decided to take a chance. He went and introduced himself. Alice McGuire was a local Cantonian who had been hired as the director’s assistant after the original assistant was flown back to California to seek treatment for various addictions. Alice’s uncle, a character actor with a minor part in the film, had recommended his niece for the position. Alice McGuire had a face full of freckles and long red hair, which was interspersed with strands of multicolored beads, a fashion statement of the day.
Slap and Alice hit it off like peanut butter and jelly. After a brief courtship, they married. Alice moved in with Slap and his parents but, from day one, friction hit the fan.
Slap’s mother was a light sleeper. Alice was a loud lover.
“For crissakes, you’re killing her,” Evelyn would yell through the wallpaper. “Give it a rest already.”
“Knock it off, maw,” Slap would say, returning fire. “Just go to sleep.”
“If I could, I would. It’s like being back in the circus with all those animals going at it.”
“The monkeys were the worst.”
A bad idea is a bad idea and living with Slap’s folks was a bad idea. Alice talked about the need for their own apartment, but Slap had a grander idea.
“Let’s go to Hollywood,” Slap said. “I want to be in show business. Maybe your uncle can help me out. We can get a house near the ocean.”
“Are you crazy?” Alice said.
They then proceeded to keep Evelyn awake for the rest of the night.
A studio apartment in North Hollywood is a far cry from a beach house in Malibu, but it was all they could afford. Alice’s uncle was able to get Slap a job as a page at NBC on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Being around celebrities on a daily basis reassured Slap that show business was going to be his life. Alice was hired as the assistant to the head of an adult film company in the San Fernando Valley that specialized in the use of celebrity look-a-likes. Slap was not thrilled with Alice’s job, but he certainly enjoyed being the recipient of the many moves she had witnessed while on the set. Alice would bring home flowers, open bottles of wine, even lingerie; anything that was left over from that day’s shoot.
Life was good. Slap was happy.
Forty dollars a day in the ’60s meant something. When Slap paid a surprise visit to Alice on the set, he found her on the set, in bed, doing her best Lucille Ball impersonation, while a much older Desi Arnaz look-a-like was pummeling the daylights out of her. Forty dollars a day to perform the same acts she had been bringing home to practice on Slap. Slap the sap.
“Oh, my God, Slap,” Alice said, jumping out of bed.
“Are you serious?”
“It’s not what it looks like.”
“It looks like you’re getting screwed by an old man with a bad wig.”
“Hey, little man, I’m not that old!”
“He’s my boss. He still acts sometimes.”
“That wasn’t acting. The guy was drooling all over you.”
“Back to bed, Lucy. While I can still perform!”
“Good bye, Alice.”
“I’m so sorry, Slap. We needed the money.”
“Not this badly. Enjoy show biz.”
Slap was back in Canton working at the family’s dry cleaners when two scruffy boys walked in, asking permission to hang a poster in the storefront window. Slap looked at the poster; the circus was coming to town. Slap wondered what his life could have been had he followed his parent’s path to The Big Top.
“Your life is better without it,” his mother said, reading his mind. “It may have been glorious back in the day, but that was then and this is now. You could do a lot worse than having a real job.”
“I know ma. I just wonder sometimes.”
“Of course you do. You’re a Happerson. It’s in your blood. If not for the circus I would not have met your father and I would not have had you. But times change. We are settled. The road is no longer calling.”
Slap went to the circus opening night. The aroma of hot dogs, cotton candy, and popcorn permeated the air. He took a seat in the bleachers directly above a group of clowns who were rehearsing their act. They appeared to be having a wonderful time but, then again, they had their clown faces on, so who really knew? Slap thought that a clown face would give a poker player a distinct advantage over all the other players. A poker face is one thing, but a clown face is on an entirely different level. Slap was lost in thought and hadn’t realized that someone had sat down next to him.
“I bet you’d look really cute in a clown suit.”
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