The face underneath the hat was the opposite of festive. It looked tired and forlorn. He wandered aimlessly through the park. He carried a plastic grocery bag from which protruded other balloons, and occasionally he would retrieve from it three tennis balls and bounce-juggle them off the pavement. Other times he gazed in puzzlement at the same balls, as if wondering where they came from.
When I looked more closely at his balloon hat, I could see it was dirty. It was not a new creation, but something which had probably been worn many days in a row. His clothes were dirty and nondescript.
Still, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him, his drooped shoulders, his hat’s faded colors. This man full of contrasts, he looked like he’d somewhere along the way gotten lost – a clown who had died inside but still ghosted around the Chicago streets.
I wondered who he was, where he slept, and how long ago he had made that hat. I thought about the untold story behind those worn eyes and longed to understand its details.
A child approached him, her father hovering directly behind, probably uncertain if he should be letting this happen. I was too far to hear any words, but she clearly was asking for a balloon.
His face woke up.
A smile came back from whatever dark place it had retreated to, his eyes focused, and he looked right at the girl. He produced a balloon flower from his plastic bag and handed it to her. The flower looked to me like it had also seen better days, but she accepted it happily. I think her father thanked the balloon man; I know he firmly grasped her other hand; he hurried and she skipped away.
Briefly my lost clown looked peaceful; his eyes lingered on the flower as it bounced away from him. Then his smile faded and the lost weariness returned. He drifted off, buffeted randomly by the crowd, until he disappeared from view.