Johnny and the Red Balloon


Johnny Birkitt was the first man who ever proposed to me.
We were five.
He bought it out of a gumball machine and made his intentions known to his family and mine.
We consummated the marriage at Chucky Cheese.
Holding his hand ruined hand holding for me, quite a curse to hold a hand so sweet and tender, not a bit sweaty or uncomfortable.
Not many boys know how to hold hands quite like him.
This began the merge of two families, many vacations, our silly fathers bonded over jokes and competitive games involving who could win the biggest stuffed animal at Six Flags, emptying their wallets till closing while we cheered and our mothers groaned.
The biggest toy got bragging rights for years and so they fiercely hit targets with water until we owned a ridiculous sized 6 ft. Winnie the Pooh, barely able to fit through the van door.
We would have to push him in even if it meant no seat belt for the four of us all the way home.
They were equals, our fathers, at bad jokes, and so one would yell as loud as thunder, “Kids, LOOK UNDER THERE!!” while pointing in the middle of the parking lot.
We groaned.
We knew it was coming.
In unison, “UNDERWEAR???” they would scream together, our mom giving them the “look” and the mutual laugh that they always won, despite our best efforts not to encourage them.
Joy Birkitt was the sister I had prayed for and God accidentally swapped with my dumb brother, the one who flushed my beautiful diamond Johnny gave me down the toilet.
I loved her so much I wanted to own her, she is the most beautiful girl I know even today, but even more beautiful inside. She adored her big brother and I witnessed us all, wishing for candy, watch Joy run to her closet and dump her entire Halloween candy bucket with pride on Johnny’s lap.
She would have given him anything.
It annoyed me the way she wanted to hold the younger brothers of mine, babies, so cute she saw them, while I wanted her all to myself. She was selfless and I was a much better match for Johnny, who was witty and mischievous, who sold my brother a skate board once for way more than it was worth.
I laughed.
Over the years and many moves, I begged to be left with the Birkitts, crushing my mother, who saw Johnny and I very much the same back in the early days of our very strict religious childhood. He was reported to be listening to the same dark music I had, grown his hair out or acted out in independence, much like myself.
My mother saw my desperation for independence as rebellion while I just knew in my heart Mrs. B would understand, who had a Johnny, just like myself.
Regardless, it was never easy for them, both of us itching for new experiences often got us in trouble, and I learn through the experience of life, for better or worse.
The teen years brought along many gorgeous blonde girlfriends, Johnny now a brother more than a hand holder, I would watch them admire him while I wondered where he got these barbie doll cut outs, wishing he would dump them and come back to skate boards, swim races, pranks and me.
We both had uncanny similar interests, he knew every rap song I did, made up words and expressions as his own language, loved to make money and spend it as he pleased, so we spoke much of as he drove me around in his first truck, bought and paid for on his own.
“What should we listen to?” he’d ask, “Gotta respect the music.”
“Not what but how LOUD should we play the music,” I laughed, as he’d stroke his chin with the importance of what song should be played.
I don’t remember what we picked but I do remember the windows down, summer air, my legs numb from the vibrations of the speaker, and laughing at my attempt to speak over it, wishing we could just go, right then, anywhere and not come back.
“Gotta respect the ears,” he’d say, turning it all the way down as we entered the neighborhood, our parents laughter meeting us in the front door.
I was proud of him, his first truck, and he loved it but not more than his best friend, the skinniest and tallest boy I had ever seen who was his side kick. Dennis was a member of their family practically and the two of them were up to one adventure after the next.
I remember him always laughing, so close to Johnny I thought they talked like one person, and Johnny always would ask, “So, what do you think about my boy?”

I would roll my eyes at him, wondering if his friend knew he was being pimped out, and as the summers got shorter and the college years began, I saw the Birkitts less as I found a love for something new and great, that is, Widespread Panic and Phish.

It was small and not as popular or even heard of back then and so when news from my mother that Johnny Birkett had been to every concert, meaning I had been to every concert and not seen him there, I was shocked and laughed, laughed and laughed at the two of us, a long pause and many states away, still connecting the dots of the music.
Porch Song had been his choice and so I would scream for him, not sure if he were there, but even in Spirit, I knew he would hear me.
“Gotta Respect Porch Song,” I’d hear him say in my mind, and I would dance and dance, his songs were mine. They always had been.
And at the ripe age of 22, in another world, we both married and now he divorced, and so I would hear of these stories of Johnny Birkitt from my mother, who couldn’t have made more bizarre and similar life choices. She would tell me over the phone of what he was up to, a gambler and road trip man like I had once been, now wrapped in raising my beautiful babies wished I could sit back and listen to his stories, wondering if he had some dumb blond giggling on his arm who would never appreciate them, not knowing they would come and go, for he was a wild one. He was wild to be free, to be himself, to go and stay, to love as he pleased.
And still, since I was five, years later and not even sure what man he had become, knew if he showed up in a truck, with our music, I’d be scared cause maybe I would jump in and scream for him to go, right then, never looking back. Most likely I would grab his neck if he went farther than the neighborhood, but I know I’d wonder just the same.
Separated and looking to a future of divorce and a mother of two girls he had never met, four years ago, he died.
Joy was under her bed and wouldn’t come out.
So I dropped everything and headed states away, to lay in a blanket with Mrs. B and sob, her warm coffee and desperate grief changed me, deadened me, cursed me, and Mr. B, sick in his own grief tore my heart apart.
“So what do you think about Dennis?” he’d ask, and I wondered if he had been possessed by Johnny, my thoughts remembering that skinny funny kid who loved Johnny like a brother.
“What happened to him?” I asked with curiosity, and Mr. B laughed and reminded me of how in love with me he had been.
“Bullshit, Mr. B.”
Wait. No way. Well, was that what Johnny had been saying, but maybe I hadn’t heard him.
“Mr. B, that was YEARS ago,” him taunting and teasing, even in his grief, he was a character that Mr. B, my father laughing at him still.
Four years later and I can write about this, and so I wonder how long it will take to write about Mr. B, who died just a year ago.
I digress.
“JOHNNY would want this, he said like a little devil, so go call him, seriously,” as he picked up the phone I blushed crimson, still married but not yet divorced, I didn’t know if talking to boys of my dead friend I loved at such a horrible time was even allowed.
I saw that Dennis, far from skinny and way more handsome than I remembered from all those years ago, and I hugged him and we cried. We cried and cried and cried.
We shared something and that makes him not a stranger, but part of me, I saw clearly, his arms more comforting than anything I had felt in a long time.
And I went up to Johnny, still the most beautiful man, almost ungodly to be that hot in death, and we had a talk about what this meant, and I knew from childhood you couldn’t keep Johnny, not even in death. He was free, free to come and go as he pleased, but now I was the dumb blonde he left, so I was sorry to them for now it had happened to me.
I took my wedding rings off and placed them on his chest, said goodbye and sat by Dennis, who looked so torn with grief, but he knew Johnny like no other.
It was him, at the funeral where the God awful Baptist hymns Johnny hated were beginning to play, that tapped me on the shoulder, and said, “You’re gonna love this. We switched it to Porch song behind everyone’s backs,” and I cried and laughed until I was sick.
Johnny always got the last laugh.
He came to my mom in a dream she said, and I was pissed he hadn’t come to me. Those few months coming home to my own reality still haunt me, Kat had preschool and early in the morning, tired beyond existence, she screamed for me to look.
It was foggy, in the middle of a four way stop, with no traffic and the sun had just come, where I saw a red balloon suspended. I love balloons and this one was still as it can be, like it were staring at me, not moving away or up, just chillin, in the middle of air.
We sat and stared and no cars came so we didn’t move, the red balloon was as close to me as the traffic light, and chills came and I realized it were impossible to make any balloon act in such a way, not to mention where it came from, so I wrapped my mind’s eye on it.
It was him, and he was okay, wanted me to be too, and so I let the tears fall, put the music up and kept on, just the way he would have wanted.
Gotta respect the balloon.

6 thoughts on “Johnny and the Red Balloon

  1. Whew, anonymous, I was scared to death to post this, especially because of fear of joy or Mrs. B reading it and I want to be respectful in their grief, so whoever you are, RIP Johnny and thanks for the shout out.

  2. On the roller coaster heading down again – I stay in bed most of the day – not wanting to face my reality – smacked again by a wave of grief. Wanting so badly to feel like I can make it thru the day. Wanting so badly to be the “face” I put on for everyone else. It’s been 5 1/2 years since Johnny left earth and I decide again to google his name and found your blog. I love you Katie Marsh and I’m so grateful that you took the time to share your love for Johnny. When you have children your biggest fear is that something will happen to them – when they die – your biggest fear is that they will be forgotten – Thank you for not forgetting him. I’ll pray that Johnny comes to you in a dream when you need him the most and I’ll pray that you’ll share it with me. HUGS beautiful girl! By the way, Denny is still sweet and available! Come to VA and I’ll hook you up!

  3. Mrs. B,
    How I love you.
    I wanted so badly to send this to you but I had no idea where you were in your grief and did not want to upset or cause pain. How beautiful you found it anyways and it will always be a public reminder you can google anytime that love never fades. It’s like an amputee, is it not? You are alive but the legs are removed and yet, no one knows you are Spiritually and Emotionally in a wheel chair. It’s rather a strange fog to walk through.
    My very dear friend had a 5 year old son drown a couple of years ago and it was my job to be by the phone whenever she crossed a bridge.
    She said the very same thing.
    She was so afraid everyone would forget him, and her grief was compounded by the people around her, the people who couldn’t look or wouldn’t speak out of fear they might say the wrong thing. Opening up to her taught me that the best gift you can give someone with such a profound loss is to be there in the grief with him.
    And yet, here I am too afraid to send the people I love who are grieving a blog.
    When you are in it, not just listening, but hurting too, it felt like chit chatting about this or that while both of you know you have had your legs cut off was a face I couldn’t put on either Mrs. B.
    Not even for you.
    I love you.
    I’m thankful the blaring white of your name crossing the facebook pages are gone, that your email opened my heart up like the hot coffee you would bring me so sweetly, the blanket we cried on, remember that?
    I’m going to send you a private email 🙂

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