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

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