Author's Note: This story is based on real events. (Well, not real to these characters, but you know what I mean.)
Disclaimer: I do not own these beloved characters, and I am writing for fun and feedback, not for profit.
IN A MANNER OF SPEAKING
He knew when he let the kid pick the activity that he would most likely regret it. He just hadn't expected to regret it so quickly.
But honestly, a circus?
The man sat grumpily in his seat, unimpressed with the activity on the stage in the amphitheater. Jugglers, tumblers, magicians – it was a kid's dream, but he wasn't a kid. Hadn't been for a long time. He looked around at the audience. The average age was probably twelve years old. Of course the kids were accompanied by adults, like himself, and he saw his dazed, weary expression mirrored on many of their faces. Expressions that were oblivious to their young charges, who, almost as a collective, were spellbound by the circus performers.
He gazed down at the young boy at his side, his companion for the day. "He doesn't see you enough. You two need to spend more time together." The words had been delivered solemnly, to elicit just the right amount of guilt, and they had been accompanied by beseeching eyes (and damn, but it was hard to deny that look, especially when the boy could duplicate it, and he'd had the two of them joining forces against him).
And the words had essentially been true. It was hard to believe, but he hadn't been spending enough time with the boy. Oh, the kid was busy with school or activities now that he was older, Little League and summer camp and soccer. . . Plus he had a wealth of friends that he often visited. Then when the kid was around, he invariably was not – meetings and engagements and the like taking up his days. The man sighed softly and shifted in his seat. Yeah, the two of them needed to reconnect. And if tolerating the inane scene before him was the way to do it, well, he'd gotten through worse.
Although it slipped his mind when exactly that might have been.
The current performer on the stage was a happy-faced clown. He had what appeared to be an unending supply of balloons, and he was blowing them out in long, thin tubes, then shaping them into animals in the blink of an eye: a wiener dog, a mouse, a monkey, a giraffe. Each masterpiece was presented to a boy or girl sitting in the rows closest to the stage. The man felt a pang of regret; he'd specifically chosen to sit several rows from the stage, not wanting to be unwillingly drawn into the act. But by doing this, he'd also prevented the boy from possibly interacting with the performers. He glanced down at the youngster now, and cleared his throat uncomfortably. The boy looked up, questioning.
"You having a good time?"
The grin was quick, and the young eyes sparkled. "It's great! Thanks for bringing me here!"
The man nodded, returning the smile with a small one of his own. Yeah, this was good. The venue wasn't important – the relationship was.
The clown had stopped making balloon animals, and was now spouting some drivel about a balloon blowing contest. Trying to ignore the booming, jovial voice, he spoke again to the kid. "You know, sport, how about after this – "
He was interrupted by a nudge on his shoulder from behind. He turned to see a woman gesturing at the stage. "He picked him!" she said.
"The clown!" The woman waved her hand again, and then indicated the boy. "He pointed up here, and said 'the boy in the green jacket and the baseball cap.'" She smiled at the kid. "Go! Go up there!"
Wide, hopeful eyes turned to him, and he shrugged. "If he called you, go on up." The words were barely out of his mouth before the kid was scampering down the aisle and climbing the stairs on the side of the stage. The man shook his head with a soft laugh.
Six children, three boys and three girls, had been randomly called to the stage by the clown. They were all roughly the same age, but as the man watched, he felt that maybe the youngest, or at least the smallest, was the boy currently in his care. He watched with an odd kind of anxiousness as each child was handed a balloon. He's not going to have enough breath to blow that up as fast as the others, he thought unhappily. The kid's going to lose before he starts.
Once the children were all directed on how to stretch the balloons and how to pucker their lips and how to not spit all over the stage (this last part bringing a large laugh from the crowd), the clown bent his wrist, gazing at an imaginary watch, and yelled, "Go!"
Six children brought balloons to their lips, and six pairs of lungs blew air into the latex shapes, and five inflated. . . And one stayed stubbornly flat. The man felt his heart sink. He watched the smallest boy try to keep up with the five other kids, and when still the balloon would not inflate, the man realized with sudden clarity what had happened.
The kid's balloon had a hole.
The clown had called out for the kids to stop, and the inflated balloons were then examined. A boisterous blonde girl was declared the winner, and she lifted her prize – a miniature magic kit – over her head in victory before bouncing down the stairs back to her parents. The other children were patted on the shoulder and sent back as well, usually with a platitude of "You were so close!" or "Maybe next time!"
When the clown came up to the last child, the one in the green jacket and the baseball cap, the boy held his hand out for the clown to shake, and said something quietly. The clown stopped in mid-shake, then pulled the boy around until he was facing the audience.
"Can you tell all of them what you just told me now? Loud, now, so they all can hear."
The boy slanted a look up at the clown, then stared out at the audience. In his loudest voice, the one he'd inherited from his father, he said, "THANK YOU!"
There was a murmur of appreciation from the audience, and several claps. And one man in the amphitheater fairly beamed with pride.
The clown went on. "Out of all these kids up here, this young man was the only one who said 'thank you.' I think he deserves something for that." Reaching into one of the many pockets of his multi-colored jacket, the clown withdrew a large handful of balloons. "I want you to take all of these."
Even from the distance of his seat, the man could see the boy's eyes widen in delight. "Oh, wow, thanks!" he gushed, as the clown placed the balloons into the small hands.
The clown laughed, loud and hearty. "Can you carry them all?"
Even though the boy had cupped his hands together, the balloons were practically spilling off the sides. He brought his hands up to his chest, protectively cradling the balloons against it. "I've got them!" he assured the clown. "I can do it!" And then with one more "Thanks a lot!" the boy was bounding off the stage, down the stairs, and back to his grandfather.
"Grandpa, did you see? Look, look what I got!"
The grandfather, who had been smiling for quite a while, nodded vigorously. "Yeah, I saw. I heard, too. See what good manners gets you?"
The boy grinned back, then suddenly looked serious. "But where do I put them all? I can barely hold them!"
After a thoughtful beat, the man plucked the hat off his grandson's head, exposing unwieldly curls. He turned the cap upside-down. "Put 'em in here."
The two settled back into their seats to watch the rest of the show. "Man, I can't wait to tell Dad about this," the boy said softly. "I got to go up on stage, and meet a real clown – "
"I don't know if that's that unusual. You're dad's kind of a clown, y'know."
The boy looked disapprovingly at the man. "Grandpa Milt!" he scolded.
Milton C. Hardcastle shrugged, an unapologetic grin on his face. "And I don't think you have to worry about blowing up all of those balloons. Your dad's got plenty of hot air, he can help you with that."
The junior McCormick blew out an exasperated huff, the breath so forceful it caused his fringe of curls to sway. "Grandpa!"
"In fact, maybe you'll be able to tell him sooner than later. Didn't they say a monkey act was coming up next?"
The boy lowered his head into his hands, shaking it slowly. "And he wanted me to spend more time with you. . . "