Lessons about Men and Boys from a 260 Latex Balloon

My father dons his checkered tailcoat and red foam nose. Gloved hand on my back, he hurries me out the door and toward the big burgundy Crown Vic — a car fit for a king, or a carnival at least.

I drag my heels, silently pleading to the patron saint of humiliated daughters. Oh please, oh please, oh please. Maybe the car won’t start. Maybe the road will be blocked. Maybe the sky will fall. But the car does start and the road is clear of all but oncoming traffic and the sky is a piercing blue.

Our neighbour, Mrs. Schmidt, is digging weeds on her front lawn. She pauses to give a sunny wave. I bend beneath the dash to tie my shoe.  Now the parental-unit-cum-carnival-freak is saying something to me from his wide grinning mouth. All I hear is blah blah blah “responsibility.” Blah blah blah “commitment.” I’m guessing he’s seriously trying to impart wisdom, but his two-storey eyes look surprised, not stern, and I can’t get past how yellow his teeth look against the white-and-red paint on his face.

The more he lectures, the more the car slows. Soon we’re doing twenty-five in a forty zone. Holy crap, we’re on parade. People on the street stop and stare. Some wave. Some laugh. We stop at a light. A little kid with a lollipop is tugging on his mother’s arm and pulling her toward the car. I sink lower in my seat.

Stupid, stupid, stupid, I think. Why did I agree to this gig? All my careful calculation out the window now. One pair of roller skates: $31.99. One pair of pink fuzzy covers to match my Jordache jeans: $12.49. Total purchase price: $44.58. Current savings: $17.32. Total deficit: $27.26. That would take over thirteen hours of babysitting to earn, and there was less than a week until Super Skate Seven’s Sunday Mix & Mingle! When Dad offered me twenty-five bucks to assist him at a kid’s seventh birthday party, I suavely negotiated a fee of $27.26 to assist (and mow the front lawn). Easy money — I thought.

I was totally psyched until Friday. Between French and health studies, Tiffany passed me a note she got from Jackie who got it from Brad Taylor. Blue-eyed Brad. Feather-haired Brad. The perfectly dreamy, please-let-him-talk-to-me Brad. Palms sweating, I unfolded the note. It read:

What are you doing this weekend? Check one.

  • Mall
  • Sam’s party
  • Baseball
  • Other

Beside Other was scrawled “Babysitting my kid brother’s birthday party.” Under that was Jackie’s perky “Gag me!!” then Brad’s “Totally. Some hoser clown is coming.”

My stomach clenched in horror. I could only imagine the snickers and humiliation awaiting the hoser clown’s assistant daughter! My dating life — no, my social life — was in danger of becoming history before it had even begun.

That night, I begged and pleaded with Dad to let me off the hook. But no, there was no swaying him. He had promised the Taylor family that his assistant would be on hand to make balloon animals for the kids, and what was I worth if my word was worthless? He had taken the moral high ground and was playing king of the castle. I reasoned, I cried “Unfair!” I slammed doors, but in the end I was under his roof and had to live by his rules. A typical ending.

And now my stomach clenches as we pull in the drive past the tulips and the jaunty yellow sign that reads The Taylors. Dad ruffles my hair and says, “Thanks for helping me out today, kiddo. I know this is hard for you.” I sigh and lean against his shoulder.

The door is opened by Mrs. Taylor, who doesn’t know me. No Brad in sight. Phew. Leaving me in the foyer, she takes my dad off to where he can set up for his show. A little boy tugs on my arm.

“Are you here with the clown?”

“Yeah. Do you want me to make some balloon animals for you and your friends?”

I’m eagerly pulled deeper into the house, and about two dozen kids detach themselves from pestering my dad at the far end of the room and now clamour around me. I keep my head down but sneak a peek around the room. A bunch of men are jawing in the corner, drinking beers. Brad’s not there either.

“What’s your favourite animal?” I ask the birthday boy.

“A lion!” he shouts.

“I can’t make a lion. What’s your second favourite animal?”

“An elephant! No, a rhinoceros!” His friends crow in agreement.

Uh-oh — there would be no poodles, mice and rabbits wanted here. I might have a riot on my hands. I take another approach. And if I pull it off, I may just be able to get out of here unseen in ten minutes.

“How about a snake?”

“Yeah!” they shout in unison.

I pull out my long skinny balloons and start blowing up and tying “snakes” in every colour. The kids are eating it up. They pretend to hiss and bite, and a little genius at the edge of the group turns his into a sword by poking it at his friends’ middles and shouting “Hi-yah!” Now they all want a “sword.” They want a blue one, no a black one, no a green one, and how come Johnny got two and I only got one, and sob, Kenny poked me in the eye! Blow and tie, blow and tie — my cheeks and fingers are starting to hurt.

I’m immersed in a mob of screeching, hopping, jabbing kids and there’s no escape.

“Hey Grace, can I get one?”

I freeze. Blood rushes up my neck and to my ears. “Uh, hey Brad. Sure.”

I fumble a red balloon up to my mouth and blow. For a few horrifying seconds nothing happens.

“Let me try.”

I hand the balloon over to Brad and he puffs out his cheeks to blow. Nothing happens but he keeps trying. A typical rookie mistake. Everyone thinks that you should blow from your cheeks, but actually you get more power if you keep your cheeks and lips tight and blow from your chest.

“Don’t kill yourself,” I say, taking back the balloon as he chuckles. I inhale deeply, blow up the 24-inch balloon smoothly in one exhalation, and deftly tie off the end.

“That’s so cool. How did you learn to do that?” Brad asks.

“My dad,” I shrug.

“Do you want an orange pop?”

“Yeah, I guess.” I cast a glance over to my dad, who winks at me.

Blissfully I follow Brad over to the sideboard, littered with pop and beer bottles.

“Brad! What’s that you got there? Bring it over here, buddy,” his dad calls as we pass him and his group of friends.

Brad rolls his eyes to me and hands the balloon to his dad.

“Well, what have we got here?” he says, and the other men snicker.

“Looks familiar — I saw one like it in the john just this morning.” His dad then proceeds to stuff the end of the balloon between his legs. The men howl and slap each other’s backs, one shouting, “You wish, Taylor!”

I look over at Brad. He’s a stone in the process of morphing from sheet white to blazing crimson.

“Brad?” I ask lamely.

Not meeting my eye, he turns and runs toward the stairs bounding up two at a time, the men still hooting and some grabbing “snakes” off their own kids.

“Who’s ready for a magic show?” my dad calls in a three-ring voice.

Later, Dad and I exit the house and pack our props into the trunk of the car. I throw open my door and slump in the seat. Dad sits down slowly. Staring ahead, he grips the steering wheel. We sit in silence on the Taylors’ driveway for a minute or two. My dad inhales deeply and exhales with an audible puff of his lips. He starts the car and we drive back down the street.

My dad says in his best Mickey Mouse falsetto, “Well, that was fun!” Daffy Duck (whom my father favours over Donald) replies, “Yeth thirree, though I found the whole thing a little schlong!” Despite myself, I laugh. I laugh so hard my eyes water and my sides hurt. Dad laughs too — great hiccoughing laughs that crack the grease paint on his cheeks and jiggle the plastic flower on his lapel.

On the way home, out of a sense of guilt or camaraderie, or both, dad pulls into Dairy Queen. With impressive comic chivalry from a time before drive-through windows, he gets out of the car, fakes a fall, and opens my car door ready to escort me through the parking lot. My eyes widen in horror.

I duck under his arm and race toward the DQ doors, shouting over my shoulder, “Uh, don’t worry about it, Dad. You stay right there. This is my treat!”


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