the balloon man

Jim is from all over. The exact location of his origin is unknown, there are rumours he came ashore the south island after working aboard a Japanese industrial ship as a chef and slinging lethal cocktails under the table to the crew. He would yell at them to drink up and create elaborate concoctions with overflowing salted rims and overwhelming tequila portions. The drunk Japanese crew would sway across the deck; faces flushed in two tones of pink and hastily tie important knots. Allegedly, Kenji, a young man new to the intricacies of a large vessel slipped and fell over a rope he forgot to tie and the life preserver that was flung over to his aid came undone in a knot he remembered to tie, but not so well. Jim was blamed for the inebriated state of the seaman and dropped off at the nearest port. That’s how he ended up in New Zealand, supposedly.

Jim works at a popular tourist attraction in Queenstown, a gondola that visitors can ride to the top of a mountain. There’s a walking trail that also goes to the top, but for some reason it seems more gratifying to travellers to see the picturesque view from the peak if you’ve sat the entire way up. Jim works the night shift. He does maintenance on the gondola, cleans the adjoining office space and restocks supplies in the back room. He always washes the concrete floors at the base of the gondola, taking meticulous time to wipe every scuff or shoe mark away from the passenger-loading site. Sometimes workers will come down late at night and hurry over the newly polished floor. Jim will stop, curse under his breath and start again. He really hates those guys.

Jim is average height, about 5’9″. He has a scruffy untamed salt and pepper hair and a tanned leathery face that’s seen too much sun and not enough sleep. His fingers are stained with mechanical grease from the inner working of each gondola cart and his hair is beginning to thin at the top. He has a dusting of freckles on his arms that peak out from rolled sleeves and a hole in the back of his shirt. When he talks, he looks you dead in the eye without blinking. Unfazed by your sideway glances away from his gaze he stares right at you, like he’s telling the most important story in the world. If you bump into him in the hallways you’ll be there for an hour listening to his most recent endeavor. Lately, it’s balloons.

Balloon animals to be specific. He has hundreds of pictures of projects he is working on. Hats that tower twice his height on his head, giraffes with necks that twist and tangle the length of your arm, elaborate swords and shields with family crests, even a balloon chair. It popped a few times before it worked, he’ll tell you the truth. Beautiful, bouncy, bright creations that take life in the small space of his one bedroom flat and fill the entire living room with abundance. On Sundays he dons a purple three-piece suit with a red bow tie and walks into town carrying fistfuls of balloons in his pockets and extras in a worn out suitcase. He sets his things down near the waterfront and begins.

The colours are abundant. Little kids can’t get enough, they oh and ah and grab at the bag of balloons by his side, fascinated by the stretchy plastic that transforms into animals. Jim pulls the bag away, he shuffles a few feet back, and nods his head at them in agreement of their awe but keeps his distance. His fingers are still dirty from grease, his hair is thinning and he looks older than he should, but the balloons – they contort with ease. They listen to every turn of hand and respond dutifully. He turns the squeaky plastic together in intricate patterns to reveal a blooming lotus flower and hands it to a little girl anxiously waiting in anticipation. He catches his reflection in the shiny balloon petals and reminisces.

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