“The Oxygen Bar” – A Short Story

Illustration by Ryan Bauer-Walsh

Illustration by Ryan Bauer-Walsh

The following is a short story written by fiction writer John Jodzio. Jodzio’s work has been featured in a variety of places including “This American Life,” McSweeney’s, and One Story. He’s the author of the short story collections, “Knockout,” “Get In If You Want To Live” and “If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home.” He lives in Minneapolis. 

Someone set our oxygen bar on fire, probably for insurance, probably because an oxygen bar was a stupid goddamn idea, probably my dad.

“Don’t worry,” he tells me, “we’re fully covered.”

We sit on the hood of our beat-up Buick parked down the block while the fire department turns their hoses on what’s left. My dad’s last business, Gary’s Party Supply Superstore, went up in flames too. At least this fire is burning cleaner, fueled by flavored oxygen and oak paneling, not Halloween masks and mylar balloons.

“I’m not worried at all,” I say.

The roof collapses and a cascade of sparks spirals into the night sky. The sign above the door falls to the ground and shatters on the concrete. I can’t help but wonder what lessons other fathers teach their sons. So far what I’ve learned from my dad is that if you are careful enough you can always make an act of man look like an act of God. What I’ve learned from him is that you can be a terrible businessman as long as you are an excellent arsonist.

My father opens the trunk of his car and takes a couple bottles of beer from his cooler. It’s two weeks before my seventeenth birthday.

“Don’t tell anybody about this,” he says, handing me a beer.

I take a swallow and then one of the flavored oxygen tanks inside the building explodes and the air around us suddenly smells like piña colada. Another one explodes and everything smells like mint.

“Don’t tell anyone what?” I ask.

We drink until only cinders and charred cement are left and then my dad drives us home. On the way, he listens to his police scanner. I’m guessing he’s trying to see if there’s any chatter about the fire, but instead he hears there’s a roadside DWI checkpoint up ahead. He makes a sudden U-turn.

“I’d pass the Breathalyzer, but why chance it?” he tells me.

I remember the last Breathalyzer he passed, how after the cops made him blow, he got back inside our car and spit two pennies into a change cup that he keeps between the seats.

“Works every time,” he told me.

To avoid the checkpoint, my father turns off his headlights and drives down a bike trail and then bumps across a softball field. We tumble over a curb. When he flips his headlights back on we’re riding down our street, three blocks away from our home.

“Safe and sound,” my dad tells me as he pulls the car into our driveway. “Just like always.”

We can’t park inside our garage because it’s still filled with all of the leftover crap from the party supply store. Boxes and boxes of colored wigs, stacks of paper hats, and crates of noisemakers that my father had the incredible foresight to lug home a couple of days before everything went up in flames.

Illustration by Ryan Bauer-Walsh

Illustration by Ryan Bauer-Walsh

“Wanna bash in a couple of piñatas before we go to bed?” he asks. “Like we used to?”

There are hundreds of piñatas in our garage, animals and cartoon characters and superheroes, and last summer my dad and I would take out any anger or sadness we had accrued on them instead of on each other. We haven’t done it much lately.

“Sure,” I say. “Why not?”

Illustration by Ryan Bauer-Walsh

Illustration by Ryan Bauer-Walsh

I grab a beer from the mini-fridge and my dad snakes a rope across the garage joist and pulls a dolphin piñata above our heads. When my dad was at work at the oxygen bar, I used to hang out in the garage with my friends. Mostly we’d huff off the old helium tanks that were left over from the party supply store. My friends and I always thought it was hilarious to say very serious things in very high voices, things like “Drop your gun or I’ll shoot,” or “I am going to eat your children.” One time I filled up a bouquet of balloons and tied them to my neighbor Ronnie’s patio furniture and when he woke up in the morning his chaise lounge was floating up near his roof. I watched from our living room as he ran outside in his robe and slippers and rubbed his eyes to make sure his brain wasn’t playing tricks on him. Then I watched him go back inside and get his pellet gun and then shoot the balloons one by one until his chaise lounge floated back down to earth.

“Aren’t you going to blindfold me and spin me around?” I ask my dad now.

We used to just hit the piñatas with a broom handle without a blindfold or any spinning around, but tonight my dad grabs a dish towel from his tool bench and wraps it over my eyes. He holds his hand in front of my face.

“How many fingers?” he asks.

Illustration by Ryan Bauer-Walsh

Illustration by Ryan Bauer-Walsh

“No idea,” I tell him, even though I can clearly see two.

My dad hands me the broom handle and I take a couple of practice swings with it. Then he grabs my shoulders and spins me around.

No matter how dizzy he gets me, I know what the next few months will look like. The insurance investigators will determine that the fire was a random gas leak or an unavoidable wiring problem and they’ll cut us a check big enough for my dad to start a new and dumber business, an artisan peanut butter shop or a Segway rental place, and then he’ll make me dress up in some stupid costume and stand on the sidewalk and press coupons and flyers into people’s chests as they walk by. I have never asked to be involved in these schemes of his, never wanted to be his lackey, but if you are in his orbit there’s never really any other choice.

“Are you ready?” he asks me.

I stare at my dad through the dish towel. I know I can blame whatever happens next on being dizzy and blind so instead of hitting the piñata, I rear back and whack him in the gut. I watch as he falls to his knees in front of me, gasping for breath.

“What happened?” I ask.

I listen to my dad wheeze and grunt, doubled over, unable to say anything.

Are you okay?” I ask him.

When I ask him this question, I move my voice up an octave, like I’ve sucked in a bunch of helium. I make my voice sound more concerned than I am, make it seem like I didn’t do this on purpose, make it seem like what just happened isn’t really my fault.