Balthazar – a serial novella Pt. 1

I can remember the first time I saw Martin Balthazar. I was in third grade, stomping through the park on a rainy day, disturbing stale pools of water, trailing mud behind me as it scraped off of my velcro Spaldings. I saw him while I was shaking a tree branch that made the mistake of growing within my reach. These were my younger days, so I didn’t know Balthazar as Balthazar. I just knew he had a funny hat and seemed to have forgotten how to blink.
He didn’t look at anything specific, as far as I could tell. Just leaned against the cinder block wall and stared across the moist turf at more and more moist turf. I ignored him and went back to showering myself by shaking the branch. Then I decided to jump and hold on. The branch apparently disagreed. The ground was cold and my backside sank into mud as I sat up from my short but sudden fall.
And there was Balthazar standing over me. He looked down with his head tilted to one side like I was a gem in a jeweler’s case or a relic from the Crusades. A curiosity.
For a moment, neither of us breathed. Just watched. Water dripped off the edge of his bowler while I looked up. The overcast sky framed his image in my mind. Balthazar surrounded by grey. Then he spoke.
“You fell. You’re wet.”
If not for the novelty of the situation, I’d have said something to him that would warrant a slap from my mother and a scolding for being “smart”. But this day, I nodded. He held out a hand and pulled me to my feet.
I slipped a little and lunged to keep myself upright in the goo. Mud flew from the toe of my shoe and onto the glossy black of Balthazar’s. I looked up and he was studying his foot with its new garnish of muddy mousse.
“Sorry,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say, and, really, I still don’t know what else there would be to say.
“No worry,” he said. “I have more at home.”
He paced to a bench and sat, pulling each of his shoes off. Then he stood, bowed towards me, and walked away, his feet covered only by the black socks. It was the oddest thing I’d ever seen.

“You know their type, Eddie. They like to cause scenes. Make trouble. Remind all of us just how badly we’ve got it sometimes. How sad is it that he tosses out a new pair of shoes for a spot of dirt, when Jean’s had the same church dress for ten years?”
That’s what my grandpa said about the Balthazars. Both of our families had been in Moundridge for as long as either could trace. The Balthazars always had money. Shipping merchants for generations. My family, the Stantons, never did. We’d scraped by through harvesting maple sap for syrup. Dad carried on the family trade, as would I, it was assumed. Our clan had never been poor, but mostly comfortable unless a particularly warm or cold winter kept the sap from running. Most of those seasons fell to Grandpa and his struggles through hard mornings, days and nights of buckets and buckets of sugar water had worn on him, and the Balthazar family success plagued his spirit like the back pain he suffered in his later years. Like some old men, he derived his only joy from the pains he’d endured in the past.
We heard it all the time, so it became one of those things you hear that you just begin to ignore. Things that lose their significance the more you come across them. Kind of like every time I’d strike out in summer league. After a while, you learned to expect it.
“You know Dad, you could spend less time crabbing about Old Man Balthazar and more time helping me clear the table.”

Years later, I learned that Martin Balthazar wasn’t merely odd or weird. He had autism. Little faith was given to such psychological diagnoses in the town at the time, so it was natural – almost necessary – for the heir to the Balthazar fortune to be labeled in such a way to demean his bloodlines. He wasn’t eccentric or quirky to them, but a headcase. This increased Grandpa’s resentment. That a prancing lunatic like Martin Balthazar would inherit wealth and luxury while his better-than-average eighty-fifth percentile grandson remained destined to carry on the menial tasks that accompanied a laboring class. It seemed an unjust world that would allow such a travesty to occur.
I had never been concerned about the social rank within Moundridge. In the middle of a kickball game, such things aren’t really all that important. Not all that important to my parents, either. But their parents, the ones who had grown up as equals and now had to look up to see their classmates moving higher and higher and further and further from their station. I didn’t know how to pity them sometimes. Should I feel bad for seeing them separated, or for their bitterness towards it?

The next day at school, I recounted my interaction with Martin. Nobody believed me.
“He never talks to anybody, you liar,” said Jimmy Mingus. “And why would he talk to you? I’d probably have to ignore you so I wouldn’t laugh and pee my pants.”
“Like you need help with that, Jimmy.” I made it a point to remember odd details for this very reason. If you had to fire back at a rival, it was nice to know their weak spots. Jimmy usually sparred with me and vice versa. We traded wins, since I made just as many mistakes. Jimmy’s father had played some linebacker for the Sterling County Drillers, our semi-pro football team. Genetics had taken their course, and Jimmy carried a mean streak. He normally punched to resolve problems. I chose to crack wise rather than resort to blows, a snotty pacifist. Pretty easy decision, most of the time, and the 30 pound difference made it easier.
This time, I turned away, not thinking of fighting. I’d heard the stories of Martin’s silence too, and questioned myself as to whether I’d actually heard his voice, or imagined it in some misty, cold autumn haze.
I walked the same path on my way home from school, and saw Martin standing at the corner again. He still hadn’t put on new shoes.

(continue to part two)

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~ by Michael Engel on February 10, 2007.

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