Chapter One: BALLOONS
It was an especially cold Thanksgiving on Woodward Avenue in Detroit. Today was the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade and the crowd alternated between shivering and cheering.
People shuffled and stomped, attempting to keep their feet from freezing. Gusts of steamy cold blew from their dripping noses and through their clenched teeth.
Suddenly Billy started screaming. ""My balloon!! My Balloon!!""
""Harold, do something. His balloon!""
""Wake up, Irene. Do I look like I have wings? It's too late.""
Up, up it went. The string had slipped from Billy's grasp and the balloon was off to wherever balloons go. The stratosphere? Balloon heaven?
""Stupid kid! I told you to let me tie it to your wrist. But you're so goddamn smart. See what happens when you don't listen.""
Billy's face instantly melted into a chastened mask of humiliation and defeat, as he started to cry like his puppy had been crushed under a bus.
""Nice work, Harold. Give the kid a complex. Let's find a vendor and get him another one.""
""Over my dead body! He'll learn something from this. Next time something is so all important to him as that there balloon . . .
"" Harold jerked his thumb skyward at the latex dot that was all but invisible by now. "". . . maybe he'll take better care of it.""
"Jesus Christ, he's only three. Come here, sweetheart.
" She reached down and picked up the heartbroken and tremulously sobbing young boy, face streaked and blotchy, mittens wet with the fresh tears of tragedy.
Another parade float approached and would soon be right in front of them.
She pointed. ""Look, Billy. Look at the dinosaur.""
Sure enough, big as a moving van, bloated with helium, tethered to the 8-wheel steel flatbed of a float frame covered with artificial turf,
and looking about as realistic as cardboard and crayons, was a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Its mouth was agape in what was supposed to be a scary, imminent man-devouring chomp.
Several repairs were visible on the rubber underside, patches which were poorly matched in color to the skin of the faux beast.
To underscore the implausibility of the threat, eight baton twirlers circled around the float, dancing, kicking their bare legs high,
tossing and twirling their gleaming chrome batons in the clear November air.
""Grrr!! Grrr!! Careful he doesn't eat you up."" She tickled his cheek with her wool-gloved finger and tried to elicit a smile.
Billy had already stopped crying and just looked confused. He seemed more interested in the baton twirlers than the gas-bag monster.
Next came a landlocked riverboat float, bearing the Flint Banjo Club players.
This was their parade debut and they enthusiastically picked and twanged their way through various Dixieland and bluegrass favorites to a crowd who almost seemed to notice.
Two mounted policemen followed, their horses snorting and blowing foggy jets from their wet nostrils.
""Harold, I need to powder my nose. Can you take him?"" Giving her husband no real choice in the matter, she abruptly reached over and placed the boy up against his father's chest.
""Mommy, I have to---""
""Just sit tight, Billy. Mommy will be right back.""
""But, Mom . . . ""
His father took Billy, obviously under protest, and slung him up on his shoulders.
The boy, completely caught off guard by the sudden and heavy-handed move, grabbed on desperately to keep from falling, wrapping his arms tightly around his father's neck.
""Easy! Easy! You don't have to choke me to death.""
Billy knew better than to try to talk to him and just settled in an uncomfortable slump against his father's head. Before she had left, he was trying to tell his mom that he had to pee.
But she was off to find a ladies room and it would have to wait until she got back. He had to go. Really bad.
To make matters worse, his father in a manic attempt to keep himself warm was bouncing him.
The pressure of Billy's full kidneys built quickly and all Billy could do was concentrate on holding it in. He couldn't even look at the parade floats.
He closed his eyes and bit his lower lip. All he could think of was the critical pressure building in his groin.
He clamped his legs together as hard as he could against the urgent and painful need for release.
""What the hell are you doing up there? This ain't no wrestling match. Back off with the leg lock.""
His dad reached up under Billy's arms and shook him to drive home his point. That was all it took for the dam to burst. Billy let out a tiny whimpering cry. Then silence.
He tried to stop it but his urethral valve was open and it wasn't about to be turned off until the job was done.
At first Billy's father only noticed a slight increase in the temperature around and below the collar of his coat. Then he felt the wetness and sensed the faint odor of the boy's young pee.
""Is that what I think it is? I don't believe this!""
Billy fought desperately to keep from crying and covered his face with both hands as his father roughly lifted him off and held him out in front of him to confirm his worst suspicions.
Billy was still going. Pee dripped from the bottom of his wet trousers, past his shoes, onto the pavement.
Billy's father was fast to act.
Still holding Billy at arm's length, he turned around and headed away from the street, towards the public restrooms, just as Billy's mom was making her way back to join them.
At first she was puzzled at the way Harold was carrying the boy, then terrified by the look on her husband's face. Obviously something had gone wrong.
""I asked for a son and you gave me this piece of trash.""
She tried to grab for Billy, both to rescue him from his father's rage and offer him whatever comfort might be needed. But Harold was too quick.
He muscled past her and walked over to a large wire trash basket, already nearly full of newspapers, crumpled lunch bags and food wrappings. He dropped Billy in head-first and stormed away.
She was there within seconds.
""Are you all right?
My poor little boy! My poor little boy!
"" She fought back her tears and tried to hide her anger, though it burned the back of her eyes, and an ache for her helpless little guy filled her chest with sulfurous pangs.
As she reached down and uprighted Billy, she saw his wet pants and realized what had happened.
She immediately drew him into the kind of hug that only a mother can provide a frightened child, covering his cheeks and head with kisses.
""It's alright. It's alright, my sweet handsome young man.""
The cushioning of the paper refuse already stuffed in the wastebasket had broken Billy's fall. He wasn't hurt. No bruises. No scratches. Surprisingly, he wasn't crying.
He just blinked and stared off in the direction his father had taken.
Then he turned to his mom and softly whispered. ""Can we watch the parade?""
""We probably should get you some new pants. Looks like you ran through the sprinklers while I was gone.""
To take advantage of the masses of people attending the event, several stores were open for business, though it was a national holiday.
His mom carried Billy into two clothing shops and they found some jeans he really liked. The new pants were a little big on him but at least they were warm and dry.
By the time they returned to the parade route, things were reaching a climactic conclusion.
This, of course, was the arrival of none other than Santa Claus himself, on a motorized sled drawn by unmoving reindeer figures, deer-in-the-headlights gazes epoxied into their eyes,
with the biggest reindeer celebrity of them all, red-nosed Rudolph himself, in the lead.
Billy's eyes widened as the Santa float approached.
Within minutes, there he was right in front of them, the man with the giant belly, rosy cheeks, red and white Santa suit,
and his huge white beard which flowed down on his chest like angel hair.
He laughed his deep,
sonorous 'ho ho ho' and waved like a prom queen to the excited children and conspiratorial adults who were bonded together in a special covenant to perpetuate and promote the Santa myth,
just as their parents had done before them.
When Santa had passed and only the top of his waving arm could be seen over the high back of his red and gold sled, Billy finally lowered his own tiny hand and let it hang at his side.
Lost in thought, he watched his own fidgeting hands, then looked up at his mom.
""Mommy. Can Santa bring me a new dad?"