On Becoming Balthazar
by Christopher Anthony Leibow
“Childhood is damned serious business.”
What his father is saying feels as fake as a wooden sunset or as false as a tin cloud or is it true? True as soap, honest as sugar cookies or salt? Balthazar isn't sure; he is just nine and hasn't learned how to tell the difference yet.
Balthazar and Marge are walking along the river. Marge says to Balthazar, “Look at all the dead fish floating on the water.” Balthazar remembers what his grandfather said all the time, that fishes are wishes. It makes Balthazar think of all those wishes just floating there; bloated and silver. He imagines a world without falling stars, four-leaf clovers, dandelion seeds or wishing wells and all those good wishes never being granted. It makes Balthazar very sad; as sad as a nine-year-old boy can be which is just about as sad as bunch dead wishes floating down the river to the sea.
Balthazar is lying on his back in the tall grass watching the clouds float by picking out animal shapes in the clouds sailing toward Baghdad. For Balthazar everyone who passes him is headed there; the weird skinny Postman, Mr. Woo walking his Chinese dogs, the dealers on the corner that run when the cops drive up, even Marge when she leaves after the streetlights come on. They are all off to Baghdad just like his mom. Marge is blowing dandelion seeds furiously in the air, dandelion after dandelion, trying to make new wishes for all the dead ones they had seen. Balthazar asks Marge if she can see the monkey being chased by the whale. Marge says no, as she picks dandelion seeds off her lips. He doesn’t mind that she doesn’t see the things he does, it makes him feel safe. Sometimes he’s frightened by the things he sees.
“Do you like the beach?” Balthazar asks Marge. “No not really.” Balthazar likes the beach, it reminds him of when he was younger and his whole family would spend all day at the beach and it reminds him mostly of his brother before he got lost. When the family went to the beach Balthazar spent all his time with his big brother who would count grains of sand for hours. His brother counted everything; grains of sand, rain drops, gravel and each strand of hair on the cat. When Balthazar was littler he would count things with him but would get bored because he couldn’t count very high and would have to start over and over again. Then a few years later, after his mom left and his brother got lost, he started to count like his brother did. But Balthazar didn’t count small things, like salt from the salt shaker or dust particles in the air, he counted big things, he counted days with their hours and minutes and their shadows and their endless clock ticks. Sometimes he would get lost in counting and wonder if that’s what happened to his brother. He could see him, staring up at the stars counting each one and ending up lost in a new town where he starts counting blades of grass. If it wasn’t for Marge, this might have already happened to Balthazar, but Marge can always tell when Balthazar starts counting because his eyes get this fat flat pancake look in them, like the curve of his eyeballs have decided to go play somewhere else. When this happens, Marge start hitting Balthazar in the stomach, counting “One punch to the gut, two punches to the gut, and three punches to the gut!” . . ...usually by three Balthazar comes back from counting. But on the days when Marge is away visiting her aunt across town, Balthazar loses himself in a heavy fog of counting 12,356, 12,357, 12,358, 12,359, 12, 360. . . . . . . .
One day Balthazar and Marge are lying on the ground of their cloud watching spot, when all of a sudden out of the Eastern sky, Balthazar’s mother shows up and she’s floating above his head. He can’t believe it and rubs his eyes but it’s not a cloud that looks like his mom but her actual self. Balthazar is not sure what that means but she’s definitely not a cloud; though she floats like one or like a mother made of dirigibles. She’s wearing a fast food uniform taking orders.
Balthazar calls to her, “Mom Over here!” She looks over at Balthazar and gives him one of her, “I see you” looks, like she used to do when Balthazar would do his acrobatic feats of daring and would literally try to jump to the moon from the backyard trampoline, and then she goes right back to taking orders. Marge leans closer to Balthazar pointing to a fat cloud low on the horizon. “That cloud right there, see it Balthazar, that cloud right there reminds me of my stuffed rabbit Ivan when I was five years old.” Balthazar thinks, “Five years old . . .that was so long ago.”
Balthazar’s grandpa takes Balthazar to the Observatory. His grandfather is his mother’s dad but they never talk about his mom. His grandfather doesn’t say much, and Balthazar has noticed that most adults don’t say much to little kids. When he was smaller, and his family would go to a department store, Balthazar would confuse the manikins for other adults and sometimes the male manikins with black hair, for his Dad. For Balthazar, the difference was sometimes hard to tell, it still is. At the observatory there are no manikins, but there is a big telescope. Balthazar’s mom would always tell him when she would go away that all he needed to do was look up at the moon and they would be together in their hearts. Balthazar stands in line for an hour. The big telescope is pointed at the moon, like his mom’s finger saying, “All you need to do is look up at the moon.” He looks and looks, but she’s not there, just a bunch rocks and craters.
Marge is throwing twigs at Balthazar. She is peeling them from an old log and snapping them in two, three, and four and then throwing the pieces at Balthazar’s head. Balthazar tries to swat the sidelong sticks away, “Quit it Marge!” Balthazar is digging a hole with a broken soup spoon, with a broken shard of the moon he brought back from the Observatory.
“What are you doing Balthazar?” she asks. He ignores her question; he doesn’t have room for one more question. His head is so full of questions that they are sticking out of his ears, eyes and mouth, sticking our like all of the stuff he’s shoved under his bed; he feels like a scarecrow stuffed with questions instead of hay and there are so many of them now that they scare all the answers away. “Balthazar?” “Not now Marge my head hurts.”
It’s late and what his father is saying makes Balthazar angry. Balthazar’s face is red, like the pictures of Mars in his astronomy books. It’s the first time that he has felt rage. There is so much feeling in so little room, he’s just four feet tall for Christ’s sake and he would have to be at least 12 feet tall to hold all this feeling inside, so Balthazar looks around in a panic, for a place to put it but there isn’t a single place in the whole house that isn’t already taken up.
In the closet, Balthazar and Marge stare at the firefly in the glass bottle. Its light pulses like Morse code, at least that’s what Balthazar tells Marge and about how he learned all about it on a cable TV show about ships that were sinking. “Well then. Balthazar?” He tries to make out what the firefly is trying to say, but he only knows S.O.S and the rest makes no sense. He wishes for that he could glow like the firefly and send Morse code that some alien could see from outer space and save him from sinking. Balthazar didn’t know exactly what that meant since he wasn’t in the ocean, but he knew the feeling.
Balthazar is thinking a new brother; to replace the one he lost. He is thinking really hard and when he opens his eyes to meet him; Marge’s face is two inches from his and she’s staring at him. “What are you doing Balthazar?” “I am thinking a new brother.” “Really?” she steps back a step, ”Why don’t you THINK something cool like a fire breathing dragon that we can ride?” “I don’t want to, I want to think a brother.” “Well, who said a Fire Breathing Dragon couldn’t be your brother also?” “Someone did somewhere I am sure of it”.
They both sit on the damp bank of the river down by the water. Balthazar is thinking a new brother and Marge is skipping rocks. The sun is orange and fat like Mrs. Barnes and is set on the water. Balthazar’s eyes are all squinched up and Marge is making faces at him. They sit quiet for a long time until the first street lights flicker on. “I gotta go Balthazar.” Balthazar doesn’t say anything, his eyes still closed tight; thinking real hard, thinking a new brother.
Balthazar is awoken by the sound of the front door slamming. A car engine outside revs its engine and Balthazar thinks that it almost growls like a mechanical dog. He can see the rain on his bedroom window. He stares at the drops dripping down the glass. He thinks of Lucy the girl he liked last year. She was tall, too tall for a girl in 2nd grade. But he liked her, the way she’d pick him up to reach the peaches hanging over the fence by the railroad tracks. They’d sit together with their backs pressed again the chain link fence with peach juice all over there mouths. The trains would go by and make the ground vibrate. This would give Balthazar and erection, just like walking through mud barefoot would; though he wasn’t really sure what it was all about, though he heard rumors. Once Lucy asked him to show her his and she would show him hers. They were standing back off the road in a thicket of trees with both of their pants down around their knees. Lucy touched his little dick and looked at it like they looked at a dead bird the week before, pocking at it with a stick and turning it over. Balthazar looks down at her vagina. He sort of likes what he sees but had no idea why it kind of confuses him and makes him feel lonely.
The teacher at Balthazar’s school doesn’t like Balthazar, thinks that “it’s just not right that a mother would name her son BALTHAZAR,” Sometimes Balthazar thinks that his teacher follows him home. Once he even swore she was in his closet watching him through the slats of the closet door, but when he opened the door, it wasn’t her, it was just the shadow man.
Balthazar feels sick to his stomach. Maybe it’s the Extreme Carny Dog he just ate. Marge sees “The Hammer” and is off like Transonic, to her favorite ride. While Balthazar is waiting at the fence, he sees a midget clown smoking, leaning against a trailer. Then he has this idea , it is more of a flash in his head, like one of those summer lightning strikes that comes so close the hair on your arm stands up; so he goes up the midget clown and asks if he can go with them to where ever it was they are going next, that he doesn’t want to stay here without his mother and brother, though he would miss Marge and maybe he could even find his brother and was there such a thing as a “Counter” in the carnival, because maybe his brother was working already and my mother . . ..
Balthazar’s mouth is moving fast and the words are forming in his head even faster. The midget clown just stands there, blank faced, staring. Takes a pull from a half pint of whisky, clears his throat and spits on Balthazar’s shoe. “Fuck off kid.” But Balthazar doesn’t even hear him, his mind has turned in on itself like one of those house of mirrors and the only thing he can hear is the distorted blown out speaker and its carnival music getting louder and louder.
Ever since he can remember, when Balthazar dreams, he dreams of falling. Falling and falling and falling— that’s his dream over and over again, past clouds and birds and the moon and his passed grandmother reaching out to catch him. When he was younger, these dreams would wake him in a startle and he would run into this mother’s room for her to comfort him. When he got older he would find the door locked and would knock and knock but no one would answer. One muggy night, the summer before the last a dream starts out like dreams do, dropping into the middle of something already happening. Balthazar is talking to a chipmunk about catching falling stars with a catcher’s mitt, which was the best because they are so hot, when he hears this voice and then he is right on queue, falling. Falling and falling, past the chipmunk, past Marge, past Mars and the Matterhorn in Disneyland with cars filled with laughing ewoks, past the planet with the Little Prince, past the Shadow Man, then into a blackness where he could only see stars way off, like galaxies, “Yes, galaxies,” Balthazar says out loud to the humming bird falling and flying around his head, the same small bird that has followed him while he falls and falls. Not being afraid, Balthazar notices that his falling now feels more like flying, so he stretches out his arms and as he does the humming bird starts to glow like a giant firefly, running through a cycle of wonderful colors as if telling Balthazar, “Yes!” To his joy, Balthazar begins to fly and the humming bird and Balthazar fly and fly up and down, back and forth. “No more startles, no more locked doors,” he thinks to himself. His dream ends while talking a short walk around the Little Prince’s planet, the last thing he remembers is what the Little Prince was saying just before the sun nudged him awake, that he Balthazar, should tolerate the closeness of 2-3 caterpillars, if he wants to get to know butterflies. To Balthazar this seemed very very wise.
Balthazar’s father is standing in the living room with its back to the back door, weeping. This makes Balthazar very uncomfortable. He walks slowly past him, opening the screen door slowly and once past the threshold, takes off in a flash. The screen door slams back against the doorframe with its tinny thud. Balthazar’s father shaken by the sudden noise hurriedly wipes the tears from his eyes, “Balthazar is that you?” But Balthazar is already across the lawn and entering the backwoods. Walking through shadow and light Balthazar thinks of adults crying. He never saw an adult cry before, not one and was trying to understand why he ran. Maybe it’s because, he thought, that once you grew up and were an adult, all that crying stuff would b over. He thought about it a lot and had been pretty set on the idea that being sad was a kid thing. Maybe he was wrong after all and that was too much to imagine.
Balthazar is confused. “Why here, why now?” His erection is almost obvious and he tries to cover it with his magazine. Marge, who’s been talking to the red head girls turns and asks Balthazar if she can see his Hot Rod. Balthazar blushes and stutters words that make no sense, like Uncle Moses in the home. “What’s wrong with you Balthazar, it just a magazine.” “Girls have it easy” he says. “You’re a weirdo sometimes Balthazar, just plain strange.” The bus comes to a stop in front of the elementary school. “You coming Balthazar?” “In a minute.” Sitting on the bus alone in the slow creaking of the old school bus as it settles in the parking lot,
Balthazar feels that drowning feeling again, and starts tapping S.O.S over and over again on the bus window, maybe his mother would hear, maybe . . . maybe at least someone with a small boat would come or ship full of inch high pirates, like Blue Bear. That makes him giggle. He adjusts his pants so they don’t hurt. His head is quiet for a minute. Maybe my dad could come with a small boat or even just show up with life preservers. But probably not, he thinks to himself, he’s probably too sad to even hear.
Balthazar can’t sleep because it’s too hot, too hot even for the flies on the window sill that fan each other with their wings. He lies there and can feel the shadow man watching him from the closet. He can’t see him at night, though sometimes with a full moon he can pick him out but he can always feel him. At first, the shadow man scarred Balthazar but then he realized that the shadow man showed up around the same time he was trying to Think a new brother. Balthazar thought that maybe he didn’t Think a new brother hard enough or long enough and ended up with the shadow man instead. In time Balthazar just sort of got used to him always being there and the shadow man never really tried to scare him; he was quiet and seemed to just watch whatever it was Balthazar was doing. Balthazar always imagined him as an older brother simply not cooked enough by his thinking to be a complete person. Lying there in the heat, Balthazar says in the direction of the closet. “Sure is hot shadow man, sure is hot. “ Balthazar, on his back, stares up at the ceiling and his eyes get heavy, heavier listening to the click of chain hanging down from the fan.
Sometimes Balthazar wonders if he is slowly disappearing, if he is becoming transparent to those around him. It is as if people don’t see him; the skinny Postman who always says hello will walk right past Balthazar like Balthazar is nothing more than a puff of air, or how he’ll go over to Marge’s house and knock and knock on the door and no one comes, even though he can hear them talking, or when his father, sitting at the kitchen table, will be looking him straight in the face and has no idea that he’s even there, or even the neighbor’s dog who always runs to the fence in a fast fury of teeth and spit, whenever he sees Balthazar, simply stays stretched out on the falling a part porch. Some days he worries so much that he might end up permanently transparent and even with its obvious advantages for a nine-year-old boy, he only feels a sense of dread. He wonders to himself if that’s what happened to his mother, “Maybe she’s still around, maybe she’s here right now, just invisible.” And for a moment Balthazar gets excited but it passes. “No, I would feel her here like I feel the shadow man.” Maybe it’s some strange thing that runs in the family, maybe that’s why there are no pictures in the house of his mother’s family, not even grandpa E.Z. Balthazar could just imagine family pictures with the characters fading out as the years go by. A picnic with uncle Maximus last summer, then uncle Maximus with Barry at Spring training, now looking more like a mirage than a barrel-chested Georgian, and finally a family picture at last Thanksgiving and Uncle Maximus (there still is a debate whether he was even there), with his arm around my shoulder — now nothing more than a blur a smudge of light.
Marge is on the phone. He always knows when she’s going call, it’s like the toy phones they made in class, the kind with two cans and a string tied between them, Yeah (he thinks) Marge and I are connected like those cans but it’s more like a string attached to our brains. Marge is talking and all Balthazar can think of is the string inside his head, the string that reaches from his house, down to the end of the street, past the skating rink and the mall and then under the Broadway tunnel; where Balthazar smoked his first cigarette, then past the AM PM mini market, down Marge’s street and past her two older brothers stoned on the couch, watching reruns, and finally up the stairs and under her door and entering her skull just behind her left ear. The whole idea suddenly freaks Balthazar out and he hangs up the phone. He can see Marge still talking and talking not noticing the line is dead. It all reminds him of that time Balthazar’s aunt stayed on the phone talking and crying and wouldn’t get off for hours— she just kept talking after the line went dead, holding on to the phone so hard her fingers were blue and everybody in the house was pacing back and forth and crying, eyes fixed on the TV.
Balthazar and Marge are sitting on the bus bench in front of the abandoned children’s museum. Marge is staring at a delinquent of boys riding their skateboards and throwing rocks at the few remaining windows. She chants a curse under her breath and then and spits three times. ‘Marge stop doing that, it freaks me out.”
The paper boat rocks back and forth in the rapids of the gutter and then disappears down the sewer drain. Balthazar got the idea when the city came by and stenciled a message just in front of the sewer grate. No Dumping - Drains to the Ocean. Balthazar has written carefully on each piece of paper, using his best penmanship, he has to make sure they’re readable. It’s the tenth boat that Balthazar has sent to the sea and he thinks it’s like in the movies where the stranded man on some deserted island stuffs letters into the bottle and throws them to the sea. He has an armada of paper boats next to him and sets them off one after another, not noticing the ink running down their paper masts.
Balthazar is watching an old war movie on the half broken TV set in the garage. Balthazar loves old war movies. His mother would always try to get him to watch Sesame Street or Mister Rogers but Balthazar would change the channel once she left the room. For Balthazar, those shows were a waste of time and didn’t seem real, plus Mister Rogers made him anxious. For some reason, this time while watching Patton for the 5th time, Balthazar notices the trees. He never really thought about it before, but the trees and the birds and the clouds aren’t at war. Do they (he wonders) even notice and if they do, what do the trees think about war? It probably (he thinks) makes them very nervous since they can’t get out of the way. That makes perfect sense to Balthazar, like in one of his dreams when the Frightening is coming toward him and he can’t move. Maybe trees don’t even realize there’s a war going on; maybe they just think they are caught in a really long and scary dream.
Marge and Balthazar are at their cloud watching spot staring up at the sky. Marge has her legs in the air moving them like she is riding an imaginary bike. What are you doing? asks Balthazar — Riding an imaginary bike —Why? You have a real bike right over there. — I don’t know, maybe I am imagining riding a cloud, wouldn’t that be so cool Balthazar, if we could ride a cloud like a bike? — Balthazar starts to imagine all kinds of possibilities.
Not me Marge, I would rather have a pet cloud — a pet cloud? — yes and I would name her Claudette and we could all hang out together and she could sleep above us when its really hot in the summer and give us shade, and she could throw lightning bolts at the skater kids at the bus stop, and if you had a pet cloud you could tell it all your secrets and she might even cry with you and maybe she could hitch a ride with the wind and see if she could find my mother. They both lie there under the fat clouds that are floating over so slow it’s like a cloud circus pitching up tents for the big show. After lying there for a while, Marge turns her head and looks at Balthazar — You know, I think I’d rather just have a cloud bicycle, a pet cloud sounds too complicated.
“In plain terms, a child is a complicated creature.”
Balthazar is staring out the window. It is trying hard to rain but the first drops are arguing among themselves, and not heeding their first inclination to just fall. Balthazar doesn’t mind, he likes the thought of a million rain drops arguing over this or that. He lies in bed and is now turning the bedside lamp on then off on then off on then off. On the other side of the street Mrs. Drown is watching Balthazar’s light turn off then on, off then on. She takes a long slow drag from her cigarette, watches for awhile figuring Balthazar will tire. She takes the last drink from the handle of vodka she’s already finished and reaches for the light switch next to her; off then on, off then on, off then on; so simple she thinks and now somehow she feels less alone on night that is trying hard to rain
The moon is like a silverblueballoon that slowly rises into the sky carrying Balthazar with it like one of those string tied letters sent to the wind. Balthazar sits on his bed looking out the window, the same window he has been looking out ever since his father came home from work. The moonlight sneaks through the window startling the cat and then into his room. Mom? (he thinks) is that you? I (he thinks) know it’s not but... Somewhere inside his body, maybe in his young heart already made more of memory than muscle, she’s still here washing dishes, the steam from the sink fogging the window, where she draws hearts with the yellow plastic gloved hand and in every heart she ever drew, right in the middle she always wrote the letter B. B pushes his bed closer to the window, spreads the curtains wide and opens the window.
The moon is bright and fuller than fullness, and the moon is now at every window of every house, and the moon has become so big it fills the whole sky, silvering all the fields of the world— Balthazar throws all the bedding to the floor and takes off his shirt. He lies there with the moonlight so big the man on the moon gives him a bright kiss, while Balthazar outlines the letter B on the skin about his small glowing breast; over and over and over again.