Which his father did when the balloon string slipped from his fingers. Which was weird. His father had never held his hand in public before. Years later he wondered if his father wanted to keep him that day from floating off, too. At the time, though, they stood watching a lark go after his red balloon like a tiny winged-bull taunted by some unseen torero. A man on stilts click-clacked by them. He was dressed in a tuxedo and played a fiddle. A monkey hung off his back rattling coins in a tin cup with his free hand. The man worked the bow hard against the strings, as though dreading what would come after the music ended. They gave some quarters to the monkey and strolled passed the “The Tent of Atlas” where a shirtless weightlifter in gold trunks and boxer’s boots smirked at his father. His father’s arm tensed and he let his child’s hand go, then regripped it in a different way, perhaps, from a different fear. Which the boy only years later began to understand. But, at the time, they just walked on and chuckled at the bearded lady, the Kamchatkan bear smoking a cigar, and dwarves wrestling in a mud tub. They popped into “The Tent of the Ten Plagues,” took in wax effigies of Ramses II and Moses, heard buzzing flies, hail, locusts and thunder coming out of hidden speakers, passed painted red doorposts meant to represent lambs’ blood to protect the firstborn, then gazed at the empty eyes of a slack-jawed tiger staring back at them from its foul cage, stopped to buy caramel apples, throw darts at water balloons and took the subway home riding in the front car. The boy went to sleep dreaming the lark had caught the balloon’s string in its beak and brought it back to him. A good dream. But the following day, his father, who worked in a fish market, came home howling, “I can’t stand those fucking fish anymore, God, help me, help me please,” because “it was so deep in his skin it would never come out, and everyone else can smell it except him, and he just wants to know what he fucking smells like, this thing that’s killing him like some unseen disease,” and mom is crying because she doesn’t understand the real source of dad’s pain, and, though he tried to distract me from everything that was coming apart that last day we spent together, I know, now, there was nothing he could say or do except hold my hand.

David Luntz’s work is forthcoming or appeared in Pithead Chapel, Vestal Review, Reflex Press, Scrawl Place, Best Small Fictions (2021), trampset, X-R-A-Y Lit, Fiction International, Orca Lit, and other print and online journals. Find him on Twitter: @luntz_david.

This work first appeared in Reflex Press.