I entered the warehouse. Walked in, right off the street. I had a dozen 260’s in my left hand, and a double-action pump in my right. Big Tony’s men pushed their chairs away from their desks, and stood up, and came rushing over. They met me before I was half-way across the loading dock. They looked confused... surprised. They didn’t expect me to come back. I could tell by their faces, they hadn’t expected me to ever come back.
They were almost right too. A dozen times in the past five years I’d come within a tulip twist of giving up completely. I’d spent five years mowing lawns and waiting tables. All the time my hands were getting rougher and rougher, and that can be death to a balloon artist unless he uses good hand lotion. Every night I went home, tired from working menial jobs, but still I always walked over to my portable spotlight and stage and worked on my act. After five long years of practice, I was ready. At last, I was ready. I had new tricks all ready and I was going to show Tony and his gang. So an hour ago, I picked up my props and walked across town. Here I was.
“Well look who’s here... If it ain’t the pink popper.”
“Where’s Fat Tony?” I said.
“He ain’t in. Come back later.”
“You tell Fat Tony I want to see him. YOU TELL FAT TONY, MR. SMITH WANTS TO DEFLATE HIS LITTLE EMPIRE AND PUT HIM OUT OF...” But I didn’t have to resort to any threats. The door at the top of the stairs opened. Fat Tony was looking down from the landing.
“Whut youse want?”
“Powder your hands you bastard. I’m back.”
“Wait right there,” he yelled. “Guido... Johnny... keep him right there. We’re thru playing around. This time it’s for keeps!”
Anthony Astor Puttman Jones, alias Fat Tony, stormed back into his office. Boxes were thrown around. Drawers opened and slammed shut. A lamp knocked over. He emerged carrying a fist full of long colorful blanks and a portable electric Airmaster pump.
He came down the steps slowly. Taking his time. Looking me over as he came closer. “What’s happened to your hands?”
“Some of us have to work.”
“No man serves two masters.”
“They do if they work for a partnership,” I said.
“What did you have in mind?”
“Simple contest. We go till one of us admits defeat.”
“Like we trust each other...”
Tony looked at his men. They all nodded to each other.
“Not in here,” I said. “Out in the street.”
They all nodded a second time.
We went outside. The sun was shining. It was almost noon. People were walking past. Some of them stopped to watch.
“Animals?” Tony suggested.
“Anyone can do animals,” I said. “Any... damn... fool.”
One of his clowns started forward, but fat Tony held him back. “Let him talk,” Tony said.
I picked up on my idea and began complaining with some enthusiasm, “A cat looks like a dog, looks like a camel, looks like a horse. Just tricks of the trade. All that differentiation, that’s what felt tip pens are for. Add whiskers and it’s a cat. Add a saddle and its a horse. Add eyes, hell, some people even use adhesive eyes.”
“Get to the point.”
“Animals ain’t excluded, but we’re not limited to animals.”
“We each take turns.”
“You first,” I challenged.
Tony used powder. Some like powder and some don’t. Some feel it can make your hands slip on hard twists. Tony put a spot of powder on his hands and rubbed. The whole time he prepared he looked me in the eyes. He had nerve. I liked that. Then he took his equipment and began.
He pulled out a 260 and stretched it twice. Only twice. When fully inflated, A 260 is two inches in diameter and sixty inches long. Like me. He also grabbed a 350, which is a little fatter around, and a little shorter. I was watching his hands. His hands were the key. When his hands moved, things happened. He threaded the fat balloon into the skinny one. He inflated the inside balloon. Only the inside balloon. The outside balloon had to conform. He took out a red sharpy and made stripes and eyes and long lines that refined the look. I could tell it was some kind of snake. What fool would make a balloon animal snake during a contest? Snakes were for kids who didn’t have money. Snakes were what you gave people you wanted to move along. They were for clearing an audience, not holding one. But this snake was different. Tony tossed the snake down. Hard. Smoke came up off the sidewalk. He must have also tossed down some hidden pyro, which hadn’t been outlawed in our simple rules. The snake started crawling. Tony must have slit the outside balloon as he tossed it down; and the inside balloon being bigger, it started squeezing out. It was impressive. The snake slowly shed its skin, then turned around and swallowed the skin, and then turned around again and swallowed itself. In the end all there was on the sidewalk was the snake’s shadow.
Tony waited for me to comment.
“Hasn’t that been done before?” I said dismissively. “Like, in front of Pharaoh?”
Tony was angry. I could tell he was angry. My comment had been cruel. Being good Catholics we both knew Moses and his friend Aaron hadn’t used latex balloons. Latex hadn’t been invented back then. It was probably some poor dumb animal’s intestines, inflated without a pump, and wiggly because they were placed on hot sand. That’s what was shown to Pharaoh.
Tony held his hand out in my direction. Letting me know it was my turn.
“Like I said, anyone can do animals.” I chose a clear balloon. I went to work using three felt markers. Red. Black. White. I turned my balloon inside out.
“What are you doing?’ he wanted to know.
Next I lit a match and very carefully brought it close to the balloon. I moved my hand along the surface of the balloon, the match causing parts of the surface to shrivel and blackened. I was in luck, no holes appeared. I inspected my work. I was ready. I very carefully inflated the balloon. I inflated it without using my pump. I kept my hand cupped between me and the balloon. In case it popped, nothing would snap me in the face.
“You’ve learned,” he said.
He was right. I had learned. There would be no repeat of that terrible accident; the one that caused me to lose my previous contest, five long years ago. The deep disfiguring scar that ran from my forehead to my chin grew warm with embarrassment as Tony stared at me. Maybe he was even sorry he’d been part of that long-ago crime.
The clear balloon grew, and became gnarled, and as it lengthened it changed directions, and branched off, and parts of it doubled back. When I stopped — just at the right moment — the thing in my hands looked like a branch broken from a old tree.
Tony stepped in and looked at my creation. Because it was clear you could see inside. Because of my work with the felt tipped pens you could see art on the walls. Because of my work with the match; there were stalactites and stalagmites and narrow passages and wide chambers and bottomless pits.
“Oh my God,” Tony said, reaching out and touching the balloon. “It’s Lascaux. In France. The cave. The prehistoric art on the walls.”
He turned to his men. “It’s Lascaux,” he said.
“Cretins,” he said.
They shrugged again.
I was waiting for him to concede defeat. He didn’t. He had art in his soul. He wasn’t a quitter.
“Could I borrow a small rolled neck pearl coffee dark?” Tony asked after looking through his pockets and not being able to locate one of his own.
“Small as you got.”
I handed him a mustard seed’s eyelash; light brown in color. He did something to it with his fingernail and then dropped it into a 350 opaque white. To the same balloon he added two tiny holes. Holes added near the neck of a balloon don’t necessarily lead to a popped balloon. Done carefully they can leave openings. He inflated his three white balloons and twisted them together with reckless clarity.
It was the fictional spaceship, the USS Enterprise, when he was finished.
“A kid could do that,” I said. “Even The Ultimate Balloon Book by Shar Levine and Michael Ouchi only rates that a ‘difficulty four’.”
“Look inside,” he said.
I peeked into the pin hole even though air was streaming out. I peeked in the window. There she was. That coffee-brown, buxom, beautiful, bold lieutenant Uhura was seated at the controls, sitting in the captain’s chair. She finally had a starship for her very own.
“Wonderful,” I said.
We battled some more. I did a car with working speedometer. He did Big Bertha, that big cannon firing shells at Paris during WW I. Again pyros. Smoke coming out of the gun. The church burning when the shells hit. I did a biplane chasing Cary Grant, the scene from North by Northwest.
Keeping, for a moment, with a movie agenda he also did a movie scene. He did a scene from The Wizard of Oz and I felt sorry for him when his flying monkey sprang a leak and actually flew away.
It was my turn. “Enough foreplay,” I said, quoting a James Bond movie. I inflated a low gloss speckled grey.
“You forgot to burp it,” Tony said.
I was impressed with him. For the first time I actually had some respect for Fat Tony. He was reminding me of something important so he didn’t win through an error on my part. Just like the bicyclists on the Tour de France, when they wait for each other if one is knocked down by a flying champagne cork; Tony was being magnanimous.
“This one doesn’t get burped,” I said.
He looked horrified. He looked stricken. “They all get burped,” he said. “It’s like a law.”
“And you never break the law, do you, Fat Tony?” That silenced him.
I continued. Even though what I was doing was unprecedented. I continued. Without being burped a balloon stands a very good chance of popping as it gets handled. I’d have to be very careful. I tied the necessary knots. I performed the necessary twists. It was a kangaroo when I was finished. A tall kangaroo. Almost four feet tall. All by itself, it deserved to win. Because it looked so life-like. Because it looked so real. From its rounded, attentive ears, down to the claws on its toes it looked almost alive. I pulled out a small knife.
“What I’m about to do,” I said, “comes from a deep understanding of magic, comes from a deep understanding of entertainment and art. It’s a product of years of practice.” I placed the blade along the kangaroo’s tummy. I started to slice through the first layer. “Balloons are made from layers,” I said,”layers of microscopic fibers interlaced for strength, interlocked by ancient chemical bonds. Balloons are amongst the strangest things ever made. Filled by our expelled breath, they can become fish, and spiders, and hats, and swords. They can become toys and props; they can lead children away from hard drugs. They can float to the ceiling like clouds. I believe we only age on those birthdays when balloons aren’t present.”
I finished slicing the kangaroo’s tummy. I folded the pen knife and stepped back.
Something twitched. Something moved. While Fat Tony stared. A tiny little joey, a baby kangaroo, slowly edged up and peeked out from its mother’s poke, the pouch I’d cut in the big kangaroo.
The little joey blinked its eyes and clambered out and stood all on its own on the sidewalk. It hopped twice. More than even I’d expected.
Fat Tony placed his pump at my feet. He emptied his pockets, dropping his balloons on the street. He walked away. I hear he’s been seen down near the florist shops on produce row. I hear he makes flowers from tissues. I hear he tries origami from time to time. I hear he moves slow now. Like an old man. And he only regrets giving up balloons when a big-breasted woman walks by. Or when he hears a gunshot and it reminds him of a popped balloon.
Copyright © 2003 by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith