I have no idea how to introduce this story. I think it defies explanation. But let’s call it a work of absurdist literature? The only thing I can tell you about where it came from is that I challenged myself to write a piece of short fiction based on three randomly generated nouns, and that the three nouns I received were “failure,” “bicycle” and “clown.” Now, when you get those three words in that order, there’s really just one right answer as to what kind of story you can tell with them. So I set out to tell it, and I found myself trying to make it as strange as I possibly could. The end result is, I think, unlike anything else I’ve ever written.
So if this is your introduction to my work, I swear to God I’m not usually like this. Enjoy.
Few people know that a group of five or more clowns is legally required to enter a circus ring by means of a comically small motor vehicle, and fewer still know the reason that law remains in place. The Clown Bicycle Disaster of 1827, as it has come to be known, remains a little-studied piece of American history, much like the First Moon War or the discovery of Cyst Cabbage in a remote corner of Ohio. But the social impact of this great tragedy cannot be overstated. Not only did it help usher in a bold new era of circus-based reforms, but it led to the downfall of the most powerful inventor and businessman this country has ever known.
Modern scholarship indicates that Victor Pepin of New York was the first man to operate a circus in the United States, beginning around 1807. Modern scholarship is lying to you. You may also have read that the first true bicycle was the “penny-farthing” model developed by Eugene Meyer in Paris during the 1880s. Modern scholarship is also lying to you about this.
The true inventor of both the American circus format and the nineteenth-century bicycle was a gentleman who went by the name of Zebulon Arronax Pontimeter. Many scholars have suspected that this may not have been his real name, citing Pontimeter’s own account of his birth in an unspecified country in eastern Europe. If this was indeed a pseudonym, then Pontimeter’s real name was known only to Pontimeter himself. We do not know why he chose to hide it. Perhaps it was unpronounceable by the human tongue.
Born circa 1705, Pontimeter made his way from his home country to England. His name first appears in public records in 1766 in the village of Snotmunster, where he was arrested for attempting to sell a concoction that he advertised as a longevity elixir made of oregano, mistyweed, urchin tooth and brittlecock. Pontimeter evidently heard that such practices were not nearly as frowned upon in America, because records show that he emigrated to New York shortly thereafter. Pontimeter fought for the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War, earning a commendation for his bravery as General Washington’s personal wig collector. After the war, Pontimeter chose to enter the manufacturing industry. He made his fortune by developing an alloy of purified iron and rubber which came to be known as bendy steel. This remarkable creation was soon incorporated into construction projects and factory work all across the young nation. Despite concerns about bendy steel’s lack of structural integrity, it was used in 100% of all American buildings by the year 1800. At 95 years old, Pontimeter had lived a long and full life, but his greatest and most infamous accomplishments still lay ahead of him.
Scholars and scientists alike have tried in vain to determine why Pontimeter lived so long. A modern reproduction of his longevity elixir caused a group of experimenters to bleed from the eyeballs and spontaneously combust. Perhaps Pontimeter’s original formula contained a secret ingredient, or perhaps he sustained himself through the power of spite. Spite is an overlooked but useful motivator.
Pontimeter’s true passion was the innovation of transportation, and this passion is what drove him back to his workshop so that he could drive away from it atop the first bicycle. His prototype was known as the farthing-penny model, a predecessor of the later penny-farthing. The two models were almost identical in design, with the notable variation of which wheel possessed the larger diameter. On a standard penny-farthing model, the front wheel is much larger than the back wheel. On the Pontimeter farthing-penny, however, it was the back wheel that was made a greater size. When asked by a reporter why he had designed his vehicle in this fashion, Pontimeter is alleged to have replied thus: “Wouldn’t you?” The reporter was never heard from again. Pontimeter offered a more concrete explanation for his decision to build the frame and wheels of the farthing-penny out of bendy steel. This was done, he claimed, in order to facilitate easier turns around the sharp corners of city streets. While this was generally regarded as a noble ambition, it had the unfortunate side effect of making the farthing-penny a rather unstable vehicle. It was prone to sagging under too much weight, to becoming misshapen and to getting all twisted up like a large bicycle-shaped pretzel. Due to these factors, Americans were slow to adopt the farthing-penny as a mode of transportation, and it languished in obscurity for the next several years.
But Pontimeter was a man of determination and vision. He believed in the bright future of his invention and knew that the people of the world would ride the farthing-penny everywhere if they understood what it was capable of. So in 1805, following some minor reinforcement modifications to his design, he set out on yet another business venture. Said venture was to be a spectacular exhibition of the farthing-penny’s vehicular power. He called it PONTIMETER’S GRAND FARTHING-PENNY CIRCUS, and to house it, he built a lavish theater in the center of Wick’s Mill, Kansas. At the time, Wick’s Mill was the eleventh largest city in the United States, with its heart set on breaking into the top ten. There is a reason you have never heard of Wick’s Mill, as you will soon see.
In many respects, the Farthing-Penny Circus popularized the elements of the common American circus. Though not performed in a tent, it pioneered the three-ring format and featured a ringmaster, who was Pontimeter himself. His show featured an array of acrobats, jugglers, strongmen, daredevils, freaks, clowns (obviously) and a great many others. But the distinguishing feature of the circus was its incorporation of the farthing-penny. At Pontimeter’s instruction, every act featured in his show rode the farthing-penny bicycle at all times. The ringmaster rode a bicycle. The jugglers juggled while riding, and the strongmen lifted their weights the same way. The tightrope walker did not walk, but instead rode a farthing-penny across the wire. The acrobats held their trapeze with one hand and the handlebars of their bicycles in the other. When the whole troupe rode out into the streets of Wick’s Mill on promotional parades, they did so atop a fleet of farthing-pennies. It was allegedly a sight grand enough to make a poet weep, though we must note that the poet in question had never seen a bicycle before that moment. He must have been quite confused.
When Pontimeter decided to incorporate animals into his circus, they too had to abide by the farthing-penny rule. This was first done not through the use of genuine animals but by performers playing the roles of certain animals while riding atop the bicycles. The disturbing realism of the fursuits, however, was a point of contention with women, children and the clergy. An 1820 revision to the show replaced the suited performers with genuine animal specimens, a feat made possible by Pontimeter’s latest bicycle innovations. Miniature versions of the farthing-penny were affixed to the legs of each quadripedal animal, allowing them to skate around the arena with what was occasionally the greatest of ease. The clowns then had a much easier time of running from the angry lions, and the American veterinary community saw a significant increase in the hitherto unknown demand for pachyderm leg casts.
Many contemporaries referred to Pontimeter’s practices as abusive and barbaric. Their criticisms, however, were all but drowned out by the number of consumers that Pontimeter’s methods reached. By the year 1825, every household in the United States owned at least one farthing-penny. It was the premier mode of transportation in the country. Spectators from all over the world flocked to Wick’s Mill to witness the Farthing-Penny Circus. The number of tickets sold in 1825 alone ranked in the tens of millions. There was talk of taking the show on an international tour (transporting everything by bicycle, of course) and of building new circus theaters in all the great cities of the world. At this point in his life and career, a man of Pontimeter’s success and prestige could only be undone by sudden death or his own hubris.
And thus we arrive at the Clown Bicycle Disaster.
Pontimeter’s clowns were the main attraction of his circus. He took great pride in them, importing rare clown eggs from the finest breeders in Clownistan and feeding the newly hatched clowns on gourmet cotton candy and peanuts. As a result, Pontimeter clowns were uncommonly intelligent and could perform elaborate comedy routines. Riding atop their trusty farthing-pennies, they could backflip, play baseball, dance a Scottish reel and reenact the Kennedy assassination. This was most clever of them, considering that the Kennedy assassination was over a hundred years away.
Pontimeter might have gone on in this vein with his clowns and his bicycles, and the eternal success of his circus would have been assured. However, he was a man who would never settle for what he currently had if he could attain something better. He became obsessed with building larger, sturdier bicycles that would support only the most elaborate clown routines. And like Icarus flying with his waxen wings, he pedaled too close to the sun.
We take you now to Wick’s Mill on the 25th of July, 1827. The evening of the disaster. At that fateful performance, the number of spectators at the Farthing-Penny Circus numbered twenty million. Among the audience was the Royal Family of Luxembourg, the great general Barnaby Billinghurst, the great philanthropist Constantia Cholmondeley and a hand-selected group of five hundred terminally ill orphans. The excitement in the air was so thick that you could only cut it with an especially sharp steak knife. Pontimeter, you see, had advertised that this performance would feature the premiere of a new farthing-penny and a new clown act.
The clowns were to enter the arena to the dulcet strains of Julius Fucik’s “Entry of the Gladiators,” even though this piece of music would not be composed for seventy-two years. Pontimeter had gone to great lengths to acquire it. Perhaps it was another clever trick invented by the clowns. Regardless, the fanfare played, and the clowns made their final entrance.
Pontimeter had spent the last several months in his workshop creating a new farthing-penny model to be used on this auspicious occasion. It was to be, he declared, the biggest and grandest bicycle ever created. And indeed it was. The back wheel of the vehicle measured no less than seventy-five feet in diameter, and from the front wheel to the back, it measured as long as the entire state of Rhode Island. Pontimeter christened it the “Flaming Bison.” We shall elaborate shortly on why the bison was flaming.
Pedaling in the front seat that evening was Pontimeter’s most prized clown, Flopsy the Glamorous. Balancing on the back wheel behind him was a congregation of no few than eight hundred and sixty-seven clowns (or a clowngregation, to use the proper scientific term). Approximately a third of them were engaged in a full-text performance of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, another third were dancing the Can-Can, and those who remained had made a pantomime based on Hieronymous Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” It was a vision so inspiring that it might have compelled the nations of the world to lay down their arms and embrace each other as brothers, perhaps in fear of what the clowns may decide to do next if they did not.
But this display was still not spectacular enough for Pontimeter’s discerning taste. After several trial runs that any other man would have deemed perfectly acceptable, he determined that there was still something missing. His greatest creation lacked a certain illumination, a touch of the internal fire that drove the unstoppable human spirit. And so, in true pioneering fashion, he affixed colossal flamethrowers to each end of the axle running through the back wheel.
This created two problems that Pontimeter had not anticipated.
The first problem concerned the size of the flames and the directions in which they were being thrown. The large size of the axle meant that the flamethrowers had to be a great size as well, meaning that the flames could reach a long distance. Furthermore, their placement on the axle meant that the flames traveled at a 90-degree angle away from the bicycle itself, and therefore directly at the audience. The end result was that the audience had precious little time to enjoy the dazzling theatrics of the clowns and the Flaming Bison, for they were soon occupied with burning to a crisp. The Royal Family of Luxembourg was wiped out in an instant, making things much easier for the Luxembourgian proponents of representative democracy. General Billinghurst’s prized handlebar mustache was burnt clean off his face, along with the rest of his face. The five hundred terminally-ill orphans found that they were no longer terminally ill, though this good fortune came with the slight caveat of now being dead.
The second problem concerned the amount of heat given off by the flamethrowers and their proximity to the rest of the bicycle. The farthing-penny, as you may recall, was made entirely of Pontimeter’s bendy steel. A little-known property of bendy steel was its ability to become even more bendy with the generous application of heat by the right appliance, such as a colossal flamethrower. And so, under the force of the heat provided by the two flamethrowers, the structural integrity of the Flaming Bison itself became compromised. It was unable to support the full weight of the clowngregation.
The front wheel of the bicycle, being smaller, was the first one to melt. Flopsy the Glamorous pitched forward, no longer having a wheel to support him. The clowngregation, no longer having the weight of Flopsy the Glamorous to counter their own, also pitched forward at great speed. The overall effect was not unlike that achieved by launching a catapult filled with ragdolls dressed up in their Sunday best.
Imagine, if you will, that you are in the audience of the Farthing-Penny Circus on this fateful evening. You have somehow managed to avoid the first wave of incineration, perhaps by being too cheap to pay for a seat closer to the proscenium. As you attempt to flee the theater, however, you look up and are greeted with a sight never seen by human eyes before this moment and never seen after it. You see a sheer wall of clownity bearing down upon you, a tidal wave of white faces, red noses and rainbow hair. They are screaming, and so are you. You know in your heart that there is no point in running anymore. The poetic notes of Fucik and the honking of the noses fills the air as the wave collapses on top of you. It is not a very comfortable feeling. But soon you are dead, and your comfort is irrelevant.
Meanwhile, the flamethrowers of the Flaming Bison had become disconnected from the axle. The catapult motion of the back wheel had hurled them into the air, still pouring out streams of fire. The fire then chose to alight on the ceiling of the theater. Finding the wood of the theater most amenable to burning, it spread to the rest of the building in a matter of milliseconds. Once the theater was completely in flames and not much fun to burn anymore, the fire looked around to see what else it could burn. Being in the center of the eleventh largest city in the United States, it had a great many candidates to choose from.
The performance at the Farthing-Penny Circus that evening had begun at seven o’clock sharp. No less than five minutes later, the entire city of Wick’s Mill was burning to the ground.
A whole week passed before the fire burned itself out. At the end of that time, there was nothing left of Wick’s Mill to prove that it had existed in the first place. Every building and its foundation had been utterly destroyed. The death toll was catastrophic: those who were not burned alive or suffocated by the clown wave found themselves crushed by the stampede of circus patrons or eaten by rampaging animals. To this day, no reliable estimate exists of how many lives were lost.
The circus animals, thankfully, were all unharmed.
In the aftermath of this great tragedy, the American people did what the American people have always been apt to do in such situations — they complained about it with great enthusiasm. More to the point, they complained about the lack of government oversight on Pontimeter’s experiments and how unjust it was that one man’s arrogance and ignorance could have led to such unmitigated destruction. The American government, in a fleeting moment of clarity, agreed with its people. Before the end of the year, Congress had quietly passed the Wick’s Mill Memorial Bicycle & Circus Legislation Act, or WMMBCLA. In addition to forbidding any use and production of the farthing-penny outright, the act decreed that no bicycle could have a wheel greater than five feet in diameter, and preferably much less than that, if you please. As for the regulation of circuses, all bicycle-based acts were outlawed, and the use of bicycles in the circus was limited to licensed professionals only. Following a dedicated campaign by clown rights activists, an amendment concerning provisions for clown safety was added to the legislation. A clowngregation could not exceed thirty clowns, and any vehicle carrying a clowngregation had to be reinforced and tested for safety.
Finally, the new law declared that bendy steel was an unsafe material and could no longer be used in construction or manufacturing. This led to the demolition and reconstruction of every building and structure in the country that used the material. Since bendy steel was then used in all the buildings and structures in the country, this took some time. In a moment of clerical oversight, the bendy steel in the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington was not removed. This was corrected in 1940.
There was some speculation as to whether or not Wick’s Mill would be rebuilt. But for the few survivors, the memories of their old city were too painful to bear. It was therefore decided that the site of the tragedy would be left to rest, and that no one would ever mention Wick’s Mill again. That is why there is very little to be seen today in the state of Kansas.
The people of the world also decided that the name of Zebulon Arronax Pontimeter would never be mentioned again either, along with his circus of death and his farthing-penny bicycle. Their reasoning was that when you laid out the sequence of events, the whole thing was really quite silly when you thought about it. Pontimeter’s story has therefore been lost to American history. The only mention made of him in popular culture occurred in 1952, when the story of his circus was adapted by Hollywood director F. Irving Kidd in a musical drama titled The Worst Showman. Kidd was then tried and deported by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and all copies of the film were burned in a New Mexico landfill.
The final and most mysterious question is, of course, the fate of Pontimeter himself. He vanished on the night of the Clown Bicycle Disaster, never to be seen again. Some theorists claim that he changed his name and fled to Latvia. Others believe that he was torn to shreds and eaten by his own clowns. In the remote corners of Arizona, there is a legend which claims that as Pontimeter was fleeing an angry mob, he tripped and fell to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, where he lay immobile for forty-two days as buzzards pecked out his nervous system. If you know the right people, you may be able to find the small canyon ledge known as “Pontimeter’s Deathbed.”
The truth, sad to say, will forever remain lost. But perhaps it doesn’t really matter, because life is short, death waits for us all, and the legend is more fun than the truth. Good night.