Pop Goes the Phobia
by Adrian Slonaker
On a gray, drippy Sunday in October 1992, a clown-in-training called Charl E. Funny fidgeted when the mucus-smeared five-year old whined, “Make me a balloon dog. One of those wiener dogs.” Shifting his weight from one foot to the other, the clown looked out over the four boys and three girls tucking into uneven slabs of the low-fat cookie-dough cake that announced “Happy Birthday, Jason” in orange icing. There was just enough racket that the clown figured his feigned obliviousness would be convincing.
The child, who turned out to be the aforementioned “Jason,” tugged on the clown’s enormous lime bell-bottom trousers with pumpkin polka dots. “Make me a balloon dog!”
Sheathed in billowing purple sleeves, the clown’s arms stiffened against his sides, concealing the spreading deposits of sweat under his arms. He erected his middle finger discreetly against his right thigh as he cleared his throat. “One balloon dog coming right up. What color would you like?”
The clown’s right hand trembled as he reached for the bag of balloons on the splintery old picnic table. He extracted a navy blue balloon and applied it to his bright lips.
“No! Light blue!” Jason stamped his left foot.
The clown threw the balloon onto the table and replaced it with its sky-blue sibling. He shut his eyes. It’d be like swallowing that disgusting cough syrup that was maddeningly effective; the faster he did it, the sooner he could forget about it.
Still vibrating, his fingers fought with each other and the balloon to twist it into something recognizable as a dachshund. The clown then handed the animal to Jason, who, without thanking its creator, ran off to the cake aficionados, yelping, “Hey, look at this!”
Four of the children jettisoned their white plastic sporks onto paper plates and gathered around the clown.
“I want a dog too!”
“I want a cat!”
“Give me a spider!”
“Could you please make me a horse?”
The clown gulped as if he were an unathletic ankle-biter about to be picked last for dodgeball. After asking the kids for their precise color preferences, since he had no desire to repeat this task, he started to inflate the menagerie. The dog and the cat went smoothly. The clown’s tension began to subside.
However, as he was fashioning horse legs out of a daffodil-colored balloon, it exploded with an ear-splitting crack. One child laughed. Two jumped away. One screamed. The clown collapsed onto a patch of grass next to the grill.
His phobia of popping balloons stemmed from an incident fourteen years earlier, on a muggy July afternoon when he was six. Back then he was known only as Eugene Pendleton, III. He’d been scolded earlier that day because he’d thrown a temper tantrum when his mother wouldn’t let him order some sea monkeys advertised in a comic book. He decided to appease her by returning the Tupperware bowl she’d borrowed from Mrs. Vogel down the block.
On his way back from the bespectacled lady with the Carol Channingish smile, Eugene stopped at the fire hydrant after seeing a flash in the sky in the direction of Chicago. He chirped, “One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi, fi—” before thunder crackled.
“Hey, Eugene, come here a sec.” Nine-year-old Jeff Hackett gestured from the chain-link fence that hugged his backyard. Ten-year-old Jim glowered beside him. Both brothers had crew-cuts, tank tops and ragged blue jean cutoffs. Eugene twitched like a rabbit peering at poorly camouflaged hunters.
“Eugene, come on. We wanna show you something cool.” Jim acknowledged his brother’s sing-song lilt with a nod. Eugene watched the pavement grow dark and damp. His white Thom McAn sneakers led him to the older boys. He noticed that Jeff was holding a broken yellow toy with humanoid figures painted on it.
Jeff baited him: “It’s a yellow submarine, like the Beatles’ song. You know the Beatles?”
Eugene shook his head.
“They were a really cool rock band. Take a look. There’s John, Paul, George and—”
While Eugene was examining the crude musicians, Jim grabbed him from behind. Eugene gasped.
“Ringo! Put him in the can!” Jeff hustled over to a four-foot-high galvanized steel trash can, removed the lid, and extracted a mud-stained sack of garbage that smelled like putrid yogurt. Jim clasped Eugene’s whimpering mouth, frog-marching him over to the can. Since Eugene was too pudgy to be lifted by only one brother, Jeff and Jim hoisted him over the rim and forced him inside. Jeff replaced the lid and deposited a large rock on top of it.
At first Eugene said nothing. He blinked in the quasi-blackness, waiting for this demented game to end. As the minutes dragged on, Eugene realized this wasn’t some older kids’ game he didn’t understand. He wailed, “Let me out! Let me out! Help!” as his bent bare legs started to cramp against unseen slime at the bottom.
Meanwhile, Jeff started to warble the first few bars of the Beatles’ “Help” between giggles while Jim dashed inside the house and up a rickety flight of stairs to his parents’ bedroom. Mr. Hackett was at work, and Mrs. Hackett had gone to a hair appointment six blocks away, trusting she’d be back before her boys and their younger sister Sandy could get into any mischief. This was a gross miscalculation.
Jim flung open the left drawer. He pilfered two square packets with raised circular imprints from a blue box underneath his dad’s boxers and copies of Penthouse. He scuttled back downstairs and back outside, where Jeff was pressing down the rock with his fists. By now Eugene was crying and banging on the metal sides of the can. The raindrops stepped up their pace.
Jim took two packets and tore them open, giving one of the condoms to his brother. They placed the openings in their mouths and inflated them into voluminous cream-hued blobs, which were then tied in knots. Jeff took both makeshift balloons and placed them against the lid of Eugene’s prison.
Jim grabbed a safety pin from his pocket and unlatched it. His mouth wide-open, he stabbed both condoms in quick succession just as Eugene placed his ear against the inside of the lid. Eugene’s crying resumed as rain seeped into the can. The rancid odor and stuffiness made him gag, but he refused to puke all over himself.
“Shut up, Eugene, or we’ll tip you over! We’ll roll you into the street, and a car’ll hit you!”
At that point, a car pulled into the driveway, and the vehicle’s door opened and closed. An older female voice spoke briefly to the boys, who delivered terse responses. The door to the kitchen slammed shut. The rock was lifted from the lid, which was peeled off the can. “Get out and go home,” Jeff commanded.
Bathed in raindrops, sweat and tears, Eugene jogged back to his driveway. He stumbled on a loose shoelace into the garage, got up and turned the doorknob. Inside the air-conditioned family room, his mom was ironing and watching Password. He bawled, “Mom, Jim and Jeff Hackett put me in a trash can and wouldn’t let me out! They put a rock on top and popped loud balloons.”
Mrs. Pendleton put down her hissing steam iron and stomped over to the black wall phone. She traced her index finger along a list of neighborhood numbers, pausing on one as she dialed it. “Pat? This is Susan Pendleton.” Thus began a furious tirade uncharacteristic for the soft-spoken housewife. Within a half-hour, Pat Hackett brought Jim, Jeff and Sandy over for sulky apologies and promised that the incident wouldn’t happen again. Mrs. Pendleton banned the Hackett boys from the house.
That evening, Mr. Pendleton leaned against the kitchen counter, shrugged his shoulders, lit a cigar, and concluded, “Kids will be kids. In my day, they clobbered me with a baseball bat till my scalp bled. Kids get over it. I guess we won’t be seeing the Hacketts at any more of our cookouts.”
The Hacketts reflected the general consensus about Eugene Pendleton, III. With his chubby figure, squeaky voice, posh name and tendency to win every spelling and geography competition, he was considered an insufferable nerd somewhere between cockroaches and summer chores on the desirability scale. His main joy in life consisted of clowns.
Eugene frequently watched Bozo’s Circus on WGN-TV before school. He loved the bright colors, swollen noses and outrageous hair and makeup, but he was most intrigued by the clowns’ ability to conceal their true selves.
Eugene’s interest in clowns was all-encompassing. He would dress as one every year for Halloween. For Eugene’s ninth birthday, his parents presented him with him two clown fish swimming around a burbling saltwater aquarium. Eugene would watch them after school while eating circus peanuts and humming “Entrance of the Gladiators” underneath a vintage Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey wall poster.
The next year, Eugene caused his grandmother to yell a string of four-letter words for perhaps the first and only time in her life when he shocked her with a hand buzzer. Shortly afterwards, he had to stay after school as a punishment for leaving a whoopee cushion on the swiveling chair of Mrs. Falcinelli, his fourth-grade teacher. If he’d had a sibling, he or she would’ve been sprayed with seltzer on a regular basis. A series of spankings from Mr. Pendleton, however, brought this practical joke phase to a swift end.
Eugene still disliked loud noises. Every Fourth of July when his parents dragged him to sit on an old blanket with the swarms of patriotic skywatchers at Rutherford Meadow for the fireworks display, he jammed his index fingers into his ears. He squeezed his thighs together and he pictured himself under the Big Top tent.
Some years, he feigned illness and stayed home alone in the basement with the TV on to drown out any sounds from outside the house. He winced when he heard cars backfiring, thunder, cap guns and even the housekeepers’ rapping on hotel doors during the Pendletons’ yearly vacation to Wisconsin Dells. But balloons gave him the worst frights.
One Friday after school when he was eleven, he accompanied his mother to Angelo’s Finer Foods. Outside the entrance, a three-year old holding a balloon from the grand opening of Westside Community Bank toddled in front of Eugene to access a rusty coin-operated rocking horse. The orb burst inches away from his left elbow. Seismic waves pulsed toward his gut, and he staggered, his face sallow. The little girl, in contrast, took the loss of her toy in stride, calmly asking her father for a replacement.
The outcome was worse in the spring of eighth grade, when Babcock Junior High held its annual Field Day. The weather was glorious, but balloons were lurking at the event. While Eugene was asking Amy Murphy where the hot dog stand was, a rotund lilac balloon ruptured. Eugene wet himself and, with an amalgam of fright and embarrassment, started bawling. Not expecting that response, Amy laughed, as did at least a dozen other teenage bystanders. By the end of the day, Eugene had been renamed “Looney Balloony,” a sobriquet that hung around like a stubborn virus until the end of high school.
Copyright © 2019 by Adrian Slonaker