Pop Goes the Phobia
by Adrian Slonaker
The kids’ mockery was mostly confined to that moniker and a few disapproving glances and murmurs. But, over the next two years, he occasionally heard something akin to a balloon popping late at night, usually after two a.m., outside his window, sometimes even in frigid and snowy weather.
The noise invariably awakened Eugene, who would clutch his duvet while panting. Whenever he found the courage to check outside, he spotted no evidence that anyone had been there. His parents, whose sleep was also interrupted by the outdoor disturbances, were equally baffled. The perpetrator was never discovered.
Eugene’s love of clowns persisted during his dateless and mostly friendless adolescence, and he’d doodle images of Pierrot and Marceline in his spiral notebooks during boring lectures. When he took — and passed — his driving-license test, he overcame his nervousness only by imagining that he was maneuvering a miniature clown car instead of the bulky Buick. He would’ve auditioned as a clown for the school’s talent night, but a reluctance to be ridiculed quashed that idea.
Once he graduated, he thumbed through community college catalogs before rejecting the idea of conventional higher education. He wanted to be a clown, so he broached the idea with his parents one morning at breakfast: “Mom, Dad, you know I’ve always been into clowns. So, yeah, um, I’d like to become a clown.”
Mr. Pendleton stirred his coffee, and Mrs. Pendleton sniffled from a head cold.
“A clown,” Mr. Pendleton drawled.
“Clowns are nice, honey, but you should look for something with more growth opportunity, something that pays better,” Mrs. Pendleton advised. “Maybe you could be a clown in your free time, like for sick kids.”
“Mom, all I’ve ever wanted to do is to be a clown. Can’t you understand?”
“Eugene, that really wouldn’t be such a good idea.” Mr. Pendleton’s voice was firm. “You need to get on your own two feet, and those two feet shouldn’t be in gigantic shoes.”
Eugene slunk out of the kitchen. “Maybe they’re right,” he said to himself. “I have to do something.”
“Something” ended up being a series of short-lived, unhappy stints as a telemarketer for Greenpeace, at which he lasted a whopping half-day, a coffeehouse barista, a Walmart clerk, and a library page. The library page job ended when the Susan B. Anthony Community Library held a lift-off of balloons with stamped postcards tied to them. The objective was find out whose balloon would travel farthest, and Eugene had to assist the patrons with their balloons. A layer of perspiration plagued him during the entire event. While no balloons broke, the experience proved to be so anxiety-provoking that he quit his job immediately when he learned that the balloon launch would be a yearly ritual.
His cousin Rita, five years older, had recently moved to the Chicago area, and she became a welcome friend in his life. After the library fiasco, she took him to Baker’s Square for chicken fingers and pie. As Rita twirled a Marlboro Ultra Light cigarette between her thumb and index finger, her eyes glistened under her bleached spiral perm. She asked, “So what are your plans? Got anything lined up?”
“Be a clown,” he said, hunched over the table, his mouth saturated with chocolate peanut butter cup pie.
“I am being serious.”
Rita didn’t laugh or try to discourage him. “Well then, be a clown.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“Eugene, it’s not like being an astronaut or, like, an Olympic gold medalist. It’s being a friggin’ clown. What do you need to do? Go to school or something?”
“Yeah, I think so. I haven’t really looked into it. Mom and Dad shot down my idea pretty fast.”
“So what? You’re an adult. You’ve got one damn life. Live it. Like that Dead Poets thing. Seize the day. Look into clown college. Find out where it is, what you need to do to get in. Find out how much it costs. Let me know.”
She touched her cousin’s hand and added, “I think you’d be a great clown.”
The next day, Eugene was back at the library. It was the last place he wanted to be, but it was the only place he could research possible clown-training opportunities. He arrived early in the morning and hurried past the circulation desk while no staff members were looking, steering toward the reference section. He discovered that a local comedy troupe offered clown training classes with open enrollment. Tuition costs were reasonable, so he decided to sign up for two ten-week classes in Movement and Clowning. He also resolved to lose weight since he’d have to be in better physical shape to perform clown antics. That meant no more pie.
He relished both classes. While he needed to focus more on physical comedy and coordination, he excelled at juggling, authenticity, singing, and Bouffon. While he was discussing his success with Rita, she suggested that he adopt the name, “Charl E. Funny,” since “Eugene Pendleton, III” wasn’t silly enough. He got a retail job at a toy store to get used to being around kids. Having never felt more confident, Eugene wondered whether he might even soon be ready and able to move out of his parents’ house. Even though they’d stopped voicing their protests, they still rolled their eyes whenever he mentioned his choice of vocation.
Then his course turned to balloon animals. For some reason Eugene had never connected his own clowning to the handling of balloons until his instructor, Murray, brought out a bag of balloons and instructed each student to inflate one. Within minutes, his classmate Jeff had shattered his balloon, and Eugene fainted straightaway. When his eyes opened, he lied, “low blood sugar.”
While still a student, Eugene appeared as Charl E. Funny for his first paying gig at Jason Scully’s birthday party. After Eugene passed out again, he was alarmed. Would his dream of clowning be derailed because he was unable to work with balloons? Could he fake an allergy? Surely there were clowns with those. Maybe his fear would just go away. Ultimately, he made an appointment with a psychologist to try to find out.
Her name was Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald. She specialized in phobias and offered counseling services on a sliding fee scale. For an hour each week she heard about Eugene’s dread of loud noises, the trash can incident, his fondness for clowning, and his desire to overcome his problem. Not receiving much feedback from the doctor, Eugene concluded that his emotional vomiting was pointless. Then Dr. Fitzgerald suggested that Eugene try exposure therapy. Based on her observations and notes, she was confident that, if Eugene were exposed to exploding balloons in a controlled, trusted environment, he’d recover.
Every Sunday after lunch he went to Rita’s apartment, and she smashed balloon after balloon while he sat back in a La-Z-Boy with an electric fan blowing cool air on him. He filled a bowl with cold water to pour on his head if his anxiety became unbearable. At first she started with just two balloons. His heart raced, but he didn’t use the water. He gritted his teeth at his cousin and clawed his fingernails into the arms of the chair. Rita steadily increased the number of balloons, and Eugene’s earlobes gradually became less flushed. After the tenth week, Eugene could even puncture balloons himself with only slight tremors.
By the time he finished his coursework, he’d transformed into a pro at balloon animals and had improved at physical pratfalls. He signed up with an entertainment agency that promised a steady stream of bookings. Eugene was thrilled, even if his chosen profession was now being dismissed with increased dread.
The concept of the “evil clown” was gaining traction with Stephen King’s It, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and the recent, all-too-real John Wayne Gacy murders right in the Chicago area. Gacy’s words: “You know... clowns can get away with murder” horrified Eugene. He intended to do his part to lessen the public’s distrust.
Eugene smiled as he was buying balloons at the party supply shop. The tenth birthday party of twins Jessica and Jennifer Medeiros was going to be a large affair held in Madison Park. As Eugene dressed in a modified Emmett Kelly tribute costume and applied his makeup, he kept rethinking the same phrase: “Long night’s journey into day.”
The May morning was warm, with a few cirrus clouds to add variety to the sky. It was the period of spring when lilacs battle roses for the award of most fragrant blossoms. Forty children showed up at the park, along with a sprinkling of parents to help out and supervise. Eugene’s routines, movements and expressions were flawless. He held the kids’ attention, making them laugh and sigh when appropriate. Eugene roared, “Hey kids, you want some balloon animals?”
The kids cheered. Eugene crafted dogs, cats, owls, ducks, horses, cows, and even unicorns and dragons. His hands shook only once. The kids and their parents grinned as they inspected their new latex pets. Eugene also smiled. Perhaps this would lead to more gigs.
As the kids prepared for pizza, Chris Bilby pointed upward. “Hey, look, a hot-air balloon!” The party guests looked up and watched it glide across the sky. One of Chicagoland’s famous sudden gusts caused the balloon to dip. Eugene wondered who was on board and what sort of special occasion it was as the balloon floated directly overhead.
There was a loud snap. The balloon tilted and plummeted. Kristen Cervantes screeched and ran first, and the other children followed suit. The wind intensified, and the balloon careened into the power lines that criss-crossed the park. It caught fire like a brown paper bag in a microwave.
The shrieking, shouting and crying worsened. Eugene collided with a swarm of kids, knocking two of them against a teeter-totter, as they scattered across the picnic area. He wanted to reach a pay phone and call for help, but he also wanted to assist anybody he could. He did neither. The balloon swerved sharply to the right and crashed into some partygoers who’d been too shocked to move.
The balloon sizzled in a burning heap. Smoke permeated the air with a charred, chemical aroma. Park attendants yelled and swore into walkie-talkies as they failed to achieve any control of the situation or themselves. Howling, unidentifiable human forms fell onto the grass and rolled as a couple of parents drizzled water from Poland Spring bottles on and around them and used blankets to smother the victims’ flames.
Fire trucks, police, ambulances and paramedics arrived, followed by one news team, then another. The balloon operator was badly injured, as were three of the children and two of the adults attending the party. The thirty-something couple celebrating their wedding anniversary in the balloon died after being transported to the hospital. Mrs. Madeiros, the mother of the birthday girls, didn’t survive that long.
Eugene didn’t know any of this as his gaze rolled across his smoldering, chaotic surroundings. He didn’t know how to deal with his trauma or anyone else’s. The clown was in the way.
He didn’t pack up his supplies. He lumbered in a straight line out of the park, past the first responders, media and looky-loos. He kept walking away from the noise until he reached a convenience store. The owner didn’t comment on Eugene’s costume, merely asking what had happened at the park. Eugene stammered, “Balloon crash. A lot of people hurt.” Though he’d never smoked before, his next words were: “A pack of Marlboros, please. Um, okay, and, I think, oh God, um, a lighter, too.”
He coughed only once. Tarry lightheadedness trumped crushing terror. He looked down at his mammoth brown Weary Willie-style shoes. He’d never wear them again. The next week, he signed up as a freelance mystery shopper, vowing to avoid any store where balloons were being distributed.
Copyright © 2019 by Adrian Slonaker