The Bubble Man
They call me The Bubble Man.
By ‘they,’ I don’t mean everyone–just the aggrieved citizens. And by ‘me,’ I don’t mean the current me–I have no more bubbles to blow. I’ve blown nothing but stale air for at least two weeks, seeing as how my barrels of stock were kicked over on their sides and rolled into the river while my cabin was burned to its dirt-packed foundation.
The sheriff told me that though he didn’t make it before the vigilantes came, I ought to be satisfied that he arrived when he did. Even with a night as black as tar, I was sure I saw the eyes of his deputy through the holes of a hooded face–one blue, the other green–while someone else tied my hands, and while yet another person drew a rope through the nearest oak tree.
Even with the title no longer accurate, my home in ruins and my life’s work destroyed, they still call me The Bubble Man.
“You kidnapped them all. And then you killed them. And still, you’ve not the basic human decency to tell us where you’ve buried them.”
The fat lawyer’s face was ruddy, his nose bulbous and crimson red. I knew that face well enough. It was eager to get out of here. Ready to join its friends at the Red Eagle saloon and take its medicine.
“Isn’t that true?” he finished.
“I did nothing of the sort, sir.”
He looked at me like he was waiting for a signal. A pugilist preparing for a parry. The courtroom was silent except for the sequential tapping of his fingers along the rail of the jury box.
“Four children, Mr. Conklin.” He turned to the jury. “Four lives snuffed out like freshly lit candles.” He stopped moving his fingers and faced me again. His fist slammed down on the rail like a smith’s hammer. “They’ll never have a chance to illuminate this world and bring joy to their parents.”
Such theatrics. I wondered if he’d been a part of the local Shakespeare company.
An indignant outburst would do me no favors, though.
“I did not kill those children,” I said measuredly, “and they brought their parents no joy. If anything, I’ve given them a chance to live.” From the audience behind the bar, there were grumbles and squeaks from people shifting on wooden benches.
I’ll save us all the trouble and shoot the sonofabitch myself.
The not-so-subtle whisper came from Charlie’s dad. I’d never met him, but from everything that Charlie had told me, I knew exactly who he was. Muffled cries came from the frumpy woman at his side. She buried her face into a lacy handkerchief and laid her head on his shoulder.
I looked at the jury again. By my account, ten were stony men who had made up their minds before they’d even taken their morning coffee. The other two looked timid enough to ride the prevailing winds.
“A chance to live, you say?” The corners of his mouth turned upward and he faced the jury while still addressing me. “Of course. Do you want to recount for us how you’ve given them this chance?”
The crowd settled again, perversely eager to hear something they didn’t want to believe. I knew the truth and if I was going to die today, which I certainly was, there was nothing left to be a coward about.
“I put them in bubbles.”
“Yes. That’s right. I put each one in a bubble and let them float away.” My eyes lost focus as I stared at the ceiling. “Ernest, the freckle-faced boy who likes trains and baseball. Rose, a girl who loves playing in the mud. Emma, who wants to be a button-nosed doll and live in a giant doll’s house. And then Charlie, for whom there is no greater joy than holding a picture book in one hand and a penny-sack of licorice in the other.”
Charlie’s mother released a whelp.
“I let them all float away from their unhappy existences.”
The attorney wanted to smile. I could tell. An open-and-shut case and I had just provided him the munitions he needed. But he was too well trained to betray any sense of impending victory, so he kept his mouth taut and put on a show of utter disdain.
“You’re of the worst sort, do you know that, Mr. Conklin? Do you realize that?” He addressed both the audience and jury. “There are street urchins of every kind in this world, but you can sniff them a mile away. You know better than to invite them into your homes. Even if it isn’t obvious, there’s always something to give them away–a gleam in their eyes, a scent on their person.”
His finger was like an arrowhead aimed at my heart. “But this monster? He sits here and tells the most ridiculous lies as if he can get away with them. He recounts these children’s lives as if they’re still here, pouring salt into our community’s fresh wounds.” He looked at the judge, then the jury, and shook his head. “He’s much too dangerous to be allowed to roam the towns and cities and every farmhouse in between. His is the face of innocence. Of the kindly uncle. Of the old lady giving a lad a handful of sweets for tending the weeds around her home.
“But his soul?” The lawyer shrugged uncaringly as if someone were telling him about the weather in Siam. “Unfixable. Rotten to the core.”
He held himself up against the edge of the jury box. Sweat held down strands of auburn hair against his rolls of pasty neck fat. “No, no, gentlemen. Though we’ve come pitiably late to our discovery, we should be thankful that we’ve come at all. The sheep’s wool has been sheared and the wolf has been revealed.”
I knew judgment would come swiftly, despite the judge’s request for a brief recess so that the jury could reconvene. My holding cell was bare. Quiet. It left me time to remember.
I recalled the faces of each of the children, and as I did so, the fear of my impending appointment mellowed. The hardest, most unyielding fist could not have dislodged the smile from my face. The kids were better off because of me. Of this, I had no doubt.
As far back as I can remember, I was an inventor filled with ideas, but I was never able to come up with the one thing that would catch on. Failed invention after failed invention eventually left me hungry, so I gave up for several years and took on more menial work. It would turn out to be just what I needed.
The idea of the bubbles came after another sixteen hours of working a flatboat along the Mississippi. It was one of those days when every muscle fiber felt like tenderized beef. I had spent hours on end picking up and throwing down sacks of grain flour.
I was soaking in the tub on that particular evening, out behind an excuse for a hotel in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Of course, by the time it was my turn, the water wasn’t much clearer than the grand river herself. Still, I didn’t mind being last. It meant I did not have to rush. It gave me time to think.
I had put in an excess of soap and amused myself with the froth of bubbles floating along the top. They reminded me of my youth when such frivolities were a fascination and I thought that if there was a way for children to take them wherever they went, I could bottle those frivolities and sell them in every town along the river.
So, I got to work and sought out pharmacists at every stop made along the river. In only a month’s time, I was able to work out my own formula to build the most stable bubbles, many of them lasting long enough to float tens of feet into the sky before sailing downward and popping on the ground.
I promptly set up shop whenever we were in a town for more than a day. I was correct in my estimations of demand as jars of Mr. Conklin’s Bubble Elixir sold almost faster than I could produce new solution. When the costs of storing the liquid grew due to the owners of the flatboats charging me exorbitant prices to use their ‘valuable’ storage space, I knew something had to change.
Heady with thoughts of fortunes, I immediately quit, filed a patent and settled back in La Crosse. I spent the rest of my small savings on a shack by the river, a dog for companionship, and enough ingredients to see me through the end of the year. I had labels drawn up by a local printer, using an illustration of my new canine friend, Jack, and I sold barrels of wholesale solution to flatboaters.
Finally, nearly a month after moving in, word spread within La Crosse itself as well as neighboring villages. The children came from all over. With each bottle and piece of looped wire I sold, I was paid in coin and flashes of joy at seeing them smile and play.
I began to know many of them well, and they, me. That’s also when I began to learn of the dastardly events through which some of them suffered. One would arrive with a black eye, another with a limp in her walk. They trusted The Bubble Man. They confided in me their misbehavior. How they had done something wrong, though they couldn’t always figure out what, but that their father or mother had rightly corrected them.
Charlie had said: My papa, sometimes, he says he wishes I’d never been born. That I’m costing him too much money. Just another mouth to feed. I s’pose he’s right. I’m always hungry.
And Rose: Mama says I’m too ugly to ever find a husband when I’m older. That’s why she makes me work hard, she says, ‘cause I’ll need to support myself.
My heart ached for these children. Each was a reminder of demons from my own childhood.
But who was I, a man selling simple amusements, to do anything about it? I truly believe my inventive subconscious listened to that aching heart and between the two of them, came up with an idea.
One day, I returned home with supplies from the local pharmacist. My head was somewhere else, worried for those children, as I mixed a fresh supply of bubbles. It wasn’t until I poured the last ingredient that I realized I had gotten the solution all wrong. The mixture was thicker than normal and not bubbling as easy.
In my anger at having wasted money and, I suppose, my impotence in the children’s lives, I took the barrel outside and turned it over onto the ground so that its contents spilled towards the river. Fortune had it that Jack was laying in the path and scrambled to get out of its way. As he flicked his paws back and forth in order to dislodge himself from the slippery substance, a large bubble began to form, eventually sealing him in and carrying him up into the air. I immediately ran over, but instead of popping the thing, I stood and watched, fascinated. The poor dog, he was clearly scared, but no matter how much he pawed at the bubble, it did not break and he continued to drift until he was twenty feet over the river.
Then it hung for maybe ten seconds after which it slowly sauntered down, finally meeting the currents of the river. It popped. Jack was free, paddling himself back to the shore.
For me, it was another one of those moments in life when dreams and ideas slammed together like the horns of two rams, rattling me awake.
The following week was a blur. I missed several deliveries and angered several flatboaters, but that was fine. I was doing real work, now.
I finally prepared a solution that saw large bubbles floating into the clouds, eventually disappearing from sight. Generating them was easy now. It could be done with a large piece of wound wire whipped through the air and around the subject. I wrote a letter, stuffed it in a bottle, and sent it into the sky.
Three weeks later, I received a reply in the post from a Mr. Bartleby Sloane. He stated that he had found my bottle sitting in the crook of an ash tree and that he hoped the three-foot-deep snow from Buffalo’s exceptionally cold winter would not impede his reply.
A throat-clearing cough and the squeak of rusty hinges disturbed my thoughts.
I rose slowly, turned to have my wrists bound, and followed the bailiff.
The deliberation was swift and met all expectations. I was to hang in the middle of town before sunset.
I thought I would be brave, but thoughts have a way of giving way to the baser instincts. Trying to lift my legs was like trying to haul up a boat anchor using only my pinky finger. The gallows were a short walk from the courthouse, maybe fifty yards, but if not for the two lawmen holding me by my arms, I do not believe I would have made it.
I’d never seen so many people gathered in such a small space. Elbow to elbow, they were nearly falling on top of each other. Surely they weren’t all local citizens. By now, the newspapers would have spread word throughout the county. I was escorted through the sea of red faces and by the time I made it to the steps, my collar and cheeks were soaked in other people’s spit.
Time warped itself so that it was unrecognizable. I saw the bottom of the stairs. And then the top. Suddenly, fibers of hemp were scratching at my neck and I thought I smelled rain.
A preacher mumbled something as I swayed side to side.
Another voice asked, “Mr. Conklin, do you have any last words?” I turned and saw the sheriff. The blue-and-green-eyed deputy stood at his side.
I tried to say something, but my mouth was too dry. And even if I could, I don’t know that I would have been able to hear my own voice over the growing tumult of the crowd.
“May God have mercy on your soul,” the preacher said.
I closed my eyes.
A pair of hands struggled to tighten the noose around my neck.
Goddamn it, who tied this knot? I heard the deputy say.
There were shouts from the citizenry, but nothing was happening.
What’s going on back there? It was the sheriff.
I felt the energy of the crowd change. They quieted and anger turned into confusion.
Get out of here!
Where are your parents?
I opened one eye.
There was a commotion in the back of the crowd and it was spreading to the front.
I opened the other eye and straightened my head, wanting to rub away the blur, but unable to with my hands still bound.
They came running up the middle of the mob like an army of toy soldiers. There must have been hundreds of them. Some had shotguns and though the look on their faces said they might not be ready to use them, the people parted anyway.
They swarmed until they reached the foot of the gallows. Their little feet clambered up the steps and onto the wooden platform.
“What in God’s name are you kids doing?” the sheriff asked. “You get away from here!” The deputy drew his pistol, but the sheriff pushed his hand down on it so that it was lowered reluctantly.
All of them, familiar faces. Margaret had a large piece of wire in her tiny hands. Another pair, Todd and Henry, carried a wooden bucket and placed it in front of me. The kids with the shotguns pointed them at the law while the rest of the children, one by one, walked up with jars in their hands and emptied the contents into the bucket.
Someone untied my wrists. I took a deep breath as I pulled my head free from the noose.
Margaret smiled at me through the gap in her teeth and when the last jar was emptied, dipped the wire into the bucket. She picked it up and drew it around my body. The sound cut out around me and I saw the world through a soapy film.
It was an exceptional feeling, watching them from above as they watched me from below. I wondered what would become of them all.
I wondered if the snow had melted yet in Buffalo.