He’d pulled the fishing line off of the top, tied just a few hours before to close the make-believe pieces of door that were mounted and hinged together with gaffers tape in a surprisingly sturdy arrangement.
“What are you doing?” the young girl asked, just on the other side of the doors, impatiently.
“I’m opening up the gates to the park so everyone can go on a tour now.”
“It’s about time. Although I already went through, because I could just sneak underneath like this.”
Wow, was she precocious. And what — seven? Ten? Could he even judge those ages very well anymore? And he didn’t even know who she was, or who her parents were. And yet very clearly the park and this moment and set piece had become a whole thing for her. He knew creating some scarcity and suspense would up the stakes, but a child’s impatient curiosity hadn’t been a variable of that calculation, even though the whole experience was exactly the one thing he had imagined in his mind at that age.
“Why are you wearing balloons?”
“Well” and he had to stop for a minute and think because this was not the first young person to be curious about him, and to be wearing balloons at all he had nearly felt was a bad idea, but now clearly it had been a really good idea (for which all credit had to go to his sister, otherwise he would have just printed out some circles, or at best maybe cut some circles with felt) to be three dimensional in the obscurity of the character. He can’t quite remember now, but he thinks she was the adopted daughter of their neighbors up the street.
“Well, there’s a cartoon character in the movie who explains how they made the dinosaurs. And he’s made up of circles, and so the balloons are his circles and his name is Mr. DNA.”
“Oh.” She touched one of the balloons. “Okay, that makes sense!”
He walked downstairs in the balloons and they immediately started asking for selfies.
That was weird. Maybe not altogether unexpected. But still — weird.
She’d heard the other half of the story, from the new friends, about how they’d met. It had been a short story about birthdays and capes and crepes. He wanted to hear their side of the story, too. He did, later, at the end of the night; and the meeting had been the highlight of their night, too, as much as they had all been for him. It was weird how that often worked.
His version of the story would have to be long to be worth telling at all, and he said there probably wouldn’t be enough time to tell the whole story, because it started in Kindergarten, but he started telling the story anyways. But before he even explained the part about the alter-ego and why he liked darts so much, it was time to go say words into a microphone, apparently.
So he had to go do that. He said some words at first about a crucible and that metaphor about personality tests he keeps trying out and badges and friends shouted back at him and it was just a conversation but he had the microphone. He guessed that’s how it starts – you’re afraid but then you start talking and there were even some jokes. He’d been listening to his father do it for years, always earnestly but also a little embarrassed. Sometimes it had been too real. Maybe you just had to lean into it and be yourself as opposed to hiding.
There had been applause even before he’d said anything, and praise, and for more than a moment he really didn’t like any of that. He had realized and worked past looking for validation and landed more on a perfectionism in action for its own sake (simply because it could be done). Couldn’t say anything about that out loud, but maybe you could hint at it. That it was this one thing for them as a family, but it was this other thing entirely because people showed up to experience it. And there were no spectators. No one was merely a visitor; even if collectively there were people no one seemed to know.
In the calm of the afternoon as the first guests were arriving, far away, they stood on the stage and he plugged the guitar in, hesitantly. That part of the evening would be as uncertain as it would get for him, far more so than all of the printing and designing and questions of time management in the weeks, day, and hours leading up to the soft hours of arrival, and it was good they had this half hour that emerged from beyond the itinerary. But he felt incredibly protected and supported because his friend, of equal talent and knowledge and experience, was there with him. They both had done the math — it was how many years and it took them how long to finally play together on a stage?
The next day, in the aftermath of the cleanup and the afternoon, his father was sitting on the steps eating chips as he drove back up the drive-way from the last minute second-shooting that had been the right kind of easy. Nearly stupid how simple and straightforward it was. And also a real paradise to just make photographs and not have to talk to anyone after surfing through that six-hour three-dimensional wave of people, surfing from set to set, with the faint recognition that the tide would eventually pull everything and everyone away from shore, so he better say the important things. And he did manage to say enough of them. And they meant a lot.
“Your voice is really developing and getting good” and something else about ending the song a capella. He thought he knew what his father was talking about. He didn’t, not quite. “No, at the end of the last song when you said there was one more verse and then I just kind of motioned for you to keep going and you went for it. You really went for it.”
Oh. Right. In the fog of the party, like the fog of a skirmish on the outskirts of a battle, the memory returned. How had he already forgotten about that? Because there was too much to remember. What he’d thought had been perhaps his favorite part of the whole night, when he was standing on stage and felt, for the first time, unexpectedly, because they hadn’t even had a chance to rehearse any of it together, the comfort of the first notes of a bass line filled him and the stage like an acoustic hug. He thought that had been the most unexpected part, what it felt like to have that sound coming through you somehow, rather than listening to it and arriving at you. You were inside of the music.
But, no. It was when he’d turned to his father, confused that they’d all, the three guitarists and their incredible solos, had all stopped completely. It was just him, now, with more to sing, perhaps. Or maybe not? And his father gave him this smiling nod of encouragement, it wasn’t quite a wink but he’d been known to give winks before (it was, it seemed a family trait that he’d seen his grandfather give too, some form of a stage name trademark), but it was a smile that seemed to say, “go jump off this ledge now too, it’s okay.” They knew what they were doing, and here was the surprise ending.Keep going. In a supportive way, as if he were quite young again and it was like learning to walk. Without a net but without any consequence of gravity. There would be a soft place to land regardless of the flight path.
And so then he sang the last verse, slowly, listening finally to the sound of his voice, eyes closed mainly except for the peeking just slightly out over the edge of the stage at the lyrics he should still have had memorized after all these years but never really was able (because it was only once a year, how were you supposed to remember things with that much syncopation?), and they were following him now, and he was finally five again, just like that first time he stood out on a microphone, and yet again twenty-nine years later (long enough now that he couldn’t remember what it was like in the first person, supplanted fully by a third person perspective of vhs) so confused by how much of a quiet rush it felt, as if the air all around him held something, locked and pushed forward into and out of his lungs, how far into the present it was and if there was ever a time to really go for it, he guessed this was it, to keep breathing and listening, no point in really hiding what he thought maybe his voice could sound like, and as he sang he felt whatever had been holding him back all the time kind of unlock just slightly, and he didn’t even know what to do next until he was doing it, the last line sat there, waiting.
Then afterwards he turned to his friend and something had changed. He understood.
Why they performed.