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.
“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.