One day, as suddenly as he materialized into our world, he just as quickly went out of it again; many people have likened it to the blowing out of a candle. But the days after his last known appearance were filled with an undertone of hopeful anxiety as we all hoped for word of his return. We wanted to hear more stories. We wanted a second look at him that we could all hold up against our own memories, but the moment had passed and there was already a nostalgic feeling in the air for days gone by, when the possibility of encountering Kennardo still existed. The idea that there would be no new encounters with him, that there would be no new stories to tell, seemed impossible to accept.
Nonetheless, the boundaries were set, the limits of our knowledge permanently defined, and now all we have are the sentences—the reports, the testimonies, the images of him in our minds, the transcribed interviews of witnesses and endless interpretations we could derive from it all. We didn’t know it then, but everything we could ever know about him had been laid out before us, hermetically sealed for our continued study, and, for those who were inclined, like Professor Canard, initially it seemed as if there was a vast new frontier to explore, a career to launch.
But when it came to studying him, nothing about it came easy: Frontiers were only just gently and feebly explored, careers firmly planted on the ground. Knowing what we know now, some people have come to see that futility as a subtle part of the whole cosmic joke and find it quite fitting that researching him is just as frustrating as describing him. These people love the idea that it was somehow Kennardo himself who was condemning our attempts to understand him; his final prank.
I remember all of this very well because I was part of a group of graduate students at the time and it was our last semester in the Physics program. It all started when Professor Canard, a specialist and leading researcher in the field of Quantum Balloon Studies, put out notice to anyone who had received a balloon animal from Kennardo the Clown requesting that they please turn it in for a cash reward. We were taking his class as our final elective and as part of our grade he made us post signs all over the city, so we did. We embraced it with such idealism and hope because of the way he talked about it, the way he described it as a search for Truth (he would always add, “With a Capital T!” emphatically anytime he used the word in class). I can laugh about it now, but back then the search for a real Kennardo balloon felt like serious business. So we stapled posters to light poles and taped them into local shop windows, even took an ad out in the Sunset City Chronicle, and looking back, you could make the argument that our initial enthusiasm was just another cruel layer to it all.
Deep-down though, we knew how it would end all along because as we got to know him better, we all agreed that he was too caught up in the constant analysis of all things Ballooning that he could no longer relate to people, let alone children. We concluded that the idea that things could have any emotional meaning beyond their measurable, material value had become foreign to him, evidence of mental weakness. We joked that he was trying to extrapolate god from a bunch of balloons. We made fun of him for expecting hundreds of children to show up once word got around, assuming everyone else thought the same way he did, but they didn’t. Of course they didn’t. Not one person came. After seeing what happened to him, we nervously admitted that he was someone who revealed all the dark corners of living a complete Life of the Mind, so consumed by Elasticity Theory and Golden Inflation Ratios that he couldn’t understand other people anymore.
In desperate need of Kennardo’s balloons to continue his research, Canard received permission from the Administration, which he had somehow convinced to increase funding for the project, and decided to try an online video he planned to post on the university website, viewing it as a more effective method of connecting with the children and teenagers he was relying on to begin his study. A week later he called a graduate student meeting to show us what he came up with and ask our opinions.
He stood at the back of the room near the light switch and said in a booming, serious voice, “Ladies and gentlemen of the Physics program, particularly those of you in my Balloon Studies class, I expect you, of all people, being like-minded and what not, to understand why this is such important business not just for me, but for all of us together, and for the future of what it means to exist as people. For us, in our field of study, obtaining a Kennardo balloon is of utmost importance. Figures like a Kennardo pass through the world once an age, and we are lucky to have shared our time with him.” He coughed hard into his shoulder and cleared his throat. “Primitive cultures, cultures of the past, etcetera, didn’t know what they had before them, but we do. We sense the possibilities of further attention, and we shall do whatever we can to preserve our experience for future ages. Thank you.” Then he turned the lights off.
In the video, he appealed to the strong sense of duty he felt we should all share towards contributing to the advancement of knowledge, and he particularly addressed the children of Sunset City. He framed it as an opportunity to make a mature decision and join the cause, and he forgave the children their ignorance for maybe not being old enough just yet to realize what an authentic Kennardo balloon would mean to someone like him and the ongoing quest for Truth. Canard went on to describe the nature of balloons in explicit detail, emphasizing their finite existence as something of scientific value, explaining the process of Deflation with the passion of someone who had been pitted against it his whole life. He created 3-D visual aids within the video and animated models showing how molecules of air escape from even the soundest of balloons in hopes that the children and teenagers he relied on would understand the need to act right away, before it was all too late. It was clear that for Canard the act of Deflation represented the passing of time in the same way a clock does for most other people, and you could hear the urgency in his voice and see the desperation in his eyes. He concluded the video by revealing that he was now offering double the original payout, a hefty sum indeed, enough to make me wish I had my own Kennardo balloon to give him.
He flipped the lights on again. “Thoughts?” he asked.
All anyone could do was sit on their hands and fidget in awkward silence, and then I raised my hand and said something I wish I never had. I should have stayed silent, I should have stayed out of it, but I was young, and I was naïve. I felt the whole room turn towards me at once.
“I think I speak for everyone in this room when I say, I think it will work this time.”
Someone off to the side was snickering, then choked it down and Canard cast a quick side-glance in his direction, then looked back to me, looked straight into my eyes and said, “I appreciate that, Dan, and I truly hope you’re not being sarcastic about all of this.”
“Not at all, sir. We’re rooting for you.”
“Thank you, Dan, and if there are no other comments right now, feel free to send me an email if something comes to mind, and I believe you all have my address. I’ll be posting the video later this week upon approval from the Administration. Please do your part to share, and thank you all for coming,” he said, and then we shuffled out, dismissed. After that, Canard had taken to sleeping in his office once the video went online a couple days later so that he would always be available should anyone want to offer him a balloon.
The story goes that one day he wakes up to the sight of a group of teenage boys, standing outside the Physics building, huddled close together in their winter coats and gloves, their breath visible in the cold, their colorful balloon animals a bright contrast against the gray sky and dark colors of their winter clothing. From his vantage point in the second-floor office window, everything was shadowy and gray except for the vivid slashing colors of the balloons they held. He knew the opportunity to study a Kennardo balloon would be the pinnacle of his life’s work, so he threw on his winter coat and knitted hat and ventured outside to greet the boys.
“Good morning, boys, I’m Professor Canard. I’m glad you’ve decided to help.” The tip of his nose was already rosy from the cold, made brighter by the fact that the rest of his face was so pale. “What have we got here?” He rubbed his hands together and leaned towards the balloons to inspect them closer. Canard eyed the group of boys, their winter scarves fluttering in a gust of cold wind. “What are they supposed to be?”
“They’re ducks,” one of them said.
“Ducks, huh? I didn’t know Kennardo made balloon ducks.”
“Of course he does—that’s all he ever makes,” another one snarked.
The other boys grumbled their support, but Canard raised his eyebrows sharply.
“Is that right?” He paced in front of them slowly, pausing to look at each one’s balloons, inspecting them like a sergeant. “These appear awfully inflated for being Kennardos,” he said, reaching out and squeezing a red balloon duck between thumb and forefinger. “Kennardo was making balloons—what—almost a year ago now?”
Behind him, one of the boys punched another one of the boys in the arm, striking sharp and fast, and if I knew Canard at all, he no doubt perceived it as a subtle acknowledgement that the boys were lying. He was probably more aggravated by the boys’ lack of knowledge regarding the process of Deflation, especially after the extensive video explanation he provided. He was tempted to explain it to them again right there on the spot, but instead he said:
“Did you boys think for one minute that I would be fooled by these balloons? Did you think I wouldn’t notice that these are brand new and over-inflated? Do you think I can’t tell the difference between a Kennardo and something from the party store?”
He snatched the red balloon duck from the boy in front of him and ripped it apart, twisting it until every part of it had popped, and then he bent down into the boy’s face and asked him if he thought the Truth was something one can achieve through false means. When the boy said nothing, having not yet considered the question in his young life, Canard shouted into the boy’s face and answered the question for himself.
“No! You can’t!” He leaned back to address the rest of them. “Who put you up to this? Was it that damn clown?” he demanded. “You poison the quest for Truth and Understanding when you introduce Falsity, do you boys understand that? You must never allow something False to take the place of the Real. There is nothing more important for humanity than this idea. There is nothing more relevant to us all than the Truth!” As his rant went on, his face whitened and his nose and his cheeks glowed red in the cold from the effort, his eyes fierce. “Did you know we’re living through the downfall of mankind because of these tendencies? Probably not—you probably aren’t even old enough to realize that yet. Some of you never will either, most of you will probably end up contributing to the problem by the looks of it. But don’t worry, you’ll be the ones living through the end, not me.”
The boys were silent, unblinking, looking at him like he was crazy because by then he kind of was. By the time he came to the end, Canard had grown visibly weary, physically deflated, realizing in a flood that his frustration was wasted on the boys. They edged away from him towards their bicycles.
“Go home,” he said. “Go home, and take your other balloons with you.”
He stood in the gusting cold with his hands in his coat pockets, staring down at the bright red pieces of balloon scattered on the ground between them like an exploded heart, and he listened to them laughing as they rode away on their bikes.
As the weeks continued to pass and no one showed up with a balloon, it became hard not to feel sorry for him. He considered the idea that he may have destroyed and rejected the only Kennardos that would ever cross his path during his encounter with the boys. He began to question his own judgment, forced to consider the possibility that perhaps a true Kennardo doesn’t actually Deflate, his lack of imagination proving to be the real beginning of his downfall. On the other hand, aside from the boys he was so bewildered by the lack of response that he allowed himself to wonder if Kennardo or the balloons were even real to begin with or if he was enduring some kind of sustained psychosis, stuck in some dark corner of advancing age. He told us this. He told anyone who would listen.
It seemed that once he allowed himself to think he may have lost his mind, he could never recover from the thought of it, too baffled to ever clarify his thinking again. The last day any of us saw him before he disappeared into retirement and we all graduated, he called a meeting in his office and told us the story, told us that he imagined Kennardo laughing at him through those boys. He had come to view his whole life as an elaborate prank—a cosmic joke set up from birth to always be chasing something he could never catch—and those last few days before he left for good, we listened to Canard curse him viciously behind his closed office door, like he had wasted his life somehow.
Some joke, right?