The neighborhood quickly changed. Rows of identical looking economical one family houses gave way to expansive urban sprawls of desolate lots. Everything seemed to be locked up behind imposing chains. The streetlights stopped functioning, except for a continuous yellow blinking. Sneakers were draped over telephone wire like some sort of ghetto Christmas decoration. The few houses still standing were nothing more than conglomerate chunks of cement plastered together in a military bunk-like fashion.
There were only a few cars on the road along with the bus. Compact cars blurred by, switching in and out of lanes daring others to either yield or keep up. Spanish music and gangster rap booming from the speakers, tinted windows rolled halfway down, smoke whispering out.
Sprawling convenience stores gave way to neglected corner bodegas and liquor stores. Kids younger than her were lurking outside, desperate for some sort of action, anxiously staring down anything that crossed their vision. The old Omni Theater on the right was Olive’s cue to ring for her stop. The boarded up windows hid the once overflowing talent that the historic theater held just a few decades ago.
The sun was setting as Olive got off the bus. The humidity hit her like a brick wall. Olive clutched her bag tight to her side and kept her head down as she approached the Plaza Hotel. The sound of crunched broken glass synched up with her increasing heartbeat. Random screams coming from inside of the cracked walls of the hotel interrupted her interior dialogue.
The facade of the building looked more daunting to Olive than she last remembered. Graffiti was sprawled over every conceivable inch of the walls, giant bubbly name tags of people she never met nor wished to. Flashes of previous visits came rushing back to her. Weekends wasted spent trying to do her homework amongst a room full of strange men, drug dealers, and a never ending cloud of crack smoke came rushing back to her as she climbed the steps to her mom’s room.
The faded green carpet was still there. It resembled the turf on the miniature golf course that she used to play on with her mom years ago. That was before the drugs took over. She had to step over empty boxes of discount wine and 40 ounce bottles of malt liquor just to get to the third floor. In front of her mother’s room there was a man sitting on a lawn chair reading a newspaper. He didn’t pay Olive any attention until she reached for the doorknob. The gold numbers 312 in the middle of the door were rusty and dull.
“Hey little lady, where you think you going?”
“No, it’s fine I’m here to visit my mom.”
The man stood up and faced Olive. She didn’t know what to expect. His eyes looked unpredictable as they darted back and forth between her and the stairs she had just appeared from.
“What? You must be lost. Why don’t you keep on moving along, there’s nothing here for you.”
“I’m looking for Grace, Grace Percival. She still lives here, right?”
The man dropped his paper and let out a loud sigh of annoyance. She didn’t know if he was going to hit her or hug her. Neither option sounded comforting.
“Yeah she’s here.” He stopped for a moment and gave her the most menacing look he could conjure up. “Who are you?”
“I’m her daughter, Olive.”
“Stay put,” he said.
He banged on the numbers once before slivering inside. The door was cracked open only long enough for an idle smoke ring to escape. Without warning the door swung open and the man from before appeared, arm in arm, with a scrawny middle aged white man that eerily resembled Olive’s History teacher.
“She owes me man, I want my money back!”
“This ain’t Sears dude. What you think she’s got a money back guarantee or something?”
The man scurried off like a cockroach. He didn’t want to be seen in this neighborhood during the day.
Grace slowly emerged from the dark room. Beady eyes, bruised arms, sweat dripping down her matted hair. She looked like a wounded animal. She let out a forced smile exposing the few teeth she had left, a combination of brown and yellow. Olive thought of bruised bananas and baked beans.
Grace nodded for her to enter the room. She remained at the edge of the doorway, her feet still on the beer stained carpet from her room, not wanting to expose her fragile body to the humid air outside.
Before returning to his newspaper, the man approached Grace and spoke into her ear.
“Don’t forget you got another client in an hour.”
He gave Olive one more scan before closing the door behind her.
“Hey sweetie. How was the trip? You got all your stuff?”
Grace lit a cigarette on the wrong end.
“Calm down, it’s only a smoke.”
“Whatever. So, what’s the deal, you have someone coming over soon or what?”
Grace scanned the room for the ashtray.
“Yeah, about that, do you mind maybe stepping out for a bit while mommy takes care of some business for a while? You could go down the street and pick up some food.”
Another night spent doing homework at the all night White Castle. Probably less of a chance of catching something Olive thought to herself as she brushed past the man guarding the door. He had already moved on to the Sports section as she reached the steps. He had no use for the local section, full of cryptic, unemotional crime reports. He was living it everyday.
One Hit Wonder
Johnny’s storytelling career was finished before it even really began. Cut short, like an amateur out of time at an open mic night. He never saw it coming, didn’t stand a chance. Wasn’t even able to finish his first one.
He didn’t have to be choosy about his story considering his audience. A pile of G.I. Joe’s crammed into matchbox cars and some marvel comic superheroes gave him their full attention. They were never too busy for him like his parent’s. Dad was usually at work and when he was home, he sat in front of the television, beer in hand, watching anything, so long as it meant he didn’t have to talk. Mom wasn’t much better. She stayed at home all day and watched soap operas or talked on the phone with her other homebound friends. During commercials she’d tidy up the house or put a load of laundry in the washing machine, just enough to keep up appearances.
Even though Johnny was only seven, people told him he was very mature for his age. Neighbors, family friends, teachers; all of them would remark about his intelligence and the fact that he was so well behaved. A few years ago the conversation was centered on how big he was getting, as if it were such a surprise, like he shouldn’t be growing. Before that it was all about how cute he was and before that he couldn’t remember.
It began with a song, that much he knew. His mom loved to listen to music, she’d sing along to pass the time in between dad’s absences. The record player was off limits. Didn’t matter how mature or well behaved he was. It wasn’t fair, not even close, that he didn’t get to play with the record player considering she’d turn it all the way up. It was like she was flaunting her possession, refusing to share. Woman’s voices, with deep bass and a smooth horn would echo throughout the rooms. Scratchy crackling sounds broke up the subtle beauty of the music. So did his mom’s horrible, raspy voiced. Her smoke filled lungs coughing up half-hearted renditions of the soulful pleas booming out of the speakers. The sounds began to blend together, sound alike after a while. But it was the stories, the words behind them that gave them their meaning. The ladies, who his mom never even met, could keep her attention all afternoon with their stories. He wanted that type of power, that self generated control.
Johnny never had a special talent. No particular knack or aptitude for anything specific. He wasn’t dumb, but he wasn’t gifted. Growing up being giftless, talentless, mediocre was worse than being the slow kid in class. At least then he’d never know what he was missing out on. But knowing his faults, or lack of excellence, created his story in a way. He was a lonely boy, no sports teams to bond with his peers over, no clubs or instruments played to share with a neighbor. Just himself and his imagination.
The narrative was short, small in scope. He was timid, unsure of himself, of his voice and his own mind’s capacity. It was about a balloon, mustard yellow in color and huge. Half his size with a long thread allowing whoever held it to let it stream high into the clouds without losing it. Johnny never had a balloon, not even for a birthday. That’s how it started. At first the story was just about something he wanted. After a few sentences, he could hear his own voice tremble with insecurity over where the story was going. Secretly wondering if his action figures had already lost interest, he inserted a character, a person guiding the balloon. The character was like himself, similar age, but unnamed because that didn’t really matter. What mattered was that he had this big balloon that was the envy of all of his classmates. Even the adults in the town were jealous of the boy. Rumor was that he’d had the balloon for over a year without it losing any of his size. Not an inch in circumference or an ounce of helium slipped through the bottom of it. The boy came to be proud of it, its ability to survive. He took it to school with him, either leading it or letting it lead him depending on the wind that particular day.
Johnny took a deep breath, searching for the next twist in the story. He didn’t realize it but as he spoke up again he turned the story into one destined for a sad ending. One day the boy woke up and went out to the mailbox, balloon in hand. As he reached his hand into the mailbox he let go of the balloon. Before he realized what had happened it was out of his reach, floating high above him, destined for the clouds.
Johnny stopped mid thought, momentarily forgetting about his audience. Why had he made the story turn out the way he did? Was this his way of dealing with the fact that he’d never gotten a balloon? Maybe the boy was being punished for having to be an adult. Being forced to retrieve the mail instead of being allowed to play. He tossed around his action figures, erasing all clues of his secret show and got ready for dinner.
Dinner that night was quiet. Dad emitted the usual grunts in lieu of responses to mom’s questions about his day. She gave up after a few questions, like she usually did. Johnny’s thoughts remained on the lost balloon. Couldn’t escape it, no matter how much applesauce he poured over his pork chop. It just didn’t seem fair that no one ended up with the yellow balloon. He finished his food quickly and went to his room. He slept the yellow balloon away with thoughts of ice cream and cartoons.
When he woke up the next morning Johnny was trying to piece together an ending to the story. He wanted a destination for the balloon and a satisfying conclusion for the boy. He glazed over the puzzles and clues on the back of the cereal box and slurped the rest of the multi-colored milk left from the bowl. It made the sound that his mom hated. She said it was disgusting and rude.
Deep breaths, no pressure, you can do this, he said as he locked his door. He looked around the room at his figurines. Each one lined up meticulously, shoulders touching ever so slightly. Nothing was coming to him. Out of desperation he went to the window to search for something beyond the four corners of his adult approved, filtered room. A truck passed by on the main road just a few yards up the street, his house was second from the corner, and behind it emerged something strange. A giant yellow balloon appeared from nowhere in particular. The wind created from the truck’s speed caused the balloon to almost hop up into the air, as if taking off in flight. It must’ve been on a neighbor’s lawn or something, just rolling around because now it was already even with the neighbor’s roof and climbing steadily.
At first he didn’t believe what he was seeing. Had a momentary urge to jump out the window and chase after it. Like in his story, the balloon had a lengthy rope, which at this point was still dragging along the ground. Within a few seconds the bottom part of the rope began to take to the sky, following the balloon like a well-trained animal.
Johnny watched the balloon for as long as he could. Eventually it was out of sight, somehow managing to not get caught up in the tree branches. Soon it was nothing more than a tic-tac in the clear morning sky. Then…nothing. He lingered by the window half curious if there would be a boy about his age chasing after the balloon. There was no sight of anyone. It was as if he didn’t exist in this replay of his story.
Johnny turned around and slunk to the floor. Back against the wall, he began hyperventilating. He caught eyesight of one of his G.I. Joe’s, unflinching and inpatient for another story. The whole bunch of them were waiting. He never felt this kind of pressure before. His crowd remained silent, unblinking, as the seconds ticking off his bedside clock became more audible.
He’d finally found something that he enjoyed doing and now this. Just my luck he thought. Maybe this was a sign? Maybe he should be outside like all of the other boys his age, getting dirty, sweating off his nervous energy until it was time for dinner. But that wasn’t him, never had been. The sight of that balloon continued to flash in his head. Every time he blinked the inside of his eyelids projected that eerie balloon. Soon there was a soundtrack to go along with it. Circus music began playing in his head.
He crawled over to his toys and toppled them all over in one fowl fell swoop. They made a slight thump as they hit the carpet. He took them by the handfuls and brought them over to his closet on the other side of the room. He found his suitcase, a hideously colored monstrosity that he’d only used once when his family flew to Florida to visit his grandparents. He began filling it up. Three trips and the case was full. He took one last look before shutting it and locking the handle. He kicked it as hard as he could but it barely moved. Another few strikes and it found its way to the back of the closet. He ripped the blanket off his bed and threw it over the suitcase. Out of sight, out of mind he hoped. He’d outgrown his childhood in the matter of minutes. No more toys, no more weird hobbies to help pass the time, fill his boredom.
Johnny unlocked his door quietly, slowly so as to not garner any attention. He ducked his head out looking down both sides of the hallway. No sight of his mother. She was probably parked in front of the television, busy doing nothing again. He wanted to join her, to numb himself, in the hopes that he could become as ignorantly content with his life as she was with hers.
She was on the couch in her bathrobe. The television was on but there was no sound. A record was playing, one of her favorites. Years of use had morphed her sexual, husky, smoke filled voice into a slightly off tune, manly grumble. Johnny found it easy to escape, to lose himself in the sea of background music produced by a faceless band. The lyrics weren’t important anymore. Johnny relished the decisiveness in her voice, her ability to command an entire room. At least someone could.
His mother remained silent and unmoved, like his presence hadn’t changed anything. She fingered her soft pack of Parliament Light 100’s searching for that elusive next fix of nicotine. After a minute she found a stubbed out, half smoked butt in the bottom of the pack. It was bent, forcing her to light it somewhere below her chin. She inhaled, sat back closed her eyes and let the smoke escape slowly from her nose like a content mother bull.
Bob Barker was goading players into overbidding for superfluous items. Everything looked so contrived to Johnny, so manufactured, so unlike real life. He wondered if he’d ever have reason to smile as wide as the chubby housewife from some no name Midwest town that had just won a pair of jet skis.
He vowed to find another hobby, something more active, something that wouldn’t leave him feeling fractured and out of touch with reality. Nothing specific was coming to him but he knew he would never be able to finish that first story.
No follow up, no encore. He was a one hit wonder just like kind of singers his mother liked. That was enough for him for now.
Patrick Trotti is a writer, editor, and student living in New York. He’s prolific at maintaining mediocricy. Visit him at www.patricktrotti.com.