Balloons Under the Boardwalk (Part 2)

Previous

Betsy slithered beneath the boardwalk, tactfully navigating her way through the shattered shells, broken glass, and ripped condoms. The varying colors of the latex made it look like a graveyard for balloon animals.

Sand fell between the planks, dusting her scalp with dirt at each stranger’s step. These showers couldn’t be avoided. The most she could do was to keep the sand from getting into her eyes.

It was worth it, though, for Betsy to indulge in one of her favorite pastimes – eavesdropping on other people’s conversations. Betsy loved skulking beneath the boardwalk’s shade, tracking unwitting targets above.

It was a bottomless well of intrigue. There was talk of romance and crushes – who liked whom. There were debates – vigorous back-and-forth exchanges about bands, television shows, movies, and even food. There was gossip – scandalous secrets, lies and hearsay. And best of all, there were fights – enemies exchanging barbs, friends betraying each other’s confidence…

The best were husbands and wives taking thinly-veiled swipes at one another, all in an easily decipherable code that wasn’t doing enough to shield their traumatized kids.

In some ways she found it saddening; in others, deeply comical. But she also found it enviable. Betsy had had a stutter for as long as she’d known how to talk. She could never express herself so clearly or so directly as the people above her.

She savored their conversations. Each tasty morsel of dialogue rattled down through the cracks of that rickety wooden walkway. Down they tumbled into the shadows, like so much loose change, just begging to be collected.

The trick was knowing which trails to follow. Betsy knew better than to get caught listening to some boring conversation. She once spent 45 minutes listening to two old ladies compare medical ailments, doctors visits, prescription pill routines, and dietary habits. She stuck with it, vainly hoping something interesting might come up.

No such luck, but banality of the banter better prepared her for future missions.

She learned not to hone in on one conversation too quickly. Instead, she would dangle her attention in the blurring cacophony of carnival music, arcade games and chatter until it hooked into a promising lead. Then she’d follow it wherever it went. Often, it took her nowhere, but occasionally, the destination made the whole journey worthwhile.

This was what she was doing now, cycling her attention through the conversations transpiring above – like a blind channel surfer.

And that’s when she heard it…

Two sets of feet building from a slow walk into a near jog. Then, two girls giggling in a way that soon broke into laughter. They sounded like they were close to Betsy’s age, in either junior high or high school. She could tell because the laughter sounded familiar, it wasn’t boisterous and warm, like that of a shared experience. It was the laughter of ridicule, like a minimal effort was being made to suppress it on behalf of the humiliated party. It was chilling.

“Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!” one clamored to the other.

Betsy followed.

“Okay, yeah, that was totally Kirk!” the second girl confirmed.

“I know! Oh my God, what is he doing? What a weirdo!”

“I can’t believe he gave you a balloon! Can we please talk about that?”

“Ugh. I know, so weird. He’s not watching is he?”

“No, no. We’re fine.”

“He’s so gross. You should see the way he looks at me in gym class. I ignore him. It’s not even funny.”

“What are you going to do with it? Take it home with you? Keep it as an undying symbol of Kirk’s love for you?”

“Gross, no. I don’t know.”

“Let’s pop it!”

“No, that’s too mean. I’ll just let it go or something once we get a little further away. I don’t want him to see.”

“Yeah he might stalk or kill you or something. Oh my God, like John Wayne Gacey!”

“Ew. I don’t think he’s that bad. But… ugh it’s just weird. Like, I don’t want your balloon Kirk. I’m not fucking five years old and you’re dressed as a fucking clown!”

Uproarious laughter ensued.

“BWAAHAHAHAHA! I know right! Oh my God. Kirk Franklin dresses like a clown on the boardwalk… I am going to tell EVERYONE at school.”

Betsy stopped walking and let the girls carry on. She felt bad for this boy, Kirk. And she felt anger towards these two girls, these two nameless, faceless, careless girls.

That’s m-mmmm. M-Mean!” she stammered quietly.

Betsy tried practicing the word ‘mean’ a few more times before ducking out from under the boardwalk to find the nearest set of stairs. The sand was hot and the sun was almost blinding, but she could still see them as they walked off into the distance.

One was blonde, the other brunette. Both were thin. They wore short shorts and tank tops. The dark-haired one looked back, but it was hard to make out her face. When she turned away again the blonde one held out her arm and let go of the heart-shaped balloon she was holding.

Betsy turned in the opposite direction, and started walking. About a block down she saw him.

The face paint, the red nose, the rainbow wig… The green and white striped shirt and red suspenders, the goofy hat, and yellow pants… He looked ridiculous alright. No wonder those girls made fun of him.

The kid was practically asking for it… Except he wasn’t…

So he’s a clown. Hadn’t these girls never seen a clown before? And he gave them a balloon. That’s nice. At least he’s doing something. He’s out there. He’s trying.

Betsy watched from a distance. She faded back a bit, trying to disappear into the crowd as she watched this oddity before her.

Kirk smiled and waved at the public, trying to get the attention of kids. Some cried or ran away. But others laughed and humored him. For those children, the ones that stayed, Kirk made balloon animals.

That’s pretty impressive,” Betsy thought. “It does look kinda like a dog, I guess.”

The kids that got them were genuinely happy.

Then there was juggling. Also impressive.

A small crowd gathered at one point. And when he finished they applauded. Some gave him money.

Only then, at the culmination of the juggling performance did Betsy realize how much time she’d spent watching Kirk clown. She shook her head, trying to erase the entire memory, and began walking away.

Then she stopped and turned around once more. She walked up to Kirk who smiled a big grin and waved an exaggerated wave.

He gestured towards his flaccid balloon, and Betsy shook her head yes.

The clown held his finger to his lips and struck a pose of deep thought. Then he pointed to an imaginary light bulb above his head. He reached for some more balloons and started filling them with air from a canister. His fingers worked nimbly, folding and weaving, and bending the latex.

After he finished, he held it out. He’d made a dolphin. There was no way he could have known this, but dolphins were Betsy’s favorite animal. She took it, smiled warmly at him and mouthed the words “thank you.”

As she turned to walk away with her prize, as Kirk waved goodbye and blew her a kiss.

Next

Balloons Under the Boardwalk (Part 3)

Previous

The crowd was mostly quiet but Kirk felt like he was killing it.

It was the first time he’d juggled plates instead of bowling pins and he didn’t break even one. He’d always broken at least one when he practiced at home.

Rather than make a bunch of small balloon animals the audience wouldn’t be able to see, he made a giant giraffe. Even a coulrophobic could be impressed by that. Couldn’t they?

The magic tricks, while hardly dazzling, passed as illusions. The magic rope, the rings, the wand tricks, all of it.

He even heard some gasps and a distinct “Woo!” as he wrapped up his finale with a somersault.

A show simply couldn’t go any more smoothly for him.

Even still, there was a smattering of boos as Kirk danced off stage. (They were high school kids after all.) But mostly there was polite applause and a few cheers.

As he made his way backstage he ran into the next act, which happened to be a mime. He’d seen her getting ready earlier, practicing and touching up her face paint. She’d been watching in silence the whole time. As they bumped into one another the mime smiled a big grin and gave Kirk two thumbs up.

He was about to say good luck, when he heard the host’s voice over the PA system: “That’s Knick-Knack the clown everyone! Give it up for Knick-Knack!”

There was another polite round of applause.

Next up, we have a mime,” the voice said. “Everyone welcome Oddball!”

Music cued up and Oddball donned her smile. She ran out on stage and pretended to slip and fall as the spotlight caught up to her. Or at least Kirk hoped she was pretending.

Oddball started off with some standard mime fair. She pulled on a rope. She pretended to eat a carrot like Bugs Bunny. She was trapped in a box.

Kirk felt like he could have done better, but Oddball seemed pretty new at this, and he was happy she was trying. He knew being a clown was tough, but mimes always seemed to get it worse.

And with that thought, the crowd started booing. It wasn’t a smattering, either. It was a bass-y roar, the kind that overwhelms.

Oddball worked for a few more seconds but then froze. This time it wasn’t part of the act. The boos had sunk in and she’d hit the wall. The sound reverberated through her body making her feel hollow. She became acutely aware of her rising body temperature as sweat soaked through her black and white striped shirt.

A few more long seconds passed and then Oddball fled, running off stage as fast as she could. Again, she slipped and fell. This was the only time during her act that audience members laughed. Others gasped in horror. A few let out a rubber-necking “Oooooh.”

Oddball got up and finished her trot off stage.

The voice from the PA chimed in like God chiding his flock from on high.

Oh no, no, no,” it said. “Everybody give Oddball a hand. Come on now. Be respectful. Give her a hand.

With that more people applauded, trying to salvage the situation and a scrap of Oddball’s self-esteem. But it was far too late for that.

Kirk turned to follow where the fleeing mime had run. He asked one of the other talent show performers where she’d gone and was directed to one of the dressing rooms. There she sat with her head down in her arms crying.

Are you okay?” Kirk asked.

There was no response. Just more sobbing.

God, that’s a stupid question. I’m sorry. Is there something I can get for you?”

Again, Oddball said nothing, but this time she lifted her head.

Her make-up was smeared and running from the tears streaming down her face.

Sweaty, sad, and breathless, the mime shook her head ‘no.’

Okay, well I thought you did okay,” he said. “You’re going to be fine, trust me.”

Inhaling one more deep breath and letting it out, Oddball pinched her fingers at the corner of her mouth, dragged them across her lips, and turned them.

Oh, right. Of course.” Kirk said. “Mime’s don’t talk.”

The mime sniffled and looked down.

Okay. Well, clowns do and let me tell you, I’ve been booed, and yelled at, and jeered lots of times. I’ve had people call me names and throw things at me.

And you know what I do when they do that stuff?” he asked.

I keep performing. When they boo, I act sad. When they call me names, I play along. When they throw things at me, I juggle them. Because I’m a clown. And if the audience is doing all that stuff, they’re being entertained. I’m getting a rise out of them. I’m doing my job.

Of course I want to make people smile. Of course I want to make them laugh and I do – the happy ones anyway. But the truth is, unhappy people don’t laugh. And they don’t smile. They boo and they jeer. Nothing else makes them feel quite so good. And that’s not a reflection on you, it’s a reflection on them.”

I’ll leave you alone now,” he said.

Having said his peace Kirk turned to leave. Then he felt a slight tug. He turned around and Oddball hugged him. Hard. Her face was still wet and he could feel it.

You’re fine Oddball,” he said. “You really knocked’em dead out there.”

They both laughed, even though mimes aren’t supposed to.

Next

Balloons Under the Boardwalk (Part 4)

(Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Having given up on Julie, Kirk decided to try his luck online once more.

When he signed back into his  dating profile he was surprised to find he already had a message from someone with the handle “BubbaBetsy.”

The message simply read: “Howdy.”

Kirk looked at the young lady’s profile and was surprised to see she was rather pretty. It felt odd to him, like it might be a trap. Traditionally, he had been the one to message pretty girls. Then he’d wait patiently for them to not respond. In fact, he’d recently given up on pretty girls almost entirely. So this was unusual.

Kirk didn’t know how to respond. He tried several variations on the word hello beginning with “Hey!” and ending with “Howdy yourself.”

Ultimately he settled on: “Hi.”

The entirety of the message read like this:

From: ClowninAroundTown

To: BubbaBetsy

Hi. I’m Kirk. What’s your name? Do I know you from somewhere? You look vaguely familiar.

He got a response a few hours later…

From: BubbaBetsy

To: ClowninAroundTown

Hi Kirk. I’m Betsy. No. I don’t think we have met before. But we should. Why don’t you take me out for some drinks?

This can’t be real,” Kirk thought when he read it. “It’s definitely a trap.”

Kirk looked over to his cat.

What do you think Topper?”

Topper said nothing.

Well, alright,” Kirk said. “If you think it’s a good idea.”

Kirk messaged Betsy back and they set a date for the weekend.

Kirk got to the bar first, which was typical. He liked to be ahead of schedule, to be a gentleman.

Betsy arrived a few minutes later. She found him quickly and greeted him with a hug.

Hi, Betsy,” Kirk said with his most practiced personable smile.

Howdy, Kirk,” Betsy said.

From there the conversation flowed smoothly. Kirk and Betsy talked about their day jobs and families. They grew up in the same area. They went to the same high school, though Kirk was a year older and graduated ahead of her.

They were a few beers deep and talking about music when Betsy’s stutter finally slipped out.

F-f-f-fff Fugazi!” she said.

Kirk was taken aback.

S-sorry,” Betsy said. “Sometimes I stutter. Especially when I’ve been d-d-drinking. Or if I’m nervous”

Kirk couldn’t help but laugh a little.

I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t mean to…”

Betsy stopped him there.

It’s okay,” she said. “I know it sounds ridiculous. It is kind of funny. I’ve been working on it all my life. I can control it most of the time. Sometimes, it just s-slips out though. It’s embarrassing.”

Oh no, don’t be embarrassed,” Kirk said. “I actually, genuinely, 100% find it endearing.”

Really?” she asked.

Yes. Really. I promise. I think it’s cute.”

Okay,” Betsy said. “Well, that’s my s-secret. What’s yours? You have to have one.”

It was at that point in the conversation that Kirk knew the time was right. He didn’t want to make the same mistake he did with Julie. And this was the perfect chance to share something embarrassing about himself.

I guess my secret would be that I’m a clown,” he said. “Like, an honest-to-goodness clown. I juggle, make balloon animals, I do magic… the whole nine yards. I’m a clown. That’s it. I’m a clown.”

Betsy looked mortified.

Oh wow. I can tell by your expression, you don’t like clowns…”

Betsy stared at Kirk coldly.

A clown killed my father,” she said.

What?” Kirk asked laughing. “You’re kidding, right?”

Betsy pushed back with deadpan delivery.

N-no. I’m serious.”

What? Come on,” Kirk said. “How could that possibly be?”

Betsy took a deep breath and began to explain…

I was really young. We were at the circus, my whole f-family and I. All the clowns were out. They were running around the crowd trying to get people to participate. Then this one clown, the lead clown, just settled on my dad randomly. He led him down to the ring to be a part of the act.”

Kirk was skeptical but he listened intently.

It s-started out pretty normal,” Betsy went on. “The clown did a stern imitation of my father, putting his hands on his hips and frowning. Then he pulled a n-never-ending stream of rainbow handkerchiefs out of my dad’s ear. He went side-to-side behind his back…

Then,” Betsy said choking up, “he led my dad over to the elephant. He crouched down by the elephant’s foot and lifted it into the air. The elephant was just holding it up on its own, like it was trained, but the clown stood there under his f-foot pretending to hold it up with one hand.

Then he motioned for my dad to stand under the elephant’s foot with him and prrre-tend to hold it up.”

Oh no,” Kirk said, seeing the whole travesty playing out in the theater of his mind.

There they both were, standing right under the elephant’s foot,” Betsy said, now starting to cry. “The audience applauded. Then the c-clown put his finger up and gestured to my dad, like ‘Wait a minute, one second,’ you know? And he walked out from under the elephant’s foot, leaving my dad there to pretend like he was holding it up him-himself.

And then…” Betsy broke down. She put her face into her hands and started sobbing.

Kirk leaned forward wondering if he should hold her.

And then,” she sniffled. “And then… I… I can’t believe you’re buying this!”

Betsy brought her head up from her hands and she was laughing.

Oh come on!” Kirk said. “I can’t believe you! You really had me going there! That’s not even funny. That’s just mean!”

Kirk had half a mind to get up and walk away right there. But there was no way. He knew deep down that he liked it. He liked Betsy’s story. He liked Betsy.

She looked at him again, this time nicely, and said: “I like that you’re a clown, Kirk.”

Oh yeah?” he asked.

Yeah,” Betsy said smiling and focusing on him and her words. “And you know something else? I have more secrets.”

Oh, really?” Kirk said, trying not to sound too excited.

Mmhmm. But you don’t get to find them all out at once,” Betsy said. “You’re going to have to work for them.”

That was a challenge Kirk was excited for.

The rest of the date went well. So, they went out on a few more. Kirk learned all about Betsy and her uncommon habits and hobbies. None of them were enough to scare him off. Not until it finally came time to see Betsy’s apartment, anyway.

She made him dinner and opened a bottle of wine before finally breaking the news.

Kirk,” she said, putting on her serious face. “I’ve told you a lot these past few weeks, but there’s one more thing you need to know about me.”

Oh no,” Kirk thought. There had to be something. This girl was too good to be true.

Is she really a man?” he wondered, not sure if even that would be enough to drive him away. “Is she dying? Is she related to me somehow?”

What is it?” he asked.

I can’t tell you.”

What do you mean you can’t tell me? You said there’s something I have to know. But you’re not going to tell me?”

I just can’t. I literally cannot tell you.”

I don’t understand,” Kirk said.

Hold on.”

Betsy went into her bedroom and shut the door. Kirk sat there alone on the couch, frustrated and nervous.

When Betsy came out, she was wearing mime makeup and a black bodysuit. She pretended to be stuck in a box, then walked hard against the wind, before running to jump on his lap.

Kirk was shocked.

What the heck?!” was his startled exclamation. “No. No way.”

Kirk pushed Betsy off his lap and stood up.

I mean, a mime?! Are you serious?”

Betsy was shocked, too. She didn’t know what to say.

Kirk walked to her door.

A mime?” he asked, looking back one more time with disgust. “I’m not dating a mime.”

Then he walked out and closed the door behind him.

K-K-Kirk!” Betsy shouted.

She got up and ran to the door.

When she opened it, he was still standing there, smiling.

I love mimes,” he said.

Betsy was still crying a little. But she smiled too.

Kiss me you b-b-b-bastard,” she said.

Balloons Under the Boardwalk (Part 1)

Kirk sat at the dinner table toying nervously with the handkerchief on his lap. His hands unconsciously folded and unfolded it. He crunched it in his palms, hoping to soak up some of the sweat.

He tried to display more poise above board, but his eyes wandered and his breath got shallow.

It wasn’t a full-fledged panic attack, but he could feel that familiar tightness in his chest and his stomach bubbled like seltzer.

Finally, Julie touched his hand.

Are you okay,” she asked. “What’s wrong? You’re making me nervous.

Julie was a nice woman. As an elementary school teacher, she must be accepting, Kirk thought. In fact, in a way, she’s something of a performer herself.

Kirk pictured Julie standing in front of a room full of kids, 12, 13, 14 years old; their hormones raging, their attention spans short.

Some grease paint might actually be to her benefit. It would keep the boys from being distracted by her round features and full lips. Some oversized pants and a colorful shirt, paired with the right scarf, would suit her Rubenesque frame rather nicely. At the very least, it would disguise her large breasts.

On the other hand, her voice was anything but comical. He could hear the inner authoritarian when she asked…

Are you going to dump me?”

No!” Kirk shot back, feeling the pressure.

Then what is it? What’s going on?”

There’s something I have to tell you,” Kirk said.

Julie slumped her shoulders.

Great,” she thought. “He’s been hiding something from me… lying to me.”

Her mind shot through all the possibilities: He’s married… He has kids…. He got his dick shot off in a war…

Whatever it is, I knew it,” she steamed to her inner-self. “I never should have done this. You meet these guys online and they never turn out to be who you they say they are. They hide behind masks.”

In a brief but morbid sideshow, Julie flashed back to the last man she’d met online. His name was Kristof. He’d said he was an “art dealer.” How exciting that was! They dated for a few weeks before she found out what he really did was buy junk at yard sales, just to turn around and sell it on ebay for a modest profit.

When she finally visited his house for the first time, the “art” she found piled waist high included broken toys (a Simon Sez, old Nintendo games, Super Soakers, pogs…), some old tea kettles next to an open bottle of polish, at least three scooters and a blunt “samurai” sword. Indeed, Kristof’s “studio” was a menagerie of misbegotten memorabilia.

Also, his real name was just Kris… with a ‘K’… Kris Krueger…

Now, who was this?

It’s nothing… bad,” said Kirk. “At least, I don’t think so…”

Okay,” Julie said softening slightly. Suddenly, her brain re-calibrated and her anger gave way to more fear and guilt — “Oh my God, maybe he’s sick… He’s got some kind of a mental problem!”

Finally, she broke.

Jesus Christ, Kirk, just spit it out!” she blurted. “What is it? Do you have cancer or something? Kids? A wife? A second life? An STD? What?!”

I’m a clown!” Kirk screamed in a whisper.

There was an awkward silence.

What?” Julie asked. “Like… What? Is that a metaphor? Or do you mean an actual big shoes, big red nose, face-painted, small car-driving, McDonald’s-peddling clown?”

A clown-clown. Like… Yeah, like with the paint and the costume.”

Jesus Christ,” Julie said, again slumping down in her chair.

Are you mad?” Kirk asked.

Julie tried to get a handle her feelings, but couldn’t.

What was she feeling now?

Not anger. Not guilt. Not empathy. Surprise? Yes. Disappointment? Yes, closer. Disgust? Not quite… but maybe.

No. No, I’m not mad. I just don’t understand… So when exactly are you a clown?”

Weekends mostly.”

At what? Kids’ birthday parties? Hospitals?”

More just, like, in the street… Street performing.”

Again, Julie blinked her eyes and shook her head in disbelief.

So. On the weekends you dress up like a clown, and entertain people in the street…”

Yes.”

Okay… Well, that’s interesting.”

So you’re not mad?”

No, I’m not mad. I mean, if that’s what you’re into.”

Do you not like clowns? Some people are scared of them, which is why I was afraid to tell you. A lot of people don’t like clowns. So if it’s something you can’t deal with…”

Oh, I can deal with it. I’m not afraid of them or anything. It’s just… I didn’t expect it. And now we’re sitting here, and I keep picturing you as a clown. When did you start clowning, or become a clown or whatever? Did you go to clown college?”

Not college. Camp. I started doing magic as a kid, juggling, too. I even tried ventriloquism.”

Oh my God, please tell me you still don’t do ventriloquism.”

Oh I don’t! No, I wasn’t any good. I guess I still do have the dummy… But I don’t practice with it anymore… It’s just more of a prop.”

Julie brought her hands to her face, afraid that her disbelief would morph into flat-out laughter. She managed the stifle the impulse and nodded, encouraging Kirk to continue.

Anyway. My parents wanted to encourage me, so they let me go to a magic camp. Then, there were other kids and counselors and instructors. It was a lot of fun, actually. I learned new tricks and all about the history of magic and clowning. We worked on improv and developed these comedy routines.

That’s where it started. I just started doing it. In the summer, I would go up to the boardwalk and entertain people. I handed out balloons. It was my summer job. A lot of kids worked summer jobs. They were lifeguards, cashiers, delivery boys… I was a clown. No one knew. I didn’t tell anyone.”

Did you hang out with other clowns?” Julie asked. “From school or anything?”

No. I didn’t have any, I mean, many friends in school. I’d see people from school sometimes, when I was clowning, but they wouldn’t recognize me. I gave a girl I liked a balloon once. She had no idea it was me.”

Aw. That’s sweet,” Julie cooed. And for the first time, Kirk felt she wasn’t judging him.

She was listening, empathizing… maybe even… accepting?

It was sweet. And that’s how I got my start. I don’t really do many paid gigs. It’s mostly just for the fun of it. Like I said, street performing and stuff. I don’t like kids’ parties. They’re kind of a nightmare, actually. Most of the time, the kids aren’t even interested. The parents just don’t know how else to kill time or entertain a bunch of children at a party, so they hire a clown.

It goes over like a lead balloon animal,” Kirk said, feeling uneasy at his own bad joke.

Julie forced out a small laugh and excused herself to the bathroom.

When she came back she noted it was late and that they ought to go.

As they parted, Kirk caught her watching as he climbed into his Prius. It was uncomfortable.

Later that week, Kirk decided to text Julie. It’d been a few days since they’d last spoke. Maybe she’d be available that weekend. He wrote out a couple rough drafts before settling on something breezy. Then he killed an hour or so, watching an old Marx Bros. film with his cat, Topper.

No reply came.

Kirk looked at the pistol on his coffee table and began toying with it. He spun the gun around. It twirled to face the wall. He spun it again, landing on Topper.

Don’t worry, little guy,” he said. “One more time.”

Finally the barrel pointed towards Kirk. He picked it up, held to the side of his head, let out a deep breath and pulled the trigger.

Out popped a flag with the word ‘Bang!’ on it.

Part 2