1974 and my dad drove our light blue Chevy convertible (the same car my mother would soon smash while liquor-smashed on the freeway) into the drive up lane at the local Jack In the Box in Santa Monica, California. For some reason, in those meditative times of waiting to talk to the clown, my dad would reflect on what he needed to say to his sons. My brother and I rode in the backseat next to each other. Mom’s spot was up front in the co-pilot seat, but she usually wasn’t along for the fast food runs. Just a man and his sons and the Jack clown.

He turned to us, my dad not the clown, and talked in a tone that sounded to me at age eleven—overly causal—as he brought up the subject of my mother’s drinking problem. My brother and I felt immediately relieved that our father wasn’t trying to breakdown the birds & the bees again while waiting on the clown.

We talked of Mom hiding the bottles in the dark corners of closets, hidden by shoes and other oddball items, and in the pockets of her coats hanging in the closet, or in the lowest kitchen cabinet inside the pots and pans, or a clear bottle of vodka minus its label hiding inside the fish tank. That was my favorite. She also hid pint bottles inside the toilet tank and sometimes left a bottle of wine behind the curtains in the living room. Maybe that was a red herring designed to end the hunt. Who knows? Who can say what lies inside the mind of Mrs. Hyde waiting to drink the next drop of formula X?

I thought about how great it would be when I got my two Super Tacos, large fry, and a Coke. You couldn’t just order by the number back then, and now they call Super Tacos—“Monster Tacos”—not a bad exchange of names, being that various other taco restaurants in California popped up called “Super Taco” or even “El Super Taco.”

Jack was and is a good egg.

Up to the clown mouth, my dad wasted about a minute and a half trying to say something funny to the girl on the other end of the speaker.

They don’t have those glorious Jack in the Box clown speaker-heads anymore, either. Back in those days you used to speak into an actual clown face when ordering and a giant Jack in the Box sprung out of the top of the restaurant, a symbol one hundred times more compelling than the golden arches, but maybe not as holy as the Bob’s Big Boy statue.

After my father had finally stopped fucking around with the wizard girl behind the curtain—she took our order. Then you wait to pay and grab your food through the window as each car rolls on. As luck would have it, Daddio turned on the radio and “Band on the Run” by Paul McCartney & Wings gave us cover to go back inside our own minds.

As my dad told embarrassing jokes to the check-out chick again and received our bags of Jack greasy goodness, my brother and I shook hands and made a solemn oath:

We would never drink alcohol.

“Not even beer or wine,” my brother said.

“Okay,” I agreed.

We promised each other.

We shook on it.

I started drinking in junior high school.

My brother waited until he got to college.

But before that happened there was the moment of waiting on the clown and I had a fantasy that I could scream out to his big happy clown face:

“Help! Help! Help me, Jack! Help!”

The girl inside, a teenager with a ponytail and some covert access to a hidden world where even the sauce wasn’t a secret to her, she would forward the message. “We’ve got a Code 13 Deep Fry. Taco lover in trouble. Send in the clowns.”

Strange, I know.

Then the secret clown police would come and take me away to the clown orphanage where you ate Jack in the Box for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and played with those amazingly cool Jack in the Box bendy toys, remember them?

The French Fry Guy.
The Onion Ring Thing.
The Burgermeister.
The Secret Sauce Agent.
And of course Jack himself, but not that new corporate Jack, the original clown.

In my imagination, I would be assigned a new clown mother that only drank milkshakes and a new clown dad that new all the magic tricks and could teach them to me and a clown teacher who really knew how to teach and not torture and belittle and bore.

Then we’d all fly into outer space and colonize another world inhabited by women who all looked like Caroline Munro from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. 

I thought if maybe I just sent that message mentally, that secret cry for HELP, maybe the Secret Sauce Agent would track my coordinates, but the girl at the window passed us our Jack bags without so much as a glance at me.

I get it, I thought, she’s playing it cool.

All I have to do is wait.

For the clown.

Meanwhile, I had those “super” tacos to keep me cool and happy and knowing that no matter how dodgy life got—there was good stuff, too, comic books and “B” movies, rock & roll, and giant robots and great lizard monsters willing to smash and trash society.

Whatever, I thought. At least Dad didn’t try to talk to me about the birds & the bees again. I had already learned everything I needed to know up to that moment from Caroline Munro. As for the key to the secret society that I believed, somehow, Jack held, well, I’m still waiting.

-Bradley Mason Hamlin

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