A balloon-popper ran loose in the Party Store. Furk, the Assistant Manager, hunched over the blurry security monitors, his wet blue pupils chasing chubby kids in flip-flops through the aisles of our big-box store, finding no pattern in their play, the silence of his stare and the hum of the computer fan startled by a pop! just at that moment when we had been convinced we'd heard the last of them.
It was the largest Party Store in the Tri-State area, the size of a city block in an off-the-turnpike Northern New Jersey city-burb, and on Wednesdays it was just me, Damian Furk the Assistant Manager, and Adam Blagowski--a tall, center-heavy kid with wild hair and a stoned, expressionless face that had, as its only distinguishing feature, woolly eyebrows that scrunched upward at the middle exactly like inchworms whenever he heard something that drew his attention, which meant anything vaguely smutty.
Blagowski and I were biding our time for college, getting paid six-fifty an hour to oversee a retail/warehouse full of styrofoam and plastic tchotchkes, and we couldn't muster the will to stalk an unidentified pre-pubescent prankster, but Furk hadn't even gotten into his safety school, was hoping to turn Manager now that graduation was over, and having some 13-year-old kid get one over on him was only the latest in a long line of indignities in life, which he'd recently decided not to suffer silently.
At the entrance to the Security Office, there was a heavy gray door with an old-fashioned mail slot—not a mail slot, actually, but like a slot for food-trays, one you might use to feed a prisoner in solitary confinement—and behind the gray door, an un-stocked vending machine and empty water cooler kept company with a low-tech arrangement of radio-shack equipment and CRT screens, all behind a one-way mirror. Half of the cameras were trained on the warehouse and the cash register—behind the counter, where we worked—rather than on the floor of the shop, where the customers wandered cluelessly among streamers, bags of recycled confetti, and noise-makers.
We sold scratchable "prize tokens" at the front desk, which were basically lotto tickets for kids, and I had seen Blagowski pick them off the roll and scratch them off one by one out of boredom, until they were down to the tape. But I never once saw him feed the till.
I believed I was better than all of this. I was graduating high school a year early, and in two months I would move to the other side of the country to attend a public ivy in the perfect state of California. My great summer dream was to confess to a girl—any girl—that I had always been in love with her—not because it was true, but because I had been convinced by Hollywood that love was a benevolent force that healed all ills, and I wanted to send goodness out into the world.
Pop! went the helium Snow White. Pop! Pop! went Winnie the Pooh and Clifford the Big Red Dog, now as flat and shimmery as an aluminum platter.
A sign next to the automatic sliding doors at the front of the store read "You Must Be THIS Tall to Ride" on a carnival-style sign, with the clown's hand level at exactly five-foot-nothing. There had been a group of five or six kids that came in earlier with one parent—a dark-haired woman with adorably out-of-fashion knee-length skirt who, if I'm honest, looked a lot like my own mother—all of the kids nearly the same age, none of them siblings. When they first walked in the place, I remember, Blagowski tagged Furk and said "there's your girl," as a joke, because Furk had been dating a thirty-year old woman who was also a mom—he even watched her 11-year-old son on the weekends while she worked back-to-back shifts at the community hospital—a fact that had inspired his nickname amongst Party Store employees, The Mofo. The family went to the Bar Mitzvah aisle, and I had totally forgotten about them until the popping began. By then the woman had checked out, was probably halfway to the deli, and might have left a kid or two behind. That was the prevailing theory amongst the employees of The Super Party Store.
"How many are there?" I asked, not caring much but wanting to contribute something other than slack-jawed silence.
"Two," said Furk. "There's always two. Trying to impress each other. Nobody runs loose and pops balloons all by himself."
I disagreed. I held to the lone popper theory. Yet watching the split black-and-white screens, I had to admit that if some kid had strayed from the herd all on his own and started popping our hundreds of inflated balloons without getting caught on camera once, then he was a virtuoso of balloon-popping, a balloon-popping savant. Another pop! sounded throughout the store, and as soon as we located the aisle where a once-proud orb of elastic rubber had been reduced to a dark blot on the screen the size and texture of a spent condom, the culprit was gone.
"Maybe it's a ghost," said Blagowski, in his monotone baritone.
Furk sneered in Blagowski's direction, looked as though he was about to say something smart and withering, then held it in. "We don't have enough eyes," he said. Then Furk had a brainstorm, maybe his first. They had recently started to sell toy drones with cameras attached to them. Furk delicately opened the box containing the toy drone with the box-cutter, making sure the seams were perfect so they might be repackaged afterwards, then cut open a four-way short-range walkie-talkie kit. He handed us each a walkie-talkie, told Blagowski to grab him some AA batteries while he started assembling the drone.
"Shouldn't we evacuate the store?" I asked.
"No," said Furk, with what appeared to be forced military comportment. "That would create mass panic. Coleman: you man the front. Blagowski: you patrol aisles nine through twenty-one, where most of the balloons are."
Blagowski's woolly caterpillar eyebrows shot up in the middle.
"What?" Furk said.
As he ducked through the entryway Blagowski huffed out a laugh that was all cartoon cruelty. "Man the front,'" he said, chuckling to himself.
"Frickin' Blowjobski," Furk said after the big guy had left the room. "How the hell did he get into Rutgers?"
Red-headed Heather Gillham walked through the automatic door and my winged teenage spirit fluttered in her direction. I imagined getting an early start on my summer goal to tell a girl I'd always loved her. But then, as she swished up to the counter and pointed out the piercing rings through the glass display, I thought, Isn't Heather Gillham already conceited enough? She would take my confession as the most obvious thing in the world, and tell everyone from school how she had known it all along.
"How about the Hello Kitty belly-button ring," she said, proud of the "alternative" nature of her choice. "And a party-ball of Natty Light."
"Come on," I said.
"Come on what?" she said, widening her eyes in feigned surprise.
"I can't sell liquor to customers under the age of 21," I said.
Heather pulled a fake ID out of her purse and extended it towards me. "I'm 21 as of April 30th. And beer isn't liquor."
"Doesn't matter," I said, "because we have to special-order through an outside vendor to sell alcohol anyway."
Heather was speechless for five seconds, which felt longer than five seconds. I could see her exactly as she would be as a 40-something woman at that moment.
"Just the Hello Kitty ring?" I asked, reaching into the display case.
"How much is it?"
"What the hell?"
"It's sterling silver," I said, smiling out of the side of my mouth because Heather walked into the Party Store expecting to get beer at a discount and now she was trapped in a sale. My dream of putting good out into the world would wait.
But as she stood there chewing on her cheek, the walkie-talkie fuzzed with noise. "Aisle 16! Hollywood! Rutgers! Head to aisle 16!"
"Sorry," I said, trying not to look too rushed as I obeyed the squawking toy speaker, power-walking to the bargain aisle which carried the nearly deflated remnants of St. Patrick's Day and Easter. As I was about to turn into the aisle, from around the corner something dark and cylindrical, wildly humming and wickedly insectoid materialized in front of me. I fell back on my palms, slipping on the slick, waxy floor, then slid backward by kicking the floor with my sneakers in the two seconds before I realized that this was Furk's drone. A couple of fat kids with striped shirts pointed at me and laughed, and their dad in his Hawaiian shirt and spray-tan laughed with them. I recovered, peeked down the aisle, saw nothing. Then I looked in every direction. Could that moron dad and his two moron kids be the balloon-poppers? What about the boy with Down's Syndrome scurrying ahead of his mom? What about Heather?
Furk and Blagowski converged at the end of aisle 16, and the three of us stood with our arms folded and hands tucked into our pits like men who meant business. In my peripheral vision, a box of post-expiration-date Valentine's Day candy displayed the words "You Are the Sweetest" in colorful shiny circles. Printed on cardboard, these bubbles could never be popped. But with such a cloying phrase emblazoned in balloon-letters, I could appreciate the impulse.
"New strategy," said Furk. "Now we're talking about damage control. The most valuable inflatables we have are the Macy's balloon characters in aisle 19, so Adam, you go guard them and if the balloon-popper shows up, use this." Furk hands Blagowski a pair of novelty handcuffs, still in the wrapping, complete with a sheriff's badge. "And Danny, you take control of the drone and use it to patrol the surrounding aisles." He handed me the controller, surprisingly large and heavy due to the grainy screen in the middle that reported all that the drone surveyed.
"Where are you going?" I asked.
"Someone has to run the store," Furk said. "We're not evacuating."
The drone had settled on the floor, a dragonfly, capable of only perfect stillness or frantic motion. It took me a couple of tries to lift it off the ground; keeping the bird in the air was the easy part; navigating flight and watching the screen at the same time was the part I couldn't get. My drone bumped shopping carts, side-swiped endcaps, and collided head-on with our demo displays, clipping a twirled pink streamer, which dangled pitifully from a dollhouse-theme-party set-up. I dropped the controller and went in search of the Mofo, taking the stubborn drone with me, since at this point I was doing more damage to the store than the balloon popper ever did.
I found Furk at the front counter, but on the customer side next to Heather, a sharp shoulder pointed in her direction, hand planted on his hip in such a way that it widened his stance. As I approached, Heather peered smugly in my direction while Furk flat-out ignored me.
"So my order will be in tomorrow?" Heather said, flipping her hair back in an exaggerated way, repeating what had already been established between them, but this time for my benefit.
"Absolutely," said Furk. "If your party is within a five-mile radius, I'll deliver it myself."
"Thank you!" Heather said with feigned surprise, touching Furk on the arm. I revised my picture of Heather at 40 to include a trailer park, a pit bull, and a shady dealer husband who exchanges blow for a blow.
Heather's best friend Gayle walked in and stood off to the side, waiting. I calculated another opportunity to profess my love. Gayle was what all the YA novels wrongly call "mousy," since mice are actually hectic little creatures, hungry to chew through anything, and girls like Gayle have a latent nervousness that has more to do with an active mind than an insatiable appetite. She had a nest of curled brown hair, a waify frame, and a way of drifting from place to place silently, like a wraith. I am sure Heather chose Gayle for a friend because her plainness reflected well on Heather's own qualities. Her invisibility, though, made her a better candidate for my confession.
Heather and Gayle were usually hip-locked, had been best friends since middle-school, and I wondered what they would do when Gayle went to U-Penn and Heather stuck around and went to Bergen College.
"Heather," said Gayle. "I'm going to get some gum. Do you want some?"
Heather slid over to Gayle, deftly extricating herself from Furk's attempt to snake-charm her with his gaze and posture. "I want to pick out my own. Where are we going?"
"Don't they sell gum here?" Gayle asked.
Both girls looked at Furk, and that's when Furk finally looked up at me. "What do you need, Coleman?" he asked me. "You are supposed to be manning the drone."
"I was," I said, placing the drone on the counter. "I mean, I am. But I couldn't control it and view the screen at the same time. It even says on the box that it takes 2-3 hours of practice to learn how to navigate."
"What's going on?" Heather asked.
"We should close the store," I said.
Furk gave me an angry-father glare. "You should close your mouth," he said.
"Gayle," I said. "I have something to tell you."
Everyone's eyes were on me. Both Furk and Heather looked worried—Furk for the sake of his job, and Heather for the sake of her vanity, I guess. I had thought of a few different wordings for my confession, but none of them involved Furk as a spectator. I opened my mouth dumbly.
Just then the drone activated and lifted off from the counter with a sudden whir. Gayle startled and, to her credit, threw herself in front of Heather like a human shield. Furk, meanwhile, collapsed on the filthy tile floor like a possum. Hovering for a moment above our heads, it quickly shot forward and became lost among the endless aisles of junk.
"Where did you put the controller?" Furk asked, when he had regained his composure. "Where did you leave the controller?"
"Dollhouse!" I said, and the two of us ran towards the demo displays. When we arrived at the dollhouse, the controller was gone. We heard the blades of the drone whirring like the chopper's descent into the jungle in Apocalypse Now.
Furk, Heather, Gayle, and I herded into the back room, where Blagowski was already seated in a rolling chair with a clownish grin on his face. Furk offered to show them the Security Office, which was either a way of containing the intelligence regarding the missing drone falling into the hands of a balloon-popper, or an idiot's way of trying to impress a girl.
"I watched the recording you made," Blagowski said, "and I think I figured it out." We gathered around the playback screen, where the aisle 18 of the past showed rows and rows of proud and full balloons like the bellies of rich men in an editorial cartoon. There were no customers in the aisle at all when the inflatables, one by one, collapsed into nothing.
"Holy shit," Heather said. "You have a ghost."
"That's what I thought," said Blagowski. "But now I'm sure the kid is using a BB gun or some other projectile. You can see the balloons just pop all on their own, with no one caught on tape."
"There's a man with a gun loose in the store?" Gayle said, either melodramatic or mock-melodramatic. She's hard to read.
"A balloon popper," I corrected her, "loose in the party store."
"I noticed something else, too," Blagowski said. "The rest of the drones are missing." He pointed to the monitor showing aisle 12, and sure enough there was a large gap in the row of high-end electronic toys where the drones used to be, like the smile of a boxer with his teeth knocked out.
"Fuck!" said Furk. "Fucking fuck fuck! That's larceny."
I pictured an army of drones like Martian ships, flanked with lasers, wreaking havoc on the population of Northern New Jersey, starting in the aisles of the Party Store and its colorfully dressed, overfed customers.
"All we have to do now," said Furk, "is anticipate that little shit's next move. We need to stay one step ahead of him."
He gripped the handle of the door leading out of the Security Office, but it was jammed.
"Oh my god," Heather said, turning to Gayle. "It's like that psycho movie we saw."
"This is more exciting," Gayle said. "That movie was so lame it practically never happened."
"Still, it had all these teenagers locked in a room and some guy who kept torturing them for no reason, but then the torturer turned out to be one of the people in the room, remember?"
"You aren't a psycho are you?" Gayle asked me. "That's not what you were going to tell me before, is it?"
"Seriously," Heather said. "If anyone touches me, I'll call my uncle. He's a cop."
Blagowski's eyebrows pinched upward when Heather said "anyone touches me."
"I wouldn't let any of my men hurt you," Furk said.
Blagowski and I shared a look which I believe said, "we aren't your fucking men."
"Speaking of your uncle the cop," I said to Heather, thinking that things were getting serious now, and I'd be damned if I spent the rest of my Wednesday afternoon stuck in a room with Blagowski and Furk. "We should call it in."
"No," Furk insisted. "If we have to call in Jay for this then there's no way I'll make manager."
"Fuck manager," Blagowski said. "I get off in forty-five minutes."
"Shut up, Blowjobski," Furk said with a sneer. "You aren't going anywhere. We need all the eyes we can get."
"So what do we do?" I asked.
Furk posed thoughtfully. He must have imagined this moment as if it would be minted on a coin. "We deputize the ladies," he said.
"I wasn't planning on working today," Heather said. "How much does it pay?"
At this point we noticed a hissing sound, as though the air was slowly being let out of a balloon. Furk shushed us, and started moving around the room following his good ear, which led him back to the door. On the other side of the bullet-proof glass, a red-freckled boy even younger than we thought, a single spike of hair standing up from the part in his hair like the evilest cowlick that ever sprung from a child's head, was grinning wide-mouthed and wide-eyed as he fed the tube from a helium tank into the narrow wedge of the mail slot. When Furk looked out at the boy, there was a question in his eyes, impossible to speak aloud, but which the prankster answered anyway with an exaggerated nod.
"That little shit," Furk said, in a squeaky voice.
"What, do you know him?" I asked, in a castrati's soprano.
"He came in with a group of kids," he said, as if it explained everything. With each utterance, our words were progressively higher-pitched, more manic-sounding. "He must have split from the group."
"I thought you said there were definitely two poppers," I said, higher than Mickey Mouse.
"Please don't tell me 'you told me so'." Furk said.
Now that we were contained, the prankster, whom Blagowski had code-named "The Bar Bitzvah Bandit," amped up the mischief. It wasn't a BB gun, but a thin straw out of which he spat needles, like an improvised blowgun. And once all the balloons had been popped, he started needling bystanders too, rigging booby-traps, and even pantsing kids in swimming trunks who walked into the door, then running into the plastic jungle of the store, which he had surveyed and had become his hiding place. Anything at all, it seemed, to create chaos in the party store.
I remembered the first time I saw the movie Gremlins, thinking "how scary can an ugly little green puppet really be?"
"It's time to bring in your uncle," Furk said to Heather, with an adorably high-pitched air of defeat that simultaneously saddened and amused me, despite how much I disliked him. "Can he keep the information contained?"
"I think so," Heather said. "I'll tell him you're the manager, so he won't have to report it to the real manager." She took out her phone and flipped it open—these were the last years of the flip phone—and started speaking at a million miles a second, an effect that was all the more comical for the fact that she had to interrupt herself to explain why her voice was so squeaky and high-pitched.
"What did he say?" Furk says.
"One of us needs to meet him outside," she said.
"But there's no other way out of this room," he said.
"Does the room have vents or anything?" she asked.
"In the warehouse there's an emergency exit but it will trip a silent alarm if opened," Furk said.
Blagowski stood straight up to his ungainly height. "Fuck, Furk! Why didn't you tell us there was an emergency exit? Wouldn't you call this an emergency?"
"I don't want this place surrounded by fire trucks," he said, then his eyes went wide and Furk said, "I got it. I know how we can escape."
We went further into the store's interior, and stood in the warehouse staring at the loading gate, which was also locked. But the gate could be raised about a foot off the floor of the warehouse before it locked, so a skinny person might be able to slide under.
"So who is going to slide under the gate?" I said.
"Probably the smallest person," Furk said.
Gayle scoffs. "Are you crazy? I'm not going to crawl on this dirty floor that's probably never been washed when Heather's uncle is on his way anyway."
"Heather?" Furk said, hopefully.
Heather threw her shoulders back and pointed at her jutting breasts, an ironclad argument.
As the smallest of the three "men," Furk couldn't back away from his own reasoning, and proceeded to limbo underneath the gate in the most awkward way possible, with his feet first, which ended in his getting stuck at the point where the narrow entryway met his rib cage. "Lift it higher!" Furk said, squirming with his palms pressing awkwardly against the bottom of the gate.
"It's locked at that height," I said. "There's literally nothing we can do, man."
"This was a stupid plan," he said. "Pull me back out."
Blagowski and I each grabbed one arm and we pulled, but he was fully pinned under the locked gate.
When Furk grunted, Gayle let out a squeak of a laugh, and after that, as hard as we tried, the rest of us couldn't hold it in. There was the top half of Damien Furk, Assistant Manager of the Party Store, wedged into the loading dock, in despair of his fate, flummoxed by the machinations of a wicked child.
"This is not the time to laugh," said Furk, and the heaviness and warble in his voice stopped me in mid-chortle.
"It's okay, Furk, man," I said. "We'll get you out of there, as soon as Heather's uncle shows."
Furk groaned, as much out of embarrassment, I suspect, than physical pain. "It's over. Just call Shelly, and tell her to come by and pick up her son." He loosened the phone from its beeper-case on his hip, and slid it over to me.
"Is Shelly your mom?" I asked, as gently as I could to protect what I was coming to realize was a fragile Furk.
"Shelly is my girlfriend," he said. "And I am watching her son Morris today while she interviews for a job at Bergen Hospital. I told him to just hang out in the warehouse, but now he's out there raising hell, and we're stuck in here."
The prevailing silence was hard to interpret. I felt alternately judgmental, pitying, scornful, and tender toward Furk, his helplessness.
"Your girlfriend is a mom?" Heather said, as though being a mother were the most disgusting thing she could imagine. "And you were flirting with me?" She gave an exaggerated shiver.
"His name is Morris?" I said.
From the ground where he lay, Furk nodded.
"Okay," I said. "Here's the plan. You aren't going to get Shelly involved, because you don't want her to know you Furked up again. And we are going to get this taken care of before Heather's cop uncle gets here. Heather, you keep Furk company while we go find this asshole."
"Why me?" Heather said.
I point at my chest with both hands like it means anything.
Blagowski is a decent enough fix-it guy, so he went to work tinkering on the door, while Gayle and I returned to the security office, now cleared of the helium cloud. I went straight up to the PA mic and stopped dead in my tracks. What was I going to say to this kid?
"This was not how I wanted to spend my summer," I said, holding my hand over the mic, aware the whole time of how pitiful it sounded.
Gayle quick-smiled, then settled into her default, slightly bored expression. "I'll bite. How did you plan to spend your summer?"
"Well," I started, and when I thought about how to say it out loud suddenly the whole enterprise seemed impossible to communicate. "I was planning on professing my undying love for a girl—any girl—I went to school with, so she could go off to college thinking that a boy back home was in love with her."
"Huh," she said, and grimaced.
Not sure what reaction I imagined, but this wasn't it. Maybe, since Gayle was a girl, she'd throw me an "awww" and move on? Or maybe just an eye-roll and a "you so crazy, Coleman"?
But she said, "I think it's selfish."
"Why?" I said. "It's the opposite of selfish. I'm making myself vulnerable—opening myself up to humiliation—just to give a girl a boost of confidence before she goes off to college. So maybe she won't end up with a jerk and think 'this is all I deserve, because who in the world could possibly love me.'"
"I'm sorry," she said. "I can tell you like the idea, but I'm just not impressed."
"I'm not trying to impress you," I said, and I can feel myself squinting as though to shield my eyes from a bright light. "But I don't think it's selfish to tell someone you love them."
"It's a lie..." she said. "You're basically manipulating some girl's emotions just so you'll leave this big impression on her, hoping that she'll think about you now and then for the rest of her life as her 'might-have-been'."
The security office was pitifully small. The ceilings were low. The atmosphere was suddenly crushing. "Why do you assume you know what my motives are?"
She quick-smiled again. "Am I wrong?"
"Yes," I said, with confidence exceeding reason.
I thought she might give me a fond look, or a gesture of encouragement—a conciliatory touch—but nothing was forthcoming.
I stared down into the blurry security monitors as helplessly as a man wedged under a gate. "If you wanted to make a girl feel good about herself, what would you do?" I said.
She turned around to look behind her, then swiveled back toward the screen. "I'd probably do what Furk is doing," she said. "You know, try to take care of her. Go to work, raise her kid, you know, shit like that."
I was suddenly angry at Gayle for praising Furk, for being such a loyal friend to vain and obnoxious Heather, for leaving Heather behind for the ivy league, for giving such a boring answer to such an exciting plan as mine—to save the world through expressions of love.
"So," she said, gesturing at the microphone, "What are you going to say to Morris?"