A Wonderfully Scary Place

Once, when I was very young, my mother took me to the big city. It was the first time I'd ever been outside my small town, and I was in awe of the skyscrapers and endless parade of lights and cars.
I remember my mother pointing her finger at me and saying, very seriously, "Listen up, my dearest. The city is a very big place. It can be very scary."
"I don't think it's scary," I answered stubbornly, as I suppose all little girls were known to do. "I think it's wonderful."
"Sometimes scary and wonderful are the same thing." my mother had replied gently, but her tone was still firm. "You stay close to me, love. You could get lost and that would make me very sad."
So I promised to stay close and not to wander, and she took me out into the wonderfully scary city.
We were walking down the streets for some time, and going in all sorts of shops and stores, and after a while I began to get bored. My feet hurt and I was tired of standing all the time, and the constant running after my mother was tiring. Every now and then I would crouch down on the ground while my mother shopped, and then be scolded for getting my new blue coat dirty.
I remember we were passing a little park, nestled there in between some buildings, with grass and trees and even a few benches. We walked right past it, of course, and to my eight-year-old mind it was a waste of a park. Why put a park in the middle of the city if you weren't going to go in it?
And I suppose that's when I saw the balloon man. He was wearing a white suit jacket and matching pants, with a blue top hat. Around his neck and resting against his front was a bright blue box full of lollipops, and in one hand he carried a bouquet of bright white balloons.
As I watched, an old man approached him with his grandson, who was about my age. The old man bought a balloon for the little boy, who jumped with delight, and the balloon man then reached into his vest pocket. He pulled out a fancy looking gold watch on a chain, and seemed shocked by the time. With a worried look on his face, he began to hurridly walk away.
It never occurred to me that leaving my mother's side was dangerous. I simply wanted a balloon, and the only vendor in sight was quickly disappearing into the crowd of people.
I took off running at him, thinking already thinking that the fifty cents in my pocket would buy me a beautiful white balloon, which would go so well with the big buttons on my new coat.
"Wait!" I cried, my shiny black mary-janes slapping the concrete as I raced after him. He kept disappearing into the crowd, turning corners, crossing streets, but he was easy to find again, since he was dressed all in white. "Wait, wait for me!"
And then he was gone. I saw him turn around a corner, and when I turned the same one, he was gone. I was standing in a short, brick alley between two buildings, with an arched wrought-iron sign above the entrance. I still couldn't read very well, and wasn't really tempted to try, so I just ignored it.
At the end of the alley was another tiny park, except this one was much more narrow and although it was brighter than the other, it had more trees. Thinking I saw a glimpse of white tailcoat, I ran down the stone path.
It wasn't long before I passed a trash dumpster, and realized that I had lost the man in the white coat. Disappointment began to sink in, but then I heard a voice.
"Come to join our party, sweetie?"
I turned. There were two women sitting on a ragged blanket on the ground, much like at a picnic. One of them was wearing a lop-sidded beret and a women's suit-jacket from probably a decade ago. The other sat wrapped in a one-piece dress and a rabbit-fur mantle. Both of them had dirt smudged across their faces, holes in their clothes, and were giggling. I had the sense that these were the people Mother had told me about, whom I mustn't stare at, the ones who didn't have houses and slept outside all the time.
"Come, come, sweetheart, join the party! We've got a banquet, large enough for a king's army!' the woman in the fur mantle swept her arm across the blanket. It was a banquet, all right, but more like for an army of ants.
The plates of food scattered across the blanket were carrying pickings of garbage from the dumpster behind them. There was a cracked old teapot, and mismatching cups sitting on saucers or pie pans, bowls of browned lettuce, and empty ketchup bottles.
The woman in the beret laughed and gesture me to sit. "Yes, come sit, we have enough food for all! And isn't it your birthday, dear? You must come have some tea for your birthday!"
"But it isn't my birthday." I protested. The woman in the fur took my wrist gently and pulled me down next to her.
"Nonsense, of course it is, here, have a cup of tea." she poured me a cup of thin, rust-colored water from the cracked teapot and handed it to me.
"A celebration! A holiday! A festival!" the beret woman was dancing a little on her side of the blanket, waiting for her cup of tea.
"Please, can you help me? I'm looking for the man with white balloons, he just went by not too long ago and I need to find-"
"You're not drinking your tea, dear." the fur-mantle lady nudged my elbow. "It's rude not to take what's offered, you know. Especially on your birthday."
"But it's not my birthday." I protested again, trying very hard to be polite.
"It isn't?" the woman in the beret asked, and with a giggle said, "Then it must be one of ours! Celebrate with us anyway, sweetie, we'll celebrate your non-birthday. This calls for a sandwich!"
"No, this calls for a toast!" the woman in fur giggled, lighting a candle. "And we'll roast the bread!"
Realizing they weren't going to be much help, I politely excused myself and edged away. They didn't seem to notice, and as I walked down the path, I heard the beret woman yelling ingredients for her sandwich. ("Mustard!! Are you insane?")
I was now nearing what looked to be perhaps the center of the park. Even though the park itself was not very big, I couldn't see any evidence of a city in any direction. The sunlight dancing through the trees was beginning to turn orange with the hour of day, and it wouldn't be long before dark. I had to find the man with white balloons and get back to Mother, before she started to worry.
Unsure of which way to go, I looked down all four paths. In the third one, I saw a man standing there. He hadn't been there a moment ago, and I hadn't seen him coming up the road, but he was there now. He wore a long-sleeved shirt and pants that were striped with big black and white stripes. His hands were gloved in white and his black hair was slicked back, and his face was painted white with a huge, toothy grin.
"Hello." I said, taking a few steps toward him. "I'm looking for the man with white balloons. Have you seen him?"
The black-and-white man in stripes said nothing. Instead he held up one finger, as if to tell me to wait. Then he looked around him, in all directions, and then shook his head sadly.
"Well I didn't mean do you see him right now, I'm looking for him," I explained. "Do you know which way he went?"
The striped man crossed his arms under each other and pointed to both the left and right.
"Do you know the way out of this park?" I tried again.
This time the mime pointed both in front of him and behind him, tilting his head slightly. The toothy grin was mocking my confusion.
"Don't you ever talk at all?" I asked in exasperation. He just blinked at me. "Fine. Then I'll look for him myself. Excuse me, please."
Since he'd shown up on the third path to my left, I decided that path was most likely to end up toward the city. I side-stepped him and started walking. He walked with me for a while, lowered down beside me, walking sideways and watching my face intently. The wide smile and unblinking stare was so unnerving that I stopped and stamped my foot. I spun toward him, shouting, "Will you please leave me alone?"
But he was gone. I looked around in all directions, fully expecting to see him walking away. But even in the bright orange and yellow sunset light, the black and white stripes were nowhere to be seen.
Mystified as to how he vanished but satisfied that he was gone, I turned on my heel and continued down the path.
It wasn't long before I came out of the park and onto the sidewalk of the city again. here the buildings looked different than the ones I had been to with Mother. Lots of the shops had flashing signs and glowing letters, and windows lines with posters and the restaurants all had outside tables.
There was music here, too. People standing outside with saxophones, cellos and trumpets played loud, upbeat music, and the people walking on the streets were all dressed in mismatching clothes and bright colors.
As I passed an alley, I saw a man leaning against the brick corner. One foot was propped on the wall behind him, and he was smoking a cigarette. His hair was in long, messy braids and his face looked much older than he was.
"Who are you?" he asked me, and every word was very slow and took a long time to say. It was as if he didn't expect me to move at all while he was speaking to me. "You aren't from around here. Who are you?"
"I'm looking for a man with white balloons. Have you seen him?"
"Perhaps. I've seen him around," the man replied, and the smoke from his cigarette circled his head and danced with his breath. "Who are you?"
"Excuse me, please, I'm in a hurry." I bobbed a bit in apology and hurried along. The sky was now a light purple and navy, and the lights were beginning to glow brighter. Mother would be worried soon. And I still had not found the man with white balloons.
"Don't you see? Your death is coming, and it's your own fault! YOUR FAULT!"
The shout startled me. In front of a store with lots of bottles in the window stood a man in ratty clothes. His tie was the color white turns when it's never washed, with dirty red hearts on it. Around his neck hung a cardboard sign, with big crooked letters that read, THE END IS NEAR. He was shouting at every person who went by, pointing and waving his arms around. Behind him in the store window, a neon flamingo made his angry tirade a bit less serious.
"The end is coming! Booze and Playboy and hookers and gambling... you'll see! It'll be the end of you! It'll mean your death!" he was spitting as he was shouting. As I tried to pass him, he gripped a hold of my arm. "There, you see? Playing games with the mind of a child! You're corrupting the youth of the world! Bringing up innocence in a place like this... on your head be it!"
"Hey, let the kid go," said a passing man, with a lady on his arm. I pulled my arm out of the shouting man's grip, but he kept shouting at every passerby.
"On your head be it! ON YOUR HEAD! YOUR HEAD!!!"
His intensity was making me tremble. I realized I was running from him, trying to drown out his shouts in both distance and the sounds of the city. I was soon standing on a street corner, looking desperately in both directions. And then I saw something I recognized. Across the street, staring at me with that eerie grin, was the striped mime. He stood completely still, head tilted at a slight angle. When he realized I was looking at him, he waved. I waved back, uncertain of what he wanted. Then he pointed to the left, and I turned to look. In the distance, above the heads of the crowd, I saw a fountain of white balloons turn a corner. Smiling broadly, I looked back at the striped man and shouted, "Thank you!!"
He bowed slightly, blew me a kiss, and was gone in the blink of an eye.
I took off running down the street, chasing the glimpse of the balloon man. But long before I reached him, I ran into a pair of policemen. They were both large fat men, and looked utterly identical except for one had a mustache. Their faces, although round and ruddy, didn't appear any more threatening than a teddy bears. Their name badges read, "Dee" and"Dumm."
"Hey, sweetie, are you lost?" Mr. Dumm, the one with the mustache, squatted down to me.
"No, sir, I'm just looking for the man with the white balloons."
"You want a balloon, huh?" Officer Dee looked around, down both ends of the street, and shook his head. "Sorry, sweetheart, looks like he's gone. Where's your parents?"
"I don't know." I admitted, knowing that answering that question meant I was not going to get a balloon. "Mother was shopping."
"Come down with us to the station, sweetie," the officers ushered me toward their car, which was parked on the curb. "We'll find your mother. She's probably worried sick."

Half an hour later, I was smothered in the arms of my worried-sick, sobbing mother. She was on her knees and clutching me so tightly it was hard to breathe, and she kept asking if I was all right.
"I'm fine, Mother," I replied, over and over again. "Really."
"She didn't have a scratch on her, Ma'me." Officer Dee tipped his hat politely. "It's a wonder, too. We found her wandering around the Artists' District. Some real weirdos down there."
"Were you scared, darling?" Mother asked. "Why did you leave me?"
"No, Mother, it was a wonderful place." I replied. "And I'm sorry I ran away. I only wanted a white balloon."
"I'm just glad you're safe." Mother sniffed and stood, looking at the two beaming fat officers. "Thank you, Officers, for returning my little girl. I can't ever thank you enough."
They said nothing, but tipped their hats again in a warm salute.
I knew at that point that we were soon going to leave the wonderful city, full of all of its tea parties and striped men and white balloons. It was a place I'd only visited once, and yet it stays with me for all of my days.
Mother held her hand out for me. "Come, Alice. It's time to go home."

bbaker   bbaker wrote
on 6/9/2009 11:41:47 PM
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. 2 things in particular I liked: 1): your descriptions of people were detailed and imaginative...I could picture the mime and the bum in my mind. 2) subtle humor was used very well, for instance the scolding for getting the blue coat dirty, the flamingo behind the bum, and the army of ants comment. Now..as for a suggestion on an improvement..the only thing I can think of is to correct a typo: "thinking already thinking".

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writing MaHensley8706
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