He saw in Beth’s eyes, in and around them really, that she thought the word was playful, one that wouldn’t normally be used by her generation. She was right. Tom never used it. It was his uncle’s word. Dear departed Uncle Mort.
When he said it, Beth’s pupils dilated briefly, opened, while the juncture of her eyelids tightened, creased more deeply. He didn’t have to look at her mouth. Mouths lied. Sounds lied. “Ballyhoo” blurted out of the mouth round and bubbly and then popped, pulling the lips, reaching like clown’s gloves. But the word punched Tom right in the lungs, paralyzing them.
Beth eyes were right; “ballyhoo” should have been castoff, eccentric jargon. It should have been buried with the generation that invented it. Should have sat pinned under Uncle Mort’s boutonniere, so big and buffoonish that the coffin lid had to squash it against his empty chest before it could close.
In that 70’s rec room, Mort stormed down at that noise that Tom and his cousins made. Wood paneling made of glue and sawdust. Deep shag made of twisted orange, black and red plastic grass. The blackened mouth of a grey bricked fireplace.
“What’s the goddamn ballyhoo?!”
How Mort heard them Tom would never know. He was all the way upstairs in the living room at the back of the house. The console TV had the hockey game blasting. Mort drank if the Leafs were losing. He drank more to celebrate the rare games they were ahead.
The goddamn ballyhoo was a single, happy titter from cousin Karen. Tom had pulled a face: yanked his top lip down over the bottom, and pinned it there with his thumb while he inflated his cheeks to monkey-sized dimensions. Even cousin Craig cracked a grin.
So it was Tom’s fault. He had made Karyn lose control. He had caused the ballyhoo.
As an adult, Tom knew , his therapist had reinforced, Beth – if their first date didn’t end herewith Tom’s eyes filling like plastic bags hanging in a hurricane – would tell him that what happened after the ballyhoo, to Karen, couldn’t be a five year old monkey facing boy.