NEXT MORNING the balloon man is still there; old guy in overalls standing beside his balloon cart on the corner opposite from where I catch the bus to the First Baptist Church. He looks completely out of place now that the street sweepers have come and gone, now that the yellow sawhorses and detour signs have all been removed. The streetlights hold a glow beneath this drab summer sky. And everything has a predawn downtown-Sunday sameness, except the balloon man is on the corner, still working, hissing helium from a torpedo-sized tank, making each new balloon squeal before tying it off with a length of precut string. My bus comes, and I board. I don't recognize the driver, so I don't sit up front. As I'm pulled forward, out my window I see the flat look of indifference on the old man's face as he casually allows another balloon to rise above his head and bump with the rest.
The Last Trash Can
We went to climb a mountain, a small mountain. A two-mile hike. She had hiked a mountain or two prior, and I had done a few half-mountains with the Scouts, but this was our first mountain together. We planned to kiss at the summit. She didn't know about the ring.
To be safe we had each invited a pair of friends to climb along and witness our affections, and to help carry sandwiches, water and wine, and add to the general spirit and to the joy.
In a clearing marked "Last Trash Can" we broke for lunch. Cold air swallowed us. People and warnings floated down. Hikers wound past us, shouting downhill. The weather had shifted. There was ice and snow above the tree line. Ruddy-faced climbers with backpacks and knitted caps turned back. We had nothing. We were six kids in denim jackets. We were children.
My New Place
My new place was a furnished room (bed, dresser, chair) with a slanted ceiling, above a brick-front thrift shop called Bargain Plus. The weekend I moved in, the shop was running a two-for-one sale on solid oak picture frames, all shapes and sizes.
After I unloaded my car, I went downstairs and blew money that I couldn't afford to blow. But I know quality when I hold it in my hand.
All that night, instead of unpacking, I sat on the floor sorting, snipping, and framing.
By midnight I had my kids up on the walls. All my kids, in all shapes and sizes. And I had them at all the ages I had known, ages they would never be again. I had them with pets and people who had died. I made an arrangement. It was easy. A dozen nails, about a dozen, most of them painted over, were already in the wall. I hammered in a half dozen more.
I arranged my life on that wall.
"Hey asshole," my new neighbor said. He banged five, six times. "How the fuck do you like it?"
Of course I didn't. The wall shook, he sounded drunk. And I didn't like the way he made the children's pictures jump.
By closing my eyes I am back in that place, on that bed, clutching my pillow like it is a human form.
Never in a Million Years
I was admiring the garnish on the soup du jour in the clubhouse dining room when she came in with her mother.
- That's her, Scott said.
Our waiter had just left. Scott had the tasseled leather beer and wine list open but he wasn't trying to hide behind it. Between us was a giant sandwich in the shape of a football. The toothpicks were tiny team banners.
- Never in a million years would I have guessed she'd show up here, Scott said.
I strained my neck.
- Which one is she? Not the silver fox, I said.
Because of course I never dreamed she'd be so young.
- Don't do anything foolish, Scott said. Be cool, now.
The hostess led them directly toward our table. The mother was clearly a superior woman, neatly dressed, middle-aged regal, with a dainty nose and a stately manner. All the girl really had going for her was a mop of bleach blonde hair and a chest she'd one day regret. It was a small comfort to discover she was not the sickly waif I'd been informed about, that her face contained far too many pastels to be appealing. I watched her charcoal-ringed eyes as she passed. Her silver hoop earrings were as big as handcuffs.
Scott was winding the right side of his moustache, something he hadn't done in years. For a heartbeat she had been close enough to touch.
- Well, that was certainly an anxious few seconds, Scott said.
I could have pushed a fork through his throat.
My mother, in her last hour, tells our pastor, Reverend Mitchell, how she used to bathe me in the kitchen sink using a big green sponge in the shape of a turtle.
"Slipped on like an oven mitt," she says in a hollow whisper. "But not here, God no, not in this house. He would have drowned in these huge sinks." Raising her skeleton arms toward my face, her white hands trembling a foot apart. "He weighed less than air. A perfect boy no bigger than a loaf of Wonder bread."
Repeat as Necessary
I woke up hard. My wife was punching me. We were outside, in an alley, brick all around.
- You bastard, you rotten son of a bitch!
She was shrieking, swinging wildly, landing clean shots to my face and head. Blood began leaking out of my nose. I got to my feet and grabbed a hold of one arm, then the other. She kicked as I tried to hold on, but I was weak from lack of food. All my instincts, all my reflexes, were off.
- What's this about, I said.
She head-butted me. Dead solid perfect.
I heard something in my face crack.
- Hey, whoa, stop a minute, I said. What did I do?
She brought her knee up and slammed her shin into my groin.
I went down. I fell hard.
I woke with two harsh white suns in my eyes. She was kicking me, banging deep into my ribs and stomach.
- How much longer, a man's voice said.
An engine raced. The lights were high beams.
I crossed my hands over my face and curled up tight.
We had come a long way together but she was moving on to something else now.
Another Rosy Tale
Old German woman, all bones and wrinkles, moles and warts, scabs and scars. Couldn't write, could barely read. Redeemed bottles and cans for nickels, fed pigeons with breadcrumbs, and grew perfect miniature roses in the Styrofoam coffee cups demolition crews left behind.
By summer's end she ran out of hiding space. In the last building two advance scouts found her lair and frightened her off minutes before the wrecking ball flew. That night several demolition workers took home perfect miniature roses to their wives and sweethearts and dear old mothers.
Dad wasn't home fifteen minutes when I heard the screen door bang shut. He came off the porch with a sour look on his face. My mother was inside, still screaming. I held the ball and watched him pass directly beneath the basket. I was nine, and exactly half his height. He shook his head at me. On the street side of the garage was the small shed where he kept his gear. He trained horses when he could get the work. He stopped suddenly, twisted around and clapped his hands, signaling for the basketball. "One shot," he said.
I lobbed the ball to him and he caught it above his head. He held it out in front of him with both hands and looked at the seams. "Hell," he said, "I guess I don't have to go right this minute. Let the sons of bitches wait on me for a change." Then he threw the ball back to me, a crisp bounce pass that skipped off the blacktop and came up quick, right to my chest.
"Like that," he said. "Elbow and wrist. Make it snap."
I adjusted my hands and pushed the ball back at him. It bounced once, a pathetic bounce, and he caught it near his ankles. He was crouched on the three-point line I'd measured with chalk on a long string. In one smooth motion he rose up, extended his arms, and executed a jump shot that arced higher than the roof of the garage, then dropped straight down through the hoop, touching nothing but net.
"That was good," I said, and rushed to retrieve the ball.
"Too close," he said, and retreated so quickly I thought he might be leaving.
He seemed surprised when he saw the ball coming.
"From here?" he said.
"Bet you can't," I yelled.
But then he did.
All afternoon my father sank high arching shots from well beyond the circle.
Death wore an overcoat to my mother's funeral. He wore a Russian-style hat with fur flaps turned down, a red scarf, and fuzzy green mittens. A heavy snow slanted down on the wind. Behind us on the hill the entire procession sat waiting in steaming cars.
"How long you staying," I asked Death.
The wind changed direction, whipping snow against my face.
I said, "We have food and drink in a nice rented hall. It's not much. Chicken and ham salad. Assorted cheeses with crackers, pickles, olives. Some sliced fruit. You're welcome to join us," I said.
I waited for Death to make up his mind.
After a good long while my wife trudged down the hill, her scarf streaming like a banner.
"Don't do this to yourself," she said.
When we heard the horn, we all started down together. My mother led the way. She only had the one suitcase, but she made a big show of dragging it down the two flights one stair at a time in front of my father and me, and an even bigger show about fitting it in the car.
The man she was running away with sat behind the wheel and made no effort to help. He had his door open, both feet in the road. His eyes were very round, very large. I stood stiff and quiet beside my father and the man looked over at us. His hair was rough cut and longer than mine and he didn't seem old enough to be my mother's lover. He didn't appear more than five or six years older than me. She kept talking at him while she struggled with her suitcase but the man stayed focused. He worked a cigarette and kept his eyes mostly on my father.
After she settled onto the front seat and secured her door, she said something to the man who closed his door and said something back to her. He tossed his cigarette out his side window then gave the car a little gas, moving them slowly, slower than a float in a parade, so there was plenty of time for anything to happen, certainly enough time for my mother to turn and wave.
Near the end of our street the driver raced to make the light. The tires squealed and the rear of the car bounced as my mother and her lover rocketed through the intersection.
"Well that's that," my father said. His hand came down heavy on my shoulder. "Good riddance," he said, and I felt the tremor in his fingers as he kneaded the flesh between my bones. "I don't wish her any bad luck." He held me firm, kept me from turning. "Well, what was I supposed to say?"