Balloon Animals

The likeness was uncanny, with curves in all the right places, topped off by those piercing blue eyes. The shock of yellow throughout was perfect. And those feet, looping orange toes that doubled back on themselves.
“Yep, that’s Tweety Bird,” Charlie said.
Mira fidgeted next to him, her brown pigtails bouncing as the pudgy clown before them tweaked and twisted the balloons, adding the finishing touches.
The man’s fat fingers moved with grace, the balloons squelching with each twist. The simplicity of the design and the deftness of its creator made Charlie jealous. He spent weeks, sometimes months, chipping away slivers of marble in his tiny storage building/studio to produce even the smallest statue or bust. It was exhausting work. His wood art was quicker, but just as difficult. If he carved Tweety, he might finish in a week, but Natalie would be tweezing the splinters from his fingers for days after.
An enormous Merry-Go-Round rotated fast, then slow, just a few feet away, the children’s laughter blending with the ride’s blaring organ music. Neon lights flashed and the air was heavy with the sweetness of funnel cake. Licking his lips, Charlie wondered if Carnies might have it figured out. All around him were life’s pleasures, filtered down to sight, sound, and taste. There was no worry of layoffs or professional failure, no getting up each day to face a woman you could no longer provide for. When the shine wore off, it was on to the next town to start over.
“I thought I saw a pussy cat,” the clown said with a thick drawl. Mira laughed and spun around once in her rainbow sundress.
“It’s puddy tat,” she said.
“So it is,” the clown said. He wiped away sweat and face paint before affixing a small, brown balloon to his helium tank nozzle. After the balloon inflated, he pulled it free then tied it off. He gave it several quick turns, attaching it to Tweety’s feet to create a perch, whistling all the while. Mira watched the man’s every move.
Smiling, Charlie fished the last bill from his wallet as the clown’s whistle became a rich, bird-like warble. Passersby turned toward the sound, smiles or looks of wonder pasted to every face as the clown craned his neck, his Adam’s apple undulating as his bird song turned into something worthy of a Brazilian rainforest. Mira danced and clapped, stopping only when the clown ceased his whistle. The pudgy little man in oversized pants held up with rainbow suspenders bowed, his purpled-tufted wig flipping forward revealing a sweaty bald head. Mira giggled and the clown winked, his hair flopping back in place as he stood straight. He then took a knee, presenting her with the balloon animal in exaggerated fashion.
“Your bird, my lady.”
Mira brought her small hands together, grasping the perch and one of the bird’s feet as though she were holding a large egg shell. Her green eyes widened as she turned the creation around, coming face to inflated beak with her new friend.
“You’re an artist, like my daddy.”
Instead of correcting her and pointing out the difference between a few hours in Clown College and nearly a decade of training as a sculptor, Charlie readied his standard “you’re an artist?” response. The one with the reasonable explanations regarding delayed success, the one with all the justified denial. The question never came though. So Charlie just stood there, all disheveled six feet of him, holding out the money and fake smiling, trying to decide if he was hurt, or relieved.
The clown honked his red nose and smiled too, for real, making his painted-on one that much larger. “An artist? Thanks, Beautiful. You made my day.”
Mira cradled the bird with one hand and held out the other to her father, her grin even bigger than the clown’s. Charlie took her hand and let her drag him toward the midway.
Driving home in the humid Oklahoma evening, Charlie and Mira zoomed past vast fields of Bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes along highway 377, heading south toward Madill. Charlie made each turn with practiced unawareness, zoning out the towering oaks and long rows of Loblolly pine that bordered the Tishomingo Wildlife Refuge as they passed. All he could see was the clown, and, occasionally, Mira making faces at him through the rearview mirror as she played with her new favorite toy. She mimicked Sylvester’s voice, spitting out each s. Her version of Speech Impediment Tweety followed in a crackle. She sat high in her booster, her feet resting on the lower end of two cedar posts Charlie had scrounged from the roadside earlier and wedged into the Le Baron’s back floorboard. Each time Mira flew Tweety over the posts, or allowed him to perch on their rough surface, Charlie cringed. Tweety would be lucky to last the night.
The lights were on and the curtains drawn when they rolled up in front of their tiny cabin, the old car’s shocks still groaning as it came to a stop a few feet from the oversized entryway. When he’d cut the wood for the door, Charlie envisioned the grand home he’d build around it. He’d seen massive center posts supporting soaring wood ceilings above thousands of feet of pine flooring. He saw oak and walnut throughout, their surfaces buffed smooth and made to shine with clear lacquer. The wave of layoffs from the mill, the first of which he’d been caught up in as well, and the subsequent dip in Natalie’s tips at Sullivan’s caused them to scale back production, however. As Nat was fond of saying, ‘a little home is better than none at all.’ He loved her for saying so, but each time Charlie opened the big door and felt the weight of the polished oak in his hand, the sweet, unconditional nature of those words diminished him.
The smell of bacon and biscuits greeted them as they stepped inside. Breakfast for dinner was his favorite, a special treat for giving Nat a respite from Mira’s non-stop rambling. His bubbly brunette spun toward him with her arms held high, a cloud of biscuit flour surrounding her as the Kiss the Cook apron floated above her curvy hips.
“My backwoods ballerina,” he said.
When he’d met Natalie in Norman a decade before, she was a dance major and the newest member of the Oklahoma Festival Ballet. Even now, he could see her gliding across the stage in her first show, “Appasionata.” Her towering jumps and breathtaking pirouettes had cut right through him that night, making him heady and euphoric, despite the fact that he didn’t understand what the dance was about or any of the words that accompanied the music. When he met her later that night at a university after-party, he was all ramble and stammer. She’d tell him, some time later, that was the moment she’d fallen for him. For him, although he’d never told her, it was those first glimpses of her onstage.
But those first few ballets were all she’d ever been given, as an inopportune fall had let to a hard-taped, and fairly inflexible ankle, which had led to pressure on the entire left leg, which led to a complete knee collapse onstage during a production of “The Firebird.” Four knee surgeries later, Charlie watched smiling Natalie hug her teary-eyed ballet director and hobble out of the Reynolds Performing Arts Center for the last time. Her effervescent character never let on that she missed any of it, but Charlie knew better.
“Hello, husband,” she said. “Who’s the short chick with the bird?” Natalie then knelt down and fake-scowled at her daughter.
“It’s me, mom,” Mira said. “This is Tweety.” She held the bird out for Natalie’s inspection.
“Took that clown dude less than five minutes,” Charlie said. He then backed into the kitchen, his left hand feeling behind him for the bacon plate. In doing so, he knocked a mason jar of marmalade off the counter, covering the kitchen linoleum with gooey glass shards.
“Damn. I’m sorry, honey.”
“Oh well,” she said. “They all break eventually, I suppose.”
Charlie stopped picking up glass and stared at Natalie as she smiled and came to help. Her reaction to things never matched his expectations. Even when the money ran out, she’d kept working and smiling.
“By the way, Kevin called,” she said.
“Kevin? What did he want?”
“Said somebody asked about one of your pieces. The Madonna, I think.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Thought I just did.”
Charlie laughed and popped his wife’s butt with a dish towel before grabbing the family cell phone on the way out the back door. He returned minutes later, grinning.
“Well?”
“Some doctor’s wife from OKC wants to buy my Modern Madonna, with one condition.”
“You have to sleep with her. Hey, I’m cool with that. Times is tough, baby.”
“No, she said…wait, what? Never mind, she said she wants a set. She’ll pay six thousand for two.”
“Six thousand, that’s good right?”
“The Madonna is the best thing I’ve ever done. I guess I expected more.”
“Babe, six grand is a lot of money for us. Do you know how many nights’ tips that is?”
“I know,” he said. “It just took so much to get to that point. And all those damn loans.”
“And how long has she been sitting in that gallery?”
“Almost four years.”
“Exactly. What if this is the start of something. You know?”
He kissed her and then went to call Kevin again, filled with the electricity of what if.
The excitement waned after a few days. Weeks later, it was all but gone. Now, with the deadline to deliver the set only days away, Charlie was lost. He couldn’t find her this time. The first Madonna was like a gift, even now he couldn’t exactly say how he’d done it. He just remembered coming home from a half-day at the mill one frigid January afternoon and drinking a six pack in his shed. He’d cracked open his fourth beer and was twirling a point chisel between his fingers, walking it up and back, when the wind picked up outside, causing the thin metal roof to flex and pop. Looking up, Charlie forgot what he was doing, dropping the tool in the process. Kneeling down to pick it up, he saw her, a fine form looking out from all the rough white, like she’d been there the whole time. As Michelangelo had said, all he had to do was ‘discover’ her.
His creation stood a few feet away, brought back so he’d have a model for her twin. The delicate hands reached out to him, beckoning. Beside her was an ugly hunk of white, remnants of the first of two slates of marble Kevin had advanced him. The two together would cost him near a third of his agreed upon price, that is if he managed to sculpt, instead of destroy, the second block. Best case scenario, this would end with him selling his greatest creation, and her twin, for a few thousand dollars.
Mira danced into the room, taking Tweety for his afternoon flight around the back yard. When the bird flew over the marble slabs, the orange cylinders of air barely brushing the tops of the jagged stone, Charlie didn’t flinch. Impossibly, the toy bird was almost a month old now. Mira stopped and bowed to him before leaving, holding out a hand in a queenly gesture. He clasped it with a half smile, admiring the green and purple-polka-dot nail polish before kissing her fingers.
So much time and money spent on what had become a hobby, and not even an enjoyable one anymore. Even Natalie, who’d been so swept away by his creations, so supportive, was losing patience. He saw it now when he spoke of his work, her smile slipping a little more each time. Even the creations he’d made just for her were losing their luster. His latest, mother and daughter ballerinas carved in the side of a lunchbox-sized hunk of pink granite, sat collecting dust in the corner. Nat just hadn’t found the right place for it yet.
He tickled Mira’s hand as he stared past her, admiring the two delicate figures, each standing tippy-toe on one leg, or what Nat called, on point.
Mira giggled and pulled her hand back. “Don’t worry, daddy. She’s coming. “She then danced away, kicking dandelions as she went.
Mira was right. Charlie stared back at the block ballerinas until everything around him disappeared. The light changed and the air was electric. He attacked the marble before him with frenzy, his eyes confirming the curves and lines of the first Madonna for his hands less and less as he worked into the late evening. The clink of the hammer on chisel was constant, a Morse code of creativity. Imperfections fell away as he opened the vein, freeing the body within. Everything around him was a blur, leaving only the whir of his fingers and the scraping of metal on stone. By midnight, he stood between the two figures, each a near mirror of the other.
After dancing a careful gig between them, he held up both arms skyward and tipped his head back, as though receiving some heavenly blessing. He then kissed the new Madonna on the head and looked her over once more, still incredulous of her existence.
Charlie finally left the shop, closing the thin aluminum door behind him. As he crossed the back yard, lightning flashed in the distance, illuminating a bank of dark clouds. Just another night in Oklahoma. After a quick shower, he slipped into bed. Natalie’s slight snore was the only sound. Everything felt like it was in front of him, all the possible futures.
“Honey, wake up,” Natalie said. Charlie stretched just as a flash of lighting lit up the room. Thunder rumbled and Mira clutched his left arm. Natalie did the same to his right. Chunks of hail assaulted the roof and the wind wheezed down the chimney.
“I better get the phone and see if I can pull up the weather app,” he said. The lights went out and a window shattered in the kitchen before he could pull away from his female vise.
“Forget the phone,” Natalie said. “We need to get to the tub.”
The elements slammed the little house. He waited, dreading that the next sound he’d hear would be the familiar train-whistle of an approaching tornado. Charlie held tight to Natalie and Mira, cringing at the smash of hail on tin and the popping of sheet metal rivets as sections of roof worked loose in the gusting winds. A bolt of lightning turned night into day, followed by a loud crash. Charlie envisioned the three of them, spinning up into the night, Dorothy-style, as they all screamed and clung to the tub. In the middle of it all, his wife nudged him and cut her eyes toward their daughter. Mira leaned against her father, her arms outstretched and barely visible in the bathroom candlelight. Above her was Tweety, floating back and forth as she hummed and flew him over the tub. Each time lightning flashed, the bird seemed to smile at Charlie. He imagined the smile turning into an evil grin in the darkness between strikes.
The crashes of thunder finally softened and the electricity came back on to a loud ‘Yay’ from Natalie and Mira. Tweety was still smiling, just a jumble of colorful inflatables.
“Will you put her to bed, Nat? I’m going to check things out, find out what that crash was.”
“It’s so late, Charlie. Can’t it wait until morning?”
“We probably have leaks everywhere,” Charlie said. “I have to see how bad the damage is.” He bent down and kissed Mira’s head, feeling a jolt as his whiskered chin brushed against the top of Tweety’s head.
“Watch out, daddy.”
“Sorry, Mi,” Charlie said. “The show’s over. You and Tweety go to bed now.”
Charlie ignored the small leaks and shattered glass and headed straight for the back door. He made it just a few feet into the yard before tripping on the severed head of his Modern Madonna. The torso and what was left of the lower body of the second statue were several feet away, as though they’d both hurled themselves against the back of the house in an attempt to get inside. What was left of his studio was strewn from the steps to a drainage ditch at the rear of the property. The big red oak that served as their only shade from the afternoon sun now lay crossways amid the rubble. The block ballerinas looked to be the only survivors. Everything else lay in pieces. The burly man sank to his knees in the mud and cried, a Madonna head clutched in his large, calloused hands.
He stumbled back inside, still holding the head. His wife and daughter were already asleep, snuggled together in his bed. Mira slept on Natalie’s chest, rising and falling with her mother’s breathing. Tweety lay beside them, in Charlie’s place, just a few inches away. Charlie looked down at the cracked marble in his hands and then back at the bird. That damn, perfect bird. Circling the bed, he dropped the marble head. The thud roused Natalie and she glanced over just as Charlie grabbed Tweety and squeezed, popping the balloons that made up the bird’s head and beak. Natalie mouth dropped open.
“Why?” she cried.
“Everything breaks eventually,” he said.
Charlie grabbed his keys and stumbled from the room, ushered out by Mira’s loud sobs.
When he returned the next morning, Mira and Natalie were gone. The granite block with the two ballerinas was on the table, accompanied by a note.
Mira and I are going to stay the weekend at my sister’s house, in Dallas. After that, we need to talk. I see what you’ve lost, and I’m sorry. That doesn’t give you the right to hurt us, though. You don’t have a monopoly on loss, you know – Nat
He spent the morning moping around the house, nailing down displaced sections of sheet metal on the roof and half-heartedly cleaning up storm debris. With each passing hour, his thoughts grew darker. As he covered the shattered kitchen window with two by four remnants, he recalled his father’s reaction when Charlie told him he was going to study sculpture. ‘Marble is good for one thing, toilets.’ Somewhere the old bastard was having a good laugh about now.
After finishing the kitchen repairs, he went room to room, making sure he didn’t miss anything big. By the time he got to Mira’s room, he was sweating. The ninety-five-degree heat, no longer kept at bay by the shade of old oak, was stifling. He paused in the doorway, stripping off his denim work shirt. On Mira’s bed was the bird, or what was left of it. The scraps of yellow and orange were arranged in a small circle, his daughter’s feeble attempt at putting Tweety back together. It was time to go.
He drove the beat up Chrysler all day, through the hills of Oklahoma and the flat lands of Kansas. The granite ballerinas posed next to him, on the passenger’s seat. When he pulled into a little farm town south of Topeka, he had less than a hundred dollars left to get home. Red canvas spires stood in the distance, surrounded by flashing neon lights. The sounds of laughter and music increased as Charlie walked toward them. As the smell of deep-fried batter brought tears to his eyes, he glanced down, almost expecting to see Mira smiling up at him. A familiar warble floated through the air and Charlie broke into a dead run. There he was, the chubby little man at the end of the midway, surrounded by children. Charlie waited until each child was served, watching the clown craft animals of all colors and sizes.
“Well, if it aint the artist, the clown said. “You’re sure a long way from home.”
“Good memory.”
“Trick of the trade. Where’s the little princess?”
“She’s back in Oklahoma. I broke her bird.”
“It happens,” the clown said. “Want me to make her another?”
Charlie fished all but the last twenty from his wallet. As he held the bills out, the clown’s eyes widened.
“Mister, this is 80 bucks,” the clown said.
“It’s all yours,” Charlie said.
“You want me to make like 20 birds?”
“No, but could you teach me to make just one?”

***

Larry Wormington is 49 years old and a former Marine. He has an MFA from the University of New Orleans and a BA from the University of North Texas. He is currently working on a novel, a collection of military short stories, and the maiden voyage of a literary journal, the Peauxdunque Review. His stories have appeared in Harpur Palate, the fiction anthology Monday Nights, among others. Professionally, he works as a technical writer and runs a small business in the Dallas area. When he’s not writing, he enjoys imbibing fine wine, traveling, and spending time with his wife of 25 years and their four incredible children.