First published in the Fall 2011 issue of 34th Parallel
The man stands on the corner, against the red brick wall of the once-department store. As I leave my job at Foot Locker, it’s hard not to notice him, his body reminiscent of a Charles Addams cartoon, hunched, and porcine, cloaked in a black wool, ankle-length coat with a fur collar; his round face, high cheekbones, bug eyes, he is a spitting image of Peter Lorre—uncanny, really. He wears a classic cloth cap, making his face all the rounder. All of which is good enough to draw one’s attention on a downtown street, but that’s not the main thing. His left hand in his pocket, he holds balloons in his right. Latex, apparently filled with helium, at the end of a normal length of string, a standard bunch of balloons. Easily twenty or more. Under the streetlights, the world tends toward the monochromatic, but still I can tell they are red and green, blue and yellow, purple and pink. 'Tis very strange, this squat man and his balloons.
The weirdo is on the other side of the street as I hurry across the avenue. Distracted, I fail to pay attention to traffic and a cab nearly runs over my feet making an illegal turn. While it is late, after 8:00, being just before Christmas, there are still a number of day people about, carrying bags, laughing, making their way to transit and their cars. As I pass the balloon man, I can detect no expression on his face, no clues of his thinking, no transparency of his motives. Newspapers and other scraps have blown against his legs, creating a circle of litter about him, and I deduce that he has not moved for quite a while. Passing within five feet, neither of us speaks.
I report to my job the next day after class, head full of literature, of Sartre and Camus, of art history and French film, of women’s studies and Betty Friedan. All are my favorite subjects: French film because of their stark beauty, existentialists because of their fundamental truth, and women’s studies because of the girls. In the case of the latter, I am the only man in a class of women, and while I admit less than pure motives for initially signing up for the class, I have become a better man from reading the Feminine Mystique. As a theater major, I believe it crucial that I expand my view to be more inclusive of other worlds, other cultures, other ideas than our routine, middle-class mores propagate. This is my belief, this is my manifesto, this is how I shall guide my life from this point forward. I shall allow beauty and truth to be their own justification, my mind to expand to the corners of the possible, and my heart to govern my struggle.
For now, my struggle is putting a size-eight running shoe on a size ten foot. But she has always been a size eight, she tells me. I lie and say that these shoes run small. I guess beauty and truth take a back seat to commission. Thus is the struggle of the proletariat.
At the end of the day, pulling my LLBean backpack on one shoulder, I come out of the backroom. The lights switch off in blocks as I approach the front checkout where the manager waits. I unzip the bag—laptop, a tattered copy of the Myth of Sisyphus, and a Klean Kanteen stainless steel drink bottle—for her inspection. Bag back on my shoulder, the manager unlocks the door.
—Goodnight, Todd, she says.
I pause outside and check foursquare on my iPhone. Jesús is at Camp, Gillian is at Om, and Ezra and Tre are at Café Urbane. Hmmm…I’m not feeling Om tonight, certainly not Camp, but a cup would be nice.
On the cold, windy street, a hint of dry snow falling, I survey my route three blocks to the bus stop. Nothing unfamiliar. Except, there he is. Identical to last night. Same exact spot. Seemingly the same exact balloons. Same clothes, same expression, same litter. There are a lot of wackos in the naked city.
Café Urbane, my favorite place to chill, filled with just the right people, not the usual pretenders. I bring my café Americano over to the table where Ezra and Tre are both furiously texting.
—’Sup, I say.
Seems Tre has the night off from his lately more than FWB Gillian, so she could go to some bachelorette party. Thus, her being at Om tonight. Ezra is doing the usual, as in not much. He’s wearing some clearance Target wear and a dirty pair of Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars.
—Hey, Ezra, come on downtown and let me set you up with some new shoes, okay?
—Whatever, Todd, Ezra says. Look at you. You look like an Abercrombie & Fitch mannequin.
Just trying to help. Sheesh. Ezra can be fun, but he sure can be a dick, too. I can’t resist.
—And while you’re at it, stop by the Apple Store and trade up from that Nokia POS cell of yours. What is that, a 6300?
The next night I get off work, walk out the door, and there is the balloon man across the street, once again. Exact same spot. And the next night and the next. A new night person taking up residence on what is now his special corner. That makes for five straight nights I walk by him, not a word said. I wonder about his holdings. Are they for sale? If so, his salesmanship needs work. No sign, no call for “Balloons! One dollar!” No “Hey, buddy, interest you in a balloon?” Are they merely a prop in some sort of street person performance art?
My day off, Sunday, I sleep in, sleep it off, and roll out of bed about noon. Throwing on a vintage Led Zeppelin t-shirt, distressed Diesel black jeans, and my new Harley-Davidson boots, I grab my leather jacket and go out for coffee. I step out of my apartment building and onto Lake Street. Blinded by the sun, I rub my eyes, scratch my head, and nearly collide with my neighbor, who is texting, walking her wiener dog.
—Oh hey, sorry, Holly.
She tells me about a party she’s having in a couple weeks, an after-the-holidays-recover-from-our-family-of-origin party. Sounds splendid. She throws mad parties; lots of ladies, more of the Yoga set than Betty Friedan. Definitely, the place to, as they say, see and be seen.
—You’re lookin’ good, Todd. Are those Diesels?
Yes, I will definitely have to make this party. Maybe I have a chance with Holly; she’d look good on my arm with her raven black hair, modern dance body, wearing her little black mini.
Eventually, we go in opposite directions. On the corner is my target, Café Urbane. I get my café Americano, sit in the window in an old brown leather living room chair, and pull out my iPhone to see what’s up. One text: Jesús is just getting home after the night out. Dude’s gay, and the man knows how to party. Ezra is silent, and so are Tre and Gillian. Sunday morning for you. Or noon, anyway.
I look out the window, heavy traffic flowing by, sun glinting off windshields and mirrors. A pause in the traffic, and there he is, across the street, facing my way. Same balloons. Same coat. Same, same, same. WTF?
I watch him over the next hour, trying to understand. Trying to get a clue as to his motives. In that I am disappointed because he doesn’t move, he doesn’t flinch, for the entire hour. People walk by, but no one approaches, and he appears to say or do nothing. I can’t guarantee he’s actually alive. He doesn’t appear to be animate, that’s for sure. Cities are rife with colorful characters, but this one is starting to piss me off.
I toss my biodegradable coffee cup into the compost and walk out onto the street. He’s gone as if he’d never been there.
Back at work on Tuesday, I yell at a bunch of skateboard punks obviously shoplifting Nike Air Max shoes from the display. I’m not sure what they plan to do with one shoe, but maybe it’s the sport of it. The titular leader of the delinquents calls me a zebra-bitch. Apropos, given my stupid-fucking referee uniform. I laugh.
End of the day, bag inspected, out the door, I stand outside. Yes, there he is. I’d have been disappointed if it were any other way. Crossing the street, unusually bitterly cold tonight, I walk by and say,
He doesn’t reply or acknowledge in any way. I catch my bus.
At Lake Street, I duck into Café Urbane, thinking one more café Americano for a nightcap. I check my messages and talk with my dear mother for the first time in days. Now sufficiently wired, it’s time to walk the four blocks to my apartment building. Nearing home, I startle and freeze in my tracks. The balloon man is standing in front of my building. How can it be? Why is he here? I continue, slowly now, expecting his agenda to finally be revealed. I am mere feet from him as I turn up my stone stairs, measuring every step, never taking my eyes off him. He, on the other hand, is seemingly oblivious to my existence. I am at a loss. By pure instinct, I go with muscle memory and ascend the stairs, unlock the security door, and go inside. Once in my apartment, I regain my center and run to the window to look out.
He is gone.
The next day at school, Ezra and I leave class to meet our posse. My head hurts. Stage: Craft and Critique often gives me a migraine. Ezra and I have nothing in common when it comes to the theater; I model myself after Godard and Herzog, and he is inspired by Wes Craven.
It is class break and lunch time, so we move with a sea of students up to the union. I see him: the balloon man is on the plaza, centered in front of the building. I can’t believe it. I stare at him as we flow with the crowd into the building. As we walk, I ask Ezra,
—Bro’, did you see that guy?
—The guy with the balloons?
—A guy with balloons? No, I didn’t see a guy with balloons.”
Ezra is smiling, and I wonder if he’s giving me shit. We go downstairs to The Barrel. I get a garden sandwich and join Tre, who is reading about pottery shards on his Kindle.
—Hey, dude, did you notice the balloon man coming in?
—What balloon man? he says.
—That strange dude holding a bunch of balloons. Right outside. On the plaza.
They look at me like I’m insane.
—What’s he talking about? Tre says to Ezra.
—Beats me. I think Todd’s losing it. Ezra replies.
—Come on. Really? Neither of you saw him?
I tell them about what’s been going on: the Charles Addams character, Peter Lorre, bunch of balloons, stalking. Ezra laughs.
—’Sup? Gillian says, walking up to the table with a tray holding one jumbo salad and water.
—Todd’s being high-strung, Tre says.
—So nothing new, she says.
They laugh. Fuckers. Ezra could have been messing with me, but if he didn’t see the balloon man, it reinforces my theory, my worst fear: the balloon man doesn’t actually exist. That he is a figment of my imagination. Could it be? Am I going crazy? Too much pressure—school, work, school, work—and now I’ve finally broken, lost touch with reality.
—You gotta relax, Gillian says.
Or could he be the representation of something else? The embodiment of my existential angst, perhaps? Maybe my id, brought to life to haunt me. He could be my punishment, my own personal purgatory, sent to punish me for whatever actions and intentions deemed worthy.
—He can’t. He’s been rehearsing Hamlet, and he’s Method, Tre says.
—In other words, “Drama Queen,” Ezra says.
Once again, they all laugh at my expense.
— I prithee do not mock me, fellow student, I protest.
They don’t understand: what if this balloon demon is a messenger, sent by God or the gods to warn me of my path, my hedonism that must stop? Or could he be Gabriel, and I am chosen to warn the world of the end?
I must know. I plan to take a picture of him with my iPhone, but when I leave after lunch, he is gone.
Another night of kids buying status embodied in shoes. Another night of neon lights and paper cuts. After the lights flick off in patterns, after the boss checks my bag, I walk out on the avenue prepared, iPhone at the ready. Things to say, like, “What the fuck, man? You following me?” “What do you want?” “Are you lookin’ for trouble?” But he is not there. For the first time in two weeks, he is not on the corner across the street. What does THIS development mean? Is this a sign that my fever is breaking? Has the ghost moved to fresher haunting? At once relieved and ill at ease, I hope I never see the apparition again, but at the same time, I’m not sure I can live without knowing the truth, however horrible it may be.
I go home. He is not in front of my building, nor do I see him the next day or the next. Sunday I go to Café Urbane for a scone and cup, and he is not there either. But what is there is a single balloon, tied to the espresso machine. One red balloon.
—Where’d you get the balloon? I ask the tattooed young Latina barista.
—Beats me. It was here when I got in.
What does this mean? Was he here? Was this a message? Why the change in strategy? Could it mean whatever his horrible mission is it is now coming to a head?
—Can I have it?
She unties it and hands me the string. I hold the end of the string in front of my heart, red latex balloon floating just above my head. All seems in order. It’s just a balloon. I go outside and across the street to where I saw him before and stand in the same spot, holding my balloon as he did his bunch. Ezra walks up, apparently on his way to Café Urbane. He stops, stares, and says,
—Sad, man. Just sad.
He walks on. Fuck him. Something is going on, something big, something…I don’t know: symbolic? Sinister? Revelations-esque? Beats me. And that’s why I have to know what’s happening.
But nothing happens. People walk by, saying nothing. I say nothing. No epiphany is forthcoming. No enlightenment achieved. I let go of the balloon and watch it float away.
I weather the holidays fine, welcoming the break from class and tolerating Christmas dinner with my mother and Al, her third husband. My half brother and a half sister—the brother from number two and the sister from number three—were there, and I might as well not even be in the room. A faint echo of a long-forgotten relationship, I am too dear Mother a forgotten item left behind after what turned into not much more than a date. Mother told my therapist she did the best she could; true, but her best didn’t add up to much.
I have not seen the balloon man for over a week, but he has been busy. I go to work to find a yellow balloon at the register. No one knows how it got there. I see a balloon soaring into the sky for no reason. There’s a balloon tied to a lamppost outside of the Jungle Theater. My awareness keen, my attention sharpened, I know every new balloon brings me closer to whatever foreshadowed conclusion.
Saturday night, I arrive at Holly’s party next door, early, around ten. I get a text from Jesús saying he is a block away, so I wait for him to make our entrance together. Above, I see people on the balcony with red cups, wearing black t-shirts and mini-skirts without coats even though it must be below zero. I don’t have a coat either, having commuted only a few yards down the street from my building, and thus, the air bites shrewdly.
Jesús and I get to the third floor and follow the music (something from Mali, I’d guess). Holly’s wiener dog barks when we knock. Holly opens the door; she is wearing a lime green party dress and heels. We walk into the apartment filled with people, but not only people: balloons. Red and green, blue and yellow, purple and pink. There must be twenty or twenty-five, maybe a hundred balloons.
—Cool balloons, Jesús says.
I freeze. Fear, confusion; I feel like a pawn in a game, a rat in a maze. How can he haunt me like this? What have I done?
Holly hands me a red cup.
—Where’d you get the balloons? I say.
—Ezra brought them. Aren’t they great? It’s like some kid’s birthday party in here. It’s good to see you! We never get a chance to talk. How’s drama school going? You’re in something by Shakespeare coming up, right?
I spot Ezra across the room with Gillian and Tre. I ignore Holly and make my way through the people.
—Bro’, where’d you get the balloons?
—Hey, Todd. ’Sup?
—The balloons, Ezra, where’d you get the balloons?
—Funny story. Got them from this weird guy on the way here. He gave them to me. I offered to pay, but he handed them to me and walked away. Man, there sure are some freaks in this town.
I push my way through the crowd, run out of the apartment, out of the building, and into the street. I can still hear the music above. Looking up, there’s Ezra, Tre and Gillian above, laughing. Partiers pack the balcony, all watching me. It is cold but I am hot; steam rises off my sweating body.
There he is, across Lake Street, dispassionate, now without his usual balloons floating above him. I yell across the street,
—Devil! Whither wilt thou lead me? Speak! I'll go no further.
He says nothing, standing as always, not seeming to take notice of me.
— Speak. I am bound to hear.
— On him, on him! Look you how pale he glares! His form and cause conjoin'd, preaching to stones. Rest, rest, perturbed spirit!
— What dark message do you bring? Spit it out! Have your say and be gone, oh Clown of Death!
Still nothing. This cannot stand. The moment of truth is at hand. I run across the street, blood-lust in my heart. A city bus hits me square on and I fly through the air, landing in a broken heap on the opposite curb. Strangely, I do not lose consciousness, and it does not hurt, even though my left arm is obviously twisted behind me and my left foot is next to my ear. I’m looking up at the sky. The round face of the Clown of Death enters my field of view, now standing above me. I can’t talk. He looks down on me, expressionless. Fade to black.
Waking up, the searing pain announces my return to this world before I open my eyes. I see a white ceiling. I begin to perceive the beep and whir of machines.
It sounds like my mother. It is. Her face comes between me and the ceiling. Her eyes are red.
—Oh, honey, you’re going to be all right. Don’t you worry. They are taking good care of you. I’m here. We were so scared!
Third husband Al’s face, smiling, joins my mother’s. I want to talk but can’t. I turn my head to the left; it hurts to do, but I must. My arm is in some device, wrapped in plastic. I can’t look down to see my leg, which burns as if every inch is being attacked by a tattoo needle. Machines flash, click and buzz. I slowly, painfully turn my head to the right. Tre and Gillian are here, Gillian crying with Tre’s arm around her waist.
—Oh, Todd, we’re so, so sorry, Gillian says.
—Really, dude, Tre says.
Ezra walks into the room carrying a red balloon.
—Ezra! Gillian says.
—What’s the matter with you? Tre says.