Hot Air Rises

by Mary Murphy

The Artful Mind, September 1999

Last Thursday, I was in Bruegger’s Bagel Shop drinking coffee and reading the paper when I overheard two women talking at the next table. The first woman said, “How on earth did you find him? I looked under hot air, balloons, rubber animals, and I had no luck at all.” The second woman replied, “Oh, he’s not in the Yellow Pages. I found him in the White Pages under ‘M’ for ‘Mr. Bouncety-Bounce.’ He’s got his own 800 number. My kids love him.”

At the mention of Mr. Bouncety-Bounce my coffee went cold and my newspaper seemed like yesterday’s. I hate Mr. Bouncety-Bounce: he’s big, he’s rubber, he’s inflatable, and he’s trouble. A two-story air-filled giraffe who shows up at every outdoor children’s event in Albany, stealing perfectly good audiences away from perfectly good storytellers. Like me.

Mr. Bouncety-Bounce has the head and neck of a giraffe, the body of a waterbed, and the power of Svengali over the innocent youth of the Capital District. His long giraffe legs widen to form a tent-like “ceiling” over a large square play area. Shoeless children bound into this rubber room and are flung laughing and excited up and down and from wall to wall. They never hurt themselves when landing against his pillow-like insides.

I had no strong personal feelings one way or the other about Mr. Bouncety-Bounce - indeed, I’d never heard of him until I was asked to tell stories in his shadow during Children’s Day at the Empire State Plaza one summer.

I was not eager to perfrom at Children’s Day because it’s held outside at the Plaza. In general, storytellers don’t like to tell stories outdoors. Mother Nature doesn’t play fair. A sudden rainstorm, a gentle wind, a passing bee - all can destroy an atmosphere of mystery in under a second.

Also, the coordinator of Children’s Day, Miss Palmer’s original idea was for me to be a “roving storyteller,” which, since it involved going up to total strangers and begging them to listen to my stories, I flatly refused to do. The only thing missing in that scenario was the albatross.

Eventually, Miss Palmer called to tell me she’d found a suitable location on the plaza for my show. She described it as a small lawn area off the main walkway and well away from the food vendors, souvenir hawkers, clowns, and Ranger Danger. Ranger Danger (I found out) is a tubby fellow in a boy scout uniform who is apparently some sort of TV celebrity. He was to be the star attraction on the main stage. I asked Miss Palmer what he did in his performance, and she said he was very good at falling down.

My performance was scheduled for one o’clock on a beautiful, blue sky Sunday. The crowd was large and happy. I was delighted with my space. I felt pampered by the chair and microphone, the giant trees bordering the soft lawn. Looking around for my nearest neighbor, I was surprised to see a huge, inflatable giraffe not 25 yards from where I sat. He looked like a hot air balloon, all filled up with no place to go.

By 12:55, a sizeable crowd had gathered on the lawn in front of me. When everyone was settled, I switched on my lavaliere mike, welcomed the crowd, and began my first story, adapted from Julius Lester’s Black Folktales: “A long time ago,” I said into the thick silence that surrounded us, “the sky used to be very close to the ground. In fact, it wasn’t any higher than a person’s arm when she raised it above her head. Whenever anybody got hungry, all she had to do was reach up, break off a piece of the sky, and eat it. It was a fine arrangement for aࢶ” All at once there was a dreadful roar as though some monstrous lawnmower had started up. It took me a few seconds to realize that the quiet giraffe next to me had sprung to ghastly life and was now writhing and squirming and emitting a high-pitched giggle every few seconds. I limped though the rest of the story, but it was no use. Not only could I not be heard, but the power of my stories was no match for the hypnotic power of Mr. Bouncety-Bounce’s obscene gyrations.

Some in the storytelling audience were angry on my behalf and promised to complain to the Children’s Day organizers. As the lawn emptied, I sat and glared at the air-filled nonentity and thought about what mischief I could do with a hat pin if I but screwed my courage to the sticking place.

While musing in that vein, I was shocked and dismayed to see my own daughter and husband in the Bouncety-Bounce waiting line. No wonder they weren’t at my performance! Olivia waved gaily as I approached, and Leo had the gall to ask me why my program was so short. Miss Palmer rushed over and apologized for the noise. She promised me payment in full, and, by way of consolation, said, “Next year, maybe we’ll go back to the ‘roving storyteller’ idea.” I clenched my teeth to keep from biting her and watched her dart off in the direction of the main stage where Ranger Danger was presumably falling down for a large and appreciative audience.

I was feeling pretty low as I returned to my chair and hid my microphone behind one of the speakers for the sound technician to pick up later. From the sidewalk, I heard someone call over to me, “Is this where the stories are being told?” I turned to see a woman with a Plaza location map standing next to a small girl in a wheelchair. When I shouted back that I was the storyteller, the girl began struggling to push the chair over the bumpy lawn. I held up my hand to stop them. “Wait there. I’ll come to you.”

Then, behaving very much like a roving storyteller, I lead them to a low stone wall at the other end of thelawn — as far from the Bouncety-Bounce racket as I could get. The woman, who told me she was the girl’s mother, sat next to me on the wall and we both faced the wheelchair.

The little girl was very quiet. She eyed me without interest. Her straw legs looked as though they had never held the weight of even so frail a body as hers. I guessed she was about seven. She turned as far as she was able to in her chair and stared at the laughing, leaping children bobbing up and down in Mr. Bouncety-Bounce. Olivia was now among the bouncers. I could see her excited cries of “Watch me, daddy! Watch me! I can do a somersault!” The chair-bound girl seemed to strain forward at those shouts as though she too would call attention to her own imagined tumblings.

I gently pulled her to me with my words. “A long time ago, the sky used to be very close to the ground. In fact, it wasn’t any higher than a person’s arm when she raised it above her head.” I smiled encouragement at my tiny audience. “Will you both raise your hands up to the sky?” Mother and daughter complied. “Whenever anybody got hungry, all she had to do was reach up, break off a piece of the sky, and eat it. Anyone could pull their favorite things to eat right out of the sky.” “Go ahead,” I urged them, “Try it.”

The child moved her eyes slowly from my face to the sky above her head. She plucked something out of the air, put it carefully into her mouth, and began chewing. When I asked her what she ate she said, “Strawberry shortcake,” in a voice so quiet I felt as though it were a delicious secret she was sharing. So I gave her a sip of my chocolate milkshake, and for a moment, we smiled at each other, marveling at the power we possessed.