HAT TRICK • by Barry Friesen

It was over a hundred degrees that July 4th in 1960, Pa’s birthday, and he and I were crammed in the narrow irrigation pumphouse by the river, pulling the pump apart for the third time that morning. I was small for thirteen and my job was to crinkle up underneath the pump and hold one wrench tight, while Pa wrestled with another one above me. He wore his at-home fedora on his bald head like always, and each time his wrench slipped, his sweat jiggled off and landed on my forehead.

“New bolts, maybe,” I said. “We should get new bolts. The heads are stripped.”

“If I can just get this…” There was a thump and a curse. I wasn’t allowed to curse.

“Nothing for the wrench to grab onto,” I said.

“Dammit, you just hold tight.” Splash on my forehead, which was starting to piss me off. My old man and me, we gave each other a lot of room since his logging accident gave him a bum leg and he was home all the time. We had five acres of gravelly desert soil in fifteen thousand thirsty tomato plants since the logging money stopped, and five acres was more than enough room. But there was too much of my father in that pumphouse.

“Your hat’s dripping on me. Maybe could you take it off?”

He grunted. “You’re no goddamned help,” he said.

“Well, the guppies are out. They clog the impeller. Maybe if we put some screen around the intake in the river. Then they wouldn’t get sucked into the pump.”

There was a thud when his wrench slipped and banged into the wall and caught him on the knuckles and he yelped. The wrench fell to the floor an inch from my head and I yelped, too.

“JesusMotherFuckingChristHoppingBullshittingCocksuckingChrist!” he yelled. “You’re the goddamned smart one, aren’t you?” His soaked fedora landed on my face as he tried to grab me, but I scrambled out of the pumphouse, holding his hat.

“No, I’m goddamned not!” I yelled back. I didn’t know before that that he thought I was smart. He reared up at me and I threw his goddamned hat in the river.

“All right, that’s it,” he said, and lunged for me.

“Not this time,” I said, and ran up the hill to the tomato fields. He followed, but with his bum leg, I was faster. I ran through the wilting tomatoes but Pa ignored me and went straight for our house. He came out again carrying the black hunting belt and went after me for real.

I ran around our five acres of tomato fields three times and every time I stopped to turn around, he was hopping along flapping that belt in his hands. I think he started out to strap me and got to where he just wanted to kill me outright. Maybe that’s what made him stop and go back to the house on his own.

I kept an eye out for awhile and then went down and cleaned the guppies out of the pump myself. I’d seen him do it so many times that it wasn’t that hard, if you took your time with the stripped bolts. I turned the pump on and took a swim to get back in my body again, which felt different, because I knew he’d never try to strap me again. Then I changed the sprinkler lines for the poor tomatoes. The aluminum irrigation pipes were twenty feet long and I put my mouth to the end of an empty one and whispered, “JesusMotherFuckingChristHoppingBullshittingCocksuckingChrist” just to hear what it sounded like without it sounding like my words.

Later I went to the house. Pa was reading the newspaper at the kitchen table and didn’t look up. Ma looked worried. In my room, I put lye in the big vinegar jar and added tinfoil and cold water and it boiled right away. The jar got hot, but I put a balloon over the lip and it filled with hydrogen like magic. I made three balloons that floated right up, and I tied thread to them like tails.

In the kitchen, Ma was icing Pa’s birthday cake on the counter. Chocolate, his favorite and mine, too. Pa just sat there reading his paper while I tied the three balloons to the three long hairs on top of his bald head. Ma covered her mouth with her hand. I kissed my old man on his bald head. He looked up at the three balloons bobbing over him and turned the page in his newspaper.

“Nice birthday hat,” he said, reading again. “You’re a good boy.”

Barry Friesen‘s stories appear in New Plains Review, Flashquake, The Toronto Quarterly, and SnipLits.

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Every Day Fiction

  • This was brilliant till the end – when it got a bit too farcical.

  • Loved it. A perfect depiction of the moment when the son finally knows better than the father and the battle that follows. Some great images in here.

    The ending was funny and moving, but somehow not quite in the same spirit as the rest of the story. But a great read nevertheless. Thanks.

  • In my room, I put lye in the big vinegar jar and added tinfoil and cold water and it boiled right away. The jar got hot, but I put a balloon over the lip and it filled with hydrogen like magic. I made three balloons that floated right up, and I tied thread to them like tails.

    Iffy. That trick might yield hydrogen from the aluminium in the “tin” foil reacting with the water and vinegar, but it’s self stopping unless there’s something like mercury around to break the protective oxide layer as it re-formed. Even if the lye served for that (it could, in just the right conditions), it often contains carbonates from being stored with exposure to air that would yield a fair bit more carbon dioxide, so the balloons would sink.

  • Len Joy

    Nice work, Barry.

  • Jorta

    Well great. I had the vinegar bottle all ready to go, the foil sitting by and was just trying to decide where to purchase lye. Funny that it used to be a common household item and now we have generations of folks who’ve never seen it. I was pretty curious to know if it would work.

  • Sheila Cornelius

    I liked this but felt it needed to be read aloud, a bit like ‘The Prairie Home Companion’

  • Charming and sweet. Very well-written scene inside the shed — I felt the heat and heard the struggles with the stripped bolts and saw the sweat dripping. And I liked the message of the son giving a present to his father, and the message of reconciliation and forgiveness and family love and acceptance after the father cools down.

    But I do share the feeling of being a little let down by the science-experiment balloon inflation, and then the son tying them to the few hairs of his father’s bald head. I was expecting the son to go downstream looking for the fedora, and for the son to then bring that hat back as a present — I think that might have presented the same resolution and message of love and forgiveness in a way more consistent with the story.

    But still, I did really enjoy the story, Barry. Nice work.

  • Brilliant descriptions! “Pa” looked just like my Uncle Ray in my mind and cursed like him, too. A fabulous bit of dirt farm life. I, too, was let down by the end but the rest of the story is fabulous enough to make up for a lot of tying of balloons on bald heads.

  • Nostalgic, coming-of-age, 1960’s piece; what more could you want? Felt like I was there, sweating in the sun, skinning knuckles in the pump house with the boy, wishing Pa was a bit more capable.

    Enjoyed it immensely. Four big ones….

  • JenM

    A good potrait of life with an abusive father. At first I thought how out of place the ending seemed too, but then I realizied it was too show bad the boy’s homelife was.

  • Douglas Campbell

    Terrific story about a crucial rite of passage, the moment when the son equals or surpasses the father and both of them must learn to live with it. This boy can now outthink, outwork, and outrun his father. By the end he can even tie balloons to his father’s bald head and get away with it, an act which is partly a tease, but partly an act of love, too. Fine work, Barry!

  • fishlovesca

    Beautifully written.

    Five stars.

  • Christopher James

    I really liked this. Good job, and such a lovely old-fashioned type of story-telling. Five stars!

  • Sarah

    Nah, this isn’t an abusive father. He’s got a temper, but there’s a difference.

    “I knew he’d never try to strap me again” – this is a coming of age story. The boy
    1. is big/fast enough to escape the belt
    2. initiates carrying on the chores himself
    3. shows forgiveness with his mischevious display of affection

    This story has an incredible amount of character depth and backstory in so few words.

  • ajcap

    Glad I’m at home. No one cares if my mascara is smeared.

    Great piece, enjoyed the dynamics between father and son, though I don’t agree with previous comment about the father being abusive. Short-tempered, maybe, but not abusive.

    Loved the image of tying balloons to his dad’s head while his dad just kept reading. Too funny.

  • vondrakker

    Nice gentle but firm hooks.
    Good start good finish good middle.
    Well developed picture. Having worked
    with my own father, I could see and
    feel this develop.
    Lotsa comments, GOOD for you Barry
    Five big Tomatoey stars

  • Good job, Barry. I like!

  • Terrific characters and father son relationship, so I’m with Sarah #14 but perhaps better without the chemistry bit and that ending, which jarred slightly for me. Still loved this story though.

    8) scar

  • KC

    Love it. Great images, perhaps not so great on the chemistry information (not that I knew except when reading the comments). Good strong story, bit of a surprise ending. It’s as if he’s pushing his father a bit more, to show off that he is strong enough to push him and his father can’t react the way he usually does.

  • Jackie McMurray

    What is it about men and their sons? You have captured the moment when the boy breaks away from dad and dad relents. I can see and hear the argument in the pump house and visualize the chase. The ending is a bit contrived, but gets the message across.

  • Barry

    Yuh, I shudda seeded the chem bit at the top of the story, prob.

    Thanks for such generous comments here, all!

    I was too dumb about hydrogen at the time to know that it couldn’t work, so I can vouch for the fact that it did. Once sent seven balloons with a 20-foot toilet paper tail floating over the nearby small town. That produced a UFO report in the local paper. Very satisfying. 🙂

  • R.A.S.

    I loved everything about this story – especially the ending, which rounds out the picture of this father/son relationship so poignantly. Five stars.

  • J Howard

    A very well-written story whose first colorful paragraph grabbed me and just wouldn’t let go. Deeply descriptive but not overly so, with just enough characterization to help me understand what made those two main characters tick. Like some others, I didn’t see the old man as abusive; this was 1960, after all, when getting walloped with a belt was how our parents sometimes got our attention.

    I, too, wished there was a better (read: less distracting) way to account for that hydrogen. But hey, maybe that’s how it was done out on the farm. In any event, I was able to take the author’s word for it and move on.

    I thought the ending was terrific. So many things were resolved at that point: the narrator’s coming of age, the old man’s recognition of same, the familial love, the patience and good humor that the father displayed toward his young son’s silliness. All realistic, IMHO, and all good.

    In sum, a very satisfying read. Well done, Barry! Thanks for sharing.

  • JenM

    I see your point, Sarah. It’s the 1960’s and just because the dad is gonna strap the boy doesn’t make him abusive. Still not sure I’d want a father with his temperment though.

  • Dick Fathom

    Beautiful little scene.

  • Adam Lucas

    Every son must have this fight at some point in their life. Well done.

    And I think you captured the temperament of most fathers perfectly.

  • Kt

    Ah, “helping” our father….and the breaking point where we just WON’T TAKE IT ANYMORE!!!Very real. It’s so similar to my own father, it’s scary.
    A sweet telling coming of age story, I had to smile. Well done, B!

  • Todd

    Really liked it, even the supposedly questionable science. There might be two people who would know whether that would work. Not your fault one happened to read this. Here’s the thing; the point of the story is not the science behind it, it’s the whole coming of age, family love overcoming, so forth and so on. Very nice.

  • troy

    You are able to render country with the necessary tone to pull it off. The voices past travel from the past into this new time period. I loved it. I just wish i could write that.


  • Nothing to add, this was a beautifully written piece.

  • Barry Friesen

    “Later I went to the house. Pa was reading the newspaper at the kitchen table and didn’t look up. Ma looked worried. In my room, I put lye in the big vinegar jar and added tinfoil and cold water and it boiled right away. The jar got hot, but I put a balloon over the lip and it filled with hydrogen like magic. I made three balloons that floated right up, and I tied thread to them like tails.”
    “Iffy. That trick might yield hydrogen from the aluminium in the “tin” foil reacting with the water and vinegar,”

    Sorry my story was unclear to Science Guy. You get loads of hydrogen gas from lye (sodium hydroxide) + tinfoil, when you add water. The vinegar JAR is just so you can watch the process, which gets boiling hot (DANGEROUSLY hot!); no vinegar is involved. For hydrogen balloon enthusiasts, see the detailed procedure at THE HOMEMADE HYDROGEN REPORT:


    Thank you all for your VERY generous comments about this little piece. I appreciate it a lot!

    Barry Friesen

  • And I’m sorry if I was unclear:-

    – If you just put aluminium foil in straight water, you get a tiny amount of hydrogen whenever the foil creases and damages the protective oxide layer. A new layer promptly forms, stopping the process, unless something interferes with that. The simplest way is to have a little mercurous chloride in the water, as mercury will form where the oxide first breaks and then prevent a new layer forming without getting used up – it acts as a catalyst. You do have to crease the foil in the solution first, though.

    – If you have lye as well as water, that interferes, so more hydrogen keeps being generated – but only under the right conditions. With those conditions, the lye reacts with the oxide to produce sodium aluminate, and the water dissolves that. But with the wrong concentrations and temperatures that might not happen, i.e. either the aluminate doesn’t form or it doesn’t dissolve, so it’s not guaranteed. Also, the lye does get used up – it’s not a catalyst but a reactant – so if the process does work, it also changes the conditions, and it’s quite possible for it to work briefly and then stall once it produces the wrong conditions.

    If the lye is contaminated by poor storage that let it absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide, or was manufactured that way, it contains sodium carbonate (washing soda) as well; that is quite common. If there are other acids around like vinegar (even left over vinegar), reactions with those will release carbon dioxide as well, so the mixed gas produced will most likely not be lighter than air. Under the wrong conditions, the aluminium oxide layer itself can react that way, doing the job of the acid – so it’s not just something that can happen from having vinegar around, though it’s not very likely.

    Altogether, it’s still iffy, though much less so than with vinegar around. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it usually worked, but there’s still scope for failure.

  • Barry Friesen

    P.M., clearly you know your science; I only had the fearlessness of ignorance going for me when I was a kid. The only tricky bit was that if you put the balloon on the vinegar jar before the contents of the jar was more water vapor than hydrogen, steam condensed in the balloon; putting the balloon on jar 30 seconds later meant the lip of the jar was awfully hot to the touch–but these balloons always floated. It took five of them, though, to lift a toilet paper tail of any length into the sky!

    I note that these adventures occurred in an era before child protection laws. 🙂

  • Barry Friesen

    “before the contents of the jar was more hydrogen than water vapor,” I meant. Sheesh.

  • Barry, your lucid visualizations drew me right in to your story-telling. The unexpected comedic ending was a perfect ending to this tale of farming struggle. Five big ones.

  • Colleen F. Ciccozzi

    I remember reading this at the networking site Zeotrope Virtual Studios and loving it then. I love it still.

    I didn’t feel the ending was contrived or silly or anything like that at all; I felt the father loved his kid and vice versa and he was willing to wear a funny birthday “hat” to show the boy all was forgiven. I also felt the boy already knew he was forgiven or he wouldn’t have come home when he did or even attempted to tie balloons to his dad’s sparse hair.

    So … when are you going to submit your period piece?

  • Simone

    Simply dee-lightful!

  • Barry Friesen

    Hi, Colleen–
    Storytelling is such an interesting gig, isn’t it? In this little piece, I get from a craft POV that it would be safer to brushstroke somewhere in the opening that this kid has a bit of a chemistry bent, to make the balloon trope at the end not so strong a pivot.

    But it’s interesting how some readers, such as you, just go with it, and accept that there’s a silliness component to how this father and son fundamentally value their connection, and readers who feel abruptly tossed right outside the storyline by the “unexpected.” I like to write at the core layer, where fathers and sons know they need each other, despite confrontations on the surface. But I also know that with primal stuff like this, readers have to bring their own sense of “father” into the dynamic of story–which has to be a good thing.

    I want to get better at learning how to meet readers where they are. Right now, the only measure I have for my own stuff is whether I get choked up myself when I read it. That may not be the best way to go about this job. Ha!

    I appreciate your taking in what was intended. What writer could wish for more?

  • Barry Friesen

    Thank you, John. If I’m capable of drawing you in, I think that’s the job of storytelling, so it’s great to hear when it works for someone. Be well.

  • Barry Friesen

    Kt, love it if I captured your father at all. Fathers and their kids, jeez!

  • Marko Fong

    Wonderful story. I happened to like the uplifting ending. As a father, my hair was standing on end as I read that final image.

    Are we supposed to grade the chemistry in these stories too? The psychology was terrific in the way it evoked a lost but not necessarily cherished world.

  • lucinda Kempe

    Love this story. The kid, the dad, the place, the guppies, the wilting tomatoes, the belt and the balloons at the end in a Cheever-like moment of magical realism.

    What more could anyone want?

    Nada, ‘cept another Barry Friesen story!

  • VMcKay

    I agree with Colleen. This was perfect. I’ve been back to read it about a dozen times already.

  • Barry Friesen

    VMcKay– Aww. What a thing to say! May I recommend one to you that I’ve read about a dozen times? Bev Akerman’s “Pie”:


  • Nice work, Barry! I enjoyed it.

  • Gretchen Bassier

    Great story! Felt totally real. My favorite line: “But there was too much of my father in that pumphouse.” Nice job!

  • Barry Friesen

    Thank you Mitzi, and Gretchen. Generous of you!

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  • Absolutely love this.

    Great lines and reality blended just right to create a truth about boys and fathers.

    5 stars from me.

  • Barry Friesen

    Thank you, Gay. And the interview gig with Flash Fiction Chronicles was a hoot!

    If it means that anyone else reads this piece, I’d really appreciate reader comment on this craft issue: the balloon trope at the end is meant to render the father and son reconnecting with each other, but it’s a bit unexpected given the rest of the story’s turf. Do you think it should be seeded at the top, with some brushstroke of the kid fiddling about with his hydrogen stuff, so it’s not so out-of-the-blue at the end? Thanks!

  • ajcap

    I wouldn’t change a word.

    The lad came across as a very typical young boy of the late fifties, early sixties. Especially the rural young men, who had to create their own entertainment.

    In general, I don’t care how a bomb works; if I did I would read science text books. I want to know why it was created, who it was intended for, and what will be the repercussions.

  • Barry Friesen

    Thanks, ajcap. Good point about bomb management. 🙂

  • Very good all the way through. Has that magic of being vivid without too much actual description.

    5 stars.

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