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Red Balloon

by Sarah Jane Shute


We lived in the Del Charro apartments. Across the hall was the girl my age who wet her pants and ate uncooked hot dogs for lunch. Upstairs was the guy Mom dated for a while, who’d let us jump from his bar stools into his beanbag chair. He had a small coffee table made entirely of Budweiser cans. We had two bedrooms: my mother’s with green sloshing waterbed and ours with red twin beds, my crib still there in a corner, a washer and dryer, kitchen and brown shag carpet into which I once opened a Contact capsule to see if the brightly colored balls would spill out like on TV. The day my dad arrived the kitchen burned. Mom was melting wax to batik white T-shirts and dye them bright colors. She’d done it before, but today the wax was left on the stove to try to convince my brother to wear some shoes or other. The wax sputtered, smoked, then sparked into flames, climbing up cotton curtains made by Mom, across the ceiling, and ding dong, the house on fire and Dad at the door.

“It’s burning,” I’m reported to have said, toddling into our room where Mom, struggling with my brother and his shoes, looked at me and ran. First to the door, to stand, flames shooting up over her head, in the open doorway, smiling as though the world were not on fire. Dad looked at her, then behind her at the fire. She didn’t invite him in because this was not the world of Dad. This was the world of single mother and a wax fire in the kitchen. She put out the fire quickly, black stains that she would paint over, new curtains to sew, no real damage, and she turned back to Dad without context. She had no way to understand him in this world. He came in then, because they were still married, she was still his, and therefore the apartment his, the fire his. But the fire was out.

He was left with nothing to do for her but turn on the TV, push past her for the beer that was there, waiting six months for him to come claim it. He didn’t even have to look at where it would be in the fridge, pulling it from a six pack, and sitting on a yellow couch he’d never seen before as though he owned that too.

She had not meant for him to do this, to come in and be at home in her life that shouldn’t be his anymore. Her life was not married-to-him anymore. It was single mother, failed wife, working woman, kids at grandma’s. Supporting herself, not bridge, and baking, and doilies, and knitting, and housewifery crafts, colored Easter eggs, and homemade Christmas ornaments, and curtains the color of towels the color of bathmats the color of shower curtains. And wall paper. No. This was the world of batik and trying to sleep around, the waterbed, working for her dad. It was 1972.

Yet there he was, sitting on a hand-me-down couch, drinking a beer, watching baseball. It could not happen, but was. She was left with nothing to do but sit next to him, his arm around her shoulder, and not cry. She’d cried herself out in those six months he’d been away. She hadn’t stopped crying, eyes infected from the effort, until that day. The day the kitchen burned, and Dad walked in as though Mom’s world had not been ruined because of him. He put his arm around her shoulder and watched a baseball game, and she did not cry.

And how long did it last? Sitting that way on the yellow couch watching baseball with his arm around her shoulder, drinking beer, sending me and my brother to the kitchen for more beer, the two of us awed by the presence of Dad who was still huge enough and absent enough to scare us both.

They sat till the game ended, then put us to bed, then maybe Johnny Carson, then finally, without saying a word, the two of them went to the bedroom for the final conquest which wasn’t one since an obligation of the relationship according to him and them still married. Her so out of her mind really with her loss, not having any ground on which to refuse. He was it, the only one she loved because the one she married, the one first fucked, him drunk, so the story goes and very believable too, the only one until those six months when she tried to match him with sleeping around, but wasn’t able to, her heart not in it, more in hand made Christmas ornaments and dyed Easter eggs and bats and carved pumpkins and making sure the kids ate well.

So they went to the slooshy water-bed with green, blue, and darker blue cotton sheets made to look like waves, and she might not remember what it even felt like then, he probably not either since he was drunk, or halfway there. Neither remembering nor feeling really nor noticing maybe who exactly was there in the bed, above or below, because neither was really there. Impossible for any of it to be happening was her. Another notch on his concrete wall or walking stick was him. Yet for both it was somehow a hopeful act.

Hoping that this act consummated, the act for which Mom waited twenty-one years guarding her virginity from marauding intruders who didn’t even ask because it was so clearly guarded. The act for him that was all he did well, all that he strove for, to consummate like this with any and all women in whom his interest arose. Both hoping in the act might be found what it was supposed to mean, marriage, man and wife, the whole thing. And not finding anything, feeling nothing, the hope turned to despair in the trying again to find the god-given connection, the reason for having married, for living together, for kids.

So it didn’t last. The hopeful gesture found hollow and despair filling. He was up and out of the slooshy wavy bed and off to the kitchen for rum but no Coke, which she might have bought along with the beer but knew somehow that the rum and Coke part of the evening would not be the one sought, only the beer and baseball then the hopeful act. Only if the act failed, would the rum and Coke be necessary, and she could not think of that. Since there was no Coke, he put on his jacket and left, walking out her door, the rent for which she paid herself from her job working for her father.

In the morning she woke with me next to her, because that’s where I always was in the morning curled up next to her as close as I could get, every night getting out of my own bed and climbing in to the sloosh, which is why she said she didn’t have more men spend the night, because that was embarrassing for both. A girl toddling in to get in bed with them. Her being afraid the man might like me more than her, since step-dads do that, she said. She woke to find Dad on the couch, and she was not surprised although felt a sort of shock that she felt always at her life now that her husband would be on the couch, and the couch would not be his and the apartment would not be his and her life would not be his.

She made corned beef hash for breakfast for him because she had a can waiting in the cupboard for this day too. Cereal for my brother and me. We were washed and dressed by then, and no one talked while Dad found something on the TV and lit a cigarette. He picked at the corned beef hash and offered to take it for lunch because he wasn’t ever hungry in the morning, and she should know that. The kitchen was still burned, a dark black covering the ceiling in a half oval fading into individual licks at the edges. Spraying out at the edges as though still trying to get to living room and old yellow couch that would have burned in a flash. Sooty, lacy remains of cotton curtains still hung over the sink. Mom not noticing, not seeing what she could not see till Dad was gone again. Washing her hands and drying them on a half burned dishtowel.

“There’s a street fair in the city,” Dad said then, putting on his jacket, getting ready to leave again for real this time. We looked at Mom with pleading kids’ eyes: Please, please, can we please?

“Oh,” she said. Wanting to be invited but not asking because she knew she wasn’t and then wanting to withhold us, thinking not without me. If you want them you must have me too because they are mine, all I have of you. But she wouldn’t insist, not yet, because The Kids Needed Their Dad.

“OK,” she said, and we jumped up and down. She hated the fact that we did not understanding the betrayal of this man, or that our lives had been ruined because of him. We were too young to know this, and we wouldn’t have cared much except for Mom crying and crying on the couch and seeming generally lost and disoriented. This we knew, but for all we knew this was our life, so not so bad then.

Mom hated it and him and us a little, but let us go to the street fair in Dad’s green sports car that smelled of cigarettes and old spice and a hint maybe of rum, where we met Dad’s new girlfriend, Diane, and I rode on Dad’s shoulders with a red balloon tied to the strap of my jumper the only time I ever would. Red balloon or no.

 

Sarah Jane Shute’s fiction has appeared in Red Cedar Review, Natural Bridge, and Dust-Up. Her films, produced with partner Matt Smith, have screened all over the world. She is currently at work on a feature, a collection of stories, and a baby to be born sometime in December, 2004.


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